‘Pop up Astronomy’ Between Downpours.

I’m ashamed to say it’s been five months since my last proper observation session. I’ve had the odd binocular tour, but circumstances regarding work have meant I’ve been getting home at 9pm each evening, so travelling to dark skies isn’t so easy, but last night I was determined to get back on-track.
The forecast wasn’t great for my site in rural Shropshire. ‘Clear spells between showers’ they said, and they were right. Twice I had to put the scope back in the van due to downpours. The plus side was, the rain cleared the air and some of the seeing tonight, though sporadic, was crystal clear.
One day I’m going to time how long it takes from putting the handbrake on the van after pulling up, to when I get to look at my first deep-sky object through the scope. I’m reckoning less than three minutes, (hence my title ‘pop up astronomy’). If you don’t like the faff of a protracted setup time, a dob is definitely the way to go. I’ve used EQ mounts, go-to systems and other set ups, but I think for instant deep-sky gratification, the dob in the back of the van is where it’s at. Pull up, plonk the mount on the grass, stick the scope on top, align the telrad and I’m in business. 
And what a changeable night weather-wise! The strong wind meant a 100% cloudy sky would be completely clear five minutes later. So I made the most of the clear spells by getting re-acquainted with some old deep-sky favourites, and even when there was light cloud cover, the 10” managed to grab enough light for me to see everything I searched for tonight.
I started with the pretty ring nebula (M57) in Lyra, and was pleased to see it was very bright indeed: testament to the clear skies and good seeing. Quite small with my 28mm eyepiece but very well defined. Next stop was Sagitta, and the strange globular cluster M71. I’m a little fascinated by this one, as I’ve read its closeness (only 13,000 light years), is why it appears more like an open cluster. A very pretty deep sky object that I think needs a true dark sky to really enjoy. I’ve been underwhelmed by it before, but tonight it was bright and very pleasing. My Tirion Sky Atlas tells me there’s an open cluster H20 near M71, but it evaded me on this night.
The Dumbbell Nebula (M27) was also bright and easily findable. Again, this can be underwhelming in the town, but it showed structure and nebulosity extending beyond the dumbbell shape tonight.
Continuing with the ‘greatest hits’, I could see M31 with the naked eye, and through the 10” mirror it was a real treat, and both M31 and M110 (one of my favourite galaxies these days) easily found. M110 under a dark sky, is M31 near the town lights, if you know what I mean. I tried for M33 in the scope, but as usual, I had no luck. The lovely 10X50 Opticrom bins found it though, and once again I’m reminded what a test M33 is for telescopes. I have observation notes from the early 90’s saying I saw M33 with the naked eye in rural Wiltshire. I do wonder if this wasn’t a mistaken sighting of nearby open cluster NGC 752.
Keeping with the bins, I’m pretty sure I caught M101 over in Ursa Major, even though the constellation was low and a little caught in the lights of Bishop’s Castle about fifteen miles away. I’ve seen this quite evasive Messier galaxy easily with the 10X50’s when the constellation is higher.
I wonder if anyone at our latitude has ever had a practical observation session without stopping at the Perseus Double Cluster? I know I haven’t. And tonight, they were simply stunning. Perhaps I’d been fortunate to look at them through a pocket of suddenly steady air, but it made me exclaim “wow!”. You know, one of those moments where you think to yourself ‘this is what it’s all about’. I had a similar reaction the last time I saw this through the 10” mirror at our society’s star-camp last April. A true show-piece of the northern sky.
I have unfinished business with emission nebula NGC7023 (Caldwell 4) in Cephus. I thought I’d found it last year but when writing up my notes after, there were discrepancies. So it isn’t ticked off, (I’m such an honest observer!). But tonight wasn’t the night to go chasing fainter emission nebulas, the moon would soon be up, and patches of the sky were disappearing behind clouds, and if I’m honest, I never seem to be able to recognise Cephus easily anyway. It’s like it’s there, then it’s gone again. I toyed with the idea of looking for it, but I should have done more map research earlier in the day. Instead, I went for the easy option and toured open clusters of Cassiopeia. The triangle of M103 being a particular favourite.  
Clouds rolled in again, but with the sky towards the south still clear, I went on a whistle-stop tour of globular clusters. M13, M92 in Hercules, and M15 (which I think of as in Delphinus, but it’s actually in Andromeda). I really enjoyed comparing the three, and I like James O’Meara’s description of M15 ‘suddenly getting brighter’ at the center. It really does. It’s almost like a fried egg, with a small, bright yolk in the centre. Later that evening, I kicked myself for not visiting a fourth globular, M56, en route. Heck, I’d looked at the Ring Nebula, which is virtually next door.
Jupiter was playing hide and seek behind clouds most of the evening, but even through the 28mm eyepiece I could see the north and south equatorial belts easily. All four observable moons could be seen. Had the weather been kinder, I’d have spent time consulting maps to find which star was actually Neptune, to the right of Jupiter. But it was pretty windy and getting cold.
Saturn was less successful, and somehow, I couldn’t quite get a well-defined view of it tonight. It could have been my eyes, which were watering with the wind which was getting sharper.
The Pleiades made an appearance just before the Moon rose, and a very welcome sight it was, especially through the 10×50 Opticroms. I also spent some time with the Perseus open cluster, (Alpha Persei Cluster/Mellote 20) which I’ll always argue is a great overlooked binocular object. Later I also took in the Hyades through the bins, which meant I’d enjoyed a very pleasant trio of close open clusters, (later the Moon was too close to the Beehive (M44) for it to be a desirable bino target). 
It was just after 9pm when the ¾ Moon started rising behind the trees, and the milky way suddenly disappeared. This signalled an end to my deep sky tour of the ‘greatest hits of October’, but I did enjoy seeing the constellations of Taurus, Orion, Gemini, and even Leo for the first time in months, and although my observing time was only about an hour in total, I was really pleased to have re-visited so many old favourites after a shameful five-month fallow period.

Wolvas Observation Weekend 2

The Wolverhampton Astronomical Society held a small star party in the Shropshire Hills this weekend, and I was there Saturday night. Luckily, we got a few hours of wonderful clear sky, but by golly it was cold!
I arrived about 4pm, and on reflection, I’d have been better arriving at twilight, as waiting around for five hours for darkness meant I was quite cold even before I began observing. The last time I attended this event I took my little caravan, and that was ideal as I had somewhere to get warm and map-check between observing spells. But it was good to meet old friends and new, as everyone set up their equipment and chatted about things astronomy related.
I was using my 10” mirror dob, with a 32 Plossl eyepiece. I don’t know the focal length of my scope, (I was asked twice on this evening, “about five foot” I say, I really must measure it). But the double cluster fits in the field of view well enough to see both clusters almost in their entirety, to give you some idea of my field of view.
Around 8.30 the stars appeared. Sirius first, (“there’s Arcturus” I said, completely confused as to which direction I was looking). Then, Capella, the real Arcturus, then the twins. Seeing was very good, and I found the trapezium in Orion easily, with the sky too bright to show any nebulosity.
When the sky did darken, I was treated to a superb view of the Orion nebula M42 and nearby M43, and even before astronomical darkness (at around 10pm), the nebula easily showed its ‘wings’ extending outward, (if you’ve looked at this nebula under dark skies you’ll know what I mean by ‘wings’ I hope). I’d cleaned my mirror two days before, and was very pleased with the contrast and clarity, with detailed structure in the nebula popping out the more I looked.
The next target was M35, quite high in Gemini. The large open cluster looked splendid, and with no real plan for the observing session, (it was simply too cold to sit in comfort perusing maps beforehand), I decided on a whistle-stop tour of nebulae and galaxies.


Next up was the refection nebulae M78 in Orion. Even in these dark skies, it was quite underwhelming, but unmistakable.
An astro-photographer who was a newcomer to the society asked to see some galaxies, so I found M81 and M82, and the brightness of these two galaxies, as they came into view, made my gasp out loud. I’ve rarely seen them so bright! Obviously, the high altitude of Ursa Major, coupled with the crisp dark sky, was very advantageous. I was pleased that the new member got to see this pair under such fine conditions. The dark matter across M82 easily seen, and in retrospect, this pair were probably the highlight of the evening for me, so bright were they against the velvet black sky. A reminder why we travel to these dark skies.
The new member asked to see M1 also, which was easily found. It appeared quite ghostly and – I thought – quite faint. One friend said they could see a red hue, which I couldn’t. It’s always interesting hearing other people’s thoughts and observations.
With Leo quite high, I found the triplet quite easily. M95M96 and NGC 3628. These just about fit into the same field of view in the 32mm eyepiece, and although NGC3628 was quite faint, it was unmistakable. The two Messier galaxies  pointing the same direction, with the fainter companion stretching the other way. I returned to these a few times during my session.
After astro darkness at 10pm, the sky was pleasingly dark, with M44 (the Beehive), and Mellote 111 (the Coma star cluster) easily visible with the naked eye. I was also surprised to see The Pleiades (M45) still in the sky at 11pm.
With Ursa Major so high, I tried for a few galaxies there. M51 showed some very pleasing structure, with a very visible ‘arm’ extending out to NGC5195. Damn this cold! I’d have loved to have done a sketch, (looking at photographs of M51 this morning, I see the ‘arm’ I saw isn’t so well defined as I imagined, so a sketch would have been most interesting. Next time, then).
Galaxy M109 was also easily found, and I had expected to see the planetary nebulae M97 in the same field of view. But it wasn’t, and my memory of seeing both in the same field of view must have been from a binocular session with my 10×50 Opticroms. But the nebulae was easily found by just hopping into the next field of view from M109. Quite a few of us looked at this object.
The last target I looked for in Ursa Major was M101, and it was quite dim with no bright nucleus visible. The magnitude of this galaxy in my O’Meara Messier book gives it 7.9, which in comparison to M108’s mag 10, would have you believing this galaxy would be a far more pleasing sight, yet tonight the opposite was true.
The seeing had been deteriorating for a while, and at around 11pm the clouds rolled in. It was hard to believe we’d only had an hour of true astronomical darkness. There was ice on my telescope and case where I keep my books, so with one last look at the Perseus double cluster (NGC 896 and 884 in the west, I packed up my gear. Driving home I was pleased to see the clouds had dispersed and I pulled over to make some binocular observations of the clusters M36M37 and M38.
So all in all, a successful night of Spring’s ‘greatest hits, if you know what I mean. I’d found no objects new to me, but had the night been warmer, I’d have stuck around and waited for the clouds to disperse. But it was quite uncomfortable to observe, and my hands were too cold to leaf through my map books without gloves. The van temperature gauge showed -2 as I left. A few of the people imaging at the star party were camping in tents, I didn’t know whether to admire them or pity them. But I’m certainly looking forward to seeing their images; I bet they get some belters!   
As a postscript, during the time when I was waiting for darkness, I noted that most of the people at the star party were imaging. I think I was the only person there without a laptop at the time., and I felt quite antiquated with my notebook and star maps. One friend turned up before darkness (wise move!) with a nice pair of binos and a monopod, and had a good comfortable observing session, but I think he was the only person there other than me, not using a digital camera and a laptop. It does seem like the hobby has taken two distinct, different paths over the past twenty years. I made this point on the evening whilst talking to someone. I mentioned how imaging enabled people to share their experience, they have something ‘showable’. When I look at something through my telescope, I can’t show anyone else the next day. There’s nothing of that experience to share with others, only words.  These days, an imager can share the result of his hobby with a hundred friends at the flick of a switch. And they can record much more of the night sky than my eye ever will.
Amateur astronomy has moved on.

Turn Left at Orion, Literally!

Work commitments in the morning mean this night-time write up of observation notes will be brisk and mostly ramble-free, which is surely a blessing for the reader!
Two weeks ago I had a decent binocular session at the society observatory, which I regretfully didn’t write up my notes on-line. This followed a successful session with my Dob the same week, (which was my last observation report on here).
Anyway, during my bino session two weeks ago I used the society’s newly donated Orion Optics binos (picture above) and my own Opticrom 10×50’s . I catalogued a few open clusters I’d not seen before, all mostly in the rather shy constellation of Monoceros, and all to the left of the now westward-setting constellation of Orion, (hence the post title).
The ‘new to me’ open clusters I noted during my bino session were:
All of them quite easy to find under a crisp sky with 10×50 bins and patience. I noted NGC2244 and particularly NGC2264 were bright, relatively large and ‘Messier-like’. Well worth re-visiting with the 10” mirror, and at last I had chance tonight.
But first, after I arrived around 7.30, and set the dob up (thirty seconds tops, with one minute added to align the telrad… cheers!) ,and with astronomical darkness an hour away, I visited some easy Messier objects and other ‘greatest hits’. First M42, which I didn’t spend too much time on. Then M78, the reflection nebula above, (hello ghostly face thing!). I swung round to see the pleasingly bright and contrasty double cluster in Perseus, and naively tried to find some galaxies in Ursa Major  when it was heading towards the Wolverhampton sky glow. Why do I bother?
A quite faint Crab Nebula told me the seeing wasn’t especially great tonight, but M35 was really pleasing, and I followed the trail of stars to NGC5128.
Near the Beehive (M44) is a galaxy NGC 2672, which (unsurprisingly) eluded me tonight, but it’s on my hit list for our society observation weekend next weekend. I don’t know the mag of this galaxy, I suppose I could google.
The Beehive was a faint naked eye object tonight, so the seeing definitely wasn’t so good. However, I did get a lovely view of M67, the irregular open cluster underneath M44. This was quite a treat tonight, (I think I was using a 28mm eyepiece tonight).
And so to NGC2264, also known as the Xmas tree cluster I see. It’s number 38 in James O’Meara’s Secret Deep list. Quite easy to find with the dob by star-hopping, and a very pretty sight in the eyepiece, with one bright star I assume isn’t related to the cluster shining twice as bright and gold to my eyes tonight. The actual cluster is only 2,500 light years away.
Underneath, and still in Monoceros, is 2244, designated Caldwell 50 by the great monocled man himself. Looking at diagrams and pictures of it here in my warm flat now, I can see that the cluster I observed tonight was just the brighter stars, as I noted the stars were ‘few and uniform’. I suppose I could file under ‘unmistakable but unremarkable’ tonight. O’Meara talks about nebulosity in both NGC2264 and NGC2244, but seven miles from the city, I wasn’t rewarded with cosmic plumes tonight, and I didn’t expect to be. I also expect these targets are rather more well known for the astro-photographers than observers. 
It got cold, I was hungry and constantly reminded that the seeing wasn’t great. I felt tonight was successful mostly in my visiting a little-visited constellation (Monoceros), and giving me a few ideas of things to visit next weekend under the Shropshire dark sky at our society’s first observation weekend of 2022. Which is next weekend.
I haven’t looked at the forecast, I daren’t! 

Ghost Hunting

I got a little excited on the way to the observing site last night, as I thought the night looked quite crisp and clear. Unfortunately, the seeing wasn’t that great. These days I use M110 as a guideline to seeing, and it was barely visible through the 10” mirror. Hmmm.
I started with a new object. NGC 1333 is a reflection nebula on the border of three constellations, though it is actually in Perseus. it’s right by Aries and Taurus too. I found it tonight and though I’m happy to add it to my observation list, it is quite underwhelming in the eyepiece. I have noted it as a star in a triangle with stars of a similar magnitude; however the one star displays a haze, which is obviously the nebula. Not as rewarding as emission nebula M78 which I also visited tonight, and M78 could be said to be underwhelming also tonight.
Staying with reflection nebula, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and spent some time on the Pleiades looking for the nebulosity. I’ve never paid much attention to it before, preferring to view M45 in binos, but around the stars Alcyone and Atlas, it was very obvious they were lighting up clouds of cosmic gas. I should spend more telescopic time on this cluster, it’s wonderful.
On my ‘new to me’ hitlist was also ‘Mirach’s Ghost’, an apparently small galaxy that is right by the bright star in Andromeda. I couldn’t see it tonight but suspect a higher power eyepiece might be better. As usual I was lazily using the same 28mm eyepiece for the whole session.
I also spent some time around Alnitak to try and see the ‘Flame’ nebula, (or ‘The Ghost of Alnitak’ if you prefer, another ghost!). I could tell myself, at times, that I could see it. But that’s not good enough, and on a night when M110 is barely visible,  I think my chances of honestly seeing this faint nebula is slim. So it doesn’t get an entry in my ‘observed’ list.
M35 was superb tonight though, and the neighboring NGC 2158 cluster is so easily recognisable now, I wonder how I ever got confused by it.
I visited the ‘Poor Man’s Double Cluster’ again, and found M1 just to prove to myself how easy it is when you’re looking from the right star. It appeared quite dim, which is testament to the somewhat bright skies tonight.
NGC1907 looked smashing tonight though. This little cluster ‘underneath’ M38, and I’ve been meaning to re-visit it for some time. I did image it successfully, but it looked poor compared to the telescope view.
I also visited the open cluster NGC 1981 (above the Orion Nebula), which often gets overlooked because of its close proximity to the nebula. Very pretty tonight, and I noted NGC 1977 in my log book also, as the nebulosity was easily observable. What an amazing part of the sky this is for the observer.
I visited some old favourites; The Double Cluster, M103 (open cluster in Cassiopeia), The galaxies M81 and M82 (pleasingly bright tonight), caught a very vague glimpse of galaxy M108, (no sign at all of M97 nearby). The Beehive cluster was lovely in the bins, and it’d rude not to visit the little beehive (M41) with Canis Major so high at the moment.
Leo is visible, but caught in the horrible Wolverhampton skyglow seven miles away. I was wondering if it would move away from the glow for me to start galaxy searching, but the clouds started rolling over, which signaled the end for this short but most enjoyable session.

Planning Ahead

I don’t know when my next observation session will be, (do we ever?), but I really need to pre-plan and become more methodical. I said the same thing on here last year, and I’m not sure I’ve done that. My last session (4th Feb) had me at a bit of a loss which new objects to find, despite me having many books with suggestions.
One problem is I’ve worked my way through the ‘visible from here’ Messier list, and the NGC objects aren’t quite as easily memorable by their numbers. This is why the Caldwell list, and O’Meara’s Secret Deep and Hidden Treasures lists are better, (I’ve also been looking at my observation book from the 90’s and I used to do quick sketches, and I should start doing that again. Although I write up my sessions on here and Stargazers Lounge, there’s something nice and tactile about having an observing book).
So, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to do an NGC update with ‘slang’ names and Caldwell and O’Meara notations in bold.

NGC 5196 (Whirpool Galaxy companion)
NGC 7789 (Perseus Double Cluster) Caldwell 15
NGC 457 (Perseus Double Cluster) Caldwell 15
NGC 7217 – Galaxy in Perseus
NGC 1647 Cluster in Taurus (Pirate Moon Cluster) Hidden Treasure 27
NGC 1746 Cluster in Taurus (NGC 1750 & NGC 1758) Secret Deep 17&18
NGC 1807 Cluster in Taurus (Poor Man’s Double Cluster) Secret Deep 20
NGC 1817 Cluster in Taurus (Poor Man’s Double Cluster) Secret Deep 21
NGC 2129 Cluster in Gemini
NGC 2392 Planetary Nebula (Eskimo) Gemini Caldwell 39
NGC 2683 Spiral Galaxy Lynx (UFO) Hidden Treasures 47
NGC 1907 Cluster Auriga (M38 ‘companion’)
NGC 1664 (Auriga cluster)
NGC 1023 Galaxy Perseus Hidden Treasures 10
NGC 4490 Galaxy in Canes Venatici Hidden Treasures 63
NGC 4485 Galaxy in Canes Venatici
NGC 7502 Open Cluster in Andromeda Caldwell 28
NGC 6207 Galaxy in Hercules Secret Deep 73
Others to check later. . .
NGC 2362
NGC 2354
NGC 663
NGC 659
NGC 6664
NGC 475
NGC 2169
NGC 3384
NGC 4478
NGC 129
NGC 7419

A Frosty February Night

Taken from the observation section of Stargazers Lounge. Note- M78 was correct.

One good thing about winter observing, is I can start early and get home to type up my observation notes. The bad thing about winter observing is it’s so cold that I don’t spend much time making notes or sketching whilst actually observing. So I’m relying on my memory here, (and my recorded ramblings into my phone).
I arrived at the observatory 7.30 and the seeing was good I thought, crescent moon on the way down, earthshine visible. Jupiter had set already.
Used my 10” reflector on a dob mount. I think this may have been the first time I’ve taken it to the observatory. I used the Telrad finder (which I love), though the misty glass problem reared its head about a hour in. I didn’t need the 10X finder tonight. Eyepieces used were 38mm or 32mm.
I started by looking for M78, in Orion and I didn’t find it, but did find what looked like two stars in nebulous haze to the left of where my maps told me M78 should be. I spent quite a bit of time on this and it meant my session with a bit of frustration I’m afraid. I’ve seen M78 before, quite easily, so what was the problem tonight? I think I may have been looking at NGC 2112, and mistaken the cluster for nebulosity. More research needed on this one.
The Orion nebula (M42) looked wonderful tonight. The 10” mirror really brings out so many details of the structure in the gas.  I sometimes think the long exposure photographs are a quite ‘cartoony’ when you’re used to the ghostly blue hues and subtle swathes of gasses that you see in ‘real time’. I’ve sketched the nebula before now, but sketching was certainly out the question tonight, with the temperature just above freezing. I had planned on sketching the nebulosity around the individual stars in the Pleiades, and comparing them with long exposure photographs later, but it was too cold, and I just made observations. Two stars in particular seemed to display nebulosity around them – a project for a slightly warmer night.
Above the Orion Nebula I stopped at Sigma Orionis, the triple star system. Whilst looking, I kept in mind what else was going on in that area I couldn’t see; the Horsehead Nebula, the Flame Nebula. These are observable with larger mirrors, (I’ve read many people with 12” mirror dobs have seen the Flame Nebula). But it’s all about location. No good expecting to see it seven miles from Wolverhampton.
Leaving Orion, I looked at the great cluster in Gemini, M35. Tonight, for the first time, I took trouble to find NGC 2158, an open cluster right next to the Great Cluster. It’s there, seemingly ‘joined’ to the Great Cluster by a string of three or four stars, but like a lot of the NGC clusters, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as merely a star field.
Nipping back to Taurus, I found the open clusters NGC 1617 and NGC 1807, also known as the ‘poor man’s double cluster’. This is only the second time I’ve visited these, and I think one might just be an asterism rather than a true related cluster of stars. But it’s a pleasing sight, with one cluster having a definite star shape, not unlike the Messier clusters in Auriga, though much sparser. I thought of the other, none cross-shaped cluster as looking not unlike the ‘leaping minnow’ asterism, in Auriga. I was pleased to find these, (easily found by imagining a shallow triangle from Aldebaran to Tau123, (the ‘Crab Nebula star’).
I really enjoyed seeing the Crab nebula for the first time this year. So easy to find when you star-hop from the right star, which I often don’t. And it’s ridiculous I keep missing it because M1 is probably one of the most easily located deep sky objects. It looked surprisingly bright tonight – a ghost of a star – always a deep-sky treat.
Two beehives next. And although Praesape (M44) was in the haze of the Wolverhampton sky-glow seven miles away, I could still see its faint haze as a naked-eye object. In the scope, it was lovely. I looked at the ‘Little Beehive’ in Canis Major next, easily findable in bins and scope, under Sirius. I know some people don’t like some of the ‘slang’ names of these clusters, but I think it helps people to remember them.
The Andromeda Galaxy was easily found, and M32. M110 was quite easily found too. M31 looks ‘end up’ tonight, and Andromeda is quite high.  The outer spiral arms of M31 extended almost fully across the 32mm eyepiece tonight, (I didn’t see structure I should add, just the extended mist), and that was a better view than last Thursday, when only the central part of the galaxy was observable.
M110 is an excellent barometer of sky quality I think. Invisible in the city, seen as a faint ghost tonight in rural skies not far from the city, but last October near the Long Mynd in Shropshire, M110 was a bright at M31 was tonight. Amazing skies over there.
By the way, I was struck how high Capella was. Right overhead, making observation in Auriga quite tricky. Yet in the summer it’s hedge-skimming. I love the seasonal changes of the big players. Capella must have the biggest circle of all the bright stars. Almost from horizon to zenith, as seen from the UK.
It almost gets boring keep writing I looked at the Perseus double cluster. But it never gets boring seeing it. Nice and high tonight and superb in contrast against the inky winter sky. A top ten telescopic sight.
Ursa Major was on its tail heading towards the sky-glow of Wolverhampton, but I tried for some objects ‘in’ Ursa Major but could only find M81 and M82 (‘Bodes’ and ‘Cigar’ galaxies). I spent some time with these, using a 32mm and a 38mm eyepiece. I’ve seen more structure in them in the summer, when they’re overhead, but they’re always pleasing, and as usual, Bodes is the first one I see, with its edge-on spiral companion popping into few seconds later.  
Later, I looked for M101 in bins and could almost tell myself I saw it. Had my hands not have been like icicles, I’d have made a sketch to check later of the surrounding stars to corroborate my possible sighting.
Last summer I saw M97 and M108 in the same field of view, (where else can you see a planetary nebula and a galaxy in the same field of view I wonder?). Tonight I didn’t find them, though consulting my maps now I think I may have been looking a little too close to Merak.
It got too cold for comfort by about 8.45, my fingers and toes were numb (despite boots and double-socks), so I packed the scope away and sat in the van with the heater on and a hot drink for a while, (I’d made up a flask), then went out and did a binocular scan with my 10X50 Opticroms.
I took in the chain of Auriga clusters (M36, M37 & M38) which were very bright by then, almost overhead. I looked at M31 (upended), and the Pleiades, Hyades (with Alderberan looking very ruddy in the crisp winter night, a fantastic binocular sight against the Hyades cluster). I re-visited the Beehive cluster (M44) which is better in binoculars, and I saw the Little Beehive again in Canis Major (M41).
The ‘Head of Orion’ (Collinder 69) is a nice binocular object, and one that’s not talked about much, a little like the Alpha Persei Cluster. Well worth a binocular visit in the winter months.
As I was driving home it struck me how high Sirius was. I pulled over and did a binocular scan of Canis Major, a constellation I’ve rarely visited. I was glad I parked up, as I was able to make a quick binocular observation of the open cluster M93, which looked like a ghostly globular through the bins, and took a little finding due to its low altitude.
So a productive couple of hours. Nothing dramatically new to include in my observation book, but then I hadn’t pre-planned for new objects. I’m still a little frustrated about M78, and plan to do a little more research later today. 

Back again

As I write this, I see my last entry was September 7th last year, ‘The Trials of Cephus’. Looks like I’ve got some updating to do! Luckily, I can add observation reports and ‘back-date’ them. I know I had a rather excellent session in Shropshire at a new site I need to include. Plus, there’s some other astro stuff to update too. So basically, anything that appears on this blog after the 7th Sept has been uploaded today – on the 29th January.

An Impromptu Session

Pasted from the observation report section of Stargazer’s Lounge. . .

When I arrived at my usual campsite in Shropshire on Monday night, I wasn’t actually expecting to do any astronomy as the forecast wasn’t great, but as I turned my engine off, and turned the van lights off, I was greeted by a wonderful clear sky, with the Milky Way stretching overhead. So without further ado, I set the dob up, (which takes thirty seconds, such is the genius of the dob design).
I find when I’m in the sticks, (my caravan is at a Bortle 4 site), the Telrad finder is mostly all I need these days. The 10X erecting finderscope I have alongside it is only really needed when I’m closer to town, and I can’t see the stars I’m hopping from. For these observations I used a 28mm eyepiece, unless I say otherwise. I don’t know the field of view, (I don’t even know the correct focal length of my scope, but you can see it’s quite long, about five foot). I find the 28mm fine for deep sky stuff.
So, with no plan in place, I started with M57, the Ring Nebula, and it was pleasingly bright. I often overlook M56 – a quite bright globular nearby. I remembered to check it out this night and it’s easily findable in a ‘line’ with stars to the left of the ‘squashed box’ of Lyra.
M71 next, and this is fast becoming one of my favourite globulars, probably because it looks so unlike a globula cluster. The 10” mirror really does it justice, but this is on Messier object that can be disappointing in small scopes I think, (note to self, look up what H20 is, it’s right by M71).
Just up to the left of Sagitta, I hopped to the easily findable dumbbell nebula. Very bright this evening and the ‘misty bow tie’ shape easily discernible.
Hercules was heading west, and I visited his two showpiece globular clusters, with M13 really burning brightly. I’ve only been using the 10” mirror for a few months, the previous five or six years I’ve been using an 8” Skywatcher, and in terms of gathering light, there is a very noticeable difference. Does anyone know how much more light a 10” mirror finds, when compared to an 8”? There must be a formula, (I’m rubbish at maths).
Saturn’s moons. Last time I had an observing session I made the mistake of not noting the time down when I made my sketch of the background ‘stars’. I didn’t make that mistake this time. I sketched the planet, and every nearby point of light I could see, to check with Stellarium when I got back home, (which was a few days later).
I was pleased to see that along with Titan, I’d seen Rhea and Dione with the 15mm eyepiece. Dione was very much just on the verge of visibility. I had to use averted vison, and it only really appeared when the air steadied.
The Saturnian moon project is on-going. I wish I’d used a 9mm eyepiece now.
M31 was an easy naked-eye object, and I spent quite some time on M110 again. It’s quite bright when you get under a nice dark sky, and I’ve had several pleasing views of it this year.
M11, the Wild Duck cluster is always a treat. The duck I can see is different to how other people see it I think. But it’s such a bright pretty cluster, which you couldn’t confuse with any other. It’s easily found in the Scutum Star Cloud, (yea, I know it’s all easily found if you use a go-to, but where’s the fun in that?).
Yes, I’d insert a smiley there if |I used them.
Ursa Major was quite low, and I tried for M97 and M108 in the same field of view. I saw these together earlier in the summer and it was a real treat, but I couldn’t find a single deep-sky object in Ursa Major on this evening, and it was due to the constellation being low in the bright western sky. I couldn’t even find M51, (I didn’t try for Bodes). In fact,  after looking at Scutum, then turning the scope to Ursa Major, for a split-second  I thought something had gone wrong with my scope! Where have all the stars gone!
By this time Jupiter had appeared from behind a tree and all four Galilean moons could be seen, two on each side. Because I’d been trying to find galaxies in Ursa Major, the bright light of Jupiter was a bit of a shock to my eyeball.

Up till now I hadn’t got my maps out, so I pulled out my Webb Deep Sky Society Star Atlas and looked at Hercules, which – although quite low, was certainly in a ‘sweet spot’ of dark sky. So I look at page eight and there’s a galaxy – NGC6207 -just above M13, (below in my scope). I wasn’t hopeful, because I have a splendid failure rate with NGC galaxies. But, there it was, and quite unmistakably bright. It looked to be ‘pointing’ to the great cluster, and when I re-checked my map, yes, it was a spiral, and pointing at M13. How had I never seen this before? I must have looked at the Great Cluster hundreds of times over the years. 
The Webb star atlas doesn’t give magnitudes, and I was off-line so the only way I could find the magnitude of this galaxy was to text an astro-buddy from the Wolverhampton Society.


The text told me it was 10.08 mag, which is the Wikki version. I was somehow disappointed it wasn’t dimmer. I didn’t have my observing reference books with me, so it wasn’t till this afternoon I found James O’Meara has included this object in his Secret Deep book , (object 73). He puts it at 11.6, (‘a tiny spiral wonder hiding in the shadow of M13’). I have had conflicting magnitudes before, and whatever the magnitude is (I’ve also found mag 12.00 on-line, any advance on twelve?) – I think it’s one of the great secrets of the summer sky. A nd what a great reference point this would be, a test as to the darkness of the summer skies? Could it be seen in the true summer, when there is no astronomical darkness? I’m looking forward to finding out. Galaxy NGC6207 isn’t included in my Nortons 2000 by the way.
I spent more time with M31, trying to see some dust lanes, and trying to be honest enough with myself to admit – erm. . .no. But I did go back to my Webb book and check out anything ‘new’ for me to see there, and there’s a very large open cluster NGC752. This also has a Caldwell number – 28. And it’s a real treat! Overall mag 5.7, and in my 28mm eyepiece it sat beautifully in the field of view, filling the eyepiece. I’d say the stars are pretty similar in appearance, and evenly spaced. It made me very happy to add this cluster and the galaxy in Hercules to my observation list, and I look forward to visiting them again.
After about an hour and a half’s observing, I got cold (I wasn’t really dressed for observing), and hungry. And with the caravan heater on, I retired, about 9.45, with the Pleiades rising above the treeline, leading the way for Taurus, Orion and the winter promise of more deep sky treats in the coming months.

First Light at a New Site

From Stargazer’s Lounge Observation Report section. . .
Last night (Sunday 3rd Oct) was my first night observing at a new site in the Shropshire hills, joining an observing weekend organised by Wolverhampton Astronomical Society. The gang had already had excellent skies on the Friday and Saturday, but would Sunday night shape up as splendidly?
When I arrived, the rain was torrential with 100% cloud cover right up till sunset, but the forecast was hopeful for the evening, and even though I felt skeptical, it did indeed clear and the seeing for the first hour or so was simply stunning. I was pleased to finally take the ‘toilet tent’ off my 30 year old Dark Sky 10″ mirrored reflector on a dobsonain mount, (and mostly used a 35mm eyepiece for the deep sky objects). 
I had prepared a hit-list of fainter Caldwell objects, but as soon as I saw the Ring Nebula at dusk, I knew the seeing was so good that I’d better take in the brighter deep sky objects with this rare chance of near-perfect seeing, the rain having bought down so much muck from the atmosphere.
Really, what is the best thing to do when faced with a great sky at a dark-sky site? Look for the fainter objects you’ve never found, so you can tick more objects off your list, or just look at the old favourites and see them at their best, and take in any new details?
I went for the latter, and I’ll first mention two objects I found very impressive tonight. M110, a satellite galaxy to M31, (the great Andromeda galaxy). I’ve never before seen M110 so well defined. Tonight, I’d say M110 was as well defined as M31 appears on an average clear night at the society observatory (seven miles from Wolverhampton). I’ve never seen it so bright.
 The other big ‘”wow” of the evening was the Perseus Double Cluster. I think I probably look at this at every observing session I do, but I can’t remember seeing it so beautiful as it looked tonight. Simply breath-taking, and surely one of the finest deep-sky object in the northern hemisphere in these conditions. This night, the two clusters seemed to burst out the eyepiece.  A myriad of bright stars, and there’s the ‘pawprint’ and ochre coloured star in the left (right) cluster. Glorious!
I visited M71 in Sagitta. Some find this cluster underwhelming but it’s well worth visiting I think. At first view it’s a ghostly smudge, but further viewing reveals a pretty mottling of stars. I spent years looking for this in urban skies, perhaps that’s why I’m always so happy to see it out in the countryside?
The Dumbell Nebula was also easily found just up to the left of the arrow Sagitta, the shape clearly definable.  
I saw quite a few globular clusters this night, but two pretty, sparse open clusters I always enjoy are M103 in Cassiopeia, and M29 in Cygnus. The former has a triangular shape, the latter I allways think of as an anvil shape. Both are very easy targets for star-hopping.
Ursa Major was low, but it was testament to the great seeing conditions that M51 and its companion was easily found, and had observable structure. M101 also evident in the 10” mirror, but ghostly and faint. I spent some time with M81 and M82 (‘Bodes Galaxy’ and the ‘Cigar Galaxy’), and they were also easily observable in Robin’s 15×70 bins. In the bins, it was more apparent that M81 is the brighter of the two, (some books giving it a full mag brighter). These are lovely objects, and I struggled to find them initially in the dob, which I put down to Ursa Major being so low. It looks bigger, and I got a little confused with distances.
We had summer and winter constellations tonight. Hercules was easily visible, and the Milky Way looked magnificent overhead. I took in M13, (wonderfully bright), and M92. The Wild Duck cluster was easily found to the right of the Scutum Star Cloud, and easily completely resolvable. This is getting to be one of my favourite objects, though the 10” mirror does tend to do it justice. We also saw this through Robin’s bins, and it was bright and structured and the contrast was lovely.
With such good conditions, it’s always worth going for M33, the Whirlpool Galaxy. It always surprises me how big it is. It was easily found with my 10x50s, but the best view came from Robin’s bins which were so comfortable to view through on his parallelogram mount. It’s always surprising how big this is.
Under Jupiter, in Capricorn is an 8th mag globular star cluster called M30, which I’d never found before, and seeing as we were in a slight valley, I thought it might be too low to find tonight. But in the bins, from Jupiter down, I was able to star hop down the four star diamond shape to a crescent of stars in Cap. Which kind of point to where the cluster is, and bingo! A quite small globular compared to M13, but it was very pretty and I expect much brighter for people nearer the equator. M30 is approx. 26,000 light years away.
The seeing deteriorated somewhat with a slight mist, and dew on the eyepieces became problematic, but I stuck at it. Saturn showed no shimmering at all, despite its low altitude. This was thanks to the rainfall I assume. I used a 9mm eyepiece to hopefully find some moons. I sketched a triangle of ‘stars’ to the left of the planet around 9pm. These moons were viewable at high power and likely Rhea, Dione, Titan, and Iapetus. But I can’t confirm these because I neglected to note the exact time. So I need to be more exacting on the Saturnian lunar deal.
I never miss the Ring Nebula (M57) during my summer observations, but I hardly ever visit M56, the globular cluster that’s so easy to find between Albereo and the stars of Lyra. It’s quite bright and very easy to find by star-hopping.
Alberieo looked lovely as always, (though oddly I didn’t find the colours as striking as usual).
The great thing about group observation sessions is – you can get other people’s opinions on objects. I love the Cygnus star HIP 99675 and its two ‘line of sight’ neighbors, because of the colours. I see (left to right in the reflector’s eyepiece), silver, gold and blue. Without telling them what I could see, I asked Robin and Duncan what colours they saw..
“Silver on the left, gold then blue”
And Duncan..
“I can see Silver, gold and … blue”.
So it’s not just my imagination! Such a pretty sight.
All through the evening, Capella was shining brighter, and rising. And soon, there were the Pliades, Alderberran, The Hyades and the Twins Castor and Pollux. What a wonderful time to observe October is! The summer constellations of Corona Borealis, Bootes and Hercules can be seen heading westward, and the winter constellations rising in the east. We started with the Summer Triangle overhead, and at 2am Robin was taking pictures of Orion and M42. What a superb evening’s observations, which seemed very unlikely to even happen at 7pm as we were battered by rain, wind and overcast with 100% cloud cover.
As Chuck Berry sang, “it goes to show you never can tell!”