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. M95, M96 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 M36, M37 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.