A Quick Binocular Tour

It’s been annoyingly cloudy these past few weeks, but I did manage a binocular tour with the 10×50 Opticroms last night near Craven Arms, about 1am. Very clear skies, and the Moon was quite low, (about 75% lit),  but it didn’t seem to hinder the seeing.
I’m not sure if I’ve seen Taurus this summer yet, but there it was lovely, Alderberran glorious with its ruddy hue, and Taurus is obviously a fine binocular target. Both the Hyades and Pleiades looked lovely.
And Auriga is now well above the horizon, (I’ve been watching Cappella skirt the horizon over the summer. It must be the lowest ‘circumpolar’ bright star at my latitude).
I easily found the Leaping Minnow asterism, that points to the open cluster M36, easily seen as a hazy patch in the bins. And below, M38 and M37, the three reat open cluster of Auriga.
I looked lower perchance to see the great Gemini Cluster (M35) but no luck yet.
I spent a clumsy minute looking for the square of Pegasus, which was much higher than I expected. Andromeda, to the left, was easily found with the Andromeda Galay a pleasing naked eye object. Through the bins it was a real treat, extending ghostly luminosity much wider than the bright nucleus.
The Triangulum  galaxy (M33) was very bright and big. I was very surprised, but look how high Triangulum is at this time of year! Most pleasing to see.
I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t locate supernova remnant M1. I simply don’t know where it is without a map.
The Double Cluster was easily found and beautiful. I followed the Perseus ‘river of stars’ down – it’s superbly placed in the early hours now.
Turning round, the star-fields of Cygnus are really something else under a dark sky. I tried to find the anvil-shaped open cluster of M29. But I was getting confused, as I imagined M29 to be where M39 is. No matter, I found M39 as a distinct triangle-shaped small, bright cluster. Of my three Messier ‘bibles’, the Messier Album gives the best representation and description of what I saw of M39 through my bins last night.
Mars was high and wonderfully pink, and a fireball/meteorite was seen, golden in colour and at least mag 4 plus, about 1.30, heading south-east of Cygnus. Magical!

21 Years Ago…

…I was in France for the total solar eclipse. It was my first eclipse, and I remember being in two minds about where to try and see it. It would have been far easier to drive to Cornwall. And to see an eclipse on English (well, Cornish) soil, would have been wonderful. But the prospects for clear skies was better in France.
As it turned out, there was 100% cloud cover on the morning of the eclipse. And even as we drove to the observation site in Rheims, it was cloudy.
But, as often happens during eclipses, the temperature drop during totality thinned the clouds out somewhat, and we got to see totality. I took the photo below.
It wasn’t till seven years later that I got to see a complete eclipse, from first contact through. That was in Turkey, and it was quite amazing seeing it from a beach by the Mediterranean.
And of course, there was the Great American Eclipse of 2017. Another wonderful experience.
But you never forget your first one. It’s not just the sight of the solar corona, it’s the whole feeling of standing in the Moon’s shadow. The only time you ever can do that. And the many different effects… the false, unearthly twilight. And it got so dark, (because of the cloud cover). I saw the Moon’s shadow racing across the lake I was sitting by. I’ve never seen that at the other two eclipses, and I’ve looked.
Each eclipse is unique. People tell you that, and you can’t imagine they would be, but they are. France 1999 was so dark, and slightly sinister even. But I remember the champagne corks popping as the clouds parted, and the cheers and gasps as we saw the great ring of fire in the sky. I suspect we were even more excited because all morning we’d expected to be clouded over. There was only me and one old guy on the bus that were optimistic as we drove to the observation site. Weather changes quick – you can never rule stuff out.
Some people in the same park in Rheims didn’t get to see it totality. That’s so unfair. My friend who went to the Faeroe Islands to see the eclipse of 2015 had a similar situation, where some people on her trip saw totality and she didn’t. Luckily she came to the States in 2017 on the same trip as me, and got to see a complete total eclipse from first contact to last, and it was indeed magical.
But France 1999 will always mean such a lot to me. I dearly hope I get to see another eclipse but even if I don’t, I feel I’ve been so lucky to see nature’s greatest spectacle.


Totality in Rheims, taken with my Olympus 35mm SLR 


Comet Neowise and other stuff

The bad news this month is The Observatory isn’t accessible because of changes in ownership of the land, and its future is in doubt. It’s a case of ‘wait and see’.
So I was feeling pretty fed up on Saturday the 12th July, but I was soon cheered by a sighting of Comet Neowise whilst in Shropshire. I got some very pleasing shots, and the comet was easily visible with the naked eye. The best comet I’d seen since Comet Hale Bop, back in the 90’s.
I was it again three night sago but it had faded quite a bit, I’m assuming, (or perhaps the seeing was much worse?). Anyway, here’s three shots of it. Two from Shropshire on the 12th, and one from Wiltshire on the 22nd.



Whilst in Wiltshire,  I was rewarded with some superb dark skies, and I was able to do some deep sky observing with my 4″ reflector. I’m very much struck with Sagittarius, which has more Messier objects than any other constellation. The area around M8, The Lagoon Nebula, and M22, the great cluster, is simply a delight to navigate with 10×50 bins, or my little scope. I looked for M4, a globular cluster that’s never been ticked off in my observation book, but it eluded me. I don’t know why, it’s pretty straight forward, being not far from bright star Antares.
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were resplendent too.
The usual suspects were easily seen under such splendid skies. M13, M92, The Double Cluster, M31 etc. A real treat was M42, the Pleiades rose in the early early hours, above the nearby pub. I could watch it through the window of my  caravan whilst in bed. Bliss!




Ancient Spherical Swarms of Stars

Excellent couple of hours observing tonight. The first clear night since the 29th May. That’s no good,is it?
Things change so much in such a short space of time. Where has Leo gone?
Anyway, got there just after 10pm, it was still very bright. Faffed around with the finderscope for longer than I’d have liked, (this sort of stuff should be done in the daytime, but it’s difficult with a red dot finder). I started the most methodical alignment possible, and still I was off every target by a three second slew on speed five. But at least the distance and direction were pretty much the same the sky over. So I’m going to rattle through these. I may do a proper write-up for the society newsletter, but here’s the ‘fresh in my head’ version, (as fresh as I can get at 2am.
As soon as I’ve done the alignment (I’m still using the society’s 8″ S/c), I go to the brightest Messier object to see how close it is. M13 tonight, and it’s pretty close. So I spend some time with M13 and M92, while it’s still quite light actually, then head off in the opposite direction to check how close the alignment is. Not too bad.
No M56 or Dumbell Nebula yet, the sky too bright, and in the wrong (city) direction.
The Perseus Double Cluster next, looking pin-sharp but on;y the brighter stars seen. The center of the one cluster displaying what I call the ‘Pawprint’, which I tend to use as a confirmation that I have the double in the eyepiece. I can just about fit both in the field of view in the 32mm eyepiece. This scope must have a hell of a focal length – I should know it, shouldn’t I?
The triangle of M103. I love this very distinctive open cluster. Cassiopeia is replete with interesting open clusters, but I’ll wait to re-visit when it’s higher, (and sometime later I took in a very low Andromeda Galaxy for fun, it was faint and large, in comparison to the other more remote galaxies I’ve been seeing lately).
11.30-ish and a planet rises, right in the trees S/W. I’m surprised, I was expecting the giants earlier in the morning. Or later in the morning, should I say. I check in the Helios binoculars, and it’s Jupiter, dancing around because they’re like 70X and I’ve got no tripod.
Anyway, the sky is looking like something near to dark, and I start looking for tonight’s new targets. I specifically wanted to find two galaxies in Canes Venatici. The first is M63. At mag 8.6 it should be brighter than many of the galaxies I saw about three weeks ago in the Coma Cluster, which were quite lower in the sky. But it wasn’t the shortest day of the year then, was it?
But I see it, ‘The Sunflower Galaxy’. Well, it needs averted vision to see any kind of shape at all tonight, but there it is, with two starts in the same field of view making it unmistakable, and as usual it’s the 1984 Newton and Teece Cambridge Deep Sky album that affords me the most faithful likeness to the celestial object I encountered for the first time at the eyepiece tonight. I recommend that book unreservedly to any visual astronomer.
The next target – the second ‘new’ galaxy in Canes Venatici, is a real surprise. M94, the ‘Croc’s Eye galaxy’, (really?). Wow, it’s bright. My O’Meara  Messier book puts it at 8.2, but it seems twice as bright as M63. A very pretty ‘comet like’ face-on spiral galaxy that forms a triangle of sorts with two stars from our own family. The Cambridge Teece book gives it 7.9 mag, and I think I’d concur. It looks like the bright globular cluster M13 through my little 4 inch mirror scope, if that makes sense.
I check in on M5, my third globular cluster of the evening and it’s quite a sight. In Serpens Caput. And I always wonder why I don’t visit it more. But it’s in Serpens Caput, and like Canes Venatici, these aren’t great constellations for urban-bound star-hoppers. To say the least.
I try again for M101, the face-on spiral galaxy in  And again, I can’t see it. It’s like some cosmic joke, this elusive galaxy. I check my eye-site’s not failing by looking checking out the Whirlpool galaxy, (M51), and it’s all there, and I can even see structure using averted vision. And this is down as 8.4, and yet M101 is invisible at 7.9mag? (yea, I know, magnitude and apparent brightness and all that).
Just to check the darkness of the sky, I re-look for the Dumbell nebula, and it’s easily found, and bright amongst the rich backdrop of stars that tells me I’m looking into the summer Milky Way.
I had a new globular cluster on my tick-list too, M19. A quite low cluster in Ophiuchus. I like this constellation quite a lot, I didn’t get to know it till a couple of years ago, star-gazing by the White Lady’s Priory. It’s a massive house-shaped constellation that never rises high in the UK. But it contains some fine globulars, (M10 and M12  being in my observation logs, but there are many more). I like the description of these globulars as ancient spherical swarms of stars which Hubble showed form a halo around our galaxy. On returning home, I see M19 is listed as a very bright cluster, yet it seemed like a mere ghost of the bright clusters like M10 and M12. In retrospect, I may have been looking through some low horizon cloud without knowing it.
Jupiter is hedge-skimming, and I try to take a short film, but the camera weighs down the scope and I lose the alignment. No matter, I still have the red-dot finder-scope,  but Jupiter is very low anyway, and although the image of the great gas giant is large and steady in the eyepiece, only the main two equatorial belts are seen, but the planet is framed beautifully by all four of its largest moons, two each side, almost equidistant in the eyepiece.
It’s been a lovely night and I don’t want to do another alignment, so I just wait for Saturn to creep round the tree, and there is one of the most breathtaking telescopic sights, the remote planet with its magic rings still ‘open’ and to the left (in the eyepiece), a star that might be a moon, but I’ll have to check tomorrow, it’s after 3am now.
I took one quick tripod shot of Jupiter and Saturn as I left the observatory. Jupiter’s the bright one, left of middle, Saturn is the second brightest, to the left of Jupiter.



Mercury and Venus revisited

I stitched together two photos taken through my 4″ reflector. The night before I took this, the two planets appeared even closer in the twilight. But it was cloudy that night.


…and a quick sketch from last week’s deep sky sessions. M81 is right overhead at the moment.


Pagan Streams

What happened to that sense of wonder, on yonder hillside getting dim..
I never know, when I visit the observatory, whether I’m going to come away elated or frustrated. I think tonight veered towards the latter. I went over thinking I’ll not worry so much about observing tonight, I’ll use the time to finally master the go-to mount.
Of course, I didn’t. At one point it started zooming off in totally wrong directions, (was it my fault? Did I touch a button to many?). Then it powered down for five minutes for no reason. I dunno.
I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just get a nice big mirror’d dob and leave the go-to mounts to the people that enjoy tech, (and there are such people, I’m told).
But then there’s the fourteen galaxies I saw last week, in Coma Berenices and Virgo, which I’ll happily admit I’d never have found star-hopping. I was buzzing when I found those. Or should I say, when I saw those.
I did drive away tonight thinking about finally renovating my old 10″ dob, which is in the garage. I’d rather be a victim of my own clumsy map-reading than my techy inadequacies.
But there’s another thing niggling.
When I had my lovely 10″ dob, back in the mid 90’s, I was finding all the bright objects, and finding new, interesting objects every session, (I still have my observation logs). Now, some twenty five years down the pike, I’ve seen all the bright objects, and I’m looking at fainter objects, it’s becoming a game of diminishing returns.
I sat in the park for nearly two hours today drawing up a chart of Messier objects. Ones I’ve seen, and ones I’ve seen only at the observatory. It’s quite a formidable list, and that’s not including NGC numbers. I’ve had perhaps the busiest 18 months, observation-wise, and I do wonder where to go from here. The observatory sky is class 5 Bortle, which isn’t great, but it’s much better than where I live. I’m wondering if the answer is getting out to darker skies?
Which, of course, I normally do. But it’s lockdown. The campsites are closed. Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling this slight despondency.
One night last year I watched the Milky Way move overhead. I sat in a Shropshire field and the whole river of stars seemed to slowly perceptibly move. I first sat with it in front of me, then I had to change the chair position, as it moved overhead. It was graceful and serene and I really felt plugged into something cosmic. I sometimes wish there was a word for appreciation of the heavens outside of science. I wonder if other languages have a word for it?
Steven James O’Meara, in his superb book on the Messier objects, asks at the end of the book, why we bother ourselves with faint galaxies seen only through glass, when our own galaxy stretches overhead, closer and brighter than all those telescopic galaxies.
Well, he doesn’t so much ask why, he just finds the irony in it. And I agree.
Heck, I’ve been to Stonehenge on solstice morning, and the sunrise on a clear day is comparable to a solar eclipse, that whoosh, that trip.
Perhaps it’s the crowds? Nah, it can’t be just that.
We travel the world to see solar eclipses, (if we’re lucky), yet how many times do we make the effort to see a clear sky sunrise?
How many have I ever seen?
I bet I could count them on one hand, two perhaps. Yet when you see it, it’s the most amazing thing. The first sighting of the golden Sun on the horizon, spilling its life-giving beams across the landscape. The welcome birth of a new day.
Is that astronomy? It certainly ticks the boxes. A visual observation of the changing relationship of celestial bodies. Blah blah.
But … what name should we give that feeling of awe as we watch it?
Our light pollution has pretty much put paid to the Milky Way these days. But can you imagine how it looked in the Neolithic times? A great Heathen river, and winding pagan stream… It would have been worshipped by people a lot more plugged into the night sky than we’ll ever be.
In pre-Roman times, it’s said the people on these shores worshipped the Sun. That’s got to be better than some jealous monotheistic invisible sky-god, right?
I’m digressing.
Over the past few years I’ve seen lots of different people in ‘astronomical circles’ and they all seem to come at this thing in a different way. Some get off on physics lectures (that I don’t understand at all!), and I bet they see as much beauty and wonder in that, as I do with the night sky. In the same way that people who really understand maths can see beauty in it. Can you imagine seeing beauty in maths? I can’t, but I can.
My point is – and there is a point behind all this – when we find a hobby, we need to be mindful that the magic doesn’t disappear. I wasn’t finding much magic in the go-to mount tonight.

I think I need to repair, and see that Pagan Stream overhead sometime soon. No telescopes, no tech, just the night as a starry dome, like Joni sang about.

NOT the Eight Wonders of Canes Venatici

Yea, well. I was all hyped up for exploring eight objects in Canes Venatici last night, (the night of the 26th), and it didn’t pan out. Three reasons. First, I got into starting to do some lunar photography, then, I didn’t quite align the telescope as well as I’d done the previous two nights. And when I started using it, I found Canis Venatici was too high. In the observatory, see, the zenith is obscured.
Of course, the zenith moves over time, so it’s not a major problem. It just meant my prepared list was null and void.
So first, a couple of lunar shots. One through my 4″ Skywatcher dob from my home…

and a ‘closer’ shot from the observatory where I’ve labelled the Wrottersley impact crater, (named after the local astronomer Lord Wrottersley). His observatory was only three and a half miles east of where our much more modest observatory is now.

It was well after 11pm when I started looking for deep-sky stuff, and it seemed still lightly cloudy, so I had a look at a few brighter deep sky objects like M13, but even the Dumbell Nebula was a faint haze.
The Scope was aligned pretty good around Perseus/Cassiopeia, and although that’s not a particularly dark part of the sky – and it’s very low around now – I had a wander round familiar sights like the double cluster (almost in the same field of view with a 25mm eyepiece).
Why did the go-to find the double cluster easily, yet wouldn’t centre on M3? Perhaps it’s the levelling of the tripod.
M103 is a really nice open cluster with a recognisable arrowhead or triangle shape. Staying in Cassiopeia I looked at NGC 7419, a very pretty, obvious open cluster, and  NGC 129 a unspectacular (in these skies), sparse open cluster.
M52 nearby showed of its undoubted Messier status by so obviously out-shining the previous two clusters. A very pleasing cluster, even in this bright not quite dark summery sky, with two brighter stars in its midst, like two cosmic eyes.
Did some constellation photography, and I’ve yet to look at those pictures.
I think I wussed out by packing up at about 20 past midnight. When I got to the van, the sky was looking much darker and quite inky. I spend a bit more time with my 10×50 binoculars, and called it a night.
The Eight Wonders of Canes Venatici (which is my title for the list I made up), would have to wait for another evening.  

Mercury makes an appearance

I’ve never seen Mercury much. Can you say you’ve seen Mercury during a transit? You’re looking at a silhouette, rather than the planet, I suppose. But it is Mercury, so you can tick it off.
Transits aside, I saw Mercury in 2006 during a solar eclipse. That was pretty cool.
But this week Mercury has been higher than ever in the west just after sunset. There’s an excellent field near Albrighton with an open gate that I visit if I want a low west horizon, (the other spot is a hill near Halfpenny Green. Both good for parking and low light pollution).
So here’s a lunar slither, and a Venusian photo though my 4″ Skywatcher, and a landscape shot, further labelled. It was a lovely evening, nice and warm, and watching the sunset was calming and oddly nourishing in these times of strangeness. The Earth spins regardless of anything.



Venus 24th May 2020


The Realm of the Galaxies – The Return

IMG_6418Another early hours type-up.
I hate to rattle through these, but the way the clouds have been over the past year, it could be cloudy tomorrow and cloudy for a month. So I’m getting as much observing done as possible, especially while I don’t have to get up for work.
Here’s a list, all Messier objects observed tonight in Coma Berenices and Virgo, pretty much. …

M99, a mag 9.9 (who’d have thought it!) face-on galaxy. In Coma Berenices, near the border of Virgo.
M87, somewhat brighter at 8.6, a soft symmetrical glow. Pretty in the 25mm eyepiece.
M61, quite a difficult 9.7 mag, but easily seen after 11.30pm.
M91, very faint at 10.2. A barred spiral, but no real structure seen.
M98, a real treat, this one. Quite a large, edge-on spiral.
M89, a face on, smaller spiral.
M90, 10th mag.quite faint.
M91 – couldn’t see.
M100 a 9.3 mag spiral, face-on, bright center, whispy otherwise.
Now, back to M87. I was sure I could see a nebulous companion, which could be NGC 4478, a smaller galaxy. according to O’Meara’s Messier Objects book. My (much older) Cambridge Messier album passes it off as a globular cluster.
My 1991 Cambridge Atlas collaborates the O’Meara book, so I’m going with another faint galaxy, and at 11th mag, the faintest deep sky object I’ve catalogued tonight.
Which makes ten new galactic entries in my journal, and with the fourteen I saw last night, that’s rich galactic pickings.
But there’s two more I saw tonight. Actually by mistake, as I entered M81 by mistake, and the scope slew to Bode’s. Of course, I checked it out, and I wondered why I seem to be able to get M81 and M82 in the same eyepiece in my 8″ reflector, yet not in this S/C. I reckon the answer lies in the focal length and I’ll think about that some other time. But looking at the edge-on spiral of M82 was superb tonight. Perhaps because it’s overhead, and brighter anyway (8.2 mag) than the Virgo and Coma galaxies I’d been spending the evening with. But wow!
Sketches on this stuff upcoming, but at least now I’ve catalogued it all here.
And the bonus to another excellent night’s observing was a sighting of Mercury, below Venus after sunset. A considerably more local friend than the distant massive star-families I’d be concerning myself with come darkness.