Astronomy and me 2

As I mentioned in part 1, I’ve been into serious astronomy, bar a couple of breaks in 1999/2000 and 2004/2005, for twenty-one years now, and into deep sky observing since 1993, when I went to a BAA Deep Sky Section meeting and was immediately hooked. People do astronomy in many different ways, none is better than another, but this is how I do mine, if anyone is interested.
During this time I have tried many different ways of observing, some more successful than others. When I began serious deep sky observing in 1993, I had no idea of doing things in any form of structured observing program. I’d simply choose a section of sky on the spur of the moment and, using my old Cambridge Star Atlas 2000.0 and Norton’s Star Atlas which my late Nan gave me at Christmas 1992, seek out those objects in that part of the sky. This method was surprisingly successful a lot of the time, although sometimes I’d inevitably come to a halt and start aimlessly wandering around the sky which was highly unproductive! When that happens, you may as well pack in as you won’t see much.
In those days, I didn’t make notes either, I just listed the objects I saw. This is fine if you want to keep track of what you’ve seen or how many but is useless for recalling what the object actually looks like! I kept this up for months until I read an article in Astronomy magazine about keeping an astronomical journal, so that’s what I have done – or tried to do – in various forms since then.

My Cambridge Star Atlas has had plenty of use, including a trip to Australia in 1997 and visits to the Texas Star Party. It has had quite a hammering over the years, including being bent out of shape in my rucksack in Australia and isn’t deep enough for what I want to do but I still love it, as just opening its cover brings back nice memories, and it sometimes gets an outing if I am using my binoculars or a small telescope. It deserves a place in its own little heaven.
I bought myself some new atlases in the mid 1990s, Uranometria 2000.0 and Sky Atlas 2000.0. The latter is a much larger (it’s huge!) version of the Cambridge Star Atlas, with fold-out charts, and goes two magnitudes deeper while Uranometria 2000 is very detailed indeed and helpful for finding your way around busy areas such as the Virgo cluster. My Sky Atlas 2000 is, like my Cambridge Star Atlas, now battered, creased, afflicted by damp, dogeared, written on and mouldy (I bought the unlaminated edition which was cheaper) but still gets plenty of use. However, for doing projects such as the Herschel 2500, which I am currently on, it’s fairly limited as not everything is included on there so I need to use U2000.
In addition to the paper charts I use MegaStar 5. This is probably the best astronomy charting program out there and includes the entire Herschel 2500, the rest of the NGC, the IC, UGC, PGC, CGCG, ESO, Arp, AGC, MRK catalogues…and so on. I don’t use a computer when I am observing, partly due to the brightness of the screen even with red acetate over it and due to not having a suitable laptop these days, so I print off my custom MegaStar charts, which include Telrad and finder overlays, and put them into a ring binder along with my observing lists for the night. I think I’d be lost without it now, it’s invaluable!

Early sketch of M42

As I said above, when I started I didn’t have a clue about note-taking or anything like that, and it was only when I read an article in Astronomy magazine, in 1993 or 94 about keeping an astronomy journal that the penny began to drop. It dropped completely when I started receiving the Webb Society Observing Section Reports, with their examples of written object descriptions so, ever since then, I have tried to make descriptions of each DSO beyond merely the objects’ names. My first notes still left a lot to be desired, though, with ‘wow’, ‘pretty’, ‘very faint’ but not a lot else, littering them but, as they say, practice makes perfect and they soon improved. Experience helps there, as the more experience you have, the more you see.
For faint objects beyond the showpieces and brighter NGCs, especially where galaxies are concerned, writing something new about each similar looking faint fuzzy is a bit difficult but I try and vary my descriptions, while keeping them accurate. Experience shows that while they may look the same at first glance, with patience even similar looking galaxy after similar looking galaxy will eventually reveal its own little (faint) personality.
My sketches are the same. The early ones are atrocious but, the more I did, the better they got. It sounds like I am stating the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ but it is very true. I can at least look at my sketches from the past few years without cringing, something I can’t do with the very early ones! Sketching, like note taking, also helps you see more and the more you look, the more you see – making an accurate sketch, especially with a large and detailed DSO such as M31, means you have to do an awful lot of looking!
One of the best sources of information on note-taking is Luginbuhl and Skiff’s Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep Sky Objects and, for sketching, Roger N Clark’s Visual Astronomy of the Deep Sky (if you can get hold of a copy, because it’s out of print, rare and any available ones command ridiculous prices on Amazon).

I have used various methods for storing my notes over the years – in their ‘raw’ form, untouched in sketchbooks and notebooks; written up neatly into hard backed books with the sketches nicely redrawn (but still accurate) and typed up in Word, saved onto disk and printed off and kept in ring binders, arranged by year. The latter is my current preferred method of storing observations although I really ought to arrange them by constellation in a database. I can foresee a hell of a lot of copying and pasting, not to mention plain old typing, into MS Excel…now there’s a project for cloudy nights and Moon-infested evenings. My fingers won’t be happy.
Sketches are now redrawn onto loose A4 plain white thin card and arranged byconstellation in lever-arch files. Each lever-arch file is devoted to a class of object and I currently have three of these files, one for galaxies, one for star clusters (open and globular) and one for nebulae (bright, dark and planetary). Written observations are typed up and filed alongside the sketches. Each lever-arch file is capable of holding thousands of observations. I am currently in the process of typing up old observations for inclusion in the files.

As for the stuff that actually lets me get a good view of all those lovely deep sky goodies, the binoculars and telescopes, I have used quite a variety over the years. In 1992 I started off with a highly unsuitable birders’ spotting scope, an Opticron 60mm scope with a 20-40x zoom on it (which I still have) and with a pair of 10×50 Helios binoculars sellotaped, Heath-Robinson-style to a tripod (which I don’t. I still have the tripod but the bins came to a spectacularly violent end when they got dropped onto concrete and smashed). The little scope wasn’t much use for deep sky but worked a treat on the Moon, the planets and bright DSOs, while the binoculars provided good wide field views of the Milky Way, but I was itching to get a proper astronomical scope, of the sort I saw advertised in the magazines, and my first ‘real’ scope was a 6 inch Dobsonian made from plywood, a gas pipe and a mirror set I bought mail order from David Hinds Optical. Then I moved up to an 8.75 inch Newtonian on a Vixen Super Polaris mount and I used this for years, making many deep sky observations with it, before having to reluctantly part company with it because of ‘cash flow issues’, then having to borrow another from the local astronomy society.
From 2008 to 2011 I used a 12″ f/5 Dob. This was a very good deep sky scope, it is not huge but not too small either; it was large enough to do serious observing with. With it, I made hundreds of observations of NGCs and ICs as I slowly work my way through the Herschel 2500. I have also observed a few Hickson galaxy groups and Arp peculiar galaxies with it. I had a 9×50 finder on the 12″ as well as a Telrad…I couldn’t do without the Telrad. What a cunningly designed, yet simple, device. It’s so easy to use and makes getting into the area where your wanted object is located a doddle. It’s easier to use than a finder, although a finder is still useful for looking at star patterns and matching them to the field on the charts.

As much as I loved my 12″ Dob, I succumbed to aperture fever, like most amateurs do, not helped by visits to the Texas Star Party where scopes in excess of 18″ are the norm. I wasn’t going to give in to this insidious affliction but Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue were kind enough to give me a four-figure tax rebate in March 2011, so I decided to put that towards the cost of an 18″ f/4.3 Dobsonian from UK telescope maker David Lukehurst, with the mirrors from John Nichol Optical, one of the UK’s few premium mirror-makers.

I could have sent off for an Obsession, or one of the other premium Dobs from the States; I could have afforded the scope itself but the shipping costs and taxes are prohibitive and, for me, a deal-breaker because not only is there import tax to pay but 20% VAT as well. Luckily, here in the UK, we have a good telescope maker in the shape of David Lukehurst, so I decided to ‘buy British’ and go with one of those. Never say never, of course, but it is most likely to be my last big scope purchase, due to cost and size. The 18 inch is perfect for me to handle but anything larger would be too awkward to move and store, as well as being very expensive.  However, I still have a couple of old mirrors and flats knocking around, one of which happens to be a 12 inch and I may well approach David again in the future and get him to make another telescope for me, so I have the 18 inch for home and a smaller scope for UK star parties.
I transferred the Telrad over to the 18 inch and other ‘modifications’ include a dew heater for the Telrad and the secondary.

My Dob is not driven, nor does it have digital setting circles, but I don’t find that a handicap as I am well used to locating objects by star hopping, then nudging the scope while observing the object. I’ve been doing that for many years and, at the moment, it suits me, as 99 times out of 100 I get right to the object I want to observe on the first attempt, using just star charts and the Telrad, although I would like an equatorial platform when I have some spare cash. The 18 inch has a narrower field of view and higher magnifications than the 12 inch did, so things move out of the field of view very quickly.

I still use binoculars for observing, as well. I was scopeless for a while in the mid 2000s, so I resorted to doing the Messier List and the Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular List with my 8×42 binoculars. These were great little projects and excellent for filling in until I got a scope again. I still enjoy binocular observing, after all binoculars are the ultimate ‘grab and go’ telescope, and they show the context and surroundings of deep sky objects. I’d love to get a pair of ‘big binos’ for foreign trips and those nights where conditions – or idleness – preclude getting out the scope.

Apart from my own equipment, I have also had the great good fortune to use scopes belonging to other people, mostly at star parties and observing trips abroad. In Australia, I used scopes ranging from 8″ up to 20″ and, in the USA, at the Texas Star Party, I have used ones from 18″ up to a whopping 48″. I have to say a massive ‘thank you’ to all those who have been generous with their scopes and observing time during these events.

So…to date, on going back through the old notebooks and sketchbooks (unfortunately I have two or three missing) I find I have visually observed best part of a thousand NGC/IC objects and non-NGC/IC objects such as anonymous galaxies and galaxy clusters. On top of that, there’s all the planets (including ex-planet Pluto), double and multiple stars, the Moon(!), asteroids, a comet crashing into Jupiter, comets, lunar eclipses, partial solar eclipses with one cloud obstructed total in 1999, a transit of Venus, the Sun, occultations, meteor showers, noctilucent clouds, Mir, the ISS, the Space Shuttle and other satellites…but, sadly, no UFOs! All these with equipment ranging from my unaided eyes to a 48″ dobsonian.