Long time no speak. The last two-and-a-half years have been very bad for astronomy or, more specifically, my involvement with it. I have done next to no observing – apart from a trip to Australia to attend OzSky 2016 in April this year, of which more in due course – and this has been nothing to do with the weather.

Back in August 2013, I was sent by a local employment agency to work in a local factory making wood-burning stoves. I didn’t want the job because it was badly paid, in awful conditions and well below my skills, but I agreed to go because, quite frankly, the recession had put paid to the normal computing/admin work I do and I needed the money.

To cut a long story short, the work, while just 4 days a week, consisted of 0700 starts and 1730 finishes with a paltry 30 minutes for lunch. Added to which, it was physical work so that meant that any thoughts of astronomy, even at weekends, wasn’t appealing and, not only that, I developed a bad upper back problem and severe tennis elbow both of which were directly related to the factory work I was doing. I spent the entire 2.5 years looking for another job, without success but, by Christmas 2015, I finally had enough and I handed my notice in after the Christmas break on 4th January 2016. My mum had died on New Years Day after a series of illnesses related to COPD and I decided that life was too short to be stuck doing something you hate.
Luckily I had saved up enough money to pay for a trip to OzSky 2016, so I went to Australia for 2 weeks and spent one of those weeks doing the only observing I had done for a good couple of years!

Fortunately I now have a much better job, in IT admin for a large US-German company, although whether the UK EU Leave campaign winning the referendum (unfortunately) will have affected this, only time will tell…the political shit has already hit the fan, despite the referendum actually being non-binding, so it’s probably only a matter of time until the arse falls out of the economy (again). We’ll probably end up scrabbling around for a few quid while our political ‘masters’ continue to stab each other in the back in a never-ending quest for power and to line their own pockets, all against a backdrop of cries of ‘We’re free!’ (from what exactly? We are hardly oppressed by the EU) and ‘We have got our country back!” (again, how exactly?) from the leave camp.

Rants over, is this preamble actually leading up to anything you ask? Apart from attempting to explain to my one remaining reader why I had apparently vanished off the face of the planet this past couple of years. Well, yes. This – my back and arm problems mean I can’t easily use my 18″ so, while I’ll keep it for spring/autumn galaxy observing (I have no immediate need to sell it) I am now planning on going back to a 12″ scope and I have my eye on an Explore Scientific Ultra Light 12″. I wanted to get a dob with some form of locating system but these were too expensive, so if I get one without, I should be able to fit my Argo Navis DSCs to it.

Visit to Siding Spring Observatory

One of the highlights of OzSky was a visit to Siding Spring Observatory, the home of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the UK Schmidt Telescope and the Uppsala Telescope, among others. As an amateur, it’s always interesting to visit these big professional observatories, see the big telescopes and something of the work that goes on there.


Siding Spring Observatory, located on the peak of Siding Spring Mountain – Mt. Woorut in the local Aboriginal language – is run by the Australian National University and was opened in 1964. There are a number of telescopes on the site, including the 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope, the 1.2 metre UK Schmidt Telescope, the ANU 2.3m Telescope, the ANU SkyMapper, the 0.5m Uppsala Telescope, and Faulkes South among others.

As a group, we were getting a behind-the-scenes visit to the AAT and, because of the large group, we were divided into two smaller groups. One group went to the AAT first, while the second group (the one I was in) went up the mountain to look at the other domes.

I took as many photos of the observatory telescope buildings as I could; the information I’ve added with each one is largely taken from the Australian National Observatory’s visitor information leaflet ‘The Telescopes of Siding Spring Observatory’, which is available in the visitor centre.

The Anglo-Australian Telescope dome. The AAT was opened by Prince Charles in 1974 and is a joint operation between the UK and Australia and run by the Australian National Observatory (AAO). One if its roles is to hunt for planets around other stars. It also did the Galaxy Red Shift Survey.



The ANU 2.3 metre is in the box-like building – the story is that the ANU wanted a new observatory building and were told they couldn’t have one but they could have a new office building instead. They built this ‘office block’ which houses the 2.3 metre telescope!

ANU 2.3

Faulkes South was designed and built in the UK. Run by the Los Cumbres Observatory Global Network, it’s a 2 metre Ritchey-Chrétien telescope which is used for research and education.

Faulkes South

ANU SkyMapper. This is an automated telescope which is used for southern sky surveys, looking for trans Neptunian objects, supernovae, comets, NEOs and planets around other stars.


Solaris – built by the Polish Academy of Sciences, this 20″ Ritchey-Chrétien telescope uses photometry to look for planets around eclipsing binary stars.


UK Schmidt – operated by the AAO, this is a 1.2 metre survey telescope which has a wide field of view and is currently used to measure radial velocities of stars in our galaxy. Well known professional astronomer David Malin also used it to take detailed photos of southern sky objects.

UK Schmidt

Uppsala Telescope

Uppsala Telescope

One we’d walked back down to the visitors’ centre, it was time to go to the AAT dome. We were met by one of the staff, Chris, who gave us a guided tour. As with the ATCA visit, hard hats had to be worn (I did manage to avoid hitting my head this time!) inside the dome itself.
First, we saw the huge shipping crate the AAT’s mirror had been sent to Australia in. The 154″ mirror had been made by Grubb Parsons of Newcastle, England and shipped to Australia. Incidentally, the ‘Parsons’ of Grubb Parsons was Sir Charles Parsons, the inventor of the steam turbine engine which was used in many famous ships such as HMS Dreadnaught, Mauretania, Lusitania, Queen Mary, United States, etc. Turbines are still used today, although generally these are gas turbines used in some passenger ships and warships.

AAT Mirror crate

Inside the building we took the lifts up to the dome level and donned hard hats. First up was the control room; we didn’t know if we could get in there but the duty astronomer was happy for us to take a look.

AAT Control Room

From there, we went into the dome itself to look at the AAT.

The photo below shows a model of the AAT with the real thing behind it.


The back of the telescope and the horseshoe mount. The AAT had been lowered because it was in maintenance mode and the needed to do some work on the top end; luckily for us it meant they needed to move it while we were there.

The video shows the telescope and dome being moved, it starts off slightly out of focus but does sharpen up. As with the still photos I used my Canon 6D and 24-105mm lens but even with a full-frame camera I couldn’t fit it all in, even at the 24mm end.


The top end and upper cage.


Looking down the business end into the primary mirror. Attempts at selfies – which we all tried – weren’t that successful as it’s actually quite hard to get yourself in the mirror and take a photo!AAT

We went outside on to the dome catwalk. The view from there was fabulous, very scenic. It is, however, not for those with a fear of heights – you are, of course, perfectly safe but it is a long way down.

It's a long way down

The view from the top is fabulous with vistas across the Warrumbungles and beyond, as far as the eye could see. The evidence of the fires in January 2013 was plain to see, with blackened trees everywhere. The fire had come very close to destroying the observatory – it came right up to the AAT’s dome at one point – and they were very fortunate that there was little damage to the observatory itself, although the astronomers’ lodge was burned down and one astronomer, Rob McNaught, lost his house. One of the support staff at the AAT told us of how he escaped the fire; he had a very narrow escape because he took his motorbike, leaving his car on the mountain (his car survived), but by the time he realised he should have taken the car it was too late to turn back. As he said, he was very lucky.

The area is beginning to regenerate but there are some trees which won’t recover, simply because they are either too young and small or because they are on the upper slopes where the heat was more intense. Wildlife died, with the local koala population all but wiped out and kangaroos and emus decimated; domestic animals died and people lost homes. All this because of a couple of moron campers in the nearby Wambelong area who started a camp fire despite all the warning signs and being told not to.
In the first photo below, I think the green bit at centre is the Wambelong camping area where the disaster began.

View from the AAT dome View from AAT domeWe walked right round the outside of the dome before returning inside. From there we went down to the aluminising room where, once a year, the AAT primary mirror is recoated with a fresh layer of aluminium. As our guide said, if the mirror had to be removed for cleaning once a year, it may as well be recoated instead.
The 16 tonne mirror is removed from the telescope and lowered through a trap door down into the vacuum chamber, which is a task that has to be done with great care; if the mirror was damaged in any way, that would mean the end of the AAT’s life which would be tragic indeed.

Door through which mirror is lowered

Vacuum chamber  Notice on side of vacuum chamber

That was the end of the visit, which was very interesting. I’d always wanted to visit Siding Spring, which I didn’t do last time I was in the area, but the OzSky group got a great behind the scenes look at how one of the world’s biggest observatories operates. For me the highlight was watching the dome and the AAT moving, which wasn’t done to show off to visitors but just great timing on our part, showing up when they were moving the equipment to work on it.

Thanks to Donna Burton and her husband Chris (our guide) and the OzSky organisers as well as the staff at the AAT.

The Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri


While at OzSky most of us made the 90 minute drive to the town of Narrabri and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), located outside the town at the Paul Wild Observatory. This is run by CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), along with facilities at Parkes (this was featured in the film ‘The Dish’), Coonabarabran (the Mopra Radio Telescope, just down the road from Siding Spring) and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, another radio telescope, out in Western Australia.
ATCA operates all year round, 24 hours a day, no matter what the weather is doing, as radio signals can be gathered all day – unlike optical telescopes which need a clear dark sky in order to gather data. The dishes use interferometry, which allows smaller telescopes to work together and act as a much larger instrument, meaning the telescope can see very fine detail. Several times a year, the Array will be used with other radio telescopes across Australia to observe very, very fine detail.
For larger, ‘fluffy’, objects the telescopes are moved closer together, for smaller ones they are moved further apart.

As you approach the observatory, signs ask you to turn off electronic devices such as cellphones and radio transmitters, because these will interfere with the observations being made; unlike optical telescopes, radio telescopes are making observations day and night and are vulnerable to radio and electrical interference, in the same way that optical telescopes are compromised by light pollution. WIFI will also interfere with the telescopes’ operation, so all iPads, iPods and similar devices were also turned off.


The group was split into two, because there is not much room in the dishes to accommodate large groups, so those of us in group two looked round the exhibition, which explained radio astronomy, before our turn to go up into one of the dishes.

Outside the exhibition was a small radio telescope which visitors could aim at the Sun; doing this produced a crackling noise which was solar activity translated into sound; the stronger the activity, the louder the hiss.narrabri8 narrabri9

Another solar radio telescope was nearby, this was used to study the Sun between 1966 and 1984.




There was a lot of information explaining how radio astronomy works which, to someone like me, who has never really got into the subject, was interesting and informative.

narrabri6 narrabri7

narrabri20 narrabri21 narrabri22

Australia has some of the most venomous species on the planet, so there was a warning sign up on the door of the visitor centre telling the unwary to watch out for snakes and what to do in the event of getting bitten. I was rather disappointed because, of three visits to Australia over the years, I have not seen one snake (I did see a large huntsman spider and an even larger Golden Orb spider though, which I could have done without; I hate spiders); I don’t want too close a view but I’d like to see at least one! I did see snake tracks at the Sandstone Caves near Coonabarabran, though. Next time…

The array consists of six telescopes, five of which can be moved along a 3 kilometre railway-style track. The sixth dish is located 3 km west of the end of the main track. Each dish weighs 270 tonnes, about the same as a fully-loaded Boeing 747, and each is 22 metres wide.


On this day, telescope 4 was the nearest, so this was the one we visited. We had to don hard hats (just as well because – entirely typically – I hit my head!) and wear closed-toe footwear to go up onto the dish. We climbed several sets of stairs to the top and into a tiny room just under the dish itself where we could see the feedhorns and the receiver.

Antenna 4


From there we climbed out onto the dish itself; the photo below shows the subreflector at the very top, while the next three photos show the feedhorns and the receiver. The subreflector picks up the radio waves reflected from the dish surface and focuses them into the feedhorn which, in turn, converts them into electrical signals.
Each telescope has a set of different feedhorns, only one of which is used at a time, and each feedhorn is designed to pick up radio waves of certain lengths. The largest feedhorn collects 20cm waves while the smallest collects 3mm waves.
From the feedhorn, the receivers collect the signals and amplify them millions of times.



narrabri19 narrabri23

The view from Antenna 4. Note the huge puddles, the area had a lot of rain prior to our visit. NB, this doesn’t affect observations because a radio telescope can operate in all weathers.

narrabri12 narrabri14 narrabri15

After we left the antenna we had a look at the control room, located in a building across a paddock from the visitor centre before heading back to the motel, via Narrabri for something to eat, arriving back in the early evening just in time to get ready for the night’s observing.

I can’t claim to have remembered some of the more technical information we were given during our visit, so I raided ATCA’s web page for information about how the system actually works. For more, see their site here and, also, go to their live page to see what the antennas are up to right now.


Sydney Observatory

While in Sydney, prior to OzSky, I visited Sydney Observatory, a small observatory built in 1858 and Australia’s oldest observatory. Located just up a hill from The Rocks (a bit of a chore to walk up it in 30° C heat!), during the 19th and early 20th centuries it was important to astronomy, shipping, meteorology and time-keeping but these days it is a museum. It’s also used for public outreach and public stargazing (although how much they can see through Sydney’s light-pollution is anyone’s guess).

Here are a few photos from the visit. I did mean to go back and join a guided tour but never got round to it so that’s something for next time. Some of the photos are noisy because my 6D doesn’t have a flash and I had to use ISO 10,000 for a few of them.

Sydney Observatory sydney2 sydney15

The Transit Circle telescope


sydney3 Transit Circle Telescope sydney5

The 29-cm Lens Telescope

sydney16 29-cm Lens Telescope

Matthew Flinders’ bearing book and a sextant similar to the one he would have used. Flinders charted the coastline of Australia and is also, at least partly, responsible for the name ‘Australia’.

sydney12 sydney13

The observatory also has a display about transits of Venus, to coincide with the 2012 Transit. Unfortunately for us in the UK, the 2012 Transit was only visible at sunrise here, as the Transit ended, and we were clouded out anyway (the weather in summer 2012 was vile) although I had seen the 2004 Transit which was well-placed for us and, then, the weather co-operated.

sydney6 sydney7 sydney8 sydney10

The object on display below is the Apollo feedhorn from the Parkes radio telescope. I didn’t get to visit Parkes on this trip, as it is a 6-hour round trip from Coonabarabran, which is a bit of a tall order to do in a day, but did go to the radio telescope facility at Narrabri, which will be in the next post.

Parkes Telescope Apollo Feedhorn

Sydney Observatory is a pleasant and interesting place to spend an hour or two, as is the allied Powerhouse Museum (near Darling Harbour) which also has some space-related stuff. If you’re in the area, go and take a look, it’s open from 1000 to 1700 every day, except Good Friday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

OzSky 2014

From 29th March to 5th April I was at OzSky 2014, a star party aimed at amateur astronomers from the northern hemisphere who normally do not get to see the full splendours of the southern sky. For those of us at (the obnoxious, astronomically-speaking, latitude of) 50° North, this is 50° of the sky denied to us – and the most spectacular 50° at that – unless we get on an airliner and head south.

I arrived in Sydney on 20th March, nine days ahead of the event, and spent the time doing non-astronomy things although I did visit the old Sydney Observatory, located on a low hill above The Rocks. I’ll put this in a separate post sometime this week as I will also put the visits to Siding Spring and the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri in separate posts. On 29th March, I met some of the other participants at Sydney Central Station where we boarded the train to Dubbo. At Dubbo we collected our rental cars and drove to Coonabarabran, where the star party is held at a motel, the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, in the beautiful Warrumbungles a few miles outside the town.

There was some consternation among the other members of the OzSky email list about potential bad forecasts for the week but, in the end, we had mostly clear skies, only totally losing one night to cloud and fog, a couple of other nights were half clear while the rest were completely clear. This enabled everyone to get their fill of observing in the fabulous southern skies.

I made it a personal rule to observe only those objects with a negative declination and to observe nothing north of -30° as it seemed to me, with only a week, a waste of observing time to look at objects which I can see from home. I have my observations already typed up, as I transcribed these from my notebook to my iPad, then emailed them to myself as I went, and will post these at some point although some need verification with The Night Sky Observers Guide Volume 3: The Southern Skies, particularly the stuff I looked at in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is a rich area with a lot of small objects close together. I didn’t take the book with me, because of airline weight restrictions and I also didn’t want to lug it about during the nine days prior to travelling to Coonabarabran.
I spent a lot of time in the LMC on the first night. Apart from the LMC and SMC, I observed mostly far-southern globular clusters and galaxies – both very far south and those in Fornax and Eridanus which, while theoretically visible from here (thus breaking my self-imposed rule!), don’t rise high enough to see properly – with a few open clusters.

I also had a go at some wide-field astrophotography, using my Canon 6D and 24-105mm lens mounted on an iOptron sky tracking mount I borrowed from Andrew Murrell. The camera was set to ISO 1000 and f/4 with exposure times of 3 minutes each. I am really pleased with these and they’re a lot better than my woeful attempts at photographing the Australian night sky in 1997!

Milky Way rising over OzSky The Emu rises over OzSky The Southern Milky way and the Large Magellanic Cloud

Below are some of the telescopes we used during the week, ranging from 14″ to 30″ Dobsonians (plus 16″, two 18″ and two 25″ ones) and a pair of giant binoculars mounted on a motorised chair. There was also a 12″ binocular Dobsonian, which was interesting and not quite the sod to collimate as I imagined it might be. I used an 18″ Obsession for a couple of nights but then found myself in sole charge of an SDM 30″ for long periods of time during the rest of the week! I also got to use a binocular chair (below) with a pair of 25×150 Fujinon binoculars attached. The chair is fully motorised, powered by a marine or car battery, and can be moved using a joystick. This was great for cruising through the Milky Way, looking at things like the Coalsack and the Eta Carina Nebula but, unfortunately, the objectives dewed up pretty quickly.

Binocular chair 14" and 18" dobsonians The observing field 14" and 18" dobsonians 14" dob 14" dob ozsky2014_8 30" dob Observing field 25" 18" 18" Observing field Observing field

If anyone reading this has never gone south of the equator, do it. It’s well worth it if you can swing the costs (and even if you can’t! I could only do this trip thanks to a bit of a windfall last summer) and are happy to spend 20+ hours on an A380 or Boeing 747. Visually, the southern Milky Way completely blows ours out of the water. There’s no comparison. OzSky 2015 is open for registration…
Thanks go to the Three Rivers Foundation of Australia whose volunteers – Lachlan, Tony, Andrew, John, Petra, et al – make it all possible.

Visits to observatories – Sydney Observatory, the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri and Siding Spring Observatory – and the observations, will follow in later posts.

Long time…

I haven’t posted in a long time, simply because I have had nothing to talk about! I’ve done no observing since August, due to a new (temporary) factory job which meant I had to get up at 0520 each weekday morning and not getting home until 6 PM, leaving me disinclined to do any observing, even at weekends! All I wanted to do was sleep when I was at home. The unbelievably wet and stormy winter, which lead to floods, damage and chaos, made astronomy next to impossible.

The job has now ended and the weather has improved so I am hoping to get out again.

On Tuesday, all being well, I am heading off to Australia for OzSky 2014 and I’ll post about that when I get home in the second week of April. One good thing about the work I was doing is that it has made the difference between staying in hostels in Sydney or decent hotels.

Getting ready for this trip Down Under and I am wondering ‘where has the magic gone?’. There was a vibe, so strong not that long ago, but which I can still now only slightly feel when opening old copies of Webb Society publications or planning this trip. It would be nice to recapture that magic feel, the sense of wonder and excitement, which feels very diluted these days. Hopefully heading back to the Southern Hemisphere, even for only a short visit, will do just that.

Sunset shots

There was a lovely sunset yesterday. We were out and about in the west of the island and returned home quite late. It was clear in the early part of the night, but I didn’t do any observing because it was a little murky and predicted to cloud over by 1 AM.

The top three photos were taken with a Canon 600D and a 24-105mm lens at 24mm or 32mm, the bottom photo was with a 6D and 100-400mm lens at 100mm. The photos were taken at Brook beach, Isle of Wight, and from the viewpoint above Blackgang Chine (lower two).

sunset6august13a sunset6august13c sunset6august13b sunset6august13

One of those sessions…

Last night was One of Those Sessions where I actually began to regret setting up…I dropped my Telrad (fortunately it didn’t break), stepped in some dog crap that got overlooked earlier (why do they need to go on the path?!) and, when I was wheeling my scope back down the garden later, a large globe thistle caught up in it, then broke free and smacked me in the mouth, which hurt but, although the plant is prickly, at least it didn’t draw blood.
It was also one of those sessions when I couldn’t find half of what I went after but, although I have decent dark skies here, last night’s transparency wasn’t as good as I’d hoped and as I was looking for faint objects that wasn’t really surprising, so I went back to the brighter stuff. Oh and my sister, and her kids plus their hyperactive spaniel, are visiting for a week so the house lights kept going on, as well as the upstairs bedroom and landing lights which she keeps on for her kids who, at ten and twelve years old, surely no longer need lights on at night. She let her boisterous spaniel out at one point, so not only did the garden get blitzed when she put the light on, I also had a suddenly-aggressive/nervous dog, who is in an unfamiliar place, barking his head off at me.

The dew was appalling. Everything was wet and it was like observing in a swimming pool. I persevered but packed in just before 3 am when clouds began to roll in; I dismantled my 18 inch Dob and just shoved it into the shed, uncovered, to give it a chance to dry out, gathered up my by now sodden charts and notebook, which were rapidly turning into paper mache, and went to bed not in the best of moods and regretting the three cups of very strong filter coffee I’d drunk!

Anyway, here’s what I actually DID manage to see:
NGC 6440, 6445, M51 (just for something really nice and bright to look at), Abell 2, NGC 7013, NGC 5832 and NGC 6011. Seven objects in a four-hour period is a pretty poor return but I spent (wasted) a lot of time looking for stuff that was a bit too faint for the conditions.

I am looking into getting some digital setting circles for the 18 inch, which will make finding stuff a lot easier. I’ve been talking to Gary at Wildcard Innovations of Australia who makes the Argo Navis DSCs and, although I can make some modifications to my scope’s mirror and/or rocker boxes to accommodate the encoders, it will be a tight fit. The only problem right now is money, with no job (and, looking like no prospect of actually getting one) I can’t justify spending over £600 – which it will be once I have paid import taxes and VAT – on something like this, especially with my car’s annual inspection due on 20th August. I may have to look for alternatives.


Observing 1st August: 8 inch Dob

The 8 inch got its first outing on 1st August, as it was clearer than forecast and I couldn’t be bothered to get the 18 inch out and assembled.

Apart from the substandard 1.25 inch focuser it’s a pretty good little scope. I used my 25mm and 15mm Plossls and my 9mm Nagler with it; I also tried the 22mm Panoptic, which wouldn’t quite come to focus because the travel of the draw tube isn’t enough, and the 12mm Nagler which seriously unbalanced the scope below a 45° angle. A friend of mine from VAS, Richard, has got a Crayford focuser which he will fit to the tube. The Crayford is a lot heavier than the 1.25 inch rack and pinion but we will do something about the balance, whether it’s moving the tube back on the rocker box or using counter weights.
I have already removed the finder, which was located in an awkward place below the focuser and added a Telrad base. The photo shows the base in position and tape put over the holes where I had taken off the finder bracket (to the lower right hand side of the focuser); as you can see, it was in a stupid and awkward place.

The stars are nice pin points, once the mirror has cooled, and there is no coma, as you’d expect in an f/6 mirror, totally unlike my 8 inch f/4.

I looked at NGC 6401, M107, NGC 6568, the Veil Nebula, N27 and M57 before it clouded over and thunderstorms moved in.


There was a nice little storm late this evening. The thunder was nice and loud – which didn’t go down well with the dogs and the puppy hid under a bed – although we were a bit short changed in the lightning department, with plenty of (boring) sheet lightning and hardly any forked lightning, but I was able to catch a cloud-to-cloud lightning bolt.
I was out in the garden watching and photographing the lightning and there was a very eerie rushing noise which sounded like the wind but wasn’t. I couldn’t make it out what it was as it got louder and louder…then the hail started – that’s what the rushing noise had been, the approaching hail.