Australia, here I come

I came into a little money (legally!) recently and it’s enough for a trip to Texas next year and a trip to Australia just before that, so I decided that, as I have Unfinished Business from last time, I am making a return trip to the Big Island Down Under and going to OzSky 2014.
Last time I was there I ran into some people I know from Texas – well I logged onto the net and found a message along the lines of ‘We know you’re here, come and join us for a meal’, so I did and I then got invited along to what was then called the ‘Deepest South Texas Star Safari’, so named because it began as an offshoot of the Texas Star Party.

Unfortunately I had a prior engagement in the coastal town of Wollongong a few days later, which was already booked, so I could only stay one night – and it was raining and rained all that night! – before having to return to Sydney and then on to Wollongong. Even more unfortunately the event I was supposed to go to at Wollongong was cancelled due to high winds and rain and I regretted not staying in Coonabarabran instead, as the weather there cleared for the rest of the week. Anyway, conditions permitting, I have now got a chance to rectify that.

I’ve booked my flights, got my visa for next year and have sent off my deposit and registration form for the star party. I am going to Australia for three weeks, setting out from Heathrow on March 18th and returning on April 9th, so hopefully I can meet up with other observers and get some observing in even before I get to Coonabarabran.

Kangaroos, from my last trip to the Warrumbungles:


And the mountains in the grey weather 🙁


And one of the domes of Siding Spring from Timor Road:

Siding Spring

SSO sign

Despite all the rain, the danger of fire was very high. In January 2013 the area around Coonabarabran was extensively damaged by bush fires which also came close to burning down Siding Spring Observatory itself – the observatory was damaged but fortunately survived, thanks mostly to precautions put into place in case of such an event after the disastrous bush fires which destroyed Mt. Stromlo Observatory near Canberra in 2003. The fires destroyed 80% of the Warrumbungles National Park, burning down dozens of homes.

Fire danger notice

This will be a much better visit than last time and, unlike the 2009 trip, it will be mostly for observing but with a bit of birding thrown in. I just hope the weather is a lot better! It should be, it’s nearly two months earlier, at the tail end of summer and into early autumn.

Dark skies and ignorance

The local paper, the Isle of Wight County Press, has finally caught up with the Isle of Wight Dark Skies story and published a piece about it today (better late than never!). However, if one of the comments, by regular commenter ‘Lee Majors’, is anything to go by, it shows what VAS, DfDS, the IDA and amateur astronomers are up against because I have heard and read this type of ill-informed comment before in the media. I’ll address each point (the original comments are in italics).

Liam, it sounds nice having all the street lights turned out, but let us for one moment imagine it shall we?
Old people walking back from bingo, mugged in the darkness or falling over ill and not seen.

Get a torch and take care. But we are NOT saying turn all the lights off! Besides, highly unlikely that someone will be mugged in the pitch dark. They’ll probably get mugged in the full glare of a badly-directed light, though, when the would-be mugger lurking in deep shadows caused by badly-directed and over-bright lighting gets an opportunity to size up his or her victim yet the victim can’t see the potential assailant.
I can speak from personal experience here, I was assaulted (not mugged) in Southampton in early 2004, in the full glare of the city’s street lights, which has made me wary of brightly-lit places.

Old people tripping over potholes and loose kerbstones.

Again – Get a torch and take care. But we are NOT saying turn all the lights off!

People tripping over outside of shops and suing the shop owner for compensation.

Get a torch and take care. But we are NOT saying turn all the lights off! Can you see a pattern emerging?
 I’m getting deja vu, here. :/ 

Pitch black streets, ideal for breaking in to cars, nobody to see you.Pitch black front and rear gardens, ideal for breaking in to houses.

Rubbish. Funny as it may seem, criminals are human like the rest of us. They also need lights to see by and don’t have superior night vision to the rest of us. According to the CfDS, there is no evidence that lights lead to any change in crime levels and could, in fact, actually increase crime.  CfDS: Lighting and Crime.

You mention accidents, ok, yes drive slower, but how are you meant to see that small guy dressed in black around a dark blind bend when once there was light?

Errr….headlights on cars? Yep. And the pedestrian needs a high vis vest (dead cheap at your local builders’ merchant or DIY store) plus the aforementioned torch. And drivers taking care is a pretty radical thought, too.

If the island stopped building new estates in fields and the countryside then, we would have less light pollution!

True!! Very true, in fact. I 100% agree with him! But we still need existing lights to be replaced by full cut-off fixtures and the light to only go where it is needed.

Try turning every other street light off at night. or have only two in a road on.

I don’t think it is possible to turn every other light off. Or, a far better idea, have lovely new LED road lighting, and that is exactly what we’re getting, which is full-cut off and shines only where it is needed. Therefore, the general public still get their lighting and we astronomers still get dark skies.
That said, NO ONE is saying turn all the lights off. We don’t want to alienate people. All that is being said, is shine the light where it is needed, i.e. downwards and not up into the sky or onto other people’s property.


Just a quick post to say a few short things, simply because they’re really too small to warrant a post to themselves.

1. Solar observing…I have decided to have a go at solar observing. You can see The Sun Spot (witty title!) page by going to the link above.  At the moment, I am using my old 90mm refractor and projecting the Sun onto paper until I can get a proper Ha telescope.

2. Had a small observing session last Sunday but because the Moon was a waning gibbous, a day after full, I just took the 8″ Celeston Newtonian out to look at bright objects. I managed to look at a few bright galaxies and globulars before I got a bad attack of vertigo and had to pack up (our family have fallen victim to a particularly nasty cold virus that’s doing the rounds – mine gave me a sore throat and attacked my inner ear).

3. Australia! I am planning to go to OzSky 2014. I just hope it’s clear and starry during the first week of next April. It’s not booked yet, but watch this space.

Isle of Wight Dark Sky Initiative

Vectis Astronomical Society is launching the Wight Dark Skies Initiative next Friday, May 24th, where it is trying to get International Dark Sky Status for the western part of the island, which is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The VAS website explains it, so to save me attempting to do so, here are the details in full from the VAS website:


Vectis Astronomical Society (VAS) is pleased to invite you to:
The Public Launch of
The Isle of Wight Dark Sky Initiative
Newport Parish Church Centre, Town Lane, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 1JU
7.15 pm on Friday 24th May 2013
Bob Mizon – a senior member of the British Astronomical Association and Campaign for Dark Skies, and Martin Morgan-Taylor – board member of the International Dark Skies Association will give a presentation entitled
Dark Skies – Dark Future?

This will be followed by a short presentation outlining details of the VAS application for International Dark Sky Status for the Isle of Wight

Our Island is already well known for its dark skies, as celebrated each March by the “Isle of Wight Star Party” attended by around 100 observational astronomy enthusiasts and professionals. This event has featured in recent editions of Sky at Night and Astronomy Now magazines.
Professor Bill Martin of the University of Hertfordshire Centre for Astrophysics and Atmospheric Instrumentation Research has operated a dark sky monitoring station on the Island for several years, and has stated:
“with the data we have from the Isle of Wight you potentially have the best combination of dark skies and clear weather in the UK.”
Most types of pollution are being tackled but, so far, light pollution seems to have had little attention even though it can affect all our health and well-being.
VAS is committed to reduce light pollution on the Isle of Wight and believes that achieving International Dark Sky status for the island through the International Dark Sky Association will:
Strengthen the island’s tourism industry Improve the well-being of the population Reduce environmental impact Enable further education and scientific research projects Recognize our Island as one of the most environmentally friendly and enjoyable places to be on earth.

Please send letters of support to:
Isle of Wight Dark Skies Initiative, 35 Forest Road, Winford, Isle of Wight, PO36 0JY

Please support VAS’ initiative and go along, if you’re on the island that evening or, if not, please send a letter of support to the above address, thank you.

On the Wight have also got an article (much the same wording).

Now, for the clouds to sod off, so we can actually see something…


If you look at the foot of the page you’ll see a drop down menu, titled ‘Blog post archives’, this will make it easier to find posts from previous months and years.


Since 2009 I have tried to keep a record of clear nights and cloudy ones, and I’ve tried to be as accurate and as consistent as possible, with other people keeping a note of the conditions for me when I am away. Obviously it’s far from scientific, especially as I only started this in July 2009 and it’s a case of me keeping an eye on the sky and writing down what I see, but it gives some overview of the amounts of clear nights v cloudy ones.

2012 seemed to be a diabolical year for astronomy, the weather was useless, particularly through the summer months, with August in particular being very cool and wet, and I did very little from May onwards. However, looking at my clear sky spreadsheet, which I’ve kept going through all that time, paints a somewhat different and not quite so bleak picture which is somewhat surprising. I guess another factor in putting astronomy aside for a while has been burnout; simply put I’d been thinking of and doing nothing but astronomy for the previous few years so, combined with the cold, miserable summer we had, a fairly cloudy autumn season and a very cold and snowy winter, it’s not surprising that I put it aside in favour of my other interests for a while.

Anyway, this is what I have so far (ignoring the latter half of 2009, as I only started doing this in July of that year). For the purposes of this, I consider ‘partly clear’ to mean 50% or more of the sky to be clear; these are ‘observationally usable’ nights, in that I can at least do something.

2010 – 116 totally clear nights (32%); 54 partly clear nights (15%); Total = 170 (47%)

2011 – 104 totally clear nights (28%); 52 partly clear nights (14%); Total = 156 (43%)

2012 – 101 totally clear nights (27%); 48 partly clear nights (13%); Total = 149 (41%)

2012 was a leap year and 29 February was partly clear and not cloudy.

It looks like a downward trend, we’ve gone from 116 clear nights in 2010 to 104 in 2011 and 101 last year, but as this is so far only representative of three complete years, it’s too early to say whether this will continue. Obviously I hope it won’t but a decade or, preferably, two of this unscientific method of mine may reveal more.

As I type, the weather is quite chilly, windy and showery, not unusual for early May but I sincerely hope we get a reasonable summer this year. Even an okayish summer will be better than last year.

Observing, 6th May 2013

Finally managed a decent observing session for the first time since May last year. After a warm spring day the temps had dropped considerably, so it was wrapping up time with several layers.
I’d got the scope out of the shed earlier in the day so all I needed to do was assemble it and check all was OK. It was and the mirrors looked none the worse for not being used in nearly a year, albeit they were a bit grubby, which was good. I’d been concerned about condensation although dust wasn’t a factor because the scope was well covered and the main mirror has a dust cover on it in any case.

Because it was well-placed, I decided to observe galaxies in Leo Minor. The conditions were chilly, 4°C, with humidity of 77%, no clouds and no wind and I used my 18″ f/4.3 Dobsonian reflector with TeleVue 22mm Panoptic (90x) and 9mm Nagler (219x).
Over the course of three hours I observed NGC 3611 (in Leo and I’ve seen it before but it was easy to find and a quick way to get back into finding stuff again!), NGCs 3381, 3395 and 3396 (very nice pair), 3430, 3424, 3413, 3158, 3160, 3163, 3161, 3159, 3150 and 3152, all in Leo Minor. The last four were faint little buggers, especially 3152 which was the faintest of the lot.
Finally I took a look at Saturn, which looked nice with its rings wide open, Cassini’s Division easily visible and at least 5 moons on display. There was also a bit of detail on the disk, including the shadow of the rings before moving on to NGC 4565, one of my all-time favourite DSOs and then finishing with a look round that busy area of Virgo with Markarian’s Chain before the fog came up and I packed up.

Nice to be observing again!

Back in business…

…I hope!

After 11 months of crap and cold weather plus a bit of de-motivation on my part, my observing stuff has been found and gathered together and the 18″ scope is out awaiting assembly later. I am hoping to knock off a few galaxies in the usual constellations this evening but I am also hoping it doesn’t cloud over. It shouldn’t do, according to the forecasts, but BBC/Met Office forecasts should be taken lightly. Anyway, the weather is predicted to go downhill after tomorrow.

It’s TSP week this week, I wish I was there but, from what I’ve heard the forecast isn’t looking promising for them either. Hopefully they’ll have a good week but they’ll have their work cut out to beat last year, which was epic.

Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS

I managed to photograph PANSTARRS this evening. This comet is not a naked eye object but is easily seen with 8×42 binoculars low down in the western sky about an hour after sunset.

I was quite pleased with these shots – especially as they were the only two in focus!

Comet Panstarrs

Comet PANSTARRS, 14th March 2013. Canon EOS 6D w/100-400mm lens at 285mm, 8000 ISO, f/6.3, 0.3 sec

Comet PANSTARRS, 14th March 2013. Canon EOS 6D w/100-400mm lens, at 130mm 8000 ISO, f/6.3, 0.4 sec

Isle of Wight Star Party 2013

The 2013 Isle of Wight SP, which finishes tomorrow, was held between 7th and 11th March. I had planned to stay at Brighstone again but things didn’t work out and, as it happened, it’s probably just as well as, for the first time the weather has not been kind to the star party-goers. I had to work Thursday, Friday and Monday at my temporary job, so it wasn’t worth staying there, but I did pop over on Saturday afternoon to visit and see my friends.

I took a few photos of the site, with my small Pentax bridge camera (I am currently DSLR-less because I’ve part-exchanged my 7D for a 6D, which is full frame, simply because I want to get into taking more wide angle astrophotos, landscapes and maritime shots and the 6D’s high ISO performance is supposed to be nothing short of superb. I am hoping it arrives on Tuesday).


Isle of Wight Star Party 2013

Isle of Wight Star Party 2013

Isle of Wight Star Party 2013

Isle of Wight Star Party 2013


Despite the grotty weather, people had a good time and even managed to do some limited observing through sucker holes, plus some solar observing when the sun put in the occasional appearance. I was sorry I couldn’t stay longer than the couple of hours on Saturday but there’s always next year.

Hopefully the weather will clear this week because we have a bright comet to look forward to, Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) will be visible in the west after sunset. Wednesday is looking good and I hope the new camera has arrived by then.

Winter lasts as long as winter lasts, but this winter seems to have been interminable, probably because 2012’s summer was so poor, and there have been no real opportunities to observe. I hope 2013 will be much better. We can hope, anyway.

2012 – The Year That Was(n’t much)

2012 was a very poor year for me personally, from an astronomy point of view.

Highlights were the IoW Star Party in late March. As usual this was a superb event and we were rewarded with quite a bit of observing time. Also the Texas Star Party, my fourth, in late April. Every single night was clear right through, if cold, and I did more observing that week than I did all year. I managed to do most of the Astronomical League’s Globular Cluster program during TSP, using a 10″ Orion dob I borrowed from San Antonio Astronomy Association. More importantly, though, I caught up with my friends, which is more of a reason to go to TSP than just the observing.

Lowlights – well, 2012 was completely rotten as the weather took a turn for the worse in April and stayed that way. Next time a water company official or a government minister states we need rain and asks for water measures to be put in place, will someone please gag the twat?

The deaths of Sir Bernard Lovell and Neil Armstrong, in August, and Sir Patrick Moore, in December, meant it was a particularly bad year in that respect, too. On a more personal note, I was sad to hear of the passing of John W. Smith, one of the founding and most long-standing members of Vectis Astronomical Society. Although he was more into astrophotography, John was an influence on me in my first years in astronomy and he will be sadly missed by everyone at VAS.

I also got made redundant, with no sign of anything new on the horizon as yet, so I am hoping 2013 will be a better year!