Category Archives: General


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.

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.


I don’t want to jinx it but we’re having a superb run of good weather at the moment, with temperatures in the high 20s°C/low 80s°F. In fact it’s not been too bad for the past month. Now that the worst of the familial problems seem to be over (my Mum, against the odds and predictions of the doctors, is looking as if she’ll make a good recovery although she’s still in the ICU) I can get out more with the scopes, both night time and day time.

I had a quick session with the 8″ Newtonian reflector last night, but the equatorial mount is a git to use – to be honest, I don’t really get on with equatorial mounts and am thinking of getting an 8″ Dob for those quick sessions – so I gave up with it and resorted to using my binoculars instead, scanning along the Milky Way through Cygnus, looking for clusters.

I’m planning to get the 18″ out tonight, although it hardly seems worth it when the sky doesn’t get properly dark (true darkness returns next week) but, that said, clear is clear!

I’ve been using the loaned PST and, with a 9mm Nagler, it gives excellent views of the Sun. Because of my trip to Australia next year, combined with not being able to find any work, I’ve had to put getting a solar scope on hold for a bit but I am considering a 60mm Coronado Skymax for when my fortunes change. You can see my solar sketches here but here’s the latest one, done today.


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.

The new ‘observashed’

After a few days of de-cluttering, de-spidering (there were some huge monsters, fortunately mostly deceased, in there. One was curled up dead and I dread to think how big it was when it was alive) and cleaning up, plus a couple of tip runs, I was able to move my 18″ and other stuff into the large wooden shed yesterday. The 18″ is the large object beneath the silver cover, at left. I had to disassemble it to move it safely down the garden. The ramp arrived from Amazon on Tuesday and is perfect for moving the scope in and out of the shed.

My previous scope storage shed, which is plastic, has now been filled with various bits and pieces for the garden. I noticed this afternoon that the inside walls of it are covered with mould, presumably as a consequence of the dire ‘summer’ we’ve had. Eeek, not good. I have now plucked up the courage to look at my 18’s mirror and, while it is pretty grubby and in need of a wash, it doesn’t appear to have mould on it; the silica gel cat litter in socks placed inside the rocker and mirror boxes seems to have done the trick.

The mirror would always be covered in condensation in the mornings, regardless of having been used or not, during its year (I have had it one year tomorrow) in the plastic shed. Having moved it down to the wooden shed yesterday, I noticed this morning, when I decided to inspect it, that there was no condensation on it at all. A good sign…and this will be far better for the mirror.


I am going to change things round, nothing major, just swapping my plastic shed at the top of the garden for the larger wooden shed next to the house. The main reason for the change is that I don’t like going to the top of the garden to observe because a neighbours’ lights interfere, erecting a tarpaulin each time is a pain in the neck and, also, there is not much room at the top of the garden because it narrows considerably so I end up trampling my aunt’s plants in the dark and I have also stepped in the pond on a couple of occasions! Fortunately the pond is only a foot or so deep.
I have always preferred observing on the lower lawn, although I have a better view of the sky from the upper lawn, I am not easily spooked or anything like that, it is just a matter of preference and neighbours’ lights aren’t so much of an issue on the lower lawn.

The big shed, which has a tiny, lean-to one next to it, is supposedly my aunt’s gardening shed but, in reality, is actually used as a dumping ground for stuff we don’t want. It’s full of things which need taking to the tip and, once that is cleared out, de-spidered (very important this, as I am a card-carrying arachnophobe) and repainted I can move my stuff into it. Apart from my scope and other astronomical items, it will also house my surfboards and the sun loungers.

This isn’t actually my idea, my aunt suggested swapping sheds as she pointed out, the wooden shed – which is a proper wooden shed, like a summerhouse, not that cheap ship-lap rubbish – will be much better for my scope than keeping it in the plastic shed which is poorly insulated and I don’t think it’s doing my 18″ mirror any good. The plastic shed also sometimes leaks slightly when it rains, due to the rain blowing in through the vents. And one more thing – I won’t be worrying that the shed will blow down every time a storm comes along!

Apart from the clear out of clutter, dirt and spiders plus the repainting, the other thing that has to be done is getting a ramp. The shed has a step up to it because it is built up off the ground to avoid damp and to prevent mice and rats getting in so, after making various measurements, I have ordered a wheelchair ramp which can be fixed to the step as and when needed. I chose a wheelchair ramp because these are both easy to get, not horribly expensive and what is safe for a person will definitely be safe for my big telescope.

This shows the current state of the inside of the wooden shed! All this stuff is destined for the tip, and just dumped in the shed to get it out of the way. There’s a large television lurking among that stuff somewhere!


Bringing my observing spot back down nearer to the house will also mean more sessions. Apart from the neighbours lights being a pain in the arse, I developed an aversion to going to the top of the garden to observe. Don’t ask me why, it just is. I think it’s because I felt overlooked, despite the fact my spot can’t be seen either from the neighbours’ house or from the footpath that separates the respective gardens, especially in the dark – and the footpath is another factor. The photo below is the neighbours’ house, as seen from my current observing spot, with the offending window; they also have an annoying insecurity light they put on for their dogs.
I also won’t have to lug my other equipment (eyepieces, books, dew zappers, etc) up the garden either. It can just be placed outside or stored in the shed.

Changing the subject somewhat, in the news this week, depending on which source you looked at (it was mostly reported on the BBC – interestingly it was only reported in the more left-wing liberal press) it was reported that the Arctic ice is melting at an ever-faster rate, meaning that it could possibly be all gone during the summer from 2030. This could have ramifications for the climate of Northern Europe because, as sod’s law would have it, it probably won’t improve and become a nicer Mediterranean climate, it will instead become stormier, resulting in more crap summers like the abomination of a ‘summer’ we endured this year. Scientists believe this will push the jet stream further south, allowing stormier weather in over northern Europe, which is precisely what happened this summer. This is worrying for the future of amateur astronomy in the UK, which is bad enough as it is but, that said, this is what *could* happen and not necessarily what *will* happen and, even so, we should still get enough clear nights – anyway, by 2030 (when I will be 60! 😮 ) I may well have cleared off to warmer climes.

Looking at my clear sky spreadsheet for this summer highlights just how bad summer 2012 was, with few clear nights. May was ok, despite the unsettled weather, June had four clear nights and two partly clear ones, July had 11 clear nights but August was the worst month, making dismal reading with a paltry ONE clear night and seven partly clear ones; this is highly unusual for August which is generally pretty good for observing. June I’m not too bothered about, as it’s too light to observe anyway, but it is usually our clearest month. Time will tell if this is an aberration or the sign of something more sinister.

We have had four clear nights so far in September but these have been marred by dew and fog. I set up the other night, only for everything to be soaked within a matter of minutes, overwhelming the dew zapping equipment and forcing me to quit before I’d even found my first object. Not only that, but mist also rolled in, making deep sky observing impossible.

Everybody should be an astronomer

My friend Robert Reeves, of San Antonio, sent me a scan of the latest article he wrote for the ‘Comfort News‘, a local newspaper in the San Antonio area (Comfort is a small town nearby). He sent me the scan, as I have a mention! The gist of Bob’s article is that the world would be a much better place if we were all amateur astronomers which is something I totally agree with. If everyone had a telescope and spent a few clear nights each month looking at all the goodies up in the sky, like Bob, I believe that we’d all be better off. For one thing, amateur astronomy takes you away from all the petty nonsense of everyday lives, away from the moron who cut you up at the traffic lights that morning, away from that unexpected large bill that you have no idea how you are going to pay, away from that large overdraft and away from the feeling that the entire world has already completed 99% of its journey to hell (if you listen to the news bulletins).

Amateur astronomers are, by and large, some of the finest people I have had the pleasure of knowing. It is the only community I have ever fit into and felt comfortable in. Not just because they are just like me, more than any other people I’ve met, but because they are genuinely good people. That most likely stems from an interest in the universe at large and the realisation that the universe doesn’t revolve around human concerns.
As Bob points out in his article (scan posted below), amateur astronomers are more disdainful than most of petty national politics, travel restrictions and the politics (UK/EU sales taxes!) that make astronomy equipment either expensive or hard to obtain. Put another way, us amateur astronomers have a lower bullshit tolerance level than the rest of the public! I also wish that any amateur astronomer who desires to could just up and move to a drier, darker and clearer climate, such as the Southwestern United States, or Western Australia, with none of the hoops you currently have to jump through with existing visa and red tape nonsense. If you want to up and leave you can just go, without all this border crap.

Amateur astronomers of all nationalities – British, American, Australian, Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, French, German, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, etc –  as is seen at astronomy conventions, such as NEAF, London Astrofest and TSP, get on well with each other with no animosity based on partisan politics so wouldn’t it be good if our governments and non-astronomer general public could feel likewise? Not just nationalities but religions, too. I have personally seen Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc, of all sects and denominations, all getting on famously when discussing the sky – ironic really when you consider that a shared love of a starry night sky has succeeded where their various religions have failed!
I am a sports fan and I have heard it said that sport, like warfare, brings out the worst in people, which is not too far from the truth, if fans’ attitudes to the opposition is anything to go by (the Euro 2012 football – sorry Americans I mean soccer! – championships are imminent and, as a football fan, I am looking forward – with no expectations! – to watching England’s matches but I am not looking forward to the xenophobic crap that will undoubtedly appear in the gutter press and on football forums). I like to think that, if sport really does bring out the worst in people, then astronomy brings out the best. Of course, not everyone is an out-and-out good guy and even in astronomy, petty squabbles erupt from time to time with some spectacular fallings-out, but they are the exception to the rule and I have only ever met one or two genuinely unpleasant people. Another reason is that amateur astronomers, by and large, are generally more intelligent than most.

It’s a pipe-dream of course, but everyone should be an astronomer and we, the environment and civilisation would be a lot better for it. And there’d be no light pollution!

Here’s Bob’s article, click for largest (and readable!) size:



Amateur astronomer or stargazer? Or something else? Someone on Cloudy Nights forums made the comment that we non-scientists shouldn’t call ourselves ‘amateur astronomers’ because astronomy is a science and astronomers are scientists.

Personally speaking I really, really don’t like the term ‘stargazer’, partly because, to me, the term invokes a vision of someone standing or sitting, staring up, mouth open, at the the sky and not doing much else. I also don’t think that ‘stargazer’ adequately conveys what a lot of amateurs do. Ok, so most of us aren’t making variable star estimates, studying black holes or contributing to a theory but neither are we aimless gawkers either. A ‘stargazer’ to me is someone who goes out stares up for a while, enjoys the view and that’s it. Yes, there’s a bit of the stargazer in all of us, but there’s also something more, even if it doesn’t quite extend to ‘scientist’.

Anyway, since when did professional scientists lay claim to the term ‘astronomer’? Astronomy began as an amateur pursuit, as did all the sciences, and the name has stuck ever since. If you Google  ‘definition of astronomer’ you get this:

Noun: “An expert in or student of astronomy”

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert but, as someone who reads about astronomy, I think I could call myself a ‘student’ of the subject and, as I am not paid for it, an amateur. Therefore I think we are entitled to claim to being ‘amateur astronomers’.   That said, I generally just call myself a ‘deep sky observer’, which suits what I do, very nicely, as I don’t tend to observe the Moon or planets.

My friend, and fellow amateur astronomer, Steph, put it this way:

I’m with you, we’re in that middle state between those who do little but look up, and those who are scientific astronomers. We’re serious enough about what we do to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on our equipment, and hundreds and thousands of hours of time using it. I think we’ve earned the right to use ‘amateur astronomer’.” Spot on and well said.

On a related note – and in the same CN thread – the same guy who told us that we shouldn’t call ourselves ‘amateur astronomers’ also derided those of us who enjoy doing observing lists and getting pins as being boy scout/girl guide-ish. Excuse me? Is it really anyone’s business why we observe? And if we get a certificate and/or a pin for it, so what? Some of the best observers in the world have done these club observing programs and earned pins and I am sure they wouldn’t be happy at being accused of being overgrown boy scouts or girl guides. Not only that, I don’t like having my interests and activities devalued and sneered at by somebody who seems to think they are above such things, even if they may be trolling. It doesn’t matter why you do astronomy, as long as you do it.

Some sky shots

I am not, and don’t intend to be, a serious imager. But I couldn’t resist popping off a few photos last Monday, with my Canon 7D and 18-135 EF-S and 70-200 f/4 L lenses.

Click on each photo for full-size.

Earth shine on a waxing crescent Moon

Lower half of Orion, with M42 visible

The Pleiades

The Pleiades and Venus

The Moon, Venus and Jupiter

Just two weeks to TSP and 1½ weeks until I head over to Texas …how time flies – I booked my flight six months ago and it doesn’t seem that long. I’m doing talks at San Antonio Astronomical Association and at TSP itself.

Jupiter and Venus meet

The conjunction of Jupiter (left) and Venus on 11th March 2012 (top) and 12th March 2012 (bottom). Their closest approach was on 13th March but, typically(!) it was cloudy and foggy. The streak in the lower pic isn’t a meteor, it’s a jet contrail.