Category Archives: General

Clear nights 2011

As 2011 is now done and dusted I went back through the Excel spreadsheet I have been compiling of clear nights and cloudy ones in my area of the UK (central South Coast of England) and, because I now have two years’ worth of data I could compare 2010 and 2011. I have separated the partly clear nights from the completely clear ones but ‘partly cloudy’ does not mean sucker holes, it means that the sky is at least 50% clear and observing is still possible. Sucker holes mean the scope stays tucked up in the shed and I remain watching tv or surfing the net, unless there is a comet or another event.

The winter of 2010/2011 was exceptionally cloudy and, according to reports, the UK received only 40% of the sunlight it should have during that winter. October 2010 had 10 completely clear nights and 2 partly cloudy ones, November only 2 clear nights and 2 partly clear ones and December 4 clear nights and 1 partly cloudy one. January 2011 had 3 clear nights and 1 partly clear, February was exactly the same and it wasn’t until March that the skies cleared substantially.

The current winter, 2011/12 is slightly better so far; except October 2011 which was worse than October 2010, with 7 clear nights and 1 partly clear one, while November had 1 clear night and 7 partly clear ones and December had 6 clear nights and 2 partly clear ones.

2010 in total had 116 completely clear nights (32% of nights) and 54 partly clear (15%) ones – a total of 170 usable nights (47%)

2011 had 104 clear nights (28%) and 52 partly clear (14%) ones – a total 156 observationally usable nights (43%).

2011 was, as suspected, a cloudier year than 2010 was. However, I’ll carry on doing this over the years and see whether the years get worse, improve or – as most likely – they vary.

We do get more clear nights than we think but I wish it were possible to use all of them…!


2012 means I’ve been involved in astronomy for 20 years. I got into the hobby seriously in 1992, when I left the Royal Navy, and began deep sky observing in 1993 and, if you’re interested, I wrote about it here. I was 22 and knew nothing. I still don’t…!

It’s been all positive and the best thing I ever done was get into this hobby – actually, no, more ‘way of life’ than hobby. Apart from the wonders of the universe, the fabulous people I have met make me regret absolutely nothing about joining the ranks of amateur astronomers. Ok, I do have one regret and that’s why did I not get into this sooner?! Yes, I live in a country with a questionable climate but I still get enough observing in to keep me (reasonably) happy, augmented with trips to sunnier climes and star parties. I am going to celebrate 20 years of the best of hobbies with a trip to the 2012 Texas Star Party (my 4th TSP – please, no volcanoes or other hassles to disrupt flights!) and I have my 18 inch Dob which I am hoping to make serious inroads into the Herschel 2500 and galaxy groups and clusters with over the coming years.

So far (copied and pasted from Astronomy and Me pt 2 on here) – “…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 inch dobsonian.”

Here’s to the next 20 years and more…Happy New Year everyone!


We’re nearly at the end of 2011 and, while it’s not been a horrible year by any means (by my own disastrous standards!) it’s been…well…a bit ‘meh’, a bit boring. Observing sessions are down on previous years, thanks to a combination of weather and other factors and, apart from a short cruise on the ship Vision of the Seas from Southampton to Copenhagen via Amsterdam in April, I have not been anywhere. Spring 2011 was superb and I got loads of observing sessions in but, after that, it was downhill from there with a poor summer, a mostly-cloudy autumn and, so far, a cloudy (again) winter conspiring against amateurs everywhere; it seems that, although our UK climate is known for being a bit crap, this has been a phenomenon everywhere – even my Aussie friends are complaining about endless rain and clouds.

The one thing of note during 2011 was that I realised an ambition and got a large aperture Dobsonian, an 18-inch, for deep sky observing, which was completed in September 2011. This was thanks to a tax rebate which provided half the £3500 cost. So far, though, it has worked out at £437.50 a session!

2012 should be much more interesting. I have another trip to the Texas Star Party lined up in April plus a few other interesting (although non-astronomy-related) things in the pipeline.

Happy New Year and here’s to a peaceful, prosperous and – wishful thinking! – cloud-free 2012…

Deep Sky Binocular and other stories

I’ve added a new page to the ‘Articles’ section. It’s a follow-up to the AL binocular Messier project I did and is about my little project to observe the objects listed in the Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular Club list. This wee projectette lasted from October 24th 2008 until June 19th 2010 and I observed all the objects on the list. Some were easier than others and some took more than one attempt to find, thanks to conditions on the night, but I got them all eventually. Click here to see the article.
I could, I suppose, send my observations in to the AL and claim the certificate and pin, as I did with the Messier list, but I let my membership lapse – at £40 it is a little expensive for what you actually get – and haven’t the spare funds to renew it at present. I will renew it eventually and do some more of the observing projects. Judging by what I see and hear, both at home and over in the US, observing programs (particularly organised ones like the AL’s) are more popular State-side than they are here. I’ve no idea why that is the case, I suppose it’s because we English don’t like sticking rigidly to anything!

My 18 inch scope is now complete, David has received the payment ok (I am always a little worried that bank transfers will vanish into the ether!) and I am hoping to go and collect it tomorrow, barring any hitches with work/vans/travel/whatever. It’s up in Nottingham, which is a fair trek from the Island, a 400-mile round trip via the A3M, M25 London Orbital and M1 motorways. This will be my only chance to collect it before the end of the month, so I hope that there are no hitches, last minute or otherwise, tomorrow!

I don’t think the new scope will go in my little Citroen C3; it would fit in it ok, but actually getting it into the car in the first place would be a problem, due to lack of clearance on the tailgate. I’m planning to get a new car anyway, I’m fed up with driving such a small car and getting run into the hedge by idiots in 4x4s, it isn’t that cheap to run either and it is starting to cost me money in repairs, so if I am going to change it I may as well get a bigger vehicle while I’m at it. The next car will be something like a Ford Focus estate (estate=station wagon in the US) – something large enough to fit a scope in. Unfortunately, that might mean scrapping any plans for a trip to Australia in 2013, but needs must – there’s no public transport here, we’re in an isolated community and a reliable car is essential. Whatever car I end up getting, and whenever it will be, I will be measuring it to see if my telescope will fit…


I’ve imported my blog from Blogger and am seeing if it works properly. It all looks fine, even the pictures came across properly. I’ve edited the text colour on the captions on the first three or four pages of posts, so they can be read – unfortunately, any captioned photo or sketch copied or imported from Blogger tends to bring a large white bar with it, rendering the text invisible.
I’ll keep my Blogger blog alive so that, in the event of problems with this one, I can still use it.

I have also altered the Photo and Sketch galleries. The Coppermine photo gallery I was using was clunky and couldn’t be very well integrated with the site so I decided to abandon it and use the WordPress gallery option instead. The WordPress one is a bit of a pain to use, too, but at least it does look part of the site and not something tacked onto it.

And the award for…

… ‘Fewest Objects Observed in One Session’ goes to me for last night’s pathetic effort. The forecast wasn’t promising although it was predicted to cloud over around midnight, which would have left me with best part of three hours observing time. Unfortunately things didn’t work out as intended. Firstly, for some reason, my collimation was way out, probably as a result of wheeling the scope across a rough part of the lawn, so it took me a few minutes to sort that out and secondly, I wasted ages – again – looking for the planetary nebula NGC 6772 in Aquila which, for some reason, I failed to find.
By the time I’d given up on NGC 6772, clouds were moving in, earlier than the forecasters predicted so there was nothing for it other than to wheel the scope back in and shut up shop. The upshot of all this was that I observed precisely zero objects in one hour, with the sole exception of a glance at Jupiter while aligning my finders. And a creepy-crawly fell on me! I hate creepy-crawlies, especially spiders, of which there are a lot around this autumn. All, with the backdrop of sounds coming down the valley from the 2010 Bestival. A cry of “Rock and f*cking roll!!” was heard at one point! At least, I think that’s what he said!

So, why have I failed, on two seperate occasions, to find NGC 6772? It’s in the Herschel II list so it’s not terribly easy but it shouldn’t be that hard either and, as someone who has plenty of experience, I would *expect* to be able to find it! NGC 6772 is not marked on Sky Atlas 2000.0 so I printed off a chart from Megastar 5, complete with Telrad circles, and used that. Despite this, I came up empty-handed. The Night Sky Observer’s Guide Vol II has descriptions of this from 8/10″ scopes so why was I failing to find the little bugger with a 12″ with decent, clean optics under dark skies?
I think the problem is that Aquila is getting low and its altitude isn’t favourable by the time its dark enough for observing at this time of the year and, as 6772 has quite a low surface brightness any little bit of murk would wipe it out and the past two observing sessions haven’t been the most transparent. I will have to wait until next year when Aquila is higher during darkness, or catch it during the early hours in spring.


My mum and stepfather moved house from Wootton to Niton last week, so my aunt and me went over to help mum with the last of the packing and the cleaning (steppy had already cleared off!) and it was the end of an era in some ways. We – myself, mum, my sister and stepfather – moved in during November 1984 (I was 14 at the time) and, in the early 1990s, the garden was my first ever observing site where I’d set up my tiny birding scope, my 10×50 binoculars sellotaped(!) to a tripod and, then, my first proper astronomical telescope which was a 6 inch reflector made from a gas pipe, some plywood and a mirror set purchased from David Hinds.
I took my compact camera with me and grabbed a few shots in between packing up and washing floors and walls.

My first ever observing site, looking east. My scope would go where the veg patch is (it was all lawn then)
Looking south (the trees have grown a lot since then)
Many a happy hour was spent in here (the conservatory) planning observing sessions and reading Sky and Telescope, Webb Society journals and astronomy books!

When we drove off, following the removal truck to their new place in Niton, I had mixed feelings. While my teenage years living there weren’t the best (an understatement as they absolutely sucked!), it was my first observing site and brought back memories of the excitement of my early years in astronomy. I also lived back there for a few months immediately prior to my 1997 observing trip to Australia and clearly remember the exciting times then when planning that trip. I love the memories of those times and it was nice to revisit them, albeit briefly.

From the notebooks 3 – TSP 2008 galaxies

Some galaxy sketches to brighten up your (and my) day – and mine is in serious need of a brighten up! These were made at the 2008 TSP, while observing with Larry Mitchell’s 36″.

NGC 5907, Draco
Spectacular, cutting right across the field of view in the 36″ at 232x. Prominent dark lane and a bright, elongated nucleus. Very thin, indeed. I am fond of edge on galaxies and this is one of the best.

Hickson 44, Leo.
A nice group of which NGC 3190 is the brightest member. 3190 (below centre) has a prominent dark lane. NGC 3187 (to the left of 3190) is faint and evenly bright. NGC 3185 (top) has a slight brightening towards the centre. NGC 3193 (bottom right) is round with a dense core and a fuzzy halo.
36″ at 232x.

NGC 4206 and 4216, Virgo
A lovely view. 4216, the large galaxy at right is very large, very bright and elongated. It also has a very bright compact core.
NGC 4206 is much smaller and fainter and does not have a bright core.
36″ at 232x.

M52 and NGC 5195, Arp 85, Canes Venatici
This is one of the best views I’ve ever had of this pair. You line up the huge dob, go up the ladder and this dinner plate, with the little saucer NGC 5195 next to it, is in the eyepiece.
It was hard to draw, as I was balancing near the very top of the ladder.
The arms are not uniformly circular as they appear in smaller apertures. They are bent, probably due to the influence of  5195 nearby distorting them. There are bright HII regions in the arms.
The bridge of material connecting them is easily seen and quite bright in the 36″ at 232x.
5195 is oval, distorted. the side nearest M51 is brighter than the side away from it. Fantastic.

‘From the notebooks’ does sound a little pretentious (I was going to say ‘poncey’!) but it’s quite a good title – and this stuff IS from the notebooks! – and posting old sketches is a good way of keeping the blog active while I scratch about for something interesting to post. It’s gone dead observing-wise here, due to the most appalling weather (August has been a total wash-out this year, with torrential rain, flooding and gales. I feel sorry for anyone on holiday here, especially if they’re camping) and the last few nights the Moon’s been in the way. The beginning of the month was okay for observing, with one okayish night, one good night, the Perseid peak, the Milky Way sketching session and that absolutely sensational night we had.
Anyway, some more ‘From the notebook’ type posts will appear over time, depending on what else I can talk about. It depends on how much observing I get in. I’m hoping the weather will improve during September.

Off topic, but still relevant (which I’ll come to in a minute) is my work situation. I’m currently doing a seasonal driving job delivering tourist guides to hotels, attractions, ferries and train stations, etc, which I like very much. It’s part time which suits me nicely as I can start what time I like – very handy after late observing sessions and all-night runs! However, with the tourist season winding down soon and just another couple of weeks to go of the main season, my hours will probably get reduced.
I can’t find anything else at the moment as the employment situation in the UK as a whole, not just where I live, is appalling. I’m getting interviews but then nothing comes of them, usually it’s because there’s always some git with more experience than me (although I am sure it comes down to pulling names out of a hat). Even the temping agencies have nothing – indeed the manager of one described the situation to me as ‘absolute crap’, and when even the agencies use words like ‘crap’ you know it’s bad indeed. The fact that a very real threat of a ‘double-dip’ recession is hanging over the country (although I do get the feeling the Bank of England and the Treasury are talking us into this, aided and abetted by the media) does not help the situation any.
Despite this, I am still planning to get a 20″ dob (I am one of these people who has to have something to aim for – I do NOT believe in just existing, because that’s just depressing and pointless), firstly buying that mirror-less scope I’ve mentioned in previous posts, as I already have most of the money for that. The mirror might take longer to acquire than I previously hoped, though, depending on what happens on the work front.

I am pleased to say the observing shed has held up in the recent bad weather. Some rain got blown in through the vents, as it has been pretty much torrential and blown horizontally for the past few days, but otherwise – touch wood – it seems more or less ok. I did seal up non-vent suspect points with duct tape and also fixed the roof down better, just in case as I don’t trust their flimsy method of attaching the roof. I also stuffed an old t-shirt into the vent where the rain was being blown in, I’ll remove this when the weather improves. Let’s hope it continues to be dry in there. The mirror also looks as if it’s remained condensation-free, so the silica gel cat litter seems to be doing the trick.

New Facebook page

**Shameless Plug**

Being bored sat at home with my bad ankle, I decided to start a Facebook page devoted to Astronomical Sketching. If you’re a member of Facebook and are interested in sketching – it doesn’t matter whether you’re interested on the deep sky, moon, sun or planets, all are welcome – then please feel free to join.
Here’s the link: Astronomical Sketching or click the ‘badge’ below.

Astronomical Sketching | Promote your Page too

You can also do a search, via Facebook’s search box.

Here we go again

Year after year the debate about changing to permanent British Summer Time (an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time – incidentally the same as Universal Time) crops up as soon as autumn appears on the horizon. This time the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has joined in wanting the country to adopt BST year round, according to the Torygraph. Not only that, he wants DOUBLE BST which effectively means the clocks going forward by 2 hours in summer and then back 1 hour in winter and doing away completely with Greenwich Mean Time.
It’s already hard to practise this hobby here anyway due to our climate and the sheer amount of light pollution – although here on the Isle of Wight, we’re more fortunate than a lot of people as we have a higher incidence of clear nights and less light pollution than the adjacent mainland –  and dicking about putting the clocks forward every March just adds insult to injury as summer observing becomes almost impossible, particularly for people having to get up for work in the morning. Putting the clocks forward two hours would mean that any summer observing here would be completely impossible, certainly during the week.

In my opinion, putting the clocks forward in March and leaving them forward until October is a complete waste of time (pun intended) because the evenings are light from May until late August in any case, as are the mornings. When you get to winter, when the time has reverted to GMT, both mornings and evenings are dark. So what’s the point of changing? It’s pointless and ridiculous and only panders to the general public who seem to think that altering the clocks alters the earth’s orbital tilt and rotation!

The excuses for changing the clocks is nothing to do with crops and farmers any more, as was once the case. No the new excuses vary from road accidents during dark evenings to tourism.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents backs a change, saying that it’ll prevent road accidents on dark evenings. So what about dark mornings then? There are plenty of RTAs on dark mornings, plus mornings have the added ‘bonus’ of people being sleepy and not ‘with it’.
So that’s nonsense for a start and what about the main cause of accidents? It’s not the dark that causes accidents, it’s moronic and careless driving that causes accidents. Accidents are caused by excessive speed in inappropriate conditions and on badly-maintained roads, they’re caused by tailgating, overtaking into oncoming traffic or on corners and the brows of hills, cutting people up and other forms of bad driving. They are not caused by dark and if dark is a factor it’s because someone is not driving with due care and attention.
Not only that, I am not a morning person and, long observing session or not, I find it difficult getting out of bed in winter anyway because it’s so dark and I am not sociable at all until at least 10am. This change would make that a lot worse.

Environmentalists say we’ll use less electricity during the evenings, which conveniently forgets that we’ll end up using more electricity in the dark mornings instead. When you have to get up at 0600 to be at work by 0830 and it won’t get light until 0900 then you are still going to use a good deal of electricity in the mornings, so I don’t see the environmental angle at all.

Another reason is tourism. Who decides to go somewhere based on the time zone anyway? And, considering the country is even more damp and cold in winter than it is in summer (when it’s merely often damp and a bit chilly), tourism wouldn’t play a part anyway – why come to rainy old Britain in autumn and winter when you could go to the Canary Islands or somewhere else far pleasanter and warmer?

And then there’s the completely daft and spurious argument that ‘we’ll get more daylight’. Er, NO WE WON’T! How many times does it have to be spelled out to some people that we do NOT physically get more daylight?! Some members of the public seem to have difficulty grasping the idea that BST does not mean we get extra daylight, that the hours of day and night remain the same and that all BST does is just move the clocks an hour forward. Daylight just starts and finishes later, there isn’t actually more of it.
If people want more daylight, then go to lower latitudes in winter.

I hope that this stupid and halfwitted idea does not become a reality. With a bit of luck the Scots will have a lot to say about it because Cameron has insisted that the entire UK and not just parts of it would have to be included in this hare-brained idea and Scotland is very dark in winter. I know there is a lot of opposition to this in Scotland, where permanent BST would be a big problem for them with no daylight until at least 1000 in winter.
BST in winter would not, admittedly, be a big obstacle for observing as I can usually be observing by 5pm on a clear winter evening during the weekend. If it’s a week night, by the time I’ve got home and the evening meal is done and finished with, it’s usually 6.30 by the time I can get outside and still have a long observing session until 11pm or midnight. But that’s not the point because I oppose year-round BST on sheer bloody principle! And I especially oppose BST +1 because there is actually no sound reason whatsoever to change the clocks from the present system.

Oh and to add to my good mood, forecasters have predicted that the weather’s likely to be rubbish until November. Great. I just hope it’s the usual forecasters’ trick of making a long-term prediction only for it to be totally wide of the mark, like they have for the past few years. Knowing my luck it will be right for once.


I’ve just rebuilt my website on WordPress as I decided to go for a nice modern look and bin the Dreamweaver-built site. I have to start up my Win XP laptop every time I want to do an update, as my old Dreamweaver won’t work on Win 7,and it’s a drag, expecially as the wireless internet no longer works on the laptop.
I have just pointed the domain name away from the old site and at the new one and as domain changes propogate through the net at the pace of a paralysed snail it’ll be a while before the changes take effect. I just hope it works. The previous site will still appear for a while, until the changes, if they work, take effect.

Ok, things seem to have worked as brings up the new site (it has to have the www in front of the domain or it won’t work).

New link: Let me know what you think!

Fourth of July

Firstly, I would like to wish my American friends a very happy Fourth of July! I hope you all have a great day. 🙂

It was clear last night but, as it’s only the beginning of July, it still isn’t 100% dark, so I didn’t take the 12 inch outside (although once the shed’s up and the scope installed, that will change as I won’t have the effort of lugging it in and out of my room) but I did do a quick binocular session.
My first interesting object – two objects in fact – wasn’t a natural celestial body but the International Space Station, at 2300 BST (2200 UT). The ISS flight path takes it over here and you see it about every 90 minutes on a clear night, not much of a big deal these days as it’s familiar enough. However, in front of the ISS was a smaller, fainter, satellite on the same course and moving at the same speed. I knew it wasn’t the Shuttle, as none are in space at the moment (and soon, sadly, none will be ever again 🙁 ) so I did wonder what it was, until I remembered an item I’d seen on the BBC News website earlier in the day about the Russian Progress cargo ship which was supposed to dock with the ISS but which had malfunctioned. Progress had overtaken the ISS while the mission controllers were working out how to fix the problem. I asked about it on Facebook and, apparently, it was Progress I saw.

I went back outside later, at midnight, with my 8×42 binoculars and just scanned around once I’d got dark adapted. I just looked for Messier objects and I saw M81, M82, M4, M22, M16, M17, M20, M8, M103, M11, M39, M10, M12 and M24. Ok, I know it’s not exactly hard core deep sky observing, but it’ll do me for now until observing can properly begin again later in the month.

In Astronomy Now last month it was stated that M7 is not visible from the United Kingdom. That may be true further north but not true on the Isle of Wight. I can’t see it from the back garden here because of a low hill with trees on the top of it about quarter of a mile away (last night, I stood on a garden chair to see if I could spot M7 in between the trees on the hill but without success) but, at -34 declination it is certainly visible, if a little murky from being so low down, from the island. I have seen it from the Vectis AS observatory site just down the road and I have seen it from the Military Road. So, yes, it is visible from the UK.

The new ‘observatory’ is finally under way. At left is the miniscule progress so far. With help – I have a dodgy back and worse knees and my aunt has arthritis! – this should be done this week and the shed assembled.