Category Archives: Observing

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.

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.

New observing project and potential travel

While I am still doing the Herschel 2500 (and getting sidetracked into looking at other objects in the vicinity of whatever I’m observing) I am doing other things as well. I have drawn up a list of the easier Abell planetaries, i.e. not the really faint little horrors you’d need a 48″ to see, and I hope to begin that list once the Moon is out of the way if the weather, which is becoming more unsettled, co-operates. Short summer nights don’t help observing projects but being currently unemployed means that, at least, I can do some observing through the dark hours at this time.

I received a tax rebate this week for a bit of work I did over the winter. They still can’t get my tax code correct so I end up paying over the odds, but that doesn’t matter because I always get it back eventually and, when you look at it, it is a form of saving. While common sense dictates I ought to save it, I’m of the opinion that you only live once and life is too short, so I am hopefully going to the USA on an observing trip in autumn. Jimi Lowrey, who owns the 48″ at Fort Davis, TX, has suggested I could join him for an observing run and that sounds is mighty tempting. I’ll have to look into how much the air fare will cost and how I will actually manage to get to Fort Davis from the airport, but all this depends on whether my car needs any repairs during its annual inspection next month…

Today’s Sun


Candidate for shortest-ever session

The downside of summer is that the hours of darkness are too short and it only gets dark enough to see bright objects around 0100 BST (midnight UT) and, between late May and mid June, we don’t get true darkness only astronomical twilight. This year, though, instead of not bothering I have attempted to get out when possible and so far haven’t done too badly. However, I think the night of 11/12 July 2013 must rank as one of my shortest-ever sessions and I’ve had quite a few prematurely curtailed sessions over the years!

I’d left the 18″ out for the past few days so it didn’t take long to set up (remove covers from the scope and the mirrors, align Telrad, and check the collimation). I managed to find NGC 6181 in Hercules before some high clouds came up from the south-east, wiping out all but the very brightest objects so I called it a night, re-covered the scope and went inside. It obviously didn’t clear as when I got up later that morning it was overcast, although the Sun burned off the clouds as the day went on.

I’ll have another go tonight, probably with the 8″ and the much-loathed equatorial mount, but it looks pretty hazy. I want to get into Sagittarius and Ophiuchus for the globular clusters; I’ve seen many of the globulars available from our latitude but there are still quite a lot left.

Observing, 9-10 July 2013

Date: 9/10 July 2013
Conditions: Cooler than previous night (10°C/50°F), 74% humidity with some dew. Astronomical twilight persists all night until mid-July
Seeing: Good; Transparency: Good, but not as good as previous evening.
Instrument: 18″ (457mm) f/4.3 Dobsonian with 22mm TeleVue Panoptic (90x); 12mm TeleVue Nagler (165x); 9mm TeleVue Nagler (219x)

Only a one-hour session due to tiredness and light skies. The objects are all globular clusters, except where stated.

NGC 6402 (M14), Ophiuchus – Easy to find, large and bright. Some stars resolved across face of cluster at 90x. At 165, almost totally resolved. Nice object.

NGC 6535, Ophiuchus – Smaller than M14 and quite faint against a not-quite-dark sky. At 219x it’s a roundish glow with some foreground stars superimposed on it. Slightly granular but mostly nebulous.

NGC 6517, Ophiuchus – Fairly small but easy to find. Quite bright but not helped by light summer sky and low altitude. At 90x, it is a round glow with a slightly brighter centre. At 165x it shows a brighter dense core and some granulation. No real improvement at 219x.

NGC 6426, Ophiuchus – Very easy to find, because it is located between ϒ and ß Ophiuchi, and is a round glow which is not resolved at 90x although it does have a vaguely granular appearance. It doesn’t brighten towards the core.
Granular at 165x but no improvement at higher powers.

NGC 6712, Scutum – Large, partly resolved with many stars on a nebulous background. Not concentrated towards the core. 90x, 165x.

NGC 6664, Scutum – Open cluster. Large, loose group of approx. 30 stars in NW-SE line. Mostly white stars of equal brightness but there are fainter ones scattered in between these. Located 1° from α Scuti.


Today (10th July) I did some solar observing, as usual, and encountered an unforeseen hazard of day time astronomy – a bird shit on my notebook! Better than on me, I suppose but clothes and hair can at least be washed!

Today’s solar sketch:


Observing, 8/9 July 2013

I hauled the 18″ out for some summer observing. Because it doesn’t get properly dark here at this time of year, I decided to go for some planetary nebulae as these are good targets for the less-than-dark skies.

Date: 8/9 July 2013
Conditions: Very mild (14°C/57°F), 74% humidity but minimal dew.
Seeing: Good; Transparency: Good, improving to very good later.
Instrument: 18″ (457mm) f/4.3 Dobsonian with 22mm TeleVue Panoptic (90x); 12mm TeleVue Nagler (165x); 9mm TeleVue Nagler (219x) and 5mm TeleVue Radian (395x)
Oxygen III (OIII) filter

I began with some eye-candy, M57, but the reason for this was that I was having a go at seeing the rather difficult central star from home. I’d seen it from TSP once, with a friend’s 18″, but not seen it from home.
It eventually popped out in moments of good seeing. Pretty faint, but it was there. 395x

NGC 6772, Aquila – This has eluded me in the past but  I finally got it tonight. At 90x, it’s invisible without OIII filter but looks like roundish irregular smudge with the filter. At 165x it is only just visible without the filter but with the filter added, it looks like a slightly oval with ragged edges. 90x, 165x

IC 1295, Scutum – Easily found, lying just east of M11. Very faint without the OIII filter but nice and obvious with the filter. At 90x it’s a uniformly oval glow, elongated east-west with a star lying just off the western end.
At 219x, it’s visible without a filter as an oval glow only just brighter than the background sky. The OIII improves the view and the PNe looks a little darker in the centre. 90x, 165x

NGC 6803, Aquila – small, bright and easily found at 90x without the OIII. With the OIII, the PNe looks larger. At 219x it is big and roundish with fuzzy edges. Slightly darker in the middle. 90x, 219x

NGC 6572, Ophiuchus – Easily found, looking like a fat, intensely blue-green star at 90x. At 219x it’s distinctly oval and very turquoise. OIII doesn’t do a lot except make the PNe look a bit larger while 395x shows a definite north-south oval, although at high magnification the colour gets washed out. 90x, 219x.

I also looked at the Veil Nebula, M11 and M27 before packing up at 0100 UT (0200 BST)



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.



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.