Category Archives: Star Parties

Isle of Wight Star Party

Registration for the 4th Isle of Wight Star Party opens on Monday, 17th December. The 2011 star party dates are 3rd to 7th March inclusive. So, if you’re a serious observer or – dare I say it?! – imager, and fancy a few days in a picturesque place with dark – and hopefully clear – skies, then you’re welcome to register and join in.
I’ve already bagged a room, no freezing in a tent this year.

IWSP – observing

Here on the Isle of Wight we are fortunate in that we have a southerly aspect with unobstructed and un-lightpolluted views out over the English Channel, from the island’s south coast where the star party is held. The only source of light pollution are passing ships and the light houses at St Catherines Point and Portland Bill (unlike the north east part of the island which is as light polluted as anywhere on the UK mainland).
This year’s IW Star Party had a mix of cloud and clear spells, on the nights I was there, Friday and Saturday. Friday night was clear for an hour, then the weather closed in again and it rained for the rest of the night. Saturday was a lot better, giving us a good couple of hours and what I hear about Sunday was that it was clear for the most part, but I had to miss it because of having to be at work on Monday morning.
I was fortunate enough to share Owen Brazell’s 20 inch Obsession, as well as take peeks though other people’s scopes including a rather nice Orion Optics UK 14 inch Dob (which has a same length, but lighter, tube than my 12″), here are the observations all made with the 20 inch. These aren’t in order, as I was scribbling the notes down on Post-it notes, a pad of which happened to be in my pocket – unlike a notebook – and they got mixed up.

Date: 13th March 2010
Conditions: chilly, cold breeze, some high cloud. No Moon.
NELM: 6.3
Seeing: Ant I-II
Instrument: 20 inch f5 Obsession Dobsonian, 21mm Televue Ethos, 13mm Televue Ethos, 8mm Televue Ethos and OIII filter.
M42 in Orion: I’ve seen this in every instrument I have looked through but this was the best view I have ever had. So much detail, wisps, tendrils, dark areas…and the Trapezium was as detailed as ever I’ve seen it. You could clearly see the hole, caused by the young stars blowing the gas away from their surroundings. The E and F components were easily seen, as were much fainter stars in the nebulosity immediately surrounding the Trapezium.
Jonckheere 900, planetary nebula in Gemini: Small, round and fuzzy. Quite bright. 318x + OIII
Jonckheere 320, planetary nebula in Orion: I have tried for this with my 12 inch from home without success. In the 20 inch it is small, not quite stellar, round and has a fuzzy appearance, this fuzziness preventing it appearing stellar. 318x + OIII
B33/IC 434 (Horsehead Nebula) in Orion: At last! I have made numerous attempts to see this, with no success. However, I suggested to Owen that we have a crack at this, so he put the 13mm Ethos and a HBeta filter in and we saw it comparatively easily. B33 (the Horsehead) stood out against IC434, as a large, dark, semicircular area cutting into the ribbon of IC434. With averted vision, we could just make out the horse’s nose. For me, this was the observation – and the highlight – of the weekend. 120x
Abell 21 (aka Medusa Nebula) planetary nebula in Gemini: Eastern side is the brighter and is crescent shaped, in fact almost triangular. There is also some nebulosity on the western side. (Magnification unknown) + OIII
NGC 2022, planetary nebula in Orion: Oval, bright and slightly darker in middle. 318x + OIII.
NGC 2683, galaxy in Lynx: Large, bright edge-on spiral. Brightens beautifully towards centre.
NGC 2371-2, planetary nebula in Gemini. This is a very interesting planetary, consisting of two lobes, the western lobe being the brighter of the two. It does look like its nickname of the ‘peanut’ nebula, especially at low power. 318x + OIII
NGC 3242, (nickname Ghost of Jupiter) planetary nebula in Hydra: Very bright, oval with brighter middle. 318x + OIII
The clouds rolled in again just after midnight, so after a talk, I headed back to my tent (although I ended up abandoning it due to the cold!). It was a short, but good, session and the undoubted highlight was seeing the Horsehead Nebula for the first time as well as M42 in such incredible detail.

Texas Star Party 2010…???

I am getting itchy feet about going to the Texas Star Party again. I am hoping I can get to the 2010 event, depending on my finances. I am currently temping while the economy remains shot to pieces and permanent jobs are few and far between, so my getting to TSP 2010 is looking 50/50 at best.

The 2010 TSP is from 9th to 16th May inclusive, which gives me just under ten months in which to save up some money.

Here are my accounts of previous TSPs I’ve attended:

TSP 2006
TSP 2008

Washout Down Under! A tale of woe.

I got back from a two-month trip to Australia and South East Asia last month. Fortunately this wasn’t an astronomy trip, although I was hoping to fit some observing in of course, because the weather was – let’s not beat around the bush here – frankly bloody awful! I joined some friends from the Texas Star Party who were visiting Australia for the ‘Deepest South Texas Star Safari‘ being held in Coonabarabran. We met up in Sydney and had a nice meal at a restaurant in The Rocks before meeting up again the following morning at Sydney Central railway station. The weather omens were already bad – it rained all day and we drove from Dubbo to Coonabarabran under leaden skies and driving rain.

Unfortunately I could only stay one night because the next day I had to return to Sydney and then travel onto the southern town of Wollongong 80kms south of Sydney, for a pelagic birdwatching trip which was scheduled for the Saturday. This one night was a complete washout, it rained all night, which was pretty disappointing. It became even more annoying when I got to Wollongong and the f*cking pelagic was cancelled due to high winds! Aaargh! So infuriating! I could have stayed in Coona and got some observing in a few days later as the weather improved. As it was, my sorely depleted finances wouldn’t allow me to return to Coona and I was flying to Thailand a few days later in any case. In the end, I consoled myself with some binocular observations from light-polluted Sydney. Scant consolation, but at least I got to poke around among what stars were visible.

We did, however, attend an interesting meeting of the local astronomy club and I got to see the famous Siding Spring Observatory, albeit from the road.

It wasn’t a complete disaster, it wasn’t as if I’d travelled 12000 miles just to observe, and I had been to Australia and pretty much scoped out the Southern Hemisphere winter skies in 1997. But one thing’s for sure – I am going back to Australia and the DSTSS properly in a couple of years’ time!
And I never did hear from the Astronomy Society of New South Wales, which is very disappointing.

2nd Isle of Wight Star Party, 26-30th March 09

It was the second Isle of Wight Star party last week. I could only get there for the early part of Saturday night as I had to be up and out early Sunday morning, but the weather was great. It was mostly clear, if cold and windy. I spent my limited time there observing with Owen Brazell and his new 15″ Obsession UC which is a super scope (I want one, I can’t afford one, especially as the exchange rate is now so bad; thanks in part to the Americans, the banks and HM Government f***ing up the economy between them).
We observed (well, ‘looked at’ is probably a more accurate description) some bright lollipops: M42, M78, M43, M51, Thor’s Helmet (which was partially obscured by cloud) and Hubble’s Variable Nebula. HVN was incredibly bright through the 15″ and one side the right side (as we were looking at it, with the ‘head’ at the top) much brighter than the left. Fan shaped. A fascinating object.
By this time I had to leave and get home as I had an early start Sunday and the clocks were going forward (why can’t they leave them alone? There’s nothing wrong with GMT that a little education of the thicker sections of the public who think that BST gets us, magically somehow, extra daylight, can’t cure.)

The 2nd IW Star Party was an outstanding success, with all four nights being clear, unlike the washout of last year. Hopefully this bodes well for the future.

Texas Star Party 2008 – Part 2

Here’s the second – and final – part of my trip to the 2008 Texas Star Party.

Day 5 – Friday 6th June 2008:

I had put my name down for the Friday trip to McDonald Observatory but ended up not going and crossed myself off the list because I was too tired and didn’t fancy a 12 mile trip in an old non-air conditioned school bus in 100 degree heat. I wasn’t that bothered because I had been before in 2006.

In addition to the Globular program, I have also finished a binocular program so there’s another pin to add to my collection. Cool! Talking of observing pins, I have seen several people including Ben Jones, Barbara Wilson, Larry Mitchell, Steve Goldberg, Amelia Goldberg and Matt Delavoryas wearing dozens of TSP and Astronomical League observing pins on hats, scarves and jackets. That’s pretty inspiring and I am going to aim for some AL pins – one reason I joined the AL was to do their observing programs. I have just about completed my binocular Messier project – and I’ll send the observations off to the AL soon. Observing programs and their associated pins are a great way of doing a structured observing program.

I have what seems to be a cold, but it could be just an adverse reaction to the dust and smoke.

Visited the ‘swap-meet’ at the vendors hall and somehow came away with a 4 inch Meade SCT and a 2-inch diagonal to fit it, for the bargain sum of $160 (the scope was $110). I also went into the vendors again and bought some decent-looking software ‘Deepsky’ from Bob Kepple’s (he of ‘The Night Sky Observer’s Guide’ and ‘Astro Cards’ fame) stand.

Visited Jimi Lowrey’s 48 inch scope for an observing session – wow, what a beauty and a thoroughly enviable set up; Jimi is living the dream. I was there at the invitation of Larry Mitchell, who was invited and was asked to invite a few people of his choice. I was really pleased to be asked as opportunities for observing with such a big scope are few and far between.

I didn’t do any sketching, not enough time as we had a big list of objects we wanted to see. I also didn’t write down what we saw, but as we all saw the same things another member of our group, Jose, did and is going to send me the list.

The 48 inch makes the unobservable observable, the faint, dim and fuzzy bright and detailed and the bright and spectacular simply awesome. M51 filled the field of view – it looked like the size of a saucer – and was better than a photograph. The arms were full of detail, HII regions shone and the whole thing was akin to a ‘religious experience’. The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009) (bright blue-green and showing lobes and ‘layers’), Hickson 88, Stephan’s Quintet and the Ring Nebula (M57) were also incredible. The Ring showed massive amounts of detail and, for the first time ever, I actually saw a colour other than blue or green in a deep sky object. The Ring was blue-green, but the outer portion of the ring was pink. The pink was subtle but it was obvious. The central hole was filled in, giving a gauzy effect and the central star was visible.

As for the globular M13, this was more detailed than I have ever seen before. The propeller feature was very obvious, looking exactly like a ship or aircraft propeller, a black mark on a bright background.

Another first for me was seeing Neptune as a disk and its moons. The planet was a lovely blue. Jupiter’s moons were also disks (these firsts keep on coming!) and as for Jupiter itself, wow! It was tack sharp in moments of good seeing and the detail was – at the risk of being cliched – photographic, with the Great Red Spot (more pale pink than red) and other spots seen, as well as belts, bands and festoons.

Jimi kept saying how the night wasn’t very good and the seeing was soft – actually it was a little soft – but to someone from the UK used to really shit observing conditions it was an awesome night. It’s all relative.

At the end of the night we all agreed that it was one of the most magical nights of astronomy any of us had ever had. The ‘feeling’ of the occasion was also helped by the native American music (‘Sacred Spirit Vol II’ and ‘Wolves’) that Jimi – who is of Cherokee descent – put on his stereo.

We eventually got back to the Prude Ranch at 0600.

Day 6 – Saturday 7th June 2008:

The last day of the 2008 Texas Star Party, sadly. It may be hot, but I wish it could go on forever. There are some ominous-looking clouds to the north of us but hopefully they will move away and we can have a final night of observing at TSP 2008.

Later: the clouds have filled the sky, it’s not looking good for any observing.

The evening’s talk was ‘The Mysteries of the Universe’ by Bob Berman of Astronomy Magazine, which was a fun and entertaining talk. The questions were almost hijacked by a guy who wanted to take Bob on on some issue until Barbara Wilson (the MC) shot him down in flames. It was the same guy who tried to bore Robert Reeves and myself to death earlier in the evening at dinner by talking about mathematics. Won nothing in the ‘Great Texas Giveaway’ this time, but I never do anything in raffles anyway. The grand prize this evening was a 13mm Televue Ethos. Faux prayers were offered but sadly, it was not to be.

By the time we left the meeting a spectacular lightning storm was underway, so it was time for chat and farewells before going to bed before 1am.

Lightning over the Davis Mountains – best shot I got.

Sunday 8th June 2008:

Long drive back to San Antonio via Fort Stockton for breakfast and Ozona. Heat exhaustion, tiredness and a chest problem due to dust and smoke caught up with me and, combined with plain old car sickness, necessitated a stop alongside Interstate 10 near Junction for me to get out and part with seven dollars’ worth of breakfast, but this was a small price to pay for the amazing Texas Star Party we all had.

I flew home on Tuesday evening on an overnight Delta flight to Gatwick via Atlanta, arriving back on the Isle of Wight late Wednesday morning.

All-in-all this, my second, was a fabulous TSP and people were saying it was the best, observationally, for years due to the wonderfully clear skies and warm night-time conditions. The smoke on Wednesday night and the cloud-out on Saturday were minor irritations.

All that’s left now is to say a MASSIVE thank you to – first and foremost – Robert and Mary Reeves (and the cats!) of San Antonio for hospitality and lifts to and from the airport and the Prude Ranch, Larry Mitchell, Amelia and Steve Goldberg, Bob Summerfield, Mike Planchon, David Moody, Richard and Connie Brown, Becky Ramatowski, Tracey Knauss, Barbara and Buster Wilson, Ben Jones, Jim and Ana Chandler, Todd Hargis, Jose Sancho, Jimi Lowrey, David Nagler, Matt Delavoryas, Bill Christian, Keith and Jan Venables (fellow ‘Brits’) and many others for help, telescope use and hospitality over the week.

Texas Star Party 2008 – Photos

Here are some photos from this year’s Texas Star Party:

These are various views of the upper telescope field, showing how dusty it was. The Texas Star Party is (in)famous for the dust and there was plenty of it this year:

Here is the ‘Belt of Venus’ phenomenon, seen from the upper field.You can see the shadow clearly in the pic:

On Wednesday night there was a big grass fire to the south west and it was visible from the ranch as a glow reflected in the smoke. It was actually further away (around 20 miles distant) than it appears in this photo:

The Milky Way from the upper field:

Texas Star Party 2008 – Part 1

I am back from the Texas Star Party, although I am not back in the UK until Wednesday. I’m staying in San Antonio until my flight home tomorrow night.
The TSP was excellent and, from what I’ve heard and read about previous ones, one of the best ever. We had five nights (six for those who were there on the first Sunday) of outstanding observing – ok, four and a half nights as the first half of Wednesday night was affected by smoke from a massive grass fire 20 miles away to the south west of us. The days were the hottest temperatures I have ever been in, and the thermometer regularly topped 104 degrees – I have to admit that, as a British Isles resident, I found it a bit hard to live with but fortunately the air conditioning in the Prude Ranch buildings worked very well. As I overheard someone say to another person: “The heat’ll kick your ass”, and it did several people’s, including mine.

Ok, here’s a day-by-day account of the TSP (I have photos but I’ll add these when I get home on Wednesday):

Day 1 – Monday 2nd June 2008:

We – that is Robert Reeves and I – arrived at the Prude Ranch in the early afternoon. The weather is hot, scorchingly so – it must be at least a hundred degrees on the Upper Field. I helped Robert set up but the most we could really do was sit on top of his cooler and drink – a lot of – beer. The sky is clear and things look promising for the night to come.
We registered and renewed friendships from before. I met Larry Mitchell again and he invited me to share his 36-inch Obsession for observing.
I observed until 0215 – I hate giving up on a superb night so quickly but I was tired because I’d been up since 5am the previous morning and we’d left San Antonio at 6.
I began the ‘Globular Glory’ observing program with my 8x42s to pick off the brighter and easier ones and also Larry’s gigantic 6 inch Japanese binoculars (these are of World War 2 vintage and previously belonged to a Japanese battleship). I also observed with Larry’s 36 inch but not do much sketching due to being tired.

Day 2 – Tuesday 3rd June 2008:

Another blisteringly hot day in the low 100’s.
I visited the vendors’ (always a dangerous time for my wallet) and came away with a 35mm Televue Panoptic (I have always wanted one but they are way too expensive in the UK, at least twice the price you pay in the US), a copy of Kanipe and Webb’s ‘The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies’ (again much cheaper than at home) and an auto-collimator.

Observed until 5am with Larry’s scope, the Yard Scope (another 36-incher) which I used to knock off most of my Globular Glory observing program, and Mike Planchon’s 20x125mm binoculars. Did quite a few sketches of galaxies.

Day 3 – Wednesday 4th June 2008:

Again, incredibly hot. Late in the afternoon we noticed a huge plume of smoke coming from the south west and rumours spread just as quickly as the fire did. It turned out to be a massive bush fire covering some 50,000 acres. There was concern as the fire at one point was coming closer to us and the possibility of having to evacuate the Prude Ranch did cross a few people’s minds, but fortunately this was not necessary. The TSP and Prude staff kept in contact with the relevant authorities by radio and phone just in case evacuation of the Prude Ranch became necessary and to keep up with the progress of the fire.
The smoke made life uncomfortable for all of us, causing eye and lung irritations. I thought I’d forgotten to bring my asthma inhalers and, although my asthma is mild and not at all serious it was beginning to make its presence felt. Luckily I found the inhalers in my jacket pocket but because of the smoke, I felt like I was getting a severe cold and chest infection.

Because of the smoke no-one did any really serious observing but I did manage to finish my Globular Glory program, courtesy of Mike Planchon’s giant binoculars. I also spent time chatting with Barbara Wilson, Ben Jones, Larry Mitchell, Steve Goldberg, Jimi Lowrey (who owns a newly completed 48-inch Dobsonian in an observatory at Limpia Crossing, near the ranch) and David Nagler (he of Televue fame). We got to try out a new prototype Denkmeier binocular image intensifier through Barbara’s 20-inch Dobsonian and it was pretty impressive. Is this the future of visual observing? Probably not if they aren’t allowed to export it (something to do with US technology having to stay in the States – boo). The worst of the smoke cleared up at around 2 am and although people were saying how crap the seeing was it was still better than the shitty skies we get at home.

Day 4 – Thursday 5th June 2008:

The fires are still burning and from what I have heard, 50,000 acres were destroyed, including a ranch (killing the cattle). As someone noted at lunch it sounds as if half of south-west Texas is on fire.

I did my talk this afternoon and it was well-received. I was given a ‘Texas Star Party Certificate of Merit’ for it which was a nice touch. I also picked up my globular cluster observing pin from John Wagoner.

Another all-nighter until 0530. I spent most of it with Larry’s 36 inch and did a lot of sketches. I also observed with Jim Chandler’s 30 inch and Barbara Wilson’s 20 inch. The most interesting object of the night was the ring galaxy Hoag’s Object (PGC 54559) in Serpens Caput, seen though the 30 inch. The core was seen easily enough but the ring was tougher. Some people saw it, others didn’t. I eventually saw it, but only after a lot of staring with averted vision. Part of it popped into view, then another part and eventually the whole ring appeared for a second before disappearing again.

Also observed Sharpless 2-71, a faint planetary. On Barbara’s MegaStar image it looked as if it had a huge ? stamped on it but only part of this was visible through any of the large Dobs.

I managed to drop my Nikon D80 into the Prude dust but before I went to bed at 0600 I cleaned it up with no damage done – that dust is evil stuff and you don’t want it anywhere near optics of any sort. I just hope none has found its way inside but as I have not changed lenses it should be ok – I hope.

Part 2 – plus photos – to follow…

Off to TSP

I’m setting off for Texas tomorrow (hotel at Gatwick then transAtlantic flight to San Antonio via Atlanta mid morning Saturday).
The long-range weather forecast for the Fort Davis area looks promising – I hope it’s accurate! – and I am hoping for at least a couple of good nights’ observing. I have plenty of offers to share large scopes so I should – weather permitting, of course – be able to get lots of good sketches and observations…I am aiming for another TSP Observing Pin, too. Last time I got a binocular pin and I am hoping for an Advanced Pin this time.

‘Observing’ 13th May 2008

It was clear but the moon is on its way up, so I took the refractor out instead of the 12″. Sky conditions were dreadful to say the least – there was drifting cloud, a waxing gibbous moon and the high pressure haze was awful.
Not only that, my refractor’s red dot finder had stopped working, due to me leaving it switched on last time I used it, sometime back in March, so I used it as a rough guide but in all honesty a red dot finder with no working red dot is useless – naturally it doesn’t take sensible batteries such as AA or AAA ones, of which plenty are lying round the house, it takes a crappy little CR2032 flat thing which I had none of until a trip to Tesco this morning.

I did manage to look at a few bright deep sky objects and some double stars. I even looked at the moon (yes, you did read that right!) and that was impressive with my 8mm TeleVue Radian.
I didn’t stay out long as I hate observing in conditions like that – it was so bright I could have read a book out there and the haze was appalling. It was like observing from the middle of London (and I have observed from London – it’s crap!).


Two and a half weeks to TSP (two weeks until I finish work, can’t wait, expecially as I’m planning on not going back to the job, too stressful!). I have been asked to do an afternoon talk on the Thursday, and my topic’s going to be Visual Deep Sky Observing (From a UK Perspective). My friend Robert Reeves is on before me, so between us we’ve practically taken over the Thursday PM session! I’m looking forward to getting there and seeing everyone again. Naturally I hope that we have clear skies both day and night, but the TSP being in June this year, I’m not sure what the local conditions are – more thundery, I think. Whatever the conditions are, I’m up for a good time.