Category Archives: Texas Star Party

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.

2012 – The Year That Was(n’t much)

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

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

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

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

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



TSP 2012 part 2 is done…

…and you can read it here.

After this great trip to Texas it’s not so much as ‘back to earth with a bump’ as ‘back to earth with a resounding crash and lying in the wreckage’! It’s hard to feel motivated to do anything at the moment and I feel flatter than a squashed snake in a rut. I’ve also got a dental abscess which doesn’t help! And neither does the crap weather I have come back to with low temperatures, rain, grey skies and the lights on at 3pm – in MAY ffs!!
Jet lag doesn’t normally affect me much, if it does I am usually done with it in a day or two, but this time  it has lasted nearly a week. I suspect the all-nighters and three hours’ sleep a day has got something to do with it as has the grim weather.

TSP 2012 photos, part 2

Here are some more of the photos I took at the TSP this year

TSP 2012 photos, part 1

Here are some of the photos I took last week. I’ve included some photos of the general area, as well as the TSP itself.

More to follow.

TSP or bust!


I am heading for Texas again, this coming April. The 2012 Texas Star Party is being held from April 15 to 22 and I will be again doing what has become an every-other-year trip for me. I’ve already booked my flight to San Antonio (from Heathrow via Washington DC), where I’ll be meeting up with my good friends Robert and Mary Reeves again and driving out to West Texas with Robert. I booked the flight now because prices are currently pretty good and I got the cheapest return ticket I’ve yet managed to get – and, somewhat surprisingly, I got it cheaper from Thomas Cook than I could find online – and I also had the money available. I’ve not registered for the TSP itself yet – registration doesn’t open until November sometime – so  I hope my name comes up in the drawing, although that shouldn’t be a problem as I might be staying in Ft. Davis and not on the ranch itself.

I will be doing something a little different at the TSP this time. Instead of going armed with nothing more than a pair of 8×42 binoculars and hoping to mooch views through other people’s scopes, I will be using a (borrowed) 10 inch dob and doing my own stuff. I’ll take my Telrad, a spare Telrad base I’ve got and a few eyepieces with me. I am currently working my way through the Herschel 2500, a huge project, and I would like to observe the objects in Sagittarius and other low constellations that are awkward to get at from home. None of these things are impossible from here because William Herschel discovered all of them from southern England, around 80 miles north of where I live, but observing them from around 20° further south will make things easier.
So, weather permitting (2011 was rubbish by all accounts, and they had a fire, so I hope 2012 is better!), I hope to be able to make a considerable dent in a few constellations H2500-wise, also get a load of NGCs too far south to see from home and get one of Larry Mitchell’s Advanced Observing Pins, to add to the one I got in 2010. Added to which, if I can, I’d like to ask Larry if we can see Hanny’s Voorwerp (which is located next to spiral galaxy IC 2497 in Leo Minor) in the 36 inch. That little lot should be enough to be going on with, although I think I am going to need all six nights to be clear from dusk to dawn! I also want to take a lot more photos of scopes, people and the surroundings, too.
Under those skies, if they co-operate, the performance of the 10 inch will be like that of a 14 inch or even a 16 inch here in Britain, because the skies are quite a bit darker and a lot drier. Fingers crossed for warm, dry and cloud-free conditions!

When I’m in San Antonio, which I will be for a few days before and after TSP, I hope to visit the San Antonio Astronomical Association whose April 2012 meeting is on the 14th. I’ve been asked to do a mini-talk on my observing and show some pics of my scope and site.

I notice that NGC 5253 in Centaurus is also in the H2500; I have never tried to observe anything in Centaurus from here simply because it’s far too low and only the northernmost few stars are visible just above the southern horizon (actually, we don’t miss Omega Centauri by much, only around 7°). NGC 5253 is at -31°S and therefore observable from here because, theoretically, we can see down to -40°S which is where the horizon is. More practically, a galaxy – even a relatively bright mag 10 galaxy such as 5253 – would be very difficult to see through the murk at that altitude. Did William H really see NGC 5253 from England? On checking Mark Bratton’s excellent book ‘The Complete Guide to the Herschel Objects‘, it seems Herschel DID see it from here, in 1787! Hmmm. Interesting. I might have a go at NGC 5253 from here myself next spring.

Sweet Pea

Last year, while I was in Texas, I got a chance to observe with Jimi Lowrey, Alvin Huey and Jimi’s huge 48″ dob up at Limpia Crossing, near the ranch where TSP is held. While we were talking over dinner before heading up to Jimi’s observatory, Jimi and Alvin told me about a discovery that Jimi had recently made while looking at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey images; Alvin had also been there at the time Jimi found it on the Sloan image. It was a small round green object in Draco and, due to its colour, Jimi nicknamed it the Sweet Pea. The Sweet Pea’s status isn’t certain at the moment although it’s believed to be a planetary nebula. The strange thing about the Sweet Pea is that it is in the galactic halo and not the disk, meaning that it could be an object captured when the Milky Way galaxy consumed a neighbour that came too close. Most stars – and planetary nebulae – are in the disk of the galaxy.

Later that night, May 11 2010, when we were observing, Jimi asked me if I wanted to see the Sweet Pea and, naturally, I said ‘yes’.

Sweet Pea, planetary nebula(?) in Draco, 18 41 41.9 +65 11 58 – The Sweet Pea was round and fairly faint. I didn’t sketch it, although I wished I had now! I initially saw it without a filter and it was tough, seen as a round brightening against the sky. It was definitely fuzzy, not stellar and a UHC filter helped a bit. 48″ Dob @ 488x. Jimi and Alvin had already seen the Sweet Pea before, so that apparently made me the third person ever to visually see it. That’s pretty amazing and what hard-core deep sky observing is about.

So, why didn’t I mention the Sweet Pea when I wrote about the TSP way back last May? Well, Alvin and myself were sworn to secrecy as, understandably, Jimi did not want anyone else to nip in and steal the discovery for themselves, until the astronomers up at McDonald Observatory had studied it and confirmed it. It has now been confirmed, using the Hobby Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory, is now in the public domain and Jimi was awarded the Lone Stargazer Award for the discovery at this year’s Texas Star Party.
I understand that the Sweet Pea was a major target for Larry’s 36″ and others at TSP this year, although I don’t know if anyone saw it or not. It was tough with a 48″ under dark and transparent Texas skies, it will probably be impossible with an 18″ or 20″ from the UK.

Jimi and professional astronomer Steve Odewahn from the HET feature in a program on Marfa Public Radio, talking about the Sweet Pea. Click here to listen. Go to Jimi’s Page on Dark Skies Apparel for more about the Sweet Pea and some of Jimi’s other observations.

I am hoping to catch up with Jimi and Alvin, as well as my other friends, at TSP 2012…

Some photos ‘from the archives’

My posts just recently have been a bit light on the visuals so, in the absence of any recent trips or new sketches, I have dug out some old star party photos, from my TSP visits, and here they are. I don’t think I’ve posted them on the blog before (I don’t want to become like one of the cable tv channels that only shows repeats!) but they are, or some are, on my website.
Click on each photo for sharper and, in some cases, larger ones.

Upper field 2008
Upper field 2008
Upper field 2008
L-R: Larry Mitchell, Stephen O’Meara, Alvin Huey, ‘yours truly’ and Robert Reeves, TSP 2006. I have since dyed my hair!!
Lower field 2008
Middle field 2008
82 inch dome at McDonald Observatory
Barbara Wilson’s 20″ Spacewalk dob
Alvin Huey’s 30″ Starmaster dob
Me at the eyepiece of Jimi Lowrey’s 48″. That ladder isn’t as scary as it looks…it’s scarier.
Upper field, dusk 2008
Dusk falls
And keeps falling
Larry Mitchell’s 36″ Obsession dob
12″ dob, upper field 2006
Gateway to the TSP
Gate made famous in many astronomy magazine articles, books and web sites
Fire! The ‘Great TSP Fire of 2008’
Valley of the Dobs, TSP 2006
Upper field
Upper field, another view
And another view
Yet another view
Upper field 2010 – no dust! It’s green!
Bob Summerfield at the eyepiece of the 36″ ‘Yard Scope’ (originally built by Tectron Telescopes)

I love the TSP, it’s definitely my favourite vacation, and I want to go back one year, hopefully in 2012. We’ll see what the rest of 2011 brings…

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.