2008 Observing sessions

1st February 2008

I actually got off my arse this evening and went outside to do half-an-hour’s observing. I took the tiny scope outside and this provided great views of some lollipops such as M42 in Orion and Mars before breaking on me – the little screw that holds the eyepiece in place became bent and didn’t work. I brought it in and straightened it out before deciding to observe with binoculars alone. Besides, the wind was making life difficult.

Weather: cold (around freezing), clear and very windy. Too windy to get the scope out.
Instrument: 8×42 Leica binoculars
Place: Near Sandown, Isle of Wight, England

Auriga: this is a rich area, providing great binocular views of several open clusters. Collinder 62, near The Kids is pretty unimpressive but M36, M37 and M38 are great. M38 is large, rich and resolvable, showing many stars on a fainter background glow with my 8×42 binoculars and while it is the largest of the Messier clusters here it is fainter than the others. Averted vision brings out many more stars and the cluster has the appearance of having arms leading off from the centre, pointing north. M36 is small and bright and round, not resolvable while M37 is larger than M36 but slightly smaller than M38. M37’s stars are also resolvable but you need to use averted vision more on this one it is much ‘fuzzier’ looking than M38.

Immediately to the south of M38 is NGC 1907 and this shows up well, with averted vision, as a tiny round glow adjacent to that larger cluster. It isn’t resolvable with binocs.

Gemini: M35 is easily visible to the unaided eye and is impressive with the binoculars. It is a triangular glow, with the thin end of the triangle pointing east. It looks like a fuzzy glow for the most part but with many brighter stars imposed on the fuzziness. NGC 2158 is visible as a tiny round brightish patch just south-west of M35. The unimpressive Collinder 89 is nearby – it’s just a few stars.

By this time I was freezing so I packed it in. It was a nice session and one which just goes to prove that you can see a lot more with binoculars than you think possible. I like binocular observing, it’s minimalist (well not quite as minimalist as naked eye astronomy) and very rewarding.

6th February 2008

Conditions: Cold, misty, sky a bit hazy. No wind
Instruments: 4-inch refractor and 8×42 binoculars
Place: Near Sandown, Isle of Wight, England

A much interrupted observing session (the England football team were in action against Switzerland and it was on BBC1). Sketched the highly unimpressive Collinder 69 in Orion – this thing consists of three stars in a triangle and that’s it, unless the fainter ones in the middle are related and even then it struggles to be anything other than boring. It’s big though and very obvious to the unaided eye. Collinder 69 represents the weapon that Orion the hunter is in the act of bringing down on some unfortunate prey.

The conditions weren’t great and I swapped the scope for the 8×42 binoculars and knocked off a few more Messiers for the binocular project to see all these objects, bringing the total to 61 – M40, M48, M95, M96, M105. What was the deal with M40? It’s two stars – how on earth did Messier think these might possibly be confused with a comet?

8th February 2008

Conditions: Clear but misty at ground level, +3 degrees C.
Seeing very steady.
Instrument: 4″ refractor and 8×42 binoculars.
Place: near Sandown, Isle of Wight, England
Naked-eye limiting magnitude: around 6.0 to 6.2

For once the weather forecast was accurate. We’re currently in a spell of pleasant, quiet weather with clear skies. After the rotten weather of the past few weeks this is a nice change.

I took the refractor out and set it up, but not without a fair bit of swearing as I dropped the tripod screws on the ground more than once.

I spent the time poking around Monoceros, a constellation I have shamefully ignored in the past. Monoceros is a constellation which deserves more attention, overshadowed as it is by its’ more illustrious and object-packed neighbours, Orion and Canis Major.

The Rosette Nebula, NGC 2237-9: Monoceros’ most famous feature is the Rosette Nebula. This is a ring of nebulosity around an open cluster NGC 2244. It is large and with a low surface brightness but is visible through binoculars under a dark sky. I used my 8×42 binoculars with an OIII filter stuck in the right eyepiece and could easily see the nebula as a round glow, slightly darker in the middle, around NGC 2244. Without the filter and with averted vision I could just about make out the nebulous glow. I had never previously attempted the Rosette, believing it to be beyond my binoculars’ and local sky’s capabilities. Obviously this is not so and this goes to show that it pays to have a go at these things.

I sketched NGC 2244 through the refractor at 45x.

There are loads of open clusters in the vicinity and I came across an interesting-looking one while scanning around the area with the binoculars. This was NGC 2301, a pretty group of stars stretched out in a north-south orientation, looking a little like one of those modern longbows used in present day sports archery. I used the refractor for a quick sketch.

The sky conditions were by now beginning to deteriorate somewhat due to increasing mist and the refractor was, despite the dew cap, becoming unusable because of vast amounts of condensation forming. No sooner had I cleaned the moisture off of the objective then the eyepiece fogged and when I wiped the wet from that then the objective fogged so I took down the refractor and resorted to using binoculars only. The mist was also attenuating the light from an upstairs window making life more difficult so I packed in, finishing up with a couple of planetary ‘lollipops’ – Saturn (with Titan) and Mars.

9th February 2008

Conditions: Clear, a little hazy, much dew and mist
Instrument: 4″ refractor, 8×42 binoculars
Place: Near Sandown, Isle of Wight, UK

Tried out OIII and UHC filters with my binoculars on the Rosette Nebula, the nebula is easier seen using the UHC filter. I also had a bash at the California Nebula (NGC 1499) in Perseus, but the sky conditions were not good enough for much of a view – I could see some brightening in the area of the nebula, but that was it.

Telescoping observing with the refractor was a dead loss, because of the amount of moisture in the air (it was pretty misty) causing severe fogging of the optics, despite the dew shield. I managed to see a few brighter galaxies in Leo with it, but as soon as I cleaned the objective it fogged again and the galaxies were reduced to being even more smudge like than usual in the small scope. The conditions were way too dismal to even attempt any sketching. Refractors are good in dry climates, where there is little moisture, but not so good in a damp area like northern Europe, which is one reason I prefer reflectors.

I packed the scope up and used the rest of the session for binocular observing, picking up open clusters Stock 2, Trumpler 2, Melotte 15, NGC 1027 and Collinder 13 in Cassiopeia, and not forgetting NGC 869 and NGC 884 which make up the Double Cluster in Perseus.

7th March 2008:

Isle of Wight Star Party

As it looked like it was going to be clear, I drove home, picked up my stuff and drove back; Radio Solent’s weather forecast was excellent, promising clear skies and a frost. When I got back to Brighstone, Owen Brazell was setting up his gorgeous Obsession 20″ Dobsonian and others were getting their gear ready as well. Dusk was falling and it was looking reasonably good.

Unfortunately this state of affairs did not last long. A threatening bank of cloud in the north-west decided to make its presence felt and soon blanketed the sky. Soon all observing was being done through sucker holes that kept opening and closing aound Orion, Canis Major and Monoceros. I managed to get a look at NGC 2359, known as ‘Thor’s Helmet’ in Canis Major, through Owen’s Obsession. This is a comparatively bright nebula and, visually, looks more like a referee’s whistle more than a Viking helmet.

Of course, the scopes were more engaged looking at the lollipops, because the conditions were no good for serious deep sky observing and, naturally, Orion’s famous M42, the Great Nebula, was a main feature. This showed superb detail though a Meade 10″ and even more so through the 20″ with a UHC filter attached, with filaments and extended nebulosity. You could easily see the structure that 18th and 19th century observers such as the Herschels and Lord Rosse drew and described, with the hatched structure very evident. I’d never seen this structure visually and had always thought the old drawings a little fanciful – but not any more!

Soon the sky was a complete cloud out and, as I’d had to be up that morning at stupid-o’clock to go to work, I packed up and drove home at 9pm.

It was a good fun evening and, despite the limited observing, was full of conversation and happy faces. I hope our little Isle of Wight Star Party grows and grows. It has a bright future, despite the iffy weather.

22nd March 2008

The evening started off clear so I set the 12-inch up on the patio. After letting it cool down for a while, I aimed it at some bright stars in a rapidly-worsening sky (isn’t that just typical??) and M81/M82. The collimation could do with a bit of slight adjusting but the view, despite the crap sky, was pretty good and I tried out a selection of eyepieces on it. Sadly, I had to pack up after only half an hour because the sky was becoming increasingly opaque. Annoying, but hopefully we’ll get some nice clear nights soon, once Spring gets well underway, and I can test it properly. Anyway, I’m pleased with what I have seen so far.

31st March 2008

The Dob got it’s second light (as it were) yesterday evening. I had the best views I have ever had of the Owl Nebula (M97) in Ursa Major; it had a definite greenish tinge to it and, for the first time, I saw the ‘eyes’ – two dark holes in the nebula – that give this interesting PN its nickname, although these were only really evident when I put an OIII filter into the eyepiece.

It wasn’t a deep sky night, due to the high cloud – there seemed to be a ‘cover’ of very high thin cloud – but the views were not too bad of the brightest objects although the scope needs collimating, as while low magnifications are ok, the view through higher mags is out of focus, with a kind of shift to one side (i.e. one side of a star or planet is good, the other awful). This is due purely to collimation issues, so once I have sorted that out, the views will improve. I have bought a laser collimator for this purpose. Collimation isn’t hard, just a bit of a pain in the arse to have to do.

Increasingly bad conditions and the need to have to get up early for work meant I had to pack up at around 9.30 pm. Nearly as irritating (although not a reason for packing up in itself) was a light aircraft that kept flying round in circles – funnily enough, and I have lived under Heathrow’s flight path in the past, I never find the noise of big jets anywhere near as annoying as the buzzing drone of a light propeller aircraft.

7th April 2008

A very nice clear night last night, quite transparent and with good seeing but as I was feeling like crap (got some disease, heaven knows what but I feel tired all the time), I didn’t lug the scope out and instead knocked off some more Messier Objects with my binoculars.

I did the entire early Spring group in one session and some of the late Spring group as well. Of course some of the galaxies were a bit difficult and I didn’t see M108 at all (this was my second attempt at it) but M44, 48, 81, 82, 109, 101, 40, 3, 51, 94, 67, 106, 63, 64, 53, 65, 66 and 105 are all in the bag (some I have observed before, but I was trying to improve the observations, e.g. M97 I failed to see last time, but last night it was no bother at all). That makes it 69 out of the 109 or 110 Messier Objects I have seen to date during this project.

It’s shaping up to be a nice night tonight as well, and I will take the scope out this time, although I have to get up early for work tomorrow (I’m looking for another job as I bloody well hate having to be at work by 0730 – probably something to do with the chronic tiredness I bet).

8th April 2008

Last night was another clear one, so it was out with the scope. I set it up early in the evening and decided to have a bash at collimating it properly. I made sure the sling on the primary was ok (it had slipped a little) and, with the laser, collimated the secondary. Perfect! Job done.

The light shroud keeps slipping as, despite measuring before the scope was completed, it’s a little too loose. I’m going to have to get a bungee cord or something to help keep it in place.

I spent the time in the galaxies and, as expected the 12-inch showed up galaxies, and details in galaxies, that my old 8-inch never could. I managed to make a sketch of NGC 3953 in Ursa Major before being clouded out – the clouds were temporary but as I had to be up at 0630 I packed in for the night.

NGC 3953 appeared oval, with a brighter nucleus, at 61x and 102x. At 37x it was oval but shows no other detail. Unfortunately drifting clouds hampered the observation.

01-02 May 2008

A clear night at last, so after the weekly meeting down at the VAS Observatory I came home and set my scope up. It was looking extremely promising, so I decided that I was going galaxy hunting and really seeing what the 12″ can do in that respect. Because of work the next day and lousy weather I’ve not used the scope that much since I got it in March (about four or five times) and even then the sessions were cut short or a bit hit-and-miss because of poor sky conditions.

Conditions: Cool, clear, very dewy. The odd bit of drifting cloud but otherwise good transparency.
Place: Back garden, near Sandown, Isle of Wight, England

My first object this evening was NGC 4361, a planetary nebula in Corvus. It was extremely easy to find, although not that bright, being low in the southern sky. It was easily picked up as a roundish brightening against the background sky and an OIII filter made it stand out more. At 102x, it was not quite round and brightened in the middle, with fuzzy edges.

I didn’t bother with the Antennae, as I have seen these before under better conditions in Texas and Australia.

Next it as up to Coma Berenices and Virgo and the Realm of the Galaxies. I decided – because of an article on Cloudy Nights – to have a look along Markarian’s Chain in Virgo. This is a long chain of galaxies and starts with Messiers 84 and 86 and includes NGC 4438, 4435, 4458, 4461, 4473 and 4477. It’s ages since I’ve looked at the Chain, the last time was as far back as 1993, with our local society’s 18″ Dob.

Also in Virgo I observed and sketched NGC’s 4596 and 4608. I’ve also observed and sketched others, but identification can wait until tomorrow – I mean later today.

With the 12″ I can see stuff I couldn’t have in my old 8″ – galaxies were everywhere and a good proportion of them weren’t just dim little ovals like they were before. Ones that were once seen as dim little ovals in my old 8″ were bright and full of detail and previously unseen galaxies now made themselves available, courtesy of those few extra inches of aperture.

I eventually packed up at 1am as I was getting cold and also drifting cloud was increasing. It was an excellent session.

2nd-3rd May 2008

I only had a short observing session last night due to having to be back at work today at 0730 (I am ditching this bloody job when I come back from Texas in June as the hours are crap) and I spent an hour poking around the galaxies of Virgo again. I didn’t make any sketches though, just looking and seeing what was there. So many galaxies, so little time! Like I said in the previous post my 12″ shows me so much more than the old 8″ ever did – small faint ones, large faint ones, large bright ones, small bright ones, edge-on spirals, face-on spirals, the lot. Wonderful!

I also added M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, in Virgo to my binocular Messier list – I have observed 70 Messiers with my 8x42s to date so I am going to send them off to the Astronomical League for a binocular Messier pin – you need to observe 50 or more to qualify for the pin – and I also attempted M68, a globular cluster in Hydra, but I totally failed to see it properly, probably due to haze and its low altitude. If it clears tonight I’ll give it another go.

Constantly wiping dew off the Telrad becomes tiresome very quickly and I spent a lot of time doing just that last night and the night before, so I decided to buy a dew heater off the net. Prices varied, from an outrageous £69 on one site to a more reasonable £9.99 from Telescope House, so I sent off for the latter and hopefully this should turn up by Tuesday (or Wednesday as there’s a bank holiday in the way). Buying new gear always guarantees clouds, but surely a tiny, ten quid dew heater shouldn’t attract the ‘new equipment curse’…?

A beautiful day yesterday (6th May 2008) led to a clear, dry night so, as I didn’t have to go to work the following morning it was time for a spot of observing.

6th-7th May 2008

Conditions: Clear, but milky sky (on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is poor and 5 is excellent, this ranked around 2.5 to 3), warm.
Scope: 12″ f5 Dobsonian
Place: near Sandown, Isle of Wight, UK

Sadly, the sky was fairly milky and a lot of the fainter stuff was not visible but I did do a sketch of M51 whose spiral arms and HII regions were visible. I also located and sketched NGC 4036 and NGC 4041, galaxies in Ursa Major (and objects on the Herschel 400 list). Unfortunately a lot more UMa galaxies I wanted for the Herschel 400 were behind the tree in the garden by the time I got round to them, and will have to wait for another time.

This observing session was not without incident – the collimation went out on the scope (I need to do a few mods, I think) necessitating a lot of fiddling with laser collimater and allen keys (it’s the secondary which is being a pain in the arse), I knocked my makeshift observing ‘table’ (an artist’s rucksack cum stool) over scattering charts, pencils and sketchpad all over the adjacent flower bed and then injuring my right knee while kneeling to pick them up (I have a damaged cartilidge and it ‘locks’ up – painfully – from time to time) which meant I spent five minutes in agony and doing a lot of (quiet!) swearing and no observing. Combined with crappy seeing, this was a slightly frustrating session!

After checking out the Ring Nebula which was rising above the trees it was time to pack up. By then it was 1am and I’d been up since 0630 the previous morning.

7th-8th May 2008

A much more transparent night due probably to a breeze that had been blowing during the day and into the evening. This died down when it got dark.

Set up the scope in twilight and wondered why, when I came to align the finder and check the collimation, I couldn’t see a damned thing. The secondary holder had become misaligned but a quick adjustment soon sorted that out. The nut holding it had worked its way loose so two seconds with a spanner tightened it up – I’ll have to keep an eye on that because the last thing I want is for the secondary to work loose and crash into the main mirror, which doesn’t bare thinking about!

Conditions: Clear, slight breeze (this died down after dark), cooler than previous evening, more transparent (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is cloudy and 5 is excellent, this was around 4).
Scope: 12″ f5 Dobsonian.
Place: near Sandown, Isle of Wight, UK.

As the conditions were more transparent than the previous night I looked for galaxies in Ursa Major – the ‘lollipops’ M81 and M82 were superb through the 12″ ( a real ‘wow’ factor with lots of detail) and other, small, galaxies in the vicinity were easy to see: NGC 3077, NGC 2976 and, further away, NGC 2787.

Hercules was rising, so I had the obligatory look at M13 – it was a fantastic sight in the 12″ with a dense core and arms of stars radiating out from it. I didn’t do a sketch, that can wait until later in the year. While in the area, I decided to have a look at the galaxy near M13, NGC 6207. At low power (37x) both M13 and NGC 6207 are in the same field of view. NGC 6207 is a slightly elongated oval smudge, evenly bright.

It was on to NGC 6229 a globular cluster in Hercules. At 37x, this was obvious, next to a couple of bright stars. It’s small, condensed, round and bright. Some stars resolved, but only just.

After this it was 1am and time to pack in.

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).

Texas Star Party, June 1-8, 2008

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.

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). 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 often-rubbish skies we get at home – and better even than a lot of the Texas-based observers do, most of them live in Houston, Dallas or Austin, etc, and their skies often aren’t as good as parts of the UK.

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.

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 not great 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.

30th June – 1st July 2008

It was clear last night and I didn’t have to be at work today so I set up the 12 inch for an hour or two of observing under less-than-ideal conditions – it was clear enough, but as the solstice was only ten days ago, it wasn’t really dark enough for serious deep sky observing but as I am fed up with no observing and at least *something* was visible I went out anyway. As it was, it didn’t get ‘dark’ enough for observing until after midnight, when brighter portions of the Milky Way became visible.

I did, however, begin the Astronomical League Globular Cluster Observing Program as summer is a prime time for hunting these and there are rich pickings to be had in Ophiuchus and what parts of Scorpius and Sagittarius there are accessible to those of us at these northern latitudes. I’d bought the AL’s Globular Cluster book at TSP in 2006 with the intention of doing this program.

Seeing was excellent, very steady (detail was visible on Jupiter when it rose higher) and transparency was also very good, with little haze. Shame about the sky not being quite dark, though!

Because of the fairly light sky, finding stuff was a little difficult and actually seeing it was worse, but I found things that I would never have seen with the old 8 inch.

NGC 6426 was the first GC on my list. It’s located just north of an attractive white double, 61 Ophiuchi. It was round, very faint and not resolved. I couldn’t see it at all at 44x but it was seen at 102x. 2330 UT (0030 BST).

Because of the conditions, I messed around looking at brighter stuff and then packed up at 0100 UT (0200 BST). There was, at 0010 UT (0110 BST), a bright meteor which left a green trail through Cepheus.

I got to use my new 35mm TeleVue Panoptic for the first time on my 12 inch (although it had its actual ‘first light’ on Larry Mitchell’s 36 inch Obsession at TSP last month) and my slight concerns about it being too heavy and tipping the scope were unfounded. The balance on the 12 inch, and the friction on the bearings, are so good that it stayed put when the big eyepiece was put into the focusser. The view was good right across the field to the edges, with practically no coma.

24th October 2008

Actually managed the first observing session since the end of June last night. As I was tired I couldn’t be bothered to lug the scope out so I took the binoculars (8×42) out. After finishing the Astronomical League Messier Binocular Award (see previous post), I have now began the AL Deep Sky Binocular Award.

It was cloudless but chilly and breezy with steady seeing (not a twinkle to be seen!).

It got off to a decent start with 12 objects in and around Cassiopeia, Perseus and Camelopardalis, all open clusters: NGC’s 869 and 884 (together making up the Double Cluster), 663, 457, 129, 1893 and 1528, Stock 2, Trumplers 2 and 3, Kemble 1, Collinder 463 and Melotte 20 (the Alpha Persei Association).

And that was it for 2008. I don’t know why the observing tailed off after October but as I remember it was a mixture of work, life getting in the way, other interests getting in the way and the weather not being very good.