Take your chances when you can

This year hasn’t really been anything other than cloudy. Bit of a pain for visual astronomers, all told. I should probably finish my radio telescope, shouldn’t I? And my meteor detector. And and and…yeah, so many projects, so little time. Still waiting for the truckload of cash to come through my front window. Imagine the fun I could have then…

BUT, we’ve had two clear nights. In a row. Over a Bank Holiday, so no need to get up for school the next day. What are the chances of that happening in this country? Well, one, it would seem, as it has happened. And boy, did I take advantage of it, and boy, wasn’t it just fantastic.

The first night, not quite as great, as the moon drowned out a lot of the sky with her extra brightness. On the other hand, she didn’t cast her light on me until she rose over the rooftops, which was going on midnight. I decided to do some imaging, M53 was my target for some reason. Not that I need a reason, a fine target that is.



An honourable mention must go to the Cat’s Eye Nebula, a glorious blue blob, in fact I can convince myself I saw it as a double blob, but not any central region with any distinction.

The second night, for some reason I thought I’d start with M37. No idea why, it wasn’t on my planned list, I guess between looking at the list and getting to the eyepiece something happened. I transposed a six for a three. But happy chance! How absolutely deep was M37? I got lost counting. Various powers and magnifications, it was probably the best I’ve seen it ever. More and more and more stars springing into view, a really brilliant cluster, I loved every minute of it.

I could wax lyrical about the others I looked at, but I’ll just give a namecheck to them: M3, 36, 38 and 67.

But of course, I love my doubles and triples, we all know that. I decided I’d look through Burnham again, and dropped him open at Boötes (and Cancer). So I leisurely strolled through a few of them. Again, just to list:

Boötis ε/ζ/κ/μ/ξ/π
Cancri ι/θ2

Oh boy. μ Boötis. A triple of excellence. Before I focussed properly, it looked like a Triforce symbol! Colour contrasts, sparkling jewels, a long time spent on each set. Not quite sure what would be my ultra-standout, hard to say, but glad I swept around.

Given the time of year, Jupiter was also observed. How could you not? Never, ever anything less than an inspiring sight. Watching the progress of the moons, both in wide-field and tight in. Clouds bands prominent, majestic. Venus is also up there, and I was showing her phases to the females of the house, being about 3/4 at time of viewing I think. Very bright, and up for a long time before setting.

(One downside was I seem to have run the thread on one of the screws that holds the eyepiece in, must have a look at that in the daytime. Dropping the screw, and having to use my phone torch to find it, kind-of ruined my dark adaption.)

You see, it doesn’t matter how many time I look at the same objects, be it a Messier, multiple-system or a solar system body, I…drink them in, it always, and will always, make me happy. More than that. So much more than that. My truth is out there, somewhere.

And I am always happy to share this, with anyone, everyone. Do come spend the evening with me! The rule of thumb is I stop when I can no longer feel my knees/fingers. Wrap up well. Bring your best eyes.

Comets, clouds and catalogues.

Date 10/1/15
Seeing 7/10
Time observing 1900 – 0000

It has been in the news recently, and probably all across your social media streams, if your social media streams are anything like mine. So there is a comet crossing the sky right now. For a good while, it was low in the south, a part of the sky I can’t observe, due to the house being in the way, and our back garden not being that long. Once I build Nova Uraniborg in place of the sheds at the very back, I will get more of a view of the south. As that section is also raised, so that will help.

comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy 8/1/15

Once Lovejoy did rise above the house, of course there were clouds. For days. Anxiety over whether I’d ever see the sky again…but on the 8th Jan they broke, after raining all day long. Time to track it down! Which is easy with a properly polar-aligned GOTO mount and the ability to set ra-dec directly. Easier if you use the ever-excellent-and-helpful Live Comet Data. Fire up the engines, and…yes! A lovely little fuzzy patch. Fantastic. Really, really fantastic. Don’t you just love the thrill you get of finding these things? Sure, other people have way better photographs than mine, and better scopes to see it with, but doesn’t matter, the photons from my equipment hit my eye, and that is, for me, the best feeling.

There is a great anticipation when you look in the finder scope, and you can see the comet, and you eagerly move to the main eyepiece. Great stuff.


Side-on spiral NGC891

I don’t know what made me try for NGC891, as you can see from the inverted photo above is rather indistinct. A tough target, photographically. And as for visually? Crikey. We are heading down past mag 10 here, and given my location and aperture, that is a challenge. Still, after maybe forty minutes of shunting and squinting, I got it. The training of my eyes continues. I’m thinking of this as limbering up for the Herschel 400, or even a Messier marathon.

Orion nebula

Orion nebula

The winter sky is great, and here is one of the standout pieces. When I tried (visually) for this on the same night as I took the Lovejoy picture above, it was barely visible, an indistinct cloud. But last night, it was fantastic in the eyepiece. The embedded stars were glittering jewels, the nebulosity distinct and a glorious inky blue. I did dash in to grab Κασσάνδρα, but she had already got her pyjamas on, and it was cold out there.

Like Albireo, this is another one of those sights I’ll never, ever get bored of observing.

Lastly, while I was mooching around in Cassiopeia, I stumbled over NGC147. Not sure I’ve ever observed that before. Its companion, NGC185 I certainly have, which makes it odd. Or maybe I just didn’t keep a note of it, but I usually do.

I also made some sketches of some doubles, though I didn’t have an atlas beside me at that point to verify if they were physical or merely optical. The mount can tell me its current coordinates, so I’ll look them up at some point too.

My own unique Wil Tirion star chart

Not an observing update, something slightly different. Let me tell the story.

At this year’s Webb Deep Sky Society‘s AGM, the world’s premier uranographer, Wil Tirion gave a great talk. Fascinating. Of course, the first star atlas of his I owned was a little tiny ‘Collins Gem’ variant, way back when I was, errr, nine. In 1981. And I still have it 🙂

Skipping forward a few months, and someone somewhere mentioned Splash Maps to me. Neat idea, I though, as I do love a good map, and these were something that bit different. Great for hiking, biking, and…hang on. Something struck me. If I got a star chart printed on one of those, that would rock. Being waterproof, it could stay outside with me, help me learn the positions of more Messier objects, doubles, clusters and the like. It could be shared with others, a cool field teaching accessory. It could even be used when I didn’t have a ‘scope, on holidays, just stuff it in my pocket. (I got a little disorientated in Bulgaria over the summer. So I could take it with me everywhere.)

So I had a plan. First up, I contacted the very-helpful David at Splash Maps, to see if he could do such a thing for me. Meantime, more as a cheeky question than a hopeful one, I emailed Wil Tirion himself to ask permission to use one of his charts on the map. (I was wistfully looking through his atlases, trying to pick one I’d like printed.)

David was agreeable, and…wait for it…so was Wil! I didn’t even expect a reply, but I got one, and more than I hoped for. I mentioned I’d like a full Northern Hemisphere, but not in the colours that I had. I fancied it black-on-white, with a nice blue showing the flow of the Milky Way. After some back and forward to get to that point, he mentioned he had such a thing, from an out-of-print Canadian planisphere. But he’d fix the colours, amend it and send me the vector variant, so it could be scaled without loss of quality, to help with the printing.

I was…surprised, elated and very, very grateful. What a gentleman. Dealing with him was a joy. (And, being a fan, this pleases me on all levels.)

Now I had the image I wanted, I sent it on to Splash Maps, their cartographers and printers gave it the once over…and I waited to receive it. And now I have it, and it is superb. A one-off (well, it has a new copyright notice on it, so it isn’t exactly the same as the Canadian one!) Wil Tirion star chart, that I can take anywhere with me, that is waterproof, wearable, usable and just completely awesome. The first such thing anywhere, I’d wager. Sure, there are waterproof maps, but this is entirely different. And it is mine.

Others might copy it, but remember, I got here first 🙂

With many thanks to David at Splash Maps for making the process easy, and to the almighty Wil Tirion for just being himself, the world’s premier Uranographer.

Polar explorer

Polar explorer

Image on flickr

Sudden outbreak of clarity

Tonight was clear. Unbelievably clear. It was…so superbly clear it put me at peace again. Alas, it was also unbelievably windy, which curtailed my fantastic session a bit.

All visual tonight, I didn’t fancy trying any imaging with all that wind. So I dipped in and around Cassiopeia, and the rich star fields were just great. η Cas was beautiful, both in the wide field set against all the stars, and in higher magnifications. So much so, I would be tempted to say set against the sparkling backdrop, it was more impressive than even Albireo. And I never thought I’d ever say that! To my eyes, the colours were a diamond white and russet red. That is another great thing about doubles, hardly anyone really agrees on the colours, and I’ve read reports on doubles I’ve seen and wondered what on earth the observers were talking about.

Sweeping through many clusters, too, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars in the eyepiece. Every single thing I looked at was startlingly amazing. Every thing. It was one of those nights. If not for the wind, I’d have done some images (including setting up the film camera, taking a long exposure of my ‘scope taking long exposures of something.)

Clusters in Perseus, Boötes, Ophiuchus, with even the Pleiades getting a look in, and I have to say, that took me by surprise. Quite the large fuzzy patch, and it confused me for a minute as to what it was. Andromeda was extra bright, though I can never get a decent view of it. Maybe I just need to view it for longer, and tease out more and more details from it as the night progresses.

I dragged my good lady out for quite a few of these, too. Always worth sharing. And there was also one more target I looked for, one which, to my ailing memory I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. In fact, I am sure I’ve never seen it before. The ice giants are awake, and while Neptune is hidden from me by my own house, Uranus is easily visible. And what another ace sight it was. A lovely extended blue-ish disc, silent and graceful. Wonderful to see it, truly. You can really tell the difference between planets and stars, even those outer planets that are far, far away.

A fine night’s observing, and a pity it didn’t last longer, but the picking up of the wind speed was noticable while looking through the eyepiece.

β and 17 Cyg

β and 17 Cyg

β and 17 Cyg on flickr taken a few weeks ago.

Resolve to resolve

The Washington Double Star Catalogue is fantastic, it really is. And you can grab it for yourself. So, obviously, I did.

Importing it into MySQL myself (after a few tweaks), gives me a total of 128,848 stars. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader as to how many doubles that is. I must see if it contains systems with more than two stars, as well…

The only downside was it doesn’t list those via constellation, you just get the coordinates. But hey, the internationally-agreed boundaries are available, so it isn’t beyond the wit of man (or me) to cobble together a script that given said coordinates, can place it in a constellation.

Downside no more! Now I have the WDS data broken down by constellation, sorted on magnitude. Which leads me to my next project, whereby I see how far down the list I can actually see the separation. The WDS does come with separation data, but I haven’t added that into my page yet. I probably will, all the same.

So now I await a clear night to choose a constellation and be at it. Others do the Messier list, or the Herschel 400. Me, I’m attempting the WDS 120k 🙂

...or the rival of Mars...

…or the rival of Mars…

How’s it going, Bill and Ted?

This isn’t an observing update, rather, a observation update. I read an article recently about observing styles, people who plan what to see, and others who just rock the ‘scope out, and view what and where they want.

I am very much of the former. I’ll sit with my atlases (need! more! atlases!) and my pad and pencil, and decide what I want to tackle. A few objects a night, generally. Although if there are guests, I tend to do the ‘introductory Grand Tour’, which is Albireo, M92, M13, the double cluster of NGCs 869/884, eta Lyrae, Mizar, the Ring/Dumbell nebulae as starters.

As for using the actual telescope, I’ve gotten better at alignment. Polar aligning is key, but luckily not hard. In fact, I can set up in daylight, and only be a few degrees off Polaris, only having to nudge the mount a little. My favoured alignment stars are Arcturus and Dubhe, with Vega and Albireo for calibration. Then we are set for the night, the mount can pretty much do the rest. I was…sceptical of GOTO mounts, but in the end, it saves me time, and saving time there means more at the eyepiece. For some objects, I have to plug the RA/dec in by hand, and the mount gets close, but some nudging by me is still needed. Depends on the accuracy of the catalogue I am using. Did I mention I need more atlases? Well, more catalogues as well please!

A brief aside, I’ve been more than happy with the service I got from Tring Astro, both during the buying and after, and now I buy all my bits from there. A filter is on its way to me, OIII, for nebulae.

And it turns out I much prefer visual observing. Which I am both surprised and not at. I had thought I’d get more and more into astrophotography, and while I like that, I am happy at not buying guidescopes, and CCDs. Well, not until I build my obsrevatory, anyhow. But visual observing is just…fantastic. It calms me, and I spend time on the same object, teasing out more detail, getting to know it, where it lives, and how it lives. And boy, do I love my doubles. (OK, so yes, my thesis was on double systems, but that never killed it for me 🙂

In fact, given I use Ablireo as a calibration star, that is generally the first object I settle on in an evening. It is a pretty thing, no doubt about it. The Webb Deep Sky Society double star atlas is a great thing, too.

Every night it has been clear, I have been out. I can’t wait for the winter when I don’t need to wait until midnight before it gets even close to being dark. And I can get to bed before 2am. A procession of teenagers (and older) have had the aforementioned Grand Tour, and Valerie has been out as well. The family are well aware I like doubles the best, but diffuse nebulae and clusters too. I had great fun with ‘The Blinking Nebula’ the other night, as well.

I might be getting a little obsessed, but nothing wrong with that. The planning has meant I don’t come home from work and go online, rather I pour over books and charts. And curse at cloud cover. The world is quiet here, and up there.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There is an open invitation, come round anytime. If it is clear, I’ll be out the back. If not, we can sit inside and have coffee 🙂

(Mostly) On my own

Our Kiwi relations have been and gone, and a procession of 20-year old boys sated with the skies, I found myself with fantastic seeing, and plenty of time. Even if it was a school night.

And turns out I have now gotten rather adept at alignment, both polar and star. And man, getting that right makes everything so much sweeter. I had already planned my evening’s viewing, and pretty much stuck to it. Yeah yeah, doubles…

Valerie observed for a bit too, but mostly it was me and Lyra. Then I decided to try and capture again. Of course, I spent quite a lot of time at the eyepiece, teasing out more and more detail. Alas, given it was indeed a weekday, having to get up for work the next…later the same day, it didn’t really get dark enough for me to get the dense(r) star field I wanted as a backdrop.

But it didn’t turn out that bad. Next time I will use C-A’s camera.

η and θ Lyrae

η and θ Lyrae

Flickr version, as ever.

η (and θ) Lyrae were both deserving targets. And not listed in my GOTO database, so I tried just putting in the RA/dec, and seeing how the mount coped. Wonderfully! Even with the close eyepiece, it was view as soon as she slew. I know people think it a cheat, but really, it is a boon. So much more time spent seeing, and not shifting, nudging and frustratingly not finding what you are looking for.

A little bit of planning helps, too. Then again, I just love looking through star atlases and catalogues. Quite a few are available free as PDFs, but you can’t beat paper ones.

I even set up this evening, but after zeta Lyrae, it started to cloud over. Ah well…

Grand Tour

Seeing: 5/10 (at midnight) to 6.5/10 (at 3am)
Time: 00:00 – 03:00

Well, what a palaver. It was cloudy until just before midnight, but I had the scope out cooling down anyhow. Then, when it did clear up, for some reason I was having alignment trouble. I’d align with two stars (Arcturus and Vega, if memory serves), add a few calibration ones in, but the mount threw all sorts of tantrums, and when asked to go somewhere, wouldn’t even go in the right direction, ending up nowhere near.

So I muttered, and tried again with different stars. Still the same. Then I even resorted to re-polar aligning, and and…forgotten how lovely Polaris is, a fine double that is oft overlooked. Two-star align again, calibration stars again, and this time it did swing to the right area, in fact, rather close to the targets. Well. Most of the targets. A few, again, it just went bonkers. Quite odd. But I did get a fantastic view of some fantastic objects after that.

Alas, by the time I had gotten things aligned to my satisfaction, Valerie was in bed, too tired to stay up. But insomniac daughter was awake, so she shared the sights with me. And what sights they were.

Sure, M13 is always impressive, and I doubt I’ll ever get bored of it. (Before daughter came out, I did my double star hunt, this time just inside Lyra, as there are some lovely colour-contrasting doubles thereabouts. Yes, I know. But I love doubles.)

Bringing daughter out at 2am, though, I thought we’d do a Grand Tour, starting with M92. It is also very impressive, and just makes the nudge to M13 all the more impressive. I had a go at finding M31 too, and lo, there she was, Andromeda. Huge, too. Too much for the short eyepiece.

My one concession to doubles with her (yes, I showed her Ablireo, obvs) was to put the wider lens in, and go for ε Lyrae. Yeah, she says, a double, nice. Then flick to the closer lens, so it resolves into two pairs of binary. Cool stuff!

Swinging around to see NGC 869 and NGC 884, the ‘double cluster’, perfectly resolvable in the improving conditions. Quite stunning, actually, set in a fantastic starfield. ‘Tis pity it is a Caldwell listed object. Boo-hiss to the Caldwell catalogue. Then we dived across to M57, the Dumbbell nebula. Even in my 8inch SCT, this is a fine sight, taking up most of the eyepiece. A diffuse blue, which no doubt will benefit from a filter when I have cash again.

Daughter, like me, was loving this. Sure, obvious sights, but damn, they never, ever fail, to impress. And more impressive that I am seeing this from my back garden.

It has reinforced that I haven’t a burning desire to really get into serious astrophotography. Much as all the pictures you see are awesome, and within my ability and location, but _prefer_ visual observing. The hunt, the nudge, the reveal. So much so, that when I build my observatory, I’ll start to think about a huge light bucket, and a large aperture refractor.

I have also printed out some observing log pages, and am going to teach myself how to sketch at the eyepiece.

Looking upwards always…calmed me, and it does still. Calmness, and wonder. And a wonder I love to share, and I love to see the reaction mine have when they see these things too. They do seem to appreciate it, which is great. How can you not? And we are all learning the techniques of viewing, the averted vision and teasing of detail out. The dark adapted eye, which even afforded me to see the summer-spanning Milky Way with the naked eye. From here. Yes. And while the world wheeled, I started to spot more deep sky objects with my eye. Or the corner of my eye…

And when I have…options to do this more, to chase if not my total dream, at least enable it a bit more, get a bit closer to it, what do I do? I am thinking on it. Life is out there, and for me, up there.

On the plus side, I think I have settled on the objects I’ll use for visitors. Well, summer visitors. Winter is a whole different set of fish. And hunters. I amn’t even missing the southern horizon (that much), there is so much to see. More than my lifetime. Maybe I will start on the Hershel 400…

No real sign of the nights drawing in…

…and a school night, too.

Even so…Valerie and I stood out in the balmy evening.

Seeing: 4.5 / 10 (My own personal rating here.)
Time: 22:25 – 23:45


1. ε Lyrae, the double-double. Resolvable into all its components.
2. Albireo, as I still love it. Upper a hot blue, lower a dusty red.
3. M57, the Ring Nebula. Man, this is awesome. A smokey blue ring, set in a speckled star field.

I mean, come on. The Ring Nebula. From Cambridge. This makes me very, very happy. I can study it for an age, it is a calming sight. Yes, I know it is an easy target, but it still has the wow-ness. And that is without a filter, too. Which I’ll buy at some point.

It is still a pity Saturn is behind the houses, I might have to take myself to another site to view her.

Another great session, though. I do like my doubles.

No darkness

It was after 11pm before it got anyway dark, so alignment stars were few and far between. Arcturus, obviously, Vega for calibration.

Targets: Arcturus, Mars, Mizar, Vega

Valerie joined me for a bit, though had to hunt for extra clothing to keep herself warm. And yes, I was in shorts, sandals and a teeshirt. Our targets differ, she likes lunar/planetary, whereas I, as you know, am all about the doubles and globulars.

Still, she enjoyed it, as did I. But work tomorrow…later on…so I best be off. But here, have an inverted picture of Arcturus, taken using daughter’s camera, as mine ran out of battery after a few shots of Mars. Long exposures, eh?