Tales from the observatory

I’m going to try and finish my Elan Valley notes today. Until then, I’m putting up a few photos from the observatory in Shropshire. My telescope is in there now as a temporary measure, (the large dog needed cleaning and collimating, and needs the mount modified. A work in progress!). Picture one shows my 8″ scope in the dome,
Picture two is a half-second shot of M42, (showing some nice colours, I’m pleased, though clouds came over before I could better focus).
Thirdly, the open cluster M38 in Auriga, and another smaller cluster NGC 1907. I’m really pleased that my DSLR can pick up these Messier objects. I’ll look forward to clearer skies and getting my own shots of all the clusters in  Auriga and Gemini. I’d have managed it last night but I was thwarted by clouds.
(Note to self – Leaping Minnow asterism points to smiley face, and M38 is by the face’s right eye.)
Picture four shows detail of the waning moon taken Monday 26th.





Neptune update…

It’s  been three weeks now since my observing visit to the amazing Elan Valley, and I still haven’t written up my observations. It actually seems like such a gargantuan task that I’ve been putting off doing it – and yet I usually enjoy it!
Anyway, whilst browsing my photos I was pleased to see, in the corner of one shot, (I was actually taking a photo of Mars), I’ve captured Neptune again, with a 3.5 second exposure. The image isn’t good quality, I think perhaps due to the planet being right at the edge of the lens. But I can see it, and it’s clearly moved since my last picture.
At 7.85 mag, it’s the dimest major planet, and of course, the furthest, so it’s fun to be able to track its path through the outer reaches of our solar system.

Nep 1b

Neptune 18/10/18



Neptune in Aquarius

I’ve spent the last two nights over at the society’s new observatory. It’s not yet ready to be officially opened, but it’s getting there. Last night it was quite clear, and although there are issues with the scope, (which are hopefully solvable), it was good to see the sky clearing around 00.30 and the winter constellations rising. There’s a good chance it’ll be clear again tonight, so I may be writing up a binocular report soon.
Anyway, I was at the observatory with another society member, and we were looking for Neptune. The Moon was right by it, and only a few days away from full, so the planet was lost to the Moon’s glare. But I do have some pictures taken with my DSLR from earlier in the week. I’ve been watching Neptune for the past three or four weeks. It’s heading ‘eastwards’.
Here’s the star field view, which I find by star-hopping from the two rightmost stars in the square of Pegasus. Find those, then go down the same distance down, then go a bit further down . . . (not very scientific, I know, but it works for me..) and here’s the view…


That’s with a 2.5 second exposure, f3.5 6400 ASA. A bit grainy, but it picks Neptune up…


Zoomed in, and compared with a screen capture from Stellarium, the faint dot is confirmed as the remote planet…


Cropped image from DSLR 50mm lens 18/102018 2.5 seconds f3.5 6400 ASA


Stellarium screencap for 18/10/2018

Neptune is mag 7.9 through November. I’m hoping to get more photos to show its movement. I did the same with Jupiter earlier in the year, but now I have a better lens to do it with, (a 50mm Canon EF, it says on the side). As I said, it was lost to the glare of the Moon last night, and in the city it’d almost certainly be lost to the streetlight haze. The photos above I took from the A41, about seven miles from the city. I haven’t bothered putting the small 4″ on Neptune. Uranus displays only a small disc through a much larger telescope, so I doubt I’d see a disc through the little Skywatcher. The society’s 16″ mirror, on the other hand, might well present us with a disc, as soon as the mirror is cleaned!

One last shot of the Moon and Mars on the 18/10.2018. A very pretty sight indeed!


International Astronomy Show 2018

I’ve been to the big Astronomy show in Warwickshire again today. I go every year and it’s one of my favourite days of the whole year.



My favourite lecture was Andrew Coates talking about the search for life on Mars. He’s actually working on the space probe that’s going there in 2020.



How clever is he? Check this out.

Professor Andrew Coates gained a BSc in Physics from UMIST in 1978, and MSc (1979) and D.Phil. (1982) in plasma physics from Oxford University. He has been at UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) since 1982, with temporary positions at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Physics (Germany), University of Delaware (USA) and BBC World service (media fellowship). He is Deputy Director (solar system) at UCL-MSSL. Space involvements include the ExoMars 2020 rover where he leads the PanCam team, Cassini, leading the electron spectrometer team, Venus Express, Mars Express and Giotto.

Observation report 9/10/18

Here’s an observation report I wrote for the local society’s newsletter.


We held another observation session at our Trysull site on the 9th October. The sky was 100% clear from clouds for once, with a slight haze in the air as the evening drew on. Half a dozen members turned up at various times, and we were lucky to enjoy a very comfortable, mild, Autumn evening’s observing.
Three scopes were in use tonight. Steve bought along his Skywaytcher ED80 refractor with a go-to mount, and Martyn bought his pillar-mounted 110mm reflector. I took my Skywatcher 8” Reflector, so we were lucky once again in being able to use a range of different scopes.

Steve, aligning the go-to mount
Steve, aligning the go-to mount
The telescopes
The telescopes
Saturn through the 8" Skywatcher
Saturn through the 8″ Skywatcher

The first obvious target was Saturn, as it was situated low in the sky, and heading lower, soon to be obscured by trees. We were looking at the planet through the worst possible conditions, as the cooling Earth created much turbulence in the air, and the low aspect meant we were looking through a lot of haze. But even so, it’s always a thrill to see the ringed planet. Its rings are currently quite open, and even in the worst conditions, it’s always a worthwhile telescope subject. With my Canon 750 DSLR on a T-ring, I shot about 40 seconds of film of Saturn through my 8” Skywatcher, which I stacked in Registax and although by current astrophotography standards it’s a poor planetary photograph, it’s a good representation of what we were able to see through our scopes this evening.
Mars dominated the South-west horizon. A few months after its closest approach, it’s still a superb, shining, salmon-pink beacon in the sky. Through our scopes we could clearly see the 90% phase, (which sparked much debate on planetary phases), and later on in the evening, as the air steadied, definite V-shaped markings were seen on the disc.
But our planetary observations were not over. On my ‘hit list’ in my observation book I’d written down Uranus, currently in Aires. But I was dismayed to see the constellation of Aries was lost in the Wolverhampton sky-glow six or seven miles away. Hardly any stars were visible through my finder-scope, so finding the icy world through my 8” mirror was going to be a task for another time. Luckily, Steve’s go-to scope saved the day, as it was able to navigate through the light pollution and offer up a fine view of the remote planet. It’s disc could be clearly seen, especially through the 4mm eyepiece, and we were thrilled to be able to add this elusive planet to our list of observed objects this evening. Whilst some might find the small blueish ‘dot’ underwhelming, it’s worth bearing in mind we’re looking far, far out into the coldest reaches of our solar system. This planet wasn’t discovered till a hundred years after Galileo saw Jupiter’s moons.
With the bright star Vega, and the constellation Lyra, right overhead, it seemed fitting to start our tour of Deep Sky Objects with the Ring Nebula, number 57 on Messier’s famous list. Luckily one member bought a set of very high quality eyepieces, and through a 6.7mm eyepiece and the 8” mirror the nebula appeared surprisingly bright and large, its nebulous structure easily seen.
Steve showed me NGC 457 (also known as the Owl Cluster, the ET Cluster, or Caldwell 13), which is an open star cluster in the constellation of Cassiopeia. This striking telescopic object can be imagined as a flying bird, or even Speilberg’s ET, with outstretched arms and bright, shining eyes.
M29 is an open cluster, prettily placed in a star field in Cygnus. We had a lovely view of it through the Skywatcher ED80. This telescope really has some fine optics.
Martyn, as usual, was seeking out double stars with his reflector. Both Almach (in Andromeda) and Albereo (in Cygnus) looked stunning tonight. The colour contrast easily visible. Both these double stars are similar, a bright golden star with a fainter blue companion.
Many times during the night we visited M31, and the best view came around 10.30pm through the ED80, when its companion galaxy M32 could be easily spotted, and the main galaxy itself was showing hints of structure. I can’t wait to get the society’s newly acquired 16” reflector on M31. Hopefully it won’t be too long.I’d been doing a lot of binocular observations over the summer, and M71 in Sagitta has eluded me every time. It should be very easy to find, the constellation is quite distinct and the object well placed almost between two stars, and Sagitta is right overhead. This evening, however, I was in luck, and we saw M71 in the 8” mirror. At first, we thought we were looking at faint nebulosity. Not so! After ten minutes, (and perhaps due to the dew on the eyepiece clearing), we were able to see it was in fact a quite dense star cluster. This was my favourite find of the evening, as I’d never seen it before, and I can understand now why there’s some contention about it being either a loose globular cluster, or a dense open cluster. I hope to visit it again under darker skies, it really is quite easy to find, as long as you have a clear enough sky and a capable telescope.

We looked at The Coathanger asterism in Vulpecula next, first through the finder-scope and the 10×50 binoculars, then the 8” mirror. This asterism is also known as Brocchis Cluster, or Collinder 399.

Other fine binocular targets tonight were the Pleiades and the Hyades, the well-known naked-eye open clusters that herald the oncoming winter, the latter rising around 9.30.

Other deep sky objects visited tonight were the Double Cluster in Perseus, (NGC 869 and NGC 884), which looked very pretty, and two of the brightest galaxies in Ursa Major – M81 and M82, (Bode’s Galaxy and its telescopic companion). These were quite faint tonight, but still we could see the shape of the galaxies. Bode’s being the brighter, face-on galaxy, and its fainter companion clearly cigar-shaped and edge on. Bode’s is 8.5 million light years away, (In comparison, the Andromeda galaxy is 2.2 million light years, our closest major galaxy).

We also enjoyed a fine view of the Alpha Persei Cluster, a very beautiful field of stars surrounding the giant star Merphak. This cluster is also known as Mellotte 20, or Collinder 39. we looked at this through Martyn’s 110mm reflector, but it’s also a very nice binocular object, and at only around 600 light years away, a far closer object than the distant galaxies we had previously been looking at!

The Go-To mount searched for Neptune. Was it one of the stars we saw in the field of view after the scope settled? Very possibly. It was hard to say, and without a star map to corroborate the view, we can only honestly say “we possibly saw Neptune”. I’ve always found the best way to find Neptune is under a very dark sky with 10×50 and a screen-grab from Stellarium, the free star-chart program. And even then, it’s a rather faint point of light. If Neptune is visible the next time we have a session, I’ll take a screen-grab beforehand.

I tried to find M103, a cluster in Cassiopeia, without luck, although I’d seen it through my binoculars earlier that week! When reading up about this cluster later, I found it can be quite underwhelming telescopically, so perhaps I’d seen it, and passed it over?

Auriga was rising after 10pm, but still too low to see the chain of star clusters. I did see the ‘Leaping Minnow’ asterism though, that can be used as a marker for the three M-numbered clusters in Auriga.

With Hercules riding high, M13 and M92 were easily viewable though. M13 being particularly bright tonight, with stars resolved around the edge.

As the evening wore on, the slight haze in the sky turned to mist, and we found our eyepieces dewing up, so after a coffee, courtesy of the village hall kitchen, we packed up our scopes and agreed it had been another productive observation session once again.

If you’re interested in attending an observation session, please give a committee member your mobile number and you’ll be put on the text notification list, and will be informed of every upcoming session.


Turn Left at Orion – Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis. Cambridge Press 1989
Messier’s Nebula and Star Clusters – Kenneth Glyn Jones. Cambridge Press 1991

A Binocular Tour

A very clear night, and a half-lit moon. Because it was so low, I hoped it wouldn’t hinder my search for binocular deep-sky objects on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. It did, actually. I did a bit of searching, then decided to get a coffee and wait for the Moon to set. The garage I went o was closed, so no coffee. It wasn’t going great.
Anyway, I got back to my observing spot and found th sky had gotten a lot darker, so I started with Cassiopeia. I’ve been a bit fascinated with Cassiopeia’s clusters since I saw the Binocular Tour map in (I think) April 2018’s Sky at Night magazine.
I first stopped at Messier 103, by the star Ruchbah, (the second star of the ‘w’). It’seasy to make out under dark skies. There are several other clusters to the left of this one, in the area almost between Ruchbah and Segin, but tonight I can only profess to have seen NGC 659, looking like a fainter M103. Obviously, I stopped at the double cluster just down the road in Perseus. Who wouldn’t?
Following the line from Schedar, to Caph, and then just over the same distance again, you get to M52, another bright, unmistakable cluster. Back to Caph, and towards the right, I found a nebulous patch, or so I thought. Checking my star atlas back in the van, I found it was NGC 7789, also called the Ghost Cluster, nd I can see why. It looks nebulous, and not at all like a cluster. It’s not in my Cambridge Deep Sky Album, I was surprised to see. It’s quite bright.
A hazy atch on the horizon caught my attention, so I pointed the Opticroms at it and glory be, the Pleiades! And there’s Capella and Auriga rising. Winter is coming!
For quitea while I’ve been trying to find M33. I’ve told people that I saw this with the naked eye ence, in Wiltshire about 20 years ago but these days I wonder if I was right. I’ve not been able to find it recently. It’s fainter than I remember. Anyway, I saw it tonight, by star-hopping from Triangulum. Obviously M31 was an easy find, and as th sky darkened, it became a naked eye object.
Turning to the area under Cygnus, I found M71 (The Angelfish Cluster) in Saggita. This was cool, because I’ve looked for this before this year, and it’s not been forthcoming. I got the 4″ reflecting telescope out the van to get a ‘closer’ look at this, but found I’d left the red dot finderscope on and the battery was dead (again). And I hadn’t got my wide-field eyepiece anyway. But I did manage to find the Ring Nebula in Lyra with it tonight, so that was okay. Grea part of the sky actually. Saw the Coathanger asterism on my travels too.
What else? ah, Bode’s Galaxy and its companion were found tonight too. Making that four binocular galaxies. Could I see M51? I could tell myself I could, put it that way.
With Auriga rising, I found the ‘Leaping Minnow’ asterism, and one of the clusters. Which one? I don’t know. The brightest I suppose, possibly M37.
I’ve got a picture of the Moon and Saturn from tonight, I’ll upload it tomorrow probably.

Observations 13th September 2018

Here’s an observation report I wrote for the Wolverhampton Astronomical Society’s on-line newsletter.

With Mars at its closest approach since 2003, and the prospect of a clear sky to view it, a last-minute observation session was hastily arranged for Thursday 13th September at our Trysull observation site. I took the society’s 12” dobsonian reflecting telescope (the Tom Collier Telescope), and several other members turned up, all hoping to get a fine display of planets.

The Moon was a waxing crescent in the west as we arrived, lit around 20%. Once the scope was set up, we all enjoyed fine views of the shimmering lunar landscape. I was particularly interested in the small craters in Mare Crisium, which were very noticeable. Crater Picard is 21 miles across, and Pierce is only 12 miles across, we could see them quite clearly. They will soon be washed out with sunlight and not viewable for another month. Quite distinct tonight, on the edge of Mare Crisium, was the distinct dramatic rises of Cape Cape Lavinium and Cape Olivium. 
To the left of the Moon, lower, just heading towards the trees, we saw Jupiter. With the sky not yet dark, the cloud belts were faint, but three of the moons were visible. The brightest, Ganymede, to the telescopic left. Although we could see only three moons, checking later with the Jovian Moon chart in Astronomy Now, all four should have been visible. Dimmer Callisto must have been lost to the twilight sky.

The next planet to appear in the twilight sky was Saturn, in the south-west, which, being higher than Jupiter, afforded us a much steadier viewing image, and it was stunning. Accompanied by its moon Titan towards bottom left in our eye-piece, the rings were easily viewable, as was shading on the rings and the shadow of the planet on the rings. I could see darker surface markings on the disc, which was very large in the field of view, thanks to the Tom Collier’s scope’s long focal length. I did have trouble focussing, which gave me some concern about the optics of the scope.

Mars was our next planetary target, and several of us could discern dark markings towards the centre of the disc. Checking later on Stellarium, (the free Astronomy program), I found these markings were Sydris Major. The exact shape of these markings were hard to make out, and the atmosphere around 8-9pm was very turbulent as the Earth cooled down. But even so, it’s been many years since I’ve had chance to see surface features on Mars. I’ve been watching it through the summer, and dust storms have prevented us from seeing any surface markings earlier in the year. Also visible was the Martian moon, Phobos.
I turned the Tom Collier scope to the double star Altair, to see if I could split it. Unfortunately, the optics showed a very distorted image. We put this down to poor collimation. At a previous Trysull session with the Tom Collier last year, we were rewarded with some spectacular stellar views through this scope, so we vowed to collimate it again at the next Monday Highfields meeting. 

10" Orion Optics Dobsonian (F/4.8 250mm mirror)
Pic 1 – 10″ Orion Optics Dobsonian (F/4.8 250mm mirror)

Luckily, David Wilson had bought along his Orion Optics 10” reflector on a Dobsonian mount (Picture 1). Being a stickler for correctly collimated optics, David’s scope performed admirably, and certainly saved the day, as it was obvious the Tom Collier wasn’t up to any serious deep sky observing this evening.
With Saturn in Sagittarius, it gave us an excellent reference point to explore this constellation, which never rises high in this country, and is only visible during Summer months. We looked at the Lagoon Nebula (M8) and in the same field of view, Hershel 36 (The Hourglass Cluster), or NGC 6530. The nebulosity was faint, and required averted vision to see it, but the cluster, in the same field of view, looked lovely. With the first Messier object under our belt, we then looked at the globular star cluster M22, again in Sagittarius. With averted vision, we could see the many stars that make up this bright cluster. Just to make a comparison, we turned the scope towards the great globular cluster of M13, overhead in Hercules. Although M13 was brighter, we found we could see more individual stars in M22. I suppose this is to be expected, as M22 is a lot closer to us than M13, according to my Cambridge Deep Sky book.

Using my 10×50 Opticrom binoculars, I found Sagittarius a splendid binocular target, with many deep sky object visible, especially the two ‘star clouds’. There are more Messier objects in Sagittarius than any other constellation, and it’s not surprising, seeing as we’re looking towards the galactic center. 
As the sky darkened, we looked at the double cluster in Perseus, NGC 869 and NGC 884, which was most pleasing, and the sky appeared inky black behind the clusters. The 10” mirror was giving us exceptional contrast. I think the Double Cluster can be a bit underwhelming in smaller scopes, but the light-gathering capacity of the 10” mirror meant we could enjoy the cluster to its fullest. 

Our nearest major galaxy, M31 was easily found, and its companion galaxy M32 was also visible as a ‘fuzzy star’ in the same field of view. Being about 2.65 million light-years from Earth, M32 would be the most distant object we’d see tonight, (thanks, Wikki!)
With Cygnus overhead, the double star Alberio was an obvious target. We enjoyed a very crisp view of the large gold star contrasting with the dimmer, blue companion.

The final deep sky object of the evening was probably my favourite – the Wild Duck open cluster in Scutum (M11). This was found by ‘star hopping’ from Altair in Aquila, (it should be noted that all objects we found tonight were located using ‘old school’ methods of maps, memory and star-hopping). M11 has to be one of the finest open clusters in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s so dense and compact, with a distinct shape that is easily recognisable and unique. 

The Trysull observing site is best suited to Mondays and Tuesdays. Tonight, being a Thursday, there was a meeting in the adjoining village hall, and just after nine pm the curtains were flung back and light flooded the site, causing us to grudgingly pack up our instruments.

Mars observation log
Pic 2 – Mars observation log

Later, as we sat in the pub down the road, and I wrote in my observation book (Pictue 2), I noted that we really only had just over an hour’s worth of real observing time, with the air turbulent for much of that time. But despite this, we managed to get fine telescopic views of the Moon’s craters and mountains, three planets, five planetary moons, two globular clusters, four open clusters, two galaxies, a diffuse nebulae and some double stars. This is why it’s always worth making the effort to attend the observing sessions whenever possible, even if you don’t have a telescope or much time to spare. As long as the clouds part, there’s always something cosmic to see!

If you’re interested in attending an observation session, please give a committee member your mobile number and you’ll be put on the text notification list, and will be informed of every upcoming session.