Mount struggles and some successes

I had quite a healthy list of targets when I set out tonight, but the mount I have for my 8″ reflector – a borrowed Vixen EQ – is just too damn short. And I’ve come to realise, I don’t like equatorial mounts, I’m too impatient, I don’t like anything that takes time to set up. This is why I’m now officially committed to getting my old dobsonian back in action, ease of use is everything. I had this EQ mount tottering on a wooden plinth to gain height so I wasn’t crouching or observing on my knees, and it was ridiculous. And every time I wanted to move it to a new target, I had to grapple round, searching for the two locking levers. When you’ve had dobsonian mounts for so many years, every other mount is a faff, I think.
But I do like the Telrad finder I have attached to the 8″ tube. If I had that finder, alongside a 10X correct image finderscope, I’d waste no time at all. That’s what I need now.
But what did I see tonight? Well, lots of usual suspects, but also some new entries to the observation book. The seeing was quite good under the semi-rural skies about ten miles from the center of the city.
The double star Cor Caroli is famous, and I’ve viewed it before, but not from the observatory site. At 110 light years away, it was the closest object I’d see tonight, (except for Mars). It’s the brightest star under the handle of Ursa Major, and a very nice sight indeed. A golden/ochre coloured star with a smaller similar-coloured neighbour. Realising the insufficient mount was going to curtail my search for fainter deep sky objects, and staying in that general area of Coma Berenices, I visited the pretty open cluster known as  ‘Bernices Hair’, (which by 11.30 tonight was a quite bright naked eye object), and it was superb in the 10×50 Opticrom bins. This loose, open cluster is designated Mellote 111 or Collinder 256. It’s fascinating to study naked eye clusters as you start to learn about the night sky. In early spring, we can enjoy the Pleiades, Hyades, the Beehive, Bernice’s Hair, (and why not add the often overlooked Alpha Persei cluster? – designated  Melotte 20 or Collinder 39 – it’s a naked eye object under dark skies and looked splendid tonight).
I got frustrated once again looking for M1, the Crab Nebula in the 8”. The slow motion controls on the Vixen mount seemed to be taking me in the right direction, but I couldn’t see anything nebulous. Vexed, I got the little 4″ Skywatcher table-top dob out the van and found the supernova remnant easily in less than a minute. Good to see it, though I don’t know why, but it’s been hard to spot recently. Again, the ease of the dobsonian mount had much to do with me finding it.
Taurus, (for we are in Taurus still), has an extra red ‘horn’ at the moment. It’s Mars, and even in a couple of nights it’s moved on considerably from the background stars of NGC 1746 which it was skirting a few nights ago.
With Leo hovering right over the lights of Wolverhampton in the distance, I found two galaxies of the Leo ‘triplet’ quite easily in the 8”, then they disappeared and I struggled to find them again. Once again, I can’t admit to seeing the third galaxy of the triplet (NGC 2628). I’d love to impress everyone with my constant sightings of the Leo Triplet, but I’ve never seen all three. The third galaxy, at 10th mag, just out of my grasp on this evening. (yet I have catalogued 11th mag galaxies from the same sight). 
The two galaxies I could see though, (M65 and M66) were easily recognisable and the shapes distinct and well defined. I always think edge-on spirals are like true islands of stars, but photography reveals they’re not quite as ‘edge on’ as they appear though a scope.
Staying in Leo, asteroid Vesta is still visible in bins, though not as bright as a few weeks ago. It forms a small fan shape with Y-Leo.  
Above Sirius is an open cluster sometimes called the ‘Heart Shaped Cluster’, (M50). Like M48 in Hydra a few nights ago, I haven’t catalogued this in my observation notes at all. Tonight, it was an easy binocular object star-hopping from Sirius, displaying a near-nebulous fuzz, (and an understandable candidate for a false comet). But through the 4″ mirror it was actually quite underwhelming given its brightness in the bins, and with a very busy field of stars around it, quite hard to spot. Around the same elevation was the ‘Great Cluster’ in Gemini, (M35), which I visited straight after, and i have to say, it looked similarly underwhelming. Low elevation, small mirror. No mystery there then. I’d have liked to have used the 8” mirror on these two clusters but with the mount being so ungainly I quite simply couldn’t be bothered.
A binocular scan of the open clusters M36, M37 and M38 revealed them to be very bright around 11pm, and the double cluster in Perseus was also easily seen.
I searched Collinder 65 – a bright large cluster of stars above the head of Orion – for the ‘Ruby Star’ but couldn’t see any discernible difference in colour. Perhaps it needs photography to see this one?
Just as I was packing up due to misty mirrors, I had a lovely surprise. Hercules was rising, following Bootes on his side, and with all my scopes in the back of the van I managed a most welcome binocular sight of the two great summer globular clusters in Hercules (M13 and M92), for the first time this year. Their brightness testament to the crispness of the evening, as the temperature dipped below zero.

M48 in the bag!

It’s not very often these days I get to tick a new Messier object off the list. The older you get, and the more you observe, the less bright objects are left to see for the first time. Tonight I made my first recorded viewing of M48, a bright open cluster in Hydra. It’s quite dense with stars; certainly uncountable, even through the 4″ mirror. And there’s a distinct line of stars in the middle – almost like a tiny coat hanger – and with the usual Plossl 9mm eyepiece I like to use with that scope, it looked bloody lovely, (I only had about 50 minutes of clear sky tonight, but with the little dob’s ten second set-up time, I was observing right from the start). O’Meara puts it at 2,400 light years away.
Mars is still heading north-east. It’s like it’s hanging on, wanting to stay in the sky as all the winter background stars head westward for the summer. It was right next to a pretty cluster of stars tonight which may have a designation somewhere, I need to research. But it would have made a great photographic subject. The disc of Mars is still obvious even in the small 4″ mirror, and the disc is seen easier the dimmer it gets.
Pleiades and Hyades open clusters, all still lovely in the 10X50 Opticrom bins, and I took in the usual run of the four open clusters along Auriga and ending with M35 in Gemini. It’d be rude not to, before they disappear*
Over in Cancer, I spent quite a while with The Beehive (M44) and M67. Both open clusters but quite different telescopic objects. In fact, it was quite easy navigating from M48, to M67 and M44. Note to self – use the V shape ‘smile’ of stars in Cancer to find M67 just above. Cancer is a bit rubbish for recognisable bright stars, but away from the city lights I managed some decent navigation.
And the double star above M44, wow! glorious! Like a smaller Albereo, striking colours of blue and gold with a large seperation of 30″, according to my Webb Deep Sky Society atlas. This double surely has a better name than iota Cancri?
I spent a bit of time also in that ‘westward’ area of Canis Major – soon to disappear. I wanted to see Caroline’s Cluster, but I was having trouble navigating this area tonight. The Little Beehive (M41) is always easy, and a delight, even at low altitude. But the area around M47, in a small scope of bins, looks like a bright open cluster in itself. Yet it houses M47. It’s a nice part of the sky, and I made definite observations of both M47 and M48 last year through the society’s Celestron 8″ S/C.
What else? Ah yes, I remember being amazed that I could see the fourth star of the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula in the 4″ from Chapel Ash, well tonight the Trapezium was crisp and clear as anything. Once again, the optics of the little Skywatcher impressed me (as long as you keep the image in the middle). And the nebula itself was nice and bright and well defined despite the low elevation.
Leo didn’t hit the ‘sweet spot’ of dark sky before the clouds rolled over, so no Leo galaxies tonight. In fact, no galaxies at all, thinking about it. And I’d taken my camera to try and catch the nova in Cassiopeia, but the clouds rolled in before I could do that, or try out my new binocular mounts with the 15X70 Helios bins. Next time, then. You can’t have everything.
* Capella, I only realised two years ago, never sets in the Midlands UK. So Capella is circumpolar? Wow.

March Binocular Observations part two

Had another rural binocular tour on Tuesday night. Mars was looking pretty heading north between the Pleiades and Hyades (pictured with my Canon 750DSLR), and asteroid Vesta still very visible in Leo, heading north-east. Leo high and bright at the moment. Saw the delightful run of open clusters M35, M36, M37 and M38 very clearly, the seeing was great, though it was crisp and windy. Also saw the small cluster NGC 1907 under M36. The Orion nebula (M42) was very prominent this night, with nebulosity extended well even in the 10X50’s.
Underneath Sirius the Little Beehive M41 very pretty, and over to the left of Sirius the open clusters M46 and M47 were small and compact, nowhere near as rewarding as the Little Beehive.The actual Beehive open cluster (Praesepe, M44), was an easy naked-eye object, displaying a pool of ‘mist’ in Cancer, and glorious through the bins, like scattered diamonds against the inky black sky.The smaller cluster M67 (underneath, to the left). also found. It’s quite small in comparison to Praesepe. O’Meara’s Messier objects book gives a distance of 2,600 light years away for M67, compared to Praesepe’s mere 577 light years. So little wonder there.
Nice object though.The night’s excellent seeing was evidenced further by a binocular sighting of Bode’s Galaxy (M81) in Ursa Major, almost overhead by 11pm. Its ‘companion’ galaxy (M82), couldn’t be confirmed. The double cluster and Perseus star field superb, (NGC 869 and NGC 884), and upwards towards the left that ‘cluster’ I keep seeing that doesn’t seem to a a designation or even asterism name. More research needed. Failures this night include Galaxy M51, Supernova remnant M1 (yet again!) and the Leo triplet. Leo was in a quite bright part of the sky, to be fair. On retuning home I did a comparison and found I could actually see M36 from Chapel Ash with the 10×50’s, but not M38. With the magnitudes of 6 and 6.4 respectively, that looks to be a pretty good barometer for limiting magnitude for an open cluster under a moonless city sky with good seeing.

March Binocular Observations part one

Not much time to get the big guns out tonight, but I managed to do a quick binocular tour with the 10X50 Opticroms. Lovely clear night with Orion high, and Leo also. Boötes seen for the first time fully this year, (been watching Arcturus hedge-skimming for a while now). Vega low in the east, twinkling, rising. Mars in between the Pleiades and Hyades, lovely colour against the blueish stars of M45.
Auriga high also, found the clusters M36 and M38, couldn’t see the fainter M37 tonight. The Great Cluster, in Gemini (M35) easily seen and bright tonight. In Leo, asteroid Vesta has moved considerably since last sighting two weeks ago. Have comparison photos to work on, also sketched.Called at M103 in Cassiopeia, (V small), the Double Cluster in Perseus bright and surprisingly detailed tonight, and Kemble’s Cascade above in Camelopardalis always a treat.
Cassiopeia is a bit too low to find its other clusters without effort.Under Sirius, the Little Beehive cluster (M41) quite faint but unmistakable. The actual Beehive (M44) high and resplendent!M46 and M47 in Canis Major hunted for, but not seen (re-check maps for these). No galaxies seen tonight, Bodes overhead but out of reach. I finished with a scan of the star-fields along the galactic equator in Monoceros.
Lovely stuff!

None-Messier NGC List

Okay man, it’s got to be done, a list of my observed none=Messier NGC objects culled from my observation notes. I’m going to split my list into two parts. ‘Historic’ observations which go back to March 13th 1991, and modern day observations, which started with my 8″ Skywatcher on February 15th 2015. It’s not a massive list, but it bumps up my galaxy count, so it’s important.
All these objects found by star-hopping and maps.
NGC 5195 – Galaxy (Whirlpool companion)
NGC 7789 – Open cluster Cassiopiea
NGC 457  – Open cluster Cassiopeia
NGC 7217 – Galaxy in Pegasus
NGC 7331 – Galaxy in Pegasus
NGC 1647 – Open cluster Taurus
NGC 1746 – Open Cluster Taurus
NGC 1807 – Open Cluster Taurus
NGC 2129 – Cluster in Gemini (triangle)
NGC 2392 – Planetary nebula in Gemini
NGC 2683 – Galaxy in Lynx, (‘UFO Galaxy’)
NGC 1907 – Cluster Auriga (‘under’ M38)
NGC 1664 – Cluster Auriga
NGC 1023 – Galaxy in Perseus
NGC 205 – Galaxy (dwarf elliptical Andromeda satellite)
NGC 4490 – Galaxy in Canes Venatici (Cocoon)
NGC 4485 – Galaxy in Canes Venatici (related to NGC 4490)
NGC 884 – Perseus double cluster
NGC 869 – Perseus double cluster
Modern Day
NGC 1617 – Open cluster Taurus
NGC 1746 – Open Cluster Taurus
NGC 2262 – Open cluster Taurus (part of ‘poor man’s double’ with 1817)
NGC 2354 – Open Cluster Canis Major
NGC 654 – Open cluster Cassiopeia
NGC 663 – Open Cluster Cassiopeia
NGC 659 – Open cluster Cassiopeia
NGC 6664 – Open cluster Scutum
NGC 475 – Open cluster Cassiopeia (E.T. cluster)
NGC 2169 – the ’37’ cluster in Orion
NGC 3384 – Galaxy in Virgo (near M87)
NGC 129 – Open Cluster Cassiopeia
NGC 7419 – Open cluster Cephus

I’m back here.

You would have expected, with more time on my hands, that I’d have been filling this blog up during lockdown. Quite the opposite’s happened and I’m not sure why. When I logged in here this morning I found WordPress had changed the editor and that was annoying (I liked the old one), till I found out how to install the old editor. Now I’m okay. 
I’ve done plenty of observing over the last six months, but because the observatory’s site, (on private land), has been in a bit of a state of turmoil with the owners, I haven’t used it as much. To say ‘it’s been a strange year’ is a bit of an understatement.
I’ve just updated December and January with a short observation report and a cut and paste of the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction event I organised for the local society. And last night I took some lunar shots, though any deep sky stuff was washed out by the 97% moon. 

Asteroid Vesta is at opposition on the 5th March. It’s about fifth magnitude now and quite easy to find. I took this last night, I’ll take another tonight and hopefully there’ll be some detectable movement. Two clear nights on the run, amamzing!


The 22 missing Messier objects

And I don’t mean things like the Double Cluster in Perseus, which by rights should have a Messier number. I mean the objects I’ve personally never seen. Which may not be strictly true, as I’ve seen deep-sky stuff just taking an un-navigated tour, but these are the objects that I haven’t entered in my observation notes.
Which means I cannot say I’ve seen them. That’s how it works, see?
M4. An open cluster in Scorpius.
M6 Open cluster in Scorpius
M7 Open cluster in Scorpius
No secret why I haven’t seen these. Scorpius is below the horizon here. I don’t know how far south I’d have to travel to see these.
M30 Globular Cluster Capricorn.
Again, a low summer constellation, but see-able.
M48 Galactic cluster, Hydra
Another very low constellation. And a dim one at that, barely visible from here.
M50 Open cluster, Monoceros.
No excuse for not seeing this one. Just to the left of Canis Minor, visible in the winter.
M55 Globular cluster Sagittarius 
Out there to the left and on its own, quite low. One for the summer hit-list.
M62 Globular Cluster Ophiuchus 
Again, a summer target.
M68 Globular cluster Hydra
M69 Globular cluster Saggitarius
M70 Globular Cluster Sagittarius 

M68 is too low, but M69 and M70 do-able with a low horizon.
M72 Globular cluster Aquarius
M73 Asterism, Aquarius
Again, Summer targets
M74 Galaxy in Pisces
Interesting! Easily viewable, I’ve just never looked. But the Pisces is a bit rubbish.
M75 Globular in Sagittarius
Again, this summer..
M77 Galaxy in Cetus
A winter target this time, in that big boring part of the winter sky
M79 Globular cluster in Lepus
Low in winter, under Canis Major. Hmmm..
M80 Globular cluster in Scorpius
Too low
M83 Galaxy in Hydra.
Do-able, about now, as it happens.
M97 Planetary nebula in Ursa Major
11th mag. I suppose I’ve just never had dark enough skies.
M101 Galaxy in Ursa Major
To my embarrassment, I’ve never seen it.
M107 Globular cluster in Ophiuchus
And we end with another summer target.

Quick obs report…

Nice clear night but very cold! Did some lunar observations in Wolves through the 4-inch table-top dob then headed out away from town for some deep sky stuff. The Moon was so bright, I really had a job seeing some DSOs through the Opticrom 10X50 bins. Best findings of the evening were M47, an open cluster in Puppis (found star-hopping from Sirius in Canis Major), not seen this often, quite low in UK. Couldn’t see companion cluster M46 (Puppis), or Caroline’s Cluster (Canis Major) through bins, (and too cold at -1 to set scope up in a field, I wished at this point I’d I’d gone to the observatory). M41 seen for the first time this year, (Little Beehive), very bright despite low elevation. Lovely winter cluster in Canis Major. Again, quite low, best seen in rural skies I blog1reckon.
Praesepe (M44 – the Beehive/Manger) superb in bins, and naked eye brighness after a while, despite the (estimated) 70% lit Moon just to the right of Taurus. And I spent at least ten minutes trying to see M67, a 6.9 mag open cluster in Cancer. Located eventually using averted vision. Look just under Praesepe, in a line of stars in a ‘smile’ shape. Nice, need to check if I’ve seen this in a scope under a dark sky. I’ve just looked it up and it’s an ancient cluster, five billion years old. Wow.
What else? The usual suspects, M45, The Hyades, open clusters M35, 36, 37, 38, Perseus Double Cluster, Mars and Uranus (got some photos of those), Vega and Lyra just dipping in the West with Cygnus following, Leo rising in the East, Regulus resplendent!
Reminder for next clear sky – Between Procyon and Sirius is a large cluster in Monoceros, M50. I bet I could have seen that tonight.
So no nebula tonight (except M42) and no galaxies, but a fun binocular tour and didn’t Orion look amazing!
Moon photo through the 4″ newt with my Canon 750 DSLR and a 2X barlow.

Saturn/Jupiter Conjunction

I wrote this for our society’s on-line newsletter..

On the 20th December, WolvAS practical observers once again gathered at Halfpenny Green Vineyard for an observing session. Our previous visit to the vineyard was in November 2019, where we successfully viewed the transit of Mercury (covered in Lyra, December 2019).

This time, it was the close conjunction of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn that we were hoping to observe. The greatest conjunction would be on Monday the 21st, with the planets appearing a mere 0.1 degree apart, but with 100% cloud cover forecast for that day, society members tactfully took advantage of the clear skies forecast the day before. Luckily, we were rewarded with a fine view of the two planets in the south/south-west, just after sunset.

Equipment set up ready to view the conjunction
Equipment set up ready to view the conjunction

And what a fine array of telescopes there were! From my notes I see there were a couple of Skywatcher 6” reflectors, one of them on a fantastic home-made mount with a magnetic encoder, made from reclaimed materials. I took my my 8” inch reflector on a new Vixen EQ mount (on loan from Steve). There was a pair of really nice newly acquired Opticrom 20X80 binoculars, a Maksutov-Cassegrain ED 80, an EDF 60 reflector, an eight inch Meade LX90, an Orion LX 200 and a 127 Maksutov. I also took a small table-top dobsonian, and there was a small refractor set up too.

The Moon (Richard Harvey: 8" Skywatcher, Canon 750)
The Moon (Richard Harvey: 8″ Skywatcher, Canon 750)

Before the planets came into view, I tried some basic single-shot lunar imaging with my Canon 750 through my 8” reflector, the distinct ‘chain’ of craters Theophilus, Cyrillus and Catharina were lit quite dramatically near the terminator.

And when twilight came, what a lovely view of the two planets we all had! They looked stunning through the eyepiece, and Steve Morall captured a lovely single half-second shot that mirrored perfectly what we saw through our eyepieces. Adam Foster also got some great images from video with his Canon 600 through his Skywatcher reflector. He later aligned the video in PIPP, stacked in AutoStakkert!3 and edited in RegiStax 6 and Photoshop CC. Adam’s done some very successful astro-photography this year, his blog is well worth visiting at

Jupiter / Saturn Conjunction (Steve Morall)
Jupiter / Saturn Conjunction (Steve Morall)
Jupiter / Saturn Conjunction (Adam Foster)
Jupiter / Saturn Conjunction (Adam Foster)

The planets remained in view till around 7pm, and some of us stayed behind for a deep sky session. Despite the cold we managed to make observations of some of the brighter deep sky objects visible at this time of year. These included M31 (the great Andromeda Galaxy), M32 (another galaxy in Andromeda), M27, the Dumbell Nebula in Vulpecula. M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra. M15, a bright globular cluster in Andromeda, M2, another globular cluster in Aquarius, and M36 and M38, two open clusters in Auriga. Binocular views of M45, an open cluster in Taurus (the famous Pleiades, of course!) were stunning, and just rising, M42 (the great Orion Nebula) was even visible at low altitude through the Wolverhampton haze in the distance.

It was a very successful Sunday afternoon, and our first official physical society gathering (albeit socially distanced), since March. Once again, we are extremely grateful to the staff and management of Halfpenny Green Vineyard for letting us use the site, it was perfect!