Ancient Spherical Swarms of Stars

Excellent couple of hours observing tonight. The first clear night since the 29th May. That’s no good,is it?
Things change so much in such a short space of time. Where has Leo gone?
Anyway, got there just after 10pm, it was still very bright. Faffed around with the finderscope for longer than I’d have liked, (this sort of stuff should be done in the daytime, but it’s difficult with a red dot finder). I started the most methodical alignment possible, and still I was off every target by a three second slew on speed five. But at least the distance and direction were pretty much the same the sky over. So I’m going to rattle through these. I may do a proper write-up for the society newsletter, but here’s the ‘fresh in my head’ version, (as fresh as I can get at 2am.
As soon as I’ve done the alignment (I’m still using the society’s 8″ S/c), I go to the brightest Messier object to see how close it is. M13 tonight, and it’s pretty close. So I spend some time with M13 and M92, while it’s still quite light actually, then head off in the opposite direction to check how close the alignment is. Not too bad.
No M56 or Dumbell Nebula yet, the sky too bright, and in the wrong (city) direction.
The Perseus Double Cluster next, looking pin-sharp but on;y the brighter stars seen. The center of the one cluster displaying what I call the ‘Pawprint’, which I tend to use as a confirmation that I have the double in the eyepiece. I can just about fit both in the field of view in the 32mm eyepiece. This scope must have a hell of a focal length – I should know it, shouldn’t I?
The triangle of M103. I love this very distinctive open cluster. Cassiopeia is replete with interesting open clusters, but I’ll wait to re-visit when it’s higher, (and sometime later I took in a very low Andromeda Galaxy for fun, it was faint and large, in comparison to the other more remote galaxies I’ve been seeing lately).
11.30-ish and a planet rises, right in the trees S/W. I’m surprised, I was expecting the giants earlier in the morning. Or later in the morning, should I say. I check in the Helios binoculars, and it’s Jupiter, dancing around because they’re like 70X and I’ve got no tripod.
Anyway, the sky is looking like something near to dark, and I start looking for tonight’s new targets. I specifically wanted to find two galaxies in Canes Venatici. The first is M63. At mag 8.6 it should be brighter than many of the galaxies I saw about three weeks ago in the Coma Cluster, which were quite lower in the sky. But it wasn’t the shortest day of the year then, was it?
But I see it, ‘The Sunflower Galaxy’. Well, it needs averted vision to see any kind of shape at all tonight, but there it is, with two starts in the same field of view making it unmistakable, and as usual it’s the 1984 Newton and Teece Cambridge Deep Sky album that affords me the most faithful likeness to the celestial object I encountered for the first time at the eyepiece tonight. I recommend that book unreservedly to any visual astronomer.
The next target – the second ‘new’ galaxy in Canes Venatici, is a real surprise. M94, the ‘Croc’s Eye galaxy’, (really?). Wow, it’s bright. My O’Meara  Messier book puts it at 8.2, but it seems twice as bright as M63. A very pretty ‘comet like’ face-on spiral galaxy that forms a triangle of sorts with two stars from our own family. The Cambridge Teece book gives it 7.9 mag, and I think I’d concur. It looks like the bright globular cluster M13 through my little 4 inch mirror scope, if that makes sense.
I check in on M5, my third globular cluster of the evening and it’s quite a sight. In Serpens Caput. And I always wonder why I don’t visit it more. But it’s in Serpens Caput, and like Canes Venatici, these aren’t great constellations for urban-bound star-hoppers. To say the least.
I try again for M101, the face-on spiral galaxy in  And again, I can’t see it. It’s like some cosmic joke, this elusive galaxy. I check my eye-site’s not failing by looking checking out the Whirlpool galaxy, (M51), and it’s all there, and I can even see structure using averted vision. And this is down as 8.4, and yet M101 is invisible at 7.9mag? (yea, I know, magnitude and apparent brightness and all that).
Just to check the darkness of the sky, I re-look for the Dumbell nebula, and it’s easily found, and bright amongst the rich backdrop of stars that tells me I’m looking into the summer Milky Way.
I had a new globular cluster on my tick-list too, M19. A quite low cluster in Ophiuchus. I like this constellation quite a lot, I didn’t get to know it till a couple of years ago, star-gazing by the White Lady’s Priory. It’s a massive house-shaped constellation that never rises high in the UK. But it contains some fine globulars, (M10 and M12  being in my observation logs, but there are many more). I like the description of these globulars as ancient spherical swarms of stars which Hubble showed form a halo around our galaxy. On returning home, I see M19 is listed as a very bright cluster, yet it seemed like a mere ghost of the bright clusters like M10 and M12. In retrospect, I may have been looking through some low horizon cloud without knowing it.
Jupiter is hedge-skimming, and I try to take a short film, but the camera weighs down the scope and I lose the alignment. No matter, I still have the red-dot finder-scope,  but Jupiter is very low anyway, and although the image of the great gas giant is large and steady in the eyepiece, only the main two equatorial belts are seen, but the planet is framed beautifully by all four of its largest moons, two each side, almost equidistant in the eyepiece.
It’s been a lovely night and I don’t want to do another alignment, so I just wait for Saturn to creep round the tree, and there is one of the most breathtaking telescopic sights, the remote planet with its magic rings still ‘open’ and to the left (in the eyepiece), a star that might be a moon, but I’ll have to check tomorrow, it’s after 3am now.
I took one quick tripod shot of Jupiter and Saturn as I left the observatory. Jupiter’s the bright one, left of middle, Saturn is the second brightest, to the left of Jupiter.

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Mercury and Venus revisited

I stitched together two photos taken through my 4″ reflector. The night before I took this, the two planets appeared even closer in the twilight. But it was cloudy that night.

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…and a quick sketch from last week’s deep sky sessions. M81 is right overhead at the moment.

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Pagan Streams

What happened to that sense of wonder, on yonder hillside getting dim..
I never know, when I visit the observatory, whether I’m going to come away elated or frustrated. I think tonight veered towards the latter. I went over thinking I’ll not worry so much about observing tonight, I’ll use the time to finally master the go-to mount.
Of course, I didn’t. At one point it started zooming off in totally wrong directions, (was it my fault? Did I touch a button to many?). Then it powered down for five minutes for no reason. I dunno.
I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just get a nice big mirror’d dob and leave the go-to mounts to the people that enjoy tech, (and there are such people, I’m told).
But then there’s the fourteen galaxies I saw last week, in Coma Berenices and Virgo, which I’ll happily admit I’d never have found star-hopping. I was buzzing when I found those. Or should I say, when I saw those.
I did drive away tonight thinking about finally renovating my old 10″ dob, which is in the garage. I’d rather be a victim of my own clumsy map-reading than my techy inadequacies.
But there’s another thing niggling.
When I had my lovely 10″ dob, back in the mid 90’s, I was finding all the bright objects, and finding new, interesting objects every session, (I still have my observation logs). Now, some twenty five years down the pike, I’ve seen all the bright objects, and I’m looking at fainter objects, it’s becoming a game of diminishing returns.
I sat in the park for nearly two hours today drawing up a chart of Messier objects. Ones I’ve seen, and ones I’ve seen only at the observatory. It’s quite a formidable list, and that’s not including NGC numbers. I’ve had perhaps the busiest 18 months, observation-wise, and I do wonder where to go from here. The observatory sky is class 5 Bortle, which isn’t great, but it’s much better than where I live. I’m wondering if the answer is getting out to darker skies?
Which, of course, I normally do. But it’s lockdown. The campsites are closed. Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling this slight despondency.
One night last year I watched the Milky Way move overhead. I sat in a Shropshire field and the whole river of stars seemed to slowly perceptibly move. I first sat with it in front of me, then I had to change the chair position, as it moved overhead. It was graceful and serene and I really felt plugged into something cosmic. I sometimes wish there was a word for appreciation of the heavens outside of science. I wonder if other languages have a word for it?
Steven James O’Meara, in his superb book on the Messier objects, asks at the end of the book, why we bother ourselves with faint galaxies seen only through glass, when our own galaxy stretches overhead, closer and brighter than all those telescopic galaxies.
Well, he doesn’t so much ask why, he just finds the irony in it. And I agree.
Heck, I’ve been to Stonehenge on solstice morning, and the sunrise on a clear day is comparable to a solar eclipse, that whoosh, that trip.
Perhaps it’s the crowds? Nah, it can’t be just that.
We travel the world to see solar eclipses, (if we’re lucky), yet how many times do we make the effort to see a clear sky sunrise?
How many have I ever seen?
I bet I could count them on one hand, two perhaps. Yet when you see it, it’s the most amazing thing. The first sighting of the golden Sun on the horizon, spilling its life-giving beams across the landscape. The welcome birth of a new day.
Is that astronomy? It certainly ticks the boxes. A visual observation of the changing relationship of celestial bodies. Blah blah.
But … what name should we give that feeling of awe as we watch it?
Our light pollution has pretty much put paid to the Milky Way these days. But can you imagine how it looked in the Neolithic times? A great Heathen river, and winding pagan stream… It would have been worshipped by people a lot more plugged into the night sky than we’ll ever be.
In pre-Roman times, it’s said the people on these shores worshipped the Sun. That’s got to be better than some jealous monotheistic invisible sky-god, right?
I’m digressing.
Over the past few years I’ve seen lots of different people in ‘astronomical circles’ and they all seem to come at this thing in a different way. Some get off on physics lectures (that I don’t understand at all!), and I bet they see as much beauty and wonder in that, as I do with the night sky. In the same way that people who really understand maths can see beauty in it. Can you imagine seeing beauty in maths? I can’t, but I can.
My point is – and there is a point behind all this – when we find a hobby, we need to be mindful that the magic doesn’t disappear. I wasn’t finding much magic in the go-to mount tonight.

I think I need to repair, and see that Pagan Stream overhead sometime soon. No telescopes, no tech, just the night as a starry dome, like Joni sang about.

NOT the Eight Wonders of Canes Venatici

Yea, well. I was all hyped up for exploring eight objects in Canes Venatici last night, (the night of the 26th), and it didn’t pan out. Three reasons. First, I got into starting to do some lunar photography, then, I didn’t quite align the telescope as well as I’d done the previous two nights. And when I started using it, I found Canis Venatici was too high. In the observatory, see, the zenith is obscured.
Of course, the zenith moves over time, so it’s not a major problem. It just meant my prepared list was null and void.
So first, a couple of lunar shots. One through my 4″ Skywatcher dob from my home…

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and a ‘closer’ shot from the observatory where I’ve labelled the Wrottersley impact crater, (named after the local astronomer Lord Wrottersley). His observatory was only three and a half miles east of where our much more modest observatory is now.

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It was well after 11pm when I started looking for deep-sky stuff, and it seemed still lightly cloudy, so I had a look at a few brighter deep sky objects like M13, but even the Dumbell Nebula was a faint haze.
The Scope was aligned pretty good around Perseus/Cassiopeia, and although that’s not a particularly dark part of the sky – and it’s very low around now – I had a wander round familiar sights like the double cluster (almost in the same field of view with a 25mm eyepiece).
Why did the go-to find the double cluster easily, yet wouldn’t centre on M3? Perhaps it’s the levelling of the tripod.
M103 is a really nice open cluster with a recognisable arrowhead or triangle shape. Staying in Cassiopeia I looked at NGC 7419, a very pretty, obvious open cluster, and  NGC 129 a unspectacular (in these skies), sparse open cluster.
M52 nearby showed of its undoubted Messier status by so obviously out-shining the previous two clusters. A very pleasing cluster, even in this bright not quite dark summery sky, with two brighter stars in its midst, like two cosmic eyes.
Did some constellation photography, and I’ve yet to look at those pictures.
I think I wussed out by packing up at about 20 past midnight. When I got to the van, the sky was looking much darker and quite inky. I spend a bit more time with my 10×50 binoculars, and called it a night.
The Eight Wonders of Canes Venatici (which is my title for the list I made up), would have to wait for another evening.  

Mercury makes an appearance

I’ve never seen Mercury much. Can you say you’ve seen Mercury during a transit? You’re looking at a silhouette, rather than the planet, I suppose. But it is Mercury, so you can tick it off.
Transits aside, I saw Mercury in 2006 during a solar eclipse. That was pretty cool.
But this week Mercury has been higher than ever in the west just after sunset. There’s an excellent field near Albrighton with an open gate that I visit if I want a low west horizon, (the other spot is a hill near Halfpenny Green. Both good for parking and low light pollution).
So here’s a lunar slither, and a Venusian photo though my 4″ Skywatcher, and a landscape shot, further labelled. It was a lovely evening, nice and warm, and watching the sunset was calming and oddly nourishing in these times of strangeness. The Earth spins regardless of anything.

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Venus 24th May 2020

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The Realm of the Galaxies – The Return

IMG_6418Another early hours type-up.
I hate to rattle through these, but the way the clouds have been over the past year, it could be cloudy tomorrow and cloudy for a month. So I’m getting as much observing done as possible, especially while I don’t have to get up for work.
Here’s a list, all Messier objects observed tonight in Coma Berenices and Virgo, pretty much. …

M99, a mag 9.9 (who’d have thought it!) face-on galaxy. In Coma Berenices, near the border of Virgo.
M87, somewhat brighter at 8.6, a soft symmetrical glow. Pretty in the 25mm eyepiece.
M61, quite a difficult 9.7 mag, but easily seen after 11.30pm.
M91, very faint at 10.2. A barred spiral, but no real structure seen.
M98, a real treat, this one. Quite a large, edge-on spiral.
M89, a face on, smaller spiral.
M90, 10th mag.quite faint.
M91 – couldn’t see.
M100 a 9.3 mag spiral, face-on, bright center, whispy otherwise.
Now, back to M87. I was sure I could see a nebulous companion, which could be NGC 4478, a smaller galaxy. according to O’Meara’s Messier Objects book. My (much older) Cambridge Messier album passes it off as a globular cluster.
My 1991 Cambridge Atlas collaborates the O’Meara book, so I’m going with another faint galaxy, and at 11th mag, the faintest deep sky object I’ve catalogued tonight.
Which makes ten new galactic entries in my journal, and with the fourteen I saw last night, that’s rich galactic pickings.
But there’s two more I saw tonight. Actually by mistake, as I entered M81 by mistake, and the scope slew to Bode’s. Of course, I checked it out, and I wondered why I seem to be able to get M81 and M82 in the same eyepiece in my 8″ reflector, yet not in this S/C. I reckon the answer lies in the focal length and I’ll think about that some other time. But looking at the edge-on spiral of M82 was superb tonight. Perhaps because it’s overhead, and brighter anyway (8.2 mag) than the Virgo and Coma galaxies I’d been spending the evening with. But wow!
Sketches on this stuff upcoming, but at least now I’ve catalogued it all here.
And the bonus to another excellent night’s observing was a sighting of Mercury, below Venus after sunset. A considerably more local friend than the distant massive star-families I’d be concerning myself with come darkness.

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The Realm of the Galaxies

With last week’s somewhat disappointing session with my 8″ reflector (and the damn dew), I decided to use the society’s go-to 8″ Schmidt–Cassegrain tonight. It was much warmer, and with no dew problem, I managed to get in a very productive couple of hours deep-sky observing. Am very, very pleased.
I started by looking at the great globular cluster M13, just because it was about the brightest deep-sky obM65 & M66 14.5.20ject I could think of, while it was still twilight. Then I returned to M65 and M66, galaxies in Leo. I’d done a quick sketch of these last week, (left).
I still couldn’t see the third galaxy of the ‘triplet’.
Then I looked for M105, and the mount took me to a bright-ish face on spiral, with another nebulous galaxy-looking object near. I’m glad I made a sketch, as I’m able to see that I saw NGC 3384. These were a pretty pair, and it wasn’t even dark yet.
Staying in Leo, I tried for M95 and M96, and both were easily found, and I expected them to be in the same field of view. They’re close, but even in the 25mm eyepiece, not close enough for keeping in the same field.
Leaving Leo for a moment, I had a quick look at the Own Nebula in overhead Ursa Major, (M97) then tried the galaxy M108, i the same constellation, which I’ve never been able to find*. Wow! I could easily see a structured edge-on spiral galaxy, (sketch forthcoming…). At mag 9.8, it’s little wonder this galaxy has been elusive, but with Ursa Major right overhead, it finally showed itself. Whooo!
There’s no official astronomical darkness now, we only get nautical darkness this time of year. But with Virgo in perhaps the darkest part of the sky, towards the south (in between the sky-glow of Wolverhampton and Telford I think), I tried to view a few of the Messier objects in that area which I’ve always struggled to find by star-hopping.
The area known as ….  (drum roll!), The Realm of the Galaxies.
M85 was my first attempt, and it was lovely to see! A face-on spiral, with a star right next to it. Quite bright, and very pretty, and only a mere 41 million light years away. This is actually in Coma Berenices, but it’s part of the Virgo cluster.
Next, M58 …which is the brightest of the Virgo group, according to my Cambridge Messier book, but my notes from tonight describe it as a ghostly spectre, quite large and wispy.
I really was in the Realm of the Galaxies by now, the sky was dark enough to allow me to navigate the galactic cluster with gusto. Next stop was, M60, and M59 in the same field of view.
The usually dependable website Clear Outside had forecast cloud cover around midnight, so I was mindful of getting the most out of the time I had. M49, one of the southernmost galaxies in Virgo was next, an obvious face-on spiral, with averted vision suggesting structure…
Oh, to see this through the 16″ mirror under a truly dark sky!
With the clouds threatening, galaxy M88 was another ghostly apparition, (inside a triangle of stars according to my sketch), more averted vision started to really bring out some detail, and it was there … then it was gone. And when I looked at Leo hovering over the lake I saw Regulus had lost its sparkle, the stars were dimming and the clouds and mist had scuppered my chances of seeing any more of those elusive Virgo galaxies.
But how lucky I’d been to see fourteen galaxies in one evening! How many millions and billions of stars would have made up the faint light that entered my retina tonight, as I drunk instant coffee and listened to the owls and the fish splashing in the nearby lake?
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*I’m afraid I’ve uttered a falsehood. M108 is in my Messier list. I can only think I must have entered it in my journal in the 90’s when I was using the mighty ten-inch Dob.
Or perhaps I saw it in my 4.5″ Tasco?

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Dew… and more dew.

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Tonight was my first visit to the observatory since the Covid lockdown. I took my 8″ Skywatcher. Couple of reasons really, I haven’t used my Telrad finder on it yet, and I wanted to try it out. Secondly, I fancied a none-guided evening. I didn’t fancy the faff of setting up the go-to.
So much in the night sky changes in seven weeks, it’s almost like a different sky. The last time I was there, as darkness fell, over to the south was Orion and Taurus, with the Pleiades and Canis Major ready to be explored. Tonight, in their place, was Leo, Virgo and Cancer, followed by Bootes, (which was in the west a couple of months ago).
The change isn’t just the placement of the stars, it’s the time of darkness too. What time did darkness fall mid March? Six pm? I dunno.
Anyway, I got there just after sunset and got some photos of a crescent Venus. IMG_6371-001Then waited for it to get dark… which was quite a wait. The first two stars I saw were Castor and Pollox, heading west, soon to disappear. I feel a bit cheated that I haven’t had chance to explore Orion and Taurus more this year, I was stuck in Wolverhampton as they were setting.
I decided to try and see as many galaxies in Leo as I could. With astronomical darkness about 11.30pm, I think I was wishing for the impossible. It took me ages to find M65 and M66, and they were very dim indeed. M96, M95 and M105, no luck at all. I spent ages.
Somehow, things didn’t seem very bright tonight, in the daytime, I’ll check my mirror. The Ring Nebula and M13 were there, but lacked contrast. It may have been the dew. When I returned to the two cigar-shaped galaxies M65 and M66, they didn’t look as contrasty as they looked earlier, yet the sky was darker.
The Telrad was performing well, until it started misting over. The temperature had gone down to 2.5, and there was dew everywhere. With Ursa Major overhead, I took in Bode’s Galazy and its companion. They looked nice, with Bode’s noticeably brighter. Easily my favourite galactic pair.
I found globular cluster M53 in Coma Berenices quite easily, and the ‘Black Eye’ Galaxy M64 nearby. Looks like my limiting galactic magnitude was 8th mag then, as M95 is 9th mag and un-findable.
Once again, I’m thinking how few deep sky objects are visible from semi-urban skies. My Messier Album book, by Mallas and Kreimer, describe the Black Eye galaxy as ‘bright’. It’s anything but, under a Bortle 5 sky!
Even the binoculars were misted over, but I got a look at ‘Bernices Hair’, which I think is Melotte 111. Perhaps I should add that to the observatory hit-list?
Even Albereo seemed dim tonight, though the contrasting colours were well seen in this fine double, and there was the Summer Triangle rising in the East.
I saw several meteors and a fireball in the south about – I think – 10.40.
By 1am everything was sopping wet. With no work this morning, I was prepared for a long haul into the early hours, but every time I’d wipe the glass on the Telrad, it misted over again, and when I couldn’t even find the double cluster in Perseus I knew it was time to up sticks.
So a night of slight frustration, if I’m honest.

 

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Naked-eye Deep Sky Objects

Been browsing old pictures during Lockdown, and visited a favourite from September last year, from the wonderful dark-sky site that is the Elan Valley.
I’ve labelled a few deep sky objects, and very much enjoyed doing it!

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