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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The past month’s sky has been dominates by planets. I’ve been away in my caravan (above), so there’s no new planetary photos, (nowhere to charge batteries, being ‘off the grid’). And deep-sky stuff has been largely revisiting old friends with the 10×50’s and my 4″ Skywatcher ‘travel scope’, as I’ve come to think of it. Anyway, I’ve updated my Messier list. All of these objects in my list I’ve copied from observation notes. An ‘A’ after the object means it’s from a pre-2015 observation book (and therefore needs revisiting), and new additions are marked by a red 2018.
M1 Supernova Remnant in Taurus (Crab Nebula) (A)
M2 Globular Cluster in Aquarius (A)
M3 Globular Cluster in Canes Venatici 2018
M5 Globular Cluster in Serpens
M8 Diffuse Nebula in Sagittarius
M10 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus
M12 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus
M13 Globular Cluster in Hercules (‘the ‘Great Cluster’)
I’m beginning to the Sagittarius is one of my favourite constellations. From my vantage point near Boscabel House, I’m able to get a fine view of it. There’s a great map of the area in the July 2018 Sky At Night magazine, (already out of date, Saturn has, I’ve noticed, has moved to the right of where it’s indicated in that map).
Tonight’s deep space targets were the globular cluster M22, the Lagoon Nebula (M8) and the star cloud M24. These are easily found with the 10×50 Opticrom bins, but the Lagoon Nebula needs a scope to see the nebulosity well. The little 4″ Heritage performed admirably with a 20mm wide-field eyepiece. It really is a pretty star cluster with emission nebula.
Whilst I had the 4″ on the van bonnet (true ‘grab and go’ astronomy!), I looked for the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) and it was easily found. Cygnus is right overhead now, and the 15 minute drive out away from the city lights was well worth it, I could see the Milky Way easily by 11pm.
I’m really getting on well with the red dot finder on the 4″. I easily found the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the more difficult Bode’s Galaxy and it’s companion, in Ursa Major (M81 & M82). With its small focal length, it’s really low on ‘magnification’ with a 20mm eyepiece, but it’s obviously got the light gathering capacity to grab fainter objects, (the Opticrom binoculars couldn’t find Bode’s Galaxy tonight).
The Opticroms did find the two great globular clusters of M13 and M92 though.
The Moon was setting about 35% lit, waxing, with Jupiter to its left. I arrived too late to get a photo, but I do have a picture of Saturn taken earlier this week that’s better than my previous effort. Though I’m beginning to realise that proper astrophotography might take more commitment than I’m giving it.
The dust storm on Mars has cleared a little, and even through my clumsy DSLR/telescope combination, I can make out markings on the planet’s disc.
I’m hoping the next entry will have some news on the observatory project. I’ve got some time off in the next two weeks, but the moon will be full in a week or so, so deep sky stuff might be off the menu. But when the winter’s here, I’m holding out great hopes for some hard-core observing through a 16″ mirror.
I met up with the Wolverhampton astronomers last night in the hopes of seeing the lunar eclipse, but no luck, we were clouded out (again). But it was at least a very pleasant evening, chatting about ‘scopes and stars and getting excited about the new observatory project.
But never mind, there’s been a great run of clear skies whilst the UK has been having a heat wave. I spent a few days in Somerset and saw a fantastic sunset from Glastonbury Tor. A sunset, is astronomy, y’know.
And so to Mars. I was so set on getting a decent Mars photo that I set the 8″ scope up by the side of the road, and got a quite disappointing image, showing a large disc, but no markings on the planet at all!
I felt better after visiting the Stargazer’s Lounge Planetary Imaging forum, (which usually makes me want to hang up my telescope), where they’re moaning about a great dust-storm on Mars, obliterating most surface features. So there’s hope yet of capturing some detail. I’d even be happy with a sketch, (I’ve got some good sketches from a previous close encounter with Mars in the early 90’s).
I also took some film of Saturn, which is playing see-saw with Jupiter at the moment. At 11pm Jupiter is highest, then, a couple of hours later, Saturn is higher.
As mentioned previously, with Saturn in Sagittarius it makes an excellent signpost for finding deep space objects. M23, M25 and M28 were ticked off, and M10 and M12 in Ophiuchus were also noticeably brighter than a few months ago from the same vantage point, when the constellation was lower and lost in the red haze of the Wolverhampton city lights. It’s a fantastic area of the sky, and one I hope to re-visit under darker skies soon.
And lastly, a Moon shot through the 4″ Heritage, from around ten days ago.