Archive for November, 2010

A feast of astronomical history

Blog Saturday 27th Nov 2010

Today I attended the first meeting of the BAA Historical Section, now this section has just been‘re-formed’ under the directorship of the very enthusiastic Mike Frost. I found out at the meeting that this was in fact the first and only meeting to date of this section, so a little history being made.

Held at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge (IOA) which is a very convenient 30 minute drive for me, it is also my favourite astro meeting venue, home to Lord Rees the Astronomer Royal and numerous other top flight astronomers, cosmologist and astrophysicists it is a very halloed and inspirational venue.

The meeting turned out to me an absolute ‘corker’ the speakers without exception were very good.

  • First off was the very knowledgeable Bob Marriott (BAA Instruments Section Director) talking about the first Historical Section Director ‘Mary Evershed’. Bob is a great speaker; speaking without a script his knowledge is amazing. He likes to add a few aside tit bits, going off at somewhat of a tangent before reeling himself back to the main topic, you get the feeling that he could very easily deliver another fascinating lecture on any of these aside subjects that he mentioned! Great talk, great pictures, great delivery.
  • Second up was Jeremy Shears talking on the subject of a variable star observer of Belgium origin whom I had never heard of ‘Felix de Roy’ this gentleman had worked closely with the BAA during the early 20th C and then as a member during WW11, a prolific observer and communicator of his observations. Another fascinating and illuminating talk well delivered.
  • Lee Macdonald, assistant Historical section director, fellow deep sky enthusiast, Webb society member and journal editor gave a talk on the Isaac Newton Telescope, I had heard this talk a year or so previously but this did little to lessen the interest for me, Lee is a very dedicated astronomy historian and researches his subjects very well, the talk was illustrated superbly and shed light on the politics behind this landmark project, once again the talk was very well received.
  • Next to the fold was a bold gentleman, Jay Tate talking on the subject of ‘Saving Science Heritage’ if I had to pick a favourite of the day this would be it! It turned out to be the story of the ‘rescue’ of the massive & impressive 24” Schmidt camera from the IOA itself. I had made the acquaintance of what I shall term as a telescope rather than a camera. I was impressed when I met it a year or two previously, and saddened at its lack of use (put down to local light pollution). Jay heads up the ‘Space Guard’ observatory in the Welsh Marches a voluntary set up that monitors near Earth objects. Roderick Willstrop, a senior figure at the IOA had given the massive instrument to the Space Guard’ project. It turned out that they had to move it quickly and the 7.5 tonne beast had to come out via the slit of the observatory dome! When installed it went in and the dome was built around it. Jay had a handful of incredibly dedicated volunteers and some generous sponsors and miraculous got the scope moved without damage, delay or mishap. A great credit to him and his team. I really related to this talk, it reminded me of the HST Calver move from Thame to my Chippingdale observatory earlier in the year only on a much greater scale as the HST weighs in at a mere 1.5 tonnes! The fantastic 1940’s Grubb Parson Instrument is now in storage undergoing restoration and awaiting a new domed observatory to be constructed when funds are raised, work by the same group of volunteers has already begun. This was a superb talk, delivered with passion, humour and brilliant pictorial accompaniment on a local subject of great historical significance. I now intend to visit the Space Guard centre in the future to see the camera in its new home.
  • The fifth talk on Maria Mitchell the first ‘professional’ woman astronomer in America and possibly the whole world was given by Jacqueline Mitton and was fascinating. I had read a biography about Miss Mitchell, a very clever and determined Quaker lady from the Whaling community of Nantucket in New England. Maria discovered a Comet, wrote books on astronomy and was the first Professor of Astronomy at the Vassar Women’s College. Jacqueline was the least engaging of the day’s speakers with a rather nervous style, that notwithstanding I thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter and the talk as a whole.
  • Last up was the ‘Key Note’ talk, delivered by Simon Mitton on ‘Sir Fred Hoyle’. Of course I know of Hoyle, a little anyhow, I knew that the building I was seated in was named after him, I knew he was a Cambridge astronomer, his statute stood just outside the window and I knew he was brilliant, controversial and that he wore glasses, apart from that I was pretty ignorant about Hoyle, this is mainly down to the fact that he was a cosmologist, astrophysicist, a theorist and these subjects don’t interest me too much, guess I’m just not intellectual enough.The talk as it unfurled, delivered superbly by someone who knew and worked with Hoyle opened my eyes to the history and the importance of the man, it painted his character and interested me far beyond the point I thought it would. Enhancing the talk just outside of the lecture theatre was an excellent display of hand written, letters & notes by Hoyle marking landmark times in his life, school boy telescope observations with sketches, school reports, prize winning and ground breaking theories written as he made them in his own hand, controversial letters and letters of resignation from the chair at Cambridge. Simply spell binding.

In addition to a fantastic program of talks I spent the day in the company of my good friend and kindred spirit Mr Adrian Orr, a cultivated, most intelligent gentleman, with a passion for the history of astronomy and an aptitude for observation of the night sky. I also spent time with my long standing friend and supporter Mike Atkins a fine fellow who has helped me on so many occasions with practical matters and needs to do with astronomy including the building of my ‘beloved’ first observatory. Mike had accompanied another long standing friend, Jim Haughey a jovial, larger than life character whom I first met some ten years before at the University Of Hertfordshire observatory on an amateur’s course.

During the lunch and coffee breaks I spent time talking to Tom Bowles, the record breaking discoverer of Super Novae, a refreshingly down to earth gentleman happy to offer advice to someone like me who hoped that through his observational studies might just bump into a super nova of his own! These conversations for me where the highlight of the day, Tom for me is a living legend and a supremely inspirational figure, I need to retire and dedicate myself, as he has done, to push the boundaries and re-writing the history books.

Other friends I enjoyed the company of on the day that I can’t conclude without mentioning are, Mark Hurn the quiet and unassuming IOA librarian, who has often helped me with my interests and delivers his own fascinating talks on the history of astronomy. Dr Stewart Moore the Director of the Deep Sky Section of the BAA, that section which I hold closest to my heart and lastly but not least, my friend and hardworking observer and imager under the most difficult London skies, David Arditti.

I write this report some 28 hrs after leaving the event and I’m still high and ‘buzzing’ a tribute to Mike Frost and I suspect more than a little to Lee McDonald too?

I returned home at around 6.30pm, it had been an enjoyable but intense day at the IOA, I was however very aware of a clear sky and very switched on to enjoy it!

I got out into the observatory around 9.30pm local time, after dinner, family matters and practising my harmonica. When I had arrived home from the IOA the Milky Way was prominent, but by the time I got out it was ‘murked’ over.

I was eager to follow up on my last Pegasus 1 galaxy cluster obs, so I headed straight back there. I soon located a pair of member galaxies, NGC 7623 & 7621 and got a sketch down, of course there was a fainter PGC galaxy involved too! After capturing these I was happy that I had recorded all the brighter members. From here I moved to Triangulum and decided upon a pair of galaxies NGC 672 & IC1727 which looked rather good in the NSOG on pg 394 Vol 1. Both fitted on my Watec chip nicely and were pretty close in magnitude at 10.9 & 11.3 respectively, why the latter hadn’t been included in the NGC catalogue I can’t understand. Anyway I had captured then in a sketch in a sketch book, because I had run out of BAA obs forms! The Moon was now up it the east; I was VERY tired so it was off to bed!


Pegasus 1 Galaxy cluster

Blog Thursday Nov 25th 2010

With a cold snap firmly settled over the UK, the Moon now waning and the recent foggy nights clearing out I was presented with an opportunity for a little Deep Sky observing.

I won’t make a song and dance about this as I was out in the observatory for too long it being a weekday session, cloud slowed down the start and a rising Moon kept the duration short.

I picked up on the rather busy Pegasus galaxy cluster which is located bang on the border between the flying horse and Pisces beneath the great square of Pegasus.

Using the 20” and the later Watec camera, whilst running the older camera through the 6” refractor  gave me 2 views, different fields of view and less sensitivity with the smaller scope obviously.

I picked out a pair of galaxies for my first sketch NGC7626 & 7619 are just 7’ apart, fitting comfortably in the 11.9’x 11.9’ fov. These galaxies could be twins both just over Mag 11, round with a bright stellar core. What excited me greatly were the really faint PGC’s galaxies that could also be clearly seen in the field. Click here

After I had finished this sketch I panned to the left just one field of view and picked up on another bright member of the cluster NGC 7631, not as bright at mag 13 and elongated east west. Again a number of fainter PGC galaxies could be seen, down into 17th magnitude showing just what a rich cluster this is especially for larger apertures. Click here


Conjuction in the fog

Blog Monday 15th November 2010

A very foggy evening in Chipping which is indeed a fog and frost prone hollow gave rise to a sky devoid of stellar decoration but graced by a delightful conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon, the later resplendent with rainbow tinged hallo. I captured the moment on a simple handheld digital snap shot compact.

Back to the Moon

Blog 15thNovember 2010

                                                 I was working in my observatory yesterday afternoon (14th) whilst it was raining; I like to do this as it feels like I’m actually doing some astronomy work despite the grim weather outside, if you know what I mean? I actually see astronomy as a job, albeit unpaid! I feel like a self employed astronomer!

Anyhow I digress; I was adding some shrouding to the open 20” tube and fitting a blackout blind to the observatory office as the light from the window bounces around outside and gets picked up by the scope & sensitive cameras.

Out of the blue I thought I must check my latest M1 sketch and see how it compares with Rolan Stoyan’s work & images in this excellent book (See it here) Having both to hand I did that instantly and was delighted at my 20” match with the 2nd of the MI CCD images in the book, the one that labels the pulsar, I definitely marked a bright small region on that spot, I’m not saying I made it stellar but I detected a brighter light source there for sure.

 My star positions in and around the nebula I think are pretty good too :¬)I then compared my rendition with the 6” and his visual sketch made with a 14” under very dark skies. Again an excellent match although my work is more ‘realistic’ as Stoyan prefers a more classical cleaned up, summarised sketching style.

Do take a look if you have this book and let me have your thoughts?

Well a really grim, grey and drizzling Sunday afternoon gave way, surprisingly to an unexpectedly clear late evening, the sky being dominated by an 8 day old Moon & Jupiter.

I hadn’t made a lunar sketch for months, for want of a better description I had developed something of a ‘block’ in this area. I find lunar sketching challenging, probably the most challenging of all the areas of astronomical sketching I’m currently involved with. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy lunar sketching, I do very much but the anticipation of creating one certainly gives me trepidation. (click here to view)

Tonight I was determined to get back into this line of work, no more nonsense I told myself!

I started with a whole Moon sketch, or rather that portion of the whole Moon that is illuminated at 8 days. I used my little 80mm F5 Synta refractor finder to make the low power observation and tried to capture what I saw with conte pastels, pastel & watercolour pencils onto Daler Rowney Black art paper in a sketch pad, I enjoyed creating it.

Still not too late I thought that I would go for a higher power sketch. I moved into the warm comfort of the observatory office and used the 153mm F9 refractor and Watec 120N video camera, sensitivity turned right down and Barlow and polarising filter added to give me a close up image to sketch from the monitor.

I decided upon Albategnius, which is located to the south of the crater Hipparchus and to the east of Ptolemaeus and Alphonsus. Albategnius is 129Km across and 4.4Km deep. Not my best sketch but at least I’m lunar sketching again. Click here to take a look


Catch that comet

Blog Nov 12th 2010

It had been a windy night, pretty clear by and large apart from some scudding cloud, I hadn’t observed on Thursday evening because of the wind it would have blown my big scope about and made observing impossible.

Going for comet C2010 V1 as chronicled in previous blogs however was very much on! I got out just after 4am and just as I had planed I took my big 6” binoculars off their Dobsonian style mount and rested them on the east wall of the half open observatory.

The mighty 6” binoculars next to a pair of opera glasses for size comparison

I'll catch that comet!

 Using a pair of 23mm Celestron Axiom eyepieces gave 33x and a 2.9 degree field of view. As I lined up on Saturn I had no doubt in my mind that I was going to nail this in the next few minutes! I even had may clip board with paper on a pencil ready, I was that confident.

I won’t drag this out, I didn’t find it! I revisited the finder chart numerous times, doubting myself, sure that I had made a stupid error! The comet at that particular time was supposed to be very close to a mag 7 star, I had that star for sure but absolutely no hints of hazy, fuzz, nebulosity call it what you like in sight. I changed the eyepieces to a pair of Meade 12.4 plossls giving 60x and just under a degree of field. Still nothing, the wind was still strong and my eyes were watering like mad, for those of you who have had this happen when observing stars start to blur and become, well comet like!

After an hour plus of this I decided I wasn’t going to find it and I no longer cared! I sent a text to my competitor Andrew Robertson in Norfolk telling him of my failure and wishing him luck! A few moments later the phone rang, it was Andrew of course, he was out too, and of course he was trying to beat me to it! Surprisingly he too had failed to detect the comet despite his very accurate goto and superb telescopes, 4” & 12” respectively! We had both been on something of a wild goose chase this comet just didn’t appear observable visually from the UK at the present time! I’m not sure what is going on, neither is Andrew, the predicted magnitude is around the 9 mark, is it so large and diffuse that our optics can’t pick it up that low down in the predawn sky.

I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that I tried very hard and I’m not going for it again unless it does something dramatic. I was rather pleased that neither of us had got it, it proved to me that I wasn’t losing my touch, we could now share a good laugh about it, on how we had each been eager to beat the other to it, keeping quiet until we were able to announce our victory and both of us confident of doing just that!

There will be another challenge along any day now, Dale


Visiting a couple of old friends

Blog 10-11-2010

A bright day gave way to a chill clear evening, without the mist and murk of recent days! Typical I had a busy evening and with the clocks now changed I could probably have been working in the observatory by say 7pm!

There were children to run about and then a music lesson of my own to attend in town, I’m learning the Harmonica! By the time this was concluded and I got out into the observatory it was heading towards 10pm, just an hour then I told myself as the clear sky was holding. Earlier as I drove back and forth I watched a lovely mustard yellow crescent moon with Earth shine slide gently down into the western horizon.

I have to admit my head wasn’t geared up for an evening session, after the early morning failure on comet C2010 V1 and the subsequent challenge from Andrew Robertson on who could bag it first an evening session hadn’t entered my head during they day! Consequently I didn’t have any targets planned.

I opened the roof sections of the observatory, boy are they stiff & heavy! And gazed up at the sky, Taurus was well placed so I would have a dig around there. Power on, 3 cameras & monitors running and I was soon centred on Aldeberan the bull’s eye.

I took down my S&T pocket atlas from the shelf and scanned Taurus for inspiration, Hind’s variable nebula caught my eye and within seconds the mount was whirring off in its direction. For some reason the small 80mm finder refractor with the Mintron video camera plugged in had gone way off collimation with the others, probably because the Mintron is quite a lump and to achieve focus I have had to add a couple of 1.25” extension tubes, this adds to leverage on the back end I guess, moving the scope against the nylon collimation screws in the rings. Not a big issue more importantly both the 20” & 6” were looking at the same thing!

The last time I had a look at Hind’s Variable NGC1554-5 was back in 2008 with the 14” observatory Newt and the original Watec camera click. I found it an interesting object and was pleased with my observational sketch.

The view from both scopes was pleasing the 20” certainly showed more than I remember from the 14” and there was some dark lane type structure visible. The monitor image from the 6” giving a much wider and more aesthetically pleasing view with tighter stars and darker background looked rather similar to how my 2008 sketch had represented it.

I sketched onto a BAA Deep Sky Section observation form using the upper circle for the 20” view click and the lower ‘detail’ square for the 6” view click. I’m really enjoying this double view experience I thought to myself, it’s rather bloody marvellous :¬)

Next stop and still in Taurus was the enigmatic crab nebula, that well known supernova remnant dating back a millennium and the start of famous Messier ‘non’ comet list.

As soon as the mount settled and the camera refreshed I could see that both scopes were giving superb detail, the mottling within the cloud most impressive with the 20” click, not sure if the pulsar was pulled out? Maybe that is too much to expect. The view with the 6” click I would say pretty much matches the eyepiece visual view with the 20”!

After sketching the clock was showing close to midnight and I needed to get to bed, I had been up since 4am and the day had been a busy one and at the time of closing up I was hoping to go for the comet again at 4am to get it before Andrew!

That didn’t happen as rain began to fall heavily in the early hours :¬(


Chasing a Comet

Blog Nov 10-2010

News had broken 48hrs ago of a new ‘bright’ comet Ikeya-Murakami C/2010 V1  low in the morning sky in the constellation of Virgo and currently close to Saturn. Click here

On Tuesday I had printed off a finder chart from the Sky Hound’s web site and in banter with friends had declared my interest in seeking this newly discovered interloper at the first opportunity. 

The opportunity came this morning, I awoke just before 4am with Sirius burning my retina through the bedroom window. I was up and at the window like a flash the sky looked pristine. I scuttled down stairs put clothes on over my pyjamas brewed some tea and got out into the chill morning air.

First thing I did when I opened the observatory was grab my Takahashi 10×70 Astronomer binoculars from their case under the office desk. I thought I could make out Saturn low in the east well below Leo & Melotte 111, it looked suitably yellow anyhow but I had expected it to be brighter I must admit. I walked around the lawn but an apple tree in my neighbours garden obscured the view so I moved into the observatory to try from there.

I slid back the first roof section and put the step ladder against the wall, I could then rest the pretty hefty binoculars on the wall. When held steady the glasses showed the ‘yellow star’ to be slightly elongated so I was happy this was the ‘ring master’. I could detect some haziness around that part of the sky as I scanned close to Saturn concentrating just below the planet but nothing caught my eye. I went back into the office and studied the chart, familiarised myself with the star field and exact location of the comet and returned to the steps. I studied hard eager to catch my first glimpse of the interloper, I certainly wasn’t keen to return indoors empty handed after getting up at 4am! Try as I may I couldn’t pick out anything apart from stars, ‘nowt ‘nebulous you could say! I thought about trying to get a scope up onto the wall so I could get that bit deeper, I didn’t really have anything to hand that would fit the bill.

I wondered if I could just get that area with part of the 20” mirror or perhaps the high side mounted 6”, I switched on the electrics and sent the goto to Sirius as a starting point for my hop, I was still running 3 cameras from setting them up on Saturday. Sirius centred on the monitors screens from the 20” & 6” but the 80mm was too low. I went into the obs to drop the southern flap just in time to see cloud extinguished the skies brightest sun! I hung around listened to the radio for a while but gave up at 5.30ut

I went back to bed and dosed but couldn’t sleep of course, before I knew it, the working day had arrived!

My conclusion on C/2010 V1 is that it is below the threshold of 10×70’s for the moment!


Taking a tumble and 3 in a line

 5th Nov 2010

I have been having collimation issues with my 20” mirror since taking it out of the Dobsonian chassis and putting it into a new custom built open tube in the observatory. The builder who is a friend of mine, Rod Greening has continued to develop the cell for me to overcome this problem.

On Friday evening our mutual friend Es Reid brought returned the cell after Rod had been working on it for a few days to get the mirror to float more easily and hold collimation better.

The evening was foul, the rain was torrential lashing onto the observatory as we worked inside and the wind howled through every nook and cranny! But there was something both exciting and comforting in being able to work on my astronomical kit despite the weather outside.

Installing the modified cell took a little over an hour and Es says it shows a good chance of improvement although at the time of writing this blog entry up it is untested.

In addition to the cell installation Es had bagged some aluminium channel which he intended to beef up the side of the 20” tube and move the heavy 6” triplet refractor onto to elevate flexure and to aid keeping both instruments in alignment with each other. This project took a little longer as it involved searching for bolts to fit the new support struts, cutting and drilling and filing to get a good fit and finish.

Es is a fine engineer and makes a tidy and accurate job of just about everything he turns his hand to, I don’t and Es rightly terms my crude efforts as “agricultural”.

I will prime and paint the bright aluminium supports at some future date to blend them in with the rest of the structure.

With the tube rings fitted to the new struts it was time to put the tube back, the back end complete with focuser had been removed to facilitate this and as I manoeuvred the front end heavy tube my left foot went down into the ‘Dob pit’ a corner of the observatory without a raised floor where the old 20” chassis is stored. I fell backwards landing against the wall on my backside. The tube crashed to the floor, or rather the heavy OG end did I managed to keep a grip on the lighter end. The steel dew shield took the impact and was crushed virtually flat, dramatic as it was this ‘crumpling’ likely save the precious triplet objective by absorbing the impact.

Shaken and a little bruised we continued to fit the refractor in place before we closed up and Es departed in the still wild night at 11pm.

6th November 2010

Saturday dawned in complete contrast to Friday evening, bright blue sky and sunshine.

By late afternoon I managed to grab an hour to start to align the telescopes by around 4pm I could make out Jupiter and Altair in the dusk sky. I sent the goto system to the later and then one by one got all of the scopes directed onto it. I collimated the 20” slewing it around the sky and then testing it again, seating the mirror with a few bangs on the cell back board I eventually go it so that the shift was pretty small, but it was still there!

I then fitted Watec cameras into the focusers of the 20” & 6” and the Mintron camera onto the 80mm F5 finder and for the first time ever I had achieved what I had hoped for quite a few years, 3 scopes, 3 cameras, 3 differing fields of view and Altair bang centre in 3 monitors simultaneously!

The next clear night will show if things can stay that way?

Clear Skies, Dale

Observatory work party and a little Deep Skying


With the help of my youngest son Aubrey and good friend Simon Kidd on Saturday morning we stripped the old a leaking roof felt off of the southern leaf of the Fry observatory which houses the HST (Hay Steavenson telescope). The observatory has a very simple and lightweight construction but has lasted well since Dr Fry either constructed it or had it constructed sometime after taking it over from Will Hay in the 1930’s.

By lunchtime when two more astronomer friends, Tom Moss-Davies and Mike Atkins turned up we had completely stripped the felt and ‘de-nailed’ that half of the roof.

It turned out that I needed to go out and buy additional felt (Mike rightly said “you always think you have more that you actually have” and some ply wood to form a new ridge seal as the old one turned out to be pretty rotten!

It didn’t take long when I returned to get the section felted and water tight once more, there was a slight hiccup as we tried out the closure procedure only to jam the roof onto a pair of step ladders left inside the obs, the result a hole in the new roof! I won’t tell them who was to blame Tom ;¬)

The damage was soon patched and sealed invisibly so no harm done. We then focused our collective attention to building up the totally dismantled and very heavy mount. It had lain in pieces since being collected from Thame nr Oxford in early summer.

I suppose we spent best part of 2 hours cleaning machined surfaces, degreasing, heaving and straining which resulted in from my perspective a very welcome leap of progress in the re-birth of the HST. The primary purpose was to get the mount into such a form that we could calculate positioning to allow full use and closure of the observatory. The orientation of the observatory was dictated by location, at Dr Paterson’s home in Thame it was orientated N-S at Chipping in is roughly E-W so care and calculation will need to be taken to ensure a ‘fit’ in the relocated observatory and of course being a German Equatorial mount, accurate polar alignment.

My sincere thanks go to Simon, Aubrey Tom & Mike for their much appreciated time, sweat & support.

The evening remained clear and I was eager to get some deep sky observing. With my latest camera out of action following the asteroid chase earlier in the week I was forced to use the older and less flexible Watec 120N.

I got things set up and set off in Pisces after centering and synchronising the set up on Jupiter. I consulted the bible NSOG for interesting targets and settled on a air of galaxies NGC7541 & 7537 that looked quite interesting from Steve Coe’s sketches in the guide. They were easily located and did yield a rather interesting view with detail evident in the larger elongated NGC7541 an oval nucleus region and hints of brighter arms emanating from it with a fainter outer halo was pleasing. NGC7537 showed some elongation but little structure it was considerably smaller and fainter, my sketch can be seen here, north is up.

Unfortunately that was to turn out to bet it L Cloud quickly claimed the sky so I went off to bed to enjoy my extra hour as clocks went back to GMT this night.


Jupiter with a friend

 28th October 2010-10-31

My friend of many years Scott Poynter called around this evening, now Scott isn’t an astronomer per se but he does have an interest and indeed it was Scott whom I have to thank for sparking my latent interest in astronomy back in 1999.

The evening was clear and after an hour or so of chat I offered Scott a chance to gaze upon Jupiter through the 6” triplet refractor. I fitted it up with the binoviewers as that for me is the only way to observer the planets these days.

Seeing turned out to very steady a break from the pattern for many weeks now. The Galilean moons were distant from the disc with two at either side, and no GRS on view but it was a very fine view and Scott no stranger when it comes to fine optics was suitably impressed I’m pleased to say.

After my friend left I returned to the eyepiece and made a quick sketch which you can see here


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