Archive for February, 2011

There is more than one Lion in the night sky jungle

Blog Thursday 25th Feb 2011


At the moment I’m under a bit of pressure, work is busy so I’m spending extended hours there which I don’t like to do and in addition to this I have two deadlines looming, I have to have  some work done for astronomy submissions. The earlier deadline of the two is a Deep Sky article due on the 28th (Monday) for the Norwich Astronomy Society (NAS) March -April magazine, Cygnus. I have started to pen a rather more specialist piece for this society detailing elusive targets for the more advanced and better equipped observer, in short big scope owning nuts like me!

The other deadline is to prepare a selection of posters and get them produced for display at the big SPA biennial open meeting at the Cambridge University Institute of Astronomy on Sat March 5th, this is a new challenge to me and I have only just started to dabble in building these posters up with member’s images.

So back to the former I’m going to use this blog and the observing session detailed in it to make up at least the frame work of the Cygnus Deep Sky article.

The NAS is a great society and one I’m proud to be a member of, within its ranks are a relatively large group for the UK anyway,  of experienced and dedicated large telescope owning visual  observers, it is this group of friends that I primarily write for, although anyone else is most welcome to read too.

Telescopes belonging  to these members are includes three 24” monster Dobsonians, twice that number of 20” scopes not to mention a good number of ‘small’ scopes in the 14”-18” class. I know of no other society in the UK that can match these astronomers for combined aperture, dark rural skies and knowledge. Therefore writing to entertain let alone inform this group is a challenge!

The editor had told me “don’t do anything on Leo, as Sue” another regular contributor “has that covered” Hmmmm I have quite a lot of sketches of lesser know Leo galaxies but they will have to wait now!

Circumstances were to give me a hand here, after returning from work around 6.30pm rushing dinner and getting out for my harmonica tuition (Hi Keith 😉 I returned home to a clear moonless sky. Well I haven’t had too many of those lately as this blog so sadly reflects!

I got out into the observatory under a clear but hazy sky by 9pm local time. M44 the Beehive cluster was just visible to the naked eye. I had already made my mind up I would go for galaxies in the rarely mentioned constellation of Leo Minor the little Lion.

I got the roof open the cameras on and aligned firstly on Sirius, then Procyon, hoping and syncing on bright stars until I got to 46 Leo minoris the brightest star at mag 3.8 by my reckoning in this constellation. From here it was a short hop to some rather lovely looking galaxies; that was according to the bible Night Sky Observers guide anyhow. There were a large number of sketches made through a fast 20” under dark skies, a good number of the sketches showed pairs and trios in the same fov, this was just the kind of observing I enjoyed and many of my NAS friends do too.

My first stop was a pair of interacting galaxies NGC 3395 & 3396 looking great in the book, the view on my monitor wasn’t so good! I fiddled with camera and monitor settings but failed to get much more than a grey outline, disappointing. According to Sky Map Pro 10 there was a promising alternative very close, NGC 3430 is a very nice face on spiral, the scope stopped with it at the top edge of the field  of view, as I centred  the galaxy a bright star entered the field, it was slightly out of focus. I tweaked the remote focuser and sharpened the star; the effect on the galaxy was dramatic going from an grey splodge lacking detail and interest to a beautifully detailed structure with spiralling arms an elongated central core and a wonderful fainter edge on companion in the same field of view. Together they made a striking and contrasting pair worthy of any spring observing list! At mag 11.5 & 12.4 respectively they aren’t exactly dim but neither are they Messier or Caldwell candidates added to the fact that they are in an unremarkable constellation competing for attention with the main Lion it is no wonder they are frequently over looked, I invite readers to change that this spring!

OK with the ‘not very good image’ issue resolved (excuse the pun 🙂 I moved back to the interacting pair NGC 3395 & 3396. Wow….. Would you look at this! Absolutely delightful, to me they appeared as a pair of circling, wheeling white seagulls, playing in turbulent thermals above storm lashed rocky cliffs. Again I was amazed that these two weren’t more familiar, subsequent research has revealed these are ARP catalogue listed as ARP 246 at similar magnitudes of 12.3 & 12.4 they are amongst the brightest on the list. Hopefully they are now also firmly on your list too?

My camera that shows a large part of the night sky on a third monitor, revealed haze was now forming into cloud and the south and west were pretty much obscured although working overhead I was clear apart from haze for a while longer. My last observation was of an interesting, slightly curved edge on galaxy again very close to the earlier observations.

Right on the border with Ursa Major NGC 3432 is a thin mag 11.1 galaxy offers considerable detail for the larger scope owner, enhanced by a number of relatively bright stars close by and others touching the galaxy, the elongated structure shows a granular blotchy appearance along the lines of that noted in the Whale galaxy and to an even greater extent in the famous cigar galaxy M82. The planetarium software showed a large over lapping UGC galaxy of mag 15.3 covering the southern quarter of NGC 3432 the camera revealed just a hint of a hazy circular patch just to the lower right of the edge on above a mag 10 star. This was clearly the galaxy in question but looked very unremarkable and even my set up couldn’t detect its outer reaches. Subsequent comparisons of all 3 sketches the next day with images from the Palomar Survey showed strikingly similar matches including just a faint round smudge for the UGC companion. I was once again amazed at what my garden observatory had shown me of the distant universe.

That aside I had enjoyed observations of 3 or more depending how you count, new and stunningly beautiful objects that should certainly be on the spring observing list of every deep sky observer working with a 6” scope or larger!

Enjoy, Dale

A Valentines’ date

Blog Monday Feb 14th 2011


Valentine’s Day evening an out in the observatory! Naughty but true! Actually the truth is Lady Luna is the other women in my life ;¬)

I wasn’t out for long just 60 minutes or so. I went out specifically with the intention of making a lunar sketch, of what I had no idea at the time; as usual I was going to let my eye be taken. The past few lunar sketches I have produced by using my old Mintron Video camera & 6” refractor displaying a live image onto one of the b&w security monitors in the observatory office.

With the Mintron now fitted with a wide angle lens for a general low mag sky view I used the older Watec 120N instead. I needed a Moon filter to reduce the brightness so the more sensitive camera could cope and a x2 barlow lens to get the magnification (image scale) up.

It wasn’t long as I scanned the terminator that my eye was caught by Krieger, not that I knew it was Krieger until the post sketch research! I used my usual, pastels & pastel pencil combination on black stiff artist paper to make my sketch. I find this very enjoyable and most relaxing, I didn’t use to, but as I have become more practiced the anxiety associated with ‘trying to do a good job’ has abated. 20-30 minutes and all was complete, sketch target identified, sprayed off with fixer and packed away for scanning the next morning. Here is the sketch and here is a composite that my friend Frank McCabe kindly put together showing my sketch alongside a low res digital eyepiece snaps he took of Krieger under similar illumination, I simply delighted with the match :¬)

Pax Stellarum, Dale

The race is on! Who can get to an Orion galaxy first?

Blog Feb Sat 12th 2011


Recently Owen Brazell took is 20” Dobsonian down to North Devon for some new Moon deep sky observing. In the report that he shared with a group of likeminded fellow observers he mentioned observing galaxies in Orion, 1 viewed 1 he failed to locate. Hmmm galaxies in Orion? Is there any? I have never heard of any before, certainly never observed any!

I picked this up with Andrew Robertson straight away, had he observed galaxies in Orion? The answer came back “no”, but just like me he now wanted to observe them since Owen had made us aware!

We both did a little research on the 2 galaxies Owen had mentioned, both were small, both mag 12.5. I took a look at them via Aladin pre-viewer showing black & white images from the Palomar survey NGC 2110 looked to be just a smudge, NGC 1924 showed some pleasing detail. In addition I did a little more research and came up with another Orion galaxy IC 421 from the excellent ‘SkyHound’ web-site, this was a considerably larger galaxy but also much fainter at mag 14.2, the Palomar image showed a nice level of spiral structure.

All of these factors were shared and discussed with Andrew and it was agreed that we had a challenged opportunity here to see who could not only observe these galaxies but who could get them first?

Andrew is very competitive; I knew that if he got a clear window before me on the East coast that I would be in trouble! What was going in my favour was that the Moon was waxing and getting brighter night on night, my system of using a Watec Camera with my 20” could go faint even when the moon prevented visual observing.

As it turned out we both got the same opportunity as dark fell on this night of Saturday 12th. I opened the observatory at 18.45ut and once I started I had all 3 nailed down and sketched by 19.20ut which was under 30minutes. I hurried out a text message to Andrew saying “all 3 found & sketched!”

 I had visions of Andrew observing them one after ahead of me that is why I timed each sketch precisely. It turned out however that Andrew found the Moon had overwhelmed these galaxies and instead was working through some planetary nebulae with his 12” Dall Kirkham in Gemini that Owen had posted as a challenge on the Webb, web site, here he was dealing with brighter objects where pushing up the power would give contrast even in a bright sky.

I was pleased with my result but felt I had achieved little in relation to the competition between Andrew and myself as my set up had given me a large advantage on this occasion.

Galaxies observed with links to the Sketches and observing notes are: NGC 1924 NGC 2110 IC 421

Clear Skies, Dale

Not a bad start to the day!

Blog Thursday Feb 3rd 2011


A call to the little boy’s room at 2am, this morning told me that the sky was clear and it looked like it was set to stay that way. With a busy day of work ahead I wasn’t going out to observe then but I did set the alarm for 5am to give me the chance to do a bit!

Things worked out to plan and just after 5am I was brewing & slewing (Tea & Telescope: )

Now I didn’t have any targets planned for this hour so I opted for staying low and going for things that are more difficult from the UK and that others tend to shun. The southern horizon had a strong glow, dawn was approaching, distant London and other Urbanisations between were glowing a water vapour above was busy reflecting! We perhaps the Watec could cut through?

Star images using the 20” were awful I tried for M68 a globular cluster low in Hydra below Corvus, the view was a mess. Oh I thought perhaps the filter (TS UCF) or the focal reducer are dewed up, they weren’t but I removed the filter and refocused, things improved a little, but I decided I was too low!

OK play safe I thought!  Go for an old favourite the Sombrero, M104, low & lonely in Virgo. Before I knew it, there it was magnificent on the monitor, with a relatively bright sky and a 20” mirror full of light I couldn’t run with the camera sensitivity to max as it just washed out. I started a sketch and after 10 minutes I started again, I wasn’t happy, I have never been happy with a sketch of this natural  beauty, rather like they way I struggle with Saturn, I can never do the ethereal perfection even a hint of justice. The second attempt I was a little happier with, I felt I had captured the curves of the saucer shape and tried hard to gain in the negative the radiated light glowing like a halo around the galaxy, anyhow time was pressing on and hopefully this is a step closer to an acceptable drawing?

I wanted something new before I closed up; it was heading towards 6.30 and getting light very quickly. I decided upon a globular cluster close by in Libra NGC 5897.This turned out to be a loose Globular and with the sky so bright relatively few stars appeared on the monitor, I tried to balance, gain, sensitivity, contrast and brightness between camera and monitor as best and as quickly as I could and then got sketching. With relatively few stars showing it didn’t take long to complete and isn’t a great representation, more a record sketch and a reminder to go back when it is dark and not daylight!

And so to work, Dale

Not a bad session at all!

Blog Monday Jan 31st 2011


Astronomy today began as night fell, my friend ,work colleague and indeed current ‘web master’ James Cooper accompanied me home from work with the intention of getting my newly installed Weather station to talk to the lap top computer so that data could be recorded.

 Naturally I had centred the weather station around the observatory. After a quick sociable tea brewing we retired to the observatory and within a matter of minutes James had identified a problem and rectified it with a few expert clicks!

With the temperature already a couple of degrees below freezing outside(yes the weather station told me that : )  and a delightfully clear sky I had to show James something exciting through a telescope whilst he was here, well it would be rude not too!

Aligning the 153mm refractor on Jupiter to the SW I inserted the binoviewer fitted with a pair of 15mm Panoptic eyepieces, the view at 234x was steady, sharp and beautiful. James who is well versed with microscopic observation picked up the technique of viewing quickly and was clearly impressed with what he saw; it is always nice to get a favourable reaction from a ‘first timer’.

After James left I grabbed some dinner and after tidying up I got straight back out into the observatory hoping to catch and sketch Jupiter before it passed behind the apple tree & house, ‘knickers’ I was too late! Literally by minutes, should have gone hungry!

Not to worry I fitted the old Watec video camera onto the 20” and for the first time added a focal reducer to it, I also added the Skywatcher Neodymium filter that Bernard Kapinski of Modern Astronomy had sent me.

I aligned and focussed on Aldebaran in Taurus before slewing to the Crab Nebula, the view was most pleasing.

Right now for some serious work, I read during the day of Paul Brierley’s observation and CCD image of globular cluster PAL 2 on the Webb Society chat site, Paul stated that this more elusive globular was in Taurus I found out later that it was just across the ‘border’ into  Auriga. I have sketched a couple of PAL’s before and they haven’t given up too much detail but this one looked like a real globular, pretty small but grainy with resolved stars and hints of chains streaming out and darker voids just off centre, excellent.

My next observations were also linked to a Webb Society prompt, this time following Tim Walker the society web masters notification of a site up-date, I went and took a look and was inspired by an image of M78 and McNeil’s nebula taken my Paul Whitmarsh. And so with that inspired memory I spent the rest of my observing evening studying and sketching M78 and the surrounding islands and ribbons of complex bright diffuse reflection nebulosity. M78 is in fact the brightest such nebula in the whole of the sky!

I have observed this area visually many times and I have sketched it before using a Watec camera and a 6” scope I think? But the 20” bring a whole different perspective to the scene. NGC 2067 forms a long ribbon running to the east of ‘staring’ M78 with its two beady star eyes, NGC 2067 had me in mind of a Barnard’s loop type structure or even slightly reminiscent of the divine Veil nebula. On its southern extent it is demarked by a slightly brighter and rounder patch designated as NGC 2064. I was delighted at the view of these gossamer structures I was really seeing detail that only a long or multiple stacked CCD image could reveal.

Above M78 is another seperate brigh and really quite large patch of nebulosity NGC 2071 was found to be home to proto planetary discs as far back as 1998

The most exciting was still to come just out of the fov below lay McNeil’s nebula. This small fan shaped wisp of reflection nebulosity laid undetected until Fen 2004 when Jay McNeil an American imager noticed it on some images he had taken with a 76mm refractor. The news in the amateur astronomical caused great excitement, giving the hope to many other amateurs that one day they might discover something previously uncharted! Although rather small and not the most startling or spectacular of objects, Mc Neil’s nebula with the history outlined above and the very fact that I had never seen this little nebulous fan before made it the highlight of the night.

And so to bed, Dale

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