17 January 2010

New moon weekend 1/12

NB: yes, this is several days after the weekend. Whatever. Also, I'm quite smug that I'm writing this based on notes that I wrote in the front of my Pocket Sky Atlas - the first few in the pitch black, then the others with the aid of our red light. (Have I mentioned this before? We found a red light! It looks an awful lot like a bike's rear light.)

We're hoping to make good use of the new moon weekends this year, and we decided to start by going to Forrest - a bit more than two hours from Melbourne, it's close-ish to the coast and fairly far from big urban sprawls. And hey, how convenient! There are mountain bike trails for during the day!

...had us alternately groaning and gleeful, as we drove down, because the clouds built up and then disappeared several times. Early in the evening it looked like the clouds had come in... but then, by the time it was properly dark (except for the glow on the western horizon which stayed there, and so was presumably Geelong rather than the sunset) the clouds had gone and voila! for the first time in a really long time, there was the Milky Way. It was dark enough to see the Coal Sack quite clearly, next to Crux; and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds were totally obvious. Lack of light pollution makes the most stunning amount of difference.

First, because it was there, we tried looking at Mars. Sadly, although it's at its closest for years, it was quite a small disk. Distinctly red, though. For something a bit different, we swung over to Omega Centuari: the largest globular cluster in the southern sky, I think? Pretty impressive, anyway, although I actually think not quite as good as 47Tuc, because it didn't seem to have the tendrils reaching out.

(Pause for collimation...)

On to the Carina constellation - which I still can't quite figure out, the Pocket Atlas isn't so good for that - and checked out the Eta Carina Nebula, which is enormous and has really cool dust lanes in it. The whole area around that nebula is pretty cool - heaps of stars, of course, because it's bang in the Milky Way. Then off to the Southern Pleiades, an open cluster... and I just don't find open clusters that interesting. They just look like a bunch of stars. Yes, sometimes they're in a pretty formation - I like the normal Pleiades - but... anyway. Also in this area is another, tighter cluster - IC2581. And it was more impressive, I think because the stars are closer together and there are more of them that are obviously part of the gang.

Moving on, we decided to get a bit ambitious and have another look at the Large Magellanic Cloud. I probably didn't actually spend enough time looking at it, to allow my eyes to adjust enough to pick out interesting aspects; there was too much else to look at. But I'm quite sure that the fuzzy blob - in the same place as when we looked at it in Ballarat - is the Tarantula Nebula. It's pretty awesome to have found an object in another galaxy.

Finally, to finish Friday night (by this time Saturday morning), we had a look at Alpha Centuari - split it easily (I think I'd like to start collecting double stars...), and of course it wouldn't be a complete viewing night at the moment without checking out Orion, which looked breathtakingly awesome. Of course. A final look at Eta Carina, and 12.30 on a Friday night was definitely bedtime.

Also, we saw numerous satellites.

... was another very off&on again day, cloud-wise. We really thought we were going to get screwed over, but come 10.30 or so (and a little snooze) it had cleared enough that we bothered dragging Ptolemy onto the balcony. (Did I mention that? Observing from the balcony. None of this whole going-a-long-distance-from-the-house-or-car business for me.) We had a quick look at Eta Carina again (and aren't we glad the Atlas comes with a Greek alphabet guide, since it's a long time since I did esoteric maths), but frankly the most interesting thing about the sky was watching the clouds and general murk come... and go... and come again. I think we only stayed out for half an hour or so, because then a sky-covering cloud came in and ruined our fun. There was certainly no Mars viewing.

The one thing I was sad about? No Saturn. Rising too late, meant that it was in the murk both nights. Hopefully we get to see it over winter.

10 January 2010

Pity we weren't better prepared

So, when we got up here I realised that I had forgotten to bring a sky atlas. Which was pretty annoying. When it got all clear and lovely last night I pulled up Stellarium on the computer, which shows some stuff obviously, but it's not good for aiming at the sky and figuring out what to try looking at. I felt a bit guilty about wasting a lovely evening, with no moon, because we didn't stay up that late; but at the same time we hadn't really planned on a long observing session, having had a busy and tiring day already.

Anyway, we did see some cool stuff. We ticked off three new Messier objects, all open clusters: M46, M47, and M50. 46 and 47 are very close together, such that in the 35mm and 17mm they were in the same field of view. They're very different; 47 is a fairly open, brighter cluster, while 46 looked more like a globular cluster: a fuzzy patch of lots of stars. We tried finding the Cone Nebula but it was too early - it hadn't risen above the trees.

Swinging around, J did manage to find 47Tuc, which was good; and it was indeed a lovely fuzzy ball of stars, with tendrils going out faintly.

It was dark enough that I could definitely see the Large Magellanic Cloud naked-eye, and could even - after a while - fool myself that I was seeing the Small Magellanic Cloud, too. With the 35mm, we had our first real go at looking at the LMC. I have to say I didn't give it much time; I was getting tired, and the temperature had dropped surprisingly fast (which was good, after the 37C day). However, even with the brief look - and skies not that dark - I could begin to make out features. There was a bright fuzzy blob in the bottom right-hand area - which is actually top left - which looked like a globular cluster; I'm looking forward to having a look at the atlas to see if I can figure out what that is. I could also some dust lanes, I think.

Finally, we checked out Orion - this is going to be my replacement for Jupiter for the next little while, I think - and it was the best I've ever seen it. The nebulosity went on for degrees; the Trapezium was obvious; and I could even see some individual stars within the gas. M43 was obvious as a smaller nebula 'below' (above) Orion, and I'm quite sure there was some fuzziness around a star above-left (in the eyepiece; actually below-right). I must check that out, too, to see whether I'm right or if my eyes were just playing up.

In all, a good night's viewing. We also saw a satellite, which is always absurdly exciting.

08 January 2010

Haze, clarity, haze

Stinking hot day. I didn't have much hope for the evening because there was a lot of cloud just on sunset, but it did clear - mostly, anyway. In astronomical twilight, I went and set up the scope (mostly all by myself - with the new mount - dead exciting, if a bit hard); found Jupiter, but it was pretty hazy off to the west. So I saw it, and I think four moons, but it wasn't very impressive.

Next, swinging around, I tried for the Orion Nebula - and found it, but again it was just too hazy: there was no nebula! Also, still not that dark. This was a bit sad for K, who came out in the dark and mosquito-infested-ness only to see just a couple of stars.

Anyhow, went back inside for an hour or so. Then, ta da! It cleared! So out we went again. Orion, this time, looked totally spectacular - so K, and D, both got a good look, and I think they were impressed. Then around to the Pleiades, which looked pretty good. J tried to find 47Tuc, but to no avail - clouds were coming up in the west, and it wasn't quite dark enough anyway, I think.

The last thing we tried was M41, we think; it was an open cluster, and it was roughly where J was looking for it last week in Melbourne. Certainly found a cluster, anyway. By this stage the clouds were coming in, as was gauzy haze, and the mosquitoes were getting worse. So we packed it in.

05 January 2010

Mount and mosquitoes

A little while back J caved, and decided that actually he'd quite like his tripod back, and the telescope would do better on its own, proper, mount. So he ordered one, and six weeks later it finally arrived. Huge darn box for me to lug home from the post office.

There was a bit of angst over the setting up, and we're still not entirely sure it's exactly how it should be. But it's very stable, so it seems ok. And I love that there is a little tray between the legs for putting eye pieces on!

Last night, a lovely evening, we were too stuffed to take advantage of it. Tonight, there are a few clouds around; we went out for a little bit, but were soon driven inside by mozzies. Before that, we had a quick look at Jupiter - very low on the horizon and quite atmosphere-muddled. Then Orion, but really it's not dark enough yet. Finally, because I noticed in Stellarium that they were close to Orion and Sirius and therefore should be easy enough to find, J found the open clusters of M41 and M47. At that point we caved before the might of the insects and decamped inside.

I love the mount, though. It's lovely and wooden, and suits the scope far more than the grey metal of the camera tripod ever did - a very important consideration, of course.