31 December 2010

The Little Desert, Night Two

Not quite as good this second night. There were a few reasons for this:
1. Mozzies.
2. It stayed hot all night - maybe 23C by 2.30 - so the mozzies stayed around too.
3. More mozzies. They were trying to eat me through my clothes.
4. People. There were a few more people at the Lodge, so there were a few more lights on. Also, I actually knew one of the people! He and his friends came out at about 10pm to have a look, we showed them some of the usual suspects... and then he hung around til midnight. I wanted to have a look at the stuff I'd planned, but it wasn't that interesting, so I didn't feel like I could while he was there....
5. Mozzies.
6. Trying a new telescope. Um. Yes. Have I mentioned our new telescope? It's a Tak FS128 (5") which J picked up through his usual cunning ways. I've called it Keppler... and he's huge, in comparison with Ptolemy (90mm). Coming to grips with the different fields of view in the eyepieces, etc, took some doing, and I'm still not there yet.

What did I look at? Well, we started with Jupiter - of course - and it was by far THE most amazing and awesome view of Jupiter I have ever had, enough to almost make me want to sketch it. The main dark band was blindingly obvious, there was detail to the north and the south, and - perhaps most amazingly to me - the moons clearly appeared to be of slightly different shape and colour. Ganymede was obviously bigger and redder. I was totally blown away - as were the people we showed it to a bit later. We also showed them M42 and 43 - of course! - and it too looked stunning through the 128. In fact I looked at it several times over the night, and it just got better and bigger every time.

To get my mojo back a bit, after my acquaintance left, I took some time to just look up. Keppler has a box disconcertingly like a coffin, which it turns out makes an excellent bench, so I just lay back on it (the ground was awfully sandy) and stared up. Orion was pretty close to the zenith (we were pushing midnight by this stage), and the view was just delightful. I also had a chance to look at a few things through J's Dobsonian, probably my favourite of which was an awesome planetary nebula, NGC1360, with a bright core and a discrete cloud around it. I tried dialling up planetary nebulae to 'tour' on Keppler but it was a bit of a bust with the lights on in the distance.

Anyway, I decided to have a go at some doubles. Using the list of doubles in Orion from vol 1 of The Night Sky Observer's Guide, I had a look at and split: E627; E630; 17-rho Ori (a lovely double, orange and blueish); 19-beta Ori; E664; h2259 (although only the 3.6/10.8 mag stars, not the other companions); h697 (the triple); E697; E701; h2268; E114; E790; E816; 60 Ori and E877. Which, yes, was possibly a stupid number of doubles to look at it one night, but I did stop when I was bored. Additionally, I was practising with the Argo, because I found all of these by pushing the telescope around until the read-out on the Argo was the correct RA and Dec. There was a few times when it wasn't quite right, but overall it was a good way to start getting a handle on using the mount as well as the Argo - and getting myself more used to directions.

We stayed up until just after 2, determined to see Saturn. However, we were flagging fast, so when it was just above the horizon and mushy as all get-out (not coming clear at all, and looking like a weird bulging object as a result), we threw in the towel. Still, it was a good night overall (despite the mozzies), and we're hoping for a few more like it - this time in the Grampians.

30 December 2010

The Little Desert, Night One

While it's not exactly a desert, when I say we came here because it's a dark part of Victoria, it is seriously a dark part of Victoria.

My main aim on this first night was to play with my new Argo - a Christmas present - and get used to my Losmandy mount. While I grew to love my industrial green Tak P2Z, it is awfully nice not to have to remember to disengage the tracking and then re-engage.... Anyway, I aligned it pretty easily, and then had a look at Jupiter (of course). Since it's so easy with the Argo I also found Uranus - and even though it wasn't very dark, it was an obviously blue little disk.

I decided to start off by having a go at one of their tour functions, and chose Non-Stellar Objects within 30 degrees of Sirius and a lower limit of mag 8 - since I'll admit that it wasn't exactly pitch-black yet, but I was impatient. First off was M41, a bright open cluster, which looked great. The next few objects were also open clusters, and although they can be interesting enough the joy soon waned: I looked at NGC2345, M50, M47, and M46, skipped a number of NGC clusters, and then gave up and moved on to trying to find triple stars, again using the tour function. This too I fairly quickly gave up on; for my part, it was probably not quite dark enough to be trying to split triples, but it was frustrating in general because the Argo didn't supply mags for all of the stars, nor their separations, so I wasn't sure if I found them or not. And thus I moved on to the 'Bright Nebulae' tour.

First, the Rosette Nebula, around NGC2244. In Ptolemy (90mm refractor), the nebulosity was very faint indeed. However, I badgered J into finding it in Copernicus (16" Dob), complete with brand new filters, and WOW! It looked awesome - we couldn't fit the whole thing into the field of view in the 21mm. It was matched, and bettered in my scope, by M42 and 43, of course - I really do love this time of year - they just looked incredible. Every time I look at the nebula there it just looks brilliant.

I was interrupted at this point in my tour my J's excitement at having found the Horsehead Nebula. He got a H-beta filter specifically for finding this, and was over the moon at spotting it. I'm not as patient as him, so while I could see the band of nebulosity and just pick the 'divot' that marks the famous horse's head, I couldn't make out any detail. The Flame Nebula, however, was waaay more interesting, looking quite a lot like a maple leaf. He also showed me M1, the Crab Nebula - a large, faint, not very crabby smudge - and, a bit later, several faint galaxies around Fornax, including the awesome 'Zorro', NGC1365.

I looked at a few more bright nebulae - NGC2175, M78, NGC1975 (drowned out by M42), and a couple of others that I couldn't really pick - before going back to my old fave, double stars. As with the list of triple stars, I was a bit frustrated by the lack of information provided in the Argo about magnitudes and separation distances for the double stars. I ended up grabbing my Cambridge Double Star Atlas, and looking them up in it to see if it was worth my energy - but some of the ones listed on the Argo weren't listed in the Atlas... I know there are double star catalogues available to download, so I will to investigate those. Anyway, I saw E816 (a separation of 4.4"!! Very proud); Ori60; E838; E877; OE73; Ori68; and E766 (I really should figure out how to do Greek letters, since the E is meant to be sigma...). In doing so I also stumbled on an awesome little planetary, NGC2438, and a totally lovely open cluster, NGC2169.

To finish up the night I tried the non-stellar objects tour again, this time in the incredibly rich area around Carina. I skipped most of the open clusters, but looked at Omega Centauri (always breathtaking, and stupidly detailed); NGC2808 (another globular, this one quite faint); the Gem Cluster and Jewel Box (open clusters I will make an exception for); Centaurus A (a faint galaxy with what appears to be a split in the middle); and the seriously cool Ghost of Jupiter (another planetary nebula - I love it).

We packed it in around 2.15, with the moon rising: a crescent, it was so yellow it looked like a banana. If we'd hung around a bit longer we could have looked at Saturn, but my goodness it got cold. From complaining about the heat in the day, we ended up as rugged up as we've ever been while observing. Can't wait for tonight.

22 December 2010


We've dragged the telescope out twice in the last week or so, but only briefly. We haven't really had much summer, yet, so it's been quite cloudy and quite cool at night! Anyway, this may be my favourite celestial time of year: Jupiter still visible for a while in the West, and Orion visible at a really decent time in the East. Whee!

Both times we've had a look at Jupiter we've spied shadow transits, which I think is pretty amazing given they were both haphazard viewing opportunities. The first time it was Europa, and tonight it was little Io. Tonight in particular the shadow was a really dark circle on the disc of Jupiter - very obvious indeed.

Also today, the nights officially start getting longer again! Gone are the days when I was just all about the sunshine, baby. Now - ah, now, I get to be totally conflicted. Fun!