09 May 2011

Naked-eye planets

There's been a bit of stuff even in mainstream media about four planets being visible in the morning sky at the moment. I didn't think I had a chance of seeing them, because Melbourne has well and truly turned on winter. However, we were up at 6am this morning for a different reason, and there was one big break in the clouds:
Venus, very bright white;
Mercury, faint but not as faint as I expected up to the right of Venus;
Jupiter, looking faintly yellow and about as bright as Venus;
and Mars, definitely red, just above the tops of the houses.

This has made my week! I can't believe I've now seen Mercury with my own eyes; and it was a seriously beautiful sight as a whole.

06 March 2011

ASV Messier Night

This weekend we went to the annual Messier Night held by the Astronomical Society of Victoria, at their dark site a bit out of Melbourne. We arrived mid-afternoon; staked out a spot, and set up our enormous (brand new) tent in the camping area. We set up the PST in the observation field; there was another solar scope somewhere else, which I didn't have a look through. We had a number of people come past to have a look, and they were pretty impressed, which was of course gratifying. The sun was looking awesome: one sunspot by itself, and a 'little' clump of solar spots in the other hemisphere. There were some cool prominences going on too, one in particular that was quite feathery. I didn't actually get much of a look, but that's ok. Hopefully the clouds will stay away in Melbourne a bit more, so I can get it out here.

We set up Copernicus and Keppler before having some food; both got some comments from other astronomers out setting up. People were mostly curious about why our lovely 128mm Tak was in the observational field rather than the photographic.

The night itself was well organised. The site is great - a bunkhouse and toilets, and they had a Lions Club out there with food and drinks - and they had a number of people giving short talks about different aspects of astronomy, as well as someone later in the night giving a talk about what was visible. I hadn't expected that there would be so many people for whom this was a completely new experience; the ASV must have advertised the night outside of the Society itself. It was a good idea, I think: I heard someone very excited about being able to borrow one of the ASV's scopes when they got home. As a consequence of this, though, there were a lot of people wanting to have a look through the various telescopes that were set up. Happily, I had no plan for the night other than find Saturn, and use the Argo to go a tour of the Messier objects.

Early on I had a look at the Pleiades - which just never looks good through a scope - and the Hyades, which I like; it forms quite a distinct triangle. I tried to split Procyon on discovering that it was a double (I was trying to figure out the stars on Canis Minor), but the atmosphere was pretty turbulent, and I have no idea what the mags of the stars are. It finally got dark enough that M42 looked awesome, which was of course a delight.

I had a look at a few Messiers - so many of the open clusters are just dull, and I didn't spend much time on them. Saw M78, that lovely little nebula in Orion, with two associated stars. Then Saturn was high enough above the trees to make it worth having a look - at least if it's something new - and I think, over the night, maybe 40 or 50 people had a look at it. There were some people who had never ever looked at a planet through a scope, and they were seriously impressed. It was a lot of fun, actually; I really enjoy helping people appreciate the night sky. Over the rest of the night I also showed some people Omega Centauri and 47Tuc, impressive of course, and then I finished with M42 - of course - and showed a few people that, too, which they all enjoyed.

It didn't get as cold as I had feared, so the freezer suits never made an appearance (happily!). I made it to 1am comfortably, but from there I started to fade, so packed Keppler away and just had a look through Copernicus. Early on I had looked at the Tarantula Nebula through J's new 20mm Nagler, and it looked spectacular; so did 47Tuc, and an amazing planetary nebula with a hole in the middle. Later in the night it was dark enough to see the Horsehead Nebula, and I think this time that I really did see it, which is thrilling. The Flame Nebula was more interesting, though. Also, the Sombrero Galaxy: seriously, seriously cool. The dust lane was clearly visible... it may be one of the most interesting galaxies I've seen, actually. Just before bed we had a look at the Spindle Galaxy - which I didn't look at long enough to see the elongated ends - and the Ghost of Jupiter, which was just mush. Finished on Omega Centuari, which was an adequate substitute for Orion. I guess.

In the tent by around 2am.

08 January 2011

Saturn: oh yes we did

Get up at oh-dark-early, that is (4.45am), to check out Saturn and try to spot the new storm that was spotted a few days ago.

Apparently, it looks like this:
(photo courtesy of galaxypix)

Quite remarkable, no? Anyway, we'd set up last night, so it was painless when we got up, and Saturn was in quite a good position over the house. Sadly, the seeing wasn't fantastic; it came in and out, which made focusing a bit of a pain. The rings were very obvious, and I think I could see the shadow of the rings on the planet (or it might have been a dark cloud band). We looked for ten minutes; J claims he could see a bright spot near the limb, when the seeing came good briefly. We came inside to get away from a couple of annoying mozzies for ten minutes, giving the planet time to revolve a bit and give us a better chance of seeing the storm. The seeing was no better when we went back. Again, J thought he saw the brighter spot once or twice; me, I don't think so. I could imagine that I saw it, but I think it was wishful thinking. Anyway, we were done in by sunrise (!!); Venus was behind a tree so we didn't bother trying to see it through the scope. It was incredibly bright though.

04 January 2011


When we were planning our astronomy holiday as part of Christmas/New Year, we decided to go to two dark places, over six nights, because we figured we'd get to observe maybe half that time. Seemed reasonable.

In the end, we observed every night, for a total of probably 16 hours. On the sixth night we came inside before midnight for the first time. Each night we were out by 10pm, doing alignments etc. That's a lot of time observing.

I'm the sort of person who has the unfortunate habit of putting pressure on herself. Seeing clear skies, and knowing we'd transported all of that gear, I felt like I absolutely had to get out there and make the most of it. I felt guilty at the very idea of wasting all that precious dark time. This was not a good thing! - especially when, by the last day or two, I was really quite tired; despite sleeping in most mornings, it still takes it out of me, to be up so late so many nights in a row.

One of my other problems is that I both wasn't quite prepared enough, nor quite as easy-going as I would like to have been. See, not only do I think I should be out there looking at the sky, I think I should be actively using it: this, in my head, means looking at as many things as possible, especially new things. Because... what's the point otherwise? Sure I could just look at Orion all night, but isn't that a waste of time?? And then when I wasn't as prepared as I 'should' have been, I got frustrated at 'wasting' time and opportunities.

A wise friend pointed out to us, halfway through this epic, that he likes to think about astronomy as similar to gastronomy: a small amount, savoured, rather than stuffing yourself silly. I like this a lot in theory; it's just going to take me a while to get my ahead around to accepting it as being 'allowed'.

I've come away from our adventure with some things to think about, then. I realise that I have to give some thought to what I actually want to get out of my astro hobby. Am I looking to tick off as many doubles as possible, seeing all the globular clusters, being able to navigate my way around the whole sky... or am I doing it because I enjoy looking at the majesty that is the night sky? Seems there's an obvious answer there, really. I've also learnt that I should just put on more clothes when I need to rather than pretending I'm not that cold (stoooopid), and that maybe observing for 6 nights in a row - especially when it's just me and J, with no one else either to suggest interesting objects to view or break up what does get a bit monotonous - is probably not a brilliant idea. But that's ok; learning is a good thing. As long as I do learn it.

Last night of astroholiday

The wind did not let up for our last night of our astroholiday, but we went out anyway. J had earlier set up the PST for a bit of solar viewing - and in order to do that, put the double plate on the Losmandy mount. Since it was on there anyway, we decided to try the double up: the 128 and the 90mm. Put the 10mm eyepiece in the 128 and 21mm in the other, with the idea that this would give quite a different view of various objects. It was good in theory, I think, and certainly did give different views. However, it was quite heavy, and seemed to have a bit of trouble moving via the hand controls; this was probably partly to do with the wind, but may als mean we didn't have it quite balanced right.

Anyway, I naturally started out with Jupiter, and it was actually good enough seeing that I put the 6mm in Keppler, and magnified it with the 5mm even. A couple of dark bands were obvious.

I decided to continue my little Messier marathon from last night, since I knew I'd missed a few by looking when they had gone behind the house. I caught M78 - which is a neat splodge of nebulosity with two stars seemingly embedded in it; and M37, which in the 10mm was large, faint, with many distinct stars; in the 21mm, more of a grey smudge, although some individual points were still distinct. M36 looked similar, with a shape I'm claiming as like a starfish. I missed M74, M38, and M34 by not being quick enough! So I went to some others: M48 is still a boring open cluster, but M79 is endearing itself by being such a cute little globular.

I was getting a bit put out by the wind by this stage, so J dragged me over to Copernicus and showed me the Grus quartet (which was actually a triplet at this stage, because it wasn't quite dark enough for the whole show), which is always cool: seeing three or four galaxies apparently so close together is breathtaking. He also showed me NGC246, which he is quite in love with: it's a planetary nebula, with three bright points within/to the side; I'm not sure whether they're physically associated with it or not.

We decided to call it an earlier night than normal, so to finish up I dialled up the Popular Deep Sky Objects tour and had a quick spin. I tried for the Witchhead Nebula, knowing it was going to be too big to see the whole thing in one eyepiece (3 degrees!), but hoping I would at least be able to see some nebulosity. I am dubious, although J claims it was obviously greyer in some sections. 47Tuc - such a bright core, so striking an object! - and, of course, the Orion Nebula finished the night off.

Sun sketch

Carted the PST around the place, and it wasn't until our second last day on proper holidays that we remembered to get it out! J set it up on the double mount we bought for the Losmandy; he set it up fairly early, and I wandered out for a look three times over the day - and it managed to track fairly well for the whole day, too.

I even did a sketch:
Done at about 2pm, over a few minutes. It's a composite from a couple of different tunings. Most excitingly, as I went from one tuning where some of those sunspots were more obvious back to where I could also see the prominences (on the limb) - that one on the righthand side suddenly appeared!

03 January 2011

And then there was wind

Even more wind last night. Still, at least it kept the possibility of mozzies at bay.

Tragically, I discovered that I could my thumbs all the way through the thumbs of my gloves... very sad. Especially since it got awfully cold.

Anyway, I decided to do a mini Messier marathon for this session, since that required no planning on my part and hey, it's the Messier catalogue! I did try looking at Jupiter first of course, but again it was mush; the seeing was atrocious in the west, and again the wind was not playing nice.

M79: lovely little globular cluster. A couple of bright stars to the side, better with averted vision. Quite irregular.
M77: itty little galaxy. Better in Copernicus with the 10mm, but still no details obvious.
M42 and 43: a favourite, of course. I looked at the Trapezium, and am convinced that I could see three additional faint stars in between the main bright ones. I tried putting the 6mm in, but the wind made focussing a nightmare.
M41: in Copernicus with the 21mm, very bright and interesting; numerous yellow and bright white stars. With the 35mm, boring. In Keppler, the 10mm gave a chaotic and somewhat overwhelming view of the cluster; the 21mm made it more coherent, and showed off the lovely yellow stars in the centre.
M50: chaotic in the 10mm, boring through the 21mm.
M47: a nice enough little cluster with a somewhat interesting arrangement; I liked the line of bright stars through the middle.
M46: could not be seen in the same field of view as M47 through Keppler; good case in point of how awesome Ptolemy is, for wide views. A bit boring, overall, although exciting to see the planetary nebula off to the side (NGC2438).
M45: in Copernicus, it was a group of bright dots with what is apparently nebulosity, but it just looked like haze around individual stars to me. The Pleiades is, I think, best naked eye.
M93: boring... looks a bit like an anvil. Or maybe a teapot.
M48: chaotic in the 10mm; 21mm made it look like the outline of something I couldn't quite figure out.
M67: looks a bit like a comma. Possibly some nebulosity?
M44: some trouble finding this as the Argo thought it was upside down... impossible int he 10mm, and no shape in the 21mm - just looked like a bunch of visual double and triples. Again, more interesting naked eye, where it was a pronounced smudge.
M1: large grey smudge in Copernicus; ditto in Keppler, bigger of course in the 10mm. Not very crabby-looking.
M35: an open cluster; boring except for the fact that it has a little companion that looks like a globular but is actually a really tight little cluster.

And that is when tragedy struck! Well, when I say tragedy, I mean that M36, 37 and 38 were all behind the house AND that the RA encoder died! J gallantly resuscitated it thanks to his trusty Allan key set. At this point it was after midnight and getting awfully cold, so there was no way I was going to re-align. Thus, to bed.

The next night, in the Grampians

To be honest, it felt like a bit of a dud night. I was using Keppler (Tak128), and it was quite windy so it was a little harder to manage than little Ptolemy would have been. Also, I had chosen some dud objects to try and chase: that is, they were smaller and/or dimmer than I realised, so they were hard to find and/or actually see. Le sigh.

Jupiter looked very average. This was largely to do with the wind; it was hard to get a steady view. Basically pointless with the 6mm eyepiece; 10mm was a bit better, with a few bands of cloud visible. I then tried to find a few things but got frustrated, so J hauled me over to Copernicus to show me some galaxies. First, though, IC418: a groovy little planetary nebula, which looked amazing through the 4mm: that's 450x magnification, J assures me, which sounds like a lot. Galaxies: NGC253 (a large grey smudge of a galaxy, brighter at the centre with a couple of very bright spots, which may actually not be physically associated with it? also possibly a dust lane); NGC288, NGC247, NGC300, and NGC7793 (variations on Grey Smudge, some larger than others). Could not see the dwarf galaxy in Sculptor.

To finish the night I went back to Keppler. I looked at the Large Magellanic Cloud (the detail continues to amaze); Omega Centauri (huge, but I think 47Tuc is still my favourite); M79 (a great little globular); M78 (nebula, not that bright); and, naturally, M42. Which was a happy way to finish the night.

01 January 2011

New Year's Eve

We left the Little Desert and traveled over to the Grampians, for a change of scene during the day but still dark skies for observing. It was an horrendously hot day, which cooled off only gradually; and to make matters worse, it was incredibly windy - gusts up to 90kph in our area apparently. This made seeing decidedly sub-optimal; while I was still stooging around trying to get a good view of Jupiter, J announced that there was basically no point in me looking for double stars, because resolving them was going to be a pain in the butt. Tragedy! What was I going to do instead?!

Well, I had planned on looking at interesting things and doubles in Canis Major, so I did check out the open cluster NGC2362; it looked all right with averted vision, with quite a bright centre. I also tried looking at the open cluster + emission nebula of NGC2264, but the nebulosity was so faint through Ptolemy (90mm) that I might as well have been making it up.

I didn't have anything else planned, and was feeling a little weary to be honest (two nights of bed at 3am, and a 40C day, will apparently do that to you). So I decided to let J do all the work and just get the advantage of looking through the 16" Dob. He had a plan for looking at some galaxies in Fornax and Colomba, so that's what I did too. We saw:
* NGC1808, a long faint but obvious galaxy, with a bright centre;
* NGC1851, a tendrilly yet compact globular cluster;
* NGC2090 and NGC2188, both faint smears;
* NGC1792, a bigger grey smudge with a couple of bright spots visible;
* a group of five - maybe six - galaxies all visible within the same field of view (1 degree).

In between looking at those, I did end up going back and playing with Ptolemy. Firstly, I set the Argo to Identify, and played around finding stars: I now know Procyon, Castor and Pollux, and confirmed that Aldebaran is indeed that star in Taurus. Plus, I know where the constellation Lepus is (ish). Secondly, I decided to see what Messiers I could find. Most I had already seen before - M93 (boring open cluster); M46 and M47 (awesome to see in the same field of view, nice contrast with one tight and one loose open cluster); M50 (almost unviewable through the 35mm, being too small/dim). But I did get two new ones to tick off: M48 (small and dim open cluster), and M67 (another open cluster that I do like; it looks like someone took a bite out of the side). I was going to look for more but then my Argo's batteries died! Oh the humanity.

By this stage it was midnight, so we took a final tour of some old faves - 47Tuc, which looked INCREDIBLE and as fake as ever; the Tarantula Nebula, which I choose to think of as resembling a flower; and, of course, M42, whose nebulosity just looked brilliant through the Dob. I had to get a bigger eyepiece to get a better view of it!