Last night finally gave some clear skies to observe from my back garden. I'm lucky enough to live in an area with low light pollution and so DSOs are something I like to observe (even though my 130mm aperture doesn't always like them). I also had a mission for myself last night - ignore the go-to function of my scope and find the targets manually. I still set the alignment up as usual as a fall back, but I've found that when I slew to targets near zenith with the NexStar SLT the tube can hit the legs of the tripod and mess up the alignment.
After aligning and checking the focus (I've been paranoid about collimation recently, and the focuser on the 130SLT is really not the best - however my tweaks and fiddling during the day seem to have paid off as I got a nice sharp focus on Polaris and clearly saw his little companion), I put in my Meade Zoom and headed for Albireo.
I rather love double stars - the idea that a single point of light to the unaided eye reveals its secrets when viewed through a telescope really makes me feel privy to hidden knowledge. Albireo has the added bonus of that beautiful topaz-sapphire colour split, so it's usually a first view on any night of observing. However, the stars I had planned to observe were a little over towards the corner of the summer triangle. I slewed round to Epsilon Lyrae and popped in the barlow.
This was the first time I'd viewed the double double. The joy of splitting it once was raised exponentially when I pushed the scope up to 200x power and split the stars a second time. It really is a sight to behold and I cannot believe I waited this long to look at it.
As I was in the vicinity, I thought I'd set myself a bit of a challenge and visit M13. I had to use the go-to in order to find it. I've viewed the Hercules cluster many times before but was always content to just see it as a fuzzy patch. Well, not tonight. I was determined to try to resolve some of the brighter stars in the cluster. Of course the problem is that the barlow increases magnification at the expense of light loss. So I needed to weigh up my options. In the end I went for the maximum magnifiation I could get without the barlow, which was around 80x. It was difficult, but after time I fancied I could make out a few pinpoints of light amongst the cloud. I did pop the barlow in and out a few times to try and get the best view, but I found at the highest magnifications it felt almost like my vision was swimming. One to return to when I get a bigger scope I think, for comparative purposes if nothing else.
Then the neighbours turned their lights on full blast and obliterated my dark adaption. Thanks guys.
Not to be put off, I pointed my scope at the dumbell nebula and waited. Clouds had swept in so I was just stood in the dark hoping they would pass and trusting the tracking features of my mount. Eventually the clouds dissipated and the nebula was still visible in the scope. I slapped the barlow in just to see what difference it would make, but took it out again and reverted to the 8mm zoom. I observed the nebula for a long time. It's something I've been returning to night after night, and one of the first things I'm going to sketch once I get my easel sorted out. Eventually I decided to take in some big views of the stars and I replaced the Meade zoom with my newest eyepiece, the 2 inch OVL PanaView 32mm.
The sheer quantity of stars visible through this 70 degree AFOV eyepiece is staggering. Just sweeping over the milky way, and realising that all those countless stars are still within our own galaxy, and there's countless other galaxies out there, many with even more stars... Makes you ponder the insignificance of mankind. I'm sure Lovecraft would be proud.
As I wheeled across the sky I decided to come and settle in on Andromeda, because who doesn't love M31, right? Through the Panaview the central bulge is clearly visible, and averted vision tonight yielded fleeting glimpses of the wider disk of the galaxy. It's a tremendous sight to behold and has always been a favourite of mine. I spent a long time practising, looking at the location of where it should be in the sky, staring at darkness and flicking my eyes left to right, and was able through averted vision to see the galaxy unaided. By the end of the night I fancied I could just about make it out when looking at it dead on with Mk.1 eyeballs, but this might have been my mind playing tricks.
While in the general area I decided to locate the double cluster without assistance from the mount computer and it was a pretty easy find. The Double Cluster is hands down my favourite thing to observe in the night sky. All the hundreds of pinpricks of light, the almost filament like structure of the areas where the stars are not resolvable by my equipment, just everything about it looks utterly beautiful. I don't think I could go a night without spending at least half an hour gazing at it. Tonight I spend MUCH longer than that, taking in the full width in the Panaview, zooming in to focus on a single part with the Meade... I just love everything about this object.
I decided at this point to look at Arcturus. I have no idea why. I looked west, and there he was, big and orange in the sky, and I thought, sure, why not? So the barlow and zoom went back in and I slewed round to the red giant. I was staggered by how bright it appeared in my eyepiece. After the faint DSOs I'd been observing it was akin to someone shining a torch in my eyes. Of course, if I was checking on The Guardian of the Bear, I should probably check in on The Bear as well, and so I star hopped across Ursa Major's back, splitting Mizar along the way.
Then I left the telescope alone and spent a long time just looking straight up at the milky way. The structure was clearly visible, arcing across the sky as Cygnus flew past. I don't know how long I'd been watching before I turned back round towards the north, and witnessed a beautiful meteor (presumably a Perseid) come streaking across the sky leaving a glowing green trail behind it. I decided to have a quick tour of Cassiopeia. I hopped across the Vain Queen's body, splitting Eta Cassiopeiae on the way, but I was drawn to a bright patch about 5 degrees beyond Caph, following the line from Shedar. A little research told me this was likely Messier 52. I don't think I need to explain how good it feels to stumble across a stellar object without the aid of a computer and then consult star charts to find out what it was. I'm starting to realise why a lot of people say go-to mounts are not always the best thing
All in all, a tremendous night observing, and proof to anyone out there that even with a modest scope, the sense of wonder upon seeing these things is just unrivalled. Of course, I'm still eyeing up that 10 inch Dob...