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It is not often in the UK that we have a bank holiday weekend, a new moon and a clear sky at the same time. Last night was one of those rare occasions! The forecast (Clear Outside) was not very definitive about the cloud cover, but from looking at the satellite images and from experience, I thought this could be a magnificent sky as we were on the backside of the last weather front. So, I thought – let’s give it a go, we could be rewarded. By 9pm the car was packed with the C8 and my trusty Vixen SP-DX. A quick check on my friend Steve, and yes, he was up for it, too. Steve is a beginner, so I offered to show him some of the objects I am familiar with and should give a decent view under good conditions. I also wanted to see some of the fainter galaxies which populate the spring skies. The spot we were planning on using is in Southern Cambridgeshire – and compared to light polluted London and St Albans, this looks like “Deep-Sky-Country”, although it actually isn’t perfect. It’s the improvement from the home conditions that count! On the way, I cranked up the aircon to maximum (lowest temp) to pre-cool the scope. This was going to be a chilly night… Arrived at the spot just after 10pm, Steve parked up five minutes later. Thankfully the wind that had battered the South East the whole day had eased off and the remnants of daytime clouds soon hurried to disappear. I spent some time building up the scope and polar aligning while the last bits of twilight disappeared. The sky was now fully dark and really quite impressive considering how close to London this place still is. To the South the capital’s light dome stretched to about 20° above the horizon. Cambridge cast its lights in the North-East although to a much lesser degree. The spring constellations were up to the South with Leo having passed the meridian and the plough right above us in the zenith. We started the evening with a simple target to warm up – M3. A delightful sparkle of stars filled the eyepiece. With the 15mm LV (133x) the core was starting to be resolved - the telescope was not completely cooled down yet, but this was indeed a good starter to the night indeed. Next, we changed direction and pointed at M51, which clearly showed the two galaxy nuclei and the surrounding disc of haziness with direct vision. No spiral structure visible (but that wasn’t really expected with 8” anyway). The pair was nicely framed in the 30mm NLVW (68x) with a foreground star in NGC5194 clearly discernible. As spring is galaxy season we pushed the scope over to Denebola in Leo to go hunting for members of the Virgo cluster. We started with M98, which was a fuzzy faint blob and a bit disappointing. Next object was M99, which was much more pronounced although without any detail in the 30mm. Over to M84 and the starting point of Markarian’s chain. Using the 40mm Celestron Axiom eyepiece (70° afov) four galaxies were immediately visible. There was a bright one in the bottom of the view (M84), with a slightly bigger one in the centre (M86) and a pair of two distinct but faint galaxies to the top (NGC4435/38). Slewing along a bit further, NGC4458 became visible. An incredible sight, especially if you imagine how many millions of light years these are away from us and how big these objects are! We did not follow the rest of the chain (have to revisit this again!), but instead decided to look at something brighter. M81/82 were right over head and simply amazing. Directly viewed, both fit into the eyepiece at 50x magnification (40mm Axiom). M81 clearly an elongated, lens shaped disc. M82 showed as a thick streak of light. Ramping up the magnification to 133x (15mm LV), it revealed its knotted structure with direct vision! It has been a long time since I had seen M82 this clearly. The sky was indeed rather good! To get a bit of variety, I moved the scope to the owl (M97). In went the Lumicon OIII Filter. In the 15mm LV, the sky background turned into an inky black with the stars taking on a slightly reddish colour. The nebula stood out like it was cut out of cardboard! While gazing at it for a little while longer, we were able to see some texture inside the “disc” of the nebula – hints of the owl eyes. As the filter was in, we decided look at another planetary – M57 the ring in Lyra. About 50° above the horizon, a clear ring shape with a dark interior was visible against a black sky (thanks to the filter) - beautifully defined and clear! Next up was M13, the great Hercules globular cluster and it was sparkling with the lights of millions of suns. An extremely contrasty view, resolved into the core… Suddenly we realised some clouds had started to appear, coming in from the North and beginning to cover parts of the North-Eastern sky. So we changed direction (yet again), to look at more galaxies. The whale (NGC4631) was faint, but clearly defined in shape, really resembling a maritime. Unfortunately, we did not look out for NGC 4627, the whale’s companion. NGC4656 – the hockey stick, was faintly visible with averted vision, but no clear shape discernible. NGC4565 – the Needle was starting to get blocked out by a thin layer of high clouds at around 11.45pm. A slightly disappointing sight. By this time, the finder had already dewed up and the first patched of haze were forming on the corrector plate of the C8. The sky was now also covered over more and more, so we decided to end the evening at this point. We packed everything back into the car in about 20mins and drove off at around 12.15. While driving I noticed my feet were actually deep frozen already! The car showed a temperature of just 4°C, no wonder it felt chilly. Thankfully the wind had not picked up all night. Overall a wonderful session with many old favourites and some new additions as well as some targets left over for the next galaxy season. Have to revisit Markarian again and scan the full extent, also missed the black eye and sombrero galaxies this time. Let’s hope for more clear skies soon!
After a month of chasing the Moon, not always successfully, I have finished my Moon Phase chart for November. Original fullsize, 6800 x 4337px, 2.7MB image here - http://www.sacarr.co.uk/astro/moon/2016_moon_phases.jpg Across the month, I've missed a weeks worth of phases, mainly due to weather. Unfortunately after twelve consecutive days of capture, the weather again let me down for the last two tiny crescents which I'd hoped to catch at Moonrise. So I've managed twenty phases captured, plus of course the New Moon which is too close to the Sun to see. The phases I missed have been ghosted in behind the clouds with Stellarium screen grabs. My previous best was February 2015, when I caught seventeen phases, and thirteen consecutively.
My partner and I seem to spend a lot of weekends away with friends and family and too often I fail to take a telescope. Further, these weekends seem to be the ones nearest to new moon and the sky is inevitably clear. To manage this in future, I have drawn up a list of Saturdays with midnight closest to the new moon for marking on the calendar in advance. Where the new moon is on a Wednesday I also indicate that the previous weekend (-7) or following weekend is also good (7). I am sure we will still go away at these times, but at least it will be done in the knowledge that I may be missing dark observing time. The list of Saturdays through to the end of 2015 follows (and I hope it is correct...). 2013-11-02 2013-11-30 2013-12-28 2014-02-01 2014-03-01 2014-03-29 2014-04-26 2014-05-24 -7 2014-06-28 2014-07-26 2014-08-23 2014-09-20 2014-10-25 2014-11-22 2014-12-20 2015-01-17 2015-02-14 -7 2015-03-21 2015-04-18 2015-05-16 2015-06-13 2015-07-18 7 2015-08-15 2015-09-12 2015-10-10 2015-11-07 -7 2015-12-12