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Having waited in vain for the clouds to clear on Tuesday night, it was great to get out and finally see some stars last night!
I'd picked out a new spot to try on the South Downs just outside Winchester, on a well made farm track that runs due South just across the A272 from Cheesefoot Head viewpoint car-park. In the daytime this is an airy downland spot filled with wild flowers and Skylark song, by night it offers a super horizon from SE. round to NW. with the pretty but invasive lights of Southampton port and Fawley refinery 15 miles or so S - SW. Lightpollutionmap.info says it has an SQM of spot on 21, a worthwhile improvement for a ten minute drive over my rugby pitch site at 20.27 and only a fraction lighter than Farley Mount - and minus the third of a mile carry through slightly eerie Yew woodland!
I got up there about 11.45 - just in time for an ISS pass which I caught to the NW along with my first definite noctilucent cloud sighting to the N.
Seeing was quite steady and transparency good outside of bands of thin high cloud that cleared as the night wore on. There was some haze that mingled with LP over the coast causing extinction below 10 degrees or so.
I'd planned a recce session in the Sagittarius area using an ST80 and a couple of new filters - Baader O-III and ES UHC to try on the nebulae. After aligning on Arcturus and Altair I toured the region finding the UHC really helpful in cutting through the low-down murk. Many first views with the Lagoon Nebula M8, Eagle & Swan Nebulae M16/17 and Trifid Nebula M20 the standout highlights, the first of many visits I'm certain. All observations were made with a Baader Hyperion 24mm (21x) and Baader Classic Ortho 18mm (28x) and interchanging filters and natural view to tease out the detail. Later I switched to 2 inch mode and used a 31mm Hyperion Aspheric (16x) for some panoramic views. All stunning stuff!
M16 elongated cluster, Hercules like shape, double upper L of “keystone”. UHC brought out dark lanes crossing.
M17 prominent orange star above, glowing nebulous area below right of faint trapezium asterism. Dark tendrils with AV.
M8 - epic. Bright clusters multiple dark areas and glowing patches. O-III enhanced the cloud to 20% width of fov in 18mm
M21- arrowhead cluster
M20 - stunning star spangled glowing nebula with dark lanes. Fuzzy cloud wider with O-III.
M22 - bright compact glob. Triangle with centre star asterism to L. Diagonal pair to upper R. [RACI view]
M4, 6, 7, 19 too low in murk over Southampton to pick out.
Widefield (31mm Hyperion, 2-inch) on M8, 20, 21 stunning field.
M24 bright blue beehive like
M16/17 In same field. Wow.
M18 - rich field, pronounced "V" to R.
It was after 2 by this time, so I took a quick tour around M57, a squint at part of the Veil Nebula with the O-III filter (warrants much more time!) and grabbed a great view of M31 which was easily visible naked eye at this point. With the 18mm I was for the first time able to pick out M32 & M110 - bonus!
I resisted the temptation to switch to Jupiter & Saturn, by now quite high to the South, packed away and enjoyed a last sweep of the Milky Way naked eye and with 10x50s - vertical and almost visible to the horizon (barring those port lights!).
Rolled back down the hill after a lovely shirtsleeves session in a super new spot. Mainly today I am drinking coffee...
Monday 12 April 2021: let the bells ring! By 9am I was at the Enterprise lot in Peckham, south London, and by 10am I was on the road to Dartmoor for my first dark skies expedition.
I bought my first telescope a few months ago – a little ST80, after lots of great advice on this forum – but hadn't used it outside of Bortle-9 skies, where I found it to be ... fun, but not mind-blowing. So I was looking forward to seeing whether @ScouseSpaceCadet was correct: that in dark skies, away from the blinding wall of the council estate LEDs, said mind would indeed be blown even by what seems to be the smallest useful amount of aperture. Unfortunately the BST Starguider 8mm EP and the Rigel Quikfinder that I ordered didn't arrive in the post in time. So I was stuck with my 26" and 10" Plossls, Astro Essentials barlow and an RDF.
Luckily, like the rest of you, I got three straight clear nights. To whip through them:
Day 1. Carpark, Ashbourne Woods, Rattery, Devon. Accompanied by two friends who'd never used a telescope before.
No moon, but a fair bit of extra light from the campsite lot, from the occasional passing cars and from my friends' insistence on checking their phones periodically despite my stern admonishments. The sky was still amazing even without a scope, although some of my easy newbie targets (Orion nebula, Pleiades etc) were already below the horizon. But we saw a few lovely things through the ST80. (*Friends' review in quotation marks)
-Mars ("no way")
-Castor ("well blow me down")
-the Beehive ("Wow!!!")
-M3 ("Oh yeah, there it is")
-The Leo trio ("I think I can see something...")
Overall assessment, as I fiddled endlessly with eyepiece caps and loose screws and jerky AZ3 mount and malfunctioning slow-motion controls: "It's a good thing you aren't trying to impress a girl"
Day 2. Friends gone. Who needs them. I drove to Haytor carpark, Dartmoor National Park, at midnight. But – full disclosure – it was terrifying to arrive in pitch blackness in the middle of a moor where killers famously dump bodies, and the dark tourist info building and the popping sound of the cooling engine and the occasional bleat of a sheep in the distance freaked me out so much that I couldn't relax and scarpered back to the safety of the campsite carpark. Fail! Objects:
-Leo Trio – yes, definitely saw them this time through averted vision, with notable shapes, although it felt much more like a box-ticking exercise than an impressive view
-Crab Nebula – nope
-Auriga clusters M36, M37, M38 – clearly seen through the ST80 and very impressive indeed. Was starting to really get the hang of finding things and using the equipment by now – the RDF is actually fine with such a short focal length
-NGC2244 and the Rosette Nebula – Cluster yes, nebula no
Overall assessment: not bad ... but my cowardice meant I had to deal with car and campsite lights again. Why had I come all this way? Slunk back ashamed to the sleeping bag.
Day 3. Carpe diem. Fear is the mind-killer! I found a big stick in the woods for protection, drove out to Dartmoor again but this time while the sun was still up, scouted out a good site – high on a hill near Hound's Tor with no nearby buildings or hedges for serial killers to hide behind – and set up.
As the sun set and the moon shone, I settled in. The only light was from the lunar sliver (but wow, that damn thing is bright), distant Exeter and the odd car zooming past every 15 minutes or so, which I closed my eyes against. Besides allowing me to conquer my fear, the other nice thing about arriving early was that I caught some of the stars before they vanished below the horizon. Objects:
-Orion Nebula. WOW. Mind blown. I can't imagine what that looks like through a bigger aperture with better eyepieces and a nebula filter (still kicking myself @Size9Hex for not picking up yours) and higher in the sky. What a truly incredible thing to be able to see as a human being with one's own eyes.
-Leo Trio. Snooze, old hat (yeah that's right @Tiny Clanger, I said it)
-M94, fuzzy dot
-Cor Caroli, easy split
-Polaris, failed to split in the 3" ST80 – that 10mm Plossl is grim
-Whirlpool galaxy – yes!!! Both M51 and NGC 5195. Now that is cool
-Pinwheel – yes! Not as amazing as the Whirlpool but hey, that is an entire galaxy in my field of view
-The Double Cluster – yep, there they are, sparkly and clear in the refractor
-M81 and M82 – smudges, they admittedly are. But again – ACTUAL GALAXIES
-M13 – the Hercules great globular cluster. Pretty amazing. No stars resolved, unfortunately, but that is certainly a large glowing fuzzball of several hundred thousand floating fusion reactors.
By 1am, I'd been outside for nearly 5 hours in freezing cold temperatures so, buzzing and exhausted, it was time to head back to the relative warmth of the tent.
Dark skies, well, you all know the difference they make. I need to find some better viewing spots closer to London – car rental and petrol is expensive for a long trip, even if camping. The ST80 is also a good little device – @ScouseSpaceCadet was right. Extremely clear widefield views and I got the impression it was magnifying well, just being let down by the EPs and Barlow. CA was an utter irrelevance even on the brighter objects – maybe it's a bigger problem in a more powerful telescope? Or maybe it's more of an astrophotography concern? Or maybe I just don't care. (Or care yet.)
-EPs. The 10mm Plossl must be banished back from whence it came.
-Mount. The AZ3 is actually perfectly usable in the ST80, because the field of view is so wide it really doesn't need to be too finely calibrated. But it's jerky and sticky and you need to move it a few degrees past your target because of its dreadful recoil, or whatever you call it when mounts settle in a slightly different place to where you've pointed them. The stupid slow-mo controls won't seem to stay on, either.
-Aperture. 3" is so small! The faint fuzzies were never more than blobs at best. I demand more. A 4.5" ED frac a la @Commanderfish)? A 127Mak a la @Sadiestorm? A Heritage Dob 150 a la @Tiny Clanger? Time to enquire about the health of Uncle Visa.
Overall assessment: THANK YOU SGL FOR HOOKING ME ON THIS WONDERFUL PURSUIT.
I wasn’t able to get out to the park last night but once the smaller of the children was abed & the teenagers uploaded to their games I popped on a hoodie (cunning anti-security light plan) and decamped to the garden, wine in hand, for an impromptu after dinner tour with the ST80.
After wrestling with the old wooden tripod on my “new” Prinz 330 60mm earlier in the week, the Manfrotto 55 and full height viewing position made this feel quite the luxury experience!
Wide-field views weren’t bad either...
15.4, 9.30 PM
ST80 & Baader Zoom.
Seeing good, transparency patchy at Zenith, murky below 30 degrees.
Castor - almost split @50x low over rooftop
M44 Beehive - great view, put the red dot right on it. Was above the houses & enjoyed the soundtrack to a neighbour’s party whilst lost in space.
Melotte 111 - lovely view. Super round pin points & some good colour contrast with white & a smattering of orange stars. ST80 loves these slightly fainter clusters. No hint of CA. This cluster now firmly on my highlight list.
Chertan & 73 Leonis - but no triplet (well it was worth a try)
Algieba - Split (just) at 50x, nice yellow headlights.
Had a look for anything apparent in the Virgo galaxy field but lots of white LP to SE so no chance.
Cor Caroli - beautiful view in the ST80. White primary with smaller fainter white secondary - nice round stars.
Mizar - again a super field, Mizar A&B look a close pair at 50x with size contrast - easy to imagine as an orbital system. Alcor a way off and a couple of other faint stars making a nice little asterism.
M81 & M82 - yes! From the garden, a first outside of M31! Hoodie over the EP. Dropped the red dot carefully in line from the diagonal across the bowl of the plough/dipper. Galaxies popped with a slight nudge from original guess. See an oval and a stripe & that fantastic orientation - obviously no detail but a rewarding view from among the security & streetlights!
Enjoyed for ages with a glass of wine!
Civilised galactic travel...
Skies started to clear as I was finishing work on Friday and checking the Met Office Cloud Cover forecast things looked happier than on Clear Outside for my part of the world, so I took my go -bag out into the garden to cool & crossed my fingers for later.
When the rest of the house went to bed I sneaked out through silent streets close to midnight, the crescent moon with its full disc illuminated by Earthlight was dipping in the West near Aldebaran & the Pleiades and there were fine, high skeins of mist with tantalising clear patches between. Seeing was quite steady and transparency good outside of those streaks of high mist which meant about 60% of the sky looked in good shape. I'd made a list of spring galaxies to go for starting with M94 after reading @Pixies report on here, I figured I'd start with that and see how it went, working my way to fainter targets as conditions allowed.
I've relaxed into my observing spot in the park and decided I would invest a bit more time setting up & bring both the Mak 127 on an AZGTi and the ST 80 on a photo tripod. I will be doing that again...
I was using a Baader Hyperion 24mm 68 degree in the Mak which gives its maximum TFOV of just over a degree and put a Baader 8-24mm Zoom in the ST80.
I aligned the Mak on the top 2 stars suggested by Synscan and noted the gradual turning of the season- it was midnight and it had me point at Vega & Arcturus, spring really is well on the way! Focussed in an out on Vega and enjoyed some lovely round patterns either side of focus.
On to Cor Caroli which made a lovely clean white pair at 63x, stayed there for a while.
Hit GoTo for M94 and after some searching settled on a nice fuzzy patch with a brighter centre and some definite surrounding nebulosity, soaked it in for a bit and made a sketch (ahem, VERY rough).
Everything was a bit uncomfortably close to the Zenith - haven't really solved the whole observing position thing yet, not sure I can carry one of those big wooden chairs about but mean to experiment with the cheapo camping chairs in the cupboard and see if it helps, until then a degree of neck-ache remains inevitable (or better target selection!) .
Meantime I'd sought out the Double Cluster with the ST80 and was really pleased to get a lovely view with neat round points and some colour apparent in one or two of the orangey members. May just be a novelty but having a break from peering at faint fuzzy things to take in a wide field view of a favourite object really added to the enjoyment for me.
With the Mak I went on to search for M51 & M63 but couldn't find anything having hunted around for a bit but was having no joy. Later with Stellarium and the atlas I've become almost certain I'd landed on M63 by mistake - be interested in any opinions based on my sketch (gives the RACI view from the Mak 127 i.e. reversed LR)
In the end I gave up and put both 'scopes on M13 and enjoyed my best views of the Great Hercules Cluster yet. I switched the Zoom into the Mak and played with all magnifications from 63x - 188x, much above 120x wasn't adding much but at that power stars were resolving in and out across the cluster - literally breathtaking. The contrasting wide-field view in the ST80 gave scale and context - really enjoyable way to appreciate a real gem.
Seeing, heavy dew and numbing toes conspired around the same time to send me home to warm and mull over whether I'd identified M94 or not.
Picked up a used ST80 on EBay as a wide-field companion to a SW Mak 127, and had only been able to point at terrestrial targets, align the RDF etc until last night presented an opportunity for a quick view of the moon, the only object visible through a blanket of high cloud.
I was keen to do this as have read widely varying reports of ST80 performance on bright objects so the moon was a good "how bad can it be?" test.
With a Baader Zoom and stock SW star diagonal (90 degree) quickly thrown on to a lightweight photo tripod I was really happy with the view - very crisp, bright, not difficult to achieve focus and a pleasingly wide field with no appreciable loss of quality from 17x - 50x. Terracing & hills in Copernicus small but really sharp for example. I can see I am going to use this low magnification combination a lot as you can be up and viewing in 2 minutes.
The much complained about chromatic aberration was not to my eye too disturbing and limited to a very narrow green fringe on the brightest edge of the moon's disc & not in evidence along the terminator. Be interesting to see if this is more evident and the expected red/blue when the moon is at full brightness not partially filtered by cloud.
Not that I plan to use it for the moon much given the Apollo 8 experience offered by the Mak, but it's good know the ST80 is perfectly fine for a quick peek I suspect its one of those things where if I had spent a long time looking down expensive refractors I might be disturbed more, but as I haven't it has just left me kicking myself I didn't pick one of these up years ago.
Looking clear tonight so now I have the dilemma of which scope to sneak out to the park...