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A little late in posting this one due to work and the arrival of a new/old ‘scope but wanted to record my first solo trip to a darker site and a memorable observing session.
As dark fell last Thursday (May 6th) there was a deep clarity to the sky that convinced me to do something I'd been threatening to do since the end of lockdown, put the gear in the car and drive 15 minutes out of town to a local country park. Farley Mount is a favourite viewpoint around Winchester and I'd previously clocked its near 360 degree horizon and elevated position away from immediate lights.
The dis-incentive to date had been a ten minute walk from the car park through deep and ancient Yew woodland to the observing site, but the sky conditions, largely moonless night, & a lighter day in the diary at work Friday convinced me to bite the bullet. I don't mind admitting I was bit nervous for no rational reason, I'm a big lad and despite any local superstition all I'm really likely to run into up there is the occasional poacher (I took the chance the cold would keep al fresco couples and any attendant, ahem, spectators indoors).
Nevertheless I was glad of the relaxed Canadian astro-dude banter of the Objects to Observe in May edition of the Actual Astronomy podcast in the car on the way up there and as an extra precaution took my heavy and very bright night-watchman style Maglite torch/truncheon for reassurance. I was pleased to find the car park deserted, no steamy cars or worse still, blood-stained pickups with deer in the back in evidence. The sky was mesmerising however, good seeing and good to excellent transparency. By the time I'd walked in, selected a spot allowing use of a handy bench as observing table and gone through the familiar routine of set-up I’d got very happy with my isolated situation and ready to track down some more spring Messier objects.
This site is about 10 miles from Southampton and with a clear line of sight down to the dockyards and the ships strung out along the Solent and on toward Portsmouth. Beautiful in its own right but casting a glow to South and South East up to about 50 degrees. Basingstoke glows dimly over the Northern horizon about 20 miles away but only seemed to be affecting a dome up to about 15 degrees. All other directions were dark to the horizon and no local lights at all. This is a big step up from the local park! The Milky Way was very plainly visible along with M13 and 10+ stars in Ursa Minor.
I used a Mak 127 on an AZ GTi, Baader Hyperion 24mm giving 63x magnification, a Neodymium filter and occasionally switched in a Baader Zoom 8-24mm to up the power.
Aligned Vega & Arcturus then slewed to Vindemiatrix as a start point for some of the galaxies I haven't yet spotted in Virgo & Comma B.
Took a quick look at M86 & M84 region first to gauge conditions against my last session in that area of sky and it was immediately clear the darker site and clear sky made a huge difference. The galaxies sprung out in 9x50 finder and I could see more of the nebulous regions surrounding the core. Took a quick sweep NE along Markarian's chain from there and it was dotted with 7 or 8 fuzzy patches in the same field, amazing.
By this time I was getting dark adapted and relaxing into the new environment, so turned to new targets.I orientated myself through the finder in a triangle between Vindemiatrix, Porrima and Omicron Virginis and started hunting for a fuzzy patch between a diagonal pair just off centre right (in RACI view) of that region…
M49 – Spent quite a while hunting this one before realising I’d aligned on the wrong fuzzy patch between a diagonal pair & had to resort to Stellarium on the iPad to find an optical triple in the bottom right of field which confirmed I was in fact looking at NGC4526/NGC4560 – “The Lost Galaxy” apparently now found. A quick sweep up and West found a wider spaced pair and there was a faint fuzzy cloud with a slightly brighter centre, surprisingly dim though. Not a lot of features so moved on but M49 located.
M85 - found to R of 11 Coma Berenices, verified by the presence of dim star on lower R edge. Not much detail but nice to find.
M100 – moved to 6 Coma Berenices as a reference then up and W to place a pair bottom L and look for M100 top right, eventually perceived as much as saw this – to my eye was only visible in averted vision – some sense of circular shape, apparent but really dim, brought home the vast distance (55 Million light years).
M99 – back to 6 C.B. and put it in the top L of the field and a little down to the right, along the base of a low triangle of dim stars was M99 – a highlight of the night, whilst very faint showing some spiral structure- took a long look at this one.
M98 – back the other side of 6 C.B an oblique egde on clearly visible as a “stripe” – reminded me of a dim M82.
M61 – Looking half way along the line between Porrima and Omicron Virginis this one took me ages to find. I kept going to the spot where I thought should be and panning around not finding much. Tried a GoTo and that landed me in the dark. Eventually used Stellarium live on the iPad to confirm I had 16 Virginis and a line of 3 stars above in the field then moved up & found M61 between its 2 bridging stars. Another one very faint, and with averted vision some cloudy spiral form was visible.
That all took a while and I was a bit cold so I decided to just hit GoTo on some targets of opportunity and see what I could find. Transparency up at the Zenith and over into Lyra and Cygnus was by this time superb.
I had a bit of globular-fest alighting on:
M13 which looked superb with many stars resolved and not for the first time a hint of dark lanes.
M92 – smaller area than M13 and dimmer with less resolution but still lovely and a new “M” for me.
M3 – Jumping around a bit but this is the first globular I found in binoculars and I wanted to compare.
M5 – Tighter than M13 but I think slightly more spectacular, may be my favourite so far.
M10 & M12 in Ophiuchus – easily popping into view in the finder.
Have to confess I’d stopped really making notes by this stage. After all that galaxy hunting at the limits of both scope (and more to the point observer), the GoTo was behaving and the globulars look like celestial fireworks and are so easy to spot – great fun!
Couldn’t resist a look over at M57 and things were so crisp and transparent over there I tried for M27 also and there it was, bigger than M57 and with a discernible double sphere shape.
I rounded off with a super view of M81/82 with a sense of shape in M81 and of dark band across M82. Also notable was that where the other galaxies I’d viewed that night were grey mists of varying density – these appeared both brighter and golden in colour. Really amazing view.
Just one more… (it was gone 2.30 am by this time and getting a bit blowy which wasn’t helping tripod stability or my core temperature!)
M51 – great view with twin cores, a discernible spiral and a lane of connecting stars between the two centres. Amazing way to finish.
An unashamed Messier-ticking session then but some unforgettable views and firsts, I am already plotting my next darker sky run, now, how far do I have to go to lose the glow from all those dockyards…?
I've been puzzling over the bits of Virgo that are filled with galaxies on and off for the last three months & always seem to get lost and confused among barely-visible smudges in the eyepiece of my 127 Mak.
Whilst not the ideal galaxy hunting tool, I have really enjoyed views of M81 & M82 and the Leo Trio so figured I ought to at least be able to identify the whereabouts of some of the Virgo cluster even if there's no real features or structure to be even dimly seen with this aperture. To date I'd positively identified M86 & M84 and noted a couple of NGCs in the same field and other smudges within a couple of panning fields distant - but beyond that it was all "might be" in terms of identification.
There is I admit a part of me that is motivated to "tick off" Messier objects but I want to be positive on my identification, so with this in mind I hatched a plan to tour the area in a more structured way, inspired by this great thread on the topic from @MercianDabbler https://stargazerslounge.com/topic/375174-easter-2021-attempting-galaxies-with-an-sp102/?tab=comments#comment-4074628.
Recon sessions with the ST80 while the moon has been dominant over the last couple of weeks had led me to a chain of mini asterisms that I reckon I could follow from Vindemiatrix as a pathway to identify specific galaxies - even though they would be little more than un-resolvable fuzzy stars in my 'scope. I went as far as running through my star hopping "moves" a couple of times in Stellarium during the afternoon and making step by step instructions in my notebook (I find paper & a red headtorch easier in the field than trying to manipulate an App under a redlight). Saturday's forecast wasn't perfect for this purpose but looking ahead, looked like the only usable night for a while so I spent a happy few-bank holiday hours in the afternoon packing gear, charging batteries and prepping.
All observations with a Skywatcher Mak 127, Baader Hyperion 24mm (68 degree AFOV delivering a shade over 1 degree TFOV), Baader Neodymium Filter added for good luck!
Saturday May 1st /Sunday May 2nd was clear over Bortle-5 Winchester and seeing was very steady, transparency was fair and at times poor with high cloud building gradually to the SW by midnight when I set out. There were a couple of hours before the moon became a factor so I got to work aligning (Vega, Arcuturus) and slewing to Vindemiatrix.
Tracked a couple of fields of view (1 degree field) SSW to a faint "crown" of stars [Stellarium says HD111132 is at the head of the curve] which I've been calling mini-Corona and from there on W to a 4 star asterism with Rho Virginis at its centre which I've been calling the "plane" as it looks like a clear delta-wing shape (like an old dinky toy Dassault Mirage I had as a kid!)
M59/M60 - Put the "nose" of the plane in the centre-bottom of the field and pan up half a degree and there was M59 & M60, the first a dim fuzzy point, better in averted vision, the second notably brighter and with haze around a central point, could stand direct vision.
Putting the nose of the "plane" this time in the right hand side of the finder (RACI view on the Mak) and tracking a full field West brings the first of two pairs of stars in a just about horizontal line [Stellarium says these are HD109815, HD109684, HD109486, HD109401].
M58 - Putting the first pair of "the line" in the bottom R of the finder and tracking up 1/2 a field brought me a fuzzy patch with a star bottom R [later confirmed star as HD109771]
M89 - Putting the second pair of "the line" in the bottom R of the finder and tracking up just over a field, passing a small triangle of stars, brings in M89 - a fuzzy star, not much else to note.
M90 - Putting M89 in the bottom centre of the field brings in M90 in the top of the view, dim fuzzy but a bit more of a vertical line than a point this time. Makes a nice field with M89.
M87 - Placed M89 top R in field and swing W. M87 - not as bright as expected, nebulous patch, no detail to speak of.
M86 - Placed M87 in far R of field and tracked W I full field (1 degree) - quite apparent fuzz with brighter core - easier to see than M87 which is odd.
M84 - Placed M87 in far R of field and tracked W I full field (1 degree) - faint, best with averted vision when focussed on M86.
I then tracked one field of view NE of the M84/M86 view and this gives a really humbling view full of tiny fuzzy patches.
I made a rough sketch of a pronounced Scalene Triangle of resolvable stars [based on Stellarium I think these are three 10th Mag stars just into Coma Berenices, TYC 880-659-1, TYC 880 567-1, TYC 880 505-1, whatever that means...] with an elongated "M" shape of fuzzy blobs interweaving. I am not 100% sure which I was seeing but reckon given the slightly off transparency conditions I wasn't able to see as deep as the scope's limiting magnitude of 13.1 so am fairly sure I was looking at "The Eyes" - NGC 4435 & 4438 and then probably NGC 4459, NGC 4461, NGC 4473 & NGC 4477.
M56 - I was getting spots before the eyes by this time and noted that transparency was better behind me to the NE, I took a quick look straight down from Lyra & found M56, a fairly diffuse & dim globular that I am not at all sure I would have spotted had I not just spent a couple of hours tracking down the faintest of fuzz-patches!
Finally looking around I noticed Serpens looked clear and did an opportunistic GoTo for a quick look for M5 before calling it a night.
M5 - Wow! After all that faint stuff this is an absolute corker, tight globular and bright with faint diamond dust at 63x - although it was late I switched to the Baader Zoom & upped the magnification enjoying some super views at around 150x.
Decided to end on this stunner and returned home on a bit of a high for a glass of wine and some poring over the Cambridge Star Atlas and Stellarium on my phone to confirm sightings and then read up on some of the amazing objects I'd glimpsed. Tonight I'd upped my personal "distance record" to around 70 Million light years and was amazed to find that M56 is almost as old as the universe itself at 13.5 Billion years, and even better used to be part of something called the "Gaia Sausage" - who knew?
As often is the case I finished up by reading some of the history of the objects first categorisation, marvelling again at what Messier, Mechain and the Herschels achieved.
Mind blown again...Clear (dark) skies!
A quick sketch from the 1st September (sorry - date is wrong on the image).
M15 was still fairly low in the east but the central condensation of stars really stood out, even in a 5.5inch scope. The bright field star intruding on the edge of the image was distracting. If I had a tracking mount I'd have banished it permanently!
A lot of the extended GC was on the threshold of vision and the resolved stars faded in and out.
M15 will always have a special place for me as it was the first GC i ever saw 😍
Thanks for looking.