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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…?
Had three sessions last night, the first the CPRE Orion star count with my 11 year old daughter, magic.
The second was from the light-blighted garden mid evening - successfully picked up M41, M35 and M67 all for the first time - then a neighbour put on more lights so had a go at Polaris, nearly, almost sort of resolved as a double this time.
After a tea and warm break I managed to convince myself that the Mak 127 carry over to the park at 11:30 pm constituted allowable lockdown exercise (body AND mind officer...) so headed out to a wider and, it turned out, reasonably darker viewing spot in the park.
I haven't yet much comparative experience of conditions but I would say seeing was quite steady while transparency a bit milky. Winchester sits in a river valley and I suspect this may be a local feature until I can get up & out of town. Anyhoo, what started as proof-of-concept of some grab & go bag & padding ideas, turned into a really super session of clusters and doubles, most of which I had never seen before, & fruitless searches for fainter things.
Technique-wise I brightest star aligned on Sirius and Arcturus & did have a few accuracy niggles with the GoTo , however a combination of the Telrad + 10x50 Bino sweeps got most of the bright targets quickly in the Finderscope and centred. Highlight has to be the Beehive, M44 which I found breathtaking & can't believe I have never looked for before, Beta Mono triple-star which was amazingly 3D and set me off on a Tatooine sunset imagination-trip and M67, dim & red the kind of place where Klingons might hang out! After much reading on here over all these starless nights I had made a list and although I deviated a bit from it and failed to find ANY galaxies or planetary nebula, the list was a great idea and reminded me that I wanted to go and hunt down the targets in Cancer which I would otherwise have forgotten and missed two of the highlights of the evening. Eventually my phone battery gave out and as I was wi-fi tethered to the AZ GTi this ended my session shortly before frost-bite ensued.
That dew shield was a good buy
For what its worth, here are my notes, all observations made on SW Mak 127 on AZ GTi, Baader Hyeprion 24mm 68 degree fixed for most & occasional higher mag on Baader Hyperion 8-24mm Zoom. Telrad & SW 9x50 finder, supplemented by Celestron Nature DX ED 10x50 Bins.
Messier 57 is is just coming into a position for a decent look around 11 30 pm. IT is a colourful object and I thought it would give me a good target with which to practice my colour developing in PS/Lightroom. I have read so much about how to produce a LRGB image from the four stacked/calibrated luminance, red, blue and green images, a lot seems contradicatory and some, when followed, gave me colour yes, but not as we know it. I am sure a fair chunk must be put down to me. Anyway, I now have a work flow which gives me colour, sometimes resembling what other people have obtained. Progess of sorts.
This images is based on 114s subs at gain 139, offset 21.
L 39, R 20, G 20, B 19
Calibrated and stacked in DSS (flats, dark flats and darks)
Messier 57 Ring Nebula in Lyra
NASA: M57, or the Ring Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the glowing remains of a sun-like star. The tiny white dot in the centre of the nebula is the star’s hot core, called a white dwarf. M57 is about 2,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra, and is best observed during August. Discovered by the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix in 1779, the Ring Nebula has an apparent magnitude of 8.8 and can be spotted with moderately sized telescopes.
Equipment: Celestron 9.25 XLT at F10, Skywatcher EQ6 Pro GEM, ZWO 1600MM Pro, ZWO EFW with ZWO LRGB filters, QHY5IIC guide camera on Skywatcher 9 x 50 finderscope, Celestron Focus Motor
Software: Ascom 6, Eqmod, Cartes du Ciel, AstroPhotography Tool, PHD2
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sir Patrick's DSO catalogue, I've added the available Caldwells to my basic Marathon search sequence.
Those interested may be pleasantly surprised by how many of the additional treasures are only a short hop from a given (or en route to the next) Messier.
The sequence for 40°N can be found at the SEDS Messier Marathon homepage or at my blog.
9 August was a good night for the Moon, so I studied the region from Ptolemaeus to Arzachel at 231x. Especially Alpertragius stood out, with its oversized central mound. It has been suggested that this is a volcanic feature. Herschel too was quite prominent.
Thanks for watching.