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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!
After family pizza night and an evening in front of the TV it was a bit of an effort of will to head out at midnight to my now regular rugby-field stance. However, it’s been a while since my last “proper” session with the Mak & I’ve been inspired to stick at it to find some fainter objects after recent reports in here so the urge “to boldly go” won out and I duly stumped off to the park with my big kitbag...
A dipping crescent moon with earth-light to the West & steady burning stars between translucent skeins of cirrus meant that by the time I’d walked-in & gone through the familiar set up & alignment routine (N. aligned Vega & Arcturus) I was mentally ready to hunt for some new targets.
Skywatcher Mak 127, Baader Hyperion 24mm, 68 degree (1.04 degree TFOV).
Thin high cirrus bands about with occasional patches of great transparency between. Seeing steady.
Align Vega, Arcturus - confirmed really good seeing outside of the thickest haze.
M13 - twinkly, looking good. Even at 63x points of light especially with averted vision.
Cor Caroli - split at 63x, lovely steady white pair with neat rings.
M63 - fuzzy core, wider nebulosity appeared with viewing time. Averted vision showed something brighter within/aligned [checking the charts I think this can only have been the galaxy’s core itself] “Perseus” shaped asterism at 5 o’clock in finder. Diagonal pair close to L in eyepiece.
M51 - twin cores! Dark Lane & some connecting glow. Narrow triangle asterism to upper right with brighter apex & faint pair as left hand base point [Stellarium confirmed these as around Mag 11.7 & they were reasonable bright points not “ghosts”]
Centred Vindemiatrix for Virgo tour - couldn’t pick 86 or 87 out of haze though so moved on.
Leo - M65 & 6 but no hamburger!
M95/6 probable but not a good view. Brighter star to L with faint twin at 11 o’clock
High cloud now getting quite generalised then noted a clear area around Lyra to NE.
[Switched to Baader Zoom 8-24mm.]
Epsilon Lyrae Double Double. Southerly star, secondary at 5 o’clock, dimmer/smaller than primary though not by a large margin.
Northerly star a closer pair & dimmer secondary at 1 o’clock. Best (& lovely) view 10mm, 150x dim star making triangle to lower R. Occasional views of other very faint stars, one on the “hypotenuse” & another in the middle of the triangle. Can’t immediately identify these in Stellarium however.
Haze by now all over & thickening.
By this time it was gone 2 am & quite cold. I packed away and as I did so a few holes appeared in the murk and gave way to aswathe of noctilucent mackerel sky through Cassiopeia and Eastward to a horizontal Cygnus & rising Aquila - the Summer Triangle pointing downward toward the South & East.
It was quite beautiful & still. I lingered a while & broke out the 10x50s for a quick sweep of the Milky Way parallel to the Northern horizon and up in to Hercules, marvelling at how bright the Great Globular looks in binoculars when fully dark adapted.
Highlights has to be M51 & Epsilon Lyrae but a really satisfying session on a patchy night that’s left me with that tired, mild euphoria I get the day following (is it just me?)
Hatching a plan to drive somewhere that gives me a better chance at Virgo to the SE, maybe tonight...
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...
Headed out for the Cancer & Bootes "Full Moon Doubles Match" I'd originally planned for last Friday & that time ended up abandoning due to scrappy seeing , wind & the onset of rain.
All observations with SW Mak 127 on AZ GTi, Baader Zoom 8-24mm via Tak prism.
Transparency good but a little high mistiness & locally occasional ground mist from the river. Temp around 5 degrees, air quite still.
Aligned Arcturus & Capella.
Seeing excellent - steady Airy discs and diffraction cones above 30 degrees altitude.
Spent some time looking around for & sketching the Cass Nova area, not sure I saw it as M52 not really apparent in the moonlight. Identified a possible candidate in the starfield but needs another look & maybe when better dark adapted/less moon.
Castor (Sep: 3.9")- Clean-split white-blue pair with 18mm (83x). Southerly star the larger of the two. Lovely stable view- steady Airy discs with diffraction rings. Confirmed excellent seeing.
Iota Cancri (Sep: 30.6") - very pretty, wide-spaced, side by side pair. Split with 24mm from 63x. Orange primary, white/blue secondary. Super view at 16mm *94x). Stable Airy discs.
Tegmine, Zeta Cancri (Sep: 6" & 1.1") - Split to 2 stars with 24mm (63x). Peanut shape on B/C revealed at 120x and definitely resolving as 2 faint secondaries with 8mm @ 188x. Overlapping cones/rings but quite distinct central discs. B at 7 o'clock to A. C at 5 o'clock to B, (RACI). Seeing must be really good as splitting the secondary is right on the optical limits of the rig at 1.1".
(Chuffed with both the prism purchase - this was essentially why I upgraded - and the fact that I've clearly got lots of astronomy mileage in the Baader Zoom before that department needs upgrading! )
Spent a long time on Tegmine savouring the 83 year old view. Dragged myself away & turning north east the moon was casting long gothic shadows through a low mist, spilling across the field toward me at knee height from the river. Felt like the set of the Thriller video...
Aligned back on Arcturus for Bootes orientation - so bright. Golden yellow sun. Lovely.
Espilon Bootes, Izar (Sep: 2.9" ) - Split at 8mm, 188x. Once identified could see dialled back to 120x. Brighter yellow primary, smaller bluer second - looked "behind" the other. In each other's cones but distinct. Found it initially quite challenging.
Xi Bootes (Sep 7") - Split from 24mm, 63x. Off white primary, small orange secondary at 11 o'clock. Quite lovely.
Tawny Owl hooting now to go with the moonlit mist. River mist actually has cleared somewhat. Auriga to West hanging spectacularly. Can hear the town clocks striking midnight across the fields, so still. Gorgeous night.
Kappa Bootis (Sep:13.5") - white pair, larger primary, second at 10 o'clock. Also, a pretty trapezium due South, top R corner pair may be double itself. (Confirmed yes, is Iota Bootes (Sep 38.7), with a slightly wider field this would be a double-double).
Mu Bootis - Alkalurops (Sep: 108.9 & 2.2") - Wide spaced initial pair, both white. Dim second is at 7 o'clock, maybe double? Shielded moonlight from EP & yes quite sure of it - C faint and at 2 o'clock to B, resolves at 8mm (188x). Clean separation & once achieved almost easier to see with these fainter stars. Another fab one this!
39 Bootis (Sep: 2.7") quite close white pair at 5 o'clock.
Struve 1825 (Sep: 4.4) - faint white second at 7o'clock. Clean space between. Lies about 1 fov N of Arcturus (just over a degree).
Tired by now I blew out any slight night vision I had by looking at the crinkliest bit of moon I could find, up to max power (428x, 8MM Barlowed x2.25) - turned out to be Mare Crisium region. Views were astonishingly crisp up to c 340x. Apparently there was a TLP square thing I could have seen, certainly enjoyed the shadows from the mountains there and, childishly, the fact that there is one crater named after an Enterprise Captain & another called "Lick" (I know, Jean Picard was a seventeenth century French astronomer...)
A few final equipment notes:
Telrads dew up really fast. Astrozap shields really do work. Redlight filter for iPhone applied in Accessibility settings & toggled from main control key makes a big difference, no more app alerts popping up with blinding effect!
Hometime for a celebratory cup of tea (well it was a school night after all).