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Back at the eyepiece again. Three dark moonless nights hunting out the treasures


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Hi SGL, it has been a long break!  I used to write these observing reports regularly and it's lovely to be at it again.

I have lived in Edinburgh for 10 years and through one reason or another, done very little in the way of observing. My 12" f/6 David Lukehurst dob spent far too many a sad night neglected at the back of the garage. I have now moved back to a rural spot near Aberdeen, with some quality dark skies nearby and have a bit more time to return to this wonderful hobby.


8th April

Tonight I travelled to a remote place just 15 mins drive from my house which I had scouted out the day before. There was a glow of Aberdeen to the north east, but otherwise the sky seemed to be a fairly high quality Bortle 3, with stars visible down to around mag 5.7.

Packing up the car, I wasn't sure whether to go ahead as the wind was gusting quite violently but decided to persevere. However, this meant I didn't bother with recording each object as I went, with the faff of fluttering paper, and instead just checked items off my list.

I had made an observing list of 50-odd spring objects from the Caldwell and Messier catalogues, plus Stephen O'Meara's Hidden Treasures, and I was determined to find all of these before the end of the season. If you don't have Stephen O'Meara's books, they are a must for any deep sky observer. Both very handy to bring into the night to assist with finding the objects, and inspiring to read in bed for background reading and to plan your next observing session. 

Though I was desperate to get to my list, I always enjoy starting off with a familiar target, to test the conditions and just warm up my eyes a bit, so went to M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, and found the extent of the galaxy very large in the field of view.

M51, the Whirlpool, was next – another firm favourite. I could detect a hint of the connecting bridge, plus what seemed like a concentric dark ring in the middle of the main galaxy. I always find it difficult to see the spiral – it looks more like concentric rings to me. Still, lovely object, and I was pleased to find that when I consulted photos afterwards that the bridge was on the same side as where I had seen it – always assuring!

I then spent a bit of time with M52, with the nova nearby. However, two sensations soon told me I had forgotten two things at home. Firstly, a crick in my back as I stooped to the eyepiece reminded me of my observing chair (a trusty ironing chair bought from Lidl for £15 13 years ago!) The second observation was that of the eyepiece falling into space below me, as the scope being front heavy needs a counterweight for heavier eyepieces, which I have in the form of a gym weight resting on a screw in the lower tube assembly! Anyway, back to the observing... I estimate the nova to be a touch fainter than nearby mag. 7.8 HIP115661, which seems to tally with other people's observations.

Although I knew the Bubble Nebula (Caldwell 11) was nearby, I had no concept of what direction it was, or how far away. However, while viewing the nova, a faint haze of light around a nearby star repeatedly caught my peripheral vision. It turns out that must have been the Bubble Nebula as it was in the right direction.

Not knowing for sure, I went searching for the Bubble in the surrounding area, and encountered an object I'd never heard of before: the Northern Lagoon nebula (NGC 7398). It was a distinct and rather bright smudge, and if I didn't know better, looking through the obscuring dust of our own galaxy, I might have suspected it to be a galaxy, as it was elongated and featureless, although without a distinct core.

IC 405 (Caldwell 31, Flaming Star Nebula) – this was not a satisfying object, just the slightest whisper of nebulosity, which comes and goes, teasing your eyes, in and (more frequently) out of sight.

The favourite Leo triplet, M65, M66 and NGC 3384 – always worth a visit to compare and contrast these three.

NGC 2903 (Hidden Treasure 49) – this is a satisfying and bright galaxy in Leo, a cowering morsel under the nose of the lion. Large halo with a tight bright core.

NGC 2419 (Caldwell 25, Intergalactic Wanderer, or Tramp) – this most far-flung of globular clusters lies far out of our galaxy, at 275,000+ light years away – well away from the usual realm of globulars and 60 degrees from the next one. I had attempted this object from my home a few nights before but through lack of easy naked eye pointer stars it evaded me. This time, thanks to the site being that tiny bit darker and more reliably revealing mag. 5.2 star DU Lynx, I found it quite quickly, in line with two 8th mag. stars, as a small faint nebulous splodge, brighter in the centre, and without any stars resolved.

NGC 5248 (Caldwell 48) – 70 and 71 Vir were visible naked eye and are excellent pointers to this stunning galaxy in Virgo. I was really pleased to see distinct arms wrapping around a bright core. This observation took some time to get as when the scope wasn't tipping forwards with the weight of the eyepiece (I had forgotten the counterweight at home), it was swinging round in the wind while I was trying to keep the pages of Stephen O'Meara's “The Caldwell Objects” flat to consult the star map. I had to recentre this galaxy several times!

I called it a night around 1am, pleased to have found such an ideal observing site nearby and quite a few new objects.


9th April (a birthday treat)

Tonight I decided to go farther afield to an elevated site southwest of Banchory. Not through any issue with the other site, but just to see if the extra distance travelled translated into even darker skies as a treat on my birthday. This 30 min trip was worthwhile as I arrived at a beautiful spot, at a confluence of two tributary streams of the river Dee, at the boundary of Royal Deeside forest and the foothills of the Cairngorms.

On the journey it had snowed, the sky was mostly overcast, and I had no true idea of my exact destination as I had just picked it from Google satellite view rather than having actually visited the site. So it was with some trepidation that I left the main road onto a very rugged, potholed dirt track, through a gate with a sign saying “Please keep this gate closed at all times”. However, my fears were soon assuaged when I arrived in a clearing with a large parking area, and looked up to a sparkling, glittery sky.

I unpacked and got my bearings, while enjoying the sound of the streams trickling beside me. Tonight I was better prepared, with my observing list sketched onto a blank sky map. I had also remembered the dob counterweight, my observing stool and another fold-up chair for my books. These little details make all the difference for a successful and comfortable night's observing.

However, an imp on my shoulder breathed a mischievous suggestion for my first target in my ear, and I found myself going for Caldwell 24 (NGC 1275), which is the brightest member of a very distant cluster of galaxies in Perseus. I had a rummage around a dense star field and had a few suspected sightings but could not be confident I had found it. I was ill-prepared for this challenge and the star hop is not straightforward. This would be returned to.

I therefore turned to a more familiar object, and hoping to confirm yesterday's sighting, sought out the Bubble Nebula, with a clearer idea of what I was looking for and where. I was rewarded with a very indistinct smudge of light branching off a 9th magnitude star. I did wonder if a filter might help enhance this view, but neither an OIII or a UHC (Orion Ultrablock) appeared to reveal more of the nebula.

I now picked a very rich harvest of galactic wonders from the Caldwell catalogue, in Canes Venatici and Coma Berenices:

Caldwell 32 (NGC 4631), “the Whale” and Hidden Treasure 67 (NGC 4656), “the Hockey Stick”. Lovely pair. The Whale very bright and imposing, the Hockey stick with a curious asymmetry. I always thought “The Whale and the Hockey Stick” would make a great name for an astronomers' pub!

Caldwell 26, (NGC 4244), “The Silver Needle”, slender and delicate, and NGC 4228 nearby.

Caldwell 21 (NGC 4449), “The Box”, curious irregular shape with an elongated core.

Caldwell 29 (NGC 5005) and NGC 5033 nearby.

Caldwell 36 (NGC 4559) – very large and bright, very elongated.

Caldwell 38 (NGC 4565) – lovely edge-on galaxy – one of the finest in the sky.

Caldwell 35 (NGC 4889) – one member of another very distant galaxy cluster in Coma Berenices and NGC 4874 nearby, lying some 300 million light years distant. I picked out a handful of very faint smudges with averted vision but did not take the time to really map out the star field and identify individual members.

After some hard work star hopping, I returned to more familiar territory, another triplet of galaxies in Leo. M95, M96, M105, – I had seen this triple of galaxies – the “other” one in Leo – years ago, but had never spotted the fourth, NGC 3384, tucked in next to M105, although it is very similar in brightness to the latter. I must return to this view and search out NGC 3389, a couple of magnitudes fainter, very close to NGC 3384. I love these “constellations” of objects and always enjoy seeing these remote objects keeping each other company.

I returned to Caldwell 31, IC 405, again tonight but could not say with any confidence that it was any more distinct than last night.

I now returned to Coma Berenices, Canes Venatici and Ursa Major for some more galaxies:

Hidden Treasure 66 (NGC 4605).

Hidden Treasure 63 (NGC 4490), “Cocoon Galaxy” - this turned out to be a bit of a highlight of the night. The primary was beautiful and bright, and the way it swoops around the secondary and just almost touches it was very beautiful.

M53, a very satisfying and bright globular cluster with NGC 5053 not far away, though try as I might I could not find the fainter partner.

And finally for some further Caldwell objects in the northern sky: Caldwell 12 (NGC 6946) – lovely compact, but very rich open cluster, nearby galaxy NGC 6939 in Cepheus. An unlikely and very satisfying pairing.

And Caldwell 3 (NGC 4236), which I sadly have no notes from.

I must make a special mention, which made my night most enjoyable. A new (to me) 20mm Pentax XW had arrived during the day, and the first time I switched it into the focuser after finding the object with my 40mm Aero, I hardly bothered using any other eyepiece for the rest of the night. It provided a wonderful balanced magnification of 91x, which was enough to frame my targets nicely, provide a dark enough background sky to bring out the galaxies, and yet still wide enough a true field to locate targets as a finder eyepiece. More importantly, it is supremely comfortable to use, with a large eye lens, plenty of eye relief to use with glasses or without, and no issues with eye placement. This is a keeper eyepiece!

At 1am, I called it a night, mainly as I was getting tired and had a 30 min journey home. I left a lovely dark night behind, but brought back a wealth of treasured sights in my memory.


A very long post - thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it. I am still typing up my observations from the third night, 10th April, which will come in the next day or two.


Clear Skies


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Great to see you back and your very detailed reports I have O'Meara's "The Secret Deep", "The Messier Objects" and a very good friend sent me "The Caldwell Objects" all very good books I must get the rest of the collection. 

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Finally finished writing up these from my notes from 10th April

Tonight I returned to Bridge of Dye, at the river confluence from last night. I arrived at 10pm just at the arrival of astronomical darkness and a totally clear night showing loads of promise! The wind had died down, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse tonight, as although my scope stayed where I pointed it, the frost ended up putting a stop to the night's observing. A dusting of snow had appeared since last night and this lent a different atmosphere to my surroundings as the landscape was now accentuated under the starlight. Transparency was poorer on the horizon than last night, with a band of blue all around from NE round to the SW.

Tonight I decided to record my observations using voice recorder on my phone. This was far more pleasant to do than get out the pencil and book after each target and I could record much more detail, though it was irritating having to use the phone while avoiding affecting my dark vision. 

NGC2932 - the Eskimo Nebula - Caldwell 39 First up, I went to this bright planetary in Gemini using my new 0.9x Skywatcher coma corrector. Unfortunately with the supplied eyepiece holder this only just reaches focus in my 12" dob and 40mm Aero with the focuser racked right in, and not at all without my glasses on. However, the peripheral stars were sharper and the Eskimo was distinct as a bright, slightly bluish blob next to mag 8 star HIP36370. Upping the mag to 180x using my Pentax XW20 and 2x barlow proved ambitious, as the scope hadn't thoroughly cooled. No detail was visible in the nebula and the neighbour star could not be resolved to a point. Change of target required.

Return to Caldwell 21, the Box Galaxy (NGC 4449), but first a stop over at a small cluster of galaxies I stumbled across, overshooting my star hop, which may have been around M106 based on my description of the star field. On the "Box", I couldn't quite work out what was going on with the core, but it seemed like it had a multiple, or mottled elongated core along a harder edge of the galaxy.

Returned to Coma Cluster of galaxies, and spent a bit more time picking out members, and identified NGCs 4874, 4889 and 4907 with other unconfirmed members popping into view with averted vision.

M94 – very small, very bright core, almost stellar. Fades gradually, extending to a large size, and slightly elongated.

NGC 4618 – wasn't on my list but saw in my sky atlas it was nearby M94. Found NGC 4618 and was surprised to find NGC 4625 in the same field of view. Lovely pair – 4618 quite large and distinct, but with no sharp nucleus.

There ensued an abortive attempt at observing NGC 1275 – the Perseus cluster of galaxies, where I suspected one smudge. I will have to return to this better prepared with a star hop strategy.

M63, the Sunflower Galaxy and M64, the Black Eye galaxy were nice bright stop-overs on my way to M53, a very pleasing globular cluster with good resolution of stars. I wanted to hunt out NGC 5053, which I was successful at finding. The latter was much larger and fainter than I expected, and very unusual for a globular cluster. I could not resolve any stars and in a way it almost looked like a large coreless face on galaxy.

Hidden Treasure 69, NGC 4725 and bonus neighbour NGC 4712. Lovely pairing. Nice tight core on NGC 4725 with a large halo.

Caldwell 48, NGC 2775 in Cancer was next, in a new part of the sky. Fairly small nucleus with averted vision the galaxy extends out some distance.

Caldwell 53, NGC 3115 in Sextans, nice, thin elongated galaxy with elongated core.

Caldwell 52, NGC 4697 in Virgo. Lacking detail, elongated.

M104, the Sombrero galaxy, dust lane clearly visible, with a hard edge on that side, but the core peeping out on the other side of the dust lane. Beautiful galaxy.

Cat's eye nebula (Caldwell 6, NGC 6543), extremely bright planetary nebula, like a defocused star.

I then enjoyed a few more Cassiopeia open clusters, browsing the E portion of the W, particularly M103, the Owl Cluster (Caldwell 13, NGC 457) and Caldwell 10 (NGC 664).

I called it a night around 1am as everything had started to get coated in a layer of frost, and the eyepieces wouldn't stay clear for more than a few seconds!

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Great reports of all three nights of observing. I enjoyed reading this as I do not have time to observe away from home these days and it bought back memories of my remote nights under dark star spangled skies.


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  • 3 months later...

Thanks for such a great report! I was shocked at the photos of ice on the scope!

I also own a David Lukehurst scope and can attest to its quality.


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