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Zero Dark Three: three nights on Dartmoor with an ST80


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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.

Highlights:

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.)

Problems:

-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.

x Chris

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38 minutes ago, Kon said:

Nice report. It sounds a very successful trip and you got the bug for the fuzzies! Great!

Sure did. The question for me to try to answer next is whether that itch can be scratched in London, with ANY scope – ie a bigger Dob for more light, or a higher-end refractor for better contrast – or whether, alternatively, I should just get a Mak to concentrate on the Moon and planets, which are close enough to be seen no matter how bright the city lights

Just now, ScouseSpaceCadet said:

A great read. Thanks for sharing. 😀👍

Thanks for reading, and for helping me navigate the early shoals 🧐

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2 hours ago, Basementboy said:

"It's a good thing you aren't trying to impress a girl"

Well done sounds like a fine expedition! You do need a bit of wow factor now and again! 😂

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No ponies were harmed in the making of  this episode ... :evil4:

I'm relieved the urban light pollution annoyances were really just that, and you got to see what the little 'scope could deliver.

Leo Triplet you say .... 🙂

Lovely report .

Heather

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Excellent. Glad the dark skies made a big difference, although it's a shame your EP and finder didn't come in time. You have given me the urge to get out of central London and test the Mak. 

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Glad to see that you've bought yourself a scope and it sounds like you've had a good time of it in Devon and did well with the weather.

I sympathise on the feeling of vulnerability when out and about on your own with the car and telescope. Been there, done that. I don't have any great answers I'm afraid.

Out of interest, did you come across many camper vans parked up overnight on the moor? I was in Exmoor last October (with scopes) and just about every car park on road across the high moor had a camper van in it with lights on.

I do Dartmoor a lot but for some reason have never taken the scope with me... maybe because it's usually summer and too daylight. Must try harder.

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This is the start of aperture fever. It was simple enough, a happy soul content with his 3" refractor - but then those voices start.... "4 inch ED", "127 Mak", "150 Dob".

Then the next thing you know:

image.png.2f3e93b9b368912a0f075b8be319ebc4.png

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16 hours ago, Sadiestorm said:

Excellent. Glad the dark skies made a big difference, although it's a shame your EP and finder didn't come in time. You have given me the urge to get out of central London and test the Mak. 

Definitely! It makes a big difference, at least for DSOs – not sure what the difference would be like on the gas giants when they finally rise this summer? I assume it would help with them, too

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15 hours ago, MercianDabbler said:

Glad to see that you've bought yourself a scope and it sounds like you've had a good time of it in Devon and did well with the weather.

I sympathise on the feeling of vulnerability when out and about on your own with the car and telescope. Been there, done that. I don't have any great answers I'm afraid.

Out of interest, did you come across many camper vans parked up overnight on the moor? I was in Exmoor last October (with scopes) and just about every car park on road across the high moor had a camper van in it with lights on.

I do Dartmoor a lot but for some reason have never taken the scope with me... maybe because it's usually summer and too daylight. Must try harder.

No, I actually didn't see a single camper van. Maybe it's still a bit too cold? I was wearing about nine layers, including down and merino wool. (Though presumably the whole point of a camper van is that you can stay relatively warm...)

I guess that's the tradeoff – warmer weather means more light. But I definitely think I'd be willing to stay up later in order to be able to not freeze to death. I'm looking forward to another trip in summer. The great thing about Dartmoor (it seemed to me, anyway) was how high up you could get – I didn't expect to be able to see the Orion nebula but I had a good hour or two with it before the horizon claimed it. It would be even better if you climbed to the top of a tor ... but no way was I doing that alone at midnight haha. Honestly, though, taking the stick really helped – something atavistic about knowing you have a tool to fend off the other apes

 

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13 hours ago, Pixies said:

This is the start of aperture fever. It was simple enough, a happy soul content with his 3" refractor - but then those voices start.... "4 inch ED", "127 Mak", "150 Dob".

Then the next thing you know:

image.png.2f3e93b9b368912a0f075b8be319ebc4.png

Hahahahahaha

No but seriously though, I can stop any time, I swear ...

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Had me chuckling when reading about the terrifying experience of being alone on the moor. Chuckling because I can certainly relate.

It reminds me of one time when I was observing at a site quite similar to where you were, the outskirts of a nature reserve with low vegetation and open land. Very dark skies, at least by my standards. I had expected to have the company of some other amateur astronomers but for one reason or another I ended up alone. Having driven for a good many hours I was determined to make the most of it regardless and set up.

Felt a bit eerie when I was ready and everything became silent, but I got to it and spent a while scanning the sky. Suddenly I heard a sound that seemed to come from close by. Jumped in my chair and looked around, to no use since I couldn't see very far in the dark. Listened intently and there was the sound again. Odd, I thought. It sounded almost like munching. Someone munching on something. Figured it was animals grazing nearby (behind fencing!) and felt relieved.

Kept at it for a few hours and every now and then the sound would make me jump, but after a second I recognised the familiar munching and it was fine again. Whatever was munching stayed with me for the whole session, never saw what it was, but towards the end it felt almost comforting hearing the chewing from someone having a midnight snack.

Towards the end, fog started rolling in from the sea. It looked incredible actually as the fog stayed no more than two meters or so from the ground, making it possible to see the stars but barely seeing more than one meter to the side. After a while I had enough though, packed up and said good bye to my unknown friend.

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5 hours ago, Basementboy said:

No, I actually didn't see a single camper van. Maybe it's still a bit too cold? I was wearing about nine layers, including down and merino wool. (Though presumably the whole point of a camper van is that you can stay relatively warm...)

It wasn't exactly tropical on top of Exmoor in October. Strangely enough Dartmoor is one of the few places where wild camping is allowed without asking the landowner first... not that a camper van in a car park constitutes wild camping but hey ho. I suspect the camper van people were not disturbed by the relevant authority.

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You need to align the screw and flat on the SLO-mo ems or it won’t work. The AZ3 tends to slump back at higher elevations, I got a counterweight mod bar out front when I had a 120mm on mine. 


I thought Dartmoor had some rabid hound that stalked people.... the chances of anyone else being out are slim... people don’t like the dark. I find the dark a bit like a comfort blanket... but maybe it’s because I can usually see better in the dark than anything within many miles asked can see the monsters before they see me 😉

near London you could try the South Downs near arundel, gets “fairly dark”, not sure how it compares to dark or. If you’re in SE london then dungeness way might be closer. 
going bigger id suggest a secondhand 8” dob, big step up, but easy to transport, use and doesn’t kill the wallet like other things can. 

Peter 

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8 hours ago, davhei said:

Whatever was munching stayed with me for the whole session, never saw what it was, but towards the end it felt almost comforting hearing the chewing from someone having a midnight snack.

 

I think this might have had the opposite effect of comforting me – sounds like you were nearly devoured by a vicious hellhound. (Or perhaps a noctural sheep)

I must say I love fog on a lake in the morning or evening ... never seen it on the moors, but I bet that was an amazing experience

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4 hours ago, MercianDabbler said:

It wasn't exactly tropical on top of Exmoor in October. Strangely enough Dartmoor is one of the few places where wild camping is allowed without asking the landowner first... not that a camper van in a car park constitutes wild camping but hey ho. I suspect the camper van people were not disturbed by the relevant authority.

I did not know that – counting it as today's New Fact. Wild camping on Dartmoor must be great, not just for astronomy but for the sunrise ...

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1 hour ago, PeterW said:

You need to align the screw and flat on the SLO-mo ems or it won’t work. The AZ3 tends to slump back at higher elevations, I got a counterweight mod bar out front when I had a 120mm on mine. 

 

Yeah I eventually figured that out. I think for me the whole point of going AZ was to avoid counterweights, as portability is very important to me (I can't really see much from my garden so have to take the scope out elsewhere). But it's OK with the ST80 and, I'm guessing, slightly larger telescopes too

1 hour ago, PeterW said:

I find the dark a bit like a comfort blanket...

Yeah I can see that. When I let the sun set around me, instead of my showing up when it was already pitch black, it was sort of comforting – once I knew that I was definitely the only one around

1 hour ago, PeterW said:

going bigger id suggest a secondhand 8” dob, big step up, but easy to transport, use and doesn’t kill the wallet like other things can. 

 

Argh, thanks for putting yet more ideas in my head haha. When you say "easy to transport", aren't they ... quite large? I hear you on the wallet element for sure. These classy refractors hurt

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22 minutes ago, Basementboy said:

When you say "easy to transport", aren't they ... quite large?

I took my 8" Bresser dob to a dark site last week. I was going to take the campervan but ended up using our little VW Up. The OTA lay across the back seat and the dob base on the passenger seat. Everything else in the boot. A normal sized car would have the base in the boot too, probably.

An 8" dob isn't that big. A 10" is wider, but not any longer. 12"+ is significantly larger though.

 

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An 8” dob should fit across the back seats of a car and the round base isn’t too big... going up in size the base gets stupidly big and this hard to transport. 8” also pop up secondhand quite regularly. Add a red dot Finder and you’re good to do. Gradually add to your eyepiece and filter collection as you can use them with any scope you subsequently own... a longer investment. 

Living in a city the darkness of a dark site is quite shocking and enveloping. I trust you brought some binoculars to get a wider view and help you with finding things.

Peter

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Great write-up and well done evading the serial killers! Hope Uncle Visa is fighting fit!

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