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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…?
Virgo cluster including M84, M86, M87. 30 x 40s subs at ISO 200 for total of 20 min. Aligned and stacked in Siril. Stretched and processed in Startools.By KevinPSJ
What a great night last night. Found my first Virgo cluster galaxies!
Located without seeing anything in my finderscope - figured I must be in the right place as there were almost no stars. Had to take a quick shot at high ISO to confirm there were galaxies there. Really pleased to see 3 Messier galaxies and a whole bunch more pop out after 20 min. If I hadn't spent a hour messing about with polar alignment and collimation I would have grabbed more integration time. Oh well - lesson learned.
While this was imaging I got out my binoculars and found M104 too. Will try to image if there's another good night like last night.
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...
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).