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A Frosty Night in the Shropshire Hills


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Waiting for darkness...

The Wolverhampton Astronomical Society held a small star party in the Shropshire Hills this weekend, and I was there Saturday night. Luckily, we got a few hours of wonderful clear sky, but by golly it was cold!
I arrived about 4pm, and on reflection, I’d have been better arriving at twilight, as waiting around for five hours for darkness meant I was quite cold even before I began observing. The last time I attended this event I took my little caravan, and that was ideal as I had somewhere to get warm and map-check between observing spells. But it was good to meet old friends and new, as everyone set up their equipment and chatted about things astronomy related.
I was using my 10” mirror dob, with a 32 Plossl eyepiece. I don’t know the focal length of my scope, (I was asked twice on this evening, “about five foot” I say, I really must measure it). But the double cluster fits in the field of view well enough to see both clusters almost in their entirety, to give you some idea of my field of view.
Around 8.30 the stars appeared. Sirius first, (“there’s Arcturus” I said, completely confused as to which direction I was looking). Then, Capella, the real Arcturus, then the twins. Seeing was very good, and I found the trapezium in Orion easily, with the sky too bright to show any nebulosity.
When the sky did darken, I was treated to a superb view of the Orion nebula M42 and nearby M43, and even before astronomical darkness (at around 10pm), the nebula easily showed its ‘wings’ extending outward, (if you've looked at this nebula under dark skies you'll know what I mean by 'wings' I hope). I’d cleaned my mirror two days before, and was very pleased with the contrast and clarity, with detailed structure in the nebula popping out the more I looked.
The next target was M35, quite high in Gemini. The large open cluster looked splendid, and with no real plan for the observing session, (it was simply too cold to sit in comfort perusing maps beforehand), I decided on a whistle-stop tour of nebulae and galaxies.
 

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Next up was the refection nebulae M78 in Orion. Even in these dark skies, it was quite underwhelming, but unmistakable.
An astro-photographer who was a newcomer to the society asked to see some galaxies, so I found M81 and M82, and the brightness of these two galaxies, as they came into view, made my gasp out loud. I’ve rarely seen them so bright! Obviously, the high altitude of Ursa Major, coupled with the crisp dark sky, was very advantageous. I was pleased that the new member got to see this pair under such fine conditions. The dark matter across M82 easily seen, and in retrospect, this pair were probably the highlight of the evening for me, so bright were they against the velvet black sky. A reminder why we travel to these dark skies.
The new member asked to see M1 also, which was easily found. It appeared quite ghostly and – I thought – quite faint. One friend said they could see a red hue, which I couldn’t. It’s always interesting hearing other people’s thoughts and observations.
With Leo quite high, I found the triplet quite easily. M65, M66 and NGC 3628. These just about fit into the same field of view in the 32mm eyepiece, and although NGC3628 was quite faint, it was unmistakable. The two Messier galaxies  pointing the same direction, with the fainter companion stretching the other way. I returned to these a few times during my session.
After astro darkness at 10pm, the sky was pleasingly dark, with M44 (the Beehive), and Mellote 111 (the Coma star cluster) easily visible with the naked eye. I was also surprised to see The Pleiades (M45) still in the sky at 11pm.
With Ursa Major so high, I tried for a few galaxies there. M51 showed some very pleasing structure, with a very visible ‘arm’ extending out to NGC5195. Damn this cold! I’d have loved to have done a sketch, (looking at photographs of M51 this morning, I see the ‘arm’ I saw isn’t so well defined as I imagined, so a sketch would have been most interesting. Next time, then).
Galaxy M109 was also easily found, and I had expected to see the planetary nebulae M97 in the same field of view. But it wasn’t, and my memory of seeing both in the same field of view must have been from a binocular session with my 10x50 Opticroms. But the nebulae was easily found by just hopping into the next field of view from M109. Quite a few of us looked at this object.
The last target I looked for in Ursa Major was M101, and it was quite dim with no bright nucleus visible. The magnitude of this galaxy in my O’Meara Messier book gives it 7.9, which in comparison to M108’s mag 10, would have you believing this galaxy would be a far more pleasing sight, yet tonight the opposite was true.
The seeing had been deteriorating for a while, and at around 11pm the clouds rolled in. It was hard to believe we’d only had an hour of true astronomical darkness. There was ice on my telescope and case where I keep my books, so with one last look at the Perseus double cluster (NGC 896 and 884 in the west, I packed up my gear. Driving home I was pleased to see the clouds had dispersed and I pulled over to make some binocular observations of the clusters M36, M37 and M38.
So all in all, a successful night of Spring's 'greatest hits, if you know what I mean. I'd found no objects new to me, but had the night been warmer, I’d have stuck around and waited for the clouds to disperse. But it was quite uncomfortable to observe, and my hands were too cold to leaf through my map books without gloves. The van temperature gauge showed -2 as I left. A few of the people imaging at the star party were camping in tents, I didn’t know whether to admire them or pity them. But I’m certainly looking forward to seeing their images; I bet they get some belters!   
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As a postscript, during the time when I was waiting for darkness, I noted that most of the people at the star party were imaging. I think I was the only person there without a laptop at the time., and I felt quite antiquated with my notebook and star maps. One friend turned up before darkness (wise move!) with a nice pair of binos and a monopod, and had a good comfortable observing session, but I think he was the only person there other than me, not using a digital camera and a laptop. It does seem like the hobby has taken two distinct, different paths over the past twenty years. I made this point on the evening whilst talking to someone. I mentioned how imaging enabled people to share their experience, they have something 'showable'. When I look at something through my telescope, I can't show anyone else the next day. There's nothing of that experience to share with others, only words.  These days, an imager can share the result of his hobby with a hundred friends at the flick of a switch. And they can record much more of the night sky than my eye ever will.
Amateur astronomy has moved on.

Edited by Swithin StCleeve
Correction
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Excellent write up. Im more imaging biased as you've summed it up, but more so due to my local environment which doesn't allow much visual viewing. Saying that it's the visual experiences which I remember more vividly and such experiences which stay with me for life.

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Excellent report @Swithin StCleeve! Very enjoyable to read. I must say I love visual astronomy, to me a photo cannot compare to seeing the universe "live" through the eyepiece. Astro photos can be beautiful with the stunning colours, but to me nothing beats the subtle beauty through the eyepiece. Wishing you clear skies!

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Excellent report and some really nice targets. Like you, I love the visual aspect and the thrill when I observe them. Your excitement comes across the report.

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Great report, well told. You mentioned sketching, that's something to show people that doesn't require a camera! I sketch my solar observations, not yet tried night time drawing.

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Thanks for posting that, a very interesting read.

I see you have been inducted into the "M101 is rather disappointing" club, which has many members. A reasonable magnitude it may well have, but spread across that large, face-on spiral, it makes for a low surface brightness.

Your comments on imagers having "something to share" with others: yes, there is something in that, although of course it will be a case of "this is what I did" rather than "this is what I saw". And in this post-Hubble age, the average non-astronomer will probably relate more to a well-executed image than to a verbal description of some less-well-defined visuals.

On the other hand, I've read some magical, enthusiastic and enthralling accounts of visual sessions in these pages, especially by relative newcomers. While it's probably true that they are enhanced if the listener/reader has had some experience themselves, I think it's certainly possible to engage an audience with an account.

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I think you meant  M65,M66 and NGC 3628 as the Leo trio but I knew what you were talking about I would love to find somewhere close to me so I could get a chance to see these through my scope.

Great read and thanks for posting.

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11 minutes ago, wookie1965 said:

I think you meant  M65,M66 and NGC 3628 as the Leo trio but I knew what you were talking about I would love to find somewhere close to me so I could get a chance to see these through my scope.

Great read and thanks for posting.

Yes!
Thanks, I'll edit. I did make a half-hearted attempt to find the other Leo galaxies but it was so half-hearted it wasn't worth mentioning as a true 'failure', if that makes sense.

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Posted (edited)
17 hours ago, Zermelo said:

I see you have been inducted into the "M101 is rather disappointing" club, which has many members. A reasonable magnitude it may well have, but spread across that large, face-on spiral, it makes for a low surface brightness.

It was underwhelming on Saturday, but I have enjoyed some really nice 10x50 bino views of it over the summer months from a similar dark sky site. But if I find an object, I'm rarely 'disappointed' in the view. I'm always happy I've found the object, to be honest. And I think this is something the go-to users might not experience. When you're using a dob, or star-hopping with any scope, there's a certain thrill in locating the object, which can blunt any disappointing feeling. Does that make sense?
It's almost like, "Yay!! I've found it, now let's have a good look and see what I can see". 

Edited by Swithin StCleeve
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24 minutes ago, Swithin StCleeve said:

It was underwhelming on Saturday, but I have enjoyed some really nice 10x50 bino views of it over the summer months from a similar dark sky site. But if I find an object, I'm rarely 'disappointed' in the view. I'm always happy I've found the object, to be honest. And I think this is something the go-to users might not experience. When you're using a dob, or star-hopping with any scope, there's a certain thrill in locating the object, which can blunt any disappointing feeling. Does that make sense?
It's almost like, "Yay!! I've found it, now let's have a good look and see what I can see". 

Actually I agree, it's just that quite a few people go to the celestial "poster boys" like M101 with high hopes, and then feel disappointed.

Most of the galaxies I've found have been the barest smudge, but seeing anything at all is a triumph.

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19 hours ago, rojay said:

Great report. Is that a Dark Star dob? The yellow altitude bearings look very familiar....

Sorry, I missed this. Yes, it's a Dark Star, bought in the early 90's. It's still the best telescope I've ever had. David Hinds optics if I remember right. I don't know if Dark Star are still trading, but I remember picking it up from somewhere north of Newport Shropshire in 1991 or 1992. I've had the secondary re-coated since then.

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2 hours ago, Swithin StCleeve said:

Sorry, I missed this. Yes, it's a Dark Star, bought in the early 90's. It's still the best telescope I've ever had. David Hinds optics if I remember right. I don't know if Dark Star are still trading, but I remember picking it up from somewhere north of Newport Shropshire in 1991 or 1992. I've had the secondary re-coated since then.

Good stuff! I drove up there with my Dad to collect mine in the late 80s. Market Drayton, according to the label...

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5 hours ago, rojay said:

Good stuff! I drove up there with my Dad to collect mine in the late 80s. Market Drayton, according to the label...


I went with my Dad to get mine funnily enough. I don't even know why he came, he has zero interest in astronomy. I remember there was a signed Patrick Moore picture on the wall, and a colour photo of the Andromeda Galaxy that the guy selling the scopes had taken.
I'd used a 4.5 inch Tasco reflector for the previous 18 months, and had pretty much exhausted the targets from my parent's back yard, and the Dark Star dobs were the cheapest decent scopes with the biggest aperture. I've fitted a Telrad finder and a 'right way up' 10X optical finder, and it's still a corker of a scope.
 

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Great report, so much that you saw and very interesting to read. I usually read it more than once and try pick out any of the easier possible targets for me to try.

It was very cold, so cold that it was difficult to carry on observing.  My van said -4.

Thanks for showing me the Leo Trio and how tapping the tube works. I had read about it but I could never have tried it without you finding the objects.

Imaging does make the hobby less interesting for others as the equipment is busy taking pictures. Your Dob is great for parties as you find the targets then show other people. Then on to new targets all with no electronics or software or motor/gears to go wrong.

 

I was able to find a few new objects with my bins, its so nice having dark skies compared with Wolverhampton.

 

Robin

 

 

 

 

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12 hours ago, RobinH said:

Thanks for showing me the Leo Trio and how tapping the tube works. I had read about it but I could never have tried it without you finding the objects.

I find 'tube-tapping' helps when you're in the situation of thinking you can see something, but you're not sure if it's your imagination telling you that you can see it. 

Glad you enjoyed the weekend Robin. I'm already looking forward to the nest, warmer, one.

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Mmm it was cold  but two nights observing in a row was worth the effort to get to darker skies but I am afraid I can not promise it every time we are there. Hope to see more there in the Summer camp.

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