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1000 Galaxies - My Journey


DavidR100

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It has been a long held ambition that even quite recently appeared to be slipping out of reach.  However, two weeks ago, as I gave up peering for the elusive galaxy NGC 6295 in Draco and navigated about 10 minutes west to NGC 6258, I tried to ignore the competing feelings of rising excitement and impending disappointment, for I was on the cusp of my 1000th galaxy sighting.  After a few seconds of concentration, sure enough, the image of a small, very faint circular fuzz started to form in my eye.  I estimated its brightness, size and shape, its distance and orientation from a nearby brightish star and then recorded my observation.  My 1000th recorded galaxy was in the bag.

It's tempting to say that this journey started many decades ago with my childhood interest in the night sky;  I had even joined the Junior Astronomical Society.  However, my fascination with galaxies in particular dates back to 2012 when I was struck by the possibility of seeing an object at a mind blowing distance with just binoculars from my back garden in suburban Manchester.  I bought those binoculars and in November, after a few unsuccessful star hopping sessions (via Cassiopea, believe it or not!), a faint Andromeda Galaxy came into view.

These days I observe through an Explore Scientific 16" Dobsonian Gen II with a Tele Vue Delos eyepiece and think nothing of making the drive of well over an hour to a favourite spot in North Wales (dark green on the map at darkskyfinder.com).  Under a truly clear sky, the NGC galaxies marked on Uranometria invariably come into view - though sometimes not without a little effort, as already described.  This can be a highly satisfying experience, and it has to be, to make up for all those fruitless trips when the skies turned out oblivious to the weather forecast.  Well over half my observations have been made over the last 5 years with that equipment at one or other of my other favourite spots in the area (the others are shown as light green and olive at darkskyfinder.com).

Going back to the early days, the taste of Andromeda stimulated an appetite for more, and thanks to sound advice from Peter and George at my local telescope shop, Opticstar (in Sale, south Manchester), I bought a Sky-Watcher Explorer 130P and the big red Messier Marathon book.  I quickly graduated from the back garden to a darker site on the north Cheshire plain (dark brown at darkskyfinder.com) and by the end of summer 2013 I had logged all but 18 of the Messiers and taken the 130P to its limit.  A Sky-Watcher Explorer 200P came to the rescue, and all of a sudden, galaxy M74 in Pisces came within easy reach.  By the summer of 2014 I had completed the Messier list and I was after a new challenge.

Steve O'Meara's Herschel 400 Observing Guide looked like the answer, but I didn't take to it.  After some time in limbo, I remembered what attracted me back to this hobby and by chance I came across the Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas and I soon had my future mapped out - to see as many of those small red ellipses (galaxies) as possible and record details of my observations (for future reference).

During 2014 I got itchy feet and made several reconnaissances looking for darker sites within "reasonable" reach.  I scoured maps for suitable locations and took a daytime tour of North Wales with my 15 year old daughter to check out sites of interest and identified one that I would return to every now and then until it became my "go to" site in 2017.  A location in north Shropshire (seemingly better than the yellow at darkskyfinder.com) also proved to be a well-located dark spot.  I ventured as far east as North Lincolnshire (yellow at darkskyfinder.com), and although I did return once, it was a little too distant even for me and not really worth the effort.

Just as completing the Messier list seemed an impossible feat at the outset, so did exhausting the galaxies observable from my latitude in the S & T Pocket Sky Atlas.  Nevertheless, by early 2020 that was the case, with getting on for 400 faint fuzzies logged.  Meanwhile, in late 2015 I upgraded to my first Dobsonian, a Sky-Watcher Skyliner 250PX, which proved to be probably my favourite scope and which is still my "grab and go".  It was thanks to the 250PX that I more or less completed the S & T Atlas.

I had reached another turning point in my pursuit of galaxies, and which we to go?  Back in 2014 I had the foresight to buy a copy of the Uranometria 2000.0 Deep Sky Atlas All Sky Edition from Opticstar just before they went online only (my other local astronomy shop in Stockport went the same way at more or less the same time).  It was to this hefty volume, with over 25,000 galaxies that I turned my attention.  

The time also felt right to upgrade my scope, so having been completely satisfied with all my Sky-Watcher purchases it seemed natural to go for the "next one up" - the Skyliner 300P FlexTube.  Unfortunately we didn't get along as it felt to have all the downsides of a large scope and few of the advantages.  It was big and heavy, needed collimating every time before use (I don't believe I ever needed to collimate my 250PX in the field), the primary took a while to cool down and the secondary seemed particularly disposed to misting up (even with a shroud).  Whilst the 300P could see a little "deeper" than the 250PX, it just didn't seem worth the bother.  I considered stepping up to the 350P, but that was really bulky and heavy; the deciding factor against was that the base wouldn't fit through a doorway.

If I wanted bigger, then a new paradym was needed, and it came in the shape of a truss-structure Dobsonian.  The scope type breaks down into relatively manageable parts, making bigger apertures a practical proposition for someone like me who observes a car journey away; unfortunately these benefits come at a price.

I had the great pleasure of visiting David Lukehurst in Nottingham and examining an 18" he had just completed.  I considered an Obsession and even a somewhat-out-of-my-price-range SkyVision.  I finally I went for the Explore Scientific, a "budget" truss Dob, which was great value at a sale price of "just" £2000.  This was a decision I have not regretted.  In the unlikely event that I should upgrade again, I'm promising myself a close look at one of David's 20" Dobs.

The combination of the 16", trusty Sky-Watcher right-angled erecting finderscope, dark North Wales skies and detail of Uranometria and were a match made in heaven.  Under those dark skies, the finderscope shows all the stars in Uranometria - it's eerily like Uranometria IS the sky - and the 16" with faultless 14 mm Delos does the rest.

So why am I still motivated to hunt down galaxies after all these years?  Well, I continue to be captivated by the sight of such phenomenally distant objects.  Although there are many magnificent images of galaxies on the web (including SGL, of course!), for me it just isn't the same as seeing photons at the end of their multi-million year journey with my own eyes. Whilst many galaxies fit the same visual type of small, faint elliptical fuzzies, there are the occasional variations, so there's the excitement of not knowing what the next FOV will bring. Two (or even more) relatively conspicuous galaxies in the same FOV is another gratifying sight, and two weeks previously I was treated to three such pairings in one session, when targeting Bootes.  The first was faint NGC 5696 and very faint NGC 5697 half a FOV apart.  Then faint NGC 5730 and very faint NGC 5731, only 1/16 FOV apart. An additional feature was that both galaxies were "twinned" with a star, just to their west.  Finally were faint NGC 5784 and quite faint NGC 5787 which were separated by a third of an FOV.  Navigating to the next galaxy through the finderscope then finding it spot on in the middle of the eyepiece still brings a warm feeling of satisfaction.  Note that all my equipment is manually driven and all navigation is by star hopping through the finderscope having referenced my hardcopy atlas.

I now have getting on for 2000 observations, which are stored in an Excel spreadsheet.  That's a lot of data to make sense of.  I ended up writing a bunch of scripts in Perl; a compact, powerful but quirky language, to analyse and report useful information - such as the number of galaxies I have seen.  Snippets from three of the reports are shown below. I looked initially at using Access as for storing and querying the data, then moved on to an SQL database (I had prior experience of writing SQL) and went some way designing and populating the database.  After a while it felt like too heavy-a-duty solution; nevertheless it was a satisfying job and I might return to it one day.  

So what of the future? Having achieved the goal of 1000 galaxies, despite the vagaries of the weather in north of England (and Wales) and (I imagine) decreasing light sensitivity with age, I ask myself, why not continue and go for 1500 and then 2000 galaxies?  I can't find a good reason not to.  On another tack, whilst there are numerous lists around on DSOs in general and galaxies in particular, I feel that there could be a gap in the market for a list of galaxies not only observable from UK but actually observed from the UK.

I hope this was an interesting read.

Here are extracts from some of my Perl reports:

1. Top 10 constellations by number of non-Messier galaxies seen:

Ursa Major: 286
Canes Venatici: 105
Virgo: 87
Draco: 68
Lynx: 68
Bootes: 62
Leo: 47
Coma Berenices: 34
Pegasus: 29
Leo Minor: 23

2. Totals of non-Messier galaxies seen, by brightness:

0 Very bright
0 Bright
15 Medium
8 Just below medium
79 Below medium
132 Quite faint
338 Faint
334 Very faint 
65 Averted vision


3. One report lists all non-Messier galaxies observed for each constellation, by brightness.  Here's the extract for Leo Minor (all are NGCs except where stated):

23 galaxies observed and seen: 
  Medium (1): 3245, 
  Just below medium (1): 2859, 
  Below medium (2): 3021, 3294, 
  Faint (8): 2955, 3003, 3254, 3277, 3344, 3414, 3486, 3504, 
  Very faint (10): 2965, 2971, 3012, 3232, 3235, 3265, 3395, 3430, 3432, IC 2500, 
  Averted vision (1): 3099, 
2 galaxies observed and not seen: 3013, 3245A, 

Edited by DavidR100
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What a great achievement and a super post describing your journey 🙂

I am currently without a decently large aperture scope but reading about your galactic observing quest, and the way you have gone about it has re-ignited my desire to hunt down these faint and far off targets again once the darker skies return again.

Your approach is just the way that I like to observe 🙂

I hope you go on to spot another 1,000 👍

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Excellent post @DavidR100, a very enjoyable read. I’m a sporadic deep sky observer, enjoying a dose of galaxies every now and then but you clearly have the bug! Perhaps you should change your handle to DavidR1000? 👍👍

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Excellent achievement. Your journey sounds very like my own.

Really enjoyed reading your post.

I would love to see your spreadsheet to cross reference to my own. I can send you the result. It might yield a list of objects for both of us to try for once the dark skies return.

Mark

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Great post - could be made into a book!

While I don't really share your love of faint fuzzies, your dedication and obvious love for the subject shines through, and what I love the most: all done with (relatively) cheap and cheerful gear, proving that you DON'T need to shell out tens of thousands to enjoy the hobby.

Edited by cajen2
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22 hours ago, mdstuart said:

Excellent achievement. Your journey sounds very like my own.

Really enjoyed reading your post.

I would love to see your spreadsheet to cross reference to my own. I can send you the result. It might yield a list of objects for both of us to try for once the dark skies return.

Mark

Mark,

Many thanks for your kind words.  Please let me think about your proposal.  Your contact URL (http://www.bristolweather.org.uk/astronomy) doesn't seem to work; are you contactable at Bristol Astro Soc?

David

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6 hours ago, maw lod qan said:

1000 galaxies, amazing.

Well done!

I'm someone who really wants to believe there is someone out there looking back at us.

Just imagine all the stories that could be told in those galaxies, far, far, away!

In the early days I used to wonder if "someone" was looking at the Milky Way while I was looking at "their" galaxy.  A sobering, but exciting thought!  Thanks for reminding me 🙂

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Dear All,

I would really like to thank you for your kind and generous comments; I actually found them quite humbling (which isn't really like me!).  I guess there's something especially significant about praise from peers.  But don't let me go on! 

The comments were a particularly welcome read last night as I sat in the car (at my customary north Wales spot) waiting for the clouds to clear (which they didn't).  With the sky barely exiting nautical twilight (according to timeanddate.com), common sense would say that galaxies would stay merged with the background sky.  However, not long ago I had a surprisingly successful session seeing 18 galaxies in Hercules and Corona Borealis right at the end of May.  So I thought, why not have another try?

Thanks again for your comments and I'm very gratified that my post was of interest.

David

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Great achievement, keep going! I share your love of faint galaxies although I image them rather than visually observe, but I do have a 16” SW flextube Dobsonian for when the the observing urge comes along.

I dislike the term faint fuzzies, to me it seems demeaning somehow to use this label to describe immense island universes, many much larger than our own galaxy and which are unimaginably distant.

I admire your dedication to observe from dark sites, I’m puffing and blowing after moving the dob from the garage to the back garden, never mind driving for an hour or more to a dark location, especially with our hit and miss weather forecasts.

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An inspiring read, and an awesome celestial journey. Star hopping your way to 1000 galaxies with an atlas and a push to telescope, surely the most rewarding way to achieve such a goal.

 

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Hi David, what an amazing journey. Excellent post! I hope you will be able to continue your journey for many years to come and many more thousands of galaxies! I guess in previous centuries you would have been considered a true professional astronomer…

Take care and many clear skies

Frank

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14 hours ago, Mr Magoo said:

An inspiring read, and an awesome celestial journey. Star hopping your way to 1000 galaxies with an atlas and a push to telescope, surely the most rewarding way to achieve such a goal.

 

Thank you.  Even now, the process of getting a galaxy into the field of view is probably more satisfying than the sight itself.  

Edited by DavidR100
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Really enjoyed your post and can identify with everything you said about the joy of galaxy hunting.  There is nothing more satisfying than sitting alone in a dark sky environment while star hopping a truss dob towards an elusive bundle of archaic photons.   

May you have many more fruitful nights ahead.

 

John

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  • 5 months later...

David,

  I really enjoyed reading reading your post! Our travels through this hobby/obsession are similar. I've lived in Maryland and West Virginia for most of my life. I started keeping track of what I was seeing in July of 1988 with a 10" Meade SCT. I fell in love with galaxies with their subtle differences if one took the time to look deeper. I went to a couple of star parties in the late 1980's and saw a new generation of lighter weight Dobsonian's and got aperture fever. I've owned several dobs since that time ranging from 18" to 24" (truss type) and my current big scope is an Obsession UC 22", a retirement present. I, like you went to MS Access and wrote my own database and reporting programs using the built-in Visual Basic and queries using SQL. I created my database tables to be compatible with Chris Mariott's SkyMap Pro (no longer being upgraded) which I still use today as my primary program. I can import my observations into SkyMapPro.

I took some breaks during the last 35 years to chase other interests but came back to astronomy 5 years ago. My first 1,797 observations we're all "star hopped" but with the Obsession everything (2,213 more objects) since 2018 has been GoTo (UC 22) or PushTo (with a Starmaster 11" f/5.4). Total number of galaxies logged thus far is 3,367.

I completed the Herschel catalog in June, 2023, a 35 year project (The base liine object list was via the Astronomical League Herschel Society and I've also referenced Mark Bratton's book and Wolfgang Steinicke's eweb site for additional targets). I didn't know I had started my Herschel journey with NGC 891 on 7-31-1988. I continue to seek out more faint fuzzies and am working on the Hickson groups and other galaxies that Lewis Swift discovered. I know I won't be using the big scope forever as age is becoming a factor but I'll enjoy it while I can and then revert to a smaller scope to carry on.

Best of luck in your on going adventures and clear skies,

 Matt Orsie - Hedgesville, WV 

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Absolutely brilliant David! Congratulations! To have all the observations cataloged is a great resource, it the sort of thing I could spend hours pouring over. I to use to belong to the Junior Astronomical Society many moons ago, a great intro for astronomy. I know the skies in the UK are a challenge even at the best of times so to nail a thousand galaxies is a great achievement. I now live in Texas so lots of clear nights. I probably get more clear nights in a good month then most people will get in 12 in some parts of the UK so I can really appreciate the work you put in. 
 

Jon

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  • 2 weeks later...
On 07/12/2023 at 14:02, wvbirder said:

David,

  I really enjoyed reading reading your post! Our travels through this hobby/obsession are similar. I've lived in Maryland and West Virginia for most of my life. I started keeping track of what I was seeing in July of 1988 with a 10" Meade SCT. I fell in love with galaxies with their subtle differences if one took the time to look deeper. I went to a couple of star parties in the late 1980's and saw a new generation of lighter weight Dobsonian's and got aperture fever. I've owned several dobs since that time ranging from 18" to 24" (truss type) and my current big scope is an Obsession UC 22", a retirement present. I, like you went to MS Access and wrote my own database and reporting programs using the built-in Visual Basic and queries using SQL. I created my database tables to be compatible with Chris Mariott's SkyMap Pro (no longer being upgraded) which I still use today as my primary program. I can import my observations into SkyMapPro.

I took some breaks during the last 35 years to chase other interests but came back to astronomy 5 years ago. My first 1,797 observations we're all "star hopped" but with the Obsession everything (2,213 more objects) since 2018 has been GoTo (UC 22) or PushTo (with a Starmaster 11" f/5.4). Total number of galaxies logged thus far is 3,367.

I completed the Herschel catalog in June, 2023, a 35 year project (The base liine object list was via the Astronomical League Herschel Society and I've also referenced Mark Bratton's book and Wolfgang Steinicke's eweb site for additional targets). I didn't know I had started my Herschel journey with NGC 891 on 7-31-1988. I continue to seek out more faint fuzzies and am working on the Hickson groups and other galaxies that Lewis Swift discovered. I know I won't be using the big scope forever as age is becoming a factor but I'll enjoy it while I can and then revert to a smaller scope to carry on.

Best of luck in your on going adventures and clear skies,

 Matt Orsie - Hedgesville, WV 

 

Matt,

What a marvellous 35 year adventure, with an impressive galaxy total to show for it - so far!  You are living my dreams somewhat, with your big Obsession and all those clear, dark skies.  Still we just have to make the best of what we have.

Fingers crossed you continue to venture into additional catalogues for some time to come and that the smaller scope (about which I know exactly what you mean) continues to stay under wraps.

David

Edited by DavidR100
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading that, David - congratulations and thank you for penning such an inspiring narrative. 
 

Having been purely visual and manual for over 25 years, I recently started taking nightscape photographs and, latterly, tried my hand at deep sky imaging. I’ve struggled to get on with DSO imaging, and don’t feel the connection I used to have while hunting galaxies and nebulae with my 12” dobsonian. I have been thinking about going back to visual; your post has made that a little more likely!

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