Away for half term at the moment and staying in close proximity to some dark skies. Amazingly, for Cumbria, there has also been some lovely clear nights- and best of all, my wife agreed we could bring some astro kit with us. She may not have expected the whole boot to be taken up with it. Good job we have a roof box for the rest of their stuff (don’t ask how many days I’ve been in the same underwear)…
I’ve had two superb evenings, so please bear with me as I’ve got a bit wordy….
27/10/19: Whinlatter Forest Park
The Clear Outside astro weather app was promising a clear night on Sunday so I managed to get out for quick recce during the day. The nearest dark skies looked to be in Whinlatter Forest Park and, whilst the main car park was surrounded by very tall trees I managed to find a side road that had been closed off after 50 yards with pretty good skies and lovely views out across Bassenthwaite Lake and towards Keswick. Arriving around 7:30pm with Sam in tow we were greeted by the view below:
Whilst this was pretty stunning, even better was the view straight up. Our little eyrie was up at 300m, and although Keswick was only 6 miles away the height seemed to take us above the outer reaches of the light dome leaving the Milky Way bright and clear across the sky. The number of stars was breath-taking: much the darkest bit of the sky was the rift running through our galaxy. My friend Ian, who happens to be holidaying nearby at the same time had arranged to join us, and I had the dob set up just in time for his arrival. I’ve bored him in the pub on many occasions with my astro obsession and so it was great that the skies obliged us with such a wonderful display. We started off with a naked eye tour, first of the main constellations and then of the brighter larger objects that we could see- the Pleiades, Andromeda and Auriga cluster all easy to spot with the naked eye (thanks Paul M for the laser pointer suggestion). Then we moved to the dob for some showpieces…
M31 – Was clearly visible with the naked eye so I just pointed the dob at it- no star hopping. Checked in the finder to make sure I had it right and there was the whole thing in the finder! Bright core, elongated shape even M32 visible. Move to the eyepiece (30mm/55x) and it’s like a photo- and clearly bigger than the FOV. M110 was just there- no effort, no AV. Dark lanes prominent. A suitable “Wow!” from Ian. Yeah- it’s always like this, honest…
M27 – Dumbbell – Like M31 I was able to put the scope right onto it, and it could clearly be seen in the finder. In the eyepiece, with no filter, both the applecore and the wider fainter sections were visible. Gorgeous.
M57 – Ring Nebula – Stuck out like neon. A glorious sight with real texture in the outer regions and obvious darkening in the centre, although I couldn’t see the central star.
M45 – Pleiades – very bright and with clear nebulosity visible in patches around the brighter stars.
M81/2 – Bodes and Cigar – Nice rewardingly clear view, although try as I might I couldn’t see spiral arms. Ian very impressed with the idea that
Ian’s kids are younger than mine, so he had to head at this point and with the temperature dropping through zero Sam retreated to the car- I had an hour before forecast cloud to go after some fainter stuff.
M33 – Surprised to see this appearing in the finder as well. In the main eyepiece it was clear as day- and with a spiral structure. I’ve had it before on M51, and flattened in M31- but here it was, laid out in an exquisite swirl across the field of view.
The Veil – I’m quite accustomed to my back garden view of this in O3- sinuous green strands against a pitch background. Here, with no filter, the nebulous regions were brighter and richer, the challenge was only picking them out from the dense star fields that crowded it. East and West were easy to spot but the central sections were harder to pick out. Popping a filter in would have made it easy, but for this night I wanted to see it unmolested, so to speak.
NGC892 – Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda – A nice pleasing streak across the FOV. Tried for some time to see the dust lane, but it was not visible to me. At home this object is not visible at all.
Stephan’s Quintet -YES! I read about this object some time ago: a cluster of five galaxies , four of which are interacting, sat above one of the arms coming off the square of Pegasus. It’s almost a ritual on better, clearer nights at home that I go and have a look and fail to see it. Well here it was. To be fair it was a faint uneven smear: but still- the light of four dancing galaxies 200 million light years away with a fifth nearby at 39 million years photobombing them. Not a bad way to finish the evening.
Oh- and I got a star trail over the Northern end of Bassenthwaite lake:
29/10/19 Castlerigg Stone Circle
Wonderful as Sunday night was, the one downside of the site was that cars coming over Whinlatter pass would sweep their full beam headlights across it. I wanted to do some imaging with my Star Adventurer so tried for somewhere equally nearby that wouldn’t have that problem. Castlerigg is a place I’ve loved for a long time. It was built 3-4000 years ago on a plateau surrounded by mountains. We’ve found no evidence of settlement at the site and it was built pre-Bronze Age- no-one really knows what these early stone circles were for but it was obviously an important and sacred site for the inhabitants of the area at that time. And it’s a heck of a place to sit and look at the stars.
It was clear as soon as I arrived that the conditions were not quite so favourable- the sky wasn’t quite as dark (although the Milky Way was still easily visible), there was broken cloud scudding across it and a pretty stiff breeze across the exposed site. I quickly discovered that the ¼ to 3/8 adaptor had fallen out of my SA as well so that put paid to any serious imaging plans. No worries with the dob in the back of the car ready to go again. From the observing log:
M45 – Pleiades – very twinkly so seeing not great, but nebulosity was clear again. A wonderful sight.
M1 – Crab nebula – quite easy to pick out even with no filter. Whilst I couldn’t see the tendrils that feature in so many images, the uneven shape was nice and clear and there was an obvious fading from the core through to the outer sections, with some uneven mottling within the object.
Double Cluster – I had planned to make the most of the dark skies and focus on fainter objects, but the double is a favourite and was clearly visible naked eye so I pointed the dob at it and was surprised to find that even clusters are enhanced by the dark sky. Just so many stars! So next up…
Melotte 20 – this is barely visible as a cluster naked-eye at home, but here it was almost as prominent as the Pleiades. Pointing the dob at it gave almost bewildering fields of stars- so densely clustered it felt as though they were joined in a net.
NGC7331 & Stephans Quntet- The view was very similar to Sunday night and good to affirm the sighting. I concentrated more on NGC7331- the closer galaxy nearby which was quite prominent and showed a bit of shape. Again- I couldn’t distinguish arms, but it was good to be able to see so much more than from home.
M81- Bodes – Tried again for the spiral arms and spent some time on it. Outer reaches were visible and definitely the shape of the galaxy was not an even circle, but if I’d tried to draw what I could see there would be no arms on it. That’ll have to wait for another dark skies trip.
NGC1499 – California Nebula – This was really tricky to make out. I could detect it more as an interruption to the brightness of the stars in the field than anything else. I tried again with the UHC filter and a sort of fibrous structure was evident, but it took a lot of concentrating and relaxing and averting vision.
IC5070 – Pelican Nebula – As I had the UHC in I popped across to this one, but it was again very tricky to make out. There’s a bright ridge running above the 2 brighter stars and this was clearly visible, but the rest of the object only appeared intermittently in averted vision. Whilst I caught glimpses of it around the field of view I certainly would not have been able to draw the shape of it.
NGC7000 – North America Nebula – It was natural to move onto this after the Pelican. The Eastern seaboard section was similar to the Pelican- hinted at, but not obvious. It started to become more easily visible around Florida and the Gulf Mexico and the Cygnus Wall was quite prominent.
At this point a bobbing white light appeared in my peripheral vision. Someone walking with a torch. I always feel quite exposed when out on my own in places like this and I sat quietly, but with heart pounding, as the light gradually made its way toward me. Then it started sweeping the field, and stopped dead when it found me. Feeling a show of confidence was in order, I waved my hand in the air and shouted out a cheery “Good evening!” as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to be found on your own sitting on an ironing chair in a freezing cold field in the middle of a late October night. The torch again started bobbing towards me and as he came closer I could see he was clutching a tripod and camera bag and was most probably a like minded soul. My visitor turned out to be Javier- a Spanish amateur photographer having a week’s holiday in the lakes.
He was very interested in what I was doing and my equipment, so I whipped out the filter and started showing him some galaxies which he was very taken with. An explanation of what he was looking at, and the distances involved caused some rather pleasing swearing and evolved into a lengthy conversation about the likelihood that the universe is infinite and whether or not the multiverse theory is a pile of nonsense (not the word used).
His mission for the night was to take some nightscapes of the stones with stars beyond, using his torch to paint them in. It’s a fun technique and I was able to join in with my camera , which are the pictures that you can see here (his results were better!).
Whilst he carried on I returned to the eyepiece as Orion was now high above the mountains and above the lighter section of sky.
M42 – Orion Nebula – My first observation this season, at was as always a joy. With the UHC filter in I sent some time just enjoying the bright bow-like “front” of the object and then, with time, the billowing structure of the nebula behind began to emerge. Reflecting on the earlier observations of nebulae that evening, there really are no others that compare to it for me. It’s just an endlessly rich and fascinating object.
NGC 2024 – Flame Nebula – feeling encouraged by the fabulous views of M42 I slid the scope up to Alnitak for a gander at the Flame nebula. I found that the UHC filter didn’t really add anything (especially as the blue/red separation it puts onto Alnitak is a bit distracting) so I took it out and found that I could still see it. Far more obvious than at home it appeared as two prominent patches separated by a dark lane. The branches that you see in images couldn’t be seen at all, but the shape was very clear as was the central dark lane.
IC434 – Horsehead Nebula- finally! This was not easy at all. Following guidance I’ve read here and elsewhere I tried with a H-Beta filter in my Baader zoom but this wasn’t showing it at all. Switching back to the 30 mm with no filter I went through the ritual of just circling the area with the positions of the local prominent stars in my mind. The nebulous bank in which it sits was quite straightforward and with time the Horsehead appeared as a notch in it, a clear area of darker sky through the brighter part of the nebula, but not cutting all the way through. I couldn’t see the famous charismatic shape but the dark cut into the nebulous bank was there, as well as some hints of the shape in the clouds beneath it (I probably wouldn’t have been able to discern those clouds but for the darkness of the HH bit).
I called Javier over, but the stiffening breeze was making it very hard to keep the scope in place and I was unable to show him. As it as 2am and he wanted to be up to photograph the dawn at 6 he announced that it was time for him to turn in. Reluctantly I also started to pack up.
Reflecting back- what a couple of nights! My first time with a large-ish dob under pretty dark skies: it will not be the last. If you’ve read this far then- thank you – I’ve had fun re-living the experience and I would finish by repeating that the old cliché about the best upgrade to your telescope being petrol is one that I now firmly agree with.