Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The First Bite Of Winter

The First Bite Of Winter

In recent days, high pressure has built up over the UK, and with it, cold clear air has been dragged from continental Europe giving big swathes of the country a couple of nights at least, of clear cold weather.
What to do?  With a busy week lined up in work, Monday was the best chance for me to get out the SBT and go observing.  As not to get frustrated with the wonderful insecurity light of the neighbour, I loaded the SBT into the car, took the car to work which allowed for a clean get away at the end of the day.  I headed out to a reasonably dark sight a few miles out of town and arrived just as the last glimpses of daylight were disappearing over the horizon.
With the SBT deployed, alignment and collimation tasks completed, it was just a question of deciding what to go searching for.  It was to become a very successful night of observing.
I spent a bit of time to start off just looking around the sky, allowing my eyes to become accustom to the darkness around me.  This can take up to half an hour, so it gives you some time to decide.  On the back pages of my notebook, I keep a list of targets that I want to observe.  Kind of a miniature tick-list if you like,  It's a list I compiled a couple of years ago and has targets in different constellations visible throughout the northern hemisphere.  The idea being that there was always something to go for.  It was from this list that most of the session took its lead.

M34 - NGC 1039 - Perseus

An easy and relatively bright target to start,  At magnitude 5.2, it was beautifully bright with pin point stars set against a good dark sky.  The target is just inside the constellation boundary of Perseus, but also quite close to the popular targets in Andromeda.  Observing this open cluster showed me that the seeing conditions were very good indeed,  The image at the eyepiece was steady and clean.  Not much sign of twinkling came from any of main component stars in the cluster.  A nice object to start, an easy one to find, but it was time to move on to something that I hadn't observed before.

C47 - NGC 6934 - Delphinus

The constellation of Delphinus is usually observed toward the end of Summer.  It can be found to the side of Cygnus, almost immediately overhead during the late Summer months.  Though we are now knocking on the door of Winter, early in the evening, Delphinus is still high up in the sky and ideal for spending a bit of time on.  The main component star of Delphinus are all around magnitude 4, so reasonably bright.  However, depending on your source of information,  C47 is a magnitude 10.6 object, or 8.8 so can take a bit of finding.  Using the stars of Delphinus as a place to start, the SBT picked up this globular cluster with reasonable ease.  Using the 25mm eyepiece, the cluster was quite small, showing as little more the a pea sized smudge.  I couldn't resolve any individual stars, but I was still pleased.

C37 - NGC 6885 - Vulpecula

Time to skirt around Cygnus to the western section of the Milky Way.  Vulpecula isn't a particularly well known constellation unless you're into astronomy.  C37 is another open cluster which called for a change of eyepiece to the 32mm 2 inch optic.  This is an interesting cluster to observe because it is made up of I would say, 2 distinct magnitude groups of stars.  Around 5 of the brightest starts looked to be around magnitude 5, but the more I looked at the cluster, I could see that they were nestled in amongst a larger group of perhaps 20 to 30 magnitude 8 stars.  The whole cluster fitted into the field of view very well indeed.  It was a great new tick to add to the notebook.

C16 - NGC 7243 - Lacerta

The fourth target of the evening, the fourth constellation and the fourth cluster!  Lacerta takes its place tucked into the side of the Milky Way.  This can mean picking out targets in this region is tricky.  Not necessarily because they are small or not very bright, but because there are lots of background stars to navigate around to find it.  C16 is quite a bright target at around magnitude 6.2, but it looked to be surrounded by stars of quite similar magnitude, probably 7 to 8th mag.  This was the toughest find of the evening so far, and again, another new tick for the evening.

NGC 7160 - Cepheus

Directly across the Milky way from Lacerta, Cepheus kind of sits half in and half out of the Milky Way.  This really is a small open cluster,  I counted around 6 stars which formed the main part of the cluster.  After some searching, the only way I could verify what I had found was indeed 7160 was by checking for some images on my phone.  It's a gem of a small cluster.  Again, quite bright at around mag 6.1 in the most part.  It really did take a fair bit of searching to find this one.
With a normal push to dobsonian scope, making fine adjustments can be a bit tricky, so when looking for a target, it is quite easy to go wildly off piste as it were,  Especially if you nudge the telescope accidentally.  It was while trying to hone in on 7160 that I came across a feature that I haven't been able to identify as yet,  The feature was a well defined arch of stars, reasonably equally placed, and all of similar magnitudes.  Unfortunately, I had now way of knowing exactly what I had come across and haven't been able to see anything in the vicinity that matched what I saw.  One for the future maybe!

NGC 6871 - Cygnus

Cygnus is one of my favourite constellations, sitting smack in the middle of the Milky Way with a plethora of different things to look at within its boundaries,  However, this open cluster didn't exactly live up to the reputation of other targets.  In fact, it earned just a one liner in the notebook!
Bright against the Milky Way.  Not many stars make up this average cluster.

NGC 1502 - Camelopardalis

The constellation of Camelopardalis can be found quite close to the familiar "W" shape of Cassiopeia.  It's quite a large constellation made up of only a handful of stars.  1502 is an open cluster found at the end of a string of stars called Kembel's Cascade.  This is a feature that I hope to photograph at some point.  The cluster itself is quite small, but bright at mag 6.9.  It's very well defined and I observed 2 or 3 brighter magnitude star nestled in amongst a dozen or so higher magnitude stars.  I think the cluster will set well in a photograph at the end of the cascade.  So, another tick for the book.

Also Observed During The Session

This brought at an end to the main observing session, although whilst sitting back and taking stock of what I did actually see during the session, it occurred to me that I had also re-visited many other more familiar targets whilst hopping from one observation to another,
  • M1 - The Crab Nebula
  • M45 Pleidies
  • M27 Dumbbell Nebula
  • C14/NGC 869 & NGC 884 - Double Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • M31, M32, M110 - The Andromeda triplet of galaxies.
  • M57 - The Ring Nebula
  • Venus, briefly and very low in the sky at the start of the session.
This was an excellent session, and well worth the effort of getting out of town to somewhere with few distractions.  If this is a snapshot of what this winter is going to bring, it's going to be a cracking season!  Thanks for reading.


Friday, 18 November 2016

Waiting For The Weather

M101 - Getting from RAW to the final picture.

One thing that dabbling with astrophotography gives you, is something to do if the weather for observing is rubbish.  These last few weeks, the weather has been typically autumnal with little chance for getting the scope out at all.  Then, we had the over-hyped (thanks to the wonderful UK media) 'Supermoon'.  In essence, a normal full moon at closest perigee for a while.  But, realistically, it looked just the same as any other full moon.  And, as full moons do, it was too bright to really make any effort towards getting ready for any observing.
So, I've taken the opportunity to apply a couple of new things that I learned in my recent trip to Astrofarm about image processing.  The more I study imaging, and the techniques used to enhance the data I collect with the camera, slowly but surely, I'm beginning to make small improvements.
I went back to re-look at some data I collected back at the beginning of August.  I took a series of images of M101, a spiral galaxy called the Pinwheel Galaxy in Ursa Major.  At the time, I was stacking images in Deep Sky Stacker, where I would do some basic levels adjustments before then processing the image further in GIMP2.
My first attempt at stacking produced an image was, to be frank, a disappointment.  In fact, I don't have my original attempt at stacking because it was so poor, I just deleted it.  But, somewhere over the last few years, I've heard someone say, never delete your source data.  You never know when you might want it.  Source data can take a minimum of a whole evening to collect.  Sometimes, people can spend weeks or months collecting it even, so just deleting it is a big decision.  A lot of work potentially gone with the push of a button.
This time, I used 30 x 60 second frames at ISO 800 plus 10 Dark frames, 10 BIAS frames and 10 FLATS.  In a brief session on image processing with Andrew at Astrofarm, he showed me briefly what he does to start the image processing procedure.  So, once I completed the stacking process, this time, I did not do any further processing in Deep Sky Stacker.  I just saved the image as a tiff file.  I've installed Adobe Photoshop CS2 as recommended, and have been using this to do any post stacking processing instead of GIMP2.  There are plenty of tutorials on using CS2 on the web, so I've been checking some of those out too, and adding some of those techniques to the ones that Andrew showed me.
I couldn't tell you everything I've done along the way to get the latest image.  A lot of it is trial and error.  But, I guess the main purpose of this blog post was to demonstrate the difference between a single starting frame taken outside with the camera and scope, and, with stacking and processing, what you could possibly expect to achieve with fairly limited knowledge and understanding such as mine.  
The following picture is a single frame taken on M101.  I have cropped it so it is similar in orientation to the second image.  Notice in the first image. there are few stars visible in the frame at all.  Plus, you can only make out feint detail of the galaxy itself in the centre of the picture.

  
This second image is the result of the stacking and processing steps I took.  Using some basic principles of adjusting the curves and levels in CS2, I've been able to bring more of the image out and make using of the hidden data.  The processing steps have also revealed more stars in the field of view, and has allowed the core of the galaxy to stand out just enough.  It's definitely not the brightest of images compared to some that you can find with a quick google search, but I'm pleased with it, which I guess is the most important thing.


Thanks for reading!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Astrofarm - For more than just Astronomy.

Time for some R & R


Friday 15th October.  We made our way from our little corner of Herefordshire to Portsmouth where we were booked onto the overnight ferry to Le Havre.  The overnight journey to France is a familiar one to us, usually to the alternative port of Ouistreham, but this time Le Havre was the destination port of choice.  So, where were we going?  Well, it was time for a break and time to head for deepest darkest France and Astrofarm.  It's about a 6 hour drive (including a couple of stops) from when you leave the ferry in the morning down through the country to the outskirts of the small pretty town of Confolens.  If you've never driven through France before, let me assure you, it's a breeze.  Don't let the thought of being on the 'wrong' side of the road put you off at all.  You soon get used to it, and once you're out of the port city of Le Havre, you have the welcome site of the French Peage toll motorway system and the Route Nationale to get you down the country extremely efficiently.  Hold ups on the road networks are quite rare in France, providing you're avoiding the major cities, so for the trip half way down France, it's some of the most stress free driving you will experience.  For us, 6 hours of very easy driving to get to Astrofarm is definitely worth the effort if it means having the flexibility of your own transport for the week to go exploring!
When we arrived, we were welcomed by a menagerie of animals, and of course, our hosts, Sue and Andrew.  Astrofarm was bustling when we arrived.  Andrew had just returned from collecting some guests from the local town, and Sue was mid way through giving some locals a tour of the establishment and everything it has to offer.  Astrofarm offers bunkhouse accommodation, or a double room which is a little more private, both on a B&B basis.  However, we chose to stay in the recently acquired Gite at the end of the drive on a self catering basis.  It is based on accommodation for 4 people in a double room and twin room and has a large lounge leading onto the balcony.  Though you can just book one of the rooms and have use of the communal living area and kitchen, you can also book out the whole Gite to give you exclusive use.  This is what we did, allowing us to come and go as we pleased and provided us with an excellent base for our holiday.  
This is an area of France that we have not been to before.  We chose Astrofarm as the location partly because of my interest in astronomy, but mainly to be able to get out an about and discover this region of the country.  We started with quite an easy day on the Sunday, and leisurely walk around the local town of Confolens.  Sue and Andrew had suggested that we paid a visit to Arthe which quickly became the find of the holiday.  It's run and owned by Nick and Mary, along with their own B&B and takes prime position on the riverbank next to the original pedestrian bridge across the river.  Visiting this establishment at least once during your stay is a must!  We went 3 times in total!  The cheesecake is to die for, and the coffee is simply sublime!
Medieval Lighthouse - La Rochelle




Another place on our list of places to visit while staying at Astrofarm was the medieval port city of La Rochelle.  It's about a 2 hour drive to the Atlantic coast from Confolens, but it really is worth the visit.  As well as being etched in the mind of many a 80's and 90's school child for its repeated appearance in the old 'Tricolor' french text book, the city is blessed with a thriving mix of medieval architecture mixed with the new buildings of some of the revamped port areas.  With plenty of parking throughout the city, it was a great day out topped off with moules et frites in one of the many restaurants dotted around the harbour area.






Oradour-sur-Glane
The most humbling visit of our holiday was a visit to the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.  If perhaps you aren't aware of the history of this village, it's well worth looking it up before you go.  Oradour-sur-Glane was the location of the most vile of war crimes committed by the German SS and Nazi regime on 10th June 1944.  The village has been left as it was in the days following the annihilation of it's inhabitants by the SS.  I won't go into the full history of it here.  There are much better references to it available on the internet and in the history books, but least to say it is a place and a visit that I will never forget.  I do have one piece of advice though, and that is it visit the bookshop in the visitor centre before visiting the exhibition and making your way into the village itself.  Buy one of the guides (available in many languages including English) and take some time to read through it as you go around the village.  It will really help explain what you are looking at, and give detailed information on the different buildings around the village.

On a day where we wanted to stay a little more local, we visited the small village of Confolens Saint Germain.  Downstream of the main town of Confolens, it's quite a sleepy village overlooked by a large castle, which itself is flanked by small crops of grapevines.  On a walk up to the castle, it's worth continuing up to the top of the hill, and the viewpoint overlooking the large lake which is the source of hydroelectric power for the commune.  The lake is held back by a small barrage which can be reach by returning the the castle, and then picking up a footpath to contour around the side of the hill, before dropping down to the barrage itself.  We then followed the small river back into the village.  Unfortunately, quite a few of the local trade has moved out, but it doesn't detract from the appearance of the village itself.  Be aware though, the streetlights are all turned out at night.  This does make it an awesome location for some wide-field astrophotography though.  Especially using the buildings in the village or the castle itself in the foreground.

Fancy a brandy, or to be more precise, Cognac?  We made the decision to go and visit this rather famous city.  With elements of it's 14th century city walls still standing along side the river, it's a place famous for the drink and all the different producers that it accomodates.  We visited quite late in the season, so its worth remembering that not all of the visitor centres are open throughout the low season.  Undoubtedly, there is much to do in Cognac.  Another thriving city with lots of bars, shops and restaurants.  At least, that's the impression it initially gave.  We couldn't believe how quiet it was there.  The busiest time of the day seemed to be lunch time, but even then, you weren't exactly knocking elbows with people.  I would really like to go back and visit the city again during the main season, just to experience the place in all it's glory. 
So, as you can see, even in this part of the season where autumn is well evident in the UK, there is still plenty to see and do around Astrofarm and Confolens.  Of course, there is also the mandatory lazy holiday starts too...
And what about the astronomy?  Well, as many people can already vouch for, the location and setting is ideal.  The week we visited Astrofarm was full moon week.  The meteorological conditions for observing were very good for most of the evenings we were there, but the full moon restricted us to visually observing only the brightest of objects in the sky above us.  We had room in the car as we were driving out, so I took some of my own kit out with me, in particular my Celestron AVX mount.  Not that there is a lack of equipment at Astrofarm.  There is a huge array of all sorts of scopes and mounts to use, but I wanted to continue my efforts of practising getting my own equipment set up as best I can.  With someone of Andrews knowledge and expertise to offer advice and help, it seemed silly not to try and tap into that mass of information.  In fact, one evening, we worked together setting the mount up to determine how accurate we could get the alignment process, but it proved to be beneficial to the both of us as this was the first time that Andrew had used this particular Celestron mount.
Towards the end of the week, with the moon rising later it allowed us to finally roll back the roof of the observatory and fire up the equipment that Andrew currently had set up.  An area that I am getting more interested in is astrophotography, so to see everything being put into action by Andrew was quite simply inspirational.  I learnt so much in those short hours by talking and watching Andrew go through target selection process, guiding and even some hints and tips for post processing.  I finished that evening having learnt a huge amount.
The week also coincided with the peak of the Orionid meteor shower.  Such is the expanse of sky with virtually uninhibited vistas in all directions, the farm is ideally situated for this type of wide field of observing too.  Over the course of a few nights, we saw quite a few, bearing in mind it only has an hourly rate of 20 per hour at it's peak.  One of the best I saw cut across over a quarter of the sky and left a green and yellow trail across the sky.  Just stunning.
So, that's a brief roundup of our stay at Astrofarm.  As you can see, it's not just for astronomy.  There's so much more to take advantage of in this awesome location, but if you do go purely for the astronomy, I don't think you'll regret it one bit!  With the plans that Andrew and Sue have for the future, it's just going to get better and better.  The critical question, would you go back?  The answer, yes, for sure.  The warmth and hospitality given by Sue and Andrew coupled with the location for so many different attractions and the whole provisioning for astronomers make it hard to beat.


Saturday, 8 October 2016

Another 3 for 1 update!

It's been a pretty hectic couple of weeks since coming back from AstroCamp in late September, and things don't look like their going to ease up any time soon.  Next week, I'm off on my very first astronomy holiday to France, although it is full moon week, so quite how much worth while observing will be done in debatable.  Nevertheless, the break is what is needed at this moment in time.  The astronomy will be an added bonus.  I've had a few sessions since returning back from camp, so this is the summary of what I've been up to.

27/9/16

Straight off the back of AstroCamp, I was back outside the night before I was due to return back to work.  The conditions were favorable, although I needed to be careful not to get carried away with a late night.  This was to be a quick session, out the back garden with the SBT.
First up was the double cluster in Cassiopeia followed by a quick slew of the scope around to the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici.  Many people associate this galaxy with Ursa Major, and, though it is very close, actually, it is within the boundary of Canes Venatici.
My next target for the evening was The Ring Nebula, and with the prevailing excellent observing conditions, I was able to observe the companion star next to the nebula with relative ease.  If found on this occasion, it was best observed with the 12mm BST eyepiece and UHC filter.
Then, for a last target for this quick blast of a session, I went to the Veil Nebula.  Here, I spent a reasonable amount of time comparing the views I was getting when on camp, to what I saw from the back garden.  Probably unsurprisingly, the views I had from camp were better.  I don't necessarily put this down to the overall barker skies, or better seeing conditions, but probably more to do with my night vision being disturbed by the occasional light being switched on from the neighbors as they went about the normal business. Nevertheless, I was still able to see the Eastern and Western Veil with the 40mm eyepiece and the UHC filter.  Notably though, it was harder to see the broom end of the Witches Broom, and the region known as Pickering's Wisp wasn't visible to me at all.  Still, it was great to be able able to observe it again though.

2/10/16

At this point of the season, it's really hard to let a clear night go to waste.  Though tired, I wanted to be able to get out and do something, so I set up the AVX mount and connected everything up that I needed to try and collect data for another image.  I decided that it would be worth a crack at the Witches Broom, part of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus.  For some reason though, it took several attempts that evening to get my alignment right.  I think it could have been something to do with a slight shift in the mount as it settled down into the soft soil of the lawn.  In the end I got it to an accuracy which was OK.  But then I faced another problem.  I found it hard to achieve an accurate focus using the meter readings on Backyard Eos.  The main issue was that I couldn't get a suitably bright enough star to appear in the field of view.  Time was getting on, so I just went with a bit of trial and error and best endeavors.
I took two sets of Light frames, so, in theory, I could then compare the difference with two final images.
Set 1:
Light x 20 @ ISO 800 for 90 seconds

Set 2:
Light x 15 @ ISO 800 for 60 seconds

And then:
Dark x 5 @ ISO 800
Bias x 5 @ ISO 800

I'm still trying to get a suitable image out from either set of data.  The focus isn't brilliant, but I can get an image to come through showing some of the detail in the nebula.  Unfortunately though, in order to do this, the image turns really 'noisy',  Very grainy in appearance which kind of spoils the rest of the image.  I will continue to try, but I might have to put that one down to experience.  The imaging process can't be rushed, and at the end of the day, I could probably do with at least twice the amount of light frames and dark frames.  Even to the point of running to an hours total of lights.  We shall see!

3/10/16

I decided on a visual session because it’s quicker and easy to get going with the SBT rather than carry out alignment processes required for astrophotography. It was quite a busy night!
I started off with a favorite for this time of year, the Owl Cluster in Cassiopeia. Often, a degree of imagination is needed to establish why an object, or a target is named as so, but the Owl Cluster simply leaps out at you, and the shape of the owl with its bright eyes staring straight back down the eyepiece at you is very easy to distinguish.  Next, staying in Cassiopeia, the Double Cluster NGC 884 and NGC 869.
While on the theme of clusters, I moved the SBT to point toward M71 in Sagitta. It’s a small cluster in comparison with the ones I had observed earlier, but with the help of the 12 inch mirror in the SBT I could see the small tight cluster nestled in among several brighter surrounding stars.
Clusters seemed to be the topic of the night because the next target was an open cluster in Cygnus, M29. This is also known as the Cooling Tower, and though reasonably easy to see and locate, it is one of those targets that I find hard to understand how it got its name.
It was time to move onto a nebula, and another favorite for this time of year. The constellation of Lyra is almost at zenith at this time of year, so I attached my UHC filter to the eyepiece and went off in search of the Ring Nebula, M57. Being straight up above us, it means that we can observe it through the thinnest part of the atmosphere at the moment, giving us the theoretically best views we can get. Chopping and changing between eyepieces, I wanted to have a go at finding the central star to the nebula, but alas it wasn’t to be this time. It’s one of the few targets where the colour of the object comes through visually. Especially the Deep Space Objects. Most of them initially appear as grey smudges, the Ring Nebula is different and always worthy of searching out.
For the final target of the evening, I chose something that I don’t often search for on purpose. Some people love observing individual stars, be they variable stars, double stars, star associated with nebulosity etc. but they are not something I search out specifically. The target was the variable star, Herschel’s Garnet Star on the edge of the constellation of Cepheus. It stands out easily amongst its neighbours and is relatively bright. It’s a beautiful orange colour, and at just under 6000 light years away, comparatively speaking, quite close!

That's about everything up to date.  There is a potential for some reasonable weather at the start of the working week, so I might be able to squeeze in another session before we go on holiday.  Failing that, the next time I post, it could well be from France!  Until then, clear skies!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

AstroCamp 9 - At Season's Start

My Official Start to the 16/17 Season.


I quite like the band Green Day.  I wouldn't call myself a die hard fan though.  I've been to see them once.  I've got a few of their albums and might even be able to strum a few chords of a couple of their songs.  As I left AstroCamp yesterday lunch time, the rain was being driven against the windscreen of the van by the breeze swirling around the hills and mountains of the Brecon Beacons.  Before I got as far as the Farmers Arms, some familiar notes came from the radio.  The opening sequence to Green Day's 'Wake Me Up When September Ends'.  I always find myself in a very reflective but positive mood when I leave camp and this time was no different.  The subject of the song doesn't have a connection with AstroCamp,  In fact, it's about death, memory and missing a close relation.  Out of all those lyrics coming out of the radio though, there are a couple taken out of the original context of the song which made me smile.
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
This Autumn, we've had all sorts of weather thrown at us.  From driving rain to wonderfully clear sky with bright sunshine, and those lyrics taken from the chorus of the song pretty much sums up AstroCamp for me.  We spend a huge amount of time when looking up, either looking for gaps in the cloud waiting for an end to the rain, or spotting the stars and constellations through brilliantly clear skies.  We stumble around camp during all hours of day or night getting drenched, but jumping at the smallest chance to get some observing or imaging in.  That, as the lyrics say, is just who we are.

Camp started a day early for me this year, arriving on Friday after a rather hectic half day in work.  The tent was pitched and the site was already populated with familiar faces from all around the country.  Some of the most eager people had turned up even earlier in the week, determined to be there and ready to go when the clear sky put in an appearance.  The buzz and excitement had already started.  As a bonus, Friday evening produced an opportunity to get stuck straight in with the observing and imaging.  For this first evening, there was no need to drag all my kit up the hill onto the common area because there was plenty of room around me with clear sky above, so I set up the AVX mount and the Dob ready for a bit of imaging and observing,  It must be said, conditions weren't the most steady, or clearest.  There was a great deal of moisture in the air and at times, visibility was a little patchy, but for a couple of hours at least, there was always something to look at or photograph.  I tried two different imaging runs that evening.  The first was of M33, the Triangulum Galaxy,  It was positioned just above some nearby trees, so I could get a view of it.  I could observe it through the 150p telescope, so I put the camera on, and started the run.  Results though were disappointing.  In the final stacked image of 30 x 90 second frames, and even with a couple of hours attempted processing, only the smallest sign of the galaxy could be coaxed from the data collected.  In fact, the data has now been binned.  I thought this was going to happen by looking at some of the sub frames as they were coming onto the screen, so at the end of that run, I decided to go for the tried and trusted Andromeda Galaxy.  It's often the first choice for astrophotographers and observers.  Sitting in the constellation of the same name, the galaxy is huge in terms of deep space targets, quite comfortably filling the frame of most cameras.  I let the AVX track the constellation while the camera run worked through it's list of exposures.  It was quite a short run, taking in the following:

  • 15 x 60 second at ISO 400
  • 15 x 60 second at ISO 800
  • 5 x 60 second dark frames at ISO 400
  • 5 x bias frames at ISO 400
This is the result of stacking that data and putting it through some processing.  I'm surprised, and very pleased with it, although I think with better conditions, resolving more of the core of the galaxy should be possible.  I'm particularly pleased that some of the dust lanes of the galaxy have come out.

The Andromeda Triplet of Galaxies.  M31, M32 and M110
Saturday is the first official day of camp.  It's when most people arrive and the campsite gets prepared for the rest of the event.  Shutters are put up over windows to block out as much local light pollution as possible,  The common is officially takes it place as the main centre for observing and meeting people, and the camp HQ is created.  Soon, it was thriving with people catching up with each other and meeting new people.  There was even a collimation talk thrown in for good measure for people who wanted a refresher on how to carry out this extremely important task.  However, the prospect for observing on this first official night was absolute zero.  It rained.  It rained lots.  It rained in the only way in which it does rain in the Brecon Beacons.  So, what do astronomers do when they haven't seen each other for a long time, and the rain puts pay to any observing?  Well, back at Astrocamp 8 in May, I started my blog post of the camp by saying that amateur astronomers are a bunch of hardened drinkers with an astronomy problem.  That pretty much sums up my experience.  In with the rain, throw in a marquee, trying to attach, and then re-attach walls to the marquee in the dark, a mini keg of beer, bison vodka, a Chewbacca mask and a bunch of like minded people with a rubbish internet connection for good measure and you might start to get an idea of what could happen.  Let's leave it there.
Sunday.  The day of rest.  At least, the day of getting up, having breakfast, and then going back to bed for a couple more hours following on from the previous nights antics.  As is tradition, Sunday is take over day at the village hall, and the Spiral Arms is born once again.  It's an afternoon requiring a degree of concentration, but relaxing.  For me, there are two highlights of the whole afternoon.  One being the main pub quiz, and the other being the talk.  The pub quiz is always great fun, with some excellent prizes being put up for grabs courtesy of Tring Astronomy Centre.  This year's main prize was a small refractor travel telescope, followed by some vouchers and then DVD's and books etc.  The great thing with the quiz is that there is usually a prize reserved as a beginners prize, often given to the people who scored the least.  Plus, this year, in an act of incredible generosity, the first prize winners decided amongst themselves that they had no need for the refractor telescope and insisted that it was put up as a prize for the younger contingent of the gathering.  An impromptu quiz for the under 15's was arranged and the prize was given to the winner.
We then moved onto the main talk for the afternoon.  Dr. Chris North of Cardiff University, an AstroCamp regular, gave the most interesting and well pitched talk on a topic that is incredibly complex.  The discovery of gravitational waves.  Starting with an explanation of Isaac Newtons equation describing gravity, then moving onto Albert Einsteins theory describing the existence of gravitational waves, Chris was able to explain this is apparent ease in a way which I found quite easy to follow.  Even the workings of LIGO were put across and described in such a way that people from a none scientific background could follow.  I could have quite happily listened all afternoon to the information that was being offered.  I found it a very engaging afternoon, just brilliant.
That afternoon, rumours started to gather some momentum about the potential for some observing opportunities for Sunday evening.  With one eye on the weather forecasts I made the decision to leave the AVX and photography kit in the scope tent for the evening.  I broke down the dob, and carried it up to a spot on the common ready to snatch any chance I could get at observing.  The choice was a good one.  We were blessed with some excellent skies for more time than the initial forecast gave.  There was a great buzz of excitement on the common.  As I sat down on my little stool and waited for darkness to arrive, trying hard to pick out the first stars of the evening, I could hear people around me receiving help and advice from others on how to use their scope and get the best out of it.  It brought home how important events like this are for our hobby, and for people on their very first steps into amateur astronomy.  Collectively on the common that evening, there was literally hundreds of years of experience on all different aspects, and the most generous thing about it all is that everyone is only too happy to help anyone.  I could hear people experiencing their first views of Saturn with the yelps of excitement and disbelief.  I even heard the winner of the under 15's impromptu quiz, Harvey, cry out that he had accidentally found the double cluster with his new scope.  This brought quite a few laughs and chuckles from around the darkness of the common.  It all adds to the experience of camp.
My own observing list for the session was quite extended.  It was a mixture of new targets and old favourites.
  • NGC 7790 - an Open Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • The Ring Nebula in Lyra
  • The Bubble Nebula with UHC filter in Cassiopeia
  • M29 - an Open Cluster in Cygnus
  • M72 - a Globular Cluster in Capricornus - tricky to find and quite low on the horizon
  • M73 - an Asterism in Aquarius - again tricky to find and quite low in the night sky
  • NGC 457 - the Owl Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • NGC 7563 - a Galaxy in Pegasus
  • Andromeda Triplet - M31, M32 and M110
  • NGC 7789 - an Open Cluster in Cassiopeia
  • M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici
  • M101 - a Spiral Galaxy in Cassiopeia
  • The Cygnus Loop - the visible portions made up of the 3 parts of the veil nebula.  NGC 6960, NGC 6992 and Pickerings Triangular Wisp
The Veil nebula, under the conditions offered at AstroCamp is simply stunning.  It has confirmed itself as my favourite Summer time target.  When observed at UHC, it simply pops out of the background of the Milky Way at you.  I was able to observe 3 main parts to the nebula and spent more time observing it than any other object.  It was also my absolute pleasure to show it off to around 8 or so other people, most of whom had never seen it before.  Words can not describe.
Alas, unfortunately, the session was brought to quite an abrupt end when rain was felt on the faces of people trying to eek out the last observing opportunities as the cloud began to threaten.
I didn't want to leave my telescope out overnight given the the forecast for further rain overnight, so I brought all the kit back to my own scope tent and bedded down for the evening.
It's becoming a bit of trend at the moment for the last full day of camp to become a bit of a washout.  Weather warnings had been released for the rain during the day on Monday and extending into Monday night.  This meant that many people, myself included, decided to pack up and leave early with no foreseeable chance for any sort of observing to take place on the final evening.  It does mean that one part of camp, High Tea, on the common does suffer a little.  In the halcyon dreamy days of wall to wall sunshine and uber dark skies, people would be found around the common sharing stories in the sun, relaxing, and getting ready for the final nights observing.  This time, it was not to be.  
So that was my experience of AstroCamp 9.  It's always sad to leave camp, and I find myself in the familiar process of having to re-adjust back to normal home life.  Each time I've returned from camp, it's been like returning from the end of the best holiday that you never want to end.  We now find ourselves waiting for bookings to open for next Spring when it will all begin again.  I so much want to go again and will be waiting for news for when bookings open.
I've already posted my thanks to the event organisers, but once again, thanks to Ralph, John, Damien, Paul, Jennie and Chris for all the hard work put into getting the event up and running.  Thanks to everyone who took time to stop and talk and laugh and not cry!  I sincerely hope to see you all again at AstroCamp 10!

Thursday, 1 September 2016

3 Sessions - 1 Post

3 Sessions - 1 Post.

Good evening fellow amateur astronomers.  We've had a run of clear evenings recently in Herefordshire, and while we still have to wait for a while before the sky is dark enough to start observing, I have managed to get a few sessions in.  I've been out twice imaging and once observing, all from the back garden.  So, to kick off part one of this posting.

Session 1 - 26th August 2016

My first session recently was an imaging one.  I am still getting used to the AVX mount, so any opportunity I can get to use it, I set it up and try out some new things.  Rather than whizzing around the sky in all directions, I'm targeting objects which aren't too dim and can be seen with ease from the mount position in the back garden.  I had two in mind for this session.  M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy, and open cluster M103.
Seeing conditions weren't brilliant it must be said with alot of moisture in the atmosphere.  This meant that the stars were twinkling a great deal, and some of the dimmer stars that I can usually see were not visible to the naked eye.
The first set of data I collected was for the M51, Thie Whirlpool Galaxy.  I collected the following exposures:
20 x 60 sec iso 400 light frames.
3 x 60 sec iso 400 with cap on dark frames.
3 x 1/14000 sec iso 400 with cap on bias frames.
All the frames were stacked in Deep Sky Stacker and processed further in GIMP2.
This is the final result of the first collection of data.
M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy
In the final image, although the galaxy is visible quite clearly, when you zoom into the image, there is evidence of star trailing going on.  It was evident that something was amiss with the positioning of my mount.  This could be down to poor polar alignment, poor balancing of the scope and counterweights, or even the mount being uneven on the ground.  Nevertheless, for a first effort, it was acceptable for me.
The second set of data I collected was of M103, an open cluster in Cassiopeia.  Knowing what the conditions were like in terms of seeing, I wasn't sure how well the second set of data was gong to turn out.  For this image, I collected the following exposures:
10 x 30 sec iso 800 light frames.
10 x 30 sec iso 400 light frames.
3 x 30 sec iso 400 dark frames.
3 x 1/14000 sec iso 400 bias frames.
Again, the frames were stacked and processed giving the following result.
M103 in Cassiopeia

The bright star in the top left of the image is Ruchbah.  The size and fuzziness of it are a result of the atmosphere, not any degree of post processing.  The cluster can be see clearly though.  Again, zooming in on the raw frames after I had packed away showed plenty of trailing going on.

Session 2 - 29th August 2016

I was trying to cram these sessions in whilst getting up early for work the next day.  For this session, I was already tired, but wanted to do something.  Setting up the SBT is much quicker than setting up the AVX mount and imaging kit.  So, it was time for some observing.
I turned straight to my notebook and to the page on which I have a list of Messier objects I have still to see.  I chose two targets to go for that evening.
First up, in the constellation of Ophiuchus on the South Western horizon.  Before the constellation sunk below next doors fence line, I waned to find M14, which is a globular cluster.  It took quite a while to find it, even though it it supposedly rather bright at magnitude 7.6.  Nevertheless, using the 32mm panaview eyepiece I could make out a rather disappointing, although distinct grey smudge.  I was unable to resolve any individual stars though.
I had several attempts at some other targets, but the constellation was dropping lower and lower, so I decided to move onto the second new target of the evening, M76.  This is a planetary nebula in the constellation of Andromeda.  This nebula is also know as the Little Dumbbell nebula,  this was another very tricky target to pick out at first.  Sticking with the 32mm eyepiece, I scoured the area of the constellation where the nebula should be found and eventually honed in on it.  As the name suggests, it looks like a smaller version of the Dumbbell Nebula.  However, it's also dimmer with less colour too.  The SBT proved its worth once again though, gathering enough photons to allow me to see it.  I also attached the UHC filter which allowed the nebula to stick out a little more against the darkened background of the rest of space.  Not amazing to look at, but really pleasing to have found such a small and tricky object.

Session 3 - 30th August 2016

The final session of this little run, and I was greeted by the smell of burning plastic.  Not from any of my equipment I must add, but from the chavs 'over there' who decided that burning their rubbish was the right thing to do instead of leaving it for the binmen.  I digress.  Fortunatly, there wasn't much wind around, but what was around carried the smoke along the street instead of straight towards us, So, we missed the worst of it.
I wanted to go back and revisit the Whirlpool Galaxy again, determined that I could get a better result with better data.  Armed with a plan that looked like this, I started collecting data,
30 x 120 sec iso 400 light frames.
5 x 120 sec iso 400 dark frames.
5 x 1/14000 sec iso 400 bias frames.
Once everything had been collected, I did notice that some of the frames showed evidence of significant trailing, though some frames were near perfect.  I noted that perhaps 2 minutes of unguided exposure was perhaps a little too much to expect of the current set up.  This time however, I had taken much greater care preparing the mount and its alignment before I started collecting the data.  Post stacking and processing, the final image I feel was better than my first attempt.
M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Sessions over, and what have I learnt?
  • 2 minute exposures are perhaps a little too long.
  • It really is worth taking the time to get the mount level and aligned correctly first time.
  • Greater different seems to be achieved by changing the iso settings that exposure time.
  • Sometimes, hours of post processing isn't always required.  The last image was produced in 30 minutes after the stacking process!
Notes for the future...
  • Investigate the use of VNC viewer to monitor the imaging run remotely from another computer.
  • Following a quick test shot of M81 and M82, this should be my next target.  They can both be captured in the same field of view and are both well positioned at this time of year.
Until next time, clear skies!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

First and Second Light with the AVX

Introducing the Celestron AVX Mount

Greetings!  Back in June, I invested in a new equatorial mount.  When I first started in the hobby of astronomy, my first thought was to avoid anything computer driven or Go To related.  I'm glad I did.  Since I got my first scope, the Sky Watcher 150p, and later, the 300p SBT, I have learnt so much about the night sky.  I can comfortably find my way around constellations, and have little problem finding target locations.  I had no need for such technology, preferring the pure method of star hopping and constellation recognition to help me find my targets.  Or so I thought.
As with many astronomers, sooner or later, you may get pulled into the dark arts of astrophotography.  This was the case with me.  But I wanted to do it without a massive outlay of funds.  Cutting a long process short, the best mount I could find that presented me with excellent reviews, recommendations from friends and available on a reasonable budget was the Celestron AVX mount.  My intention is to use the 150p reflector telescope in combination with my unmodified Canon EOS 1100d DSLR mounted on the AVX.  And, here she is...


Celestron AVX Mount with Sky Watcher 150p reflector telescope.


The mount set in it's box for quite a few weeks over the weeks either side of the Summer solstice.  Though the evenings have been clear, the period of astronomical darkness is so short, it means that the window of opportunity is very short for any sort of night time astronomy activity.  But then, last Friday, on a night when I had no work the following day, I was able to spend some excellent quality time outside, and really take my time over getting things set up.
Before I went out, I had a look on Stellarium while waiting for the sky to get suitably dark, and I made a note of some targets that I wanted to attempt to getting some data on.  Top of the list was M101 - The Pinwheel Galaxy, followed by M57 - The Ring Nebula, M13 - The Great Cluster in Hercules, M27 - The Dumbbell Nebula and finally the Veil Nebula to try to push the limitations of the camera and the equipment.  It's fair to say that I did not know what to expect from any of the results, and in hindsight, it was all a bit of a gamble to be honest!
So, without further ado, these are the results.  All the images were processed in DeepSkyStacker 3.3.4 before exporting the image as a .tiff file, and then imported into GIMP2 for additional processing.  For the purposes of posting and compression, the final images were then exported as jpeg images.  I've included a description of the frames and exposure times etc. used for each target. 

M101 - The Pinwheel Galaxy

30 light frames, 5 dark frames and 5 bias frames.  Light frames and dark frames were all 30 second exposures at ISO 800.



M57 - The Ring Nebula

30 light frames, 5 dark frames and 5 bias frames.  Light frames and dark frames were all 30 second exposures at ISO 800.
 
 

M13 - The Great Cluster in Hercules

30 light frames, 5 dark frames and 5 bias frames.  Light frames and dark frames were all 30 second exposures at ISO 800.


M27 - The Dumbbell Nebula

40 light frames, 5 dark frames and 5 bias frames.  Light frames and dark frames were all 20 second exposures at ISO 800.


NGC 6995 - The Veil Nebula

And finally, the Veil.  This is an object that I observed for the first time last year with the SBT.  To observe this with a scope requires a large eyepiece with a very big field of view.  Even then, the whole nebula doesn't fit in the field of view.  You are reduced to only being able to see the constituent parts individually.  Therefor, trying to capture the whole target in one frame was not going to be possible.  At the end of my imaging session, I wanted to try capturing data of any part of the veil nebula, so I chose it from the handset and allowed the scope to lock onto the area of sky where it could be found, and started collecting the data.  I started with a couple of preview pains, and if I really tried, I thought I might just be able to make out some wispy clouds of gas, but I couldn't be sure.  This was going to be a tough capture.  I decided to tweak the camera settings further to pick up as much data as possible.  After stacking, I still couldn't be sure if I had something to show for my efforts.  It wasn't until I started processing the tiff file in GIMP2 that I managed to start teasing out the detail in the image.
10 light frames, 2 dark frames and 2 bias frames.  Light frames and dark frames were all 60 second exposures at ISO 800.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

While the sky is light...

Just a very quick post, but with a link to a new page on my blog.  While the sky is light in these Summer evenings, I like to turn my attention to a couple of projects to keep me occupied.  So far this Summer, I have also taken delivery of a significant new piece of kit, but I won't go into that here.
Ever since I have owned a Telrad, I have tried to be careful not to mist up the glass during the nights observing session.  I've had a bit of success with my own home made dew shield, but this does little to prevent dew from forming from my own breath.  I have even gone to the extent of using anti-mist spray that swimmers use on the inside of their goggles.  This seemed to give some good initial success, but eventually proved to be quite limited.
So, having gone through this trial and error, and after seeing the posts from many other astronomers in the same position, and their solutions, I've made a solution using some very basic components and would cost no more than a couple of pounds at most.  This is what I have done...  I hope you find it useful!


Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Astrocamp May 2016

Astrocamp May 2016

It’s been said, and witnessed, that the Astrocamp star party, held twice a year at a campsite in the small village of Cwmdu is a gathering of drinkers with an astronomy problem.  That’s not to say that nothing else goes on, but it sums up the gathering perfectly.  A meeting of people, friends, strangers and even families who all have in common the hobby of Astronomy. 
Anticipation for the event has been high, and the Facebook page for Astrocamp has been so busy with excited posts from attendees new and old.  This included posts of my own.  The organisers once again put together a packed schedule to fit in for the weekend which this year was all geared up to the main event, the 2016 Transit of Mercury on Monday 9th May.
This is my take on the weekend, and what I got to see and do.  It’s what I have taken away from it, and what I will remember for years to come.

Astrocamp starts early.  May 6th.


This is my third camp.  As with everything in life, if I don’t like, or enjoy something, and I have an option, I won’t do it a second time.  The fact that this was my 3rd camp, and that my holiday is booked off work for my 4th camp later in September really should say a lot.  It’s also been the first camp that I have decided to turn up early for.  I decided that I could make the most of the weekend by being there right from the beginning, and, perhaps sneak in an extra night under dark skies.  It seems to be a growing trend among some Astrocamp regulars.  By Friday evening, the campsite already had a fair number of familiar faces. 
Tent pitched and an organised kit explosion later, and I had moved in.


All moved in ready for the fun to begin.
At this point, it is worthy of mention that the best way to a fellow astronomers heart is via one of 3 different ways.  Food, beer, or aperture.  I started the food precedence the first evening with steak dinner.  It appeared to cause a few comments, and even some jealously.  As I said to all, just because you’re living in a field, it doesn’t mean you can’t eat well!

Steak dinner.  All this Astrocamping makes for hungry work.
Where was I?  Ah yes, astronomy…  So, the first night under the skies at Cwmdu was a quite one.  I was able to set up near my tent in the lower field, and I enjoyed a lovely evening catching up with friends from previous camps.  It was one of those evenings where time pales into insignificance and flies by. 
I had about an hours’ worth of observing that first night.  Each target I had observed before, but it was very enjoyable none the less.  The session was generally plagued with high level cloud sweeping across the sky occasionally obscuring whole constellations.  I did manage to snatch a prolonged view of M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, resolving each of its cores, and during a period of more settled seeing, the joining structure between them.
Most observing that first evening was done using the 32mm and 40mm EPs, though the best views of the evening were of M13.  The cluster looked cloudy and smudged with the 2 inch EPs, but when I dropped down to the 1.25” 18mm, the cluster shows how well it stands up to magnification.  I could resolve many individual stars. 
Most of the time during the evening, I observed with a sarong draped over my head.  It must have looked a bit odd, but with camp not officially starting until the following day, it was a good way to deal with the local light pollution from the toilet block and campsite office.
The final list of observed objects for the evening was as follows:
Jupiter and its 4 moons.
M65 and M55 – Galaxies in Leo.
M51 – the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici.
M99 – Galaxy in Coma Berenices.
M13 – Cluster in Hercules.

Airbed Issues and Sunburn.  May 7th.


I woke up at 8am, for the 3rd time, with the gentle chatter of the Cwmdu Crow Brigade in full voice.  3 Times during the night, I felt the hard ground under my back.  3 times the bed was given ‘one last chance’ while being threatened to get thrown out the tent.  Abergavenny was calling, and any shop willing to sell me another bed!
Back to the food.  Have I mentioned that just because we were living in a field, it isn’t a reason to eat well?

Definitely needed this to get over a short, disturbed nights sleep.
New bed procured, and back at the site, arrivals were in full swing.  Astrocamp newbies Helen and Neil and also Steve arrived and pitched around me.  Ah, new blood, new friends!
The day just sort of went really.  Always talking to someone, or eating, or drinking, or power napping!  Catching up with everyone is an important part to camp for me.  Starting from a position where I knew no-one at camp, one of the most memorable things for me on my first camp was how welcoming everyone was.  I wanted to extend that to other new Astrocampers. 
Later that afternoon, the sun was very prominent in the sky.  Actually, causing a bit of sunburn on the arms.  This just doesn’t happen on Astrocamp!  But, the weather was playing games, and burn it did!  After spending a fair bit of time in shade and under cover, I set up the 150p to do a bit of solar observing before the sun disappeared over the Western side of the valley.

A quick frame capture in white light through the cloud and a couple of branches!
A higher resolution picture take with my DSLR at prime focus with the 150p telescope in white light.  It's been cropped, and sun spot AR 2542 picked out.

I’m relatively new to the whole solar observing side of astronomy.  This May’s Astrocamp proved to be quite solar related though.  The better observing conditions were during the day when the skies were clearer than they were for night time observing.  I do seem to struggle with the whole orientation thing of the sun though.  To be honest, I have no idea if this image is upside down, rotated by 270 degrees or anything.  But, I know I managed to capture a sun spot in it.
It’s become a tradition at Astrocamp, that a meet and great is held around 3pm on the common where everyone can gather.  Tradition has also been that a cake is produced, baked by the very talented Helen Knight.  This year’s cake theme was about a certain Mr. Tim Peake.

The Principia mission comes to Astrocamp.
News of the cake and Astrocamp soon reached Low Earth Orbit, and the International Space Station with Tim Peake giving his approval in the form of a Twitter ‘like’.

Give us a wave Tim!
Saturday evening gave us the first chance of communal observing from ‘The Common’.  This is an area of the campsite, free of pitched tents where, if people do so wish, can bring their telescopes and set up their scopes for some communal observing.  It really is a brilliant part of Astrocamp, and something that everyone remembers.  Beginners and more advanced astronomers alike.  I had the pleasure of having numerous people come to talk to me about my scope, and look at the objects I could see with it.  Plus, I had a first.  As dusk was beginning to set in, one of the brightest objects in the current night sky is Jupiter.  So, it’s one of the first objects that puts in an appearance in the evening.  My first was to see a live feed of Jupiter on a laptop, as it appeared in the twilight sky.  Given the humid conditions, the seeing wasn’t brilliant, but to be able to see a live shot of a planet was awesome.
In what proved to be a very tricky evening for observing, that was eventually brought to an end by rain, the evenings list of observed objects through my own scope was as follows.
Jupiter, with all 4 Galilean moons stretch off to the one side of the planet.
M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici
M36 – A Cluster in Auriga (albeit against the Eastern sky).
Split the double star Pollux in Gemini.
M57 – The Ring Nebula in Lyra. 

The Spiral Arms and talk of a Transit.  May 8th.


The rain was heavy overnight.  It threw it down.  It was a test for my new scope cover.  By the time I got up, the sun was already high up in the sky, and doing its best to hide the evidence of the night time deluge.  What it did mean though was that the air was very humid.  This was confirmed when I went to check on my scope, removed the cover and found the primary was full of dew.  There wasn’t much that could have prevented this, but was easily resolve by pointing the scope toward, but not directly at the sun.  After about half an hour the sun had done its work and dryness had been restored.

Picking through the wet leftovers on the common.  The SBT tilted in the direction of the Sun in an effort to dry off the condensation on the primary mirror.
The Sunday of Astrocamp is traditionally the day when everyone descends on the local village hall in Cwmdu.  From just after lunch, a programme of talks and quizzes supported by the pop up bar named The Spiral Arms (that name is my fault) runs through until late afternoon.  The main theme for this camp was the build up to the Transit of Mercury, due to happen on Monday 9th.  So, this year’s talks were part of the build up to this event.  The first talk was done by Dr. Rebekah Higgitt, a lecturer at the University of Kent, and former museum curator.  Her talk was about the history of transits from the 17th to 20th centuries.  I found the talk was quite intense, but packed full of facts and anecdotes on the historical accounts of transits, including how astronomers and scientists of the day produced predictions of transits, and were able to take measurements to work out the size and distances of the planets involved.  Accounts were also given of what these people had to go through to reach their observing sites across the world.  This included running into the French navy, and being attacked meaning vessels had to return to port for repairs.  And also, one scientists 9 year wait on an island for a predicted transit, only to be clouded out on the day!
Then followed the famous pub quiz, supported by Tring Astronomy. 20 Questions on astronomy followed by a 10 question picture round.  Prizes this year for 1st place were £200 in vouchers to be split by the winning team, followed by a 2nd place prize of a pair of wide field binoculars.  This May, we also had a beginner’s prize.  Usually, you would expect a wooden spoon type prize, but one of the great things about Astrocamp is its work on astronomy outreach.  The desire to encourage people to get into the hobby, and help them along their way.  This year’s prize for last place was a 4” Celestron GoTo package, an absolute ideal scope to get people involved.  For me, it was the highlight of the afternoon in the Spiral Arms.  Seeing the look of utter surprise and bemusement on the winners face is always something that will make me smile.  Fantastic!
Onto the second talk for the afternoon, presented by Eric Emms, amateur astronomer, founder of the SUNday event in London, and gemmologist.  His talk was about the coming transit of Mercury, explaining how the transit works, the timings of it and what we could expect to see.  He also presented lots of facts about Mercury, its structure, its orbit and what it has to endure being the closest planet to the Sun.  Far too much to go into here, but, to put it simply, it’s not the boring hot dry planet I assumed it was.  Far from it!  If you have the opportunity to, I suggest a bit of research into the planet and find out more about the length of its day compared to its year, its composition and the presence of ice!
To wrap the afternoon off, there is the famous Masters of the Universe quiz.  This is the quiz for the uber geeks.  The mathematicians.  The people who take their astronomy very seriously indeed!  And, all for the very important prize of beer!  It’s safe to say that a score of 2 out of 10 is quite well respected!
I had been in two minds as to whether or not I would set up on the common for Sunday evenings observing.  The forecast wasn’t exactly clear, in both senses of the word.  After it had dried out in the morning, I had already moved it back down to my pitch, but following the quiz and a power nap, I decided to return it to the common.  I’m glad I did.  The evening started with Jupiter as usual.  This time though, it so happened that the GRS (Great Red Spot) was in transit across the planets face.  I enjoyed excellent views and relatively high magnification of the GRS for only the 3rd time.  I also had the privilege of showing 2 other people their first ever view of the GRS, plus another 4 people who had never seen it through a 12 inch dob before.
The conditions for the evening started with the ever present high cloud giving a semi translucent veil over the night sky.  It also meant that a lot of light was being reflected back down to Earth from the direction of Abergavenny meaning that anything in a low Southerly direction was extremely tricky to find.  I was hoping to spend time observing in Leo and Virgo this camp, but that light pollution kind of put pay to that really.  The observing list so far for the evening was as follows:
Jupiter and GRS – both with my own scope, and though Kevins dob with a blue filter.
M51 – The Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici.
M3 – Globular cluster in Bootes.
M13 – Globular cluster in Hercules.
M92 – Globular cluster in Hercules.
M57 – The Ring Nebula in Lyra.
Cloud was doing its best to obscure the whole sky, so about 12.30, I decided to call it a night.  The forecast was showing as dry for the night, but I decided to move the dob back down to my tent pitch, and put it in the scope tent for the night.  I was hoping that this would stop the primary mirror from getting wet from the dew.  While I was packing that scope away, I noticed through the trees across from my pitch, Mars was beginning to put in an appearance.  A quote from my notebook…

“My Astrocamp first!  Though through very bad atmospheric conditions and poor seeing, as I was putting the SBT to bed, I saw Mars moving between the branches of the trees.  I took out the 150p and observed slight orange colouration, but impossible to get any detail!

I had never observed Mars through a telescope before, and was extremely pleased to be able to tick it off the list, although disappointed with the conditions.  The notebook scribbles continue…

“Then Saturn.  Again impossible to focus, but the shape was there.  Occasionally could see the inner edge of the rings.”

This was the first time I for a couple of years that I had chance to see Saturn.  Having observed it before, I was able to compare what the planet looked like before.  The low angle of observation, and poor conditions mean that in essence the planet was all but an elongated slightly yellow out of focus smudge.  Certainly not the image I remember observing before.  Nevertheless, an opportunity for observing that had to be taken.  I stand little chance of seeing these objects from home until they climb much higher in the sky. 

The Transit of Mercury.  May 9th.


Astrocamp runs from Saturday through to Tuesday.  On the Monday afternoon, camps High Tea takes place on the common.  This is usually a highlight of camp for me, but sometimes, other factors come into play.  Astronomy is one of the few activities that you do that doesn’t just depend on the weather being dry or wet, but essentially clear too.  It was with an element of sadness that I took the decision on Sunday evening that I would be leaving camp a whole day early.  I’ll explain why.
For people who enjoy camping, you will understand the hassle and effort that’s required to dry went camping kit when you get home.  If you get a chance to strike camp in the dry ahead of a prolonged period of wet weather, you tend to take it.  The main feature of Monday was the Transit of Mercury too.  But, with the weather forecast showing the arrival of rain by mid-morning, and not a guarantee of clear skies under which to observe Mercury, the benefit of striking camp in the dry, and chancing my luck of observing the transit from home seemed very much to be the safer option.  After all, the forecast for Monday evening as rain right through to Tuesday afternoon.
The van was packed, and I said my goodbyes to everyone I could find.  I wasn’t the only person who decided to leave that morning.  Tents were being pulled down all around the site, with many people opting to perform some Transit Chasing across the country, in pursuit of clear skies in which to observe.  I made my way home and unloaded the van.
It’s always a bit of a downer coming home from camp.  You’re always tired, but buzzing.  In need of sleep, but eagerly reading through the various threads on social media on what everyone else is up to.  Things like internet connectivity, phone signal and even television come back into your world.
Hang on though!  What’s that?  The sky brightening?  Is that a hint of blue poking through the layer of cumulus cloud covering Ross?  All of a sudden, I was back in the game!  Camp had not yet finished, merely moved to the back garden.  It was continuing online as fellow Astrocampers were Tweeting and giving Facebook updates of their location where they decided to stop on the way home to observe the Transit.  Petrol station car parks, motorway services, country parks and lay-bys were all observing spots of choice.  Add to that, my back garden!  I set up the 150p and fitted the solar filter.  Any sort of alignment was non-existent on my EQ 3/2 mount.  The one tripod leg vaguely pointed North.  That was good enough for me.

Observing the Transit of Mercury in my garden.  Complete with my Astrocamp 8 special edition Transit of Mercury T shirt!
It was a very exciting moment for me when I first spotted Mercury on its journey across the face of the Sun.  I had missed first contact, but I wanted to see the transit at any point of its journey.  I thought I was going to miss out, but I didn’t.  It had widely been publicised that the planet Mercury was appear incredibly small against the backdrop of the face of the Sun.  Actually, I found it was larger than I expected.  Still small, too small for seeing without magnification, but easily distinguishable.  I came back inside to pick up my phone to try some photographs through the EP, and also as the quickest way of sharing them online.  I observed the sun spot AR 2542 as well as Mercury.  The sun spot was much clearer that before, and at 93x magnification, I could actually make out up to 5 areas of sun spots forming the small cluster.  My first observations were at 1.10pm BST with the first of these photos at 1.22pm and the last at 1.55pm BST.




Conditions were gradually improving.  If I were to get any higher resolution images, I needed my DSLR, so I attached it to the scope a rattled off a few more frames.




In between taking photos, I frequently went back to visual observing to watch the transit in action, eager to view as much of it as possible in the short window of opportunity.  I was pleased to be able to show a neighbour the view of the transit too.  She had literally been reading about it in the paper before coming outside, so was glad of the opportunity.
Come 2.30, the cloud began to thicken, and the first spots of rain started to fall, so I removed the filter and covered up the scope hoping to get another chance later in the day.  Alas though, the cloud thickened and the rain set in, so I packed up for one last time, and brought an end to the session.

Camp ends.  The wait begins.  May 10th.


So, that was the end of Astrocamp May 2016.  As I type, the people who chose to stick camp out for the final night would have packed up their belongings and would now be on their way home.  The Astrocamp Facebook page has gone into its predictable hive of activity with people posting about their experiences and most importantly their thanks to all the organisers.
It’s a camp where I spent some top quality time with people I have known and met only in the last 12 months.  Where else can you do the washing up next to someone you haven’t met before and have a discussion on the finer points of soldering, and building your own dew bands and controllers.
It was nice to be able to show my own handy work to John, with whom I spoke to back in September and gave me the confidence to build my own dew controller.
There will be many memories to take from this camp.  Not only the observations being made, the talks and the quiz, but also extracting someone’s hand from the mangled wreckage of a collapsible table and chairs, helping with putting up someone else’s tent and effecting a pole repair at the same time.  The ongoing shouts of ‘I could have died’ rattling through the campsite, and an invite to enjoy cake, drinks and nibbles to help celebrate a fellow Astrocampers Mums birthday!
Huge thanks and congratulations must go to the organisers of Astrocamp.  John, Ralph, Paul and Damien, you have my most sincere thanks and gratitude for another successful weekend. I appreciate what it must take to organise these things on top of a full time day job, and all the work you put into Awesome Astronomy too.
My thanks must also go to all the attendees of Astrocamp.  Without people willing to spend their time talking, explaining and being social and happy to lend a hand, Astrocamp would be in danger of becoming ‘just another star party’, and not the event which it is reputed to be.

In the coming weeks, bookings will open for Astrocamp 9 being held in September.  I’ll be there.  Will you?