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?

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Fantastic Spring Night

For once, the weather Gods must have been in a cooperative mood.  Recently, there have been several clear nights, but because of the lighter evenings, and work the next day, I must admit that it has been hard to get motivated for late night observing sessions.  During the normal working week, it’s akin to a late night raiding party, seizing the opportunity to get out, set up, get some targets in before de-rigging and heading for bed at a reasonable time.
At last though, the weather, the Moon and a public holiday all came together in a situation where I could spend as much time as I wanted outside under the Spring night sky.  My session didn’t start until around 11.00pm BST.  I wanted to leave it late, giving enough chance for the neighbours to settle down and turn their lights off, but also, for Leo and Virgo to get into prime position.  I had set up the SBT earlier in the afternoon, and the case of EP’s were all out in the shed ready to be used.  Collimation duties performed, everything was ready for me to just turn up and get on with things.
My plan was to have a look around Leo and Virgo, but also to investigate what else was visible in the early hours from my back garden, given that the chance for late night observing in Spring is a rarity.

Jupiter

My first target for the night was a visit (not literally of course), to Jupiter.  It continues its movement, chaperoning the constellation of Leo across the night sky.  I started off observing at 25mm.  With the light gathering power of the 12” mirror in the SBT, and the relatively wide exit pupil of the BST EP, the image was crisp, and extremely bright.  So bright that I found it hard to pick out much detail other than the planet and moons.  I change down to 8mm and then 5mm Eps.  With each change, the image I could see was larger, but so was the amount of detail visible.  For the second time only, I’m really pleased to say that I saw the famous Great Red Spot of Jupiter as it started it came into view.  The seeing conditions must have been very good.  The colours were extremely bold, and I could easily make out, not only the GRS, and the Northern and Southern equatorial belts, but also, a first time for me, the North and South Temperate Belts too.  Other than the first time I saw the GRS, this is certainly the most memorable observation of Jupiter that I have made.

Into Virgo

One of the observing highlights of this time of year, especially with aperture, is the presence of Virgo in the night sky.  Widely known as the realm of the galaxies, navigating around the constellation can be very tricky.  This is one of the very rare occasions, I have thought that a GoTo system would come into its own.  The point being that once you get into the central area of Virgo, there are so many galaxies in close proximity to one another, that it is very hard to distinguish exactly which target you are looking at.
In order to allow as much light as possible into my eye, I change to the 2” 40mm EP.  At one point, I counted up to 6 galaxies in a single field of view, without having to nudge the scope along.  And, there could easily have been more in the same field of view, if conditions were darker still.  All these galaxies were in the vicinity of M80 and M86.  I feel comfortable in saying that I have observed these, even though I couldn’t pin point the exact galaxies, but they simply must have been in the collection that I was looking at.

Wandering out of Virgo

After being thoroughly absorbed in the heart of Virgo, it was time to nudge the SBT into the surrounding areas.  Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici provided me with my next targets.  First, M64.  This is the Black Eye Galaxy, designated NGC 4824.  A spiral galaxy in Coma Berenices, and perhaps one of the more distinctive galaxies in the region.
Around about 10 degrees from M64, M3 is a globular cluster in Canes Venatici.  It’s a very apparent cluster in, by comparison, a relatively sparse small patch of sky.  It’s reasonably easy to find when using Arcturus as a marker to start from.  Though the cluster is apparent, and sticks out, at first, I did think it looked more like a galaxy.  The star field was that rich and that condensed, that it could so easily have been so. 
Heading back into Come Berenices, I wanted to track down the Magnitude 9.1 Elliptical Galaxy designated M85, NGC 4382.  This target took a bit of finding.  It is far enough out from the main cluster of galaxies in Virgo to be able to distinguish it, but when trying to locate it with the Telrad, there was a fair bit of nudging of the scope going on around that area.  When I did track it down, it was quite dim.  I couldn’t see much in the way of detail, but I could see a small star shining near the core.  I compared what I was seeing to a picture, and determined that this star is actually well within the shape of the galaxy, but the seeing and conditions I was observing under must have meant that I was only seeing the brightest part of the object.
Wandering further towards the ‘border’ between Virgo and Come Berenices, my net target was M98.  It’s a spiral galaxy sitting about 5 degree away from Denebola in Leo.  Although listed as a spiral galaxy (which it is), I was expecting a face on galaxy.  What I saw was a very elongated thin diagonal galaxy with a brighter core.  It is given as a magnitude of 10.1, which is just about on the limit of what I was comfortably able to see with the SBT.  I had stuck with the 40mm EP, and just out of the field of view was another object.  It was so dim, that averted vision barely showed it.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t make enough of it out to establish what it was.
In the neighbouring constellation of Serpens Caput.  This is home to M5, NGC 5904, a globular cluster.  It looked a very bright, but compressed cluster with its component stars very hard to distinguish individually.  For this object, I swapped out the 40mm EP in favour of the 32mm.  This proved a good decision as the cluster appeared larger, and finally, I was able to start making out tiny pin pricks of light, the composite stars of the cluster.

Something to come

Finally, at the end of the session, I spent some time just sitting and looking around at the sky.  I looked around, and with my star atlas in hand, tried to pick out some other constellations.  It was then something dawned on me.  Time had moved on through the evening, and Leo had started is journey down towards the horizon, with Virgo on hot pursuit.  This means that something else was coming into view.  What I could see rising into view was the constellation of Cygnus. 
I picked out the bright star of Vega in the neighbouring constellation of Lyra.  It was this constellation that give me my last observation for the evening.  I returned to the favourite, M57, The Ring Nebula.  It was such a pleasing site, and one that I hope to continue observing in the coming weeks during its journey into the Summer night sky.

It was approaching something to 3 in the morning, so, even though a Saturday night, it was time to start packing away.  The evening had been a resounding success with some new ticks in the book, and some good work done around Virgo.  My next blog post should come as a result of AstroCamp next weekend.  The forecast is generally showing the weather warming.  Hopefully, this will bring some clear skies for the star party, but we shall have to wait and see.
Thanks for reading!