Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Is this the last session of the year????

Good morning to you, and thanks for stopping by for a quick read.  It's been a bit of a race against the new year clock to fit in as much observing as I could before the end of 2014.  Not only a race against the clock, but also the brightening moon, and to make the most of this window of clear skies.  It has been very cold and clear here in Herefordshire, but each night, more and more low level mist has been appearing because of the lack of wind and temperature inversions being created by the current weather conditions.
So, with that in mind, I decided to abandon my permanent pillar mount for the evening, and break out the original tripod, bringing it around to the side of the building.  I did this to get better views of Orion and when it comes into view, Jupiter.  It was only going to be a short session for the evening, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.
First targets were the favourites M42 and M43 in Orion.  Perhaps one the most popular at this time of year, it was the first time this winter I had chance to observe them.  The nebula was visible, but somewhat washed out through the light mist and light that it reflected.  I was still able to resolve the stars within the nebula and spent my time getting familiar with it once again.
For reference whilst observing, I was using my Sky & Telescopes Pocket Sky Atlas, in particular the section that looks specifically at this area of Orion,  Using this, I picked out the cluster NGC 1981.  A bright and pretty cluster next to M42 and M43.
Next on the agenda was Alnitak, the first star in the belt of Orion as I looked at the constellation.  This is flanked by the Flame Nebula and Horsehead Nebula.  However, conditions and capabilities of the night and my scope meant I wasn't expecting to see them.  But, while looking at the star using my 8mm EP, was able to resolve a faint star next to it.  However, at this point, I am unable to confirm what star that it was.  Nevertheless, I was pleased with what I had observed.
Sticking in the constellation of Orion, I moved onto M78 which is another nebula.  At magnitude 8, it was going to prove a challenge in the deteriorating conditions, but I did manage to locate it.  It looked nothing more than a light grey smudge on a slightly darker grey background.  So, I decided to leave that for the time being.
And finally for the evening, I turned the scope to the East and saw Jupiter as it began to rise up over the horizon,  Straight away, Jupiter presented itself in all its glory.  The 4  moons, Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa were pretty evenly spaced each side of the planet, two moons either side.  As the planet was still quite low in the horizon, whilst observing, I did notice periods of high atmospheric disturbance as the planet flicked in and out of focus.  I observed the planet using my 8mm and 5mm BST EPs, and though the image was obviously larger in the 5mm, the 8mm give me the better view on this occasion.  When the atmospherics allowed, the image was actually quite clear considering.  Was was able to make out the Northern and Southern Equatorial Belts with each, but also make out the darker colour in the polar regions.  The only thing with observing at such a high magnification is the constant requirement to make amendments to the EQ mount to keep the planet in the field of view.  It is still an ambition of mine to see the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, but until we get better conditions and the planet is higher in the sky at a sensible time I think I am going to struggle.  Perhaps by mid to late January, I will be able to give it a better go.
So there you go.  That is possibly the last Astronomy According to MountainMadMan blog post for 2014, unless things prove good for observing tonight.  For everyone that has stopped by and taken the time to read my gibberish, and for people who have contributed, thank you very much.  I really appreciate it.  Here's to a successful 2015!  Happy New Year!

Monday, 29 December 2014

Cramming in the sessions before the end of the year!

Good morning one and all!
Whilst there are indeed improvements in the ski conditions in France, to the detriment of the 10's of thousands of drivers that appear to be stranded on the valley floor, we in the UK are currently under the influence of a stable air mass meaning that conditions for observing are pretty good at the moment.  However, there is still a fair bit of moisture in the air, and the weather is cold.
I decided on a back yard session, so set my scope up on the pillar and started the first part of the session by around 6pm.  I has compiled a list of objects that I wanted to find, but it quickly became apparent that I had misjudged what would be visible from my position.  Part of that was to do with time, and part to do with obstructions.
Within a few minutes of going outside, frost had already started to for on some surfaces.  In truth, back back garden doesn't see direct sunlight at all during the winter so the frost was still hard from the previous night.  This was to be a telling sign of what was to come, and ultimately dictate the end of the observing session.
So, my first target of the night was M34, a magnitude 5.2 cluster in Perseus.  It's on object I think I have tried to observe before, but hadn't been able to find it.  I saw quite a sparse cluster, but with some nice brighter stars throughout.
Its been nearly a year since I last observed my last pair of targets.  M81 and M82 are a couple of galaxies that appear in the same field of view through my 18mm BST EP.  M81 is classed as a spiral galaxy, and though is reasonably bright, I struggled to make out anything more than the basic circular shape of the galaxy.  M82 is an Irregular galaxy, also known as the Cigar Galaxy.  In recent time, this became well known in the scientific media when a supernova was observed within it.  Both galaxies showed up well and it was pleasing to make out the shapes of the galaxies.  I'm pleased that I took time to re-visit them.
After a bit of a back garden disco courtesy of people switching on their kitchen and bathroom lights, and some animal setting off a neighbours insecurity lights at regular intervals, I decided to head indoors for an hour for a bit of a warm up.
When I returned, Castor and Pollux, the twins in Gemini were just rising above the house next door.  It gave me an opportunity to take a look at M35.  A cluster in Gemini.  It is reported to be a naked eye object, but, not for me in the conditions.  For me at the moment, Gemini rises up from the direction of Ross town, so there is a fair bit of light pollution in that direction.  However, through the scope the cluster was very evident.  Filling the field of view quite nicely.
Next on the list was M52, another large cluster between the constellations of Cephus and Cassiopeia.  Winter is supposed to be optimum time for observing this constellation.  I used my 25mm and 15mm eye pieces for this object.  Usually, I would expect to see a slight decrease in brightness with increasing with magnification, but on this occasion, it was pleasing that I seemed to loose little if any brightness.  It meant that I could resolve more stars using the 15mm, especially when observing with averted vision.
Finally, I took the chance to visit another new object for me.  I tracked down Herschels Garnet Star.  On this occasion, it was a very bright and vivid orange and stood out proudly amongst the white lower magnitude neighbours.  It has been noted over history that the colour of the star does change from orange to a deep red colour.  It can be found on the edge of the constellation Cephus and is set among a large area of nebulosity.  However, I was not able to make this out with my scope.
My session was having to be brought to a close.  For the first time, my scope had started to experience dew on the secondary mirror.  So far I have not needed to use a dew shield, but the cold and the frost I think eventually got the better of the situation.  I'll need to make a trip up into the loft in search of an old camp roll mat I think...
So, a successful session in the end.  Next time, I hope to put my scope on its tripod, and move to a location at the other side of the garden so I will be able to start looking around Orion, and, when it rises, Jupiter.
Thanks for reading!

Friday, 26 December 2014

Christmas Night Observing

Seasons greetings to you all!
I've been determined to get some back yard observing done over this festive period, and then, on Christmas night, I managed to get out for an hour or so.  The weather has been mild and mixed of late, with little opportunity to get under a clear sky in this corner of Herefordshire.  The forecast for yesterday was good though, so with the main festivities complete, and a night of trashy telly beckoning, I opted to stand outside in the developing frost instead.
So, to kick the night off, I opted to first go for M1, the Crab Nebula.  Using my Telrad charts, and managed to locate it quickly.  I would say that it is at the limit for the ability of my 150mm reflector, but I could make out the nebula against the background sky.  However, in terms of detail, well, I couldn't make much of that out at all.  However, happy that at least I could identify it, I thought it a good idea to move on.
Next I visited Auriga, which is a constellation I wanted to revisit since my last observing session with my friend Jim.  I located M36, a cluster with relative ease, and then used the 18mm EP to get a slightly improved image in the EP.  I estimated that I could make out approximately 70 stars or more in this cluster.  The seeing was very good I think because the view I had was particularly clear.  Especially of the stars of higher magnitude.  It was a good challenge to spend time looking at this cluster because of eh abundance of stars of all different magnitudes.
Next, I turned to my Telrad finder chart of Overlooked Objects, and I picked out NGC 2281 as my next target.  In some places, it is also referred to as the Broken Heart Cluster.  In clusters and features such as this, it's nice to try and make out where the feature gets its name from.  I think I could make out half a heart shape in the small, but pretty cluster.  However, I needed a picture to verify what I was seeing was the correct thing.  When I returned indoors, I searched for photos of the cluster online and confirmed what I was looking at was correct.  However, I'm still not entirely convinced on the 'Broken Heart' name though.  Perhaps my imagination just isn't that good!
The next object for the evening was a favourite of mine in the constellation of Cassiopeia.  The Owl Cluster, or NGC 467 was standing out very well against the black background.  The two bright stars that form the eyes of the owl are a great aid to verifying that I was looking in the right place.  One of these stars being Phi Cassiopeiae.  This is one target that I can certainly make out the shape of an owl with its wings slightly out standing on a perch.
As seeing conditions were good, and the atmosphere seemed fairly steady, I decided to got for another target that I knew would challenge the limits of my scope.  So, I went to NGC 7789, another cluster in Cassiopeia.  Now, initially, in the books, it gives the cluster a magnitude of 6.7, which is well within the ability of my scope in the conditions of last night.  However, the description given is of a condensed cluster composed of magnitude 11 to 18 stars.  I struggled to make it out in my scope, and it was only after spending time at the EP and gently moving the Dec knob on my mount that I could make the faint cluster out.  I used both 18 and 25mm EPs to observe the cluster.  However, I had to admit defeat and leave it to the light bucket brigade because I could see nothing more than a very dim view of it.
So, to cap off the evening, I decided to point the scope to the Andromeda galaxy as a nice easy target to finish the evening off.  I didn't spend much time looking at this, but I was able to see the 3 typical galaxies in the 25mm EP.
All in all, a quick but enjoyable session in the backyard.  We now have several days of rain and dare I say, possibly snow in the forecast.  The forecast into next week is looking slightly better with some possible good conditions in the early part of the week.  Fingers crossed for that one!
Until then, cheers!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Spaceman Came Travelling....

I hate to say it, because every year, the arrival of Christmas sneaks up on me quicker and quicker, but, tonight, the heading of this latest blog post is quite apt.  We went to a 'meet the author' event in the Savoy Theater in Monmouth where we listened intently to the author of the two books, You Are Here, Around The World in 92 Minutes and An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth.  The author in question, Colonel Chris Hadfield.

The theater was full, every seat taken by people of all ages.
The structure of the talk was quite simple.  Prep and countdown to takeoff, getting into space and what to do while you're there before finally, returning to Earth.  The talk lasted for around an hour, but the amount of topics covered was massive.  His descriptive nature of all the areas was brilliant.  To be able to communicate with a wide variety of people on such a level of understanding of the subject matter and maintaining their interest is an art in itself, and it must be said, that as a speaker, he has mastered that art.  His explanation and description of the takeoff sequence and launch was brilliant.  Not only talking about the technical aspects of launch, the fuel in the rockets, how long each phase lasts for and so forth, but the physical description of what the body goes through during that flight into orbit was brilliant.
The finer details of the facts and figures I will leave to the reader of his books and the wealth of information available.  However, to hear it first hand, from someone who has experienced it for real, not once, but 3 times, is special.
The stories told of what goes on whilst on the ISS give us a small sense of what life is like.  The experience of weightlessness and the comfort of sleeping whilst in orbit sounds incredibly relaxing, and the source of some humor apparently too as Chris recalled the sight of people fast asleep, but floating through the ISS because they had fallen asleep before attaching themselves to their sleeping pod wall.  In the second part of the talk, he took questions from the floor.  Questions such as, 'How hot is the flame that comes out the bottom of the rockets at take off?' 'What's your favourite part of the ISS other than the glass window commonly seen in photos?' were dealt with with ease, humor and interest.  However, two of my favourite questions that came from the audience came from two children.  The first asked what it was like getting back to Earth and gravity after spending so long in orbit.  With the help of another child invited up onto stage, Chris went through the skeleton of the human being describing what is where and why, but then how it all changes and relaxes when in space.  It was a good lesson in astro-physiology, if there is such a thing!  He spoke about the muscle loss, bone density loss, the weakness of the heart and even down to the softening of the skin on the soles of your feet.  Then, he moved on to what happens when you return to Earth and the effects of gravity.  The nausea, sickness, tiredness, dizziness and balance problems all explained in simple detail.
Perhaps the biggest reaction of the evening, and probably the most impressive response came from the second question.  The question was along the lines of, 'What's the most beautiful thing you saw in space?'  It was at this point that Chris returned to his laptop to bring up a photo that was truly breathtaking.  His description started off by talking about spacewalks, which astronauts need to undertake to maintain and fix external parts of the space station.   During a single orbit of the Earth taking 92 minutes, the ISS sees a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes.  It was during one of the periods of darkness that he took the time to switch off all the lights in his space suit so he was in total darkness.  Then he changed to the next photo.  The ISS was traveling in the Southern Hemisphere, and the photo now on display to the audience was the most stunning picture of the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) spread under the ISS.  The greens were incredibly vivid, and the blues visible in vast curtains of colour.  But that wasn't all.  The camera picked up alot of the colour, but not all of it.  Missing from the photo, but superbly described were the vibrant reds and purples of the aurora as the ISS didn't fly above the aurora, but through it.  Incredible.
The hour soon flew by and soon, the talk was over.  I heard many people say that they could have stayed and listened to him for many more hours.  I am indeed one of those people.  I also heard one woman say that she learnt more about science in 60 minutes by listening to Chris Hadfield than she did in 7 years of school.  That says something.
To wrap it all up, he performed an adapted rendition of the Bowie cover that brought him YouTube fame, Space Oddity.

I feel privileged to have had the chance to be in the presence of such a human being, and something that I will remember for a very long time.  If you get the chance to go, I urge you to do so.  You won't regret it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Geminids

Good evening, and thanks for popping by.
Observing chances seem to be slipping me by at the moment.  The weather has been cold, calm and clear, but the moon has also been full, large and bright.  Unfortunately, it makes DSO observing a bit tricky from an already slightly light polluted location.  Nevertheless, it doesn't mean that there is no observing to be done.
This past weekend has brought the start of the annual Geminid meteor shower.  This is one of, if not, the best meteor showers of the year and happens as the earth passes through the orbit trail of an asteroid by the name of 3200 Phaethon.  The trail of dust rock particles left behind from the asteroid provide us with a peak, or Zenith Hourly Rate, of between 100 and 120 meteors an hour overnight on 13th and 14th December.  The Geminid meteors characteristically have very bright and long trails which can make for a spectacular display.  I remember watching out for them last year whilst on the way home from town one night, and counting about half a dozen or so over a 10 minute period.
This year, the moon is quite bright and just past full moon phase.  Some of the other meteor showers that we experience would be washed out by the brightness of the moon, but not these.  The chances of seeing them are still very very good.  The meteor storm is best seen from the Northern Hemisphere where Gemini is quite high in the sky during the night.
So, where do we need to look for these meteors as they are burnt up by the Earths atmosphere?  Well, contrary to popular belief, they won't happen specifically in one area of the sky.  The name Geminid is taken from the area of the sky where the meteors appear to radiate from.  That means, the part of the sky which they will appear to be travelling away from.  In this case, the radiant of the meteor shower is in the constellation of Gemini.  In truth, to see the Geminids, all you need is a clear sky with as good a view as possible all around.  To help determine if a meteor is a Geminid, I tend to face the constellation of Gemini, but look pretty much everywhere for meteors shooting away from it.
This time of the year, Gemini is in the East at around 8.30pm as the screenshot below shows,

Screenshot from Stellarium v0.12.4 showing the location of the constellation of Gemini
Now all we need is for the weather to be kind.  I will spend a bit of time looking this evening, but for the next few days, the forecast for this part of the world is a bit rotten, with a massive low pressure about to broadside the UK from the Atlantic.  I hope that this system will all blow through by the weekend and give us at least a couple of quite clear hours and chance to observe.
One day, I hope to find the time to look at building a radio detection rig for detecting meteors that can be used even when cloudy.  There are plenty of designs and information on how to around the web,  It's just a question of time, room and money!
Good luck and happy meteor spotting!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A quick lunar session - more of a play really....

Hello and good evening!
It's been a little while since I've done any sort of observing from the back garden.  But this evening, I thought it would give it a go.  At the moment, the moon is fairly full, and due to my wonderfully considerate neighbours, the amount of light pollution in the early evening is quite high.  I decided on a lunar session and a bit of a play with some prime focus photography with my Canon 1100d.
I must admit, I ended up playing with the camera more than observing.  The seeing for the observing was OK, although there was a bit of movement in the movie and view through the eyepiece.
However, the result of this play around has prompted me to start looking at using movies or slideshows in my blog.  So, to try and accomodate this, I've decided to sign up for a YouTube channel and had a bash at uploading a short video before embedding it in blog posts.