Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Spotted this video from Youtube on the APOD website yesterday....

Scary stuff!

Thanks to plenty of help from my father-in-law I now have a deck in front of the workshop at the end of the garden. I needed this in order to get a flat level base for the Skywatcher, so hopefully soon I'll be getting the big scope out of mothballs and get back to some serious observing.

A wooden deck is not the best of platforms for scopes, especially for photography but seemed like a quick way to achieve my objective, as well as a bargain batch of deck boards due to the out of season nature of the product. Later a concrete base will provide a more stable base.

The last couple of weeks have seen some spectacular early evening scenes just after sunset as Venus and Jupiter beam brightly back at us.

Interestingly Jupiter is outshone by Venus despite being almost 12 times the diameter but of course is 15 times further away from us than Venus.

This optical illusion is known in Astronomy as angular size, that is, how size and distance are related. Thus an object many times larger than another can appear to be smaller because of its greater distance.

We come across this effect every day, and it explains why the garden bird sitting on my window cill appears to be much larger than the power station on the horizon 12 miles away!

Clouds have rolled in again!


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Well, earlier I noticed Venus looking very bright to my South West but lots of cloud about, Jupiter was hidden from view and not much else visible at that time.

Just been outside to put the bin out for the morning and noticed that Jupiter was occupying almost the same spot in the sky as Venus was earlier. Took the time to look around and saw a meteor flash by more to the South than Jupiter but at a similar height in the sky. Unusually it didn't leave a trail of any sort, at first I thought it was a satellite but the speed across the sky was more akin to a meteor.

To the East the near full moon is lighting up the sky outshining many objects.

May go out later for another look around, I hope to get the main scope out over the Christmas holidays.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Early on as twilight approached I spotted Venus relatively high in the sky for me, trotted out the Opticron for a quick peek which revealed a gibbous disk but with terrible seeing conditions due to cloud and rain approaching from the west.

During a break in the cloud later I got an eyeball view of Jupiter shining very brightly. As soon as I can get the Skywatcher back into operation I want to get some photos of Jupiter to see if I can catch the main moons along with the disk. The last time I had the scope and camera hooked up Jupiter was only on show at dawn so I missed out.

Cygnus was high overhead and Cassiopea to the North East, the Plough was on show as was Polaris though it's disappointing that the little bear is not really visible at all from my location.

I noticed yesterday that the APOD site has some stunning images over the last couple of weeks.

Well that was about it tonight as the rain and cloud rolled in, hope to get more observing done soon.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Quite early on, just as the sun was setting I noticed Venus shining back at me, so faint that when I got the Opticron out I had to take a long hard look to spot her again.

But what a view, the sky was still almost daylight yet I could make out the gibbous shape of one of only two planets between us and the sun.

Next I looked for Jupiter which again didn't let me down, some cloud belts could be seen but only one moon, will check later to see if that was by design or not.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Just managed to spend a half hour outside as the stars came out, Venus was to the SW and Jupiter following it higher in the sky.

I think I've just seen an Iridium flare, whilst looking up in the direction of Cynus I saw what looked like the ISS but it increased in brightness massively for a couple of seconds before disappearing. It wasn't a meteor (I think) because the colour was bright white.

Been up early for work a couple of mornings this week so got to see Orion and Sirius beaming away to my south.

Will hopefully get to go out again later.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Just spent a helf hour or so outside on what is turning out to be a gloriously clear night.

First star to appear was (as usual) Vega high overhead, closely followed by Arcturus lower to the NW.

Jupiter is very bright to the south along the ecliptic, but currently obscured by my neighbours trees.

Cassiopea is overhead to the NE and a look through my monocular shows many background stars in this region of the sky and I can't wait to get the Skywatcher out with the low power EP to scan this part of the sky.

Quite a few satellites skimmed overhead just after sunset but the ISS is not on view for a couple of days yet.

Had hoped to get a view of M31 but failed miserably, must try later but my old favourite Albireo didn't disappoint.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

After a spell off work with a back problem I have during the last week had a few chances to sit outside in clear skies. I can't risk toting the Skywatcher out yet but have used the Spotting scope and Monocular to get some observing done.

A few sightings of the ISS show it to be very bright compared to previous sightings.

Albireo always delights me and at the moment Jupiter is an easy target to the South, the Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) have been doing their merry dance around the gas giant during the past week.

My very first serious observing was recording their progress over time when I was just 14 years old, 32 years on and I still get a thrill to see how much their positions change from night to night.

The global financial situation over recent weeks has culminated today with the UK Government announcing a bail out plan for the main UK banks and the world's central banks announcing a co-ordinated interest cut.

All quite gloomy so it has been a relief to revisit old friends like Jupiter which are still there from more innocent (for me) times!


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Well, even though I haven't had the time yet to get the Skywatcher out it has been a pretty awful summer here in the UK. Apparently the wettest (and presumably cloudiest) August since records began.

I can't remember the last time we had a clear sky at night, must have been the night we went out back in July for my birthday when Jupiter was gleaming away.

It seems like a long time since I was setting up the Skywatcher after work and waiting for the first stars to appear :o(

Let's hope the winter is better than the the summer!


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cloud appreciation!

Just been out to see what I can see, lots of high Cirrus cloud and the Moon to my SW is lighting it up like the proverbial lamp.

Was hoping to get another sighting of Jupiter but no chance at all tonight, I did get to see get to see the plough through the haze and what I assume is Capella but that is it for now.


Monday, August 11, 2008


After posting some photos on I was asked if my image of Vega could be used in an impending newsletter for the Rose City Astronomers club from Portland, Oregon in the US.

I agreed to let them use the image and the result can be found here on their website on page 3 of The RCA August 2008 Newsletter.

I was also asked for the same image to be used at a kiosk in a visitor centre in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA.

This was one of the first images I captured through the Skywatcher and I was quite pleased with the result.


Saturday, August 09, 2008

No clear skies for weeks!

I was hoping that during August I would get the chance to sit back in a deck chair and get some quality eyeball astronomy done, but no chance at all. Not even had another view of Jupiter since a few weeks ago.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Missed Jupiter!

Just been out with the Opticron to see if I could get another view of Jupiter but it is not high enough in the sky yet and I have work in the morning. Also it is too early to see anything else, the problem with astronomy of course is that in the winter you get plenty of observing time but it is very cold, yet in the summer you have to stay up very late to do any observing.

A couple of years back I had an excellent summer session laying back in a deck chair with my monocular, I could even see M31 with the naked eye....

Today I bought the latest issue of Sky at Night magazine, they have published a list of the "50 wonders to see before you die". I can tick around 35 of them so am not doing too bad on that count.

I note that number one on the list is a total solar eclipse and that there is also an advert for a company running a tour next year to an eclipse somewhere over Okinawa, prices start at £1,395 per person sharing a cabin. I doubt that I'll be able to afford that :o(

The last Rosliston Astro club evening that I attended (2 years ago?) included a presentation from a guy who had been at the last dozen or so total eclipses. He never did tell us what he did for a living but but one of his trips involved flying to Australia and then boarding a charted flight over Antarctica where he had booked two seats in order to not be disturbed during the event.

Anyway, hopefully I will be getting more time looking at the sky from now on!


Saturday, July 19, 2008

After an evening out I spotted a very bright object to the South fairly low in the sky, and thought it could be Jupiter or Venus (or an aircraft on aproach to the local airport).

So, after getting home managed to get out with the opticron to take a look. My southern aspect is not the best being obscured by some large trees but I did manage to get a look.

Jupiter is looking awesome, all 4 Gallilean moons were on display, 3 to the left and 1 to the right. Even through the small aperture of the Opticron at 40x mag I could make out two cloud belts quite clearly. The view was only spoilt by atmospheric distortion and was otherwise stunning.

Can't wait now to get some serious observing sessions in, the kitchen is finished and the workshop almost compltete, I just need to put down some decking and build a small shed for an observatory.

Earlier in the year I put a few photos onto a free photo album site and I included a few astropics, namely the moon, vega and M42. The moon shot and vega were quite popular and only last week I was contacted by two US based astro organisations who want to use the image of Vega!


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Not had a chance to do much astronomy in ages, the new workshop/shed was leaking so had to spend time sealing it to save the scope from going rusty. Painted the floor with garage floor paint while moving everything around in a confined space is no fun either!

Hopefully won't be long until I can get the scope out again, in the mean time I note there have been developments with the ISS and Plutoids among other things.

Bought a NASA DVD set which shows almost the whole footage of the Apollo 11 mission including a lengthy countdown sequence to the launch.

Some of which can be seen on youtube here........


Friday, March 07, 2008

Just been outside again but high cloud has appeared, the forecast for the weekend gives out rain and gales. Come the summer I hope to have the workshop all sorted so that I can spend more time observing!

Saturn and Mars.

Just managed to pop out with the Opticron as it is nice and clear and Saturn and Mars are up!

Saturn is hiding among the branches of a tall tree next door but I did manage some closeups with the spotting scope, the rings are easily resolved. Saturn never ceases to impress although I was thinking that I don't recall seeing Saturn with the rings fully open.

Mars is high overhead above Orion and just to the right of Castor and Pollux, the disk is easily resolved by the Opticron but quite small although the colour is very distinct even to a colour blind person like myself.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'd say that the current excitement may be responsible for the SPA forum being down right now, they have probably been inundated with hits from casual visitors due to this evenings news articles.

It is nice though when Astro topics make headline news, it was the appearance of comet Hale Bopp which reignited my interest way back in 1997. See here for material on this, I remember at the time having access to the web at work when not many folks were even aware of the WWW. The JPL site was getting millions of hits from people wanting to know what was that big bright fuzzy object in the night sky. The first time I saw it I had to rub my eyes because I thought I was seeing things!

Well, there is plenty of excitement around right now in that there will be a total Lunar eclipse tonight (or rather the early hours of tomorrow morning), also, the US are planning to shoot down one of their own spy satellites which has been out of control for some time.

According to the TV news the planned shoot down is planned for around the same time as the Lunar eclipse. That means that some lucky people may see a Lunar eclipse as well as the mother of all shooting star incidents!

Things here in the middle of the UK are clouded out right now and I'm not holding out much hope of getting up at 3.00am as I am at work tomorrow. But if the US miss with their heat seeking missile I am due a pass of USA-193 tomorrow evening as predicted by Heavens Above.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Managed to spend some time outside just now, we've had some high pressure weather the past few days and with it clear skies but very cold!

Anyway, first went out with the monocular and as my view north is better than the old house I decided to look for my old failed targets M81/M82 . I thought I'd found the culprits so went back to fetch the spotting scope on my camera tripod. Certainly looks like it could be them but they look more like stars than anything else, more investigation is required I think but there is certainly nothing else in the neighbourhood that looks remotely like candidates.

The waxing moon is lighting up the Eastern and Southern sky but still I could see Orion and Sirius beaming away while overhead the Plieades are twinkling away. I decided to test the scope on the double double of Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major, a good test for optics is to split Mizar which is itself a tight double, the Opticron easily splits Mizar!

Whilst looking for M81/M82 i saw 2 small satellites whizzing through the fov, I still get a spooky feeling when I see them.

In the endless pursuit for M81/M82 I decided to try to find them using Stellarium which has labels for such objects. Interestingly it took quite an effort to find them even with labels! So out I went again but still no result, I can only assume that the spotting scope has insufficient aperture to show "fuzzies" although I have seen M31 through this scope.

It looks like I will have to wait to get the Skywatcher out and use the low power EP to "scope" around for this pair.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Last night we had a predicted ISS pass and I'd just read a news article about the shuttle going up to deliver the ESA Columbus Lab.

So I waited with camera at the ready and managed to get four shots as the ISS cruised overhead, eagerly I loaded the pics onto the computer but alas, you could only just see the track. The problem was that the sky was too bright meaning insufficient contrast, so although the ISS was nice and bright to the naked eye it can't be seen on the photo.

I'll try to have another go later tonight when the sky is darker as we seem to be getting 2 passes per eveing lately.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

I just noticed a nice sunset and a very nice crescent moon so I checked on Heavens Above to see if I had any ISS passes in the next few days and thought I'd missed one by 2 minutes. So looked out of the window just in time to see it passing almost directly overhead, very bright indeed and probably the highest I've seen it so far.

It looks like a good week for passes so I will try to get to see it again especially as the Shuttle has just gone to join it.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Just popped out to take the bin out and looked up to see lots of broken clouds scudding across the sky. Between the clouds Orion is nicely on view to my south and nearby Taurus and the Plieades, Capella is beaming brightly from Auriga and the familiar w of Cassiopeia is high almost overhead.

The sound of two military jets made me look south east to see two flashing lights heading at high speed in that direction.

Too much cloud at the moment to get the Opticron out but will take a look later, otherwise the skies look quite dark from here.


Monday, February 04, 2008

I'm often asked about hardware, which brand, how much to spend etc, well here's my view, remember that I'm not a professional and I'm not even that experienced as an amateur compared to many many others. I have though in the last few years gone through the pain of deciding what to buy and living with the consquences.

Most people when starting out in Astronomy will usually assume that to do any useful observing you need large and very expensive instruments. I have found through personal experience that "hardware" quality and capability can vary quite amazingly.

The Skywatcher 200m aperture x 1000mm focal length "Newt" on its heavy duty motorised Equatorial mount might look very costly. The reality was a cost of around £500 in 2006 and depending on your personal circumstances only you can be the judge as to whether that is a lot of money. Of course for that money one can buy a washing machine or a Personal Computer.

If your budget won't stretch that far most peoples advice is to buy some binoculars. However, I could argue that a good quality pair of Binoculars could easily cost more than the telescope above!

I was tempted to buy some Bin's a couple of years ago but was wary as I don't have full use of my right eye, my logic was that I would be paying for two lots of optics when I could only use one. So a visit to my local "camera shop" introduced me to the Opticron brand which I had previously not heard of.

I was able to compare an Opticron spotting scope with another make and quickly decided the Opticron was better optically. So £240 poorer I left with my purchase and eagerly awaited a clear night, now, I was fortunate that in a former life I had worked as a professional wedding photographer and as such I already owned a heavy duty tripod which was instantly pressed into use.

You might be amazed to know that this scope can easily show the 4 Gallilean moons of Jupiter and if conditions are good then some cloud banding is also visble.

The scope has a zoom eyepiece (15-40x mag) and a 52mm objective lens and easily splits the double star of Albireo in Cygnus and the rings of Saturn are easily defined but don't expect to see too much detail.

A lesson learnt though is that I should have considered a larger aperture spotting scope rather than this "travel scope", at max mag the view is quite dim, ironically this is more noticeable in daylight when used for terrestrial viewing.

A later purchase acquired an Opticron 10x42 monocular which I also find needs to be tripod mounted to be of much use and is a fine instrument also.

Of course if you have a bigger budget then the sky really s the limit....

My view on what to buy is that you must consider the following....

  • Firstly - before parting with any of your hard earned cash, don't discount your most valuable asset, the good old Mark 1 Eyeball, if you let yourself get dark adapted properly and sit back in a deck chair on a good clear night you will be amazed at what you can see!
  • Cost - if you've just won the lottery then you won't care what I think because you'll just buy the most expensive kit in the catalogue, if you aren't a millionaire then get the best you can afford while considering the following.
  • Aperture - the wider the tube (OTA - Optical Tube Assembly) the brighter the image
  • Mounting - a camera tripod is fine for small scopes/bin's but at high mag's the sky appears to rotate very quickly meaning that you are constantly adjusting the scope to keep your subject in view. A motorised equatorial mount is great for keeping pace with the rotation of the earth as well as allowing long exposure photography. Remember though that once you've aligned the mount you can't move the scope around your garden without realigning it each time you move it. Also, the assembly above is very heavy, I can only just lift the assembly to move it an inch or two. So setup time has to be accounted for, several trips are needed to cart it all into position and then it needs to be assembled and aligned, although practice makes this quicker.
  • Optical quality - should really be number one but it is this which mostly impacts cost and so to most people the best optics remain out of range of our pockets. Also, I'd say that the importance of optical quality drastically increases with magnification, cheap high power EP's will be useless even on a good OTA and mount. Top of the range bin's can cost many hundreds of pounds but will show stunning detail compared with cheaper alternatives.
  • Magnification - don't expect to see the kind of views as seen in books and magazines that were taken using the Hubble Space Telescope. Also remember that long exposure photography reveals far more detail than the naked eye even on amateur scopes. Last year I purchased a low power 40mm EP for the Skywatcher which effectively turned it into a 25x200mm monocular and the view is amazing!
  • Computer guidance - sounds great, but having thousands of objects in a database is not much use if the optics won't let you see them!

To summarise, cheap optics on a good tripod will be a waste of money as would good optics on a cheap mounting. High magnification EP's reduce image brightness significantly and thus require more aperture in order for you to see anything and the higher the mag the more crucial is the mounting in terms of tracking and vibration free viewing.

Remember that "proper" scopes are like "proper" cameras, the EP's or lenses that come as standard are usually just that, basic. You can always buy better quality later, often a top quality EP or lens for a camera will cost more than you paid for the scope/camera in the first place.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Well, the first post of 2008 and I still haven't had the time to get the scope out. Over the xmas hols I was hoping to spend some time but whenever I had the time the skies were clouded out.

I have the added problem now that my only hardstanding area is next to the house and not the shed at the end of the garden. I suspect the weight of the scope would make the tripod sink into the soft grass.

Eventually I need to place 3 stepping stones such that when the tripod feet are set on them the mount is roughly polar aligned already.

I've also missed a few predicted ISS passes due to being late leaving work :o(

Here's to a more fruitful year with my sky watching!