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.