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Another evening looking up and out

18 March 2009

Orion Nebula & Trapezium (from Astropix)As I checked the evening’s weather forecast before leaving for work I was delighted to see that both MetCheck and Astroforecast were forecasting clear skies, making the evening’s activities a given. I was very keen to get out again as I took delivery of a moon/atmosphere filter and 6.3mm eyepiece earlier this week, the latter stretching my telescope’s magnification ability from 273X to 476X (with 2X Barlow) – silly amounts, but nice to have.

Once the sun had set and I’d submitted this evening’s GLOBE at Night 2009 observation and watched the scheduled ISS pass (it was brilliant!), I setup outside. Blissfully, the neighbours weren’t using the back of their houses, so house lighting washing over me was at a minimum. The light pollution was still pretty ugly, but the particulates in the air must be low, so there wasn’t the obscene scattering I experienced last time. In all, clear skies making for fantastic stargazing conditions. First up I decided to try to zero the scope on Polaris itself, rather than use a compass, and this seemed to make the tracking motor work better. It was certainly a lot easier and less prone to error my nearby metal objects (including the batteries in the red LED torch I hang around my neck).

Still with the Messier Marathon challenge in my mind, I wanted to see how many Messier Objects I could see—it turns out that it wasn’t many (timing, valley wall, other light sources, etc)—and give the new eyepiece and filters a run for their money.

The Pleiades (M45) were beautiful at low magnification, and with my Mak at 60X I was just able to contain them within the one view. Increasing magnification gave so much more detail, but obviously lost the frame of reference.

The Orion Nebula (M42) was frankly awesome at 476X—yes, I had to give it a go. It was so good that I could clearly delineate the nebulosity and dust shadow, and the Trapezium Cluster was clearly visible as 4 distinct stars, along with the 3 bright stars that arc out like an arm away from it. It was magnified enough that I had to move the telescope to view M43.

The Andromeda galaxy (M31) was a bit of a disappointment for me, as it was quite low on the horizon where I was (fences, houses, etc) and the neighbours in that direction chose this time to do their nightly illumination of every corner of their top floor. I was barely able to see Mirach, so I had no hope of seeing M31 in all its glory.

Capella was crisp and bright. Betelgeuse was its beautiful red colour. I read the other day that Castor is a “double double double” star system (ironic that one of the Gemini twins is actually three sets of twins), so wanted to see if I’d be able to separate any least 2 objects. Thinking that Castor was the left head of Gemini, I viewed it with slightly disappointment as not being able to separate it out. Of course it wasn’t until I got inside that I realised I’d been trying to separate Pollux. Idiot.Saturn (from NASA)

Lastly, it was time to try Saturn at 476X. Oh man, what a sight! Even with the dew by that time reducing visibility, it was a stunning sight. So much bigger that I was able to make out the Cassini Division, even though the rings are almost flat now.

This coming Saturday marks the monthly meeting of my local astronomy society, so I am looking forward to attending for the first time. And the following weekend is their IYA 2009 event, with stargazing for all-comers on the Friday and Saturday evenings, and sun viewing on the Saturday and Sunday. If you’re in or near Berkshire and interested in coming along, leave a message here.

So there ends another evening of chilly delight, discovery and rediscovery. It’s again reinforced the need to plan out your viewing sessions based upon date and time, and therefore visible objects, particularly in my backyard environment. However, once I get a proper carrying box, I’m going to make a foray to the nearby rugby club that’s in a more rural setting than I am. That should make for a completely different experience.

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