What happened to the last year

It’s been a long time hasn’t it, and honestly observational astronomy has taken a back seat. This is a post to fill in what has been happening.


Health issues with my shoulder and, more importantly last year, with my leg have meant that I couldn’t shift my usual heavy kit. That limited the kind of observing I could do. So it was mostly lunar and double star sight-seeing with small scopes and a manual alt-az mount on a photographic tripod.

In addition to that the same underlying issues mean that my eyesight was a little suspect (blurred and lacking in focus) which generally curtailed observing, but especially variable stars estimation. I certainly wasn’t trusting enough of my judgement to submit those results!


As an amateur in the U.K. will know this 2019-20 observing season weather has been truly awful. Almost constant cloud with plenty of rain thrown in for good (or bad) measure. The end of 2019 was shockingly bad in terms of the weather and my health, but as my health problems started to clear up this year we were presented with a run of good observing nights around the New Moon in March and April.


For many it was strangely disappointing that it coincided with the Spring Kelling Star Party, an event that is normally rain-soaked. The reason for their frustration? I don’t think there are many people around the globe that don’t know about the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and its effects on the social calendar. Big scopes for deep-sky need dark skies to be really effective, and few could get at them being under lock-down.


I observe from home under less than great skies, so I could have taken more advantage instead of opting to sleep now and again. Nevertheless, I managed to collect 45 of those galaxies for my H400 project with my Bresser Messier 10-inch scope (I could finally move it).

These galaxies have been around Ursa Major and for the most part pretty underwhelming, I’m just glad to have been able to track them down and see something. I must admit that I actually enjoyed the hunt.

A handful eluded me, including NGC 3792 which has a bright core that I feel I should have been able to see, and a couple are never going to be possible without a better sky.

On the other hand I also marked a handful for a revisit so that I can take more time over the observation, vary the magnification and see what I can pull out of that light smudge. The pair of NGC 3893 and NGC 3896, one an H400 the other not, spring to mind.

Lunar and a Planet

I should note that lunar and planetary observing this winter has been hampered not just by the clouds but by some of the worst Seeing I’ve encountered. I have to assume that this is jetstream related, though there could certainly be a local effect at work with a large industrial estate to the west.

I’m trying my Skywatcher 150PDS newtonian for lunar observing as I’ve made modifications to reduce light scatter and improve cooling. The view is obviously apochromatic but the resolution is a marked improvement over the smaller refractors under good conditions, yet the scope is easy to handle.

Finally we come to the only accessible planet from my garden: Venus. I’ve enjoyed a few good views of the gibbous and then crescent phases of Venus as it’s grown in size.

I observe in daylight wherever possible as it’s the best way to control the glare and kaleidoscope colours, but without Go-To finding it is tricky and a little dangerous, so just before sunset it’s been.

The phase has been clear but I can’t honestly report any detail that I can’t put down to atmospheric optical effects. It’s been fun all the same.

Progress on the Herschel 400

It’s been a while hasn’t it, so I’ve decided that a short update on my progress with the Herschel 400 – or 281 since I can’t see anything below 0ΒΊ declination – is in order now that the season’s drawn to a close with the approach of Summer Solstice.

Sadly it seems that I’m down to only fifteen more open clusters, three globular clusters, a pair of emission nebulae and a solitary planetary nebula to observe. That’s just twenty-one more of my favoured celestial deep-sky objects. I say sadly because that means there a colossal one hundred and sixty more galaxies to hunt down and this is bad news for a couple of reasons.

I’ve discovered galaxy hunting isn’t as much fun as you might suppose.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with galaxies; I live in one and many of my favourite observations have been made of objects in it; also there are some fantastic galaxies to observe, it just turns out that many of the H400 galaxies aren’t.

And mostly it’s my observing location: bright suburban skies in a very damp climate.

No doubt the weather this observing season has been bad, and even on the few ‘clear’ nights I’ve experienced this Spring (prime time for galaxy hunting) I’ve noticed very poor transparency.

The problem is moisture in the atmosphere which is never helpful, but I’ve learned that for the galaxies it’s terrible. The extra scattered light strips them of any contrast against an already bright background sky, and on the worst occasion I spent four hours barely observing just three galaxies!

May be next season will be galaxy season…

I’m hoping for better skies next season. I found from my notes that some of the galaxies I could see reasonably well in my six inch newtonian a year ago were much worse in my new ten inch this time. That shouldn’t be, and yes, I have checked the new scope on other targets and there’s nothing wrong with it.

So whilst I’m now 100 for 281 in my Herschel quest it’s safe to say that I’m not very excited about most of the rest of it. I’ll do it damn it! Just don’t expect me to be happy about it πŸ˜‰

A Feast of Astronomical Observing

And now I’ve forgotten to post through March… which is a shame because it was a huge improvement over February. Not only a big uptick in the quantity of observing opportunities, but lots of variety in my observing diet too.

Both this month and the last have started with some Lunar observing. I’m starting to take this increasingly seriously just as the Moon is due to sink lower in my sky until it disappears behind the house until Autumn… still you have to start sometime, and I’ve decided now with the Charles Wood’s Lunar 100.

Which is why I’m very happy to welcome the return of solar observing. As the Moon sinks, the Sun is getting higher in our northern hemisphere skies, so it’s around now that I start to swap lunar for solar observing. Despite being around solar minimum, with relatively few sunspots to be seen, I’ve been rewarded with some Hα fireworks and spectacular white light sunspots in the last few weeks. Few in number perhaps, but the quality was undiminished.

Planetary observing wasn’t left out as I followed the sliver of Venus up to the last possible moment. For me that was the point it fell behind the houses and trees to the west at sunset on 15 March 2017, but it was a very thin crescent by then: I estimated 5% and Stellarium claims 4.4% illumination. I’ve caught a glimpse of Mercury at sunset too.

There were several Jovian sessions, even though it’s a bit too low to see well from my back garden. I can observe Jupiter low to the SE over the top of my garage for about 30 minutes before it goes behind the house. No moon transits yet, but a look at a slightly washed out Great Red Spot (GRS) was possible in my 60mm refractor. Why the small scope? To have any view I have to pick my position carefully, and you try manhandling a large telescope into the garden undergrowth.

I’ve tried to spot the comets 45P/Honda and C/2015 V2 (Johnson) with my binoculars, but with no success. At first they were too faint or low, then the Moon arrived and I haven’t bothered again. Once the Moon disappears I’ll certainly try again for the latter of the two at least.

March witnessed the arrival of British Summer Time (BST) which heralds the rapid shortening of night in these parts. Naturally in astronomical circles this is never well received, and Deep-Sky observing isn’t going to be easy! By the end of May there’s no astronomical darkness for a couple of months, but in the meantime there can be some lovely transparent skies for the patient.

After a rather wet period in the middle of March, during which the Moon got out of the way, clear skies returned just before BST inflicted itself upon us. I’ve started working on the Herschel 400 list again. This spread of several nights gave me the chance to start on the faint and fuzzy galaxies of Spring, as well as polishing off some surprisingly faint open clusters from late Winter.

Finally, I’ve collected a few more variable star observations thus clearing the backlog a bit and responding to an AAVSO alert on AG Dra (one I regularly follow). The conditions haven’t been great for it: patchy cloud doesn’t kill a lunar session, but it makes reliable binocular variable estimates pretty tricky. Still it’s nice to be logging some data again.

So a March was a much better month and April has started in stunning style with observing sessions on each of the first seven days!

Binocular Messiers

You may remember way back in 2014 I wrote about Charles Messier and his list of comet-like objects. I also mentioned that I’d started tracking them down with binoculars, and that was a while ago, so what’s happened since?

I’m still working to my usual leisurely pace, but I’ve collected good observations of 60 of them now. This year would be a great time to finish this project since it’s the 200th anniversary of Charles’ death. The BAA are encouraging observers to complete a Messier Marathon, or at least view all the objects this year. Perhaps I will.

I’m basing my work on the Astronomical League’s Binocular Messiers Program that rate 102 of the 110 to be observable with binoculars. I’ve set the additional challenge to observe as many as possible from my north-west facing back garden. This is one reason why it’s taking so long to complete the project: some objects have a very short window of opportunity. That said, I seem to have managed a couple they don’t think I should be able to see, but I stand by my observations ;-), and having observed 58 from their list have 44 left to go.

Unfortunately most of those are pretty low in the sky from the UK. For example, I snagged M41 in Canis Major a few nights ago as it briefly appeared from behind the row of houses before falling into the trees, and all whilst standing on top of a wall peering through the undergrowth. On the other hand I couldn’t have done that with a telescope! I’m very glad that M41 is big and bright or the Industrial Estate light pollution would have rendered it invisible.

Image Credit: M41 by Digitized Sky Survey (DSS)
Image Credit: M41 taken from the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) using Aladin Sky Atlas.

The upcoming galaxies of Virgo and Coma Berenices may cause some problems. I’ve observed all the brighter ones and have the trickiest to collect on a night of really good transparency. I’ll have another go at M108 and M109 in Ursa Major on that night too.

Then I’m down to the horizon huggers of Scorpio and Sagittarius below 25° altitude. I can’t think of anywhere around my house that they’re possible. Not the street outside, our front bedroom window, they’d probably be difficult from the roof. So I’ll have to start being mobile to mop the rest up, and perhaps that’s the time for a marathon?

Becoming a better observer

This is my third year as an astronomical observer, and I’ve decided the time has come to kick off a few projects aimed at improving my practical skills.

Observing open clusters.

The Astronomical League have some fantastic material and programs that are available online, even to non-members. I wish British astronomical organisations were more like their American counterparts (a discussion for another day).

Anyway, the program that’s caught my imagination is the Open Cluster Observing Program which provides a list of 125 objects from various catalogues, most of which I’ve never encountered. I’ve decided the best, and most obvious, place to start is the Basic program which states the following requirements.

  • Observe any 100 of the 125 open clusters on the provided list.

  • Sketch any 25 of the 100 open clusters that you observe.

  • Classify all 100 observed clusters under the Trumpler classification system.

I don’t believe there’s a deadline. I’m only doing this for my education and entertainment, but I’d like to try and complete the program this year. So the plan is to start with some of the open clusters listed for Taurus, Orion and Monoceros before they’re gone in Spring.

Why open clusters? Simple really, they’re one of the few features of the deep sky that are reasonably visible in the suburban night sky, and some of them are quite spectacular.

Choosing my equipment.

It’s suggested that using the same telescope with a limited range of magnifications gives the observer a better appreciation of the differences between these clusters.

I’d estimate that there are about 30 clusters on the list the I’m going to struggle with because of their low altitude. That’s not good since I need to view 100 out of 125 to complete the basic program. I’m going to have to move about to bag a few of the tricky ones.

A small telescope like my SW Explorer 130P on an Alt-Az mount is relatively portable, and I don’t have anything with more light grasp, so that’s the one I’m going to use. I’m going try and stick to 50 and 100 times magnification depending on the actual object.

For the drawings I’ll try and stick to high altitude objects and switch to my heavier equatorial mount. It’ll be much easier to track them whilst I draw.

What am I hoping to gain?

I’m not a member of the Astronomical League (yet), so I’m not eligible for any awards, so that’s not the focus here. If you’re anything like me you tend to find your target, give it a minute or so, and move on to the next. For me getting past this behaviour is the main point of the project.

You remember they said observe? Well that means making notes with descriptions as well as the classification. It’s very hard to describe or draw an object accurately without really studying it in the eye piece.

I think programs like this one will make me a much better observer, and possibly one day an astronomer.