Some clear night reports

Saturday night saw an incredibly clear sky (incredible as it had been cloudy and murky for weeks, then suddenly crystal clear). It took little time for my eyes to adjust to the dark sufficiently to show me the band of the Milky Way. I used the large cross visible overhead in the skies at this time of year (the body of Cygnus) to locate the band before properly adjusted. Then saw it sweeping roughly northwards up through the ‘W’ of Cassiopeia. I began observing at half past midnight.

The second ‘V’ in the ‘W’ seems to have a line of three stars running down from it. There’s a break and another line of three stars continuing down. A third line of three stars meets the line that runs through those six stars close to the break. At the point of intersection is a faint fuzzy, visible in good skies with the naked eye (as with this night). This is M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest thing visible with the naked eye.

Putting the telescope on it, the shape of the core of Andromeda was immediately visible. The arms of Andromeda are too faint for our eyes to see. There is another fuzzy just above Andromeda, that is a second galaxy, further away and only telescopically visible. I looked at it using the Celestron 130SLT and the 25mm eyepiece – high magnification is useless on this target. Then I brought out the CCD and its 35mm and 55mm lenses. The mount I brought out was a bit rickety, but seemed to do the job. Andromeda was close to the zenith and the 130SLT found it difficult to look so high, so did the tripod for the camera. I put on the 35mm lens and set the camera on a loop of photo taking in order to get the focus right. Then I searched for Andromeda and took a series of photos, including the one above.

I switched to the 55mm lens once I knew Andromeda was about in the right place, but the mount was difficult to adjust and I found it impossible to centre the galaxy. I went inside and grabbed a more modern tripod and returned to find the old one had taken revenge by tipping over, leaving the CCD cooling motor to make nasty noises. Nevertheless, I persevered, switched to the new mount, ignored the grinding and set the CCD on another loop with the 35mm lens in to give a widefield shot in order to find M31 again. It was centered and the lenses switched and the 55mm focused nicely. I adjusted it until I noticed something – the companion galaxy coming into view – the Earth’s motion was bringing it upward right in the position that would centre Andromeda were I to leave it. The camera adjusts its contrast according to the brightness of whatever is in frame, so I got a good bright view of the companion galaxy and of the edge of the core as it drifted in view as the CCD looped. One frame, two frames, three frames, the core was just entering view when everything suddenly left view.

The computer shut down complaining about lack of battery power – the images, unsaved, were lost.

Having packed up the CCD, laptop et al, I was left with the Celestron 130SLT and an urge to buy a sketchbook. I turned it first to Jupiter, saw lovely banding and Io, distinctly fainter to the other three Galilean Moons, just off the limb of the planet. I then turned to another planet in the East, newly risen. Mars was a fiery orange dot at the eyepiece, not yet large enough to show much detail but certainly a disc. Orion had also made its way partway up the sky and I found and observed Orion’s nebula, a future CCD target. I ended with a view of the Pleiades, my favorite collection of stars. Unlike the galaxies and nebulae, star clusters look best with the naked eye, especially ones with a proliferation of clear blue sparklers. The session ended at 2:30am.

Sunday saw clouds march in, but before they did, I captured a few pictures of the International Space Station making motion trails in 1 second exposures of my digi-cam. See Heavens Above for satellite pass times in your area.

Tonight at midnight, I got the CCD out again (the grinding noise has magically vanished) and a fully charged laptop. With them and the better mount, I got pictures of the Andromeda galaxy with the 55mm lens, using the 35mm as a viewfinder as before. Those are shown above and below with 5 and 7 second exposure times to show the star trails on an undriven high magnification. Note Andromeda’s full disc is a little larger than the frames of these pictures.

I then turned to Jupiter and got a three second exposure of that bright planet, bright enough that three Galilean Moons are visible and one (Io) is lost in the glare of the planet. I was lowering the exposure times when funny things started happening. I soon realised the power tank the CCD was taking power from was draining. The session ended at 1am.

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