A Night Observing on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Of the seven Messier targets remaining, none can be viewed from my home and with time off from work coming to a close, few opportunities remain to complete the summer portion of my list. This was the setup for my trip to Back Creek Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway July 28/29 from 10:45 PM to 12:45 AM.

Back Creek Valley
Jupiter can be seen in the top of the image!

Arriving at the site, I was relieved to see that no one else was present. This was my first time observing on the Parkway by myself. At first I was a bit uneasy, but after setting up and focusing on the targets of the evening, it was quite a peaceful experience. When I stepped out of my car the brightness and density of the Milky Way stretched from the dark horizon facing South to the Northern horizon where it was absorbed into the light dome of the city. It was a spectacular site that I have never seen stretched across the entire night sky.

Tonight’s Big Three: M20, M24 & M16
Using Saturn as a starting point, I worked my way through the dense core of our galaxy first coming across M20, the Trifid Nebula. Trifid appeared quite dim with some visible structure and two bright stars right at its core. Even under dark skies this was a difficult target but averted vision did help to reveal some of the famous cracks in its core.  M24, the Sagittarius Star Cloud is one of the few Messier objects that I have needed to use a 2 in. eyepiece to properly observe. The wide field of view revealed the stunning density of this cluster. Viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was much more impressive than at home. M16, the Eagle Nebula was the most difficult target to view this evening. It was actually more visible through my 9×50 finder scope than through the telescope. An O-III filter and averted vision helped to bring out the nebulosity and structure that surrounded several stars. As I worked my way up the core of the Milky Way I came across some objects viewed before but that were much more impressive for a darker sky location. The Omega Nebula was truly stunning and appeared to pop out from the background sky with a three dimensional quality and the Lagoon Nebula was a much more impressive sight than its nearby neighbor Trifid. Using the 9×50 finder scope and 2 in. eyepiece to slowly work up and down the core of our galaxy just to see what I would come across was one of the most unique observing experiences of my life.IMG_3561

Two More for the Night: M55, M72
Moving away from the Milky Way led me first to M55, a large but dim globular cluster appearing more like a round nebula. The size of this globular was impressive and some fine detail was apparent at higher magnifications. M72 was an unimpressive small and dim globular cluster with no fine detail.

The Final Two…
After finding the five main objects for the evening I made an attempt at M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy and M74. Both were too low to the horizon for such dim objects. My plan is to come back to the Parkway in early November to observe them which would bring an end to my Messier list before the end of 2019.


A Late Night Out

June 7/8, 2018: Those Summer Nights
Summer is not a favorable season for amateur astronomy. The nights are short, dew sneaks up on you and the insects are annoying. On this night, the skies were clear, the dew point was reasonable and the insects were not biting, at least not that bad. With the moon not rising until 2:45 AM, it was a wonderful opportunity to work through some deep-sky objects on my Messier List.

10:45 PM to Midnight
After allowing the telescope to cool for an hour, the evening began with M13-Hercules, a favorite of mine since my first observations of it in 2010. It is one of the most impressive views in the night sky and a treat to show off to family and friends. What starts off as a dense blurry core is peeled away to reveal finer levels of detail at medium and high magnifications, where thousands of stars become visible. Objects such as this truly reveal to me the glory of God’s creation. My success rate at finding and being impressed by other globulars tonight was hit and miss. While the small but impressive M92 was easy to find, the dimmer M107 was nowhere to be seen due to light pollution near the horizon. Most of the other globular clusters early this evening were of little detail, including M19, M80 and M9.

Midnight to 12:15 AM
Lauren came out to take a look at Hercules and Saturn. While she was impressed by the fine detail of Hercules, her favorite sight is always Saturn. She has a better eye for fine detail on the planets than myself and easily picked up the Cassini division and a dim cloud band across the middle of the planet.

1:00 AM to 1:30 AM
The hunt for globular and open clusters continued after a brief hiatus. M22 was a surprisingly impressive globular cluster with fine detail in its core showing up at 96x and 200x magnification. Hopping over just a couple degrees was the smaller and less defined M28. Switching to an open cluster, M25 was just a stone’s throw away from Saturn with a pretty collection of stars shown at lower magnifications. While M54 was difficult to find due to light pollution near the horizon, M70 was impossible. What awaited next was the most pleasant surprise of the evening, M11–The Wild Duck Cluster was a beautifully dense and sharply detailed open cluster. It could easily be mistaken for a globular cluster because of the density of the core. At 96x and 200x magnification, it revealed some fine details including one star shining brightly in the upper center of the core.

1:30 AM to 2:00 AM
Shifting gears to some things a bit closer home, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were on display throughout most of this evening. Atmospheric conditions were ideal with fairly cool temperatures and no wind. Of the three, Jupiter in particular was stunning in it’s sharpness and clarity with three of its moons Io, Ganymede and Callisto in a tight triangular formation. I Hooked my iPhone up to the telescope and took some videos of the planets.

Here is some of the video I shot that is posted on my YouTube Channel.

The 1080p 60 FPS footage was sent to Registax 6 to enhance the sharpness. Then the color and contrast were enhanced in Adobe Premiere Elements 6 to create the following image of Saturn at 1200x magnification.

3:15 AM to 4:00 AM
With that, the night was done–or so I thought! Having brought in all of my equipment, I realized I was just three Messier objects shy of hitting the halfway point. I looked at the clock and decided to lug everything back out for three more objects. The final three Messier objects began with M73, an open cluster with a simplistic four star pattern. It took a while to verify its location, with observations at higher magnifications revealing more of the stars in its formation. One wonders why an object like this was included in the Messier list to begin with. Second to last was M15, a small yet surprisingly bright globular cluster with an impressive core which revealed some structural details at higher magnifications. The night officially ended with the anticlimactic M2, revealing itself only as a small blurry globular cluster with some minor fine detail at 200x magnification.

4:00 AM to 4:15 AM
Before going in, a few more attempts were made to capture Mars on video, since it had moved up from the horizon into better atmospheric conditions. As I was packing up, my Apple Watch showed that the Moon had recently risen. Walking around my property, I found a spot that showed it just peaking above the horizon. Seeing the Moon at this early morning hour was a perspective that I have seen few times before. Seeing the Moon at this hour with the waning crescent portion of it visible gave me a new perspective on a familiar sight.

4:45 AM to 11:00 AM

Exploring the Summer Sky

The summer months can be a tricky time for observing. The nights are short, the weather is erratic and dew starts to build up on the telescope as soon as the serious observing begins. Nights that are clear, calm and cool are rare to come by and should be taken advantage of. I did just that on the night of July 10-11 from 10:45 pm to 1:30 am.

Starting with the Solar System
Viewing conditions were difficult, looking through the turbulent summer atmosphere, views of Mars were less impressive at high magnifications. Also, Mars continues to move farther from us, having made its closest approach to Earth on May 30, 2016 at a distance of 47 million miles, making surface detail harder to make out each night.

One of the highlights of the night, as usual, came from Saturn. With the Cassini Division in full view, this planet always tends to be more forgiving of rough atmospheric conditions, particularly compared to Mars and Jupiter. I was able to try out my new iPhone adapter with the telescope and after some initial alignment difficulties over the eyepiece was able to get a short video.

After being processed through Registax 6 and Adobe Premiere Elements, this image was the final product.

Saturn, 7-10-16

Into Deep Space
The main targets of the evening were Deep Sky Objects. I’ve been chipping away at the Messier List for about six years. These 110 objects are considered some of the best to view and most are attainable with affordable binoculars and telescopes if you are in an area with low light pollution.

Globular Clusters:
Of all the views from this night, the globular clusters were the most difficult to find and disappointing to see. These dense collection of stars were partially drowned out by light pollution and the Moon that had yet to fully set. M80 and M92 were two new ones that I was able to mark off my list. M13 was an impressive show, even with the viewing conditions working against it. The Hercules Cluster is one of the most impressive globular clusters in the sky. I find it hard to focus the object correctly because of how dense the star field is. Various levels of focus almost seem to bring out new layers of detail.

Open Clusters:
M18 (2)These collections of stars always impress me with their elegance and simplicity. Not nearly as dense and “fuzzy” as globular clusters, open clusters can be difficult to find but rewarding to discover. Take M18 for example, to verify that I had the correct collection of stars, I had to consult my star chart (Sky Safari 4 Plus on my iPhone) that I was in the correct region of the sky.  I did this by counting stars and comparing patterns between what was in my eyepiece and what the chart on my app showed. M23, M26 and NGC 6633 rounded out the list of open clusters viewed.

Supernova Remnants:
One of my favorite sights of the summer sky are the five to eight thousand year old supernova remnants of the Eastern and Western Veil Nebula. I wasn’t sure if NGC 6960 and NGC 6995 would show up from my viewing site, but sure enough with the help of an O-III filter they did. The scale of these two objects is an impressive sight and their ghostly outlines are fitting for the remnants of a dead star.

One last Planet
By around 1:30 am, I started to get tired but noticed that there was one planet which had just moved high enough for me to view. Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, making it one of the more difficult ones to spot, excluding dwarf planets, sorry Pluto. At 400x magnification, I could make out a faint circular disc with a blueish gray tint. Not bad for something 2.8 Billion Miles away.

Exploring the Early Spring Sky

Returning to Deep-sky objects
Even though Roanoke County has a decent amount of light pollution, probably a 4 or 5 on the Bortle Scale, there are still a great deal of Galaxies, Star Clusters and Nebula visible in the night sky. These DSOs (Deep-sky objects), provide challenging yet rewarding targets for most amateur astronomers. With the assistance of Skysafari 4’s “Tonight’s Best” guide and the Intelliscope Computer Object Locator of the XT8i, the location of some of these more difficult to find highlights of the early spring sky came into view.

March 29, 2016: Highlights
Beginning in the Western portion of the sky, M38, the Starfish Cluster, was visible around 9:05 PM. While observing M38, a satellite passed through the field of view. These kinds of events are pretty common seeing as how many objects are in orbit. To the upper right of the Starfish Cluster, NGC 1907 barely registered as a slight blur at low magnification using averted vision. Moving over to the South West, the Rosette Nebula continues to refuse to reveal itself, but the open cluster that makes up the heart of it, NGC 2244, was a nice sight. Shifting down towards the neighborhood of Orion’s Nebula brought Sigma Orionis, the highlight of the night, around 9:30 PM. What appeared to be a triple star system revealed a 4th star at 200x magnification. In actuality, it is a quintuple star system, but the 5th star is difficult to pick up with amateur equipment. Attempts at viewing the Crab Nebula came up as disappointing as usual, it was barely visible in the Western sky around 10:25 PM. Finishing out the night was the always impressive pair of galaxies known as Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82. At magnitudes +8.39 and +6.90, they never disappoint as distinctive galaxies even if they are around 12 million light years from earth.

ISS Passing Near NGC 2395

March 30, 2016: ISS Fly Over
From 8:53 PM to 9:03 PM the International Space Station sailed over Roanoke, Virginia from SW to NE. In an attempt to view it, SkySafari 4 was used to see if the station would appear near any objects during it’s 5 minute pass. This would allow the Computer Object Locator to know where the telescope needed to be pointed before the ISS reached this object, so there could be a quick view of it flying through the eyepiece. Thankfully, at 8:57:51 it would cross near NGC 2395. Right at that time and location, with Lauren looking through the eyepiece and myself looking through the finder scope, we viewed the ISS through the telescope. Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour and being viewed at 48x magnification, the station only appeared in the eyepiece for a second, but the details were impressive. As detailed before from a previous viewing in 2010, the solar panels and cabin compartments of the Space Station were visible. The only difference noticed was that the panels appeared more tilted than on the previous sighting of station back. After the initial contact at NGC 2395, the stations was tracked for another minute or two, on and off, providing additional views as it raced across the sky.

Comet in the Sky with Diamonds

Thanks to the October edition of Sky and Telescope and the good people over at Cloudy Nights, Comet 103P/Hartley 2 had been on my radar screen for sometime.  Weather permitting, a view of it on October 9th looked to provide a rare conjunction of itself and the famous double cluster in Perseus. Thankfully, that is exactly what happened and the views did not disappoint.

By themselves, the double cluster in Perseus are two of the most magnificent objects to view in the night sky.  Without a telescope, they appear as nothing more than small faint cloud regions to a well dark adapted eye.  Put a telescope to them and they resolve into fine points of various colored stars that appear as though they have been sprinkled onto the background of the night.  Comet Hartley 2 is a periodic comet whose orbit brings it through the solar system once every 6 and a half years.  My first viewing of Hartley 2 occurred a couple nights earlier on the 7th and proved to be a more difficult task than I had anticipated. I just could not get myself oriented and had a hard time finding the constellation Perseus.  Tonight, proved to be much simpler, with Hartley 2 so close to the double cluster that finding them meant finding the comet.  While I had hoped to make out a distinct tail on Hartley 2 my expectations were too high as it appeared very similar to comet Lulin from February of 2009, showing up as a grayish “blurball” that could easily be mistaken for a globular cluster or nebula if one did not know what they were looking for.  None the less, viewing a comet is a rare treat, especially one as bright as Hartley 2, even if I was hoping for a more distinctive coma.

Viewing the comet and double cluster at 48X magnification made me wish for a lower power eyepiece in my arsenal.  While I was able to get good views of the comet and double cluster separately, I was only able to get the nearest of the two clusters in the same field of view as the comet.  Being able to view deep sky objects, particularly nebulae and open star clusters with a wider field of view and lower magnification would also give me that “lost in space” feeling.  The problem is, lower power eyepieces tend to be more expensive.  After tonight’s viewing, I’m fairly convinced that a low power eyepiece will be a purchase worth making sometime in the near future.

Hercules, Milky Way, and Bats! Oh, My!

We all have prejudices in one form or another.  One of mine happens to be my preference of open clusters over globular clusters.  While this may be true, tonight I take a slightly different position.  For I have viewed the king of the globs and it’s elegance made me question my own beliefs and gave me hope that I could move beyond my mindset concerning the faint balls of fuzz known as globular clusters.

The Hercules Star Cluster
M13, otherwise known as the globular cluster Hercules, is quiet a sight to be seen.  One of the reasons I have always preferred open clusters to globular clusters is that the individual beacons of light in an open cluster makes them look as though someone spilled a bag of fine jewels onto a black table.  Hercules seemed to give the best of both worlds as its soft fuzzy core revealed pinpoint stars moving out from its center.  Looking at it in different ways and focusing it slightly different appeared to reveal different details in various areas.  Moving from 48 to 120X magnification helped to bring some finer detail to the core of it, all be it at the expense of brightness.  I would have to rate this globular cluster as one the most impressive I have viewed to date, even exceeding M3.

The Rise of the Milky Way
As the night progressed, the Milky Way parked itself right overhead and its brightness and dense patches of stars proved why ancient people thought of it as a milky and dense mess.  I have read where people have viewed it rising from the horizon and wondered if clouds were coming in to spoil the views of the night.  Knowing that when we look into the Milky Way, in the summer night sky, we are taking a rare peak into the center of our own galaxy is one of the things that puts me in awe of our small little home on the outer bands of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The night ended with Lauren and I lying on the trampoline and talking.  As we looked for shooting stars, I noticed a couple of satellites passing over, sailing smoothly through the nighttime sky.  It was a very peaceful end to a good day until a bat began swooping down near us.  It startled us at first (well, mainly just me) and as it came down for another pass, I jumped up yelling and ran off the trampoline falling off of the chair that helps us to get down and staggered off towards the house.  All the while Lauren remained laying on the Trampoline (this really helps to explain the dynamics of our relationship)!

Star Log: June 5, 2010

The Good Ole South

You would think that after a few months of putting the telescope in the same place every night, I would have thought to move it to reveal a different part of the sky.  Trees generally block my view of the far South, but tonight I switched things up and moved the telescope next to my parents new 2010 Dodge Minivan (this thing is like the space shuttle, it has awesome features).

Finding Pluto…Yeah Right
The initial goal for the evening was to hunt down Pluto, located to the South a little bit above Messier 24, the great Sagittarius Star Cloud.  That was until I viewed M24 and realized how dense it was with stars.  I might have actually viewed Pluto tonight, but it would be near impossible to know which of the thousands of stars I was looking at was everyone’s favorite dwarf planet.  Talk about finding a needle in a hay stack, this picture of the star cloud to the right shows how difficult a task it was.

The Messier Bunch
While planning the night, I noticed that Pluto was near a few Messier objects I had never viewed.  This would be a perfect opportunity to check off some more objects for my ultimate messier hunt.  Located to the South West of Sagittarius were the Eagle Nebula, Swan Nebula, Sagittarius Star Cloud, Trifid Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula.  All were a treat to view, with the exception of the Eagle Nebula, which I had a particularly hard time making out for some reason.

The Lord of the Ring

Nothing tonight compared to the spectacular view received by viewing Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, for the first time.  It appeared as a very defined circular cloud of smoke with a gray hue in the center.  Viewing at 120X magnification revealed it’s circular definition even further (A good example of what I viewed can be found to the left).  Its defining shape comes from a star, very similar to our own sun, that has used up all of its hydrogen and is shooting gasses out into space as it dies and becomes a red giant.  While, most nebula’s have the same faint cloud like shape, the Ring Nebula is something truly unique that seems as though it was stamped onto the sky.

Star Log: July 10, 2010

Hubble Space Telescope Image of the Ring Nebula

(Just a little better than what I saw….a little)