An Unexpected Night of Stargazing at AstroCamp

After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, anticipation among the AstroCamp faithful was running high.  The weeks leading up to camp offered many nights of clear skies, but long-range forecasts were indicating a late summer spell was to be replaced with a more traditional autumnal climate.  Sadly, those forecasts were not changing as arrival date approached, and a few decided that the multi-hour journey to the Brecon Beacons was not warranted.  The arrival of a baby girl just before Christmas (hopefully a dedicated observing partner in a few years) and a very busy work environment during the first 9 months of 2021, meant I had not stargazed once this year.  As such, I was not quite prepared to give up on the camp and hoped that the #clearskiesguarantee would hold.

Screen grab of the four weather forecasts which gave hope of clear skies at Astro Camp.

The four forecasts which gave hope of a great first night at Camp. Sources: BBC, iPhone weather app, Accuweather, Clear Outside.

Somewhere between Swindon and Bristol we hit the rain that had created a temporary river at the Cwmdu campsite that caused a few tents of early arriving astronomers being moved.  The monsoon like rain certainly made it feel like an ark would have been a more appropriate mode of transport than a four-door salon.  Slowing to less than 50mph due to very poor visibility, I did wonder if the 170-mile trip would be rewarded.  Fortune it would seem, decided to favour the brave.  Upon arrival, I checked multiple forecasting apps, and all of them were indicating plenty of clear skies from around 1am.  Even that apparently optimistic forecast proved to be pessimistic, with a starry-night in the hours leading up to midnight as well.

Being rather tired I made the decision to start my observing session at 1am and get some early rest to recharge.  I did sneak a quick look out of the bedroom window before hitting the pillow and glimpsed several stars.  As I quickly drifted off, I hoped I had not missed the opportunity of an earlier than predicted clear spell, perhaps to be replaced by clouds later in the night.  I did not need to worry.

Leaping out of bed at 1am, I was greeted with stunning starry skies and it took only a few minutes to dress and set up my APM LZOS 115mm f/7 triplet refractor on a simple Alt-Az mount.  I had packed reasonably conservatively so had four eyepieces with me; a 21mm Ethos providing a 2.6o field at 38x magnification, a 17mm Nagler Type-4 (1.7o / 47x), a 10mm Delos (0.9o / 80x), and the Televue 3-6mm Nagler Zoom (0.36o-0.19o / 134x-268x).

I was immediately struck by how transparent the sky appeared (no doubt a benefit of the heavy rain washing all the crud out of the air).  Even though my eyes had no time to dark adapt, the Milky Way arched across the sky and was as prominent as I have ever seen at AstroCamp.  This was going to be good night for hunting DSOs.

My APM LZOS 115 f/7 triplet with Jupiter visible towards the horizon.

I used Jupiter to align my finder, but a quick glance at 80x revealed this was not a night for planetary viewing.  Perhaps not that surprising as there does seem to be a negative correlation between seeing and transparency, and this night certainly seemed to be an exceptional example of the latter.

A victim of locational misfortune, M92 would be more celebrated if it were found almost anywhere else in the sky, but it is the eternal bridesmaid to its sibling in the keystone.  However, today that proximity was an advantage as M13 was already low down and obscured by a tree.  The perceived difference in size and brightness between the two globulars is a true reflection of their intrinsic qualities as their distances from Earth are a couple of thousand lights year difference.  While 1/3 smaller in apparent diameter, to my eye the cluster appeared far more compact thanks to an eye-drawing central core, which was surrounded by an asymmetrical halo which showed plenty of mottling and granulation with a number of brighter cluster members resolved across the face.

Changing track for a moment, I used the 21mm Ethos to leave the confines of the Milky Way and headed out into intergalactic space.  My next targets were a pair of photogenic galaxies in M81 and M82.  They displayed a surprising amount of detail for such a small aperture.  The primary spiral arms of M81 were quite obvious with direct vision wrapping around the diffuse, elongated light of the galaxy.  Starburst galaxy M82 always stands in stark contrast to the archetypal spiral of its neighbour.  The long rod of pale light showed some mottling and was bisected by a dark lane that appeared to cleave the galaxy in two.

Returning to the Milky Way, I switched in the Zoom at the 6mm setting and headed to the name-sake of this website, Vega.  From there it was just a short hop to the remnant of a long-dead sun-like star located between Sulafat and Sheliak at the bottom of the celestial harp.  The little smoke ring appeared criss-crossed with dark threads of slightly opaque material.  I have noted this feature many times but suspect it is just my eye detecting subtle variations of brightness in the torus of ionised gas, rather than a real feature of the planetary nebula.  I tried out the UHC and while enhancing the contrast, I felt it lost some detail.

My next target saw me move on from a celestial puff to a celestial bang, and required using the 21mm Ethos again though I left the UHC in situ. By placing Glienah (Epsilon Cygni) on the edge of my finder, brought 52 Cygni to the centre of the field, which sits on top of the western arc of the Veil supernova remanent.  The western arc is the fainter part of the Cygnus loop, but the UHC really helped bring the needle like feature into view.  Shifting position slightly north centred the brighter eastern arc.  There were some hints of twists and knots in the nebulous material.

As the UHC was still in place, I decided to visit the remanent of another celestial explosion that had captivated Chinese astronomers 1,000 years ago.  Rarely one I visit, M1 looks superb in long exposure astrophotography, but seldom offers much of a visual spectacle.  Sadly, nothing changed.  The ghostly apparition showed greater contrast against the background sky than the unfiltered view but still offered no discernible internal structure.

Remaining in Taurus, and increasing magnification with the 17mm Nagler, I swung the scope 24-degrees to the Pleiades.  Always a beautiful object with its primary pan asterism with numerous twists and knots of dimmer attendant stars, under dark skies offered by the Brecon Beacons, some of the associated reflection nebula was also visible.  The glow around Merope was particularly obvious.  Before moving on I switched back to the 21mm and preferred the view, feeling that the cluster had better framing with more black sky around it.

Staying with open clusters, I switched in the 10mm Delos and headed over to Auriga to take in the three superb Messier clusters found in its borders.  Using Theta Aurigae as a starting point, I placed the star on the edge of the finder field, which put M37 in the opposite quadrant of the finder field.  Though the brightest of the three OCs in Auriga, it was somehow missed by Le Gentil who discovered M36 and M38 in 1749, making it an actual discovery of the famous comet hunter.  The Topaz jewel near the centre of the cluster immediately drew my gaze, which was surrounded by an oval shaped arrangement of stars, almost sprinkled like diamond dust around the vibrant central stone.  A rather prominent dark lane to one side which bisected the cluster from north to south also caught the eye.

Moving M37 towards the bottom of the finder field brought M36 to the field edge of the EP.  Appearing about 2/3 the size of M37, around a dozen or so stars shone brightly against the frail glow of the many more fainter stars that make up the 60 or so members of this open cluster.  While an impressive sight, it does not match the majesty of many OCs including the Pleiades.  However, at more than 4,000 light years distant, it is 10x further away than M45, and would easily outshine the Seven Sisters were the location the same with more than three times the absolute luminosity of 8,000 suns.  A short hop away was my final target in Auriga, M38, though I made a quick diversion to NGC 1931, another OC with some associated nebulosity, though I did not detect any during my fleeting visit.  M38 is similar in size to M37, but less impressive due to lower brightness. An elongated cross asterism featured at the centre of the cluster.  Nudging the scope east, revealed small open cluster NGC1907 appearing as a small smoky cloud with some granulation, hinting at the 30 or so stars that make up this cluster.

The wonderful open clusters of Auriga had me in the mood for more of the same, so I headed over to the home of almost 10% of the Milky Way’s 1,100+ known OCs.  It is hard to move more than eyepiece field without running into an open cluster in Cassiopeia, and I took in around 10 over the next 25 minutes, though three in particularly are among my favourites anywhere in the heavens and were on my target list.

Pointing towards Cassiopeia, which riding near the zenith was neck breaking with my straight through finder.

Centring Caph, one end of the “W” asterism which makes up Cassiopeia, NGC 7789 was half a finder view to the southwest and easy to pick out in the 7×50 unit.  The OC was discovered in the Autumn of 1783 by Caroline Herschel, and now bears the colloquial name of Caroline’s Rose and it is truly deserved.  With no overly bright members to distract the eye, the loops and twists of dozens upon dozens of stars seem to trace out the petals of the flower favoured every Valentine’s Day.  I found the most pleasing view with the 17mm which provided a nice framing but kept the 30’ cluster well compressed which helped to keep the petals obvious.

My next target is in my opinion one of the best OCs to be found anywhere in the sky.  Known by several names including the Owl Cluster, for me it was always be the E.T Cluster (revealing which generation I belong to).  As soon as I made the 2o hop west from Ruchbah using the 17mm, the impression was immediately of the eponymous character from Spielberg’s 1982 movie with two piercing eyes and arms reaching out for a hug from Elliot.

Last up was Collinder 463.  Starting from Gamma Camelopardalis, I placed it on the edge of my finder which brought mag +5 HR 743 in the opposite quarter of the finder. Then swinging the scope further west quickly revealed my target, surrounded by a trapezoid of 4 bright stars in the form of 50, 48, 42 and 40 Cass.  While the 17mm Nagler contained the full extent of the 57’ wide cluster, I preferred the view with the 21mm Ethos which concentrated the sparse cluster.  A sweeping curve of bright cluster members led to a boxy grouping of stars at one end always makes me think of a mini-Hyades, all superimposed on fainter stars.  The loose grouping makes it difficult to assess if some stars are true cluster members or just field stars but it only adds to the overall splendour of the view.

By this time, Orion was now riding quite high in the South East and my first ever scope DSO was crying out for a visit.  M42 always impresses and this first view of the coming winter season did not disappoint.  The field of the 17mn was almost completely filled with glowing ribbons of gas, with the two wing-like structures particularly prominent and the four brightest members of the Trapezium tightly packed at the centre of the nebula that birthed them.

Before moving on from Orion I decided to take a crack at another emission nebula in the hunter.  Sadly, the South East is not the darkest part of the sky from AstroCamp due to the light dome from nearby Abergavenny which would make this a little more challenging.  Not quite silly enough to attempt the Horsehead, my quarry was nearby Flame Nebula.  This is often seen as a litmus test as to whether an attempt for the horse is viable, which in itself means it is a tricky object.  Proximity to belt star Alnitak, while making it easy to find the location, means glare is also a problem.   The unfiltered view revealed no hint of the nebula.  However, adding in the UHC to the optical train allowed the side adjacent to Alnitak to just become visible but not much structure was discernible.

Moving on from some of the youngest objects in the heavens to some of the oldest, my next target was globular cluster M15 in Pegasus.  M15 is one of the most densely packed GCs in the Milky Way with a half-mass radius of only 10 light years.  The cluster has undergone a core collapse which might indicate the presence of a black hole.  The visual impression is certainly of a very dense cluster at the centre with a tight core surrounded by a mottled halo.

Now past 4am and having a 9-month-old experiencing her first cold meant sleep had been a precious and rare commodity in the week leading up to camp.  Those lost hours of sleep were starting to catch up with me, so I decided to continue until 4:30am.  Staying in Pegasus region of the sky, I panned up to the Andromeda Galaxy, which was visible with direct vision.  I used the 21mm to take in as much as the galaxy as possible.  The bright core was surrounded a mottled halo, which hinted at the many DSOs known to reside in our galactic cousin, as well as a swirl of dust lanes circling the core like water running down a drain.  Andromeda’s attendant galaxies M32 and M110 were also obvious but were nothing more than nebulous blobs.

Panning almost directly west 15-degrees revealed face on spiral galaxy M33.  I dropped down to the 17mm which nicely framed the Pinwheel. With averted vision, not only were the spiral arms relatively apparent, but several brighter clumps also became conspicuous, likely some of the larger emission nebula regions known in the Triangulum Galaxy.

Last up both in terms of objects to view, and the direction I needed to pan was NGC752 (C28).  Due to its size (60’), often thought of as a good binocular cluster, and while it is, the view is much more spectacular in a rich field scope.  I was able to make out the cluster naked eye and it looked quite impressive in my 7×50 finder as I centred up the scope.  Apart from one 6th magnitude star at one edge of the cluster, most of the 60-70 cluster members are of a similar brightness and appeared formed into several boxes joined by numerous short chains of stars, many of which are double stars.  While the 17mm nicely framed the cluster, I preferred the view at 21mm which compressed the cluster slightly but still allowed all the apparent structural features to be seen.

Several dozen objects over three and half hours had certainly scratched a growing astro-itch and was an unexpected session after the experience 12 hours earlier when driving through monsoon-like rain on the M4.  It was fantastic to be stargazing at AstroCamp once again.

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