As I have mentioned numerous times on here before, I am a member of the Wolverhampton Astronomical Society. Right at the start of the lockdown, all the way back in 2020, I joined the society as a way to gain knowledge about the night sky and learn how to use my new-at-the-time telescope rig. Throughout the pandemic, we were one of the many societies who turned to live streaming their lectures via Zoom or other softwares. This has been a big help to beginners like myself, as the talks range in topics and complexity and I have made some amazing friends in the process.
Since everything has gone back to relative normality, the current society president has been pushing for all the members to meet up and have a nights observing with our rigs. However some of us imagers require one small thing – POWER! Yes, you can run telescope mounts off old depleted car batteries, however a PC would quickly drain whatever small amount of power is left within the battery. Therefore, mains hookup is pretty much a necessity, especially for myself. Fortunately, the president knows of a campsite not far from the Long Mynd, Shropshire, that is perfect for astronomy. It’s under Bortle 4 skies and is situated within a slight valley, and so is protected from most light pollution. And it gets even better…it has mains hookup for campers and caravans. PERFECT!
Some of the society members have previously visited this site back in the summer and September of 2021. With work commitments at the time, I unfortunately couldn’t attend. However for this one I planned well in advance and made sure that I booked the time off. So on Friday, I packed my bags with the mantra of ‘take everything astro related, a tent and food is just an unfortunate necessity’. What the image below doesn’t show is that under the tent and blankets, hides:
- A Sky-Watcher 130PDS in its flight case
- A guide scope in its flight case
- An Intel NUC mini PC in its box.
- A telescope accessories box,
- A Star Adventurer 2i in its box
- Fully loaded camera equipment bag, including the Samyang 135mm lens.
One thing that was mentioned to me by many society members before going to the camp site, was don’t underestimate how cold it gets, even in the middle of the summer. So I packed loads of layers, including base layers and thermal trousers…and I’m so glad that I did!
The weather during the day was deceptive; we had glorious sunshine upon arrival, and quickly setup my rig next to my tent. I set up right on the northern fence of the site, which enabled me great southern views as the sun set.
As the clouds cleared, I even managed to do some quick solar observing which resulted in amazing live views of a series of sun spots. individual video frames can be seen below.
I did record numerous 15-Second video clips using Canon EOS Utility, I’ve just not had the time to process them properly, plus I’m still figuring out PIPP and Autostakkert!3.
However as the sun set, the temperature quickly dropped, ending at around -4ºC by the time that we were going to bed in the early hours of the morning. Even with three layers of clothes, a 3-season sleeping bag and an army blanket, I was still relatively cold. By daybreak though, I was lovely and toasty and didn’t want to exit my tent. With the sound of a trickling stream running behind my tent, along with bird song and constant bleating of sheep, it was a welcome relief to wakeup to when compared to the busy traffic of home.
How was the evenings I hear you ask?
Utterly breathtaking…when the clouds cleared that is. I’ve been in Bortle 4 skies before, but that was in a back garden surrounded by houses. This was truly something else. The weather forecast on Friday morning said clouds and possible snow for the entire weekend, however it turned into two clear nights with passing high cloud. To the naked eye, it was a truly stunning sight with the largest stars glowing magnificently like signposts in the night sky. You cannot prepare yourself for the sheer amount of stars that you can see from rural skies, so much so I couldn’t locate the simplest of constellations! And just to top it off, the Milky Way region between Cygnus and Orion, passing through Cassiopeia, was just about visible naked eye if you looked carefully enough.
On the first night, we went out for food as the forecast still wasn’t too promising, stating clouds would roll in around 8PM. However, when we came out at around 9PM, the skies were completely clear. We rushed back to the site and got everything set up ready to image. As I was there for more than one night, I took the time to truly nail down polar alignment using the 3-point polar alignment routine within N.I.N.A.. It took me 15 minutes of constantly adjusting the altitude and and azimuth bolts, but I finally managed to get it down to below 5 arc-seconds. At this point it was nearly 10PM, and the promised high cloud had started to roll in, but I chose a target that I’ve never done from home before, and doesn’t need hours upon hours of integration.
Markarian’s Chain, is a group of bright galaxies located just north of the bowl of Virgo. It was first discovered by Charles Messier in the early 1780’s, who documented M84 and M86. It was later visited by William Herschel who found the rest of the galaxies in the cluster. However 200 years later, it was the Armenian astrophysicist Benjamin Markarian who studied the cluster and discovered their common motion in the early 1960’s. In honour, the entire group is named after him.
As the cluster is so far away, around 50-55 million lightyears, we can’t resolve any particular detail in most of the galaxies. The exception though is NGC 4438, one of the two central galaxies in the chain, where two twisted ‘arms’ extend out from its bright core. The disk itself is being heavily distorted by its close neighbour, NGC 4435, slowly bring ripped apart as part of the gravitational warfare.
Just south-east of the chain, lies the elliptical galaxy M87 which became famous three years ago this month, with the unprecedented release of the first ever picture of a black hole, found in the galaxy nucleus. Unfortunately, my standard FoV just cuts off this galaxy when imaging the chain, however with careful positioning and rotation, I might be able to get everything into the same shot. Next time perhaps.
As the evening went on though, the cloud unfortunately became thicker and thicker, to the point where I kept losing my guide stars. At this point it was bitterly cold, and ice, not dew, was forming on the scope itself. I decided enough was enough and packed everything away, parked the scope and covered it over, leaving it running dark and bias frames until the morning.
I woke up the next morning to brilliant sunshine and a completed sequence in N.I.N.A.. Flat frames were the first task of the day, well maybe after some breakfast and coffee! I took my usual 30 flats, loaded everything into Deep Sky Stacker and started to comb through the frames. Now unfortunately, I had to discount around an hour of integration time due to the clouds and/or star trailing caused by the lack of a guide star. All in all though, I managed to capture 1 hour 55 minutes of usable data on the chain, and I am well chuffed with the final result!
During the day, me and the fellow society members helped out a new member who has had her scope and mount for around 10 years, and not yet had the chance to get it working properly due to an incorrectly mounted motor. Five minutes of dismantling and adjusting the motor position, the EQ5 mount was fully operational again without any binding or slipping. Next, we cleared the scope of all the cobwebs and re-aligned the mirrors using both her Cheshire collimator and my laser collimator for double measure. At the end of the afternoon, we had a fully functional go-to rig that she could finally use. To say she was excited for the evening is an understatement!
The second evening was much better, with Orion slowly appearing just as the sun was setting. I quickly setup the star adventurer with the Samyang 135mm riding on top, taking even shorter exposures on Orion in order to complete my wide-field image from last month. In order to match the equipment usedI used last time, I swapped over the cameras; so my standard daylight camera was fitted to the scope, and my full-spectrum was on the 135mm with the IDAS NBZ mounted to the front of the lens. Unfortunately, I stupidly forgot to take any calibration frames before removing the camera, so the images are pretty much useless without calibration frames. Doh!
As I was using an unmodified camera on the scope, my target for the second night would be M106, an intermediate spiral galaxy in Canes Venatici. However, one major problem derailed my plans that night; we lost all power on the entire site, with less than half an hour of exposures captured. However, the rest of the society had one of the best nights in memory for some members. We had manual push-pull dobsonians out in force, as well as binoculars and battery-powered equatorial scopes. This just cements that I REALLY need to sort out battery power for my entire rig!
I’m not a visual observer in the slightest, but out in these dark rural skies, the views through 8″ and 10″ scopes were truly magnificent. Personally, the best views were of Messier 42, the Orion Nebula, where the arms were easily visible, as well as the shadow of the Running Man Nebula (M43) next to it. I can understand now the aperture fever that probably all visual observers feel, as it is truly justified under these dark skies.
As I was flitting between different peoples rigs, I returned to the society member who I helped earlier in the day. Myself and a fellow imager stayed to help her understand the star alignment routine on the handset, and finally slew the scope and located her first deep sky object, Messier 51. The views from the 8″ mirror were truly stunning of the spiral galaxy, as it devours its sister, NGC 5195. The two nuclei were clearly visible as well as a faint outline of the spiral arms. I’d take that as a huge success, as well as captivating another person in the process!
At around 2AM I called it a night, with no sign of the power being turned back on. In any case, it was absolutely freezing at around -6ºC and I physically couldn’t feel my toes, even with thermal socks! Overall, the whole weekend was an outstanding success for the Wolverhampton Astronomical Society, with around 12 members turning up on the second night.
It was a leisurely pack down on the Sunday morning, and we all headed home just after lunch time. All in all, it was a truly stunning weekend and my first experience of a star party, even though it was an in-house affair. I am thoroughly looking forward to the next one later on in the year, and hopefully I’ll even get to use my star tracker for the reason I initially bought it for; the Milky Way core with a massive wide angle lens! Here’s hoping!
Unfortunately the British weather has turned cloudy once again this week, and the dark nights are quickly becoming shorter and shorter as we head towards summer. I’ve decided that I really want to do Messier 106 justice this galaxy season, and that means more dark skies if I can manage it somehow!
Till next time, wherever you are, I wish you all clear skies!