Bad locations for astronomy

Well, in our continued hunt for easy to access public places suitable for astronomy we have come across another pitiful location. We should have guessed in advance. Beachy Head. Nobody around, clear skies, sounds good so far.

A nice elevated spot from which to observe

A nice elevated spot from which to observe. The clouds cleared up after an hour or so.

Unfortunately we had forgotten that many people go there for the sad purpose of suicide – there are kind souls that patrol the area every 15 minutes or so to look out for people in distress and offer some sort of comfort. A fine job which unfortunately involves shining very bright lights all over the place. Oh, and there was a lighthouse too which was quite annoying.

Lighthouses are not your friend

Lighthouses are not your friend



Star gazing at Devil’s Dyke

I’m venturing forth in the south east of england to find good locations for field astronomy. My first attempt was Devil’s Dyke near Brighton. My thinking was that it was easy for me to get to (1 hour drive), it had a decent car park and it was a short walk to plenty of fields and countryside where I could set up.

We made sure we arrived a good 45 minutes before dark in order to find a good location and set the scope up. This is important as setting up in the dark is a pain in the bum. I find it particularly tricky to align my finder scope in the dark. Anyway a nice flat bit of grass was found and as soon as it was getting dark I was able to see Polaris and we were aligned before it was truly dark. At this point I should point out that I had actually forgotten to bring a warm coat. It was just a few degrees above zero so this was not clever at all and I urge you not to underestimate how cold you get when standing still at night!

The location was not entirely a success. We set up fairly near the car park only to find that there were frequently cars turning and headlights blazing through the night in our direction. So no chance for proper night vision to see faint objects – and we did try. Pointing our little Skywatcher 150P at Andromeda revealed precisely nothing. The skies to the south were shrouded in an orange glow from Brighton so that was no good either.

We did manage to catch Venus before it set though. It presented a rather fetching crescent just turning orange as it headed for the horizon. There was a brief period of about an hour when the skies above were clear and we experimented with aiming the scope at various stars without really knowing what they were. It was just an opportunity to get used to slewing a telescope on an equatorial mount – it’s really not that easy to grasp at first (for me anyway).

At one point we saw what I think was either the space station or the shuttle (it was in the vicinity at the time) passing overhead. Gave me a bit of a thrill. Just as I was getting particularly cold a chap came out of a van in the car park, trotted over to our location and offered us some hot soup and a hunk of bread! I decided pretty quickly that he was not trying to drug us and steal our telescope (or car) and took him up on his kind offer. His name was Wayne and he was converting an old van into something like a home-made mobile home which he intended to travel across India in. Thanks for the soup Wayne!

I would not recommend that you select Devil’s Dyke as a location for astronomy – there’s just too much light pollution from Brighton to look south and unless you trek some distance into a field probably quite a bit of pollution from the car park too. Despite this, we had a great time. There’s something satisfying about setting up your scope in the countryside and learning how to point it at objects of interest. We’ll be trying another location soon but part of the reason for doing it is simply to understand how the telescope works and how to get the best out of it. I’ve also learned that having a proper ‘mission plan’ is a good idea. Next time we’ll have a full plan of what we’re going to observe. I will report back.

Back garden astronomy

OK so I researched the equipment carefully, made my choice and ran home excitedly with my new toys. Well, the adult equivalent which I suppose is driving home with a smile. Anyway, I didn’t really think about the observing conditions in my back garden. How stupid. I live in a valley so there’s often cloud cover, there are trees and buildings obstructing my view all around and there’s quite a lot of light pollution close to my house too. About as bad as it gets.

So, what can I see from my garden? To be honest it’s pretty hard even to align the equatorial mount with Polaris! The only observing I can really do in the garden is to look at the moon. Which is a pretty spectacular thing to look at to be honest. It’s really the idea of looking at deep space objects (DSOs) that excites me so I had kind of ignored the moon.

So having had pretty much no joy observing from the garden I have started going on evening excursions to other locations in the hope that they afford a better view of the sky.

Choosing my first telescope

When I set about researching telescopes before buying my first one I was conscious that which scope I chose depended a lot on what I wanted to do with it. I’m really interested in looking at whole galaxies or nebulae. It’s not that I don’t want to look at craters on the moon or Saturn’s rings but the for me the beauty of a nebula or a galaxy tops it every time. At least from the photos I’ve seen anyway – I haven’t observed them yet!

So I knew that I would need a reasonably large aperture telescope because the things I want to observe can be faint. That meant that although refractors can generate beautiful images I could not afford one large enough for my purposes. That left me thinking about newtonian reflectors and catadioptrics. Newtonian reflectors are very cheap in comparison to other telescopes or rather you can buy a much larger aperture scope for the price. In particular a large dobsonian can be had at an incredibly low price and I was very tempted. One benefit of a catadioptric, where the light path is folded within the tube, is that you can have a very compact telescope. This is important if you are short of storage space or if you intend to travel with your scope.

I also knew that the amount of light that the human eye can collect in the short instant it takes us to see what we’re looking at could not hope to reveal the beautiful colours I want to see so I was going to need to get into astrophotography. That meant I needed to use an equatorial mount to accurately track the objects for photography. Cheaper Alt-Az mounts which are very intuitive to use are no good for astrophotography as they need to move in both axes to track stars. Equatorial mounts need only rotate in one axis to follow whatever you’re observing since the other axis is aligned to the North Celestial Pole around which the stars appear to rotate, thereby allowing you to take photos without star trails. So that meant no big cheap dob.

Another important consideration is that I know absolutely nothing about the night sly and would benefit from one of the computerised mounts that has the ability to point at objects in it’s database. Otherwise I was very unlikely to find the faint objects I was looking for. In fact, I doubt my ability to find anything much other than the moon! Sophisticated Goto mounts don’t come cheap so that meant spending less on the telescope itself – no expensive catadioptric.

With all this in mind I bought my newtonian reflector on a Goto equatorial mount – SkyWatch Explorer 150P NEQ3 Goto.

My first telescope – SkyWatch Explorer 150P NEQ3 Goto

I’ve just bought my first telescope! I am excluding the criminally bad ‘toy’ I had as a child that put me off astronomy for the next quarter century – no offence intended to my mum who bought it for me. I’m also going to gloss over the fact that it has been completely clouded over since I bought it (days and days of cloud!) so I haven’t had a chance to use it yet. Apart from sharing my utter joy at having a telescope I’m also going to post some information and answers to questions that it took me a while to find on the internet. I’ll also write about my learning process as I go along – bearing in mind that I am a complete novice I hope that it will serve as a guide to those in a similar position as to what they can expect.

So, on with the basics first, here’s my rather small equipment list:

Skywatcher Explorer 150P

NEQ3 Goto mount

Eyepieces: 10mm, 25mm and a x2 Barlow

Skywatcher PowerTank 17Ah

My first ever telescope - Skywatcher Explorer 150P EQ3 newtonian reflector

My first ever telescope - Skywatcher Explorer 150P EQ3 newtonian reflector

This is a Newtonian reflector telescope. Although I haven’t used it yet it did receive pretty good reviews from respected sources. Parts of it feel a bit cheap though. The attachment for the finder scope seems a bit rubbish as it allows the scope to move around but then I’ve never set up a scope before so perhaps I’ve done it incorrectly. The finder scope itself is quite nice and bright to look through.

The equatorial mount that goes with it seems very solid and well built – satisfying in the same way as a nicely built car door slamming shut. I’ve haven’t used the Goto function yet as the entire northern hemisphere clouded over the second I bought my scope and has remained so ever since. Mind you, it’s morning two days later and the skies are clearing – fingers crossed for tonight! It might still be a challenge though as the Goto doesn’t appear to have any instructions whatsoever… mmm

The eyepieces seem a bit on the cheap side and I find it’s quite a strain to focus when using the barlow with the 10mm eyepiece. I think they will become my first upgrade when I have some spare cash.

Last bit of equipment on the list is the battery – or power tank in the macho jargon of the marketing literature. I’ve read other user’s posts on the net about such batteries and the conclusion appears to be that serious observers require much better power sources but complete amateurs like me should get an easy 3 hours observing out of this battery. I will report back after testing it in the field (my postage stamp sized back garden actually).

The shop I bought them in is called Astronomia (I have absolutely no connection to them) and I would recommend them without hesitation. They were extremely helpful, knowledgeable and nice people.

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