2013 Observing

Jupiter is at opposition on the 6th of January – here are some tips for observing it.

Technically this item really falls into the observing notes for next year but this will be the last blog for 2013, which has seemed to me to have been particularly cloudy, maybe that is just my imagination!

On the 6th of January 2014 Jupiter will be at about its best for observing.  It is at opposition at just slightly after 9pm and will be very high in the sky as it crosses the meridian at around midnight.  Opposition means that the planet will be exactly opposite the Sun and therefore very high in the sky and also closest to the Earth.  This will be the best observing position for around 12 years.  A little unfortunately the Great Red Spot, the huge swirling storm in the southern hemisphere, will not be visible until around 02:35 hrs on the morning of the 7th (centered at 03:25hrs) – so one for the night owls amongst us.  However on the previous night you can view it from around 08:45 although the planet will be only about 15 degrees above the horizon at that time.

As Jupiter is so bright a crystal clear sky is not necessary to observe it, as long as you can see the planet by eye it will look good through the telescope.  What is important is steady “seeing”; this was discussed in more detail in the article below on the jet stream (November).  We can only hope for the best.

Observing the moons of Jupiter is very easy and binoculars will show them quite clearly.  Watch them for an hour or so and make sketches of their positions – you will see they move quite rapidly.  With binoculars you may be able to make out cloud bands; the two equatorial belts can usually be seen.  With even a modest telescope these are obvious.

Observing the Great Red Spot (GRS) can be something of a challenge. Below is a table for January of when you can see it.

1: 18:21; 2: 4:16; 3: 0:07,19:58; 4: 5:54; 5: 1:45, 21:36;

6: 7:32, 17:28; 7: 3:23, 23:14; 8: 19:06; 9: 5:01;

10: 0:52, 20:43; 11: n/a; 12: 2:30, 22:21; 13: 18:13;

14: 23:59; 15: 19:51; 16: n/a; 17: 1:37, 21:29;

18: 17:20; 19: 3:15, 23:07; 20: 9:02; 21: 4:54, 14:49;

22: 0:45, 20:36; 23: n/a; 24: 2:23, 22:14; 25: 8:10, 18:05;

26: 4:01, 23:52; 27: 19:43; 28: n/a; 29: 1:30, 21:22;

30: 17:13; 31: 3:08, 23:00

These times are for when the Red Spot is on the meridian of the planet but you can observe it 50 minutes either side of these times.

To observe the Red Spot you will need a refracting telescope of at least 75 mm aperture or a reflecting telescope of at least 130 mm aperture.  I have seen it clearly many times with my 102 mm refractor.  For information, a larger reflecting telescope is required because they have slightly lower contrast than refracting designs.  At any rate the larger the telescope the easier it is to see.  It is not necessary to have the telescope motorized but it certainly helps.  Do not be tempted to use too high a magnification when looking for the GRS, contrast is more important than magnification; 100x or less should do the trick.  Use an eyepiece that shows the bands most clearly.  Look first of all for an interruption in the southern equatorial belt.  As you look more closely, if conditions allow you may suddenly see the spot itself.  Sometimes you will just see the dent the GRS makes in the belt. When you have spotted it suddenly becomes almost obvious!  It tends to be a sort of salmon red to me but this may vary between observers and instruments.  Some say certain filters help and while they can give a bit of assistance in my experience it is only marginal.

I took the pictures below on the 29th December, not my best pictures of the planet by any means as the seeing was not very good but they shows how the planet is looking at present.  They was taken with an 200 mm aperture Maksutov reflecting telescope.  The red spot is very obvious and you can also see the big dent it makes in the southern equatorial belt.  This is often the first thing you see that reveals the position of the spot.  The other cloud formations that can be seen in the pictures need very good seeing to view by eye but the darker northern pole can usually be seen easily.  The little orange object to the left is the moon Io.  Shorty after this was taken it started to cross in front of the planet.  The second picture was taken 11 minutes later.  Notice the shadow of Io on Jupiter’s clouds.  Such transits of moons are very easy to observe with basic equipment and happen quite quickly.  Incidentally this second picture also shows a bit of detail in the red spot that was not captured in the first image.



In case you were wondering where to find Jupiter it is really quite hard to miss,  It is the extremely bright object that rises in the east (in Gemini, look for Castor and Pollux) in the early evening and is due south at about 60 degrees above the horizon around midnight.  Observing when it is at its highest has real benefits.  You will be looking through much less atmosphere so there will be much less disturbance.  Jupiter will be around for a couple of months yet but early January will be a brilliant time to observe it.

December 2013 – ISON was fried but Jupiter and Orion put on a magnificent show

As everyone will know by now our high hopes for Comet ISON were unfortunately dashed as it was ripped apart by tidal forces and toasted by the Sun.  When an object gets too close to the Sun, or any large object come to that, it may pass inside the Roche limit.  This is the point where the gravitational tension becomes so great that it can overcome the strength of the object and cause it to break up.  This is what happened in the case of ISON.  The concept of the Roche limit comes from Edouard Roche who developed the theory in the 19th century.  Roche’s theory was that this was the fate of a moon called Veritas that got too close to Saturn causing it to break up and form the rings.  We now know that the rings of Saturn are not the remains of a moon but pieces of water ice in a dynamic equilibrium with Saturn’s many moons; as Alan Cruttenden eloquently explained in the November meeting.

Saturn is currently very low in the East and only rises at about 3:30am by the end of the month.  In contrast Jupiter is now magnificent culminating (due south and highest in the sky) at about 18 minutes past midnight by the end of the month and at over 63 degrees elevation.  Jupiter is at opposition in the first week of the New Year and is perfectly placed for viewing because you do not have to look through much of the atmosphere.

Uranus is also around and culminates at around 17:30 by the end of December and at 43 degrees elevation is worth looking for – it is visible in binoculars.  A telescope will reveal a very small blue disk.  Use a star chart to find it or software such as Stellarium link. This freeware is invaluable when observing.  Uranus has a magnitude of 5.3 so on a really good night is visible with the naked eye – well that’s the theory anyway.  It’s presently located about 6 degrees south west of delta Piscium.

Another planet we have not seen around for some time is Mars.  This red planet rises just after midnight by the end of the month and culminates at around 6am.  It is still very small at less than 7 arc seconds diameter so it will be difficult to observe much more than its white polar cap with reasonable sized telescopes.  We will have to wait until April when it reaches almost 15 arc minutes to get a good view of its surface features.

The December skies are gorgeous on a nice dark clear night and with Orion due south at around 11 pm.  The chart below shows the sky with Orion on the meridian (green line)

december 2013 chart

There is just so much to see in this constellation.  M42 or the Great Orion Nebula – which to the naked eye looks like the middle star in Orion’s sword – is breathtaking through binoculars and through a telescope is simply wondrous.  It is a massive cloud of glowing gas and dust and a birthplace for new stars.  The swooping arms of gas are being blown apart by the ultra violet radiation form the newly formed stars at the centre of the formation.  This picture was taken with a 250 mm Newtonian a couple of years ago from Abergavenny.


In fact Orion has many splendid nebulae in it, the Great Nebula is easily visible with the unaided eye, others such as M78, a reflection nebula above Alnitak (the most easterly star in Orion’s belt), can be found with a telescope while others such as the flame nebula (NGC2024) and Horse Head nebula (IC434) can only be seen with exceptionally large amateur scopes (400 mm aperture) on the best of nights.  These difficult objects can however be photographed with more modest scopes and can be very beautiful and dramatic.  In fact the Horse Head nebula was discovered as long ago as 1888 by Williamina Fleming using a photographic plate at Harvard College Observatory.  Today’s technology has made things somewhat easier for us.  I took the photograph below in early December with a 130 mm diameter Newtonian reflector and a DSLR camera.



The Horse Head stands out as a dark dust cloud in contrast to the glowing hydrogen gas cloud behind it.  The hydrogen is being drawn out by magnetic fields.  Below the hydrogen gas cloud there are few star visible as they are being obscured by a thick dust cloud of which the Horse Head is part.  This is a region of new star formation, as is the Great Orion Nebula in the sword.  The Horse Head is about 1500 light years away.

The pinkish nebula to the left of the picture is the so-called Flame Nebula.  This is another cloud of hydrogen gas in the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex that this time is being ionized by Alnitak, the very bright star that dominates the picture.

Alnitak itself is a multiple star with two smaller companions that are obscured by the glare of the bright blue supergiant.  It is 736 light years away.

So even if you cannot see the more faint nebulae do have a look at the Great Orion Nebula though binoculars or a telescope – a sight never to be forgotten

This is the last blog of 2013 so I would like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year.

November, Wet weather but Jupiter and Mars are back and a chance to spot some comets

November is often the wettest month in South Wales with rainfall normally more than twice that of April to July, it usually subsides after Christmas and decreases progressively towards the driest month of May.  So although the dark nights start earlier it does not help when there are fewer opportunities for observing.  The other problem, and one that has been a feature of this November, is the jet stream.  The jet stream is a powerful ribbon of air that flows at high speed around the globe.  It flows at over 100 mph and at over 11 kilometers high.  There is one in the northern and another in the southern hemisphere.  Guess what – it often flows right above us in the UK.  The jet stream has a number of consequences for astronomical observing.  When it flows south of the UK the weather is more settled but cold – this is what can lead to a cold summer.  When it flows to the north we can get very settled warm weather and sometimes beautiful stable observing conditions – we call this good seeing.  This is the best time for planetary observing where high magnifications are required.  This November the jet stream has been persistently right over us as the map below shows.

jet streamThe red is areas where the jet stream is intense, yellow less so.  You can just make out the British Isles almost hidden under the vertical swirl in the centre of the map!

This accounts for the windy wet weather and really very poor seeing.  It does not matter how good your telescope is, with these seeing conditions it is hard to see much at all.

You can see a jet stream forecast here http://www.netweather.tv/?action=jetstream;sess

When we get the crisp cold January nights with sparkling stars the air is often very dry.  This gives great transparency to the air; which can be excellent for astrophotography.  It is usually not too good for “seeing” however

So much for the difficult observing conditions in November – at least we can look forward in expectation of better seeing after Christmas.

As last year, one of the main features of the winter skies is Jupiter.  It is now rising high in the sky at reasonable times.  It is unmistakable being so bright. It rises in the east at around 19:30 in the evening and by late November reaches its highest point (culmination) at around 03:30 am (around 60 degrees altitude).  It has a nice 44 arc minute diameter so is relatively easy to observe with modest instruments.  Even binoculars will show the Galilean moons easily. If you want to see the famous red spot you will need a telescope of at least 3 inches aperture if a refractor, 5 inches for a reflector.  It will be difficult in poor seeing conditions.  For times of the transit a calculator can be found at the following link:


The astronomical press has been hailing the appearance of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), all year.  It is brightening but still tricky to see as it is very low in the sky as the sun starts to rise.  It is reported to be visible with binoculars.  From Abergavenny it rises at the end of November at around 05:45, which is about 1 hour before sunrise – i.e. dawn – so observing it will be a real challenge.  At magnitude 4 it requires quite a dark sky.  If you wish to have a look find Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, it will be just below that and a bit to the east (left). Do not look if the Sun is anywhere near rising, you will not see the comet and could damage your eyesight.  There is another comet around that is easier to see.  This is Comet Lovejoy.  A location map for both comets can be found at this link:


If you do decide to get up early, and do some comet hunting you will also be able to see Mars which rises at around 01:15 and culminates at around 07:40.  It is very small though at only about 5 arc seconds diameter, even with a quality telescope it would need exceptional seeing to see much detail.  It is pretty easy to find however.  It is the bright orange object just below the eastern end of Leo.

October 2013, Jupiter is back and the Andromeda and Pinwheel galaxies are high in the sky.

The weather for the start of October can be unsettled as the jet stream comes lower and so it has proven to be this year with few opportunities for observing in the first couple of weeks and plenty of rain.

The Milky Way is still high in the sky in the early evening but the Autumn constellations of Andromeda, Pisces and Perseus dominate the sky later in the evening and there are a number of excellent binocular objects coming into view and a few planets and even a couple of comets.

The Andromeda (M31)and Triangulum (M33) galaxies are fun to hunt down on a clear night.  Both are easily visible with binoculars, M31 is very easy, and visible to the naked eye but M33 a bit harder.  In fact M33 gets much harder with high magnification as it has quite a low surface brightness – also don’t try to find it on a misty night it needs to be quite clear.  The chart below shows you how to find these objects.


october 2013

There are two easy ways to find M31.  Find the square of Pegasus, it is in the South West mid evening.  The bright star at the top left corner is called Alpheratz (α And).  Find the next star to the left, then the next then go up two stars and there is M31.  Another way of finding it is to find Cassiopeia and the imagine the three stars on the right (γ Cas, Caph and Shedir) are forming an arrow pointing down toward Andromeda, follow the arrow down and about two thirds of the way to Andromeda you will find M31.

M33 is not really visible with the naked eye from this part of the world although should be from clear mountain skies in a dark area.  To find it look for the three stars of the triangulum constellation just to the east of Andromeda and below Cassiopeia, the galaxy is just above and to the west of the point of the triangle.  If using a telescope use a very low magnifications, it may be best to hunt with binoculars first.

Both M31 and the Triangulum (Pinwheel) galaxy are part of our local group and are gravitationally linked with our own galaxy. M31 is around 2.5 million light years away and M33 around 3 million light years away.  Both galaxies are quite large objects in the sky, M31 is almost 4 times wider than the full moon and M33 is just over twice the size.  However the full size of these objects in only appreciated photographically as the outer reaches are too dim to see. It is very easy to see the core of M31 even with binoculars but the outer reaches will not be visible.  With even a modest 100 mm telescope it is possible to see M31’s dwarf satellite galaxies M32 and M110, so you get 3 galaxies for the price of one!  The core of M33 is much less clear and the galaxy appears as a poorly defined blob.

The picture below is of M33, the spiral structure is obvious although would need an exceptionally large telescope to see with the eye.  It was one of the first objects to be recognised as having a spiral structure by Lord Rosse with his 72” “Leviathan of Parsonstown”  I took this from Abergavenny on the 9th October this year it consists of 4.5 hours exposure time with a 5” reflector.



Also on the chart are a number of pretty star cluster, all easy binocular objects.  M34 is a small open cluster that is around 1500 light years away.  A much more spectacular pair of objects and a personal favourite of mine is the double cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia. This is just visible to the unaided eye but really lovely in binoculars.  With telescopes smaller and smaller stars can be identified.  These clusters are around 7500 light years away and at under 13 million years old are quite young, hence their hot blue colours.  This is one of those objects that I return to again and again, there always seems to be something else to see.

Jupiter makes a welcome return rising in the East in Gemini just before midnight and reaching almost 60 degree above the horizon before dawn.  It has an apparent diameter of 39 arc seconds so a lot of detail will be visible.  It is pretty difficult to miss as it is so bright.

Uranus is visible in the south in Pisces, it is not quite visible to the naked eye but a telescope will show it as a tiny disk.  In the middle of the month it cross the meridian (due south) at around half past midnight, 31 degrees above the horizon.

Neptune is not far away in Aquarius.  It is therefore very low and tricky to identify as it is easy to mistake for a magnitude 8 star.

Comet Ison is beginning to put in an appearance low in Leo just before dawn.  It is still very dim and will be easier to see (we hope!) in November (watch this space).


September 2013, the beautiful Milky Way and Jupiter returns in the early morning

Well its been a year since this blog was started although it hardly seems that long! The question was asked if last year’s material will be recycled, the fact is that there is so much to see that repetition is hardly necessary, plus we have new things appearing such as the nova in Delphinus last month or the Comet Panstarrs earlier in the year.

Having said that one thing does bear repeating, the beauty of the summer night sky. I took this picture in the middle of August from Abergavenny using a modified Nikon 1000D. The modification allow the camera to capture the red colour of the hydrogen bearing nebulae more effectively. I also used a filter that removes the light pollution from street lights. This part of the sky is visible almost overhead just after it gets dark.


The Milky Way above Abergavenny
The Milky Way above Abergavenny

The thing I enjoy about such wide angle views is that the more you look the more you see and I have annotated the brighter and larger objects. The red patches are gas nebulae and all popular targets for astrophotography. The bright cloud of the Milky Way is obvious as is the dark dusk lane running through the centre. Just of centre to the left is Le Gentil 3. On a good night this is visible to the naked eye and is a dark nebula complex. It is named after Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean Baptiste; aka Le Gentil, a particularly sad character. He traveled to the Phillipines to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 but did not make it in time owing to the British French war, so was still on the ship and could not take useful measurements. He decided to wait until the next transit in June 1769 and settled in Pondicherry, India. Unfortunately in the sunny climate of India it was cloudy on the 4th June so the missed the transit (we had more luck on the Blorenge a year last June!), his colleagues in Manila had an uninterrupted view. He then fell ill for 9 months with dysentery before hitching a lift onboard a Spanish warship to get home to Europe. He was almost ship wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope but made it into Cadiz and finally walked across the Pyrenees into France. Having been absent for 11 years, presumed dead, his estate had been distributed to relatives and creditors, his position at the Royal Academy filled by another and his wife remarried. It takes determination to be a good astronomer!

Talking of luck, the picture of the Milky Way had an exposure time of around 1 hour, and was taken on the 13th August – the night of the Perseid meteor shower. It was a beautiful clear night in Abergavenny and I observed dozens of meteors – none of which passed in front of my camera lens! Oh well there is always next year.

The nova in Delphinus discussed last month was located just above the constellation on the extreme right of the picture. This was taken two days before the nova was first observed and is therefore absent here.



There are many other interesting objects in this picture worth hunting for with binoculars or a modest telescope. Starting from the right (W); Brocchi’s cluster is fun to look for and easy to find. It is just to the West of Albireo and appears as a coat hanger lit up by bright stars – it is merely a chance arrangement (or asterism). Look carefully and you will see it in the photo. The Witches Broom and Veil Nebula also stand out well in this picture, which gives a feeling for their size. The nebulosity around Sadr photographs well and is very large but is not visible in a telescope as it is too faint. The North American and Pelican nebulae are also very difficult to see but photograph easily, they have a very low surface brightness.

Herchel’s garnet star in Cepheus (Mu Cephei) is worth looking for. First noted by William Herchel it is one of the brightest and largest stars known in our galaxy. It is a red super giant and around 1000 times as large as the Sun and 100,000 times brighter. The reason it does not look brighter is that it has reached the end of its life and is fusing helium into carbon. It is this soot that is obscuring the star itself and makes it look so dim (mag around 4.3). This star is variable, meaning its brightness changes over time.

For those of us that enjoy planets September sees the return of an old favourite – Jupiter. I have already observed it a couple of times this month – at around 4:30 am – but by the end of the month it will be rising soon after midnight in the East


Nova appears in Delphinus


A bright nova has appeared in the constellation of Delphinus.  It was spotted last week by a Japanese observer (Koichi Itagaki) and has reached a magnitude or around 4.5.  It is very bright for a nova and is visible to the unaided eye – although the present moon could not do a better job of spoiling the view!  Such bright nova are only spotted a few times in a decade.

I took a wide field picture of the area on the 12th and there was no sign of it, I took the picture below on the 18th at around 11:30 pm and it is obvious in the centre of the frame.  I have marked the magnitude of some of the surrounding stars for comparison (the relevant star is just to the left of the numbers).  For those unfamiliar with magnitude, the higher the number the dimmer the star.  Magnitude 6 is about the very dimmest visible to the unaided eye – only on the darkest nights can we see such stars from South Wales.  Sirius is our brightest star at -1.46.  Magnitude 4 is quite dim but reasonably easy to see.

This nova is already beginning to dim and in a few weeks will no doubt have subsided into the darkness again.  Nova are caused by violent outbursts from stars.  Typically a binary pair may have a dwarf component sucking material out of its companion star.  The point is reached where the dwarf becomes unstable and explodes shedding its outer layers.  The core of the white dwarf remains intact and the whole process may be repeated again years in the future  These are not the same as supernova which are altogether much larger and catastrophic.


nova in delphinus_annotated

For those with goto telescopes it can be found at RA 20h 23m 30.7s, Dec +20° 46′ 03″.  If you do not have such a telescope it can be found by following the point of the arrow Sagitta.  There is a good location map on the Astronomy Now web site.

August 2013 – Darker skies have returned and we look at some nebulae in Cygnus

That year went quickly! It has been one year since this blog was started.

Well we got our barbeque July after all with plenty of long warm evenings, we also had quite a few clear nights although the humidity and persistent high clouds meant that the transparency was not particularly good.  The high pressure did give some very stable seeing to give some nice views of the last of Saturn’s apparition.  In the second half of July the nights started to get really dark after midnight and it was possible to start observing some of those elusive deep sky objects again.

I mentioned last month the witches broom aka. the western Veil Nebula (or NGC6960 for those with go-to mounts).  Well I managed to get a picture of it between the clouds on the 26th July.  So here it is for those that have not seen it before.

Witches broom mix 2_filtered

Of course it is still available in August and should now be even higher in the sky and against a darker background, which is essential.  The witches broom is only part of a relatively large nebulae complex which extends over a few degrees of the sky (about 6x larger than a full moon).  Much of it can be seen through most telescopes but as it is faint, the larger the better e.g. 130 mm aperture or more.  If you have an OIII or UHC filter now is the time to use it, such filters help enormously, although it can be seen without on a very clear dark night.  The nebulae are the remains of a supernova explosion that is believed to have occurred more than 5000 years ago.  What we can see today is hot ionized gas.  The various colours are created by glowing hydrogen (red), oxygen (greenish) and sulphur.  The specialised filters mentioned above will only transmit light in these very specific spectral colours.  Any light pollution from street lamps, which consists mostly of the spectral colours of sodium, neon and mercury, are effectively filtered out to leave a much darker sky with the nebulae standing out in strong contrast.  The Veil Nebula is almost 1500 light years away in our own galaxy.  There are a few other features worth noting in this picture of the witches broom.   The large number of background stars is there because we are looking into part of the Milky Way.  A similar picture taken away from the Milky Way, for example in Ursa Major, would show far fewer stars.  Also notice the variety of colours in the stars, mostly shades of blue and yellow, orange and almost red.  These indicate different temperatures, the blue ones being the hottest, it is also an indication of their age, the blue stars being the youngest.  This part of the Milky Way has stars of many different ages, if we were to look at an open cluster the stars would be mostly blue having only recently formed and not yet joined the general throng traveling around the Milky Way.  To the lower right of the nebula there are noticeably fewer stars to be seen.  This is usually caused by the presence of dust obscuring the stars.  If you scroll to the bottom of this blog (August last year) there is a picture I took of Cygnus from the Beacons Mountain Centre.  The dark patch running through the centre of the Milky Way is the same dust that is hiding the stars in this picture.

This August is not a great month for observing planets although Neptune is in opposition on the 27th of the month (in Aquarius).  It is quite low in the sky (27.5 degrees) and culminates (reaches its highest point in the sky) at 01:15 am BST (RA 22h 23’ 42.2”; Dec -10 deg 45’ 55.5”{J2000}).  It is not visible without a telescope – at a magnitude of about 7.4.  Binoculars will show it as a star like object but it can be tricky to recognise.  If you have a 130mm aperture telescope, or larger, try increasing the magnification to at least 200x and you may seen the tiny blue disk.  If you have an even larger scope, say 200 to 250 mm you may catch a glimpse of its largest moon Triton.

Do not forget the Perseid meteor shower.  These should be visible from the start of the month until the third week but the peak will be around the 11th and 12th.  The new moon is on the 6th August so it will be conveniently out of the way by the 11th, keep your fingers crossed for some clear skies

July skies – The summer triangle is back and the month starts with some great weather

Well July has got off to a great start with some lovely sunny weather for a change – what better excuse for looking at our nearest star – the Sun.  There have been some very dramatic sunspots around and what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon that sitting in the garden watching sunspots!  I made the pictures below using a 102 mm achromatic refractor and a simple white light filter on Saturday 6th July.  These spots are truly immense, for comparison I have inserted a scale picture of the Earth on the far left.  The largest group to the lower right of centre is 159,000 kms in length.  The black blob (umbra) at the end on the right is over 27,000 km in length and 11,700 km wide.  The Earth is 12,742 kms in diameter.  Also observe the granulation of the Sun’s surface and the pale faculae near the limb on the left.

sun scale

The picture below shows a closer view of the main sunspot group taken a day later (Sunday 7th July 2013).  It may be seen that already significant changes in shape have occurred, in particular the centre of the large patch is breaking apart.  The granular structure of the paler outer regions of the spot, or penumbra may now be seen.


Sunspots are areas of intense magnetic fields, the umbra are the most intense with the penumbra being less intense.  These magnetic fields slow the flow of hot plasma to the surface, the region of the spot although still very hot (3500 degrees C) is cooler than the rest of the photosphere (5400 degrees C).  Spots usually come in pairs –  north and south magnetic poles, this is clear in the picture above.  The flow of plasma along the lines of magnetic force are responsible for prominences, large plumes of material that rise up into the Sun’s atmosphere.

In contrast the weather in June was not kind to astronomers in South Wales although there was some reasonably steady seeing at the beginning of the month.  By the middle of July the skies will once again be truly dark and we hope for some cloudless nights.  Once again the Milky Way can be seen cutting across the sky through Cassiopeia the beautiful African queen; Cygnus the swan, Aquila the eagle and finally meeting the horizon at Sagittarius, the archer centaur.  Because the Milky Way is our view of the plane of our galaxy it contains many nebulae and particularly the majority of open clusters.  To the West of the Milky Way, around Hercules and Ophiuchus, we are looking above the plane of the galaxy and that is where we find the globular clusters, described in May and June.

There are some fine planetary nebulae coming into view that are well worth looking for.  These include some of my favourite objects that I return to again and again.  Planetary nebulae are the remains of dying stars, at the end of their life stars of a certain mass will puff off their outer layers and the remaining star collapses to become a white dwarf.  The expelled gas forms a bubble-like cloud around the central star, usually a few light years in diameter.  The nebula may be round like a bubble or distorted if there is companion star nearby and it slowly expands until it is so large and diffuse it is no longer visible.  The first planetary nebula was discovered by Charles Messier in 1764 and he named this as M27 in his catalogue.  It is one of the easiest of the planetary nebula to find and observe and is a binocular object although just gets better and better with larger telescopes.  All planetary nebula emit light in two spectral colours from the gases hydrogen and oxygen.  Although most are quite easy to observe without filters they are much more pronounced if an Oxygen III (OIII) filter or an ultra high contrast (which transmits OIII and hydrogen emission lines) filter is used.  A useful trick when hunting for such nebulae (in fact most emission nebulae) is to hold the filter between your eye and the eyepiece and moved it in and out of the light path, causing the nebula to blink.

M27 is very easy to find, I do it by imagining a rectangle with the star at the centre of the cross of Cygnus (Sadr), the first star in the lower wing (Gienah) and the head of the swan (Albireo, a beautiful coloured double), the bottom right corner of the rectangle (in blue) is where you will find M27.  Have a look at the chart below.  M27 is a binocular object.

July 2013


M57 is another beauty, located in Lyra.  It is also very easy to find although not as easy to observe as M27 and you will not find it with binoculars.  It appears as an out-of-focus smoke ring.  Like most planetary nebulae with long photographic exposures it shows itself in beautiful colours.  Make an imaginary line between Sulafat and Sheliak and it is just about in the middle of that line.

One object that is trickier to find is the “blinking planetary nebula” or NGC6826.  It is located just above and to the west of δ Cygni.  This is a strange optical illusion.  When you look directly at it through a telescope all you can see is the central star, when you look away the nebula suddenly appears.  It happens because the eye is less sensitive when one looks directly at an object.  This is a beautiful demonstration of “averted gaze” – if you want to see a faint object – look just to the side, your eye is more sensitive that way.

While in Cygnus try having a look for the western Veil nebula, aka “witches broom”.  This is an emission nebula that looks like a pieces of chiffon dropped on the sky.  Use a low power and if you have one a UHC filter, find 52 Cygni (marked with an arrow) and on a dark clear night the nebula will be visible.  I have seen it with binoculars under exceptional conditions from the Brecon Beacons Mountain Centre.

I always think Cygnus has more than its fair share of beauties and probably the showpiece for double stars is Albireo.  As it never really gets dark enough in July to look for nebulae and galaxies it is nice that there are some good bright stellar objects to admire.  Albireo is really easy to find as it is the head of the swan.  Through even a modest telescope the brightly coloured double is easy to separate.  The picture below is a simple 10 second exposure with a digital SLR on an 8 inch reflecting telescope, the colours are really what you can see, not simply the result of a deep long exposure as is the case with many photos.  Have a look you will not be disappointed.


Before leaving this part of the sky let me draw your attention to the constellation of Delphinus just below Cygnus.   A lovely little constellation that actually reminds one of what it is supposed to be!  Have a look at the nose through a telescope – γCygni is a rather pretty double, not as dramatic as Albireo but still with some contrasting colours.

Now the nights are drawing in we get to see some of the most interesting constellations and a star chart will help you find many of the other easy objects in the area, globular clusters, open clusters, planetary and other nebulae to mention a few.

June – the longest day and the shortest night, but still plenty to see

Although June has plenty of celestial treasures the observing time to see them is getting very short and indeed the shortest night of the year is on the summer solstice on the 21st June(05:04hrs UT). This denotes the time that the Sun is at its highest point from the celestial equator during the year. However for astronomical purposes we have to consider the concept of astronomical darkness. This is when the Sun is more than 18 degrees below the horizon and light pollution levels permitting stars of magnitude 6 should be visible to the eye. In fact the Sun does not go below 18 degrees between 23rd May and 22nd of July, so not the best time for looking for those faint fuzzies. On the 21st June it does not even reach 15 degrees below from these latitudes. However there is still plenty to see. At times like this, as when there is a bright Moon – look for the brighter objects. Galaxies and nebulae with low surface brightness are out but globular and open clusters, planetary nebulae and of course double stars are all on the menu.

Planets are some of our brightest targets but June is not a good month this year, most of the usual suspects such as Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury are close to the Sun in Taurus and Gemini. Saturn has passed its best now culminating at around sunset (09:33 UT) on the 21st so will be very low in the sky when it is dark enough to observe well. However June can bring high pressure and good seeing so do keep and eye on Saturn on those balmy evenings!

The summer constellations are now clearly on display. If you have a good view to the south, see if you can spot Scorpius and the bright orange star at its heart, Antares, α Scorpii. Antares is a red super giant, and when we say giant it is huge – 833 times the size of our Sun and about 10,000 times as bright. It does actually have a companion star but owing to the brightness of Antares it is very difficult to observe. There is a lot to see in this area of the sky but is so low they can be difficult to observe. A small scope should show M (Messier) 4, a globular cluster 1.4 degrees west of Antares. This is pretty easy to spot and indeed it is said this was the first globular resolved into stars. Just to the north is M80, another easy globular. Other easy globular clusters nearby are M62, M19 and M9 and a star chart will show many more in the region of M19. These objects are orbiting the core of the galaxy but not visible in the plane of the galaxy the Milky Way as they are obscured by dust.

June 2013B copy

Other easy and rewarding objects are double and multiple stars. Although Antares is a very difficult challenge many are not. Try looking for Raslagethi – an Arabic name meaning “head of the kneeler” – even though it sounds almost Welsh! It is between Hercules and Ophiuchus. This is a beautiful object in even a small scope. It is an orange star with a smaller white companion, they are quite easily separated. The main component is another red giant in the autumn of its days.

The picture below shows an image I took of Rasalagethi on the 2nd of June.  I used a 200 mm Maksutov Newtonian telescope and Philips webcam.  This is at very high magnification, the two stars are separated by around 5 arc seconds.  In fact the smaller white star is itself a double, so this is a triple system, but you will not be able to resolve its companion.  The three lobes around the brighter star are traces of a diffraction ring, an optical artifact.




June 2012 A2

If you feel like a bit more of a challenge have a look at Izar. This is in the constellation of Boötes, the huntsman. The larger orange star is again nearing the end of its days and destined to become a white dwarf. In due course the small white companion will expand to appear just as the orange star does today.

We must not forget the classic so called double-double, also know as Epsilon Lyrae. This is easy to find. High in the sky towards the south and east is a very bright blue star, this is Vega. Vega itself is a beautiful star as the picture below show taken in late May through my 10″ Newtonian.


Just to the east of it and easily visible even in binoculars is a widely separated pair of blue stars, this is our target, Epsilon Lyrae. But it holds a secret, increase the magnification to say 200x and you may observe each component is itself a double. They are quite difficult to split and it does require quite steady seeing. If at first you cannot see it try another night, on a good night with at least 75 mm of aperture and you will see the double-double. All four stars are bound gravitationally. A classic object.

So even when the sky is not completely dark you will find there are many brighter objects that are well worth the hunt.

May -Saturn is rising high(ish) and the globular cluster season has started.

First a brief apology, this monthly report is very late, we have been experiencing some technical issues with the website, hopefully we will have a good workaround soon.

The weather has at last started to improve and we are beginning to get a few clear skies, let’s hope this continues through May. However the nights are getting much shorter and by the end of the month the sun does not set until around 10 pm and it does not get dark until around 11pm.

Saturn is rising earlier and is still in eastern Virgo, by the middle of the month it rises before dark and culminates (its highest point) at midnight. At an altitude of just under 27 degrees at these latitudes it is not very high but the open rings are putting on a splendid show. The picture below shows how Saturn looked in April, when it was still quite low and how it looked last May. Notice that the rings are much more open now. With steady conditions and high magnification – around 250x Saturn is a stunning object.


Spring is also a great time for hunting for globular clusters. These always strike me as somewhat mysterious yet beautiful objects that are also easy to find and observe. Globular clusters are spherical collections of stars that are bound gravitationally. They orbit the galactic core in the halo. They are very old, much older for example than the open clusters and the stars are very tightly packed. It is estimated there are around 180 globular clusters in the Milky Way and each can contain hundreds of thousands of stars.

The chart below shows the position of some easy to see globular clusters. M3 in Canis Venatici contains about 500,000 stars and is easy to find with binoculars. Through small telescopes it is a hazy blob but with a 4 inch or larger aperture can be resolved into individual stars. It is estimated to be 8 billion years old, almost twice as old as our solar system and is around 34,000 light years distant. Although these objects are rewarding in small ‘scopes with larger apertures they get better and better.


glob clusters may 2013

Probably the best globular in the northern hemisphere is M13 in Hercules. A very easy object to find this globular is just visible to the naked eye on a very dark night. Although it has less stars than M3 (around 300,000), it is 12,000 light years closer so is significantly brighter and easier to resolve into stars.  M13

The picture below is of M13 – I took this one on the 13th May with my 10″ Newtonian.  Note the small galaxy NGC6207 on the extreme left.  M13 is easy to see with just about any size telescope, it is also easy to find with binoculars, with a bigger scope and more magnification it just gets better and better!  Despite being bright it can be tricky to photograph as it is easy to “burn-out” the core and just get a white blob, either that or one can lose the faint stars at the edge.  The trick is to take a number of frames at different exposures and combine them, this is know as high dynamic range (HDR) photography.  It was used to produce the picture below.



Also in Hercules is M92. Although not as dramatic as M13 this globular is still very impressive. At over 14 billion years old it is thought to be one of the oldest globular clusters.

Other globulars worth tracking down in this area are M10 and M12 in Ophiuchus and M4 and M62 in Scorpio. These last two are very low and better seen from more southerly latitudes.

I cannot leave the May article without a mention of Arcturus in Böotes. This is the splendid orange coloured star high in the south. In fact Arcturus is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere with a magnitude of around -0.04 (Sirius is the brightest overall but is in the southern hemisphere, i.e. below the celestial equator). Arcturus is a huge orange giant 150 times larger than the Sun and 180 times more luminous, although much of its output is in the invisible infrared. At 36.7 light years it is practically a neighbour. Arcturus is reaching the end of its days, it will have exhausted it hydrogen for fusion and will be fusing helium to heavier elements. Its likely destiny now is as a white dwarf surrounded by a glorious planetary nebula.

April is the month to look for the “faint fuzzies”

Well we have had the coldest March since 1962 and I expect it was once of the cloudiest as well with very few observing opportunities from Abergavenny area at least.  This was a great shame as there was little chance of observing the Comet Panstarrs.  The comet will still be around into early April as it wends its way up through Andromeda although it will be getting dimmer all the time.  April 6th will find it close to the Andromeda Galaxy also known as M31 (NGC224), surely an excellent photo opportunity – I have my fingers crossed for a clear sky.

The picture below was taken on the 3rd of April from Abergavenny when the comet was just below the Andromeda galaxy.

C/2011 L4 (Panstarrs) comet taken from Abergavenny 3rd April 2013

C/2011 L4 (Panstarrs) comet taken from Abergavenny 3rd April 2013

On the 7th March the BBC came to our area and filmed some material for the “countryfile” programme that was shown on the 24th March (see events section) – and of course it was rainy.  However on the 12th March there was another filming session with the BBC at the Brecon Beacons Visitor Centre at Libanus, it turned out to be a beautiful dark and clear evening.  The last one of the month!  The picture below was taken on that evening.



Orion is clearly visible and we even managed to catch a meteor in the lower left corner.  Notice how the Orion Nebula (M42) and even the Flame Nebula around Alnitak are very clear. When the BBC had finished the filming and turned off all the lights the sky in all its magnificence was plain to see.  This picture was taken with a Nikon DSLR with 16 minutes exposure (4×4 minutes) using an equatorial mount and no filters. I strongly recommend that on a nice dark clear night you take a trip into the park to enjoy a truly dark sky experience.

So what else can we expect in April.  Well hopefully we will have a few dark nights and we are right into galaxy season.  Leo, Virgo and Coma Berenices are all high in the sky and simply packed with “faint fuzzies”.  The chart below shows 15 of the brighter galaxies, all Messier objects.  On a reasonable night all these will easily be observable with a 150 mm telescope, on a good night even a 100 mm aperture should find most of them, although they will be too dim for binoculars.

Leo galaxies

The triplet in Leo is worth looking for.  Consisting of M65, M66 and NGC3628, the two Messier galaxies are straight forward to find and quite bright, NGC3628 can be a little tricky to find although is still quite easy in any instrument of more than 150 mm aperture  [revision note – soon after this article was written a super nova was observed in M65, it is extremely dim and requires a large telescope – at least 15 inches of aperture to observe by eye]. This group is about 30 million light years away.  M95 and M96 are also relatively easy.

Over to the left of the chart is M64.  This is also called “The Blackeye galaxy” because of its appearance in small telescopes due to a significant dust band.

While in this part of the sky it is well worth looking for Markarian’s chain.  This is a string of galaxies in the Virgo cluster.  At least 7 of these galaxies are gravitationally bound.  Start by looking for M84 and M86 and soon you will start to see the other galaxies in the chain.

Jupiter is setting at around midnight by the middle of the month and only 31 degrees elevation as darkness falls.  It is also down to around 34 arc minutes in diameter so the best of this apparition is over.

Saturn rises soon after 9pm and culminates (crosses the meridian and its highest point) at around 2 am.  Even so it is only around 26 degrees above the horizon, hardly ideal for viewing, but still well worth looking out for.

Between the 18th and 25th of April look out for the Lyrid meteor shower.  The maximum is expected in the early hours of the 22nd.  This is generally a good shower with plenty of meteors although conditions are not ideal with a bright moon.

Finally if you notice something strange about the colour of the moon as it rises on the evening of the 25th it will be because it is passing through part of the Earths shadow.  Technically it is in partial eclipse in the umbral shadow.


It’s spring and we have a comet – observing in March

March 20th at 11:02 UTC is the vernal equinox, or the official start of spring.  This means that the Sun is level with the equator and heading north towards the tropic of cancer.  By all accounts the weather all winter was really not astronomy friendly, let’s hope for a better summer.

For planet observers Jupiter is still around although setting in the west soon after midnight by the middle of the month; it is already well past the meridian as it gets dark at around 19:00 hrs., it is also getting much smaller and dimmer – around 37 arc minutes by the 15th and magnitude -1.79;  still well worth looking at though.

The only other planet on the scene in March is Saturn.  By the 15th Saturn rises at around 22:15 hrs and culminates (reaches it highest point in the sky, due south) at about 03:20.  Unfortunately it only reaches just over 25 degrees above the horizon which is not good for observing.  It will stay low for some years to come. When objects are low the light must pass through a great thickness of atmosphere.  This causes the image to wobble and be distorted it also causes a colour aberration.  The diameter of the planet is around 18 arc minutes (43 minutes with the rings).  The rings are also very well displayed at the moment with the Cassini division easily visible with even modest – say 80 mm – telescopes. Despite its position Saturn is still one of, if not the, most beautiful objects to look at.  Saturn is in the constellation of Virgo.

There is the possibility of a naked eye comet in March.  Comets are infamous for being unpredictable so only time will tell.  The comet is called C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) and was discovered in June 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii.  It reaches its nearest point to the Sun (perihelion) (45 million km) on the 11th March and it is likely to be visible in the western evening twilight after the middle of the month.  The comet will be traveling north and passing through Pisces and Andromeda.  Around the 18th of the month the comet will be about 15 degrees high, 35 minutes after sunset just north of west.  It will get dimmer in April but will be against a dark sky and likely to be around magnitude 5 with a tail.  The chart below shows the path of the comet through the second half of March, I have prepared this chart for the 18th march with respect to the position of  the sun and planets and I have indicated the relative position of the comet through the month.  On the 9th it will be on a bearing around 260 deg N and very low in the sky at sunset.  By the 15th it will be close to 275 deg and not quite as low, by the end of the month it will by on a bearing close to 290 deg N.  Reports to date suggest it is around magnitude 5 with a good tail developing.  A word of warning – do not even consider looking for the comet when the sun is still above the horizon.  Firstly you will not find it, it is too dim, but more seriously if you accidentally look at the sun with binoculars you will suffer irreparable damage to your eyesight.

Comets are notorious for either not living up to expectations or on some occasions exceeding them.  This comet has a slightly hyperbolic orbit.  If it was elliptical it would mean it had probably been around the sun a few times.  If this is its first foray into the inner solar system it may not brighten as much as we would hope.  Such comets have a tendency to have outer layers quickly vapourised by the sun causing initial brightness that rapidly gets exhausted.  Lets hope for the best with this one.  We can also expect another spectacular comet at the end of the year – but more on that nearer the time.

A star-studded cast for February

After the dreadful weather of January with few opportunities for observing we can only hope for some clear skies in February.  Orion is still visible in the south west for most of the evening but we are now seeing the beginning of the spring constellations that tell us the worst of winter is passed.  It seems that the winter sky is more sparkling and dramatic than a summer night sky.  This is in no small part due to the large number of very bright stars that by chance populate the constellations at this time of year.  Trying to find an identify them is a great way for learning your way around the sky and the chart below will help you to find them.  It is centered looking south in the middle of the month.  In addition some are very rewarding to view through a telescope.

Sirius in Canis Minor, in the centre of the lower half of this chart, is the brightest star in the sky.  It is actually a southern star and is therefore never very high in our northern skies.  It flashes rainbow colours because its light has to pass through a lot of our atmosphere.  It is bright because it is only 8.6 light years away and is also very luminous.  It is a binary star with a small companion that gets swamped by the main star.

The 3rd brightest star in the northern hemisphere is Capella in Auriga, the charioteer, shown in the top right of this chart.  This is a yellow-white star and easily recognizable.

Rigel is actually the 6th brightest in the entire sky and can be found as the foot of Orion.  It is an optical binary and its companion is quite easy to see with a telescope.  It is a blue-white super giant – 130,000 times as luminous as the Sun.

Procyon is the seventh brightest in the whole night sky owing to its proximity of only 11.46 light years rather than it intrinsic luminosity.  It is easy to find by continuing a line east from Bellatrix and Betelgeuse in Orion.  It is a white star and also a binary but its companion star is very feint.

Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion is really very easy to find, partly due to its red colour as much as its brightness and location.  It is the eighth brightest in the sky.  Betelgeuse is a red super giant and is huge, larger in diameter than the orbit of Jupiter.  It is also very unstable having come to the end of it life.  It is a good candidate to turn into a super nova within the coming million years.

Aldebaron is the eye of Taurus the Bull, it is really easy to find this month because Jupiter is so close.  It is another red giant and is more than 44x larger than our own sun.  The easiest way to find it is to follow the three stars of Orion’s belt from left to right (Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka) until you reach Aldebaron

Castor and Pollux are the twins of Greek and Roman mythology and the heads of the twins in the constellation of Gemini.  Castor is an easy double star in a telescope and is actually a system of 6 stars.  Pollux is a large star, about 9x larger than the Sun.  It is another old star and has an orange hue.  Recent studies have shown that it has at least one large planet orbiting it.  While in Gemini have a look for M35.  This is a large open cluster near the foot of Castor.  It is nearly the size of the full moon and rewarding in binoculars.  While in Gemini it is worth having a look at M35, shown on the chart.  You may be able to see it with the naked eye on a really dark night but binoculars will show this large open cluster easily.

The bright stars of Leo the lion are Regulus, Denebola and Algieba.  Leo is an easy constellation to find and one of the few that actually resembles what it is supposed to be!  Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation and the 21st brightest.  It is a multiple system but only two can be seen in a telescope.  The main star is blue-white and very beautiful in small telescopes.  Algieba in the mane of the lion is also a double of great beauty, it is particularly striking because of the contrasting sizes and colours of the two visible stars, usually described as bright orange and greenish yellow, well worth a visit.  Denebola, the tail of the lion is the second brightest star in Leo and pure white in colour.  There are many galaxies to be observed in this part of the sky with telescopes of 150 mm or more in aperture.

Also on this chart is Praesepe (in blue type), also known as the beehive cluster.  This is an interesting object and on a reasonably clear night can be seen with the unaided eye as a misty patch in Cancer the crab.  It is quite spectacular through binoculars or telescopes with very low power.  It is a large open cluster with a mixture of stars, over 1000 in total, although you will not be able to see that many in most instruments.  Also in Cancer is M67.  This is another open cluster and on the 23rd of February at around 20:20 hrs (UT) the moon will pass in front of it, occulting the stars, a fairly rare occurrence

Have a go and see how many stars you can identify.

The night sky in February looking South

For the planet seekers Jupiter is still around although setting much earlier, the best of this apparition has passed.  However Saturn is putting in an appearance in Libra.  At the start of the month is rises at around 00:40 am and culminates at around 05:45 for the night owls among us at around 28 degrees above the horizon.  By the end of the month it is rising just before 23:00 hrs (UT) and culminates at around 04:00 am.  The rings are presenting to us at around +19 degrees and are therefore very open to give good views.

Of course we should not forget the near earth object with the catchy name 2012 DA14 that will pass very close to the earth on February 15th.  It will miss the earth by just over 21,000 miles, a cats whisker in astronomical terms.  Thankfully it is not huge but still at around 45 metres across and weighing some 130,00ot it would make a big bang if it did hit us; by my calculation similar to a 3 mega tonne nuclear weapon.  The chart below shows how it passes inside the geosynchronous orbits of satellites.  The times are in GMT.  It will briefly reach magnitude 7.4 so will not be visible to the naked eye.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 on February 15, 2012


The Hunter is back in the January sky

Although he has been visible later in the evening for a couple of months now, Orion the Hunter is at his best in January, rising high in the southern sky. The constellation culminates at around 10 pm by the middle of the month.  Orion is a bright constellation, and almost impossible to miss.  It is wonderful to observe with the naked eye , binoculars, any type of telescope or astrophotography.  There is something for everyone here.  If observing unaided look out for the red star at the top left, this is the red giant Betelgeuse.  This is an old star reaching the end of its days and most of its fuel is consumed.  In contrast look to the bottom right to see the brilliant blue/white Rigel.  This is a super giant in all its glory and Rigel is the 6th brightest star in our sky.  But Orion has much more.  The three stars across it belt are (from left to right) Alnitack, Alnilam and Mintaka.

Orion the Hunter

Alnitak is a triple star, two are visible through a telescope, just below it is the famous horse head nebula but it requires a very large telescope to see it, the use of special filters and a very dark night.  However it is readily, and frequently photographed.  But the real gem is the the Great Orion Nebula, the middle blob in Orion’s sword.  Easily visible in binoculars and through any telescope it is a truly wonderful sight.  It is a huge gas cloud and the birth place of new stars, in fact high magnification will reveal brand new stars in the the brightest part of the nebula.


The map above also shows the Crab Nebula in Taurus.  This can be tricky to see but even an 80 mm telescope will show it on a dark night.  this is the remnant of a star that exploded in 1054 AD.  So In this part of the sky we can see the entire life cycle of stars, from their birth in the Orion nebula, their full glory in Rigel, old age in Betelgeuse and finally death in the Crab nebula.

Before ending I would just like to mention the passing of Patrick Moore.  A huge figure in amateur astronomy that always encouraged and championed the amateur and indeed many professionals as well.  We all have our memories and stories of him.  The subject has changed hugely since he started publicising it around 50 years ago and it is now more popular than ever.  This is for a number of reasons but Patrick was a very important one, we bid you farewell and thanks.

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