Sunday, 9 March 2014


The Triangulum Galaxy (Messier Object 33, or M33). In a dark sky location under excellent seeing conditions you may just be able to see this galaxy which has very low surface luninousity with the naked eye. Image Credit: NASA, Robert Gendler, Subaru Telescope (NAOJ)

It is one of life’s subtle ironies that thanks to our industry and high technology that in some ways brings so many benefits to our everyday lives, one of the greatest of all natural wonders, has been lost to the majority of our planet’s human population. We’re talking, of course about a velvet-black night sky dotted with countless stars, nebulae, and galaxies. It's the key to sharing the P,B and J (the Passion, Beauty and Joy) that typifies the emotions felt when identifying our place in space and time (thanks to Bill Nye the Science and Planetary Guy for inventing this apt phrase).

Truth be told, it is not our technology that denies us this most beautiful of natural spectacles, but our shameful and profligate waste of our natural resources and energy. Namely, of course, it is light pollution, coupled with industrial pollutants, vehicle emissions and particulates.

It is a severe problem here in the River Tees Valley in north east England where I'm based. The industry at Teesmouth illuminates our horizons with the glare of a thousand artificial sodium vapour suns. If you’re lucky, and located in a dark, secluded corner of this conurbation of one million inhabitants, you can just about succeed with the “Ursa Minor test” and pick out all of the stars in that constellation down to Magnitude 5 with the naked eye (albeit with averted vision). We won’t be unduly negative about our abode however – there are still wonders aplenty to be seen from our back garden including double stars, the planets, galaxies and planetary nebulae and of course the stunning and lovely Great Nebula in the Sword of Orion.

But they are washed out, shadows of themselves even through a telescope, reminiscent of a television set with the contrast dramatically reduced. They are awe-inspiring, but we have doubtless been robbed of much of the awe. An initial tour of the gorgeous black skies of a location such as the North Yorkshire Moors National Park therefore creates a soaring sense of wonder and awe – an uplifting surge of sheer excitement that will never be forgotten. Of course, an enjoyable tour of anything requires a good and learned tour guide with a well-planned itinerary, and in this respect we were lucky enough to share this memorable late October evening with one of local astronomy group's most astronomically literate members, Rob.

The Veil Nebula (NGC6960) is a cloud of heated and ionized gas and dust in the constellation Cygnus, 1,470 light years from the Earth. It constitutes the visible portions of the Cygnus Loop, a large but relatively faint supernova remnant.

Our rendezvous with Rob was to be Snilesworth Moor, close to Osmotherly, just off the A19 trunk road in north east England, where the ancient Drover’s road south to Sutton Bank parts company with the metalled road to Ryedale and Helmsley. Sure enough, Rob was already at our destination at the appointed meeting time of 8.00pm. We were beneath the mighty Black Hambledon Moor bang in the centre of the beautiful North Yorkshire Moors National Park , one of the most picturesque areas of the UK during daytime, and one with little light pollution on a night.

Rob’s superb 12” Dobsonian was already in position and online to the heavens. We had chosen the coldest night so far of the autumn for our tour of the local Cosmos – a chilling
minus three degrees according to the car’s external thermometer. Of course, it was so cold precisely because the sky was totally cloudless, and the seeing exceptional.

We shook hands with Rob, and within seconds, as our eyes started to adapt to the pitch blackness, untold celestial wonders aplenty started to encroach on our naked eye view. The total blackness was punctuated only by very distant lights in the northern part of the Vale of York, and a couple of red aircraft warning beacons on the one thousand feet high Bilsdale West Moor main television and FM radio transmitting tower, one of the most exposed structures in the land, and about eight miles distant to the north east.

As we looked skywards with our naked eyes, just as promised in countless astronomy textbooks, was the stupendously stunning Milky Way, our home galaxy, it’s disk full of a myriad of stars traversing their way east-west right through the hearts of the constellations of Lacerta, Cygnus, Perseus and Cassiopeia.

So what is the furthest the unaided human eye can see on a clear day (or night)? Can you really see over two million light years to the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) with our eyes alone? And if so would it be spectacular? At home, it’s so easy (due to other stars being bleached out by light pollution) to find our old friend, the orange/yellow Magnitude 2 guide star Mirach (beta Andromedae), we first used to track down M31 over a decade ago. But under these superb skies there were just so many stars that Mirach was lost. However, once beta Andromedae was found, amazingly, we didn’t need mu and nu Andromedae , because intrusively visible above Mirach, and offset to the right a little was an elongated smudge of beautiful pale light, perhaps half a degree or more in diameter. Here was M31, not a point, but the central bulge of our sister spiral galaxy, amazingly seen looking like a galaxy, with the
naked eye.

If this wasn’t enough, even more unbelievably, virtually equidistant below and slightly to the left of beta Andromedae near alpha Triangulum was another much fainter smudge. With goosebumps and a lump in our throats, and a quick confirmation from Rob, we realised that remarkably we were viewing the diffuse Triangulum Galaxy (M33/NGC598). We hurriedly looked at these two magnificent galaxies through binoculars – M31 being elongated by well over the width of a couple of degrees and M33, virtually face on looking absolutely stunning.

It was time to assemble our telescope, an 8.5 inch f5 Newtonian reflector: a light bucket! Our equipment also included a 9mm Orthoscopic eyepiece, a 28mm Plossl and a x2 Barlow, which
combined give a decent portfolio of viewing. As previous to this amazing night out in our closest National Park, we had been graced with several reasonably clear evenings, and as this wonderful telescope had seen frequent use at home, I was concerned that wind-blown dirt and particulates had entered the instrument and been deposited on the primary mirror from our trusty Silver Birch, and Apple Tree at the rear of our garden. Indeed there was considerable dirt on the mirror, and to rectify this problem I had painstakingly removed and cleaned the mirror with de-ionised water and cotton wool. We would soon discover that this work, subsequent re-collimation and eyepiece cleaning had paid dividends.

We first visited a couple of stunning planetary nebulae - the Dumbbell (M27) that we had so proudly found at home after Rob’s clear and concise instructions. Then it was off to the Ring Nebula in Lyra (M57), and the Blue Snowball. We took a peek at the beautiful double star Albireo in Cygnus – wonderfully resolved into its striking blue and yellow constituents.

Next, Rob set us a challenge, using his instructions, we were to locate successfully the faint Ghost of Mirach Galaxy. Our next port-of-call was the beautiful face-on spiral galaxy M33 in Triangulum that we had earlier seen with our unaided eyes and then our binoculars. It’s beautiful spiral structure was well apparent – so too were it’s bring star forming regions in its outer spiral arms. Not too far away we viewed M110/NGC205 – one of M31’s satellite galaxies. Next it was off to Bode’s Nebulae, incorrect nomenclature of course – they are the
beautiful Magnitude 6.9 spiral galaxy M81/NGC3031 and of course the Magnitude 8.4 virtually edge on “Cigar Galaxy” M82/NGC3034. These two gems are relatively easy to locate, even though they were fairly low down in the north by star-hopping using Dubhe (alpha Ursa Majoris) and Polaris and then from Rob’s “The Cheese” asterism of three stars slightly to the left and down from these galaxies in your field of view.

It was time for a personal detour to the lovely Double Cluster NGC869 in Perseus, visible from our location with the unaided eye, beautiful through binoculars and jaw-dropping through our telescope. A myriad of stars to inebriate one’s retina.

Other splendours we observed included Globular Clusters M15/NGC7078, M103/NGC581 near Ruchbah in Cassiopeia, the Crab Nebula (M1/NGC1952) the remnant of the supernova witnessed by ancient Chinese astronomers in 1054AD, and easy to locate in a dark sky near zeta Tauri. As we observed it’s structure one thought about the rapidly rotating tiny neutron star at its centre whose almost artificial atomic-clock-regular spinning jets of radiation were first discovered at Cambridge University in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell and labelled LGM (Little Green Men) on her print-out. It was, of course the first pulsar to be identified.

As time passed we saw bloated red Betelgeuse and Meissa rise, followed by the whole enchilada of the winter constellation of Orion the Hunter, always reminding one of approaching Christmas. It was difficult to restrain our impatience at waiting to observe the beauty in the hunter’s sword, but of course, it was well worth the wait. The Great Nebula M42, was awesome, that huge reflection nebula of gas and dust reminding us all of how every star and planet, including the Sun, the Earth and indeed all living things, including ourselves for that matter, came to be. Indeed this whole area of the sky from Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka through to M42 and M43 is a wondrous sight to behold with nebulosity galore – hot, young stars, such as those in the Trapezium –illuminating and exciting the atoms, molecules and clouds of gas and dust from which they were born.

We saw many more objects that wonderful evening, but for brevity’s sake we will end on an even higher note for ourselves – three objects that had previously eluded us at our stage of observing, but to which we were effectively guided by Rob. Firstly, the beautifully intricate filaments of the supernova remnant, the Veil Nebula (NGC 6960). Bearing witness to the final collapse and obliteration of a massive star, far larger than our Sun, this beautiful stellar death shroud bears witness to the fact that out of one of the Cosmos’s most destructive events outstanding beauty arises. Of course, much more than visual beauty has been created. The progenitor star of NGC 6960 expelled into the Cosmos the ingredients to make new stars when it detonated. It also expelled heavier elements that one day, millions of years from now will create planets and rocky worlds, and possibly sentient beings, who like us have imagination, intelligence and consciousness and who can observe and endeavour to understand the Cosmos from which they were made.

Our last two targets were very much in our nearby cosmic vicinity – the two mighty gas giant worlds of Uranus and Neptune. Under such conditions, and with a superb guide, Uranus was an easy target to find, it’s beautiful blue/green orb being an easy giveaway. Blue Neptune with its oceans of methane and hydrogen was considerably more difficult to find due to it’s low declination in the south west as it was not long from setting. Rob made a considerable attempt to find the large satellite of this last outpost of the Sun’s entourage of planets, the pink-snow covered Triton, but to no avail. Hardly a disappointment considering
the plethora of other wonders we enjoyed that evening, which also included several meteors emanating from their radiant in Taurus.

At just after midnight, despite multiple layers of clothing, but with the thermometer still falling and it becoming intensely cold, it was with heavy hearts that we disassembled our telescopes and headed back to Teesside.

In conclusion, in all of our serious observing it was our best ever evening under the stars, and a thoroughly awe inspired 12 year old and his dad would like to say a big “thank you” to Rob. It would not have been possible without his superb knowledge of the skies and his dedication to astronomy.

To those readers who have never experienced a truly dark sky, and who are sceptical of the difference it makes to observing the heavens, forget a Sunday day out to your local national park, wrap up warm and treat yourself to a night out with the stars instead. With naked eyes, binoculars, or a telescope, literally – there’s nothing on the Earth that can beat it!!!


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