First Light: Apertura AD8 in search of M101

Tonight was the night I had been waiting weeks for. After so much rain and clouds, finally a clear sky with above average transparency and good seeing. Earlier in the day I double checked the collimation of my Apertura AD8 in preparation for a few late night hours of viewing.

A waxing gibbous moon was about to slip below the horizon so I started taking my gear outside just after 10:00PM to setup in the driveway. My primary objective for the evening was to put the AD8 through its paces and if all went well, see M101 in the process.

The trees in my yard provide me with narrow pockets of open sky so my choice of targets is limited. Tonight, Ursa Major was on center stage. With the scope fully temperature adjusted, I inserted my 30mm 2″ eyepiece, uncapped the finder scope and ran into my first minor problem.

The Orion XT8 I had briefly had a red dot finder (RDF). Although it was difficult for me to use, if aligned properly it was accurate in lining up the scope with a target star I could see in the sky. Put the red dot on the star. Nice and simple.

My Apertura AD8 however is equipped with a Right-Angle-Correct-Image (RADI) finder scope. It is basically a very low power scope bolted to the main scope with a set of crosshairs in the view. What you see in the scope is exactly what you see in the sky, just a very small section at a time (5-degrees). It sounds easy to simply point the finder scope at a star and go but I found it anything but. I ended up needing to use nearby trees as reference points to figure out which star I was looking at in my finder scope! It shouldn’t be that hard. I may have to add a Telrad or build a set of setting circles to overcome this problem.

Using the finder scope I located Mizar, a beautiful example of a Double Star in Ursa Major. It is the star at the bend of the handle of the asterism “Big Dipper”. From there it was easy to follow the line of bright stars (81, 83, 84, 86 UMa) toward M101. Just below 86 UMa is a “belt” of four stars about half the distance to M101. I used the second star from the left in that belt to point almost directly to M101 about a degree away. The reward was the very faint 7.9 magnitude Spiral Galaxy that had been eluding me.

M101 has a very dim surface brightness making it more difficult to see than a similarly rated 7.9 magnitude star. This is because the light from the galaxy is spread over a much larger area (arcseconds or arcminutes). Still, I was able to avert my vision and see it was a fairly large galaxy. I added a 2x Barlow to my 30mm to increase the magnification and I was even able to make out one or two bright stars in one of the spiral arms.

Starhop from Mizar to M101

Starhop from Mizar to M101

Observation log 5/30/2013

After a solid two weeks of rain and clouds the sky cleared up tonight for a couple hours of good viewing. The moon was a 57% full waning gibbous but stayed low in the sky for the two hours I was out. My targets tonight were a few Messier objects and a comet that has been in the news recently.

I started with M101 a magnitude 7.9 spiral galaxy in Ursa Major. This particular object remained elusive my first time out so I figured I’d give it another try. Starting at Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper, I tried to follow the nearly 3.5 degree line from 81 Ursae Majoris (UMa) to 83 UMa to 84 UMa and finally to 86 UMa. Somewhere between 84 and 86 I kept getting lost! Even though 84 and 86 are about 1.4 degrees apart, I still could not find 86 with confidence. Not wanting to get frustrated, I set M101 aside and continued to the next object on my list.

My second target was M94 a magnitude 8.2 spiral galaxy in Canes Venatici. I started at Cor Caroli A the brightest of the two recognizable stars in the constellation. Looking closer at Cor Caroli A revealed it is actually a variable double star! From there it was a simple 3 degree star hop over to M94. At the moment I only have a 25mm Plossl and even with a 2x Barlow M94 looked like a faint fuzzy smudge. No matter, this galaxy is about 14 million light years away. I’ll have to try again with a more powerful eyepiece in the future.

My third target was M63 – Sunflower Galaxy a magnitude 8.6 spiral galaxy also in Canes Venatici. Again, I started at Cor Caroli A and star hopped about 5.3 degrees until I found M63. This fuzzy smudge had more of a disk shape to it with a definite core. At 34 million light years away, it is a member of the M51 Group although being 6 degrees south of M51 – Whirlpool Galaxy.

My fourth target was a comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) that has been in the news for the past several months. I started at Yidun – the sixth brightest star in Ursa Minor and star hopped just over two degrees to the comet. I was expecting to see a defined tail but all I saw was a fuzzy slightly visible line. I can’t wait until I have a couple higher powered eyepieces to choose from.

To recap, tonight I saw M94, M63, and comet PANSTARRS.

5/30/2012 Star Hop

Observation log 5/14/2013

Around 11:15 PM I headed out with a goal of seeing one deep space object – M81 also known as Bode’s Nebula a magnitude 6.9 spiral galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major.

I lined up my finder on Dubhe, the tip of the bowl of the Big Dipper and tried star hopping to M81 but I quickly got lost. While I’m sure it can be done, I found a faster way. The star just below Dubhe, h Ursea Majoris is a double with one of the stars being a magnitude 3.65. I easily lined it up in my finder and took my time star hopping up to M81. Any time I got lost, I’d backup to a star or pattern I recognized and retraced my steps. My patience was rewarded when I moved the scope slightly and M81 came into view.

At first, it simply looked like a grey smudge. The more I looked at it, I could see the brighter core. I was using a Celestron 8-24mm Zoom, borrowed off the Library Scope at 24mm for the widest FOV possible. I found that averting my vision, gave the 12 million lightyear (Mly) away galaxy a definite shape.

A slight nudge of the scope and M82 a magnitude 8.4 spiral galaxy came into view. It looks like a vertical fuzzy strip whereas M81 is more of an oval.

At this point I was pleased with myself for having met my goal but decided I wanted to try for one more object on the Messier list. Next was M97 Owl Nebula a magnitude 9.8 planetary nebula also in Ursa Major. Being relatively close to Merak, the bottom front edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper, it took only a few minutes to get within two degrees of M97. Interestingly, I stumbled across M108 a magnitude 10.0 spiral galaxy within about one degree of M97. Like M82, it looks like a vertical fuzzy strip. I expected to see the tell tail “eyes” of the Owl Nebula but couldn’t quite make them out even at 8mm.

It started to get colder so I called it a night.

I have to mention that all of this star hopping and knowing exactly where I was in the sky was due entirely to Sky Safari 3 Pro for iOS. It is an amazing application but my favorite feature is the ability flip the view both horizontally and vertically to match what I’m seeing in my eyepiece. It was trivial and actually fun to hop from star to star, knowing exactly where I was in the sky.

To recap, tonight I saw M81, M82, M97, and M108.

Observations for 5/14/2013

First light: Orion XT8

Tonight, as the sun was setting I brought my new Orion XT8 scope outside to get it acclimated. I had read it is a good idea for the scope to be at the same temperature as the air for the best possible viewing conditions. After it was dark and the clouds had passed, I setup outside and peered through my 25mm Orion Plossl eyepiece for the first time.

For no other reason other than it was easily identifiable, I looked at Dubhe (Alpha Ursae Majoris) the second brightest star in the constellation Ursa Major. It is a magnitude 1.79 star so it is extremely easy to find. I was amazed at how bright it was through the eyepiece.

I then swung the scope around to get a look at Saturn that was gradually climbing above the trees. With my 25mm Plossl I was able to see the distinct shape of the rings and the planet with no trouble at all. I then added my 2x Barlow and really had a nice view. I could see the separation of the rings from the planet but not the separation between the individual rings. I suspect it was because the planet was very bright. I may need a filter to get a more detailed view.

Just as I was deciding on what to view next, an amazing meteor streaked across the sky. It was very bright and lasted for a good 2-seconds before completely burning up. I saw a smoke trail, something I’ve never seen before.

I then set out to find M101 Pinwheel Galaxy. It is magnitude 7.9 galaxy that was difficult for me to locate. I started by sighting on Mizar, following Alcor and trying to find HR 5109. From there my plan was to star hop to M101. I was not able to find it mostly because of my disorientation with the inverted (upside-down) view in the eyepiece. I need to do some research on how to move the scope when what I’m looking at is not in the correct orientation.

Besides Saturn and the meteor I saw at least 10 satellites. Not bad for my first night out.

Edit (5/14/2013): Researching it, I found there is good reason I had a hard time trying to locate M101. It has the lowest surface brightness of the Messier galaxies, at about 14.8 magnitude. I found a nice video showing how to find M101 by star hopping. I think I’ll save it for when I gain more experience.