De omnibus dubitandum
Wales is a country of outstanding natural beauty, with deep valleys, high mountains and rolling hills. Its rugged coastline boasts many pristine(blue flag) beaches and pretty little towns that are a joy to visit and explore. Like Scotland, frequent weather systems move in from the Irish Sea, purging the air of particulates that create excellent transparency for remote daytime viewing and astronomical adventures when the Sun sinks beneath the horizon.
We decided on Wales because my brother and his young family had moved there last year from northeast Scotland, where he settled in a large country house dating from the mid-19th century, situated on the outskirts of the small village of Letterston, some ten miles north of Haverfordwest and 6 miles inland from Fishguard, where you can catch a ferry across the open sea to Ireland. And besides, we’d never vacationed in Wales before, so we had no good excuse but to make that 400 mile journey south from our home in rural, central Scotland.
The house is situated on five acres of choice land, secluded on all sides by woody glades, and even sports a large fish pond fed by a couple of fresh streams meandering through the estate. The homestead is surrounded by beautifully tended lawns and flower gardens that thrive because of frequent rain showers which keep them lush and well watered. It is a very peaceful place, with little in the way of light pollution, save for the glow from Haverfordwest, which illumines the southern horizon. Higher up though, the night sky is truly glorious, where the summer Milky Way winds its way from Perseus in the northeast to Sagittarius in the south.
We arrived late on Monday July 29, after spending much of the day travelling. I was glad that night was rainy and overcast, as I was exhausted from the journey and in no mood to pull out a telescope. Besides, we were all eager to catch up with my brother and sister-in-law, and my boys stayed up well beyond their bed times nattering to their first cousins. The next night was overcast but remained dry.
But the next three evenings were clear.
I brought along my portable 130mm f/5 reflecting telescope, which had proven to be spectacularly successful in ‘scouting out’ good sights to view the heavens from. It had already travelled a few thousand miles all around Britan and Ireland, where I had tested the skies on a number of choice double stars to establish something of the seeing conditions across the British Isles, some of which are highlighted in the links provided above.
As I have communicated many times in the past, this little Newtonian had greatly exceeded my expectations. Sporting a high-quality 5.1″ primary mirror and an upgraded secondary, when cooled and collimated, had shown me arguably some of the best views I have ever experienced with any grab ‘n’ ‘scope. With its state-of-the-art reflective coatings and modest( 26.9 per cent) central obstruction, it has consistently delivered the readies in all weather conditions, from warm, muggy summer nights to freezing winter evenings. It has proven itself to be a first rate double star ‘scope, which, under the right conditions, renders beautiful, colour-pure images of the Creation. Three eyepieces attended the instrument in its foam-lined aluminium case; a 25mm Celestron X-Cel LX, delivering a power of 26x in a well corrected 2.3 degree true field. This is my favourite wide-field scanning ocular used with the 130mm, great for observing star clusters and large deep sky objects. For medium power work, I brought along my Parks Gold 7.5mm, a delightfully simple eyepiece with wonderful contrast. Coupled to a 3x Barlow it delivers a power of 260x, which is a good working magnification to use on a variety of closer doubles. For higher power work, I also took along my Meade 5.5mm Ultra Wide Angle(UWA), delivering a power of 118x in a true field of ~ 0.7 angular degrees, useful for close up observations of smaller deep sky objects. And when coupled to the 3x Barlow yields a power of 354x, great for ferreting out the most difficult pairs. Still, it must be mentioned that this instrument can handle 100x per inch of aperture, if push comes to shove.
The only other instrument I took along with me was my Pentax 9 x 28mm DCF LV roof prism binocular. I figured I would get a lot of use out of this, as we planned to visit many places where they would come in handy. I had intended to bring by trusty 8 x 42 but these had to be sent away for repair/replacement. And although the small Pentax binocular was the perfect accompaniment by day, I regretted not bringing my 10 x 50 roofs. Indeed, I really ought to have brought along both instruments with me.
Conditions at the site:
Being located so close to the coast, the evenings are often breezy from onshore winds, but by dusk, they usually abate, creating very tranquil conditions. What I also noticed was how quickly and heavy the dew is at this site; significantly more aggressive than at home. Indeed, my observing sessions were limited by dew, as the telescope has no fans or dew heaters to keep it at bay. And I had forgotten to take along my flexi dew shield, so unfortunately, it was always a race against time.
I encountered no midge flies while making observations; a God send! They’d eat you alive in Scotland!! What you can get here is horse flies though. Thankfully they left me alone throughout the vigils.
Session 1: July 31 2019
The first object to emerge from the dusk was mighty Jupiter, appearing ever more bright as the twilight gave way to proper darkness and a few degrees higher in the sky than it appears up in Scotland.. Beginning around 20:55UT, I charged the telescope with the 5.5mm Meade UWA yielding 118x, and turning it on the giant planet, I was greeted with a very nice image. All four Galilean satellites were visible, a couple to the east of the planet and a couple to its west. The planet itself was revealing some very fine details, several tan-coloured bands and bright zones. The north equatorial belt was very prominent but its southern counterpart showing visible disjointing. 118x was producing a nice image scale, plenty high enough to see fine detail but not so enlarged as to wash out the same details. It was nice to greet an old friend like this. Its lower altitude back home had often blurred these finer details so much that I had all but abandoned the planet during this current apparition, holding out for better conditions when the planet gains altitude in a few years from now.
Studying the giant planet for a few minutes also suggested to me that the seeing was going to be good for double star testing, and lo, it most certainly was!
21:03 UT: Epsilon Lyrae 1& 2; beautifully resolved into four components at 260x
21:06 UT: Epsilon Bootis; text book perfect rendition of this gorgeous colour-contrast double. Beautifully rendered at 260x
21:10UT: Delta Cygni; textbook perfect split of this system with its bright primary and faint secondary. Easy picking at 260x
21:15 UT: Finder scope had already dewed up, so I detached it from the ‘scope, capped up the main telescope and brought the finder indoors to let the condensation evaporate.
21:57 UT: Resumed observations of double stars, starting with Pi Aquilae, which was very easily split at 354x
21:29UT Lambda Cygni: a sub-arc second pair. Airy disks touching at 354x but not cleanly disjointed.
21:31UT: Mu Cygni, easy split at 260x
21:50UT I turned back to Jupiter and immediately noticed the Great Red Spot (GRS) near the eastern limb. Even finer planetary details were coming through now in the darkened sky. I decided to cap up the optics on the main ‘scope once again to ward off dew, removed the finder scope and brought it indoors. This would be a good opportunity to make a measurement of the current Central Meridian (CM) II longitude of the GRS.
I re-emerged from indoors at 22:20 UT, uncovered the 130mm’s optics and re-mounted the finderscope. Aiming once again at Jove, the GRS had moved considerably further west but was not yet at the central meridian. Over the next twenty minutes I watched carefully using the Meade 5.5mm UWA(118x) throughout and was finally satisfied that the GRS was on the CM II meridian at 22:41UT.
I had to wait until I returned home to turn this timing into a CM II longitude for the GRS. Downloading the latest edition of WinJupos freeware, I entered the longitude, latitude and time I estimated the spot was crossing the meridian( 22:41 UT). The software computed a value of 312.4 degrees:
I then searched to find a reliable source that quoted the most up-to-date CM II longitude determination of the GRS and found this recent(as of June 5 2019) posting on the Sky & Telescope website. See here for interest. The source quoted a value of 308 degrees!
That’s very close to the measurement I made!
Cool or what?
Yessiree, the 130mm is a fine planetary telescope, allowing me to make some pretty challenging measurements more or less routinely.
Vigil ended at 22:50UT owing to build up of dew on the telescope’s secondary mirror.
A Curious Aside: Oculus Historiae
Session 2: August 1 2019
The second night was, to all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of the night before; a windy early evening which gave way to tranquil conditions as sunset approached. Starting at dusk around 21:00 UT, I set the telescope up on its Vixen Porta II mount and lowered the tripod legs a little to enable the kids to get a decent look at the two bright planets that were quite prominently on display low in the south: Jupiter and, several degrees further east, majestic Saturn. Keeping the magnification at 118x, the telescope displayed crisp views of both worlds, but alas, no sign of the GRS. My boys had seen these worlds before, of course, but not their cousins.The twins(Luca & Amabelle) were gobsmacked with the sight of Saturn, in particular, through the telescope. It was the first time they had ever seen this world ‘live.’ They chuckled among themselves saying, ” it’s just like you see in a book!”
Well maybe, but the instrument was able to cleary show the Cassini Division as well as some subtle banding on this giant world 880 million miles away! I judged the image to be very good considering its woefully low altitude.Like Jupiter, it promises to yield better views for us far-northern observers in the years ahead.
A little later, my sister-in-law, Rhiannon, came to have a look at the planets and some showpiece deep sky objects. She was amazed to discover that the instrument didn’t cost very much, even with all the modifications done to it.
Beginning at 21:15 UT, I began my double star tests, in rapid succession, and using the same magnifications I had used the previous evening. And the results were exactly the same: very good seeing conditions, enabling high resolution double star work to be conducted.
I then took myself off to visit the Ring Nebula(M57) in Lyra, three bright globular clusters, M3 in Canes Venatici, as well as M13 and M92 in Hercules. The good light grasp and resolving power provided very engaging views in these dark skies, which I had, by now, deemed very similar in quality to another site in Wigtown, southwest Scotland (and also near the coast!) The Whirlpool Galaxy(M51) looked great at 118x, as did M81 and M82, which were still fairly high up in the north.
I ended the telescopic vigil with quick looks at some easy multiple star gems including Mizar & Alcor, Gamma Delphini, Iota Cassiopeiae (with its 3 beautiful stellar members), Albireo and the lovely O^1 Cygni system.
The telescope had dewed up by 21:50UT, at which time it was packed up for another night.
At 22:45 UT, as every one else had retired for the night, I ventured out again with my 9 x 28 binocular, enjoying the river of starlight through the Milky Way. But what most excited me was the siight of Perseus, now set much higher in the northeastern sky. Aiming at Alpha Persei, I brought the binocular to my eyes to behold that beautiful, sprawling wonder that is Melotte 20. It’s a spectacular binocular sight, even wth this small instrument. I couldn’t help pining for something larger though, like my 8 x 42, or better still, my 10 x 50. But I suppose, we live and learn!
I retreated from the field of glory around local midnight, for we had much to do the following day.
Session 3: August 2 2019
Like the last two days, August 2 was warm and sunny, though today some high altitude cloud produced much more in the way of hazy conditions than on the previous days. And that haze remained into the evening and over night. As a result, transparency was much reduced to my chagrin, since I wanted to do a little bit more deep sky observing. But as any regular observer worth his or her salt will inform you, hazy conditions often portend a good, stable atmosphere. Even before commencing telescopic observations it was easy to see the conditions were excellent, with the stars twinkling even less than they had done on the previous nights.
At 21:20 UT I began with a quick look at Jupiter, now near its maximum altitude for this location, with the 130mm charged with a power of 118x. Some really fine details were showing up as the planet drifted across the field of view, proving once again that such an instrument is a good choice for observing the bright planets, especially in grab ‘n’ go mode.
At 21:30 UT, I commenced my double star observations, using the same magnifications as described on July 31, and, one by one, they all succumbed to the formidable resolving power of this telescope. Conditions this evening at this site were as good as I have seen elsewhere(Ant I); there was zero turbulence, the stars resolving to beautiful, hard Airy disks in every case. I also recorded a good split of the components of Lambda Cygni this evening, separated by 0.94″ at a power of 354x, though I would have liked to have had some additional magnifying power on this tough target( I have used 405x with this system in this telescope on many occasions).
This vigil was ended at 22:05 UT.
Conclusions: On three consecutive nights, the 130mm reflector served up excellent, high-power views of a selection of double stars, adding to my list of good places to observe from. Once again, the little Newtonian delivered the goods!
Do I attribute this to good fortune?
Sheer dumb luck?
It is the observer that creates opportunities. Diligence and determination are all that is required. The British Isles offers many places to do such work and is a far cry from the bad reputation our lands have garnered on more than a few internet forums.
Britain and Ireland are open for business and I would take any comments claiming the contrary with a large dose of scepticism.
Think tooth fairy, Yeti, Darwinian evolution…..you get my drift.
One thing is certain though; you’ll never know unless you get off your backside and do some real testing!
Memories from our trip back up north:
There were a few other nights where the skies were partially clear, allowing to me to make some short binocular tours. Indeed, the pattern was much the same as I have noted at a few other places in the UK and Ireland.
We said our goodbyes to our hosts on Monday morning, August 5, when we set off northward. Our first port of call was Aberystwyth, a beautiful university town set on the coast. We enjoyed a delicious lunch, followed by a walk along its magnificent esplanade and were sorely tempted to have a dip in the sea, but time was against us, as we had to make our way across the border into England, where we would spend a night in Liverpool.
I’m not a fan of cities in general, but I had never visited Liverpool in all my years of living in the UK. The real reason for the visit was to do a tour of Anfield, the home ground of the 2019 Champion’s League winners, Liverpool F.C. My eldest son, Oscar, was in his element, being a die-hard Liverpool fan.
After booking into our hotel and having a bite to eat, we set off on a walk down to Liverpool docks in the late evening, taking in the amazing buildings that decorate the site,
Liverpool is also the ancestral home of the Beatles, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before we came across a reminder of the city’s most famous sons;
The city lies next to the Mersey estuary. On the evening we arrived, the tide was fully out at sunset, which made for a very pretty sight;
Taking an open-top bus around Liverpool, we learned a lot of historical information from the tour guide (speaking in broad Scouse) before being dropped off at Anfield. Countless bus loads of folk were making the pilgrimage to the home turf of one of England’s most successful football teams. I suppose for the faithful, it was like a visit to Mecca.
Though we enjoyed many warm and sunny days in Wales, extending into our short trip to Liverpool, as we hit the mountains of northern England, sunshine gave way to torrential rain;
Indeed, much of the rest of August brought very unsettled weather to Scotland, but at least the farmers were happy. Rumour has it that this was a record summer for growing grass and making hay! Unfortunately though, it also meant that our lawns, which were trimmed before we left, had to be cut down to size again upon our return.
It was good to get away and spend some quality time with family. No doubt, I’ll be back again to sample its excellent skies with my little Newtonian reflector.
Neil English travels through four centuries of time to bring you many more inconvenient truths concerning the Newtonian reflector in his tome, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy.