I arrived on the Friday in good time this year having learnt the hard way its hard to put up a tent by red light head torch. It’s a ‘camp rule’ – no white lights - once night falls on these star parties. It did not look promising for that evening, but at about 21:30 gaps started to form in the clouds to the west. I had set up my Celestron C8 (200 mm SCT) on its wedge mount earlier using a compass as Polaris was not visible due to clouds. I could just make out Orion setting. I had a quick look at Venus using the 9.5mm (x214). The phase was very obvious at about 60% and at a higher magnification not quite so blindingly bright as in the 40mm. By 22:00 I was able to set up the digital setting circles and from that activity moved straight to M38. In a 40mm eyepiece (x80) it briefly filled the field of view – before the clouds rolled in. Anyway, possibly the most number of stars I’ve seen in this object with my C8. At 22:30 I put the covers back on and had 40 winks as it was now 100% cloud, but it was forecast to clear at midnight. A check at 23:40, and a few gaps allowed a quick look at Jupiter which seemed to have a transit shadow showing on its disk when using 9.5mm (x214). I tried with a x2 Barlow but that was too much power and made things worse. After another 40 winks I wandered down a few pitches and had the chance to see M57 and M13 in a 22 inch (mirror diameter) Dobsonian go-to. This involved balancing about 4ft up a step ladder but wow – what a view. M57 was about the size we see Jupiter at in the club telescope and it was really very obvious as a ring shape. As for M13 – another wow moment with hundreds of individual stars resolved in it.
Returning to my more modest equipment I carted the C8 over a bit to get clear of a tree blocking my view of rising Lyra. Looking again at M13 in the 200mm with 40mm it was the normal fuzzy view I get, a bit of a downer after the 22”. It was now just after 2am so viewed M3 then M5. At 02:30 there was a bright meteorite moving W to E that left a trail about 20 degrees – the width of fully outstretched hand and so with that and with cloud at 100% I called it a night.
Saturday, and its mostly clear blue skies with just a few white clouds. I spent an hour or so viewing the Sun first with the PST then the Vixen 110mm on the Alt-Az go-to mount. A go-to is not very good at tracking in the daytime since I had not been able to set it up on any bright stars, the Sun does not count in this. I did some drawings of the four sunspot groups visible. I then spent some time wandering round the trade stands. I managed to keep my hands and wallet in my pocket. Among the traders was ENS, who deals in 2nd hand kit and had offerings like a mint condition boxed Meade equatorial mount at £300 and an ED80 in carry case with lots of extras at £470. Most other traders offered a modest discount on new kit and several were taking the chance to sell-off shop ex-demo equipment at considerable discount.
The good weather in the day did not last into the night and so the night sky was cloudy all night and an early bed for me. Sunday brought with it clear blue skies again. In another walk round the traders I had gave in to the call of the trade stands and am now the owner of a ‘pre-owned’ Vixen GP equatorial mount, about same as an EQ5 I believe, complete with RA/Dec drive motors, on a pillar not a tripod with extra weights and polar scope. Having carted my new treasure to my pitch I spent from about 18:00 onwards looking at, drawing and taking some photos of the sun. I was also seeing how well the mount tracked having set it with a compass and digital protractor, it being daytime. It worked very well actually.
At 21:00 Venus and Jupiter visible in the still clear blue sky – it was looking promising for a good nights viewing. Former club member John Moran was also attending, pitched with family at the other end of the field so he had joined me and was set-up on my pitch. By 22:35 it was dark enough to try some observing. The man on the pitch opposite was a keen double star observer and suggested 2 and 24 Coma. I found 24 to be a fairly wide pair with the western-most star the fainter. Slight colour contrast seen in the pair, orange and blue to my eyes. I have heard others say it, but by now it was so dark and with so many stars it was genuinely hard to pick out the constellations. With the warm day gone, dew is going to be a problem I thought (but did nothing about it!). Anyway John got some good images of M51 – again and yet again I could not even find it! My camera battery was flat anyway so I had to find the camera battery charger, buried somewhere in the tent. The new Vixen mount was drifting – I found out the next day it likes a full 12 volts or more. When I got home I also read on-line that the x32 drive value should be set back to x1.5 as soon as user is finished slewing – to prevent excessive draining on the battery. Anyway, found M3 with C8 again closely followed by M64 but by now the equipment was getting very, very wet. I could not get focus with the now fully charged camera even with the f6.3 focal reducer so gave up thinking it was dew related. I tried the ‘hair-drier’ and fitted the C8 with its dew heater. I found I had to re-cap all eyepieces’ as soon as I had stopped using then, as a delay even for a moment resulted in them getting dewed up. The Vixen was all but useless by now as it had neither dew shield or dew heater. It’s 01:15, so had a look at the other suggested double, 2 Coma. Then I found M85 in C8/f10 using 40mm. It was fuzzy with no structure. By now the sea-fog & clouds were coming over so packed up at 02:15, made some hot soup and went to bed.
And so, despite this being my 5th or 6th star camp, I learnt I needed to prepare more for these trips.
• Camera batteries – pre-charge them or have spares.
• Equipment configuration – write it down or do a sketch. The reason I could not get focus my DSLR body was when at home I use an off- axis guider, just as a spacer, and because I was tired or whatever – even though I had it with me, I forgot to fit it between the telescope and camera.
• Put the dew heater on anyway if its been a warm day, well before the dew forms.
• Get into the habit of capping eyepieces between use even if fitted to scope while looking at maps etc.