On Friday 11th Sep was the annual pilgrimage all amateur observers should make once in their lifetime - the Kelling Heath Autumn Star Party. My plan had been to take the afternoon off work and leave in good time t set up before dark. The best laid plans and all that guff.
Due to urgent work commitments I did not get away until 17:30. Now on a map the 100 mile trip should take just over 2 hours. However we are talking Norfolk back roads here so one should allow at least 3 hours for this trip. My problems were compounded by setting the site as a Sat Nav ‘favourite’ location while there last time. Stupid machine (or user?). Now Kelling Heath campsite are some fields set deep in a forest, off the main roads so to a sat nav computer, to get to that lat/long, anywhere on the boundary of the forest is a valid place to go ‘off road’. So I was taken not to the nearby village of Bodham on the Holt to Cromer road but along the single track coast road, no turning back with a small trailer in tow. So by the time I got to the camp site reception it was gone 8 and pitch black. Strict red light rules apply but the reception staff suggested I drive around on full headlights and set the tent up by the light of them – err no I don’t fancy being strung up thanks. I drove very slowly on side lights in the approximate direction of the allotted pitch area and managed to find a place to pull up away from lights. I put an old army blanket over front windscreen so interior light would not shine over people every time I opened the car door. It was far too dark to pitch a tent so I was resigned to the fact I will sleep in my black suit in car. One night won't hurt me.
I set up the Vixen 110 telescope on the Alt Az go-to mount, my visiting auntie ’observing kit in a box’, so I can do a bit of observing so would not be lost this night. Then I had some apple-pie and cream and made cuppa. At 21:30 it was very clear. The bit of rain earlier had made seeing even better than the night before, so I was told. I put my pocket camera on the car roof and took a set of 10x15 second wide angle shots of the milky-way overhead. After a quick look at M15 with Vixen, fairly easy to find near Enif in Pegasus I next moved to U Sag. This is a variable I have been trying to follow over a few nights for my personal ‘Astrometry with a DSLR’ project. It looked different, sods law all the rest of the kit was buried in the car so no photo tonight, maybe tomorrow. Albiro is a splendid double in any optical aid. I use it as a ‘calibration’ for my illuminated reticule to allow me to measure other binary stars, working out at 6 arc seconds per small division and so in theory a measurement resolution of 3 arc seconds. I also noted that at the highest power for this scope (x250) the ‘a’ star of the pair was showing symmetrical airy rings so the car travel has not knocked out collimation. M2 was too faint to resolve in a 110mm ‘scope. I then paid a quick visit M13. The binary Eta Cass was next. Using the illuminated reticule 12.5 mm I could not see the companion star. In a ‘normal’ 12.5mm (x80) the companion was just visible after looking a while. At 00:30 the clouds came in so I packed up the optical kit. However I left 'kitchen' boxes outside. I settled down in car passenger seat, still dressed, and used sleeping bag as blanket. At about 3 in the morning the heavens opened. Still I was ok in car and I had found the sleep mask to block out the early morning sun. However, years of being trained to sleep on my side - hard to do in a car seat – meant my sleep was broken.
I got up, so to speak, about 8 when the rain stopped. I had actually been parked on a proper powered pitch that somebody must have paid for, but they had not turned up. There is a lot of that going on and is causing some bad feeling as the ‘best’ pitches are being block-booked by both astronomy clubs and individuals a year ahead and then not used. Anyway, the ‘Kitchen’ and cool boxes both full of water! Went for shower. I knew I had forgotten something - no proper towel. Had a cat lick instead. It only took 5 minutes to ‘pack-up’ and find my proper paid for pitch, it was just round the corner. Well there was a reason it was still free to book at short notice. It is surrounded by high trees - oh bugger. The site was packed with all the pitches booked this week so no chance to move. Oh and it started raining again while I was pitching the tent. After pitching I had some Pasta and seafood from home and it heated up ok in the steamer without burning it. You take a microwave for granted – until you don’t have one. It was a good job I also brought the two small cookers because the new double burner one I got for my for birthday last week had no regulator or hose and camp shop will exchange gas cylinders - but not sell me a new bottle. The rain stopped quite soon after I finished pitching the tent but trade stands were packing up early because of it. All in all a bit of a disaster so far. Oh happy day.
Wandered to the camp shop and bought cheap towel at rip off price so that's me and the dishes clean again. Thought I better shower because in the afternoon I’d be sat in a lecture room for a few hours.
Starting at 2pm, Jonathan Daniels and Malcolm Zak from LAS (Loughton Astronomical Society) did the first talk, a double act on ‘The Sky Tonight’ – a suggested target list of objects visible from the site, for beginners. The next talk was Dr Lillian Hobbs describing setting up computerised observatories. After a comfort break, another double act from the LAS was ‘Heroes of Astronomy’. I was surprized to find out that Joselyn Bell – who discovered the pulsar radio signal got no share of the Nobel Prize as she was ‘only’ a post graduate researcher. Her project supervisor got the cash. Owen Brazell then did a talk on ‘Observing the Local Group’ – the other ‘fuzzies’ , our ‘near’ neighbours that are gravitationally bound to our Milky Way. I skipped the telescope tour this year – a walk round the site looking at selected telescopes people had brought with them.
Going outside, I noted the weather had cleared by up now. Quite warm but a little windy with some blue sky so maybe it will be OK tonight. As night fell however it started hopes were rising for a clear and then, after all of my kit (the Vixen 110 for visual and the Explorer 130 for photos) was set up, it went 100% cloudy! So I put most of the kit away and sat in tent and played with some images on the PC from another session. I looked out at about 23:00 and was crystal clear.
I had left the Vixen GP mount in place with the Explorer 130P DS. This is not a go-to mount and relies on accurate ‘star-hopping’ because like most small mounts the setting circles are not very accurate. I had been invited by the guy next to me to share his pitch to observe from and so I had a view to the North and East – better than nothing. I set out to find M103. Looking back at my field notes (I’m sure you all keep a log book?) I now see I was looking at the wrong end of Cassiopeia for M103. I’ll put it down to tiredness. M45 was up by now – can’t go wrong there and I had not tried imaging that with this ‘scope yet as it is my brand new toy.
Nothing can go wrong – I spoke too soon, I got ‘PC driver error’ messages so could not use the laptop to focus or control the DSLR. Re-installing software in the dark in a field is not to be recommended I’d say. Si I resorted to plan B, a remote cable interval timer to take 17 images at 30 seconds in RAW format.
Next I tried to find the California nebula. Seeing nothing on images so I assumed I was nowhere near it. Remember, I am using star hopping. Tried M103 again from the right end of Cassiopeia. This time I think I found it but spotting a faint open cluster in the milky-way area is like finding a needle in a haystack. Anyway I took 20 images at 1600 ISO of 30 seconds.
The clouds rolled in after this so packed up. It was almost 2 am and I will need to drive home tomorrow. I slept well and got up at 7:30 as I have to be off site by 10:00. While emptying my green ‘dry rubbish’ bucket into one of those industrial size waste bins I heard a metallic tingle tinkle. All my spare tent pegs had been left in the bottom of the bucket when I set-up in the rain yesterday. So I now had to dive headfirst into this giant bin to grab them back. Camping – every moment an adventure!