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Updated April 15th 2021

Night Sky Hunting - April 14th

We have been getting treated to a great selection of clear nights of recent and I have been taking advantage of this blessing from nature by undertaking a lot of visual observations with the 10" F/5 reflector. Getting away from town lights, street lamps and obstructing houses at the backyard has been absolute bliss. There's nothing better than driving out to a country location and setting up your telescope under truly dark skies. I have been observing Messier objects and even picked up several galaxies from the NGC catalogue which I have never even noticed before from years ago with my old 16" reflector. I have been throwing myself into the realm of galaxies recently and have tracked down two new comets so my telescope has now earned its wings. There have been special moments such as seeing a tail-less comet against the Milky Way background, observing island universes with edge-on spiral arms which had been interacting with one another, spying upon variable stars and a Nova then observing Messier 81 with the naked eye. I will be featuring these sessions and recent photo shoots in a new report soon but in the meantime here's a quote from a quick write up I did for social media...

Solo observing session from Broughderg in the Sperrins last night 00.50-03.30 UT using the 10" F/5 reflector. - The sky last night was quite superb away from bright light sources. I spent the pre-dawn hours observing my old favourite deep sky objects then tracking down two new comets for the growing collection (75 comets now in the bag). The session got off to a great start when an amber-coloured mag +2 meteor lazily streaked across the sky for five seconds with fragments falling in its wake as it broke into pieces, it originated from the north between Uma and Auriga.

I observed a wide range of Messier objects but also added several new NGC galaxies to my collection which I never noticed before, even from back in the days of the 16" telescope. Tonight it seemed galaxies were popping out from the sky into the telescopic field. My all time favourites are M81 and M82 however I'm currently very fond of the view of NGC4656, NGC4631 & NGC4627 in the Coma Berenices/Canes Venatici border. This huge edge-one spiral is impressive with its pointed spiral arms with embedded structure in the form of knots and dark sectors of galactic dust lanes. Two foreground stars near the nucleus gave the impression of supernovae. The other galaxy in the same field is unlike any other galaxy with the tip of its spiral arm up-turned like a hook. Some call it the Hockey Stick galaxy but to me it looked more like a fishing lure. This hooked deformation is the result of tidal forces when both these galaxies interacted with one another in the remote past.

I also hunted down comet C/2020 R4 ATLAS, in fact, this was my main reason for driving to a dark site. I found the comet between Aquila and Serpens Cauda, despite its bright magnitude of +9.5 to +10.0 it was not an easy object, it certainly required dark skies and patience to find visually. In the field it looked like an elliptical haze with no tail sporting a very subtle condensation at centre, the overall coma was diffuse at DC: 3. I could detect a green hue from the gas-rich coma, the comet looked tranquil against a sea of stars within the Milky Way.

I hunted down faint comet C/2020 T2 Palomar in Canes Venatici at mag +12. It was easy to find near the zenith away from any extinction and sported a compact oval coma with bright central condensation and a DC of 6. Incidentally the faint globular cluster NGC5053 in the same field as M53 looked exactly like a newly discovered comet with a large diffuse coma at low powers. This would make for a great test object for future comet observers. Higher power revealed stars within betraying its cluster origin.

I then searched for new comets low in the N and NW then had a look at the western section of the Veil Nebula. With the naked eye I observed RCrB, TCrb, Chi Cygni and M81 which looked like a min version of the Gegenschein. I ended the session before dawn with this image of the telescope and I admiring the rising Milky Way before the glow of dawn. A fantastic observing night under wonderful dark skies.


Lady Of Wayside Nightscapes - April 2nd

First official night photo shoot of the year. This was a night of visual telescopic observing and time lapse photography. I teamed up with John Fagan at Beaghmore Stone Circles where we watched and time-lapsed the Zodiacal Light, then undertook a lengthy period of observing with our Meade 10" Dobsonian Reflectors studying galaxies, star clusters and nebulae from the Messier and NGC catalogues. We then checked out a new location in Broughderg at the Lady of Wayside chapel which had a beautiful large Crucifixion scene visible under very dark skies. We shot a star trail and time lapse then did more telescopic work. The above image is a single exposure showing sections of the Milky Way with two passing satellites.

Full star trail, this is the result of two hours of imaging with the full frame Canon 5D Mark IV and 15mm Irix lens. I have a few more images to post if and when I get around to doing a report for the web site.

The telescopic session was the finest I've experienced this year and my new instrument surpassed itself. The high power views of M82, M51 and M57 were amazing from such a dark location. Above is a short time lapse from Broughderg. I will be doing more night shoots over the Easter week and might also be capturing snow scenes so stay tuned for updates.

Asteroid 4 Vesta Visible In Binoculars - WATCH

One of the largest asteroids in the solar system is currently visible near its brightest and well placed for viewing this month. Asteroid (Minor Planet) 4 Vesta is a large space rock over 500km in diameter which tumbles in its orbit around the Sun within the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta is near opposition which means it's opposite the Sun and hence viewable for much of the night. You can find Vesta within Leo the Lion, a large constellation on the ecliptic plane with a striking backwards question mark asterism on its western side. If you look to the eastern sector (left) of the Lion you will see an obvious naked eye star called Chertan (Theta Leonis) which serves as a great guide post. In relative close proximity above Chertan is where Vesta resides.

The asteroid is around mag +6 or slightly brighter which means it's an easy target for binoculars and small telescopes. Trained observers with dark skies should even see Vesta without optical aid which is quite a thrilling experience. Remember asteroids look like stars so to be certain you have seen the correct star you should use this finder chart however to be extra certain simply sketch the suspected field then examine the same area the following night - or whenever the next clear night should be - and you will have noticed that one of the 'stars' has moved, this will be your asteroid. It's a fascinating experience to see this motion which hits home that you are actually witnessing an asteroid moving through our celestial backyard.

I took the above image from Cookstown on March 6th/7th around midnight with a 50mm F/1.8 lens on my crop sensor DSLR, the exposure time was 7 seconds at ISO1600. Comparing the field with the chart I was able to spot Vesta immediately which I have annotated on the image with red arrows. I was also able to see the asteroid as a bright field star in the FOV of the 10" reflector. When I take an image of this same field on the next clear night that 6th magnitude star will have moved again to the west (right). Now is a great time to catch an asteroid from your own backyard, why not give it a try, I wish you clear skies and happy observing.

First Snow Of 2021, Polar Air Mass Convection & Benbradagh Aerial Scenes - NEW REPORT

New Report

First image report of 2021 covering three days of local Winter chasing during late January 2021 covering a beautiful cold spell which brought several days of snow and even the first convection of the season. The chase began with impressive cold air convection over the ocean at Downhill Beach with cells dropping hail and snow then moves inland to cover two memorable days on Benbradagh mountain near Dungiven. The mountain was covered in snow and looked its finest in bright sunshine surrounded by a deep blue Polar sky. I also captured the waxing gibbous Moon rising over the snow-covered summit. This is a combination of DSLR and drone imagery. One page report with 20 images and 2 video clips. - REPORT.

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Image Reports - Archive

N. Ireland Storm Chasing Reports

Astronomy is not the only subject I'm interested in, check out my N. Ireland Storm Chasing section and view the chase reports and images which detail not only storms but other phenomena such as a moonbows, noctilucent clouds, aurora displays and exciting nature related photo shoots.

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Martin McKenna