Sunday 1 November 2020

Sunrise & Sunset over the Straight Wall


Hi all,

The weather here in Sydney has been rather miserable for astronomy.  So this post is something I’ve been wanting to do for some time, show how the angle of incoming sunlight can totally change the appearance of otherwise familiar features.

The straight wall is one of the most striking features outside of its innumerable craters.  Astonishingly long and straight, this 110km long Faultline escarpment is surprisingly only 300m tall at its highest.

By far the most frequently seen images of Rupes Recta is during sunrise over it when its dark shadow marks out is location on the eastern section of Mare Nubium.  The lunar landscape is very well known, although less well known are the two domes that sit on the northern end of the smaller Rima Birt, Birt 1 & Birt 2.  There is a twist to this familiar moonscape – viewing it during sunset.

The shadows on the plain are different, showing an unfamiliar perspective around what otherwise are familiar features of craters and rilles.  And the appearance of the Straight Wall is not a dark shadows but a brilliant white.

I was very surprised to see such a different set of shadows on the plain surrounding the Straight Wall.  Admittedly sunlight was at a shallower angle.  All the same, the distinct play of textures and landscape was unexpected.

Even the Straight Wall itself shows interesting shadows, giving insight to the different angles at which surrounding planes that form the fault are set at.

Both sketches were done using an 8" SCT.  Sunrise at 250X, Sunset at 200X.

Clear skies, cool cameras and sharp pencils,


Monday 12 October 2020

Deep Sky Delights from Katoomba Airfield, & sketching NGC 246, NGC 1097 & NGC 2808

Hello everyone,


Finally the Sky Gods have looked favourable upon us and we had our first session back at Katoomba Airfield in many months.

The Airfield was spared the torture that was the recent bushfires that ravaged much of the surrounding national parks.  So with the recent rains the Airfield was looking the greenest I can remember and the wildflowers are starting to bloom.  We even saw our first every kangaroo here this night, something that we have never seen in the 13 years we have been using the site.

The night was spectacular.  Clear, with a nice breeze blowing to keep our gear dry from dew.  Seeing conditions were good, though transparency tonight was a little down.  But hey, after so many months without getting out under the stars, I am not complaining.

It was also a Club meet session of the Blue Mountains Astronomical Club, of which I am the President.  The current Covid-19 situation has limited who can attend Club sessions, but the turnout was still a very good one.

The night and company was so good I stayed until the morning twilight 😊

I managed three sketches this night.  Two of objects I had never seen before, and all of different types of objects.

NGC 246, the Skull Nebula, planetary nebula

Earlier this year I did a planetary marathon from my home in Sydney during the Covid-19 lockdown we had.  I was surprised at how many planetary nebulae I was able to see from home.  This experience left me quite fond of the objects, and I was keen to put pencil to paper with one this night.

The Skull Nebula was the very first object I looked up after setting up.  I was using my 17.5" dob with a 13mm eyepiece, and I remember my first reaction on seeing The Skull:  "Oh, my! That is big and bright!"

The skull-like appearance I cannot really say I could make out, which I guess is due to the transparency not being 10/10 - viewing other objects during the night confirmed transparency could be better.  All the same this planetary nebula is quite striking it the detail is presents.  Its outer edge ring is disrupted along one side, and internally it has a distinct mottled appearance.

Object:  NGC 246, the Skull Nebula

Scope:  17.5" push-pull dob

Gear:  13mm 80deg eyepiece, 153X,  plus Oiii filter

Date:  10th of October, 2020

Location:  Katoomba Airfield, Australia

Media:  White soft pastel, charcoal and white gel pen on A4 size black paper

Duration:  approx 30 minutes.

Barred Spiral Galaxy NGC 1097 & companion 1097A

This time of year is prime galaxy hunting time.  There is multitude of galaxy clusters, with the main one in this part of the sky being around the constellation Fornax.  I sketched the gorgeous spiral NGC 1365 a few years back.  NGC 1097 is larger in size, but of lower surface brightness, so is less well known.  Both of these galaxies are barred spirals, but they are so different in morphology.  The bar in 1365 is short and its arms come out perpendicular from the bar.  1097 has a very long bar by comparison, and the arms wrap tight around the galaxy.

I looked at both galaxies this night too.  I was struggling to see the arms in 1097, so I chased down it brother, and noticed that it too was not as easy to see as previous times.  Again this being due to transparency not been at its best.  All the same this presented its own challenge to be able to make out as much detail as I could in the prevailing conditions.  I will like to revisit 1097 under better transparency and resketch it to have a way of comparing how transparency affects viewing.  The difficult transparency made it a challenge to be able to pull the detail of the arms, needing observing every trick I had to tease what little detail there was.

1097 also has a couple of companion galaxies, with 1097A being the easier one to see.  It appears the small attached blob at the end of the top bar in the sketch.

Object:  NGC 1097, Barred spiral, and its companion galaxy 1097A

Scope:  17.5" push-pull dob

Gear:  13mm 80deg eyepiece, 153X

Date: 11th October, 2020

Location:  Katoomba Airfield, Australia

Media:  White soft pastel and charcoal on A4 size black paper

Duration:  approx. 45 minutes.

A giant hidden among giants, globular cluster NGC 2808

It is curious how some constellations a devoid of many deep sky objects, yet others have so many showpiece objects.  And the problem with having so many outstanding objects is many go totally unnoticed because.  Carina is one such "greedy" constellation.  Everyone knows of Eta Carina, but who knows of any other deep sky objects in it???

In any other constellation globular cluster NGC 2808 would be a showpiece object on its own.

This magnitude 6.2 beast is also a wolf in sheep's clothing.  It is one of the largest globular clusters of the Milky Way, harbouring a blackhole at its core, with more than a million stars in its harem.

I have been familiar with 2808 for a long time.  It is a stunning globular, with an appearance very similar to 47 Tuc of having a very intense core, I would say its core is larger than 47 Tuc's, and a very large halo that slowly peters out, making its size larger than one imagines at first - this I noticed as a spent more and more time with it, as I gradually saw its halo of pinpoint stars extending further and further out.  2808 also sits on the edge of the Milky Way to us, so it also has a very busy surrounding starfield.

I am glad I was able to finally lay down NGC 2808 on paper.  It was a challenging globular to sketch for despite the myriad of resolved stars it has and the busy surrounds, there are actually very few stand out individual bright stars in the field of view.  It made me have to carefully consider how I went about doing the sketch, and made it a difficult but enjoyable task to pull out the signature patterns.

Object:  Globular cluster NGC 2808

Scope:  17.5" push-pull dob

Gear:  13mm 80deg eyepiece, 153X

Date:  11th October, 2020

Location:  Katoomba Airfield, Australia

Media:  White soft pastel and white get pen on A4 size black paper

The next Club session is set down for this coming Saturday, the 17th of October.  The forecast six days out is not too promising.  But a lot can happen between now and then.  PLUS there is also Mars to pay attention to over the next few weeks.

Clear skies and sharp pencils,

Alex Massey.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

"Valentine Dome" - a giant hiding in plain sight

Hi all,

We have had a run of very clear, but very cold, nights here in Sydney.  A fantastic cold front swept in over the weekend dumping snow down to 800m in the mountains to Sydney’s west.  This has also meant that transparency has been excellent along with very good seeing conditions.

Last night while scanning the terminator (the area of the Moon where the light and dark meet, NOT a homicidal robot…) and came across a huge feature that I had never seen before – an enormous round blister of a dome smack on a seemingly featureless Mare!

Lunar domes are volcanic features.  Some of these are magma displacements that had pushed up from below the lunar surface but did not breach the surface.  Others are actual volcanos.  The “Valentine Dome” is a volcano.

It gets its nickname from being a little heart shaped.  I did not give it this nickname!  I found it while researching this feature after I sketched it.  Who says astronomers are not romantic?!

The Valentine dome is some 35km in diameter, but only 300 meters tall.  For this reason it requires the Sun to be at a very shallow angle for the low mound to be visible.  It is a very short volcano because lunar volcanoes are shield type volcanoes, just like the ones on Hawaii.

Its official lunar designation is Linne A 1.  The “1” refers to it being a volcanic feature, with volcanic features having numerals in the same way that lesser craters have letters.

Valentine Dome would also have been one of the last volcanic features to form on Mare Serenitatis, forming over the long cooled lava plains of Serenitatis.  But all volcanic features are very old.

Conversely, crater Linne is a relatively young feature.  Though small (3km), its collar of ejecta material is still very bright.  As time wears on, the solar wind will weather this bright material until it loses its brilliance and the bright collar fades to blend into the surrounding grey material.  There are other craters in this sketch that are larger than Linne.  Linne A, B & F are all larger than the principal (4km, 5km & 5km respectively).  But all of these have lost their bright ejecta collars, hence giving  clues to the relative ages of these features, volcanic and crater.

It was a thrill to chance upon this lunar feature.  It was also the first lunar volcano that I was able to show my wife as it was so distinct and free from other distracting features.  I hope you are able to find it for yourself one day.


Object:  “Valentine dome” Linne A 1

Scope:  Santel 9” Maksutov Cassegrain

Gear:  10mm Vixen SSW eyepiece, 310X

Date:  25th of August, 2020

Location:  Sydney, Australia

Materials:  White & grey soft pastel, charcoal and white gel ink on A4 size black paper (no blending stump used).

Sunday 16 August 2020

Planetary Nebulae - a sketching marathon of how many I could see from my home

Hi all,

These two works deal with DEATH.  The death of stars.

It also deals with looking to make the most of observing from under light polluted skies, pushing equipment and eyes.

Because I was not able to travel to my customary dark sky site, I was still itching to get some time under the stars with Deep Sky Objects.  Then the idea came to me of doing a Planetary Nebula marathon of how many I could see and sketch from my home in Sydney.

Inspiration for these two works came from two friends soon after the start of the Covid-19 lockdown that took place here in Sydney earlier this year.  One friend was testing some equipment using planetary nebulae, and the other friend had done a series of astro sketches who was also stuck at home at the time.  The idea then occurred to me that there actually are many planetary nebulae that are visible from under light polluted skies, and as a challenge to myself why not try to sketch as many of them as I could as these are relatively simple objects to sketch.

A planetary nebula is the last death throes of a star like our Sun! Our Sun is not large enough to explode in a supernova. Instead when it has exhausted its hydrogen fuel, the star/Sun will have series of "burps" where it will shed all its layers except for its core. The material that is released puffs out to form a sort of cosmic bubble that is called a planetary nebula. These are short lived bubbles, eventually expanding like a smoke ring into nothing, leaving behind the exposed core of the star/Sun that will slowly cool like a cinder, eventually after many billions of years just stop shining and be as black and cold as coal. No more star, no more Sun.

And there are hundreds of these cosmic bubbles all around us! The two sketches below are of the brighter ones I could spy out in one night from my home starting from 7pm through to 5am the next morning, over two successive nights. If I had been out bush to do this piece, I would have been able to spy out dozens more.

The different shapes that can be seen is due to various gravitational and magnetic influences on the expanding material from an invisible companion star (if the shape is not an even bubble), or if it is a smooth round bubble, then the star has no companion star (like our Sun). The shape of a planetary nebula can actually reveal A LOT about it!

So, if you are stuck at home, have a telescope but don't know what to look for, chasing dying stars (planetary nebulae) is something a little different and certainly possible from under light polluted skies. A few of these are surprisingly bight. Most are dim. Some are very dim and will really challenge your observing skills. And of course, they vary in size from large (only one or two like that in the sky), down to stellar-like and everything in between. Spotting the tiny stellar-like ones is its own challenge best done using a "blinking paddle" to hold an OIII filter, but this is beyond this post.

The position of the nebula in each individual sketch I tried to position so to make the composition a little more interesting by trying to accommodate as many stars as I could that surrounds each nebula within the field of view of the scope.

For what it is worth, I used a 9" Maksutov telescope, most at 258X with a 12mm Vixen SLV eyepiece, and an OIII filter.  Four individual nebulae I used different eyepieces as they needed different magnification of field of view to provide the best quality of image for that planetary nebula. The sketches were done on A3 sheet of black paper using white and blue soft pastels. Each individual sketch took approx 20 minutes to half an hour.



Thursday 6 August 2020

Volcano Alley - Sunrise over Aristarchus and a myriad of lava rivers

Hi all,

A few nights ago I managed my first lunar sketch in a couple of months. Come to think of it, the last twelve months have been pretty lean of sketches from me - work, poor conditions, cloud, all conspiring against me. This particular night all my ducks finally all lined up - excellent seeing, work not in the way, and an itchy sketch pad 😄

The brilliant crater Aristarchus and the sinuous Vallis Schroteri all too often steal the show in this area of the Moon, an area that appears to harbour very little other detail or features. How wrong this thinking is! It is only a very shallow angle of sunlight that can reveal the wealth of detail that actually litters this area.

At sunrise over Aristarchus reveals a series a very fine, long lava rivers, and for several of these the head of each river can be traced to different volcanic domes. These lava rivers are not as pronounced as Vallis Schroteri, so when the Sun is higher up their shadows are lost. These volcanic features are visible for only a few short hours each month.

There are also a multitude of volcanic domes all around here too. Most of these would go unrecognised as such because they look like a mountain. But one tell-tail sign of their true nature comes from careful examination of the shape of these peaks - domes tend to be more rounded in shape, like a blister. When the angle of the incoming sunlight is as shallow as this, it can be difficult to make out this blister shape. But leave the timing too long after sunrise, and these domes disappear because they are not very tall, and their rounded shape does not allow for stark and sharp angles that true mountains have.

The shallow angle of sunlight also makes for very dramatic long dark shadows that extend out towards the terminator and beyond it. It never ceased to amaze me how quickly these long shadows actually recede as the sun rises.

Object: lava rivers and domes between Prinz & Aristarchus

Scope: 9" Santel Maksutov, MK91

Gear: 7mm Vixen SSW eyepiece, 443X

Date: 1st August, 2020

Location: Sydney, Australia.

Media: White & grey soft pastel, charcoal and white gel ink on A4 size black paper.



Friday 15 February 2019

Understanding Nebulae - Part 3

Getting the MOST out of your HUMAN eyes

Ok, we now know that our eyes are not the best at low levels of light. But, did you know that our eyes also have different areas that are more and less sensitive in low levels of light? That the less sensitive area to light holds both the greatest number of colour receptors and is also where we see things with the greatest detail - central vision. That the area that is most sensitive at low levels of light is also the area where less detail is seen - peripheral vision. AND that there is a sweet-spot between these two areas of our vision where we get both detail and light sensitivity!

This sweet-spot around our central vision is the area that we as observers need to use to maximize our capability at the eyepiece.

Here's an everyday example to demonstrate what I'm talking about. You are in your bedroom at night with all the lights off. Only a feeble light is visible illuminating the room. Have you noticed that when you look around the room in the dark, when you look directly at something that it somehow "disappears", but as soon as you look away to one side of that thing it somehow "reappears"!? The good news is two-fold - 1, you are not going mad - it's how our eyes actually do work; 2, it is this very feature of our eyes that we use at the eyepiece!

Looking at things this way, just to the side and not directly, is called AVERTED VISION. It is using that sweet-spot area around our central vision where there is a rich mix of both rods and cones as the central vision transitions to our peripheral vision. It is this area where there is that all important low light area of our vision where we get both detail AND low light sensitivity.

THIS is the one trick to maximizing our experience at the eyepiece!

Do not look directly at the object, but just to one side of it!

The good thing about using AVERTED VISION is it takes only an instant to learn, and only moments to master! You've been using averted vision all your life in dark rooms/environments, and you've never been aware of it!

Below is a little example of how to utilize averted vision. The object in question is a globular cluster. Our immediate response is to look at it directly. That is fine with this sketch. But through the eyepiece, so see a globular cluster in all its splendour with its many thousands of stars all so clearly visible and individual, you DON'T LOOK AT IT DIRECTLY, but just to one side as indicated by the X. It can be to the left or right of the object, it doesn't matter. It just needs to be just off to one side.

Tip in locating objects

You may have also noticed another VERY ANNOYING thing when using your scope. When you are trying to find a faint object you are panning the scope from side to side, and you catch a glimpse of something faint and fuzzy out of the corner of your eye, but when you pan the scope back to that faint thing YOU CAN'T FIND THE BLASTED THING!!!  😡 This is because you are now using your central vision to spot that faint thing, when it was your peripheral vision - your most light sensitive vision - that spotted that thing.

The solution is an easy one, but a bugger of one to learn - DON'T LOOK FOR THE OBJECT while you pan the scope back!

This is a really easy thing, but a bugger of a trick to remember, and it still catches me out after 35 years of using telescopes! 😄 It is also totally counter intuitive to how we use our eyes every day. But it all has to do with the way our eyes work that I described above. If it was your peripheral vision that spotted that faint thing, then it must be your peripheral vision that needs to be used to reacquire it!


I hope these three article specific posts have been helpful to you as you start on your astro experiences. Many people become frustrated with astronomy because they don't understand how our eyes work, how to exploit their strengths, and the unfortunate expectations that the pretty pictures create in our minds. But astro can be a very satisfying experience. Just that as with all things we do, such as walking, driving, playing a sport, it takes time and understanding to make the most of these. Astro is also a quite pursuit, not a "smash'n'grab" one. Like a said earlier, rush things and you will miss things. Slow down, calm your heart, and the Universe will reveal itself to you!  😊


Friday 8 February 2019

Understanding Nebulae - Part 2

Why can’t I see colour through my telescope?

We have all seen those marvellous and colourful photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Yet when we look through our telescopes, NONE of those brilliant colours are visible!

What the heck is going on???

There are two categories of reasons why:

The primary reason is human eye physiology. Our eyes while exceptional at seeing detail and colour under brilliant light, in the dim light that we do our astro, our human eyes are very poor. The resulting image is a "default" one of black and white. In dim illumination, our colour sensitive cones are not fired up enough to trigger a response. The rods in our eyes are able to be fired, but the image they produce is essentially a black and white one.

However, colour can be seen in some deep sky objects, and namely nebulae, but the variety of colours and their brilliance has a lot of "depends" reasons. And these reasons are why some people can see colours in these DSOs, yet other people see no colours what so ever.

The secondary reason for colour perception:

* Gender: 1/3 of all males have some degree of colour blindness, from oh-so-slight through to no colour perception at all (very rare). Yet colour blindness is rare in females.

* Age: Colour perception at low levels of illumination can change with age. I can atest to this! When I got my 17.5" scope about 8 years ago, the very first object I looked at was M42, the Orion nebula, I was able to see pinks, blues and greens in it! Yet today, same scope, and even better eyepieces, yet I have lost those lovely pinks, and the blues and greens are much less vibrant. Yet there are some lucky individuals whose colour perception doesn't change. <sigh>

* Health: Whole of body health can affect eye health and vision. Diabetes, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, drugs (perscribed or illicit), and a myriad of other health complications can all work against not only colour perception, but also visual acuity.

* Genetics: One card we have no control over, and have mum and dad to thank for. There are some genetically inherited traits that mean some individuals have exceptional low light colour pereption, yet others struggle to see much at all little lone colour.

And of course, the whole lot of the above varies between individuals!

But all is not lost!

So, if at first you don't see colour, be patient. Looking through a telescope is a very different experience that our "daylight" accustomed eyes are used to. It takes a little time to re-train your eyes to see under these unique conditions. One part of this re-training process is to use "averted vision" in order to maximize detail perception. I'll elaborate a little more on averted vision in a following post here.

DON'T RUSH! Take your time, and be calm at the eyepiece, and you will allow your eyes to adapt. Rush, and you are only cheating yourself.

Do these things, and if you are one of the fortunate individuals with good low light colour perception, and you will be rewarded. There are not very many objects that do show us colour through the telescope, so if you cannot see colour, don't be disappointed. Heck, I've lost my ability to see those vivid colours in M42... 😭