Friday, 9 December 2016

Silver lining from poor conditions - LMC sketch, pt 2

John Steinbeck wrote “The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men, go oft awry”.

One of Murphy’s Laws states that “If something can go wrong, then it will”.

So it seemed that this was to be the eventuality of a perfect start to my night up in the Blue Mountains, when mist, fog and clouds started rolling in in turn after sunset.

Four mates and I arrived at sunset at Mt Blackheath Lookout.  There’s a take-off ramp for hang gliders and paragliders, and a couple a paragliders were taking advantage of the last of the day’s thermal currents with some last minute flying.  I always find it exhilarating how they pull on the ropes, the blade obediently puffs up, and after a little run up the glider and pilot are lifted into the quiet sky.  And to see a brace of gliders’ silhouette against the orange setting sun, and floating over a green valley, gorgeous.

When we arrived, the wind was firm and from the west.  I thought that the easterly change that was forecast would have no chance against it.  No sooner did the sun set that there was a sudden change in wind direction, and the warm westerly was sent packing by a roaring easterly.  I have to say that the change was spectacular.

Unfortunately the change meant that the clear sky would cloud out soon – Easterly winds come from the coast, so they are moisture laden, and when they encounter the mountain range, clouds form as the moist air climbs up the mountain range.  The moisture content was very significant as mist soon surrounded us, meaning that if I started a sketch, the paper would quickly absorb the moisture, regardless of any measures I had taken to prevent this from happening.

The three hours of clear dark sky that we had was invaluable though.  I had taken two telescopes for the purpose of sketching the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).  An 80mm f/5 achromat, and a 100mm f/5 achromat.  With the LMC being so large (over 12° in its largest dimension), I was not sure which would be the best scope to use.  The 80mm gives me a 6° true field of view with the appropriate eyepiece.  But the image is not as detailed as that provided by the 100mm refractor, despite the larger scope giving a smaller true field of view of 5°.

So the dilemma for me was which instrument.  Large field of view and less detailed, or smaller field of view and more detailed.  So without the pressure of having to produce an actual piece (I made the decision that this night was not the appropriate one for a sketch), I was able to take my time with each telescope in turn to find out what each actually has to offer.  Which of the two instruments I would settle on using.

So, I settled on the 100mm.  The image it gives is just so much more appealing, that despite the additional detail, it just shows so much more of the LMC that I feel compelled to lay down on paper everything it has to offer, and not settle for less, even if it means an “easier” time for me.

Ok, I now have the telescope.  But this still left the task of how to undertake such a large piece.  I have a new extra large easel which I haven’t initiated as yet, nor any experience with sketching on such a large sheet.  I described the new easel in my previous blog post.

The next day at home an idea came to me.  The inspiration coming from the Old Masters who undertook a series of study works before tackling the actual piece.  This approach allows for many different technical and composition issues to be sorted.  Very often, the work behind these study works is greater than the time and effort involved in the final work.

Undertaking a study piece of the LMC would do several things for me:
·          Give me some experience on handling the easel
·          Give me a sense of scale in developing the sketch
·          Become more familiar with the LMC, and identify certain details
·          Give me a notion of how to produce a piece that conveys the vitality of what I see through the eyepiece.  My examination of the LMC on the Saturday night gave me a fabulous view of its brilliance and expanse – I need to somehow convey this without making the sketch flat and underwhelming.

Another problem next presented itself.  Finding photographs of the LMC is easy.  Manipulating those photos so they more closely resembled how I saw the LMC is easy enough to do too.  But how to reproduce the smaller field of view of the scope compared to the size of the galaxy, and so give me an idea of handling the scope and doing the sketch?   The solution was surprisingly very low tech.  A sheet of dark card with a hole cut out of it, and scaling the image of the LMC on the computer screen to match that seen though the scope.  As the sketch develops, I move the background image and/or the mask to allow me to work on other sections of the LMC as I go.


I’ve since been working on a series of study sketches.  This has been a good journey to undertake.  It has presented me with several technical aspects I had not anticipated, and allowed me to consider ways to deal with them.  All that’s left now is to tackle the LMC out in the field.


The main thing I want to convey is not to expect to undertake a sketch out in the field without having done some practice in the cool light of day.  It is invaluable to become familiar with your media, how to manipulate it, what different brush strokes do, and how different objects present different challenges and how to develop a technique that best works for you.  No athlete takes to the field without practice/training.  Surgeons do not undertake complex surgery without gaining experience.  Artists are no different when it comes to developing their technique and familiarity with their tools and media.  Don’t think that practice is cheating.  The only cheating that happens is to yourself as you won’t be producing work to your fullest potential.

Clear skies and sharp pencils,


Friday, 25 November 2016

Preparing for very large sketch works - LMC sketch, pt 1

I have recently been commissioned to do a sketch of a very particular object, the Large Magellanic Cloud.  Both an honour to be commissioned by a professional astronomer for this piece, and also terrifying by the very nature of the beast I’ve been asked to chase down.

Every now and then, I find that a particular object I am considering to sketch, some preparation needs to be made.  Some of these preparations come from previous experiences and how they relate to my style of sketching.  As an example of one aspect of my sketching style is how I don’t use a “field of view circle”, or as I affectionately call it “The circle of Death”.  I tend to develop the scale of an object pretty much on the fly, letting the natural action of my wrist and fingers begin the scaling process and the rest takes care of itself.  And to this, an A4 sheet of paper is usually plenty big enough.

There are a few objects however that I recognise as being so large that an A4 sheet wouldn’t be sufficient to accommodate them.  For these I sought out an A3 pad of black paper in order to sketch them.  The Orion Nebula is one example where I deliberately used this larger sheet size.  As too the sketch of the Andromeda Galaxy.

This last one however brought to my mind that there are even some objects that even A3 is not big enough.  For me, the finished sketch of M31 is a little more “constricted” than I would have preferred.  If I had started the sketch with a slightly tighter wrist, and made the initial brush strokes tighter, then the final sketch would have been less constricted.  But the difficulty is anticipating the ultimate amount of expansiveness that M31 is to reveal.  So for the Andromeda Galaxy, I feel I still did pretty good, despite my own critique.

Now, the LMC is a different beast altogether.

While M31 has a maximum angular dimension of some 3°, the largest dimension angular dimension of the LMC is some 10.5°!  Flaming enormous!  Knowing my own style of sketching, I can see that even with an A3 sheet I would struggle to fit the LMC.

So, I need to build a larger easel to accommodate a larger sheet as the one I currently have can take an A3 sheet and no larger.

It is also not just a simple matter of scaling up what I currently have.  I also need to consider the experiences that I’ve had with sketching in the night air, and work out some ways in which to counter some of the problems that can be encountered.

One thing that is seen through the eyepiece during an extended examination of an object is the apparent rotation of the object in the field of view as the objects transits through the sky.  So to work with this is to rotate the sheet.

Another difficulty that can arise comes from dew.  While the shielding that the Coreflute wrap that I have over my current easel works very well most nights, it is those occasional nights of excessive humidity that overwhelms the shielding and the paper warps as it absorbs excessive moisture, and the texture of the paper is also altered to the point that it becomes soggy and impossible to continue working on without causing damage to sketch that’s been laid down.

Even how to illuminate the large sheet needs consideration.

So, time to work on Sketch Easel Mk II

I decided to utilize the same clamp mechanism to hold on to the sheet.  It is simple and effective, and with a little thought it can be made to allow for a broad rotation range of the sheet.  To help control any possible flapping from gusts of wind, I devised a few clips made from wire that I bent into shape.  These clips gently hold the paper down and their long reach allows them easily reach the paper even when it is tilted for rotation purposes.

While the shielding I’ve made has more overhang than the first Easel, if the night happens to be a humid one, particularly with the longer amount of time that this piece will take me, I’ve had to come up with some system by which to help control dew soaking into the paper.

I’ve long thought of different way that this could be achieved.  Heating the paper is one way, but the power requirements of such a heater is large and complex to design and fabricate.

I then thought about the way we control dew with our scopes – with the movement of air.  Dew does not form on a surface that has a constant stream of air flowing over it.  So I came up with a battery of fans to blow gently down the face of the page.  I’ve used two fans rated at 12V, installed in series so to reduce the airflow to a gentle blow, and not have the easel become airbourne.

Of course, this dew mitigation method for paper is purely experimental, though not without pedigree.   Time will tell how effective it is.

The lighting aspect I’ve addressed by having additional anchor points for the dual lamp that currently use.  I’ll also have some extra little reds lights in my pocket and tape in case I find I need some addition illumination.

Now that the Easel is done, I just need some eyepiece time with the Large Magellanic Cloud…


Friday, 19 August 2016

Selecting a site for Astronomy Purposes

Hi everyone,

No matter your niche within astronomy, we all want to find the best location that is most favourable for our pursuit.

While we take it as a given that we want a dark sky, just a clear open paddock is not necessarily the best location.  In many instances, that clear paddock is actually the worst location we could use when a significantly better site could be just a little further along.  All that may be missing is just knowing what the optimal site conditions are in order to identify the better locations.

Selecting the best location can also have a major impact on the bane of all astronomers - dew.  A good location can just about see dew eliminated as an issue instead of being unavoidable.  And of course the elimination of dew as a problem significantly reduces the complications associated with needing to deal with it.

But site selection is also a case of compromise.  And the optimal site location may not be attainable.  Yet by being aware of what the optimal is, then the best possible compromise location can be found.

And above everything else, the site needs to be safe.

You will find my article on site selection in the new page titled "Selecting a site for Astronomy Purposes".

Clear skies,


Even the ants on the Sun are BIG!

Hi everyone,

I love apophenia, or patternicity, and how it plays on our minds.

Apophenia, or patternicity, is the way that we see patterns in otherwise chaotic noise.

With my love for the astronomy, I am open not just to the beautiful, but also the quirky side of things that are totally the realm of our imagination - seeing things that are not really there.

A little earlier in June I found a "Tethered Dragon" within the shape of solar prominences.

This time, I found a giant ant crawling over the limb of the Sun!

Now, we have some pretty big and nasty ants here in Australia.  And some have an attitude to match!  But this formicidae is just something else!!!

Complete with its antennae, a set of wings, and mandibles, this wee ant seems to be munching away on some poor unsuspecting prominence, building itself for its eventual flight into the great abyss of space.  Kinda creepy and cool at the same time, eh.

A sensational hedgerow prominence.

Object:  Solar Ant
Scope & Gear:  ED 80, Daystar Quark, approx. 110X
Date:  17th August, 2016
Location:  Sydney, Australia

It's wonderful being human!


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Video of me sketching the Lagoon Nebula

Hi all,

My friend Ed Malones filmed me sketching the Lagoon Nebula during our time at the 2016 Queensland Astrofest.

The video is a time lapse of some of the three hours the sketch took.  I asked Ed if he could film me while sketching.  I didn't want the sketch process filmed as it would have been a very difficult process as the dim red lighting would not have made the filming process easy - close to impossible.  Instead I asked for him to film me at the scope while I sketched, with the Milky Way slowly moving and any activity happening around me.

In the video you will see the hub of the Milky Way around Scorpio and Sagittarius slowly 'fall', and my telescope slowly follow it.  You'll see red lights come and go as people moveabout the place.  You'll see my Gondwana Telescopes banner move around in the breeze, and my friend Oleg using my 8" dobbie behind the banner.  And you'll see people stop by me to have a look and a chat.

You'll also see at the 21 second mark an exploding meteor between the tree and my banner!!!  What a lucky score!

The Lagoon Nebula is a tiny bright dot above the dark nebulosity that forms The Horse Of Sagittarius, and just below and to the right of the bright Cloud of Sagittarius.

Thank you Ed for making such a lovely video.


Friday, 12 August 2016

Queensland Astrofest, 2016

I had the opportunity to visit the great star party that is the Queensland Astrofest for the first weekend in August.  I had a great time up there, meeting fantastic folks, and sponsored the event through Gondwana Telescopes, an enterprise of mine.

The trip up started not so well.  My family had all been sick with nasty colds the week before, and I was trying just about everything possible to avoid also coming down with a cold – I’m crook for a fortnight if I get sick.  Everything was going well until the morning of leaving home when I woke up with a sore throat, stuffy nose, and feeling rather miserable instead of excited.  Oh, well…  Do what we can, eh.

I managed to get two gorgeous clear nights.  The second night I hosted a Sky Tour for those folks who were new to astronomy.  I love doing these outreach events, sharing my passion for the night sky, and show to people that astronomy is not all about high level science, but allows people to take their involvement in things astro to as far or complex as they want.

A good friend, Ken Wishaw, also took a photo of me one night while I sketched.  Below is the lovely picture he took.  Immediately above my sketch pad you can see Antares and Saturn, and the body of Scorpio twisting up towards the upper left.  And just above Saturn you can see the Horse of Sagittarius dark nebulosity.  I can count at least half a dozen deep sky objects that this photo of around 30 second exposure picked up.  Thanks for the photo Ken – I now have it as the background image on my computer! J

Ken’s pic was taken while I was doing the third sketch at Astrofest, that of the Lagoon Nebula, so I’ll expand upon that sketch later on.

Normally I don’t make plans for a sketching program for an evening.  Usually I’ll have some idea in my head about what’s up for a given night, and sketch following how the night pans out.  However for Astrofest I went with a program of objects that I really wanted to sketch.  I went as far as noting in which order to visit them depending on the timing of the evening.  Given that the first night started overcast with the sky clearing around 9pm, and the second night I conducted the sky tour, the first part of my program wasn’t able to be fulfilled.  And then with the miserable cold I was now also sporting, completing three of the remaining six programed targets, I was pleased with the outcome.  Particularly considering the time a couple of these pieces took.

The first night I managed two sketches.  The first of these was the Helix nebula.  In my 17.5” scope, it is a surprisingly large and bright planetary nebula.  At first is looks a bit like a ring with a hollow that is a little less brilliant than its circumference.  But as time goes on with examining the Helix, subtle details begin to emerge, such as the almost rhomboid overall shape it has, the textured ring with its jagged spiral ends, some of its soft extensions, and its little central star.  It is almost bizarre to think that it is no longer a star at the core of this nebulosity, but the core of a one-time star, with the bulk of its material having been blow out into outer space like a giant smoky balloon.  What once lay hidden from view for billions of years, is now exposed and due to slowly fade away, and set to exist for all eternity eventually as black, cold and super-dense lump of a dead star’s heart.

Object:  Helix nebula, NGC 7293
Scope:  17.5” f/4.5 Karee dob
Gear:  24mm 82° eyepiece, 83X, OIII filter
Date:  5th August, 2016
Location:  Camp Duckadang, Linville, Queensland, Australia

The second sketch for the night was the mighty Andromeda Galaxy.  Alas for us here in Australia, Andromeda is never very high in the sky for us.  And a good view of it really demands good transparency to have any chance of pulling out details.  Fortunately, this evening provided really good transparency, and an amazing amount of detail was possible to observe, and the longer my sketch went on, the more detail and the further and further out the monster extended beyond its core.

I recently asked on an astronomy forum about the HII regions within Andromeda, and how come they were not anywhere as easy to view as those within M33 & M83.  The reply I got from (JT) was not what I expected, and astonishing.  Despite the significant tidal influence exhorted on M31 by its two companion galaxies, M31 is relatively poor in star forming regions.  Much of the free gas and dust capable of star formation is close to exhausted, so it is not as rich with massive HII regions.  And those HII regions that do exist are small in size, and greatly obscured by the dust within the spiral arms.

Also mentioned was the single largest and brightest star cloud within Andromeda, NGC 206.  Often wrongly labelled as an HII region, it is essentially just a massive star cloud now, with no HII areas visible to visual examination of the cloud.  Attempt to spot NGC 206, and using a blinking paddle to try to spot HII regions within it and the rest of M31 would be on the cards.

The image of M31 was just staggering.  Just about as good as it gets for us here in Oz.  It is curious how Andromeda slowly reveals here treasures, demanding your time and attention in order to be given the honour to view them.  Be brief with her, and she is fickle.  Take your time, caress her and pay her the attention that she deserves, and she richly rewards you.  This way she shows first her mottled centre, with her large, almost stellar core.  Then comes the first layer of extensions past her centre, with good transparency revealing the dusty lanes in the foreground.  She then begins to show the two outer lobes, which are uneven in brilliance, one being more diffuse than the other.  Next comes a glimpse of NGC 206 if you are really paying attention.  And finally, when she is convinced of your sincerity, she shows off her faintest extensions, soft like the breath of an angle, and stunningly long – Andromeda is one very big spectacle.

NGC 206 appears in the sketch as a brighter patch in the left lobe.  I was absolutely thrilled to be able to spot this feature.  I felt like I was at a Burlesque show, catching fleeting glimpses of seductive details.  I used both OIII and UHC type filters to try to tease out any HII details, but none stood out, as was mentioned to me.

This sketch shows approximately a 3° true field of view, which is more than twice the field visible in the eyepiece I used, 30mm 82° Explore Scientific. 

Object:  Andromeda Galaxy, M31
Scope:  17.5” f4.5 Karee dob
Gear:  30mm 82° eyepiece, 1.23° TFOV, 66.7X
Date:  5th August, 2016
Location:  Camp Duckadang, Linville, Queensland, Australia
Duration:  approx. 2.5hrs

The final sketch was done the following night.  Here I revisited the Lagoon Nebula that I sketched last month.  There were some elements with which I was not too happy about last month, and following the introduction to titanium dioxide pigment powder, I was most keen to revisit The Lagoon.

Transparency was very good this night too.  One major difference between this visit to the Lagoon to the last was I was not as fatigued as the last time.  This had a major effect on the detail I was able to see and lay down reliably. 

As the sketch progressed, I became aware of how long it was taking to lay down the nebulosity.  The difficulty was not the brighter areas, but the soft outer extensions that kept on extending further and further out the longer I examined the Lagoon.  At one point I caught myself exclaiming “Oh, when the blazes are you going to stop!”

But I was in for a surprise that made the three hours spent with the Lagoon very much worthwhile.  While working on the details of the dark lane, I started to pick up hints of another dark feature.  When I looked a little closer, lo and behold, it was a Bok globule!  Sensational!

By the time I finished, I was well and truly spent.  All that was left to do was to put the big scope to bed for the night and turn in myself.  A long and satisfying second night.  And room for improvement.

Object:  The Lagoon Nebula, M8
Scope:  17.5” f/4.5 Karee dob
Gear:  24mm 82° Explore Scientific eyepiece, UHC type filter
Date:  6th August, 2016
Location:  Camp Duckadang, Linville, Queensland, Australia
Duration:  approx. 3hrs

Friday, 29 July 2016

My Sketch Pad Rig

Hi all,

Thought I'd share the sketch pad rig that I use, and how I came about to creating it.  Pretty much a case of necessity being the mother of invention, but into the mix was some good fortune and the local council elections!

You will find the article in the "Telescope Bits and Bods" page of my blog.  There you will find other bits and pieces that I've come up with too.


Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Back to School - a lesson from new friends.

Hi all,

The last DSO sketch I did, that of the Lagoon Nebula, you may recall I was not totally happy with.  Thing is, I encountered a limitation of the soft pastel dust I use with the Mellish Technique.  The limitation is not being able to lay down a sufficiently dense/brilliant amount of the soft pastel dust.  This is not normally a problem.  However, occasionally there is an object that has a particularly brilliant glow, such as the central hub of the Lagoon Nebula, and also the glowing nebulosity immediately around the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula.  Come to think of it, my last sketch of M42 planted the seed of dissatisfaction as I really was not too happy with the shading density/opacity of the area around the Trapezium.  And this Lagoon Nebula sketch brought it to a head.

A friend of mine, astronomer Dr Renee James, introduced me to a close friend of her's, artist Lee Jamieson.  The correspondence we've shared regarding my work led to Lee suggesting I try powder pigment colours, such as powdered titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.  These pure pigment colours are essentially pure titanium and zinc compounds.  Lee mentioned that these powders would be of a fine grain size than the soft pastel dust, and much more dense in opacity, and not filled with binder material, such as calcium carbonate that is typically used in soft pastels.

This suggestion really caught my attention and imagination.  My initial thinking being that these powders would be like using a sledge hammer to swat a fly if I wasn't careful.  But, these could also be the answer to the brilliance problem I had encountered.

I just had to get my hands on some of this stuff!!!

And thankfully, my local art store is very well stocked, and carries both of these powder pigments.  I picked up a little tub of the titanium dioxide as the zinc dioxide is a little more translucent.

So to test the new powder, I brought up a black and white image of the Lagoon nebula that closely resembled its appearance through a telescope.  I started the sketch as ususal with the pulverised soft pastel.  Once completed, I took to the central areas with the powdered pigment - the results were immediate!

Those areas that I struggled to achieve the desired brilliance now absolutely glow!

Compare with the sketch I did just a few weeks ago.  I was just not able to generate the same brilliance in the right hand lobe and the stripe of material beside the star cluster.

If you decide to use these powdered pigments, be aware that these colours are very brilliant due to their greater opacity compared to powdered soft pastels.  Start very sparingly with it as it is very easy to overdo the intensity of the white.

I can't wait to use this new tool out under the stars next time!


Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Schickard & Bailly - ancient features prove most intriguing

Hello everyone,

Finally another break in this run of poor weather for a visit to the Moon.

And two consecutive nights too!

As things have transpired, the last few visits to the Moon for me have been close to the Full Moon phase.  Not a complaint, just an observation on the coincidence.  For me, ANY time I get with the Moon of late is welcome.

Both sketches I managed were of very ancient features on the Moon.  So both show their age with their own set of tell-tale features.  And each also offered different sets of features that made each appealing to work on.

The first piece was centred on the ancient crater Schickard.  Schickard is just about a ghost crater now.  Having being formed long ago when the Moon’s crust was thin, the impact saw most of the crater filled in with lava, leaving just the rim.  But today this rim has been just about totally obliterated from the thunderous shaking and jolts it has experienced over billions of years of subsequent impacts, shaking the rim to almost flat today, with just the flooded crater mostly intact.  Not really surprising though as the rim is essentially just pulverised material with no structural integrity, just like dry sand, and the flooded floor being pretty much just a solid lump of rock.

What is intriguing about Schickard is the patch-work nature of its flooded interior.  From its age, one would expect a uniform colouration of the fill material.  Weathering of the lunar surface happens as a result of solar wind reacting with the material on the lunar surface.  The darker the material, the older it is, as newer impacts throw up fresh, unweathered material.  This is why craters such as Tyco and Copernicus are so bright.  Over time, these too will lose their brilliance.

Yet the fill material of Schickard is varied in colouration.  And there is a clue to the reason for this variation in colour through the internal feature of Schickard 1, a volcano.

Volcanos inside craters is a common feature of ancient, flooded craters.  It tells of continued volcanic activity on the Moon long after the original impact opened the thin crust, and lava filled the hollow.  Schickard’s stained floor, and the volcanic dome, can only mean that there was a significant change in the composition of the lava over subsequent eruptions.  The change in composition then explains the difference in colouration as the solar wind reacts differently with different lava compounds.  Curiously too, Schickard 1, the volcano, is the single brightest feature inside Schickard.  Schickard1 is the bright spot just to the right of centre.

To the South of Schickard is a trio of craters that form a very interesting grouping.  What caught my eye about this grouping is the flooded floors of all three give the impression of being higher than the surrounding moonscape.  According to Virtual Moon Atlas, they are!

Object:  Crater Schickard and surrounds
Scope:  C8, 8” SCT
Gear:  8mm LVW, 250X
Date:  18th July, 2016
Location:  Sydney, Australia
Media:  Soft pastels, charcoal & white ink on A4 black paper.

Twenty two hours later I followed up the Schickard sketch with work of the largest crater on the Moon, Bailly.

What most attracted me to Bailly was the delicate shading and fine lines that riddled the entire circumference of the rim, internal and external.

Bailly sits on the western limb of the Moon.  The result being that it is very foreshortened, and the Moon’s libration altering the amount of foreshortening that is seen.  Its position on the limb is such that the Moon’s libration has Bailly come very close to but not quite disappearing behind the limb.

Bailly’s foreshortening provides for an exquisite range of delicate shading and details along the length of its rime.  And the damaged rim on ends of the major axis provide wonderful textures and curving lines as the adjacent moonscape and craters encroach on the rim of Bailly.

The moonscape in front of Bailly is oddly smooth, with a cluster of mid-sized craters providing textural variation.  Despite the similar size of these craters, the age of these craters varies greatly.  Some of these are flooded, while others have clear floors with central peaks.

Object:  Crater Bailly and surrounds
Scope:  C8, 8” SCT
Gear:  8mm LVW, 250X
Date:  18th July, 2016
Location:  Sydney, Australia
Media:  Soft pastels & charcoal on A4 black paper

These two pieces took over two hours each to complete.  A most satisfying few hours spent with the Moon.  I hope you enjoy these pieces too.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Beaten up shore side, and remembering a friend

Hi all,

This has not be the kindest year for myself so far this year with astronomy.  This weekend was my first good New Moon weekend since January.  Also the last couple of months from home, the atmosphere has been particularly turbulent with even the most modest of magnification showing a shimmering image, making sketching the Moon and Sun ney impossible.

On a more grave part, my good friend, Rod Hay, was tragically killed in an airplane accident in February.  Rod was the manager of Katoomba Airfield, the location of my dark sky site.  With Rod’s death, access to the Airfield to EVERYONE has had to be stopped until the murky business of insurance and new lease arrangements are determined.  Rod was a very experienced pilot & flying instructor, and welcoming of anyone who cared to show interest in flying and his dear Airfield.  One of Rod’s biggest boasts was that he had more students become commercial pilots than any other flying instructor!  Over the five years I had known Rod, my relationship with him and his partner grew beyond astronomy.  My little son and I came to have a little end of year ritual with just the two of us spending an evening up at the Airfield doing “boy stuff”.  My first hearing of Rod’s passing was from the TV news on the Sunday morning following the disappearance of his aircraft.  While no name was given of the missing pilot, other than that the pilot was a Katoomba local, sent a deathly shiver up my spine.  Tragically, it was Rod who was lost.

So, until the situation with the Airfield is settled, we as a group of astronomy friends have had to find a new home to exploit the night sky.  The trick has been to find a site that offers the unique set of parameters that made Katoomba Airfield such a fabulous location for astronomy:

·     *     Set high on a ridge, not in a valley – fog settles in a valley, leaving the ridge tops clear
·     *     Rocky or sandy ground, not turf – grass expels a lot of water during the night which becomes dew.  This can be just about eliminated by setting up on rocky terrain.  While there are measures by which to reduce the ill affects of dew on optics, if dew is not present from the start, then dew control measures may never need to be taken.
·      *    Away from the bane of light pollution.  Being set up high on a mountain greatly helps to as the reduced density of the atmosphere harbours less light pollution
·      *    Away from agricultural land as this has the same consequences as a grassy ground with dew

Katoomba Airfield offered all of these, plus it was a safe place for us to set up.  AND we were able to use the office which has a combustion heater which became the centre of the Universe on those freezing winter’s nights.

So, after a few months of pouring over maps, aerial photographs, asking people, councils, police and state authorities questions on possible locations, it looks like we have found a new home for our band of merry astronomers – roadside, deep within the western end of the Blue Mountains National Park, at Mount Victoria, on one of its higher peaks.  This almost barren ridgetop has a completely unobstructed 360° view of the horizon!  And as it turns out, this site has a gun-barrel view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge! some 92km away!  Holy cow!  Who would have thought that The Bridge would have been visible from so far away, and from the far side of the Great Dividing Range!

The Bridge and North Sydney buildings are visible from a tiny, tiny gap in the mountains.  The picture below shows the lumpy profile of Mt Banks in the east of the site.  The gap is a thin slither located off to the right of the shorter third peak of Mt Banks, and stopped by the yellow cliff face just beyond the right side of that same short third peak.

Wai Keen, one of the fellows who joined me at this new location, came up to take photos of the night sky.  Below is one of the lovely pieces he was happy for me to add to my blog.  It shows another mate who joined us, Mark, lying back enjoying the sky while he waited for his scope to take a photo.  I really like this composition,  What is also noteworthy of this photo is it shows what the sky looked like naked eye to us!  Brilliant!  Thanks for the photo Wai Keen :)

These photos were taken the first night we used this new location.

As things would be, when I arrived the sky was crystal clear.  On sunset, clouds rolled in from the west.  The next two hours were spent looking for holes in the clouds, and the holes slowly became larger and longer lasting until the full splendour of a totally unhindered sky came into view!  Magnificent!

I had hope to complete a few sketches this night.  The two first hours being lost to cloud meant that my initial plan went out the window.  Fatigue then set in, making concentrating and settling on a sketch difficult.  After a short sleep to refresh, I was ready to tackle a sketch.

I have sketched M8, the Lagoon Nebula, a few times over the years.  Yet never from a dark site.  What I didn’t anticipate was the level of complexity that The Lagoon shows from a dark site in a 17.5” scope.   Instead of being a flat glow, it is fibrous.  Instead of being tight and compact, it is enormously expansive and diffuse.  And instead of being a grey glow, it is bright with an almost electric blue tinge to it.  I also managed to pick up hints of a couple of the bok globules that inhabit M8.

This voyage over the Lagoon was a sobering experience in complexity.  It challenged my technical capability and acuity of examination.  I am not completely satisfied with this effort.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disappointed.  But I hope to revisit the Lagoon next month and have another shot at it – weather permitting.

Object:  M8, The Lagoon Nebula
Scope:  17.5” push-pull Karee dob
Gear:  24mm 82° eyepiece, 83X
Date:  3rd July, 2016
Location:  Mt Victoria, NSW, Australia
Media:  Soft pastel, charcoal and white ink on A3 size black paper


Sunday, 19 June 2016

A Tethered Dragon

There is a popular ‘myth’ in amateur astronomy that goes along the lines of “the length of time of bad weather is geometrically proportional to the size of the aperture of the NEW scope you’ve just bought”.  With the run of poor astro conducive weather that we have been experiencing here in Sydney, someone must have bought a seriously BIG telescope…

But being the eternal optimist as astronomers invariably are, I still pull out a scope in the hope of a break in the poor conditions.  So a few days ago, I dragged out my refractor and Daystar Quark for a look at the Sun.

Conditions were only marginally improved, with the image of the Sun still shimmering.  But a very interesting prominence caught my attention.  At first glimpse, it somewhat resembled a rat.  By the time I had my sketching gear ready, the prom’s appearance had altered to now look like a tethered dragon breathing fire!  Most extraordinary and beautiful.  By the time I completed the sketch, the flame expelled by the beast had expanded out further.

By the time I completed the second sketch, this first prominence had altered appearance again to more resemble an antelope with very long horns.  All this in just an hour.  When you think of the distances involved with the Sun, these hot gases are moving at an extraordinary speed!

Object:  “Tethered Dragon”, hedgerow prominence
Gear:  ED80, Daystar Quark, 23mm eyepiece, 110X
Date:  14th June, 2016
Location:  Sydney, Australia

The second sketch is of a wonderful anomalous prominence that had a curious set of four streamers reaching out from one side of it, and around it was a series of smaller proms, all of which appear to be magnetically connected.  As with the first sketch, this prominence’s appearance was also changing very quickly.

Object:  Striated hedgerow prominence
Gear:  ED80, Daystar Quark, 23mm eyepiece, 110X
Date:  14th June, 2016
Location:  Sydney, Australia.


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A rare fish from around the South lunar pole.

Hi everyone,

It’s been four weeks since my last lunar sketch.  Not from lack of trying.  On those occasions when I was able to pull a scope out, seeing conditions were dreadful.  The image through the eyepiece was shimmering and boiling so much it was visible even at 50X magnification.

It was an unexpected long spell of poor seeing, but there was a silver lining to it!

Last Saturday night I set up my telescope in order to fine tune its vibration suppression properties.  It was full Moon, and high cloud meant I wasn’t considering doing a sketch.  The testing of the new vibration suppression tweak worked, which I’m most pleased about.  What I did not expect though was the image I got from the Moon – yet another lesson that needed learning…

Full Moon I had thought of as a shadowless phase of the Moon.  But things are not always what we think of at first.  The Moon’s orbit around the sun is not in the one flat plane.  The Moon orbital plane is a broad one.  We can see this over a few nights when we compare its position in the sky when it is at the same point over some landmark.  It will be either closer to or further away from that landmark.

The consequence of this, when the Moon is at its highest point in its orbital plane, and it coincides with its full phase, we get a view of the Moon where we can see a thin strip of a terminator.  Somewhat like looking under its skirt!

So this Full Moon phase I caught the Moon at, the thinnest strip of the terminator was visible.  And what was on view was absolutely staggering!  Mountains!  Lots and lots of mountains seen not from above, but side on, and with shadows:  dark ridges from crater rims, shadows cast back from foreground mountains, & valleys between mountain ranges left in shadow.  And beads of light from crater rims just reaching up from the shadows along the terminator.  So much going on all along the limb!  And the foreshortening, WOW!

The Saturday was not a sketch night, but the following Sunday was crystal clear, and the phase was equivalent from Saturday.  And with the thrill of the previous night still fresh in my mind, I knew exactly what I was to chase down – mountains along the limb!

I settled on a spot with a few dramatic mountains were clustered, and a large and highly foreshortened crater lay nearby.  The clarity of the night was amazing, and the detail visible on the mountain sides was spectacular.  The mountains were not plane white blocks, but textures and variations in illumination were visible.  Like looking at snow-capped mountains in the distance.  And the foreshortened crater was visible almost like a cross section, where the rise and fall of the ancient rim was appreciable over both the internal and external walls.  And as the sketch progressed, those finer details of foreground ridges, mountains and craters emerged, casting their thin shadows backwards.

I felt very privileged to be able to make this piece.

The surprises didn’t stop here for me.  Researching the area I sketched, I came to find it was the area around the Moon’s South Pole.  The large crater turns out to be Drygalski.  Never heard of it?  Not surprising really.  Most maps won’t show this 150km hole in the Moon.  It is visible only for a few days, and only when the Moon’s libration is favourable and positions Drygalski into view.

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is not a static tidally locked one.  The Moon has a wobble.  And it is this wobble that actually allows us to see not just 50% of its surface, but 60% of it!  Yes, we do get a fleeting glimpse of some of the far side of the Moon.

This Wiki video of one lunar phase, shows the Moon’s libration over the period. 

Drygalski is a rare fish, as it is not seen very often, and seeing so much of its floor even more so.  Its floor may be visible only two or three times a year for a few nights at a time.  I have been able to find very few Earth based photos of Drygalski.  A very rare fish.

I hope you enjoy this piece.


Object:  Crater Drygalski and Mountains around South Lunar pole.
Scope:  C8, 8” SCT
Gear:  8mm LVW, 250X
Date:  22nd May, 2016
Location:  Sydney, Australia
Media:  Soft pastels & charcoal on A4 size black paper.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Every Trick in the Book...

Hi everyone,

I managed a session with the Sun today.  The last few days I have been following it, but I didn’t do a sketch either because the limb only had small and sporadic promineces, or conditions were just too turbulent in the atmosphere and the Sun’s image resembled a shimmering mirage making pulling detail impossible.

Today, while conditions were still unsettled, the collection of prominences on show made themselves irresistible not to lay down.

The first sketch is of a small cluster of interacting proms.  My first glimpse of these brought to mind the image of a man fighting a big leaping fish at the end of a taught fishing line!  For this reason I called this sketch “Taming the Beast”.

And again, the constant and concentrated examination of this view slowly reveals more than first glimpse does.  Those soft, angle’s-breath-like, smoky extensions only slowly reveal themselves.  The ‘void’ beneath the ‘fishing line’ slowly showed a smaller prom lying beneath, that was interacting with both the Man and the Fish set of proms.  The Fish prom had another smoky lot of material drifting off to the right.  And above the whole lot was an oh so faint lot of smokiness billowing off above it.  This last detail was in the end excruciating difficult to pull out of the eyepiece routinely as the conditions were just too unsettled to get a constant glimpse.  ‘Now you see me. Now you don’t’ is what I had to play, with more not and do.

After completing the first piece, I re-examined the solar limb, and was captivated by another wonderful collection of interacting proms.  One their own these were not all that sensational.  But as an interacting collective, this was quite a show.  And so to kick some dirt in my eye, the unsettled conditions insisted on a peek-a-boo quest.

Here I needed every trick in the book I have when using my Daystar Quark.

This excellent solar filter is not a straight forward mistress.  Yes, you can just drop in an eyepiece and make do.  But if you want to pull everything that the filter has, you need to be imaginative with the eyepieces & bits and pieces that you use, particularly when conditions are as turbulent as they were today.  For this reason I keep two eyepieces at hand, a modest little 0.5X focal reducer, and the empty tube of a barlow.  The eyepiece I use with the reducer is a 25mm plossl.  Having few elements, it is a better piece to use in order to maintain as much contrast as possible.  The putting the focal reducer at the end of the tube where the barlow lens itself would be, gives further reduction in effective focal length.  It is then trying out different combinations of eyepieces and focal reducers that as much detail can be pulled out from the Sun when conditions are less than ideal.

I spent close to an hour on this second sketch.  Most solar sketches take me between 20 to 40min to complete.  But the amount of fine detail, trying, shimmering conditions, and soft billowing puffs of material gave me a wonderful experience.  All these proms are interacting.  First glimpse doesn’t always show the tenuous tendrils of material connecting one to another, but that’s where the challenge comes in, in the patient examination.  And slowly these details reveal themselves.  Wonderful!

I hope you enjoy these two pieces.  They proved to be a real visual tease to make out the detail, and a chase that I enjoyed following.