Messier Hunting and a Coma Cluster – Joshua Tree National Park, April 4, 2022

Imagine three astronomy apps telling you it will be clear only to drive 100 miles and see high altitude clouds covering your sky… how would you react? What would be your instinct?

Well, on this night, my instincts served me well…

Date: April 4-5, 2022
Location:Cottonwood Spring, Joshua Tree National Park
Time21:00-4:15 (UTC-7)
Weather clear/calm – some haze and high alt. clouds ; 80°- 60° F
Bortle Scale2.5

Equipment Used

  • 8″ (203 mm) f/4.9 Newtonian Telescope
  • Atlas II EQ-G Mount
  • Orion 80mm Short Tube Refractor w / Starshoot Autoguider
  • Nikon d5300

I could not go out on the actual new moon dates in April due to weather and schedule conflicts, so the next best date would be on April 4 on a Monday night with a waxing crescent moon that wouldn’t set until 11 pm.

Just like March 1,’s shoot out in Rice, CA, the goal was to shoot many more Messier objects that I have never shot before, and thus I had a planned schedule and wanted to start getting first light for the evening around 8 pm.

However, three astronomy apps telling me there would be clear skies for the evening (plus little to no wind) were not proving me correctly upon arriving at my usual spot at Cottonwood Spring. High altitude clouds throughout the sky, and after driving down the park to a spot where I could get cell service, the radars were showing an approaching cloud front coming from the north.

“Well… shit… what do I do now?!”

Despite driving 100 miles to this location, I was inches away from “taking the L” and simply driving home. But I then decided to go back up to Cottonwood and try setting up anyway. “Well, maybe I’ll at least get a good moon shot…” I thought.

Setup began with a hiccup as I tried switching hand controllers and cords due to March 1’s shoot having connection issues and the controller resetting itself during exposures. With the old controller and cable I had with my SkyView now being used on the Atlas(same brand, same software); After polar aligning and doing a 1-star align on Arcturus, I told it to go to the moon, and it very obviously wasn’t pointing to the moon. So I tried again with the controller that came with the Atlas but used the cable from the SkyView… did the same thing this time with Denebola after Arcturus and… same thing…

One factory reset later, and everything was fine… only it was after 9 pm instead of 8 like I wanted.

Initially I wanted to ignore the moon as I wanted to start on M61 after testing on Denebola… but moving clouds made it impossible for autoguiding… “okay, moon it is!” Having seen many crescent moon shots showing an overexposed crescent to show earthshine, I accepted the challenge of doing multiple exposures of different shutter speeds and layering them to make the moon look like it actually does when viewing with one’s own eyes through a telescope.

The clouds eventually cleared up after I shot the moon, and I never had to deal with them the rest of the night. A test shot of Denebola later… and then we were off to the races!

Even though the clouds and setup hiccups put me behind schedule initially, I was still able to “crunch” in enough exposure data for decent shots of M 87, M61, M98, and M99 before finally going after The Coma Cluster. I knew from using Stellarium and looking at how many objects will show up within the frame from going after Caldwell 35 that this would be a project of its own. And sure enough, an hours worth of shooting sub exposure frames, plus more hours dedicated to processing and labelling as many objects as Stellarium on my laptop shows… The Coma Cluster image is definitely one I’m both proud of but want to go at again another time.

There are 70 galaxies labeled here… and there are definitely more that aren’t!

Throughout the night I also played around with the long exposure feature on my iPhone 13, and did some nice shots of my telescope and some not-so-nice shots of the sky…

As of this writing, I only have 21 messier targets to go!

Keep Looking Up!

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