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High-Octane Social Astronomy

It was all meticulously planned and the day was fast approaching when I received an email from Edward Gomez of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) telling me the weather prospects were pretty grim. Great.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

It was all meticulously planned and the day was fast approaching when I received an email from Edward Gomez of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) telling me the weather prospects were pretty grim. Great.

A Twitter poll had been set up and hundreds of votes had already been cast for astronomical targets for me to observe with one of the multi-million pound Faulkes Telescope Project telescopes -- one located in the Northern Hemisphere (Hawaii) and the other in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia). I was all set to use the Australia-based 'scope, but the weather forecast was looking depressing.

A decision had to be made fast. Should I risk it, or cancel?

BACKGROUND: Which Astronomical Object Do YOU Want to See?

The event was planned for Aug. 19 as the second round of 'Show Me Stars' following on from Dara O' Briain's successful run a month earlier.

The concept is simple: we (remotely) observe astronomical objects and our followers see the result instantly online. It's a great way to get the public involved in astronomy.

Dara had captured three stunning images -- could I top that?

Before even attempting to beat Dara's record, a decision was needed. Finally we bit the bullet and moved to the telescope in Hawaii, identified new targets and set up a new Twitter poll with less than a week to go.

The day arrived and the poll closed with hundreds of votes cast.

SEE ALSO: Advancing the Frontiers of Amateur Astronomy

The first target was the Helix Nebula. I was a little uncertain what results we would get as the moon could obscure the view, but we pushed on regardless and commanded the telescope to slew into position.

And then something went wrong… nothing -- the interface had frozen. After re-entering the coordinates again, we were off! The telescope was in position and exposure set, using an h-alpha filter. We were expecting not to capture the full nebula because of its sheer size, the field of view of the camera was likely too small, but even so the resulting image was stunning, brimming with detail in the expanding shell of nebulous gas.

See Mark's Aug. 19 observation of the Helix Nebula

With little time to waste, on to the next target after a quick tweet to tell everyone the first image was in!

The next target was NGC891, a beautiful edge-on spiral galaxy.

Once again, the telescope slewed effortlessly into place and the exposure started. This one was going to take a good ten minutes as it was a full color image so time to relax and think about the next item on the list.

Then, nine minutes later... disaster, my tea was cold. Actually it was worse than that, the image just disappeared! If I was going to beat Dara's three images I would have to push on and slew to the next target while the tech team tried to locate the image.

WATCH VIDEO: Discovery News unlocks the mysteries of stars and finds out why a star's age matters.

Coordinates were entered for NGC7331, another spiral galaxy, but it was too close to the bright moon so I thought better of it and headed for M15, the globular cluster in Pegasus. A fairly short exposure was needed for this one, but the central core was overexposed.

See Mark's Aug. 19 observation of M15

Two images down and I was already forty minutes in! Only 20 minutes left! I couldn't let Dara win or he would never let me hear the end of it. So, like all good athletes, I dug deep.

Staring danger in the face and a lifetime of humiliation, I moved the scope back to NGC7331 near the moon and started the exposure. About eight minutes later, it arrived... Wham! A striking image of an almost edge-on spiral galaxy. We had drawn even.

See Mark's Aug. 19 observation of NGC7331

Not content, I looked at the chart of the sky for an object suitable for a relatively short exposure and, with about seven minutes to spare, the scope settled on M1, the Crab Nebula, the site of a stellar explosion back in 1054.

I quickly estimated the exposure (this target was unplanned) and off it went with a total exposure time of about 6 minutes, giving me 1 minute to spare of my allotted one hour… down came the image and it was stunning.

See Mark's Aug. 19 observation of M1

As the clock zeroed and my time ran out I sat back in my chair admiring my four images when news came in from Edward that they had found my missing images. Boom! Five images in one hour from star clusters to dying stars and distant galaxies. Take that Dara.

See Mark's Aug. 19 observation of NGC891

I actually felt mentally wrecked after that, one hour of hard core, adrenaline pumping, high octane astronomy!

Special thanks to the team at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network.

To see the full set of images, be sure to visit the 'Show Me Stars' website.