Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Cold and Snowy Night!

A 13 second exposure of my scope and all the snow
nicely illuminated by the moon! Note Sirius in the
lower left corner of the image. Wish I'd gone just a bit
higher to fit Orion in the image!
We've been clouded over since the December 14th, the night of the fantastic Geminid shower so when it cleared late yesterday afternoon I decided to get the scope out. My plan was to try to get an as much time as possible before the moon came up which I did. It was about 25 degrees when I settled in at 6:20pm with a plan to observe 6-8 open star clusters in the Herschel 400.

The viewing was perfect! As cold as it was I was toasty warm with 4 layers on my legs, 2 pair of socks, 4 layers on top and my mittens and ski mask. I was able to get in a little more than an hour looking for my clusters and then spent another half hour looking at Jupiter. NGC 7209  and NGC 6940, both open clusters, were quite beautiful.

As beautiful as the views through the scope were what was most enjoyable was the snow covered landscape all around me. Even before the moon was up there was enough light reflected around by the snow that I could enjoy the view. The higher the moon got the better the scene became! The night was so calm and serene.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Buying a Telescope

My scope, chair and work stand with EP case.
I came across a post on the Space Community on Google+ recently asking advice about buying telescopes. As I wrote a reply that seemed to get longer and longer I realized I was writing a good bit and might as well make it a post here as well.

This is for a budget of about $600.  For most beginners I would suggest going with an 8" dobsonian that will run about $360 If you are at all interested in looking at fainter objects such as the Messier or Herschel objects this would be the minimum size.  Many of the faint objects would be visible in a 6"  but would be very difficult. There's nothing wrong with a challenge of course but even with the 8" scope that I have they are difficult. Most of these are distant galaxies and planetary nebula and while it is expected that they would be very faint and small I think 8" is the cutoff for seeing something that is actually worth seeing. My scope, purchased in September 2012 from Orion,  is the XT8.

A note about mounts. Dobsonians are ground mounted newtonian reflector scopes that rely on a mirror for light gathering. They are the best choice for maximum light gathering for low cost. You can get a tripod mounted reflector but in my opinion the Dobsonian is the easiest to use and probably the most sturdy choice if you've got kids that will be viewing. When stored in the vertical position they don't take much space at all, about the diameter of a chair.  I would avoid the tripod mounted refractor scopes often sold in department stores. They use an optical lens for light gathering and will be much smaller in diameter giving you much less light gathering.

Something to consider at this point is your local light pollution. If you are in a city or suburbia with lots of light pollution you'll be much more limited in what you can see. In this case the fainter objects will be more difficult to find.  If you are more distant from light pollution, say 10 minutes outside of a small town or 45 minutes outside of a large city, you probably have darker skies and in that case a larger scope would be worth the money. Here's a map of light pollution in the U.S. You can find a larger version via Bing or Google. Some folks that are in cities buy a scope knowing that they will travel to a dark sky site every so often.

If your primary interest is our solar system's planets and the moon the 6" will serve you well. That said, you only really get to see any detail with Jupiter and Saturn. The other planets only resolve to tiny disks/dots and won't have much detail. In my opinion you'll have a much longer term interest in amateur astronomy if you go with an 8" and learn to find and appreciate the faint objects in the lists above. Learning to star hop is kind of like reading the stars and for me has been a very gratifying, fun and interesting process.

Eye pieces and filters sitting on heating pad in case
One final note, depending on your level of interest you may want to skip the eye piece kits that are sold in the fancy padded cases. They look cool and are a decent bargain ($160) but those eyepieces are not the best. If you expect that you're telescope time will just be occasional, say a couple times a month these would be fine. If you think you'll be more serious about it you'd much better off buying fewer but more expensive wide view eye pieces that let you see much more. These eye pieces range from $100-$250 each. I've got 3 and will be getting one more. 4 of these provide a good range of magnification.

To give you an idea of useful magnifications here's what I've got: 26mm (good for large objects such as Orion's Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy); 18mm which gives you a nice step up to a more magnified view of objects; 11mm (my next purchase) is the next step up for a great view of Saturn and Jupiter as well as some of the fainter galaxies; 5mm gives the most magnified view of Jupiter and Saturn. The problem with higher magnification EPs such as the 5mm  is that you have to have the very best atmospheric conditions to use it. Many nights it won't be useful at all and will give you a very fuzzy image. There will be many nights though that have good seeing conditions and on those nights you'll get a fantastic view of the clouds of Jupiter and rings of Saturn. Also, it is with these higher magnification EPs where the wider field of view becomes much more useful because it makes finding the object easier and keeps it in the field of view longer.

Home made workstation. The case lid is held in place
by several screws on the top tier. Second heating pad
is put there with laptop on top for recording observations
directly into database.
My suggestion for eyepieces that are better than the kit lenses but not too outrageous in price are the Explore Scientific 82 degree series or the Orion Q70 series. You'll be spending more on these than the kit EPs but your time at the scope will be more enjoyable. For a case, I'm using a $4 rubber/plastic storage case from dollar general. It has a lid that snaps firmly in place and I put an $11 heating pad in the bottom which not only provides a bit of cushion but also keeps the EPs warm and dry on nights with high humidity and dew can cause problems. A second heating pad is put on top of lenses for added cushion during transport then used on lid to keep laptop warm on cold nights.

Just a quick edit to address an important point brought up by @Bas Waanders over on Google+ which is that what you'll see through an amateur telescope is a far, far cry from the images you see on the internet!! The human eye has a very limited ability to gather color  in such low light so most of what you will see is gray scale. You won't get nearly the detail and most galaxies, especially the very distant ones are just faint smudges. With a lot of practice your eyes do become much better at seeing some of the detail but don't buy a scope expecting the epic detail and color via the images you've seen as they are many stacked 30 second exposures. That said, some objects are truly fantastic in a small scope, for example the Orion Nebula is stunning even without the color. Also, the Eagle and Lagoon Nebulas and quite a few of the globular clusters. Andromeda looks pretty good too though does not have the color or detail from images.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A comparison of sea ice extent before the melting period began in 
March 2012 and after the melting period ended in September 2012. 
Purple line in these photos represents 1979-2000 median for 
Arctic ice. Image Credit: NOAA
The NOAA recently released its 2012 Arctic Report. I can't recall how many times I've gotten into a conversation with someone who, in the most blasé sort of way, always has this sort of thing to say: "Oh, the Earth will just get rid of us" or "Yes, it is terrible but the Earth will go on even if we don't". Fuck you. It's not about the earth going on you dimwit. Of course, yes, it will go on in one way or another. Never mind the fact that more often than not these folks I'm referring to actually have children and possibly grand children... but there are these little details that they seem incapable of thinking about. It's as though they just can't be bothered... yes dear, it'll all just come out in the wash. Well fuck you again.

From the post at Earth Sky:
At the end of each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) releases a report card on the state of the Arctic. In 2012, NOAA reports record low levels of sea ice extent, lower than we’ve seen before since the satellite era began in 1979. Plus, in June 2012, the Arctic experienced record low snow extent across the region. Greenland saw extreme melting during the summer of 2012, and the warmer temperatures and decreasing ice provided massive phytoplankton to grow. NOAA scientists said that air temperatures were on a par with the (relatively high) temperatures of the last decade, leading to, among other things, an increase in the length of the growing season along with tundra greenness in the Arctic. Climate models suggest that, in a warming climate, high latitudes such as the Arctic will be affected first, and so it seems to be. The 2012 Arctic Report Card is a peer-reviewed report that consists of 141 authors from 15 countries. If you ask a scientist who travels periodically to the Arctic or across Greenland, he or she will tell you that the landscape there is changing dramatically from year to year.
Arctic fox at Svalbard, Norway. In Fennoscandia,
fewer than 200 individuals are estimated to remain. 
What's being lost, due to our insistence on the casual use of cars and lawn mowers and over consumption and homes kept at 72, are actual SPECIES. Other species that we share the planet with that should exist. But WE just can't be bothered to stop and consider how it is that WE are destroying this fragile planet that hosts such amazing diversity.

We, as a species, are nothing short of criminal.

Geminids and Galaxies

I've not had a chance to report on last Thursday night's meteor shower and my extended time under the stars! There's a patch of sky I explored, in a constellation called Coma Berenices that is full of galaxies. One after another. The highlight of the night was NGC 4490, the Cocoon Galaxies in Canes Venatici. They are a pair of galaxies about 45 million light years away that have been in interaction and have distorted one another.

During the course of the evening I looked at 17 galaxies, 1 globular cluster and easily 100+ meteors. I was looking through the scope most of the night but in the short times I was looking up with just my eyes I would easily see 1-3 a minute sometimes more or less, depending on the time of night.

All together, about 9 hours looking up :)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Finding Bliss in the Universe

Between the moon at the first of the month and the nearly constant cloudiness it's been hard getting any kind of extended time at the scope. Last night was fantastic and it looks like the forecast for the next 2-3 nights looks great.

M81 and M82
Knowing I had the whole night I wasn't rushed to get out right at dark. I waited till 6:30 and got out and set-up just before 7 when the sky was really dark. The seeing was fantastic and the Milky Way was such a welcome sight. It's funny just how much I have learned to love and appreciate a clear night sky in just three months. Of course, the telescope is a big part of this growing appreciation and understanding, but just standing under the stars is an experience of deep connection. As has often been said and I am often repeating these days: We are made of star dust. We really are. The iron in our blood, the carbon in and around us, all of it, from ancient stars long gone. A fundamental truth of great beauty.

I've always, as long as I can remember, taken note of and appreciated the stars in the night sky. Today, at 43, I can say that I truly understand who and what I am in this universe. Well, I more fully understand. True understanding is just the goal of the process. To be a living being on this beautiful planet, just one of many trillions of planets in the universe, is so amazing. I sometimes feel a bit guilty that I am able to experience such bliss in my life. Wether walking in the woods or looking up at the stars, leading such a simple life and being a part of the greater universe, I can ask for nothing more.

And about last night's viewing session? I was happy to view thirteen more objects in the Herschel 400 as well as a swing by the two galaxies known as Bode's Nebulae and a quick view of the Double Cluster in Perseus! Last but not least, Jupiter. I probably spent twenty minutes looking at Jupiter and I have to say, it never get's old. Each time, each moment, is breath taking. On a good night such as last night, the 5mm EP is fantastic for viewing this beautiful neighbor of ours. The cloud bands and the GRS are crisp and easy to see. Wonderful.

As I spend more time outside at night I am consistently seeing more with my naked eyes, especially on nights with good seeing. Last night, at various points between looking through the EP, I really made it a point to enjoy the naked eye view. In particular, I spent some time gathering up the faint stars and the fuzzy Messier objects. For example, the Beehive Cluster in Cancer was so easy and obvious to see. In fact, I wasn't even looking for it but was just scanning the sky and it stood out to me. The Double Cluster in Perseus was also an obvious and easy to see object with the naked eye.

A special note about Bode's Nebulae: What a sight to see them together in one eyepiece! At 11 million light years distance, M81 offers a face view and is interacting with M82 which is a prototype starburst galaxy presenting an elongated view. After weeks of focusing mostly on small and faint galaxies and clusters, anytime I come upon the more easily seen objects I always find myself surprised at just how beautiful and defined they are! These two are a great example of that. I have no doubt that it is just the slow improvement of my viewing skills and my greater awareness of the range of faint objects.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Fire in the sky

Image of NGC 7331 and companions
My viewing session for Tuesday 12/4 started off with some fireworks. Really. I'd just gotten set-up and and viewed a couple of objects and was entering the observations when, at about 9:30pm,  there was a meteor so bright that I saw it while facing the opposite direction. I was looking at the computer screen facing east and suddenly everything around me was lit up as if by a full moon. It was so bright it actually spooked me. Looked up behind me and there it was... I caught the last 40% of the burn (it was pretty slow moving). The lingering trail was in the sky for about 40 seconds and was the most substantial trail I've ever seen.  You can see the reports here. What a fantastic way to start off the night!

As far as viewed objects, a few open clusters that were not all that impressive (in part due to the poor atmospheric conditions) as well as three galaxies that were viewed first and were much better thanks to better conditions earlier  on. It is amazing how quickly the viewing can change based on humidity, light clouds not often obvious as clouds but there nonetheless.

The best view of the night was NGC 7331. While I was not able to see the small companion galaxies  NGC 7331 was very nice.

Also, a note about the images I use. They're not mine and are almost aways taken from Wikipedia. Though they often seem unreal, like paintings, they are not. They are actual images though in almost all cases there is a good amount of processing as is required by astrophotography. Multiple exposures are sometimes layered, color is added, enhanced or balanced, etc.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Dancing with the clouds

Image of Jupiter from SkySafari
Last night... was a fun night of observation. It was supposed to be cloudy and when I went in at 5 after putting the chickens up it was. Then I got a text message from Russ (Astronomy viewing buddy) suggesting it was clear and wishing he'd come out. I step outside and yes, clear as a bell. I'd been missing it! Curse words and exclamations. I grab my box of eye pieces and my red light and dash out to the telescope (now being housed in the shower house for quicker access and no cool down time). I get it pulled out and the chair set-up. Take off the cap and turn on the red dot finder and look up: Clouds. No, wait, clear. Clouds - clear - clouds - clear. The wind was pushing them through so fast. I'd move to a clear spot get focused and start star hopping then clouds. After 20 minutes of a strange mix of laughing hysterically and cursing I called it quits and go inside.

Normally, I would not have bothered with such a mixed night but we've had 10 days of pretty cloudy weather and with a few clear nights blotted out by the moon. I was desperate.
Sigma Orionis

Couple hours later, about 10:30pm, I saw Karen post on the FB about being outside viewing so I went out: totally clear. Curse words. Get eyepieces and make a dash for the telescope. Set-up. Sit down. Clouds. More curse words. Wait. Look around. Decide there is enough clear sky to stay out. I spent the next 2 hours, maybe 3 hopping away from clouds, trying to find a few things before being foiled. Lesson learned? If you're desperate and willing to dance with the clouds for awhile, there might be a reward.

I got a fantastic view of Jupiter in the 5mm EP. The cloud bands were crystal clear and I was able to easily make out 3-4 bands. Unfortunately no GRS as it was on the other side of the planet. I also had a good viewing of a couple of planetary nebula. NGC 1535, Cleopatra's Eye, was particularly good. It is a bright blue sphere and with the 5mm EP a bright central core is easily visible. Of course the moon was out so anything faint was out of the question. I ended the night with a great shot of Sigma Orionis, a 5 star (only 4 viewable) system in Orion. Not my photo but this is exactly what I saw. Very cool.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Observational Astronomy: The basic skills of science

I'll be honest, when I ordered my telescope in September I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no agenda other than to have a way to look more closely at planets, galaxies and other objects in the night sky. Pretty simple really. After the first few sessions with the telescope I started thinking that I should keep track of the objects I was viewing. I started doing that but then realized I could probably be recording more than a simple list of what I was viewing. So I started keeping track of the date and time of the observations. Well, why not note which eye pieces I was using too? Ok. Check.

At the two week mark I'd done enough reading to see that there were organized observational "programs", essentially, lists created to help guide and teach amateur astronomers how to go about learning observational astronomy. So I did a bit of checking and saw that in those programs they also record atmospheric conditions such as "transparency" and "seeing" as well as free form observational notes. Okay, why not?

Fast forward to today.  I've been consistently recording each observation, 211 thus far, but realized that I was not recording much in the way of a free form description. Some people sketch what they see and I may try that in the future but for now I'd rather use words. The problem? I don't really have the skills to properly describe what I'm seeing. More to the point, I don't have the vocabulary which, in a sense, is also the instruction set for observation. The vocabulary is the framework. While this is just the most basic example of one step of the scientific method I think it is useful to recognize it as such. Amateur astronomy, if combined with just a little bit of discipline, can be a valuable experiential tool for learning observation skills.

So, I spent the morning searching around and have made some progress. Because I am a nerd I must of course share in the hopes that someone will find this useful. This particular bit of information is specifically helpful for the observation of deep sky objects. Planetary and other solar system observation of comets and meteor showers is a different set of concerns and techniques!

The below is just one page from a nice set of very informative pdfs over at Astronomy Logs.

  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • What is the overall shape?
  • Is the core noticeable, compact, stellar ? Can structure be seen in the galaxy, mottling, bright or dark patches or lanes?
  • Are the outer edges sharp or diffuse? Identify any other DSO in the field.
Globular Clusters
  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • Is the core bright, compact, or not distinguishable? Is it highly or loosely concentrated?
  • Is any part of it resolved into stars, averted vision or not, or does it show mottling, or stars resolved at the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.
Open Clusters
  • Is it easily distinguished from the background stars, is it well defined?
  • Is there a overall shape?
  • How many stars can you count in the cluster?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster fully resolved or is background nebulosity noticed?
  • Are there areas where stars are absent in the cluster? Are there any brighter stars in the cluster and do
  • any stand out in color?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.
Open Cluster/ Nebulosity
  • Did you use direct or averted vision to view the cluster and nebulosity, are filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Can both the cluster and nebulosity be seen with direct vision, or is averted vision or filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster embedded in the nebulosity or is there a distinct separation?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.
  • Did you use direct or averted vision? filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Is there an open cluster nearby or involved or any obvious stars involved with the nebulosity? Identify any other DSO in the field.
Planetary Nebula
  • What is the overall shape, is it disk shaped or more stellar?
  • Are the edges sharp or diffuse?
  • Is it easy or difficult to identify in the field?
  • What is the color of the Planetary?
  • Is the center brighter, darker or uniform brightness as the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On being agnostic

When it comes to questions of god or spirituality I have, more often than not, been quiet on the subject. I've had plenty of conversations about it with friends and family and certainly don't mind discussing it when asked. But I don't generally shout it from the rooftops or buy billboards or create commercials for TV. In contrast I've been subjected to a constant stream of of ads in print, billboards and on television telling me that I need Jesus and that Mormon's are awesome.

Enough. I'm done being silent. I'm fed up having religion pushed on me and being told I would burn in some nasty hot place down below. Fed up hearing about how there is a war on Christmas and Christianity. I call bullshit. If you want to believe in unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster or a Beluga Whale named Marv that can heal the sick with a wink, please, be my guest. But please, do you have to convert me? Must you push and push and push your belief into every corner of the planet?

Let me offer a few observations on your religion (if you have one).

1. It is, quite simply, make believe. I say this because religion is, more often than not, based on a book of some sort written by a guy (usually) or a group of guys (usually) that made it all up. Seriously. They made it up. No proof at all. I went up into the hills and heard a voice. On and on and on.

2. In any good creative story there is revision and boy do we have plenty of that. From year to year, decade to decade the rules change. Oh, you can do that now because some white dude in a closed room with other white dudes decided it is now ok. Or it's not. I can't remember. But, apparently these fellas have a hotline to the big fella in imaginaryville. It seems a bit fishy to me. No Marv, I was not offering you a fish.

3. Why the aggression? In it's most recent form it is very interesting to look at the religious right in the U.S. They are in a constant cultural war against those that are different from they. I don't doubt that much of this is a part of a scheme of distraction by those in power that would much prefer the vast sea of poor people fight amongst themselves but nevertheless it is a constant wave of aggression that often spills over to actual violence against very real people who's sole crime is being gay or different from the believer in some way. Yes, apparently it's okay to hurt people.

4. Why the violence? Yes, the aggression spills over to violence. Be it war or hate crimes, the history of religion is chock full of violence. I don't think I need to create a sub-list here do I? Jesus carried a machine gun you say? Why not, it's no sillier than all the other stuff he did. And Jesus said unto Marv, "I have no fish today."

I could go on with this list and I probably will at some point in the near future. My reason for bringing this up today is that I've recently had a string of interactions with religious folks that pushed me to the conclusion that organized religion really does require a kind of willful ignorance and a partial if not nearly absolute suspension of critical thinking. There is a fear of the unknown. As the thinking goes, if I don't immediately understand a particular phenomena it's better to construct a story about how a wizard in the sky created said phenomena.

This is where science comes in. We don't have to rely wizards an whales to make sense of the world around us. Just as Copernicus and then Kepler and Newton successfully challenged the make believe constructions of the church 500 years ago, today's scientists are, everyday, moving our understanding of how the universe works forward. The scientific method is a fantastic tool in that it is the basis for getting at the truth. No, we don't have it all nor will we ever. It is an exploration and the point is to make the effort. At no point is it helpful to step back and say, I don't understand this right now so it cannot be explained and must be the work of a higher power. That is the moment of giving up and choosing to fill a gap in knowledge with silly putty. It's not necessary. It is perfectly ok for us to have gaps in our understanding. There will always be such gaps and that's what moves us forward.

So no, I won't be accepting Jesus Christ and I sure wish you'd stop telling me I should. I'm not making a war on your religion though I find it interesting that you are so quick to think war is being made upon you. What I AM doing, in response to your constant crowing, is a bit of my own tweeting. Tweet tweet. Translation: there is no proof that there is a god. In many thousands of years no proof has been offered. Furthermore, your churches have historically, and are this very day, attempting to stand in the way of our understanding the universe. Please stop.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Climate Change and Science Literacy

UNEP Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report Finds Climate Change Goals Growing More Elusive:
Global greenhouse-gas emissions already have passed the point where the worst effects of global warming could be averted, and they are still rising, according to the third annual United Nations report on the so-called emissions gap.

Some countries have made pledges to help reverse this trend by lowering their emissions. However, the report by the U.N. Environment Programme warns that the gap between these pledges and reductions necessary to cap average global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2020 continues to widen.
We, as citizens lack the understanding and the will to make the changes necessary in our own lives. "Our" government is also unwilling to do what needs to be done. Over. It won't just be our children and grandchildren that will suffer, we all already are. It's true that no particular storm or weather event can be attributed to man made climate change but the science is pretty clear that we are already feeling it in our obviously changing weather patterns.

Which brings me to my next topic: science literacy. We are in this position because science is slow and takes time and because people do not understand the basic scientific process. Without an understanding of how science works people are easier to manipulate on issues that require such an understanding. In this case various global industries that have benefited from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels have actively sought to confuse the public to protect their profit source.

It is unfortunate that capitalism does not prioritize the public good but that's another topic for another time. Suffice it so say that capitalism has, thus far in it's history, demonstrated that it does not seem to be able of co-existing with the needs of our planet's ecosystems. Regardless of that discussion, we know that these industries have spent many millions of dollars to convince the governments and people in general that the science of climate change is uncertain. They have been very effective at exploiting a general lack of understanding of the specifics of climate science and science in general.

If we are to move forward we have to build a process and a system for teaching basic science literacy. At the very least we need for the adult citizens of our planet to have a basic understanding of the scientific method. Though that is just one part of minimal understanding it is fundamental and is the starting point for giving people the tools to evaluate the information (or disinformation) that is available.
To that end folks have been working in recent years on developing a global network of science cafes. In Madison County our little discussion group, fondly referred to as the Geek Parade has decided to open itself up a bit to the general public and will be making an effort at more organized, public discussions. We'll be getting started in January 2013!

We have a long way to go. Science literacy in the U.S. is low as evidenced by such indicators as acceptance of evolution which is one of the lowest of all western nations, 40%. I'm excited that we've gotten the ball rolling in our county, but it is distressing that there are only 4 such groups in the state. Well, there are 4 that are a part of the Science Cafe network. There may be others which meet that I am, at the moment, unaware of that are not listed. Certainly there are various other groups such as astronomical societies that advance science literacy but it is not really the broad-based organized effort that is needed.

Baby steps.

The Whirlpool Galaxy

I was able to squeeze in about 1.5 hours of viewing this morning just as the moon set and before the sun rose. My main subject was M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, in Ursa Major. Unfortunately there was still a good bit of moon light in the sky so I'll I definitely want to revisit this one for the best possible view. That said, it was still pretty dark and the view was quite nice, I just know it will be better with darker skies.

 Even with the lighter sky I believe I was able to make out a hint of the spiral structure. M51 is not alone though, it has a neighbor galaxy, NGC 5195, with which it has been interacting for hundreds of millions of years. In fact it is believed that it is due to these interactions with NGC 5195 that the the spiral structure of M51 is so pronounced. Quite a pair!

In addition to the Whirlpool Galaxy I also got a look at two other Messiers, M89 and M90. I'll definitely revisit both of those when skies are darker.  A bonus, the above mentioned NGC 5195 is a  member of the Herschel 400! That brings me to 92 of 110 Messier objects and 112 of the 400 Herschels. Not to bad for just over two months of viewing!

 Three months ago I would have told you that my brand new 8" Dobsonian telescope would be all I would need. Well, I can tell you, that as much as I enjoy the views that this scope provides, I am excited about someday seeing these objects with a 16" scope. So much of what is now a hint of structure will be far more obvious with a larger scope. That said, I'm happy to have started with the 8" and know that many people use such a scope for many years. It's good to know what is possible with this aperture and, in fact, learning to star hop with it has been a joy, viewing the faint fuzzies with it has required time and effort. I feel like I am earning my way to the next step and will, no doubt, more fully appreciate the better views of the larger scope when the time comes because of my starting point.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster!

Messier 88
Got up at 3am and had a long trip through the Virgo Galaxy Cluster! It was a chilly 25 degrees F but I was layered up and ready to go.  I added 6 more Messier objects to my viewed list and 7 more to my Herschel 400 list before the sun started to brighten the horizon at which time I popped over for a visit with Saturn.

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster is about 54 million light years away and contains a minimum of 1,300 galaxies, possibly as many as 2,000. Viewing it with a telescope is fantastic... I just hopped from galaxy to galaxy. Normally I'm lost in the stars, this morning I was lost in galaxies! If there had been more time before the sunrise I could have easily stayed in this little area of the sky for many more hours. The number of galaxies is overwhelming.
Markarian's Chain

My favorites of the night were Messier 88 in Coma Berenices as well as the various galaxies that make up Markarian's Chain. What a sight! Messier 88 actually shows a bit of structure though it is faint in my 8" telescope (and obviously nothing like the detailed image above).

I expect that my next 3-4 morning sessions will be spent in this cluster of galaxies. The moon will be setting later these next couple days so I'll have less time each day between moon set and sunrise. I hope to squeeze in another morning session tonight!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Astronomy Outreach at Antonia Middle School

A couple weeks back my niece emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in attending a star gazing event with her at her school. Of course I was interested I replied. I checked in with the event organizer, a member of the St. Louis Astronomical Society, about bringing my telescope and assisting at the event and was told that they would be happy to have another telescope on hand.

This was my first time to attend a public star party and I'm happy to report it went over very well. I'd estimate attendance at 25-35 folks with 6 or so scopes and fairly clear skies. We had a bit of light cloud cover but it didn't last long. The area is subject to a bit of light pollution as well as a good bit of moon light but viewing brighter objects was no problem. I stayed on the Owl/E.T. cluster most of the night and am happy to report that everyone that viewed the cluster got a kick out of seeing the E. T. figure in the eyepiece! Other scopes were showing off Jupiter, the moon, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

All in all it was a successful event. I was thrilled to have a chance to meet several members of the SLAS. Of course I was quick to invite them all out to view from our dark skies in Madison County and am sure they'll take me up on the offer. I also received some excellent advice from one of the experienced members of the SLAS, John, on a few technical aspects of my scope. One of the great benefits of events like these are the opportunities for learning from more experienced members and I look forward to learning  a great deal more from John and others.  I'm also happy to report that I shared our efforts to build science literacy in Madison County via our Geek Parade and in discussing it with their members received at least one offer of a guest lecture/presentation to our group!

Stay tuned, more to come!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Viewing Jupiter and Saturn!

There is little doubt that when viewing planets in our solar system the two most likely to elicit a gasp of surprise from a first time planetary viewer are Jupiter and Saturn.

In recent weeks Jupiter has been rising at a time early enough to be high in the horizon by 9pm. If you view too early, 6pm or so at the time of this writing the planet is too low and will likely result in poor seeing conditions which means that air turbulence will cause a bit of blurriness and shimmering. If however you view later in the evening there is less turbulence and it is higher in the sky so what turbulence there is will be less. This is especially noticeable at the high magnification used for viewing planetary details. With my 8" diameter scope I use a 5mm eye piece which results in a magnification of 240x (this is figured by dividing the focal length of the scope by the eyepiece, in my case 1200mm/5mm=240x). This lens pushes the limits of my scope and unless seeing conditions are excellent my views are poor.

This past week I've had several occasions to view Jupiter and it has been a fantastic view each time thanks to excellent conditions. At high magnification I can view several distinct cloud bands as well as the Great Red Spot as well as several moons, usually four depending on the time.

Saturn is a bit more tricky at this time due to its position in relation to our planet's daily revolution. At the moment Saturn rises just before the sun in the morning and sets just before the sun sets which means that to view it you have to look to the south east just before sunrise and it will be visible to the naked eye below Venus which is by far the brightest object in the sky at that time. At 5:50am Saturn will look like a small star midway between the horizon and Venus. Through my 8" scope with the a less powerful eyepiece such as an 18mm the rings are visible but the planet appears fairly small. With the 5mm eyepiece and good seeing conditions the rings are easily visible and the overall image is stunning even in the bright morning light. In fact, I was still able to easily view the planet after it was no longer visible with the naked eye. Of course with a bright sky the color and details are not as clear.

Of course this changes with each day because Saturn rises earlier in relation to the Sun and within just a couple weeks will provide a much better view with a much darker sky. At the end of November Saturn will be easily viewable at 5:15am when the sky is significantly darker. Around November 26 and 27th Saturn will be passing behind Venus which should provide an interesting view! By mid December the planet will be well above the horizon by 5:15am and the sun lower which will provide an incredible view.

The Herschel 400

I've viewed 100 of 400 Herschel objects! For those that may not know, Herschel was an astronomer who cataloged several thousand objects in the universe. A fun way of learning the night sky is to work through a variety of such lists of objects. This is my second list to work on, the first being the 110 Messier objects. So, I've viewed 100 in about 9 days of viewing, I'm thinking I should have most of it done within the next month. What is great about these objects is that many of them are very faint (due to their distance from us, tens of millions of light years) and can be very challenging to find even if you are looking right at them.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pondering the Future

Specifically my personal future and also thinking a bit about this blog. I've obviously not been very consistent with updates. Honestly, I put some of the blame for that on Facebook. I'm sure I am not the only one who spends too much time there. While it is great for sharing I thing the downside is that much of that sharing is just reposting. I am also leery of so much content being under one roof so to speak.

So, still here. With the crazy heat and drought of this past summer my garden suffered as did the many trees and bushes I put in over the past four years. That said, almost all of my perennials survived even if they didn't thrive. Luckily the veggie garden was, by chance, smaller. The climate future looks increasingly scary for those of us that want to eat food, wink wink.

As for my project here, it will continue for the time being though I struggle to remain enthusiastic with the annual veggies. Something about three months of intense drought and heat seems to make my garden time outside a bit less enjoyable. Our well is shallow which means I either need to haul water from the lake or invest several thousand into a new well. Climate change is ugly.

So, I'm thinking that it is time to add in a new element of activity which reflects a new interest (actually a childhood/life interest that has been sitting in a corner of my mind): astronomy! Well, science in general, but astronomy especially. While I have no intention of abandoning the permaculture work I think having another primary activity is a good thing and in the winter when growing is out I'll have something very interesting to explore, namely, our universe.

Which brings me back to one my thoughts on the blog. I've not been consistent in writing about my permaculture/homestead efforts but do think I might be more consistent in reporting on my astronomical explorations as it is the sort of interest that lends itself to data collection and reporting. Should I do that here as a supplement to my other interests or do I start an astronomy based blog? Actually, I think I just sorted it out as I write. I'll keep it here but will not just add in my astronomical observations but will also add in other science related material.

Actually, and don't laugh, but I have this vision of humanity (or myself?) that connects to a few episodes/films from Star Trek that have always stuck with me. In particular, those which seem to showcase small, egalitarian villages in which science seems to not only co-exist with daily life, but informs a deeper and greater understanding of the relationship between humans and nature and the larger universe. Contrast this to our modern manifestation which seems to have largely become a tool for corporate profit with little regard to ethics. A great example would be GMOs and modern industrial agriculture as it might compare to a decentralized permaculture-based system informed by local and thoughtful observation.

One outlook, the modern corporate/capitalist/industrial, uses science primarily as a tool for the accumulation of wealth. The other uses science as a method for deepening our understanding of the natural world around us not just for technological development, but for the sake of understanding. In this second outlook the ethics of use would be an important part of the overall process and would include all sorts of new questions and concerns in any sort of possible application of scientific knowledge. In fact, one might say that the second view represents a kind of democratization of applied science.

Wow. I didn't expect to take this post in this direction but it is interesting and it is something I've thought about off and on over the years so, yeah, I'll be back to this at some point. Another area that I'd like to explore is science literacy and critical thought. There has been a long trend in the U.S. which seems to be gaining a bit of steam when, in fact, it should be losing steam and that is the movement against science. Such a movement can only happen when there is a lack of communication of knowledge. When people are ignorant of established scientific knowledge and the basic method which serves as its foundation there is room for manipulation.

So, you can expect that I'll be spending some time discussing not just science but specifically science literacy. I'm not a trained scientist but I think I know enough to discuss some issues as a citizen. Specifically I'm likely to dig into the entwined relationship of politics, religion and global capitalism have been used to undermine science literacy to further their capacity as control agents: social, political, economic, ecological... everything from the genetics of corn to humans, from crowd control to the "entertainment" that comes out of the glowing screens in living rooms. Science and technology can be used in many ways for many different and often opposing agendas. I think that will be some interesting exploration.

There is also some real life stuff I'm hoping to make happen that reflects all of this, specifically a few ideas for how I might further science literacy here in rural Missouri where it is greatly needed. I'll share that as well.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Stargazing from the front yard

Still here! Spent a lot of time this summer thinking about the larger universe. Perspective is good.

The cool thing about astronomy? It is also time travel! Did you know that when you look into the night sky your eye is being hit by the actual photons that were put forth by the stars you are looking at? We are connected to those stars through those photons, some of which have been traveling to us for many thousands of years. Look at a neighboring galaxy such as Andromeda and your eyes are connecting with particles that have traveled for 2.5 million years, 5.8 trillion miles each year, and they finally meet you and your eyes. How fantastic is that?


Sunday, July 15, 2012

A vintage desk, cooperatively built

How appropriate that my recently purchased used desk was made by a furniture co-op?! It is a beautiful desk that seems to been made in the 1970s. Now that I know this about the company I appreciate the desk even more. This fall when the weather cools I'll be giving it a light sanding and will give it a new clearcoat to protect it. From their website:

Community Playthings has always manufactured products right here in the United States. It all started in 1947 in an old barn in Georgia, supporting a little cooperative community. Not long after, the co-op joined a larger group in New York and brought the business with them. Today, the “community” in Community Playthings is a group of families who earn their living crafting toys and furniture for children. We manufacture primarily in New York and Pennsylvania, with wood responsibly harvested from the Northeastern U.S.

I will add that I think that it is products like this that we need to be building in the United States. Built by a cooperative, demonstrating a high quality of workmanship and made of sustainably harvested wood! We often speak of products as "goods" but they are not always good. In this case I think the term fits.


Cooling and heating at the same time!

About air conditioning:

In the late 1970s, 23 percent of American homes had some form of air conditioning; today, 87 percent do. We have become so addicted that 9 out of 10 new homes are built with central air. We spend $40 billion a year air-conditioning our buildings, says the EPA, and cooling our homes accounts for 17 percent of household energy use.

In return, we get — well, I’ll let author Stan Cox say it: “Air-conditioning buildings and cars in the U.S. has the climate impact of half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. That exceeds the total annual carbon dioxide emissions of any one of these nations: Australia, France, Brazil, or Indonesia.”

Wait, you mean the thing we use to get through the record heat is … helping to cause the record heat? I believe that is what the kids call ironic.

Via Grist


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tiny Cabin and Tiny Workspace Organization

My cabin interior redesign is now finished!!

Here is the finished and now neatly organized corner of my cabin that is the "office". So much better than the unused and oh so messy loft! Everything is now neatly organized on the selves which are now mostly covered by curtains (Thanks Kerry!!) for a tidy appearance.

Not only is the cabin a much more pleasant place to be but keeping it clean is now so much easier. It may just be a change in attitude on my part but yeah, I'm enjoying being organized. It's also nice having a "work space" which is something I've not had for the past few months because I replaced my previous table/desk with a futon.

The paint was a great decision. As much as I enjoyed the plain wood it needed to be protected. The paint has done wonders to brighten the place up and add to the sense of organization and tidiness. Good call!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Progress on Interior Redesign!

Thanks to my sister and brother-in-law my tiny house now has a very different feel and the space is much more effectively used. The sleeping loft that was never used except for a catch all for stuff is now gone and replaced by shelves. The mattress I had underneath is now replaced by a futon under my front window. All the stuff that never had a proper home in the cabin before is now up on shelves... It is all very neat and organized!

It's not done yet. Next weekend my sister is going to sew three curtain panels to cover the lower half of the shelving system which will give it a tidier look and keep dust out.

I also decided to paint. I've been living in it these four years with no finish on the walls because I couldn't make a decision. At this point though the plywood bead board is getting all sorts of funky with dirt, moisture, oil, and light... time for a more uniform look so paint it is!

Friday, June 08, 2012

Interior Redesign

Big things are coming to my little cabin! After four years in the cabin with a guest sleeping loft rarely used I've decided to make a few changes. I am taking out the loft and my bed beneath it and replacing it with a wall of shelves, desk and futon. The poorly organized mess in the loft will be getting neatly organized and should really open up the space. I'll probably do a bit of painting, I've never liked the fake wood exterior of the shelving unit that holds all my clothing. Will be moving my small flatscreen, MacMini, speakers and AppleTV into the top of that unit since those cloths will be organized on the new shelves. My futon is directly across from the unit so it makes for perfect viewing.

What a mess, I can't wait to get it done! Pictures and an update in the next day or so.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Three weeks with the new iPad

Awhile back I posted about being a freelance tech worker. Here's another tech related post, originally posted at my MacProductive Blog. For anyone living remotely in a small space the iPad is a perfect choice for computing and for many it may be the best Internet access available.

It's been three weeks with the iPad 3. By necessity it has been my primary work machine. Due to the remote location of my cabin/office my internet choices are limited. My first generation iPad was jail broken and I used it as a hotspot for my MacBook Air, my primary tool for web design projects. To be honest most days that first-generation iPad was used primarily as a hotspot. When my workday was finished I would use the iPad for reading books, RSS feeds via Reeder or browsing the web with Safari but that was about it. With the new iPad I have not been able to jailbreak and so it has become my main tool for getting things done and I am happy to report that it has held up well in this role.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago in my iPad 3 Mini Review the increased RAM in the new iPad has made it a much more functional device and I don't hesitate to switch apps as I work. In fact, thanks to the increased memory, switching between multiple apps is instantaneous. Unlike the first generation iPad, this new iPad truly feels like a powerful computing device.

I've compiled a list of my most used apps thus far. A typical day includes the following tasks:

  • Client website updates
  • Website design, ie, coding CSS and HTML
  • Correspondence via texts and email
  • Project and task tracking
  • Writing
  • Invoicing and basic banking
My most often used apps:

  • Safari and Reeder
  • Textastic
  • Mail and Messages
  • CloudConnect
  • Wunderkit and Calendar
  • Blogsy, Wordpress, and Writing Kit
  • FileMaker and PocketMoney
A few notes

One area I'm still not settled on is task and project tracking. I had been using Wunderlist but switched to Wunderkit in the hopes that some of our community projects might be better coordinated with shared projects. Unfortunately I’ve not had a lot of success getting folks on board with it. As of now there is no app for the iPad so I do most of my Wunderkit tracking via the web app which is not too great on the iPad. The iPhone Wunderkit app is actually pretty good and I may begin using it more.

Another part of my workflow that is a bit clumsy is image creation and editing which still requires that I go to my Mac for Pixelmator or Photoshop. Once I've got the image set there I turn on the iPad's wifi and get the file via CloudConnect. Then I turn off the wifi and upload the file to the server via 4G and CloudConnect. Photoshop Touch has very good reviews so I'll likely give that a try soon.

Other work related apps that I have but don't use very often include Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. I can't imagine not having them and I do expect that they will get a good bit of use.


Though it's technically not an app I have to mention the importance of the new dictation feature. With the original iPad I felt I had to have an external keyboard. I am a very fast typist and using the software keyboard frustrated me. To be fair, I didn't really give it a chance. The dictation feature in the new iPad has been an amazing benefit to my productivity. It makes sending emails, texting, and even writing articles much easier.


As much as I enjoyed my first generation iPad for reading and casual email, it was never a work tool for me. With so little memory it felt more like a casual device. On the few occasions I tried to use it to get things done I often ended up frustrated. Not so with the new iPad! This is a very capable device easily up to the task of getting actual work done.


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Video Tour

In celebration of my four years here at the homestead I thought I would share a little video!

Four years at the Homestead

It has been almost 4 years to the day since we began work here at the lake. In fact my first post was made on May 5, 2008 just after completion of our outhouse! It has been an amazing four years and we have come a long way. We built my cabin by mid May 2008 and I moved in on the 24th though the cabin wasn't finished until the end of the summer. That first summer was spent cleaning up damage from a tornado that happened two years earlier, putting in 12 fruit trees, and the first garden. Because we had not hooked up the electricity I spent the first couple of months hauling water from the lake for the fruit trees and the young garden. In the late fall we hold in another cabin.

The following spring we built the chicken coop greenhouse and in early summer we built the kids' cabin. The garden was expanded and more fruit trees were planted. The chickens arrived!! I also began work on the native wildflower Garden in front of my cabin. By the fall of 2009 I had begun to design and implement the various food forests. In addition to the fruit trees I added currants, gooseberries, paw paws, and a fairly large blueberry patch.

In May 2010 we added onto my cabin with a covered front porch and I finished my rain barrel installation. It was another hot, dry summer and I struggled to keep my garden alive. In the fall I began construction of my hugelculture beds. Another big fall project was trenching in our water line from the well house to our two main cabins. We also added onto our well house with a shower house and sleeping loft. Kerry and Greg's cabin was redesigned and the interior nearly finished.

2011 was a summer of refinements and revisions. We finished the interior of the shower house and out house. The interior if Kerry and Greg's cabin was finally finished as well. This was a laid-back summer, we swam a lot and I tried to keep the garden alive! The hugelculture beds performed fantastically.

That about sums it up. It has been a fantastic four years and this place is now my home, sweet home. I am looking forward to many more years here!


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Winter's Soul

Something I wrote a couple weeks ago... probably needs a good bit of work still. Not that I'm going anywhere with it, just a bit of reflection.

Taking a walk this morning, it was as though I was seeing the soul of the land. Six months ago life was in full swing as the sun beat down, plants harvesting the energy and releasing it to the insects and animals. But today I see the paper thin remains of an oak leaf hanging on to a branch in sleep. A moss covered vine, spotted with lichen, twists and turns in a pattern I would not have seen in September. Just as our own human lives wind to an end, the land has come to its winter death. The life that is still to be seen consists mainly of nuthatches, chickadees, cedar waxwings and their friends flitting amongst the seeds and berries that will remain for them through the winter, as memories of summer youth. In spring, of course, life will return to the land. The soul that is so easily seen today will be less visible when the new forms, variations and patterns of life return. Life will continue its turn.

Jeesh, what a slacker!

I know. Been ages. I think I've gotten into the habit of updating facebook rather than my blog! Bummer. I think I might try to redirect my routine to the blog first and the facebook second. I'll figure something out. Anyway, I hope and plan to spend more time around these here parts.

So, Happy New Year! Hope you all had a nice holiday season! More soon!!