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.

Galaxies
  • 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.
Nebula
  • 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.