Thursday, October 30, 2014

Partial Solar Eclipse from Valparaiso University Observatory 10-23-2014

I remember that in the summer of 1994 there was a solar eclipse, and I watched parts of it with welder's glass. Since then, though, I have not seen any part of a solar eclipse. From Northwest Indiana, the partial solar eclipse we experienced on October 23 wasn't going to be a spectacular event, with only about half the Sun being eclipse at maximum, and the Sun setting shortly after maximum eclipse. Still, I was looking forward to it, and when the forecast was mostly cloudy, with a possibility of rain, I wasn't very optimistic.

When I got home from work Thursday morning, I needed to take a nap. I wanted to wake up early so I could check weather forecasts around the region, and check satellite images to see where the best chance of a clear sky might be. I set a couple of alarms on my phone, went to sleep, and then slept through nearly two hours of my phone going off every five minutes.

When I finally woke up, it was after 3:30 PM, and the eclipse was going to start in about an hour. I hurried to get ready, but with so little time, the only observation I could get to in time was at Valparaiso University. I arrived at the V.U. observatory around 4:20, with about 15 minutes to spare. Professors Dr. Bruce Hrivnak and Dr. Todd Hillwig were set up behind the observatory, and ready to host a public observation. There were some eager visitors already there, but the sky was still cloudy. Dr. Hrivnak's wife Lucy arrived a few minutes after me, and like me, she really wasn't expecting to see much either. Then the Sun started to peek through a clearing in the clouds that was opening up.

I hadn't bothered getting any equipment out of my car because of the cloudy conditions, so I hurried to get my 60mm refractor that I use for solar observing and Sun funnel screen. The funnel screen hadn't been used in a long time, and the black electrical tape holding the screen in place was worn, and needed to be replaced. At some point it had come undone, and left a black mark across the observing screen, but there was no time to properly clean it. I hastily re-taped the screen in place. There wasn't enough time to get it nice and tight across the top of the funnel, but would do for this observation, which might not last long.

Not ideal conditions, but I was able to observe the beginning of the eclipse through the clouds to the west.

Finally ready to observe, I found the Sun by using the shadow method, and was impressed by the massive sunspot A.R. 2192. Lucy Hrivnak gave me a pair of eclipse glasses, and I was surprised that sunspot 2192 could be seen even without magnification. A small crowd started to gather around my telescope for a look at our Sun. Then I saw a slight impression on the solar limb, and the eclipse had begun.

First eclipse image on the Sun funnel screen.

Like me, Dr. Hrivnak was using a small spotting scope to safely project an image of the eclipsed Sun, while Dr. Hillwig had a full aperture solar filter on a 6" SCT. Of course, they were also handing out eclipse glasses to anybody who wished to see the eclipse. But like I found out during the Transit of Venus, people really seemed to enjoy the funnel projection screen. The fairly large image on the screen and being able to observe in a group makes this a popular method for observing any solar event. It also attracted the attention of Heather Augustyn of the Times of Northwest Indiana. Heather interviewed me, and Times photographer John Luke got a shot of me demonstrating the funnel projection system. Both the image and interview were included in the online article, and in Friday's newspaper.

Small crowd observing the partial solar eclipse behind Valpo University's campus observatory.

I watched as a small sunspot near the solar limb was eclipsed by the Moon, but didn't time the moment of occultation. I was just trying to enjoy whatever time remained of the Sun peeking through the clouds. Right around 5:00 PM CDST, the Sun started to disappear behind clouds again, and it looked like the end of the observation. I left my telescope set up just in case, but took a few moments to document the crowd, the sky conditions, and posed for a picture with professors Hrivnak and Hillwig. From that point all telescopic observing was over. The Sun did show through the clouds briefly around 5:30, but it was very low in the sky, and the sunlight wasn't strong enough to cast shadows for aligning my telescope. I could sort of make out the outline of the Moon through eclipse glasses, but clouds were also obscuring the solar disk, making it hard to tell just how much of the Sun was eclipsed by our Moon.

Final eclipse image on the Sun funnel. Giant sunspot 2192 is clearly visible.

Professor Todd  Hillwig oversees observing through a filtered telescope, while behind him, professor Bruce Hrivnak is projecting an image of the eclipse through a spotting scope.

Though still in progress, clouds cut short serious eclipse observing.

Selfie behind the dome.

Posing with professors Hillwig and Hrivnak, and their friend.

Do these eclipse glasses make me look cool?

Even before the Sun had set, I packed my gear, signed the observatory's guest book, and said goodbye to the Hrivnaks and Dr. Hilllwig. As I left the campus, and turned west onto U.S. 30, the Sun was just above the horizon, and just below the clouds gathered in that direction. I could easily see the eclipse still in progress, and pulled over to try to get a picture. The settings on my cell phone just aren't up to getting images of the Sun, even while almost half eclipsed.

Trying to get final images of the eclipse Sun, but my phone couldn't capture what I saw naked eye.

Even though it turned out mostly cloudy, and I almost missed the eclipse by oversleeping, I seem to have seen more total minutes of eclipse than others in the region. I enjoyed it while I could, and look forward to a trip south in 2017 to stand in Luna's shadow.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sunrise on Crater Ptolemaeus, July 4, 2014

As you may or may not know, I love lunar observing. I can't seem to resist staring at Luna whenever she is up, and if I have the chance to get my telescope out, I can explore the lunar surface for hours. On the evening of July 4, I skipped attending Independence Day fireworks shows, and went down to Conway Observatory, to see the close apparent conjunction of asteroids 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta, and other observations. Of course, the not quite first quarter Moon sent plenty of photons to my telescope's primary mirror.

Early in the evening, I noticed that the "Snowman" of Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel, were right along the terminator.

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As Luna continued through her orbit, I compared views through two 5" refractors that my friend Bill was testing, and he had the power cranked. I noticed a streak of daylight starting to fall across Ptolemaeus, then went back to my 6" Dobsonian to photograph it.

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After that, I kept checking periodically to see how the light and shadows were falling on the crater floor of Ptolemaeus.

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Finally, just before 11:00 PM, only a couple long shadows from the eastern rim of Ptolemaeus were falling across the crater floor.

By that time, I had found the space rocks in conjunction in Virgo, and was observing them, looking for proper motion, and helping my friend Javier find them, so that he could image the asteroid pair. My lunar observing was pretty much over for the night, and Luna was already low, seen through turbulent atmosphere, where observing is worst, and imaging is nearly useless.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

2014's "Super Moons"

When I got into the hobby of astronomy six years ago, I had never heard of a "Super Moon." In the last few years, though, it seems that at least one full Moon each year has been called a "Super Moon" by the media. This year we have a whopping three "Super Moons." As an avid lunar observer, I absolutely detest this term. It's misleading. Naked eye, I cannot tell a difference in the size of the full Moon from month to month.

Michael Bakich has a great article on "Super Moons" in the August 2014 issue of Astronomy magazine. While Bakich states that the term "Super Moon" "beats the astronomical term, perigee syzygy Moon," I disagree. Give me the geeky name, and let folks use their Google skills.

The first of these three 2014 "Super Moons" will be Saturday, July 12. Here in Northwest Indiana, the Moon will reach the moment of "full" at 7:04 AM CDST according to Arlington Heights astronomer Curt Renz, not long after the Moon sets. Of course, seeing it close to the horizon, just before it reaches full, it will no doubt look bigger because of the Moon Illusion. From North America, you could justifiably call either Friday or Saturday night's Moon "full," although Friday the Moon will be more fully illuminated.

Curt Renz has nice graphics showing the relative distances of the full Moons for 2014, seen below.

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For full resolution, and other Moon related graphics, go to

It just so happens that I observed both the June 2013 perigee (closest) full Moon and the January 2014 apogee (farthest) full Moon. While I can tell that the June Moon appears slightly larger in my images, keep in mind these were taken at 60x magnification. With the naked eye, the difference is rather negligible. 

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June 2013 perigee Moon observation at Valparaiso's Central Park Plaza.

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January 2014 apogee Moon observation in front of the Porter County Courthouse, in the extreme polar vortex cold.

For more on this year's "Super Moons," try the following articles.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Close Conjunction of Ceres & Vesta Observed, July 4, 2014

This weekend, asteroids 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta made a close conjunction, only 10' apart. I observed this at Conway Observatory in Lowell, Indiana on the night of July 4, 2014.

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For full details of the observation, and a GIF of the asteroids by my friend Javier, check here.

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Javier's first image of the asteroids.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Discovering Your Universe: The World of Public Astronomy

My Astronomy Talk at Valparaiso University

April 4, 2014

In 2008, I was taking classes at Purdue University's North Central campus. For the spring semester, I took an introductory astronomy class. I was just beginning to watch the night sky on my own, and it seemed like the perfect time to take the class. It was great learning the science of astronomy at the same time I was learning my way around the sky. Our first class observation was cancelled due to weather. Since a visual observation was required for the class, and because it gave me projects to work on to learn the sky, I started doing some of the alternate observing projects, just in case our second observation session was also cancelled. One of those alternate observations was to attend an observatory open house at Valparaiso University.

On April 4, 2008, I made my first visit to Valparaiso University's observatory for an open house. I saw Saturn, the Orion Nebula, Mars, and globular cluster M3 for the first time in a big telescope. I've been back for observatory open houses when I can ever since.

In 2009, the astronomical community celebrated 400 years of telescopic astronomy with the International Year of Astronomy. The Valpo University physics & astronomy department incorporated the spirit of IYA's emphasis on public outreach by having public lectures before each observatory open house. They were enjoyed so much by the public, faculty, and students that the department continued holding public talks before observatory open houses, though scaled back to only one or two talks per semester. Professors Dr. Bruce Hrivnak and Dr. Todd Hillwig have given some of the talks, and hosted visiting lecturers from other universities and institutions. I've attended quite a few of these talks, though not all of them, unfortunately.

Earlier this year, Calumet Astronomical Society contacted Valpo University's Dr. Bruce Hrivnak about speaking at one of our monthly meetings. He graciously agreed, but also asked if some of our CAS members could give a talk about amateur and public astronomy before their observatory open house on April 4. I was asked soon after to participate in the talk. I couldn't resist.

I had about five weeks to create a presentation, and worked on it in most of my free time. I worked on it almost right up until the moment of presentation. I had no chance to rehearse the talk, but being focused on my own experiences in astronomy, I was familiar enough with the material that practice wasn't absolutely necessary.

On April 4, 2014, exactly six years after my first visit to V.U's observatory, I had dinner with Dr. Hrivnak and his wife Lucy before the presentation. During dinner, we discussed our different paths to astronomy, and our different methods of observing the sky. Though I only understand the basics, I'm fascinated by the work of astrophysicists. Never before have I such an opportunity to ask questions of an astrophysicist, or had one ask so many questions of me. It was both flattering and humbling.

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Richard Loslo of Calumet Astronomical Society was also speaking, though for some reason, his name wasn't included on the promotional flyer. I had no idea what Richard was going to talk about, and he had no idea what I was going to talk about, but as I watched his presentation, I knew that it would complement mine well. I finalized my PowerPoint slides on my lunch break at work earlier in the day, and had not rehearsed at all. I really didn't know how long my talk was going to be. Between the two of us we had fifty minutes. I nervously checked my watch while Richard was speaking, wondering if I would have enough time for my presentation. Through dumb luck, our timing was perfect.

My friend Chris from my atheist social group had offered to record the presentation, and did a great job producing this video of the talk. Eleven members of the atheist group came to support me, Steve from CAS, and my friend Jayde who teaches STEM on mock space missions at the Challenger Learning Center in Hammond. Jayde captured the picture below.

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I hope you enjoy the video. Thanks to Chris for donating his time and equipment. Thanks to Dr. Hrivnak for inviting Calumet Astronomical Society to speak at their astronomy open house, and thanks to all my friends who came out to see our presentation. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy night, so there was no observing afterward.