Friday, December 24, 2010

Comic Relief from Snow and Clouds

Just a quick post today. I saw this in Wednesday's paper and thought I would share it, with a short commentary.


Hi & Lois Comic Strip, 12-22-2010
Credit: Brian Walker, Greg Walker, Chance Browne.

First and foremost, use due caution when observing visually with the Sun up. I don't know if snowflakes are "really cool" or not through a telescope, but I know that accidentally viewing the Sun without a filter, even for a second or two, can cause permanent eye damage. Second, of course you can see a star during the day; there is one in plain sight in this strip! The Sun! But again, and this is vitally important so I don't mind repeating it, use proper filters or the projection method to observe the Sun. Finally, Ditto and Dot might enjoy watching the snow fall, but I'm getting sick of seeing it.Sure, it's still fun to play in when I can, but nowadays snow causes more problems for me than it's worth. Snow means clouds, and clouds mean no astronomy for Paulie.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tomorrow's Total Lunar Eclipse

I have been looking forward to tomorrow's total lunar eclipse, but the forecast for the Chicago region is not looking good. It is clear at the moment, but we are still about 30 hours until totality. As we say in the region though, if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes: it will change. And change it most likely will. Snow is expected tomorrow night. If you have clear skies tomorrow, though, here are some things to look forward to for this eclipse.


Credit: Larry Koehn.

Check out Lisa Beightol's Astronomy video.

With the winter solstice occurring later in the afternoon Tuesday, this is the first winter solstice eclipse since 1638. During the eclipse, the Moon will also occult the asteroid 348 May

Predictions for Chicago area observers by Curt Renz.

Curt also informs us that an hour after the eclipse, the Moon will conjunct with open star cluster NGC 2129.



I am still uncertain where I will attempt to observe the eclipse from, but Adler Planetarium is hosting an eclipse viewing party, and I may wind up there.



Of course, there are citizen science projects collecting data. John Westfall is collecting naked eye contact times. There are also crater timing projects. However you observe tomorrow's events, enjoy the rarity of this solstice eclipse and hopefully we will all enjoy a clear sky. Good luck!


Quick weather update: snow is on the way.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Morning Venus- WOW!!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

As an amateur astronomer, I've had people ask me lately what is the bright "star" in the early morning. Of course I tell them that their "star" is actually planet Venus, although I've only seen it under good conditions once since it reappeared in the morning sky. I know it recently peaked at a maximum brightness of magnitude -4.7, but knowing it's magnitude is no substitute for observation. I went out to look Wednesday morning, and even I couldn't believe how bright Venus shined! I can't print here the words I said when, but you can probably guess. Wow. Seriously, wow! Wow. Wow! WOW. WOW! WOW!!! No wonder she gets mistaken for a UFO!

Venus, about 6:15 Wednesday morning.

It was still visible just before sunrise at 7:06 AM.


If you haven't seen Venus in the morning sky yet, it's worth getting up early to see it. Even without a telescope, this is an impressive sight, and the last two mornings of 2010 will be even more spectacular. Venus will be dimming slightly, but on December 30th and 31st will be joined by a waning crescent Moon. And be sure while you're out to look for the brownish colored "star" to the upper right of Venus, Saturn! On December 29th, Saturn will make almost a right triangle with the Moon and Venus.

Venus is the most brilliant planet in our night sky. Please make a point to brave the early morning cold to see why the ancients equated this planet to the goddess of beauty and love.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wisconsin Man's Awesome Planetarium Project

I checked the private Calumet Astronomical Society’s group discussion board earlier this week, and saw a post from a former member who has relocated to Texas. He’d seen a story on CBS News (be sure to watch the video, too) about a Wisconsin man, Frank Kovac, who loves astronomy, but couldn’t pursue a career as a professional astronomer. Kovac harnessed his passion for the night sky by building a planetarium in his backyard. He built the largest moving globe planetarium in the world; pretty impressive for an amateur astronomer.

Winters here in Northwest Indiana are harsh enough, so I’m not going to drive to northern Wisconsin to see Kovac’s planetarium for awhile, but I’d like to see it next spring. Admission for adults is $12, and reservations are required, but Kovac personally delivers the presentations. I admire Kovac’s dedication, and really hope that this turns into a success, attracting amateur astronomers from around the country, and anybody else curious about astronomy. I feel that it’s important to get word out to support Frank’s efforts, especially because they are so closely related to what I do with People’s Astronomy. Check out the Kovac Planetarium website, and if you get a chance, make a trip to Wisconsin to say hi to Frank, and thank him for his hard work. Hopefully in the coming months I will be reporting my experience at Kovac Planetarium. Good luck Frank!


Follow these threads on Chicago Astronomer and http://welovegarrettreisman.blogspot.com/2010/12/wisconsin-man-builds-backyard.html

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Failed Attempt at Mu Geminorum Occultation

I will edit this into a proper post tomorrow, but for now click on the title for the Chicago Astronomer thread.


Happy Thanksgiving!




I’d been looking forward to last Wednesday morning’s lunar occultation of Mu Geminorum almost since the last time it was occulted on October 27. Weather hadn’t cooperated with me well for that occasion, but I was able to catch sight of the star not long after it emerged from behind the lunar disk. I fought a strong, cold breeze and scattered cloud cover that night. I was disappointed not to see the immersion point of the occultation, and hoped that my rematch on November 24 would be better.


There was really no preparation needed to observe the occultation, other than to review the event times posted by Curt Renz, although since they are calculated for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, they won’t be accurate times for me at home, but are close enough to tell me when to pay attention. Curt’s listed time for the immersion was 5:24 AM Central Standard Time, and 6:34 for the emersion, just 16 minutes before sunrise. Being at the eastern edge of the Central Time Zone, the emersion would happen during morning twilight, so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to observe it. It was worth a try though.

I skipped a clear evening sky Tuesday night to sleep, planning to get up and observe in the middle of the night. I woke up around 2:30 AM, and checked the radar and satellite images before getting out of bed. A system was moving in, but there was a chance it might stay just south of Valparaiso. Getting up to have a look out the back door, I was glad to walk into the dark kitchen and see a bright rectangular spot on the floor. The Moon was shining down at an angle through the skylight.

I got bundled up, went outside and set the telescopes up to acclimate to the cold. I wasn’t in much of a hurry, except to get back inside and out of the 21 degree temperature, and16 degree wind chill factor. I did admire a nice full 22 degree halo around the Moon, though. After getting the telescopes ready I went inside to make a pot of coffee and check the latest weather satellite images. It wasn’t looking good, really. I was concerned that Accuweather's satellite showed cloud cover moving into the area, although at that time it was only patchy clouds. It was a big system, but no rain, so I didn’t have to worry about the telescopes outside unattended. The weather system I was watching had an eye opening up as it crossed into Illinois, and it's path could have brought that clear spot over Valpo before emersion. The immersion, however, was almost definitely going to occur before the opening arrived.


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Around 3:30 AM CST, the Moon had a gorgeous halo, but of course it doesn't show in the picture.

Just after 4 AM, the Moon and brighter stars were still visible. Even though the edge of the system had crossed all of Indiana, the clouds were acting more like haze or a slight fog than anything else. Central and southern Illinois were in the heart of the system, but it looked like the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana, would see portions of the occultation.



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I was trying to stay out of the cold as much as possible, so I didn’t try to observe the Moon as it caught up to Mu Geminorum. In hindsight, I should have. By the time I was ready to face the cold around 5AM, the sky was completely clouding over. All the bright stars had disappeared, and the Moon was barely visible through them. I kept a vigil on the tracking of my go-to Newtonian, so that if sucker holes opened up, I would be able to take advantage immediately. Of course there were no sucker holes, but at 5:17 AM, only a thin haze covered the Moon. I looked just in case, since the occultation was to begin in about 7 minutes, but the haze was too thick for the starlight to shine through.

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The Moon shrouded at 5:36 AM.




I missed the immersion, but stayed out in the cold hoping that I could observe the emersion around 6:34. I was constantly checking Accuweather for an update on the system moving through, but they did not update the satellite images after 5:32. I watched the clouds pass over the Moon, which also kept the wind at my back. Turning around, though, by 5:35 I noticed the clouds in the east turning a deep red hue, portending daylight’s imminent arrival, with still nearly an hour to go before Mu Geminorum would emerge.


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Daybreak. 

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6:30:15.

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6:24:27.

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6:35:20. This was the clearest point of the observation.

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By 6:40the Moon was totally obscured.


By 6:30, though hidden by clouds, the Sun had been up almost forty minutes. I started observations again, however unlikely I would get decent results. The clearing in the system that I was waiting for had started closing as it crossed Illinois, and the entire front shifted north, socking in Valparaiso. We were out of the worst of it, teasing me with the Moon showing through the haze. In a way that was worse than being totally clouded out. I wasn’t going to give up when my target was still (sort of) visible. At 6:35, after Mu Geminorum should have emerged, the clouds eased up slightly, but not enough to reveal the star. After that it only got worse. The sky was getting too bright, my toes were totally frozen, and when I looked up at 6:40, the Moon had disappeared behind the clouds. It was time to pack it in and admit defeat.

So, given that the observation was unsuccessful, why go through the trouble of such a lengthy post? Mostly to prove that I didn’t sleep through it!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Upcoming Total Lunar Eclipse, December 20, 2010

Maybe it's too early to be writing about it, but December's lunar eclipse has been on my mind a lot lately. I have seen parts of total eclipses before, the 27 OCT 2004 eclipse (the night the Red Sox won the World Series, for you baseball fans), and the 3 MAR 2007 eclipse. I wasn't an astronomer at those times, just a little curious about our Moon.


At the time of the 21 FEB 2008 eclipse I was a student in Mike Appelhans's Astronomy 264 course at Purdue North Central. That class was when I fully rediscovered my love for space and astronomy. I was excited to view the eclipse, and possibly report to the class about it, but Valparaiso was dumped with nearly a foot of lake effect snow. It was snowing over an inch per hour during most of the eclipse time, so I didn't see any of it.


There is no guarantee that I won't have another blizzard to contend with next month. Assuming good weather, however, I want to make the most of this total lunar eclipse, since there won't be another until 14 APR 2014. I've read Sky & Telescope's article in the December issue, and was looking at the following websites:


http://www.shadowandsubstance.com/


http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OH2010.html#LE2010Dec21T


http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OHres/LEcrater.htmlhttp://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OHres/LEcrater.html


More from the pages of December's Sky & Telescope, here are ways to make useful science observations during the eclipse.

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/community/skyblog/observingblog/15772912.html 



http://www.alpo-astronomy.org/eclipseblog/?p=24



I like the idea of crater timings, even if I don't get any scientifically useful data. My recent observations of lunar occultations, and events of the Galilean Moons were fun for me because they had a purpose, even though I wasn't greatly successful at them. Of course I'll try to time the four contact points of total eclipse. All of these observations will require concentration, and a minimum of distractions.


It's a late eclipse, with partial phase not beginning until after midnight Central Standard Time, but I'm curious to know what my fellow sidewalk astronomers on the West Coast would do. Are you going to have a private viewing? Alone, or with other astronomers? Or are you going to set up telescopes and invite the public or passersby to see? I would like join fellow astronomers in viewing the eclipse, but I think even if it were earlier, I wouldn't be interested in a sidewalk session. Maybe that sounds selfish, but I have spent many hours in recent months with my telescopes available for total strangers to view the Moon at nearly all phases, the Sun, every planet out to Uranus, an asteroid, stellar creation and death, our neighboring galaxy, and even orbiting spacecraft. Whenever I'm conducting sidewalk sessions, or star parties at Adler Planetarium, people always ask,"Is there something special going on tonight?" One of my usual replies is, "No, unless you believe that something special happens every night." I don't think it would be too much to ask to save this "special" event for myself and a few close friends.


Does anybody have any advice? What are your plans for the eclipse? Do you have great stories of the 2004 or 2007 (or earlier) eclipses? (Sorry, I don't really want to hear how perfect your sky was in 2008, while I was shoveling snow every hour just to keep up with the storm). Well, maybe you can tell me about 2008...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Morning Sundogs, November 8, 2010

On my way home Monday morning, I noticed a sundog northeast of the rising Sun. At a stop sign I reached in my bag for my camera, and although I don’t recommend it, I started snapping pictures. Sundogs are too fleeting, and I didn’t want to wait until I got home to record it. Just before I turned into the driveway, though, I noticed another sundog on the southwest side of the Sun. The first sundog was starting to fade, but was still visible. I took a few last pictures, and went inside to go to bed.


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Above were pictures of the first sundog. The next three are the second one.


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This one was of my best imaged sundogs.

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The second one was looking spectacular, but the first one was fading away.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Early Morning Session, November 2, 2010

I woke up early on November 2, and went outside for some quality observing time alone. As soon as I stepped out the back door I was treated to an amazing sight. Auriga was near the zenith, Orion was transiting to the south, and their neighboring constellations were placed accordingly. It’s the richest star field in the sky, featuring a great collection of first magnitude stars, topped off with Sirius, the brightest star we see. With the Milky Way running through these constellations, it was the perfect sight to be greeted for the new day and the new year. A look to my left showed the waning crescent Moon about an hour above the horizon. I had already missed Jupiter, so it was the Moon and everything else, somewhat at my leisure.

I brought out my Dobsonian for some lunar viewing of course, but after a warm up break (it was a colder morning than any since April), I brought out my new 16x50 binoculars for their first real observing session. I like the views, but I’m already thinking about a tripod for them. Even the small increase from 10x to 16x shows increased vibration. I had a decent list of targets, most observed with the binos and scope. Mostly easy targets here, because I was preoccupied with the dazzling stars above me, and of course the Moon.


Observing Highlights

M45, Pleiades- binoculars
M42, Orion Nebula- naked eye, binoculars, and telescope
M36, 37, 38- binoculars and telescope
M35- Binoculars, telescope
M1, Crab Nebula- telescope
M44, Beehive Cluster- naked eye(!), binoculars, telescope
M41- telescope


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Good old Luna. I don’t know how some astronomers (or anybody else) could find the Moon boring. I had already been observing with the Dob, especially watching sunset on crater Gassendi, but I targeted it with my binoculars anyway. I thought I saw a star near the northeastern limb, so I went back to the telescope to confirm. Sure enough, there was a star there. There were no occultations for that morning according to Curt Renz’s recent list for Chicagoland observers, but this was a nice, unexpected conjunction. I don’t know what time I first observed it, sometime just before 5 AM. By 6:10 it had moved almost directly over the lunar north pole (or should I say the Moon moved almost directly under the star?). In any case, the motion was obvious, and fast. When I last looked at 6:47, Luna was pulling away from the star. Later I wanted to know which star I had seen, so I checked Redshift, and found it was 69 Leonis.


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Sometime before 5 AM, CDST.


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Taken back-to-back sometime around 6 AM.


Crater Gassendi is one of my favorite features on the Moon, but it’s position in the eastern hemisphere makes it difficult to observe lunar sunset.


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My first set of images. The western rim of Gassendi is mostly illuminated, as are the central mountain peaks, and the western half of the floor.


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Starting to see breaks on the western rim.


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The western rim is disappearing, and shadow covers most of the floor.


Saturn was one of my prime targets for the session, but I had to wait for it to rise. I expected it to clear the distant treetops around 5:10, and when I came back from a warm-up break at 5:18, it was right where I expected. Being so low on the horizon makes good observation a challenge, but pushing the limits of my Dob with a 4mm eyepiece, moments of good seeing showed the rings are indeed starting to open. Very slightly, but more open than I’ve seen since my first month as a telescopic astronomer.


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Terrible image, but definitely Saturn.


Saturn wasn’t the only planet I was waiting to see, though. Venus was going to be a challenge, still very near the Sun, but I was willing to try for it. I scanned the eastern horizon area, hoping to spot a glimmer, but the only things I saw were early morning flights headed to Chicago. One of these planes had an eerie pink contrail, probably from the angle of sunlight. I found it in the eyepiece of the Dob, and it sort of looked like videos of space shuttle launches, just before the solid rocket boosters are jettisoned. I took a few pictures, then a long video, tracking the plane in the scope for over 6 minutes.


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By the time I was done watching the plane fly by, I my fingers and toes were freezing. It was time to go in, but there was one more treat for me: a Belt of Venus.


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Belt of Venus.


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Just before sunrise. My astronomy was over.