Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Online Lunar Observing with the "Virtual Telescope"

Last week I spent three evenings doing public astronomy at Westchester Public Library in Chesterton as part of Global Astronomy Month 2010’s Lunar Week. I also participated in an online lunar Observation, “Walking on the Moon,” hosted by Dr. Gianluca Masi at the Virtual Telescope Project. The Virtual Telescope is located in Ceccano, Italy, and has hosted many online events for this year’s Global Astronomy Month 2010, and last year’s International Year of Astronomy 2009. I haven’t seen them all, of course, but since I’ve been fascinated by our Moon in recent months, I didn’t want to miss this chance.

With a six hour time difference between here and Italy, the first quarter Moon was high in the sky for Dr. Masi and his Virtual Telescope audience, but it was only about an hour and a half past Moon rise here in Valparaiso (at 2:30 PM Central Daylight Savings Time). I could see the Moon out the window, and remarked in the chat room for the observation that it was incredible to be able to see it through my window in Indiana while Dr. Masi was imaging it from Italy. Of course I’m well aware of that any way, but to be able to see it nearly simultaneously from two distant vantage points was thrilling. It was a reminder to me that although we are sometimes separated by state borders and oceans, we inhabit a small globe, and that we all share nearly the same sky.

Many astronomers, and especially professionals, shun our Moon because bright Moonlight can effectively wash out faint distant objects of observing interest. With that in mind, it was nice to see that Dr. Masi would not only share the experience of observing our Moon with his many friends around the world, but did so knowledgably and passionately (he narrates his work to keep the audience informed, and monitors comments and questions from the chat room as well. Talk about multi-tasking).

Dr. Masi was excited that the sky conditions were great for lunar imaging that night (afternoon for me), and he turned out many stunning images, in much greater detail than I have ever seen. I’m getting to be a frequent lunar observer, and was well acquainted with the many regions observed, although I’ve never seen them in such detail as the Virtual Telescope delivered.

With over 2000 people joining in, all over the globe, it was the largest observation I’ve participated in. I’ve seen remote observations demonstrated by Valparaiso University’s astronomy staff, and I always enjoy peeking behind the curtain to see how professional astronomers go about their work. Thanks to my Italian friend and astronomer Dr. Gianluca Masi for allowing the world into his observatory through the Internet and sharing his observing with us.

Photo credit: Virtual Telescope Project

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Are Astronomers Weird?

About a month ago, not long after I hosted my first solo Sidewalk Astronomy session, I posted something on Facebook that got quite a few comments, and I’d like to go more in depth with it here. Obviously, if you set up telescopes in a public setting, especially alone, you invite questions to be asked. Usually I enjoy answering them, even if it’s something that should have been taught in grade school. Not everybody is interested in astronomy to begin with, and most people just can’t appreciate reading out of a textbook. They need to see through a telescope to let their curiosity come up with questions. That is why I put myself and my telescopes in public to begin with. I enjoy the questions that come from showing people the cosmos. Most of the time.

Better than 90% of the questions I’m asked are good ones, and of those, 10% are really good ones, meaning I don’t have a sufficient answer for them. But there is a certain percentage of people out there who want to talk about UFO’s and Area 51, or Nibiru and the Mayan calendar. They somehow equate telescopes to pseudo science. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. But whatever it is, I don’t like answering these questions for two reasons. I don’t know much about these subjects, and don’t feel like I can answer them adequately, and mostly I don’t know much about them because I feel they don’t deserve to be justified with an answer.

I don’t want to be rude to the people posing these questions, but I feel like they put me in a bad position. I wonder how many people walk by thinking I’m either some pervert peeping Tom, or a UFO hunting weirdo? I don’t appreciate being thought of as either, and I think answering the weird questions unfairly puts that label on me.

In the original Facebook discussion, my friend Joe said the he enjoys alternative discussions. Joe’s a gregarious guy, and I have no doubt that he does like hearing and weighing in on some odd subjects, just for the sake of discussion. In fact, Joe pointed out to me that Galileo was thought of as a kook in his day. Very true, but Galileo had the observations to back up his claims, easily repeatable with the newly invented telescope. Galileo makes the then-crazy claim that the Moon has mountains and craters? Here, see for yourself. Jupiter has moons orbiting it? Watch carefully for a few hours. Galileo was no kook, but a scientist fully deserving of recognition during last year’s International Year of Astronomy.

I’ve seen almost everything that Galileo saw through his tiny telescope, and in much better detail. I can assure you, he wasn’t crazy. Better yet, have a look through my telescope and see for yourself. That, my friends, is science. Rudimentary, but science nonetheless.

But the people asking about UFO’s or Nibiru aren’t offering any evidence, except maybe some TV show that likely put the idea in their head to begin with. The UFO people may have seen something strange that they aren’t sure about, but that doesn’t mean they saw an alien spaceship. I’ve seen a few things I can’t explain, but I’m not claiming to have seen aliens. Probably everybody who has stared at the sky long enough has seen something weird, unknown to them. Knowing the positions of the planets, and the major flight corridors in your area goes I think can go a long way in explaining almost everything that you might see.

Does this mean I don’t believe in extra-terrestrial life? No. I think life is probably abundant in our universe. Am I weird for thinking that? No. Four hundred years ago Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic for suggesting that there may be innumerable worlds with life. In his day it was a crazy idea; now astronomers are closing in on finding worlds that may have life. In the next decade, we should have strong evidence suggesting that planets around other stars are indeed living worlds. In the absence of evidence in the next few decades, then maybe we will go back to the idea that Bruno was crazy, but for now his thinking is supported by the growing number of exoplanets discovered, and the advancements in detecting and studying those distant worlds.

I welcome questions of life in the universe along these lines, rooted in recent, repeatable observations. So why are the questions I get about alien life mostly centered on humanoid creatures flying around our planet abducting people? Come on people, I expect better than that. Bring your curiosity and questions and even your sense of wonder when viewing our universe, but leave the absurd ideas behind. I don’t like wasting time explaining that there is no giant planet about to come crashing through the inner solar system just because you saw it in some doomsday movie. It isn’t real. And if serious sky gazers happen to catch sight of one, I will look for it myself, and let everybody know if there is indeed a threat. But for now, I don’t want anybody thinking I’m some kind of weirdo just because I enjoy looking up, and want to know our true place in the universe.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Planetary Wanderers: Yet Another Night at WPL


For the third night in a row, I was back at Westchester Public Library for some public astronomy Thursday. I almost didn’t drive out there because it was mostly cloudy when I left the house and the forecast called for increasing clouds. It turned out to be a decent night, though, at least while I was at the library. Not the best conditions to observe in, since it was still hazy, but the last of the clouds moved out just after the telescopes were operational. It’s kind of good to be out in public on evenings like that, since the conditions don’t offer the sharp views that we astronomers come to expect with our trained eyes, but the public doesn’t notice. They’re just thrilled to be able to see anything at all.

My first visitor of the night, a nice lady named Asay, stayed around for awhile, asking lots of questions.


Asay and another passerby.

One of the things she asked was, how do I know offhand what are planets and what are stars? A fair question, one I never anticipated, but probably should have. As astronomers, we tend to know where the Moon and planets are even if we don’t observe them regularly. But there was a time, not all that long ago, when I did not know the planets from the stars.

In the late winter/early spring of 2008 I was taking an astronomy course at Purdue University North Central, and that class rekindled a love for space and astronomy that started when I was a kid but had fallen dormant since I was a teenager. I didn’t have a telescope while I was taking that class, but I wanted to spend time relearning the night sky. I didn’t have the resources that I have now, like planetarium software, but I had my own two eyes and a planisphere.

One of our possible observation projects was to observe the night sky over several nights, and sketch the stars we saw in that region to show both the nightly apparent motion of the heavens, and the seasonal shifting of the constellations. When I started my project, I was pretty sure that Mars was the bright “star” near Gemini not shown on my planisphere. It was soon evident that Mars was racing through the Twins toward Leo, where I thought another planet was waiting.

Without a telescope, I couldn’t be certain that the extra “star” I was seeing near Regulus was Saturn, and even sketching my crude star charts, it wasn’t exhibiting swift motion like Mars was. It was just hanging around near Regulus. But finally I had a chance to see that “star” in a telescope at Valparaiso University’s observatory, and was pleased with myself for knowing that the telescope was pointed at Saturn even before it was announced.

I didn’t go into this much detail as I explained to Asay, but I did tell her that the planets move through the sky in relation to the background stars, and is how they came to be named planets. I had some other visitors, and they had some good questions and comments, as well as seeing Saturn and our Moon. I might write about some of the other things brought up, but for now I would like to know what your introduction to planetary observing was? Did you have a telescope, or just watch the changing positions, like I did? Let me know in a comment below. Clear skies!


A nice group.




Mike and his daughter Holly got to see Saturn and our Moon.

A Matter of Luck? Thoughts after a Public Session at WPL

I was back at Westchester Public Library Wednesday night, although when I arrived at 7:00 PM, clouds were starting to move in. Rather than set up the telescopes right away, I went upstairs and got on my computer. I was sitting by the window, monitoring the clouds through the window. Eight o’clock approached, and I decided to go out and set up the scopes. The clouds were thin, so rather than completely obliterate the Moon, they served to filter out some of the Moonlight.


The Moon over trees.


Clouds to the west.





My memory card was full after this picture, so they are the only people shown in this post. :(

It was pretty dead for awhile after I set up, which was just as well, since Saturn was hiding behind the clouds. Things picked up, though, and Saturn eventually emerged from the clouds until just before the library closed. Most people saw both the Moon and Saturn, and a few saw at least the Moon, but the last guy to leave the library was clouded out for both. I felt bad, but there was nothing I could do about it.

That got me thinking as I left. Is astronomy a matter of luck? How many times have you looked at exactly the right place at exactly the right time to catch a meteor streak across the sky? It happens to me often. Or been at the right place to catch a sundog in the morning? The Northern Lights? Okay, these are unpredictable phenomena.

What about the other hand? How many times have you planned a time sensitive observation to be clouded out at the crucial moment?

So what I want to know is what was your luckiest observation ever? What was your most frustrating missed observation from circumstances you couldn’t control?

Now that I’m paying attention to the sky all the time, I’ve observed sundogs/halos three times since last December, and back in 2005 I saw the Northern Lights in the Chesterton area. But my luckiest observation ever was in August of 2008, a month after I bought my first telescope. I was watching Jupiter almost every clear night after first light.

I had been observing Jupiter for nearly two hours on August 6, 2008, while watching for Io’s shadow to appear on the disk (Io had transited onto the disk at 9:48), a meteor went streaking directly in front of the planet at 10:42 PM. How cool! My notes say it very turbulent, and I remember seeing what I thought might be compression waves follow the meteor. Very impressive, especially as Io’s shadow was falling onto Jupiter’s limb around the same time. I’ll probably never see anything like that again.

My worst luck was for the total lunar eclipse February 21, 2008. This wouldn’t have been my first lunar eclipse, but it would have been the first that I made an absolute priority. Being February in Northwest Indiana and all, I couldn’t expect the weather to cooperate with me. Valparaiso was hit hard with lake effect snow, and I was shoveling an inch an hour for much of the eclipse. To add insult to injury, I heard on the radio the next morning that most of the Region had clear skies, and only parts of the Valparaiso area were hit with all that snow. I’ve seen parts of lunar eclipses, but I’m still waiting for my first one since I’ve considered myself an astronomer.

How lucky are you? Do you randomly see cool stuff all the time? Or is your astronomical luck so bad that you’ve considered giving it up? Share your stories.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Westchester Public Library Sidewalk Astronomy


April 20, 2010 Westchester Public Library, Chesterton, Indiana

Finally during Global Astronomy Month 2010, I have the night’s best showpieces in the evening sky. With that in mind, I contacted Westchester Public Library in Chesterton a few weeks ago about doing Sidewalk Astronomy. They gave me permission to set up telescopes any night I choose to this week. Last night it was clear enough to get good looks at our Moon and Saturn.



I figured a public library is as good a place as any to find curious people willing to look up for a few minutes. I was only out from 7:30-9:00 PM, and Saturn didn't make an appearance until around 8:00, but I had quite a few people come by and have a look in both of my telescopes. I didn't get many pictures, but it was a fun night for me. I had quite a few long stretches when nobody was going in or out, but they seemed to come and go in bunches. The best group was when the library closed, and most of the staff came by to see what was going on. Another lady that I see studying often was with them, and was really blown away by the Moon, and completely overwhelmed by Saturn. Really, I can't blame her.

There was a darker side to the session, but I want to save that for another time. Nothing horrible, but I think it deserves a separate post, maybe one day when I don't have much else to write about. As I was putting the telescopes into my car though, I had a good feeling, and was glad so many people stopped to take a look. If the sky stays clear, I will be back out there tonight. If so, I will probably just edit that story and pictures to this one.



Views of our Moon as seen last night.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Kids & Public Astronomy

As most of you know, I have two modest telescopes, and although I enjoy observing alone at home, my biggest thrill in astronomy is taking my telescopes out in public and letting visitors look through them. I also enjoy talking with visitors, and answering questions, especially from kids. Kids still have that sense of wonder, and aren’t inhibited about asking questions most adults would think of as ridiculous. I think they also have a natural curiosity to see and touch the telescopes, and know how they work, which to me is perfectly understandable, but usually seems to drive their parents crazy. The comments I hear most often at public astronomy events are, “Wow, you can really see the rings,” “Wow, look at all those craters,” and my least favorite, “Be careful, and don’t touch anything.”

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that parents are concerned about taking care of my equipment, both for my own enjoyment, and for others at the event, but I think more of a hands on approach, especially for older kids, is the way to inspire them. Parents with children about five years old or younger usually closely monitor their children and assist them at the eyepiece, and I wouldn’t want it any other way, but too many parents are the same way with kids 8-12 years old, and I don’t get it. At least not when the kid is obviously interested in astronomy.

Last Friday night, March 26, I set up my telescopes outside Valparaiso University’s campus observatory during their public viewing. One woman had a little boy, probably about three years old. I had my 6” Dobsonian roughly trained at Saturn (I hadn’t adjusted the position in awhile), and when nobody was looking through it, this boy went to the front of the telescope, grabbed the front of the tube, and turned it away from him. It was rather funny to watch, but I’m sure his mother was horrified. “No don’t’ touch it!” she yelled. I told her it was okay, and that if it wasn’t okay, I would have left the telescopes at home. Since the kid was now looking down the open end of the tube, I pointed and said, “Look. There’s a mirror at the other end. Do you see yourself?” I think that let the mother know that I didn’t have a problem with him touching the telescope. At least I hope it did.

There was also a girl there around 10-12 years old, and her parents seemed fairly knowledgeable and encouraging. With the big 16” telescope in the observatory, a 6” SCT set up outside by the VU astronomy students, and my 6” Dob and 4.5 "go-to" Newtonian, there were four telescopes available for viewing. This family, and particularly the girl, was bouncing around from scope to scope, trying to see as much as possible. I had my 4.5” tracking the Orion Nebula for awhile, since most people had already seen Saturn, Mars, and the Moon. It’s a bright, easy target, but isn’t as appreciated at public events as the Moon and planets. Guess who seemed genuinely excited to see the Orion Nebula? Yep, the girl. When nobody was at the telescope, she came back to give it another look, and as she was walking up to look, I saw she bumped the scope slightly. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, since I loved her enthusiasm, and was ready to play off that the telescope must not be tracking properly. Her mom though, was already giving the “be careful” speech and telling me that her daughter had bumped into it. I took a peek through the 25mm eyepiece, and the glowing gas cloud was still partially visible at the edge of the field of view. I took the controller and gave it a quick nudge to the right, just to make sure that was the direction it needed to go. Rather than admonishing the girl, I wanted to reward her enthusiasm, so I gave her the hand controller, told her to look in the eyepiece, and give the right control button a couple of quick hits until the nebula was centered again. She did, and when she saw it moving in the eyepiece she yelled, “That’s so cool!” Made my night, really. I probably would have let her explore the Moon with a higher power eyepiece on her own, but they headed off to the observatory shortly after, and I didn’t see them again.

So my question, and reason for sharing these stories, is this: how should I balance being careful with my equipment and accommodating a child’s curiosity? I would hate for anything to happen to my telescopes, but I also hate the thought of killing a kid’s curiosity and imagination with a “hey, don’t touch that” attitude . Does anybody have a horror story about damaged equipment at a public viewing event? What about stories where you’ve extended trust to a kid who has demonstrated a real interest, and been rewarded with a great question or comment? How do you let the “don’t touch anything” parents know that I want their kids to use the telescopes, and that simply bumping into them isn’t going to hurt anything? Any advice is appreciated.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Illinois Premier of "Hubble IMAX 3D" at Navy Pier

Last night I attended the Illinois premier of "Hubble IMAX 3D" at Navy Pier with the Chicago Astronomers. I arrived early and wandered around the mall-like Navy Pier until Joe Guzman and the other Chicago Astronomers arrived around 5:45.



Views from outside Navy Pier.

We chatted outside the theater for a little while, then went in and goofed off with our 3d glasses until the film started.



This was my first 3D film, and the first IMAX film I had seen since I was a kid (I remember seeing a space IMAX movie at the Museum of Science & Industry when they first opened their IMAX theater). Wow. Even the opening credits were amazing, and when the astronauts of the STS-125 Hubble Space Telescope repair mission were suiting up, it was like being right there with them. We all know that the Hubble Space Telescope is huge, and have probably seen pictures of the astronauts working on the telescope, but the 3D views really let you know just how big HST is. It's impressive.

Before getting to STS-125 footage, they show the launch of Hubble, and the first repair mission to correct it's optics. Then computer graphics artists take viewers on a 3D tour inside the Orion Nebula, a nearby active star forming region. Believe me, you will want to reach out and touch swirling stellar and planetary systems as they are being born.

The film then shifts to the astronauts training for the final mission to Hubble ST, in the Neutral Buoyancy Tank at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Finally, we are ready to ride with them on the trip of a lifetime. The liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis is amazing, especially the view from below Launch Pad 39A.

We watch as Mission Specialist Megan MacArthur captures the telescope with the Canadarm robotic arm and places it in Atlantis's cargo bay. As soon as the Hubble is secured to the space shuttle, the astronauts start preparing for the servicing space walks. The film then captures five days of space walks by John Grunsfeld, Andrew Feustel, Mike Massimino, and Michael Good. Sometimes filled with struggles, all five spacewalks are ultimately successful, enabling Hubble Space Telescope to see farther into our universe than ever before.

To emphasize Hubble's new capabilities, the movie ends with another 3D trip through the universe, this time into a region known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the most distant look ever in visible light wavelengths.

When the film ended, two of the scientists and graphic artists who led teams in the production of "Hubble IMAX 3D" spoke about their roles in the project. It was fascinating to hear, and left me with an insight into the film that few viewers will ever have. But even without hearing from the people involved, I'm sure you will find this an incredible journey through space and time.

After the viewing, there was a small reception in a hallway overlooking an atrium inside Navy Pier. In need of caffeine, I chose to buy a bottle of tea from a vendor instead of joining the other Chicago Astronomers for wine. I tried to keep up with conversations, but the sun was now setting, and the night sky kept calling me out to the balcony. I caught sight of Venus and the young Moon setting over the city, and checked every few minutes until Saturn appeared over Lake Michigan.


Venus, just above the skyline.


Ferris wheel.


Looking down the pier, towards Lake Michigan.



The day old Moon. I was surprised to see it.

Before the reception ended, the other Chicago Astronomers and I set up two telescopes on a balcony overlooking Monroe Harbor, and pointed them at the beautiful ringed planet, Saturn. We stayed out for over an hour, and were joined by some fellow invitees to the "Hubble" premier, as well as a few people enjoying the night at Navy Pier. It was getting late, and a strong wind was making for poor observing, so we gathered for a group picture before calling it a night.


Parting group picture.

As I left, I was ready to go home and observe again, but the long drive back to Indiana drained what little energy I had after a long week with little sleep, so I went to bed. But what an awesome experience I had, and I'm honored to have been invited.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Public Saturn Observation in Valpo

Here is a link to a story I wrote today about my experience last night in downtown Valpo, viewing Saturn with the public.

In the spirit of Global Astronomy Month 2010’s “Saturn Watch” week, I figured I would take my telescopes somewhere public. Last night I headed to downtown Valpo, walked around the courthouse square, and found a place that I thought would be good to view not only Saturn, but Venus, Mercury, and Mars as well.


Porter County Courthouse.


Looking west down Lincolnway.


Looking east down Lincolnway.

There were scattered clouds threatening both the eastern and western horizons, but I figured they might clear as night fell. It was early, and the Sun was still well above the buildings of west Lincolnway. I needed a caffeine jolt anyway, so I walked down the block to a little coffee shop for an iced coffee.

The cutie at the counter fixed me a perfect French vanilla coffee, and I sipped it while walking back to my car. It was still too early to set up, so I wandered down the block, taking pictures of the Porter County courthouse, and once the Sun dipped out of sight, scanned above the clouds to the west with my binoculars for Venus. No luck. With my coffee half gone already and craving another, I stashed the binos and went back to the café.

I told the little cutie that the first coffee she made was perfect, and I noticed her shirt had planets and comets on it. That had my curiosity, so I asked her about it. She said it was her boyfriend’s, but she liked it. I told her I was about to set up my telescopes to see Saturn, and she thought that was so cool, but she wouldn’t be off in time to see it. She clearly loved astronomy, so later I went back and gave her a copy of my best Saturn image yet, with a message that she should add me on Facebook to keep up on astronomy news.

So I went back to set up the telescopes, but it was still too early for even Venus. I could see it with my 10x50 binoculars, but not with the naked eye. Soon enough, a guy biking through town stopped by to see what I was doing, and we talked astronomy for a few minutes, and I explained Global Astronomy Month 2010’s Saturn watch, as I did with all the others who had a few minutes to chat. I still couldn’t find Saturn with the binoculars, but Venus was getting bright, so I pointed it out to him before he pedaled away.


Venus over Valpo.


Telescopes in front of courthouse.

Mars became visible after that, and I was giving it a look when I heard a girl walking by say to her boyfriend, “It’s a telescope.” I looked up and asked if they would like to see Mars. They came over and took a look, and I pointed out that Saturn was the real attraction tonight, and that it would be visible in a few minutes. They continued on, but I was pretty sure that if they came back while I was still out they would want to see Saturn.

I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much foot traffic for a nice early spring night. I would have done better on the other side of the street, because Paparazzi’s bar was getting a lot of business, but the sidewalk there was narrower, and I was sure that I would be warned about obstructing traffic. Still, I had a few curious people come over, but probably twice as many that walked right by without a word. One guy out walking his dog, Oliver gave Saturn a look in both telescopes (I was tracking with my go-to Meade at low magnification, while using my Orion Dob for a close-up look) and was really impressed. Ollie was eager to get going again though, and was tugging at his leash. Pretty dog (I’m not sure what breed he was, sorry), but he didn’t cooperate much in posing for a picture.


Pooch Oliver

The couple (I didn’t get their names) who had seen Mars was leaving after dinner. The girl said she had looked forward to seeing Saturn while eating, and the ringed giant didn’t disappoint.


The dinner couple looks at Saturn.

Another couple, Brian and Jamie, stopped for a look, and we talked a bit before picture time.


Brian and Jaimee.

After they left, I stayed out for ten or fifteen minutes, but the south side of Lincolnway was devoid of pedestrians, so I packed up my telescopes and went home.


The conditions weren’t good, with a general haze all around, and a strong breeze making Saturn’s image dance in the eyepiece at times, but when he had an audience, Saturn seemed to perform at his best. I had hoped for dozens of people to see Saturn, but had to settle for about ten. All the people I talked to asked about all the lights around, so at least they are somewhat aware that light pollution is hurting our connection to the night sky. I hope they will all be looking for Saturn on their own soon, and seeing for themselves how devoid of stars our cities and towns are.