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.

Can Porter County Keep it's Sky Dark?

I know there are plenty of political blogs out there, all analyzing Tuesday’s election results, and I have no intention of doing broad political commentary. However, as disappointed as I was with the results of the elections on a national, state, and local level, there was one race that hit me hard. It could also have an impact for me personally, and could portend problems for local astronomers, which is why I can write about it here.


My regular readers will remember that on October 5, the Porter County Commissioners passed a resolution to endorse reduction of light pollution. Commissioner Bob Harper, on passing the resolution stated, “We feel this is important.” I was surprised that the resolution passed easily, largely because Commissioner Harper is known locally as the “candidate of NO” for opposing the Porter County joining the Regional Development Authority. He felt strongly that the county should tightly control growth and development, which I found out nicely corresponded with our desire to reduce light pollution in the county.


On Tuesday, Harper lost his re-election bid to Republican candidate Nancy Adams, a local restaurant owner. Adams favors Porter County joining the Regional Development Authority, and is looking to spur growth and development in the county. Obviously, growth leads to more lighting. That’s fine, we need jobs, just like the rest of the state and nation, but I would like to see that all new development implements responsible lighting. Adams will be the minority voice among county commissioners, so hopefully last month’s resolution will not be repealed. Indeed, Commissioner John Evans also supported the measure, and seemed to enjoy viewing the Jovian system and learning a little about astronomy after that meeting.


I realize it’s too early to race to conclusions about the fate of the light pollution resolution, but it’s not too early to think about the political climate’s impact upon it in the future. I plan to contact International Dark Sky Association board member Audrey Fischer soon about the implications of the election. Audrey was the driving force behind the resolution, and might know better than me what steps can be taken to protect what she fought to achieve.


I would like to work with the county commissioners not only to keep the resolution on the books, but to expand it, making it enforceable. It would also be a good model to take to municipalities in the region. Friends congratulated me after hearing that Porter County adopted a light pollution resolution, but also warned to be vigilant against it’s possible repeal. Tuesday election results reminded me that what’s worth fighting to get is worth fighting to maintain.


http://pchris00pnc.blogspot.com/2010/10/porter-county-to-reduce-light-pollution.html

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dual Transits of Ganymede & Europa, Oct. 30-31

Last Saturday night I was looking forward to observing the many events involving the Galilean Moons, but I was also committed to doing something Halloweeny with Hillary. We even had a public argument on Facebook about what to do that night. Enter Chicago Astronomer Patrick to save the night for us, and mix astronomical observing with a Halloween themed Séance party at his Saki record store in Chicago. This was something for both of us to enjoy.


http://sakistore.blogspot.com/2010/10/blog-post.html

http://sakistore.blogspot.com/2010/11/sakis-seance.html


The night’s events, Galilean and otherwise, were to start around 7 PM, and we arrived right on time. Patrick saw us walking up to the store and came out to greet us. I was tempted to grab my Dob for a quick look-see at the Jovian system, but thought better of it. In hind sight, I should have, since Ganymede was due to start it’s transit at 7:15. We had no observation of Ganymede before it disappeared in front of Jupiter’s disk.


Observations were made in front of the store between 7:40 and 7:45, with lonely Callisto far off to the right (inverted image), Europa nearing Jupiter from the right, and Io off to the left. More observations were made between 8:30 and 8:46, to confirm trend of motion. We had something of an audience both times, mostly curious party-goers out for a smoke break. We shared the Jovian system with pleasure, explaining how each of the inner three Moons would be interacting with the planet that night.


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Hillary in front of the store. It was a fun spot to observe, with costumed people coming by to have a look at Jupiter & Moons.


Although the forecasts were favorable for a clear night of observing, during the second round of viewing clouds were starting to move in from the Lake. Not cool, but they were scattered, and could be dealt with.


Since we had missed Ganymede’s point of contact to start it’s transit, our first observed event was the start of Europa’s transit, scheduled to occur at 9:22. Clouds were increasing, and seeing conditions had deteriorated, and I thought I observed first contact at 9:17. The total transit was to begin at 9:26, and this fits with what was observed, although between clouds, Europa could still be discerned near the limb until at least 9:33. The show had already ended, and Patrick had left to go home and feed his pets a few minutes before. When the clouds became impenetrable, I concluded observations in front of the store, and Hillary and I met Patrick at his house.


When we arrived, we had a few minutes to kill before the next event, Ganymede reappearing on the left limb (again, all of these descriptions are based on an inverted view). Patrick treated us to green tea before heading down the street to Sunken Gardens Park, my Dobsonian in tow. Ganymede was set to emerge at 10:15, with last point of contact at 10:25. Seeing conditions were still bad, but the clouds were not as bad as when we left the store. Therefore, Ganymede was not seen emerging from the limb until 10:21. Once we had all seen Ganymede slipping away from it’s master, it was already time to get ready for the next event, Io disappearing behind Jupiter. For a few minutes, though, we had the two moons together, just to the left of Jupiter.


The partial occultation of Io, starting at 10:33, was observed as best as could be done. At 10:36, Io was still partially visible, and should have been for at least another minute, but a cloud moved in and stole the moment of total occultation. With half an hour before the next event, we bounced around the sky. Orion was showing above the trees, and the Great Nebula was observed and discussed, particularly the 3D depiction of it in the Hubble IMAX film.


By 11:00, it was time to turn attention back to the Jovian system. Ganymede and Europa’s shadows were to fall upon the great disk in short succession, Ganymede starting at 11:04, and Europa at 11:14. Due to foreshortening on the limb and poor condition (saying nothing of my scope’s imperfect collimation), Ganymede’s shadow was not observed until 11:18, with separation from the limb noticed at 11:21. Europa’s shadow was more subtle, and I do not have it noted when it was first observed. Cloud cover thickened at 11:26, so we returned to Patrick’s house to warm up and refill mugs of tea. Although we returned for one last round at midnight for Europa’s emersion from the Jovian disk at 12:06, I do not have Europa noted as visible until 12:11, just as it’s partial transit was ending. The late night chill and worsening clouds cut our session short after that.


Hillary and I hung out for a little while before calling it a night, and heading back to Indiana. As Patrick’s Moon images above show, conditions did improve after we left, but I think we made the right call. We had seen a number of Galilean events already, more than I normally see in a good week. Patrick and Hillary are free to comment, but I will readily admit that after the first observation in front of the store, I was very focused and determined to stay on schedule, and observe every subsequent event after that. It was one of my most disciplined observation sessions ever, despite setting up and breaking down (Patrick is maybe slightly jealous of this capability) five times during the course of the night, at two locations. I like my leisurely tours of the sky when I’m alone, but this was an action packed night out in the Jovian system, and I wanted to document it as best possible. Unfortunately, my images are not worthy of posting, and don’t prove much of anything, except that I have a lot of ground to make up in the realm of astrophotography. Thank you to Patrick for hosting Hillary and me. I had a fun time, both at the Saki Séance party, and the observing during and after. And thanks to both of you for putting up with my single-mindedness of what’s next, what’s next, what’s next???

Monday, November 1, 2010

Notre Dame Prof Talks About Extraterrestrial Life Debate

Last Thursday I went to Valparaiso University for a lecture by Dr. Michael J. Crowe of the University of Notre Dame called, “The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: A Historical Perspective.”


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Dr. Michael J. Crowe of the University of Notre Dame (left).


Dr. Crowe chronicled 17 key developments in the debate about extraterrestrial life in western philosophy. I did not take notes (which I am regretting as I write), but it follows his book The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900. Astronomers and philosophers including Bruno, Kant, Huygens, William Herschel, Percival Lowell have all argued in favor of the plurality of worlds and/or life in the universe. However, I was surprised to find out that Peter the Great of Russia wanted Huygens’s writings translated into Russian, including the possibility of alien life. At the time, there were no books translated into Russian regarding the Copernican system. Dr. Crowe explained that the printer was so shocked by the content that he tried to destroy the copies because he thought they were Satanic!

Dr. Crowe’s research debunks the common modern notion that the debate over extraterrestrial life began in recent decades, and has gone back to Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicuris in ancient Greek times. While astrobiologists and astrophysicists are making great strides toward finding extraterrestrial life, the debate is sure to go on for decades, and perhaps centuries to come.


Dr. Crowe's lecture can be found in PDF form here:

www.michaelsheiser.com/UFOReligions/Crowe.pdf