Sunday, July 18, 2010

Impromptu Saturday Night Street Astro in Valpo, July 17, 2010

I had a long day Friday, and hadn’t really planned on doing anything Saturday except writing for my blog. I went out though early in the evening, and saw there was a festival in downtown Valpo. I couldn’t resist the opportunity with so many people out, so I went home to load up my Dobsonian (the go-to was already in the trunk from Friday night).

I got there just as the festival was winding down, snagged a spot near the sidewalk on the west side of the courthouse, and set up. There was a Moon bounce ride across the sidewalk from me, so there were plenty of kids and parents around, and the Moon was a cooperative target for the early goers. I had more people see the Moon in my first few minutes than I usually get in a night.


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Once everybody cleared out, though, I moved down to my usual spot at the corner of Lincolnway. I had a few more people come by, but it was slow enough that I had plenty of time to try to tweak the collimation in the go-to (the secondary mirror came loose again Friday night). It was good enough for lunar viewing, but just barely. I don’t think it would have handled high magnification, but I didn’t have any complaints, and quite a few compliments throughout the night.

I was going to lose the Moon over the bank building, so I moved over to the front of the courthouse, and once again had a crowd. A music company had a piano placed on the sidewalk, and a crowd had gathered while somebody played. The kids couldn’t help but notice my telescopes, and were gathered around them right away, and parents weren’t far behind. It was almost dark by now, but with Venus behind trees, and Saturn and Mars much fainter than earlier in the year, they didn’t become visible until that crowd started to dwindle. A few came back to see Saturn, though. I was getting ready to move back to my original spot of the night when a couple came by. They have given both Saturn and the Moon quick looks when Saturn disappeared behind a tree, so off we went down the sidewalk to the west side of the courthouse, where I had started the night.


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Two Vietnam veterans stopped by and shared their experiences with each other.

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Venus over Lincolnway


We were rewarded by an unobstructed view of three planets and the Moon. They were checking out the planets while I searched for Mercury with binoculars, just barely catching the faint inner planet. I handed the binoculars off to Doug, and told him where to look. He caught sight of it too, briefly, but by the time his girlfriend tried looking, cloud cover was moving in from the west, and obliterated it. I really wanted to show off Mercury to them in the Dob, especially when Paula walked up during the search. She had seen the Moon early in the evening, and said she would be back to see Saturn.

My last good encounter of the night was a couple of families walking to their cars, parked just down from my spot. Everybody got nice looks, and had some good questions for me, but Eve and her young son Brecken were highly enthusiastic, hanging around the longest. Eve had asked about meteor showers, and it led to a discussion of the chaotic collisions in early in our solar system’s history. I described the craters on the Moon as explosive at impact, and a little while later Brecken asked if meteors hitting the Earth was bad. I told him yes, big meteors are very bad, but tried to reassure him that it might be a very long time before a really big meteor hits our planet again. I also pointed out that because of all the craters he’d seen on the Moon are from asteroids and meteors that can no longer hit Earth, we are much safer than when Earth was young. I really hope that eased his mind. It also taught me to choose my words more carefully around young children.


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My 3 planet group.

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Eve & Brecken.


After Eve and Brecken left, there were a few more passersby, but being off Lincolnway, pedestrian traffic near me was dying out. There wasn’t much point heading back to the corner though, because Venus would be the only real attraction, and I think it had been obscured by that point anyway. A haze was beginning to veil the Moon, too, so I took it as my cue to pack up. As I was driving away I had some thoughts running through my head. I’ve been reading about Sidewalk Universe Guy’s Saturn Observing Challenge, and I’d like to adapt that to a Lunar Observing Challenge, since I try to do most of my events while the Moon is out. Too many times my sidewalk astronomy is a spur of the moment thing, and while it’s enjoyable for me and my visitors, I think I miss too many opportunities to connect with people, to really get them involved. I’ve been thinking about handing out flyers to raise awareness of light pollution, too, but I’m not sure if that might get me in trouble with solicitation ordinances. I need to think about these ideas, and hopefully be better prepared the next time I hit the street with the scopes.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dark Sky Observing in Union Pier, Michigan

Once again, I was invited to join Chicago Astronomer Patrick in southwestern Michigan for some dark sky, new Moon observing at a friend's cabin.

It was just getting dark when I arrived, great timing if I had planned it that way. Venus had just become visible while we were setting up, but it’s position just above the cabin wasn’t going to give us much time for viewing. Saturn and Mars came out, and while we were viewing these I noticed Regulus to the lower left of Venus, very dim compared to our planetary neighbor. I tried to get pictures of the pair, but Regulus was too dim for my cheapie camera to pick up.


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The brighter stars started to appear, but with some time to kill before the serious observing could begin, Patrick started playing around with Saturn, checking it out through different colored filters. I have to say my favorite was the orange “Great Pumpkin Saturn.”


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Patrick & Jordan after our early planetary observing.


I wish I had gotten some pictures of our surroundings in daylight, but we had some trees blocking out a good deal of the sky. The closest and tallest trees were to the north and east, so our observations were somewhat limited in that direction, but as the stars rotated into view, I found it best to systematically go through each constellation as it came into view.

I wanted to start to the deep sky observing with a galaxy, partly because I wanted to see M51 & M101, and they were going to rotate behind the trees rather early. I tried to star hop my way over to each of them several times, but that jump from last star to galaxy gets me more often than not. The sky wasn’t yet fully dark anyway, and I don’t think transparency was very good. I found no galaxies early in the night.

I skipped over to Lyra for M57, just to get any easy observation on the books, and let Jordan have look, both at 48x, and 120x. To me, the Ring just doesn’t handle magnification well. Patrick was trying to get M57 as well, and called me over to have a look, and see if he was “in the right neighborhood.” I looked, a bit skeptical about my ability to recognize the star field. It turned out I didn’t need to. I gave it a look, and just left of dead center was the Ring. “Yeah, you’re in the neighborhood alright! Look again, almost dead center.” It was a nice low power view.

I wouldn’t say we were competing with each other for observations as much as testing our skills against an unfamiliar sky (too many stars we don’t normally see; a very good thing), but I think having Patrick around was forcing me to push my limits. So many times I was content to lay down on the deck and gaze up at constellations I had never seen before, and marvel at the wonder of the Milky Way running down the sky. Later on I decided that the Milky Way would count as my galaxy for the night.

After tracking down the Great Cluster in Hercules, M13, I would have sworn I saw ISS coming from the west, getting brighter for about 2 seconds before completely fading away just as suddenly. By the time I realized the thing had been moving, it was already gone, and I didn’t have a chance to point it out. Patrick checked his phone, and said ISS was due shortly, and we had a false alarm by a bright satellite of some sort. As soon as that satellite disappeared, ISS made it’s way into view. Patrick was checking it out with his binos, so I called Jordan over to get a look in my Dob. I tried my best to keep it centered in the finder scope while he looked through the eyepiece. Judging by Jordan’s reaction, I’m guessing he had a pretty good view of Station. I’m not sure I waved before they disappeared in Earth’s shadow. We saw a pair of satellites apparently orbiting together before the activity died down. With the darker sky, we were seeing many more naked eye spacecraft, and for about a 20 minute window, must have been in nice alignment with the Sun to light them up for us. We started noticing them again in our last hour, which wasn’t too long before morning twilight began.

I got busy hunting down open clusters in Cygnus for awhile, and I vaguely heard Patrick and Jordan talking about M64, M27, and M7. I should have gone and checked them out, especially 64 & 7. I found M27, the Dumbbell Nebula later on my own. I was looking for it, but bumped my scope while star hopping, looked in the eyepiece just to see, and there it was. The Dumbbell by dumb luck. Anyway, I don’t remember all the open clusters I found in Cygnus, but I know M29 was on the list.

I showed Jordan M4 not long after the Great Cluster, but Scorpius and Sagittarius were hit and miss, ducking behind trees, and in the one part of the sky where light pollution was a problem. I couldn’t find it again later, nor M22. Jordan had gone to bed after seeing the globular clusters M3 and M5. Patrick read on his phone app that M3 was nearly 13 billion years old, making it the oldest thing I’ve ever seen, to my knowledge. That’s nearly as old as the universe itself!

Kicking around for deep sky targets in the high summer constellations was proving fun, as I found things in my Peterson’s Guide to the Night Sky that I’d never even heard of, and tracked them down with relative ease. Brocchi’s cluster. Never heard of it, but it was a nice grouping, an asterism I’m guessing, and reminded me of the Pleiades, without the nebulosity. Another obscure object to me was M71, a small globular cluster nicely paired with a small open cluster, H20. Two-for-one. I like that.

It was around one AM by now, and I was itching to see Jupiter and the Double Cluster. The big planet was still an hour or so below the tree tops, but by moving to the opposite side of the yard I thought the Double would be an easy find. I kept thinking that the rest of the night, and saw it not a once. My one true disappointment of the night. I’m dying to know what it looks like in a sky that dark.

Meanwhile, Patrick had found far out Neptune, our fourth planet of the night. As I was looking for Jupiter as it cleared the trees, I accidently found Uranus, though we only viewed it through my go-to Newt, which is now badly out of collimation. I’d bet good money though that we were seeing the blue-green ice giant. Five planets, and the sixth, my favorite, was coming into view. Patrick woke Jordan up to experience 6 planets, something none of us had ever seen. How cool to be a part of that.

I lost a knob holding my Dob primary mirror in place while moving the scope to see Jupiter, so I didn’t get my usual good look with it, but Patrick’s 4.5” go-to Newt was more than up to the task, offering a splendid view for such a small aperture. Impressive. After playing around with the color filters again for Jupiter, Patrick was ready to call it a night… until I pointed out that Andromeda Galaxy should be just above the eastern trees. Oops. That kept him out of bed for another hour.

We still hadn’t observed a galaxy, Milky Way not included, and it seemed like a good way to end the session. It was still hiding just behind the trees at first, but was worth the wait. For the first time I saw M31 with a suggestion of a disk, instead of just the galactic core, and this was with a 4.5” scope. I can only imagine what something big would have done for the image. Satisfied that our observations were complete, Patrick was once again ready to call it quits, and once again I pointed out something else. “Did you happen to notice the companion galaxies?”

“Oh, that’s right!” And so began the search for M32 & M110. It wasn’t as easy as I thought I’d be, but eventually we were certain that M32 had been found, and not so sure about 110.

We saw a heck of a lot in one night, and quite a bit of it I was seeing for the first time. We could have seen more if I hadn’t been so enamored with the band of the Milky Way, but I don’t regret one second I spent just lying there trying to guess it’s secrets with only my naked eyes, as countless of our ancestors have no doubt done. I felt like a Galileo or a Messier out there, or any of the great early astronomers, looking up with only a modest telescope to guide me through the galaxy. I’ve known the importance of dark skies, but I’m not a nut about only observing in total darkness. Light pollution, bright Moon, scattered clouds, doesn’t matter. I like to think I appreciate whatever the universe offers me, but last night made me realize just how much of our connection to the rest of the universe, and our own past, has been lost to our modern society. I could go on and on, but I think I’ll just close by saying that I’ll remember last night for a long time. Wow.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Observing in New Buffalo, Michigan with Chicago Astronomer Patrick

I have a couple of older stories that I have not had a chance to post yet, but I want to get this one up before I worry about those older stories.

I wasn’t online much last week, but luckily I checked what’s been going on with the Chicago Astronomers Sunday night. I had a message from Patrick that he was going to be in Union Pier, Michigan for the holiday weekend, just across the state line. We met at Oink’s ice cream shop in New Buffalo Monday night, and then drove down to the beach to share some planetary viewing with people coming and going from the beach.

It was cool to finally meet Patrick, but the session was a little weird for both of us, I think. Our orientations were off, mostly because of the Lake. We’re both used to being on Lake Michigan beaches, but Patrick’s on the other side in Chicago, and I’m at the southern tip, so being along the southeastern shore wasn’t doing either of us any favors.

Things started off well, though, with a lot of curious people stopping to see Venus, Saturn, and a few even saw Mars. We were first set up on a boardwalk along the beach, but vibrations from people walking by were causing some problems for my Dobsonian. A little later I had to change my location to avoid losing Saturn behind a lighthouse, and put the Dob down in the sand to kill the vibrations, but I can still feel sand in the works when I move in alt/az. I think the optics avoided sand, though.

As the crowd thinned out and the sky got darker, Patrick suggested we move over to the nearly empty parking lot after an ISS pass at 11:24 Michigan time. (The time change was throwing me off. I drove a mere 40 minutes from home, and lost an hour. I hate that.) We had an interesting situation on our hands. The transparency of the sky was terrible, but with the planets moving lower in the sky, we didn’t have much choice to hunt down faint fuzzies. We even found a few. As I lay on the pavement looking up to find my celestial bearings, I noticed the Northern Crown for the first time. The overall light pollution of the area wasn’t bad, but several bright lights around the parking lot really hampered our efforts. Even M57, the Ring Nebula, high overhead proved to be a tricky target.

For a couple of guys who usually have pictures to post with our observation stories, not a picture was taken that night. The batteries in my camera were dead, but I forgot to charge them while I was driving. It would have been a great night for pictures. We stayed out until about 12:30 AM Chicago time, and as I was leaving I noticed Jupiter was already fairly high. (Again, my orientation was off, and although I was looking for it, I wasn’t looking in the right place. I think it was too low to be seen where we were set up, or surely we would have noticed it. The Moon was also just coming into sight, so I viewed them once I was home. I tried for some more deep sky observing, but the transparency was even worse than earlier, and it just wasn’t happening. I stayed out until clouds moved in, just as morning twilight was washing out stars. How nice of them to wait for me.

For a clear night with lots of stars, we didn’t have a great deal of success, but as one lady told Patrick, her view of Saturn really made her night worthwhile, and it was cool to hang out with an astronomer of comparable skill, who also enjoys sharing views with the public. I am thankful for the invitation, and hopefully we’ll get together for more astronomy soon.