Friday, March 25, 2011

Sun-Earth Day Observation in Valparaiso

I was looking forward to Sun-Earth Day on last Sunday’s equinox, and was hoping to share a little science and solar observing at a sidewalk session. I even borrowed a Coronado solar scope from Calumet Astronomical Society to enhance the experience. (I haven’t been able to use it because it doesn’t have a mount. I found out later there is a refractor with a white light filter that the Coronado rides piggyback. I was going to go to the observatory to look for it, but Sunday’s forecast called for rain all day, so I decided not to waste the gas.)

Hillary and I were going out for pizza with friends in the early afternoon, and when we left the pizza joint, we stopped at Blackbird CafĂ© for awhile. Sitting inside, Hillary noticed the rain had stopped and the Sun was out. I was in the middle of blog writing, so we didn’t go out right away. When we left, the Sun was low to the west, but occasionally peeking through the clouds still off in that direction. I pulled into the parking lot where we had done some new Moon observations last year. We tried sunspot observing, but couldn’t get a clear view. Trying to take advantage of the nice spring evening, we moved across the street hoping to gain some foot traffic. For some reason though, there were very few people out, and not being at the Lincolnway corner (which didn’t have a view of the Sun) hurt our chances even more.


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Hillary checking for sunspots.


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The Sun was looking fuzzy through the clouds.


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Hillary takes a break while waiting for the Sun to peek out again.


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I was watching the airplane contrails as well as the Sun.


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The clouds blocking the Sun hampered our sunspot observing, but made for interesting images.


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We started to lose the Sun behind the building across the street, so I moved the telescope again. It was so low that SUVs driving by blocked our view.


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Hillary enjoying being a better solar astronomer than me.


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Me, trying to imitate Hillary's successful observations.


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We had a few times when the Sun shone through the clouds strong enough to get a good look at the solar disk. Hillary discovered one, then another sunspot. There may have been a third sunspot, but I didn’t check the SDO images until late Monday, so it could have developed after our observation. Hillary hasn’t done nearly as much solar observing as me, but she proved that she had a sharp eye by finding the pair of sunspots before me. I was proud of her, because sometimes I think she has only taken an interest in astronomy to make me happy. Sunday she showed that she pays attention when I ramble on about observing this or that.


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Sunset sequence.


When the Sun finally disappeared behind the clouds, and then below the horizon, I still thought the clouds were on a clearing trend. I wanted to catch the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter. Mercury is always a tough catch, and Jupiter is about to slip behind the Sun, first of sight, and then into the morning sky. Overhead was mostly clear, but the clouds off to the west weren’t budging. Hillary sat in my car, out of the cooling evening, listening to the Blackhawks game while I not so patiently waited for our biggest and smallest planets.

By 7:30, it should have been dark enough for the planets to show. The clouds, however, decided to foil my efforts by advancing eastward. Hillary said she saw lightning to the north, and sure enough that direction was getting much darker than the rest of the sky. A thunder storm was moving in, ending our observation.


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Waiting for the clouds to clear to see Mercury and Jupiter. Instead, they finally started moving east, ending the session.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chicago Astronomers Open Public Observing Season for Chicago Parks District


My friend Chicago Astronomer Joe has been contracted by the Chicago Parks Department to provide astronomical observing throughout 2011 at various parks around the city. After some delays with details and weather, Joe said it was a solid go for Wednesday, March 16, clear or clouds. When I left Valparaiso at 5 PM Wednesday, clouds had been gathering for an hour, and I really didn’t think we’d be doing any observing. I hadn’t seen Joe since October though, and figured it would be worth the drive just to hang out.

I arrived at Warren Park on Chicago’s far north side (LONG drive for me) just before 7 PM, when the event was supposed to start, and the Sun was just setting. Joe had arrived only a few minutes ahead of me, so we both had haul out our equipment and set up. Heather, our liaison from the parks department started drumming up people from around the park and directing them over to our telescopes. With the sky still aglow in twilight and a few lingering clouds, especially to the west, the Moon was really the only target at first.

I tried to run both my 4.5 go-to Newtonian and my 6” Dobsonian by myself. Before long we had quite a crowd waiting to see Luna, and I had questions coming from all directions. I did my best to keep up, using my Moon map to try to point out features. I hadn’t been paying attention to the clouds on the western horizon, but saw that Orion’s Belt was visible. I was about to show the Orion Nebula when I noticed that Joe had his C11 pointed very low to the west. I looked and there were Mercury and Jupiter hugging the trees along Western Avenue. They wouldn’t be available long, so I pointed out the pair with Joe’s green laser pointer.

I saw Bill, and he told me I was brave for trying to run two telescopes. I thought it be much easier with the go-to tracking Luna, but I saw that kids were using the hand controller and slewing the telescope off target. I thought I would outsmart them by removing the handset, but the CPU must be inside the unit. When I unplugged the controller, the telescope no longer knew what to do, and I had to turn it off, and start all over again. Sheesh. Anyway, it no damage was done, so I can’t complain.

Skies weren’t great, the haze never really let up even though the clouds more or less cleared. Still, between three astronomers and four telescopes we covered the best showpiece targets for the night. I was busy, busy, busy, from just after 7 PM until the crowd cleared out about 8:30. I struggled a little bit from lack of observing time this winter, and hadn’t done a public star party since October. I misidentified Jupiter and Mercury, but quickly corrected myself. The bright Moon and city lights weren’t doing me any favors, either. It was good to be under the sky with my Chicago friends again, and when the crowds cleared out, we had a few minutes to catch up and talk about future observing sessions. I was worn out by the time I packed up to leave, but it was good to know that the public observing season was kicked off with a rather successful session for the Chicago Parks.


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Urban astronomers gathering to kick off the public observing season with the Chicago Parks District.


Read the Chicago Astronomer account here,

Learning the 16" Telescope at Conway Observatory

Last Sunday, March 13, Chicago Astronomer Curt alerted us to a lunar occultation of Mu Geminorum. I wanted to observe it, especially since I had spent a week vacation vacation at home, with no observing time because of weather. On Sunday every forecast I heard on the radio or read online said that night was going to be clear, but what I saw outside and on the satellite images told me otherwise. I ignored my gut feeling, and drove out to Conway Observatory in Lowell, IN. I attended a training class last Friday and earned a key to the observatory. Since Sunday night was the last night of my vacation, and I hadn’t done any observing, I wanted to go out to the observatory and learn the 16” telescope there.

I arrived before 6 PM, but the afternoon’s clouds were refusing to depart. After surveying the premises and deciding not to set up one of my own telescopes on the observing pad, I went inside. I set up my computer and listened to some old observing podcasts to kill time. I walked through the observatory, mentally walking myself through the steps to open the roof and fire up the telescope. 


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Calumet Astronomical Society's Conway Observatory.


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It was cloudy when I arrived.


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I thought about setting up one of my own telescopes on the observing pad, but decided against it.


I checked conditions outside every so often, and just when I thought my drive had been for nothing, I saw the Moon shining through the clouds. I thought about opening the roof then, but noticed the time was 7:50. I double checked the emersion time: 7:53.

I went down to my car to set up my 6” Dobsonian, the easiest telescope to set up in a hurry. Still, by the time I was ready to observe, Mu Geminorum was already emerged from behind the lunar disk. Luna, relentless in it’s orbit, continued to move further east of the star. After getting a few images, I went inside the observatory, opened the roof, and proceeded to get familiar with the telescope.


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Images shortly after the emersion of Mu Geminorum, approximately 8 PM CST.




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Before I opened the roof. Both green lights on top of the panel need to be lit to move the roof.


It was hazy and cold, not good observing conditions, not to mention that the high, slightly gibbous Moon was casting a glow over much of the sky. Obviously, hunting down faint fuzzies wasn’t much of an option, and I didn’t want the hassle of star charts in the cold. I limited my observations to Luna and Saturn. Yes, I know: all that power and all I used it for was the two objects visible in the sky nearest to Earth. I felt it was observing time well spent, though, experimenting with the telescope controls and eyepieces. I’ll get back out there on a better night and play with the full power of the 16” telescope. 


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The 16" Meade LX 200. 


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Lunar image taken with the 16" telescope. The picture does not do justice to the view. I felt like I was standing on the rim of Copernicus looking down into the crater!