Monday, January 31, 2011

Five Planets, Fourteen Meteors, and a Sunspot, January 4, 2011

Just two mornings after my first extended observation in two months, I woke up at 2 AM on Tuesday, January 4. I checked Accuweather’s most recent satellite images, and although they showed cloud cover over Valparaiso, they were about an hour old. It looked like the clouds were moving out, so I looked outside and saw a clear sky. It was also much warmer than Sunday morning, 30˚F, with only a 22˚ wind chill factor. The combination of warmer conditions and being out earlier gave me considerably more observing time than Sunday.

While I was out, I thought the session was very similar to Sunday. I observed most of the same targets, spent time getting video of the planets, and stayed out until daybreak. Really though, there was no comparison between the two nights. The global peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower was around sunset, so I spent quite a bit of time just watching for meteors. I also viewed more targets, although it was still cold enough that I didn’t feel like having to look through star atlases. That limited my observing to the easiest of targets, although really, since they tend to be some of the brightest, are the most enjoyable.

As soon as the telescopes and gear were outside about 2:30 AM, I looked up and saw a bright meteor, possibly as bright as -4 magnitude, slowly streaking east to west near the zenith, leaving a short lived tail behind it. After that, meteor sightings were sparse until after 5 AM. I observed 14 meteors between 2:33 and 6:07 AM. The shower seemed to peak between 5:16 and 6:07, when I saw eight meteors despite focusing my attention on Saturn, Venus, and eventually Mercury. At least 3 of the 14 meteors I observed seemed to radiate from points not associated with the Quadrantids, but I counted them anyway.

 Before Orion dipped behind a tree, I wanted a look at the great nebula, but I only viewed it with binoculars. M42 is one of those great targets that is splendid no matter what you observe it with, and might be second only to the Moon as a binocular object. Wow.

I’ve read the ancient Greeks used M44 to predict the weather, and now I understand why. With no Moon, I could actually see it naked eye. How cool! I visited the galaxies M51, M65 & 66 again. I’m dying to see M51 especially in a big telescope.

Meanwhile, Saturn was climbing, and almost begging for attention. With Venus just rising behind a tree, it demanded telescope time. I’ve always said that Saturn is the favorite planet to show at public star parties, but Jupiter should be the favorite for astronomers. Now I’m not so sure. I still have not seen the Cassini Division, but the rings opening has increased my admiration for Saturn. I tried some imaging of Saturn, and while I’m still learning some things about processing, especially videos in Registax, I’m satisfied with the results for now. My biggest disappointment is that I still don’t have the go-to Newtonian back to perfect collimation, so using it for video was out of the question. I’ve worked the collimation closer to where it needs to be, but it wasn’t good enough for imaging. The scope was aligned and tracking better than I’ve ever seen it, so I watched on my computer screen, but didn’t record any video. In the summer it would have been worth the effort to try tweaking the collimation, but I wasn’t going to do it in the cold.


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Saturn, stacked from the above video.


Venus was getting high enough for observation and imaging, and even Mercury popped into view. I turned my most of my attention to the inner planets for the rest of the session, but occasionally came back to Saturn. I was also waiting for the Sun to rise, and get high enough for observation. Just before sunrise, however, clouds rolled in, and it looked like I wouldn’t do any sunspot observing.


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Venus.


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Venus stacked from a video.


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Mercury.


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First sign of daylight.


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Venus above the tree.


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A nice Belt of Venus in the western sky.


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Clouds came out of nowhere, and killed any thought of early morning solar viewing.


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Although it was a new Moon, I was thinking about it quite a bit while I was observing, knowing that an annular solar eclipse was happening over Europe. When I went inside I checked some of the early pictures from the other side of the globe, shared on Facebook by Camilla, the Solar Dynamics Observatory mission mascot. It sort of added insult to the injury of missing December’s solstice total lunar eclipse having a clear sky while an eclipse I couldn’t see was taking place, but at least I was able to enjoy some meteors and other celestial objects.

After warming up and messing around online, the clouds cleared again, so I went outside again for sunspot observing.  It was sunny but cold and windy, 25˚F with a 7˚ wind chill. The major sunspot was 1140, with the group 1142 also crossing the disk. I was out for 25 minutes, plenty of time after my session from 2:30 to 6:40 AM.


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Sunspot 1140.


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Later that night, I went outside for a quick observing session. Having already seen three planets in the morning, Jupiter and Uranus were my two obvious targets. Uranus had made another close conjunction with Jupiter the day before, so it was very easy to find. The seeing conditions weren’t good for planetary observing though, so I tried the open clusters M35 and M37, the Double Cluster, and the Andromeda Galaxy before putting the telescope away.

Five planets, fourteen meteors, five star clusters, four galaxies, a star forming region, and one sunspot. I think that qualifies as my best day of astronomy so far this winter.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Greatest Western Elongations of the Inner Planets

Last night we had some lake effect snow, not as much as anticipated, but the threat kept me home, and killed any thought of evening telescope time on my night off. However, I went out at 4:30 AM this morning to shovel the driveway. It was less than two inches, but needed to be cleared. It was still cloudy, but of course I was keeping watch for any sign of clearing. By 5 AM, sucker holes were opening up, so I shoveled the back patio when I finished in front. After warming up my fingers and toes, I decided to try to catch our three morning planets.

At 5:56 I brought out both telescopes, but didn’t want to waste precious minutes before daylight orienting my go-to scope, so I only used the Dobsonian. The sky was clouding up again, but then mostly cleared right away. Saturn had the first window through the clouds, but it was brief, so I turned to Venus, which was just casting off the last of it’s cloud cover. The illuminated side of the planet has been growing, and last week’s fat crescent has become a half-disk. Just as I was observing the half-Venus, I remembered that it was at Greatest Western Elongation yesterday, and Mercury was at Greatest Western Elongation today. Both planets should appear as half disks.


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Venus, still shining brightly.

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My best Venus picture of the session. It is so bright that it overwhelms my camera, and conditions for photography were bad.


Mercury was just above a distant tree, so I checked to see if I was right. With bad seeing conditions, I didn’t get great looks at Mercury, but at best, it did appear as a half disk. As it climbed higher, it darted between and behind the last remaining clouds to the east, and observations were limited.


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Mercury.


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A cloud then covered Mercury...

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... but it came back for a few minutes.


With freezing toes, I was almost eager for daylight, but Saturn could not be denied. I waited and waited for clear seeing, and although those moments came sporadically, and I was pushing magnification to the limit, I have yet to see either the storm that has recently been discovered, or the Cassini Division. The storm I may not get to see, but as Saturn nears opposition, I’m sure I will eventually see the Cassini Division.


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Saturn. Planets are so hard to get in focus with my point & shoot camera.


With a little luck, this morning I caught the inner planets, Venus only 20 hours past GWE, and Mercury four hours before GWE. I doubt they reach the same greatest elongations with a day of each other often, so I enjoyed seeing our fellow rocky planets both at a half phase. 


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Another cold, short session alone, spent with three planets.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cold Sunday Morning

I woke up around 3 AM Sunday morning, January 2, and peeked out the window and saw stars. Not being silly enough to open the door to find out how cold it was, I went online to check the weather. Accuweather said 15˚ F, with a -4˚ wind chill factor. Brrr… I bundled up in as many layers as I could, and brought out my telescopes to acclimate. By the time the telescopes were ready, it was after 4 AM, about three hours before sunrise. Normally that would be plenty of time to observe a large portion of the sky, but even dressed the warmest I possibly could; it was too cold to stay out for very long. Orion, Gemini, and Auriga were all low in the southwest, west, and northwest respectively, so I passed over them for better placed targets.

Leo was just about due south, so I star hopped down to M65 & 66. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen any galaxy other than Andromeda, so I welcomed the pair. Trying to take advantage of the late rising crescent Moon’s absence, I also tracked down M51 and it’s companion, high overhead. Another tempting galaxy was M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, but I gave up after a couple unsuccessful attempts. It was time to warm up.

I came back for a look at Saturn, and wasn’t expecting much from it, but cranking the magnification up to 300x, I could finally see the rings opening up. I scoured for the Cassini Division, with no luck. Venus was getting high enough for decent observation, so I checked it out next. The thin crescent of early November has grown to almost a half disk, but the disk has shrunk in size. It hasn’t lost much of it’s shine from it’s peak magnitude almost a month ago, though!


Saturn with my Vivitar point & shoot camera.






The Moon came up as the eastern sky was beginning to brighten around 6 AM. It was near Mercury that morning, but I forgot about that, and didn’t look for the inner planet. I spent half an hour observing Saturn, Venus, and Luna, the longest stretch I stayed outside that morning. 





Luna & Venus.

























The cold kept me from having much time at the eyepiece, but it was my first real observing session since November 2, two months earlier. I’d had a few short, observations, usually focused on one target, but not much of a chance to leisurely enjoy the sky above me. This was by no means leisurely, with a negative wind chill, but at least I had a few hours to work with.