Grasping at Stars

Sunday morning bracing autumn walkDespite a busy weekend of van maintenance (oil change/tire rotation), hair maintenance (shampoo, cut & style), yard maintenance (leaves, leaves and more leaves and now pine needles), home improvement projects (refinishing lower kitchen cabinets) and exercise (very long walk with Apollo), I squeezed in an hour of star gazing after a night out with Terry and friends at Jack Stack on the Plaza.  I’ve been wanting to get the scope out for a couple of weeks now, but the evening skies have not cooperated, remaining hazy at best or completely cloud covered at their worst.  Upon parking the car in the driveway Saturday night, I looked up and decided the skies looked good enough to attempt some star gazing.  I didn’t even take my purse into the house.  I drug the telescope out of the garage and began hunting down more targets on my Astro Quest observing award checklist.

I did make one trip inside to retrieve my binoculars, pocket star atlas, clipboard and checklist.  I used Jupiter to re-align the finderscope and spent several minutes enjoying an interesting moon alignment (see image above).

Using binoculars, I easily found the Andromeda galaxy and the Double Cluster (between Perseus and Cassiopeia). I checked off two stars from my list, Algol in Perseus and Gamma Cassiopeiae.  Since the constellation Pegasus was nearly directly overhead, I went hunting for the Triangulum galaxy, also known as M33.  I could barely see the three stars in the constellation Triangulum, but no matter how hard I searched (with binoculars, not naked eye), I could not find this galaxy.  I should have been able to trace a line from M31 through two stars in the constellation Andremeda (Mu and Beta Andromedae) to find M33, but I was defeated once again by urban (and prison) light pollution.  I had hoped to stumble upon it with binoculars, especially since M31 was so easily visible and found (almost naked eye Saturday night, but not quite).

Cepheus constellation
Cepheus constellation

I became more chilled as the evening wore on, neglecting to put on my sweater and just ignoring the 40 degree temperatures.  The lack of wind helped shore up my illusion of warmth.  I thought I’d try one last object before packing the scope up and returning it to the garage.  I went hunting for the Garnet star in the constellation Cepheus.  With my naked eyes, I could barely make out some of the stars that form the ‘house’ asterism.  I knew the general area to look for Mu Cephei so I aimed my binoculars between the alpha and delta stars.  Whoa!  Way, way too many stars visible, thanks to the backdrop of our own Milky Way galaxy.  Staring again with just my eyes, I squinted against the light pollution, but could still only see some of the anchor stars of Cepheus and no Milky Way stars.

I gave up, because I knew I would need to study several star atlases closely and device a star hop from Alpha Cephei to Mu Cephei, a trail I would need to memorize, so I wouldn’t have to take my reading glasses on and off while attempting to observe.

Pegasus constellation
Pegasus constellation

Another star trail I need to work on is finding M15 in the constellation Pegasus.  I really shouldn’t have had any trouble finding M15, since you can draw a nearly strait line from Theta Pegasi through Epsilon Pegasi to point to that globular cluster.  Either my skies were not dark enough, or I kept misidentifying  Enif (Epsilon Pegasi) in my binoculars.

Dog Day Doldrums

Mid-August usually simmers, steeping the Midwest in heat and humidity; yet we’ve been graced with temperatures in the 80s and relatively low humidity.   Daily (or nightly) thunderstorms greened up the lawn, found a leak in my new roof (or old chimney) and delayed the second major home improvement project to replace our disintegrating driveway.

My daughter and her boyfriend fled the persistent Texas drought and constant triple-digit temperatures to bask on the beaches of the Bahamas this week.  They returned to the Heartland yesterday, making a brief layover at KCI in the early evening.  She called us as we were driving to a friend’s 50th birthday party.  No word yet if they made it back to Texas (but I’m assuming they did and were just too tired to call).

Roxy between Royna and Derek
Roxy between Royna and Derek

Roxy, one of our Rottweilers, made a trip to the vet this week, ostensibly to have a stubborn tick removed from her inner left thigh (and also for some advice for her mobility as she ages … she’s over seven or eight years old now).  Terry and I found the ‘tick’ Sunday evening.  We tried several times to remove it, but could not find the head or legs (only the ‘body’).  The vet got a chuckle when he explained that what we thought was a tick was actually a skin tab … it just looked a lot like a tick.  I really should have put my reading glasses on Sunday evening and saved poor Roxy the abuse.

Looking east/northeast from Parallel and 110th near the Legends.
Looking east/northeast from Parallel and 110th near the Legends.

I only got to ride in the van one day this week.  I took Monday off, rode Tuesday and then drove the van the rest of the week.  I saw some fantastic sunrises and tried to snap a few photos with my cell phone (while driving).  As we near the autumnal equinox, the sunrise coincides (inconveniently for eastbound drivers) with our commute from Leavenworth to Kansas City.  By the time we reach Parallel or State Avenue, the sun sits just above the horizon, so a bit of cloud camouflage eases the eye strain and makes driving safer.  Finally, after nearly ten days of driving a loaner van, the vanpool returned our van to us from the repair shop.  I opted to swap the vans Friday morning after dropping off the other two riders at Hallmark.  I got almost all the way to the Plaza before I realized I’d left my cell phone in the loaner van.  The guard at the KCATA garage probably thinks I’m blonde or something.

Jupiter, to the left of the Waning Moon
Jupiter, to the left of the Waning Moon

I missed the Perseid meteor shower, like most of the rest of the United Stats, thanks to a full moon (and hazy clouds or even thunderstorms).  My husband sat outside one night this week, but he reported the moon lit up the atmosphere so much, he could hardly see the brightest stars.  In fact, he had trouble finding the constellation Cassiopeia, normally very easy to spot as it looks like a W or an M (depending on it’s current rotational position around Polaris).  I did spy the waning moon one morning approaching Jupiter and snapped a photo with my cell phone since I was headed to the van and running late (so couldn’t setup the good camera on a tripod for a more professional-looking amateur photo).   Saturday morning (early early early), if the clouds had been absent, would have shown Jupiter within five degrees of an even thinner moon.

Sunset Thur 18 Aug 2011
Sunset Thur 18 Aug 2011

Wednesday night, WolfGuard auditioned a drummer to replace the drummer/lead singer who recently moved to New Mexico to pursue better employment opportunities.  Thursday night, Terry and I ventured into North Kansas city to the other Sears store (as opposed to the one down south on Metcalf).  Sears seems to be the sole remaining tenant of the dying Antioch Center shopping mall.   We’re still wrangling with Sears over a refrigerator we purchased in May, so we went looking at different, hopefully better models.  We also stopped at two office supply shops to look at shredders, during which a beautiful sunset occurred and once again I only had my cell phone camera with me (sigh).

We wrapped up the week spending some time celebrating the life of a good friend at his 50th birthday party.  We had a great time visiting with old friends and heckling the over-the-hill dude.  I’ve still got a couple of years to catch up with him.

What a Difference a Week Makes …

This will be a conglomeration of star gazing journal and family events and I only have fifteen minutes to spit it out! So here goes:

First, the star gazing report:  My dad and I traveled to Winfield to visit my aunt and uncle for the weekend.  Since the weather was forecast to remain calm, clear and the moon was just barely a sliver, I took the telescope and accessories with us.  We spent the day visiting, enjoying experimental cooking from my aunt and uncle (which was delicious, don’t get me wrong) and doing fall tree trimming and another household repair a la my dad.  I have photos of a couple of the close calls my dad avoided, but that will have to wait for another post.

Later in the evening, after another wonderful new recipe for dinner, as the sun set and the moon quickly followed, we setup the telescope just in time to catch a glimpse of the craters of the moon along the terminus.  Everyone got a chance to view before the moon slipped towards the horizon and behind the tree line.

Now, we waited for Jupiter (which was visible already) and the first few stars (Altair, Deneb and Vega).  We relocated the telescope to the backyard (for a better angle on Jupiter) and my aunt invited a couple of neighbors to view Jupiter’s spectacular display.  We discovered, over the course of the evening, the Jupiter’s moon move quite fast, so much that when the evening began, we only saw three moons, and as it progressed we saw the fourth appear and a couple others move out and up in their orbits.

My personal goal for the evening was  a second attempt to find Comet Hartley 2.  So I was just killing time until the skies darkened enough to make the attempt.  In the meantime, I showed my aunt and uncle the double star in the Big Dipper (Mizar/Alcor)  and of course we began to see the great sweep of stars for the Milky Way.

We took a break (about an hour or so) to sit inside and rest our backs (tree trimming was only a regular activity for my father) and returned to hunt for the comet.  My dad and I tried for another hour, but haze, trees and light pollution were not helping us.  We finally gave up around 11:00 p.m. and headed off to bed.

I woke at my normal 5:00 a.m. timeframe and migrated up to the dark living room.  My uncle soon arrived and we both exited outside to determine the location of Cassiopeia.  That region of space was still not dark ‘enough’ I believe and clouds were rolling in fast from the west.  I did point out Orion and Sirius almost directly due south at that time of morning.

After another wonderful meal (this time breakfast of course), we visited and discussed books, movies, politics, religion … all the usual topics I’ve come to know and love with my close family.  Lunch was a local Chinese buffet followed by a mini-tour of Southwestern’s campus, where it’s celebrating it’s 125th year and Ron’s art (as an alum from 1968) is featured in Baden Hall.   Recently remodelled, it had formerly housed some of Arthur Covey’s artwork and still sports a block dedicating the fireplace from Arthur to his art professor Dunlevy.

Rain rolled into Winfield and followed Dad and I north along the turnpike, peaking in Emporia where we stopped for supper and Braum’s ice cream, but tapered off as we continued northeast along I-35 to K-7 in Olathe and finally reaching Lansing/Leavenworth by 8:00 p.m. — only one hour late mostly due to too much talking (missing exits) and stopping for gas and food.

A wonderful weekend getaway in Winfield I hope to repeat in the future.



Best Time to Spy Comet Hartley Two is Now

I tried several times this week to spot the comet Hartley 2 using my birthday preset as an assist.  According to EarthSky’s blog, you should be able to find it with binoculars near the constellation Cassiopeia.  Here’s a graphic from that blog posting to assist in pinpointing the comet:

Since tonight is October 9th, the comet is below the Double Cluster.  I’m taking all the telescope equipment with me to Winfield today so I can make the attempt again tonight (since the moon is still very new and the skies are dark).

Happy comet hunting and keep looking up!

Terrestrial Triumps and Tragedies This Past Tuesday

Transferred from my MySpace blog (originally posted October 5, 2010):

Second star gazing journal.  After calling Meade Support on Monday, I recalibrated the drives and retrained them as well as finally dialing in (for the most part) my viewfinder … all before the sun went down.

Then I packed everything up (carefully) and headed west to my local community park a couple of miles west of my park.  I was a bit disappointed to see what appeared to be a soccer practice occurring even though the sun had set at five minutes before seven.  Since I didn’t want a stray hyperactive youngster to knock over and destroy the expensive and sensitive telescope equipment, I resolved to wait until everyone left.

In the meantime, at five after seven, while sitting in my car, I could already see Jupiter with my naked eye … clearly the brightest object in our autumn evening skies.

I waited another thirty-five minutes before everyone finally left.  So by 7:45 p.m. I was finally set up and ready to try again.  I first manually found Jupiter and confirmed my viewfinder was centered and in sync with the telescope.  It was for the most part.  I then spent fifteen or twenty minutes looking at Jupiter and it’s moons.  I started out with the 26x eye lens and then added the 2x barlow which really brought Jupiter in close and didn’t dim it too much.

By then it was dark enough to attempt an alignment.  I aligned on Altair but didn’t recognize (nor now do I remember) the second star the AutoStar wanted to use for alignment.  I centered on the brightest star I found in the viewfinder.  Then I told it to find the constellation Cassiopeia and it tried, but ended up off by half a sky (basically looking southwest instead of northeast).  I interrupted the sidereel so I could synch it by moving the telescope around to the correct portion of the sky.  My goal was to attempt to find the Double Cluster near Cassiopea and eventually the comet Hartley 2 which is between the two (Cassiopeia and the Double Cluster).  I didn’t have much luck, but I enjoyed viewing so many stars … layers upon layers of them.

Next, I then went in search of the binary star in the handle of the Big Dipper … Mizar and Alcor.  That was easy to find and quite interesting to view.

Lastly, I focused on a bright flashing object in the northwestern sky.  When I attempted to focus on it it appeared to flash green and red rapidly.  (I later determined this flashing star was Arcturus and the red/green was caused by the Earth’s atmosphere).

Unfortunately, about that time, the local constabulary arrived with bright headlights (thankfully not pulling out the spotlight) to inform me he needed to close the park.  I replied the posted sign stated the park was open until 10:00 pm.  He rebutted my statement by saying it was supposed to close at sundown.  I replied the posted sign did not state that caveat.  So, I took one final look at Jupiter and it’s moon, then packed up the equipment and was home by 8:45.  I barely got an hour’s worth of star gazing in.

I’ve learned, though, that my telescope probably needs to be serviced.  Meade, in it’s proprietary wisdom, does not provide parts or service partners, so the telescope will have to be packaged and shipped to their world headquarters in California for service and repair.  I’ll call them tomorrow to get the gory details.

I enjoyed a wonderful but short hour of moonless nearly perfect dark sky viewing.  Not too cool, no wind, and not a cloud in the sky.

Keep looking up!