An Hour Before Midnight, Lion Spotted

The weather forecast for today predicted over an eighty percent chance of rain so I either needed to make my observation before midnight or wait a couple of days for cloudless skies. Fifteen minutes before my Mythgard Academy class started last night (at nine o’clock Central Time), I decided to make my first observation. I set the timer on my smartwatch for ten minutes and hung outside while my neighbors to the north decided a fire in their firepit was warranted (not helping my light pollution survey one bit). My neighbor to the south also appeared to have search lights trained on my backyard so adjusting my eyes for optimal viewing already had steep hills to climb. I somewhat patiently waited for the timer to count down.

Meanwhile, I found Venus immediately, very high and extremely bright in the west. Next, both Procyon and Sirius shown brightly in the upper and lower southwest. Even though the sun had set over an hour ago, the western sky still seemed dimly luminescent and I detected a very slight haze obscuring the fainter stars. My timer buzzed and I began sketching out the brightest stars and the only constellation I could identify – Orion – sinking slowly into the southwestern horizon. To the north I could just barely make out Polaris but could not find the Big or Little Dipper (mostly because the trees are starting to leaf out).

Almost directly overhead but still on the eastern side of the zenith, I could barely make out a sickle, an asterism that can be found in the constellation Leo (see diagram below). I had checked the Sky and Telescope Interactive Star Chart before stepping outside so I knew where to crane my neck in the hopes of spotting the lion. In addition to the sickle, I could also make out, barely, the triangle of stars that form the lion’s rear and tail. I could not tell where Leo ended and Virgo began as the stars were so faint I gave up.

I returned to my computer, logged into the Webinar and while I waited for it to start, I verified my sketch against the star chart. I had found Leo, but only by the very brightest of it’s stars (which aren’t that bright when you compare them to Sirius, Vega or Procyon). Fast forward two hours, where I found myself nodding off and decided I’d consumed enough First Age elven antics for one session and bailed out of the webinar (I can always watch the last 15-30 minutes via YouTube later).

I went back outside and noticed immediately the haze had disappeared. The air was crisper and I didn’t even need to wait the full ten minutes before I could clearly see the constellation Leo, now slightly west of top-dead-center overhead. My northern neighbors were still enjoying their outdoor fire but my southern neighbors had toned down the search lights to just one very bright LED porch light.

I returned inside and recorded both of my observations via the Globe at Night web site. I plan to repeat my observations each night weather permitting until the middle of next week.

How did your observations go?

Orion Rising

I went outside Wednesday evening to photograph our exterior Christmas lighting decorations.  As I walked down the front steps, I could see most of Orion rising in the east.  The Hunter seemed to be reclining in a dreamy, wispy, foggy pose.  I couldn’t resist taking a couple of photos, the best of which is displayed below:

Orion Rising
Orion Rising (click image for rest of album)

Return of Saturn

The new moon occurs tomorrow just eight minute’s past four o’clock in the afternoon.  I reviewed the sun rise and moon rise times for today, tomorrow and the next day as compared to the time the new moon happens.  And, once again, the ‘holy grail’ of observing a moon less than one day from dying or one day new-born eludes me.  Tomorrow morning, on the 13th of November, 2012, moon rise occurs at 6:41 a.m. Central, just twenty minutes before the sun rises.  If that wasn’t ‘bad’ enough, I’ll be driving the van for the Tuesday commute to work at that time.  My final rider pickup occurs at that time, so I may be able to take a couple of minutes with my binoculars to see if I can see the almost dead moon about eight hours before it is reborn as the new moon.  I don’t have high hopes though, as twenty minutes before sun rise is quite bright and the eastern horizon will be hazy unless I’m extremely lucky. And the chance of catching any sign of the extremely young moon (less than an hour old by sun set tomorrow night) is even slimmer than the crescent moon would appear at that time. 

Countertop & Backsplash Refinishing
Countertop & Backsplash Refinishing (click photo for rest of album)

I woke up knowing the temperatures had plummeted to the lower 20s overnight, leaving the sky crystal clear and killing the wind we’ve had for the past week.  Since my kitchen is completely unusable for the next week or so, I decided to pack up the van for the Monday commute, start it up (since frost completely covered all the windows) and gather up my camera equipment for an pre-dawn frigid photo shoot of the nearly dead moon.

NineteenMinsAfterMoonrise12Nov2012I drove the still cold and nearly empty van up the hill to the dead-end in front of City Hall.  I left the van running to continue the process of thawing out the windows and doors while I took the tripod and camera a few feet back up the hill to the east side lawn of City Hall.  I could barely see the new risen moon through the leafless trees lining the south and southeastern horizon.  I found a spot where the moon just clear the tree limbs and setup the camera equipment.  I took my first photo at 5:47 a.m., about nineteen minutes after the moon rose (at 5:28 a.m.).  I tried various settings and exposures, while trying to keep my hands warm and not shake the camera too much.  I took several unsatisfactory photos for about ten minutes and then returned to the van.  I needed to fill up the gas tank and get something warm to drink before heading south to pickup my first setup of riders.  My local rider had the day off because he’s a federal employee and today is the day set aside to observe and honor our veterans.

Illuminted 3% at 6:10 a.m. Central Mon 12 Nov 2012

After filling up the van, I drove back up the hill so I could cross Main Street using the light between City Hall and the Library and just happened to look east again. I noticed the colors caused by twilight and pulled into the Library’s parking lot for a second photo shoot.  I quickly reset up the camera and took another ten minutes worth of photos before continuing on to Scooters for a warm mocha and a caramel apple scone. 

Venus, Saturn, Spica and the Waning Moon

I downloaded the photos from the camera and reviewed them. I threw away most of the first photo shoot because I forget to set the two second delay timer and most of them were blurry. I logged into my account and downloaded the sky dome for the east-southeastern horizon to confirm and label the objects photographed above.


I had completely forgotten that Saturn had finally come out from behind the sun to become visible once again in the early morning.  In fact, Saturn rose just nine minutes after the moon did, although my camera did not capture it in my first photo shoot, probably because it was hiding behind some tree limbs.

I also photographed the Big Dipper, Orion, Canis Major and the Pleiades, but decided not to share the photos with anyone yet.  Because I didn’t change from my telephoto lens to my normal one, I did not get all the stars in the handle of the Big Dipper nor did I capture all of the stars in Orion. 

I’ll probably miss this weekend’s meteor shower, as I will be otherwise occupied during the day and not in a location that will provided dark enough skies to properly observe a shower.   A solar eclipse occurs tomorrow, but only for those excessively lucky people who live in the South Pacific.  For more of what’s up this week, visit Astronomy’s the Sky this Week website.

Beeline to Beehive

I received the alert from my calendar ten minutes before five o’clock Wednesday morning.  I wanted to make sure I woke up early enough to have dark skies (well, as dark as they get in my neck of the woods) to observe the Beehive Cluster aligned with Venus and the waning Moon.  I planned ahead and had all my equipment ready to go before I went to bed Tuesday night.  I subscribe to several astronomy related RSS feeds and always review‘s “The Sky This Week” as soon as it’s updated to make sure I mark my calendar for interesting observation events.  The following is an excerpt from this week’s article:

Venus meets the swarm of stars known as the Beehive Cluster (M44) in mid-September. Binoculars deliver great views, particularly when a waning crescent Moon joins the scene on the 12th. Roen Kelly

Wednesday, September 12: If you enjoy seeing spectacular celestial alignments, this is the morning for you. A waning crescent Moon stands 4° southwest of brilliant Venus before dawn while the planet resides 3° southwest of the Beehive star cluster (M44). Although the scene will be lovely with naked eyes under a dark sky, binoculars will deliver the best views. To see the Beehive clearly, you’ll need to observe before twilight begins around 5 a.m. local daylight time. The Moon and Venus remain stunning until about 15 minutes before the Sun rises (from‘s “Sky This Week” article).

A few stray small puffy clouds drifted around the night sky.  A slight breeze blew in from the south or southwest, but my house sheltered the driveway where I setup the tripod and camera.   I could not see any of the stars in the constellation Cancer with my naked eye.  I live less than ten miles due west, as a bird flies, from the Kansas City International Airport, and the rest of Kansas City sprawls continuously south along the eastern horizon down to the southeast quadrant.  Seeing anything faint below 20 degrees above the horizon is not easily accomplished.

With my binoculars, I could see the stars that make up Cancer, and I could clearly see the Beehive Cluster (M44).  I affixed my telephoto lens to my camera, but looking through the tiny viewfinder I could only see Venus. So I guessed as best I could with placement relative to Venus and took a few photos.  I tried to capture a few other interesting objects much higher in the sky, like Jupiter, Orion’s sword, and the Pleiades again.

Waning Moon and Venus
Waning Moon and Venus (Wed 9/12/2012)

Beehive Cluster
Beehive Cluster in constellation Cancer (Wed 9/12/2012)

Pleiades (Wed 9/12/2012)

Orion's Belt and Sword
Orion’s Belt and Sword (Wed 9/12/2012)

Click here to see the entire album of photos from Wednesday morning.

Thursday dawned completely overcast, with rain scheduled for the entire day.  We need it so I’m not complaining.

Friday night I’ll attend the club’s local star party and have already organized my observing list so I can make great strides towards my Astro Quest observing award.  Friday morning, if I can manage it after observing late into the night, I hope to capture the last glimpse of the old moon before it turns new around nine o’clock Saturday evening.

Feeling Crabby

I stepped outside at a quarter past five o’clock to gauge the quality of the skies.  Clear, but not as clear as yesterday’s crisp clean views of Venus, Jupiter, Orion and the waning Moon.  Not that I complained.  I keep the camera and tripod close to the front door so it’s just a matter of a minute or two before I can snap a couple of photos to share.

Waning Moon Near Venus (09/11/2012)
Waning Moon Near Venus (09/11/2012)

Jupiter Near Taurus, Orion and the Dog Star (09/11/2012)
Jupiter Near Taurus, Orion and the Dog Star (09/11/2012)

Both of these photos taken between 5:25 and 5:30 a.m. this morning, so here’s a star chart to help you identify the planets, stars and constellations from my location at that time looking east-southeast.

Tomorrow morning, the waning moon catches up to Venus in Cancer and as an extra treat, I plan to search for M44, the Beehive Cluster, found in the chest of that Crab constellation.  This open cluster is visible to the naked eye and even more so to binoculars.  Perhaps my camera, with the telephoto lens mounted, won’t be too shabby either.

Betwixt and Between

Redundant title, but I felt the need to bewitch you by using the word ‘betwixt.’  When I stepped outside this morning, about ninety minutes before sunrise, I looked up and couldn’t believe the incredibly bright stars and planets I could see against a dark sky.  Very unusual sight from my front steps.  I even called my husband out to look at the gorgeous perfect visibility of the entire constellation Orion.  We could even see all seven stars of the Pleaides, directly overhead.  I couldn’t resist the siren call of my camera, so I went back inside, grabbed the tripod and the camera and took a half dozen photos.

Waning Moon Equidistant Between Venus and Jupiter
Waning Moon Equidistant Between Venus and Jupiter (Monday 9/10/2012)

Yesterday morning, the moon was a bit brighter and closer to Jupiter.

Orion, the Hunter
Orion, the Hunter (Monday 9/10/2012)

Jupiter with the Seven Sisters (Pleiades)
Jupiter with the Seven Sisters (Pleiades)

Click on any of the above images to see larger versions of them.

I can’t wait to see what tomorrow morning has in store for me.

Mercury Rises

I rode a rollercoaster of challenges this past weekend.  On the high side, my son and daughter-in-law drove up from North Texas for a visit.  On the down side, despite the worst drought in recorded history, cloud cover prevented me from observing the Perseid meteor shower Saturday night/Sunday morning and the occultation of Venus by the Moon Monday afternoon.  The Ides of August dawned clear this morning, the first time in nearly a week I’ve been able to see the morning planets and waning crescent moon shining brightly above the eastern horizon.

I only hit the snooze on my alarm once, because I stayed up too late with Dob and then decided to watch the latest episode of Warehouse 13 instead of going to bed like I should have.  My adventures in the backyard with the XT8 and the Intelliscope handheld computer device determined one of the sensors (probably the altitude one) is not reporting to the device as it should.  I’ll have to troubleshoot that situation Thursday evening.  I attempted to star hop from Deneb to the North American nebula, but seeing (visibility) proved too poor and I need more practice with the XT8 so I know which direction I’m going (what I see in the eyepiece v. what I see in the finderscope v. what I see on my star atlas).   

Before the alarm could buzz a second time, I got up, got dressed, grabbed my purse and left the house.  I drove the van a couple of blocks up the hill from my house to the dead end in front of City Hall, where I have a completely unobstructed view of the eastern horizon (I routinely see airplanes take off and land at KCI and can usually see the control tower as well).  I retrieved the camera and tripod from the back of the van and had it setup, with the normal lens attached, just shortly after 5:30 a.m.  I took a few wide field shots to capture all three planets and the moon. 

3 Planets 1 Dying Moon
3 Planets 1 Dying Moon ~ 15 Aug 2012 5:49 am Central

The above photo immediately took me back six months, when I went hunting for Mercury the first time. Last Febriary, I chased after a similar lineup of Jupiter, Venus, the new moon, and Mercury, during the evening hours, looking towards the west. Now, I’m on the flipside, for real.  Warm, instead of cold.  East, instead of west.  Dying moon, instead of newborn moon.  Mercury rising, not falling.

I love seeing Orion rising in the east.  To me, the Hunter heralds the approaching fall, my absolute favorite season of the year.  His two canine pals nipped at his heels (Canis Minor and Canis Major), illustrating we truly are in the ‘Dog Days’ of Summer

I took a few more shots of all three planets in one frame, then zoomed in on Mercury and the Moon, trying to capture that ellusive earthshine. 

Mercury and Waning Moon (click image for rest of album)
Mercury and Waning Moon (click image for rest of album)

I ended my photo shoot with several closeups of the waning moon, using my telephoto lens. I selected the best of the bunch to upload to Flickr and share here.

Waning Moon ~ 15 Aug 2012

Next up for me, astronomically, is hunting for Neptune, which reaches peak brightness (opposition from the sun with us in the middle) on August 24th. I will need to wait until close to midnight Friday to make my first foray, when the other blue planet should be visible from my backyard (between tall trees and houses) in the southern skies, swimming in the constellation Aquarius.

Party with the Stars

ASKC Star Party Setup
ASKC Star Party Setup (Fri 20 Apr 2012)

Even though Friday dawned overcast and gloomy, by noon, I could see bits of blue among the dissolving puffs of grey and white.  I received an early confirmation e-mail from ASKC announcing the ‘go live’ time for the astronomy club’s star party at Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kansas.  I had already invited Dad to come as my guest and not only because Terry already had plans.  The weather forecast predicted clear skies, but cold temperatures, reaching mid-40s by midnight on the observing field.

I left work at the usual time and retrieved all my riders, returning them safely home without delay.  Not even the race activities at the Kansas Speedway slowed me down when I dropped off my first rider, who lives within spitting distance of that facility.  We all could hear the cars racing around the track, not for a race, but more likely for practice or qualifying.

Peace Rose CloseupI got home and realized I had forgotten to print a map with directions from Lansing to Louisburg and wrangled Terry into printing one for me.  While I was waiting on the printout, my Dad arrived, bringing me a beautiful rose from his garden.  He placed it smack dab in the center of my table, but I didn’t notice it until I knocked over the vase with my camera bag.  Then, I mistakenly thought Terry had stolen a rose from one of our neighbors.  Dad had a hard time not laughing himself silly, especially since he tried to let Terry take the credit for the impromptu flower appearance.  I thanked Dad for the gift while I mopped up the spilled water with a spare towel.

I changed clothes, grabbed a sweater with a hood, my scarf, my gloves, a gallon of water, my water bottle, my camera bag and tripod and my purse.  Dad already had the rest of the gear in his trunk.  We rolled south out of Lansing by a quarter to six.  We stopped briefly in Bonner Springs for a quick supper and continued down K-7 to Shawnee Mission Parkway, then to I-435 and eventually US-69.  Louisburg is less than twenty miles south of Overland Park, so once we rounding the curve where I-35 crosses I-435 (where the mile markers for I-435 start at zero (0) and end at eight-three (3), we had less than a half hour of driving to reach the observatory.  We pulled into the park just a bit after seven o’clock in the evening.

The star party organizer for the ASKC was already on site.  He greeted us and we all began debating where to setup on the observing field around Powell.  He was concerned about a baseball game or practice that appeared to be occurring on a ball field just northwest of the site.  He drove over and asked the participants if they planned to turn on the field lights.  He returned to confirm the lights would be on until 9:30 p.m.  Thus, all of us decided to setup on the east side of the Powell Observatory building, letting it block the lights to help protect our night vision.

Dad and I unpacked the gear and hauled it across the observing field to a spot just southeast of the dome.  I setup my camera and tripod to take a couple of photos of the sunset.

Sunset over Powell

Friday Sunset

As predicted, the lights lit up the field, and competed with the glow of Kansas City sufficing the northern horizon. Dad and I waited patiently (him more than me) for enough stars to pop forth to attempt an alignment of the telescope. While we waited, I took a few more photos of the western horizon, mostly to capture the very bright Venus.

Venus early evening

Soon after we spotted Venus, Sirius made its appearance in the southwestern sky.  Once Arcturus crested over the trees in the northeast, we used both those stars for an alignment of the ETX-90 via the Autostar device.  We did a quick tour of the four visible planets, starting with Venus.  Even though Venus is a thinning crescent (as it moves towards us and between the Earth and the Sun), it is almost too bright to look at.  Without adding a filter to the eyepiece, I couldn’t look directly at it for more than a few seconds.  Next we caught Jupiter before it set in the west.  I spotted all four moons, but only for the first few minutes.  As it sunk closer and closer to the horizon, the haze and humidity obscured all but the planet itself from visibility.

Next we swung the telescope back to the southeast, but nearly directly overhead (about ten or eleven o’clock above us) to view Mars.  While I debated internally what higher magnification eyepiece to insert, the star party organizer joined Dad and I at our telescope.  He commented that he had owned a similar scope in years past and affirmed it was a good scope for planetary and lunar observing.  He took a quick look through the eyepiece at Mars and moved on to the next person on the field.  One of my goals for the evening was to decide if the small ETX-90 would allow me to view any deep sky objects (galaxies in particular).

Our final planetary tour stop landed on Saturn, which crested over the trees soon after we finished observing Mars.  I easily found Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, but could not discern the gap(s) between the rings, even after adding the two times Barlow to the 25mm eyepiece I prefer to use.

Orion had his left foot on the western horizon as I swung the scope back to the southwest for a quick peak at the Great Orion Nebula.  As far as I could tell, it looked similar to what I had seen from my back yard in late March.  At that time, Orion’s Sword appeared much higher in the sky and I looked through less atmosphere (but had more light pollution in Lansing).  But the combination of less light, yet more atmosphere gave me basically the same observing experience.

Ursa Major (aka the Big Dipper)
Ursa Major (aka the Big Dipper)

At this point, I took a break to spare my aching feet and sat in one of the chairs Dad had brought along.  The north wind had died off by this time, but I couldn’t seem to get my toes enough circulation.  The rest of me, my head, hands, upper body and legs, were fine.  But my toes continued to be a distraction and eventually a source of chilling pain.  I used my red flashlight to review several star charts in my pocket sky atlas, searching for a deep sky object that would be (hopefully) visible via my small scope.  I settled on the Whirlpool Galaxy found near the first star (Alkaid) in the handle of the Big Dipper.  As you can see in the chart above, just below and to the right of Alkaid is where you should find the Whirlpool Galaxy.  Even with a red dot viewfinder to help, neither Dad nor I could locate the galaxy.  It only has a magnitude of 8.4, and I fear the increasing glow from Kansas City to our north and the rising humidity as the temperature dropped to the dew point conspired against our efforts.

Leo Triplet (photo via Wikipedia)
Leo Triplet (photo via Wikipedia)

Before I could pick up my pocket sky atlas to find some other deep sky object to try, the star party organizer returned, asking us if we wanted to see the Leo Triplet, three galaxies visible all at the same time.  While not as clear as the photo at the left, I did see all three galaxies through his telescope in one field of view.  Amazing!  Once I returned to my scope, I directed it to find Mars (which still hovers near Leo) to confirm the alignment and then told it to find M65 (one of the two galaxies on the right hand side of the photo above.  I believe I saw a grey smudge or two, but not the third fainter elongated galaxy (on the left above).  Since Leo still appeared directly overhead, and Louisburg to the southeast does not sport nearly as much light as Kansas City to the north, I had good conditions for seeing such faint objects (magnitude 9 and 10).

At this point, I could barely stand on my aching chilled feet any longer.  I sat for a few minutes, letting my eyes wonder around the sky in hopes of seeing a few meteors.  I did see two.  I asked Dad if there was anything else he wanted to observe.  I think he returned to Saturn for a final look at the ringed giant.  After that, we dismantled the equipment and packed it back up (all in the dark with a dying red flash light).  We made several trips across the observing field to the car.

As Dad started up the car (and I turned the heat for the passenger side all the way up to red hot), the clock on the dash flashed 11:00 p.m.  We pulled out of the parking lot with only our parking lights on (to minimize light for those still observing) and stopped at McDonalds so I could buy a mocha.  All three convenience stores in Louisburg had closed (not extremely convenient for us obviously).  We retraced our route up US-69, through Overland Park, to I-435 and took Parallel Parkway back to K-7 and arrived back in Lansing just after midnight.

After this excursion, I believe I need to start saving my pennies for an upgrade.  I still plan to use the ETX-90 to observe the Transit of Venus.  The small scope is actually a boon for observing our closest star, Sol and our sister planet, Venus.  I just need the solar filter film, currently on back order, to prevent damage to my eyes and the scope.

Thanks to the Astronomical Society of Kansas City for hosting the star party.  Dad and I had an enjoyable evening.

Winter Circled Moon and Leonine Mars

I valiantly kept myself awake past my pumpkin transformation time (usually half past nine o’clock on weeknights), reading an ebook on my Nook Color while Terry dozed through the UFC fights.  When I finally got within twenty pages of the end of my book, I put the ereader aside and checked the position of Mars from my front porch.  The waxing moon hung at about the one o’clock position in the sky almost hidden behind my house and Mars shown redly at about the ten o’clock position. I decided to setup the telescope in my driveway, even though all the street lights and house lights concentrated their glows more intensely on the east side of my property.

I opened the garage door and began transferring the telescope and accessories from the band room (behind the garage on the west side of the house) through the garage to the driveway.  I had put on a sweater but only had flip-flops on my feet (something I would come to regret an hour or so later).

In setting up my telescope, I made an error in the home position and failed two attempts at an easy alignment.  When I finally realized my mistake, after having run the motors up to and beyond the stops twice, I tried a third time, but the Autostar control device disconnected itself from the telescope and reset itself twice.  I gave up and finally just pointed the scope at Mars, shining brightly and sanguinely from the constellation Leo.

Two of the stars selected by the Autostar alignment program included Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, and Capella, in the constellation Auriga, and both of these stars could be found in the Winter Circle.  The waxing moon enjoyed center-stage in the Winter Circle on a cold clear late winter night.

Once I got Mars in my sights, I tried various barlows and eyepieces, but could never quite get a good focus on it.  I could dimly and vaguely see the polar ice cap and Mars definitely had an orange-ish and pink-ish cast to it.

By this time, I could barely feel my toes, but I didn’t want to stop observing, so I turned the telescope farther eastward, looking for Saturn.  I found Spica in the constellation Virgo.  Saturn is just a short hop to the left of Spica.  I clearly saw the rings, but did not take the time to look for Titan or any of Saturn’s other moons.  I wanted to get my feet warmed up, so I shutdown the telescope, packed everything up and transported it back to the band room.

I may repeat this entire process tonight, but from a different location.  I will take a nap this afternoon to allow me to stay up past my pumpkin transformation point.

Oh, and I did get my feet warmed back up while finishing the last twenty pages of my ebook.