Absolute Magnitude Luminates Absolutely

This week I want to discuss “What might cause the closer of two identical stars to appear dimmer than the farther one?”

Apparent Magnitude: A measurement of the brightness of stars without regard to their distance from Earth.

  • The scale in use today starts with the star Vega and an apparent magnitude of 0.0
  • Objects brighter than Vega are assigned negative numbers.  For example. Sirius, the night’s brightest star, has an apparent magnitude of -1.44
  • The scale was extended to include the dimmest stars visible through binoculars and telescopes.  For example, a pair of binoculars can see stars with an apparent magnitude of +10

Ignoring distance for a moment, all other things being equal, the closer of two identical stars will appear brighter (have a smaller apparent magnitude) to us than the more distant star.  When we account for the difference in distance, we use either or two measurements:  absolute magnitude and luminosity.

Absolute Magnitude: The brightness a star would have at a distance of ten parsecs (10 pc) or 32.6 ly. Continue reading “Absolute Magnitude Luminates Absolutely”

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.

ThreePercentIlluminated0610am12Nov2012
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. 

VenusSpicaSaturnWaningMoon0712am12Nov2012labeled
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 Astronomy.com account and downloaded the sky dome for the east-southeastern horizon to confirm and label the objects photographed above.

EastSoutheastHorizon0711am12Nov2012

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.

My First Date with Dob

Orion SkyQuest IntelliScope XT8
Orion SkyQuest IntelliScope XT8

Friday evening I had my first opportunity to really dig in and learn about the telescope I borrowed from my astronomy club. A week ago, Terry and I returned to Kansas City to meet one of the club members at the Warko observatory on the roof of Royall Hall on campus at UMKC.  I put in a request to borrow an eight inch Dobsonian telescope (shown at left) to compare and contrast its light gathering abilities with my own ETX-90 (a Maksutov-Cassegrain type telescope).  I had high hopes since the aperture on the XT8 is more than twice as big.  On the other hand, the ETX-90 is lighter.  I drove the van, having hidden the middle set of seats in the subfloor, to make the initial transport of the telescope as easy as possible.

Fast forward an entire week to another Friday evening.  After a quick rather disappointing dinner at the local Dairy Queen, Terry and I returned home to separate activities:  he to a strings-only practice for one of his bands and me to setting up the loaner scope.

Orion SkyQuest XT8 base
Orion SkyQuest XT8 base

I moved the base into the great room (so called because it’s the biggest room in the house and has a high vaulted ceiling with a floor-to-ceiling corner fireplace). I then re-read the instruction manual, paying close attention to the section dealing with placing the optical tube on the base.  The tube weighs just a bit over twenty pounds (the base is a couple of pounds heavier).  I picked up the tube, holding it vertically, and rested it gingerly on the bumper stops.  I inserted the tension and retaining knobs per the directions and then tested the altitude and azimuth mobility.  The base seemed to stick a bit, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with some nudging.

I attached the finderscope to the optical tube, but did not attempt to adjust it until later, when the tube would be outside and I could find an object to orient on a suitable distance away from my site.  I removed the dust cover cap for the tube and for the eyepiece in anticipation for the next phase: collimation

When the mirrors are properly aligned, the view down the focuser drawtube should look like the graphic above (for the XT8 telescope).

I peered down the optical tube, past the secondary mirror and its spider support system at the large eight inch mirror nestled in the bottom.  A small faint circle was inscribed on the surface of the mirror, assumedly in the exact center.  I stepped around to the side of the tube and stared down through the eyepiece opening, where I could clearly see my own eye and the small circle mentioned above.  My pupil and the circle did not line up exactly, as they should have (see diagram above left).

Upon further reading, and searching through the boxes and bags that the telescope came in, I could not find the collimation cap referenced in the instruction manual:  “This cap is a simple cap that fits on the focuser drawtube like a dust cap, but has a hole in the center and a reflective inner surface. The cap helps center your eye  so that collimation is easier to perform.”  I forged ahead, hoping I could get the mirror aligned ‘close enough’ for some test observing later that night.

Orion SkyQuest XT8I followed the instructions carefully, reading and re-reading and comparing what I was seeing through the focuser drawtube with the examples provided in the manual. I decided the secondary mirror didn’t need any adjustments, just the primary mirror. The locking thumbscrews on the back of the mirror were already loosened, so I began experimenting with small turns of the larger thumbscrews to adjust the tilt of the primary mirror.  I eventually got the small circle in the middle and tightened the locking thumbscrews down.  Now to move the unit outside to align the finderscope.

Orion SkyQuest XT8

I tilted the tub vertical, grasped the convenient handle on the back of the base with my right hand, keeping the tube vertical with my lefthand.  I walked slowly out the back door on the patio and down to the lower level of my back yard, away from (as much as that is possible) the surrounding trees (mine and my neighbors).  I needed to find an object about a quarter of a mile away to align the finderscope.  Because I live in a valley (Fawn Valley to be precise), everything, including the ground, is up from my backyard, and most of the horizon is blocked by houses and trees.  I could barely see the road leading up the hill to where City Hall stands, a couple of blocks to my south.  That would have to do.  I quickly and easily got the finderscope dialed in.

Now, I had to wait for darkness to fall.  I brought out my eyepieces (the three that came with the scope I left in the box with the solar filter) so they and the scope could reach a temperature equilibrium with the outside environment.  I went back inside and reviewed the Astro Quest observing award object list and my sky atlas to determine a short list of objects to observe before the moon rose high enough to wash out the night sky.

At half past nine, I went back outside, knowing I’d be able to find Saturn and Mars in the southwestern sky.  I did and quickly tried nearly every eyepiece I had, from a 30 mm down to a 9 or  a 4 mm.  I doubled a couple of those using a 2x barlowe lens.  I could clearly see the Cassini division in the rings, but did not try to discern any cloud variances on Saturn’s surface.

I pointed the scope at Mars next, but again, while a bright ruddy object, the red planet still seemed just the size of a pinhead, no matter how much magnification I attempted to throw at it.  I guess I need to ask some club members for assistance with seeing well enough to find the polar ice caps.  Perhaps I’m just too late in the year, since Mars now sets an hour or two after sunset and I’m looking through so much thick, dirty, hazy, humid air.

I could tell the moon had risen, but still remained low in the east, hidden behind houses and my tall pin oak in my front side yard.  My observing goals for the evening included three multiple star systems.  The first one I had actually observed when I first got the ETX-90 back in October 2010.  The middle star of the handle of the Big Dipper is actually an optical double star, Mizar-Alcor.  Terry joined me in observing this popular duo.

My second observing goal could be found in the constellation Lyra, containing the brightest star in the summer sky, Vega, and one of the three stars that form the asterism commonly referred to as the Summer Triangle.  Finding Vega turned out to be easy.  Correctly adjusting the movement of the telescope when aimed directly overhead, not so easy.  I had to run back inside to find my red flashlight and grab my reading classes and sky atlas before attempting to star hop the very short distance from Vega to Epsilon Lyrae, also known as the Double Double.  In hindsight, I also had forgotten to confirm how many degrees field of view the finderscope provided me (five degrees from the spec page of the instruction manual read this morning).  Because of the light pollution around my house and the rising nearly full moon, I could only see Vega and the beta and gamma stars of Lyra.  I could clearly see a triangle in the finderscope with one of the three stars Vega for sure, but which one was the Double Double?  I may have observed it last night, but I’m not entirely sure.  I plan to retry tonight, provided the predicted thunderstorm activity fades before ten o’clock or soon after.

Albireo (courtesy Wikipedia)

My final observing objective also appeared almost directly overhead, this time in the constellation Cygnus.  The head of the swan (Beta Cygni also known as Albiero) is a striking colorful double star that I easily found and observed for a few minutes.  Terry also took a quick look, but opted to let the mosquitoes and chiggers feast on me instead of him.  Since the moon would soon escape the defense put up by my pin oak, I asked Terry to help me carry the telescope back into the house while I held the red flashlight overhead to light our path.

I put all the eyepieces back in their cases and all the dust caps on all the openings of the telescope.  I recorded two of my three observations on my Astro Quest sheets.  Terry, Apollo, Lexy and I all retired to bed and left the moon to play by itself through the short summer night.

Some pros and cons about the Dobsonian telescope:  I like the improved light gathering capabilities.  I love the finderscope (it’s a very good quality one), but would love it more if it had a right-angle viewer.  I did not like the height of the eyepiece on the side of the tube.  I will need to get a portable stool to lean against.  My back is still aching this morning from the constant bent over position I found myself in last night.

Overall, I enjoyed my first foray among the stars with the SkyQuest.  I did not use the Intelliscope handheld device that would have assisted in identifying and locating objects.  I will save that adventure for another night, possibly at a darker site.

Teapot Steam

Star Party Sign In
Star Party Sign In (click image for rest of album)

My dad contacted me Thursday to coordinate conveyances for our weekend astronomical adventure, thinking we would be attending the monthly ASKC club meeting, but he was a week early. Since I had mentioned earlier in the week a desire to see the glorious summer spread of our own Milky Way Galaxy, he had called me several times the past few days to see about driving to northern Atchison county to escape the Kansas City area light pollution. Both Wednesday and Thursday evenings turned out to be hazy and cloudy, so we nixed the road trip north.

Instead, I suggested we attend the monthly star party at Powell Observatory.  I received two confirmation e-mails from David Hudgins, the club’s star party coordinator extraordinaire.  I decided to leave my scope at home because you don’t really need a scope to take in the Milky Way Galaxy.  If the skies grew dark enough, it would stretch from the southern horizon, up over the top, clear to the northern one.

I thought perhaps I was reliving last Friday (that would be the 13th) because when I got home early (by ten minutes) I walked into some surreal drama.  I won’t go into the stressful week at work (we’ve all had weeks like that), but I looked forward to forgetting work and ignoring the excessive heat by reading books and watching movies in a quiet, air conditioned home with my hubby and two Rotties.  I came home to find our satellite on the fritz and Terry needing me to pickup a prescription before the pharmacy closed at seven.  While he cooked dinner, I did some preliminary troubleshooting of the satellite system with little success and decided to call DirecTV customer service, knowing I’d probably be on hold for several minutes.  The technician wanted us to disconnect, check and reconnect all of our cables, which seemed a ridiculous request since the cable runs are static and have not been touched, moved or manipulated in years.  After almost ruining supper in an effort to jump through DirecTV tech support hoops, we hung up on them and sat down to eat.

By now, I had less than an hour to pickup the prescription, so I grabbed my purse and drove to the store.  I got as far as the pharmacy counter, where the assistant recognized me and had the prescription ready for me, but when I opened my purse, my billfold was missing.  I had left it in the van because I stopped at Starbucks after work for a mocha frappacino treat for the drive home.  Now I had to return home for my billfold and repeat the trip back to the pharmacy, a wasted trip, time and gas.  When I returned home the third time, Terry had solved the satellite system glich.  With our excessive heat and drought conditions, the ground supporting our satellite dish pole has dried up so far down into the ground, that the pole can now be easily moved back and forth and twisted on it’s concrete base.  One of our dogs could have bumped into it and messed up the alignment.  Terry used the signal strength meter diagnostics channel on the satellite receiver to dial the dish back in.

Hoping that would be the final challenge of the week solved for the moment, I called Dad just after seven o’clock and told him to head my way.  I gathered up my camera equipment, my pocket star atlas, a large hardcover edition of Backyard Astronomy (to review Milky Way info), my purse (with billfold) and a lidded glass of cool water.  I asked Dad to drive this weekend, volunteering to drive next weekend for the July club meeting.  The hour jaunt to Louisburg passed quickly and we arrived at Powell just moments after sunset.  The evening cooled off nicely, but remained calm, clear and surprisingly dry.  In fact, we experienced no dew (the bane of telescope optics) until after midnight.

Sterling Scope
Mike Sterling collimating his telescope while my dad attends.

Several club members were already present and setting up their scopes in the East Observing Field (click photo above for photos taken upon our arrival).  One member, Mike Sterling, introduced himself to me (asking if I was ‘the’ Jon Moss … apparently my name is known, if not my face or gender, from my blogging).  He was in the process of collimating his 20-inch Dobsonian.  My dad provided an extra pair of eyes to help finish.  Mike also gave us a color brochure published by Astronomy magazine of the illustrated Messier catalog.  This will come in handy in the future when I really get serious about an observing award.

Star Party Theme: Star Charts
Star Party Theme: Star Charts/Atlases

The theme for this month’s star party centered around star charts and atlases.  David Hudgins setup a table displaying several popular and easy-to-use books, visual aids and posters.  I indicated to David I already owned the Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas and a smaller version of the wheel night sky star guide (the circular atlas resting on top of the poster in the upper left hand corner of the table shown in the photo above).

Dad and I wondered among the scopes, waiting for twilight to fade and the stars to emerge.  Saturn and Mars, along with Spica and Arcturus appeared very early and most of the scopes honed in on our ringed neighbor.  By 10:30 pm, the skies had darkened enough to begin hunting for some of the brighter Messier objects.  Mike graciously asked me (several times over the course of the evening) what I wanted to observe next.  I drew a blank every time because my goal had been to see the Milky Way, not any specific object viewable in a scope.   He obligingly filled in the blank by touring through clusters, nebulae and a galaxy found in the constellation Sagittarius, Scorpius, Hercules and Ursa Major.   I tweeted the objects as we found them so I would have a record of what we saw and when.

Coathanger
Brocchi’s Cluster, also known as the Coathanger: a conspicuous asterism easily seen with binoculars in the constellation Vulpecula (via Wikipedia)

My dad and I also used his binoculars just to see what we could see with them (as opposed to a scope).  The highlight of that side project included finding Brocchi’s Cluster (more commonly known by the asterism ‘the Coathanger’).  One of the other club members used the Summer Triangle as an aid to locating the Coathanger.  As stated in the Wikipedia article: “It is best found by slowly sweeping across the Milky Way along an imaginary line from the bright star Altair toward the even brighter star Vega. About one third of the way toward Vega, the Coathanger should be spotted easily against a darker region of the Milky Way. The asterism is best seen in July-August and north of 20° north latitude it is displayed upside down (as in the picture above) when it is at its highest point.”

* Update * (added after original publication):

I completely spaced out tweeting during the eleven o’clock hour.  During this time, Mike disconnected the Goto electronics on his telescope and set me to star hopping for objects near Sagittarius.  The first one he tested me with was finding two small globular clusters a small hop away from the gamma star in Sagittarius (the star the delineates the spout of the teapot).  If I could find these two clusters, Mike told me I should be able to see both of them at the same time in the eyepiece’s field of view.  After about five minutes, I spied a couple of small fuzzy balls, not as distinct as the surrounding background stars, but I thought they might be the clusters.  Mike confirmed I had found them by doing a ‘happy dance’ and sing-songing ‘she found them, she found them’ for all to hear.  The designations for these clusters are NGC 6522 and 6528.

Mike next set me to finding either M69 or M70 (also hanging out in Sagittarius, but in the bottom of the Teapot).  I glanced at his star chart and used his excellent Telrad finderscope (which had a nice large field of view and an easy-to-use red bullseye) to quickly locate one of the Messier objects (probably M69).  Again Mike did a happy dance and song.

Mike went looking for another globular cluster, this time between Sagittarius and Scorpius, designated as NGC 6380.  I found this one especially interesting because of it’s apparent close proximity to a star.

The third test proved my undoing.  Mike moved his scope to Antares in Scorpius and set me to finding M4.  I didn’t review his star chart and spent several minutes attempting to find it.  Eventually, I gave up and Mike located it.

Teapot Asterism (for Sagittarius constellation)
Teapot Asterism (for Sagittarius constellation)

Despite all the mesmerizing Messier distractions, I did succeed in observing the vast sweep of our Milky Way Galaxy.  I learned a couple of cool memory aids and bits of trivia about finding the ‘heart’ of the galaxy and the path it takes.  Cygnus, the swan constellation, also sometimes known as the ‘Northern Cross,’ flies along the Milky Way, pointing directly to the heart of the galaxy.  To find the Milky Way’s heart, locate the Teapot (an asterism for the constellation Sagittarius), visible along the southern horizon during July and August, and imagine steam rising from the spout.

I even attempted to photograph the Milky Way using my simple tripod and DSLR camera, but without an equitorial mount of some kind with a tracking system and the digital photo editing software (to stack multiple repetitive exposures), the best I could accomplish was a three or four second exposure (using ISO 800) and fiddling with the brightness/contrast after downloading:

Steaming Teapot
Steaming Teapot (tilted slightly so that the Milky Way
appears centered/parallel to the frame of the photo).

I also took photos of Cygnus swimming in the Milky Way, the Summer Triangle, the Big Dipper over the dome of the observatory and several of the southern horizon.  To see the entire album, click on the photo at the top of this blog.

Soon after 12:30 a.m., Dad and I thanked Mike Sterling for the guided tour of the summer sky.  We packed up our gear and drove the hour home, where I finally drifted off to sleep after two o’clock with visions of Messier objects dancing in my head.

Dad and I had a blast and my husband is now having second thoughts about  staying home last night.  Many thanks to David Hudgins, Mike Sterling and the other members of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City for throwing a fun mid-summer star party.

Heat Bubble Bursts Just in Time for Summer Stargazing

Powell ObservatorySaturday evening I headed south to Louisburg to volunteer for my second scheduled night of the 2012 Powell Observatory public season.  My dad decided to tag along, to enjoy the show and help keep me awake for the long drive home.  We left Lansing about twenty minutes after five and my car’s external thermometer reported 106 to 107 degrees, which has been our afternoon average for about a week now, give or take two or three degrees either way.  We stopped in Bonner Springs to grab a quick, cool sandwich from Subway and returned to the highway just shortly after six o’clock.  I needed to be at Powell Observatory by seven o’clock to help prepare the facility for the weekly public program and observing night.

As we approached Louisburg from the north, I noticed a definite increase in the wind, so much so that my car was jostled several times.  At the same time, I noticed a significant drop in the external temperature.  By the time I exited US-69, the thermometer read 92 degrees, and was still falling.  Except for early mornings the past couple of weeks, I had not seen or felt such low temperatures while the sun still shone.  I pulled into the west observing field parking area and realized I was again the first person to arrive.  Since the temperature had dropped, I turned off the car and opened all the windows.  The breeze felt incredibly refreshing.

My team leader arrived within a few minutes and I received my Powell Observatory ‘Staff’ T-shirt, which I changed into as soon as the building was unlocked.  I helped setup the class room for the program, ‘Sounds of Space.’  Another ASKC member arrived and setup his ten-inch Dobsonian for solar observing and I caught a glimpse of some great sunspots before our public guests began arriving.  The clouds provided some dramatic solar observing situations.

Pre sunset from Powell Observatory
Click image for more sunset photos from Powell Observatory

I repeated my role as gatekeeper and accepted donations from the public and queried them for their ZIP codes to record for future grant petitions.  The first group of twenty-five guests began the ‘Sounds of Space’ program at 8:30 p.m., but I soon had at least that many waiting for the second showing. At one point as I sat waiting for more guests to arrive, what I thought was a stray dog wandered into the observing field, soon followed by three horses, two with riders and a third colt between them.  They trotted across the field to the west, with the dog trailing after, riding off into the sunset … literally.

Constellation Scorpius
Constellation Scorpius

As the sky continued to darken, despite a few wispy clouds, we opened the dome so those waiting for the next program could observe Saturn and a globular cluster found in the constellation Scorpius.  I didn’t get a chance to look at the cluster through the 30-inch scope, but I believe they looked at M4, which is near the bright star Antares.

We ended up having nearly ninety public guests Saturday evening and ran a third showing of our program.  After the last two guests had left the dome a bit after eleven o’clock, I quickly snuck a peak at the Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra, one of the Messier Objects I’ve been trying go get a glimpse of for quite some time.  Lyra is also home to the very bright star Vega, one of the three stars that form the Summer Triangle.

As the final guests drove away, my team members and I began cleaning the building and storing chairs, tables and other items for the next Saturday.  I signed myself out of the Observatory at 11:35 and gathered up my dad for the long drive home.  He related information he’d gleaned from another team members about various types of Dobsonian telescopes and helped keep me alert as we sped north towards Leavenworth County.

Next week, we present a program on ‘Our Amazing Moon’ and the following week we’ll pose the question ‘Is There Life Out There?’  We look forward to showing you the astronomical sights (and sounds).

Until then, Keep Looking Up!

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.

I Spy the Night Sky

I stepped outside just before 9:00 pm to let the dogs out and shocked myself with the sight of actual stars, something I haven’t seen in weeks (it seems) with the unrelenting cloud cover, rain and thunderstorms plaguing the Heart of America this month.  I grabbed my camera and tripod and setup just east of my mailbox, hoping to capture photographic evidence of the overwhelming light pollution saturating my neighborhood.

Due North (from in front of my mailbox)
Bambi Court Due North (from in front of my mailbox)

Not only does everyone on my court leave every outside light on, they feel compelled to illuminate their driveways, fences, sidewalks, trees, boats, etc., etc.  The clouds in the above picture are actually illuminated by the glow from the Lansing Correctional Facility (just a half mile north of my neighborhood).

Turning around 180 degrees on the tripod, and flipping the camera 90 degrees to the horizontal, I snapped a shot of my new ‘bright night light’ recently installed at the corner of Bambi Court and Fawn Valley:

New 'Bright Night Light' (Installed at the corner of Fawn Valley & Bambi Court)
New 'Bright Night Light' (Installed at the corner of Fawn Valley & Bambi Court)

Again, the neighbors to my south, on the south side of Fawn Valley, seem to be in competition with the Bambi Court Extreme Illumination Foundation.

I could barely see the handle of the big dipper, so I thought I’d try experimenting with long exposures using the Pentax K100D.  There was no wind where I was standing, even though I could see the thin wispy clouds moving casually from west to east across the backdrop of the Big and Little Dippers.  I set the camera to Shutter Priority Mode and selected a six second exposure for a half dozen shots of the northwestern, north and northeastern skies.  The most dramatic shot, after autocorrecting with basic photo editing software (and I apologize for the greenness of the resulting photo), follows:

Bits of Ursa Minor and Draco (behind the clouds)
Bits of Ursa Minor and Draco (behind the clouds)

I packed up the camera and tripod and thought about heading to bed.  I tried to read more from the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide but gave up around ten o’clock.  I got up to let the dogs out one final time and, as I always do, I looked up when I stepped outside.  I always look up.  The clouds had cleared away more and I could clearly see the Big and Little Dippers from my back patio.  I grabbed the tripod and camera again for some more experimental shots using an exposure of fifteen seconds.  The following two photos show Ursa Minor and Major in one shot:

Ursa Minor and Major (Polaris is at 1 o'clock compared to the tree sillouette bottom center)
Ursa Minor and Major (Polaris is at 1 o'clock compared to the tree sillouette bottom center)
Ursa Major and Minor
Ursa Major and Minor

And there I will leave you to dream of the stars.

Good night and sleep tight!

Second Saturday Saturn

Despite a pre-weekend forecast for thunderstorms, Saturday stubbornly stayed humid (to the point of Midwestern Mugginess), windy (gotta love that Gulf air from the south) and sunny (well, more hazy than clear, but not really overcast).  After walking Apollo shortly after sunrise, I resolved to remain indoors and further test my new central air conditioner.  I wiled away the day with housework, reading and movies (three of them, or was it four?).

I finished watching Centurion via Netflix streaming (aka Watch Instantly) around nine o’clock.  I relinquished the remote to my husband so he could watch either UFC or F1 and headed north to my Dad’s house for some moon and Saturn observing.

I left the Meade ETX-90 with him last week to see if it needed a tune-up for it’s drive mechanism.  I found some helpful websites and he did crack open the case to confirm everything looked in good shape (nothing obviously broken or breaking).  So, tonight’s experiment involved attempting an accurate polar (or equatorial) mounting of the ETX on the field tripod.  Before the sun set, he had leveled and oriented the telescope per the instructions for the telescope, tripod and Autostar computer controller.

The libration of the Moon over a single lunar month.
The libration of the Moon over a single lunar month.

I arrived to a darker sky with less haze than I observed last week.  The moon had about a third of a crescent.  Dad had the telescope tracking the moon (for several minutes) so I enjoyed reviewing the craters visible along the terminator.  Absolutely stunning!  I really should have grabbed the digital camera out of my car and snapped a few photos.

Somehow, we disrupted the Autostar and lost the date/time and tracking as we fumbled in the dark.  We spent some time realigning the telescope using the Easy align feature of the Autostar, first confirming and centering the telescope in the ‘home’ position with Polaris visible through the eyepiece.  Unfortunately, the stock viewfinder that came with the ETX-90 is unusable in the polar mount ‘home’ position because the telescope is 90 degrees to the base.  You can’t get your head between the end of the telescope and the top of the drive mechanism!  I have a remedy for this coming soon.  On Friday I ordered a red dot finderscope from Celestron that I hope will eliminate this problem.

Bootes
Bootes

The first star on the alignment procedure was Arcturus (in the constellation Bootes), easily found in the northeastern-eastern sky by following the arc of the Big Dipper, and the brightest star in the northern hemisphere and fourth brightest star in the night sky (only Sirius appeared brighter last night in the southeastern night sky).  The second stop on the alignment tour asked for Capella.  I used the Field Guide to the Stars and Planets that I checked out from the Kansas City Public Library last week for a star chart containing that star.   I learned that Capella is one of the brighter stars in the constellation Auriga (and later at home I learned Capella is also the sixth brightest star in the night sky and third brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere.

Auriga
Auriga

Even though Capella is bright, with the moon in the same region of the sky, with increasing haziness and wind, I could only see with my naked eye one other star in Auriga — the beta star in that constellation.  I hesitantly told dad, who was steering the telescope with the Autostar and the viewfinder, that the right-most bright star above the moon was probably Capella.  He centered it and we were ‘aligned’ again.  Then we told the Autostar to ‘go to’ Saturn.  The ETX got close, or close enough for us to find it through the light pollution (courtesy of the southeast sky and Leavenworth, Lansing and Kansas City), the increasing haziness and the tree limbs of the tall trees along the eastern edge of dad’s property.

We observed Saturn for fifteen or twenty minutes, trying various eyepieces and barlows.  I had forgotten to check before leaving my laptop the location of Titan in relation to Saturn so I can’t confirm or deny whether I actually saw the moon Titan.  What amazed me about this observation period was the ability to continue to observe Saturn through the telescope, even through tree limbs and clouds!  I often couldn’t find Saturn with my naked eye, yet the telescope tracked it nearly flawlessly (so long as I didn’t use too high a magnification eyepiece).

We packed up the telescope once we could no longer see any stars with our eyes.  Even the moon was shrouded in haze and thin clouds.

Once I returned home, I re-researched polar mounting the ETX on the field tripod.  My dad had read and thought the latitude adjust on the tripod meant you had to subtract your current latitude from 90 degrees.  So, instead of setting the adjustment equal to our latitude (of 39 degrees), we tried setting it to 51 degrees.  I did notice that when the telescope attempted to find Arcturus, it was pointed northeast but down below Arcturus by quite a bit.  So, I re-read the field tripod’s user manual (via PDF from Meade’s web site) when I got home and confirmed that you set the tripod to your actual latitude, no math necessary.  We’ll just have to try it again later.  We also plan to re-train the drives in the ETX-90 per instructions in the Autostar manual.