Backyard Observing

Friday evening setup: tarp (to catch falling bits and pieces in the dark) and the base.

All last week, I looked forward to the weekend as a chance to get some astronomical observing accomplished. The weather forecast seemed too good to be true: Sunny and clear, highs in the mid 70s and lows in the 50s, with dew points in the upper 40s and lower 50s. My astronomy club hosted a club star party, but I did not want to lug the scope to Louisburg and share the observing grounds with a previously scheduled private party. Continue reading “Backyard Observing”

Autumn Arrives and Adventures in Astronomical Observing

Autumn arrived mid-week here in the Heart of America, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at the weather forecast:  Mid 90s and moderately high humidity.  Also with the change of the seasons, I retired my FitBit Charge (or rather it retired itself by falling apart) and upgraded to a Samsung Gear Fit2.  The new fitness tracker is spurring me on to be more active, although my sleep pattern hasn’t improved much. I can safely blame work (10 pm to 4 am conference call on a Saturday night/Sunday morning) and astronomy, which requires, well, dark skies, for my reduced snooze time.

Speaking of astronomy, I’ve upgraded, finally after two years of paralysis analysis, from the Meade ETX 90, gifted to me by my father in October 2010 (also, unsurprisingly the birth of this blog site), to an Orion SkyQuest XX14G.  Continue reading “Autumn Arrives and Adventures in Astronomical Observing”

Grande Finale to a Grand Weekend

I’m amazed at how much I accomplished this past weekend, especially considering my husband had major surgery less than three weeks ago.

Friday Evening

TalkingTolkienTwoTowersFriday night was our first venture out on a ‘date’ since the surgery.  I signed up for a free lecture and screening at the National World War I Museum and Memorial entitled “Talking Tolkien: The Two Towers.”  We arrived about fifteen minutes early to enjoy some hors d’oeuvres and drinks.  We retired to the auditorium and waited a few minutes.  At ten minutes or so after the hour, the lecturer strolled up to the podium and gave a meandering introduction of upcoming events in a clear effort to stall.  He wanted to give the people in the lobby time to finish eating.

His lecture on Tolkien’s experiences during the Battle of the Somme was quite brief and rushed, not at all what I had been hoping for.  He further devolved into a montage of photographs from the Museum’s collection delivered in the manner of a television show’s “Previously on …” wrap of the Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring.  You could clearly see where Tolkien (and probably Peter Jackson) got his inspiration for scenes from Middle Earth and the conflict immortalized in the Lord of the Rings.   After the lecture, the screening of The Two Towers began, for which Terry and I stayed only about thirty minutes before deciding the movie viewing experience was better at home.

Once back home, I decided to break out the Celestron C8 I had recently borrowed from my astronomy club.  Despite dire predictions, the sky remained perfectly clear so I looked forward to an evening of planetary observing, since all five visible planets are ripe for the plucking at this time of year.  I got everything attached to the tripod and manhandled it outside to my lower patio, giving it a quick leveling and orientation north so I could get through a polar alignment swiftly.  Then I just had to wait for darkness to fall enough for me to see Polaris with my naked eye.  Continue reading “Grande Finale to a Grand Weekend”

Tonight’s Adventure in Star Gazing with the Public

Tonight is my first night this year as a volunteer of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City in our public outreach efforts to introduce astronomical observing to the public.  Every Saturday night in May and through the end of October, we open up Powell Observatory to the public and provide education programs, solar observing, binocular observing and of course telescopic observing (weather and cloud cover permitting).  The weather forecast for this evening couldn’t be better.  See for yourself as we have our own weather station and sky cam broadcasting 24-hours a day.

Astronomy’s Sky this Week reports for tonight:

Saturday, May 14

•  The Moon moves approximately 13° eastward relative to the starry background every 24 hours, and its motion carries it near Jupiter this evening. From North America, the two appear within 5° of each other all night. They will be in conjunction at 6 a.m. EDT tomorrow morning, when our satellite passes 2° due south of the planet. Although the best views of the pair come with the naked eye or binoculars, don’t pass up the opportunity to observe Jupiter through a telescope. The giant planet’s disk currently spans 39″ and displays a wealth of atmospheric detail. All this week, Jupiter appears high in the south as darkness falls and doesn’t set until nearly 3 a.m. local daylight time. It shines at magnitude –2.2 — brighter than any other point of light in the night sky — against the backdrop of southern Leo.

While Sky and Telescope Sky at a Glance expands on: The two brightest things in the evening sky, the Moon and Jupiter, shine high just a few degrees apart this evening, as shown here. Third brightest is Mars, low in the southeast after dark.

So for a great time this evening, head south of Kansas City down US-69 to Louisburg and join me and several hundred other people as we take in the wonders of the night sky.

Keep Looking Up!



Find an Island of Stars at Powell Obsevatory Tomorrow Night

A quick shout-out to everyone in the Kansas City metro area to come on down to the Powell Observatory tomorrow night.

Our scheduled program is entitled “Island of Stars” and the weather looks very promising.

I volunteer as part of Team 2 (one of several teams staffed by members of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City).  I’m looking forward to meeting many new people and introducing them to the many wonders of the night sky.

More Powell Observatory Information:

The observatory is staffed by ASKC volunteers and is open to the public every Saturday night from the beginning of May through the end of October. The Star Bright Saturday Night Programs begin at dusk and include program presentations on astronomy, tours of the observatory, and (if the skies are clear) viewing through the various telescopes of the moon, planets, stars, star clusters and more! A donation of $6 per adult and $4 per child is suggested to help support the observatory and allow it to continue operations open to the public.

Hope to see you tomorrow night and always keep looking up!

Dew-Wop Star Hop

ASKC June star partyFriday turned into a very long day indeed.  I took the afternoon off to accompany my husband to a doctor’s visit to discuss the next steps in managing his condition.  That appointment went better than I thought it would and I’m grateful for the information and the prospects.  We will persevere.

We got back home with just thirty minutes to spare before venturing out again, this time a couple of miles west of us (on the other side of Lansing) to attend the grand opening of a new farmer’s market.  We’ve known the family that owns the farm for years, and we love to buy locally grown produce.  We didn’t stay long as I needed to research and prep for the star party at Powell.

I received the ‘all clear’ or ‘go ahead’ e-mail from the ASKC star party coordinator earlier in the afternoon.  I called my dad to see if he wanted to join me.  He had a conflict so I asked my husband.  He preferred to stay home.  So I was on my own.

First thing I needed to do was dust off the 8-inch Dob.  Then I attempted to collimate it.  Then I dialed in the finder scope.  I didn’t remember until later that I’d purchased, back in October, a new finder scope, so I missed the opportunity to try it out.  The weather forecast for the rest of the weekend doesn’t look good for more testing opportunities.

Next, I found my Astro Quest Observing checklist and started planning my overly ambitious observing list for Friday night’s star party.  I’ve been working on this observing award for nearly two years now.  I really need to step it up and get it done!  I got a bit distracted when I realized I hadn’t recorded some of the observations I made last fall and winter.  Eventually, I returned to those items I’ve yet to observe that would be the best candidates for an early June dark-of-the-moon night sky.  I used my Pocket Sky Atlas and the Android App SkySafari Plus on my Samsung Galaxy Note II to select twenty items.  I added these targets to a list in the app:

  • R CrB
  • R Leo
  • 48 Librae
  • Thuban (in Draco)
  • Adhafera (in Leo)
  • Sarin (in Hercules)
  • Owl Nebula (M 97)
  • Blinking Planetary Nebula
  • Ghost of Jupiter Nebula
  • Cat’s Eye Nebula
  • Sombrero Galaxy
  • Black Eye Galaxy
  • M 86 (in Virgo)
  • M 81 aka Bode’s Nebula
  • M 22 (in Sagittarius)
  • M 5
  • M 7 (aka Ptolemy’s Cluster)
  • IC 4665
  • NGC 6231
  • NGC 6210

I partially disassembled the Dob for transport, placing the tube in its carrying case.  I had some concern that the base would not fit in the trunk of my car, but it did, barely.  I discovered my portable emergency red light battery needed charging so I plugged it in a couple of hours before I needed to leave.  I found a lawn chair and a table I could take.  I forgot two items that in hindsight I should have brought with me:  1) the monopod for my binoculars (to reduce shaking while observing) and 2) Deep Woods Off or some other Deet laden bug spray.  I got everything into the car, except the charging battery, and watched the clock tick down to 7:30 p.m.

ASKC June star party at Powell ObservatoryThe drive to Powell Observatory near Louisburg took an hour, but I enjoyed listening to my audiobook and dodging Johnson County drivers.  I arrived to a gorgeous sunset (see photos above and at right).  I also noticed a baseball game in progress to the northwest of the observing field (you can see the field lights already on in the photo above).  These lights became an annoyance for the next two hours.

I opted to park in the parking light north of the observatory and across the street.  Several ASKC members were already setting up their telescopes east of the dome.  The parking lot to the west of the dome was filled with what I assumed to be a private party that had reserved the dome facilities for the evening.  It took me three trips to get the telescope and accessories from the car to the observing field.  While I made these trips, the star party coordinator informed me I could have driven my car around the dome onto the observing field to make my life easier.  But I excel at doing things the hard way.  Maybe next month I’ll be lazier.

I put the scope back together and checked the alignment of the finder scope.  Then I settled into my lawn chair to wait for darker skies.  Eventually, around 9:30 p.m., I got my binoculars out and waited for Venus, Mercury and Saturn to pop out in the twilight.  I observed all three of these planets with binoculars and with the 8-inch Dob.  I could clearly see that Mercury was half full (or is that more properly referred to as quarter illuminated?).

During this time (after sunset but before the ball field lights were extinguished), we saw the ISS pass over in the northern part of the sky.

I used my binoculars to locate M13 in Hercules and I used the scope to find M4 in Scorpius.  I roamed around the sky with my binoculars, relaxing in my lawn chair, getting increasingly annoyed by the brightness of the ball field lights.  I also started to notice an accumulation of dew on just about everything.  When I would pick up my binoculars and look through them, often I would see bright halos instead of pin pricks of starlight.  Any printouts I had sitting on my table quickly became sodden and unusable.

The ballgame finally wrapped up a few minutes before 10:30 p.m.  We all cheered when the lights finally died and we could let our eyes adjust to the dark.  Within fifteen minutes, I had found the Sombrero Galaxy (aka M 104) in the constellation Virgo.  This was my first chance to really field test using SkySafari Plus on my smartphone, using the night vision setting (red display) and the ability to zoom-in to match the field-of-view I saw through my scope’s eyepiece.  Made star hopping easier.  No more juggling my reading glasses, a red light flashlight and my Pocket Star Atlas.  To find the galaxy, I actually came up from the constellation Corvus (see chart above).

I had to abandon searching for dim nebula and the harder to find variable stars on my observing list because of the persistent haze that hung over the sky.  While I was grateful for the lack of wind, this also resulted in no movement of the thin clouds.  I had to focus on brighter objects.  I did observe, in my binoculars, the stars Thuban, Adhafera and Sarin, but I did not attempt R CrB or 48 Librae, which require better seeing conditions to locate via star hopping.

During the eleven o’clock hour, I set my sights on locating M5, a globular cluster, found in the constellation Serpens.  I’ve tried a couple of times in the past to locate this cluster, but there are no bright stars near it to guide you to it.  Since I’m trying to perfect my star hopping abilities (and didn’t bring my “goto” telescope with me), I again used the SkySafari Plus, zoomed in to with in a couple of degrees of the cluster, to find a suitable path among the faint stars.  At first I attempted from the east (my left) using some stars in the Serpens constellation, but I kept getting lost (or nowhere), so I changed tactics and thought I’d try coming ‘up’ from Libra.  No luck there either.

Finally, I moved to the west, to the right leg of the constellation Virgo, and used stars tau and 109 to draw a line due east (to the left) directly to M5.  Huzzah!  I found it at 11:30 p.m.  I observed the cluster, as best I could with the less than stellar seeing conditions, and sat savoring the triumph of finally locating this illusive globular cluster.

Several other star party attendees had started packing up their equipment, probably because of the dew and the haze.  I wanted to stick it out, at least until midnight, so I quickly scanned through my observing list and decided to investigate the 13th constellation in the Zodiac (or rather, one of the thirteen constellations that cross the ecliptic) and find an open cluster, IC 4665.  It should have been visible with binoculars, but I had little hope of that.  Ophiuchus, also known as the Serpent Bearer, is a large constellation between Sagittarius and Scorpius.  I used the nu and tau stars to guide me to the open cluster.  I could see it well (although it barely fit in the field of view) via the scope, but could not discern it through my binoculars, which kept fogging over and became more and more useless as the night progressed.

I still had a few minutes to go before tomorrow arrived, so I turned the scope northward, to Ursa Major, hoping to find the Owl Nebula. Unfortunately, looking north from Powell Observatory means looking back through the entirety of Kansas City and all its glorious star-obscuring light pollution.  I made a half-hearted attempt to locate the nebula and decided enough was enough.

I switched on my portable battery and it’s ’emergency’ red light (in non-flashing mode) so I could see my observing site well enough to start packing up the equipment.  Everything was soaked in dew.  Thank goodness my Pocket Sky Atlas is designed for moisture-laden environments.  The paper it’s printed on isn’t traditional paper.  I suspect a high content of plastic.

Three trips later, I had everything back in the car.  I pulled out of the parking lot at six minutes past midnight and pulled into my driveway an hour later.  I went straight to bed.

Final thoughts?  I was able to check off three of the twenty items from my observing target list.  Not nearly as many as I had hoped to find, but given the conditions, I’m satisfied with the results.  I’ll give it another go next month and as I can from my backyard, weather permitting.

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.

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.