Just A Sun-Day Drive Around the Galactic Neighborhood

This week I’m tackling the subject of our Sun’s motion through the Milky Way Galaxy and approximately how long one orbit is.

The Milky Way Galaxy has two major spiral arms, named the Perseus Arm and the Scutum-Centaurus Arm.  There are also smaller less pronounced arms, including the Sagittarius Arm, the Norma Arm, The Local Arm (aka the Orion Spur) and the Outer Arm.  Our solar system resides in the Orion Spur (Local Arm), branching off from the larger Perseus Arm.  During the summer months in the northern hemisphere, we predominantly observe the Sagittarius Arm, including the galactic center, which appears as steam from the Tea Pot asterism in the constellation Sagittarius.  (Gaherty, 2016)  Over the winter, we’re looking away from the galactic center and through the Perseus Arm.  (Comins, 396)

Artist’s concept of what astronomers now believe is the overall structure of the spiral arms in our Milky Way galaxy. The sun resides within a minor spiral arm of the galaxy, called the Orion Arm. Image via NASA and Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Just A Sun-Day Drive Around the Galactic Neighborhood”

The Majority of Americans Can’t See the Milky Way Anymore



Light pollution update.  Not looking good for looking up for 80% of us in the United States.

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!



Watch a staggeringly beautiful time-lapse video of Yosemite National Park


I’ve been to Yosemite twice. I loved it. It would be the only reason I would ever move to California.

[vimeo 35396305 w=500 h=281]

Yosemite HD from Project Yosemite on Vimeo.

This stunning time lapse combines several of my favorite photography subjects into four breath taking minutes: sunrises, sunsets, moon rise, Milky Way with meteors, nature, landscapes, etc.

And if four minutes wasn’t enough, try the five minute sequel from Project Yosemite:

[vimeo 87701971 w=500 h=281]

Yosemite HD II from Project Yosemite on Vimeo.

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.

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.

Adventures on My First Science Convention: Day Three

John Reed leads a workshop on widefield astrophotography with a DSLR at MSRAL (Sun 03 Jun 2012)

After a handulf of hours sleeping, I drug myself out of bed early Sundy morning.  Rather than eating breakfast, I composed my blog post recapping Saturday at the MSRAL convention.  I published at ten after eight o’clock, leaving me less than an hour to drive to UMKC from Lansing.  The last day of the convention consisted of a morning dedicated to three workshops.  Not knowing what I might need, I packed up my laptop and my DSLR camera and zipped down I-70, arriving with about ten minutes to spare.

I burdened myself with my laptop bag, camera backpack, purse and water bottle and trudged up the stairs to the Student Union.  I opted not to take the additional four flights of stairs on the interior of the building, taking full advantage of the elevator to the top floor.  I planted myself on the first row (as I’ve done each day of the convention) so I wouldn’t have any trouble hearing or seeing (or taking photographs like the one above).

First Workshop: Widefield Astrophotography with a DSLR by John Reed

Very interesting workshop on using consumer camera equipment (a Canon DSLR and a 200 mm telephoto with an AstroTrac mount) and some post-production work with Photoshop for stunning astrophotography.

Second Workshop: Variable Star Research with Modern Amateur Equipment by Jim Roe

The middle workshop presented by Jim Roe dealt with variable stars and doing some hands on scientific observation and research.  I got to know his old friend Z Umi (a variable star in the Little Dipper).

Third Workshop: Successful Web Cam Astronomy by David Kolb

David Kolb answering questions after his Successful Web Cam Astronomy workshop at MSRAL (Sun 03 Jun 2012)

The final workshop of the day got really hands on, for those who wanted to participate in the step-by-step process of massaging web cam videos taken of Saturn to produce a nice crisp stacked image.  The entire presentation will be uploaded to David’s website (Sunflower Astronomy) in the near future.

Final Musings on the Convention

I learned so much and met some great people.  I have many fascinating ideas and concepts revolving through my brain and many new projects I’m inspired to pursue.  I look forward to attending similar conferences when they pass through the area again.

My Star Gazing Journal

Transferred from MySpace Blog (originally posted October 3, 2010):

Yes, I’m back.  Converting my hibernating blog from occasional theological musings to my star gazing renaissance journal.

Decades ago, I lived miles from anywhere, out in the country, far from city lights.  The nights were filled with hooting owls, howling coyotes, chirping crickets, and thousands of stars.  Half the year the nights are longer than the days so I spent many hours looking up.  In high school, I even had my own telescope.

Then, I went away to college.  I took my telescope with me, but Wichita exploded with light and Lake Afton could have been twelve parsecs away for all the good it did me, since I had no vehicle.  Eventually, I got married, had kids, moved out to a small town, but northeast of Wichita, so light pollution still crowded out the stars.  And toddlers zapped me of all my energy.

Almost fifteen years ago, I relocated back to my home county (Leavenworth) but chose to live in Lansing rather than the country, deciding a good school was the best option for my children’s educational needs.  Now, both of them are in Texas, attending college, and I’m an empty nester.

This past weekend, I said farewell to the first half of my life (I’m basing this on both grandmothers living to age 90 and 88) and embarked on the downhill slide to eternity.

Jupiter this October 2010 is so bright it shines nearly as bright as the moon some nights.  With binoculars I could see three or four of the moons as well as Jupiter.  With such a beautiful object hanging over me each evening, I started looking at telescopes on Craig’s List.  I made the mistake of e-mailing my dad one of the entries (which I specifically told him NOT to buy) but come my birthday, this past Saturday, what did he show up with but a very nice telescope, tripod, several eyepiece lenses, a digital camera and sundry other accessories.  I was flabbergasted, speechless, overjoyed, overwhelmed, excited … you name it, that’s what I was feeling.

Getting my brain to switch gears and re-learn all the astronomical jargon after more than 30 years proved daunting at first, but I quickly picked it back up.  I went in search of other amateur astronomers (hoping for some in the Leavenworth area) and stumbled upon the web site for the local Kansas City club.  And, I discovered that most Saturday nights were open to the public for programs and viewing at Powell Observatory (near Lindsburg, about 20 minutes south of Overland Park on US 69).  I asked my dad if he had any plans for that evening, he said no, so I dragged my husband and my dad down to the observatory for a program on telescopes and the opportunity to look at Jupiter and its moons through a 30 inch telescope.  Very impressive and fun.

I took my birthday gift (and all the accessories) with me.  It was a good thing, too, because Terry couldn’t wait in line as long as was needed and wouldn’t have been able to climb the steep steps to the large telescopes eyepiece (his back, ribs and ankle have been problematic lately).  Dad and I quickly setup my telescope and found Jupiter (easy to do since it’s the brightest object in the sky this week since there is no moon right now).  That allowed Terry to view Jupiter almost as well as through the large telescope.

The night sky over Powell Observatory is vibrant with the Milky Way and all the stars you could hope to view.  Excellent location away from the Kansas City lights and nothing to the south to disrupt the view.

After returning home from Powell, I spent a couple of hours learning how to align my telescope.  I quickly learned my backyard is not conducive to any extensive star gazing.  Overlooking that fact that I’m only a few blocks south of the Lansing Correctional Facility (and it’s very bright very orange lights), my house dominates the east side of the propery (the south end is a tall two stories with a peaked roof.  The west side of my backyard has two pine trees, one of which is extremely tall (close to twice as tall as my house) and a maple tree (that’s about 2/3 as tall as the pine tree right next to it).  My neighbor immediately two my north is at a higher elevation than me (probably at least ten feet higher) and has a very large round tree in the middle of their back yard, which blocks the ability to site on Polaris from the north half of my backyard.  Every star the telescope wanted to use to align the Alt/Az motors on was blocked by trees.

So, at midnight, I gave up and came back in and went to bed.  I spent Sunday learning more about the Autostar hand device, the digital camera and dialing in my viewfinder.  I took a couple of photos but the batteries died in the digital camera after only three snapshots.  Adding the weight of the camera to the end of the telescope also jacked with my viewfinder alignment, so I decided to worry about digital photography at a later time.

After church, I drove out on west 4-H Road to the ‘new’ Lansing community park (named after our current seemingly permanently elected mayor who shall remain nameless in my blog).  I was pleased to note that the park had no street lights and no mature trees around the central ‘high spot that included a circular sidewalk area that looked reasonably level.  I determined to return at sunset and try again to properly align the telescope.

I got packed up and arrived at the park at 6:45 p.m., about fifteen minutes before the sun set.  I patiently waited for the sky to darken.  Jupiter, of course, showed up within fifteen minutes of sunset.  The first actual star I saw was Altair, soon followed by Vega and Deneb.  Three stars in three different constellations almost directly overhead that form a triangle easily seen by the naked eye.

Once I started to see the Milky Way (which is always a good thing for good star gazing), I again attempted to align the telescopes motors through various stars in the Autostar device.  I was unsuccessful using stars.  After an hour or more, I finally gave up and manually located (without using the motors) Jupiter and then used a feature of the Autostar device to synchronize on that known object (Jupiter) and allow the motors to track Jupiter for continuous viewing.

I let the telescope track (or attempt to track) Jupiter for a few minutes and began to notice Jupiter drifting off to my left.  So I began to wonder if the telescope’s gears or motors may not be functioning at 100%.  Since I had successfully aligned on Jupiter, I attempted to find a couple of other objects that were easily identified, and then return to Jupiter to check (and double-check) the alignment.  Each time I attempted to return to Jupiter, the left-right alignment was off by quite a bit.

Since the temperature this evening was dropping fast (down into the mid 40s) I decided to call it a night and carefully packed up the equipment and returned home to write this journal.

My action items for this week are to attempt to train or re-train the telescope’s drives (per the instruction manual) to see if that improves the slewing, tracking and alignment issues.  If not, then I will call Meade, the manufacturer, for advice or suggestions on servicing and/or repairing the drives.

I was just a bit disappointed in not being able to view or find the comet, but I have time (it will reach optimum brightness on October 20th).  But viewing Jupiter in all its glory was well worth the time spent getting centered.

Keep looking up!