Comet and Crescent Moon Sail into the Sunset

Comet PanSTARRS (30 mins after Sunset, March 7-20, 2013)You can tell it’s spring time in Kansas by my frustration with clouds and astronomical observing.  I don’t grumble much, so long as the clouds provide relief for our record drought, as they did last weekend with two days of good rain on top of the melting snow left over from Winter Storms Q and Rocky.  I decided to skip, again, the ASKC‘s Messier Marathon, scheduled for Monday evening, mostly because it fell on a week night, but also because the clouds did not appear to be cooperating.  And the drive home, westward, did not fill me with confidence for my odds of spotting comet PanSTARRS and the thin crescent moon, potentially one of the youngest I’d yet observed.

Upon arriving home, clouds still obscured the sun sporadically to the west.  My husband and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the local Arby’s and I walked Apollo upon returning home, despite the brisk wind out of the northwest.  I had just sat down to watch something with Terry when I checked out the window one last time.  Miraculously, the western horizon appeared cloud free.  I handed Terry the remote, shoved on my boots, grabbed the camera, binoculars and tripod and ran to the van.  As I drove west along Eisenhower Road, I received a call from my Dad, who was back in Lansing, at the spot where we observed the Transit of Venus last June.  I told him I was heading to a small rural church parking lot at the corner of Eisenhower and County Shop Road, because it has slightly less light pollution than the hill overlooking Main Street (K-7/US-73) in Lansing. 

I arrived about ten minutes before eight o’clock.  I uncapped my binoculars and took a quick look at the thin crescent moon, one of the slimmest ones I’ve yet observed.  Later, I calculated it was also the youngest I’ve observed, just twenty-nine (29) hours old.  Here’s the photo I took of it fifteen minutes later, after I’d setup the tripod and put the telephoto lens on my camera: 

Young Crescent Moon (8:04 p.m. CDT 03/12/2013)

I continued to take photographs for another twenty-five minutes but never did find the comet with my naked eyes.  Using my binoculars, I did locate comet PanSTARRS about a quarter after eight.  When I reviewed my photographs after downloading them to my computer, I realized I’d actually captured it earlier, in a photo taken one minute after the one shown above.  The best shot of the crescent moon and the comet came another fifteen minutes later though:

Click image for rest of album

I plan to keep trying for the rest of the week, or as long as comet PanSTARRS is visible.  I may even drive down to Powell Observatory Friday evening.  I read an announcement via the Astronomical Society of Kansas City‘s Twitter feed declaring a special pre-season opening of the observatory to view the comet. 

I called my dad back, since we’d gotten cut off by bad cell phone reception out in the county.  He confirmed his inability to spot the comet without optical aid and wished me a good night.  I packed up the equipment and returned home.  I fed the dogs while I downloaded the photos to Terry’s computer and quickly reviewed them, selecting a few of the better shots to upload to Flickr to share with family and friends.  By that time, I needed to hit the sack, so I left writing this blog until morning. 

Happy hunting to all of you this week.  Grab a pair of binoculars and look west, young men and women, look west for comet PanSTARRS. 

Bring binoculars to pick the comet out of the twilight low in the west. (Don’t expect it to look this obvious!) The scene is drawn for about 40° north latitude, and the Moon is placed for a viewer near the middle of North America.

A Most Unusual Comet

Astronomical Society of Kansas CityMy dad and I attended the March 2012 general meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City last night.  We arrived an hour early to attend separate meetings.  Dad sat in on the Astro 101 class.  March’s topic happened to be astrology of all things.  Here’s the blurb from the ASKC’s web site explaining it:

For March, the topic is: Astrology — that’s stargazing, right? So, do you do horoscopes? Say, what’s your sign?” Wha???? Huh???

Sooner or later you, as an amateur astronomer, will run into something like the comments above from a friend, co-worker, relative or casual acquaintance who thoroughly confuses astrology and astronomy. Our own “Madame Ursula” (aka Jackie Beucher) will enlighten us all on the Zodiac, sun signs and what it doesn’t mean. Come join us at the March 24th Astro 101 session.

I attended a brain storming session for the teams responsible for administering the public nights at the Powell Observatory.  Lots of good ideas were presented.

Dad and I reunited just before seven o’clock and chatted briefly with a couple we’ve known for years (and who happen to live in Leavenworth County as well).  We seated ourselves with a couple of minutes to spare.

After some brief comments from the President on the ongoing Messier Marathon down at the dark site and an exercise in democracy (another paper ballot vote on a by-laws change), the Education Director took the stage and presented “April 2012 Sky Events” which actually spanned the next several months.

Transit of Venus (2004 - Wikipedia)

The highlight of his presentation proved to be the once-in-a-lifetime chance to observe the Transit of Venus on June 5th.  I took mental notes, realizing I would need to purchase or engineer a solar filter for my ETX-90 in order to observe the transit.  I only get one shot at this, because the next time this happens, in December 2117, I will be long gone.  This morning, while researching solar filters, I found a helpful web site on safe solar viewing which I wanted to share with all of you.  You don’t need a telescope to observe, but please take precautions (to avoid damaging your eyes) if you plan to observe any solar events (eclipses, sunspots, transits, etc.).

The main event of the March general meeting culminated in a presentation by Fred Bruenjes.  His riveting account of discovering, just last month, Comet/2012 C2 (Bruenjes) impressed all of the audience.  Follow this link for a similar recitation via Fred’s own web site,  Fred plans to continue comet hunting because, in his own words, the one he discovered was ‘defective.’  I disagree.  It wasn’t defective, just unique.  The most unusual feature of his comet is its orbit, which goes in the opposite direction of all the other solar system objects (planets, asteroids and comets).

On the ride home, I regretted leaving my camera and tripod lounging in the band room because I missed a stellar (pardon the pun) opportunity to photograph the crescent moon, Jupiter and Venus.  I will get another chance this evening, when the moon is slightly larger and much closer to Jupiter.  Click here to see my photograph of the three objects taken early Friday evening.

If Only I Had a Retractable Roof Over My Bedroom

I couldn’t sleep.  Not surprisingly, insomnia occurs more frequently as I age.  Sometimes, an external force interferes with my snoozing, but I refuse to point fingers.

Laying in bed, staring at the vaulted ceiling in my bedroom, I wished I could wave a hand and temporarily retract the roof.  Then I’d be mostly above the treeline and able to setup the telescope for more comfortable viewing.

Sighing, I slipped on my clothes at 3:30 a.m. and retreated downstairs to the vaulted great room, grabbed the telescope I left mounted to the tripod there and took it outside.  I quickly realigned it roughly on Polaris and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  I surveyed the northern sky, quickly found Cassiopeia and Perseus, but the light pollution from the Lansing Correctional Facility and the tall trees in my northern neighbor’s yard didn’t help find Comet Hartley 2.  I think a field trip to Perry Lake may be in order for this weekend.

Turning to the southeast, I quickly spied Orion directly over my chimney.  I aimed the telescope at Orion’s belt and may have seen a monochromatic glimpse of the Orion Nebula in his sword.  Both Orion’s belt and sword contain many nebulae, but I need a darker sky to view them properly.  I survey Rigel (beta Orion – brightest star in Orion (left foot) and sixth brightest in the night sky); Betelgeuse (alpha Orion – 2nd brightest star in Orion (right shoulder) and 12th brightest in the night sky); and, Bellatrix (aka ‘the Amazon star’  (left shoulder).

If you draw a line through Orion’s belt, it points to two of the brightest stars in the sky:  Sirius (aka ‘the Dog star’ – the brightest star bar none and only 8.6 light years away) and Aldebaran (alpha Taurus and the 13th brightest star).

I turned the telescope to the west, where I found Jupiter peaking through the branches of one of my pine trees.  Yep, it was still there and still had moons, although one of the four I observed earlier was hidden behind Jupiter.

I forgot my sweater so after about thirty minutes I brought the telescope back in and should probably retreat back to my quiet dark bedroom.  Nah … my alarm goes off in two minutes (it’s now 4:58 a.m.)

Good morning!


I Can See Clearly Now … Or Not

The commute home provided false hopes for my star gazing this evening.  While light hazy stratus clouds filtered the sunlight sporadically, the skies looked promising as I traveled northward on K-7.

I stepped outside a few minutes ago to catch the moon before it set, but saw only gray clouds underlit with orange glow from the well lit Lansing Correctional Facility a few blocks north of my house.  I stepped out the front door and could still see Jupiter, but only for a few minutes as the clouds overtook even that bright object.  I spied no sliver of moon in the southwest or west.

Besides trying to locate Comet Hartley 2 (again), Earthsky earlier today mentioned Antares proximity to the moon.

Perhaps tomorrow evening will provide better weather and opportunities for gazing up and out and back in time.

9:00 pm update:  Let Apollo back in (I’d forgotten I’d let him out) and noticed a crystal clear sky.  However, Cassiopeia is dim as it hovers over the LCF.  If I can’t sleep or wake up early I’ll try for the comet then.

What a Difference a Week Makes …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Best Time to Spy Comet Hartley Two is Now

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

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

Happy comet hunting and keep looking up!

Terrestrial Triumps and Tragedies This Past Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep looking up!