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”
I stepped outside at a quarter past five o’clock to gauge the quality of the skies. Clear, but not as clear as yesterday’s crisp clean views of Venus, Jupiter, Orion and the waning Moon. Not that I complained. I keep the camera and tripod close to the front door so it’s just a matter of a minute or two before I can snap a couple of photos to share.
Both of these photos taken between 5:25 and 5:30 a.m. this morning, so here’s a star chart to help you identify the planets, stars and constellations from my location at that time looking east-southeast.
Tomorrow morning, the waning moon catches up to Venus in Cancer and as an extra treat, I plan to search for M44, the Beehive Cluster, found in the chest of that Crab constellation. This open cluster is visible to the naked eye and even more so to binoculars. Perhaps my camera, with the telephoto lens mounted, won’t be too shabby either.
I rode a rollercoaster of challenges this past weekend. On the high side, my son and daughter-in-law drove up from North Texas for a visit. On the down side, despite the worst drought in recorded history, cloud cover prevented me from observing the Perseid meteor shower Saturday night/Sunday morning and the occultation of Venus by the Moon Monday afternoon. The Ides of August dawned clear this morning, the first time in nearly a week I’ve been able to see the morning planets and waning crescent moon shining brightly above the eastern horizon.
I only hit the snooze on my alarm once, because I stayed up too late with Dob and then decided to watch the latest episode of Warehouse 13 instead of going to bed like I should have. My adventures in the backyard with the XT8 and the Intelliscope handheld computer device determined one of the sensors (probably the altitude one) is not reporting to the device as it should. I’ll have to troubleshoot that situation Thursday evening. I attempted to star hop from Deneb to the North American nebula, but seeing (visibility) proved too poor and I need more practice with the XT8 so I know which direction I’m going (what I see in the eyepiece v. what I see in the finderscope v. what I see on my star atlas).
Before the alarm could buzz a second time, I got up, got dressed, grabbed my purse and left the house. I drove the van a couple of blocks up the hill from my house to the dead end in front of City Hall, where I have a completely unobstructed view of the eastern horizon (I routinely see airplanes take off and land at KCI and can usually see the control tower as well). I retrieved the camera and tripod from the back of the van and had it setup, with the normal lens attached, just shortly after 5:30 a.m. I took a few wide field shots to capture all three planets and the moon.
The above photo immediately took me back six months, when I went hunting for Mercury the first time. Last Febriary, I chased after a similar lineup of Jupiter, Venus, the new moon, and Mercury, during the evening hours, looking towards the west. Now, I’m on the flipside, for real. Warm, instead of cold. East, instead of west. Dying moon, instead of newborn moon. Mercury rising, not falling.
I love seeing Orion rising in the east. To me, the Hunter heralds the approaching fall, my absolute favorite season of the year. His two canine pals nipped at his heels (Canis Minor and Canis Major), illustrating we truly are in the ‘Dog Days’ of Summer.
I took a few more shots of all three planets in one frame, then zoomed in on Mercury and the Moon, trying to capture that ellusive earthshine.
I ended my photo shoot with several closeups of the waning moon, using my telephoto lens. I selected the best of the bunch to upload to Flickr and share here.
Next up for me, astronomically, is hunting for Neptune, which reaches peak brightness (opposition from the sun with us in the middle) on August 24th. I will need to wait until close to midnight Friday to make my first foray, when the other blue planet should be visible from my backyard (between tall trees and houses) in the southern skies, swimming in the constellation Aquarius.
I let Apollo out this morning and looked up (like I always do) and realized the sky was unusually clear, free of haze or clouds. I vaguely remembered reading an astronomy alert on Monday about Jupiter or Venus being less than ten degrees from a bright star (which one I couldn’t remember off the top fo my head). So, I left Apollo in the back yard and traversed the house to the front door on the east side. I stepped outside and had to walk down the steps to get out from under my large black oak tree, which blocks all of the eastern horizon when you look out the front door or windows of my house. Up and to the southeast I easily found the waning moon (see photo above). Turning back to the east, I found a very bright Venus and a somewhat less bright (but not by much) Jupiter directly above it. And just to the lower right of Venus, I could barely see a star twinkling.
I went back in the house and grabbed my camera. The tripod stayed locked in the trunk of the car. I just hoped I could keep steady enough to capture the ‘morning stars’ from the driveway. I took half a dozen shots of Jupiter and Venus and three or four of the waning moon. Then I went inside to review the results.
All but the last photo of Jupiter and Venus were blurry from not using a tripod. Only one photo of the moon, done with some manual fiddling with the shutter and aperture proved to be passably viewable.
I hopped on the Astronomy.com website to access their Star Dome Plus subscriber only star atlas Java application. I needed to determine the name of the star faintly sparkling next to bright Venus. I set the app to look at 45 degrees of the eastern horizon at the time I took the photo (5:35 a.m. Central) and discovered Aldebaran of the constellation Taurus to be the star near our sister planet. Here’s a screenshot of the eastern horizon courtesy of Star Dome Plus:
I quickly edited my one good photo of the ‘morning stars’, rotating the orentation from landscape to portrait and adding some text labels to identify the objects observed. Here are both the unlabelled and labelled versions of that photo:
I did remember to let Apollo back in from his morning soujourn through the backyard. He turned his nose up at his breakfast and climbed up on the couch for his morning nap.
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.)