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”

Full Moon Merry Christmas

Tomorrow, just after six o’clock in the morning and just as the sun is rising, we’ll experience the first full moon to occur on Christmas Day since 1977.  I wasn’t even in high school yet in 1977 (although my husband was already in college by then).  If you miss opening this Christmas present, you won’t get another chance until 2034 (by which time I should be retired).

Other astronomical items of note this holiday week include:

  • On the 4th day of Christmas (Monday that is), Mercury reaches its peak distance from the sun 30 minutes after sunset in the southwest.
  • On the 5th day of Christmas (Tuesday), Saturn continues its return from behind the Sun.  Look to the southeast in the pre-dawn morning time.
  • On the 6th day of Christmas (Wednesday), look up and south to spy the Seven Sisters (aka as the Pleiades)
  • On the 8th day of Christmas (Happy New Year!), use binoculars to find Comet Catalina rising close to Arcturus (a very bright star) around midnight and continue to rise high in the southeast until dawn twilight.
  • On the 9th day of Christmas (Saturday, January 2, 2016) the Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun (at the start of Winter no less)
  • On the last day of Christmas (Twelfth Night) at 10 p.m. EST, Pluto hides behind the Sun.

Comet Catalina

For more interesting astronomical events and items, please visit Astronomy magazine’s The Sky This Week: December 25, 2015 – January 10, 2016 web page.

May the brightest star guide you in your search for Peace, Love and Joy.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

Venus Dives Past Saturn

Twelve degrees Fahrenheit this morning as I setup the tripod and camera for the third pre-dawn photo shoot of Saturn and Venus.  Completely calm, unlike yesterday morning, so no jiggles to the camera, beyond my fumbling numb fingers.  I opted for longer exposures (three or four seconds), so I ended up with some trails, especially when using the telephoto lens.  Otherwise, much the same as before, with the exception of the planetary dance partners.

SaturnVenusMercury3secExp18mmWithLabels
Venus slipping below Saturn pre-dawn Tuesday 11/27/2012 (click image for rest of album)

I don’t plan on repeating this for a fourth time tomorrow morning, but I do plan on trying to capture the full moon as it approaches Jupiter tomorrow night.  There also happens to be a penumbral lunar eclipse occurring Wednesday evening.

Wednesday, November 28
Full Moon arrives at 9:46 a.m. EST. It appears against the background stars of Taurus the Bull before dawn this morning, approximately midway between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters and below brilliant Jupiter. (The Moon will slide within 1° of the planet after sunset tonight.) But the Moon has a lot more going for it today. First, it passes through the outer part of Earth’s shadow. This penumbral lunar eclipse will slightly darken the Moon’s northern half. People in much of North America can see the eclipse’s early stages, which begin at 7:15 a.m. EST. (Those in Australia, eastern Asia, and the Pacific islands have the best views of the event.) Second, this Full Moon is the smallest (29.4′ in diameter) of 2012. Our satellite’s relatively diminutive size arises because it reaches the farthest point in its orbit around Earth at 2:37 p.m. EST today, when it lies 252,501 miles (406,362 kilometers) from Earth’s center. (Astronomy.com ‘The Sky This Week – November 23 – December 2, 2012’)

Begining of the End

I learned last night at the November general meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City that we have just fifty days (forty-nine as I write this blog) until the end of a Mayan age (the 13th Bak’tun).  More commonly known to us as the Winter Solstice on December 21, 2012 (12/21/12 or 21/12/12 depending on your longitude).  I had a lot on my mind as I drifted off to sleep last night,  but when I woke to clear skies and a newly risen Venus blinking at me through the bare branches of trees along my eastern horizon, I shook off the last vestiges of ancient doom and gloom and braved the brisk late fall pre-dawn environs with my tripod and camera.

Armed with new tips and techniques garnered from Tom Martinez’s astrophotography presentation during the club’s Astro 101 session, I attempted a long exposure (ten seconds long) of the Big Dipper using my normal lens:

BigDipper10secExp

I was gratified to discover that my camera can take even longer exposures without the necessity of a handheld remote. Not that I don’t plan to purchase a remote for it soon though.

I didn’t attempt to capture Canis Major or Orion in a long exposure since I would have been shooting west over the well-lit parking lot of City Hall.  Instead, I turned my camera towards the southeast and bright shining Venus and the slightly dimmer Saturn.

VenusSaturnMercurySpicaArcturusWideAngleShot3secExpWithLabels
Wide angle shot of Venus, Saturn and Mercury (click image for rest of album)

I knew Mercury had risen shortly after six o’clock, but I couldn’t see it clearly until about a quarter after.

MercuryAlphaLibrae4secExp
Mercury & Alpha Librae in a four second long exposure.

Later, I accidentally captured not only Mercury, but a passing plane, as it took off from KCI (northeast of my location).

MercuryAlphaLibrae1secExpAWBwithPlaneStreak
Passing Plane (the streak) approaching Mercury

When I got back to my laptop and downloaded the photos, I also double-checked and compared them to the alignment at the time they were taken using the Star Dome Plus java applet at Astronomy.com:
SoutheasternHorizon45degSun25Nov2012-0615A short successful photo shoot this morning.  I didn’t hang around for the sunrise, since I judged it wouldn’t be as pretty as the one I captured Saturday morning.

VenusSaturnMercuryAlphaLibrae3secExpAWB
Venus-Saturn-Mercury Line-up Sunday morning 11/25/2012

Weather permitting, I’ll be repeating this activity for the next two or three mornings. I’m excited to see Venus and Saturn pass each other in the night (or very early morning).

And next week I’m going to wish I was visiting Egypt to witness a once in 2,737  years event involving these same three planets and the Great Pyramids at Giza.

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!

Meteor Sprinkles Likely

My husband is a night owl.  Ironic, since I’m the one with the astronomy bug, but can’t seem to keep my eyes open after nine o’clock.  Saturday evening, Terry went over to a friend’s house to watch the latest UFC pay-per-view fight.  I looked forward to an evening of quiet, watching a movie, reading a book and making sure Apollo got extra dog treats.  Before Terry left, though, I asked him to wake me up after midnight, preferably between two and four in the morning, so I could take advantage of the dark of the moon and a meteor shower. He remembered and got me out of bed at 3:30 a.m.

Vega in the Constellation Lyra
Vega in the Constellation Lyra

I shook myself awake and staggered outside in my flip-flops.  I drug the folding chair to a better location on the patio, and leaned back, stretching out my legs in front of me so my head rested comfortably on the chair back, allowing me to see nearly all the sky overhead.  My eyes immediately spotted Vega, the brights star in the constellation Lyra.  As I mentioned in Friday’s blog post Meteors After Midnight, this weekend’s meteor shower appears to originate from the constellation Lyra, hence the name “Lyrid Meteor Shower.”

Constellation Scorpius
Constellation Scorpius

Within ten minutes, I spotted a meteor.  I decided I needed a sweater or a blanket, so I went back inside to find something to keep my upper body warm and protected from the wind.  I settled back into the chair and gazed around the night sky, trying to connect the dots and recognize and memorize some constellations.  I easily spotted Scorpius (aka Scorpio) almost due south of me.  I could not see my own birth month constellation, Libra, directly west (right) of Scorpio because the stars that form the scales are too faint to be seen from my backyard.  Another interesting bit of trivia about my husband: He’s a Scorpio, whom Libras are never supposed to marry.  According to Chinese astrology, Terry and I went supposed to marry either.  In eight days, we celebrate our 26th wedding anniversary.  Go figure.  But back to Scorpius.  The bright star, Antares, flashed red or green, probably due to the atmosphere and it’s proximity to the southern horizon.

At four o’clock, I went back inside to steep a mug of tea.  I boiled some water in the microwave and selected Irish Blend loose leaf tea (my favorite).  Another five minutes later, I had a piping hot perfect blend of tea and sugar to take outside with me.  While I waited for my tea to steep, I tried to memorize the constellations displayed on the ‘Guide to the Stars’ wheel I purchased recently for Terry.  I set it to the appropriate time of night and month/day so I could identify the stars and constellations I saw above the roof of my house.  No matter how hard I tried, though, I could not find the constellations Ophiuchus or Hercules, which should have been easily spotted between Lyra and Scorpius.  I guess I just couldn’t see enough of the stars to connect the dots and learn those two new constellations.

At one point, a large bird flew directly overhead, barely skimming over the roof of my house.  Once the bird cleared my roof and flew over the court, the lights from the houses ringing our cul-de-sac lit the undersides of its wings.  I think it might have been an owl, but I can’t be entirely sure.  My eyes were focused farther away, watching for falling meteors, than a few feet above my head.

I saw two more meteors before I decided to call it quits and go back to bed.  I gave up at 4:30 a.m.  I had hoped for a few more than just three total for the night.  The ‘forecast’ for the meteor shower claimed upwards of twenty per hour, but I saw only a sprinkling.  Adding the ones I saw last night to the two I saw Friday night at the star party, I observed a total of five meteors this weekend.  Clouds have moved in from the north today (Sunday), so I doubt I’ll get a chance to try again tonight.  Besides, it’s a work night which means I need to be asleep by nine o’clock.

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.

Dark of the Moon, Light of the City

After weeks of overcast, I couldn’t believe my eyes on the commute home yesterday.  A clear blue sky with little to no haze and not a single cloud to be found.  Waiting for the sun to set never seemed to take so long as it did last evening.  I wasted some time with a quick grocery shopping run on my way home from the Hallmark parking lot.  Terry made an awesome salad, which I ate as soon as I got home.  He also planned to grill a couple of t-bones we’d purchased last month at the local farmers market in Leavenworth.  Even though the charcoal fired up perfectly, the steaks disappointed.  It’s been decades since either of us had such a grisly tough steak.  We will NOT be purchasing any more meat from that particular local farmer.

I got caught up on Jeopardy and still had an hour to go before sunset.  I fed the dogs, did some laundry and watched a rocket reality show hosted by Kari Byron on the Science channel.  I ignored most of it (as I do most reality television) and Terry drifted off into his after-supper food coma.  I started transferring telescope equipment from the basement to the backyard as soon as the sun set.  I left the patio door open so Roxy and Apollo could come visit me if they wanted to.  For the most part, they ran along the privacy fence, occasionally barking at evening strollers and/or their dogs.

Just as I attempted to do an easy alignment in the alt/az mounted mode for the ETX-90 and the Autostar, I realized I needed my cell phone for the time (because the Autostar asks for the date and time first when you turn it on).  I ran back in the house and got my phone and saw my father had called while I was outside.  I admit I was a bit distracted while talking (mostly listening) to him as I attempted to align the telescope.  He asked me where Saturn was and I thought it was almost directly overhead.  After I hung up, I realized that what I thought was Saturn was actually Arcturus (once I used the Big Dipper’s handle arc to find it among the constellations that I could barely see through the ambient Lansing light pollution).  Once I confirmed via the telescope that bright fleck was indeed a star and not Saturn, I drove a ‘spike’ towards Spica and found Saturn in close proximity to another bright star in the constellation Virgo.  Here’s what I saw last night facing south from my backyard (well, I saw some of this – except for the view blocked by my tall house, several very tall trees and an electric utility pole in the southwest corner of my yard).

South Horizon to Zenith on 31 May 2011 at 2215
South Horizon to Zenith on 31 May 2011 at 2215
South Horizon to Zenith on 31 May 2011 at 2215

I attempted several times to align the telescope but failed repeatedly (even the Autostar kept telling me I failed).  I could not use Arcturus as one of the two alignment stars because it was so high in the sky I could not use the finder scope.  I know, I know, I should have installed my new red-dot finder scope before the first clear night in weeks arrived.  Coulda, woulda, shoulda.  😛

I found Saturn and rejoiced in the clear view of it’s rings, using the 26mm and 16mm eyepieces.  However, because I couldn’t get the telescope aligned properly, the slewing couldn’t keep up and Saturn drifted out of the field of view rapidly.  Then, Saturn drifted behind the electric utility pole and I needed to wait five or ten minutes for the Earth to rotate enough for it to pop out on the other side.  My night vision had begun to settle in (since I’d been outside for thirty minutes or so) when my neighbor to the north decided to turn on very bright lights in her second story south facing bedroom, leaving the blinds open.  So much light emanated from that room that I could read my star atlas without using my night vision preserving red flashlight.  I could have screamed in frustration.  What I should have done was grab my camera and take photographs of her through her window and post them in this blog.  For crying out loud!  Don’t people realize that when you leave your blinds open and turn on every light in the room, it’s like a stage to those outside?!?!?  She’s lucky I exercised restraint and left the camera inside.

Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas
Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas

With my night vision ruined, Saturn still behind the utility pole and the dew rapidly drenching all the sensitive optics, I elected to teach myself a couple of constellations and their primary bright stars, hoping my neighbor would turn off her bedroom lights.  Using my new Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas, I found the charts for May and June evenings and studied the constellations Virgo and Leo.  I also refreshed my memory of Bootes and Gemini (which I could barely see sinking into the western horizon, basically just the two dominant stars representing the twins’ heads – Pollux and Castor).  Saturn was close enough to Porrima (also known as gamma Virginis) to see it through my telescope eyepiece’s field of view at the same time I watched the ringed planet.

The constellation I spent the most time studying lies just to the west of Virgo and contains several bright stars easily visible in from my light polluted back yard.

Constallation Leo
Constallation Leo

Denebola and Regulus are both visible soon after the sun sets.  I studied Leo for several minutes, fixing the alignment of its stars into the pattern shown above.  I returned to Virgo, since Saturn is traversing through that constellation at the moment.  The configuration represented in my star atlas differs from those I have found represented on the internet this morning:

Constellation Virgo
Constellation Virgo

After waiting more than fifteen minutes for my neighbor to turn off her bedroom lights, I gave up, packed up the telescope and transferred it and all it’s accessories back down into my basement.  Rain and clouds are predicted for the next few days (of course) during the darkest phase of the moon.  I could just cry.