Absolute Magnitude Luminates Absolutely

This week I want to discuss “What might cause the closer of two identical stars to appear dimmer than the farther one?”

Apparent Magnitude: A measurement of the brightness of stars without regard to their distance from Earth.

  • The scale in use today starts with the star Vega and an apparent magnitude of 0.0
  • Objects brighter than Vega are assigned negative numbers.  For example. Sirius, the night’s brightest star, has an apparent magnitude of -1.44
  • The scale was extended to include the dimmest stars visible through binoculars and telescopes.  For example, a pair of binoculars can see stars with an apparent magnitude of +10

Ignoring distance for a moment, all other things being equal, the closer of two identical stars will appear brighter (have a smaller apparent magnitude) to us than the more distant star.  When we account for the difference in distance, we use either or two measurements:  absolute magnitude and luminosity.

Absolute Magnitude: The brightness a star would have at a distance of ten parsecs (10 pc) or 32.6 ly. Continue reading “Absolute Magnitude Luminates Absolutely”

Feeling Crabby

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.

Waning Moon Near Venus (09/11/2012)
Waning Moon Near Venus (09/11/2012)
Jupiter Near Taurus, Orion and the Dog Star (09/11/2012)
Jupiter Near Taurus, Orion and the Dog Star (09/11/2012)

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.

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.

My Mini-Messier Marathon

Venus, Jupiter and New Crescent Moon
Venus, Jupiter and New Crescent Moon (Fri 23 Mar 2012)

I left work Friday afternoon in a pouring rain. Nothing unusual in the grand scheme of things. It is late March and Spring had sprung this week, which usually brings rain. An entire week of rain, in fact. I had hoped, against all evidence to the contrary, that the rain would let up earlier in the day on Friday.  I resigned myself to retrieving my vanpool riders and slogging through rain drenched traffic for the next hour.   I wanted to participate in my astronomy club‘s Messier Marathon, but just didn’t think the effort would equal the returns.  I would have to pack up all of my astronomical observing equipment (telescope, tripod, eyepieces, control device, cables, portable battery, sky charts, observing aids, red flashlight, chair, some kind of table, etc) and then drive over an hour to the dark sky site way south near Butler, Missouri.  Early indications from other club members reported the dark sky site field was very wet and since I don’t own a four-wheel drive truck or SUV, I decided to stay in Lansing.

I had permission from my city council representative to contact the Chief of Police to make arrangements to use one of the city parks after dark.  I hesitated to bother the police.  That is a huge hassle to overcome, for me anyway.  And I still needed to re-train my telescope’s Alt/Az drives before packing them up, since that process requires daylight and a terrestrial object to focus upon.  Clouds still scudded across the sky while I set the telescope up outside on the lower back patio.  I trained the drives for five or ten minutes and then powered down the telescope until later in the evening.

Venus, Jupiter and the CrescentMoon
Venus, Jupiter and the Crescent Moon

After watching a couple of episodes of Jeopardy and squeezing in my exercise routine (and making my legs wobbly and rubbery by trying a longer version of one of the higher intensity activities), I slipped back outside to see how many stars were visible at just a few minutes past eight o’clock.  I spied the small sliver of a new crescent moon hovering just over my neighbor’s roof so I grabbed my camera (already on it’s tripod) and took a few photos (two of which I am including in this post).  I even got Terry outside long enough to witness the new moon and point out how much higher Venus has gotten over Jupiter in a week since the last time I photographed the pair of them.

By the time I finished snapping a few photographs, I had enough bright stars to attempt an alignment of the telescope with my newly retrained drives.  The Autostar easy alignment selected Sirius in Canis Major as the first star in the alignment process.  After I found and centered the Dog Star, the next stop on the alignment workflow became Capella in the constellation Auriga, another easily spotted star in the evening sky.  The Autostar reported a successful alignment so now for the first real test of the retrained drives.  I instructed the device to find Jupiter.  Surprise!  The telescope found Jupiter on the first try!  I did have to recenter Jupiter and it’s four glorious moons in the eyepiece, but I did not have to use either of my finder scopes.  I inserted a 2x barlowe and a 26mm eyepiece and could clearly see the cloud striations on Jupiter.  I could even see a hint of color.  I again pulled Terry out to the telescope to take a look at the gas giant and its beautiful alignment of moons.

Next stop on my pre-Messier tour became Venus.  Again the Autostar found our sister planet successfully.  I only had to re-center the very bright planet in my eyepiece.  I should have put a filter on the eyepiece, because even at only half-full, Venus almost hurt my eyes to look at.  I felt confident enough in the telescopes alignment and the retrained drives to begin my mini-Messier Marathon.

M74 spiral galaxy

My Messier Marathon Observer’s Form lists the objects in a ‘best viewed in this order’ arrangement.  I knew I would not be able to observe the first two items on the list, due to the nature of my site.  My house rests in a valley, behind a large hill to my west.  In addition, I have several tall trees in my backyard, as do my neighbors to the west and north.  Thanks to the highway just a couple of blocks to my west, I have ample ambiance (aka light pollution) and nearly all my neighbors must be afraid of the dark because they insist on illuminating nearly all exterior surfaces of their residences.  Still, I told the Autostar to go find M77, a spiral galaxy also known as Cetus A.  Unfortunately, the telescope came to rest pointing northwest, through at least three trees.  I moved on to the next item, M74, another spiral galaxy in the constellation Pisces.  But again, I saw only trees.  A shame, really, as I would love to see that beautiful spiral galaxy (shown in photo above and to the left).

Andromeda Galaxy (M31) as well as M32 (another galaxy)

The next three stops on the observation list also happened to be galaxies, including the famous Andromeda galaxy, designated as M31 on the Messier list of objects.  Since the telescope did not move appreciable away from the area of M77 and M74, I again couldn’t see the stars for the forest.  Yet another galaxy I desperately want to observe, so to ease the pain of defeat, I’ll provide another image of that marvelous gem.  The image above and to the right also includes M32, one of the other two galaxies I couldn’t observe.

Pleiades (M45)

I began using my Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas to assist me in locating Messier objects that I could actually view in my limited sky scape.  The Pocket Sky Atlas‘s last pages contains an index of Messier objects and the star chart they appear on.  I skimmed through the list of the next few objects and determined that M45 could be seen with the naked eyes.  The Pleiades is an open star cluster.   I still told the telescope to go find it and spent a few minutes marveling at the cluster of bright stars peering back at me through the eyepiece.  Finally, I got to check off one of the 110 objects on my Messier Marathon Observer’s Form, writing 8:42 p.m. in the blank provided.

The next two objects I found easily included M42 and M43, both found in Orion’s sword and more commonly known as the Great Orion Nebulae and De Marian’s Nebula (really part of the other one or an extension of it).  I wrote 9:07 p.m. in the blanks on my form.

Beehive Cluster (M44)

I spent the next thirty to forty minutes trying to track down several objects I should have been able to find since they were south or directly overhead.  I could not find the Crab Nebula (M1) and began to suspect I had messed up the alignment on the telescope.  I had nudged a tripod leg more than once, so I reverted the Autostar to star mode and went searching for Rigel, Betelgeuse, Sirius and Capella again to retune the alignment.  After that, I was successful in viewing several star clusters, including M44 (aka the Beehive Cluster), M48 and M50 (between 9:45 and 9:51 p.m.).

Supernova SN 2012aw (pointed at by arrow) is located in the outer arm of the barred spiral galaxy M95 in Leo. Greek amateur Anthony Ayiomamitis obtained this view on March 20th from his home outside of Athens. Image from Sky & Telescope article.

I got even more excited when I spied M95 on the list just two below M44.  This spiral galaxy gained fame this past week by spouting a supernova.  My earlier research also showed that Mars was just a few degrees away from M95.  So I took a few minutes to realign the telescope and enjoy the ruddy beauty of the fourth planet in our solar system.  Then I went on the hunt for M95.  I spent many frustrating minutes attempting to find the elusive spiral galaxy but to no avail.  The skies above Lansing are just not dark enough for my small telescope.  It can’t gather enough light and my aging eyes can’t ever seem to get acclimated to the annoying and obscuring local ground illumination to spot such a faint (9.7 in magnitude) object.  By a quarter after ten, I decided enough was enough.

And, for some unknown reason, the telescope had twice decided to go off on a tangent, causing the altitude drive to run off for no reason and would not stop when I entered commands into the Autostar.  Hmmm. There must be a bug in the latest firmware I downloaded last week.  I should probably hook the laptop up to it today and see if a ‘fix’ has been made available from Meade.

I enjoyed my mini-marathon of Messier objects and learned quite a bit about my abilities and the capabilities of my amateur astronomy equipment.  Tonight I will attend the monthly meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City and tomorrow I will probably head south to Powell Observatory for a training session on the club’s large telescope.  By Monday, I should have purged my system of all astronomical cravings, at least until the next new moon.

Winter Circled Moon and Leonine Mars

I valiantly kept myself awake past my pumpkin transformation time (usually half past nine o’clock on weeknights), reading an ebook on my Nook Color while Terry dozed through the UFC fights.  When I finally got within twenty pages of the end of my book, I put the ereader aside and checked the position of Mars from my front porch.  The waxing moon hung at about the one o’clock position in the sky almost hidden behind my house and Mars shown redly at about the ten o’clock position. I decided to setup the telescope in my driveway, even though all the street lights and house lights concentrated their glows more intensely on the east side of my property.

I opened the garage door and began transferring the telescope and accessories from the band room (behind the garage on the west side of the house) through the garage to the driveway.  I had put on a sweater but only had flip-flops on my feet (something I would come to regret an hour or so later).

In setting up my telescope, I made an error in the home position and failed two attempts at an easy alignment.  When I finally realized my mistake, after having run the motors up to and beyond the stops twice, I tried a third time, but the Autostar control device disconnected itself from the telescope and reset itself twice.  I gave up and finally just pointed the scope at Mars, shining brightly and sanguinely from the constellation Leo.

Two of the stars selected by the Autostar alignment program included Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, and Capella, in the constellation Auriga, and both of these stars could be found in the Winter Circle.  The waxing moon enjoyed center-stage in the Winter Circle on a cold clear late winter night.

Once I got Mars in my sights, I tried various barlows and eyepieces, but could never quite get a good focus on it.  I could dimly and vaguely see the polar ice cap and Mars definitely had an orange-ish and pink-ish cast to it.

By this time, I could barely feel my toes, but I didn’t want to stop observing, so I turned the telescope farther eastward, looking for Saturn.  I found Spica in the constellation Virgo.  Saturn is just a short hop to the left of Spica.  I clearly saw the rings, but did not take the time to look for Titan or any of Saturn’s other moons.  I wanted to get my feet warmed up, so I shutdown the telescope, packed everything up and transported it back to the band room.

I may repeat this entire process tonight, but from a different location.  I will take a nap this afternoon to allow me to stay up past my pumpkin transformation point.

Oh, and I did get my feet warmed back up while finishing the last twenty pages of my ebook.

Post-Mercury Telescope Tuning

While I scanned the early evening skies for Mercury, Terry stayed at home, installing a secondary finder scope on my telescope.  I bought the red LED finder scope months ago because the original finder scope attached to my ETX-90 becomes unusable at near vertical viewing orientations.  Only the larger ETX-105 and ETX-125 came with a right-angle view finder.

ETX-90 with new red LED finder scope installed

Now all I needed to do was dial it in.  And I had at least two (if not three) easily seen objects to do it with.  I took the telescope out on the lower patio and set it up.  I opted to do an easy align this time with the Autostar handheld device and thankfully it picked Sirius as the first star to align upon.  Sirius was the first non-planet object I saw after sunset earlier in the evening during my hunt for Mercury.  After Jupiter, I saw Sirius appear about thirty minutes after sunset.  The Dog Star was clearly visible through the bare branches of my mulberry tree and the Autostar got within five degrees of it on the first try.  So, I at least had oriented the telescope to it’s home position on it’s mount correctly this time.

The second star for the easy alignment was Pollux, the twin to Castor in the constellation Gemini.  Since my house is over two stories tall and I had setup the telescope ten feet west of the tallest part of it, seeing the constellation Gemini was quite a challenge.  The two brightest stars (Castor and Pollux) had just peaked over the roof.  Then I had a moment of panic.  Which one of the two is Pollux?  I knew Castor was brighter (because it’s actually a binary or double-star that I hope to one day see separately) so I zeroed in on the less bright star.  The Autostar reported a successful alignment.  Incidentally, Castor is the ‘star of the week’ over at Earthsky.

To test how successful the alignment might or might not be, I told the Autostar to go find Venus.  Since I could clearly see Venus shining brightly next to the Moon, I knew I would be able to further tune the alignment of the telescope and the new finder scope using it as a guide star. The Autostar again got the telescope within five degrees (or less) of Venus so I proceeded to update the red LED finder scope’s focus. I had been so focused on my finder scopes that when I put my eye to the telescope’s eyepiece I realized I hadn’t even gotten one out of the case yet!  I grabbed a 26mm eyepiece and quickly focused on Venus, but it was so bright I couldn’t get a crisp clean focus.  I at least centered it in the telescope’s field of view and let the Autostar slew for a few minutes.  Venus kept creeping slowly out of the center (nothing new but something I need to look into).  Next stop, Jupiter.

What I saw last night through my telescope looked very much like this photo.

Again, the Autostar got close, but not quite.  I’m beginning to think I need to recalibrate and retrain the drives in the ETX-90 mount.  Jupiter in all it’s glory with four moons visible (two on either side).  I grabbed Terry out of the band room to take a quick look, but he retreated back inside because of the cold.  I hardly noticed it, having stood outside during sunset for over and hour and now observing from the backyard in just a t-shirt and jeans (the house provided a substantial windbreak).

At this point, I was happy with the installation, configuration and usefulness of the new red LED finder scope.  What could I attempt observing before packing up everything and returning it to the band room?  Ah!  Something in Orion.  Thankfully, Orion appeared high in the sky, almost due south (just a bit to the east).  Since I suffer from an extreme light pollution epidemic in Lansing, the higher up an object, the better to minimize the amount of light and atmosphere I need to peer through.  Having a clear cold night to make the air dense also helps.  I searched the Autostar’s object database and found the Great Orion Nebula.  Fetch! I said and off the telescope went.

The telescope stopped in the general vicinity of the belt of Orion.  I didn’t think that was the exact location of the Orion Nebula, so I grabbed my Sky & Telescope Pocket Star Atlas and confirmed the location as being in the sword, not the belt.  Using both finder scopes, I slowly got the telescope oriented on the objects in the sword.  Using the eyepiece, I slowly scanned the much smaller field of view and saw a grey cloud like smudge pass by.  I stopped.  I returned to the smudge.  This must be it!  I put in a stronger magnification eyepiece and spent several minutes taking in the sights of a nebula. Only long exposures with very sensitive camera equipment equatorially mounted … or the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit (outside of our dirty atmosphere) … can produce stunning color images like this one:

In one of the most detailed astronomical images ever produced, NASA/ESA's Hubble Space Telescope captured an unprecedented look at the Orion Nebula. ... This extensive study took 105 Hubble orbits to complete. All imaging instruments aboard the telescope were used simultaneously to study Orion. The Advanced Camera mosaic covers approximately the apparent angular size of the full moon.

I hope it was the Orion Nebula.  I am almost convinced it was, but since my telescope is a reflector (not a refractor), the image I view in the eyepiece is not only upside down, but reversed right to left, and almost always black-and-white (or gray).   When I compare what I see to a star atlas, I have to do mental spatial gymnastics on the fly.  I did get Terry to come out one more time and view the smudge that was a nebula before packing up the telescope and putting astronomy to bed for the night.

I woke up before sunrise this morning (no surprise … I always do that with or without an alarm).  I fed the dogs and when I let them out the back patio door, I noticed to bright objects in the western sky.  They both had to be Saturn and Mars.  I went to Terry’s computer and logged in to my Astronomy.com account (since I subscribe to the electronic edition of Astronomy on my Nook Color, I get ‘extras’ on their website).  Using their StarDomePlus Java application, I confirmed the contents of the sky at that exact moment from my location in Lansing.  Yes!  Mars was the bright spot in the western sky and Saturn appeared just up and to the southwest of it.  If only I had gotten up an hour or so earlier, I could have set up the telescope (again) and looked at Mars and Saturn both.  I think I just found my next astronomical hunting expedition.

Tonight’s highlights include, for early evening viewing, more of the Moon, Jupiter and Venus (and Mercury if I wanted to leave my backyard, but I’ll pass on that tonight).  For a headsup on what to expect in the coming week, visit Sky & Telescope‘s This Week At a Glance site.

Searing Summer Reads: The Third Third

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows Sirius A, the brightest star in our nighttime sky, along with its faint, tiny stellar companion, Sirius B.

Sirius rising before or with the sun, so the ancients believed, caused the ‘dog days’ of summer.  The term ‘dog days’ only obliquely refers to our four-legged furry friends; and more directly points to the Dog Star (aka Sirius), the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major.  I cannot confirm or deny Sirius’ proximity to our sun, thanks to the record-breaking heat and humidity scorching the Heart of America and hazing the eastern horizon in the pre-dawn night.

Appropriately, Monday, the 1st of August, 2011, marks another Ozone Red Alert Day in the Kansas City metro area.  My new central air conditioning system barely cycles while the sun shines.

I received word from my hubby that the leather chaise lounger we purchased a week ago at Nebraska Furniture Mart arrived undamaged.  The delivery guys wrangled it upstairs to my new library, where I hope to spend many cool evenings reading the final third of my hot summer reads.  Almost immediately upon the heels of the phone call about the furniture delivery, my husband sent me a text message to let me know the roofers had finally arrive (again on the hottest day of the month so far) and stripped the old shingles off in less than an hour.  By the time I return home, I may have a new roof.  Ironically, a representative from our insurance company stopped by (before the roofers but after the furniture delivery guys had left) to take photos of the property.  Terry tried to explain to him that the roof was about to be redone (how prophetic his words became), followed immediately by the driveway (complete rip out and re-do on it as well).  I just hope the interior designer we scheduled an appointment with for this evening can envision and inspire our remodel despite the normal chaos.  And it will be after the sun sets tonight before I can relax and enjoy my new lounger in my new library with one of the following sizzling summer reads:

The SciFi and Fantasy Book Club at GoodReads started Red Mars for the August science fiction selection.   From the book blurb:  “Brilliantly imagined, breathtaking in scope and ingenuity, Red Mars is an epic scientific saga, chronicling the next step in human evolution and creating a world in its entirety. Red Mars shows us a future, with both glory and tarnish, that awes with complexity and inspires with vision.”

My most anticipated reads beckon from my favorite book club, the Beyond Reality group (also at GoodReads).   Our illustrious leader, Stefan, noted in his Welcome to August 2011 post our serendipitous C.J. Cherryh group reads for both science fiction and fantasy.  I started Foreigner this morning and plan to read The Fortress in the Eye of Time soon after.   I am most excited about reading all of the Honor Harrington novels (see my previous posts campaigning for David Weber’s series to overcome Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files).

My other two book clubs, Fantasy Book Club and FBC Series, continue to serve up excellent reads and discussions.  I jumped the gun on the August read for FBCS by finishing Mistress of the Empire on Saturday.  But I renewed the Black Prism, checked out earlier in July from the KC Public Library.  As soon as I finish The Snow Queen, I’ll start reading the latest from Brent Weeks.

Most of these books sport astounding cover art by two of my favorite cover artists:  Don Maitz and Michael Whelan.  My permanent collection of the Empire Trilogy and Magician (Apprentice and Master) includes the editions with cover art painted by Don.  Of those five covers, my favorite is probably this one:

My hardcover of The Snow Queen does not have a dust jacket with the famous Michael Whelan cover art, but I needed some MW eye candy:

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention cover artist David Mattingly, painter extradonaire of both the Honorverse and Darwath.   Of all the Honor covers, this is probably my favorite:

Of necessity, I kept my August summer reading to a bare minimum.  I will sacrifice about a week of reading time at the end of the month to drive to Atlanta and attend the 25th iteration of Dragon*Con.  And if I though it was hot in Kansas, I can’t wait to melt away in Hotlanta with fans and friends of fantasy.

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

Doctor Who: Curse of the Black Spot

“Yo ho ho! or does nobody actually say that?”  — the Doctor (soon to be one of my favorite quotes).

Plot summary at Wikipedia (yes, I’m being lazy again but I have an excuse … it’s Mother’s Day).

I thoroughly enjoyed this episode and would give it four stars, possibly more, especially for the dramatic scene between Amy and Rory towards the end and for the pirates!  Who doesn’t love a romping swashbuckling tale of the high seas, pirates and sea monsters?

And was I the only one who noticed that the newly inaugurated space pirates first visited the Dog Star aka Sirius?

I think I still prefer Robert Picardo over a supermodel with his signature ‘Please state the nature of the medical emergency.’  But that’s just me.

Next week we might meet the Doctor’s wife or possibly another time lord.  Either way, I’m excited and ecstatic to have exceptional science fiction to look forward to each and every Saturday night.  Hip Hip Hurray for BBC America!

All Dogs Go To Heaven or Is That Heavenly Dogs?

I rode the astronomical roller coaster yesterday.   I started Wednesday with an e-mail from Celestron warning me of a week delay in shipping my new finderscope.  Since the forecast for the rest of the week looked thunderous, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on.  Later, in the afternoon, I received the first of many calls from my father, reporting he had received the ‘new’ ETX-90 base motor drive he won on eBay last week.  He hooked up the optics from the other ETX-90, trained the motors per the manual, and happily reported smooth, quiet operation.  He trained the telescope on the Moon later in the afternoon to study the tracking capabilities of the drives.

Astronomical Society of Kansas City

I found one of my expected shipments when I arrived home from work.  I ordered the Meade specific cable and serial adapter for the Autostar from a telescope/optics supplier.   I also found a large manila envelope from the Astronomical Society of Kansas City.  It included details about my new membership, upcoming meetings, local observation sites and other benefits and learning opportunities.  The next general meeting, open to the public, is a week from Saturday (April 23rd at 7:00 pm), held in room 111 of Royal Hall on the campus of UMKC, about a block west of 52nd Street and Rockhill Road.  A talk on Solar Astronomy entitled “Solar Observing Basics,” will be presented by Neta Apple.

My husband and I ate a quick easy supper of frozen pizza (yeah, so healthy, and we forgot to start off with a salad!).  The band started arriving, so I settled down in the great room to catchup on three days worth of missed Jeopardy! episodes.  Monday’s game, first round, included a tricky River City category that stung one contestant several times, since the first four of the five answers were ‘What is the Rhine?”  Other fun categories were Homer (Simpson)’s Odyssey, Ends in “SS” and Measure This! which included the clue “Contrary to its name, this signature cowboy accessory would actually hold about 96 ounces.”  Monday’s Double Jeopardy! round had some great categories, some of which I cleaned up on, including “EU” first, Blue Literature, Amendment Highlights and Ancient Egypt.  Final Jeopardy! round: Goegraphic Adjectives stumped me but all three contestants answered correctly.   Tuesday’s game had some tough first round clues in A Capital Idea? and the Autobahn Society.  Double Jeopardy! Round fun categories included Fictional Movie Bands and Men in Pink.  Final Jeopardy! Round: Baseball & The Presidency again stumped me and one contestant.

Midway through Wednesday’s game, I received my second call from my father, crooning about the moon.  I knew I had some work to finish remotely last night and some more DVR cleaning to accomplish, and I thought the forecast for last night included increasing cloud cover, so I declined his invitation to come join him in lunar observation.  Even though I had paused the replay of Jeopardy!, I didn’t really pay much attention to the first round, besides the categories Thinking Green and Virgin Berths.   I paid more attention to Double Jeopardy! round including the fun category Lost Texts from Ben Franklin, Picture “D”is and You’re So Colorful.  Yet another difficult Final Jeopardy! Round category: Nobel Peace Prize Winners, where all three contestants and myself could not guess the correct two Prime Ministers.

Backyard Astronomer's Guide
Backyard Astronomer's Guide

The band took a break from rehearsing and I decide to forgo working remotely.  I changed clothes, hopped in the car and phoned my dad.  I arrived at his house around half past eight o’clock, with a sky still showing after sunset glow and the moon diffused by some scattered thin clouds.  I had brought the box with my cable, the USB/Serial converter cable, and a couple of Astronomy books with me:  a small throw-it-in-your-purse Field Guide and a large lift-with-your-legs-not-your-back full-color Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, which I hadn’t even cracked open yet since I checked it out from the library a few days ago.

Rather than traipsing through his house, which appeared to have many bright lights on in the living room, dining room and perhaps the kitchen, I slipped through the east side gate and made my way cautiously past the thorny rose bushes to his backyard.  Even though last week was the ‘official’ Global Lunar Week, we gazed at the moon, watching the clouds pass quickly in front of it’s bright surface, still giving us ample detail to review.  I noted the quietness and ease of movement in the motors and looked forward to attempting an actual alignment, if the clouds cooperated.  Eventually, the northern celestial hemisphere cleared enough for us to dimly spy Polaris (the clouds, the streetlights and the US Penitentiary conspire to enhance the glow north of my father’s house).  Once we could see Polaris, we adjusted our polar mounting and attempted an alignment (as best we could since Arcturus was obscured by thin clouds and trees to the northeast and Capella was the only star visible in it’s constellation, making it difficult to determine if in fact, it was Capella).

Canis Major
Canis Major

To test the alignment, we told the Autostar to “goto” or find Sirius, colloquially known as the ‘Dog Star’,  the brightest star in the night sky in the constellation Canis Major, and a near neighbor to our solar system at a distance of only 2.6 parsecs (or 8.6 light years).  Considering we were unable to confirm the actual alignment through Arcturus or Capella, the Autostar still managed to get Sirius in the viewfinder scope field of view, allowing us to fine-tune and center Sirius in the eyepiece of the telescope.  We had difficulty finding Orion, not usually a problem since Sirius and Orion’s belt ‘line up’ in the night sky.  Dad finally spotted Orion’s belt, among the trees to the west and partly obscured by the clouds.  So, continuing our alignment test tour, we selected Betelgeuse as our next stop from the Autostar.  Again, the viewfinder held the image of the star, but not quite in the eyepiece.  We centered and synced again.

Canis Minor
Canis Minor

The only other star visible to us, thanks to the moon’s continued brilliance, was the last point of the Winter Triangle, Procyon in the Canis Minor constellation.  Yes, in honor of my two Rottweilers, Roxy and Apollo, we spent some time in both the ‘greater dog’ constellation Canis Major and the ‘smaller dog’ of Canis Minor.  While we were in this section of the sky, I pulled out the Field Guide to see if there was anything worth hunting to test the telescope and Autostar alignment further.  Using the red flashlight, I found the appropriate star atlas and read the accompanying paragraph of local attractions.  The Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe (and so listed in the Autostar, but we used it’s Messier objects number (M44) in the menu system).  This cluster, in the constellation Cancer, can be viewed under dark skies with a low power telescope or even binoculars.  However, the Moon’s brightness  and the hazy thin clouds were conspiring to grey-out everything in the area, except lone Procyon.

Saturn eclipsing Sun
Saturn eclipsing Sun

By this time, Saturn had risen high enough in the east-southeast, and the clouds had receded, for us to observe it.  Again, the Autostar successfully re-oriented on the ringed gas giant and we spent quite a while and several eyepieces basking in the glory of it’s rings.  Using the 9mm eyepiece, I was able to see the shadow of the rings upon the surface of Saturn and the gap between Saturn and it’s rings (but not the gaps between the rings).  A large tree limb interfered for ten or fifteen minutes with our further observation, during which I never really did find Titan.  In checking Sky & Telescope‘s web applet for Saturn’s Moons this morning, and subtracting about twelve hours, Titan may have been behind Saturn or it’s rings for me to find it in my telescope.

Mare Imbrium close-up
Mare Imbrium close-up

We returned triumphantly to the lunar landscape, glowing gloriously almost directly overhead by this time (sometime after ten o’clock or even half-past ten).  I again used the Field Guide to locate a map of the moon so we could identify some of the craters near or on the terminator.  We gravitated towards the craters around Mare Imbrium, spotting Plato (the dark ‘spot’ in the upper right-hand portion of the picture), Archimedes, Artistillius, Autolycus, Copernicus and Kepler (perhaps … not completely sure and it’s not strictly near Mare Imbrium).  As the clouds were closing in on the moon, Dad and I started tearing down the telescope and relocating all the equipment, lenses and books inside and I finally headed home for a mere six hours of sleep, dreaming about rings, impact craters and distant binary stars.

What Do Blackbear, Hunger, Snow and Wind Have in Common?

According to today’s post at Earthsky, the second full moon of the year, which usually falls in February, can be referred to as the Snow Moon, the Wind Moon, the Blackbear Moon or the Hunger Moon.

I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather today (74 degrees), I setup the telescope and attached the Pentax K100D to it for a couple of full moon snapshots:

Snow Moon Feb 2011
Snow Moon Feb 2011

I also took a quick look at the brightest star in the sky … Sirius (no photos yet, still need to have the tracking gears repaired on the Meade).