Mercury Rises

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. 

3 Planets 1 Dying Moon
3 Planets 1 Dying Moon ~ 15 Aug 2012 5:49 am Central

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. 

Mercury and Waning Moon (click image for rest of album)
Mercury and Waning Moon (click image for rest of album)

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.

Waning Moon ~ 15 Aug 2012

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.

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.

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.

Second Saturday Saturn

Despite a pre-weekend forecast for thunderstorms, Saturday stubbornly stayed humid (to the point of Midwestern Mugginess), windy (gotta love that Gulf air from the south) and sunny (well, more hazy than clear, but not really overcast).  After walking Apollo shortly after sunrise, I resolved to remain indoors and further test my new central air conditioner.  I wiled away the day with housework, reading and movies (three of them, or was it four?).

I finished watching Centurion via Netflix streaming (aka Watch Instantly) around nine o’clock.  I relinquished the remote to my husband so he could watch either UFC or F1 and headed north to my Dad’s house for some moon and Saturn observing.

I left the Meade ETX-90 with him last week to see if it needed a tune-up for it’s drive mechanism.  I found some helpful websites and he did crack open the case to confirm everything looked in good shape (nothing obviously broken or breaking).  So, tonight’s experiment involved attempting an accurate polar (or equatorial) mounting of the ETX on the field tripod.  Before the sun set, he had leveled and oriented the telescope per the instructions for the telescope, tripod and Autostar computer controller.

The libration of the Moon over a single lunar month.
The libration of the Moon over a single lunar month.

I arrived to a darker sky with less haze than I observed last week.  The moon had about a third of a crescent.  Dad had the telescope tracking the moon (for several minutes) so I enjoyed reviewing the craters visible along the terminator.  Absolutely stunning!  I really should have grabbed the digital camera out of my car and snapped a few photos.

Somehow, we disrupted the Autostar and lost the date/time and tracking as we fumbled in the dark.  We spent some time realigning the telescope using the Easy align feature of the Autostar, first confirming and centering the telescope in the ‘home’ position with Polaris visible through the eyepiece.  Unfortunately, the stock viewfinder that came with the ETX-90 is unusable in the polar mount ‘home’ position because the telescope is 90 degrees to the base.  You can’t get your head between the end of the telescope and the top of the drive mechanism!  I have a remedy for this coming soon.  On Friday I ordered a red dot finderscope from Celestron that I hope will eliminate this problem.


The first star on the alignment procedure was Arcturus (in the constellation Bootes), easily found in the northeastern-eastern sky by following the arc of the Big Dipper, and the brightest star in the northern hemisphere and fourth brightest star in the night sky (only Sirius appeared brighter last night in the southeastern night sky).  The second stop on the alignment tour asked for Capella.  I used the Field Guide to the Stars and Planets that I checked out from the Kansas City Public Library last week for a star chart containing that star.   I learned that Capella is one of the brighter stars in the constellation Auriga (and later at home I learned Capella is also the sixth brightest star in the night sky and third brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere.


Even though Capella is bright, with the moon in the same region of the sky, with increasing haziness and wind, I could only see with my naked eye one other star in Auriga — the beta star in that constellation.  I hesitantly told dad, who was steering the telescope with the Autostar and the viewfinder, that the right-most bright star above the moon was probably Capella.  He centered it and we were ‘aligned’ again.  Then we told the Autostar to ‘go to’ Saturn.  The ETX got close, or close enough for us to find it through the light pollution (courtesy of the southeast sky and Leavenworth, Lansing and Kansas City), the increasing haziness and the tree limbs of the tall trees along the eastern edge of dad’s property.

We observed Saturn for fifteen or twenty minutes, trying various eyepieces and barlows.  I had forgotten to check before leaving my laptop the location of Titan in relation to Saturn so I can’t confirm or deny whether I actually saw the moon Titan.  What amazed me about this observation period was the ability to continue to observe Saturn through the telescope, even through tree limbs and clouds!  I often couldn’t find Saturn with my naked eye, yet the telescope tracked it nearly flawlessly (so long as I didn’t use too high a magnification eyepiece).

We packed up the telescope once we could no longer see any stars with our eyes.  Even the moon was shrouded in haze and thin clouds.

Once I returned home, I re-researched polar mounting the ETX on the field tripod.  My dad had read and thought the latitude adjust on the tripod meant you had to subtract your current latitude from 90 degrees.  So, instead of setting the adjustment equal to our latitude (of 39 degrees), we tried setting it to 51 degrees.  I did notice that when the telescope attempted to find Arcturus, it was pointed northeast but down below Arcturus by quite a bit.  So, I re-read the field tripod’s user manual (via PDF from Meade’s web site) when I got home and confirmed that you set the tripod to your actual latitude, no math necessary.  We’ll just have to try it again later.  We also plan to re-train the drives in the ETX-90 per instructions in the Autostar manual.