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:


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.

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.

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).

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
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.

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.

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 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.

Rain Showers Instead of Meteor Showers

Photo1005.jpgI got a strange call this afternoon from my daughter’s boyfriend.  I let it go to my voice-mail because I happened to be in the middle of a meeting at that time.  When I got a chance to listen to his voice-mail, I nearly laughed out loud.  I always fear the worst when I get calls out-of-the-blue from my kids (or their significant others), but this time he just wanted to let me know he had heard a blurb on NPR about the peak viewing opportunity tonight for the annual Geminid meteor shower.  I called him back to thank him for the heads up, but I already had at least four other feeds (from various astronomy magazines, clubs and websites) keeping me up-to-date on all things astronomincal.  My biggest hurdle to viewing anything in the night sky this week is the non-stop rain and overcast huddled over Kansas.  Check out tonight’s hourly forecast for my viewing area:

The star Castor in the constellation Gemini nearly coinicides with the radiant point of the annual Geminid meteor shower

So just like what happened last month with the Leonids, I guess I’ll be missing the Geminids this year.  I sure hope 2012 allows me better viewing opportunities for meteor shows, comets and the planets.  I remember May being especially disappointing with overcast skies nearly every weekend.  I finally gave up in August and stored the telescope in the basement because the weather just wouldn’t cooperate with my observing goals and schedule.  I almost retrieved it for last weekend’s lunar eclipse, but since the eclipse coincided with moonset and sunrise, I decided looking through the hazy atmosphere with my camera’s telephoto lens would be sufficient.

Parking Temporarily Returns

Photo1006.jpgLast week I reported my home town Public Works Department had installed a ‘no parking’ sign in my court (and twelve other cul-de-sacs spread across the city).  This afternoon when I turned into my driveway, I noticed the sign had been removed from the pole.  Terry will need to let the band members know they can park in the usual locations for tomorrow night’s weekly rehearsal.  I’m just happy I won’t be juggling cars tomorrow or worrying about where to put them, especially since the wet yard would rut if I had to park some of them off the street.  I doubt my previous blog post could have caused so much fervor that it necessitated the complete removal of the sign by the City.  I know they planned to add an addendum to the ‘no parking’ sign to indicate only during snow, but I assumed a second sign would be attached below the first one.  Apparently, something else is planned and I will keep an eye on the sign post for the next few days to see what develops.

Tips and Teaks

I continue to experiment and enjoy the enhancements of the Nook Color software update 1.4.1 released yesterday.  I encountered some diminished functionality from a couple of websites I frequented.  After trying the usual things (clearing cache, cookies and history and powering the device off), I chatted with a customer service representative at Barnes & Noble.  I didn’t agree with his proposed solution and while he went seeking advice from a higher power (second tier tech support), I stumbled upon a solution.  I updated yesterday’s blog post to include my findings.

Continued Prayers Please

My husband saw the specialist today and a biopsy is scheduled for three days before Christmas.  Your continued prayers for healing, strength, understanding and patience are greatly appreciated.

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.