The weather forecast for today predicted over an eighty percent chance of rain so I either needed to make my observation before midnight or wait a couple of days for cloudless skies. Fifteen minutes before my Mythgard Academy class started last night (at nine o’clock Central Time), I decided to make my first observation. I set the timer on my smartwatch for ten minutes and hung outside while my neighbors to the north decided a fire in their firepit was warranted (not helping my light pollution survey one bit). My neighbor to the south also appeared to have search lights trained on my backyard so adjusting my eyes for optimal viewing already had steep hills to climb. I somewhat patiently waited for the timer to count down.
Meanwhile, I found Venus immediately, very high and extremely bright in the west. Next, both Procyon and Sirius shown brightly in the upper and lower southwest. Even though the sun had set over an hour ago, the western sky still seemed dimly luminescent and I detected a very slight haze obscuring the fainter stars. My timer buzzed and I began sketching out the brightest stars and the only constellation I could identify – Orion – sinking slowly into the southwestern horizon. To the north I could just barely make out Polaris but could not find the Big or Little Dipper (mostly because the trees are starting to leaf out).
Almost directly overhead but still on the eastern side of the zenith, I could barely make out a sickle, an asterism that can be found in the constellation Leo (see diagram below). I had checked the Sky and Telescope Interactive Star Chart before stepping outside so I knew where to crane my neck in the hopes of spotting the lion. In addition to the sickle, I could also make out, barely, the triangle of stars that form the lion’s rear and tail. I could not tell where Leo ended and Virgo began as the stars were so faint I gave up.
I returned to my computer, logged into the Webinar and while I waited for it to start, I verified my sketch against the star chart. I had found Leo, but only by the very brightest of it’s stars (which aren’t that bright when you compare them to Sirius, Vega or Procyon). Fast forward two hours, where I found myself nodding off and decided I’d consumed enough First Age elven antics for one session and bailed out of the webinar (I can always watch the last 15-30 minutes via YouTube later).
I went back outside and noticed immediately the haze had disappeared. The air was crisper and I didn’t even need to wait the full ten minutes before I could clearly see the constellation Leo, now slightly west of top-dead-center overhead. My northern neighbors were still enjoying their outdoor fire but my southern neighbors had toned down the search lights to just one very bright LED porch light.
I returned inside and recorded both of my observations via the Globe at Night web site. I plan to repeat my observations each night weather permitting until the middle of next week.
Tonight and for the next few nights, you can participate in a survey of your night sky and increase awareness of dark skies (and the converse of light pollution). While we are sheltering at home, we have vastly reduced the amount of air pollution, but have we given thought to the loss of our dark skies while we hunker down, sheltering at home? No? Well, here’s your chance to pitch in and save our night skies!
The Case of the Hidden Lion
Can you find the constellation Leo (for Northern latitudes)? For the next week, take a few minutes out of your late evening and follow these simple instructions to locate the missing lion in your night sky.
Use the Globe at Night website to find the latitude and longitude of the location where you are making your observation.
Go outside more than an hour after sunset (8-10 pm local time). The Moon should not be up. Let your eyes become used to the dark for 10 minutes before your first observation.
Match your observation to one of 7 magnitude charts and note the amount of cloud cover.
Report the date, time, location (latitude/longitude), the chart you chose, and the amount of cloud cover at the time of observation. Make more observations from other locations, if possible. Compare your observation to thousands around the world!:
I’ll be making my observations either tomorrow or Friday evening around 10 o’clock Central time. I’m just one degree shy of forty degrees north latitude. We’re in the last quarter of the moon, with the new moon occurring on the 23rd so this is the best opportunity to find that missing lion!
Times for Sunset and Moonrise for Kansas City, KS:
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I spent a lazy Sunday writing blog entries and emails, reading an ebook and watching the best bits of an old movie (Hatari! from 1962). I kept one eye on the clock and the other one on the sun because I did not want to miss the opportunity to photograph the conjunction between Jupiter and the Crescent Moon (the moon passed within three degrees of Jupiter last night). I had witnessed a similar conjunction last month when I went hunting for Mercury and caught it.
I had read earlier in the day that you can sometimes see Jupiter before the sun sets with your naked eye. I could easily see the moon and Venus before sunset, but try as I might I could not discern Jupiter amidst the twilight glare, even though the skies were exceptionally clear, free of clouds and haze and the wind seemed calm or non-existent. I switched my camera from it’s normal lens to the telephoto and took closeups of the moon in the hopes that I would later be able to find Jupiter once I downloaded the photos. I proved that theory this morning with the following photo:
I spent the next hour taking the occasional snapshot of the triangular conjunction and several planes that flew near or through the area. To view most of the photos (the ones worthy of uploading) in an album (or a slideshow), click on this link.
I packed up the camera and tripod at about half past eight and traipsed back inside. I returned to my library and finished my ebook just a minute shy of ten o’clock. I needed to charge my Nook Color, which required descending downstairs again. Since I was up and halfway to the band room, I decided to drag the camera and tripod back outside in an attempt to photograph the constellation Leo and the visiting Mars. I had to switch back to the normal lens as I could not get the entire constellation in the field of view available through the telephoto. I took three or four snapshots of Leo and Mars, but I could not see the stars very well through the viewfinder or the preview display on the back of the camera. I just had to cross my fingers and hope that my efforts had captured enough of the stars to clearly see the outline of Leo. The best of the photos turned out to be the three second exposure shown here:
This is the same photograph edited to add lines to outline Leo and a label for 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.
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).