An Hour Before Midnight, Lion Spotted

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.

How did your observations go?

Astronomical Activity and Dark Sky Awareness – the Case of the Hidden Lion

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.

Five Easy Star Hunting Steps

  1. Use the Globe at Night website to help find your constellation in the night sky.
  2. Use the Globe at Night website to find the latitude and longitude of the location where you are making your observation.
  3. 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.
  4. Match your observation to one of 7 magnitude charts and note the amount of cloud cover.
  5. 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!:
April 2020 Campaign – Find Leo After Sunset all this week!

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:

April 16, 2020
Moonrise: 3:55am
Twi A: 5:05am
Twi N: 5:40am
Twi: 6:13am
Sunrise: 6:41am
Solar noon: 1:19pm
Moonset: 1:59pm
Sunset: 7:57pm
Twi: 8:25pm
Twi N: 8:58pm
Twi A: 9:32pm
Day len: 13h 16′
April 17, 2020
Moonrise: 4:29am
Twi A: 5:03am
Twi N: 5:38am
Twi: 6:11am
Sunrise: 6:39am
Solar noon: 1:18pm
Moonset: 2:59pm
Sunset: 7:58pm
Twi: 8:26pm
Twi N: 8:59pm
Twi A: 9:34pm
Day len: 13h 19′

The Majority of Americans Can’t See the Milky Way Anymore

Light pollution update.  Not looking good for looking up for 80% of us in the United States.

Swan Song Encore

For the second night in a row, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes outside, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness before participating in the Great World Wide Star Count.  I relaxed on my upper patio, hiding behind my pile of firewood, which blocks the bright lights from the doctors’ office to my west.  Apollo joined me both nights, enjoying the cool autumn breeze and quiet evening.

I zoomed in on the Northern Cross, also known as the constellation Cygnus, as the target of my naked eye observations both nights.  I printed the observing guide Friday before leaving work.  Despite being surrounded by city streetlights, prison security lighting and a nearly full moon, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I could see down to magnitude five, but not quite to magnitude six, again according to the Northern Hemisphere Observing Guide.

Friday night I even setup the tripod and Canon camera to snap a three second exposure of the constellation Cynus:

Cygnus (just after 9 pm Central Fri 14 Oct 2011)
Cygnus (just after 9 pm Central Fri 14 Oct 2011)

Tonight, rather than setting up the camera, I brought out the binoculars to see if I could discern the blue and yellow stars that make up Albireo in the head of the Swan.  Having to look almost directly overhead and holding the binoculars away from my eyes did not result in a steady enough magnification to confirm.  Perhaps tomorrow night I’ll haul the telescope up out of the basement and get a better, steadier look at that gem.

I need to find another place at least one kilometer away from my house to do a second observation to report back to the website referenced above.  If only Lansing didn’t lock up all of it’s parks promptly at sunset, I might have an opportunity to observe from the new park out west on 4-H Road.

So how many stars can you see of the Swan?  Step outside tomorrow night, give your eyes fifteen minutes to adjust and look directly overhead.

Keep looking up!

A Year in the Life of My Blog

Last year, a few days after my birthday, I scrapped my MySpace blog, mostly due to interface changes, and ventured here to WordPress with a backup blog at Blogger.  My original intention was to journal my astronomical adventures here and do some inspirational topics on the backup site.  While I didn’t blog daily, I did manage to craft over two hundred blog entries here (this being my 225th).

Cygnas (the Swan)
Cygnus (the Swan)

In honor of my original intention to explore the heavens, I wanted to encourage everyone (and motivate myself) to participate in this year’s Great World Wide Star Count.  Don’t be shy!  Anyone can participate and it doesn’t require any equipment beyond your eyes.  This project is an annual survey of the night sky, held this year between October 14th and 28th (7-9 pm optimal viewing window) to record how many stars you can see in the constellation Cygnus (the Swan) in the northern hemisphere (follow the link above if you reside Down Under).  This helps map the spread of light pollution.  I plan to get out my telescope (for the first time this fall) and view the beautiful blue/yellow double-star Albireo. I can’t tell from the survey’s website if they are affiliate with the IDA (the International Dark-Sky Association), but I’m doing my bit (via this blog) to raise awareness about the value of dark skies and their preservation and restoration.

And now, a brief retrospective of some of my favorite blog entries (indicated with asterisks) from the past year and a few popular (according to the stats) highlights:

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.

I Spy the Night Sky

I stepped outside just before 9:00 pm to let the dogs out and shocked myself with the sight of actual stars, something I haven’t seen in weeks (it seems) with the unrelenting cloud cover, rain and thunderstorms plaguing the Heart of America this month.  I grabbed my camera and tripod and setup just east of my mailbox, hoping to capture photographic evidence of the overwhelming light pollution saturating my neighborhood.

Due North (from in front of my mailbox)
Bambi Court Due North (from in front of my mailbox)

Not only does everyone on my court leave every outside light on, they feel compelled to illuminate their driveways, fences, sidewalks, trees, boats, etc., etc.  The clouds in the above picture are actually illuminated by the glow from the Lansing Correctional Facility (just a half mile north of my neighborhood).

Turning around 180 degrees on the tripod, and flipping the camera 90 degrees to the horizontal, I snapped a shot of my new ‘bright night light’ recently installed at the corner of Bambi Court and Fawn Valley:

New 'Bright Night Light' (Installed at the corner of Fawn Valley & Bambi Court)
New 'Bright Night Light' (Installed at the corner of Fawn Valley & Bambi Court)

Again, the neighbors to my south, on the south side of Fawn Valley, seem to be in competition with the Bambi Court Extreme Illumination Foundation.

I could barely see the handle of the big dipper, so I thought I’d try experimenting with long exposures using the Pentax K100D.  There was no wind where I was standing, even though I could see the thin wispy clouds moving casually from west to east across the backdrop of the Big and Little Dippers.  I set the camera to Shutter Priority Mode and selected a six second exposure for a half dozen shots of the northwestern, north and northeastern skies.  The most dramatic shot, after autocorrecting with basic photo editing software (and I apologize for the greenness of the resulting photo), follows:

Bits of Ursa Minor and Draco (behind the clouds)
Bits of Ursa Minor and Draco (behind the clouds)

I packed up the camera and tripod and thought about heading to bed.  I tried to read more from the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide but gave up around ten o’clock.  I got up to let the dogs out one final time and, as I always do, I looked up when I stepped outside.  I always look up.  The clouds had cleared away more and I could clearly see the Big and Little Dippers from my back patio.  I grabbed the tripod and camera again for some more experimental shots using an exposure of fifteen seconds.  The following two photos show Ursa Minor and Major in one shot:

Ursa Minor and Major (Polaris is at 1 o'clock compared to the tree sillouette bottom center)
Ursa Minor and Major (Polaris is at 1 o'clock compared to the tree sillouette bottom center)

Ursa Major and Minor
Ursa Major and Minor

And there I will leave you to dream of the stars.

Good night and sleep tight!

Corner Yard Saga Continues and Other Updates

Storm Takes Out Streetlight 04/15/2011
Storm Takes Out Streetlight 04/15/2011

A little more than a month ago, on the ides of April, one of the early spring thunderstorms took out the streetlight that graced the corner of my yard.  At the time, I jumped for joy at the prospect of stargazing with less light pollution than ‘normal’ in my over-illuminated urban area.  Ironically, except for a handful of nights, the sky remained overcast for the past six weeks.  I began to wonder if I’d been transported against my will to the Pacific Northwest.  I’ve completely missed the pre-dawn planetary line-up (Mercury, Mars, Venus and Jupiter), even on ‘clear’ mornings thanks to haze, humidity and wispy clouds just thick enough to obscure the eastern atmosphere.

New Streetlight, Same Over-Illumination
New Streetlight, Same Over-Illumination

This week, the power company installed the new streetlight pole and rewired it to the leaning pole in the southwest corner of my yard.  That’s the pole they really should have replaced as with the current thunderstorm activity, I predict it will be the next victim.  Either the City of Lansing or the power company opted to continue over-illuminating the neighborhood by installing a standard cobra drop-lens fixture instead of the flat-lens cobra luminaire, which is a full-cutoff fixture, is very effective in reducing light pollution, ensuring that light is only directed below the horizontal, rather than directing light outwards and upwards.  Not only are the nights getting shorter (and more humid), I now get to look forward to seeing less stars, constellations, planets, galaxies and nebulae.  At least the moon has some chance of competing for a few days each month.

I snapped a couple other photos of the state of that corner of the yard, mainly the huge pile of dirt around the base of the new streetlight:

What to do with the dirt?  Tamp it?  Water it?
What to do with the dirt? Tamp it? Water it?

I wonder what type of grass seed the City chose for the patch of yard the snow plow scraped off earlier this year:

The Grass is Greener ...
The Grass is Greener ...

I’ll leave you with my final photo of the evening, a bit of flowery brightness to lighten the mood:

First Day Lillies
First Day Lillies