These are a few of my favorite things during the winter months and they add up to darker skies and brighter stars. This weekend also has a few things going for it, astronomically, and also happens to be Twelfth Night (tomorrow, January 5th) and Epiphany (the day after) commemorating the journey of the Three Wise Men guided by a Star in the East.
Friday, January 4
Although people in the Northern Hemisphere experienced the shortest day of the year two weeks ago (at the winter solstice December 21), the Sun has continued to rise slightly later with each passing day. That trend stops this morning for those at 40° north latitude†. Tomorrow’s sunrise will arrive at the same time as today’s, but the Sun will come up two seconds earlier Sunday morning. This turnover point depends on latitude. If you live farther north, the switch occurred a few days ago; closer to the equator, the change won’t happen until later in January.
† I’m just 68 miles south of the Kansas-Nebraska border, which juxtaposes with the 40th parallel. Weird fact discovered this morning via Google Maps: The Kansas Highway that is literally a block west of my house (K-7) ends at the border and turns into 666 Avenue (see map screenshot below). Continue reading “There’s a Star in the East”
I’m an early riser. I’m always up before the sun. Some mornings, like this morning, I wake up to obscured skies, clouds reflecting the ruddy golden light of Kansas City in the southeast from my bedroom window.
Twelve degrees Fahrenheit this morning as I setup the tripod and camera for the third pre-dawn photo shoot of Saturn and Venus. Completely calm, unlike yesterday morning, so no jiggles to the camera, beyond my fumbling numb fingers. I opted for longer exposures (three or four seconds), so I ended up with some trails, especially when using the telephoto lens. Otherwise, much the same as before, with the exception of the planetary dance partners.
I don’t plan on repeating this for a fourth time tomorrow morning, but I do plan on trying to capture the full moon as it approaches Jupiter tomorrow night. There also happens to be a penumbral lunar eclipse occurring Wednesday evening.
Wednesday, November 28
Full Moon arrives at 9:46 a.m. EST. It appears against the background stars of Taurus the Bull before dawn this morning, approximately midway between the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters and below brilliant Jupiter. (The Moon will slide within 1° of the planet after sunset tonight.) But the Moon has a lot more going for it today. First, it passes through the outer part of Earth’s shadow. This penumbral lunar eclipse will slightly darken the Moon’s northern half. People in much of North America can see the eclipse’s early stages, which begin at 7:15 a.m. EST. (Those in Australia, eastern Asia, and the Pacific islands have the best views of the event.) Second, this Full Moon is the smallest (29.4′ in diameter) of 2012. Our satellite’s relatively diminutive size arises because it reaches the farthest point in its orbit around Earth at 2:37 p.m. EST today, when it lies 252,501 miles (406,362 kilometers) from Earth’s center. (Astronomy.com ‘The Sky This Week – November 23 – December 2, 2012’)
I went to bed Sunday night lamenting the end of my longest vacation in over a decade. I double-checked and triple-checked my return-to-work checklist (security badge, laptop, cell phone, sunglasses, lunch bag, work clothes and shoes, etc.) before nodding off. I woke up fifteen minutes before my alarm went off at five o’clock. I jumped out of bed and had myself dressed and ready to go before half past five. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss this morning’s Saturn-Venus photo opportunity.
I got everything, including the camera and tripod, packed into the back of the van and drove up the hill, squinting through the frosty windshield, to the library parking lot. I left the van running with the defroster on half-blast, but turned off the headlights. I setup the tripod and camera on the sidewalk, but quickly became concerned by the slight breeze from the north, which could (and did) jiggle the camera during the longer exposures necessitated by the pre-dawn darkness.
I changed lenses on the camera back to my normal lens and took a couple of wide angle shots to begin with:
I adjusted the brightness (something I rarely do since I don’t own Photoshop and need to learn how to use Gimp) to make the horizon a bit more visible.
Shortly after six o’clock, I observed Mercury and took a photo in portrait orientation (vertical) to include all three planets and the star Spica:
Because I needed to begin the commute to work at a quarter past six, I had to stop taking photos early. A good thing, too, since my batteries, which I had just put in before yesterday morning’s photo session, had already depleted due to the cold temperatures and long exposure times. I did take the time to switch back to my telephoto lens to zoom in on several of the prime targets.
I managed to snatch a closeup of Venus and Saturn and of Mercury and Alpha Librae before I packed up the equipment and left for work:
Tomorrow morning, weather permitting clear skies, I will attempt to capture Saturn as it slips past and above Venus.
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.
I knew Mercury had risen shortly after six o’clock, but I couldn’t see it clearly until about a quarter after.
Later, I accidentally captured not only Mercury, but a passing plane, as it took off from KCI (northeast of my location).
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 Astronomy.com: A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I could not have asked for a more beautiful or perfect day yesterday (weather-wise). Crystal clear light blue skies and a light wind out of the southeast I believe. I kept my fingers crossed most of the day. Mid-afternoon I decided to call my father to see if he was interested in joining my Mercury hunting party. I left him a voice-mail and went back to housecleaning for a couple more hours. At five o’clock, I still hadn’t heard from him and tried calling him one more time. He answered on the fourth ring. He’d been splitting wood all day (not surprising) and hadn’t heard his phone ring or felt it vibrate and had not listened to my voice-mail. I told him my game plan and that while I didn’t have a specific spot in mind, I planned to leave my house at a quarter to six and start driving west from Lansing in search of a hill with an unobstructed view to the western horizon. He didn’t know if he could make it, but he would call me once he got back home, retrieved his binoculars and got in his car.
I took a slightly different path westward, eventually turning south on 187th street and finding a nice wide long pasture with a gravel road field entrance (and no gate) on top of a ridge with an unobstructed view of the entire horizon (not just the western one). I had about five minutes to setup my camera and tripod before the sun kissed the horizon. I took maybe three of our photos before my dad called my cell phone. I told him where I was and he knew exactly the spot I described and headed directly to me. He arrived just after the sunset and we began scanning the horizon with his binoculars, noting several water towers, silos and a very tall microwave communication tower silhouetted against the red orange glow of the sunset.
I told him we had at least thirty minutes before we would be able to see Mercury. At that point, we could already see Venus and the Moon, both of them very bright and visible before the sunset. Jupiter became visible to the naked eye about twenty or twenty-five minutes after the sunset.
Using my father’s binoculars, we could see Jupiter’s four moons, although it was very difficult keeping the binoculars steady enough to see much detail. Even though the wind was out of the south or southeast, it still cut through our jackets. We used the van as a windbreak and dad got a blanket out of his car and we used that to help protect the camera from the wind when I started taking longer exposures. Mercury became visible to our naked eyes about twenty or fifteen minutes before seven o’clock. I took three shots, only one of which wasn’t blurry or streaked.
I spent the remaining twenty minutes trying to capture all four of the visible objects in a single shot. Here are two of the best of the set of photos I took:
When you click on any of the photos above and are taken to my Flickr site, you can further click into the photo to get a larger better view and then further increase the size (even unto the original) by right clicking on it and using this pop-up menu:
Since we were both freezing by this time, I packed up the camera geer and headed back home. Dad thanked me for the invitation and he headed north back to Leavenworth. We can both check off Mercury from our observing goals.
I got home early Friday. I had to wear my sunglasses for the drive home, always a good sign when you want to do some planet hunting soon after sunset. Since I had more than an hour before the sun would set, I put my latest Netflix BluRay in the player (one of the final two Nebular nominations I hadn’t seen yet) and began watching some strange British science fiction teenage alien mashup (more on that later in a separate review post). I almost watched too long when I realized, at about ten ’til six, that the sun was setting and some clouds had creeped up on the west/northwestern horizon. The camera backpack and tripod were already in the van, so I just grabbed my the keys and took off, telling Terry I’d be back after awhile.
I crossed K-7/US-73, taking 4-H Road west and continue west and southwest until I ended up on a gravel road on a hilltop in a field with an almost unobstructed view to the western horizon. The sunset, which had looked promising (see photo above), fizzled as the clouds continued to encroach from the northwest. I trudged out into the pasture and setup my tripod and attached the camera to it. I took a few sunset photos, none of which really did anything for me, except the one to the right, which included the moon (but not much of the horizon since I had the telephoto lens attached and the field of view was a bit restricted). I had only thrown on a sweater in my rush out of the house, so my fingers kept losing feeling when I needed them most to make adjustments to the camera. While there wasn’t much of a wind, what there was chilled rapidly as the light faded with the setting sun.
Before much longer, though, I could easily spot Venus about five degrees above (and to the left) of the two day old moon. I surprised myself when I extracted the photos from the memory card this morning. When I looked closely at Venus (in the photo above), I actually captured a star-burst thanks to my aperture setting for that shot.
But the most difficult shot to capture last evening was a combination of Jupiter, Venus and the New Moon – all together in one shot. I barely got them squeezed into the field of view with the telephoto and twisted the tripod into an odd angle to capture this wonderful photo:
The clouds never cleared along the western horizon, so I did not have an opportunity to see Mercury. If the sky remains clear today and into this evening (and I have hopes of that happening), I will have yet another opportunity this evening to view Mercury, together with Venus, Jupiter and the New Moon.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, and are blessed with an unobstructed western horizon and clear skies, look for the planet Mercury as dusk gives way to nightfall. Look for Mercury to appear near the sunset point on the horizon some 40 to 60 minutes after sundown. Or if you have binoculars, try catching Mercury 30 minutes (or less) after the sun goes down.
Jupiter and Venus help guide you to Mercury, the solar system’s innermost planet. Draw an imaginary line from the right side of Jupiter and past the left side of Venus to spot Mercury near the horizon. But don’t tarry when searching for Mercury. At present, this world sets just a bit over one hour after sunset at mid-northern latitudes.
At about fifteen minutes to seven, I packed up the camera equipment and headed back to the van. The clouds from the north had snuck up on me, so much so that I could see the orange of the prison lights glowing from their low hanging bellies. I retraced my drive back home. I looked up as I got out of the van and was surprised to note that the clouds had almost completely obscured Juptier and Venus, although the sliver of the New Moon still shone bright. By the time I finished dinner and the movie, though, all I could see out the back patio door were the orange glowing low hanging clouds.
I woke up to a brand new day and a crystal clear dawn. Less than twelve hours, now, until I can hunt for Mercury again.
I should have known not to get my hopes up while driving westward home from work. I so wanted to see Mercury (something I’ve never observed with the naked eye, a camera, binoculars or a telescope) and a tiny sliver of a new Moon – both within five degrees of each other. I had hyped myself up earlier in the day thanks to a blurb from Sky & Telescope. The sun kept teasing me, peaking out between the clouds just enough to make me squint as I dodge traffic and dropped off my vanpool riders.
The first thing I did when I arrived home was to call my father and ask him if he knew of a hill with an unobstructed view to the western horizon within fifteen or twenty minutes driving distance of my house in Lansing. He delayed his response, since he needed to put up some wood cutting and splitting equipment, but promised to call me back in five or ten minutes.
Terry, my completely awesome husband, already had dinner ready. He prepared the most amazing steak fajitas, with perfectly grilled red onions and red peppers. I so wanted to eat more of them, but restrained myself so I could savor the leftovers another day.
I checked over my camera equipment and secured it in my camera backpack. I collapsed the tripod. I stowed the gear in the back of the van and said farewell to Terry and the dogs. I pulled out of the driveway and stopped at the Fawn Valley stop sign. The decision point. I surveyed the western sky and decided my best bet to capture the most of what was left of the sunset would be from Mt. Muncie Cemetery.
About five minutes later, I had my camera on my tripod just west of the large Stillings monument (a circular plot with the cemetery access road encircling it). I took a few photos, experimenting with different aperture settings, letting the Canon decide how long to exposure through the shutter. I left the AWB setting to cloudy since, obviously, the landscape before me consisted mostly of clouds.
I called my dad back, since he hadn’t returned my call and discovered he was driving down the center of Leavenworth County on County Road 5, personally investigating sites he thought might have worked for observing Mercury and the Moon (had there been no clouds). I sighed, not meaning for him to waste his gas driving all over county back roads. I told him I was at Mt. Muncie and he said he was on the way. I continued to take a few photos, but for the most part, both the sunset and my prospects for observing the conjunction seemed an exercise in futility. Dad arrived and we chatted for a few minutes, eventually spying both Venus and Jupiter through the thinner clouds above us. I packed up the photographic equipment, showing dad the nice camera backpack Terry had bought me last year. I had offered to let him use it during an upcoming trip he was planning.
I woke up to another gloomy day this morning. On the bright side, it’s my mother’s birthday (and I finally remembered to mail her birthday card yesterday). On the dark side (and it was dark when I thought about it), today is trash day in Lansing and the first time for us to use our new trash and recycling bins. Terry, being the wonderful husband he always is, had already dealt with both the trash (taking it out of the old trash can and placing it in the new one) and recycling. Since it was spitting rain at 5:30 this morning, I was even more grateful than normal. I left my camera and tripod in the back of the van overnight, so I had ready access to my camera this morning during the commute, just in case the sunrise surprised me. Until Daylight Savings kicks in, the sun just starts to turn clouds pink and orange when I pick up my last rider near the Kansas Speedway. My final opportunity to take a photo until I reach my destination near the Country Club Plaza. The sunrise disappointed me this morning, just like the sunset did last night. More gray, with a glimmer of gold, but completely lacking in pinks and oranges.
I got home from work yesterday before 5:15 p.m., leaving me plenty of time before the sunset to walk Apollo. Terry got him so excited, whispering the word ‘walk’ in his eagerly raised ears. By the time I had changed my clothes and laced up my walking shoes, Apollo was whining and jumping around the living room. I grabbed my water bottle and the leash and off we went for a quick forty-five minute walk.
Once back home, I dashed down to the basement and unburied the telescope equipment from last week’s water heater install which necessitated a redistribution of the junk languishing down there. The last thing I brought up to the band room was the large tripod. I took it out the patio door and set it up on the strip of concrete patio just south of the hot tub. I took the case of lenses out to the hot tub wooden steps as well as the box containing the hand-held device that controls the telescope, helping to align it and find objects in the night sky.
I took the telescope out of its box and secured it to the tripod’s base. Something didn’t look quite right. I dug out the manuals for the telescope and the tripod, but nothing would focus. Ah, I needed my reading glasses! I ran upstairs and grabbed them off the kitchen table. Much better! I refreshed my aging memory on the finer points of placing the telescope correctly on the tripod. I disconnected the telescope, turned it 180 degrees and re-secured it to the base. Then I aligned the tripod legs more-or-less on a north-south orientation. Finally, I was ready to connect to Autostar hand-held control device and the 12-volt power supply.
I looked over my shoulder to the southwest and could already see Venus and Jupiter in the still lit dusky sky. I plugged in the power supply and the Autostar and flipped the switch at the base of the telescope to the on position. The Autostar woke up and warned me not to look through my telescope, ever, at the sun directly. Well, darn, the sun had already set so I didn’t really need to worry about that.
I entered today’s date and time and told the Autostar that, no, currently I wasn’t using daylight savings time. I skipped the alignment, since I couldn’t see any stars yet, and, from past experience, the stars it would want to use for aligning the telescope would be blocked by either my house (which rose thirty feet high to my east only about six feet away from the base of the tripod) or the trees in my backyard (a very tall pine tree, tall maple tree and my neighbor’s large pear tree – all block my western, northwestern and north horizons from my backyard). Basically, I can only look up, to the south or southwest, with a mostly unobstructed view from my back yard. Oh, and there’s a large hill about a quarter of a mile to my west, so I can’t really see the sunsets either.
Using my finder’s scope, I zeroed in on Venus and then programmed the Autostar to find Venus, without actually finding it. I found it in the Autostar’s database of observing objects and then told it to start slewing (also known as tracking the object so it always stays centered in the eyepiece). I put in my 26mm eyepiece and then paused the slewing. I used the directional arrow keys on the keypad to center Venus in the field of view and then unpaused slewing. Wow! Was Venus bright! But smaller than I anticipated. I tried a variety of lenses (16mm, 9mm and the doubling one with a combination of all of those) and got brave and tried three different types of colored filters.
I quickly read through the one page reference guide for the lenses, each of which gave tips for the various types of objects you could observe and what you could expect from the different colors. I first tried the blue filter, which helped reduce the glare from the still well-lit western sky. Venus was still very bright. I next tried the orange filter, which really brought down the brightness and I believe I even saw some cloud formations. The last color I tried was the green filter, but I don’t believe that one added to my viewing experience.
After observing Venus for several minutes with various filter and eyepiece combinations, I told the Autostar to go find Jupiter. Since I had not aligned the telescope previously, I had my doubts as to whether the computer and the drives could actually find it. I knew where it was, because I could see it. The Autostar got close, but not close enough to see Jupiter in my 26mm eyepiece. I pause slewing and used the finder scope and the directional controls to center Jupiter. I unpaused slewing and was amazed at the size and clarity of Jupiter and four of its moons.
The first thing that struck me was the fact that Jupiter looked at least as large as Venus had, if not larger! Yet Venus is closer to Earth by a long shot. This really made me wonder about the sheer size of Jupiter, all those billions of miles away, out past Mars and the asteroid belt. It’s own miniature solar system. Awesome!
All but one of Jupiter’s moons were lined up perfectly on one side of the gas giant. I could clearly see the striations in the clouds, but I did not see the Red Spot. I spent several very enjoyable minutes observing them all with various eyepieces, but no filters (as I could see detail very clearly without them).
My last longshot of the night was a whimsical hope that I would be able to see one of the nebulae in Orion. I told the Autostar to go find the Horsehead Nebula. Off it went, taking the telescope generally to the belt or sword area of the constellation Orion. I hadn’t yet grabbed my Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas, so I couldn’t remember exactly where the Horsehead Nebula resided in relation to Orion’s belt. I traversed up and down the sword, but did not further investigate the belt, where I should have concentrated. However, since the skies were still quite bright (not dark) and the light pollution continued to obscure my ability to see such dark nebulae, I gave up on that hunt and saved it for another night when I could transport my entire setup to a dark sky site. Thanks to a gift from my father, the prospect of observing at a dark sky site have gotten markedly better. He repaired an old portable emergency battery and light (both white and red) device that can be used as a power source, once I find (or buy) the power cord for the telescope that includes the standard car cigarette lighter-type connector.
On a whim, I told the Autostar to go find the Pleiades, another open star cluster I could easily see between Orion and Jupiter. I couldn’t easily find it listed in the observing objects database, so I looked it up in my Sky Atlas and determined it also had the M45 designation. The Autostar took the telescope to the general vicinity of the Pleiades, but I could not confirm this from the eyepiece. And, since the Pleiades were very high in the night sky, I could not use the finder scope to manually re-align the telescope. Why? Because on the ETX-90, the OEM finder scope becomes unusable at vertical or near vertical angles when using the Alt/Az mount (instead of the Equatorial mount). I have a replacement finder scope, but have not yet installed. Terry volunteered to give it a go this week since I left the telescope on its tripod smack dab in the middle of the band room last night.
I may or may not be able to participate in Sky & Telescope’s Moon Mercury challenge this evening. Tonight, about thirty minutes after sunset, the tiniest sliver of the new moon will be visible right next to Mercury. My drive in to work today produced a stunning sunrise, thanks to a mostly cloudy sky, so unless these clouds blow away before I get home, I doubt I’ll be able to see the sun, let alone the pencil-thin moon and the small bright fleeting dot of Mercury. If, by some miracle, the skies are crystal clear when I get home tonight, I will at least packup my digital camera and its tripod and find a spot on a hilltop with a clear unobstructed view of the setting sun.