There’s a Star in the East

Long winter nights.

Crisp clear skies.

Denser colder atmosphere.

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.

Observing Highlights for this Weekend (courtesy of “The Sky This Week” at

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”

Look West After Sunset Tomorrow Evening

I probably won’t get to see this.  Snow is forecast for this afternoon in the KC metro area and continuing cloud cover for the next couple of days.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed and my eyes on the western horizon as I drive home tomorrow night.

For those of you with clear skies, enjoy a triple conjunction of the bright planet Venus, the red planet Mars and the two-old new Moon.

Whatever you do, just start watching the western twilight sky. Set a reminder on your phone if need be. The planets and moon won’t be up for long after sunset. And the views will be spectacular from now through Saturday night!

Earthsky, “Venus, Mars, moon after sunset February 19

Comet and Crescent Moon Sail into the Sunset

Comet PanSTARRS (30 mins after Sunset, March 7-20, 2013)You can tell it’s spring time in Kansas by my frustration with clouds and astronomical observing.  I don’t grumble much, so long as the clouds provide relief for our record drought, as they did last weekend with two days of good rain on top of the melting snow left over from Winter Storms Q and Rocky.  I decided to skip, again, the ASKC‘s Messier Marathon, scheduled for Monday evening, mostly because it fell on a week night, but also because the clouds did not appear to be cooperating.  And the drive home, westward, did not fill me with confidence for my odds of spotting comet PanSTARRS and the thin crescent moon, potentially one of the youngest I’d yet observed.

Upon arriving home, clouds still obscured the sun sporadically to the west.  My husband and I grabbed a quick bite to eat at the local Arby’s and I walked Apollo upon returning home, despite the brisk wind out of the northwest.  I had just sat down to watch something with Terry when I checked out the window one last time.  Miraculously, the western horizon appeared cloud free.  I handed Terry the remote, shoved on my boots, grabbed the camera, binoculars and tripod and ran to the van.  As I drove west along Eisenhower Road, I received a call from my Dad, who was back in Lansing, at the spot where we observed the Transit of Venus last June.  I told him I was heading to a small rural church parking lot at the corner of Eisenhower and County Shop Road, because it has slightly less light pollution than the hill overlooking Main Street (K-7/US-73) in Lansing. 

I arrived about ten minutes before eight o’clock.  I uncapped my binoculars and took a quick look at the thin crescent moon, one of the slimmest ones I’ve yet observed.  Later, I calculated it was also the youngest I’ve observed, just twenty-nine (29) hours old.  Here’s the photo I took of it fifteen minutes later, after I’d setup the tripod and put the telephoto lens on my camera: 

Young Crescent Moon (8:04 p.m. CDT 03/12/2013)

I continued to take photographs for another twenty-five minutes but never did find the comet with my naked eyes.  Using my binoculars, I did locate comet PanSTARRS about a quarter after eight.  When I reviewed my photographs after downloading them to my computer, I realized I’d actually captured it earlier, in a photo taken one minute after the one shown above.  The best shot of the crescent moon and the comet came another fifteen minutes later though:

Click image for rest of album

I plan to keep trying for the rest of the week, or as long as comet PanSTARRS is visible.  I may even drive down to Powell Observatory Friday evening.  I read an announcement via the Astronomical Society of Kansas City‘s Twitter feed declaring a special pre-season opening of the observatory to view the comet. 

I called my dad back, since we’d gotten cut off by bad cell phone reception out in the county.  He confirmed his inability to spot the comet without optical aid and wished me a good night.  I packed up the equipment and returned home.  I fed the dogs while I downloaded the photos to Terry’s computer and quickly reviewed them, selecting a few of the better shots to upload to Flickr to share with family and friends.  By that time, I needed to hit the sack, so I left writing this blog until morning. 

Happy hunting to all of you this week.  Grab a pair of binoculars and look west, young men and women, look west for comet PanSTARRS. 

Bring binoculars to pick the comet out of the twilight low in the west. (Don’t expect it to look this obvious!) The scene is drawn for about 40° north latitude, and the Moon is placed for a viewer near the middle of North America.

Sunrise ~ Ides of September

I went to bed a bit disappointed with the cloud cover. My astronomy club’s monthly star party got cancelled because of lingering overcast.  I spent a pleasant evening with my husband watching the first part of Sergeant York while he napped.  I only made it about thirty minutes myself before I dozed off.

I woke up to clouds creeping up from the south.  I didn’t have any chance at all to glimpse the last vestige of the dying moon (it’s turns new today), so I took the lemons the dawn gave me and made sunrise lemonade.

I went up the hill and setup the camera and tripod east of Lansing City Hall.  I took several photos over the course of thirty or forty minutes, right up until sunrise, when it fizzled.  To see the best of the photos in an album from this morning, click on the image of pre-dawn Venus (centered) below:

Pre-dawn Venus (Sat 9/15/2012) - click image for rest of album
Pre-dawn Venus (Sat 9/15/2012) – click image for rest of album

Baby Moon to Venus: “Tag, You’re It!”

For the third day in a row this week, I planned an evening excursion to photograph astronomical objects converging on the western horizon during twilight. The people living along First Street on the hill above Main Street in Lansing probably think I’m crazy, camping out on the sidewalk with either a telescope or a camera on a tripod for hours on end.

Sunday, of course, I observed and photographed the solar eclipse.  Monday, I hunted and failed to catch a glimpse of a very young, very slim crescent moon.  Tuesday, I wanted to catch the two-day old moon as it passed by Venus for the last time this year.

But of course, I got home around five thirty to a distraction, albeit a pleasant one.  Rachelle had cooked dinner for Terry and I and invited Grandpa over.  Tuesday was her last full day visiting us.  She returns to North Texas today.  She created a marinara sauce from scratch, prepared tri-colored rotini pasta, sauteed some kale and created a fresh green salad from baby spinach and baby romaine.  I created some garlic cheese bread from a fresh loaf I baked on Sunday.  We definitely got our quota of veggies yesterday!

After supper, my dad and I retired to the backyard with my camera and my telephoto lens.  He had created a solar filter from the same film he used to create the larger filter for the telescope (used during Sunday’s solar eclipse observations).  He attached it to the telephoto lens and I took a couple of shots of the sun before it sunk below my neighbor’s roof line.

Sun (with solar filter, sans tripod) – click for larger image

We returned inside to find Terry napping (aka food coma) and Rachelle watching YouTube videos of her choir performance from last winter. I put the camera back in the bag and told everyone I was leaving to photograph the sunset, the crescent moon and Venus. Dad tagged along, since he had to head north to return home anyway.

I setup the tripod and camera near where I photographed the sunset Monday evening, moving a few feet further down the hill on the sidewalk to the south. I was looking for a less obstructed angle to the western horizon, trying to avoid some intervening trees. I took several shots as the sun set, but was really just killing time until Venus appeared, followed by the crescent moon.

Sunset (Tuesday May 22, 2012) – click image for rest of album

I continued to take photographs of Venus, the moon and the western horizon until a quarter to ten. I waited until twilight faded enough to see earthshine on the moon.

Earthshine on Moon, with Venus (late twilight, Tuesday, May 22, 2012) – click image to see rest of album

The faintness of the crescent moon surprised me.  I thought I would be able to see the moon before I could see Venus, but that was definitely not the case last night.  The haze and wispy clouds made it difficult to discern the slim sliver of the moon, while Venus blazed like a pinprick laser, even before the sun set. As noted above, this is the last time the moon and Venus will pass this close to each other this year.  And since in less than two weeks, Venus crosses the face of the sun, just as the Moon did two days ago, I declared a game of tag between the two of them.  Venus is “It” for at least the next fortnight.

Earthshine Moon Near Venus (click for larger image)

I packed up the photographic equipment and said goodnight to my dad. I returned home and immediately went to bed. I would download the photos from the SD card in the morning.

I only snoozed through one alarm this morning. I woke up Terry’s computer and downloaded the photos. I spent about thirty minutes sifting through the shots, discarding some really horrible overexposed yellow sunset chaff. I hand picked a dozen or so sunset and moon shots. I uploaded the first group and created a sunset album. I attempted to upload the second group of the Moon and Venus photos, but kept having errors. I tried and retried until I almost made myself late picking up my vanpool riders. I grabbed the SD card, stuffed it in my purse and ran out the door. I left the annoying home computer attempting to upload the photos while I commuted to work. I discovered some of the photos actually did upload, but not all of them. Enough of them, though, for me to get this blog post started and published. So, check back later today or tomorrow to see the rest of the photos (just click on the images above to see the rest of the photos in the albums).

Tilted View of Moon and Venus (just because I’m twisted like that) – click for larger image

I think I’m done with amateur astrophotography for the week.  I need to get back to my walking regimen.  I even forgot to put my pedometer on this morning, which I haven’t done in months.  Apollo will miss Rachelle, so I need to distract him from moping around the house and return to our evening walks around Lansing.

Playing Hide-and-Seek with Baby Moon

Monday afternoon I returned home from work all psyched up and ready to catch a glimpse of the new moon, the baby one, the one that’s barely twenty-four hours old.  I kept one eye on the sky all day, getting a bit perturbed at it’s pristine blueness compared to yesterday’s puffy whiteness competing with the solar eclipse.  I muttered to myself on the drive home, but immediately became distracted when I pulled in the driveway to find my husband inserting a new headlamp light blub in the Bonneville.  I asked him to replace it because I discovered on my midnight ride home from Powell Observatory Saturday that my left one had burnt out.

As I entered the garage, Terry stopped at the garage door and looked at me expectantly. I raised my left eyebrow in my classic Spock impersonation and gazed around trying to discern what I missed.  My eyes fell on the area of the second garage bay where we store the lawnmower.  I gasped in surprise as I spied a brand new shiny red pushmower.

Out with the old . . .
Out with the old . . .
. . . In with the new.
. . . In with the new.

Any thoughts of moon catching fled from my brain. The mower begged to be test driven (literally since it’s a self-propelled model). I spent a half hour acquainting myself with the mower in the backyard.  Despire popping a couple of wheelies, I liked the way the new mower conquered the grass and the terrain.

My mind got back on track with my moon hunt as eight o’clock approached. I asked Rachelle if she wanted to accompany me to my observing site, ostensibly to get Apollo out of the house on a short walk as well. She agreed readily. I grabbed the camera gear and tripod and placed them in the trunk, while Rachelle let Apollo jump in the back seat of the Bonneville.

I remembered to check the time of sunset for Monday evening (8:30 p.m.) but forgot to confirm the time of moonset. I later learned (upon returning home to my laptop) that moonset occurred shortly after 9:20 p.m. Since I rushed my daughter out of the house, she left her smartphone there.  She has a nifty app that functions as an interactive ‘live’ star atlas and would have helped me locate the baby moon playing peekaboo behind the clouds.

Seeking Very New Moon
Venus easily spotted (upper left quadrant) but can’t find new moon.

I setup the camera and tripod and took over seventy photos of the sunset and twilight in the vain hope that even if I couldn’t find the baby moon with my naked eye, I might capture it ‘on film’ and find it later when I download the photos from the camera. I stayed until nine o’clock, not knowing I still had twenty more minutes to try to find the moon, as the twilight faded away and Venus continued to brighten. My daughter convinced me the haze and few wispy clouds clinging to the western horizon obscured the moon, preventing me from seeing it’s slim sliver of a crescent.

I waited until Tuesday morning to download the photos and review them. Try as I might, I could not find the crescent moon. I even verified the location of the moon in relation to the sun and Venus for the time period I observed Monday evening.  I still feel I should have been able to find it, but perhaps it was the haze, thin clouds and lingering twilight that thwarted my efforts.

I snagged a few (more than a few actually, but I won’t inundated you with them) photos of the sunset, which continued to glow bright pink, orange and purple thirty minutes after the sun dipped below the horizon.

Seeking Very New Moon

This evening I plan to return to the same site to capture the two-day old crescent moon as it passes Venus.  According to Earthysky, tonight is the last time this year (2012) to see the moon and Venus so close to each other.  Venus rapidly descends over the next two weeks as it rushes to cut between us (Earth) and the sun (the year’s most popular astronomical event – the Transit of Venus).

∞ ∞ ∞

The following information was compiled by the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC):

Transit of Venus FAQ

What is the transit of Venus?

Once in a great while, Venus can pass directly between the Sun and Earth. Only the planets Mercury and Venus can do this, since they are the only two planets closer to the Sun than Earth. When they do, they appear as small black dots crossing the face of the Sun over a period of several hours.

When is the transit of Venus?

From the Kansas City area, it will begin at 5:09 PM CDT on Tuesday, June 5th, and continue until sunset, which will be around 8:41 PM. Weather permitting, we will see 53% of the entire transit before sunset.

Why is the transit of Venus such a special event?

Because of the size and slightly different tilt of the orbits of Venus and Earth, a transit does not happen every time Venus passes between the Sun and Earth; it’s almost always “above” or “below” the Sun when it reaches what is called inferior conjunction. In a 243-year cycle, there are only 4 transits. They occur at very uneven intervals – the last one was in June of 2004, but the next one isn’t until December of 2117, 105 ½ years from now!

Historically, timings of transits of Venus were carried out in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries to trigonometrically calculate the size of the orbit of Venus, which when applied to Kepler’s 3rd law of planetary motion, determined the absolute (rather than relative) size of every other orbit in the Solar System. This was actually the best way to measure distances in the Solar System until radar and space probes became available in the latter half of the 20th century.

How can I observe the transit of Venus?

You can make a pinhole projector with a couple of pieces of card stock or a small cardboard box; just poke a small hole in one of the pieces or one end of the box, and position it such that it casts a small image of the Sun on the other piece or the other end of the box.

It will be a lot easier to see, though, through a suitable filter, either with your unaided eye or binoculars or a telescope completely covered by a full-aperture filter. Safe filters are available at HMS Beagle, a science store at English Landing in Parkville.

Where will there be organized viewing of the transit of Venus?

There will be at least 3 organized events in the Kansas City area:

  1. The Astronomical Society of Kansas City will open Powell Observatory in Louisburg. A map and directions are at
  2. The ASKC will also open Warkoczewski Observatory at UMKC, on the roof of Royall Hall. Park on the 4th level of the parking structure on the southwest corner of 52nd & Rockhill and take the skywalk into Royall, then up 2 flights of stairs to the roof.
  3. Kansas Citizens for Science, with assistance from ASKC members, will host observing from the rooftop of Coach’s Bar & Grill, 9089 W. 135th, Overland Park.

Moon + Sun = Eclipse

Photo1402.jpgI woke up Sunday to nearly complete overcast.  In fact, I went to bed with the same sky, or so it seemed when I looked out my bedroom window.  I should have returned to bed for more sleep, especially since I had my first night as a volunteer staff team member at a public night at Powell Observatory in Lousiberg, Kansas and didn’t get home until close to midnight.  Even though the skies started clouding up before sunset Saturday, over sixty people stopped by in the vain hope of seeing Mars, Saturn or even some of the spring galaxies visible this time of year.  We (meaning other members of the ASKC) entertained and educated them with a program on galaxies, featuring M31, commonly known as the Andromeda galaxy.  We were able to lock up the observatory a bit early, but the hour long drive home still put me three hours past my normal bed time.

I wiled away Sunday reading sixteen chapters of Insurgent.  My daughter spent the afternoon with friends and planned to attend the Tbones baseball game that evening.  As the afternoon wore on, I could tell from my library window that the clouds drifted away and more blue began to dominate the sky.  After six o’clock, I started transferring the telescope and photographic equipment to the vehicle for transport to the spot I had picked out to observe the solar eclipse.

Solar Filter and Sheild on the Front
Meade ETX90 with Solar Filter and Shield on the front and Pentax on the back.

I got to the site a bit after half past six and began setting up the scope.  I called my dad and woke him up from his nap.  He said he would be on his way in just a few minutes.  I called him back and asked him to bring a level, since I had forgotten to grab one from the garage before I left home.  Just as I had everything hooked up and ready to go, the sun slipped behind an extra large cloud and stayed there for several minutes.  Since the solar filter only lets through one one-millionth of the light emitting from the sun, I couldn’t orient the scope until the cloud passed by.

Cloud Conditions
Cloud Conditions During Solar Eclipse (Lansing, Kansas)

Dad arrived before the sun peeked out again.  Using the level he brought, we fine tuned the tripod for better tracking in a polar mount configuration for the telescope.  I had barely enough time to take a few test photographs of the sun to attempt to get the focus dialed in as much as possible.  Focusing the telescope with the Pentax attached to it can be very challenging.  The telescope becomes a large telephoto lens for the camera, but the digital camera is completely unaware of the telescope because the camera normally talks to a ‘smart’ lens which feeds it information about light conditions and focus.  The telescope is completely passive and completely manual (except for the tracking motors which slew during observations to keep the object centered in the eyepiece).

To focus the Meade ETX90, whether using the eyepiece or the camera, I need to turn a small knob on the back of the scope that adjusts the mirror inside the scope.  The viewfinder of the camera gave me a live image of the sun about the size of a dime (or smaller).  I tried using my naked eye and my reading glasses, but neither one would resolve the sunspots to a fine acuity.  I had to hope I got the focus ‘close enough’ for the camera.  I don’t know of a technique to correct focus after the fact with photo editing software, so if I didn’t get it as close as I could, I would be stuck with slightly blurry photos.

Partial Solar Eclipse
Pre-eclipse photo of sun (click image for rest of album)

The eclipse began earlier than I thought it would, by about five minutes. I took several photographs over the next hour, as the sun (and moon) continued to sink through the clouds towards the western horizon. I had some problems with the wind and of course the clouds. With about ten minutes left before the sun (and moon) dipped below the horizon, I detached the camera from the telescope and instead took some photos of the stunning sunset occurring simultaneously with the solar eclipse.

Solar Eclipse Sunset
Sunset during Solar Eclipse (click image for rest of album)

Several people stopped by and asked about the eclipse. I could even show them some of the photos I’d taken using the preview feature and the view screen on the back of the Pentax.  Here are a couple of crowd favorites among the shots I took:

Partial Solar Eclipse

Partial Solar Eclipse

Partial Solar Eclipse

I gained great experience during this solar eclipse. I feel more prepared and confident for the Transit of Venus, which happens in just two weeks from tomorrow! I’ll be in the same spot, clouds permitting. Otherwise, I may be forced to settle for a webcast of the event, because one way or another, I will witness it.

One Full Sun (Set) and Two Crescents

Terry and I took advantage of exceptional late April weather to enjoy (and photograph) a gorgeous sunset:

Click photo to see rest of album

And I took advantage of the new moon’s crescent being near the crescent of Venus to capture this series of photographs:

Click photo to see rest of album.

While you can’t tell it from the photo above, Venus is also a crescent, just like the New Moon.  Terry and I both saw Venus easily a good fifteen or twenty minutes before the sun set.

Late March Evening Triangle

Venus Jupiter and the Moon
Venus, Jupiter and the Moon (Sun 25 Mar 2012)

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:

First Glimpse of Jupiter and the crescent Moon
First Glimpse of Jupiter and the crescent Moon (bisected by a power line)

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:

Mars in Leo
Mars in Leo (Sun 25 Mar 2012)

This is the same photograph edited to add lines to outline Leo and a label for Mars:

Mars in Leo
Mars in Leo (Sun 25 Mar 2012)