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 rode the astronomical roller coaster yesterday. I started Wednesday with an e-mail from Celestron warning me of a week delay in shipping my new finderscope. Since the forecast for the rest of the week looked thunderous, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. Later, in the afternoon, I received the first of many calls from my father, reporting he had received the ‘new’ ETX-90 base motor drive he won on eBay last week. He hooked up the optics from the other ETX-90, trained the motors per the manual, and happily reported smooth, quiet operation. He trained the telescope on the Moon later in the afternoon to study the tracking capabilities of the drives.
I found one of my expected shipments when I arrived home from work. I ordered the Meade specific cable and serial adapter for the Autostar from a telescope/optics supplier. I also found a large manila envelope from the Astronomical Society of Kansas City. It included details about my new membership, upcoming meetings, local observation sites and other benefits and learning opportunities. The next general meeting, open to the public, is a week from Saturday (April 23rd at 7:00 pm), held in room 111 of Royal Hall on the campus of UMKC, about a block west of 52nd Street and Rockhill Road. A talk on Solar Astronomy entitled “Solar Observing Basics,” will be presented by Neta Apple.
My husband and I ate a quick easy supper of frozen pizza (yeah, so healthy, and we forgot to start off with a salad!). The band started arriving, so I settled down in the great room to catchup on three days worth of missed Jeopardy! episodes. Monday’s game, first round, included a tricky River City category that stung one contestant several times, since the first four of the five answers were ‘What is the Rhine?” Other fun categories were Homer (Simpson)’s Odyssey, Ends in “SS” and Measure This! which included the clue “Contrary to its name, this signature cowboy accessory would actually hold about 96 ounces.” Monday’s Double Jeopardy! round had some great categories, some of which I cleaned up on, including “EU” first, Blue Literature, Amendment Highlights and Ancient Egypt. Final Jeopardy! round: Goegraphic Adjectives stumped me but all three contestants answered correctly. Tuesday’s game had some tough first round clues in A Capital Idea? and the Autobahn Society. Double Jeopardy! Round fun categories included Fictional Movie Bands and Men in Pink. Final Jeopardy! Round: Baseball & The Presidency again stumped me and one contestant.
Midway through Wednesday’s game, I received my second call from my father, crooning about the moon. I knew I had some work to finish remotely last night and some more DVR cleaning to accomplish, and I thought the forecast for last night included increasing cloud cover, so I declined his invitation to come join him in lunar observation. Even though I had paused the replay of Jeopardy!, I didn’t really pay much attention to the first round, besides the categories Thinking Green and Virgin Berths. I paid more attention to Double Jeopardy! round including the fun category Lost Texts from Ben Franklin, Picture “D”is and You’re So Colorful. Yet another difficult Final Jeopardy! Round category: Nobel Peace Prize Winners, where all three contestants and myself could not guess the correct two Prime Ministers.
The band took a break from rehearsing and I decide to forgo working remotely. I changed clothes, hopped in the car and phoned my dad. I arrived at his house around half past eight o’clock, with a sky still showing after sunset glow and the moon diffused by some scattered thin clouds. I had brought the box with my cable, the USB/Serial converter cable, and a couple of Astronomy books with me: a small throw-it-in-your-purse Field Guide and a large lift-with-your-legs-not-your-back full-color Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, which I hadn’t even cracked open yet since I checked it out from the library a few days ago.
Rather than traipsing through his house, which appeared to have many bright lights on in the living room, dining room and perhaps the kitchen, I slipped through the east side gate and made my way cautiously past the thorny rose bushes to his backyard. Even though last week was the ‘official’ Global Lunar Week, we gazed at the moon, watching the clouds pass quickly in front of it’s bright surface, still giving us ample detail to review. I noted the quietness and ease of movement in the motors and looked forward to attempting an actual alignment, if the clouds cooperated. Eventually, the northern celestial hemisphere cleared enough for us to dimly spy Polaris (the clouds, the streetlights and the US Penitentiary conspire to enhance the glow north of my father’s house). Once we could see Polaris, we adjusted our polar mounting and attempted an alignment (as best we could since Arcturus was obscured by thin clouds and trees to the northeast and Capella was the only star visible in it’s constellation, making it difficult to determine if in fact, it was Capella).
To test the alignment, we told the Autostar to “goto” or find Sirius, colloquially known as the ‘Dog Star’, the brightest star in the night sky in the constellation Canis Major, and a near neighbor to our solar system at a distance of only 2.6 parsecs (or 8.6 light years). Considering we were unable to confirm the actual alignment through Arcturus or Capella, the Autostar still managed to get Sirius in the viewfinder scope field of view, allowing us to fine-tune and center Sirius in the eyepiece of the telescope. We had difficulty finding Orion, not usually a problem since Sirius and Orion’s belt ‘line up’ in the night sky. Dad finally spotted Orion’s belt, among the trees to the west and partly obscured by the clouds. So, continuing our alignment test tour, we selected Betelgeuse as our next stop from the Autostar. Again, the viewfinder held the image of the star, but not quite in the eyepiece. We centered and synced again.
The only other star visible to us, thanks to the moon’s continued brilliance, was the last point of the Winter Triangle, Procyon in the Canis Minor constellation. Yes, in honor of my two Rottweilers, Roxy and Apollo, we spent some time in both the ‘greater dog’ constellation Canis Major and the ‘smaller dog’ of Canis Minor. While we were in this section of the sky, I pulled out the Field Guide to see if there was anything worth hunting to test the telescope and Autostar alignment further. Using the red flashlight, I found the appropriate star atlas and read the accompanying paragraph of local attractions. The Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe (and so listed in the Autostar, but we used it’s Messier objects number (M44) in the menu system). This cluster, in the constellation Cancer, can be viewed under dark skies with a low power telescope or even binoculars. However, the Moon’s brightness and the hazy thin clouds were conspiring to grey-out everything in the area, except lone Procyon.
By this time, Saturn had risen high enough in the east-southeast, and the clouds had receded, for us to observe it. Again, the Autostar successfully re-oriented on the ringed gas giant and we spent quite a while and several eyepieces basking in the glory of it’s rings. Using the 9mm eyepiece, I was able to see the shadow of the rings upon the surface of Saturn and the gap between Saturn and it’s rings (but not the gaps between the rings). A large tree limb interfered for ten or fifteen minutes with our further observation, during which I never really did find Titan. In checking Sky & Telescope‘s web applet for Saturn’s Moons this morning, and subtracting about twelve hours, Titan may have been behind Saturn or it’s rings for me to find it in my telescope.
We returned triumphantly to the lunar landscape, glowing gloriously almost directly overhead by this time (sometime after ten o’clock or even half-past ten). I again used the Field Guide to locate a map of the moon so we could identify some of the craters near or on the terminator. We gravitated towards the craters around Mare Imbrium, spotting Plato (the dark ‘spot’ in the upper right-hand portion of the picture), Archimedes, Artistillius, Autolycus, Copernicus and Kepler (perhaps … not completely sure and it’s not strictly near Mare Imbrium). As the clouds were closing in on the moon, Dad and I started tearing down the telescope and relocating all the equipment, lenses and books inside and I finally headed home for a mere six hours of sleep, dreaming about rings, impact craters and distant binary stars.