For once, I live in just about the best spot to observe a total solar eclipse. The center line for the eclipse coming in August 2017 is just a few miles north of where I live. That being said, the path of the eclipse cuts diagonally across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
I missed the dawn of International Astronomy Day, thanks to a mostly overcast sky here in the Heart of America. By mid-morning, the skies had partially cleared to allow the sun to peak through occasionally during my morning long walk with Apollo. But by late afternoon, the clouds had crept back in to conspire against any star, planet or moon gazing. Never admitting defeat, though, my dad and I headed to Kansas City to attend the April general meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC).
Due to student examinations, our normal meeting place, a lecture hall in Royal Hall on the campus of UMKC, wouldn’t be available until 7:30 p.m (instead of our normal seven o’clock start time). Many members arrived early and congregated in the hallway outside. I met my team leader and we exchanged business cards. In May, I have my first night assisting at a Powell Observatory public night as a ‘staff’ member. My team leader, though, won’t be with us that weekend, as she’s traveling to Arizona to observe, first hand, the solar eclipse that occurs across the Southwest on Sunday, May 20th. She did introduce me to her backup leader for Team 2, who also happens to be a resident of a town very close to where I live now. Always good to know who has been bitten by the astronomy bug in your local neighborhood.
The room became available about ten minutes before half past seven and I relocated from the hallway to seating in the lecture hall. I kicked myself for not bringing my notepad with me to take notes during the meeting. Yes, I could have used my Nook Color (by pretending to send an e-mail I could have typed up notes), but not having a ‘real’ keyboard would slow me down too much. The same guy who I had just met as my backup team leader just happened to be the Vice President and began the meeting mostly on time. He announced our illustrious president was absent this evening and bearing the heavy cross of observing from Kitt Peak. We all groaned appropriately, most of us with envy.
The meeting continued with Master Observer Scott Kranz handing out Astronomical Leagueobserving awards to several club members. The Astronomical League is an umbrella organization composed of over two hundred and forty local amateur astronomical societies from all across the United States and forms one of the largest amateur astronomical organizations in the world. Many of the certificates and pins awarded during the meeting resulted from the late March Messier Marathon, including one club member who found 109 of 110 Messier objects during one night of observing. A similar award based on a detailed analysis and observation of all 110 Messier objects, albeit not in one night, was also awarded to Steve King, the club’s observatory director.
Scott encouraged all of us to look through the list of observing projects after the meeting. I still need to finish the one I grabbed last year (about this time) called the Astro Quest General Observing Award. In reviewing the list of objects available in that Quest, I have observed several of them already, and even have photograph evidence of same (and blog posts here) as further proof. Now I’m even more pumped up to attend next month’s club star party so I can check off a few more from the Quest list.
The second item on the agenda included education and announcements presented by Jay Manifold. He covered the night skies for the opening public nights at the Warko and Powell observatories, one of which includes the largest full moon of the year, on May 5th. He also mentioned the solar eclipse on May 20th, which we won’t be able to see much of here in Kansas or Missouri. He asked for members to submit photographs of the lunar eclipse on June 4th and I plan to put that on my calendar to repeat what I did back in December 2011.
The Transit of Venus again topped everyone’s list for ‘must see’ observations this year. I’m praying for clear skies on June 5th. Or I might be driving fast to the nearest clear skies so I can observe Venus transit across the face of the Sun … truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I doubt I’ll be around for the next one in 2117. To that end, I acquired (finally) some solar film thanks to a couple of club members. I left it in my father’s good hands (since he has my telescope for the foreseeable future … at least until after my daughter graduates from college in mid-May). Now we can make some filters to go over the scope, camera lenses and binoculars and we’ve still got time to practice solar observing before the actual Transit of Venus occurs in early June.
You can help by sending McGill University a picture of the Big Dipper constellation (in the northern hemisphere) or the Southern Cross constellation (in the southern hemisphere), or another constellation of your choice if you cannot find those. All you need is a DLSR camera and a stable mount for the camera (like a tripod). Please take your pictures with the following settings:
10 second exposure
Hi-resolution JPEG (if possible)
Avoid nights with a bright moon. For example, wait for the moon to set.
Jay wrapped up the education and announcements section of the meeting with a plug for the MSRAL – the Mid-States Region of the Astronomical League – convention, Jun 1-3, 2012. Registration is only $25 (until May 15th, after which it increases to $40). After re-reading the Astro Quest observing list, I think I will register and attend. There are at least two sessions I’m very interested in attending, and I would be the envy of all my barbecue-loving friends by attending the Star-B-Que Friday night.
The main program presented by Darrick Gray and Alex Kranz (daughter of Scott Kranz) related a program at a local high school where Darrick convinced his administration to allow him to teach an astronomy class at night. And, each of the students builds their own six-inch telescopes, for less than $200, out of materials available from local hardware and construction supply businesses. The only two things not available locally are the mirrors from Meridian Telescopes (no, the students don’t grind their own mirrors because it just takes too long) and the eyepieces (and Darrick made a shameless plea for old eyepieces from club members). Another member mentioned, during the Q&A session, another website that might be a good source for mirrors or other parts: Surplus Shed. Some of the more interesting highlights of oddly juxtaposed hardware included a toilet flange as a mirror mount and hacksaw blades for the spider mirror support. Oh, and can you guess from the photo above what the tube is made of?
Alex related her experience using her telescope at the dark sky site and how she preferred using her own telescope, even over her dad’s 20-inch one! Most of the students felt the same way, having pride and confidence in their construction. Alex felt confident she could repair her telescope no matter what might happen to it, since she had built it completely from scratch. She also described a fellow student’s telescope, who had painted Van Gogh’s Starry Night on her telescope tube. Just imagine the painting (shown above left) wrapped around a six-inch telescope tube. Gorgeous!
Soon after the meeting adjourned, Dad and I retraced our path back home to Leavenworth County. Unlike in late March, when we could watch the triangle of Venus, a crescent Moon and Jupiter as we drove west on I-70, the only thing we saw in the low hanging clouds were reflections of powerful spotlights shining heavenward from the Power & Light district downtown and Dave & Busters, as we drove past the Legends and the Kansas Speedway.