Foci and Mirrors

This week’s discussion topic will attempt to answer the question:

Suppose your Newtonian reflector has a mirror with a diameter of 20 cm and a focal length of 2 m. What magnification do you get with eyepieces whose focal lengths are: a. 9 mm, b. 20 mm, and c. 55 mm?

From my textbook:

The magnification of a reflecting telescope is equal to the focal length of the primary mirror divided by the focal length of the eyepiece lens:

Magnification = Focal Length of Primary / Focal Length of Eyepiece

In the question stated above, the three different eyepieces will result in the following magnifications:

2000 mm / 9 mm = 222X
2000 mm / 20 mm = 100X
2000 mm / 55 mm = 36X

Continue reading “Foci and Mirrors”

My First Date with Dob

Orion SkyQuest IntelliScope XT8
Orion SkyQuest IntelliScope XT8

Friday evening I had my first opportunity to really dig in and learn about the telescope I borrowed from my astronomy club. A week ago, Terry and I returned to Kansas City to meet one of the club members at the Warko observatory on the roof of Royall Hall on campus at UMKC.  I put in a request to borrow an eight inch Dobsonian telescope (shown at left) to compare and contrast its light gathering abilities with my own ETX-90 (a Maksutov-Cassegrain type telescope).  I had high hopes since the aperture on the XT8 is more than twice as big.  On the other hand, the ETX-90 is lighter.  I drove the van, having hidden the middle set of seats in the subfloor, to make the initial transport of the telescope as easy as possible.

Fast forward an entire week to another Friday evening.  After a quick rather disappointing dinner at the local Dairy Queen, Terry and I returned home to separate activities:  he to a strings-only practice for one of his bands and me to setting up the loaner scope.

Orion SkyQuest XT8 base
Orion SkyQuest XT8 base

I moved the base into the great room (so called because it’s the biggest room in the house and has a high vaulted ceiling with a floor-to-ceiling corner fireplace). I then re-read the instruction manual, paying close attention to the section dealing with placing the optical tube on the base.  The tube weighs just a bit over twenty pounds (the base is a couple of pounds heavier).  I picked up the tube, holding it vertically, and rested it gingerly on the bumper stops.  I inserted the tension and retaining knobs per the directions and then tested the altitude and azimuth mobility.  The base seemed to stick a bit, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome with some nudging.

I attached the finderscope to the optical tube, but did not attempt to adjust it until later, when the tube would be outside and I could find an object to orient on a suitable distance away from my site.  I removed the dust cover cap for the tube and for the eyepiece in anticipation for the next phase: collimation

When the mirrors are properly aligned, the view down the focuser drawtube should look like the graphic above (for the XT8 telescope).

I peered down the optical tube, past the secondary mirror and its spider support system at the large eight inch mirror nestled in the bottom.  A small faint circle was inscribed on the surface of the mirror, assumedly in the exact center.  I stepped around to the side of the tube and stared down through the eyepiece opening, where I could clearly see my own eye and the small circle mentioned above.  My pupil and the circle did not line up exactly, as they should have (see diagram above left).

Upon further reading, and searching through the boxes and bags that the telescope came in, I could not find the collimation cap referenced in the instruction manual:  “This cap is a simple cap that fits on the focuser drawtube like a dust cap, but has a hole in the center and a reflective inner surface. The cap helps center your eye  so that collimation is easier to perform.”  I forged ahead, hoping I could get the mirror aligned ‘close enough’ for some test observing later that night.

Orion SkyQuest XT8I followed the instructions carefully, reading and re-reading and comparing what I was seeing through the focuser drawtube with the examples provided in the manual. I decided the secondary mirror didn’t need any adjustments, just the primary mirror. The locking thumbscrews on the back of the mirror were already loosened, so I began experimenting with small turns of the larger thumbscrews to adjust the tilt of the primary mirror.  I eventually got the small circle in the middle and tightened the locking thumbscrews down.  Now to move the unit outside to align the finderscope.

Orion SkyQuest XT8

I tilted the tub vertical, grasped the convenient handle on the back of the base with my right hand, keeping the tube vertical with my lefthand.  I walked slowly out the back door on the patio and down to the lower level of my back yard, away from (as much as that is possible) the surrounding trees (mine and my neighbors).  I needed to find an object about a quarter of a mile away to align the finderscope.  Because I live in a valley (Fawn Valley to be precise), everything, including the ground, is up from my backyard, and most of the horizon is blocked by houses and trees.  I could barely see the road leading up the hill to where City Hall stands, a couple of blocks to my south.  That would have to do.  I quickly and easily got the finderscope dialed in.

Now, I had to wait for darkness to fall.  I brought out my eyepieces (the three that came with the scope I left in the box with the solar filter) so they and the scope could reach a temperature equilibrium with the outside environment.  I went back inside and reviewed the Astro Quest observing award object list and my sky atlas to determine a short list of objects to observe before the moon rose high enough to wash out the night sky.

At half past nine, I went back outside, knowing I’d be able to find Saturn and Mars in the southwestern sky.  I did and quickly tried nearly every eyepiece I had, from a 30 mm down to a 9 or  a 4 mm.  I doubled a couple of those using a 2x barlowe lens.  I could clearly see the Cassini division in the rings, but did not try to discern any cloud variances on Saturn’s surface.

I pointed the scope at Mars next, but again, while a bright ruddy object, the red planet still seemed just the size of a pinhead, no matter how much magnification I attempted to throw at it.  I guess I need to ask some club members for assistance with seeing well enough to find the polar ice caps.  Perhaps I’m just too late in the year, since Mars now sets an hour or two after sunset and I’m looking through so much thick, dirty, hazy, humid air.

I could tell the moon had risen, but still remained low in the east, hidden behind houses and my tall pin oak in my front side yard.  My observing goals for the evening included three multiple star systems.  The first one I had actually observed when I first got the ETX-90 back in October 2010.  The middle star of the handle of the Big Dipper is actually an optical double star, Mizar-Alcor.  Terry joined me in observing this popular duo.

My second observing goal could be found in the constellation Lyra, containing the brightest star in the summer sky, Vega, and one of the three stars that form the asterism commonly referred to as the Summer Triangle.  Finding Vega turned out to be easy.  Correctly adjusting the movement of the telescope when aimed directly overhead, not so easy.  I had to run back inside to find my red flashlight and grab my reading classes and sky atlas before attempting to star hop the very short distance from Vega to Epsilon Lyrae, also known as the Double Double.  In hindsight, I also had forgotten to confirm how many degrees field of view the finderscope provided me (five degrees from the spec page of the instruction manual read this morning).  Because of the light pollution around my house and the rising nearly full moon, I could only see Vega and the beta and gamma stars of Lyra.  I could clearly see a triangle in the finderscope with one of the three stars Vega for sure, but which one was the Double Double?  I may have observed it last night, but I’m not entirely sure.  I plan to retry tonight, provided the predicted thunderstorm activity fades before ten o’clock or soon after.

Albireo (courtesy Wikipedia)

My final observing objective also appeared almost directly overhead, this time in the constellation Cygnus.  The head of the swan (Beta Cygni also known as Albiero) is a striking colorful double star that I easily found and observed for a few minutes.  Terry also took a quick look, but opted to let the mosquitoes and chiggers feast on me instead of him.  Since the moon would soon escape the defense put up by my pin oak, I asked Terry to help me carry the telescope back into the house while I held the red flashlight overhead to light our path.

I put all the eyepieces back in their cases and all the dust caps on all the openings of the telescope.  I recorded two of my three observations on my Astro Quest sheets.  Terry, Apollo, Lexy and I all retired to bed and left the moon to play by itself through the short summer night.

Some pros and cons about the Dobsonian telescope:  I like the improved light gathering capabilities.  I love the finderscope (it’s a very good quality one), but would love it more if it had a right-angle viewer.  I did not like the height of the eyepiece on the side of the tube.  I will need to get a portable stool to lean against.  My back is still aching this morning from the constant bent over position I found myself in last night.

Overall, I enjoyed my first foray among the stars with the SkyQuest.  I did not use the Intelliscope handheld device that would have assisted in identifying and locating objects.  I will save that adventure for another night, possibly at a darker site.

Celebrating International Astromony Day Despite Cloud Cover

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).

Path of Solar Eclipse (20 May 2012) - click image for more info

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.

Kitt Peak (southern Arizona)

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 League observing 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.

Click photo for entire album of Lunar Eclipse (Dec 2011)

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.

Another interesting item I noted during the education presentation involved something I could easily participate in.  McGill University is soliciting photographs of the night sky to raise awareness about the problem of light pollution.  The requirements for submitting a Dark Skies Photo include:

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
  • ISO 800
  • f3.5
  • Hi-resolution JPEG (if possible)
  • Avoid nights with a bright moon. For example, wait for the moon to set.

Click here for the web page to submit and upload your Dark Skies Photo.


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.

Photo1324.jpgThe 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?

Starry Night by van Gogh

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.

Green Men, Red Planet, Grey Lord, Black Dog

Sunday morning walk with ApolloAfter spending a very lazy Saturday avoiding the invasion of little green men from the Emerald Isle by baking bread, reading about life under Mao in China and watching action flix, Apollo and I took a long walk Sunday morning under an increasingly gloomy overcast sky.  Oddly, we saw only one other dog, which looked like a miniature version of Apollo.  Only three other people were walking during the nine o’clock hour yesterday.  We passed by two clocks on our walk, both of which are broken (either not telling time at all or completely incorrect in their display).  Here’s a couple of shots of the clock at the north end of Lansing’s long undeveloped Town Centre street:

Broke clock south side
South side
North side
North side

As Terry and I were about to leave the house in the early afternoon, my father stopped by on a surprise visit, mostly in response to a status update I Tweeted late on Saturday.  He wanted the nitty gritty details concerning my success in updating my Autostar hand-held computer control device for my Meade ETX-90 telescope.

A couple of weeks ago, I had downloaded the most recent Autostar Updater software from Meade and finally remembered to attempt the hardware portion of the update.  Hardware and I have a long history of adversarial confrontations.  Basically, I used several different connector cables between my laptop and the Autostar device:  1) a serial to USB convert cable, 2) a proprietary Meade serial to Autostar cable (looks very similar to a phone jack, not nearly as big as RJ-45 though), 3) the Autostar cable to connect to the Meade ETX-90 and 4) a universal 12 volt transformer and power cable to supply electricity to the telescope.  Once all the connections were in place and secure, I fired up the software.  I did an auto-detect on all available COM ports and the software found the Autostar on COM5.  Then, I instructed the software to download the most recent firmware version (43Eg … an increase of nearly 20 versions over the 26Ec firmware that came on the Autostar when I received it) from Meade and proceeded with the download to the Autostar at the astronomically miniscule data rate of 9600 baud.   The update amounted to about 36 kilobytes of data.  I have text files that are larger than that.  It took fifteen to twenty minutes to complete the transfer.  Man, has data transfer come a long ways in the last decade or two.

I gave dad the bread I had made him Saturday, as well as the Netflix envelope with The Adventures of TinTin sealed in it so he could watch that movie and then return it for me to Netflix in a second unsealed envelope I sent home with him.

Without further ado, Terry and I headed to the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library to attend a lecture and presentation by John Carter Tibbets billed as “From Africa to Mars! 100 Years of Tarzan and John Carter.”  We arrived just in the nick of time and parked in the tenant parking garage, since I remembered to bring my security badge with me.  I happen to work in that same building.  As a result of the lecture, I decided to add the DVD of Greystoke to my Netflix queue.  I remember watching it in the mid 80s, probably on a VHS tape, but decided now is the time to see it in wide-screen via DVD.  I also acquired a movie poster for the John Carter movie, and other memorabilia, courtesy of Tibbets’ recent private screening of the film at a special showing to a select group of Burroughs aficionados.  Tibbets closed the session with this wonderful quote from C.S. Lewis, summing up the why behind the timeless popularity of characters like John Carter and Tarzan:

To tell how odd things struck odd people is to have an oddity too much: he who is to see strange sights must not himself be strange. He ought to be as nearly as possible Everyman or Anyman.

— C.S. Lewis, On Science Fiction

On the return trip home, Terry and I detoured to Mission Med Vet to pick up Roxy‘s remains.  We spent the drive home in silence, cherishing memories of her and missing her deeply.

Bright Evening Star at Dark Moon

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.


I Keep Looking Up

View from my backyard, directly overhead, facing west/northwest at 12:30 am Tue 08 Nov 2011

The first thing I do when I exit a building is look up.  The only time I don’t do this is during inclement weather (usually defined as rain or snow or just overcast, but even clouds can be interesting).  I try to locate the moon, if it’s supposed to be visible.  If I can hear a flying vehicle (helicopter or prop plane or jet), I search the skies for them as well.  I’ve given myself a crick in my neck and no few twisted ankles gazing skywards instead of watching where I was going.  And my family just thought I was klutzy growing up.  I decided to feature astronomy and telescopes for my eighth day of ‘Thirty Days of Thankfulness‘ series.  The graphic to the left displays the skies above my house as they should appear the moment this post is published.   If you’re reading this soon after it’s published, you’re either an insomniac or living down under.  I will be sound asleep.

Asteroid Close-Up

Best seen from North America, the little asteroid 2005 YU55 will race far across the constellations in just 11 hours. Sky & Telescope illustration

The big news for today is an asteroid visitor flying close to the Earth, inside the perimeter of the Moon’s orbit.  The Sky & Telescope web page article includes a chart and instructions for observing the asteroid (best seen from North America and the instructions even mention Kansas and Kansas City by name!). Look for it late in the day (near sunset).

Sun, Moon, Planets, Stars, Comets, Meteors

I am still blessed with good eyesight, at least of the far-seeing variety.  My ability to read without assistance ended about five years ago thanks to my aging lenses in my aging eyeballs.  Growing up with the space race in the 60s and 70s gave me not so much the astronaut bug but the astronomy one.  I remember the first moon landing in 1969 and the first space shuttle launch in 1981.  I still have the National Geographic magazines that featured the stunning photographs of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Neptune and Uranus from the Voyager Interstellar Mission (VIM).  My grandfather, Daniel, worked for NASA‘s Ames Research Center as a glass blower and some of his work now rests on Mars from either the Mariner or the Viking missions.


I received my first telescope in the mid 70s as a Christmas gift from my dad.  It was a three inch refractor that allowed me to view the moon, the planets and even a solar eclipse (by use of a clip-on white metal plate to project the image of the sun onto and avoid any eye damage).   My parents stored the telescope while I was at college and while I started my family.  Eventually, they brought it down to our home in Benton, where it sat neglected for the most part thanks to raising kids and working full-time.  Sometime during the 90s, or during the move back to Leavenworth County, the telescope was either damaged or lost or both.

Last year, as a birthday present, my father purchased a very nice Meade ETX-90 with several accessories and eyepieces, including an SLR digital camera (Pentax K100D – sans lenses).  After a few months of fiddling and fine-tuning, I decided I could benefit from the wisdom of others and became a member of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City in the spring of this year.  I tend to participate virtually and silently (for the most part) by following the group discussions and reading the monthly Cosmic Messenger newsletter  I made it to two meetings this  year and have not visited the Powell Observatory or tried the dark sky site, mostly because the cost of gasoline remained high and the weather for most of the summer did not cooperate by providing clear skies for optimal viewing opportunities.


Provided the world does not end  next year, I plan to take a vacation involving astronomical observing and camping.  We might attend something like the Texas Star Party or just spend a week near Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Arizona.  I even thought of finding a camp site in the Flint Hills, because when we drove back north through them in early October, the skies were crystal clear and very dark,, with few trees to obstruct the horizon.

Recommended Astronomy Links

Astronomy Magazine –

Sky and Telescope Magazine –

The Astronomical League –

The International Dark Sky Association –

Hubble Space Telescope –

NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day –

Moon Over My Meade

Just before dusk last night, I walked Roxy (my ‘ditsy’ Rottweiler).  I hoped to catch a glimpse of the crescent moon, since the new moon occurred just two days before on Sunday afternoon.  I had missed the first crescent on Monday night, mostly because of a large hill and trees to the west of my home.  When Roxy and I left the house, the sky had few clouds (just a few in the west) and a slight haze due to the rising humidity this time of year.  The clouds made a pretty sunset, but nothing spectacular.  Since I’d called my dad the previous evening during dusk, he returned the favor last night while I walked.  Neither one of us had spotted the crescent moon.

Just as I approached within a block of my house, I happened to look up quite a bit higher in the western sky than I had been searching, mostly to track a high-flying commercial jet airliner leaving a sunset-enhanced vapor trail.  I watched it spear through the faint crescent moon.  I called my dad to let him know I had found the moon, but he had just climbed over a fence chasing an errant piece of firewood, so our conversation ended abruptly.  Once he retrieved his delinquent wood, he called me back and we both exclaimed at how high the moon was in the western sky (much higher than we anticipated in relation to the sun and only two days since the new moon).

Meade ETX-90 and Field Tripod
Meade ETX-90 and Field Tripod

Once I got home, I moved my Meade ETX-90 on it’s field tripod from the master bedroom (where I’d last used it Monday evening in a vain attempt to find the crescent moon from my west-facing second story window) to the backyard.  I located a spot with no tall trees to the west and oriented the telescope to peer through the various electrical lines also crossing my westward sky view.  I brought only one eyepiece (the 26mm) since the moon is quite a large object and I only need to use that eyepiece as a viewfinder for the digital camera.  I attached the adapter ring for the camera and then carefully attached the Pentax K100D to the back of the telescope.  This causes stress and a constant downward pull declination gears.  I did not plan to use any of the motorized sidereal tracking or other features of the Autostar computer controller.  The small finder scope is difficult to use once the camera is attached since your head needs to be where the camera body is.  Eventually, I found the crescent moon and took a few snapshots.

Crescent Moon (early April 2011)
Crescent Moon (early April 2011)

I waited about an hour before moving the telescope to the east side of the house in an attempt to view Saturn.  Sadly, the haze that plague me earlier while photographing the moon had accumulated into a substantial cloud cover, preventing an unimpeded view of the ringed gas giant.

Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas
Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas

This morning, I went searching (again) for tips on repairing or tuning up the ETX 90 telescope.  I found this helpful article by Jordan Blessing complete with full color photos for tuning up the telescope.  Another helpful link, also found at Weasner’s ETX Tech Tips page, advertised a supercharge tune-up (and repair) service offered by the Arkansas Sky Observatory.   Lastly, I found a nice classified ads site called Cloudy Nights that had several ETX items posted.  I also need to buy at a minimum a half dozen astronomy research and reference books, the first one of which will probably be Sky & Telescope‘s Pocket Sky Atlas.