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My talk at RTMC 2016

May 19, 2016

Cosmos-5

Noted astronomy author and speaker Ken Graun kindly asked if I’d be interested in giving one of the beginners’ talks at this year’s Riverside Telescope Makers’ Conference (RTMC), which will run from next Friday, May 27, through Sunday, May 29. My talk, which will run from 10:00-11:30 AM in Bose Lodge, is titled, “The Scale of the Cosmos”. It will be about using popular observing lists like the Messier Catalogue to understand the universe and our place in it. If any of you will be at RTMC, I’ll look forward to seeing you! You can learn more about the conference and register here.

Image borrowed from here.

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Observing report: the transit of Mercury from western Colorado

May 19, 2016

Mercury transit 9 May 2016 - telescope setup

I was in Utah from May 4 to May 15, chasing dinosaurs with Mike Taylor, a colleague of mine from England. I took a telescope along in hopes of getting some dark-sky time, and to hopefully catch the transit of Mercury on May 9.

Things did not look promising at dawn on the 9th. I was in Fruita, Colorado, and when I got out of bed, the sky was completely overcast. Mike and I decided to head out west of town to visit Rabbit Valley, where a nearly complete skeleton of the long-necked dinosaur Camarasaurus is visible in a hard sandstone ledge. (Why is no-one excavating this dinosaur? Because we already have many nice specimens of Camarasaurus, and the sandstone around this one is like concrete. It would be a mountain of work for very little payoff.)

We spent about two hours measuring and photographing the skeleton, and as we did so, the clouds started to break up a bit. By the time we got back to Fruita, a little after 11:00 AM, the sky was clear except for a few scattered wisps of cloud. I set up my telescope in front of the Dinosaur Journey museum and started watching and photographing the transit.

Mercury transit 9 May 2016 - Mercury crossing the sun

I was using the same setup as in the last post: my Celestron C80ED refractor, a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece, and a GoSky full aperture solar film filter. For photography, I used a Nikon Coolpix 4500 for still photos and my iPhone 5c for video.

I caught about the last hour of the transit, and I got to share the view with about a dozen museum staff and passersby. A few light clouds drifted through the field of view, which looked pretty cool and didn’t obscure the view at all.

At 12:42 Mercury finished exiting the disk of the sun. The next Mercury transit will be in 2019 – I hope I’m as lucky then as I was this time.

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Getting ready for Mercury

April 18, 2016

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The planet Mercury will transit the sun on the morning of Monday, May 9. Mercury transits are not as rare as the more famous transits of Venus, but they still only come around once or twice a decade on average. The last Mercury transits before this one were in 2003 and 2006, and the next two after this year will be in 2019 and 2032. From southern California, the transit will already be underway when the sun rises at 5:57 AM, maximum transit (the point when Mercury is the furthest inside the sun’s disk as seen from Earth) will be at 7:58, and Mercury will exit the sun’s disk between 11:39 and 11:42 AM (all times in PDT).

For the transit of Venus in 2012, I used a simple homemade device called a “sun funnel” attached to a small reflecting telescope to project an image of the sun. You can read more about that here and here. The sun funnel worked well enough – I also used it for the annular eclipse in 2012 and the partial eclipse in 2014 – but the screen material degrades the resolution somewhat. Mercury is a lot smaller than Venus, and much closer to the sun, and both of those factors make it appear much smaller than Venus during a transit.

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I want maximum resolution for observing and photographing the upcoming transit, so I finally sprung for a full-aperture solar film filter for my 80mm telescope, which you can see set up at the top of this post. I got it out the other day for a test drive and got some decent photos of the current large sunspot AR2529, shown above. I’m pretty happy with the results – now if we can just get clear skies on the morning of May 9. If you’re curious, the filter I got is the GoSky Optics full-aperture filter with Baader solar film. There are several sizes available to fit all kinds of telescopes, and the filter attaches securely to your telescope tube or dewshield with three nylon-tipped screws. I got the filter for telescopes 81-113mm in diameter (outside tube or dewshield diameter, not optical diameter!), which is currently a little under $50 on Amazon.

This is my second GoSky product, after the universal cell phone adapter I picked up last fall, and I’ve been impressed with the solid construction and good fit-and-finish of both products. Some of the weird large-scale blotchiness in sun photos is probably either distortion from the iPhone’s tiny field lens, or gunk on the surface, and the uneven margin of the solar disc is from atmospheric turbulence. But I think the graininess across the surface of the sun is actual solar granulation. I couldn’t see it on the iPhone – not enough image scale. If I had, I’d have thrown in a shorter focal length eyepiece and tried some higher-magnification shots. They might not have turned out well even if I had taken them – the seeing was pretty awful – but it would have been worth a shot. Something to try next time.

The diameter of the sun is 109 times that of Earth. Here's how Earth would compare to the current large sunspot if they were side-by-side.

The diameter of the sun is 109 times that of Earth. Here’s how Earth would compare to the current large sunspot if they were side-by-side.

Unfortunately, I won’t be here in California to share the transit with my local friends and fellow observers. I’ll be in Utah chasing dinosaurs from May 4 to May 14, so I’ll have to catch the transit from there. I’m driving up and bringing my 80mm scope to take advantage of dark Utah skies in the evenings. If you want to plan your own transit observation, or just want to investigate how the transit will appear from various points on Earth’s surface, this interactive map is excellent. And if you need safe, inexpensive ways to observe the sun, check out my page on safe solar observing. Clear skies!

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A new gig

March 28, 2016

I’ve kept mum about this, but now the official announcement has come out in the May issue of Sky & Telescope so I can blab. Gary Seronik is leaving S&T to go assume the chief editorship at SkyNews, the leading Canadian astronomy magazine. S&T needed people to take over Gary’s ‘Telescope Workshop’ and ‘Binocular Highlights’ columns. For ‘Telescope Workshop’ – now to be recast as ‘Astronomer’s Workbench’ and include other DIY astro tools alongside telescopes – they got Jerry Oltion, whose creative ATM projects have been featured in the column many times.

And for ‘Binocular Highlights’ they got me. I’ll try not to muck it up.

Actually it’s a very welcome thing, for several reasons. I’ve always been a pretty feckless observer – without an observing program to keep my focused, I just go where the wind takes me, and sometimes that means “nowhere”. The necessity of turning in a short but polished* piece on a different object each month will hopefully spur me to be more systematic about my observing. One or two close friends have wondered whether the monthly deadline will prove oppressive, but so far it’s been good, for reasons described below.

* Or at least polishable – I owe my editor, S.N. Johnson-Roehr, a big thanks for her thoughtful improvements to my pieces, and an even bigger thanks for the opportunity to write ‘Binocular Highlights’ for a while.

Also, doing more binocular observing lines up nicely with where my interests have been taking me in the last two to three years. After several years of semi-committedly chasing faint fuzzies with my dob, I’ve been getting more into low-stress, low-power, widefield observing, primarily with refractors. Last October’s observing runs up at Big Bear exemplify this trend. And if you keep going down the path of low power and wide fields, eventually you wind up with binoculars.

Finally – and somewhat to my surprise – I’ve really been enjoying getting out to observe by myself. Traditionally I’ve been a social stargazer, sometimes to the extent of not observing unless there’s someone else around to observe with. And I still love doing that. But when I first got started in amateur astronomy back in 2007 and 2008, almost all of my observing was solo, and there was something very peaceful about being all alone out under the stars. I have sometimes lost sight of that as my life has gotten busier in recent years.

But, hey, now I have an obligation to get out and observe – it’s my job! And with articles due to the magazine about four months before they’ll see print, the objects that will be well-placed in the evening sky when a given issue comes out are up just before dawn when that month’s article is due. So if I want to have one more look – to confirm previous observations and double-check that I haven’t missed anything – I have to go on dawn patrol, which is strictly a solo pursuit (given that my friends aren’t masochists).

I assume that writing the column will affect my blogging here, but I don’t know how much or in what ways. There are a couple of threats: first, that I’ll pour all of my creative energy into my writing for S&T and have nothing left over for the blog, and second, that I’ll use up all of my good material for S&T and let the blogging fall off to avoid duplications. My crystal ball is notoriously cloudy (remember the much-discussed, never-attempted Suburban Messier Project?), but I’m not too worried about either one. As far as exhausting my creative energy goes, writing the column simply isn’t that demanding. It takes a couple of days of thought and effort, but most months I’m either blogging here more often than that, or not at all, as time, mood, and opportunity allow.

And as far as using up all the good material for S&T and having no “spare observations” left over for the blog – forget about it. I was worried about this until my latest dawn patrol session. I was cruising in and around Cygnus and I spent a little over an hour making notes on a dozen or so objects. And I realized that if I only hit Cygnus once or twice a year for the column, that one observing run gave me enough material for 6 to 12 years. Things may change in the future, but for now the sequence is:

  1. Realize I need to find something good for the next Binocular Highlights.
  2. Go observe systematically in an area I’ve only hit opportunistically before.
  3. Find enough cool things that it would take a decade of columns to cover them.
  4. Get excited about all of those ‘extra’ things and feel compelled to blog about them.

Okay, so the fourth thing hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will in the next post, and in many posts to come.

One final note – I am acutely aware that Gary Seronik will be a tough act to follow. When JR wrote to ask me if I was interested in taking over BH, I wrote, “Assuming I don’t die of anxiety of influence, I’d love to do this.” It wasn’t hollow talk. Gary’s Binocular Highlights book was one of the booster rockets that got my observing career off the pad back when, and I still recommend it regularly. The legacy of work he’s already produced in other books, magazines, and at his website is already immense, and it will only grow with his chief editorship at SkyNews and his future projects.

Those are some mighty big shoes. I am not going to be able to fill them, so I’m not going to try. I wrote to Gary earlier this spring to thank him for the good work he’s done and ask his advice, and among the other helpful things he said, he basically told me to go have fun and develop my own voice. The first of those is fait accompli, and the second is, and will remain, a work in progress. I hope you’ll come along, and let me know how I’m doing and what I can do better. Clear skies!

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My article in the April 2016 Sky & Telescope

March 8, 2016

SnT cover April 2016 - annotated

Getting this posted a bit belatedly, as this issue has been on newsstands for about a week already. When I wrote about my first S&T article last year, I said that my editor, JR, and I had “batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way”. The other ideas didn’t go away, they just got put off. This binocular tour of the Virgo Messier galaxies is one of those other ideas. Hopefully more will be along in the future – assuming I’m successful in bringing them to fruition, and that the staff – and readers! – of Sky & Telescope continue to be happy with them.

Incidentally, although I aimed the article at binocular users, it should serve as a perfectly cromulent guide for telescopic observations as well.

Have suggestions for how I can improve? The comment field is open.

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Guest post: Celestron NexStar 6SE unboxing and first light report, by Doug Rennie

March 6, 2016

Regular commenter and sometime contributor Doug Rennie recently took possession of a Celestron NexStar 6SE Schmidt-Cassegrain with GoTo. He kindly sent some unboxing photos and this first light report. I’ve scattered the pictures through the text. Thanks, Doug! – MJW

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

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After unboxing and assembling by gorgeous new 6SE, I figured that it would be a good week, maybe longer before we had an actual clear night here in Western Oregon.

Didn’t turn out that way.

The “New Scope Curse” was SUPPOSED to happen according to the forecast, but I walked out back around 7 and looked up into a totally clear and even dark (relatively) sky. I hadn’t expected this, so had done no real SE6 prep work. Whatever, I hauled it out back and screwed around with the hand controller enough to set the time, location, etc and then did the Auto Two Star alignment, picking Betelgeuse and then letting the Nexstar find star #2, Mirfak.

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The mount whirred, the OTA moved. Then it stopped.

I started punching in targets, starting with the Double Cluster. The scope talked some more as it moved up to where I know the DC is, then stopped again and I hesitantly looked in the EP. The DC was not centered, but I could see the top 10% peeking up across the bottom edge of the FOV, so I did a little pop on the direction arrow and——zip!——there it was, right in the middle. Beautiful, breathtaking, as always. Sharp and clear and bright. As good as any view of the DC as I’ve had.

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Then I spent about 90 minutes punching buttons and just flying around everywhere. Some objects (M42, M34, M35, some NGCs in Cassiopeia were in the FOV, albeit in the lower third while others were just outside it to varying degrees but I was able in short order to move them inside it.

The views I had of the three Auriga open clusters——M36, M37, M38——were the best ever. Maybe a hundred stars in each, and M37 appeared to be bathed in this kind of soft-glow pale silver dust. Mesmerizing.

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Kemble’s Cascade was the best catch for the go-to, smack dab in the center and just magnificent. I wanted to do a sketch but was too busy jumping around, reveling in my new found power to stick the landing wherever I wanted.

Other than the foregoing, a partial list also includes NGCs 129, 225, 457 (terrific image of the ET Cluster), the 663/654 “near double cluster”, 1027, 2244, 2169, 2264 the Christmas Tree (another absolute sparkler), IC1848.

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Now there must be some way to “adjust” the Nexstar go-to when your object is not quite in the FOV; with the Meade system, once you manually center a new object, you hit “Sync” and the system fine tunes itself based on that object and subsequent objects are then centered. So I’m sure there is some way to adjust intermittently during an observing session to improve pointing accuracy. I guess I could, you know, maybe read the manual.

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What a blast this was! I saw as many objects——some for the first time——in 90 minutes as I normally see in a month. And there were another dozen objects that the 6SE slewed to but were too low, blocked by the high rooflines to my south, southwest and west. I have since learned that there is a filter where I can set a lower limit, in my case probably about +20 degrees and the go-to will not seek objects below this. Which will save a lot of time as in the “too low dozen”, the OTA ended up pointing at a wall.

And the optics are excellent. On some objects, such as the DC and Kemble’s Cascade, I think the image sharpness was on a par, or close to it, with that in my refractors. On others, particularly those with a brighter large star or two (The sextuple star Struve 761 in Orion comes to mind), they were maybe a half-notch softer than in the refractors but still better than in a Dob.

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Other than the few I mention above, the SCT doesn’t quite have that pure pinpoint quality on stars that my smaller refractors ES AR 102, SV80ED, C102) have. But I didn’t expect it to, and it’s certainly——and satisfyingly——close enough. Just a delightful scope to use, and it’s only going to get better once I am fully flight trained.

Also, part of the above SCT-refractor discrepancy could be that the 6SE had zero cool down time. I mean, I took it from the warm sun room right out to the patio and fired it up immediately.

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Oh, and I had the f/6.3 focal reducer plugged in the whole time; this cuts down the 6SE’s f/l from 1500mm to 945mm. I will probably leave it in most of the time, removing it for planets and for lunar closeups and the dim deeper stuff. So with this focal reducer, I essentially have two different ‘scopes for the price of one.

I used mainly the ES 24/68 and ES 16/68 during this session.

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Observing report: Dark nights at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

February 18, 2016

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 6 - crescent moon

Back in November, 2014, London and I visited the Palomar observatory and then went camping at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At the end of my Palomar post, I teased, “Next up: crazy-dark skies at Anza-Borrego. Stay tuned.”

Obviously, that never happened. I find that with my observing reports, I need to get them done and out quickly or they never happen.

I was back at ABDSP this past weekend and I got in some very enjoyable stargazing, so now I’m going to try to kill two birds with one stone.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 1 - camp Wedel

When London and I stayed there together back in 2014, we camped at the Palm Canyon campground, which is basically the headquarters campground of the park. It’s a nice developed campground down on the desert floor, right next to the town of Borrego Springs. The state park is a pretty isolated patch of SoCal, in terms of light pollution, and Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California. There are no stoplights in town (there is one roundabout, and enough stop signs), and all of the businesses use low (but sufficient!) outdoor lighting, and mostly turn the lights off when they’re not needed. As a result, I can see more stars in town in Borrego Springs than I can in some rural areas elsewhere. Happily, the locals are aware of how much of a draw the dark skies are, and they actively promote Borrego Springs as a place to come stargaze (for example).

So the skies are pretty dark even in town, and once you get outside of the town they get very dark. One of the highlights of the November 2014 trip for me was getting my first really good look at NGC 2371 and 2372, two halves of a planetary nebula in northern Gemini. Always before the nebula had just looked like a dim blob, but that night I could see both halves very clearly as separate arcs of nebulosity.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 4 - finder

London was rolling that night with his XT4.5, which he’d just gotten a couple of weeks earlier for his 10th birthday. In the gift shop at Palomar he spent some of his birthday money to get a planisphere and a constellation guide. At the campground he drove his scope by himself, and found Andromeda, the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, and Orion without any help from me. It was a milestone observing session for him.

I spent a lot of time in Orion that night myself. Orion always looks pretty good – the total object – but under very dark skies it looks amazing. There was so much detail in the nebula, swirls and knots of gas and fine gradations in the sheets of light that you just don’t see in even minimally light-polluted skies. I got a special treat around midnight – I saw a satellite drifting through the field of view as I nudged the scope along to follow the nebula.

To be visible that long after dark, a satellite has to be far enough above Earth to not fall into the planet’s shadow, so I knew right away that this was a geosynchronous satellite. I stopped pushing the scope and sure enough, the satellite just sat there, rock solid, while the nebula and starfield drifted past. I’d seen exactly one of these before – Steve Coe had shown one to Darrell Spencer and me at my first All-Arizona Star Party back in 2010 – but this was my first time catching one on my own. What’s particularly cool about geosynchronous satellites is that you don’t have to do anything to track them. Just leave your scope pointed in the same place and they’ll be visible until you decide to look at something else. So you can swap eyepieces without worrying about losing the object, you can take a break to get a snack and go to the bathroom – I did all of these things – and when you come back, the satellite will still be there, serenely sitting as Earth’s rotation carries the background stars past in an endless parade.

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I was back at Anza-Borrego this past weekend for the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting. It was a one-day regional conference held on Saturday, February 13. I gave a talk and I wanted to look presentable, so instead of camping the night before I got a hotel room. But I planned to camp Saturday night, after the conference – there was a banquet after the meeting and I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night. Especially if by staying out I could get in some good dark-sky time.

I had originally planned to drive around to one of the Salton Sea campgrounds – Borrego Springs is on the western side of the sea. I preferred to stay in the state park, as it’s 600 feet above sea level instead of 200 feet below, like the seashore campgrounds, and those 800 feet mean thinner air, less humidity, and darker skies. But I figured that with the holiday weekend all of the campsites would be taken.

I was wrong! In the State Park visitor center – which is awesome and has some cool fossils from the park on display – I learned that the many undeveloped campgrounds in the park do not require reservations and that not all of them were likely to fill up. In particular, the ranger recommended Culp Valley Campground, which is about 8 miles west of Borrego Springs and at an elevation of 3000 feet. I drove up Friday night after dinner to hike it out and do a quick binocular tour of the winter best and brightest. One of the fun spin-off benefits of having written the Canis Major and Puppis binocular tour for the December Sky & Telescope is that now I am compelled to run through those objects anytime I am out observing. It only takes a couple of minutes if I’m in a hurry and it’s always rewarding.

The conference on Saturday was great, my talk went well and I had a great time talking to colleagues old and new. After the banquet I drove up to Culp Valley, found a spot, and got settled in. My plan was to go right to bed and get up in the morning for dawn patrol, but – predictably – I was not able to pass up another quick turn around the sky, which evolved into half an hour of fun binocular observing. I did manage to get up at 4:30 for another productive half-hour run. The sky was so dark that I when I got up off my cot and looked to the east, I saw a bright cloud and said to myself, “What the heck is that?” It was the Scutum Star Cloud, and in binoculars it glittered with hundreds of barely resolved stars and the combined glow of thousands more. It wasn’t even that far above the horizon – I can’t wait to see what it looks like from there this summer, when it’s riding high in the south.

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Did I mention that all of the undeveloped campgrounds in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are free to camp in? You don’t need a park pass or a day use fee or anything. Totally, completely, free. I had to have the ranger explain it to me twice. I have nothing against supporting our state and national parks – quite the contrary – I’m just not used to having any of them be free. That said, if you go stay at one I encourage you to stop by the park visitor center and leave a few bucks in the donation box – even undeveloped campgrounds require some upkeep.

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