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A planetary observing run on Mount Baldy

August 2, 2018

Last night I went up to Cow Canyon Saddle with some fellow PVAA members and other friends, for an informal star party. Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars are nicely lined up along the ecliptic right now, so we went to take a look.

I was rolling with London’s XT4.5 dob and my Apex 127 Mak. I hadn’t gotten the Apex out in a little over a year, and it was nice to confirm that it’s still in fighting trim.

Me, not so much. It was my first session with a scope – any scope – out in months, and I was a little scattered. I had to rifle through three bags to find my good diagonal, and it took three attempts to get out of the house with both my phone and my headlamp. The rustiness even extended to the sky. Normally I can get most of the good stuff using memory and dead reckoning, but I had to haul out an atlas to remember how to get to M81/M82 and M11. Sad!

I got up to Cow Canyon Saddle a little after sunset. Amanda and Ron Spencer and their kids were already set up, checking out Jupiter with their 90mm refractor. Ludd Trozpek was there, too, with a 10-inch dob. My friends and WesternU colleagues Thierra Nalley and Jeremiah Scott arrived a few minutes later.

Thierra, Jeremiah, and I started in Venus, which is in a half-full phase right now. We quickly moved on to Jupiter and then Saturn. Mars hadn’t cleared the mountains to the east so we spent some time running up the magnification on Saturn. The seeing was phenomenal. We put the 8.8mm ES82 in the Apex 127 for 175x and Saturn looked like it was nailed to the wall. We put in the 5mm Meade 100-degree and at 308x the seeing was visible, not as the usual small-scale shimmers, but as an occasional wave of distortion washing over the whole field of view, as if we were viewing Saturn through a thin film of water with a low ripple now and then. In my experience, nights on which I can push past 300x are few and far between, so we got pretty darned lucky.

Enough about the eyepieces and the conditions. The planets looked unreal. Even at low power, Saturn’s Cassini Division was easy and crisp, as if it had been punched out of the disc of the rings with a metal press. At higher power, the shadow of the rings on the planet and the shadow of the planet on the rings were equally stark. And the planet itself was striped with pastel bands of salmon and cream. We had no problem holding any of these details in direct vision. As always, it was a kick in the brainpan to be reminded that while I’ve been going about my little business on this little planet, Saturn has been doing its own thing out there, 800 million miles away: regal, immanent, undeniable. We caught Rhea and Titan, too, but failed to spot the other moons.

Jupiter was only slightly overshadowed by its smaller sibling. The King of Planets was wrapped in dozens of belts and zones, down to the limit of vision, with the four Galilean moons neatly arrayed to either side.

Of course, we had gone up in large part to look at Mars, and see if we could detect any details through the nearly-global dust storm. When Mars cleared the mountains to the east, it was instantly the brightest thing in the sky. Even Jupiter looked wan compared to the red planet. I think every scope on the mountain was aimed at Mars within the first minute. The seeing may have been good up high, but Mars was fairly boiling in the near-horizon turbulence. Still, we could see the north polar cap immediately.

We decided to let Mars climb up out of the murk, so we switched to the deeper sky for a while. Lyra was almost at the zenith and Epsilon Lyrae was an easy split at 175x in the Apex 127. We spent some time with the Ring Nebula while we were in that neighborhood, then swung north to catch M81 and M82 before they got too low. Then it was back to the band of the Milky Way to pick up M11, the Wild Duck Cluster (after the aforementioned faffing about) and Albireo.

We went back to Mars and the view in clear air was vastly improved. The north polar cap was steady, and we caught fleeting hints of detail elsewhere on the planet. I don’t think that was all imagination – the most recent Hubble images show some of the dark features in the southern hemisphere starting to emerge through the dust. We had fun, both with the observing and with teasing each other about Percival Lowell, canals, and Tharks.

Jeremiah had been keeping an eye on Cassiopeia as it rose in the northwest, and I was casting frequent looks in that direction as well. A little after 10:00 the Double Cluster finally cleared the local horizon and we got a nice look at 48x in the Apex 127 (as low as that scope goes, using the trusty 32mm Plossl). Our final object was the heart asterism around Sadr at the center of Cygnus, which I wrote about for the Binocular Highlight column in the July issue of Sky & Tel.

The Spencers had departed before we looked at the Double Cluster, and Thierra and Jeremiah left after Sadr. Ludd and I finished the session with a few minutes of binocular observing. He had along a recent acquisition: a WWII-vintage Sard 6×42 with a true field of 11.9 degrees. It’s a legendary instrument that lives up to the legend. The first thing you notice when you pick them up is that they’re heavy – there’s a lot of glass in there. That’s in part because the prisms are huge. Unlike some modern binos that skimp on prisms, the Sards have prisms that are if anything maybe a little oversized. The eye lenses are also immense. It’s not just a lot of glass, it’s good glass, as I could tell as soon as I looked through them. It’s not sharp to the edge – stars take on interesting shapes in the outer 25% or so of the field – but it is impressively sharp over a huge true field, with excellent clarity. It was an interesting experience, looking at all of the constellation Lyra at one time. Cassiopeia almost fits – you can see all but one of the stars at either end of the W/3/M. Ludd reports that under darker skies, the Sards are a wonderful tool for scanning the Milky Way. They’ve re-fired my occasional interest in low-power, super-wide-angle binos. If anything comes of that, you’ll hear it here first.

So, all in all a fantastic observing session, with some of the best views of Jupiter and Saturn that I’ve ever had. I should do this more often.

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Observing report: InSight Delta V launch from Vandenberg

May 5, 2018

The InSight Delta V rising above the western horizon as seen from Claremont. Composite of three raw iPhone 7 shots.

This morning at 4:05 AM PDT, a United Launch Alliance Delta V rocket blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, carrying the InSight lander to Mars. For the first time ever for a Vandenberg launch, London and I got up to see it. We went to the top of the 1st Street parking garage in downtown Claremont.

I’d only ever seen one rocket launch before, another Vandenberg launch back in 2010. But I was at the All-Arizona Star Party for that one, so all I saw was a little red spark cruising along the western horizon. Not bad for being 400 miles away, but it didn’t give me a sense of what to expect from here, where we’re still 170 miles out as the crow flies.

The InSight Delta V passing Jupiter as seen from Claremont. Composite of five raw iPhone 7 shots. Trajectory line added in GIMP.

I needn’t have worried – it was extremely cool. The rocket exhaust was easily visible to the naked eye, rivaling Jupiter in brightness. London said he could see the plume of fire as an extended object. His eyes are noticeably sharper than mine and I don’t doubt it. I couldn’t make that out with my own eyes, but it was dead easy in binoculars, and even my phone captured the exhaust plume as a little inverted teardrop of fire. I assembled these composites of the rocket lifting above the western horizon and then flying past Jupiter just a few minutes later, right before main engine cut-off. We saw a brief flare as the second stage lit, but it’s a much smaller engine and it rapidly disappeared from view.

I have to thank PVAA newsletter coordinator Claire Stover for putting me onto the Launch Alert mailing list, which sends updates about upcoming launches. There’s a Falcon 9 set to lift off from Vandenberg in a couple of weeks, on May 19. I think that will be a daylight launch, so I don’t know what to expect in terms of visibility. I’ll keep you posted.

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My meteorites: Sikhote-Alin shrapnel (186g)

April 30, 2018

This is one of my favorite things: a piece of shrapnel from the Sikhote-Alin meteor that exploded over Russia on February 12, 1947. I picked it up at RTMC a couple of years ago.

I love it because it looks exactly like what it is: a wrecked piece of iron, fractured with the rest of its parent body from the core of long-destroyed planetoid, blasted asunder in the atmosphere in a multi-kiloton airburst, and finally shattered against the bedrock of the Sikhote-Alin mountains in far eastern Siberia. Every surface bears witness to the awesome energies of its birth, unleashed in a chain of events that we can barely comprehend, and certainly could not survive.

It fits perfectly in the hand, inviting you to run your thumb over its cracks, pits, and twisted, jagged edges. It has a satisfying heft, befitting a solid chunk of metal. It is 93% iron and 6% nickel, with small amounts of cobalt, phosphorus, and sulfur, and bare hints of germanium, gallium, and iridium. At room temperature it feels cold to the touch, as if it somehow still holds the chill of space.

I like to pass it around and have people handle it. With its weight, seemingly unnatural coolth, and textures that so clearly tell the story of its creation, it’s a fantastic hand specimen. I like to hold it myself, and think about the billions of years it spent in space. It was floating around out there while our ancestors attained multicellularity, backbones, limbs, amniotic sacs, hair, bipedality, fire, agriculture, writing, telescopes, powered flight, and the ability to split the atom. And then our paths crossed, quite literally, when the trajectory of the Sikhote-Alin meteoroid intersected that of Earth.

The energy released by the airburst of the Sikhote-Alin meteor is estimated at 10 kilotons (for comparison, the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013 was about 500 kilotons). In all the long history of Earth, such large explosions had been the exclusive province of volcanoes and asteroid and comet strikes. But the Sikhote-Alin meteor entered a new world, where its 10-kiloton detonation was only the sixth largest explosion on Earth in the preceding 20 months, behind the atomic blasts at Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in 1945, and the Able and Baker tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 (all between 16 and 23 kilotons).

It is hard to think about such things, so removed from us in time, and from the scale of our experiences. I hold this cold piece of sharp-edged iron and think about all of the other Sikhote-Alins, Chelyabinsks, Tunguskas, and Chicxulubs out there, any of which might cross our path at any moment, and some of which inevitably will. In the words of the astronomer Kevin Zahnle (quoted in Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris), “a day will surely come when the sheltering sky is torn apart with a power that beggars the imagination.”

Because it is only a matter of time until Earth is threatened with a civilization-ending or mass-extinction-level impact, is is also only a matter of time until we stop thinking of astronomy as the niche preoccupation of a few, and start realizing that it is an unavoidable aspect of our survival.

We need reminders of that fact. This one is mine.

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Summer lookback time: my article in the June 2018 Sky & Telescope

April 27, 2018

The June 2018 Sky & Tel should be on newsstands any day now, and it has a feature article that is the culmination of a personal quest. By far my favorite among my previous Sky & Tel articles is “Twelve Steps to Infinity” from the December 2016 issue. But as much as I love that article, it only covered the winter sky, so it was incomplete – I needed to do a matching article for the summer months. That’s the new article out this month, and it doesn’t just match “Twelve Steps”, it exceeds it. As I say in the new article, in it I “start out a little closer, end up much farther out, and see a more diverse set of targets”, from the closest star visible to Northern Hemisphere observers (other than the Sun), to a quasar more than two billion light years away.

I owe a huge thanks to my editor, Diana Hannikainen, for making the data table and for numerous improvements to the text. Her name’s not on the article, but it probably should be, so many and so helpful were her suggestions.

There’s a LOT of other interesting stuff in this issue. I’ve written here many times about my visits to the big historical telescopes on Mount Wilson and Palomar Mountain, all of which were built at the instigation of George Ellery Hale, whose legacy of monster scopes is explored in this issue. Also, there are not one but three articles on asteroids, the scars of past impacts, and the threat of future ones, which is timely given my recent talk on the subject.

I hope you enjoy my new article. As always, suggestions for improvements are welcome, and the comment field is open.

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My meteorites: Campo del Cielo (40g)

April 25, 2018

My recent talk on impacts and the end-Cretaceous extinctions reminded me that I’ve never posted about my meteorite collection. It’s not a large collection, just a handful of things I’ve picked up, but each is satisfying in its own way.

This is the first meteorite I ever owned, a 40g piece of Campo del Cielo from Argentina. It’s about the size of the last joint of your index finger. Following the universal standard for meteorite photography, the scale cube in the photos is 1cm.

I picked this up probably 15 years ago at an auction at a Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting. I don’t remember the year – early 2000s for sure. The meteorite came with a little drawstring bag made of red felt, and a certificate of authenticity. It was clearly marked as a chunk of Campo del Cielo, which fell over northwest Argentina four or five thousand years ago.

The original Campo del Cielo meteor exploded in the atmosphere, much like the Chelyabinsk meteor over Russia in 2013, but on a much grander scale. The Chelyabinsk meteor is estimated to have been 20m in diameter, and it produced an airburst of approximately 500 kilotons. The Campo del Cielo meteor was probably more like 50m in diameter, so it would have been a multi-megaton explosion in the upper atmosphere. The resulting strewn field is 2 miles wide, more than 11 miles long, and includes at least 26 craters with diameters of up to 100 meters; the impact of the fragment that produced the 100-meter crater would itself have been multi-kiloton event.

I didn’t know any of that at the time I got the meteorite at the auction. I vividly remember how much I paid for it: $80. I remember so clearly because I almost instantly regretted it. I don’t know who I was talking to afterward, but someone looked at the meteorite and commented that it would be easy to fake with a bit of iron slag. That seemed plausible – it didn’t look like any meteorite I’d seen pictures of, so I assumed the chance that it was a fake was high. I had other fish to fry at the time, being a new dad and halfway through a dissertation, so I never did any research to see if the meteorite was real or fake. I kept it, but I never put it on display, and over the years I sort of lost track of it.

I rediscovered it this January during a major bout of house-cleaning. It’s funny, in the time between when I obtained this piece and now, I’ve looked at so many meteorite photos that I can just glance at this and think, “Yep, it’s a Campo”. Five minutes of image searching for Campo del Cielo pieces will turn up many authenticated examples with the same general appearance, like angular chewed gum with fracture lines and surface pitting. Campo del Cielo is one of the least expensive meteorites to obtain, with prices around $1/gram still being pretty common. (So in fact I overpaid a bit back when I got this, but since it was an auction to support the society I don’t mind.) With such distinctive morphology and such low prices, it’s probably much less expensive to simply buy a real piece of Campo than to fake one, especially at small sizes.

So even though it is one of the smallest pieces in my collection, this little gem means a lot to me. It tells two stories: one about my personal journey from interested-but-ignorant space enthusiast to semi-knowledgeable, semi-professional astronomy writer – and one about a 65,000-ton chunk of iron from the core of a shattered planetoid, which exploded with the force of an entire nuclear arsenal and showered a vast area with what must have been a lethal rain of shrapnel, from pea-sized up to house-sized. Including this little piece, cosmic voyager and witness to awesome forces of creation and destruction.

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If you’re interested in obtaining a meteorite or starting a collection, I have two pieces of advice. The first is, buy from reputable dealers. Many honest dealers are members of the International Meteorite Collections Association and will list their IMCA member number wherever they do business. There are good dealers who are not IMCA members for various reasons – some just don’t like clubs and the politics that sometimes comes along with membership – but it’s a start. Also check seller feedback if you buy from online markets like eBay. And use search tools to do quick checks on individual dealers; the meteorite collecting community is pretty vigilant about detecting and outing bad actors.

The second and probably more important guideline is to educate yourself. Spend a week of evenings looking through websites and online ads and learning to know what to look for in genuine meteors. It’s not completely foolproof – a few unscrupulous people will pick up bits of inexpensive recent falls and try to pass them off as examples of rare and valuable historical meteorites, for example – but at least you’ll develop the knowledge to tell genuine meteorites from “meteorwrongs”. Good hunting!

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My presentation on choosing and using binoculars is now freely available

April 22, 2018

I’ve had the opportunity to give this talk a few places now, including the Riverside Telescope Maker’s Conference and Norwescon 41, and I regularly get requests to post the slide deck somewhere so people can refer back to it. Deal! Here it is:

Wedel 2018 – exploring the universe with binoculars

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In Search of Stardust currently less than $3 new

April 22, 2018

I don’t know how or why this is happening, but Jon Larsen’s excellent book In Search of Stardust: Amazing Micrometeorites and Their Terrestrial Imposters, which originally retailed for $24.99, is currently available on Amazon for $2.37. If you have Amazon Prime, the shipping is free, so this really nice full-color hardback book is cheaper than…well, just about everything. I’ve had a copy since it first came out and I just ordered another one on general principles. Thinking about ordering a stack to pass out to people who are interested in space, science, or just, like, things.

I don’t know how long this ridiculous sale will last, but I suggest you do the right thing. Here’s the link.