Archive for June, 2010


No eclipse for me

June 26, 2010

I did get up, at about 4:30, to see how the eclipse was progressing and maybe take some pictures, but it was completely clouded out.

As a consolation prize, this month’s Nightwatch, the PVAA newsletter is out, with the second of my “World’s largest telescope” articles and my detailed observing report from Mount Wilson. This link will be good for about three months, after which it will be available in the PVAA archives.


Lunar eclipse tonight

June 25, 2010

Three downsides:

1. It’s only a partial eclipse.

2. You won’t see much of it unless you’re on the west coast or somewhere in the Pacific, Australia, or the Orient.

3. Unlike the last lunar eclipse, this one happens at a completely uncivilized hour.

Still, if you’re brave or just foolhardy, all the info you need is here.

Assuming I get out of bed for it, expect to be subjected to even more moon pictures.

Hat tip to David DeLano for reminding me about this.


Just another perfect evening

June 24, 2010

I prefer to do sidewalk astronomy when the moon is waxing, so it’s well up in the early evening, and not too close to full moon, so that there are still some nice shadows along the terminator. Last night was about the last “good” night for it, in my book, so I took my cheap scope downtown for an hour, and showed 53 people the moon and Saturn. Two of my visitors were a father and son who, it turns out, had stopped by the very first time I did sidewalk astronomy, back in March of 2009. In fact, they’d just been talking about that night as they were strolling down to the fountains, and hey, there I was again.

Good times.


Ginormous Mars atlas for free

June 23, 2010

Your tax dollars at work: the USGS map of the Hellas Planitia region of Mars, all 13.8 megabytes of it, is freely available for download here. Hat tip to Mike.

If you’re more interested in the kind of Mars exploration depicted above, try here.

Either way, have fun!


Evolution of the cheap scope

June 22, 2010

How it came to me:

How it looked about a month ago:

How it looks now:

The altitude bearings are PVC endcaps turning on pound-in furniture sliders. The azimuth bearing surface is more pound-in furniture sliders turning on a vinyl record. The whole setup weighs about 20 lbs, and delivers most of the performance of my 6-inch scope in a much more portable package. It’s a keeper.

Many thanks to frequent commenter David DeLano for advice on sealing and painting the wood, discussions on bearing surfaces, and some peel-and-stick Teflon tape that I ended up not using (too slippery, if you can believe that).


Cheap scope put to good use

June 22, 2010

You’ll recall that Amazon recently had a nice intro-level reflector on closeout for a stupid-awesome price (sadly they’re out now no longer stupidly cheap, just sorta cheap), and that I got one, sold the included tripod, and got to work building a new mount for it. After about three weeks of non-action, I finished the mount today, and took the scope downtown this evening to do some sidewalk astronomy.

It was fun, and funny. To me, this 5″ scope is small. Like, that’s why I got it–because I wanted the biggest scope I could carry around with one hand. But out in the wild, where most people’s only exposure to telescopes is by way of shaky 60mm department store horrors, a solidly mounted five inch scope is but a little lower than the Hubble. People thought it was HUGE. They gravitated, especially kids. We were down at the fountains for an hour and 32 people came by for a look at the waxing gibbous moon. The last person was the 1027th passerby to look through one of my scopes since I started doing sidewalk astronomy in the spring of 2009.

The moon was pretty great, too. And obviously I’m pleased with the scope.

Single 1/60th of a second exposure with a handheld Nikon Coolpix 4500 in macro mode, shooting through an Orion Sirius 32mm Plossl and a Sky-Watcher 130N Newtonian reflector.


Mt Wilson: even better the second time around

June 14, 2010

About a dozen of us from the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers spent Saturday night observing with the 60-inch telescope up on Mount Wilson. A really excellent night on the mountain is a Goldilocks affair–you need enough of a marine layer to cover up the lights of LA, but the fog has to stay low enough not to swamp the observatory itself. The PVAA visited Mount Wilson last summer, but got fogged out. That worked out okay for me, because they rescheduled for the fall and I found out about the trip in time to go along.

Saturday night the marine layer was looking  pretty good when we got there. Unfortunately, it cleared out before midnight, so the sky was too bright for us to do any serious galaxy observing. But we saw quite a few planetary nebulae and globular clusters, which punch through the light pollution better than most galaxies.

We saw a lot of burnt trees on the way in, from last fall’s Station Fire, which at one point threatened the observatory. The trees by the gate had some light charring down near the bottoms of their trunks, but they hadn’t burned very high or very hot, and I suspect that the fire evidence I saw there was caused by backfires set by the firefighters who saved the observatory.

The 60-inch telescope, largest in the world from 1908 to 1917, is as impressive as ever.

Our first target was Saturn. Although the seeing settled down later in the evening, right after dark the sky was pretty turbulent and that cut down on the amount of detail we could see. Also, and to my immense irritation, I couldn’t get my camera to focus with the optical zoom engaged, so I couldn’t  increase the object size on the CCD as much as I would have liked. This photo doesn’t really do the view justice–in fact, it’s not much better than I’ve done with my 10-inch scope from my driveway (proof here).  Remember that this is a sad comment on the state of the just-past-sunset atmosphere and my finicky camera, and not a slight on the telescope, which is capable of much better!

But things did get better as the evening progressed and we saw tons of cool stuff. Several other people were experimenting with their own digital cameras and that inspired me to try some things I haven’t done before, like photographing double stars. Here is Albireo, a summer favorite that is easily split by even small telescopes.

We started with Saturn and ended with Jupiter; the King of the Planets was climbing in the east as the sky started to brighten before dawn. If you haven’t looked at Jupiter in a while, the Red Spot is actually red again, and the normally-brown South Equatorial Belt has faded almost completely. This is a big switch from the past year or two, when the “Red” Spot has mostly been visible as a white notch in the SEB. It was far and away the best look at the GRS that I’d ever gotten.

The highlight of the evening for me was seeing M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, and M5, another excellent summer glob, back to back. M13 is probably in most deep sky observers’ top ten, but some people like M5 better, and I’m in that camp. M5 isn’t quite as big or bright, although it comes very close, but it has a much more compact core and the outer stars are arranged in loops and swirls rather than radiating chains. To my eyes, M5 looks like an explosion of stars, in progress. It’s good in my ten-inch scope. It’s phenomenal in the 60-inch.

Last fall we went on a weeknight and I had to leave early, around 3:00 AM or so, to get up to teach the next morning. We also had a considerably larger group, so we didn’t get through as many objects per unit time. Obviously going with a big group is better for the club, but it was nice to have a more intimate group and a shorter line at the eyepiece. I had a heck of a good time, and I plan on going back up every chance I get. If it’s within your means, you should do likewise.

Many thanks to our host and telescope operator for another tremendous evening!

Update: I’m kind of a doofus. If you were wondering why this post is included in the binocular category, it’s because I took my 15×70 bins with me and did some deep-sky observing out of the opening in the dome, while waiting in line for the eyepiece. I bagged four targets for the AL Deep Sky Binocular club, which leaves me with only six more needed to complete that list. But I forgot to mention all of this when I first posted!


While I was out…

June 1, 2010

May turned out to be a pretty eventful month for me, astronomically-speaking.

As noted in my oath-breaking last post, I bought one of the Sky-Watcher scopes that is on crazy sale at Amazon right now. I got the 130N-EQ2, a Newtonian reflector on an equatorial mount. I’m not a big fan of EQ mounts. Yeah, they let you track the sky by moving the scope slowly on one axis instead of two, but for that convenience you get to pay quite a bit more than you would for an alt-az mount (normally, that is; right now at Amazon you get the whole kit-n-kaboodle for about what the eyepieces regularly cost), and you get to lug around a lot more weight, too. YMMV, but I like to lug optics, not machinery, and I don’t mind nudging the scope every couple of minutes. So I sold the EQ mount on the Cloudy Nights classifieds (bringing the net cost of the scope down to a ridiculous $40) and used some scrap wood from the garage to build a Dobsonian mount. That project is still ongoing; it’s about halfway painted right now. More construction details soon.

Back in April, I started writing a series of articles on the world’s largest telescopes for Nightwatch, the newsletter of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, and the first one came out in the May newsletter (that link will be good for about three months, after which you’ll be able to find the article on the Nightwatch archive page).

Finally, and most excitingly for me, at 4:30 in the morning on May 25 I found and logged my final Messier object. The quest is complete! And one of my astronomical resolutions for 2010 is fulfilled. Two more to go…

What does June hold? Well, on the 12th the PVAA is going back to Mount Wilson. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that–last year they got clouded out in June and had to reschedule for the fall (which worked out well for me). Venus, Mars, and Saturn are all well-placed right after dark, and Jupiter is up before dawn. There’s a minor comet to chase if you’ve got optics and reasonably dark skies. And I’m about 10 objects away from finishing my observations for the AL Deep Sky Binocular Club.

So, lots to do and see. My posting will probably be hit-and-miss this month also; I’m going on vacation for the next week and when I get back, I have to knuckle under and get to work on some lectures. If you need ways to entertain yourself, the advice given here still holds. Clear skies!