Archive for March, 2011

h1

The awesomely delayed New Year’s post

March 27, 2011

The year is almost exactly one fourth gone, so this is more than a bit late. But 2010 was a transformative year in my astronomical career, and I wanted to explain why and how, and to assess how I did on my astronomical New Year’s resolutions.

My first resolution was, “I resolve to spend less time mooning over the stuff I want, and more time using the stuff I have.

I’m calling this one a mixed success. On one hand,  I did a LOT more observing in 2010 than in any previous year. Not in terms of sessions–I did 95 in 2010, versus 110 in 2009–but in terms of time spent and objects observed. In 2009 I probably observed a few dozen things; in 2010 I saw more than 200, the great majority of which were new to me.

I got off to a strong start, taking advantage of the good sky transparency after winter and spring rains to do a lot of observing from my driveway, especially with binoculars. I completed the Binocular Messier Club by mid-February, and did most of the observations for the Messier Club and Deep Sky Binocular Club between January and March.

Crucially, I finally started getting out to dark sites on  a regular basis. I first started observing in October, 2007, but I had only been on one dark-sky observing trip before last year. Two factors played a role here.

The first was getting up to Mount Baldy with a friend from the PVAA in the fall of 2009 to try to catch the impact of the LCROSS mission on the moon. We didn’t see the impact fireball–no one on Earth did, not directly, although the LCROSS probe sent back good pictures and data showing that yes, water ice is indeed present in the craters at the lunar poles. What turned out to be more important for me was the revelation of how much more I could see under those darker skies, and the shedload of deep-sky objects I was able to observe that night, mostly with 15×70 binoculars. That night was also a big step forward for me because it was the first time I had taken out my Pocket Sky Atlas and used it to really cruise the skies, rapidly finding my way to new objects that I’d never seen before. So come the beginning of 2010, I knew that quite dark skies were available close by, I had the motivation to get out to them, and I was learning the skills I’d need to take advantage of them.

The other big factor is that my son, London, was 5, so he was both more adventurous than he had been, and also required quite a bit less minding. It was time to go camping. My trips to the Salton Sea in January, February, and March of 2010 were solo efforts, although I met up with at least one other PVAA member each time. But almost all of my later dark-sky outings were camping trips. We went to Owl Canyon in June and September (London stayed with Vicki in a hotel room on the latter trip), Joshua Tree Lake and Afton Canyon in October, and the All-Arizona Star Party in November. And we’ve already been out once this year, to the Salton Sea again (the Salton Sea is more southerly and lower in elevation than the high-desert observing spots I’ve been to, so it’s warmer overnight during the winter months). The impact of these dark-sky trips is hard to describe. I have had experiences out under those dark skies that would simply have been impossible anywhere else. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that they have not only changed me as an astronomer but as a human being.

I mentioned that my resolution observe more and obsess about gear less was only a mixed success. I did spend less time mooning over telescope  catalogs and telescope vendors’ websites, and more time at the eyepiece, so that part was okay. But I also turned over almost my entire telescope collection, selling off old stuff and trying out new stuff in the quest for the perfect lineup. I think every single telescope I own right now was purchased in 2010, except for the Astroscan, which is really London’s. I learned some valuable things along the way. I know now that a 10″ dob is as much big iron as I need for at least the near future. I found my ultimate no-excuses travel telescope. And I got a couple of nice mid-sized telescopes, both of which turn in good images without breaking either my back or my bank account. I’m not done buying telescopes–I would like to get a 5″-6″ SCT or Mak to have something more portable than my current mid-sized scopes but equally capable–but I think I’m  converging on the ideal scope collection for my observing interests. It wouldn’t hurt me to concentrate on getting some non-telescopic gear, like a light-pollution filter and some better eyepieces.

Galileo's sketch of the changing positions of Jupiter's moons--an observation one must repeat for the AL Galileo Club.

My other resolution for 2010 was, “I resolve to complete the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club, Lunar II Club, and Messier Club.” This one was also a mixed success. As I’ve reported (more than once, and if you’re tired of hearing about it, I don’t blame you), I did complete the requirements for several of the Astronomical League’s observing clubs, just not all of the ones I resolved to finish. This was mainly caused by the big shift in my observing habits mentioned above. Prior to 2010, essentially all of my observing was done from home, under light pollution, and so I naturally gravitated to projects that were easy to complete under those conditions. Hence the interest in the Lunar II and Galileo clubs (although I was also interested in the latter simply because Galileo was The Man). Last year my interest shifted to the deep sky (i.e., objects beyond the solar system: nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies) in a big way, and all of the clubs I completed in 2010 are deep-sky programs.

So what about observing programs for this year? I’m only 9 objects away from completing the Urban Club, although I let a few of them slip too near the sun so I won’t be able to put that one to bed until a few months from now, when they’ve escaped (or, more accurately, when our orbit around the sun has moved the sun’s apparent position against the background stars). I should do more on the Double Star Club–like the moon and planets, double stars are little affected by light pollution, so those will give me something to chase on the nights when there’s too much humidity, smog, or dust to go after faint fuzzies.

NGC 4038 and 4039, a pair of colliding galaxies popularly known as the Antennae. Part of the Herschel 400.

But those are really incidental. My big observing push for the foreseeable future is the Herschel 400, a list of 400 of the best out of the more than 2500 deep-sky objects cataloged by William Herschel. It’s deliberately intended as a follow-on to the Messier Club, to help observers further develop their skills and see more of what’s out there. I started on it last fall, not in earnest but as a way to pad out my sessions as I finished up the Messier and Caldwell lists. Quite a few of the objects for the other deep-sky clubs are drawn from the Herschel 400, so between having completed a few of those and having started on the Herschels last fall, I’ve got almost a quarter of them–95 out of 400–logged already. Sounds like quite a bit of progress, but most of those 95 were chosen for other clubs because they’re among the best and brightest, so I’m afraid many of the gems are already logged and the remaining 305 are going to be mostly true faint fuzzies. Still, one never knows until one looks, and even my limited exploration of the rest of the Herschels has turned up some surprisingly beautiful objects.

So, I’m going to work on the Herschel 400, but I’m not going to commit to finishing it this year. I had a lot of fun last year but almost suffered from observing program burnout. This year I’m going to take a more relaxed pace. If I finish a few things along the way, great, but I’m not going to push myself to do it.

Still, I am not without goals, and even though three months have passed I’m going to make some astronomical resolutions for 2011 (only having 9 months to work on them ought to add spice).

Resolution #1: I resolve to not give up on observing from home.

All the dark sky trips in 2010 were great, but after a strong first quarter I did a lot less observing from home after March. There is a danger here, of developing the attitude that it’s not worth going out unless I can be under inky-black skies. The truth is that there is a lot of great observing to be had in town, especially if one chooses the right targets and the right times to observe. As I ought to know, since I got so much deep-sky work done from my driveway last year, mostly with very modest instruments. So I am going to try to get in at least one or two serious observing sessions from home every month, light pollution be damned.

Resolution #2: I resolve to spend more time on every object that I observe.

This one is also a reaction to my experiences last year. Some people dismiss observing programs as a list-checking exercise that corrodes the relaxed, contemplative side of observing. I don’t think that’s universally true–I always take at least a couple of minutes on each object to jot down my observations and impressions–but I would be lying if I denied that that danger exists. So one of my goals for 2011 is to improve the quality of my observations, and not to worry about their quantity.

And…that’s it. That’s all I really want for this year. I certainly grew as an amateur astronomer in 2010. In 2011, I want to mature as an observer.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

h1

April 2011 Astro Calendar

March 26, 2011

MOON PHASES

  • April 3 (Sun) 7:32 AM PDT / 14:32 UT – New moon
  • April 11 (Mon) 5:05 AM PDT / 12:05 UT – First quarter moon
  • April 17 (Sun) 7:43 PM PDT / 2:43 UT (April 18) – Full moon
  • April 24 (Sun) 7:46 PM PDT / 2:46 UT (April 25) – Last quarter moon

MOON CONJUNCTIONS

  • April 6 and 7 (Wed & Thurs), waxing crescent moon passes Pleiades (6th) and Hyades (7th) in the western sky
  • April 16 (Sat), nearly full moon passes Saturn in the eastern sky
  • April 29-May 1 (Fri-Sun), waning crescent moon passes four bright planets–Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter–in the eastern sky, 30 minutes before sunrise

PLANET POSITIONS

  • Mercury waxing crescent in the morning sky, inferior conjunction with sun April 9, greatest western elongation May 7.
  • Venus waxing gibbous in the morning sky, following greatest western elongation on Jan 8.
  • Mars rises before dawn, but stays close to the horizon.
  • Jupiter rises before dawn, following conjunction with sun on April 6.
  • Saturn rises shortly after sunset, following opposition on April 3.
  • Uranus rises before dawn, in Pisces.
  • Neptune rises before dawn, in Aquarius.

PLANET CONJUNCTIONS

  • April 19 (Tues), Mercury and Mars less than 1° apart, 15 minutes before sunrise.
  • April 23 (Sat), Uranus 1° above Venus before sunrise.
  • April 29-May 1 (Fri-Sun), Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter close to each other and to the waning crescent moon, 30 minutes before sunrise.

METEOR SHOWERS

  • April 22 (Fri) Lyrid meteors. Active April 16-25. Predicted to be an unfavorable year.
h1

Observing Report: Salton Sea

March 19, 2011

Last Saturday, March 12, London and I went camping at the Salton Sea. It was the first time we’d been camping since the All-Arizona Star Party back in November,  and my first serious observing since then, too.

The forecast was for partly cloudy conditions, and I didn’t want to lug out a big scope if the weather was iffy. Part of this was laziness, and part practicality: we were car camping, and with the back seats folded down and the two of us stretched out to sleep, there would be no place in the vehicle to put a big scope if there was any precipitation. I took Shorty Long and Stubby Fats, my SkyWatcher 80mm refractor and 130mm reflector, and a tripod that fits either one. I set up Shorty right after we arrived and spent some time watching shorebirds, including the egret shown above, which I shot through the scope at a distance of 200 yards or so.

As I am wont to do, I visited the nearby campsites and told people they were welcome to come over and have a look. I got a few takers. There was a big family get-together a few spots down, and about 20 people spanning three generations came over for a look at the moon, and at Saturn later on.

I also  hailed a couple that I saw strolling through the campground right after dark. Their names were Al and Mavis and we ended chatting for a good long time. I even toasted them some marshmallows. I learned that they work as volunteers in the Salton Sea State Park visitor center, and they invited us to stop in the next morning.

We had visitors on and off until almost 10:00, when I pulled a couple of camp chairs together, grabbed a blanket, and had London climb up in my lap. We looked up and watched for shooting stars until he feel asleep. We saw one together, and I saw several more after he sacked out. It was bittersweet–London is six years old now, and I think the last time he fell asleep in my lap was about a year ago. I always wonder if each time will be the last. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to see my little boy grow into a boy, full stop, and we have so much fun doing things that were impossible for him even a year ago. But I miss my baby, too.

The sky was not bittersweet, it was just plain sweet. A few clouds hovered around the horizon but none came overhead, and I found and got good looks at everything I tried for. The moon was at first quarter, which makes it bright and pretty but not so bright that one can’t do a little deep sky observing on the side.

I took the above photo through Stubby Fats, the 5″ reflector. With its fairly steep f/5 light cone and central obstruction, Stubby does not deliver the same contrast the unobstructed refractor, but I didn’t get any complaints. In the early evening, with the moon dead overhead, I had to use Stubby because the long tube of the refractor put the eyepiece uncomfortably close to the ground. Later on I switched to Shorty Long for Saturn and some of the brighter clusters and nebulae, and then back to Stubby for my serious deep sky run after the moon set.

Saturn was a real treat. By a little after 8:00 it was high enough in the east to look good, although I could tell that the seeing (atmospheric turbulence) was degrading things a bit. Once it climbed out of the near-horizon roil, it was simply stunning. The rings are nicely open now and the above photo, taken through Shorty, does not do it justice. At the eyepiece, the shadow of the rings was a black line etched across the planet’s disk, like mascara. I could make out some detail in the clouds, too, subtle pastel shadings wrapped horizontally across this fast-spinning world (a day on Saturn is 10.5 hours long, and the planet’s rotation has squashed it into an oblate sphere only 9/10 as tall as wide).

I spent a good long time just plinking around, getting reacquainted with the sky. The Great Nebula in Orion (M42) looked fantastic, as did the Pleiades (M45) and the Beehive Cluster (M44). The Double Cluster in Perseus was visible, but it suffered from the abundant moonlight–this double handful of diamonds looks best against the black velvet of a new-moon night.

Around 1:00 AM I switched over to the 5″ reflector for good, parked the tripod, chair, and charts beside the car where I would be out of the moonlight, and turned my attention to the deep sky in earnest. My first target was M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. It was there, but as expected the moonlight was still hitting it pretty hard. I made a mental note to come back, and went on to other targets. Next up I observed the a pair of colliding galaxies, NGC 4038 and 4039, popularly known as the Antennae. From my notes:

1:30 AM. Antennae–1st quarter moon not quite set, 108x in 130N, dim blobs between two faint field stars, more tantalizing than inspiring, but visible even at 20x with averted vision.

It wasn’t a knock-your-socks off view, but it still pretty unreal to see their light–45 million years in transit–with my own eyes. In his book Seeing in the Dark (p. 64), Timothy Ferris crystalized perfectly my feelings about galaxies:

As often happens, I was struck by the fact that all these things, unimaginably big or small or hot or cold as they may be, really are out there…they confront us with the regality of the materially real.

I will definitely have to revisit these with a bigger scope on a darker night, and see how far I can trace the tails of stars thrown off by their gravitational dance.

By this time the summer constellations were rising, and I hit M13, the Great Glob, in Hercules. It was beautiful, as always, but as usual I hopped next to M5 for a comparison and found M5 just a bit more pleasing to the eye. In comparison, M13 is bigger but more diffuse, and in my opinion less pleasingly structured. It’s a big ole ball of stars, but in a bit of a formless lump, like grits ladled out onto a cafeteria tray. M5 is smaller and more compact, but with a brighter, more concentrated core, and a periphery of stars that appear to be in concentric rings, like shock waves from an explosion. M13 looks inert and M5 looks somehow kinetic (I’m editorializing here, and your preferences may differ–go compare them back to back and let me know what you think).

Then it was time for more galaxies. I picked up the Leo Triplet–M65, M66, and NGC 3028. These three spiral galaxies are close together as seen from Earth and also in fact.  They represent a small gravitationally-bound group much like our own Local Group, which includes the “grand design” spirals of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), plus 30 or more dwarf galaxies that hover about like courtiers around medieval royalty. The Leo Triplet must include its own host of dwarf galaxies, but if so they remain unseen by me. However, with a low-power eyepiece I could see all three of the great Leo spirals in one field of view, the combined light of perhaps one and a half trillion suns.

There is another triplet of big, bright galaxies in Leo, the M96 Group, which consists of the twin spirals M95 and M96 and the elliptical galaxy M105, plus a train of lesser NGCs. The Leo Triplet might actually be satellite members of the M96 Group, and both are relatively close by within the Virgo Supercluster, to which our own Local Group also belongs. These galaxies are fellow citizens of the cosmos with our own Milky Way, comparable in size and age and likely history, and by observing them we get a little perspective on our place in the universe–both scientifically and philosophically. The 20x eyepiece swept up the three Messier galaxies of the M96 Group into a single field as well. I frequently had to step away from the telescope, not to rest my eyes but to collect the scattered fragments of my mind, simultaneously humbled by the immensities before me and empowered by the homegrown primate ingenuity that put them, however briefly and imperfectly, within my grasp. I felt blessed.

The Spindle Galaxy, NCG 3115, was, as the name implies, a bright elongated needle of starlight, like a miniature Sombrero. Also living up to its name was NGC 3242, the Ghost of Jupiter. Like the Ring and the Dumbbell, the Ghost of Jupiter is a planetary nebula, a shell of gas blown off by a dying star. In The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, “Uncle” Rod Mollise wrote that contemplating the remains of dying stars gave him the chills. I had previously dismissed that as poetic license, but at 2:30 in the morning, all alone in the cold and dark, I could suddenly relate. I turned south, to warmer climes and cheerier sights.

Directly  to the south the crooked, asymmetric star patterns of the constellation Centaurus reared above the horizon like the rigging of a wrecked ship. Huddling among the wreckage I found Omega Centauri, NGC 5139, the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way. OCen is a beast, 86 light years in diameter and containing several million stars (most globs have a few hundred thousand to perhaps one million). My notes say simply, “DAMN that’s a big glob”. When I looked away from the eyepiece–globstruck, as it were–I saw that to my surprise Omega Centauri was easily visible to the naked eye. I had heard of other observers catching it with bare peepers from SoCal, but on my only other viewing from the Salton Sea it had been entangled in some near-horizon murk and invisible to all but the telescope. I had seen it with my naked eyes on the beach in Uruguay last summer, where it loomed directly overhead like a deity, too vast to be encompassed by mortal faculties. It was oddly comforting to see it down near the horizon, where, according my parochial mental calculus, it “belongs”.

I was winding down. I briefly visited the globs M4 and M80 in Scorpio, the Double Double star in Lyra, and the Ring Nebula, more to check in on these old summertime friends than to have my mind blown yet again, although they were all quite beautiful. My penultimate target was the Sombrero Galaxy, which showed its dark dust lane and trademark shape much more clearly now that the moon had set.

I ended on Saturn, the jewel of jewels. It rises just after dark these days, and will be visible in the evening sky for the rest of the spring and much of the summer. Good times are coming.

In the morning London and I made pancakes, took our regular hike along the shoreline, and then drove to the visitor center. In half a dozen trips to the Salton Sea, I had never been. Al and Mavis welcomed us and showed us around, and asked if we were interested in going on the noon kayak tour. The kayaking tours are free, you just have to sign up in advance. We hadn’t, but there were a couple of cancellations, so from noon to 1:30 we kayaked along the shoreline, enjoying the wheeling flocks of birds and the cool sea breezes.

And now I am sitting in the middle of civilization under a deck of clouds that is supposed to hang around all week. I am already itching to get back out.

h1

Back in the saddle again

March 18, 2011

London and my telescope looking forward to seeing the stars.

 

After a fairly epic run of observations in November, crowned by the All-Arizona Star Party, I hardly knocked the dust off my scopes from Thanksgiving until early March. But I recently broke the seal: last Thursday, the 10th, I took a telescope downtown and did some sidewalk astronomy. Then on Saturday the 12th I went camping with London at the Salton Sea, and stayed up until about 4:00 AM stargazing. It’s good to be back.

Several factors have contributed to my slow start in astronomy this year. It’s winter, so it’s cold (by SoCal standards) and occasionally cloudy or rainy. But that’s not much of an excuse. Last year I rocked through most of the Messier, Binocular Messier, and Binocular Deep Sky observing programs in January, February, and March, taking advantage of skies swept mostly clear of haze and smog by the winter weather. So questionable weather might not be a good excuse not  to observe, but it’s one I’ve used anyway.

The main factor is that my attention and enthusiasm has been elsewhere, on dinosaurs. It’s been a productive spring for me, with several articles, both technical and popular, either published or accepted for publication (please visit my paleo blog, SV-POW!, for the full scoop on those). It’s not that paleontology and astronomy can’t coexist–for example, last fall I managed to keep up an active observing schedule while also being professionally productive. But to be honest paleontology does siphon off some of my enthusiasm for my other pursuits, including astronomy.

There is also an element of simple exhaustion. At the beginning of 2010, I made a resolution to finish three of the Astronomical League’s observing clubs–the Galileo, Lunar II, and Messier Clubs. In the actual event, I didn’t finish Galileo or Lunar II, but I did finish the Messier Club and five others (Bino Messier, Bino Deep Sky, Southern Sky Telescopic, Southern Sky Binocular, and Caldwell), and made observations toward several more. Don’t get me wrong, I had a ton of fun working on all of those programs, but it’s possible to wear yourself out even doing something you love. This year I intend to take a more measured, less frenetic approach to observing.

One new development ought to help with that: tonight I was elected as president of the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers (if it’s not clear how that will help me be less frenetic, just read on). Our previous president, Ron Hoekwater, had bowed out at the end of his eighth term last fall, and since then our Vice President, Joe Hillberg, had been filling in for him in emceeing the monthly meetings and so on. Some of the board members approached me to see if I’d be willing to take on the job, and I thought it sounded like an interesting challenge and a way to give back to the club. As I told everyone at tonight’s meeting, regular elections are coming up in July, so if people aren’t happy with me they won’t have to suffer for long.

One of the duties that comes with the office is writing a president’s message for Nightwatch, our club’s monthly newsletter (archived online here). I’m looking forward to this. One of the things I’ve wanted to try–but never had the impetus to actually implement–is doing a regular calendar of astronomical events. My plan is to include at least a short astro calendar with my monthly message in Nightwatch, covering moon phases, the locations of the planets, meteor showers, and so on. Hopefully doing the calendar will help me get out and keep some kind of regular, sustainable observing schedule. I’ll also post the calendar here, so the blog will hopefully be fed on a more regular basis. Stay tuned.