Archive for October, 2013

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Algol at last

October 29, 2013
gladiator

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? IS THIS NOT WHY YOU ARE HERE?

Whew! I just now–well, about an hour ago–made my final observation for the Astronomical League Urban Observing Program. The final target was Algol, the “demon star” in Perseus, and one of the finest naked-eye variable stars in the heavens.

Now, I have seen Algol hundreds of times. It is also known as Beta Persei, because when it’s not in eclipse it is the second-brightest star in the constellation. But I had never tracked its brightness through one of its eclipses until the All-Arizona Star Party this year. The eclipses happen every 2.87 days when the dimmer star of this close binary passes in front of the brighter member. The effect is pretty striking–over the space of about three hours, Algol goes from being a twin of Almach (Gamma Andromedae, mag 2.1), to nearly as dim as Kappa Persei (mag 3.8).

Algol_Chart_l

Chart from Sky & Telescope

Now, the Urban Club rules say nothing about observing Algol more than once, but I figured the only reason it was on the list is because it’s such a noted variable star, and therefore the only respectable thing to do was to observe it both in and out of eclipse. My observations from this year’s AASP didn’t count because they weren’t made from in town. So I have been waiting. On Oct. 8 I was clouded out. By the 11th, it was not yet dark when Algol was in mid-eclipse, and it was probably below the horizon, to boot. Three nights ago I was clouded out again. Three nights hence it will probably be too low and too early to see clearly. So I either had to bag it tonight or wait until late November.

I didn’t think it was going to happen tonight. Mid-eclipse was supposed to be at 10:46 PM. At 10:15 it was still raining. But by 10:45 it had stopped, so I popped outside for a quick peek. The sky was full of clouds but there was a big sucker hole rolling in from the west, aimed right at Perseus (or rather, aimed right at the blank wall of clouds that I knew Perseus was lurking behind). But the sucker hole started closing up as it crossed the zenith and I got just a brief glimpse of Alpha Persei before the clouds knit themselves together completely. Curses!

Still, sucker holes are to stargazing what nibbles are to fishing–or maybe more accurately, what the occasional small winning hands are to poker. So I grabbed the old Tasco 7×35 binoculars that I got back in high school, pulled a folding chair out of the garage, and sat down to wait. I didn’t wait terribly long–at 11:14, the clouds tore open over Persei for just a bit. I couldn’t see the whole constellation, not by a long shot. But there was a bright star farther up the sky–Almach, surely–and a dim one closer to the horizon–Epsilon Persei, I reckoned, and a couple in the middle about equally dim–Algol and Rho Persei, just possibly? I snatched up the binoculars and found my putative Algol in a squashed trapezoid of stars, with an arc of three slightly dimmer ones just off to the north. Then the clouds rolled back in.

Well, I’d seen something, and had a fair idea of the relative brightnesses of the different objects, but had I seen Algol? I dashed inside for my Pocket Sky Atlas and breathed a big sigh of relief. There was Algol in the squashed trapezoid. The arc of three slightly dimmer stars to the north is anchored on Kappa Persei, one of the better comparison stars for estimating Algol’s brightness. At the time I saw it, Algol was midway between Kappa and Epsilon Persei in brightness, which is about right for half an hour past max eclipse.

Incidentally, the squashed trapezoid and arc of three stars that I used to identify Algol and Kappa Persei are not visible in the simple finder chart above, nor are all of the members visible to the naked eye under less than excellently dark and clear skies. I would have been hosed without the binos to confirm where I was in the sky–not the first time that binos have saved my butt, and almost certainly not the last, either.

So, here’s some homework. Don’t print out that Sky & Tel chart above. Instead, just grab your favorite atlas and a pencil and write in the brightnesses of the following stars:

  • Almach (Gamma Andromedae) – 2.1
  • Algol (Beta Persei) – 2.1-3.4
  • Epsilon Persei – 2.9
  • Kappa Persei – 3.8

Now you’ll have the brightnesses of all of the most useful comparison stars in your atlas, and you’ll never be without them (if you don’t have an atlas, use the Evening Sky Map, or download one of the free atlases listed on the sidebar to the right). For finding the eclipse times, use the calculator at Sky&Tel.com. If you track Algol through one of its cycles, report back with your observations. I’m going to sleep…with the Urban Program finally laid to rest.

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Mount Baldy moonrise

October 27, 2013

2013-10-19 Mt Baldy moonrise

Last Saturday London and I were stargazing up on Mount Baldy. I knew the waning gibbous moon was going to rise a little before 8:00. What I had not anticipated is how awesome it would look, coming up through the trees on the next ridge over, a mile or so away. And because I had not anticipated that, I didn’t have the camera with me.

So, nothing for it: we had to go back up the mountain Sunday night, with the camera this time, just to catch the moonrise. Up top is the tweaked and left-right corrected version, below is the raw image.

Next month I want to go back and catch the full moon rising. I’ll keep you posted.

IMG_1008

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Ken Fulton on refractors

October 24, 2013

If I’m succumbing to refractoritis, I’ve at least had some help getting there. David DeLano and Terry Nakazono have let me look through their big beautiful lens-based scopes. Darrell Spencer posted about the crisp views through his huge refractors on CN. And Doug Rennie sent me this back in August. It’s an excerpt from Ken Fulton’s under-appreciated book, The Light-Hearted Astronomer.

Read it at your peril.

Ken Fulton - Light Hearted Astronomer - excerpt on refractors

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Guest post: Photographing the moon with the Celestron 102GT

October 21, 2013

Here’s the first guest post by frequent commenter and sometime observing buddy Doug Rennie. He’s using the same OTA I’ve been using recently–the Celestron 102GT achromatic refractor–but the rest of his setup is different from mine: different mount, diagonal, eyepiece, and camera. Just goes to show that this scope plays well with lots of other gear. I flipped some of the photos to match the orientation of the moon in the sky, but otherwise they are as Doug sent them. The captions and any errors therein are mine. Enjoy!

IMG_3393 - Northeast quadrant

The northeast quadrant of the moon. The landing sites for Apollo 11, 15, and 17 are all in this quadrant.

So I went out several nights last week with the waxing gibbous moon looming large and bright over our front courtyard, and took out the C 102 on a Porta II with my Celestron 8 x 24 zoom attached to my DSLR for some eyepiece projection AP. Took a lot of photos, most of them so-so to utter crap, but maybe 8 or so not half bad. I still need to focus more on . . . focus. Note in the photo that I insert the zoom/camera into a 2″ High Point Scientific 99% dielectric diagonal vs directly into the focuser as this is a lot easier to work with, and having done it both ways, I really see no image quality drop-off using the diag.

Scope and camera setup

The Celestron 8 x 24, as you can see from the photos, allows the removal of the rubber eye cup which exposes a threaded male connection; this allows the eyepiece to be mounted directly to the t-ring on my Canon T1i DSLR. Eyepiece projection photography. I found that to achieve focus using the LED LiveScreen at the back of the camera (which works well; my eyesight is the issue here) that I need to run the shutter speed up into the 3-4 second range so that the image is bright enough to both fill the screen and capture the necessary (for focusing) details. Once I have focused, I then move the shutter speed back to that which I will actually be shooting at, usually (depending on brightness and how much of the darker Mares fill the screen) anywhere from 1/30 to 1/160, the most common being around 1/60, ISO set at 800 for most.

Closeup on diagonal eyepiece and camera

I also use a remote shutter release cable (about 4 bucks through eBay) to cut camera movement/vibration down to next to nothing.

With the zoom, I can go everywhere from 42x to 125x magnification, and everywhere in between, with a quick quarter turn.

The north-central portion of the moon. The smooth dark crater on the lower left is Plato, and the deeply-shadowed crater with the bright rim far to the north is Philolaus.

The north-central portion of the moon. The smooth dark crater on the lower left is Plato, and the deeply-shadowed crater with the bright rim far to the north is Philolaus.

The C 102, as you pointed out in your report, serves up wonderfully bright, sharply-resolved images and much of this comes through in the photos. Any soft edges are more the result of my less-than-perfect focusing than with any of the optics involved.

Also, these are all single shots: focus, click, move on. Stacking? We don’t use no stinking stacking!

The prominent crater in the upper middle is Copernicus, with the Apennine mountains curving away to the northeast, marking the rim of Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains. Near the lower left are three craters making a backwards comma--these are Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel (Arzachel has a prominent central peak).

The prominent crater in the upper middle is Copernicus, with the Apennine mountains curving away to the northeast, marking the rim of Mare Imbrium, the Sea of Rains. Farther down and to the right are three craters making a backwards comma–these are Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel (Arzachel has a nice central peak).

I am now waiting until Jupiter and Saturn again appear in my observing window, along with M42, M45 and other brighter DSOs as I believe I can capture some decent images with my current set-up, as long as I don’t need to go longer than 12-15 seconds. We’ll see.

This shot is from a few nights previous to the last one. Now the backward comma formed by Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel is right on the terminator, just slightly above and right of center.

This shot is from a few nights previous to the last one. Now the backward comma formed by Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel is right on the terminator, just slightly above and right of center.

Frankly, I never see myself getting heavily into AP as the costs alone are prohibitive, plus all the technical stuff overwhelms me just thinking about it. That, and it seems to me that too many of these big time AP guys do little, if any, visual observing, that their views of the heavens mainly come after the fact when they look at the photos they took. Not me. My biggest joy is still what I see at the moment via the EP. But it’s still fun to screw around with modest gear/modest goals AP, especially when its Moony out and that’s about all there is to do. But I am eager to try my new eyepiece projection technique on Saturn and Jupiter when they next appear, and am optimistic that I can even score some good photos of brighter DSOs such as the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades, which won’t be long now.

The bright crater above and left of center is Tycho--note the rays of ejecta that point back to this young, well-defined crater. Below Tycho is the much larger, worn Clavius, with a nice arc of craterlets of decreasing size on its floor.

The bright crater above and left of center is Tycho–note the white rays of ejecta on the right that point back to this young, well-defined crater. Below Tycho is the much larger, worn Clavius, with a nice arc of craterlets of decreasing size on its floor.

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Big fish with light tackle

October 20, 2013

From the first time I read it, I have had a strange fascination with Jay Reynolds Freeman’s “Refractor Red meets the Herschel 400” (available here), wherein he describes observing the legendary deep-sky list with a 55mm refractor. Freeman wrote, “Ask people who land big fish with light tackle, why I do what I do.”

Lately I’ve been working through a slew of the open clusters in the Herschel 400 myself. And I have found that some clusters are dead easy to recognize as distinct bright patches in my 9×50 finder, but at the eyepiece they just sort of dissipate into the background starfield. That plus some fairly transformative rich-field experiences with small refractors (like this one) are working some kind of alchemy on me.

In a feat of Freeman-like proportions, my friend and frequent 10MA contributor Terry Nakazono has logged and sketched over 500 DSOs in the past 3 or so years, including 368 galaxies, almost all with scopes under 5″ aperture, mostly from at least somewhat light-polluted skies. He is just religious about dark adaptation, averted vision, and patience.

Possibly as a result of all of the above, lately I have had this mad desire to go out to the desert with a 70mm or even a 50mm refractor and spend the whole night observing with only that instrument. It feels like my reverse aperture fever and my deep-sky interests are slowly colliding. That plus a sort of perverse desire to knowingly commit to a “suboptimal” (aperture-wise) observing program just because it sounds fun.

I shared this plan on CN and fellow user blb wrote:

No mater what size telescope you use, it seems that you are looking at objects that are on the limits of what can be seen with that size scope. Once I realized this and read, some years ago now, what Jay Reynolds Freeman had to say about his observations, I came to realize there were way more objects to be seen in a small telescope than I would probably see in my lifetime.

I think this is exactly right; I find that with whatever instrument I have to hand, I tend to throw myself up against its limits.

AstroMedia plumber's telescope: a 40mm achromat made with plastic plumbing fittings

AstroMedia plumber’s telescope: a 40mm achromat made with plastic plumbing fittings

In particular, I know that all of the Messier objects have been logged with a 50mm telescope. What about a 40mm scope? I see that AstroMedia has a 40mm f/11 achromat kit (also available from AstroMediaShop.co.uk). That is strangely fascinating to me. (It would be simpler to use a larger scope and simply stop it down to 40mm, but somehow it seems more “pure” to use a scope with a native aperture of 40mm.) However, I think I would first do a Messier tour with a Galileoscope; just because other people have found all the Messiers with a 50mm scope doesn’t mean that I will, and it makes sense to start with that easier goal before plunging right into uncharted territory. It would be mighty tempting to put the 40mm scope and the Galileoscope on the same mount, though…

So…I’ll keep you posted.

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The Rule of Ones

October 19, 2013
C102 2013-10-18

Tonight: one scope, one target. Here’s the scope.

I have several distinct modes as a stargazer. Sometimes I’m in exploration mode and I want to see and log new objects. Sometimes I’m in gear mode and I want to see how a given piece of equipment performs. Sometimes I’m in aesthetic mode and I just want to look at beautiful things. Sometimes I do all three in one night, or even looking at one object.

The last post, about current and future observing projects, was written in exploration mode. “Exploration” might seem like an odd word to apply to the activity of tracking down lists of things compiled by other observers. But if I haven’t seen them myself, then there is still the thrill of the hunt and the rush of discovery. And looking at all of these things is how I personally transmute caelum incognitum into known space. That’s exploration in my book.

Saturday night at the Salton Sea, I was in a blend of aesthetic mode and gear mode, because my ongoing thought process was basically, “Oh, hey, that beautiful thing is up now. I wonder how it looks through these scopes?” I think the only new thing I logged was 8 Lacertae, and if I hadn’t been so close to fiinishing the Double Star program, I wouldn’t have logged any new objects at all, despite staying up almost all night.

I do like observing lists. Some people dismiss them as stamp collecting or say that they make a fun pursuit into work. Well, different strokes, I guess. For me, observing lists come with the implicit subtitle, “Hey, here are the next n-hundred things that are really out there to be seen, any of which might knock your socks off.” Every observing program I have completed has introduced me to new favorite objects, which I periodically revisit, and has broadened my knowledge and experience of the cosmos.

But with all of that said, I don’t do enough casual stargazing, with no plan or agenda. That’s all I used to do, in my first few months as an amateur astronomer, and it almost killed me. Observing programs gave me a way to simultaneously learn the sky and educate myself about what’s up there. But the pendulum may have swung too far now; I hardly ever haul out a scope just to take a quick peek at the moon or Saturn.

All of this is on my mind because of a thread on CN called “When astronomy becomes a chore….” Here’s are some excerpts that have been much on my mind:

RussL: If I feel lazy I can get by with just the 120ST and my trusty TV Widefield 32mm. That way I don’t even have to feel obligated to see each object at every power I can. Easy.

Me: Peace through deliberately limited options–I love it! You have inspired me, sir.

RussL: Well, thanks. I’m glad to know my laziness has helped someone. But, it’s true that sometimes we need to relax more. It’s kinda like when I was a kid with next to nothing to view with, but happy as a clam with whatever I had. I have much more now, although not all that much. I guess part of the difference nowadays is that I have so much more knowledge and feel like I need to use it more. But there’s also a lot to be said for just having a good time without feeling like I must do everything possible.

karstenkoch: I’ve been mentally kicking around an idea for awhile that is still taking shape in my head. For lack of anything better to call it, I’ll call it the “Rule of Ones”. I’ve seen some comments above like it, so I thought I would mention it. There’s really nothing to it other than in order to keep things simple, easy, pure, and enjoyable do or choose only one of everything. Take one scope outside. Take only one eyepiece too. Pick one target to observe. You can imagine all of the other variables involved … choose or do only only one of each. Then, with no more decisions to make, just have a rest under the stars and enjoy your time observing and reflecting.

I like that. One scope, one eyepiece, just go. That sorta dovetails with another idea that has been growing in my mind–more on that in the next post.

Full moon - Oct 18 2013

And here’s the target.

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Double stars, urban observing, and where I go from here

October 17, 2013

There’s one observation from last Saturday night at the Salton Sea that I haven’t mentioned yet. At 2:25 AM, I found and split the double star 8 Lacertae, the 100th and final target on my trip through the Astronomical League’s Double Star observing program.

I don’t typically observe double stars from dark-sky sites. Or rather, I do check in on old favorites like Epsilon Lyrae, Albireo, and Beta Monocerotis for purely aesthetic reasons, but I usually try not to log double stars from dark-sky sites. I figure that double stars are about the only deep-sky objects that show up just as well in town as they do out in the boonies, so if I log double stars from dark sites, I’m not only wasting my dark-sky time, I’m also using up some of the best observing targets that I can see from my driveway. (At this point, someone out there is thinking, “Using up!? You can’t use these things up!” Au contraire–the joy of discovery upon first observing an object is an irreplaceable quality, and if I burn all of that out in the desert, what do I have left for the driveway?)

Anyway, the Double Star list is done, and I’m only one observation away from finishing the Urban Observing Club. So what’s next for me?

First, as a sort of cosmic background radiation of my observing, I will keep plugging away at the Herschel 400, sometimes from home, often from Mount Baldy and the desert. Currently I’m at 171 of 400 objects, so plenty of things left to see. I recently picked up Stephen James O’Meara’s Herschel 400 Observing Guide–stay tuned for a review at some point–and I think it will help me formulate a plan for actually finishing this before the end of time.

Second, I’m kinda hooked on double stars, and I’ve been putting off the AL Binocular Double Star Club until I finished the regular Double Star observing program. This will also give me a chance to put the Nikon Action 10x50s through their paces; for the previous binocular observing programs I used the Celestron Skymaster 15x70s and UpClose 10x50s. So that’s a new driveway observing project to occupy me for a while. (If you’re wondering what I’ll do when I’m past the two AL double star clubs, there’s always the Herschel 500 double stars, and still more beyond that.)

Third, there’s the Suburban Messier Project. I should just dig out a sketchbook and get going on that.

Fourth, and almost at the intersection of the above projects, is this. When I was in Portland last fall, I hit Powell’s Books–as all right-thinking people must–and picked up a copy of Stephen James O’Meara’s The Secret Deep. This is the fourth volume in his Deep Sky Companions series, following his Messier and Caldwell books and Hidden Treasures, which I scored in the spring of 2012. Now, I’ve been through the Messier objects many times, and I’ve seen almost all of the Caldwell objects, but Hidden Treasures and The Secret Deep contain a host of things which I have never observed. And O’Meara is one of my favorite authors when it comes to stargazing books. So I am thinking that I might make those books the centerpieces of my deep-sky observing for the next while, and try to sketch my targets and then compare my observations with O’Meara’s. There are a fair number of Herschel 400s in both books, so working through the books would also advance me a little closer to finishing that project, too.

And beyond that? Well, I have some ideas. I have Sue French’s first book, but I haven’t worked through it yet, nor have I picked up her more recent book. Steve Coe’s underappreciated Astronomical Tourist, Dave Eicher’s Deep-Sky Observing With Small Telescopes, and Phil Harrington’s Cosmic Challenge are all sitting on my bookshelf, mostly read but not “done”. And lurking beyond everything else are the Herschel 2500 and the 7000 double stars, variable stars, and deep-sky objects from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook.

So I’m not going to run out of things to point the scope at. The question, as always, is what to point the scope at next.

For a philosophical one-eighty from this post, see the next one.