Archive for June, 2014


A birthday observing run at the Webb Schools Hefner Observatory

June 16, 2014
Spiral galaxy M81

Spiral galaxy M81

My birthday was June 3. That evening, fellow PVAA member Steve Sittig invited me up to the Hefner Observatory at the Webb Schools in north Claremont. Steve teaches science at the Webb Schools, and he has a particular interest in physics and astronomy. The dome at the Hefner Observatory houses an orange-tube C14 Schmidt-Cassegrain. Observing with us were two other Webb faculty members, Andy Farke (paleontologist, blogger) and science teacher Andrew Hamilton. Andrew Hamilton had brought along his DLSR, a Sony Alpha33—this would turn out to be important.

Starburst galaxy M82

Starburst galaxy M82

We got started a little after 9:00 PM with a look at Jupiter, which was low in the west. We noticed right away that the seeing was pretty darned good. We went on to the waxing crescent moon and then Mars and Saturn. After that we turned to the deep sky. M81 and M82 looked great, so we hooked up Andrew’s DSLR and attempted some photography. We didn’t have a remote shutter or computer control, so we were using only the camera’s native controls, and assessing the results on the LCD screen.

Planetary nebula M57, the Ring Nebula

Planetary nebula M57, the Ring Nebula

After the galaxies, we went on to the Ring Nebula, M57, and then the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, M13. Even with the 30-second exposures that the camera was natively limited to, we were getting very respectable images. I am including a few here.

M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

Our results were pretty primitive compared to what people can do with dedicated astro cameras and post-processing, but we still had a grand time, and the process was sufficiently rewarding that we stayed out until almost two in the morning. All in all, a pretty darned good birthday present. Hopefully we’ll be able to reconvene and shoot some more this summer. I’ll keep you posted.

Many thanks to Andrew Hamilton for permission to post these photos.


Earth-moon distance and the diameters of the planets

June 15, 2014

A few days ago Mike sent me this:

Earth-moon distance and planetary diameters

I was surprised to see so many people calling BS on this–it’s simple enough to double-check. So I did. Here are the results.

Mean radii in km, from Wikipedia:

  • Mercury – 2400
  • Venus – 6100
  • Mars – 3400
  • Jupiter – 69,900
  • Saturn – 58,200
  • Uranus – 25,400
  • Neptune – 24,600
  • Total – 190,000

Doubled, to convert to diameters – 380,000 km

Average Earth-moon distance, also from Wikipedia: 384,000 km.

Yep, this checks out. With the proviso that the Earth-moon distance actually varies from 363,000 to 405,000 km, so sometimes you’d have to leave out Mars and Venus, and other times you’d have to clone them to fill the extra space.

If you want a remarkable coincidence, the moon formed maybe only 10,000 miles from Earth and has been gradually receding ever since. So we are living in the tiny slice of Earth history when the moon is at just the right distance to appear the same relative size as the sun, and thus produce total eclipses as we know them. Annular eclipses have only been around for a few tens of millions of years, and in another few tens of millions of years, they’re all we’ll ever get, because the moon will be too distant to completely block the sun.

Anyway, after I sent Mike this reply, he said, “That is a whole lot of awesome, which clearly ought to be a 10MA post”. And now it is.

UPDATE October 13, 2014: A much more detailed explanation of the end of total solar eclipses in the distant future can be found on this page, under the “Final Totality” heading.