Archive for the ‘AL Double Star Club’ Category

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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.

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Comet PanSTARRS, and other targets of opportunity

March 13, 2013

I had a short but very fun stargazing session tonight. I went to the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont to look for Comet PanSTARRS. I knew that it would be horizonwards and a little right of the moon. I took the Apex 127/SV50 combo and my 15×70 binoculars. I got set up a little after 7:15 PM and started scanning the western sky, using the 15x70s and SV50 in alternation.

At 7:25 I spotted the comet in binoculars. It was down in the bright twilight glow, but it was surprisingly bright itself. Like a lot of things that you spot just as they’re coming out in the evening, once I’d found it I thought, “Dang, that’s bright, how did I miss it before now?”

Binoculars are pretty much guaranteed to be the best instrument for first picking up the comet, but it is big and bright enough to be a very rewarding telescopic target, and if you only see it in binoculars, you will definitely be missing out. Here’s a little trick for getting it in the scope: once you have it in the binoculars, scan straight down to the horizon–which ain’t far–and find a landmark. Go back up and relocate the comet, then back down again to make sure you’ve got the right landmark (I didn’t, the first time–I’d let the bins drift too much to the right on the way down). Anyway, once you’ve got the landmark, you’re golden: point the scope at the landmark and scan up to find the comet.

At 64x in the Apex 127, the nucleus seemed to be an extended object, not just a point of light. The tail swept straight up. I thought it was a little brighter and a little crisper on the north (right side in the sky, but left side in the scope). I wish I had sketched it–I’ll do that next time out.

Just a few minutes after I got the comet in my sights, a young couple pulled up and parked nearby, and invited them over to see the comet and the thin crescent moon. When the young woman saw the moon in the scope, she jerked back from the eyepiece, shook her hands, and said that the view had given her the chills. When people ask why I do sidewalk astronomy, I tell them about things like that.

Later on a family of five pulled up and I showed all of them the comet and the moon. So I had an astronomy outreach to a total of seven guests tonight. My favorite part: helping a 6-year-old kid get the 15x70s balanced on the side rail of the parking garage so he could see the moon.

If you’d like to see the comet, your best chances are in the next week or two. It will probably be bright enough to see with a telescope for weeks after that, maybe even months, but it isn’t going to get any brighter. Get over to Sky&Tel or just google “comet PanSTARRS”–the internet is falling over itself giving out instructions on how to find the comet right now.

By 7:50 all my visitors had moved on and so had the comet, lost in the hazy clouds over Los Angeles. I wasn’t done, though.

Urban decay

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, I’m closing in on finishing two of the Astronomical League’s observing programs, the Urban Observing Club and the Double Star Club. If I’d gotten my rear in gear a month ago I could have finished them both easily by now, but my head was stuck in the Jurassic and I let too much time slip by. As of a couple of days ago, I only needed two more objects for each club: M77 and Algol for the Urban Club, and Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae for the Double Star Club. The trouble is, they’re all low in the western sky now, and in a month or  two they’ll be right behind the sun. So if I don’t get them pronto, I’ll have to wait a while before I’ll get another crack at them.

I got M77 Monday night from my driveway. I’d also seen it Saturday night on my Messier Marathon, of course, but that didn’t count; to be eligible for the Urban Club, the observations  have to made from someplace sufficiently light-polluted that the Milky Way is not naked-eye visible. Fortunately this galaxy has a crazy-bright core and I caught it with averted vision from the driveway even though it wasn’t fully dark yet. My time limit was set less by the sky and more by local geography: when I saw it, it was already in between the leafless branches of one of the trees in my back yard.

Algol is up in Perseus, still a good 25 or 30 degrees above the horizon at sunset, so it’s easy enough to see. That ain’t the problem. It’s the only variable star on the Urban Observing list, so I reckon I haven’t fulfilled the spirit of the thing until I’ve seen it go through one of its periodic brightness variations. These happen about every three days, which sounds great, except that they’re offset so most of them happen during the day, or when the constellation has already set. I need one of those minima to hit between about 7:00 and 9:00 PM, which is a pretty darned narrow window (why oh why didn’t I just see this thing a month ago?). I just missed one on March 7, when my head was still only in the Jurassic. The next one that is in my time window is on the evening of March 27, when I’m scheduled to be on an airplane between Texas and SoCal. The next good one after that isn’t until April 16. That one may just be doable–Perseus is far enough north that it sets pretty late from my latitude (from 40 degrees and points farther north, it doesn’t set at all).

Doing the splits can be painful

I have been kicking and kicking myself for not getting Alpha Piscium and 8 Lacertae in the past few months when they were dead overhead. I actually got Alpha Piscium in they eyepiece one night a week or two ago, but I couldn’t split it before it got lost in the trees. I found out why tonight: it’s a darned hard split.

After the comet and all my visitors had departed, I went straight to Alpha Piscium. It was already down into the near-horizon murk, which makes stars take on interesting shapes and colors that often have nothing to do with their normal night-sky appearances. At 64x it was just a dot. Same thing at 128x. Same thing at 257x, at least at first glance. But then the seeing steadied for a crucial moment and I was able to get the focus dialed in, and there it was: a double star. At high magnification in the Mak, each star is  surrounded by a neat little diffraction ring. At 257x, Alpha Piscium’s secondary component was sitting on the diffraction ring of the brighter primary, as if the primary  was sitting in the middle of a diamond ring. Like this, only I couldn’t see the diffraction ring around the secondary star so clearly. Anyway, it was a pretty sight and a righteous split.

That left me in the same place in the Double Star Club that I am in the Urban Club: 99 down, one to go. I thought that 8 Lacertae might just be possible, so I started star-hopping over that way. I almost got there, too, but just in time to see the lizard’s tail dip below the local horizon. I am pretty sure that if I try again in the next couple of nights, and go to 8 Lacertae before I  do anything else, I’ll be able to get it. It’s a nice wide multiple star, so it shouldn’t be a tough split, if I can just get on target before it sets.

Sunset birding

Another crazy good scope deal

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point this out: Orion has put their 20×50 compact spotting scope on clearance for $29.99. You can get it through the Orion site or this Amazon link. I am familiar with this scope–London and I gave it a test drive at the Orion store in Watsonville last summer, and on the strength of that encounter London asked for and received one for his birthday last November. We’ve had it out to the Salton Sea a couple of times now, so we’ve gotten to use it for daytime spotting and out under the stars.

How does it do? Well, it’s a 50mm spotting scope, and like most such devices, it basically is a finderscope and has no other finder or provision for one. Also, you’re stuck at 20x. So for nighttime use, you’re going to get binocular-esque views of the moon, planets, and a handful of the brighter DSOs (think Pleiades, Orion, Andromeda) and that’s about it. Also, it’s a short, fast refractor, so there is some false color on bright objects. To be fair, though, almost all spotting scopes are short, fast refractors (‘cept for the Maks), and other than the ED models that cost hundreds to thousands, they all show chromatic aberration. Even my beloved SV50 throws up some false color, and I don’t think the Orion spotter is noticeably worse in this regard.

Going handheld

It’s much more rewarding to use during the daytime. I don’t know why Orion is closing them out, but it probably isn’t image quality, because the two I’ve looked through have been nice and sharp. In addition to the zippered soft-side storage case, the scope comes with a velcro-tabbed, padded fabric wrap-around, similar to the weather-resistant ‘view-through’ cases on some high-end spotters (but offering less than total coverage). This has a padded hand-strap so you can take the scope off a tripod (not included, nor would you want any tripod they could include at this price point–trust me) and use it handheld. This is surprisingly effective, and London and I have taken to carrying his scope along on our morning hikes when we’re camping.

Any downsides, aside from the aforementioned false color? The helical focuser was a little stiff for the first few uses. The usual solution with sticky focusers is to twist them all the way in and out a few times to get the lubricant evenly distributed over all the surfaces. I did that with London’s spotting scope and sure enough, the problem went away. Focusing is a breeze now.

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Raw, unmodified photo of some gulls at about 50 yards, taken afocally through the Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope using my Nikon Coolpix 4500.

So, long story short, I dunno why Orion is closing these out, because I think they’re fine little scopes. I haven’t noticed any lasting problems in several days and nights of field use, and if I didn’t already have a 50mm scope of my own, I’d be all over this. It’s a decent buy at $50 and a steal at $30. If you need a small spotting scope, period, or something to keep in the car for impromptu scenery- or wildlife-watching sessions, or something for that kid you know who is interested in nature and science, this thing ought to fill the bill. I’m tempted to get another one myself, to keep in the storage compartment under the back seat of the Mazda. But if you’re interested, don’t tarry–Orion is already out of the spotting-scope-plus-tripod packages, and I don’t imagine the scopes themselves will last long at this price.

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My moment of Zen

June 30, 2012

This month has been kind of a blitz, and this week has been a blitz within a blitz. My summer teaching started, I’m still organizing data from a research trip last week, and one of my best friends is moving away. I miss being outside, being alone, having time to think, and having time to not think.

After my evening responsibilities were over, I got out the little Mak and decided to get back to my in-town observing projects: the Astronomical League’s Urban Observing club and Double Star club. I am getting very close to finishing the observations for the Urban club, so that’s where I started tonight. I observed the globular cluster M62 in Scorpio, and the double star Graffias (Beta Scorpii). That only leaves two objects to go to finish the Urban club: the galaxy M77 and the variable star Algol (Beta Persei). Both are up in the early morning at this time of year, so my options are to get up before dawn some morning, or just wait a few months until they’re up earlier. I’ll probably make a Dawn Patrol run one of these mornings to knock them off; now that I am so close to having that list completed, I doubt if I’ll be able to wait very long.

Graffias is also on the observing list for the Double Star club, so it made a nice segue into double star observing, and that’s what I did for the rest of the session. Double stars are great because they don’t suffer much from light pollution. A gray sky background is not as pretty as a black one, but the stars themselves are easily visible, so I have something outside the solar system to observe on nights like tonight when the moon makes DSO hunting unrewarding at best.

It’s easy to get into a rhythm. I made an all-sky map showing the 100 double and multiple stars on the observing list, so I check that to see what’s well-placed in the sky and convenient. Then I pick up the Pocket Sky Atlas and figure out how to star hop to my target star. Once I’m on target, I swap eyepieces in and out until I find out which magnification yields the most pleasing view. Then I sketch the stars in my logbook and make a few notes. I logged nine doubles tonight in addition to Graffias, leaving 31 to go in that observing program.

Our cat, Moe, was outside with me, doing whatever it is he does after dark. At one point I looked up and saw him in the driveway, nosing at a slightly smaller animal. The second critter wasn’t yowling, hissing, or running away, so I figured it wasn’t one of the neighborhood cats. I shined my red flashlight in that direction and found myself staring into the glowing red eyes of an opossum. I like opossums. It’s cool that we have a native marsupial in North America, and it’s cool that opossums are still doing pretty much what their–and our–ancestors were doing under the feet of the dinosaurs. I went over to have a look at our nocturnal visitor, and after a minute he shuffled off to attend to his mysterious business. I went back to the sky.

I did take some time to look at the moon, and shared the view with Vicki and London before they turned in, and later on with our neighbor in the front house.

So, nothing spectacular. And that’s the point. I don’t write enough about the simple joys of stargazing. I spent two hours outside in the cool night air, saw some beautiful stars, got to chat for a few minutes with my neighbor, had a visit from a wild animal, and learned a little more of the sky. If I did this on a more regular basis, I’d probably be a happier, saner person.

I still haven’t blogged about the transit of Venus, which went swimmingly, or about the great observing run I had up Mount Baldy with Terry Nakazono a couple of weeks ago. I do intend to get to those things, as and when. In the meantime, I am going to get some sleep. Clear skies.

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Double star marathon?

February 20, 2012

An invaluable aid to me when I am working on an observing program is an all-sky map showing the distribution of the things I’m trying to find. The maps of the Messier objects and Caldwell objects from Wikipedia are my constant companions when observing: I printed them in color on 11×17 paper, folded them in half, and stuffed them in sheet protectors.

When I started on the Astronomical League’s Double Star list there was no similar all-sky chart for the 100 double and multiple stars on the list,  so I made one, using the Wikipedia Messier sky chart as the basis:

When I had them all mapped, I noticed that by and large they follow the distribution of the Messier objects, especially in having a big gap to the south between 22 hours and 5 hours right ascension–just the area blocked by the sun and horizons in March and April. I fired up Stellarium and drew on the sunset and sunrise horizons for southern California around the end of March:

Only one of the 100 double stars on the AL list is below the horizon at that time. So during Messier Marathon season it should be possible to do a double star marathon as well, and try to split 99 of the 100 AL doubles in one night.

A double star marathon would bring interesting opportunities and challenges. With Messier marathons, the primary enemy is the moon: you have to go within a very few days on either side of the new moon, or the moonlight will drown out some of the fainter objects. But the relatively bright double stars on the AL list would punch through a fair amount of moonlight. You still wouldn’t want to go between first quarter and last quarter, probably, or the moonlight would wash out some of the guide stars you’d need to find your way, but the window of opportunity should open from six or seven days around new moon to about two weeks.

On the flip side, in a Messier marathon the seeing isn’t that crucial because you’re observing big, extended objects, and just trying to log them, not necessarily tease out details. But to split some of the tighter double stars requires reasonably good seeing, and there’s no way to predict that in advance, sometimes not even from early evening to midnight or midnight to dawn. So the Messier marathon has a tighter constraint from the moon, but it’s predictable, whereas the one sky condition that could make or break a double star marathon (at least for a crucial few of the tightest doubles) can’t be predicted in advance.

I first raised the possibility of a double star marathon a couple of years ago on Cloudy Nights. As far as I know, no one has attempted one. I haven’t, for a couple of reasons. First, if I get to a dark site at Messier marathon time and can afford to stay up all night, I’m going to run a Messier marathon. Second, it’s precisely because double stars punch through light pollution so well that I tend to save them for observing from home–no need to waste my dark sky time on something I can see from my driveway, and my driveway does not have good enough horizons to attempt a marathon of any kind. But I suppose I could head up to the top of the local parking garage and try a double star marathon from there. It wouldn’t require a long drive to dark skies, just a free night followed by a day with few responsibilities.

If I ever get around to it, I’ll let you know.

Related: my free logbook for the AL Double Star Club is on this page, and I have a bunch of Messier Marathon tools here.

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Mission 20: Beta Monocerotis, a triple star

April 18, 2011

Mission Objective: Multiple star

Equipment: Telescope

Required Time: 10 minutes

Related Missions: Ring of Fire

Map to Beta Monocerotis, modified from the Monoceros constellation diagram on Wikipedia.

Hey look, I finally posted a new mission.

I’ve been slowly working away at the Astronomical League’s Double Star Club, and I just discovered this gem last week. It’s not the world’s easiest star to find. As a naked-eye subject, the constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn, is fairly dim and unimpressive. Beta Monocerotis is prominent in the western part of the constellation, just east of Orion and north of Canis Major, making a wide triangle between Sirius and Kappa Orionis (also known as Saiph, which is Arabic for “sword of giant”). I could just make it out with the naked eye from Claremont, hovering in the light dome over Los Angeles.

To fully appreciate this star’s charms, you’re going to want a telescope, but it doesn’t have to be a big one. I made my observation with my 80mm refractor, which has a focal length of 900mm (f/11). Using a 32mm Plossl eyepiece (28x), it was clearly a double star but not cleanly split (seeing was lousy). With the 12mm Plossl (75x) it was clearly split into a nice pair of equally bright gems. I decided to go up to 150x with a 6mm Orion Expanse, my favorite high-power eyepiece. So glad I did–at 150x, the southern member of the “equal pair” turned out to be a double itself, also of equally matched components! It was a nice surprise and a breathtaking sight, the three stars twinkling away at 150x.

I looked at dozens of photos, sketches, and eyepiece simulations of Beta Monocerotis while writing this post, and the image that come closest to capturing what I saw at the eyepiece is this sketch by Jeremy Perez, who kindly gave me permission to include it here. Jeremy is one of the authors of Astronomical Sketching: A Step by Step Introduction, and his website, Belt of Venus, has beautiful and evocative sketches of just about everything in the sky, from the moon and planets to deep sky objects and double stars. It’s definitely worth checking out, both to marvel at his work, and to get ideas for your observing wish list.

A poster on Cloudy Nights had this to say, “I just looked at Beta Mon last night in good seeing. What a neat thing. It reminds me of one of those antique mechanical solar system models.” I couldn’t agree more–it conveys exactly the same sense of mechanical precision and aesthetic appeal as an old-fashioned orrery.

If you’re going to catch Beta Monocerotis, you’ll need to do it soon after dark, because Monoceros is following Orion to the western horizon fairly early these days. Go have fun!