Archive for the ‘AL Urban Club’ Category


Algol at last

October 29, 2013


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).


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& 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.


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.


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.


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.


Observing Report: binoculars vs. cloudy skies

January 20, 2010

70mm of EPIC WIN -- times two!

Contrary to popular belief, it does rain in southern California. We’re in the middle of what is projected to be a solid week of rainy weather. Today we had thunderstorms and a small tornado even came ashore in Orange County. So I hadn’t planned to get any observing done until after this coming weekend.

Rather, I should say that I hadn’t counted on getting any observing in. But I had hoped that there might be some breaks in the clouds, and I had planned accordingly. The point of generating all of the AL observing club logbooks was to have all my ducks in a row when the sky cleared up this rainy season (I can’t bring myself to call it “winter”, and we really only have two seasons anyway, rainy and dry).

By the way, it may look like I’ve gone completely mad for AL observing clubs, with six active projects. But there’s a lot of overlap; some observations for the Messier and Deep Sky Binocular clubs also count for the Urban club, and Deep Sky Binocular work is basically observing the brighter NGCs that never made it into the Messier list, so except for the Galileo and Lunar II clubs, all of my observing projects involve hunting down faint fuzzies. And they all can be done with binoculars, at least to a point, although ‘nokks are only required for the two clubs with ‘binocular’ in the title.

ANYWAY, this evening the clouds cleared out for a bit so I grabbed my observing kit and headed out into the driveway to hunt for goodies. What’s in my binocular observing kit? Glad you asked!

  1. My ‘nokks of choice, Celestron SkyMaster 15x70s. These are big, and they really gobble up the photons. The views are sharper when they’re mounted, but I prefer the freedom of handheld scanning, and that’s how I use them most of the time. If I’m going to use smaller binoculars on a given evening, I have to do so before I look through these; going back to 50mm of aperture is like having someone shut off the lights. Huge bang for the buck, but if you’re going to freehand them, get a wide padded neck strap instead of the shoelace guillotine that comes included.
  2. Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. I love, love, love this atlas. It’s small enough to hold in one hand, spiral bound to lay flat or fold over in the field, easy to read with a red flashlight, conveniently organized…with this atlas, my 15x70s, and reasonably dark skies, I can ‘nokk off DSOs about as fast as I can look them up on the charts. In the city I can’t always see the faint fuzzies, but I can always get myself to the place in the sky where they would appear if I wasn’t under the LA light dome.
  3. Notebook. I use a hardbound 8×5 off the bargain rack at Borders, but anything would do, even a blank piece of paper. At the top of the page for each observing session I note the date, location, and sky conditions. Entries include time, instrument used, target,  and a brief description. I transcribe everything into my AL logbooks after I come back inside, because its easier to do that than juggle four floppy 8×11 notebooks in the field.
  4. Red flashlight. Mine is a Mini Maglite with the window painted over with a double coat of red nail polish. I wear it around my neck on a lanyard so it’s always to hand. Bright enough to let me use the atlas and record my observations without trouble, small enough to fit in my teeth when I’m laying on my back and two-handing the atlas overhead.
  5. Writin’ iron. I use the cheapest stick pens that money can buy, so I don’t have to worry about breaking or losing them, but whatever you like will do.
  6. Hooded  sweatshirt. Surprisingly useful. Not only keeps me warm, I can stash the binocular lens caps in one pocket and my pen in the other. The biggest benefit is being able to pull the hood around my face like a cowl to block out stray light and improve my eyes’ dark adaptation. This makes a BIG difference in seeing faint stuff I would otherwise miss. Patience, and knowing I’m looking in exactly the right place (thanks to the atlas) are the other two legs of this triad.
  7. Towel or folding chair. Depending on how my targets are. If low in the sky, I may choose to sit in a folding chair. If high in the sky–where I prefer to work, both for ergonomic reasons and because things look the best when you’re looking straight up, through as little atmosphere as possible–I lay a beach towel on the car and lay back against the windshield. The towel keeps me warmer than I would be otherwise and keeps me from scratching up the car.

That’s it. For  walking out the door, I’ve got the sweatshirt on, binoculars and red flashlight both hanging from their neck straps, pen in my pocket, atlas and notebook in one hand, towel or folding chair in the other. I’m outside in one trip, and observing about 5 minutes after the  mood strikes.

That comes in handy on nights like tonight; between 5:30 and midnight I was out four times, because the sky was clear four times and cloudy three times in between. It would not have paid to set up a telescope, and I would not have felt comfortable doing so considering the amount of moisture  still falling down out of the trees–when the slightest breeze hits the tall palm in my front yard, it shakes itself like 60 feet of wet dog. So it was ‘nokks or nothing, which suited me just fine because I’ve been on a serious binocular observing bent lately.

I spent the first session ‘nokking off some easy Messiers. Nothing new, all things I’d already seen and logged from the Salton Sea and just needed to dupe for the Urban Club. Still nice to check those off the list.

The rest of the sessions I was hunting clusters. I’ll give the full run-down on how I do this in another post. Suffice to say that by the end of the night I had logged 24 DSOs, including 15 objects that I’d never seen before. Some of them were just gorgeous–there is a nice run of little clusters off the feet of Gemini that must been seen to be believed. Plus I got in some sweet views of the moon and had a quick peek at Mars and Saturn, too.

Now it’s late and I’m bushed, so I and my victory energy are going to bed. Catch you on the flip side.