Archive for the ‘Artificial satellites’ Category


Observing report: Dark nights at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

February 18, 2016

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 6 - crescent moon

Back in November, 2014, London and I visited the Palomar observatory and then went camping at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At the end of my Palomar post, I teased, “Next up: crazy-dark skies at Anza-Borrego. Stay tuned.”

Obviously, that never happened. I find that with my observing reports, I need to get them done and out quickly or they never happen.

I was back at ABDSP this past weekend and I got in some very enjoyable stargazing, so now I’m going to try to kill two birds with one stone.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 1 - camp Wedel

When London and I stayed there together back in 2014, we camped at the Palm Canyon campground, which is basically the headquarters campground of the park. It’s a nice developed campground down on the desert floor, right next to the town of Borrego Springs. The state park is a pretty isolated patch of SoCal, in terms of light pollution, and Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California. There are no stoplights in town (there is one roundabout, and enough stop signs), and all of the businesses use low (but sufficient!) outdoor lighting, and mostly turn the lights off when they’re not needed. As a result, I can see more stars in town in Borrego Springs than I can in some rural areas elsewhere. Happily, the locals are aware of how much of a draw the dark skies are, and they actively promote Borrego Springs as a place to come stargaze (for example).

So the skies are pretty dark even in town, and once you get outside of the town they get very dark. One of the highlights of the November 2014 trip for me was getting my first really good look at NGC 2371 and 2372, two halves of a planetary nebula in northern Gemini. Always before the nebula had just looked like a dim blob, but that night I could see both halves very clearly as separate arcs of nebulosity.

Anza-Borrego Nov 2014 4 - finder

London was rolling that night with his XT4.5, which he’d just gotten a couple of weeks earlier for his 10th birthday. In the gift shop at Palomar he spent some of his birthday money to get a planisphere and a constellation guide. At the campground he drove his scope by himself, and found Andromeda, the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, and Orion without any help from me. It was a milestone observing session for him.

I spent a lot of time in Orion that night myself. Orion always looks pretty good – the total object – but under very dark skies it looks amazing. There was so much detail in the nebula, swirls and knots of gas and fine gradations in the sheets of light that you just don’t see in even minimally light-polluted skies. I got a special treat around midnight – I saw a satellite drifting through the field of view as I nudged the scope along to follow the nebula.

To be visible that long after dark, a satellite has to be far enough above Earth to not fall into the planet’s shadow, so I knew right away that this was a geosynchronous satellite. I stopped pushing the scope and sure enough, the satellite just sat there, rock solid, while the nebula and starfield drifted past. I’d seen exactly one of these before – Steve Coe had shown one to Darrell Spencer and me at my first All-Arizona Star Party back in 2010 – but this was my first time catching one on my own. What’s particularly cool about geosynchronous satellites is that you don’t have to do anything to track them. Just leave your scope pointed in the same place and they’ll be visible until you decide to look at something else. So you can swap eyepieces without worrying about losing the object, you can take a break to get a snack and go to the bathroom – I did all of these things – and when you come back, the satellite will still be there, serenely sitting as Earth’s rotation carries the background stars past in an endless parade.


I was back at Anza-Borrego this past weekend for the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting. It was a one-day regional conference held on Saturday, February 13. I gave a talk and I wanted to look presentable, so instead of camping the night before I got a hotel room. But I planned to camp Saturday night, after the conference – there was a banquet after the meeting and I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night. Especially if by staying out I could get in some good dark-sky time.

I had originally planned to drive around to one of the Salton Sea campgrounds – Borrego Springs is on the western side of the sea. I preferred to stay in the state park, as it’s 600 feet above sea level instead of 200 feet below, like the seashore campgrounds, and those 800 feet mean thinner air, less humidity, and darker skies. But I figured that with the holiday weekend all of the campsites would be taken.

I was wrong! In the State Park visitor center – which is awesome and has some cool fossils from the park on display – I learned that the many undeveloped campgrounds in the park do not require reservations and that not all of them were likely to fill up. In particular, the ranger recommended Culp Valley Campground, which is about 8 miles west of Borrego Springs and at an elevation of 3000 feet. I drove up Friday night after dinner to hike it out and do a quick binocular tour of the winter best and brightest. One of the fun spin-off benefits of having written the Canis Major and Puppis binocular tour for the December Sky & Telescope is that now I am compelled to run through those objects anytime I am out observing. It only takes a couple of minutes if I’m in a hurry and it’s always rewarding.

The conference on Saturday was great, my talk went well and I had a great time talking to colleagues old and new. After the banquet I drove up to Culp Valley, found a spot, and got settled in. My plan was to go right to bed and get up in the morning for dawn patrol, but – predictably – I was not able to pass up another quick turn around the sky, which evolved into half an hour of fun binocular observing. I did manage to get up at 4:30 for another productive half-hour run. The sky was so dark that I when I got up off my cot and looked to the east, I saw a bright cloud and said to myself, “What the heck is that?” It was the Scutum Star Cloud, and in binoculars it glittered with hundreds of barely resolved stars and the combined glow of thousands more. It wasn’t even that far above the horizon – I can’t wait to see what it looks like from there this summer, when it’s riding high in the south.


Did I mention that all of the undeveloped campgrounds in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are free to camp in? You don’t need a park pass or a day use fee or anything. Totally, completely, free. I had to have the ranger explain it to me twice. I have nothing against supporting our state and national parks – quite the contrary – I’m just not used to having any of them be free. That said, if you go stay at one I encourage you to stop by the park visitor center and leave a few bucks in the donation box – even undeveloped campgrounds require some upkeep.


A Cheshire Cat on the moon

November 21, 2010

It’s been an interesting week.

I got a new scope…

That was sort of by accident. I really wanted the mount for my 5″ reflector, because it’s a bit too heavy for my current mount and tripod. Orion sells that mount as the VersaGo II for $199, but right now OPT has the SkyWatcher-branded version of that mount, the AZ4, and a nice 80mm refractor with finder and eyepieces for the same price. So by going through OPT I essentially got the scope and accessories for free. I originally planned on selling off the scope, but I keep hearing about people falling in love with the crisp views through refractors (which unlike reflectors and catadioptric scopes have no central obstruction), so I decided I’d give this one a fair shake before I got rid of it.

I’m glad I did. It’s a keeper–it has very sharp optics, gives a nice, clean, contrasty image, and is very fun and easy to use. It doesn’t pull down as much light as my bigger scopes, but it’s easier to handle and it cools down in no time, which is a big plus at this time of year. (One  of the biggest sources of image distortion at the eyepiece is heat waves coming off lenses and mirrors that haven’t reached ambient temperature.) Frequent commenter David DeLano has this scope as well, and he warned me that if I wanted to sell it, I shouldn’t look through it, because I’d get hooked. You called that one right, David!

I gave it a name, too. Some people name their scopes and some people don’t. I also talk to myself and to inanimate objects when I’m alone, and I suspect that those traits are highly correlated with naming scopes. Anyway, there’s a bit of back story behind this one. When I was a kid, my cousin Michael had a good friend, also named Michael, who was quite a bit taller than he was. They felt dumb calling each other by their own name, so my cousin Michael dubbed the taller one “Shorty Long”, and tall Michael retaliated by calling my cousin “Stubby Fats”. That’s never ceased to crack me up. And now I’ve got two shiny black SkyWatcher scopes that will be sharing a mount, one a long skinny refractor and the other a short fat reflector, so it made sense to name them Shorty Long and Stubby Fats.

With the moon and Jupiter both high and bright in the evenings this week, it didn’t pay to go after fainter fare, and I hadn’t put in any serious time on the moon in a long time.

Tuesday the moon was waxing gibbous. I got this shot through Shorty Long with my Coolpix 4500:

It doesn’t show everything there was to see. Sinus Iridium, the Bay of Rainbows, is the C-shape, open to the bottom, at the very top of the moon in the above picture; it’s an old impact basin mostly flooded by the later basalt flows that formed the maria or lunar seas. Just past Sinus Iridium I saw a couple of mountain peaks that the sunlight was just reaching, and they glowed like a pair of eyes staring at me from beyond the terminator. Here, I’ll show you:

Kinda spooky lookin’, eh?

It got better. As I stared back, the rising sun (from the perspective of those mountains) lit a couple of lower peaks, below and between the first two, and then a ridge running beneath all of them. It looked for all the world like the face of the Cheshire Cat, with two bright eyes, two nostrils, and a big wide smile. The nostril peaks and the smile ridge were too faint to show up in any of my photos, but a helpful guy on Cloudy Nights produced this image with the Lunar Terminator Visualization Tool (yay, more free astro software!) using my location and the time of the observation:

One of the nostril peaks was too dim to show up even in the LTVT shot, but other than that the face looks pretty much like what I saw Tuesday night. There is even a suggestion of eyebrows.

The peaks turn out to be the aptly named Harbinger Mountains. I asked around on Cloudy Nights and no one has reported seeing the Cheshire Cat “lunarism” before. I’m going to do a little more research on the features involved and report back.

That wasn’t the end of my weird moon adventures for the week. Last night I was back outside for the full moon:

I had basically just gotten set up when I saw a small, perfectly round object float by in front of the moon. I figured it was probably either a weather balloon or a satellite. Turns out that a CN user got video of the thing; the video is now on YouTube, here.

[Almost Immediate Update: the thing in the video is not the same thing I saw, or at least not the same pass, because that video was made about three hours before I made my observation. I just learned that in the CN thread, which is here.]

It’s probably a satellite; another CN user got video of a similar thing flying in front of the sun, and reports seeing them on a regular basis. So don’t get out your tinfoil hats just yet. But do get out and have a look at the moon when you get a chance. As this week has shown, you never know what you might find, even with this closest and most familiar of celestial objects.


Heavens Above

February 6, 2010

Here’s one of those “How did I not blog about this sooner!?” things: If you’ve heard of it before, it’s probably for the International Space Station flyover predictions, which are indeed great. But the site has loads more useful stuff; it’s basically one-stop shopping for the shallow sky* observing.

*If deep sky objects are multiple and variable stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, then shall0w sky objects are those within the solar system–planets and moons, comets, asteroids, and artificial satellites.

So what’s good there?

First off, loads of info on how, when, and where to spot artificial satellites, including the ISS, Hubble, and Iridium flares. Iridium satellites are part of a big fleet of communications satellites. They have absolutely immense solar panels that produce extremely bright flashes of light, called flares, when they fly over. And there are dozens of these things in orbit, so they fly over fairly often. Flares often get as bright as magnitude -8, and sometimes hit -9.5, which is many times brighter than any planet under any condition, and almost as bright as the first quarter moon. Heavens-Above will tell you when and where to look, you just have to register (free) and put in your location.

Second, finder charts for the brighter asteroids and whatever comets are currently within reach of amateur equipment. If you’re working on the AL Galileo Club and you’ve been sweating how you were going to finish the comet observation requirement, here’s your ticket.

Third, loads of data on the Sun, Moon, and planets, including a cool solar system chart that shows where all the planets are in relation to each other right now (incidentally, this chart shows at a glance why we’re as close to Mars right now as we’re going to get on this pass, but not nearly as close as we get on other passes).

Fourth, an all-sky chart that shows what the sky looks like over your head, right this minute (weather notwithstanding), plus cool charts of all the constellations.

Fifth, whatever other goodies may be lurking in the links I haven’t gotten around to clicking yet. Seriously, just go there, register, and start playing.

I was first directed to Heavens-Above ages ago, and I’ve had it bookmarked forever, but I forget to go there. Not anymore! Late last fall my family and I watched the ISS fly right over our house, almost from horizon to horizon. My wife and I even got to see it through my 6-inch telescope. Even at low power, 33x, which I needed to keep a wide field for tracking, it was clearing a thing and not just a point of light. In fact, there were two bright thingies with a smaller, dimmer thingy between them–the solar panels and habitation modules, respectively. Some amateur astronomers have gotten pretty darn good images of the ISS and often the shuttle with it, using hand-guided telescopes and webcams. I haven’t tried that yet, but one of these days…

I’m telling you all this now because my buddy Jarrod has been checking out H-A, and tonight he went out and photographed an Iridium flare! He writes:

It was BRIGHT.  The prediction was for -8 magnitude, as we were only 2.5 km off the center of the flare, and it was every bit of that.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but it did NOT disappoint.

I set the camera up for a long exposure.  This was 99 seconds at f/11, ISO400 at 18mm.  I cropped the one pic down  to this, the other’s a small version of the full-width shot.  I had the lens as wide as I could get, because I didn’t have much confidence it my aiming.  But now that I know that with the compass and clinometer apps being this accurate (as you can see how close to center it was) I’ll zoom the sucker in next time.

Anyway, it was cool as hell to see.  Sydney [his daughter] really seemed to get a kick out of it (it was REALLY bright and easy to spot).  It was a fun thing to get us all out on the back porch for.

That’s his photo at the top. Now you know what you need to do…whaddaya waitin’ around here for?