Archive for the ‘Comets’ Category

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Deep in the Dark of Texas: the Three Rivers Foundation Messier Marathon

March 28, 2017

This story starts with Jeff Barton, Director of Astronomy at the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (3RF). Jeff sent me a Facebook message on January 27, inviting me to come speak at the 3RF Messier Marathon star party, for which 3RF would pay my travel expenses and provide food and lodging.

I did not get this message until February 19, because I suck at Facebook. Fortunately the offer was still open. So last Thursday I flew to DFW, rented a car, and drove out to the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, a little west of Crowell, Texas.

3RF is an educational foundation and Comanche Springs is the North American astronomy wing (they also have scopes in Australia for public education and outreach). It’s out in rural Texas ranchland, and as you drive up the first thing your eyes will light on is the big silver observatory dome.


Inside the dome is a 15″ refractor with DGM optics, an OMI tube, and a monster Astro-Physics mount.


There are several roll-off roof observatories on the campus, with more to come in the near future. This one holds two imaging scopes, a big Ritchey-Chretien on the left and a big SCT on the right, both on Software Bisque Paramounts. These are set up for remote observing – in the near future, schoolteachers will be able to tie into these telescopes and collect images with their students.

Irritatingly, I didn’t get any pictures of the big roll-off roof observatory which holds one of 3RF’s 30″ Obsession dobs, and where they park the two 20″ and one 18″ Obsessions when they’re not in use. That’s right, four 18″ and larger Obsessions in one place. They have more stored in town, waiting for more observatories to be built, and another gaggle of Obsessions in Australia.


In lieu of a picture of the Obsession shed, here’s a view of the north end of campus, looking east. From left to right you can see one of the four or so bunkhouses in the background, the ‘new’ classroom/mess hall, the equipment shed where the binocular chairs are stored, and the restrooms, and one of the observing fields in the foreground.


Here’s one of the motorized binocular chairs. You sit in the padded seat and drive yourself in altitude and azimuth with the joystick on the right armrest, while the Fujinon 25×150 binoculars deliver 6″ of unobstructed light-gathering to each eye. There’s another chair with a more modest but still impressive 100mm bino, and I believe a third chair that wasn’t out during my visit.

The tagline “Deep in the dark of Texas” is not my original, I got it from the back of a 3RF t-shirt. It’s true. The skies at Comanche Springs are dark. Seriously dark. You drive through a section of open range to get there. I had to get a picture of this brown cow sitting by the side of the road – this cow refused to be fazed by anything. I grew up in rural Oklahoma and in my experience, free-range cattle are highly correlated with dark skies. The skies at Comanche Springs are Bortle 1 or 2. The only places I have been under skies this dark are Afton Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the remote desert of southern Utah. More than 200 miles west of the DFW metroplex, and 20 miles from the nearest town of more than 1000 people, there are no light domes on the horizon – none.

I roomed with these fine gentlemen. You may know Robert Reeves from his several books on astrophotography (see this page) and from his “365 Days of the Moon” on Facebook, which has now been running for more than two years. David Moody is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (yes, the one in London, co-founded by Herschel) and one of the authors of Astronomical Sketching: A Step-by-Step Introduction. Lonnie Wege is a sales manager at Celestron and brought the door prizes, which were donated by Celestron.

To be in the company of such experienced observers and imagers was a real privilege, but it was only intimidating for the first 30 seconds or so because they’re all so nice. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris describes hanging out at the Winter Star Party: “I listened to the elders talk – a mix of astronomical expertise and self-deprecatory wit, the antithesis of pomp.”  That’s what it was like for me at the 3RF star party – just a bunch of regular folks, all equally willing to share and learn, all equally excited for nightfall.

I got in Thursday evening but didn’t do much observing. It was cold and windy, and then cloudy. I did spend a few minutes out in the lee of one of the bunkhouses cruising the sky with binoculars, and I figured out an easy hack for hanging my red headlamp over my bunkbed, but that was about it. Incidentally, my headlamp is already red, but like almost all red-light accessories marketed toward amateur astronomers, it’s still too darned bright. Usually I have a layer of masking tape over the front to knock down the brightness, but for some reason I pulled it off recently. Fortunately they had plenty of red taillight tape in the 3RF coffers, so I got it back into fighting trim.

On Friday I visited the elementary and middle schools in nearby Quanah, Texas, with 3RF’s Director of Education, Townly Thomas. Townly visits schools in a 100-mile radius from Quanah to bring enhanced STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) activities to kids. I know she’s popular because I heard one student call to her as we walked down the hall: “Mrs. Thomas, when do we get to do STEAM again?” I went in my capacity as professional paleontologist and brought some fossil casts for the students to see. Pictured above are the thumb claw of Saurophaganax, a big allosauroid from Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle (more about that here), and the skull of Aquilops, a little ancestral horned dinosaur that I got to help name in 2014 (ditto). Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History for making the casts available – I’ve had fun introducing them to lots of schoolkids.

After the school visit, I got on the road back to Comanche Springs – I didn’t want to miss the talk by Robert Reeves on his lunar imaging. Here’s a  handful of the many things I learned from Robert:

  • He uses a 180mm SkyWatcher Mak to get his moon images these days. Runs his camera at 50 frames a second for 100 seconds to get 5000 frames, stacks and saves only the best 500, and then does a LOT of careful, thoughtful processing.
  • Lunar shadows are jet black, not gray. If you see gray shadows in someone’s moon images, they need more processing.
  • The lunar Bay of Rainbows is Sinus Iridum, not Sinus Iridium – no third ‘i’. I have been misspelling and mispronouncing it for a decade.

Now, this was a Messier Marathon star party and there were rules and checklists and everything – more on that later in the post. I think that originally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights were all fair game for the contest, but Friday night turned out to be suboptimal. We did get a lovely sunset, as you can see above, but those clouds were pushed on through by a strong, cold wind. Instead of setting up scopes ourselves, many of us retreated inside the dome to observe with the 15″ refractor. We also had a group of 15 or 20 college students visiting, so we all took turns looking through the big refractor. They’d already been going for a while when I got inside. The first object I saw myself through the big scope was the globular cluster M3. Then we looked at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and then Comet 41P.

I haven’t blogged about the comet yet, but it is easily visible in binoculars under dark skies, and with any luck it may get naked-eye visible in the next week or so. I haven’t checked to see if it’s visible from Claremont – I was too pooped after I got home last night. I saw it every night in Texas, but I haven’t sketched it yet. Hopefully I’ll get that done soon. In the meantime, Sky & Tel has a good finder chart that will carry you through the end of April here.

After the comet, we looked at the galaxies M102, M82, and M104, and the globular cluster M13. I might have missed an object or two – I popped outside to call home, and spent some time in the attached classroom warming up and getting to know some of my fellow stargazers. I know we went to Jupiter at some point, and we back to Jupiter at the end of the session to catch the start of an Io shadow transit.

I slept in on Saturday and did some final tinkering on my talk. David Moody gave a talk before dinner about visiting the Royal Astronomical Society library and getting to see first editions of books by Copernicus, Newton, Bode, Bayer, and more.

After David’s talk we had dinner and door prizes in the mess hall. Here Jeff Barton (right) is pointing past Fred Koch, who was drawing names, to accuse Lonnie Wege (left) of something. It was all in good fun and there was plenty of laughter, especially when Phil Jones won the grand prize – 15×70 SkyMasters, just like mine – in absentia, having been out setting up his imaging gear. When he came in, Lonnie told him that all he had won was the case, and the binos were going to someone else. Well, binos did go to someone else (whose name unfortunately escapes me), but he had already won 10×50 binos so he kindly donated the 15x70s to Phil. This is Phillip L. Jones of VisualUniverse.org, by the way – you’ve probably seen his photos in books and magazines.

I won a door prize myself – a rechargeable hand warmer. I ran over and plugged it in after dinner so it would be ready to go by marathon time. I was very glad to have it later on.

Saturday night was looking much, much better. There were a few clouds low on the western horizon, but everyone who had come to Comanche Springs to observe or image was getting ready. Here are Glenn Winn in the foreground setting up his 17.5″ Discovery dob, and Jim Admire in the background with his XT10g. Just out of the frame on the right was Jay Ellis and his own XT10.

I set up just south of Jay, and the four of us were the biggest group of visual marathoners. Phil Jones had his imaging rigs set up about 100 feet south of Glenn. There were more imagers on the south observing field, by the Obsession shed, and at least two serious visual observers: Tom Monahan and Russ Boatright (there may have been more, but Tom and Russ are the two who came to the awards ceremony on Monday).

I don’t remember what scope Tom was rolling with, but Russ impressed the hell out of all of us by going super-minimal: he did a naked Messier Marathon from Memory. Not naked as in unclothed, but naked as in, not even with a list of the objects. In a regular M-cubed the observer is allowed no charts – they have to find all of the objects from memory, hence the name. In a naked M-cubed, the observers is not even allowed a list to remind them what to look for, it’s just them and their instrument. Russ ran his naked M-cubed with Canon 18×50 image-stabilized binoculars.

Saturday night’s marathon was great. There were clouds low in the west again, and none of us got M74. But the clouds blew through quickly and after that it was clear, dark skies all night. I was rolling with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition and Fujinon 7x50s I had borrowed from 3RF. I’d actually flown in with my own binoculars, the Bushnell 10x42s that I had out at Santa Cruz Island last June, but the 7x50s gave a wider, brighter image and were more in line with my current fascination for low-power, wide-field uber alles. I would have brought the Bresser 7x50s that came with the Comet Edition package, but I ran out of room in my backpack – the Bushnell roofs take up about half the space.

And speaking of space in my backpack – I managed to fly with carry-on luggage only. A red duffel bag held the Bresser OTA, Manfrotto tripod, DwarfStar alt-az head, and big dinosaur claw, with my clothes wrapped around everything as packing material. My backpack had a couple more shirts, my laptop, travel paperwork, notebook, Pocket Sky Atlas, binoculars, boxed Aquilops skull, shaving bag, and Bob King’s new book Night Sky With the Naked Eye, which I’d gotten specifically to read on the plane (expect a review soon). Both bags were stuffed nearly to bursting, but they were both within carry-on allowances and the backpack still fit under the seat in front of me.

Oh – rules. There were five categories: Young Astronomer, GoTo Telescope, Non-GoTo Telescope, Binoculars, and Highest Aggregate Score. No-one has ever gotten all 110 objects in one night at a 3RF marathon, so the highest aggregate goes to the person who gets the most over the course of two nights. If there’s a tie in the number of Messier objects, the bonus points kick in. Herschel 400 objects were worth two points apiece, and there was an ascending scale of more difficult dim objects, including Hickson Compact Groups of galaxies.

Here’s my log from Saturday night. Although I missed M74, I tried to make up for it by nailing as many H400 clusters in Cassiopeia and Perseus as I could. By the time I took my first break at 10:15, I had 27 Messiers and 16 H400s. I took several short breaks over the course of the evening to get snacks and caffeine and chat with people. It all went pretty smoothly until just before dawn, when I was trying to catch M30. I star-hopped down from Deneb Algedi (aka Delta Capricorni) to the right vicinity and found myself looking at trees. They were only small trees, and probably 200 yards from the observing field, but they still obscured those last few crucial degrees above the horizon. I’d picked a bad spot.

What I should have done is pick up the binoculars and walk south until I could see the target star with no trees in the way. What I actually did was pick up the scope and chair and run south and set up where I thought I’d be in the clear, only to star-hop down again and see other, different trees – I’d gone too far south. So I moved everything yet again, and by the time I got on target, the sky was getting bright. Fooey. Still, I got 108 objects, tying my personal best from 2013, which was actually the last time I’d even attempted a Messier marathon, so I couldn’t be too unhappy.

As it happened, I tied with Glenn Winn that night. He’d missed M77 in the early evening, but gotten M30, so his list of 108 objects was slightly different than mine but came to the same total.

Anyway, I went to bed happy. Got up for lunch on Sunday, then slept some more, then got up for another talk by Robert Reeves. Robert’s second talk was also on the moon, but focused less on his imaging methods and more on the processes that have shaped the moon, and the moon’s changing appearance under varying conditions of light and shadow. It was incredible stuff – I took a whole page of notes to guide my own future moon-observing.

Sunday night we had clearer skies than Saturday, but it was colder and a brisk north wind was blowing not long after dusk. None of us got M74. Down at the Obsession shed, folks were looking for it with even bigger scopes and failed to see it, so I’m confident it just was not visible that night. Possibly that was atmospheric, but the zodiacal light certainly didn’t help – it was a broad dagger of light stabbing up vertically from the horizon all the way to the Pleiades. I have never seen it so bright.

The other thing that shaped my Sunday night plans was the fact that Glenn did get M77, bringing his aggregate Messier total to 109. All of my bonus points from H400s would only help in the event of a tie, and the only was I could tie him was to get M30. And without M74, there was no chance for me to achieve my personal goal of getting all 110 Messiers in one night. So I needed to be up before dawn to try for M30, but there was no point in subjecting myself to a whole night of observing in the windy cold. I packed up the scope and moved into the lee of Jeff Barton’s camper and switched over to binoculars. I was still using the 3RF Fujinon 7x50s.

It was another Fujinon binocular that would provide the most memorable views of the evening: the 25×150 motorized bino chair. 3RF volunteer Gary Carter had set up the bino chairs and was touring people around the sky on Saturday evening, but I was too busy marathoning to partake. Sunday night I hopped in the big chair, Gary got the binos adjusted, and I was off.

In a word – WOW. I have been fortunate to get to observe with a lot of big telescopes, but I am not exaggerating when I say that using that bino chair was my favorite observing, ever. I just sat there comfortably in a padded chair and drove myself around the sky with the joystick, while enjoying hands-down the brightest, most immersive, most enjoyable views of the night sky that I have ever had. Six inches is a lot of light-gathering per eye. I don’t know the AFOV of the eyepieces but it is wide. It’s hard for me to even believe that the magnification was only 25x – everything subjectively seemed much bigger, because it was so much brighter and more detailed than I am used to. When I was cruising over to look at the Double Cluster, I kept getting distracted by all of the little open clusters that dot the Milky Way in and around Cassiopeia (I was coming in from the north). M78, near Orion, was so big and bright that at first I thought I had the wrong object.

In summation, observing with the Fujinon bino chair was a transformative experience – it changed my perspective on what observing could BE.

I knocked off a little before midnight with 60 Messiers in the bag, and went to get some sleep. I didn’t get up until 5:30, and I wasn’t back out on the observing field until 5:45.

I have read many accounts from observers under dark skies who said that when the summer Milky Way rose, it was so bright that they mistook it for a cloud. I had not previously experienced that for myself. But Monday morning I was headed out of the bunkhouse and I saw a bright, white cloud in the eastern sky. We’d been fighting the occasional cloud every other night, so when I saw that cloud out of the corner of my eye I thought, “Aww, crap, I need clear skies to get M30”. But when I turned my head to see how big the cloud was, and how extensive, it turned out to be the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scutum. I should have known better anyway – Comanche Springs is so dark that actual atmospheric clouds aren’t bright, but dark. They show up as blank spaces in the starfields.

I didn’t get M30. I got the scope correctly placed this time, and I got to the target star, and I spent about 15 minutes alternately adjusting the zoom eyepiece and staring into the darkness. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but I couldn’t even hold it in averted vision, so it could well have been a case of averted imagination. Anyone who has pushed their gear to its limits in the search for faint fuzzies will know the feeling. There are the things that you see repeatably in the same place, with the same orientation, that you log as detected – and then there are things that never swim up out of the minor variations in background darkness that your retina throws up when confronted with a blank slate. M30 never surfaced for me.

Ah, well. I did get 25 more Messiers with the 7x50s between 5:45 and 6:05. It helped that I had seen them all the previous morning with the telescope, so I knew exactly where to look. I probably could have gotten a few more, like M2, if I hadn’t been so fixated on M30. But 85 Messiers in one night with 7×50 binos is not a bad total at all, especially not when I got a 5.5-hour break in the middle.

I was too keyed up to go right back to sleep, so I went into the observatory classroom, made myself a Frito pie with a microwave bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew – which was awesome, by the way – and copied my results over from my personal log to the 3RF competition forms. Then I went back to sleep for a couple more hours.

We all reconvened in the observatory classroom around 10:00 for the final tally and presentation of awards. Here’s the scoreboard:

The highest aggregate total went to Glenn Winn, with 109 objects over the two nights. I got second in the Non-GoTo category, behind Glenn, and also got second in the Binocular category, behind Russ Boatright. In his naked M-cubed with the 18×50 bins, Russ got a staggering 90 objects. Color me impressed – very impressed. Jim Admire got 91 objects with his XT10g, and that was without pushing through dawn, so he won the GoTo category. Tom Monahan wasn’t even going to turn in his sheet, figuring that his 47 objects from the first half of Saturday night would not qualify him for anything. But a lot of people who signed up didn’t turn in any results, so Tom got the pleasant surprise of third place in the Non-GoTo category. I think the Young Observer awards went unclaimed, as no actual youngsters participated in the marathon.

Here’s a shot of the winners’ circle. From left to right are:

  • Jeff Barton, our host and the competition judge;
  • Glenn Winn with his 1st place medal and aggregate score trophy;
  • Russ Boatright;
  • Jim Admire;
  • yours truly, and;
  • Tom Monahan.

Many thanks to 3RF volunteer Gary Carter for taking the photo, and for permission to use it here.

A good time was had by all, and plans are already being laid for next time. Turns out that Jeff Barton is a fan of double stars, and he visibly lit up when I brought the idea of a Double Star Marathon to his attention. Something like 80 globs are visible in the fall during fall Messier Marathon season, so some kind of glob marathon may be in the offing in the near future as well.

I learned some things about my gear, too. The Bresser/Manfrotto/Dwarfstar rig was utterly uncomplicated, as I suspected from my test run at the Salton Sea the previous weekend. Rarely have I had more effortless and trouble-free observing. And I’m proud to have gotten 108 objects in one night with a 4″ scope – I don’t think there’s any shame in losing to a 17.5″ reflector, nor to an observer as experienced and friendly as Glenn. I might even have ‘sold’ a few of the Bresser Comet Edition packages, as there was a lot of curiosity about the scope among the star party attendees. I think Jeff Barton may have ordered one yesterday morning.

Is a 4″ reflactor enough scope for a Messier Marathon? It wasn’t this time. I’m not hurt about not getting M74 – if people with 17″ and 18″ dobs couldn’t see it, then conditions were just not right for it to be seen, period. M30 is more troubling. I know for dead certain that I was pointed at the right place, and I tried every trick in the book – averted vision, tapping the tube, slowly sweeping – and still couldn’t get it to pop out, and this was from its rising onward. But I know it was visible in bigger scopes. Sure, it will be a few degrees higher by the end of the month, but M74 will be a few degrees lower, too.

Now, I know that people have gotten all 110 Messiers in one night with even smaller scopes. According to this analysis by A.J. Crayon, hosted at the SEDS Messier site, it has been done with a 60mm refractor. That is darned impressive. So theoretically, yes, under perfect conditions, a 4″ scope is more than enough. But your chances improve with bigger scopes. Still, even a 17.5″ scope wasn’t enough to get all 110 this time, at this site. And it is worth noting that I’ve now done just as well with a 4″ scope as with my Apex 127, having gotten 108 objects in one night with both instruments.

Flying with the Bresser Comet Edition turned out to be surprisingly easy. I got scope, tripod, alt-az head, and clothes for five days into a standard duffel bag. The likelihood of this scope racking up more airline miles in the future is very high. And the 28mm RKE and 8-24mm Celestron zoom were all the eyepieces I needed. I didn’t use a finder of any kind – I didn’t take my green laser pointer for airport security reasons, and I forgot to borrow one from Jeff (who did offer) before the marathon started Saturday night. But it was okay, I just did my dead reckoning trick and didn’t even think about it after the first few objects. On the flip side, I did wish for a different atlas. I really need to suck it up and take the Jumbo PSA next time. At 4:00 in the morning when my eyes are tired and I’m trying to read by the dim light of a red headlamp, the writing in the standard edition is just too small.

I have new ambitions about gear – mainly, that I gotta get me some big binoculars. Frequent commenter and sometime observing buddy Doug Rennie has 20×80 bins that he mounts on one of these – that would be a potent and enjoyable combo for a very reasonable outlay (although I see that the price has crept up from the $65 or so it was going for last year). And my new no-holds-barred, price-is-no-object dream observing rig – which I may never achieve – is a motorized chair with 150mm binoculars. It was that good.

But ultimately the star party was not about gear, it was about experiences. I had a fantastic time at Comanche Springs, saw amazing things in the sky, learned a lot from my fellow amateurs, and most importantly made a lot of new friends. Many thanks to Jeff Barton and the whole 3RF crew for their hospitality and for making my trip possible. I don’t know when I’ll be back out there, but I’m already looking forward to it.

For more about Messier Marathons, including log sheets, links, and observing reports from previous marathons, see this page.

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Chasing Comet Lovejoy

February 4, 2015

I’ve been out a few times in the last few weeks, mostly to see comet 2014 Q2/Lovejoy. It’s still nice and bright and it’s an easy catch in binoculars. You can get up-to-date finder charts from Heavens Above.

Our notes from January 17 - Steve's sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

Our notes from January 17 – Steve’s sketch of Jupiter and my sketches of the Trapezium and comet Lovejoy.

About three weeks ago now, on January 17, I was up at the Webb Schools observatory with Steve Sittig, who you’ll recall from the virtual star party, last summer’s birthday observing run, and – farther back, in 2010 – comet 103P/Hartley. We were using the equatorially mounted C14 in the Webb Schools’ Hefner Observatory. We started on Orion just to get warmed up, and we could easily see the E and F stars in the Trapezium. After that we went after the comet. It was kind of a comedy of errors. We had problems getting the telescope pointed where we needed it, and neither of us had seen the comet yet so we were a little unsure of where to look. Finally we started scanning around with binoculars and then the comet was an easy catch, and we were able to get the scope on target. I made a couple of sketches a few minutes apart that show the comet moving through the field, but the western sky was getting hazy and pretty soon the comet was lost to us.

Jupiter from Webb - Jan 17 2015 - with labels

Jupiter and the four Galilean moons on January 17, 2015. Click through to see the moons. Photo by Steve Sittig.

After that we turned east to have a look at Jupiter. Steve made a sketch and got some photos with his DSLR mounted to the C14. As is usually the case, the photos do not nearly capture all of the detail that we could see at the eyepiece. We could see many cloud bands at high latitudes, and north and south equatorial belts were highly detailed with ruffled edges and festoons. Io was distinctly yellow at the eyepiece, much more so than the other moons, which ranged from white to a very faint blue. Thanks to Steve for the photos and for the great, if brief, night of stargazing.

Comet Lovejoy 2015-01-24 invert

The next Saturday, January 24, London and I set up telescopes in the driveway and took in some of the best and brightest objects (most of which London found himself!). I sketched the comet a couple of times, to show it moving against the background starfield.

I have another long-delayed observing report, from a trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park late last fall, but that will have to wait for another time.

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Observing Report: Comet PanSTARRS by naked eye!

March 17, 2013

Last night London and I joined fellow PVAA members Ron, Joe, and Steve up on Mount Baldy to watch for the comet. We spotted it fairly late, at least compared to the other night in Claremont when I first saw it at 7:25 PM. Up on the mountain we didn’t see it until 7:45, but I think it was visible sooner, we were just looking in the wrong place. We didn’t see the comet sooner because we were looking too far south and too close to the horizon. On the other hand, that’s not a bad problem to have, because when did finally spot it, it was higher in the sky than any of us expected, so we got to watch it for a good long time before it got too low to see. We finally lost it in the murk over LA at about 8:15.

Some people go up to our observing spot just to watch the sun set, and last night was no exception. While we were waiting for the sun to set, I was able to show a couple of people the waxing crescent moon and Jupiter and the Galilean moons. Unfortunatelly our guests gave up and left just about 5 minutes before we spotted the comet. Still, they were very excited by the views of the moon and Jupiter. After the comet set, London and Ron and I spent a few minutes looking at bright Messier objects:  the Pleiades, the Orion nebula, and the  galaxies M81 and M82 in Ursa Major. We had another look at the moon and Jupiter and wrapped up at 8:40.

So it was a short session, but a good one. And, as the title indicates, once it got dark enough we could see the comet with our naked eyes. It wasn’t just a bright dot in the sky, but very slightly elongated, like a tiny dash or comma. In the telescope it was fantastic, with a bright, well-defined tail that stretched out for almost half a degree even in the twilight. I tried to get some pictures with my camera, but there not enough contrast between the comet and sky to get any decent results. I will sketch it one of these days.

The comet will only get higher in the sky (for northern hemisphere observers, anyway) in coming weeks and months. At the same time, it’s going to get dimmer–it’s at max brightness right now. But the light fall-off isn’t going to be crippling. Next month the comet will be a magnitude or so dimmer, but it will also be a LOT higher in the sky, and I think the latter effect will outweigh the former. So I’m expecting even better views of the comet in weeks to come.

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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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Comets past and future

January 22, 2013

Wow, three months exactly since my last post. Between holiday travel, weather that has mostly been either cloudy and rainy or clear but bitterly cold, and staying busy with dinosaurs, I’ve only been out for a couple of quick peeks since the last post. But I’m still alive, and I’m sure I’ll get back to observing–and posting–when the weather gets better.

In the meantime, I’m recycling my president’s message from the November issue of the PVAA newsletter, Nightwatch. You can find all the back issues of Nightwatch online here.

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I am not a dedicated comet-chaser. Every year, several short-period comets brighten to the point that they can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope, but I almost never track them down. In fact, I’ve only seen three comets in my time in amateur astronomy, but each one has left a big impression. And curiously, all three have been October arrivals.

The first was comet 17P/Holmes, which brightened to naked-eye visibility in late October, 2007. It was extremely good timing for me: I had just gotten my first telescope three weeks earlier. For months I watched Holmes shift against the background stars of Perseus. I tracked with the naked eye and binoculars, and watched the coma expand and dissipate in my telescope. It was mesmerizing.

The second was 103P/Hartley, which I observed with fellow PVAA member Steve Sittig at the observatory on the Webb campus in October, 2010. The sky was not particularly clear that night and we had a devil of a time finding the comet, even in the observatory’s pier-mounted GoTo C14. Eventually we found a fuzzy spot that moved against the background stars in a matter of minutes. That was a novel experience for me. With Holmes I only looked from night to night, not hour to hour or minute to minute, so I never got that little thrill of going to the eyepiece and noticing that something had moved.

My most recent comet was 168P/Hergenrother, which brightened by a factor of about 100 in early October, bringing this normally challenging object within reach of backyard telescopes. I tracked it down for the first time at the All-Arizona Star Party, then from Mount Baldy a week later, then from the Salton Sea a week after that. Each time I sketched the position of the comet at different times so I could record its progress against the background stars.

This year may be a big year for comets, with two that will hopefully reach naked-eye visibility. The first is 2011 L4 PANSTARRS, which was first detected by the Air Force’s automated PANoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System. It should max out this March. Possibly even brighter will be 2012 S1 ISON, a sun-grazer newly arrived from the Oort Cloud. If it survives its extremely close pass by the sun—less than a million miles—it could possibly become bright enough to be seen during the day. Oddly enough, ISON is supposed to become bright enough to see in amateur telescopes in, you guessed it, October.

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Observing report: the compleat stargazing session

October 22, 2012

Saturday night London and I met up with David DeLano at the Salton Sea for an evening observing session. In thinking about how to describe it I decided that it was the compleat observing run–and yes, I mean compleat, meaning total or quintessential, not ‘complete’.

For one thing, we observed almost every class of object out there: artificial satellites, meteors, the moon, a planet and its moons (Jupiter), a comet (Hergenrother), double stars, asterisms, planetary nebulae (the Ring and the Dumbbell), a supernova remnant (Crab Nebula), bright diffuse nebulae (M42 and M43 in Orion), binocular associations (Alpha Persei Association and Hyades), open star clusters near (Pleiades) and far (M35-38, among many others) and very far (NGC 2158), a very dense open cluster (M11, the Wild Duck cluster), a very sparse globular cluster (M71 in Sagitta), a showpiece globular (M13, the Great Glob in Hercules), a non-Messier glob (NGC 288), Local Group galaxies (M31 and M33) and satellite galaxies (M32 and M110), and at least one non-Messier galaxy (NGC 253, the Silver Coin). Okay, so we didn’t track down any asteroids, terrestrial planets, dark nebulae, Milky Way star clouds, or galaxy clusters. Still, I think we did okay for a sunset-to-midnight run, especially considering we had no fixed plan beyond “hang out and look at stuff”.

Also, we used almost every class of common astronomical instrument: naked eyes, binoculars, doublet refractors (David’s Galileoscope and my SV50), a triplet refractor (David’s SW100T), a Newtonian reflector (London’s Astroscan), and a catadioptric scope (my Apex 127 Mak), in apertures from two to five inches and focal ratios from f/4 to f/12.

We spent a lot of time just looking up. We used whatever instruments we had to hand, on whatever targets were of interest. We used rich-field scopes on solar system targets and planet killers on the deep sky and located faint nebulae with binoculars. We compared views, compared eyepieces, and compared objects. We found new stuff, checked maps, and got lost–yes, both of us. We explored. We rocked.

I did not log any new Herschel 400 objects. I did have a fantastic time. In the future when I am looking forward to an observing run, my standard will be, “I hope it’s as much fun as that one night at the Salton Sea with David”.

I’ve done a LOT of observing this month, with two Mount Baldy runs and overnight trips to Joshua Tree, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the Salton Sea. Also, I’ve been fortunate to get to observe with three of the 10MA regulars in that time (David DeLano, Terry Nakazono, and Doug Rennie). Partly I’ve been making up for lost time, since it was too darned hot to go camping before October this year, and I was too busy in previous months anyway. It’s going to wind down now for a bit, though–this coming weekend I’m out of town, and three weekends from now we’ll be celebrating London’s 8th birthday.

I’ve been in a reflective mood already, as I passed my fifth anniversary as a stargazer and as I approach my 400th observing session. That really kicked into gear when Richard Sutherland asked me in a comment if I had any big plans for the next five years. I’m not ready to tackle a subject that big just yet, but I have learned a few things in this month of crazy observing:

  1. The moon is not nearly as much of a hindrance to deep-sky observing as I used to think. Yes, it gets a lot darker when the moon goes down–David and I were both struck by this Saturday night. But Doug and I swept up a ton of faint fuzzies in binos and in his SkyScanner despite a moon only about three days from full.
  2. Two inches of aperture will take you crazy deep under dark skies. By using every trick in the book–fanatical dark-adaptation, staying up past midnight (when most folks turn their house lights off), observing at the zenith, waiting until after a rain had swept the crud out of the skies, and mildly hyperventilating–I was once able to spot M1, the Crab Nebula, from my driveway using my 15×70 binos. At the Salton Sea two nights ago, it was dead easy in direct vision in the 10x50s, and in our 50mm finder scopes. M32 and M110 were also dead easy in the Galileoscope, and more difficult but still doable in the binos, with the difficulty mainly down to lower magnification and therefore smaller image scale.
  3. With the right eyepiece, the XT10 is a pretty decent rich-field scope. I got the XT10 back in 2010. It came with a 2″ focuser, but until this summer I had not invested in any 2″ eyepieces; I was loathe to spend any money on an eyepiece that I could only use in one scope. But this summer I caved and bought a 32mm Astro-Tech Titan. With a 70-degree apparent field, it gives a true field of almost two degrees in the XT10–enough to frame the Pleiades, the Double Cluster, the Andromeda Galaxy and both satellites, or the entire sword of Orion. That is an 80% gain in the area of the true field of view over my widest 1.25″ eyepiece. David DeLano also has one for his SW100T and it is a fantastic eyepiece in that scope as well. The 32mm Titan normally runs about $80, and IMHO it’s a steal at that price, but right now it’s on sale for closer to $60. If you have a scope with a 2″ focuser, what are you waiting for?
  4. For regular camping, a scope you can pick up and move around is highly desirable. At both Joshua Tree and the Salton Sea, I was happy to have the Apex 127 along, because I could just pick it up and move it to get away from local lights or trees. I will have to keep this in mind in contemplating future scope purchases. I have to admit that I am interested in the Celestron C8 SCT, partly for historical reasons, partly because it is the biggest scope that will ride comfortably on my SkyWatcher AZ4 mount (= Orion VersaGo II), and partly because it is probably the biggest scope I could just pick up and move around without a second thought. I reckon I’ll have the Apex 127 forever, though, even if I get a C8 someday, for the same reason that I’ll keep the XT10 if I get a bigger dob–for what it does, it’s just about perfect.
  5. Accessories matter. For the first time ever, I have spent more money on accessories than on scopes this year. This summer I went nuts and bought some nice eyepieces, and I just ordered some tube and finder rings and a dovetail for the Apex 127 and SV50. Observing is a lot easier when stuff Just Works, and most telescopes Just Work better with better accessories–sturdier mounts, better diagonals and eyepieces, more convenient finders, and so on.
  6. My interests are changing. I’ve only done a handful of comet sketches, but I’m digging them. I’m getting kinda excited about the idea of sketching deep-sky objects. I’m also getting more interested in trying to understand the 3D structure of what’s out there. Before this past month, I hadn’t done any serious binocular astronomy in over a year, and it’s really been great to get back to that. I have no idea where I’m going yet, but it is probably going to involve a lot more than tracking down the next hundred LTGs*.

* Little Turd Galaxies.

The most exciting development in the past month? The morning after the All-Arizona Star Party, Jimmy Ray said that London was pointing his Astroscan around with sufficient skill that he could probably earn a certificate at next spring’s All-Arizona Messier Marathon (certificates start at 50 objects). I had not even considered this possibility, but I discussed it with London on the drive home. Actually being able to find stuff with his telescope the past two weekends has been very empowering for him, and he wants to give it a shot, so we’ll probably start practicing in the coming weeks and months. Fingers firmly crossed!

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Comet Hergenrother again

October 18, 2012