Archive for the ‘Free stuff’ Category


Deep sky objects from Burnham’s Celestial Handbook now on the sidebar

July 17, 2012

Just a heads up, since new blog posts are probably more attention-getting than new pages: thanks to the kind offices of a fellow Cloudy Nights forum member and his friend, a list of the DSOs from the monumental Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is now available on the sidebar. That’s 1160 objects north of -30 declination (plus 6 Messiers that are just south of the cutoff)–out of the total of 1880 listed in all three volumes–plenty of goodies to keep a deep sky fanatic busy for a long time. Go check it out.


See the transit of Venus in Claremont

June 5, 2012

If no clouds come to spoil the fun, I will be in downtown Claremont this afternoon (Tuesday, June 5) with a scope set up for free public viewing of the transit of Venus. The transit starts at 3:06 PM, PDT, and will still be in progress when the sun sets at 7:59. I plan to be there for all of it. If all goes well, from about 2:50 onward I will be in the public square in front of the theater, on the northeast corner of First Street and Indian Hill Boulevard. Whenever the sun gets low enough to go behind the theater, I’ll head up to the top of the parking garage across the street, to watch the sun set with Venus still crossing the solar disk. You, whoever you are, are welcome to join me.

If by some freak chance it is cloudy this afternoon, I’m going to throw my gear in the car and run up to Big Bear, which gets more sunny days than almost anywhere else in SoCal (that’s why the solar observatory is there). In which case, you’re still welcome to join me, if you can find me. Try the Discovery Center on the north shore, if it’s sunny…or the nearest pub if it’s not.

Fingers firmly crossed for clear, sunny skies!


Transit of Venus comic book!

June 1, 2012

This is awesome: the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in India has produced a freely-available 16-page comic book on the transit of Venus, and it’s already available 11 languages and will soon be translated into at least 10 more. (I know, they call it a graphic novel, and that’s fine, but my inner fanboy rebels at calling any single-issue comic of less than, say, 50 pages a ‘graphic novel’. Also note that the June 6 date listed on the cover is for the transit as seen from India–as noted inside, in the Western Hemisphere the transit will be visible on June 5.)

I just finished reading the fine nonfiction book The Transits of Venusby William Sheehan and John Westfall, which covers all of the observed Venus transits in exhaustive detail and includes data for the unobserved (so far as we know) ones in antiquity. With most of that information still in my memory, I was impressed at how much the author and illustrator–Niruj Mohan Ramanujam and Reshma Barve–of the comic were able to cram into 16 pages (actually more like 12 if you don’t count the cover, license page, and a couple of blank pages). The book explains what transits are, why they were important historically, why they’re still important, and how, when, and where to observe the upcoming one safely. It’s free and cool, go check it out.


Transit of Venus resources

February 17, 2012

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that there will be a transit of Venus across the face of the sun on June 5/6, an event that comes along only twice per century. The last one was in 2004, and the next one will be in 2117. I’m starting to collect online resources that have to do with the transit, and I’ll probably set up a separate page on the sidebar to make them easier to find (hey, look, I did!). For now, though, here are the two best:

Transit of Venus .org is probably the most comprehensive online resource for the upcoming transit, with links to tons of other transit sites and resources.

Astronomers Without Borders have an excellent transit page and blog going here. Particularly useful is their Local transit times page, which will show you the timing and path of Venus in front of the sun depending on your location. Here’s a screenshot of the map I generated for Claremont, California:

Note that the transit will still be in progress when the sun sets at 8:00 PM, so I’ll see about 80% of the transit (assuming no clouds!) but not the whole thing. I’ll take what I can get!

Also at that site is a sweet set of instructions on how to build a “sun funnel” projection screen to show lots of people the sun at once with a single telescope. Here’s a pic borrowed from the site of the sun funnel in action:

I am SO building one of those!


Something new under the stars

February 13, 2012

Virtual star parties.

Google+ allows multiple video streams at once. The number of amateur astronomers across the continent with video cameras is probably in the low thousands. Get several astronomers steaming live video of celestial objects, a few knowledgeable people answering questions, and a few dozen to a few hundred enthusiasts following along, and you’ve got a virtual star party.

It’s not my idea, and I’m not speaking hypothetically. This is happening, right now (well, maybe not right at this minute, but in the larger present). Fraser Cain, who runs Universe Today, seems to be the nucleating center. There have been several virtual star parties to date, with pro astronomers Phil Platt (Bad Astronomy) and Pamela Gaye (Star Stryder) participating and answering people’s questions. If you’d like to get in on it, join Google+ and add Fraser Cain to one of your circles. You’ll get updates when virtual star parties are coming up. Apparently there  is no set schedule, as this is still a new thing and sort of experimental, but from what I hear the response has been great and there will be more.

I say “from what I hear” because I haven’t been to one of these shindigs. I heard about them from a fellow PVAA member, and I’m just passing the word along. You can tell from my posting rate these past few months how much time I have. (And yes, the irony of me complaining about too little time, given this blog’s subtitle, is not lost on me.)


Back to Barsoom

February 6, 2012

I haven’t had a look at Mars through my telescope yet this year, but I have seen it with the naked eye a few times, when I’ve been out late at night. Mars has been much on my mind lately, because I’ve been rereading the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first book, A Princess of Mars, follows the adventures of John Carter, an ex-Confederate officer who is mysteriously transported from the desert southwest to the desert planet. He is captured by warlike Martians, falls in love with a human princess, and goes through a series of chases, escapes, imprisonments, arena battles, and deadly duels. The tale was first published in serial form in 1912, when the “canal” theory of Mars was at its most popular. The Mars of Burroughs’ novels, known as Barsoom by its inhabitants, is only sustained in a habitable state by the high technology of the dwindling races of Martians, in particular the canal system and the “atmosphere plants” that produce and distribute breathable air. The canal theory is a historical curiosity now; when modern astronomers get excited about Martian water, it’s over braided fluvial systems that seem to change from year to year, based on high-resolution photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Burroughs’ Mars books are all ripping adventure yarns and they inspired much of the pulp science fiction of the early 20th century–and many of the science fiction films of more recent years, from Star Wars to Avatar. That circle is about to be completed: in this 100th anniversary of the first publication of A Princess of Mars, the story is finally coming to the big screen, in Disney’s John Carter, set to be released on March 9.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the movie. But I’m also looking forward to hauling out a telescope and having a good look at the red planet. The thing that always gets me about seeing planets through a telescope is that I am forcefully confronted with how real they are. Of course, nebulae and galaxies and everything else “up there” is equally real, but as much as I love those things they don’t have the same mythic hold on me as the planets. Even when I look up with my naked eyes and see Mars, I experience a curious sense of dislocation, knowing that Mars is really there. The canals may be (human) history, but the ice caps and canyons and volcanoes and dust storms are all just as real as you or me. And at least a handful of Earthlings really have been transported to Mars and have left their tracks on its dry, dusty plains. The fact that these have all been robots so far should not discourage us. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, Mars calls to us, possibly in a more profound and mysterious way than any other heavenly body. I don’t know exactly when we’ll get there, but I think we will actually get there, and have adventures no less exciting than those of John Carter.

I’m going a lot sooner. I have this weird device in my garage. It looks like a small water heater, but it’s really a transporter. Very soon, I’m going to Mars. I’ll let you know if I ever come back.

If you’ve never read A Princess of Mars or the rest of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, you can start right now, for free. Most are in the public domain, and you can find them at Project Gutenberg, and on Amazon in free Kindle versions, and probably elsewhere on the web as well. For more of my thoughts on the upcoming movie, go here, and for my previous posts on the real Mars, go here.


Ginormous Mars atlas for free

June 23, 2010

Your tax dollars at work: the USGS map of the Hellas Planitia region of Mars, all 13.8 megabytes of it, is freely available for download here. Hat tip to Mike.

If you’re more interested in the kind of Mars exploration depicted above, try here.

Either way, have fun!