Archive for the ‘Free stuff’ Category

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Free Mag 7 Star Charts

April 17, 2010

Okay, this is pretty ridonkulously cool: a nice set of star charts, covering the entire sky to magnitude 7 (a bit more than the average person with maximally dark-adapted eyes could see from a desert island on a new moon night), on 20 pages, printable from your desk, for free.

I found these because I have misplaced–temporarily, I sincerely hope–my Pocket Sky Atlas and I need something to work  with right now. This set looks like a winner. I don’t have a working printer at home so I’m printing these online at Fedex Office and I’ll pick them up tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do a full-on review after I’ve had a chance to test-drive them.

Anyway, if you’re just getting started and you’re ready for the next step after The Evening Sky Map–or if you’re an experienced observer who just can’t turn down a nice set of free charts–snap these up. Here’s that link again.

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Extended Mission: AL Galileo Club

November 4, 2009

Galileo observing

All right, it’s been a long time since I’ve given you any homework. Heck, it’s been a long time since I’ve given myself any homework. Joining the local astro clubs also made me a member of the Astronomical League, which has loads of cool observing projects available. If you complete an observing project, you get a pin and a certificate, and I want some bling.

(Aside: if you’re interested in astronomy but not a member of a club, find one nearby and check it out. Most clubs will happily let you sit in for free for a meeting or two. The two I’m involved in both have annual family dues of $30, and I imagine most clubs’ dues are not wildly off from that. It’s a small price to pay for the companionship and education you’ll get from fellow astronomers.

If there is no club nearby, the stand alone Astronomical League dues are also $30, and if you don’t want to spend any money, you can still download the lists for almost all of the observing clubs for free.)

Observing lists are good. They give you tangible goals, and a way to measure your progress as you develop your skills. Perhaps most importantly, they give you something to point the scope at. The sky is chock-full of good stuff, but if you don’t know that it’s there or how to  find it, eventually you are going to run out of things to do. If you find your observing getting stale, maybe it’s time to try something new.

So, given that it’s the International Year of Astronomy and that we’re all following in the footsteps of Galileo, what better observing list to start with than the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club? The goal is to repeat Galileo’s observations of the heavens. There are 11 required tasks, and two optional ones. The optional tasks are to observe and sketch an aurora, which is only an option for people at sufficiently high latitudes, and to observe and sketch a naked-eye supernova in the Milky Way galaxy. I’m guessing that last one was included a bit tongue in cheek; as the instructions state, “It should be noted that the last time a supernova was visible in the Milky Way galaxy was in the early 1600’s when Galileo observed one.”

Now, the Astronomical League doesn’t pass out those pins and certificates for nothing. Some of the tasks are comparatively easy, but some are fairly involved (in terms of effort, not equipment), and several require making observations at particular times of the year. If you start now, you can’t possibly finish before next summer, not because you’ll be slammed for the next 9 months, but because one of the observations can’t be made any sooner. So if you’re in, you’re in for the long haul.

Gear

The only requirements regarding equipment are as follows: “All observations must be done at a magnification between 10 and 20. Either binoculars or a telescope may be used. The instrument should be mounted to provide adequate stability. Go-to equipment is allowed.”

Let’s break it down, in reverse. Go-to equipment means computerized telescopes that do the finding for you. I’m surprised they allow that for this club; I think it defeats the purpose of the exercise and I’m going to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Mounting the instrument shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re going to use a telescope, presumably it came with a mount. If you’re using binoculars, all you need is a cheap tripod and about three bucks worth of hardware; see instructions here.

The first requirement is the toughest: all observations have to be done between 10x and 20x magnification. This is tough because some telescopes can’t go down that low with normal eyepieces. For example, my little Mak has a focal length of 1250mm. The longest eyepiece is can accept is probably a 40mm Plossl (which I don’t own), which would still yield a magnification higher than 30. What to do, what to do? One option is to use a scope with a fairly short focal length, which includes loads of small refractors (from the $20 Galileoscope to thousand-dollar APOs) and tubby little reflectors like the Firstscope and Funscope (both $50), Astroscan, and Starblast.

Another option is to just use binoculars. If you don’t already have some, you can get a decent pair of 10x50s for about $25.

What else will we need? Most of the tasks include the word “sketch”. Sketching at the eyepiece is a good way to build observing skills and it’s probably something we should all be doing more of anyway. But what to sketch on? Lots of folks like to use preprinted observing log sheets that have room to note the date, time, equipment, sky conditions, and observations of the target, plus a circle in which to draw the object of interest. You can find nice PDF versions online for free here and here. The GalileoScope Observing Guide also includes a log sheet, and you should check that out anyway, whether you’ve got a GScope or not.

Schedule

Okay, with optics and observing logs hopefully squared away, we still need a plan. We can’t see everything tonight, or even this month. The nature of each task will determine our schedule:

  1. Naked eye supernova in the Milky Way. Good thing this one is optional; an acceptable star might pop tonight or not for centuries.
  2. Moon features; show that the moon has mountains and valleys. Any time that is not too close to full or new moon is fine, so probably 2/3 of the nights on any given month. Check out the moon phase thingy on the right to see what’s going on and plan accordingly.
  3. Follow Jupiter’s moons through one cycle of their orbits. That’s 17 days of observations. Jupiter is a little farther west every evening and we’ve only got a couple of months before it’s lost in the sun’s glare, so start this one ASAP.
  4. Observe one of Jupiter’s moons disappearing into the planet’s shadow or emerging from it. Two observations are required, one at opposition (when Jupiter is opposite the sun in the sky) and one at quadrature (when Jupiter is 90 degrees away from the sun in the sky). Sky & Telescope, Stellarium, Celestia, and a host of other resources will tell you what to look for and when, but look soon, because eastern quadrature is Nov. 11, one week from today. This one is likely to be tricky so I’ll do a follow-up post on it in the next week, promise (hey, I did!). The next opposition isn’t until next summer, so Jupiter may set the lower bound on how soon one could possibly finish the Galileo Club, starting right now. (That would already be sorted if I’d gotten started a few months ago, but coulda woulda shoulda…)
  5. Orion’s head nebula. This isn’t a “nebula” in the sense we use it today, as a giant ball of gas and dust out in space, but rather a nebula as it was understood in Galileo’s time: a fuzzy patch of light in the sky. In this case, observing the fuzzy patch with binoculars or a telescope will reveal that it is composed of stars. Orion is up by about 10:00 and will be higher and better seen at sundown in a couple of months, so this one can be done anytime between now and, say, March or April.
  6. Praesepe nebula. Another naked eye fuzzy patch (only under dark skies these days, I’m afraid) that will resolve into a pretty star cluster with binos or a scope. Anytime in the spring.
  7. Pleiades nebula. Ditto. Up not long after dark right now, anytime in the next few months is fine.
  8. Saturn’s “ears”. The rings look like ears at the low magnifications available to Galileo (and to us, given the rules of the project). Anytime in the spring. Opposition will be in late March.
  9. Venus phases. These need to be tracked from close to inferior conjunction, when Venus is a very big crescent, to close to superior conjunction, when it is a small dot. Venus is currently a morning star and it’s about to get lost in the Sun’s glare. It will re-emerge east of the sun in 2010 and become an evening star, so the best time to start tracking this is in February or March.
  10. Sunspots. This one is tricky, both in terms of equipment and schedule. The instructions say to make the observations using a filter. Well, filters are expensive and Galileo didn’t use them, so I intend to do this as he did: by using a small telescope to project an image of the sun on a white card (don’t look right at the sun with unfiltered optics unless you’re ready to give up the burden of sight). The tricky scheduling part is that we’re in a deep solar minimum and there has only been one sunspot in the past year, so we’re at the mercy of Sol on this one.
  11. Comet. I know there are several floating around regularly within the reach of small telescopes and even binoculars, but I haven’t observed a comet since 17P Holmes a couple of years ago (which was awesome, BTW). Gonna rain check this one for a while.
  12. Neptune. Observable right now, not far from Jupiter. Along with the Jupiter moon eclipse at quadrature, this is the one most needing immediate attention. Standby for directions (also posted).
  13. Aurora. Optional. I saw it in Montana on a dinosaur dig about a decade ago. Very pretty if you get the chance.

All right, that’s all for now. Gather your gear, print off some log sheets, and I’ll get crackin’ on those Jupiter moon timings and on finding Neptune. There are also some pretty end-of-summer objects we need to see before they plunge beneath the western horizon. Stay tuned.

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New stuff

November 2, 2009

skymap_smallHere’s something that you need, or even if you don’t need it need it, you’ll probably find a use for: free monthly sky maps, with a chart on the first page and an observing list broken down by naked eye, binocular, and telescope objects on the second page. Everything on the second page is noted on the chart on the first page.  Pretty ridiculously awesome. Expect me to reference these a lot in upcoming missions.

Also, Scientific American has an in-depth report on Galileo and IYA2009. Worth checking out. And speaking of, I took my 4-year-old to what he calls the “Griffick Park Ugzerbatory” yesterday. Here he is with a replica of Galileo’s telescope.

Galileo telescope

Believe it or not, new mission coming soon. Hang in there.

 

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Getting started for free

August 15, 2009

In the future I will add some more step-by-step how tos on things like recognizing constellations, tracking the phases of the moon, and finding planets and deep sky objects. But I can’t stand, even for a day, having a blog that is supposedly about helping people find their way the sky around that doesn’t actually help them find their way around the sky.

So if you’re chomping at the bit to get going, or you’re just looking for some free astronomy resources, here goes.

Detail of a free star chart from S&T

Detail of a free star chart from S&T

Sky & Telescope has a great 10-page guide called “Getting Started in Astronomy”. It has maps of the night sky and the moon and instructions on how to use them with the naked eye or with binoculars. If you’ve never picked out a constellation on your own and don’t know Aldebaran from Altair, this is Step Zero. There are lots more goodies in S&T‘s Stargazing Basics.

In my humble opinion one of the best free astronomy tools, and the one I use the most, is the free planetarium program Stellarium. You can see what the night sky looks like from any point on the planet, from the deep past to the far future, with optional constellation overlays from cultures around the globe. I use it to see when the moon will be high enough to clear the trees in front of my driveway, to find out what deep sky objects (DSOs) will be overhead at convenient observing times, and to identify things that I’ve stumbled across when I’m just plinking around with binoculars or a telescope.

Stellarium will show you moon phases, but if you really want to see the surface of the moon close up, you can’t do better than the Virtual Moon Atlas (at least without spending any money, and maybe not even then). Includes instructions on how to simulate the view of a spacecraft orbiting the moon, which, if you’re a space nut like me, is going to be irresistible.

If you want to track satellites or spot the International Space Station–which is frequently visible to the naked eye in the early evening!–head on over to Heavens Above for finder charts and instructions on where to look.

For going deeper or just seeing what’s up tonight and for the rest of the week, Almanako is a great resource. It’s more information-dense than most of the rest of these sites, so don’t get flustered if you can’t make sense of it all on your first visit. Things will shake out in time, and the sky isn’t going anywhere.

This is a very, very short list of the free astronomy resources available on the ‘net. If I was so inclined, I could stay busy at this blog doing nothing more than finding and linking to all the good stuff out there. But, as alluded to in the blog title, we all have far too much other stuff to be getting on with. These are the ones I found the most useful when I was getting started, and I use most of them to this day. Even if these particular tools don’t strike your fancy, hopefully they will help you get started on your journey farther up and farther in.