Archive for the ‘My off-blog astronomy writing’ Category


Binocular double stars in Draco: my article in the August 2017 Sky & Telescope

July 6, 2017

This one came about by accident. In February, 2016, I went down to Borrego Springs, California, to give a talk at the Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists annual meeting. After the conference, I went up to camp for the night at Culp Valley Campground in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Anza-Borrego is a dark place to start with, and Culp Valley is up around 3500 feet and even farther from any towns or buildings, so it is stupid dark up there.

I got almost all the way around the sky with my binos that night, both in the early evening and then again before dawn. I was struck by how many nice binocular double stars there were in Draco. At first I was thinking I might use 3 or 4 of the best as the basis for a Binocular Highlight column, but pretty soon I was up to a dozen and I realized that I had enough ammo for an observing feature. I went back out this spring with a whole range of binoculars, up to and including mounted 15x70s, to re-observe and take notes. There are 20 doubles listed in the article, and although a few of them will require big binos to split cleanly, most can be split with 10×50 or even 7×35 binoculars, and a couple can probably be split with naked eyes if your vision is good.

If you want even more, or if you want to get a taste before you spring for a copy of the magazine, I also wrote an online feature with several more doubles that didn’t make the cut for the printed article. You can find that online feature here.

I’ve written for Sky & Tel on the Milky Way (twice), galaxies, and look-back time, and I’ve included individual double stars in Bino Highlight columns, but this is my first feature on double stars. What worked, what didn’t, what would you like to see in the future? The comment thread is open – I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


My article in the March 2017 Sky & Telescope

January 27, 2017


This is one was an easy write-up, because it had been in my head and in my notebook for a long time. Way back when I first got tapped to write for S&T, I pitched a tour of the winter Milky Way from Puppis to Gemini. I’d never written for a magazine before and I had no idea how much sky it would take to fill 1600 words. Turns out, all I got through on the first attempt was Canis Major, Puppis, and a couple of odds and ends like M48. That was my article in the December 2015 issue.

Right after that came out, I pitched the unfinished second half, and now it’s out. Like that first article, it’s a tour of the winter Milky Way pitched at binocular users, but hopefully useful for telescopic observers, too. This piece runs from Monoceros through northeastern Orion to southern Gemini. The March issue of Sky & Tel is probably hitting newsstands this week. If you get a copy, I hope you enjoy the article.

If you’re thinking that Gemini is a pretty arbitrary place to stop cruising the Milky Way, you’re not wrong. I can say no more for now, but stay tuned…

Update: whoops, I originally put January in the post title instead of March! This is, of course, the March issue, it just came out in January. Sheesh.


My new article in the December Sky & Telescope

November 2, 2016


It’s late and my computer is almost dead, so I’m just going to link to the longer announcement/acknowledgment post on my paleontology blog. Enjoy!


Binocular Highlights: what I’m rolling with

July 23, 2016

I just turned in my sixth Binocular Highlight column for Sky & Telescope. While I had everything out for the write-up, I thought people might be interested to know what sources I make use of.

Here’s the stuff I use pretty much every time:

  • S&T’s Pocket Sky Atlas and Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas. I usually take a full-size clipboard and Interstellarum out with me to observe, so the Jumbo version is no added hassle. Consequently – and perhaps counterintuitively – I tend to use the Jumbo version for nearby excursions, and the classic for desk reference and travel. This is usually my first stop.
  • interstellarum Deep Sky Atlas: Desk Edition. Despite the name, my primary ‘deep’ field atlas. Goes out with me practically every time, unless space is really at a premium. Also sees heavy use indoors for planning sessions and following up on things.
  • Chandler Night Sky planisphere. Hands down, my most-used tool – it goes out with me every session no matter what, and I frequently refer to it indoors as well.
  • Chandler Sky Atlas for Small Telescopes and Binoculars – particularly useful for the Milky-Way-centric chart that shows the galaxy as a flat band with the celestial coordinate grid deformed around it. Useful for thinking about where things are with respect to the disk of the galaxy, for quick looks, and for the object list.
  • SkySafari 5 Pro app on my iPhone. Astounding amount of information. Usually my first source for looking up distances, separations, etc., although I always confirm with some other source.

Sources I turn to often, but not always:

  • Glenn LeDrew’s atlas of the Milky Way in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, 3rd Edition. I already had the 2nd edition – it was one of the first books I picked up when I first got into amateur astronomy back in 2007. I got the 3rd edition primarily for the Milky Way atlas, and I was not disappointed. The identification of OB associations is particularly useful.
  • The Cambridge Double Star Atlas. Super helpful for checking on double stars, and a handsome and useful atlas all around. Also, kind of an insane steal at $22 on Amazon.
  • Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Not my first stop for astrophysical data, but it’s nice to get some historical perspective and Burnham excels at this.
  • O’Meara Deep-Sky Companions series. Useful for astrophysical info, historical persepctive, and visual impressions from one of the world’s foremost observers. Crucially, O’Meara usually describes how objects look at varying magnifications, including naked eye and binocular appearances, so although the books are grounded in telescopic observations they are still quite useful for binocular observers.
  • Uranometria, All Sky Edition. Always nice to have the big gun in reserve, although I find Interstellarum more useful for most practical applications.

To get the latest astrophysical data I turn to the web. Particularly helpful sources are the SEDS Messier database, non-Messier NGC/IC/etc page, and Interactive NGC Catalog, the NGC/IC ProjectSIMBAD, the NASA Extragalactic Database, and if all else fails, Google Scholar and ArXiv.

For inspiration I’m quite omnivorous. Gary Seronik hit the Messiers pretty hard for the last few years, so I’m avoiding them for the time being, both to avoid duplication and to force myself to go find new stuff. The Astronomical League’s Deep Sky Binocular observing list (free), the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies Binocular Certificate Handbook (free), James Mullaney’s Celestial Harvest, Phil Harrington’s Touring the Universe through Binoculars, and my own notes compiled over the past 8.5 years all serve as jumping-off points. Tom Price-Nicholson’s Binocular Stargazing Catalog (free) looks like a useful source as well, although I haven’t had a chance to explore it thoroughly yet. More often than not, I go out to find a particular object or to survey a set of objects (open clusters in Cygnus, for example) and end up discovering new things. So far I’ve been generating many more possible topics to write about than I actually can, so it seems unlikely that I’ll run out of subject matter anytime soon. We’ll see!

If you know of something I should be using that’s not on the list, please let me know – the comment field is open.


A new gig

March 28, 2016

I’ve kept mum about this, but now the official announcement has come out in the May issue of Sky & Telescope so I can blab. Gary Seronik is leaving S&T to go assume the chief editorship at SkyNews, the leading Canadian astronomy magazine. S&T needed people to take over Gary’s ‘Telescope Workshop’ and ‘Binocular Highlights’ columns. For ‘Telescope Workshop’ – now to be recast as ‘Astronomer’s Workbench’ and include other DIY astro tools alongside telescopes – they got Jerry Oltion, whose creative ATM projects have been featured in the column many times.

And for ‘Binocular Highlights’ they got me. I’ll try not to muck it up.

Actually it’s a very welcome thing, for several reasons. I’ve always been a pretty feckless observer – without an observing program to keep my focused, I just go where the wind takes me, and sometimes that means “nowhere”. The necessity of turning in a short but polished* piece on a different object each month will hopefully spur me to be more systematic about my observing. One or two close friends have wondered whether the monthly deadline will prove oppressive, but so far it’s been good, for reasons described below.

* Or at least polishable – I owe my editor, S.N. Johnson-Roehr, a big thanks for her thoughtful improvements to my pieces, and an even bigger thanks for the opportunity to write ‘Binocular Highlights’ for a while.

Also, doing more binocular observing lines up nicely with where my interests have been taking me in the last two to three years. After several years of semi-committedly chasing faint fuzzies with my dob, I’ve been getting more into low-stress, low-power, widefield observing, primarily with refractors. Last October’s observing runs up at Big Bear exemplify this trend. And if you keep going down the path of low power and wide fields, eventually you wind up with binoculars.

Finally – and somewhat to my surprise – I’ve really been enjoying getting out to observe by myself. Traditionally I’ve been a social stargazer, sometimes to the extent of not observing unless there’s someone else around to observe with. And I still love doing that. But when I first got started in amateur astronomy back in 2007 and 2008, almost all of my observing was solo, and there was something very peaceful about being all alone out under the stars. I have sometimes lost sight of that as my life has gotten busier in recent years.

But, hey, now I have an obligation to get out and observe – it’s my job! And with articles due to the magazine about four months before they’ll see print, the objects that will be well-placed in the evening sky when a given issue comes out are up just before dawn when that month’s article is due. So if I want to have one more look – to confirm previous observations and double-check that I haven’t missed anything – I have to go on dawn patrol, which is strictly a solo pursuit (given that my friends aren’t masochists).

I assume that writing the column will affect my blogging here, but I don’t know how much or in what ways. There are a couple of threats: first, that I’ll pour all of my creative energy into my writing for S&T and have nothing left over for the blog, and second, that I’ll use up all of my good material for S&T and let the blogging fall off to avoid duplications. My crystal ball is notoriously cloudy (remember the much-discussed, never-attempted Suburban Messier Project?), but I’m not too worried about either one. As far as exhausting my creative energy goes, writing the column simply isn’t that demanding. It takes a couple of days of thought and effort, but most months I’m either blogging here more often than that, or not at all, as time, mood, and opportunity allow.

And as far as using up all the good material for S&T and having no “spare observations” left over for the blog – forget about it. I was worried about this until my latest dawn patrol session. I was cruising in and around Cygnus and I spent a little over an hour making notes on a dozen or so objects. And I realized that if I only hit Cygnus once or twice a year for the column, that one observing run gave me enough material for 6 to 12 years. Things may change in the future, but for now the sequence is:

  1. Realize I need to find something good for the next Binocular Highlights.
  2. Go observe systematically in an area I’ve only hit opportunistically before.
  3. Find enough cool things that it would take a decade of columns to cover them.
  4. Get excited about all of those ‘extra’ things and feel compelled to blog about them.

Okay, so the fourth thing hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully it will in the next post, and in many posts to come.

One final note – I am acutely aware that Gary Seronik will be a tough act to follow. When JR wrote to ask me if I was interested in taking over BH, I wrote, “Assuming I don’t die of anxiety of influence, I’d love to do this.” It wasn’t hollow talk. Gary’s Binocular Highlights book was one of the booster rockets that got my observing career off the pad back when, and I still recommend it regularly. The legacy of work he’s already produced in other books, magazines, and at his website is already immense, and it will only grow with his chief editorship at SkyNews and his future projects.

Those are some mighty big shoes. I am not going to be able to fill them, so I’m not going to try. I wrote to Gary earlier this spring to thank him for the good work he’s done and ask his advice, and among the other helpful things he said, he basically told me to go have fun and develop my own voice. The first of those is fait accompli, and the second is, and will remain, a work in progress. I hope you’ll come along, and let me know how I’m doing and what I can do better. Clear skies!


My article in the April 2016 Sky & Telescope

March 8, 2016

SnT cover April 2016 - annotated

Getting this posted a bit belatedly, as this issue has been on newsstands for about a week already. When I wrote about my first S&T article last year, I said that my editor, JR, and I had “batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way”. The other ideas didn’t go away, they just got put off. This binocular tour of the Virgo Messier galaxies is one of those other ideas. Hopefully more will be along in the future – assuming I’m successful in bringing them to fruition, and that the staff – and readers! – of Sky & Telescope continue to be happy with them.

Incidentally, although I aimed the article at binocular users, it should serve as a perfectly cromulent guide for telescopic observations as well.

Have suggestions for how I can improve? The comment field is open.


My article in the December Sky & Telescope

October 31, 2015
SnT Dec 2015 cover - marked up

Einstein has my article on his mind!

Here’s the exciting news I teased back in September: the December 2015 issue of Sky & Telescope, which is available online and should be hitting newsstands about now, has an observing article by yours truly. It’s a binocular tour of the southern stretch of the winter Milky Way, from Canis Major through Puppis to end in Hydra.

SnT Dec 2015 contents - marked up

The road that led here started back in December, 2014, when I got a very nice email from S. Johnson-Roehr, “JR”, the observing editor for Sky & Tel. JR had stumbled across this very site (possibly because I’d just recommended the newly-reprinted Caldwell Objects?) and asked if I’d be interested in contributing an observing article. We batted some ideas back and forth and quickly settled on the winter Milky Way. I had been through this area of the sky before but I wanted to give it one more pass, both to flesh out my notes and to road-test the star hops I had in mind. I made those observations this spring, wrote the article over the summer, and now it’s out in the world.

I have one favor to beg of anyone who reads the article – I need feedback. This is my first time writing about astronomy anywhere but a blog, forum post, or club newsletter, and I’d like to know (1) what worked, (2) what didn’t, and (3) what you’d like to see in the future. The comment field is open.

There’s a lot more to like in this issue of S&T, some of which will be of particular interest to regular readers of this blog. Tony Flanders has another inexpensive telescope shoot-out. Back in 2011 he and Joshua Roth looked at $100 scopes, in particular the Orion SpaceProbe 3, GoScope 80, and SkyScanner 100 (that article is a free download here, and a follow-up comparing the SkyScanner to the StarBlast is here). This time Tony considers three scopes in the $200 range: the Meade Infinity 90mm refractor and alt-az mount, the Orion StarBlast 4.5, and the Astronomers Without Borders OneSky. I won’t give away any spoilers, except to note that he finds all three to be capable scopes, which I’m sure is no surprise around here.

Another nice review in this issue is Alan MacRobert’s look at the first two volumes of Jeff Kanipe’s and Dennis Webb’s Annals of the Deep Sky, from Willmann Bell. As a deep-sky junkie who likes to read himself to sleep with Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Stephen James O’Meara, I have been curious about these new books, but I hadn’t heard anything about their quality before reading MacRobert’s article. Sounds like I need to make space on my Christmas list.

There’s loads more interesting stuff in this issue – cover articles on Einstein and gravitational waves, great observing articles by Alan MacRobert, Fred Schaaf, Gary Seronik, and Charles A. Wood, a very nice piece by Sue French looking at some neglected open clusters and double stars in Cassiopeia (an area I thought I knew well)…you get the picture. If you’re not a subscriber, you can find the December issue of Sky & Telescope on your local newsstand, or order a print or digital copy online here.

If you’re new here, welcome! Have a look around, and feel free to comment.