Archive for the ‘Observing projects’ Category


Concordiem Australis

March 16, 2010

One of the nice things about living in smoggy, light-polluted LA county is that traveling almost anywhere means access to darker skies. Just in the past year I’ve gotten to observe under dark skies in Utah, Oklahoma, and Wales England, near the Welsh border, on trips planned for other reasons.

I’m planning to attend the International Conference on Vertebrate Morphology in Punta del Este, Uruguay, this July. Punta del Este is on the coast and I’ll be there for a solid week, so I’m hoping to spend some of my evenings on the beach with binoculars and a travel telescope. I’ve found that I get more out of my observing sessions when I have a list of objects to locate. Fortunately, the Astronomical League has Southern Sky Binocular and Southern Sky Telescopic observing clubs that are deliberately aimed at northerners on quick trips south of the equator. The Caldwell club also includes many southerly objects that cannot be seen from the US, and I’ll try to bag as many of those as possible, too.

Lots of AL observing lists overlap; for example, almost everything on the Urban observing list is also on the Messier, Bino Deep Sky, or Double Star lists. Sometimes you can simplify your work by eliminating duplicate observations. Even when clubs have conflicting requirements, like using binoculars and a scope on the same object, it’s faster to make both observations at the same time by switching between instruments.

To simplify my observing wish list for Uruguay, I compiled a master list that includes all of the objects from the Southern Sky Binocular and Southern Sky Telescopic lists, as well as the 56 most southerly Caldwell objects. I call it Concordiem Australis.  This is a deliberate homage to Stephen Saber’s Concordiem Borealis, which unifies the AL Messier, Bino Deep Sky, Double Star, and Caldwell (70 most northerly) lists with the RASC’s 110 Finest NGC Objects. This version is organized by RA. I will probably also make versions organized by constellation and by declination (for convenience and to match the Caldwell list order, respectively). Here’s the file, which I will also put in the AL Logbook page on the sidebar:

Concordiem Australis by RA


Collinder catalog PDF

February 16, 2010

Cloudy Nights has a great article about the Collinder Catalog, a list of 471 open clusters compiled by Swedish astronomer Per Arne Collinder for his 1931 dissertation. There have been requests in the forum to post the catalog as a PDF, so I copied the list and notes into OpenOffice (which is free, and awesome, btw) and exported it as a PDF. I would have simply posted the PDF to the Cloudy Nights forums, but they don’t allow attachments larger than 124 Kb. So I’m putting it here instead.

Please note that this is not my work at all; Thomas Watson did all of the heavy lifting in terms of updating Collinder’s list and turning it into a useful observing too. All I’ve done is convert it into a PDF so people can use it more easily.

Update, October 20, 2010: Thomas Watson posted an updated version of the catalog which corrects some minor errors in the first version. The v2 PDF below reflects those changes. Thanks for the heads up, Thomas–and for the mountain of work! It is certainly a lovely gift to the observing community.

The file:

Collinder Catalog v2


Moon bling

January 14, 2010

As I related in an earlier post, on Thursday, Dec. 17, I made my final observation for the Astronomical League’s Lunar Club. I e-mailed in my completed observation log a couple of days later. Yesterday my loot came in the mail: a certificate and pin.

I felt a sense of accomplishment (and, in the spirit of full disclosure, relief) on the evening that I made my final observation, and it was nice to send off my log, but there’s something extra special about getting the official certificate and pin. You know why they give these things out? I think it’s for the same reason that judges wear black robes and baseball fans doff their caps for the national anthem. We are a symbolic species, and on some subconscious level that stuff works, whether we want it to or not.

The certificate is going on the wall over my astronomy bookshelf, and the pin is going on the Kepler mission cap I got at the JPL gift shop last week (I still need to blog about the JPL tour–so much to do!). There are many like them…but these are mine!

And I want more. I’ve been plugging away at the target lists for the Messier Club and Galileo Club, and tonight is the start of a new lunar cycle so in a couple of nights I can get back to my observations for the Lunar II club.

Good luck with your own observations. If you’re not doing a formal observing program, give it some thought, working through one is challenging, rewarding, and fun. The complete list of AL observing clubs is here, and there are lots of other observing programs out there in books, magazines, and on the web.

More missions coming soon!


Astronomical Resolutions for 2010

January 1, 2010

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Alas, 2009–the International Year of Astronomy–is over. Naturally, a lot of people hope that the activities and institutions of IYA2009 will continue to have a positive impact in the future, but the calendar year is over and the official closing ceremony is fast approaching.

For me, 2009 was a banner year in astronomy. I rediscovered the joys of binocular astronomytwice. I finally, finally got up into the mountains here to take advantage of the darker skies. I got to spend an evening with the 60-inch telescope on Mt. Wilson, which is probably the biggest telescope open to visual use by amateurs. At last I got a decent tripod and mount for my little Mak, which led me to use it a lot more. I used the little scope for 16 sessions of sidewalk astronomy in downtown Claremont, and showed the moon and planets to 916 people. I posted my first article on Cloudy Nights, and started this blog.

So what will 2010 bring? Inspired by good ole Uncle Rod, I have two resolutions for the new year. Like IYA2009, they will hopefully take my observing to the next level during the coming year, and also have longer-lasting effects. One resolution is philosophical, the other practical.

SkyWatcher's 12" Truss-Tube Dob. WANT!

Resolution #1: I resolve to spend less time mooning over the stuff I want, and more time using the stuff I have.

My love of astronomy has always been bound up with a love of telescopes themselves. I like what telescopes represent. I like the fact that a chunk of metal and glass the size of a milk carton can open up the universe. And I just love, love, love scopes as things in themselves. I like looking at them, tinkering with them, and just thinking about them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an optical telescope, anywhere, ever, without thinking, “I sure would like to play with that.”

The problem is that in the last year–in all of the recent years, in fact–there have been too many evenings when the sky was clear but I was parked on the sofa reading telescope reviews and dreaming about saving up for a light bucket. Just going by time spent, one might get the impression that I like reading about telescopes more than I like using them. Which isn’t true. What got me into this, and what keeps me excited about it, is the almost indescribable feeling of wonder and connectedness that I get when I observe. The moments when I have to get up and walk around just to get hold of myself, when I want to run to the nearest house and pound the door down and drag people to the eyepiece by force, all come when I’m out at night using a scope, not reading about one on the net.

Since I started this blog I’ve been preaching that astronomy is not about hardware and expensive doodads, it’s about getting outside and getting your mind blown. Sure, there are things that I want. But I have everything that I need. So for 2010 to I resolve to get my butt off the couch and observe more.

Now, what to observe?

Globular cluster M2, something I've never seen for myself.

Resolution #2: I resolve to complete the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club, Lunar II Club, and Messier Club.

All too often my observing consists of getting the grab-n-go setup for a quick peek at half a dozen of the best and brightest things. Not that there’s anything wrong with casual observing like that. But I’m getting tired of being a casual observer. I know my way around the sky a lot better than I did a year ago, and I’m better at finding things and getting them in the eyepiece. I’m ready to start challenging myself.

Also, finishing the AL Lunar Club felt fantastic. I want to apply myself to another extended observing program. Doing so will motivate me to get organized, and to start pushing my equipment and my observing skills farther. If I have more of a vested interest in what’s up on any given night, I’ll pay more attention to the geometry and timing of the motion of the sky, and my understanding of the relationship between the Earth and the heavens will deepen.

Why am I choosing these three observing programs? I started the Galileo Club last year and I already laid out a rough schedule for finishing this year. I like the fact that the club requires low magnifications and can be completed with very modest equipment, and I really like the idea of retracing Galileo’s steps.

The Lunar II Club is a natural next step after finishing the Lunar Club. The requirements are quite a bit tougher–instead of just observing a bunch of features and checking them off a list, one must keep more detailed notes and make a written description or sketch of every feature. I’ve never even heard of most of the required targets, and I’m looking forward to hunting them down. Also, if I don’t have something to do on nights when I can’t hunt DSOs, I’ll go nuts.

I’m taking on the Messier Club because it’s just time. In a little over two years of observing I’ve managed to see about 40 of the 110 Messier objects, and I want to see what I’m missing out on with the other two thirds. The challenge of tracking down faint fuzzies ought to motivate me to get up the mountain more often. From here to my favorite observing spot is only about 15 miles, for cryin’ out loud.

With each synodic cycle of moon phases lasting 29.5 days, a calendar year offers 12 windows of opportunity to observe the waxing moon (more conveniently timed than the waning moon), and 12 windows for chasing Messier objects in the darker skies around new moon. The Lunar II and Messier Clubs include 100 and 110 targets, respectively, so I need to average nine or ten targets per monthly window. Each window is several nights long, but I will certainly lose some windows to bad weather, travel, and other demands of life. I think it will be a manageable amount of work, I just gotta get out and do it.

I’ll keep you posted. Happy New Year!


Galileo Club, Part 2: Jupiter’s Moons in Eclipse

November 6, 2009


Task #4 for the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club:

4. 1612 – Jupiter’s moons in eclipse: The objective is to show that in addition to the moons being occulted by Jupiter, they also travel through Jupiter’s shadow and are eclipsed. Observe and sketch, noting the timing, one of Jupiter’s moons during an ingress or egress with Jupiter’s shadow. Callisto or Ganymede is the most dramatic. Two observations should be done.  One should be close to when Jupiter is at opposition. The second should be done when Jupiter is at quadrature (90 degrees from the sun). Note how close to the planet the moon is when the event occurred. (Editor’s note: At least two observations and timings are required.)

This is one of the ones that needs to be done Real Soon Now, because the eastern quadrature of Jupiter is this coming Tuesday, November 11. After this Jupiter is going to keep heading west and then disappear into the sun’s glare for a while. Western quadrature won’t be for another six months, and then you’ll have to either get up real early or stay up real late to catch it; western quadrature is equivalent in terms of sky position to last quarter moon.

Unless you want to spend all night watching, waiting, and hoping, you’ll want some idea of when to observe to see the entry or exit of a moon from Jupiter’s shadow. So here’s a list of ingressions and egressions for the next week, taken from Sky & Telescope’s Jupiter moon calculator. Sometimes there is an exit with no entrance, because the moon in question went directly behind the planet as seen from Earth; that’s an occultation rather than an eclipse. Everything is listed both by Universal Time (UT), equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time or London time, and Pacific Standard Time (PST). If you live somewhere else, you can look up your offset from UT at this helpful site.

I’ve never watched one of these events so I don’t know how long they take. Probably worthwhile to start observing 15-30 minutes ahead of the stated time and keep watching until you know it’s over. That blows my titular goal of providing things you can do in 10 minutes, but…whatcha gonna do? Feel free to leave a comment if you make a successful observation. Photo borrowed from here.


Saturday, November 7, 2009
18:18 UT (10:18 AM PST), Io exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow. Daytime for US.

Sunday, November 8, 2009
02:22 UT (6:22 PM PST), Europa exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow.

Monday, November 9, 2009
04:50 UT (8:50 PM PST), Callisto enters eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow. Sunday night in the US!
09:30 UT (1:30 AM PST), Callisto exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow.
12:48 UT (4:48 AM PST), Io exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
08:52 UT (12:52 AM PST), Ganymede enters eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow.
12:32 UT (4:32 AM PST), Ganymede exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009
07:16 UT (11:16 PM PST), Io exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow. Tuesday night in US!
15:40 UT (7:40 AM PST), Europa exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow. Daytime for US.

Friday, November 13, 2009
01:46 UT (5:46 PM PST), Io exits eclipse by Jupiter’s shadow. Thursday evening for US, probably too early for PST.


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.


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.


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.


In the footsteps of Galileo redux

August 18, 2009


Hoo boy. So all of three days ago I started this blog with a post entitled, “In the footsteps of  Galileo”, about Galileo’s  achievements, IYA 2009, and starting out in astronomy (image above from Wikipedia).

All of three minutes ago I discovered that the Astronomical League has an IYA 2009 project called, “In the footsteps of Galileo”, with instructions for replicating Galileo’s discoveries for those starting out in astronomy. It’s a cool project, and all it takes is a pair of binoculars and some patience (or fortitude; the Pleiades [#4 on the list] rise about midnight right now and aren’t what you’d call “well placed” until 2 or 3 AM).

The duplicated title is a coincidence–Google lists almost 3000 hits for the exact phrase “in the footsteps of Galileo”–but a fortunate one, because the “Footsteps of Galileo” project hits some of the best stuff I was planning on covering on this blog anyway. In particular, I’ve got some posts lined up on how to take the binoculars you probably already have and make the most of them for stargazing. Stay tuned for more–or, if you’re chomping at the bit, download the “Footsteps of Galileo” observing guide, dig the binoculars out of the closet, and get going (don’t forget Stellarium if you need a little help finding things).

If you’re  looking for something just a little more challenging, the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club includes 12 projects for small telescopes or serious binoculars. You probably will need something with higher magnification (15x-20x) than your average birding binos for those, but even a very small telescope should be adequate. Like, er, this one (shown below), which people have been having a lot of fun with despite, or perhaps because of, its $20 price tag.


Both AL projects are also listed on the right under Observing Lists. “In the Footsteps of Galileo” appears as “5 binocular targets for beginning stargazers”, and the Galileo Club appears as “12 objects for binoculars and small telescopes”.

Have fun!