Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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Observing Report: SkyScanning in Oregon

October 2, 2012

I was up in Oregon last week to visit my university’s second campus in Lebanon. It was a kill-many-birds-with-one-stone type trip: in addition to day-job work in Lebanon on the weekdays, I got in a productive meeting about a joint project with a paleontological colleague who lives nearby, and–the point of this post–last Wednesday night I got to go stargazing with frequent commenter Doug Rennie.

Doug lives up by Portland and I was staying in Albany, so we needed someplace in between with reasonably dark skies. We settled on Baskett Slough Wildlife Refuge, just north of Dallas, OR. We met in Dallas for dinner and then drove out to the slough.

I had along a new-ish pair of Nikon Action 10×50 binoculars that I picked up this summer and haven’t used much. Doug brought his Celestron SkyMaster 15x70s–the same model I have and love–and his Orion SkyScanner 100 tabletop telescope.

Neither of us really knew what to expect in terms of sky quality. The waxing gibbous moon was only three days shy of full, and I was seriously concerned that we’d get “mooned out” and not be able to observe anything in the deep sky.

This brings up the interesting question of how much moonlight it takes to significantly degrade the night sky. I’ll write a full post about it someday, but for now it is enough to note that the brightness of the moon increases exponentially on the run up to opposition (full moon), and decreases exponentially after full moon. For explanations of why that is, check out this graph and this tutorial and read up on opposition surge and heiligenschein. The upshot is that three days shy of full the moon is only perhaps a quarter as bright as it is at full moon, and happily we were able to see quite a bit.

I didn’t know that when we started out, though, but I knew that we wouldn’t see anything if we didn’t try. Ursa Major was opposite the moon, getting closer to the horizon, and with it some of the best and brightest galaxies in the sky. I spent a few minutes faffing around and managed to get M81 in the field of view. It was dim, but it was there, and our observing run was underway.

Some hazy clouds were skirting the northern horizon, and I was worried they might come south and ruin things for us. Also, after the frustrating chase and unimpressive view of M81 we needed a win, so our next target was the Double Cluster, NGC 869 and 884. They were spectacular–two brilliant knots of stars in the rich Milky Way starfields of northern Perseus.

After that we hit some other summer and fall “best of” objects, including the Andromeda galaxy (M31), the Great Glob in Hercules (M13), the Ring Nebula (M57), and the Dumbbell Nebula (M27). Next to M31 we caught the brighter and more compact of its two Messier satellite galaxies, M32. I don’t know if M110 would have been visible or not. It’s a tougher catch, especially under less-than-perfect skies, and I didn’t waste any time looking for it.

M13 was an easy catch, and we kept running up the magnification to see if we could get it to resolve at all. Doug’s 6mm Expanse yielded 67x and, we thought, some tantalizing hints of detail. We Barlowed it up to 133x and the cluster took on the slightly grainy texture that is often the most resolution one can get in a small scope. We also tried lots of magnifications on the two planetary nebula, M57 and M27. We could only glimpse in averted vision the slightly darker center that makes the Ring a ring, and the Dumbbell showed the barest hint of its bilobed structure.

After that we turned back north and plied the starry Milky Way between Cassiopeia and Perseus. Cassiopeia is just lousy with asterisms and open clusters; the only ones we bothered to identify were M103 and nearby NGC 663, which is bigger and brighter.

A highlight of the evening was sweeping the Alpha Persei Association with binoculars. It’s really seen best this way–very few telescopes have a wide enough field of  view to show more than a small part of it. I once read a description of this big, close cluster–variously catalogued as Melotte 20 and Collinder 39–as a “vast wonderland of far-flung suns”, and I can’t look at it without those words coming to mind.

Since Perseus was now a good way up the sky I thought it would be worthwhile to track down the open cluster M34. I’m glad we did. When Doug looked at it he said, “I know this cluster–I’ve drawn it!” And he had–his sketchbook recorded the fingerprint-specific arrangement of stars that make up the cluster. I was most impressed by this–by the drawing and his visual memory both.

At this point we were winding down a bit and just scanning around with binos, taking things as they came. Halfway down the western sky I found the brilliant blue-white double star 16/17 Draconis. By this point Doug’s green laser pointer was fading a bit from cold and overuse, but with some yammering and gesticulating on my part–and much patience and good humor on his–we were able to get both pair of binos on target. That really is a gorgeous double, and just wide enough to be clearly split in low-power binoculars. I recommend it.

Our last stop of the night was the Pleiades, which had just climbed over the northeastern horizon. They were stunning, as always. That gave us a total of nine Messier objects, three non-Messier NGCs (663, 869, and 884), another big open cluster (the Alpha Persei Cluster), and a double star. So, 14 objects in all, which is pretty good for a two-hour session under any conditions.

Using the SkyScanner was a revelation. I had taken a few brief peeks through Terry Nakazono’s SkyScanner on our Baldy runs, and been impressed, but I’d never gotten to just pick one up and freewheel. And “freewheel” is a pretty good description of what we were doing. The scope is light enough that you don’t think twice about just picking up one-handed and moving it wherever you need it. At the same time, four inches is a lot of aperture, and I was consistently impressed by how much the little scope could do, both in terms of light-grasp and resolution. Doug must have collimated it to within an inch of its life, because the image was still good at 133x–a real achievement in any small, fast Newtonian. Finally, I didn’t notice any issues with the focuser. This is one of my pet peeves. Fast scopes have steep light cones and it takes a precise focuser to consistently hit focus without going past in either direction. One of the things that drove me crazy about the Celestron FirstScope was the lousy focuser, which consistently overshot focus. So when I say the focuser on the SkyScanner didn’t draw attention to itself, that’s a good thing. I’m sure that like all consumer scopes there’s some sample-to-sample variation with the SkyScanner, and Doug’s might be an unusually fine example, but so far both of the SkyScanners I’ve gotten to use have impressed me. I think I’ll get one for the Suburban Messier Project, which is on hold until it cools off some–it was 107 here today. In October!

Oh, and speaking of the Suburban Messier Project, I was most impressed by the quality of Doug’s sketches, and by the fact that, having sketched something once, he could recognize it at the eyepiece later without knowing in advance what it was. I’d like to have that level of familiarity with these objects, and I intend to get it–by sketching them. Stay tuned.

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Guest post: The “First” Great Telescope: the Great Dorpat Refractor in Tartu’s Old Observatory

October 1, 2012

Here’s another guest post by Terry Nakazono (his first is here). Enjoy!

(All pictures, except for the image of F.G.W. Struve, were taken by the author)

In a few posts (and one Cloudy Nights article), Matt made mention of getting his start in observational astronomy after a visit to Lick Observatory in San Jose, California and looking through the Great Lick Refractor.

The term “Great Refractor” refers to an achromatic refracting refractor that is the largest in a region, or in the world. When it was completed in 1888, the Lick refractor was the biggest (36-inch lens) in the world. Hence the term the “Great Lick Refractor”.Earlier in April this year, I made a visit to the Old Tartu Observatory in Tartu (Estonia), built between the years 1808-1810 and now a museum.

This observatory houses the first “Great Refractor” – the Great Dorpat Refractor (Dorpat is the old German name for Tartu), built by the noted German optician Joseph Fraunhofer in 1824 (also known as the Fraunhofer Refractor). This telescope was the forerunner of the Lick and other large refractors built in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This 9.6 inch (24cm) achromat with a focal ratio of 16.6 was the largest and best refractor in the world for many years. The lens had a light-gathering capacity equal to a reflector of that era having twice the aperture of this refractor. This was also the first telescope to use a German equatorial mount, with a precision clock drive that allowed objects to be tracked automatically.

The man who ordered this telescope from Fraunhofer was Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve, the director of the observatory from 1820-1839.

His most famous observations with this refractor included a massive survey of double stars (whereby he published two double star catalogs), the measurement of the parallax of Vega in 1837, measurements of the diameters of Jupiter’s 4 largest satellites in 1826 (which turned out to be the most accurate for the next century), and Halley’s comet in 1835, where he measured the dimensions of the tail and was able to see the nucleus of the comet. On the observatory grounds is a monument to Struve.

On display at the observatory are many other instruments used by Struve and others. One is the Dollond transit instrument (purchased in 1807), used to determine exact astronomical coordinates.

Another instrument used to measure the position of stars was the Reichenback-Ertel Meridian Circle (purchased in 1822).

The Troughton telescope (purchased in 1807) was a 3.5 inch achromat that was Struve’s main observational instrument before the Fraunhofer refractor.

But the most fascinating item on display (besides the Fraunhofer scope) is the Herschel 7-foot refractor, bought in 1806. Herschel made 200 of these 7-foot scopes between 1778 and 1820, out of which only 21 have survived today. It was with one of these scopes that he discovered Uranus in 1781. The aperture of the Herschel 7-foot scope was 160mm, or 6.3 inches. Reflectors of that era were made of speculum metal, which tarnished easily and reflected only 66% of the light that hit it. During the pre-Fraunhofer refractor days, it was easier for Struve to use the Troughton 3.5 inch refractor as his main observing scope, since it was much more portable and probably matched, if not exceeded, the light-gathering capability of the Herschel reflector. Consequently, the Herschel scope was used mainly for observing the occultation of stars by the Moon.

There were two Tartu University students working in the observatory (one worked the front desk and the other was letting visitors in and out of rooms]. Unfortunately, they were neither astronomy nor science majors and could not answer any of my questions regarding the Fraunhofer and other instruments.

Here is a picture of the dome of the observatory at night – you can see the moon and Venus next to it.

This next picture shows my Galileoscope 2-inch achromat refractor in front of the entrance to the observatory.

Looking forward to visiting other historic observatories, including the ones closer to home (e.g. Lick, Mt. Wilson, Palomar).

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The pilgrimage to Palomar, constellations by DSLR, and the Azusa fire

September 3, 2012

I have been fortunate to visit two of the great research observatories in California: Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, overlooking San Jose, which got me into all this in the first place; and Mount Wilson Observatory, where I’ve gotten to observe twice with the 60-inch telescope.

For a long time I have been meaning to get to the third major research observatory in California: Palomar. The building of the 200-inch (5-meter) telescope during the Great Depression was one of the first scientific “megaprojects”, something akin to the Apollo program or the search for the Higgs boson, and it caught the public interest in much the same way. After serious war-related delays, the great machine was finally dedicated in 1948, had its official first light in 1949, and started regular research observations in 1950–a program that continues to this day. The 200-inch telescope was absolutely the world’s largest telescope from 1948 to 1976, and effectively the world’s largest telescope until the first Keck telescope came online in 1993. The 6-meter Soviet BTA-6, which was completed in 1976, was more of a publicity stunt than a functional instrument and has not lived up to its potential, although I hear it is being overhauled so maybe that will finally change.

If you are remotely interested in the history of big telescopes in general and the history of the 200-inch in particular, I highly recommend The Perfect Machine, by Ronald Florence. If I started relating all the interesting anecdotes about the building of the telescope, we’d be here forever–it will be faster and more enjoyable to read the darn book.

Anyway, yesterday I was staring down the barrel of a 3-day weekend with no definite plans. I decided that it was finally time to go see the “big eye” at Palomar Mountain. London and I didn’t get on the road until early afternoon, so we got down there too late to visit the observatory yesterday. Instead, we went to nearby Palomar Mountain State Park for a phenomenal sunset and some early evening stargazing.

I had along a new toy: Vicki loaned me her Nikon D70 DSLR. She’s had it for three or four years, I’ve just never used it. It’s been on my to-do list, though, and Kevin’s results on Mount Baldy a couple of weeks ago gave me just the kick that I needed. I have been waiting not-s0-patiently for the full moon to pass so that I could try my hand at photographing constellations.

London in the meadow by Doane Pond, with the handle of the dipper hanging overhead.

After sunset London and I went down to Doane Pond, which sits in a nice little bowl with mountains on all sides. We went on a night hike around the pond, which resulted in us accidentally scaring several bullfrogs and them scaring us right back–few things are more alarming than an unsuspected animal making sudden noisy movement right by your feet in the dark. I also stopped at various places around the pond to photograph the sky, the pond, or the sky reflected in the pond.

I should preface all this by saying that I have no idea what I’m doing. This is my first time using a DSLR, I have no idea what about 95% of the controls do, and if you actually know photography you’d best put your beverage down now so you don’t spit it all over the keyboard. Nevertheless, I have read that one can get passable constellation photos with exposures of  30 seconds or less, and you are about  to see my first round of results.

I’ve been rereading Leslie Peltier’s Starlight Nights. I think of it, and Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark (the subject of this previous post), as “books about the why”. Loads of books will tell you how to stargaze, but very talk about the actual thoughts and emotions associated with the practice. If you want to know why to stargaze, go read Starlight Nights and Seeing in the Dark. Just be warned–if you’re not a stargazer now, you may be one by the time you’re done (also, if you’re not, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but welcome!).

Peltier writes with great warmth about his favorite stars, especially Vega, which was the first star he knew by name. I’d be hard pressed to name one favorite star, but I have a favorite constellation, and that is Cassiopeia. When I started getting into astronomy in the fall of 2007–almost five years ago, now–Cassiopeia was the first constellation I learned. All that autumn I turned my gaze northeast at dusk and found Cassiopeia first. She pointed me on westward to Cepheus and Draco and ultimately to Hercules and M13. To the south she led me to Pegasus, Aries, faint and frustrating Triangulum, and of course Andromeda and its magnificent galaxy. And following in Cassiopeia’s train as she climbed the eastern sky I found the Double Cluster and Perseus, the Pleiades, the Hyades, Auriga and its nice trio of Messier clusters, and the constellations of winter. Our romance has only deepened as I’ve gotten to know her better, for the velvety black folds of her dress are adorned with star clusters and nebulae almost beyond counting. Naturally, I pointed the camera in her direction first.

My first constellation photo–click through for the full-size, unlabeled version.

This is not a triumph of astrophotography. It’s grainy, it’s too bright, and the composition is not stellar (to, er, coin a phrase). But Cassiopeia is there, and I even see the Double Cluster just clearing the trees.

After paying my respects to Cassiopeia, I turned south, to Sagittarius and the summer Milky Way. Here’s the best of the lot, without labels.

And the same thing with constellations and deep sky objects labeled. Not every bright deep sky object is labeled, only those where I can see at least a smudge or a couple of bright pixels. Still, there are at least 19 DSOs visible in what was probably a 20- or 25-second exposure.

I am really looking forward to trying this under darker skies. It never got truly dark at Doane Pond, because the nearly-full waning gibbous moon rose well before the end of astronomical twilight. I think that without the moon it would have gotten very dark–maybe not stupid-dark like the remote places in the Mojave, but darker than Mount Baldy.

One more: the Big Dipper over Doane Pond, with a couple of its stars reflected in the pond. The pond was about as still as it could be, given the number of big splashes caused by alarmed bullfrogs (and, therefore, ultimately caused by me!).

Two things you shouldn’t mess with. To truly grok the immensitude of the telescope, check out the normal-size, full-width ladder going up one beam on the near side. The fork arms on either side have stairways inside for servicing the drive motors.

Today we went up to the top of the mountain and toured the observatory. Oddly enough, I don’t have a ton to say about this, beyond the obvious things. Which are (1) it’s awesome, and (2) if you live within striking distance, you should definitely go. Get there in time to get tickets for the guided tour–it’s waaaaay better than the self-guided tour, the docents are friendly and know a ton about the telescope and its history, and you’ll get to go up onto the catwalk inside the dome and get a much better view of the scope than you can from the little glassed-in visitor area on the dome floor. You really need to walk under and around the scope to get a sense of how immense it is, and you can’t do that except on the guided tour. I have been around some big scopes, including the 3-meter Shane reflector at the Lick Observatory, and the 200-inch makes all the others I’ve seen look like toys. Even knowing intellectually how big it is, I still walked in and thought, “OMG that’s big.” It’s inhumanly big.

The only downside to the whole trip is that as I was packing us up to leave, I momentarily set my observing notebook on top of the car–and then forgot to get it before we drove off. That’s a bummer. I have almost all of the observations backed up in my digital observing log (a huge Excel file), but the notebook had lots of sketches and there were probably a few object descriptions that I had not logged digitally. There’s a slim chance it will turn up, but I’m not holding my breath.

One final thing: there’s a wildfire burning in the Angeles National Forest above Azusa. It started just this afternoon. London and I saw it when we were coming home on I-15, as a fat pyrocumulus cloud squatting on the San Gabriels like a big evil god. At sunset I went to the top of the Claremont parking garage and watched it for a while. It must have hit a new fuel source around then because as I was watching it took about 10 minutes to go from this:

to this:

While I watched, I saw and heard several helicopters making runs to dump either water or fire-retardant foam. At that time, the fire had spread to more than 1000 acres and percent containment was zero. I’ve been up in the mountains lately and they’re bone dry, so this could be a bad one. My prayers are with the firefighters, and the people whose homes lie in the path of the fire.

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More vacation astronomy: Meteor Crater and Lowell Observatory

May 29, 2012

Last week was full of cool astronomy-related stuff after the eclipse. Monday night I stayed up until after midnight to watch the launch of the Falcon 9, which successfully delivered a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. Then on Wednesday London and I went to Meteor Crater and Lowell Observatory. The closer, brighter range of hills on the right in the above photo is the rim of Meteor Crater, which rises 150 feet above the surrounding plains.

In the courtyard of the visitor’s center is this boilerplate capsule from the Apollo program. Boilerplate capsules were used for all kinds of testing: parachutes, launch escape systems, touchdowns on land and water, you name it. This is the second one that London and I have seen in the wild–there is also one at the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California (darn it, I’ve been meaning to blog about that place for about a year now). This isn’t just a random space decoration, either. The Apollo astronauts trained at Meteor Crater with mock suits and backpacks before being launched to the moon.

Here’s the crater itself. It’s too big to fit into a single photo, unless you’re in an aircraft or have some kind of fish-eye lens. The crater is a little over three-quarters of a mile across, and a little under 600 feet deep, not counting the raised rim.

It is extremely windy, too.

Here’s the view to the southwest from the highest observation platform–the platform shown in the previous photo is in the lower middle of this image.

The wind up there was shockingly strong. I’ve been in 60-70 mph winds in desert storms and I think the gusts up there on the rim were about that fast. I’m a big dude, and not used to being pushed around by air, but the wind quite literally sent me stumbling a couple of times. Fortunately there were handholds all over the place.

I set my camera to maximum zoom to get this shot of the fenced area in the center of the crater. If you click through to the full-res version, you may be able to make out an American flag and life-size astronaut standee at the near right corner of the fence. People walking around down there would look like ants.

There was a nice museum inside, which we had to rush through because we spent all our time outside gawking at the crater. I did stop to get pictures of these shattercones, which only form under impact craters and nuclear explosion sites. Shattercones have a nice fractal structure, and range in size from microscopic to tens of meters tall.

That evening we drove up Mars Hill in Flagstaff to visit the Lowell Observatory. This segue photo shows a chunk of the Meteor Crater bolide on display in the observatory.

Flagstaff is a cool place for many reasons, not least the enlightened attitude toward light pollution–or rather, against light pollution. The city is plenty well-lit and never felt dim from ground level at night, but that’s because the residents use their power intelligently, with fully shielded, modestly bright light sources that face the ground. From the overlook on Mars Hill, based on the nighttime lights, you’d think it was a town of six to ten thousand. The actual population is just over 60,000. From the parking lot of our hotel I could see hundreds of stars. I have never seen such dark skies from inside any town of more than a thousand people. And they’ve been doing this in Flagstaff since 1958–when is the rest of the world going to wise up?

Of course, a big part of the reason we went to the observatory was to see the big 24-inch Clark refractor, which has been gathering starlight there since 1896. It looks like a near-perfect miniature of the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor, which also has Clark optics and went into service just 8 years earlier. Percival Lowell used this telescope to chart what he thought were canals on Mars. Lowell’s writings about the ingenious Martians carrying water from the polar ice caps to water their dying world inspired both H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Both of the latter authors played a big role in shaping my young mind, and I still revisit them periodically, so it was fitting that I finally visit the telescope that made it all possible (even if the canals turned out to be illusory). In a sense, Barsoom was born in this dome.

Speaking of the dome, you’ll notice that it is made of wood and rotates on automobile tires. Those were obviously not part of the original design, but they’ve been in place for decades now. According to Timothy Ferris, who included a charming chapter about this observatory and this telescope in Seeing in the Dark, when one of the tires goes flat, the observatory staff jack up the dome to fix it.

The “smart end” of the telescope looks like some steampunk enthusiast’s fantasy incarnate. It could pass for the control column of the Nautilus. The effect is only slightly diminished by the Telrad perched opportunistically amidst the Victorian gizmos.

I realize that I haven’t said anything about Pluto. It was discovered at Lowell Observatory, but not with this telescope. I’d say more about it but I have nothing to say; I went up Mars Hill for Mars, not Pluto.

This was London’s favorite exhibit: a beach-ball-sized model of the sun filled with little plastic balls representing the Earth, to scale. It’s a fitting cap to this post, because it points the way toward the transit of Venus next week, when those blessed by geography and weather will see an Earth-sized speck moving across the face of the sun (about three times bigger than the Earth-spheres appear in relation to the sun-sphere in this display, since our sister planet’s orbit around the sun is two-thirds the diameter of our own). I may not have time to post again before then, so: clear skies!