Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Moon Occults Regulus, 3rd November 2007

On the morning of the 3rd November, 2007, there was a challenging event that took place in the skies over the southern United States and part of the Americas; the Moon occulted the star Regulus in the constellation Leo. For many, this was not too much of an issue, since many points in the midwest and further were still in darkness. Here in Jacksonville, though, it would be occurring at sunrise.
Based upon the information I had on hand, this was going to be tough. I was pretty sure that it would be visible with binoculars and even just barely naked eye. But, I wanted to try and catch it on video. Based upon my experience with the VCR, though, I figured I'd see what sort of still images I could grab. For this, I used my Supercircuits CMOS camera fitted to my Meade 60mm (on an alt/az mount) telescope, "Spindrift".

I also opted to use my Samsung SCC-4201 for wide angle shots.

At 7:00am EDT, I had all of my equipment outside; the VMO-1 with my Power Macintosh 5260/100 "Sofia", "Spindrift" carrying the CMOS camera, and my Samsung, "Sammy". I grabbed my first few images between 7:10 and 7:12, switching between the two cameras.

Notice the bottom image on the left, taken with Sammy at 32 frames integration; you can actually see "Earthshine" lighting the Moon's shadowed section.

Even though it doesn't show, the sky was now medium blue. The contrast was making it appear darker in the cameras.

The first thirty minutes of any occultation are fairly uninteresting. I used this time to grab images and fine focus both instruments (for instance, the automatic focus feature on Sammy was turned off and had to be reset). At 7:31, it was time to begin recording the final series of images. Sammy obtained the following image as Spindrift was fine focused.

The sky was now brightening up significantly, but due to the CMOS camera's built in gamma correction (automatically adjusting for brightness and contrast), it still looks almost black. I started taking images with Spindrift and the CMOS camera alone. I collected almost 20, but these three pretty much summed it up, starting at 7:31, then 7:35 and finally 7:40...

Going, going, gone.
I could have waited the almost half hour to record the Moon's finishing its obscuring of Regulus, but instead decided to pack it in. It would probably have been too bright anyway.
Still, it was a wonderful way to test out my equipment and make the best of what I have. And for what I have, I am truly thankful.

Grabbing The Comet

I do video astronomy. For that purpose, I have a number of nice little cameras, ranging from old black and white security cameras to purpose built cameras. There are three cameras I use consistently, however; an old Sensortech B&W with telescopic lens, a basic little Supercircuits color CMOS camera in a purpose built housing and a very nice Samsung SCC-4201. That latter camera has come into its own for this comet.
The clouds finally began to break up after almost a week of overcast, on the evening of the 30th of October. I wasted no time and wheeled my VMO-1 (that's the Vagabond's Mobile Observatory 1) outside with Breanna's TV/VCR unit. At around 9pm, I finally had a hole. Through that hole, I finally caught the comet.

Unfortunately, I chose to use a VCR. This produced a lot of noise, and during the processing phase, I lost color. But I did catch it. The above image, by the way, is a paltry 5x!
It became overcast again, and would persist until the night of the 1st of November. Again, I wheeled the VMO-1 outside, but this time with my Power Macintosh 5260/100 on board. This ex-Torrington School District machine is setup for AV work. I call it "Sofia", and say what you will for its performance, for this task it was superbly fit. Now, I could forego the VCR and send the video directly to the computer. The results were much better.

The comet's golden color was now discernible. While this camera is not perfect, it is certainly a step in the right direction. With the addition of the Macintosh 5260, it has become an inexpensive means to obtain video imagery I might not ever have the opportunity. It also proves to me that what is considered by many to be a useless machine has found utility.

The Macintosh 5260/100 and my cameras, 1 November 2007

I suspect that there will be more adventures with this gear coming soon.

A Constellation, A Comet & A Missed Opportunity

So, there I am, Tuesday night, 23rd October 2007, preparing my souped up video camera to grab some images of Perseus. For the past couple of weeks, my column has run a series of articles regarding the Andromeda/Cassiopeia/Perseus myth. Since this week the series wraps up in Perseus, I wanted to grab some images of the more interesting objects within the constellation, namely the Perseus III OB association (one of my favorite objects).

The camera has had some work done lately. It now sports a better looking mount, made from corrugated plastic, some hardware and JB Weld, fixed snuggly beneath the main housing with very strong double sided tape. Not only has the greatly improved the sturdiness of the system, it also looks much better. I've also decided to employ my wheeled "Mobile Observatory 1", a combo toolbox/workbench with wheels. All was set for the night of the 23rd of October.

I was wheeling my equipment outside when the clouds began moving in. Perseus was still behind the trees; it was not quite 9:15. But I suspected that it would be high too late, that it would be obscured.

Indeed, I was to be proven correct.
As I was beginning to pull the extension cord outside, a sold line of overcast began to come up from the south, completely obscuring the sky for a large swath save for some sections above the east and west horizons. Adding insult to injury… it began to sprinkle.

Meanwhile, short period Comet 16P/Holmes was preparing to do something extraordinary amidst that very stellar association I intended to video.

It pains me so much to think I could have caught that flare real time. I understand how Charlie Brown must have felt whenever that football was yanked aside.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Celebration; Four Centuries of Telescopes

It's raining outside as I write this. Northeast Florida is under a low pressure system that is producing a very nasty northeaster, with gales roaring in from off the Atlantic, rain coming sporadically. This is the second night of the "Great World Wide Star Count", a naked eye event that runs from the 1st to the 15th, and for the second night in a row, I'm stuck indoors as the stars have been hidden behind thick blankets of fast moving clouds. Today, though, is important not to naked eye astronomy but to a tool and the role it has come to play in this pursuit.
Today is the 2nd of October, 2007. Three hundred and ninety nine years ago, one Hans Lippershey announced that he had "invented" what would for a short time be known as a "Dutch perspective glass". He created this by placing two lenses, one larger with a long focal length, the other smaller and shorter in focal length, within a tube and thus magnifying objects some distance away.
The legend goes that two children in his workshop actually discovered this, though chances are good that others before him also created similar instruments. But no matter; he was the first to try and patent it (the Dutch authorities didn't allow the patent, though they did have him produce a number of such instruments for them).
Within a few months, Galileo Galilei, who had heard about these wonderful instruments, set about creating one for himself, improving the design and naming his version a "telescope". He would be the first to aim one towards the heavens in late 1609, and forever changed science and our understanding of the world around us.
Next year is the beginning of the 400th anniversary of this wonderful tool. The International Astronomical Union has designated 2009 the International Year of Astronomy. But in my mind, the time period needs to start on the 2nd of October, 2008 and run through the 15th of January 2010, when Galileo realized that four attendant stars near Jupiter were actually moons.
Fifteen months seems like a fair way to celebrate 400 years of the telescope.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Our Moon & Four More

Time to resume Vagabonding, and to start things off, I've decided to do something of a little comparison. On Friday night, the 21st of September, the Moon will be slightly past first quarter and sitting high enough in the sky to make viewing good. Normally, for most astronomers, the Moon is a nuisance; the amount of light it reflects (notice; I said reflects and not emits) is considerable, and only the brightest objects can be seen with relative ease. The Moon, though, is quite worthy of observation, and I, for one, always try to observe it whenever possible, regardless of its phase.

Most of the detail we will see in this session will be along the terminator, where the shadows are still long (I've written about this in my "First Coast Sky @ Night" column). Those shadows add the necessary contrast for bringing out detail normally hidden from view. As you move away from the terminator and towards the limb (the edge of the sphere itself), you'll notice that the shadows diminish in length and detail is slowly erased due to an ever increasing angle of sunlight. Still, there is much that can be seen.

But Luna, our Moon, is only one of five we should be able to see that night. To find the others, we need to locate the planet Jupiter.

Jupiter is currently residing in the constellation Scorpius in the southern sky and is prominent just after sunset. You'll have no trouble at all locating the planet, as it will be by far the brightest object in the southern sky. It is far brighter than the red star Antares, which lies nearby. Once you've located Jupiter, a look through even a small telescope will reveal four small star-like objects sitting very close to the disk, the Galilean Satellites. The instruments I'll be using on Friday night will only allow us to view these four, though it should be remembered that Jupiter has an enormous retinue of moons, over seventy at last count. These four, its largest satellites, are planets in their own right, with Ganymede even larger than the planet Mercury.

The Vagabond Astronomer will be set up in the west parking lot at Ed Austin Regional Park in East Arlington after 8:00pm. To locate the site, I've included a map to help out. Hope to see you there!

ADDENDUM - 21 Sept.

A tropical depression formed in the Gulf of Mexico from a series of storms that crossed the state of Florida today. The weather deteriorated and ended up clouding up the night, so the little event was called off. Sigh. Oh well, there is next week...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Largest Planetarium Dome - Infinite In All Directions

I read today in "Sky & Telescope" about the Shoemaker Open-Sky Planetarium in Chico, California. What's so special about this facility? Its outdoors; there is no dome. For all intents and purposes, it is a traditional planetarium minus a projector and a dome on which to project.
Who'd have thought?
For the past few years, I've been toying with the idea of either making a portable planetarium or building a small dome in some equally small community. Well, this little idea pretty much blew me away. It seems that all this time I was missing the point; who needs a portable planetarium when you have the whole sky, and let's face it, it follows you wherever you go. Think about it; all you really need is a laser pointer. The visitors can bring their own lawn chairs or other contrivances (inflatable mattresses to basically look straight up would be nice).
What is needed to make this idea really work is other media.
At the Shoemaker, they have computer guided telescopes with cameras attached. Each of the visitors is given a small handheld viewer to see the objects selected.
Nice. Complicated but nice.
What makes a proper planetarium work is the other media present. The sky by itself is great, but if you're talking about, say, M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, you need to go a step further, otherwise you're pointing towards what appears to be a blank spot between two stars. Either a canned image or a live CCD image would be just spectacular. The trick is how to present it. Perhaps an LCD projector and screen located in the center of the gathering, one that can be completely blackened with a simple shutter mechanism.
This has potential. Must dwell on this some more.

Monday, June 04, 2007

So Little Time...

I've been very busy. Life has a way of doing that to you; it sneaks up on and swallows all of your spare time to the point where things that matter so much to you suddenly get placed further and further on the back-burner, to the point where they verge on being forgotten altogether.
While that's not the case with my love for astronomy (I've started a column and have been writing it for the past two months), it has become the case with my Vagabonding.
I just don't do it as much as I once did. And that's sad for me.
What I loved so much about my form of astronomy is that I didn't have schedules to keep, agendas to order. I just picked a night, a location, and I did it. Very simple. It was sidewalk astronomy with an edge. It worked for me.
It's not that I haven't done events, I've done several in the past month alone. But these were always meticulously planned and plotted The spontaneity ceased to matter. Now, don't get me wrong, the NEFAS sponsored events have to be organized. Not that I have anything against organization; for those events to run properly, there has to be organization. At least a basic plan of some sort.
The whole idea behind the Vagabond Astronomer was to bring the stars to the people; "One man, on a mission...". They were random events. Set up the scopes where the people are, that was the idea. Book store parking lots, city parks, sidewalks. If there was room for telescope or two, I'd try to be there.
Even beyond that, though, is the issue of time. Somehow, I've managed to mismanage my time to the point where I can't set aside even a few hours a week, even just a couple, for this noble (and yes, it is) endeavor. I don't watch much television (darned little at all, in fact). Surely, I can fit this in.
I also miss writing on this blog. Somehow, the column has supplanted the blog, but it's not nearly as personal. It isn't necessary for the two to dovetail into one another, they should remain separate. How long does it take me to write? Not much time at all, in fact, once the creative juices are flowing. And when it comes to astronomy, my mind is, well, always on it. I won't lie about that; I am obsessed with it! And I want to share that. And I've not been doing it as well as I used to.
How long will it be before the Vagabond is up and running again? Sooner than you think.
I hope.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Telescopes & People

I've made many discoveries in the past twelve years as a space advocate and astronomy educator. When dealing with a visually attuned public, you need visuals, be they videos, slide shows or models. The discoveries I made deal with the fragile nature of these items.
The first thing I discovered is that regular commercial model kits are far too fragile, the more detailed the more fragile. Many has been the time that a model of the space shuttle has returned to me with parts askew. So, I've resorted to making sturdier models.
The same is true of telescopes. Especially when one considers the costs of even a small telescope versus the costs of even a complex model (which is usually in the form of hours spent building it).
The problem is that even simple telescopes and their mounts can be sensitive affairs. True, it is pretty difficult to break a metal mounting bracket, but that isn't the real issue here. The real issue is that, aside from one telescope design, most telescopes are really not designed to be used in large group settings.
The most common telescope mount is the altitude/azimuth (or alt/az) mount. This is the one you'll find on most cheap telescopes and it provides the two most basic planes of movement; lateral and vertical (that is, side to side and up and down). For low power, this is an ideal setup. Their problem lies in the fact that the Earth is rotating; soon the object you have them aimed at drifts out of view. Simple fix; you simply move the telescope, right? Well, you end up moving it slightly in two different planes, but again for low power, this is fine.
Astronomers overcome this by resorting to another mount design, the equatorial mount. This allows the telescope to track objects by being aligned with the Earth's axis; its movements match right ascension (RA) and declination (DEC). Two stay on an object is simply a modest move towards the west. Many of these mounts are motorized and will stay on their targets when properly aligned.
It's that proper alignment that is the issue here. People are people and will want to move the telescope themselves, and in doing so might move it off axis, creating a problem in trying to keep an object on target.
What do you do in either case?
For a long time, I'd only take one telescope on my outings. That's great for basic Vagabonding. When I'm in a class setting, though, it gets trying, so several scopes have to be brought. To keep people from bumping into one another while using the instruments it is necessary to keep them fairly distant from one another. Example; one telescope might be aimed at the Moon, another aimed at Venus and yet another aimed at the Beehive Cluster. The distance between them should be better than ten feet. Sounds easy, but what usually happens is I find myself running from one instrument to another. Good exercise, at least!
Then, a visitor, in their desire to be helpful, turns the wrong thing, sometimes the focuser. I'm serious here, some people think that that will move the telescope, or that the previous person unfocused the telescope and that the target hasn't drifted out of the field but is simply extremely out of focus. In their frustration, they then start to move the scope itself around, pointing everywhere in an effort to find the object. Try as they may, it simply adds to their frustration, followed by the plaintive calls of "Mr. Little? We lost the target!"
But this is not really a grumble, for there are solutions. First, let them know that telescopes are sensitive by their nature and that if something does go wrong, simply call for the professional on site (me). Second, because there will be those who want to help, give a basic explanation of the parts of the scope; which ones they can touch, which ones they shouldn't ("you can move the scope if you want to, but please don't touch the focuser"). Third, and this is tied to the second point, make sure that finder scopes are properly aligned and explain its purpose before your viewing begins. Trust me here; I failed to do that on my last outing as I was running late. There were many very bright people in that group who could have done the job, but since I hadn't done mine, they couldn't help. Lesson learned; take time to make sure they are aligned. By following those rules, a group viewing can be guaranteed to be a success. Believe me, the teacher has been taught!
Now, what sort of telescope is best suited for large public viewings? The Dobsonian. Easy to use, easy to setup, compact mount (try transporting eight tripods in a minivan and you'll long for Dobsonians!), the Dobsonian is perhaps the best tool for the trick.
And I lack one.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Tale Of Two Worlds

"Just how many planets are in the sky right now?"

That's a question I've heard time and time again. That is actually a complicated question that has a few answers. The truth is that they are all in the sky... the question really comes down to which ones can you see?
Fortunately for us, there are two fine examples visible right now after sunset, Venus in the west and Saturn in the east. Both are glorious in their own right, with brilliant Venus heading towards elongation (its highest point in the western sky, which it will reach on June 9th) and golden Saturn sitting in Leo, not too far from the bright star Regulus (but far out shining it).

The First Star I see Tonight... Isn't...

(image courtesy of "Your Sky")

A star, that is. Even before the last traces of sunlight fade in the west, Venus blazes, very much like that ephemeral "diamond in the sky". Wait until approximately 7pm ET (8pm EDT) to get a good idea of why this planet is frequently mistaken for airplane landing lights (or a UFO!); it is extremely bright, rivaling only the Moon in the night sky. Right now, as viewed telescopically from Terra Firma, it looks for all the world like a gibbous moon. In fact, when viewed from Earth, Venus goes through phases. This is what Galileo discovered in 1610 (both Mercury and Venus appear to go through phases; however Venus is by far the easiest to observe. You need a pretty good telescope to observe Mercury's phases). When Galileo made his observations of Venus, he confirmed the Copernican model of the Solar System to be correct, that the planets orbit the Sun.

(image courtesy IMSS - Firenze)

Even with a modest telescope, you can observe these phases. However, they will not be truly startling until after maximum elongation (again, June 9th), when it will cease to be even and ellipsoid and start to go through quarter and crescent phases. Not only will the phases be more dramatic, Venus will appear larger, since this portion of its orbit rakes it closer to our Earth. For now, Venus should appear as a small, albeit lopsided, disk. It is best viewed with at least 50 magnification in order to show even this (more on that, but next...).

The Lord Of The Rings

Well, I'm pretty sure that that particular label has been applied to Saturn perhaps too often, but was once applied to yours truly in an article in the Palm Beach Post way back in December 2001.

(image courtesy Palm Beach Post)

But this is about the planet Saturn and not me. So much has already been written about Saturn already but I feel that there is always room for more. Saturn is simply amazing these spring evenings. It passed opposition (when it lies opposite the Sun in our skies, effectively coming up at sunset) on February 10th, at which point it was at this orbit's closest approach. So, it is still relatively nearer to us at this time than it normally is.

(image courtesy of "Your Sky")

It is important to remember, though, that the planet Saturn is already 9 times larger than Venus (and its near size twin Earth) and lies over ten times more distant. Its rings span out over twice the planets diameter as well. What does this mean to us here on Earth?
Basically, it means that even a modest telescope with as low as 20 magnification shows Saturn as more than just a disk; it looks like a grain of rice at low power, and 50x and above show the true majesty of the ring system.
This is a great time for observing both planets, but as summer rolls along and Venus begins its descent back into the sunset, the skies will become even more wonderful as Saturn joins it in the west for a celestial rendezvous. Stay tuned!

The Vagabond will be setting up at Ed Austin Regional Park off of McCormick Road at 7pm on March 13th, near the western most parking lots. While light pollution will no doubt be a problem, we will be looking at two fairly bright objects. A little further afield and later in the week NEFAS and my fellow members will be out at Osceola National Park on the night of the 17th as well.

Hope to see you soon.