Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Requiem for Charlotte

There are more things that come out at night than just the stars.
For the past six months, we've been treated to the goings on in an arachnid's world. A small spider had taken up residency in our doorway. She was very methodical; at sunset, she'd come out and setup her web, and before sunrise (usually), she'd have it removed. Her web just occupied a corner but covered a span of perhaps 450mm. She was thorough and neat.
Within a few weeks of her setting up shop in our doorway, she simply kept the heavier threads up and would remove the intricate inner silk, and we let her. She was earning her keep. We named her Charlotte for obvious reasons.
In time, she ceased retreating into her cranny as we came up and simply sat in the center of her web, occasionally shaking it. Even then, it was just a couple of shakes, and then she'd go about her business. It was almost an arachnid wave; "hello, mammalian bipeds!"
In her own way, she was beautiful, with markings rather reminiscent of a grey tabby cat (not unlike my own Lexi, in fact). These were the markings Nature gave her for her role as a predator. Predators in nature are not evil; they serve a very important place. Spiders, no matter how frightening or repugnant they may seem to some, are remarkable. I will admit, they have startled me whenever I've come across a large one in an awkward place, but soon I am simply admiring them.
Orb spinners, like Charlotte, are very common, but she was uncommon. She seemed to have developed a relationship that was mutually beneficial.
Unfortunately, small spiders do not have long lives, and we had no idea how old she was when she made a home in our doorway, though she was clearly an adult, if a young one. As the weather began to cool, she began to slow down. I knew that with the first chills of October she was having a hard time. Her webs were shrinking, her movements slowing. Several nights, she would simply not come out.
This morning, as I was heading out for work, I glimpsed up. She was hanging out of her nook. One of her rear legs was extended. I blew on her once, but she did not move.
She was gone.
I waited until I returned home to remove her. By that time, she had fallen out of her web altogether, and was laying on the doorstep. I carefully picked up her body. I've never cried over an invertebrate, but for her, I got choked up.

One of the things that saddens me is that I never took a photograph of her web when it was in its glory, with her perched in the center. But I at least wanted to remember her, even if in the somewhat macabre death photo above.
She was magnificent, and I will honestly miss her.
Ad astra per somnium, dear Charlotte.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Telescopes as a Measure of Maturity?

Whilst researching some small telescope designs (an obsession of mine, mind you), I keep coming up with a trend on Google that actually bothers me; too often, it seems, online retailers refer to small telescopes as "children's". This doesn't seem to apply to many of the better made brands (Orion, Meade, Celestron) but to off brands, bordering on "department store" quality (which can vary wildly; the term is at best a misnomer). Some of these off brands, though, are actually made by the same companies (almost all of which are located in China) that make similar instruments for the big names. Just a simple comparison of some of these "children's" models reveals their similarities to their better named kin.
That's the crux of a bigger problem. Our society has unusual views of hobbies that are of the scientific bent, as they are almost always seen as the realm of young people. Admittedly, there was a time in my youth when many, if not most, of my friends had hobbies such as electronics, bird watching, model rocketry and yes astronomy, but today, these hobbies seem quaint. Young people today, it seems, are more interested in computer games, music (nothing wrong with that, admittedly) and sports (again, not necessarily bad) than more intellectual pursuits. Hobbies that lean towards the educational are looked down upon, if not derided, in popular society. The outcast, the loner, is often times portrayed as having hobbies like that; the so-called "nerd". Younger children are many times persuaded into these hobbies to help them learn (given today’s amount of homework, though, I wonder how they can find time), but by the time they become teenagers, the risk of being teased (or worse, outcast) makes them put these things aside.
By labeling these smaller telescopes as "children's", could it be that we are implying that they will best be enjoyed by youngsters or nerdy teenagers? Talk about a marketing strategy that is bound to fail. If these retailers would take the time to examine these products a bit more thoroughly they might find that labeling them as something bordering on "toys" is a bad tactic. It certainly seems to imply a real lack of understanding about the subject, if not a severe lack of interest.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Serious Work With Very Small Telescopes

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to what the smallest practical size for a telescope can be. The Rev. TW Webb, in his seminal work "Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes”, made mention of a rather small telescope with a tiny aperture that he used for very basic observing. It must also be remembered that Galileo's first telescopes were very small (as was the one used by Giovanni Battista Hodierna for his deep sky observing). While many amateurs shirk at the idea of anything smaller than a 4"/100mm being used for serious observing, it should be remember that many beginners do not have the sort of money that sort of instrument almost always costs.
If a beginner has graduated from binoculars but still lacks the funds to purchase a larger instrument, a typical 60mm would probably suffice. However, I am curious to see what can be done with even smaller instruments. The first telescope I did any serious observing with was a Tasco 50mm, and was able to make out many of the brighter Messier objects. What I am curious to see, though, is what can be seen with a 35mm or 40mm instrument.
40mm telescopes are actually out there. Meade sold a nice one that was available through Wal-Mart for a while. Let me qualify that; the main objective was nice, the rest was somewhat questionable; the diagonal in mine had a second surface mirror, the eyepieces were cheap .965" units, the interior of the OTA was left in bare aluminum and the tripod was a little tabletop unit that was basically useless. However, most amateur astronomers have the parts to overcome these, if not the skill.
What you can expect to see with a small telescope in this range would not be too different from the view afforded one through binoculars. There are numerous books out there dedicated to binocular stargazing that can readily cater to the small telescope user. Under good observing conditions (magnitude 5.5), a 40mm at a modest 20 power can see down to magnitude 10.5, well within the range of many deep sky objects. While resolution might not be great, for basic, lightweight stargazing, it is perfectly suitable.
At this time, I've limited most of my work with my Meade 40mm (named "Vic") to studies into Galileo's and Hodierna's observations. However, I think I might just try some actual observing with this tiny instrument.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Of Telescope Mounts and Magnification

Ask any serious amateur astronomer and they will tell you that the best type of mount for any telescope is an equatorial one, and for good reason. An equatorial mount allows you to track once you have your item centered. Not only that, but they actually make the task of finding the object easier by means of setting circles. This is crucial for distant, faint objects. However, are they truly necessary if you are going after wide swaths of sky at lower power?

Probably not.
Nothing truly illustrates this better than my 114mm short tube Newtonian "Felix". This small scope has a focal length of just 500mm, an RFT or rich field telescope. Its primary mount is an equatorial, but it is used mainly as a "sweeper", looking for faint fuzzies (it has a very old fashioned equatorial mount at that, one that does not allow the scope to be rotated. That little feature causes problems quite a bit). Does this telescope really need this mount for what it's used for? No. To be honest, equatorial mounts for low power telescopes are actually more of a hindrance than help with low power/wide field telescopes. Unless you are taking images, they are probably completely unnecessary.

Where, than, shall we set the threshold for mounts?
For my purposes, low power is anything less than 40 power (and I seldom exceed that). For most, though, the threshold might be as low as 30. Once you go past your upon threshold, an equatorial mount would probably be a better choice. Based upon my own experiences, I use the following criteria to determine which mount to use.

Alt/Az - "Sky sweeping", open clusters, stellar associations, nearby double/multiple stars, nearby galaxies, some lunar
Equatorial - Planets, lunar, double/multiple star, variable star, distant galaxies, globular clusters, distant open clusters

I prefer altitude/azimuth for a variety of reasons beyond the purely technical, though. They are much simpler and therefore require less setup time (which in the field makes a big difference). It might be harder to locate fainter, more distant objects, but with a little trial and error these can be located by starhopping. There are times, though, when an equatorial trumps these and is simply required.

For the casual reader, though, the choice of mount really depends upon a number of factors, many of them simply personal choice. I think that, really, is what matters most.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Planetarium of My Own

I've been wanting to do this for a while, and over the span of two weeks of spare time managed to finally accomplish it; I built my own planetarium projector. Okay, I admit, I did use a commercial "star projector" for the starball, but the rest I managed to hack together.

What's next? I need a dome, of course!
Little Planetarium Project #1

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A New Look At Our Milky Way Galaxy

Since the recent announcement that our Milky Way Galaxy is more than likely a two armed barred spiral, I felt it necessary to do a painting. This is my best Milky Way to date, and in a tip of the hat to Bonestell and Hardy, I decided to show it as a view from a rogue world sitting somewhat above the galactic plane. Our own Sun is lost in the glow, but if you look between the two arms in the lower section, you'll see a small yellow spot. While that's supposed to be a globular cluster between us and the main section of the galaxy, it lines up with where the Sun would be. Nice to know a little better what our neighborhood looks like.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

An Anniversary & the New Solar System

Has it really been a year already?
On 2nd of April, 2007, I started my column at Jacksonville.Com, "The First Coast Sky @ Night". I have covered a whole year's worth of astronomical tidbits, mostly the offerings that the cosmos was bringing to us on a weekly basis. It's been fun, a bit exhausting at times but something of which I'm extremely proud.
It's interesting to note that being a writer is where I started out. After seeing the first run of "Cosmos" back in late 1980, an interest in becoming a science writer began within me. When I began college in 1982, my initial major was journalism. Now, 26 years later, I've done pretty much that, albeit pro bono (wouldn't mind it as a full time job, though).
Of all the people who have passed in and out of my life, the one whom I think would have loved to have seen this was the late Dr. Sylvia Tether. Way back in 1987, during my second attempt at college, she pulled me aside and informed me that I'd make a much better writer than teacher (I had changed my major to education). She was my composition professor and rather impressed with my work. Sadly, she was killed by a drunk driver early in 1989.
At any rate, with all the foibles, bad edits and other little errors, it has been great fun. 2008 looks to be even more fun.

Jamie picked me up a copy of "11 Planets - A New View of the Solar System" by David Aguilar. As anyone (everyone) can tell, I've pretty much embraced the concept being touted here, and have decided that my old "Walk the Solar System" page has to be updated. Looking at doing a completely new page (more than likely at Google), using a Google Map API with the individual planets as markers. It's the scale I need to work on. Either way, should be fun.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Messier Madness

I've never cared for galaxies. Sad, as I live in one.
Seriously, aside from the little cluster of galaxies in Andromeda (M's 31, 32 and 110), I just haven't cared. For me, going after objects that lie far beyond our Milky Way is the stuff for far more professional astronomers than I. However, sooner or later, you find yourself in the position of having to locate them. Hence the Astronomical League's Messier Certification.
This certificate is given to those who have identified at least 70 Messier objects, record their findings and report this to the appropriate authorities (the League). It so happens that if you deduct the 40 galaxies on the list, you are left with 70 other objects. Sounds easy, right?
Not really. Some of these objects are still faint, more so than some of the galaxies. M1 (the Crab Nebula in Taurus), for instance, is less noticeable than M33 (in Triangulum). There are planetary nebulas that are difficult to pick out under even the best of conditions (M76) and faint nebula that disappear in even slightly light polluted skies (M43). Some of these galaxies turn out to be necessary to the certificate (the M31 group is the best example).
That said, I decided it was high time to get my Messier certificate and decided to nail as many of these even more distant objects during the Messier Marathon that NEFAS scheduled the weekend of the 8th and 9th of March. The clusters and most of the relatively nearby objects I've observed dozens of times before (pretty much all of the clusters on the list, in fact). I figured that it would be a cake walk. That evening, I showed up at the site with my 7 x 50mm binoculars, 4 1/2"/114mm Newtonian "Isaac", 80mm RFT refractor "Benjamin", my new 65mm ED RFT "Bruno" and my little 50mm refractor "Anne", plus eight eyepieces and plenty of hopes and gumption. I was also accompanied by my partner in life Jamie, who was there both for moral and material support.
Nature had other plans.
Late winters here in northeast Florida are fickle. Saturday the 8th was one of those fickle nights. It started out windy, but that died down not long after sunset. That was when the temperatures began to drop. NEFAS uses a pond (actually a forestry service water dip) located in the northern reaches of the Osceola Forest as its deep sky observing site. That there are mosquitoes is a given. On cold nights, a few of the larger variety can manage to get airborne and make numerous strikes, which they did for the first hour or two. After 10pm, though, the temperatures became the threat. The cold manifested itself initially with heavy dew than begun blanketing my equipment.
By midnight, I had only observed 28 objects (though it is probably 27, since I am not 100% certain that I managed a view of M74 at all), and it was now below freezing. A heavy coat of water was building up on all of my equipment, and the slightest breath caused the optics to be almost completely unusable. To further complicate the matter, every break I have ever had, and especially the adhesion that occupies the place where my gall bladder once dwelled, was throbbing. The next set of items, a group consisting primarily of galaxies, was almost at zenith, and needed to be a little further to the west due to the huge light dome that is Jacksonville. It was a good time for a nap.
When I came back out at 3am EDT (2am by my internal clock), it was worse. The frost had settled on all of my instruments now, and my adhesion hurt the worse. I decided to simply pack it in.
A few years ago, prior to the surgery that removed my gall bladder, I could have taken the other pains. But the feeling in my gut just below my ribcage was akin to being stabbed. Couple that with the frustration of not being able to see anything due to the frost... it was simply too much.
The long drive home was not as anticlimatic as I was expecting; I was actually happy. Given the conditions and my physical limitations, I did pretty good for a first attempt, even though I had seen most of those objects before. Before sinking deep into bed and a good morning's sleep, I was more determined than ever to try this again.
Next month. When it's warmer.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Operation Moonpie Results

This is the culmination of Operation Moonpie... a simple image that shows the size variation of the Moon at perigee and apogee. It's not terribly dramatic, but for a one month period is still impressive.

I am considering doing an Operation Moonpie II, where I will actually go for images of the extreme perigee and apogee. That image ought to be interesting!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Moonpie - Success!

I have been sick; I just recovered (yeah, right...) from the flu, but today was still the day; the Moon was at apogee, and I had to image it.
So, a little after 6:00am this morning, I did.
Mission accomplished. More later.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Lunar Eclipse, 20th February 2008

I have a number of devices at my disposal for imaging in astronomy but none of them really dedicated, per se; they are mostly repurposed CCTV cameras (I've mentioned this in previous posts). However, this isn't an impediment; I managed to collect a few, mainly using the Samsung and, oddly, my old Sensortech monochrome, which suddenly decided to behave beautifully (turns out the iris was stuck; it suddenly freed itself. Imagine that).

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Of Lunar Eclipses & Critters

Last night I was outside getting images of the only total lunar eclipse of 2008 (I'll be writing more on that later, including pics). Not long after totality began, I felt a presence next to my left leg.
I live in a neighborhood with plenty of cats, and for the most part they are all friendly. For a moment, I thought that one of them, a little gray tabby from a few houses down, had come and decided to keep me company.
As I was prepared to say "hey there, little guy" and lean over to pet it, I discovered that it was not a felis silvestris catus but procyon iotor... a raccoon.
This raccoon we've named "RJ" (named for the one in "Over the Hedge") and he thinks he's a cat. He's not that old, probably a year and a half, and very tame. But he is still a raccoon, a wild animal.
Wild he may be, but he was just sitting there, little forearms hanging in front of him, looking up at me with a gaze that said "hey, dude! What's up? Got grub?"
I flinched. He ran, chattering. Halfway across the lawn, he stopped, turned and looked at me, and then sauntered off.
I could have shared my beer, but it was an Amber Bock. And I don't share that.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Moonpie Begins - 14th February 2008

So, tonight, I setup two telescopes and a total of three cameras to collect the first set of images for Operation Moonpie. The weather could not have been better; cool and clear. My old Macintosh 5260 "Sofia" was running beautifully.

The two scopes used were "Bruno" (my new, modified Burgess Back Packer ED65) and "Spindrift" (a classic 60mm design from Meade). Both the color and monochrome CMOS cameras and my old Sensortech CCTV with zoom lens were used; this exact same setup will be used in two weeks.

The images collected tonight will be processed tomorrow. The rest of the images will be captured on the 28th.
Here's to clear skies two weeks from hence.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Operation Moonpie

The genesis of this idea actually lies in an image I saw sometime back in the pages of Sky & Telescope magazine. Someone had taken two images of the Moon at perigee and apogee and placed them side by side, thus showing the size difference (slight though it may sometimes be). It was pretty interesting and something I have been wanting to do ever since. Thus the beginning of Operation Moonpie.
For this task, I have a number of cameras at my disposal. The most obvious choice was one of my CMOS cameras, but finding a telescope that was capable of capturing the whole disk of the Moon (as opposed to, say, a closeup) proved to be daunting, so I decided to enlist my ancient (relatively speaking) Sensortech B&W CCTV camera with zoom lens. This has been employed before in capturing video of lunar eclipses and constellation shots. The Moon isn't particularly big, covering around half the usable screen size, but it should be large enough at maximum zoom.
To capture the image, my trusty PowerMac 5260 "Sofia" is to be employed. As usual, I'll use my Vagabond Mobile Observatory 1 setup; a large, plastic portable workbench with wheels.
I was supposed to have grabbed my first image (Moon at apogee) this morning at 6:00am. However, nature proved to be unkind, covering the sky with a thick layer of clouds. I will have another chance soon; the Moon will be at perigee on the evening of the 14th February, 2008, Valentine's Day. So, young lovers, harken if you will that big, beautiful Moon, hanging up there in the firmament at a mere 230,041 miles (370,215 km) distance, appearing larger for this special night. Two weeks later, the apogee shot (251,308 miles / 404,441 km) on the 28th. Come on, nature... need clear skies!
Finally, what does the Moonpie stand for anyway?
Nothing. I just like Moonpies.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Oops Factor

Nothing is more embarrassing to me then to make a glaring mistake. Thing is, I'm the one most likely to point it out to others. It's as if I were a high schooler who gets a zit just before the prom and makes a big deal about it; "Look at this! How can I possibly survive?!?", almost unaware that I am drawing more attention to it then if I just ignore.
Textual faux pas' are pretty common in this day and age if only because of our dependency on that marvelous invention known as spell check. Make no mistake, I prefer to write my articles in Simple Text or Text Edit (on Macintosh) or WordPad (on Windows). I want a clean interface when I write, for to me it's all about content and not appearance. On the Mac, spell check is built into OS X (except in the case of Simple Text), and they are hard to avoid. There is no spell check built into WordPad normally, however. Once I've finished writing, I usually reopen the article in Microsoft Word (2000 edition) and check for spelling.
What I am not doing, though, is proofreading my own material. I've gotten lazy, thanks to the miracle of technology.
You see, it's not the misspellings that trip me up. It's the words that occur whenever a single letter is omitted.
So, even though I went back and reread my article this time round, I still forgot to read the summary.
You'll notice I circled it.
Really need to slow down a bit. Interesting image, though, the galaxy saying, "Come here, give us hug..."