Over the weekend, Amy celebrated yet another birthday. In an effort to keep things uncomplicated in the past, we’ve acknowledged each other’s momentous occasions by simply going out for lunch. It usually includes Chinese food.
This year I thought about splurging and getting her something a little more spectacular. Sure, it is a little pricey, but what Astro Babe wouldn’t appreciate being one of the first 1,000 to get a ride on SpaceShipTwo?!? Nothing like speeding along in space at 2500 mph to get your heart rate up.
However, I read this morning that after the first 1,000 people have taken a ride, Richard Branson is planning on dropping the price from $250,000 down to $200,000. Not one to waste money, I guess that means that Amy will have to wait until next year. This year, she’ll have to once again settle for a card and a birthday lunch with chopsticks.
Sorry Amy. In the meantime, Happy Birthday! And have some cake!
Have you see those weird lights in the sky? Chances are their not UFO’s. Some of them may be Iridium flares! In November I posted about some fun ways to add a quick observing session to a family gathering. One thing I mentioned were Iridium flares. I thought I’d talk a little more about them and what they are.
A satellite flare is sunlight bouncing off the reflective surface of a satellite and sending it directly back to earth. The satellite will appear to flare, or brighten suddenly then disappear. Here’s a link to an animation that shows what a flare looks like.
Iridium satellites are a group of communication satellites that orbit the earth in low earth orbit at about 485 miles above the earth. The ‘constellation’ as it’s called, consists of 66 satellites. They orbit the earth from pole to pole every 100 minutes.
The satellite’s unique shape of three polished door sized panels focuses sunlight directly down to earth, causing what we call ‘Iridium Flares’.
While you may see one of these by chance, you’re more likely to spot one with some outside help. One of our favorite sites is Heavens-above. Once you set it to your location you can click on the link to Iridium Flares. You’ll get a list of visible flares for your location, the brightness, altitude and other pertinent information.
Some of these flares are so bright they are visible in the daytime! I have yet to see one of those, the trouble is that they are dangerously close to the sun (from our perspective) and very difficult to see.
These are always fun to see, and fun to impress your family with. Find out when a bright flare will happen, then plan to be outside when it does! Make your ‘prediction’ and amaze your friends and family! It’s no rabbit out of a hat, but still fun.
I was so excited when I bought my Star Atlas 2000. After a few years in the club I finally felt the need for a good star chart. I was no longer intimidated by the seemingly chaotic pages of the star atlas, and could finally make sense of the thousands of dots.
When my book came in the mail I sat like a kid at Christmas, on the livingroom floor with the book sprawled out in front of me. I carefully opened each page, looking for familiar constellations and star names. It was so amazing. I felt as though I finally had the knowledge and the tools to do some serious observing.
I spent hours prepping for my first Messier Marathon using the book. Armed with sticky arrows I located all my targets on the maps and wrote down the page numbers on my messier list.
How quickly things change! This fast moving and ever changing world of cell phones, computers and tablets has also affected the world of observational astronomy. There are apps out there that allow stargazers to organize their time more efficiently, and to save some space in the ever growing bag of gadgets needed to observe. The electronic star chart has done away with the need to drag out the book, my precious book. It allows us to access with literally the touch of a finger the wonders of the night sky.
Lynn and I have used an electronic star chart to find asteroid Vesta, planets and Messier objects. We both have a small tablet, mine being a Kindle Fire. The app I use is Distant Suns, developed by Mike Smithwick. It’s a great app that allows me to carry the universe in my pocket. I can search for messier objects or just check out which constellations will be out tonight. I love using it and I love being able to put my tablet in my purse or my duffel bag and bring it anywhere.
So what about my star charts? Well, I’m not ready to get rid of them quite yet. I love how they look, how they feel and what they represent. Yes I know, I put too much emotional attachment on things. That’s why I can’t get rid of stuff like the 35mm camera my dad gave me, my prom dress from 1976, my VHS collection of Star Trek movies and the little pink dress both my girls wore in pictures when they were babies.
Our good friend Tony was out stargazing last week and sent us these spectacular pictures of Pan-STARRS (Comet C/2011 L4).
When Amy and I were at our club’s Messier Marathon this past weekend, some club members were showing off recent pictures of the comet, and it occurred to Amy and I that we should really get out and take another look at it before it’s gone.
Tony reports that the comet was still visible in binoculars last Thursday (4/4/13), and that he and a couple of other club members were able to view the comet with the tail and M31 at the same time using wider field binoculars.
He also reports that the comet is now about 20 degrees above the horizon in the evening sky just as the sun sinks below the horizon, and is difficult to see because of the sky glow. He said that mornings are better here in Wisconsin, when the comet is up 15-20 degrees around 4:00 – 5:00 a.m.
But as Tony notes in his email, we need to have a morning soon when it isn’t either raining or snowing, and those days are few this time of year in Wisconsin. Just this early morning, we received at least three inches of new snow. I’m hoping that all this precipitation will actually bring those May flowers soon!
Although we don’t have a chapter nearby, our club has used the resources of the
International Dark-Sky Network, an organization that focuses on raising awareness of the adverse affects of light pollution. We support them not just because light pollution and sky glow make it harder for us to see faint objects, but because light pollution causes many other problems as well.
For astronomers, sky glow reduces the contrast between celestial objects, and makes it much harder to see fainter objects. That forces me, Amy, and all our fellow amateurs here to drive farther and farther to find a dark sky.
In the war against light, we can flock our telescope tubes with a dark cloth or use light shields. We can also use filters on our scopes that filter out the spectral lines that are emitted by sodium and mercury-vapor lamps, but these filters also reduce the brightness of objects and limit the use of higher magnifications.
Although it’s an inconvenience for us, scientists are finding that light pollution is a much more serious problem for nocturnal animals and plants. Artificial lighting affects how animals and insects interact. It prevents zooplankton from eating algae, which contributes to those nasty algae blooms that kill off lake plants and lower the quality of water. Moths and nocturnal insects change their pollination patterns, and artificial lighting causes all sorts of problems for Sea Turtles, frogs, and salamander hatchlings.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that four to five million birds are killed each year after being attracted to tall, lit towers. Migrating birds may also need polarized moonlight for navigation, which becomes invisible under heavy light pollution.
So light pollution is not just a problem for us amateurs, but also for our environment as well. If you or your club are not aware of or supporting the activities of the International Dark-Sky Network, this is a good time to get educated. Their website is also a terrific resource if, for example, you have a neighbor with a new sodium lamp that lights up the farms for miles, or you hear that a new car dealership is going up in your town.
Spend some time on their website and learn all about their efforts. You can help spread their message in your community, and you will be doing some good for your fellow astronomers and for the environment as well.