A Night With the Perseids

Last night was another opportunity to go out to Parmentier’s Observatory in Luxemburg, WI., which is operated by our astronomy club. And although it was the night before the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, Amy and I went out to see the show. Tomorrow may be the peak, but in Wisconsin, you go when it’s clear because you never know what the weather may bring tomorrow.

The club hosts Parmentier’s Observing Weekends (POW’s) once a month for most of the year (usually around the time the moon is a crescent, or will be rising when it won’t interfere with our observing).  Amy and I usually drive out before it gets dark so we can socialize and get our gear organized, but last night we didn’t arrive until well after dark at around 10:00 p.m.

The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the car was the Milky Way right overhead – something we never see here in town. We could tell immediately that we’d picked a good night to go. I had been concerned that the ground might be mushy and that it might be humid because we had received over two inches of rain the day before, but sunshine and a windy day had created a beautiful sky with very low humidity.

Fortunately we both thought of bringing warm clothes, and immediately bundled up in our winter coats, hats and gloves despite the fact that it was August 10th. In addition to the 64 degree temperature, we were just a few miles away from Lake Michigan, and the wind was blowing steady from the North at about 12 mph.

We grabbed Amy’s reclining lawn chairs and our backpacks and headed towards the small group that was already nested at the base of the dome. We found Gerry lying on the ground snuggled up on an air mattress, Gary fiddling with his camera equipment waiting to snap a good picture, and Wayne just kicking back and enjoying the sky. Normally, if the weather’s good, there’s a much bigger crowd, but the wind meant the dome wouldn’t be opened and small scopes would be jittery.

We set up our lawn chairs facing Cassiopeia, piled on a few blankets, and settled in. Amy was also just there just to watch, but I took the opportunity to finally get started on the Astronomical League’s Meteor program. Recording meteors was very clumsy at first,  but it didn’t take me long to get the hang of it. I managed to record 20 meteors between 10:45 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. And since everyone would Ooooo and Ahhhh in unison every time one whizzed by, I know I only missed two or three while I was busy recording.

I personally usually find observing very stressful. I know my way around the sky a little, but get lost when I’m trying to find things in an unfamiliar area of the sky while juggling heavy binoculars, sky charts, pencils, red flashlights, watches and clipboards in the dark – all this while battling mosquitoes, ticks, dew and feet that are frozen in the snow. It is not a hobby for the faint of heart.

But last night it was wonderful, just relaxing on a reclining lawn chair and admiring all the stars. The companionship was warm, the jokes were funny, and all the while we listened to 70’s music playing softly on Gerry’s radio, trying to be the first one to guess who the artist was. It turns out that Wayne is quite the 70’s trivia master, and we learned all sorts of little-known facts about Neil Diamond, Elton John and Billie Joel  – I guess there’s more to learn on an astronomy outing than just about the night’s sky.

But by 1:00 a.m. Amy and I were feeling cold and sleepy so we packed up and headed home. And as I fell asleep in my warm, cozy bed,  I thought of all the meteors I would miss as they sparkled across the sky all through the night.

Lynn

Curiosity

The mere mention of an upcoming celestial event usually draws minimal attention from my family.  Their participation is usually confined to me excitedly recounting the details of an eclipse or a meteor shower, while they half listen to me.  So on the day of the landing of the latest Mars rover, Curiosity, I was pretty sure I would be the only one glued to the computer at 12:30am.

I set my alarm in case I fell asleep, crawled in bed and turned on the TV. I was passing the time going back and forth from the summer Olympics and the NASA coverage online.  I reviewed the video describing the EDL (entry, descent and landing), otherwise known as the ‘7 minutes of terror’. It’s during this time that we’re all on equal footing. All of us, mission control scientists and scientist wannabe’s (like me!) are all equally helpless as to the outcome of the descent.

I decided to use my Kindle because it would be just me watching.The Kindle screen is small, about 5″ x 7″, but it’s big enough for me to watch with.  At 12:20am, the house was quiet; my husband was tucked in bed next to me, sound asleep. I turned off the lights and was now just sitting in the glow of the Kindle.  Suddenly my phone chirped. Who in the world is texting me at this hour? It was my daughter, texting me from her bedroom. “7 minutes of terror starts right now. Live cam online.” Hmm, they do listen sometimes! “I’m watching” I replied.

The door to my room opened and in walked my daughter all bundled up in a blanket. She shuffled over to my side of the bed and I slid over making room for her to sit. “Here”, I said, “take this” as I gave her one of my ear buds.  There we sat ear to ear, tethered to the Kindle, getting caught up in the excitement! They would announce each step in the EDL and I’d quickly explain what was happening.  (Thank goodness I watched that video!) Finally – Curiosity was on the surface of Mars! She laughed and I let out a quiet ‘yeah!’ We watched mission control erupt in celebration! They laughed, cried, high fived and hugged each other. It was such a proud moment for them and for the entire country!

We watched together until the first images from Mars came through. Then as quickly as she shuffled in, she shuffled out and back to her room.  While the Astro Babe in me was amazed at the success of the Curiosity landing, the mom in me was cherishing the moment spent huddled under the blanket with her daughter, watching history unfold.

Amy

I Met a Moon Walker!

As you may know (if you read my bio), I grew up with the Apollo missions. My dad was a big influence there, following all the missions. He collected photos and other memorabilia. For the Apollo 17 mission, he bought the mission guide from NASA. While going through some old boxes after he died, I found the guide and took it home.

In 2006 Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmidt was to make an appearance at an Astronomical League convention. He was to be the keynote speaker. I couldn’t wait! I signed up as soon as the registration form became available. I bought tickets for my family, hoping that someday they’d appreciate what an honor it was to meet one of only 12 men to have walked on the moon.

I immediately thought about the mission guide. I thought it would be a nice tribute to my dad’s love of Apollo to get an autograph.

During the evening meal, before the appearance of Jack Schmidt, I was so excited. I didn’t know if we’d have the chance to meet him or if he would be signing autographs. He gave his talk about mining the moon, an idea I’m not on board with, but it was very interesting.

After the talk I was pleased to hear that he would meet with people and sign a copy of his book. I didn’t buy the book, but was hopeful that he would sign the guide. When I got to the front of the line I showed him the guide. He very politely declined to sign it, but told me there was a place I could send it on the Internet for signing.

I was disappointed, but I understood. The mission guide sits unsigned on my bookshelf. It means too much to me to risk sending it through the mail. I was happy with the meeting. Though I didn’t get my autograph, I did get a handshake, a picture and a big check mark on my bucket list!

Amy

 

 

 

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Far, far away

What timing! I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to help my astronomically-neophyte Sweetie grasp the idea of time traveling with stars. When we look at Barnard’s Star, we’re not seeing how it looks at this moment – we’re seeing what it looked like six years ago because that’s how long it took the light to reach us. It’s something us long-time amateurs take for granted, but it’s not an easy concept.

Last week while we were watching the CBS Evening News, a segment came on about how astronomers have discovered the oldest and most distant spiral galaxy yet – located roughly 10.7 billion light years from us.

I turned to see if Sweetie had registered the immensity of that distance, and could tell immediately by the expression on his face that it had.

“Wow! What’d he say? Like 10 billion light years away? Ten billion! But wait, we’re looking back in time. So we’re seeing how it looked 10 billion years ago, right?”

Bingo.

But later it occurred to me that if I had been watching the news by myself, that number would have probably just bounced off my forehead. Do you remember how blown away you were the first time a reality like that really sunk into your mind?

I guess we all get jaded – tossing around huge numbers and distances and sizes, and in the process, have forgotten the excitement of what they represent. So I always appreciate it when something happens to remind me of the vastness of it all. I mean think of it – it’s taken 10 billion years for the light from BX442 to reach us. Ten billion!

Hmm. So now I’m wondering what BX442 looks like today?…

Lynn

Getting Started

Learning about the night sky can be overwhelming. Where do you start? What gadgets do you need? Should you buy a telescope, or use binoculars?

The good news is that you can do a lot of observing without any fancy gadgets, so if you don’t already own a telescope, don’t go buy one just yet.  Learning the constellations and some major stars will give you a strong foundation for future night sky viewing.

A handy tool is a planisphere, which is available at many bookstores. Get one that is a good size, at least about 10 inches in diameter. It also helps to have someone who knows the constellations and can help you get started. There is also some great free astronomy software available to download such as Stellarium. This can help you see what’s up on the night you plan to go out.

A good place to start is the Big Dipper. Find it, then hold the planisphere up over your head so you’re looking up at it. Turn the planisphere to the orientation of the Big Dipper matches what you see in the sky. Now start to go out from there, follow the arc of the handle, where does it take you? Extend the line from the two front stars of the cup, where do they point?

The key is to get out and look up!  See how many constellations you can identify. Before long you’ll be pointing out Orion, with it’s bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigal, or watching for the summer triangle with Vega, Deneb and Altair. The more you look the more you’ll find and the more you’ll want to look!

By doing this you’ll be honing your observing skills; training your eye to recognize the night sky. You’ll soon be moving on to star charts, star hopping and looking for star clusters, distant galaxies and those elusive faint fuzzy messier objects!

Don’t worry – we’ll be here to help you!!

Amy

 

The Big Picture

Last week I attended the July meeting for the local astronomy club. Dick, one of the clubs’ long-time members, gave a talk on his experiences while earning the Astronomical League’s Local Galaxy Group & Neighborhood Introduction certificate.

As I sat there listening to his talk, I began to realize that, in all my years of studying and observing and hanging around with other amateur astronomers, I never gave much serious thought to what was just outside our galaxy. By basically ignoring the Local Group, I’m really missing the big picture.

I needed to regain that perspective – that we’re bound to these 54+ galaxies by a gravitational center, and that the Messier Marathon is more than just trying to locate fuzzy objects in the night sky.

Dick’s talk has got me curious about the Local Group, and it is research for the future. That’s one of the things that makes astronomy such a great hobby – just when I think I’ve started to figure everything out, a whole new door opens up and blows me away!

Lynn

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Diamonds and Moonlight

Sitting at my daughter’s late May season opener, I feel as though I’m in disguise. I may look like just another softball mom, eating sunflower seeds, watching the scoreboard and cheering for my girl as she pops a fly ball into left field.  Of course I’m here for her, but the Astro Babe in me always looks up no matter where I am. I’m watching the game, but I’m fully aware of the moon, hanging above third base.

It’s a beautiful waxing gibbous moon. The sea of tranquility winks at me as the man in the moon peeks around the shadow. I smile. I can almost feel the moonglow on my face. “Good catch!” I yell as my shortstop catches a fly ball and brings me back to the game.

This will be our last summer at the park. It’s her last season. No more concession-stand duty. No more sand in my eyes. No more long weekend tournaments and flip flop tan lines. The softball games may be over, but there’ll always be a moon to smile on me, waxing and waning over and over again. It’s time to dust off my scope!

Amy

Welcome!

We’re the Astro Babes! Amy & Lynn – two women interested in all things related to astronomy and space.

Ten years ago, we both walked alone into a local astronomy club meeting that was predominantly men. As lone women and new members, we teamed up to attend a club pizza party, and over time, we both found it convenient to have another woman to attend club events with. Eventually, we became good friends.

But let’s be clear – we are not astronomy experts! We’re just in it for the fun, and to learn as much as we can. Astronomy and science is a hobby that we squeeze into the rest of our busy lives.

Recently, it occurred to us that there are other women like us out there – women who did not choose astronomy as their career, but nonetheless have a deep passion and appreciation for the night sky. And that’s why Astro Babes was born.

We’ll be adding features highlighting some of our astronomy adventures, including Lynn & Amy go to Space Camp, and Lynn & Amy Search for Meteorites. We are also going to blog regularly about astronomy and space news that we find interesting, and you are welcome to share your thoughts and ideas. After all, if you’re reading this blog and you’re a woman, you’re already an Astro Babe! Come join us!!

Lynn & Amy