New Member of the Team

barbie-head-shotThe Astro Babes want to welcome a new guest correspondent to our team! Barbara Millicent Roberts, an astronaut and notable Martian expert from Willows, Wisconsin, will be sharing her expertise in future blogs on our website.

Often referred to as “Mars Explorer Barbie,” Ms. Roberts officially began her assignment in collaboration with NASA in August. Her assignment coincided with the first anniversary of NASA’s Curiosity rover landing on Mars.

The Astro Babes want to express their gratitude to Ms. Roberts for agreeing to act as our official Mars Correspondent, and we look forward to her contributions in the near future.

Smile – Cassini’s Watching!

Say cheese, or batman, or fuzzy pickles or whatever it takes to get that perfect smile. You’ll want to look good for this one!

On Friday July 19th the Cassini spacecraft 900 million miles from earth will be taking our picture, in an event being called “The Day the Earth Smiled”.   I imagine that this could be one of those events that you’ll look back on and remember where you were, or what you were doing when that historic photo was taken.Saturn

Now I know that to Cassini,  earth will be just a tiny blue dot, and of course no one will see you in the photo standing on top of a building with a huge “Hi Mom” sign, frantically waving your arms and staring up at the sky.  But YOU’LL know that at that moment a beautiful and historic image is being taken from many miles from earth.

While Cassini has taken several photos of the earth over the last nine years, this is the first time that the public has know about it in advance. Making this a special event!

So on Friday at between 2:27 and 2:47pm Pacific daylight time (they’ve accounted for light travel times) whether you choose to go outside and make a scene, or you just take a moment to glance outside, make sure you stop, if only for a moment and smile. You’ll be taking part in recognizing a truly amazing event!

Oh… and don’t forget to say cheese!


Analemma – Activity #1

Activity 1 So – here is the drawing I made from the dimensions of my apparatus, and the distances to both the equinoxes and the solstices.  The side marked “Gnomon” is the measurement from the ground to the height of the stick (gnomon).

I then measured the distance from the gnomon to the dots corresponding to the equinoxes and the solstices.

The drawing I used was full size. This drawing is just representative of my drawing. It’s not the actual drawing. It’s important for you to make the drawing full size in order to measure the angles for activity 1.

You will also need a protractor

For the first part of the activity – “measure the tilt of the earth’s axis using only your analemma and apparatus measurements.”

Take your protractor and measure angle a, then angle b. Then subtract b from a. This will be approximately 23 degrees which is the tilt of the earth’s axis.

Next – using your protractor measure the angle marked ‘latitude’. This is – you guessed it – your latitude!

Yea! One down  – three to go! Up next – Activity #2: with reference only to your analemma and measured dimensions of your observing apparatus, calculate the Sun’s path in the sky and produce a sketch or plot to depict that path.

Hmmmm – getting tougher!!


The Analemma – Or, how I spent my summer vacation.


And my spring break, Christmas vacation, birthday and, well you get the idea.

So I spent the last year of my life running home at lunch, watching weather reports and planning when I could get the next dot on my analemma. So here’s the end result. Yes, that’s it.

I was thrilled to see the figure 8, however as you can see, I’m a little off center. It should be going straight up the center of the page. I’m a little off to the left. That means that I took my readings a tad early, a result of taking readings at noon by the clock. I should have used solar noon.

Solar noon is when the sun is at it’s highest in the sky. It actually happens at different times everyday, but you can calculate the ‘average’ time of solar noon. File that under ‘things to do differently next time’. HA – next time – I don’t think so!

Before I took it off the frame, I measured the distance from the tip of the gnomon to the dots marking the solstices and the equinoxes. I also had to measure the exact height of the gnomon.

These measurements are needed to complete the first activity, which is: with reference only to your analemma and measured dimensions of your observing apparatus, calculate (1) the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane, and (2) your observing Latitude.

Easy right? Well as it turns out, not too bad! But you’ll have to stay tuned!



One Small Cut by Obama – One Giant Loss for Mankind

Kepler Space Telescope

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the header of this blog, but I as soon as I read it, I realized it fit my topic nicely.

Four weeks ago, I wrote about the impending demise of the Hubble Space Telescope because there is no more Space Shuttle to make repairs or bring it spare parts. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the death of the Herschel Space Telescope, which occurred because it ran out of liquid helium – once again, because there is no more Space Shuttle.

Today I read of another likely casualty of Obama’s decision to prematurely retire our Space Shuttle fleet, a fleet that had only completed about 40% of its serviceable life expectancy. The Kepler Space Telescope, launched on March 7, 2009, will be the next victim of the budget cuts. A faulty steering wheel may end the mission of the $600 million telescope.

In order to keep its four solar panels facing the sun, Kepler must make a 90-degree roll every three months. One of the steering wheels failed last year and another failed last week. Kepler can continue to work for the next few months, and ground control will try a different mode of steering to keep it serviceable. But a house call by a mission specialist could have guaranteed that its mission continued for some time to come.

Kepler’s mission, expected to last until 2016, was to survey the Milky Way galaxy and uncover Earth-size planets that fall within the habitable zone. These discoveries would be used to estimate the number of Earth-size planets that exist in our galaxy and our known-universe. It would also reveal more about the orbits and distribution of other Earth-like planets, and give us a list of places where astronomers could search for extraterrestrial life. As of this January 2,740 Earth-sized exoplanets had been found in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, including a pair located just 1,200 light years away.

The James Webb Space Telescope,  scheduled to launch in 2018, will help in the search for exoplanets. Other planet-hunting missions include the ESA’s Cheops (CHaaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) launch in 2017, and a NASA 2017 launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

But in budget cut land, those launches are a long way away. I guess all we can do now is cross our fingers and elect an administration that has its priorities straight.


Star Charts – A Thing of the Past?

star chartI 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.

Well….maybe the prom dress can finally go!

Supporting the International Dark-Sky Network

Although we don’t have a chapter nearby, our club has used the resources of the

The effects of light pollution.
The effects of light pollution.

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.


The Clock is Ticking

Following its launch on April 24, 1990, the Hubblehubble Space Telescope (HST) got off to a shaky start. But after the 1993 repair mission and four more house calls by Space Shuttle astronauts, the Hubble went on to observe more than 30,000 celestial targets and amass more than half a million pictures of our universe.

The Hubble was designed to be deployed, captured, and serviced by Space Shuttles, and now that the Shuttle program has ended, it’s just a matter of time before the Hubble goes dark. That time is sooner than we realize.

The HST is only expected to remain operational until some time next year, with scientists squeezing out every last possible photograph.

In the meantime, NASA is working on the Hubble’s replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to launch in 2018. Technology has moved forward since the launch pillars-of-creationof the Hubble in 1990, and the new $5 billion telescope will carry technology that is much more sophisticated. Slated to launch in 2014, JWST will orbit much higher than the Hubble (1 million miles from the Earth’s surface verses 347 miles) and will use infrared technology to peer much deeper into our universe.

The original plan was to recapture the dying Hubble with a Space Shuttle and house it in the Smithsonian as a national treasure. However, without the Shuttle program, there is no way to bring it safely back to Earth.

Hubble could remain in a decaying orbit until sometime between 2019 and 2032 but it weighs 24,500 pounds (as much as two full-grown elephants) and is as long as a large school bus. If it were to decay and then descend on its own, parts of the Hubble’s main mirror and support structure will most likely survive. Guess we can’t have that big mirror landing in downtown Chicago during rush hour. Carina Nebula

The last visit to the Hubble by mankind will be by a robotic spacecraft that will attach itself to the telescope and guide it safely back to Earth in a fiery reentry. Until then, let’s enjoy it while we can, and keep our fingers crossed that the Energizer Bunny keeps it going and going and going…


Who Owns A Meteorite?

MeteoriteIf you’ve read our Hunting for Meteorites adventure (if you haven’t you should!) you know that we did our best to have a successful meteorite hunting trip.  Lynn downloaded a map of the strewn field and researched which tools would be most useful.  I – well I think I just booked the hotel, but somebody had to do it!

With GPS in hand we ventured down to the Madison area and proceeded to spend hours and hours dragging rare earth magnets around behind us, looking at anything that resembled a meteorite. We left no stone unturned at parks, along roadsides and even in cemeteries with no luck.

After the meteorite exploded over Russia, I read stories about people collecting pockets full of meteorites hoping to sell them. One woman made the comment, though, that the Russian police would just come and take them away anyway. It made me wonder, what if Lynn and I had found that elusive rock we know is still down there some where? Who would own it?

It seems that, in Russia, the government determines who can sell a meteorite. Here in the U.S., a meteorite belongs to whoever owns the land it falls on. That means that if  a meteorite lands in the middle of a city park, the city would own it. So after all of our trudging down county roads and through parking lots and parks, if we had come up with a piece of space rock it technically wouldn’t belong to us anyway!

That won’t stop me from looking. I still want to make that find. But it would be so much easier if one just fell through my roof, or on top of my car!

The odds of that are – well – astronomical!

(Sorry about that)


Every club has one

Image courtesy Anthony J. Kroes, Quantum Skies Observatory, Pulaski WI

Amy and I are blessed in that we have so many amazing amateurs in our club, all excited and passionate about astronomy and involved in public outreach. Some of them take breathtaking photos, some build their own telescopes, some restore vintage scopes and equipment, some travel to warm climes to observe from different locations, and some rack up observing awards. Most are fonts of knowledge that we can call on any day, any time, who will lend us just about any equipment they have and take the time to show us how to use it.

Tony is one of these special guys in our local astronomy club, and he’s special because he’s not only interested in astronomy, he actually does serious science and contributes to mankind’s knowledge about the universe. On his serious side, Tony is part of a team that monitors cataclysmic variable stars for the Center for Backyard Astrophysics. But to me and Amy, he’s just Tony, one of the coolest guys we know. I mean, how many people do you know with a full-size, operating catapult in their backyard?

Tony knows a lot about astronomy and shares his enthusiasm. And even though he’s several rungs higher on the astronomy evolutionary ladder than either of us, he doesn’t talk down to us no matter how dumb our question is. For example, one night Amy and I showed up at his house with a little 90mm refractor, but the way he got us excited about using it to look at Mars, you’d think we had brought the Hubble with us.

And Amy and I both heartily agree that the best observing experience either of us ever had was at his place in the wee hours one morning as we watched a near-earth asteroid tumble through the eyepiece of Tony’s 12″ Meade.

Tony not only pushes our limits, but is always pushing his own limits too, trying new things and then sharing them with the rest of us. Some of his photography is fantastic. And just recently, he sent the club this 11-second Jupiter animation that he gathered over the course of six hours on a recent cold, Wisconsin winter night. That’s dedication.

I think almost every club has at least one Tony of its own – someone who stands out and inspires you. They share their knowledge and their equipment, encourage you, and just keep you excited about astronomy.

You know who those people are in your club. It doesn’t take long to spot them. And Amy and I recommend that you hang around with them as much as you can. Their enthusiasm will rub off on you!

And for the curious, here’s information on the Jupiter compilation that Tony kindly allowed us to share…

I put together an animation of Jupiter showing a transit of the Great Red Spot (the Great ‘Pale’ Spot is still more like it!) from Sunday night.  In addition to the GRS, you can see other surface details as Jupiter turns, and I caught two moons as well – Ganymede in the upper right going behind (occultation) Jupiter, and Io in the far left heading toward the planet.  The video stops just shy of Io crossing in front of (transiting) Jupiter – that happened a short while after my session ended, complete with a trailing shadow transit, and Ganymede reemerged from behind Jupiter about an hour or so later as well – I wish I could have gotten those events in the shot but it was very cold and the wind picked up considerably during the last 15 minutes or so that I did capture, so I thought it better to cut my losses and go with the shorter animation as it was really more of a test anyway.

The Video is a compilation of 67 original frames, each one composed of a still image created from the best 15% of the frames from short, 1000-frame videos taken two minutes apart. The video is about 2-1/4 hours of real time rotation compressed into 11-seconds for your viewing pleasure. The video was captured at my observatory in Pulaski with a DMK21AU618 video camera through a Tele Vue 127is refractor and a x4 Powermate (Barlow) for an effective focal length of 2540mm at f/21. Scope was mounted on a Paramount MX.