Time Well Spent

star_gazing_projectPublic outreach – otherwise known as a great excuse for wearing my astronaut flight suit that I got at space camp. On Saturday I spent some time at a local science expo for kids, helping out in the booth with telescopes, binoculars and handouts. It was very fun and rewarding. I always love to share this hobby with other people.

It always amazes me to see how open the kids are to new experiences. Like a carnival ride they can’t get enough of, they line up over and over to peek through a telescope aimed at a paper target on the ceiling. Outside Gary and Wayne, ever the troopers, stood vigil by their solar scopes, patiently re-aiming the telescopes time after time, after little hands grab the eyepiece.  For hours in the cold they help hundreds of eager kids see something they may have never seen before – sunspots on the sun!

So here’s a challenge for all of you – find a way to share astronomy with someone. It could be a family member, a friend, or your child! You could simply share a beautiful moon, or find out when the ISS will be gliding by. Sometimes a little thing like that could spark interest. If nothing else, it’s a great way of spending time with your family.

Clear skies!

Amy

Going high tech

Vesta
Asteroid Vesta

Last week, One-Minute Astronomer  alerted us to the fact that an asteroid would be easily visible in binoculars, easy to locate in Taurus, and bright enough at a 6.4 magnitude to reach near naked-eye visibility. That’s all it took for the Astro Babes to grab our binoculars and drive out to a dark spot this weekend.

Amy and I went in search of Vesta, first found by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. It’s a little smaller than the state of Arizona, is the second largest known asteroid in the asteroid belt, and is big enough to be considered a protoplanet. It reached its opposition on Dec. 8 and was very bright.

And, as usual, the hilarity ensued. After all these years of observing you’d think it would come a little easier, but somehow we always manage to turn it into a slapstick comedy routine. To make a long story short, we printed out some star charts and drove to and observed from two dark spots east of Green Bay, only to find when we got back to my place that we’d been looking at the wrong object. We did, however, make our final (and correct) observations right here from my driveway, but this time, we used technology.

When you observe with binoculars (which is primarily what Amy and I do) you lose your target every time you look away to study a star chart. There’s a lot of potential to lose your way, accompanied with a twinge of doubt that you actually saw your target.

But this time we started with a laptop and the free Stellarium program to get our bearings. Then, in the driveway, we used my new tablet and the Sky Safari Plus program, and adjusted its Finder Circle to 7° to match the field of view in our binoculars. We were able to zoom in and out on the neighboring star patterns until there was no doubt that we were observing our target

After struggling all these years with books and star charts, it’s so nice to have such powerful astronomy tools available that weigh just a few ounces and don’t require a marine battery to make them run. Makes you wonder what’s in store for the next 20 years.

Lynn

More links

I have added a few more links to our Links & Resources page (with more to come!).

Spaceweather.com (http://www.spaceweather.com/) (this website never gets old!) is the NASA Space Weather Bureau, and is packed with science news and information about the Sun-Earth environment. It delivers real-time space weather forecasts, space weather news, pictures, news and information about meteor showers, solar flares, auroras, and near-Earth asteroids. You can sign up and receive space weather alerts – which we highly recommend!

The International Dark-Sky Association (http://www.darksky.org/) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise awareness and “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting.” Our club occasionally sponsors events to promote their message.

Skymaps.com (http://www.skymaps.com/) offers free monthly sky maps, along with a monthly sky calendar of current objects to view with binoculars, telescopes or naked-eye.

The Astronomy League (http://www.astroleague.org/) is the organization that Amy and I (and our whole club) belongs to. It promotes astronomy through local clubs that hold public events, and represents 240 organizations across the U.S. Membership includes a magazine called The Reflector, and offers a large number of observing awards (several of them Amy and I are working on). Great way to feel connected to other amateur astronomers, and you don’t need a local club to join.

Please keep your suggestions coming in!

Lynn

Get Involved!!

Wait – come back!! Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to hand out fliers, knock on doors or march in protest! This kind of involvement does require you to have a computer, and some spare time. There are many opportunities for the amateur astronomer to help the experts. You can help find super nova, help planet hunters find extra solar planets or help study the moon!

Comet Wild 2

In February of 1999, the Stardust spacecraft left the earth on it’s journey to the tail of a comet. It’s mission was to collect particles from Comet Wild 2, a comet discovered in 1978 by swiss astronomer Paul Wild. After it’s amazing encounter with the comet in 2004, it arrived back on earth in 2006. The aerogel that held the tiny particles would need to be scrutinized under a microscope millimeter by millimeter.

NASA got help from The Planetary Society, who turned to people like me and you! They launched the Stardust@home project enlisting the help of amateur astronomer everywhere. In phase I, using a virtual microscope I viewed over 2000 slides, carefully examining every slide for any evidence of a particle trail.

This is one of many pro-am collaborations available for public participation. Check out some of the other opportunities at https://www.zooniverse.org.

I have to say that it was fun participating in this project.  I was happy to know that I was contributing to a real science project. There was no minimum requirement and I was able to do as much or as little as I had time for!

Let me know which projects you get involved with!

Amy

Getting organized

LynnOver the years, we’ve had a number of speakers talk about how to keep your observations organized because over time, you start to accumulate a lot of them. I’ve been a club member off and on since the early 70’s, and believe me, in 40 years you can end up with a lot of sheets of paper scrawled with descriptions and drawings.

And once they’re spread all over your house, it’s impossible to lay your hands on that one asteroid observation you made at Tony’s, or the 2004 transit of Venus observation that you need to get the AL’s Planetary Transit Special Award. Sigh.

I’ve always been fairly disciplined about including dates, times, locations and sky conditions for every observation that I made over the years. I also often included descriptions of an object whether it was needed for observing program or not (although many of them are pretty lame – how many ways can you describe a globular cluster viewed through a pair of binoculars?)

After watching Amy and everyone else in the club get awards, I started thinking maybe I should start organizing my piles and boxes of observations and start applying for some of these awards myself. It was time to get my observing act together.

One snowy afternoon a few years ago, I dragged every box, folder and pile of astronomy papers I could find up into my living room and started sorting them into piles. I ended up with about eight piles – one was general club stuff, another was astronomy-related articles to keep, one pile was mystery observations that I hadn’t properly identified (bigger than I’d like it to be) and the remaining piles were related to observations, and I broke them down into AL programs – the Lunar Program, Binocular Messier, Constellation Hunter, etc. Then each pile went into a folder.

A few months later, on another snowy day, I picked up one of the folders and, after sitting down by the computer and actually recording my observations for the Universe Sampler Program, I was stunned to discover that I only needed one more observation to finish that program. A few weeks later, I picked up the Messier folder and wow! I only needed about eight more Messier’s to finish the Binocular Messier Program.

What’s made all this possible was my realization early on that it is important to keep good observational notes with all the information needed to officially record them. Date, time, location, seeing conditions, equipment used and a brief description is usually enough for most AL observing programs. And I ALWAYS (almost) forced myself to take the time first thing the next morning to review my notes from the night before to make sure that all the necessary information was written on each sheet.

So now I’m stoked. I still have some folders stacked up here that may be just a few observations away from getting a pin, and Amy’s starting to talk about the Master Observer Award. Sure, it’s going to take 400 Hershel’s to get there, but if we start chipping away at it now and keep good records, we’ll get there someday. Luckily winter is nearly here and there are plenty of snowy days ahead to work on my observation records because now, I also need to start working on submitting them!

Lynn

That Darn Dog

Have you ever had one of those days when the cards just seem to be stacked against you?  That’s the kind of day I had last week Saturday.

It rained all week last week and I couldn’t put a dot on my analemma. Saturday rolled around and was showing promise for a sunny twelve bells. I had a few errands to run and was waffling about trying to get that dot on that day, or putting it off until Sunday.  At 11:40, I’m across town. I was unable to find the bank I was heading for so I was 0 and 1 already. The sky is clear and I need that dot. Maybe I can get one thing accomplished today! I turn the car towards home, hoping the traffic lights are on my side. 11:45

At 11:56 I pull into the driveway. Great! I have plenty of time! I rush into the house, grab my setup, pen and watch. It only takes a few seconds to line up the frame. Ah – I made it with only seconds to spare. As I’m crouched over the paper I’m suddenly aware of a very large black dog running around my front yard.

Watcha Doing?

She was so excited to see someone at eye level that she came right up to me wagging that tail and sticking her nose in my face as if to say “hey – whatcha doing?” I never even looked up! It’s now 11:59:40 and ticking and after a week of clouds and rain I have a 60 pound black lab casting a shadow on my analemma. I couldn’t believe it! Still staring at my paper I mumble “You’ve got to be kidding me!”  I reached out and pushed her out of the way.

She of course took this as a sign that I wanted to play – 11:59:55 – and came back for another playful sniff. 11:59:59 – beep beep beep, my watch alarm went off – noooooooooo, I gave her another push just in time to get that dot on the paper.  Whew!

Afterwards I found out that my hubby was watching all of this unfold. I was so focused on my dot that I didn’t notice him trying to get the dog out of my face. He marveled at the fact that I never looked up, even while I was trying to push Shadow (my name for her) out of the way. What can I say, I really wanted make some progress on my project.

Oh – by the way, I looked up some of the calculations I’m going to have to make. I was right, it’s going to be fun! Yes – that’s what I said, fun!

Whew – 62 dots down, 38 to go!

Amy

Amy’s Analemma

I’m working on an observing program called the Analemma program. I chose this one for a few reasons, one being I don’t have to get bundled up in the middle of the night, drive out to the middle of nowhere only to be clouded out – again.  This one is done during the day, observing something we see everyday – the sun. I still get clouded out, but I’m only in my front yard so it’s no problem!

Analemma refers to the changing declination of the sun. Basically all you need to do is make an observation of the sun about twice a week for a year. You’re not observing the sun itself, (please – no looking directly at the sun) but rather the length of the shadow it creates. You need to make the observation at the same time (noon) and in the same place every time. You are measuring the length of a shadow, placing a dot on a piece of paper where the shadow ends. Over the course of a year the dots will form a figure eight.

Here’s my setup. I used an 11×14 picture frame and put a dowel on one end. Yes – that’s zebra stripe duct tape. Don’t ask. The trick here is the length of the dowel. It can’t be too long because in the winter the shadow will be too long to fit on the paper (it has to fit on a normal piece of paper) I actually started thinking about this in the winter, so on December 21st (the shortest day of the year) I went outside with a piece of paper and a pencil. I put the paper down on the driveway and stood the pencil next to it to measure the length of the shadow. That’s how I figured out how long to make the dowel. Time will tell if my not so scientific method works out!

Here’s my analemma so far. I’m at the half way mark! You can see the small end of the figure eight forming. The dots aren’t always in line, that’s due to the timing of placing the dot. I think I’ve got that worked out now! An atomic watch works great for this! There’s also that bloppy dot I made with a regular marker, big mistake. I now use a fine point marker. I’m really not looking forward to doing this in the dead of winter, but it may help make winter  move a little faster.

I think I should tell you that after the figure eight is complete there’s some fun math involved to finish the program. Yes, I do mean fun!

I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

Amy

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