Star Party in Amberg

A great time was had by all at Gerry’s star party scheduled spider-pixThursday through tonight in Amberg, WI. A small group turned out on Thursday, but Amy and I were lucky enough to catch the best skies on Friday night. Tonight (Saturday) was clouded out.

Yes, there were misquitoes and flies, but Deep Woods Off took care of them. This spider, however, looked big enough to grab the Deep Woods Off can and chase us around the observing field. At least we didn’t have to battle any dew.

The skies were unsteady around 10:30, and thin clouds occasionally interfered briefly with what we were trying to observe. But as the evening progressed, seeing steadied and I found M4 and M5, and easily split Alcor and Mizar with Gerry’s 10×80 binoculars. We saw Pluto in Gerry’s 10″ Schmidt, watched a really bright Iridium Flare, and the Milky Way brightened as the sky got darker.

Amy and I also entertaiobserving-fieldned ourselves by looking for Asterisms, and found the Engagement Ring, the Owl Cluster, the Gas Pump, and the Guardians of the Pole. We’ll write more about Asterisms in a later blog.

Oh yes. I can’t forget to mention the Twizzlers and the Banana Cream Pie from the Amberg Pub. Thanks Gerry and Mary!!

Lynn

Clouds Didn’t Rain on Our Parade

The Messier Marathon last weekend was tons of fun. It’s always great to get together with

The Messier Marathon seems to bring out the foodie in all of us.
The Messier Marathon seems to bring out the foodie in all of us.
others who share your passion. And although we amateurs often gather in groups to observe, there’s not always a lot of social interaction going on.

And that’s why I like the Marathon. When it is clear, you can observe all night long, and when it’s cloudy, you can hang out socially with people you like. It’s a win-win either way.

This year it was clear at sunset. As it got dark, I piddled much of the first hour away noodling with the finder scope and getting things polar aligned. Luckily, Amy distracted me by finding Messiers with her binoculars. If it had’t been for her, I would have missed it all because, about an hour after it got dark enough to observe, the clouds rolled in from the West and stayed for the night.

marathon2-2015
Just a few of the telescopes ready for a night of observing at the Brillion Nature Center.

Inside the shelter, there was talk about moving the Marathon up until early April next year, but in April you’re wrestling with dew all night long, and that can be really frustrating too.

marathon3
Eh?? Which way is North???

Had a great time though. Got to hang out with Amy, ate lots of treats, scored a chunk of Fran’s Oreo tort before it was gone, got skunked in a Cribbage game with Amy, Jim and Wayne, got more practice polar aligning the telescope, and got to bed early. It was a good night.

Lynn

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Comet Lovejoy – Check It Out!

At our astronomy club’s last gathering, someone mentioned that comet Lovejoy was both visible and within reach of a good pair of binoculars. Well, as you can tell, I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell as far as observing is concerned so I thought maybe I should try it.

Comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy

I have a thing about being cold. I don’t like it. I really don’t like it. I’d much rather curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch I.Q. (one of my favorite movies that has a comet in it) than go out in the cold and try to find one.

I just couldn’t turn my back on this one though.  After all, it was up early, relatively bright and should be easy to spot in my backyard. All the requirements of a quick observing session have been met.

Thursday night I looked up the position of the comet on my Sky Safari. The comet made a triangle with Rigel in Orion and Aldebaran in Taurus. No problem!

I put on my snow pants, boots, jacket and scarf and headed outside with my trusty 10 x 50 Nikon binoculars. I kept them inside my jacket so the lenses wouldn’t fog up on me right away.

When I got outside I realized that it wasn’t so bad! Cold, yes, but not too bad at all. The view from my backyard was actually pretty good! I could see Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades against a fairly dark sky. I eyeballed where I thought the comet should be. I had to sweep a little back and forth but within minutes I found it!

It was a fuzzball, no tail. Apparently the tail is pointing towards us at this time. I was really thrilled! I went inside to make sure I was seeing the right object. I checked the star pattern around the comet on my software. Yep, I saw it alright!

It’s still visible in the Northern latitudes so get out there and check it out! Here’s some info on where to find it – Comet Lovejoy

I officially logged my first observation of 2015. So far so good!

Amy

Lunar Eclipse

This past Wednesday morning we were treated to a total lunar eclipse. The fact that the earth’s shadow even exists usually escapes us. On most nights the moon seems to glide across the night sky uninterrupted. Every so often, the moon passes through the earth’s shadow, giving us a spectacular show.

This one was to be quite early, so the decision to crawl out of bed at 4am was a tough one for me.  Should I make the trek out to our observing site or pull the covers up and snuggle in for another couple of hours? The trees on my street were in full strut with their red-orange leaves making it impossible for me to watch this one through the mini-blinds in my living room.

I rolled out of bed, threw some clothes on over my P.J.’s, grabbed my binoculars and off I went. A beautiful clear sky rewarded me when I arrived. A dozen hearty souls were already there with telescopes and binoculars already watching the eclipse.

First order of business – coffee and Twizzlers – both are observing staples with our club.

After Goldilocks-ing it down the row of binoculars and telescopes I thought I’d try some projection astro-photography. In other words, hold your smart phone camera up to the eyepiece and try to capture a photograph. It’s not as easy as it sounds! So here’s my only picture of the eclipse.

Lunar Eclipse

Too bad the clouds rolled in and spoiled the view. The invention of a cloud filter would be greatly appreciated!

Back at home I crawled back into bed hoping for about 90 minutes of zzzzzz’s. If only I hadn’t had that coffee………

Here’s hoping for a better report of the up coming partial solar eclipse on October 23rd!

Amy

Asteroid Observing?

One of my favorite observing nights was a journey Vesta out to Cedar Drive Observatory, owned by fellow club member Tony Kroes. Lynn and I went out there to see an NEA, or Near Earth Asteroid that was tumbling by at a distance closer to us than the moon. I’ll give you a minute to wrap your brain around that one.

This was something that allegedly we’d be able to see through our binoculars, so ever optimistic, we arrive with a small star chart with the approximate path of the asteroid printed on it. It became clear that we just wouldn’t be able to find this thing ourselves so leave it to Tony to find this moving target.

I’m sure I actually dropped my jaw the first time I saw this piece of space rock roll on through the field of view. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in NASA’s Dawn mission. The Dawn spacecraft’s mission is to visit not one, but two asteroid belt objects, the two largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. These two asteroids can, at times, be viewed through binoculars!

What’s cool about these asteroids is that they represent the beginning of our solar system. They hold secrets to how our solar system formed, and why there’s an asteroid belt at all! What’s also cool is that this year they can be seen in the same field of view!

So – here’s your challenge – go to www.heavens-above.com and click on the ‘Asteroid’ link then – you guessed it, find Vesta and Ceres! Make sure you observe them more than one night to see the movement. They’re getting dimmer so your better get out there soon!

Amy

Comet Lovejoy

Early in December I decided to try to find Comet Lovejoy. While all eyes were on ISON, I felt sorry for Lovejoy. Here it was, high in the sky still putting on a show and no one seemed to be paying attention! I checked first to see if Lovejoy was going to be visible at a reasonable hour. This is an important criteria for me. I struggle with the whole ‘should I sleep or should I get out of bed and go observing’ thing.  I really hate  being cold, so usually sleep wins out!  Good news! I should be able to see it around 5am.

Before I went to bed I checked the star charts again in an attempt to burn into my memory the exact position of the comet. This almost never works by the way.  I checked my 10×50 binoculars and made sure I had warm clothes. It’s December in Wisconsin and I really hate being cold.

What I was really hoping for was to be able to see Lovejoy through my patio doors, avoiding the whole subzero thing. I told you I hate the cold.  Sadly, that was not to be. Lovejoy was going to be too far north and in the tree of my backyard. Oh – but wait – I could stand in my driveway and see Lovejoy over my house! Well that was better than not seeing it at all, so I was happy.

The next morning I rolled out of bed at 4:30.  I threw on some warm clothes, grabbed my jacket and binoculars and went out front.  I was pretty sure I knew where to look but once again my memory failed me. I told you that never works. Back into the house to check my star charts.  After scrutinizing a star chart I went back out and sure enough, there she was! A faint fuzz ball. The moon was a bit bright, so I was unable to discern any tail, but I could see the star like center of the comet.  It was truly amazing!

The best part was that I was able to get up, find Lovejoy and make it back to bed before my hubby left the house. Who says you can’t do astronomy in your jammies?

Amy

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A Simple Observing Tool

LittleDipperAs you all know, I’m quite the minimalist when it comes to observing gadgets. I have my trusty observing duffel bag stocked with the basics. I’ve often said that if it doesn’t fit in the bag, I don’t bring it. The basics (to me) are: batteries, rubber bands, red flashlight, star charts, binoculars, towel, pencils, hand and toe warmers, green laser pointer and last but not least, the clipboard.

The clipboard is a key piece of equipment! On it are several important observing tools that help with every session. I have some blank paper and some preprinted observing forms.  Evaluating the conditions of the night sky, namely the ‘seeing’ and the ‘transparency’, is an important part of the night, but it took me awhile to keep them straight! So included on the clipboard is my favorite cheat sheet, the Seeing Conditions chart. (See our Links and Resources page)

Seeing has to do with the condition of the atmosphere itself. Humidity can make the images dance and twinkle, or sometimes they’ll alternately blur and clear. Assigning a number to the current seeing conditions is made easier by the descriptions on the chart. Keep in mind a perfect 10 for seeing conditions is rare! I think the best seeing conditions I’ve seen is a 6 or 7!

Transparency has to do with the limiting magnitude of naked eye objects. In other words, what is the dimmest star you can see with an unaided eye? This can be different from person to person, for example, my night vision not a good as Lynn’s.  The Little Dipper is a good constellation to use, as it has a large range magnitudes contained within it.

As you can see, it ranges from magnitude 2 which is Polaris, to magnitude 6.7. Most people can see down to around magnitude 6 with an unaided eye, in dark sky conditions. You’ll notice that some of the magnitude markers do not have a decimal point. This is how they are supposed to be recorded, so the decimal point is not mistaken for another star.

So- why do we take the time to make this evaluation? Well, most observing
programs require you to record these conditions with your observations. Even if
you aren’t working on an observing program, it’s good practice to make this
observation. I believe it makes me a better observer.

I hope this helps your next observing session! Feel free to print it and make it part of your observing arsenal! We use it every time we go out!

Enjoy!

Amy

Starting simple

Meade DS-114AT

Last week, a dear friend offered me her husband’s 4.5” Meade motorized reflector. I didn’t ask, but I think it’s one of those gifts that she bought one Christmas at Sam’s Club thinking that it would be a great new hobby for them to share.

It reminded me of what a huge proponent I’ve been of starting this hobby armed with only a humble pair of binoculars – and not some hugely expensive and heavy 25×100’s, but a decent pair of 10×50’s that you can pick up for less than $100. Fortunately, my friend probably only dropped a few hundred on this scope, but I think they would have been better served using that money for a decent pair of binoculars and a parallel tripod.

Standing in awe beneath the stars with your trusty telescope sounds romantic, but there is this reality of battling the mosquitoes and the elements, the primal fear of the dark, and the frustration of not finding or seeing objects, that makes amateur astronomy a hobby not for the faint of heart.

Before you drop a couple grand on a telescope, you first need to really know how you feel about:

• Frozen fingers verses happy, toasty fingers
• Watching the celestial heaven verses watching television
• Bundling up into six layers of clothes verses sweat pants and a tee
• 22°F verses 68°F
• Getting spooked alone in the backyard in the middle of the night verses turning over and snuggling next to your warm, snoring sweetie
• The frustration of finding a distant planetary nebula verses the frustration of finding the book that you’re in the middle of reading
• A restful eight hours of uninterrupted sleep verses sleep deprivation that lingers for days

I think that everyone should be required to show proof of binocular purchase before they’re allowed to buy a telescope. That way, they’ll find out if they’re cut out for observational astronomy.

I purchased these binoculars a few years ago from Orion, and I absolutely love them.

The optics are great and they’re light enough that I use them without a tripod. Amy and I have completed a number of Astronomical League awards armed with only our 10×50’s and a star map, often with our elbows propped up by some part of a car. Sure, it’d be great to have a descent setup, but finding things on our own is how we’ve become familiar with the night sky, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Time to get off my soap box. Amy’s coming over tonight and we’re going to drag the new scope into the living room and see what it can do. Hopefully the Autostar works without a hitch and we’ll have a new toy to play with.

Lynn