Supermoon Eclipse!

Finally!! A celestial event that is both at a reasonable hour and visible from home. How often does that happen? I’m of course talking about the upcoming total lunar eclipse! I think Universe Today said it best by calling it the “Super-Harvest-Blood-Moon Total Lunar Eclipse.

Graphic from
Graphic from

So let’s start with Super. The moon’s orbit around the sun is elliptical, not circular. This means that it’s not always the same distance from the earth. On Sunday evening it will be at what is called Perigee, or at its closest to the earth. It will appear about 14% bigger than at other times.



Next up – Harvest. The Harvest moon is simply the closest full moon to the Autumnal Equinox which is when day and night are each about 12 hours long and the sun rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west. This was September 23.

Now the creepy – Blood. I have to confess  – I don’t really know much about this term. It has something to do with prophecies and apocalyptic whoo ha and frankly if you really want to know more about that you’re on your own!

And finally the big one – Eclipse!! This occurs when the sun is opposite the moon, and the moon, earth and sun are lined up so that the moon will pass through the earth’s shadow, temporarily blinking it out. The shadow has two parts, the Penumbra which is the dimmer outer shadow, and the Umbra which is the darker center. The moon will pass through both the penumbra and the umbra during this event.


Hopefully Lynn and I will be watching and recording all the necessary contact information and feverishly making sketches for our Luney II observing program. Or maybe we’ll just kick back in our lawn chairs and enjoy the show. Either way – it should be a great show!


Looking Forward to the Comet 209P/LINEAR Meteor Shower

209P Linear meteor shower
Radiant for 209P/LINEAR shower early this Saturday morning.

The weather is looking great here for the Comet 209P/LINEAR meteor shower. The Camelopardalids could produce as many as 200 meteors per hour early Saturday morning between 12:30 and 4 a.m., peaking around 2 a.m. CDT.

What is so neat about this shower is that it’s never been seen before, and the farther north you live in the viewing zone, the more meteors you are likely to see.

The last time I clocked meteors for the Astronomical League’s meteor certificate, I brought several copies of star charts of the radiant area of the sky, and as I saw meteors, I drew them on a chart and numbered them. On a separate sheet of paper, I made notes on brightness, color, speed, etc.

You can also do some real science by submitting your observations to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. All the information you need to work on your meteor certificate is available on the Astronomical League’s website.

After midnight tonight, you’ll find Amy and I perched on our lawn chairs facing north, with pencils and clipboards poised and ready. We’ll be busily adding hours towards our Astronomical League Meteor Program Certificate, (meteors or not) and having a great time. Hope you’re all out there, too!

Please be sure to write us and tell us about the meteors you see.


Messier – 110; Lynn & Amy – 0

Amy checks out the soups at the NPMAS Messier Marathon.

Over the weekend, our astronomy group hosted our annual Messier Marathon at the Brillion Nature Center. About 40 people showed up bringing both treats and telescopes. Amy and I attended but were late because of prior commitments.

The Messier Marathon is an annual event held by many astronomy clubs. It all started with the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier, who cataloged 110 deep sky galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The idea is that you begin observing the list of objects as they’re setting at sundown, and then work your way eastward across the sky. If everything lines up just perfect, and it’s a moonless, cloudless, dew-free night between mid-March and early April, it’s possible to observe all 110 Messier objects in one night.

In the past, Amy and I recorded at least a handful of the early Messier’s and qualified for a Messier observing award. This year, we figured we’d get some of the later objects, but somehow we didn’t get any Messier’s at all.

I did manage to knock off six observations needed for other Astronomical League observing programs, and Amy was able to find the asteroid Vesta with her binoculars, which shone at a magnitude 5.9 and was close enough to Mars to make it relatively easy to find.

When Amy and I left around three (yes, I meant 3 a.m. – a new Marathon record for both of us) there were still at least a half-dozen die-hards there, waiting inside the shelter for the next round of Messier objects to rise.

Next year we’ll try it again and maybe take it all a little more seriously. Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll bag all 110 objects.


Herschel 400 – One Step at a Time

Yeah! Woot Woot! We did it!! We found our first Herschel object!

As you know, Lynn and I have decided to tackle one of the most challenging observing programs the Astronomical League has to offer – the Herschel 400. (See Lynn’s blog entry called Herschel Space Observatory Goes Dark)

Last week we had the perfect combination, dark skies and a Saturday night.  After wrestling with the tri-pod of the club loaner scope, and hoisting the heavy trunk that contained the rest of the scope into the trunk of my car we fired up the trusty GPS and headed out to the observatory.

A side note regarding the GPS – it may be a good idea to actually update the maps once in a while, we ended up on a dead end road and had to turn around.

The observatory stood quiet on the hill like a lonely willow in the middle of a field, no lights, no people, nothing! Another side note, always call ahead to make sure people will be out there.

Determined to find our first Herschel, we went back to Lynn’s house and set up in the back yard. While not the ideal spot, what with light pollution and trees and such, we still thought we could find at least one object.

Peaking through the low lying branches, we watched the stars pop out one by one.  Finally the random dots turned into a constellation we were familiar with – Aquila! Now we could finally pick our target!  We picked the one that was the brightest since we had such horrible transparency (see our chart under Links and Resources), NGC 6577 with a magnitude of about 7.5.

Finally – after using our tag team star hopping technique, we found it! There it was –  a faint wisp which I could only see with averted vision, but that didn’t matter. We saw it! And it counted!

Only 399 to go!



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!



Herschel Space Observatory Goes Dark

The ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory

Between the two of us, Amy and I have started many of the Astronomical League’s Observing Programs. Okay, we’ve started a lot more of them than we’ve finished, but that’s a sign of a curious mind, right?

A few AstroBabe meetings ago, we decided that we would break our “no more programs until we finish the ones we have” rule and go after something big – something that would really stretch our observing abilities. We agreed that it was time to start the Herschel, a really, really long-term project.

Unless you are already familiar with AL’s Herschel Observing Program, you have no idea what a commitment this is. If we knock off one or two Herschel objects a week, then in, oh, maybe 300-400 weeks, we’ll have it done. Yes, it’s a big deal, but on the way to finishing the Herschel program, we’ll also complete the Messier Program and the Binocular Messier Program. Three birds with one giant stone.

It seems ironic that we are beginning this quest just as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory made its last observation. The Observatory was named after William Herschel, the man who discovered infrared radiation in 1800.

Its mission has been to study the formation of stars and early galaxies, and it has surveyed thousands of galaxies during its four-year mission. The Herschel Observatory made over 35,000 observations and collected more than 25,000 hours worth of scientific data on objects that were previously invisible to us.

Launched by an Ariane 5 rocket on May 14, 2009, the Herschel Observatory has been parked at the second Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles from Earth. The school-bus sized observatory detected infrared wavelengths in a wide range of low temperatures, as low as ten degrees above absolute zero at far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

View of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion by the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

Because heat interfered with its observations, liquid helium was used to chill the temperature of the detectors to nearly absolute zero (-271 Celsius). When it launched, it brought 2,300 liters of this liquid helium along, which weighed 335 kg (739 lbs), nearly 10 percent of its original mass. It has been slowly using up and leaking a bit of that helium everyday.

It had been estimated that the Observatory would run out of helium in late March, but it managed to squeeze one more month of observing beyond that estimate. On April 29, during the spacecraft’s daily communication session with the ground crew in Western Australia, it reported a significant rise in temperature in all of its instruments, which meant it had finally ran out of liquid helium.

The Herschel Observatory’s mission will be carried on by the launch of a number of telescopes with infrared capabilities, including the Japanese Space Agency’s Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA) telescope (2017), the James Webb Space Telescope (2018), and the ESA’s Ritchey-Chretien telescope (2022).

Until then, there is plenty of data to study. Much of the data the Herschel collected is available through NASA’s Herschel Science Center at There is also more information on the mission itself on the ESA’s own website at

As for the Herschel Observatory itself? Later this month, it will be propelled into a no-return heliocentric orbit where it will take at least 300 years to return to earth on its own. But who knows? Maybe some ambitious future space clean-up crew will collect it and bring it back to Earth and park it in the Smithsonian where our grandchildren can go to see it.


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!

Wild Goose Chase Observing Club

Zodiacal LightsIf you belong to the Astronomical League you may be familiar with the variety of observing programs available. They range in complexity from major eyestrain faint fuzzy hide and seek, to simply looking up and saying “oh, there it is!” But there is one club missing from the mix. Lynn and I have been working on creating this one for the last ten years. The working title is “The Wild Goose Chase” observing club.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a beginners club. This is for the seasoned observer, those of us who, putting the need for sleep aside, faithfully trudge out of our warm homes into the night with great expectations of seeing something unique and spectacular. We drag out our maps and lists of objects carefully planning where to start, and where to go next. Then, after scanning the sky for the elusive object, we realize that we had the date wrong on the star chart app, or the one clump of clouds that has appeared out of nowhere has decided to stay put right in front of the target.

One of the first wild goose chases we had was a few years ago when we decided to look for the Zodiacal Lights, or as we prefer to call them the ‘alleged’ zodiacal lights.

This was the time of year when they were supposed to be visible in the early evening. We thought this would be easy, so we jumped in the car and headed west. All we needed was a view of the western horizon, clear skies and our eyes. We drove out to the country and found a spot at the side of a quiet country road, away from any street lights or blazing yard lights.  We watched, our eyes glued to the horizon, waiting until…….there it was – sky glow from a neighboring community. Sigh – Oh well, another wild goose chase observing session! Better log the date, time and seeing conditions!

Have any of you had a wild goose chase you’d like to share?


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!