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!


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!


Amazing Sun Photo

Isn’t this picture of the Sun amazing? It was taken by Tony Kroes, a fellow club member that Amy and I have raved about in the past. He’s a very talented astronomer who lives West of Green Bay, and a resource in the area that we really appreciate.

20140907 Solar Filament Loop
Image condensed into one frame using Registax software to combine and stack the best 30 frames of a 300 frame video of the sun. Video captured on 9/7/2014 with a Celestron Skyris 274M CCD video camera and x2.8 Barlow at 1/30th sec per frame through a 60mm Coronado SolarMax II hydrogen-alpha solar telescope.

Tony took this picture this past weekend on 9/7, a beautiful Wisconsin Sunday. Make sure you read Tony’s details below. Thanks for sharing Tony!!!

Image condensed into one frame using Registax software to combine and stack the best 30 frames of a 300 frame video of the sun. Video captured  on 9/7/2014 with a Celestron Skyris 274M CCD video camera and x2.8 Barlow at 1/30th sec per frame through a 60mm Coronado SolarMax II hydrogen-alpha solar telescope. 

I placed the blue dot on the image to show the relative size of Earth (110 times smaller than the sun in diameter.) So the looping prominence on the right side of the image would have gone completely over the Earth, although I sure wouldn’t have wanted to be there at the time!

On the upper left side you can see a ‘hedge-row’ of smaller prominences. All along the distance between the loop and the hedgerow you can see numerous tiny spikes called ‘spicules’. These are small (relatively speaking) jets of material that spurt upward, lasting only a few minutes before being replaced with new ones in a cycle of constant activity. They typically extend 3,000-10,000 Km above the surface (the earth is 12,000 Km diameter.)

Some good details are also seen on the surface of the sun in this image. There is an extremely bright ‘active region’, which is an area of extreme magnetic activity, just to the upper left of center. These areas often occur around sunspots, and can be hotbeds of solar flare activity. Further onto the disk of the sun you can see two smoky grey worm-like structures. These are prominences just like the looping one seen on the edge of the disk, but because they are seen against the surface background instead of the black of space, it is difficult to tell that they are really huge 3D jets of material spewing out into space and then falling back onto the surface.

Also of note is the surface itself.  You can see the orange-peel ‘granulation’ and many tiny fibrous patches across this area. This is the surface of the Chromosphere, which is only visible in a narrow band of wavelengths, specifically that of singly-ionized hydrogen known as hydrogen-alpha or H-a for short. This wavelength is narrow, and is usually masked completely by all the other wavelengths put out by the sun, but the special filter in my telescope blocks all the rest, allowing us to see the delicate detail hidden in this one small part of the solar spectrum.

Tony Kroes

Quantum Skies Observatory

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Northern Nights Star Fest

GPS’s are handy tools, but an atlas is handy (just in case).

The Astro Babes are on a road trip! At nine this morning we hit the road and caravaned seven hours to Palisade, MN, to attend the 6th annual Northern Nights Star Fest.

This is the first Star Party that Amy and I have officially attended and stayed overnight. It’s getting dark now, but because it’s raining, most of the attendees are standing around here in the lodge or watching Astro Fred explain the nitty gritty of processing photographs. Luckily the star party runs till Sunday.

The Clear Sky Chart is solid white (which means clouds) so we’re not even taking the telescope out of the trunk tonight. If by some miracle it clears, we’ve got our trusty binoculars waiting in the wing.

Amy explores the observing field (before the rain started).

Apparently we missed an amazing night sky on Wednesday night, but due to work commitments we were unable to make it until Thursday.  To add insult to injury,  it wasn’t just clear and dark…from the photographs we’ve seen, the auroras here last night were spectacular. Sigh. Here’s hoping for another beautiful night before we have to go home.

Lynn & Amy

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Perseids 2014

Everyone brought reclining chairs to catch a few Perseids after sunset.

Last Wednesday evening, the local Astronomical Society club that Amy and I belong to held its annual Perseids Party and Picnic at Parmentier’s Observatory.

About 35 club members attended and brought spouses, kids, dogs, and plenty of dishes to pass. The weather was perfect for our annual get together at the foot of the dome.

The hobby of astronomy can be a solitary obsession that often finds one alone in the stillness of the night with only mosquitoes and crickets for company. But it’s the social events like the picnic that bring us together as friends, and remind us of our common passion for the wonder that endlessly drifts overhead.

The picnic started at 7 p.m. with enough food to feed a small army of star gazers.

If you’re going it alone, good for you. But if there are clubs in your area, don’t miss out on the opportunities to observe with others, attend star parties, volunteer at public outreach events, go to swap meets and picnics, and hang out with the gang for public observing and the Messier Marathon. Having friends that share your excitement and your enthusiasm makes the hobby of amateur astronomy all that much more satisfying.

Gerry, the NPMAS club president, did all the cooking.
Gerry, the NPMAS club president, did all the cooking.
Since the party started before the sun set, a few club members set up solar telescopes.
Since the party started before the sun set, a few club members set up solar telescopes.
Amy gets a hug from the club president.
Amy gets a hug from the club president.




Mars at Opposition

Last night was the big night to see Mars up close. Ok – relatively close anyway. What is opposition you ask? When Mars is at opposition it means that it is directly opposite the sun relative to us. As you can see here, on April 8th the sun is directly opposite Mars from our perspective. It’s about 57 million miles away, not the closest it can get, but not too bad.

Mars at Opposition
Mars at Opposition

As you can see, in 2003 Mars was very close, at 35 million miles. What this means for us observers is that Mars is bigger! We’re able to see more surface features and polar ice caps. Some may even be able to see clouds!

Mars at Opposition
Mars at Opposition

I went out tonight with my 90mm refractor. Unfortunately I didn’t bring a powerful enough eyepiece outside with me and by the time I went back in to get one the clouds rolled in. Such is observing in Wisconsin.

Try observing Mars this week – do some sketching at the eyepiece! Try adding a filter, green to bring out the polar ice caps. You could get out your smart phone and try some through the eyepiece photography! If you’re really busy you could spot Mars over the trees on your way home and take a moment to smile at our planetary neighbor.

It’s all good.


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.


Getting Away From it All

Overlooking Wittman Field.

I’ve been on a hiatus of sorts, off on one of my consulting assignments. I spent six weeks in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, writing about buying steel for military vehicles and ordering chassis’s to build fire trucks.

The upside was that I made some cash, met a bunch of great people, and had a mini-vacation. The downside was that my laptop totally died the day before I hit the road so blogging became impossible. While I was there, we also had 34 consecutive days with below zero temperatures. Even if I had my scope or my binoculars with me, I would’ve been too wimpy to do any serious observing.

I arrived in Oshkosh late Sunday, January 5, and spent the evening getting ready for my first day on the job. While I was unpacking Sunday night, I discovered that right out the side door of the hotel was the expanse of Wittman Field, home of the EAA. Turns out there is only three blocks of houses beyond the end of the runway before the horizon drops off into Lake Winnebago in the East-Southeastern sky, and although it was cloudy that first night, I knew I might get to see some stars on clear mornings and nights.

orionI woke up early the next morning and stepped out the side door of the hotel. The first thing that took my breath away was the frigid -17°F air. But the second thing that took my breath away was the black, pre-dawn sky. As focused as I was about getting to work on time, I lingered long enough to take it all in.

There, twinkling in the frigid sky, was Orion, standing tall with his belt only about 40 degrees off the treeless horizon. Betelgeuse, Rigel, Sirius and Procyon formed their own mini-Great Square below him. The night sky always seems so much more clear and beautiful when it’s really cold outside.

Every cloudless morning after that I was greeted by Orion, and over time watched him slowly march around the corner of the hotel. By the time I stepped out into the -6°F morning for the last time five weeks later, Orion had moved to the near Southern sky and his belt had risen to 50 degrees.

Orion’s been my hero for a long time, and I’m glad he was there to greet me at the beginning of every (clear!) day.

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Elusive ISON

Just got back from my first attempt at viewing sunrisecomet ISON with my 10×50 binoculars. It’s tough this time of year, crawling out of a nice, warm bed and stepping alone into the dark, 19-degree Wisconsin morning. But the sky was clear and there were enough pointer stars nearby in Virgo for me to give it a try.

Typically, I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. The rusty old Buick was parked in the way, and keys needed to be found to do a round of musical vehicles. Then, I wasn’t more than a block from my house before I realized my Out of Gas light was blinking. I needed to pull into the Shell station down the road and grab a few gallons before I drove to the outskirts of town.

I arrived at my usual Easterly observing site, and as my eyes were getting dark-adapted, a pickup truck lazed towards me from a farm up ahead. By the time I had explained that I was all right and actually trying to look at a comet on the other side of his truck, well, astronomical dawn had arrived and my night vision had left the building. The ISON party was over for the night.

Dick, a member of our local club, sent me this Visibility of Comet ISON chart that shows when ISON will be visible around here in the near future. Hopefully the moon, the clouds, and the snow will all cooperate again soon so I crawl out of bed and try again.


Northern Lights – What the heck is that?


Photo by fellow club member and Astro Babe Peg Zenko.
Photo by fellow club member Peg Zenko. See more of her photos at

Northern lights – those beautiful green and red ribbons of dancing light that show up in the northern sky at night. I’m frequently asked – What are they? Before I answer, I ask them what they think.

I get some pretty interesting answers. One person’s theory is that they’re caused by pollution. Another thought  it’s the reflection of light off the polar ice cap. I’m pretty sure someone’s theory involved aliens and a government conspiracy.

Thank goodness my hubby was out at his brother’s house in the country one night when the northern lights were doing a dance across the sky. They looked as though the green ribbons were reaching down and touching the horizon. My brother-in-law was a little unnerved by the show until my hubby (who actually does listen to me) explained to him what they were.

The coolest show I’ve ever seen was about ten years ago, when I stood mesmerized in my neighbors driveway (too many trees by me) watching what looked like red ink being poured into the earth’s atmosphere. If I didn’t know what I was seeing, I may have been a little worried about what was happening!

So – in a nutshell – here’s what causes them: It starts with a coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun, essentially a very large solar flare. Particles from the flare get caught up in our atmosphere and are attracted to the poles (both north and south). These particles are electrically charged and react with the gases in our atmosphere, bringing us the northern lights! For a more detailed explanation you can go to

So no worries – the next time you happen to catch sight of the northern lights remain calm! Enjoy the show, but first call your astronomy loving friends so they don’t miss out!!


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