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!



A whole new perspective

Orion tilted on his side.
Orion is lying down on the job in the Cayman Islands.

Two weeks ago, I found myself 2000 miles closer to the equator (and 80° F warmer) than I am today. And I understand that this was a tremendous opportunity to take in the night sky from a whole new perspective. But, as Robert Burns put it, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.”

While packing, I spent as much time as I could spare looking around in Stellarium, Sky Safari, and on Google. I even packed my trusty binoculars. But the one clear night in Cayman that I had a chance to look up, I realized I wasn’t nearly ready enough.

It’s cold here in Wisconsin. In fact, it’s 1° F as I’m writing this. And to be perfectly honest, this kind of weather doesn’t inspire me to do a lot of observing. So it was unfortunate that a good grasp of our current sky in Wisconsin was exactly what I needed in order to appreciate what I was seeing in Cayman.

When I looked up from Seven Mile Beach that night, I saw Jupiter and Gemini and Cassiopeia and Auriga. Nope. The sky just didn’t look all that different. But as I continued to get my bearings, once again my old pal Orion saved the day.

When I come home at night this time of year, Orion’s there to greet me. Facing east as I unlock my door, he’s high above me standing on his feet, watching over me. But in Cayman, it was a whole different story. Orion was lying down on the job. Literally. He was nearly horizontal.

That in itself was pretty exciting, but I didn’t want it to be the sum total of my observing session while I was only 450 miles north of the equator. I had high hopes of locating something I couldn’t see from my own backyard.

Two constellations rise on the southern side of the island and are never visible in Wisconsin – Crux (the Southern Cross) and Centaurus. Unfortunately, I was on the northwest side of the island, and no one was willing to drive me south at 3 a.m. (although I did momentarily consider attempting to drive myself on the left side of the road. Probably not a good idea).

But there was one other southern circumpolar constellation available to me there close to the horizon. I found Canopus, the brightest star in Carina. Canopus is a supergiant that is the second brightest star in the night-time sky after Sirius, and has a visual magnitude of -0.72. Although Carina itself was buried in the lights of George Town and the haze that had settled over the ocean, Canopus was high enough and bright enough that there was no doubt. It was white and bright and beautiful.

Next year when I travel down there again, I hope to take more of a perspective with me so that I can appreciate how skewed the sky looks when I’m only 450 miles north of the equator. Plus, I’m gonna drag my son’s butt out of bed and make him drive me to the south side of the island. Crux is a treat I don’t want to miss again!


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.


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!


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!


Jupiter My Old Friend

I’ve always loved Jupiter! I love how bright it is in the night sky – fourth brightest after the Sun, Moon and Venus. I love that we can watch the moons dance around the gassy giant. We can even, at times, see the beautiful shadow transit of the moons crossing the face of the planet. Of course there’s the big red spot, that cyclonic storm on Jupiter that’s been raging for over 400 years. It’s big enough to fit three earths inside of it. I’ve never seen the big red spot through a telescope – but this could be the year!

Jupiter will be at opposition in December, which means that the earth is directly in between the sun and Jupiter. Jupiter will be as close as it can get, making it a great target for viewing. I’ve seen it through my small 90mm refractor, and I’ve been able to see the bands. This year I’d like to go for that spot! Sky and Telecope has a Red Spot transit calculator if you’re interested in giving it a try. Let me know if you were successful!

Red spot aside, I’ve always thought of Jupiter as the ‘big brother’ of the solar system. It’s gravitational pull protects the earth from wayward debris. For example in 1994 comet Shoemaker Levy 9 plowed into the gas giant. This was not an isolated incident, it happens quite frequently. In fact another impact was caught by an amateur astronomer in Wisconsin while observing Jupiter (you never know what you’ll see!!) in September of this year. I know that some would argue that Jupiter in fact causes some of the debris to head our way due to it’s gravitational pull, but I choose to look at it as though it’s our protector.

For me, seeing my old friend Jupiter in the night sky is comforting, like a warm cup of cocoa or a fleece blanket. It gives me a warm fuzzy just seeing it hanging there among the stars.


Living Under a Canopy

The Draconids Meteor Shower happened this weekend, and last week, I was looking forward to it because I only have an hour of observing left to do to get the Meteor Club award. Unfortunately, on Sunday night when the peak occurred, we were clouded out.

Yesterday I read that radar in Canada had recorded an outburst of meteor activity with rates of 1,000 meteors an hour, even greater than last year’s outburst and five times that of 2005. I read there might be some residual activity last night and hoped to get a chance to go, but once again, we were clouded out.

But I wasn’t really up for going late last night. Sure, digging up all my winter clothes and the lawn chair and going out into the cold and dark is unpleasant enough. But what makes it really difficult for me is the drive. Many of the other guys in our club merely step out into their dark backyards and into their observing shacks and can observe for hours protected by the elements knowing that they have a bathroom just steps away in their nice, warm houses.

But for me, it’s always been a hassle because I have to drive to do any observing at all. Even the “backyard” observing programs, like the Universe Sampler, are impossible for me because, well, our house is in a very wooded neighborhood. It’s pretty, it’s like living in a forest, and right now, the colorful leaves everywhere make it a beautiful place. But there are only a few very patchy spots where I can look through the leaves and see any sky at all.

And even after all the leaves have fallen off the trees, there’s a mall just three blocks from here that’s lit up like the fourth of July, so there’s no dark observing whatsoever from here.

I look forward to Parmentier’s observing nights because otherwise, I’m observing from the sides of country roads, or from the access road behind Holy Cross Church.  Amy’s lucky. She has at least some sky in her backyard, and better still, a city park with a baseball diamond is just a block away.

I’m sure living in the country with no trees in sight would be great for observing, but in the summer, these trees keep our house and yard shaded and cool, and right now, looking out my window, the leaves are sure beautiful. I’d really miss that.


A Night With the Perseids

Last night was another opportunity to go out to Parmentier’s Observatory in Luxemburg, WI., which is operated by our astronomy club. And although it was the night before the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, Amy and I went out to see the show. Tomorrow may be the peak, but in Wisconsin, you go when it’s clear because you never know what the weather may bring tomorrow.

The club hosts Parmentier’s Observing Weekends (POW’s) once a month for most of the year (usually around the time the moon is a crescent, or will be rising when it won’t interfere with our observing).  Amy and I usually drive out before it gets dark so we can socialize and get our gear organized, but last night we didn’t arrive until well after dark at around 10:00 p.m.

The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the car was the Milky Way right overhead – something we never see here in town. We could tell immediately that we’d picked a good night to go. I had been concerned that the ground might be mushy and that it might be humid because we had received over two inches of rain the day before, but sunshine and a windy day had created a beautiful sky with very low humidity.

Fortunately we both thought of bringing warm clothes, and immediately bundled up in our winter coats, hats and gloves despite the fact that it was August 10th. In addition to the 64 degree temperature, we were just a few miles away from Lake Michigan, and the wind was blowing steady from the North at about 12 mph.

We grabbed Amy’s reclining lawn chairs and our backpacks and headed towards the small group that was already nested at the base of the dome. We found Gerry lying on the ground snuggled up on an air mattress, Gary fiddling with his camera equipment waiting to snap a good picture, and Wayne just kicking back and enjoying the sky. Normally, if the weather’s good, there’s a much bigger crowd, but the wind meant the dome wouldn’t be opened and small scopes would be jittery.

We set up our lawn chairs facing Cassiopeia, piled on a few blankets, and settled in. Amy was also just there just to watch, but I took the opportunity to finally get started on the Astronomical League’s Meteor program. Recording meteors was very clumsy at first,  but it didn’t take me long to get the hang of it. I managed to record 20 meteors between 10:45 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. And since everyone would Ooooo and Ahhhh in unison every time one whizzed by, I know I only missed two or three while I was busy recording.

I personally usually find observing very stressful. I know my way around the sky a little, but get lost when I’m trying to find things in an unfamiliar area of the sky while juggling heavy binoculars, sky charts, pencils, red flashlights, watches and clipboards in the dark – all this while battling mosquitoes, ticks, dew and feet that are frozen in the snow. It is not a hobby for the faint of heart.

But last night it was wonderful, just relaxing on a reclining lawn chair and admiring all the stars. The companionship was warm, the jokes were funny, and all the while we listened to 70’s music playing softly on Gerry’s radio, trying to be the first one to guess who the artist was. It turns out that Wayne is quite the 70’s trivia master, and we learned all sorts of little-known facts about Neil Diamond, Elton John and Billie Joel  – I guess there’s more to learn on an astronomy outing than just about the night’s sky.

But by 1:00 a.m. Amy and I were feeling cold and sleepy so we packed up and headed home. And as I fell asleep in my warm, cozy bed,  I thought of all the meteors I would miss as they sparkled across the sky all through the night.