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!


Great Observing Weekend!

Well, we had a great time at the observatory this weekend. As usual I struggled with deciding to go to bed early, or bucking up and going out to the observatory. We arrived on Friday night around 8:30, a little after dark. Heading off the road and up through the rows of tall corn, we wonder who may be joining us for the night.  Always aware of the fact that we tend to leave early (and ruin people’s night vision with our headlights) we pick a space near the exit path in order to make a clean getaway later in the evening.

It’s already dark so the other arrivals have already started their observing session. The silhouettes identified only by the sound of their voices.  Some are simply looking through their telescopes and some are doing some astrophotography.  We give everyone a quick warning that our lights are about to come on, then we start unloading. Even though we tend to travel light, we still have quite a bit to unpack. I spread out the blanket like we’re about to have a picnic then spread out the evening fare.

I use one of those old tri-fold lawn chairs, the kind that unless you’re careful you’ll get swallowed up into. I’ve seen more than one person get folded up into one of these, a fate I’ve been lucky to have been spared.  Next to the chair sits my duffel bag, holding everything I need for the evening. My star charts are too big for the bag, so the book goes on the hood of Lynn’s car. A quick test of the red flashlight and we’re ready to go!

I looked around at the constellations that were up. At the zenith we had Cygnus and Lyra, Sagittarius, the big teapot, was in the southern sky, heading towards the horizon. Facing west we had Ophiuchus and Hercules and the top of Bootes.  In the north, the Big Dipper sat just above the horizon, laying like a ladle had been set on the counter. The lovely Cassiopeia was sitting in the northwest, with Andromeda nearby.

So many possibilities! I decided to concentrate on Hercules, but where to start? Hmm, M13 and M90, both of which are on the ‘easy’ messier binocular list, sounds like a good place to start.  M13 is a pretty easy find, using the bright stars of Hercules as guide stars. It was a pretty little fuzz ball, darker in the middle, and slightly diffuse on the edges.  Nice! Next – M90. This one is a little harder to find, there isn’t much with it in the field of view. It too is a small fuzz ball, a little smaller than M13, but still a pretty find.

I decide to venture down to the observatory to see what the big scope has to share. The operator had found a beautiful nebula – M17 the swan! It was breathtaking!

On my way back to our little observing site, I stopped to take a look at Neptune through a 14 inch dobsonian. The blue disc was a rare and beautiful sight.

The rest of the evening I played with the star atlas software on my Kindle. I was having a bit of trouble with it, getting objects to center being able to zoom in to the same field of view as my binoculars. Maybe some advanced preparation would have been a good idea!

All in all, it was a good observing session, and I’m very glad that instead of snuggling under my blanket at home, I decided to hang out at the observatory under a blanket of stars!



The Pursuit of Happiness

There are all manner of things that herald the onset of Autumn in Wisconsin: Orion poking his shoulders over the horizon on late night observing sessions, the absence of Robins, the Autumnal Equinox, and the sound of hazelnuts crunching under my tires as I pull out of my driveway.

This is also the time of year when I go outside and do not see the zodiacal light. That’s right, I really meant to say that I do NOT see the zodiacal light. That false dawn continues to elude both Amy and I, although in reality, we’ve probably seen it without realizing what it was. But to have actually gazed towards the horizon and thought, “Hey look, it’s the zodiacal light”?  No, that hasn’t happened yet.

Scientists believe the zodiacal light is sunlight reflecting off the dust grains that were left over after the planets were formed in our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. It’s a really a cool phenomena if you think about it. To this day, this interplanetary dust follows the ecliptic in the narrow plane of space that is inhabited by Mercury, Venus, Earth, and beyond Mars, becoming more dense as you move closer to the sun.

In my part of the world, the zodiacal light is supposed to be most visible near the Autumnal Equinox about an hour before dawn in the eastern sky. In early spring, I get to try again to the west about an hour after sunset, but then I’m dealing with cold, damp temperatures and slippery roads, and the pursuit is even less pleasant.

I’ve read that I’m probably too far north here in Wisconsin to see the zodiacal light, although it is extremely bright and easy to see in latitudes in the southern U.S. But I’ve also heard from several of our astronomy club members that they have seen it here when conditions were right.

Now that the Autumnal Equinox is almost upon us, and the moon is rising early in the day and setting in the evening, I’m once again feeling the zodiacal light itch. And I know that if I hear that it’s going to be clear and the dew point is going to be very low overnight, I’m going to wrestle myself out of bed and try again.

Because I live in a populated area, and the zodiacal light is pretty faint this far north when it makes its appearance, I need to drive until the sky is dark enough that I can see the Milky Way. And since I need to be facing east at least an hour before the true predawn twilight (which is around 4:55 a.m.), I’ll need some serious determination to do it. But it would be worth it to catch a glimpse of the dust that’s left over from the creation of our solar system.

So any early morning now, I could find myself parked on the side of some country road facing east, groggily looking for a hazy pyramid of light extending up from the horizon. I’m predicting that, once again, I won’t see it. But if I ever do, you will be the first to know!

How about you? Have you seen the zodiacal light?


Getting Ready

Well we’re coming up on another observing weekend. Every month when there’s little to no moon, our club ventures out to the observatory for an evening of star gazing. We have the good fortune to have a small hill in a farmer’s field to set up our scopes and gaze skyward. We have an observatory with a 30” scope that only the most experienced club members are allowed to operate.

In the spirit of ‘keeping it simple’, I usually pack my 10 x 50 Nikon binoculars, my star charts and a small duffle bag of observing necessities. I do have two telescopes, but have yet to bring them to the observatory. I don’t know why, I just really like using the binocs.

You should however, have a plan. Here’s where it gets tricky. I usually head to my computer and fire up the Stellarium software (freeware), set it for Friday night and see what’s going on that evening. I check out the constellations that are visible, look for any binocular messier objects that I haven’t seen yet and make a list of a few objects I’d like to find.

I’ll print the star chart, slide it into a protective sheet (to protect it from the dew) and put it in my binder. I also mark the maps in my Tirion Sky Atlas 2000 with some post it flags so I can find them in the dark.

Now I’m ready, I’ve got my red flashlight, spare batteries, toe warmers, hand warmers, star charts, blankets, chairs, notebook, snacks and a bunch of other little must haves for the night.

It sounds like a lot of work, but when you step out of the car and look up, the sight of the Milky Way takes your breath away and you know it’s all worth it.  It’s so beautiful that it sometimes moves me to tears.

I’ll spend the evening not only looking through my binoculars, but I wander around to all the other telescopes that club members set up for the night. I’ve found that amateur astronomers love to share the view through their scopes, at least these guys do. I’ve been able to see an amazing variety of deep sky objects that way, and I thank the generosity of this great group of people.

I don’t know what I’ll be looking for this weekend, but I do know that if the skies are clear, I’ll be looking up! Stay tuned – I’ll let you know how it goes!



Sputnik Fest 2012

This past Saturday was no ordinary Saturday. I didn’t go camping or fishing, or cut the grass, or go to the mall. No, Amy and I decided to celebrate an event that landed Manitowoc, WI, right in the middle of the Space Race in 1962.

We’re not sure if it’s the weather or the water, but people in Wisconsin are always looking for an excuse to get out and enjoy the decent weather while it lasts. When we heard about last Saturday’s Sputnik Fest 2012, we decided it was just one of those celebrations that the AstroBabes couldn’t miss.

It turns out that on September 6, 1962, a 20-pound chunk of the disintegrating Sputnik IV landed right in the middle of the intersection of Eighth and Park streets in Manitowoc, WI. For the past five years, the city has hosted a Sputnik Festival at that intersection, a festival which has twice been recognized by Reader’s Digest as one of the Top Five Funkiest Festivals in the U.S.

We watched the Ms. Space Debris Pageant to see who would reign over all that is Sputnik for the upcoming year. We saw otherwise perfectly normal people decorate themselves in aluminum foil. We marveled at the winners of the Cosmic Cake Contest and petted a few alien pets. There were lots of vendors, good food, and, of course, beer. And for the first time in our lives, Amy and I ate a barbeque chicken sandwich topped with coleslaw.

When it was all over, we were not exactly sure what the Star Wars characters or the aluminum foil hats or Star Trek collector plates had to do with Sputnik IV, the Cold War, or the race to put a man on the moon – but one thing for sure, it was definitely fun. We’ve posted some of our favorite pictures under Lynn & Amy Adventures – enjoy!


Built to Last

Today is the 35th anniversary of the launching of Voyager 1, which is on the verge of becoming the first man-made object to leave our solar system. Its twin, Voyager 2, also celebrated its anniversary two weeks ago.

Volcanic eruption on Io.

Their original missions were to tour Jupiter and Saturn. Both gathered information and sent back startling photos of erupting volcanoes on Io, signs of methane rain on Titan, and the possibility of an ocean below the surface of Europa.

Following their Jupiter/Saturn missions, Voyager 1 used Saturn as a gravitational slingshot and launched itself towards the edge of our solar system. It is currently 11 billion miles from our sun, while Voyager 2 continued on to Uranus and Neptune and is now around 9 billion miles from our sun.

Back in 1977, no one had any idea how long the spacecrafts would continue to transmit a signal. Both are still utilizing 1977 technology, and has only 68 kilobytes of computer memory and an eight-track tape recorder at its disposal. By comparison, the smallest iPod (an 8-gigabyte Nano) is 100,000 times more powerful.

Although neither spacecraft still beams photographs back to Earth, a handful of engineers still tend to them from a satellite campus near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Twenty part-time scientists also analyze the data that streams back (a 17-hour trip for the radio signal from Voyager 1, and a 13 hour trip for Voyager 2).

Each spacecraft contains five working instruments that study magnetic fields, cosmic rays, and solar wind particles. Each also carries multi-lingual greetings, pictures and music on a disc – Greetings From Earth, just in case some distant neighbor stumbles across it.

Each spacecraft has enough fuel to last until about 2020, at which point Voyager 1 will have escaped our galaxy and given us a glimpse of what lies between us and our neighbors.


Good Bye Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong


I’ll always remember watching Neil Armstrong descend the ladder of the Eagle.

It was an event that brought men to tears and made people all over the world celebrate. The world has lost a great American hero, and National treasure. We love you Neil, and you will be sadly missed. We will never forget you.

Thank you Neil and  God speed.


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