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!


That Darn Dog

Have you ever had one of those days when the cards just seem to be stacked against you?  That’s the kind of day I had last week Saturday.

It rained all week last week and I couldn’t put a dot on my analemma. Saturday rolled around and was showing promise for a sunny twelve bells. I had a few errands to run and was waffling about trying to get that dot on that day, or putting it off until Sunday.  At 11:40, I’m across town. I was unable to find the bank I was heading for so I was 0 and 1 already. The sky is clear and I need that dot. Maybe I can get one thing accomplished today! I turn the car towards home, hoping the traffic lights are on my side. 11:45

At 11:56 I pull into the driveway. Great! I have plenty of time! I rush into the house, grab my setup, pen and watch. It only takes a few seconds to line up the frame. Ah – I made it with only seconds to spare. As I’m crouched over the paper I’m suddenly aware of a very large black dog running around my front yard.

Watcha Doing?

She was so excited to see someone at eye level that she came right up to me wagging that tail and sticking her nose in my face as if to say “hey – whatcha doing?” I never even looked up! It’s now 11:59:40 and ticking and after a week of clouds and rain I have a 60 pound black lab casting a shadow on my analemma. I couldn’t believe it! Still staring at my paper I mumble “You’ve got to be kidding me!”  I reached out and pushed her out of the way.

She of course took this as a sign that I wanted to play – 11:59:55 – and came back for another playful sniff. 11:59:59 – beep beep beep, my watch alarm went off – noooooooooo, I gave her another push just in time to get that dot on the paper.  Whew!

Afterwards I found out that my hubby was watching all of this unfold. I was so focused on my dot that I didn’t notice him trying to get the dog out of my face. He marveled at the fact that I never looked up, even while I was trying to push Shadow (my name for her) out of the way. What can I say, I really wanted make some progress on my project.

Oh – by the way, I looked up some of the calculations I’m going to have to make. I was right, it’s going to be fun! Yes – that’s what I said, fun!

Whew – 62 dots down, 38 to go!


The Omen

Last Saturday, a handful of us gathered for the Kroes Observing Weekend, which is an organized event hosted each year by one of our club members. It gives us a great opportunity to observe a dark western sky close to home. I didn’t take advantage of that horizon though (my neglected to-do list included every direction but west) but I still had a mission in mind.

After we arrived and gathered our stuff from the car, we hiked around the barn to get to the viewing area. It didn’t take me long to find him. The eastern horizon there is relatively flat, so it was easy to pick out my old friend Orion, already scraping his knees along the horizon an hour before midnight. I plopped my lawn chair down facing due east and spent the last hour of the day looking for Orionid meteors.

Although you can record meteors at any time for the Astroleague’s Meteor program, it seems to me that it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if there wasn’t a full-blown meteor stream going on. After all, only one meteor out of six during that hour that was not an Orionid.

As I sat there looking in his general direction, it didn’t take long for that old anxiety to return. See, I have a big problem with Orion. Just like the Robins and the Daffodils announce the arrival of spring, in our neck of the woods, Orion’s appearance each fall heralds the beginning of a long, cold Wisconsin winter. I think the trees agree with me too, because once he gets his head and shoulders over the horizon, they immediately drop their leaves and go to sleep. I don’t blame them.

Come mid-winter, Orion hovers over my house like a frozen angel. In the last few weeks of the year, he fits quite nicely within the only open area in the dome of trees that covers our yard. I see him chuckling as I scurry from my frozen car to my frozen front door across my frozen ice-covered driveway. Real funny.

I suppose I could take solace in the knowledge that, in early spring, he’ll quietly disappear below the horizon and all the leaves will return and the ground will warm. But from here, that time looks a long way off. Brrrrr.


Watching History

What does an AstroBabe do when its raining and miserable outside? Well I put on some tea, wrap myself in a blanket and sit down to watch a man make history! Saturday morning when the skies were dark and dismal here, the sky was clear and calm in Roswell New Mexico, the site of the Red Bull Stratos jump.

There Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team set out to break the world’s free fall record set by American Joe Kittinger. In 1960, Colonel Kintinger floated via hot air balloon to 102,800 feet then jumped, setting a world record for longest sky dive and longest free fall.

I sat glued to the computer screen, watching the two hour ascent, totally amazed. Kittinger was the Cap Com for the mission, providing the only contact between mission control and Baumgartner. He remained in constant contact, taking Felix through the checklist prior to the jump, and helping trouble shoot a problem with his faceplate that jeopardized the mission.

We saw Felix’ mom, nervously watching her son ascend into the history books. I liked her right away! She wore a bright green alien ring on the pinky of her left hand. My kind of gal!

Finally – at 128,100 feet, all systems were go. Felix pressurized his suit, opened the hatch and stepped out onto the platform. I imagined myself up there calmly explaining to mission control that they had to GET ME DOWN! Then he jumped.  He fell through the vacuum, tumbling uncontrollably, nearly losing consciousness. He reached speeds of 800 mph and may have broken the speed of sound.  He gained control, steadied himself and continued to free fall to earth. After 4 minutes and 19 seconds (leaving the free fall record to now 84 year old Kittinger)  he deployed his parachute.

He floated down to the ground and amazingly landed on his feet! Just another jump for him it seemed. He set at least two records that day – highest free fall and highest manned balloon flight. The rest will be determined by examining the data from the fall.

I wonder how it feels to accomplish so much. There are days that I can barely get a meal on the table much less break the speed of sound. I know that I’ve accomplished many things in my life, but how do you top something like that? What do you do next?

I’m going to try to turn the mountain of laundry in my room into a small hill. I’m sure Felix has bigger plans than that (thank goodness!) I can’t wait to find out what they are!

Congratulations Felix!


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.


Christmas in September

I love technology. In fact, keeping technically current is critical in order for me to do my job well.

I am not, however, one of those people that feels the need to have the latest and greatest version of anything. No, I tend to buy something that’s been out for a little while and then use it until it’s time to bury it in the ground. (I still use my 1996 HP laptop to drive my 1997 HP LaserJet printer).

And so it goes with tablets. Early last year, a co-worker bought a Galaxy Tab 10 to work and I got to play with it for a while. It was too big to fit in my purse, and too heavy to easily carry around, but I got bitten by the idea that I could use free WiFi in the Chicago train station during my semimonthly six-hour layovers. And it seems like free WiFi is everywhere.

And so the quest began. What brand of tablet should I get? What size? How about an iPad Touch? What weight can I tolerate? And today, how can I justify laying down a bunch of money when I don’t even travel through the train station anymore?

The search went on for nearly a year, but was decided in an instant recently when Amy and I were at Parmentiers for an observing session with the group. Amy was using her binoculars to work on her list of objects, and I was using mine to complete the binocular Messier certificate.

At some point, Amy pulls her relatively new Kindle Fire out of her backpack and starts playing with a star chart application she had downloaded that day. As she’s looking at constellations and clicking on stars and getting all this information about individual objects, a light bulb goes off in my head.

Later, when we’re packing up to leave, we stopped at each observing station to say hi and let everyone know we were leaving. Several of our members are into astrophotography, so we always let them know our blinding headlights will soon be washing over them. On the way, we paid a visit to Brien, who was observing with his 12” scope. There, in his open hatchback, lay a tablet, also with a star chart application open.

Amy mentions that she had been playing with an app that night for the first time on her Kindle, and Brien takes a few minutes and demonstrates all the cool stuff he can do with the Sky Safari program. When he says, “Heck, I don’t even bring my star charts with me anymore when I’m observing,” I was sold. It’s been two weeks now, and my refurbished Galaxy Tab 7” is sitting next to me on my desk loaded with Sky Safari. Can’t wait to get out and use it!

I guess I just needed a really good excuse to upgrade to the 21st century.


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