Family traditions

Whether it’s a favorite sweet potato recipe, picking names for Christmas out of a furry hat, or hanging the same decorations in the same spot every year, family traditions seem to come out and play this time of year.  Making a new tradition can be challenging and fun!

Since I’ve become somewhat of the expert on astronomical events in my family I try not to disappoint. Before each family gathering I check out to see whats happening over head. I usually print a list of events such as a pass of the ISS or an Iridium flare. It’s quick and easier than making pie!  When the pass is about to happen, I try to coax as many family members as possible outside. This only works if the weather is mild, the meal is over and there’s no football!

Unfortunately this year the skies were quiet, no ISS and no flares!  That’s ok though, we still had great food and conversation.

I’ll give it a try again on Christmas – it looks like there’s going to be a couple of good passes of the ISS that night!  I hope it’s clear and I’m not too full of pie to move off the couch and go outside!

If any of you have added an astronomical family tradition to your celebration please let me know! I’d like to share all your great ideas with all our astrobabe friends!

Have a wonderful Holiday Season – and don’t forget to look up!


Observing verses the elements

Cloudy tonight or no?

Until recently, I’ve used The Weather Channel’s hourly forecasts on to decide if I should bother packing up the car for an observing session. Then, as sunset got closer, I’d check it again and then usually look at one of their interactive cloud maps to see if there were any surprises coming our way from the west.

But I’ve known for sometime that there was something out there called a Clear Sky Chart designed specifically as a weather forecast for astronomers.

This past weekend was a Kroes observing weekend for us here in Brown County, and at last week’s meeting, Tony mentioned the Clear Sky Chart weather predictions for the observing weekend. That got me thinking that I really needed to take a serious look at this tool.

Formerly called Clear Sky Clocks, the charts are weather forecasts created just for astronomers. Charts are available for more than 4,000 locations, and each provides data for a nine-mile radius. It forecasts cloud cover, transparency, seeing and light pollution from the moon for the next 48 hours.

Listed across the top is local time, reading from left to right in military time. The four rows below that concern Sky conditions, with values for cloud cover, transparency, seeing and darkness (which includes interference from the moon). The bottom three Ground rows display weather conditions at the surface.

Each block of color represents a value, and a legend below the chart explains what each color value is. You can also click on any block to display a full map and more detail about each row’s value (the blocks might be in your local time, but the map pages display in GMT). As I understand it though, if you can find a line of blocks in the first four rows that are blue, that’s when you should be able to get out and observe.

But be sure to look at the bottom three rows, too. The strength of the wind will determine your own comfort as well as the steadiness of your equipment. And humidity can mean fog, and can also affect your optics depending upon whether you’re sitting on the top of a hill or down in a valley. And temperature tells you how much layering you’ll need.

Because the maps are available for free, many clubs display local Clear Sky Charts, but if not, here’s the website where you can learn more and also search for a map near you:

If you’re new to the chart, you’ll find plenty more information about the charts and how to read them. And FYI, for this last weekend, was off both nights, but the Clear Sky Clock was right on target both nights.


More links

I have added a few more links to our Links & Resources page (with more to come!). ( (this website never gets old!) is the NASA Space Weather Bureau, and is packed with science news and information about the Sun-Earth environment. It delivers real-time space weather forecasts, space weather news, pictures, news and information about meteor showers, solar flares, auroras, and near-Earth asteroids. You can sign up and receive space weather alerts – which we highly recommend!

The International Dark-Sky Association ( is a non-profit organization whose mission is to raise awareness and “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through quality outdoor lighting.” Our club occasionally sponsors events to promote their message. ( offers free monthly sky maps, along with a monthly sky calendar of current objects to view with binoculars, telescopes or naked-eye.

The Astronomy League ( is the organization that Amy and I (and our whole club) belongs to. It promotes astronomy through local clubs that hold public events, and represents 240 organizations across the U.S. Membership includes a magazine called The Reflector, and offers a large number of observing awards (several of them Amy and I are working on). Great way to feel connected to other amateur astronomers, and you don’t need a local club to join.

Please keep your suggestions coming in!


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

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!


What’s up?

I got an email from a friend the other day. It contained a link to a NASA website where I could register to receive emails or text-messages every time the International Space Station passes over my house.

It reminded me that most non-amateurs aren’t aware of the rich resources that us amateurs have at our disposal. We’re out there on the Internet looking for spacey news and websites and find interesting links everyday. We then pass the good ones on to others at meetings or during presentations.

Amy and I originally intended to include a Links & Resources page on this blog site, and I guess it’s time that we actually add one. Although I’ve only primed it with a few links, we’ll be adding to it over the next few weeks and will even blog about sites that we find especially useful or interesting.

I’ve been using the Heavens-Above website for many years to find dates and times of satellite flyovers. In fact, for a while there Amy and I even used it to track the $100,000 tool bag that was dropped by astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper during her spacewalk outside the ISS in 2008.

Our Links & Resources page will only be as good as its content, so we’d really appreciate it if you’d send us your favorite sites so we can add them to the links page and share them with everyone.


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