Ok – so a clear night and a telescope would have made this a bit more satisfying, but hey, we can’t have everything!
On the night of the triple shadow transit we were, of course, clouded out. We weren’t alone this time, practically the entire U.S. was under a blanket of clouds. So that’s where we went – to the cloud! If we can’t watch a live transit, we would settle for a live webcast of one.
Yay Griffith Observatory! They came through with a promise of a clear sky and a live broadcast. I tuned in, made sure Lynn was online too, and made myself comfy on the sofa. There were over 1400 people online, and the comments were streaming so fast that I could feel the excitement! Plus, I was sharing this experience with people from all over the world!
Then Jupiter came into view. Well, the hazy blob appeared on screen. It seems that high altitude winds were making the view unstable. Fortunately Lynn was quicker than I was when someone posted an URL for another live webcast from Brazil. She texted me the new site and we both switched to Brazil.
Jupiter was setting there, and the sky was clear! Perfect! By now I had moved to the recliner, and had hooked up my TV to act as a monitor, thanks to Lynn for the idea. Why can’t all observing sessions be this comfy?
As the shadows crawled across the face of Jupiter, I was transfixed by the image. Checking this rare event off of my ‘must see’ observing list completed a very hectic week for me. Sure it would have been nice to be peeking at this through the eyepiece, but sometimes we have to take what we can get.
So here’s your lesson for the day, when a rare astronomical event is clouded out, somebody somewhere will be showing it on the net. You gotta love technology.
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.
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!
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.
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!
One of my favorite observing nights was a journey out to Cedar Drive Observatory, owned by fellow club member Tony Kroes. Lynn and I went out there to see an NEA, or Near Earth Asteroid that was tumbling by at a distance closer to us than the moon. I’ll give you a minute to wrap your brain around that one.
This was something that allegedly we’d be able to see through our binoculars, so ever optimistic, we arrive with a small star chart with the approximate path of the asteroid printed on it. It became clear that we just wouldn’t be able to find this thing ourselves so leave it to Tony to find this moving target.
I’m sure I actually dropped my jaw the first time I saw this piece of space rock roll on through the field of view. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in NASA’s Dawn mission. The Dawn spacecraft’s mission is to visit not one, but two asteroid belt objects, the two largest asteroids, Ceres and Vesta. These two asteroids can, at times, be viewed through binoculars!
What’s cool about these asteroids is that they represent the beginning of our solar system. They hold secrets to how our solar system formed, and why there’s an asteroid belt at all! What’s also cool is that this year they can be seen in the same field of view!
So – here’s your challenge – go to www.heavens-above.com and click on the ‘Asteroid’ link then – you guessed it, find Vesta and Ceres! Make sure you observe them more than one night to see the movement. They’re getting dimmer so your better get out there soon!
To celebrate Women’s History month I’d like to share a little about my favorite historical woman in astronomy, Maria Mitchell. Maria (pronounced with a long i) was born in 1818 and grew up on the island of Nantucket. There she studied the stars with her father. As a young girl, Maria learned to navigate by the stars and was able to fine tune marine chronometers.
In 1947 she became famous as a ‘comet sweeper’, discovering what came to be known as ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ for which she was awarded a gold medal from the king of Denmark.
Maria said “In my younger days when I was pained by half educated, loose, and inaccurate ways which we all had, I used to say, ‘How much women need exact science.’ But since I have known some workers in science who were not always true to the teachings of nature, who have loved self more than science, I have said, ‘How much science needs women!”
She truly was a women before her time!
Maria went on to be a champion for women, protested against slavery and co-founded the American Association for the Advancement of Women. Please visit www.mariamitchell.org to learn more about this amazing woman!
Early in December I decided to try to find Comet Lovejoy. While all eyes were on ISON, I felt sorry for Lovejoy. Here it was, high in the sky still putting on a show and no one seemed to be paying attention! I checked first to see if Lovejoy was going to be visible at a reasonable hour. This is an important criteria for me. I struggle with the whole ‘should I sleep or should I get out of bed and go observing’ thing. I really hate being cold, so usually sleep wins out! Good news! I should be able to see it around 5am.
Before I went to bed I checked the star charts again in an attempt to burn into my memory the exact position of the comet. This almost never works by the way. I checked my 10×50 binoculars and made sure I had warm clothes. It’s December in Wisconsin and I really hate being cold.
What I was really hoping for was to be able to see Lovejoy through my patio doors, avoiding the whole subzero thing. I told you I hate the cold. Sadly, that was not to be. Lovejoy was going to be too far north and in the tree of my backyard. Oh – but wait – I could stand in my driveway and see Lovejoy over my house! Well that was better than not seeing it at all, so I was happy.
The next morning I rolled out of bed at 4:30. I threw on some warm clothes, grabbed my jacket and binoculars and went out front. I was pretty sure I knew where to look but once again my memory failed me. I told you that never works. Back into the house to check my star charts. After scrutinizing a star chart I went back out and sure enough, there she was! A faint fuzz ball. The moon was a bit bright, so I was unable to discern any tail, but I could see the star like center of the comet. It was truly amazing!
The best part was that I was able to get up, find Lovejoy and make it back to bed before my hubby left the house. Who says you can’t do astronomy in your jammies?
As you well know – on Sunday June 23rd, we had the appearance of the ‘supermoon’. This time it happened to coincide with the appearance of a ‘superkid’. I stood in the yard, bathed in the beautiful moonbeams, trying to soak in the moment. While it’s not an extremely rare event, it doesn’t happen every day. Then just when I thought I’d go inside, my daughter peeked outside and said, “hey mom, put up your telescope so I can take a picture!”
Well, talk about your rare events! No need to ask twice! I went inside and grabbed my 90mm Meade that sits as a permanent fixture in our family room. I set it up quickly on the back patio. The moon hung just over the neighbors house, a perfect spot. She carefully put her smart phone up to the eyepiece and within seconds had snapped off about four great photos. Side note – I was a bit jealous that it was so easy for her. I’ve tried to get a good through the eyepiece picture and it’s NOT easy!
Then almost as quickly as it began, it was over. Off she went into the house to share her photo with the world, well, her world anyway.
I’ve been to star parties, seen rare transits, watched eclipses, watched an asteroid tumble by the earth and even met an Apollo astronaut. Of all the rare astronomical events I’ve seen, the most cherished moments are the ones like this, when my children step into my world for a moment and see it the way I do.
So – here is the drawing I made from the dimensions of my apparatus, and the distances to both the equinoxes and the solstices. The side marked “Gnomon” is the measurement from the ground to the height of the stick (gnomon).
I then measured the distance from the gnomon to the dots corresponding to the equinoxes and the solstices.
The drawing I used was full size. This drawing is just representative of my drawing. It’s not the actual drawing. It’s important for you to make the drawing full size in order to measure the angles for activity 1.
You will also need a protractor
For the first part of the activity – “measure the tilt of the earth’s axis using only your analemma and apparatus measurements.”
Take your protractor and measure angle a, then angle b. Then subtract b from a. This will be approximately 23 degrees which is the tilt of the earth’s axis.
Next – using your protractor measure the angle marked ‘latitude’. This is – you guessed it – your latitude!
Yea! One down – three to go! Up next – Activity #2: with reference only to your analemma and measured dimensions of your observing apparatus, calculate the Sun’s path in the sky and produce a sketch or plot to depict that path.
And my spring break, Christmas vacation, birthday and, well you get the idea.
So I spent the last year of my life running home at lunch, watching weather reports and planning when I could get the next dot on my analemma. So here’s the end result. Yes, that’s it.
I was thrilled to see the figure 8, however as you can see, I’m a little off center. It should be going straight up the center of the page. I’m a little off to the left. That means that I took my readings a tad early, a result of taking readings at noon by the clock. I should have used solar noon.
Solar noon is when the sun is at it’s highest in the sky. It actually happens at different times everyday, but you can calculate the ‘average’ time of solar noon. File that under ‘things to do differently next time’. HA – next time – I don’t think so!
Before I took it off the frame, I measured the distance from the tip of the gnomon to the dots marking the solstices and the equinoxes. I also had to measure the exact height of the gnomon.
These measurements are needed to complete the first activity, which is: with reference only to your analemma and measured dimensions of your observing apparatus, calculate (1) the tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane, and (2) your observing Latitude.
Easy right? Well as it turns out, not too bad! But you’ll have to stay tuned!
Have you see those weird lights in the sky? Chances are their not UFO’s. Some of them may be Iridium flares! In November I posted about some fun ways to add a quick observing session to a family gathering. One thing I mentioned were Iridium flares. I thought I’d talk a little more about them and what they are.
A satellite flare is sunlight bouncing off the reflective surface of a satellite and sending it directly back to earth. The satellite will appear to flare, or brighten suddenly then disappear. Here’s a link to an animation that shows what a flare looks like.
Iridium satellites are a group of communication satellites that orbit the earth in low earth orbit at about 485 miles above the earth. The ‘constellation’ as it’s called, consists of 66 satellites. They orbit the earth from pole to pole every 100 minutes.
The satellite’s unique shape of three polished door sized panels focuses sunlight directly down to earth, causing what we call ‘Iridium Flares’.
While you may see one of these by chance, you’re more likely to spot one with some outside help. One of our favorite sites is Heavens-above. Once you set it to your location you can click on the link to Iridium Flares. You’ll get a list of visible flares for your location, the brightness, altitude and other pertinent information.
Some of these flares are so bright they are visible in the daytime! I have yet to see one of those, the trouble is that they are dangerously close to the sun (from our perspective) and very difficult to see.
These are always fun to see, and fun to impress your family with. Find out when a bright flare will happen, then plan to be outside when it does! Make your ‘prediction’ and amaze your friends and family! It’s no rabbit out of a hat, but still fun.