Looking Forward to the Comet 209P/LINEAR Meteor Shower

209P Linear meteor shower
Radiant for 209P/LINEAR shower early this Saturday morning.

The weather is looking great here for the Comet 209P/LINEAR meteor shower. The Camelopardalids could produce as many as 200 meteors per hour early Saturday morning between 12:30 and 4 a.m., peaking around 2 a.m. CDT.

What is so neat about this shower is that it’s never been seen before, and the farther north you live in the viewing zone, the more meteors you are likely to see.

The last time I clocked meteors for the Astronomical League’s meteor certificate, I brought several copies of star charts of the radiant area of the sky, and as I saw meteors, I drew them on a chart and numbered them. On a separate sheet of paper, I made notes on brightness, color, speed, etc.

You can also do some real science by submitting your observations to the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. All the information you need to work on your meteor certificate is available on the Astronomical League’s website.

After midnight tonight, you’ll find Amy and I perched on our lawn chairs facing north, with pencils and clipboards poised and ready. We’ll be busily adding hours towards our Astronomical League Meteor Program Certificate, (meteors or not) and having a great time. Hope you’re all out there, too!

Please be sure to write us and tell us about the meteors you see.


Messier – 110; Lynn & Amy – 0

Amy checks out the soups at the NPMAS Messier Marathon.

Over the weekend, our astronomy group hosted our annual Messier Marathon at the Brillion Nature Center. About 40 people showed up bringing both treats and telescopes. Amy and I attended but were late because of prior commitments.

The Messier Marathon is an annual event held by many astronomy clubs. It all started with the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier, who cataloged 110 deep sky galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The idea is that you begin observing the list of objects as they’re setting at sundown, and then work your way eastward across the sky. If everything lines up just perfect, and it’s a moonless, cloudless, dew-free night between mid-March and early April, it’s possible to observe all 110 Messier objects in one night.

In the past, Amy and I recorded at least a handful of the early Messier’s and qualified for a Messier observing award. This year, we figured we’d get some of the later objects, but somehow we didn’t get any Messier’s at all.

I did manage to knock off six observations needed for other Astronomical League observing programs, and Amy was able to find the asteroid Vesta with her binoculars, which shone at a magnitude 5.9 and was close enough to Mars to make it relatively easy to find.

When Amy and I left around three (yes, I meant 3 a.m. – a new Marathon record for both of us) there were still at least a half-dozen die-hards there, waiting inside the shelter for the next round of Messier objects to rise.

Next year we’ll try it again and maybe take it all a little more seriously. Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll bag all 110 objects.


Herschel 400 – One Step at a Time

Yeah! Woot Woot! We did it!! We found our first Herschel object!

As you know, Lynn and I have decided to tackle one of the most challenging observing programs the Astronomical League has to offer – the Herschel 400. (See Lynn’s blog entry called Herschel Space Observatory Goes Dark)

Last week we had the perfect combination, dark skies and a Saturday night.  After wrestling with the tri-pod of the club loaner scope, and hoisting the heavy trunk that contained the rest of the scope into the trunk of my car we fired up the trusty GPS and headed out to the observatory.

A side note regarding the GPS – it may be a good idea to actually update the maps once in a while, we ended up on a dead end road and had to turn around.

The observatory stood quiet on the hill like a lonely willow in the middle of a field, no lights, no people, nothing! Another side note, always call ahead to make sure people will be out there.

Determined to find our first Herschel, we went back to Lynn’s house and set up in the back yard. While not the ideal spot, what with light pollution and trees and such, we still thought we could find at least one object.

Peaking through the low lying branches, we watched the stars pop out one by one.  Finally the random dots turned into a constellation we were familiar with – Aquila! Now we could finally pick our target!  We picked the one that was the brightest since we had such horrible transparency (see our chart under Links and Resources), NGC 6577 with a magnitude of about 7.5.

Finally – after using our tag team star hopping technique, we found it! There it was –  a faint wisp which I could only see with averted vision, but that didn’t matter. We saw it! And it counted!

Only 399 to go!



Analemma – Activity #1

Activity 1 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.

Hmmmm – getting tougher!!


The Analemma – Or, how I spent my summer vacation.


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!



Herschel Space Observatory Goes Dark

The ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory

Between the two of us, Amy and I have started many of the Astronomical League’s Observing Programs. Okay, we’ve started a lot more of them than we’ve finished, but that’s a sign of a curious mind, right?

A few AstroBabe meetings ago, we decided that we would break our “no more programs until we finish the ones we have” rule and go after something big – something that would really stretch our observing abilities. We agreed that it was time to start the Herschel, a really, really long-term project.

Unless you are already familiar with AL’s Herschel Observing Program, you have no idea what a commitment this is. If we knock off one or two Herschel objects a week, then in, oh, maybe 300-400 weeks, we’ll have it done. Yes, it’s a big deal, but on the way to finishing the Herschel program, we’ll also complete the Messier Program and the Binocular Messier Program. Three birds with one giant stone.

It seems ironic that we are beginning this quest just as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory made its last observation. The Observatory was named after William Herschel, the man who discovered infrared radiation in 1800.

Its mission has been to study the formation of stars and early galaxies, and it has surveyed thousands of galaxies during its four-year mission. The Herschel Observatory made over 35,000 observations and collected more than 25,000 hours worth of scientific data on objects that were previously invisible to us.

Launched by an Ariane 5 rocket on May 14, 2009, the Herschel Observatory has been parked at the second Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles from Earth. The school-bus sized observatory detected infrared wavelengths in a wide range of low temperatures, as low as ten degrees above absolute zero at far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths.

View of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion by the ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory.

Because heat interfered with its observations, liquid helium was used to chill the temperature of the detectors to nearly absolute zero (-271 Celsius). When it launched, it brought 2,300 liters of this liquid helium along, which weighed 335 kg (739 lbs), nearly 10 percent of its original mass. It has been slowly using up and leaking a bit of that helium everyday.

It had been estimated that the Observatory would run out of helium in late March, but it managed to squeeze one more month of observing beyond that estimate. On April 29, during the spacecraft’s daily communication session with the ground crew in Western Australia, it reported a significant rise in temperature in all of its instruments, which meant it had finally ran out of liquid helium.

The Herschel Observatory’s mission will be carried on by the launch of a number of telescopes with infrared capabilities, including the Japanese Space Agency’s Space Infrared Telescope for Cosmology and Astrophysics (SPICA) telescope (2017), the James Webb Space Telescope (2018), and the ESA’s Ritchey-Chretien telescope (2022).

Until then, there is plenty of data to study. Much of the data the Herschel collected is available through NASA’s Herschel Science Center at http://herschel.esac.esa.int/. There is also more information on the mission itself on the ESA’s own website at http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=51550.

As for the Herschel Observatory itself? Later this month, it will be propelled into a no-return heliocentric orbit where it will take at least 300 years to return to earth on its own. But who knows? Maybe some ambitious future space clean-up crew will collect it and bring it back to Earth and park it in the Smithsonian where our grandchildren can go to see it.


Wild Goose Chase Observing Club

Zodiacal LightsIf you belong to the Astronomical League you may be familiar with the variety of observing programs available. They range in complexity from major eyestrain faint fuzzy hide and seek, to simply looking up and saying “oh, there it is!” But there is one club missing from the mix. Lynn and I have been working on creating this one for the last ten years. The working title is “The Wild Goose Chase” observing club.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a beginners club. This is for the seasoned observer, those of us who, putting the need for sleep aside, faithfully trudge out of our warm homes into the night with great expectations of seeing something unique and spectacular. We drag out our maps and lists of objects carefully planning where to start, and where to go next. Then, after scanning the sky for the elusive object, we realize that we had the date wrong on the star chart app, or the one clump of clouds that has appeared out of nowhere has decided to stay put right in front of the target.

One of the first wild goose chases we had was a few years ago when we decided to look for the Zodiacal Lights, or as we prefer to call them the ‘alleged’ zodiacal lights.

This was the time of year when they were supposed to be visible in the early evening. We thought this would be easy, so we jumped in the car and headed west. All we needed was a view of the western horizon, clear skies and our eyes. We drove out to the country and found a spot at the side of a quiet country road, away from any street lights or blazing yard lights.  We watched, our eyes glued to the horizon, waiting until…….there it was – sky glow from a neighboring community. Sigh – Oh well, another wild goose chase observing session! Better log the date, time and seeing conditions!

Have any of you had a wild goose chase you’d like to share?


Transit of Venus Award!

This past June gave us a rare opportunity to see the beautiful transit of Venus.  In order to commemorate the event, the Astronomical League put together a special observing award just for the transit.

Well, when we heard about that we just had to do it. After all, how many people can say they’ve received the Transit of Venus observing award? How many people can say they have two awards? Wait – what?

I know we keep saying that this is a rare event, but there was one in 2004. These rare events come in pairs! The first transit was in 2004, the next in 2012 then nothing until December 2117, which is, according to www.transitofvenus.org, 38,328 days and 10 hours (at the time of this writing) away.

2004 Transit of VenusIn 2004, we also had a great observing event overlooking Lake Michigan. We were able to see the whole event that day because it started early in the morning! The Astronomical League had an observing program back then too, and guess who did that one? Me! So not to boast or anything – but I’ll have them both!

So – what does it take to complete this type of award? Well they both involved the timing of the contacts, sketching the event and making a calculation of 1 au (astronomical unit, the distance between the earth and the sun) which is roughly 93 million miles.

I’m very happy that I’ve received both certificates – they will be proudly displayed side by side!



Starting simple

Meade DS-114AT

Last week, a dear friend offered me her husband’s 4.5” Meade motorized reflector. I didn’t ask, but I think it’s one of those gifts that she bought one Christmas at Sam’s Club thinking that it would be a great new hobby for them to share.

It reminded me of what a huge proponent I’ve been of starting this hobby armed with only a humble pair of binoculars – and not some hugely expensive and heavy 25×100’s, but a decent pair of 10×50’s that you can pick up for less than $100. Fortunately, my friend probably only dropped a few hundred on this scope, but I think they would have been better served using that money for a decent pair of binoculars and a parallel tripod.

Standing in awe beneath the stars with your trusty telescope sounds romantic, but there is this reality of battling the mosquitoes and the elements, the primal fear of the dark, and the frustration of not finding or seeing objects, that makes amateur astronomy a hobby not for the faint of heart.

Before you drop a couple grand on a telescope, you first need to really know how you feel about:

• Frozen fingers verses happy, toasty fingers
• Watching the celestial heaven verses watching television
• Bundling up into six layers of clothes verses sweat pants and a tee
• 22°F verses 68°F
• Getting spooked alone in the backyard in the middle of the night verses turning over and snuggling next to your warm, snoring sweetie
• The frustration of finding a distant planetary nebula verses the frustration of finding the book that you’re in the middle of reading
• A restful eight hours of uninterrupted sleep verses sleep deprivation that lingers for days

I think that everyone should be required to show proof of binocular purchase before they’re allowed to buy a telescope. That way, they’ll find out if they’re cut out for observational astronomy.

I purchased these binoculars a few years ago from Orion, and I absolutely love them.

The optics are great and they’re light enough that I use them without a tripod. Amy and I have completed a number of Astronomical League awards armed with only our 10×50’s and a star map, often with our elbows propped up by some part of a car. Sure, it’d be great to have a descent setup, but finding things on our own is how we’ve become familiar with the night sky, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Time to get off my soap box. Amy’s coming over tonight and we’re going to drag the new scope into the living room and see what it can do. Hopefully the Autostar works without a hitch and we’ll have a new toy to play with.


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