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Posts by denny

Fire in the sky

Image of NGC 7331 and companions
My viewing session for Tuesday 12/4 started off with some fireworks. Really. I'd just gotten set-up and and viewed a couple of objects and was entering the observations when, at about 9:30pm,  there was a meteor so bright that I saw it while facing the opposite direction. I was looking at the computer screen facing east and suddenly everything around me was lit up as if by a full moon. It was so bright it actually spooked me. Looked up behind me and there it was... I caught the last 40% of the burn (it was pretty slow moving). The lingering trail was in the sky for about 40 seconds and was the most substantial trail I've ever seen.  You can see the reports here. What a fantastic way to start off the night!

As far as viewed objects, a few open clusters that were not all that impressive (in part due to the poor atmospheric conditions) as well as three galaxies that were viewed first and were much better thanks to better conditions earlier  on. It is amazing how quickly the viewing can change based on humidity, light clouds not often obvious as clouds but there nonetheless.

The best view of the night was NGC 7331. While I was not able to see the small companion galaxies  NGC 7331 was very nice.

Also, a note about the images I use. They're not mine and are almost aways taken from Wikipedia. Though they often seem unreal, like paintings, they are not. They are actual images though in almost all cases there is a good amount of processing as is required by astrophotography. Multiple exposures are sometimes layered, color is added, enhanced or balanced, etc.
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Dancing with the clouds

Image of Jupiter from SkySafari
Last night... was a fun night of observation. It was supposed to be cloudy and when I went in at 5 after putting the chickens up it was. Then I got a text message from Russ (Astronomy viewing buddy) suggesting it was clear and wishing he'd come out. I step outside and yes, clear as a bell. I'd been missing it! Curse words and exclamations. I grab my box of eye pieces and my red light and dash out to the telescope (now being housed in the shower house for quicker access and no cool down time). I get it pulled out and the chair set-up. Take off the cap and turn on the red dot finder and look up: Clouds. No, wait, clear. Clouds - clear - clouds - clear. The wind was pushing them through so fast. I'd move to a clear spot get focused and start star hopping then clouds. After 20 minutes of a strange mix of laughing hysterically and cursing I called it quits and go inside.

Normally, I would not have bothered with such a mixed night but we've had 10 days of pretty cloudy weather and with a few clear nights blotted out by the moon. I was desperate.
Sigma Orionis

Couple hours later, about 10:30pm, I saw Karen post on the FB about being outside viewing so I went out: totally clear. Curse words. Get eyepieces and make a dash for the telescope. Set-up. Sit down. Clouds. More curse words. Wait. Look around. Decide there is enough clear sky to stay out. I spent the next 2 hours, maybe 3 hopping away from clouds, trying to find a few things before being foiled. Lesson learned? If you're desperate and willing to dance with the clouds for awhile, there might be a reward.

I got a fantastic view of Jupiter in the 5mm EP. The cloud bands were crystal clear and I was able to easily make out 3-4 bands. Unfortunately no GRS as it was on the other side of the planet. I also had a good viewing of a couple of planetary nebula. NGC 1535, Cleopatra's Eye, was particularly good. It is a bright blue sphere and with the 5mm EP a bright central core is easily visible. Of course the moon was out so anything faint was out of the question. I ended the night with a great shot of Sigma Orionis, a 5 star (only 4 viewable) system in Orion. Not my photo but this is exactly what I saw. Very cool.

Observational Astronomy: The basic skills of science

I'll be honest, when I ordered my telescope in September I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no agenda other than to have a way to look more closely at planets, galaxies and other objects in the night sky. Pretty simple really. After the first few sessions with the telescope I started thinking that I should keep track of the objects I was viewing. I started doing that but then realized I could probably be recording more than a simple list of what I was viewing. So I started keeping track of the date and time of the observations. Well, why not note which eye pieces I was using too? Ok. Check.

At the two week mark I'd done enough reading to see that there were organized observational "programs", essentially, lists created to help guide and teach amateur astronomers how to go about learning observational astronomy. So I did a bit of checking and saw that in those programs they also record atmospheric conditions such as "transparency" and "seeing" as well as free form observational notes. Okay, why not?

Fast forward to today.  I've been consistently recording each observation, 211 thus far, but realized that I was not recording much in the way of a free form description. Some people sketch what they see and I may try that in the future but for now I'd rather use words. The problem? I don't really have the skills to properly describe what I'm seeing. More to the point, I don't have the vocabulary which, in a sense, is also the instruction set for observation. The vocabulary is the framework. While this is just the most basic example of one step of the scientific method I think it is useful to recognize it as such. Amateur astronomy, if combined with just a little bit of discipline, can be a valuable experiential tool for learning observation skills.

So, I spent the morning searching around and have made some progress. Because I am a nerd I must of course share in the hopes that someone will find this useful. This particular bit of information is specifically helpful for the observation of deep sky objects. Planetary and other solar system observation of comets and meteor showers is a different set of concerns and techniques!

The below is just one page from a nice set of very informative pdfs over at Astronomy Logs.

Galaxies
  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • What is the overall shape?
  • Is the core noticeable, compact, stellar ? Can structure be seen in the galaxy, mottling, bright or dark patches or lanes?
  • Are the outer edges sharp or diffuse? Identify any other DSO in the field.
Globular Clusters
  • Did you use direct or averted vision?
  • Is the core bright, compact, or not distinguishable? Is it highly or loosely concentrated?
  • Is any part of it resolved into stars, averted vision or not, or does it show mottling, or stars resolved at the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.
Open Clusters
  • Is it easily distinguished from the background stars, is it well defined?
  • Is there a overall shape?
  • How many stars can you count in the cluster?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster fully resolved or is background nebulosity noticed?
  • Are there areas where stars are absent in the cluster? Are there any brighter stars in the cluster and do
  • any stand out in color?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.
Open Cluster/ Nebulosity
  • Did you use direct or averted vision to view the cluster and nebulosity, are filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Can both the cluster and nebulosity be seen with direct vision, or is averted vision or filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Are the stars concentrated in any one area?
  • Is the cluster embedded in the nebulosity or is there a distinct separation?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.
Nebula
  • Did you use direct or averted vision? filters needed? What is the overall shape?
  • Are the outer edges sharply defined?
  • Is any part of the nebula brighter or more concentrated?
  • Are there any voids or dark patches or lanes, bright filaments or streamers in the nebulosity?
  • Is there an open cluster nearby or involved or any obvious stars involved with the nebulosity? Identify any other DSO in the field.
Planetary Nebula
  • What is the overall shape, is it disk shaped or more stellar?
  • Are the edges sharp or diffuse?
  • Is it easy or difficult to identify in the field?
  • What is the color of the Planetary?
  • Is the center brighter, darker or uniform brightness as the edges?
  • Identify any other DSO in the field.

On being agnostic


When it comes to questions of god or spirituality I have, more often than not, been quiet on the subject. I've had plenty of conversations about it with friends and family and certainly don't mind discussing it when asked. But I don't generally shout it from the rooftops or buy billboards or create commercials for TV. In contrast I've been subjected to a constant stream of of ads in print, billboards and on television telling me that I need Jesus and that Mormon's are awesome.

Enough. I'm done being silent. I'm fed up having religion pushed on me and being told I would burn in some nasty hot place down below. Fed up hearing about how there is a war on Christmas and Christianity. I call bullshit. If you want to believe in unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster or a Beluga Whale named Marv that can heal the sick with a wink, please, be my guest. But please, do you have to convert me? Must you push and push and push your belief into every corner of the planet?

Let me offer a few observations on your religion (if you have one).

1. It is, quite simply, make believe. I say this because religion is, more often than not, based on a book of some sort written by a guy (usually) or a group of guys (usually) that made it all up. Seriously. They made it up. No proof at all. I went up into the hills and heard a voice. On and on and on.

2. In any good creative story there is revision and boy do we have plenty of that. From year to year, decade to decade the rules change. Oh, you can do that now because some white dude in a closed room with other white dudes decided it is now ok. Or it's not. I can't remember. But, apparently these fellas have a hotline to the big fella in imaginaryville. It seems a bit fishy to me. No Marv, I was not offering you a fish.

3. Why the aggression? In it's most recent form it is very interesting to look at the religious right in the U.S. They are in a constant cultural war against those that are different from they. I don't doubt that much of this is a part of a scheme of distraction by those in power that would much prefer the vast sea of poor people fight amongst themselves but nevertheless it is a constant wave of aggression that often spills over to actual violence against very real people who's sole crime is being gay or different from the believer in some way. Yes, apparently it's okay to hurt people.

4. Why the violence? Yes, the aggression spills over to violence. Be it war or hate crimes, the history of religion is chock full of violence. I don't think I need to create a sub-list here do I? Jesus carried a machine gun you say? Why not, it's no sillier than all the other stuff he did. And Jesus said unto Marv, "I have no fish today."

I could go on with this list and I probably will at some point in the near future. My reason for bringing this up today is that I've recently had a string of interactions with religious folks that pushed me to the conclusion that organized religion really does require a kind of willful ignorance and a partial if not nearly absolute suspension of critical thinking. There is a fear of the unknown. As the thinking goes, if I don't immediately understand a particular phenomena it's better to construct a story about how a wizard in the sky created said phenomena.

This is where science comes in. We don't have to rely wizards an whales to make sense of the world around us. Just as Copernicus and then Kepler and Newton successfully challenged the make believe constructions of the church 500 years ago, today's scientists are, everyday, moving our understanding of how the universe works forward. The scientific method is a fantastic tool in that it is the basis for getting at the truth. No, we don't have it all nor will we ever. It is an exploration and the point is to make the effort. At no point is it helpful to step back and say, I don't understand this right now so it cannot be explained and must be the work of a higher power. That is the moment of giving up and choosing to fill a gap in knowledge with silly putty. It's not necessary. It is perfectly ok for us to have gaps in our understanding. There will always be such gaps and that's what moves us forward.

So no, I won't be accepting Jesus Christ and I sure wish you'd stop telling me I should. I'm not making a war on your religion though I find it interesting that you are so quick to think war is being made upon you. What I AM doing, in response to your constant crowing, is a bit of my own tweeting. Tweet tweet. Translation: there is no proof that there is a god. In many thousands of years no proof has been offered. Furthermore, your churches have historically, and are this very day, attempting to stand in the way of our understanding the universe. Please stop.

Climate Change and Science Literacy

UNEP Greenhouse Gas Emissions Report Finds Climate Change Goals Growing More Elusive:
Global greenhouse-gas emissions already have passed the point where the worst effects of global warming could be averted, and they are still rising, according to the third annual United Nations report on the so-called emissions gap.

Some countries have made pledges to help reverse this trend by lowering their emissions. However, the report by the U.N. Environment Programme warns that the gap between these pledges and reductions necessary to cap average global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2020 continues to widen.
We, as citizens lack the understanding and the will to make the changes necessary in our own lives. "Our" government is also unwilling to do what needs to be done. Over. It won't just be our children and grandchildren that will suffer, we all already are. It's true that no particular storm or weather event can be attributed to man made climate change but the science is pretty clear that we are already feeling it in our obviously changing weather patterns.

Which brings me to my next topic: science literacy. We are in this position because science is slow and takes time and because people do not understand the basic scientific process. Without an understanding of how science works people are easier to manipulate on issues that require such an understanding. In this case various global industries that have benefited from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels have actively sought to confuse the public to protect their profit source.

It is unfortunate that capitalism does not prioritize the public good but that's another topic for another time. Suffice it so say that capitalism has, thus far in it's history, demonstrated that it does not seem to be able of co-existing with the needs of our planet's ecosystems. Regardless of that discussion, we know that these industries have spent many millions of dollars to convince the governments and people in general that the science of climate change is uncertain. They have been very effective at exploiting a general lack of understanding of the specifics of climate science and science in general.

If we are to move forward we have to build a process and a system for teaching basic science literacy. At the very least we need for the adult citizens of our planet to have a basic understanding of the scientific method. Though that is just one part of minimal understanding it is fundamental and is the starting point for giving people the tools to evaluate the information (or disinformation) that is available.
To that end folks have been working in recent years on developing a global network of science cafes. In Madison County our little discussion group, fondly referred to as the Geek Parade has decided to open itself up a bit to the general public and will be making an effort at more organized, public discussions. We'll be getting started in January 2013!

We have a long way to go. Science literacy in the U.S. is low as evidenced by such indicators as acceptance of evolution which is one of the lowest of all western nations, 40%. I'm excited that we've gotten the ball rolling in our county, but it is distressing that there are only 4 such groups in the state. Well, there are 4 that are a part of the Science Cafe network. There may be others which meet that I am, at the moment, unaware of that are not listed. Certainly there are various other groups such as astronomical societies that advance science literacy but it is not really the broad-based organized effort that is needed.

Baby steps.

The Whirlpool Galaxy

I was able to squeeze in about 1.5 hours of viewing this morning just as the moon set and before the sun rose. My main subject was M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, in Ursa Major. Unfortunately there was still a good bit of moon light in the sky so I'll I definitely want to revisit this one for the best possible view. That said, it was still pretty dark and the view was quite nice, I just know it will be better with darker skies.

 Even with the lighter sky I believe I was able to make out a hint of the spiral structure. M51 is not alone though, it has a neighbor galaxy, NGC 5195, with which it has been interacting for hundreds of millions of years. In fact it is believed that it is due to these interactions with NGC 5195 that the the spiral structure of M51 is so pronounced. Quite a pair!

In addition to the Whirlpool Galaxy I also got a look at two other Messiers, M89 and M90. I'll definitely revisit both of those when skies are darker.  A bonus, the above mentioned NGC 5195 is a  member of the Herschel 400! That brings me to 92 of 110 Messier objects and 112 of the 400 Herschels. Not to bad for just over two months of viewing!

 Three months ago I would have told you that my brand new 8" Dobsonian telescope would be all I would need. Well, I can tell you, that as much as I enjoy the views that this scope provides, I am excited about someday seeing these objects with a 16" scope. So much of what is now a hint of structure will be far more obvious with a larger scope. That said, I'm happy to have started with the 8" and know that many people use such a scope for many years. It's good to know what is possible with this aperture and, in fact, learning to star hop with it has been a joy, viewing the faint fuzzies with it has required time and effort. I feel like I am earning my way to the next step and will, no doubt, more fully appreciate the better views of the larger scope when the time comes because of my starting point.

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster!

Messier 88
Got up at 3am and had a long trip through the Virgo Galaxy Cluster! It was a chilly 25 degrees F but I was layered up and ready to go.  I added 6 more Messier objects to my viewed list and 7 more to my Herschel 400 list before the sun started to brighten the horizon at which time I popped over for a visit with Saturn.

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster is about 54 million light years away and contains a minimum of 1,300 galaxies, possibly as many as 2,000. Viewing it with a telescope is fantastic... I just hopped from galaxy to galaxy. Normally I'm lost in the stars, this morning I was lost in galaxies! If there had been more time before the sunrise I could have easily stayed in this little area of the sky for many more hours. The number of galaxies is overwhelming.
Markarian's Chain

My favorites of the night were Messier 88 in Coma Berenices as well as the various galaxies that make up Markarian's Chain. What a sight! Messier 88 actually shows a bit of structure though it is faint in my 8" telescope (and obviously nothing like the detailed image above).

I expect that my next 3-4 morning sessions will be spent in this cluster of galaxies. The moon will be setting later these next couple days so I'll have less time each day between moon set and sunrise. I hope to squeeze in another morning session tonight!
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Astronomy Outreach at Antonia Middle School

A couple weeks back my niece emailed me to ask if I'd be interested in attending a star gazing event with her at her school. Of course I was interested I replied. I checked in with the event organizer, a member of the St. Louis Astronomical Society, about bringing my telescope and assisting at the event and was told that they would be happy to have another telescope on hand.

This was my first time to attend a public star party and I'm happy to report it went over very well. I'd estimate attendance at 25-35 folks with 6 or so scopes and fairly clear skies. We had a bit of light cloud cover but it didn't last long. The area is subject to a bit of light pollution as well as a good bit of moon light but viewing brighter objects was no problem. I stayed on the Owl/E.T. cluster most of the night and am happy to report that everyone that viewed the cluster got a kick out of seeing the E. T. figure in the eyepiece! Other scopes were showing off Jupiter, the moon, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

All in all it was a successful event. I was thrilled to have a chance to meet several members of the SLAS. Of course I was quick to invite them all out to view from our dark skies in Madison County and am sure they'll take me up on the offer. I also received some excellent advice from one of the experienced members of the SLAS, John, on a few technical aspects of my scope. One of the great benefits of events like these are the opportunities for learning from more experienced members and I look forward to learning  a great deal more from John and others.  I'm also happy to report that I shared our efforts to build science literacy in Madison County via our Geek Parade and in discussing it with their members received at least one offer of a guest lecture/presentation to our group!

Stay tuned, more to come!

Viewing Jupiter and Saturn!

There is little doubt that when viewing planets in our solar system the two most likely to elicit a gasp of surprise from a first time planetary viewer are Jupiter and Saturn.

In recent weeks Jupiter has been rising at a time early enough to be high in the horizon by 9pm. If you view too early, 6pm or so at the time of this writing the planet is too low and will likely result in poor seeing conditions which means that air turbulence will cause a bit of blurriness and shimmering. If however you view later in the evening there is less turbulence and it is higher in the sky so what turbulence there is will be less. This is especially noticeable at the high magnification used for viewing planetary details. With my 8" diameter scope I use a 5mm eye piece which results in a magnification of 240x (this is figured by dividing the focal length of the scope by the eyepiece, in my case 1200mm/5mm=240x). This lens pushes the limits of my scope and unless seeing conditions are excellent my views are poor.

This past week I've had several occasions to view Jupiter and it has been a fantastic view each time thanks to excellent conditions. At high magnification I can view several distinct cloud bands as well as the Great Red Spot as well as several moons, usually four depending on the time.

Saturn is a bit more tricky at this time due to its position in relation to our planet's daily revolution. At the moment Saturn rises just before the sun in the morning and sets just before the sun sets which means that to view it you have to look to the south east just before sunrise and it will be visible to the naked eye below Venus which is by far the brightest object in the sky at that time. At 5:50am Saturn will look like a small star midway between the horizon and Venus. Through my 8" scope with the a less powerful eyepiece such as an 18mm the rings are visible but the planet appears fairly small. With the 5mm eyepiece and good seeing conditions the rings are easily visible and the overall image is stunning even in the bright morning light. In fact, I was still able to easily view the planet after it was no longer visible with the naked eye. Of course with a bright sky the color and details are not as clear.

Of course this changes with each day because Saturn rises earlier in relation to the Sun and within just a couple weeks will provide a much better view with a much darker sky. At the end of November Saturn will be easily viewable at 5:15am when the sky is significantly darker. Around November 26 and 27th Saturn will be passing behind Venus which should provide an interesting view! By mid December the planet will be well above the horizon by 5:15am and the sun lower which will provide an incredible view.

The Herschel 400

I've viewed 100 of 400 Herschel objects! For those that may not know, Herschel was an astronomer who cataloged several thousand objects in the universe. A fun way of learning the night sky is to work through a variety of such lists of objects. This is my second list to work on, the first being the 110 Messier objects. So, I've viewed 100 in about 9 days of viewing, I'm thinking I should have most of it done within the next month. What is great about these objects is that many of them are very faint (due to their distance from us, tens of millions of light years) and can be very challenging to find even if you are looking right at them.

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