Archive for May, 2009

Just acquired (used) a 3-6mm Nagler  and tried it out – it’s great, but the individual Naglers are better for most of my observing.

I used the zoom on both the TeleVue 60mm and the 120mm Skywatcher APO and my test objects were the Moon and the close double, Izar in Bootes. It did fine on both. I could just split Izar cleanly with the 60mm and the zoom cranked all the way up to 120X ( 3mm) .  It split a tad better with the 2.5 Nagler – but mainly the 2.5mm Nagler gave me more time on target – and since I’m strictly manual these days the extra field of view of the fixed focal length Naglers is important. Same with the Moon.

What was surprising was that the Moon could not take the 3mm setting on the 120mm scope – but then, that was 300X.  It’s unusual for my skies to support that much power and my Clear Sky Clock had predicted poor seeing and there was 50-80 per cent clouds drifting through. But the seeing was a lot better than I expected because the real surprise was that Izar accepted the 3mm – 300X .  I got a perfect split with it – nice round stars with two or three diffraction rings – it did go in and out with the seeing some, but not as much as the Moon at that power. Again, I preferred the view of Izar with the 3.5mm Nagler because of the wider fov giving me more time. But  I didn’t see anything  to choose from in terms of the quality of the split, contrast, and the split being good to the edge of the field.

Bottom line on the zoom? It will do very nicely what I got it for – a way to package just three eyepieces with the 60mm Televue scope for the ultimate grab ‘n go machine. I have an 8-24mm Hyperion zoom on order and those two zoom eyepieces, plus a 32mm Televue Plossl, will give me a complete package. The Plossl yields a 4.3-degree field of view which practically makes the little scope its own finder, though I’ve attached a laser to it so that finding is simplicity itself.

One of the remaining uestions will be to see if the TV Plossl is necessary. The Laser dies the finding, so I’m not sure the extra one degree of field makes the 32mm Plossl necessary.

This is off subject, but I just bought  a used pair of Barska 20X80s for $70. They were a real shock. Seemed as good as any I’ve used, though there’s something about the ergonomics that bothers me – the eyepieces aren’t all that comfortable. But optically they were very acceptable.  I had fun and between the clouds found M13 and M81/82 and could split  doubles like Albireo and that perfectly matched 5th mag pair that form the dim corner of Draco’s head. Nothing like putting $70 worth of optics on $300 worth of mount 😉

Seriously – how can they turn out a usable pair of 20X80 binoculars for this price? (They sell for $105 new.)  This is the same or less than what you pay for a decent pair of 10X50s.

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There’s a great summary of the current state of artificial intelligence in the New York Times. I don’t have the background to assess the various issues, but the very fact that intelligent people – now linked with Google – are actually seriously exploring the concept of a sort of machine-aided immortality is mind boggling. Maybe the height of foolishness – but still fascinating.

And on a smaller scale, but to me absolutely revolutionary and here today is WolframAlpha. Say what? Well, I’m writing about it here because it is a great tool for quick access to meaningful astronomical knowledge. But it is much more than that and I see it as a revolutionary step. Do not get confused. This is NOT A SEARCH ENGINE.  This is computing. This takes information gathered from the Web and immediately does something with it – manipulates and massages it into a useful form.

I’ve added it to my home page . It’s right under the Clear Sky Clock. Try it. For example, right now Jupiter is right next to Neptune   morning sky. Well, how do these two planets compare? Ask Wolfram Alpha. Simply type in:

Jupiter Neptune

That’s it. It will compare them. Try it.

Or maybe you would like to know what time it really gets dark tonight at your location? Good – type in:

twilight today

(oops – it only told me the time of sunset? not so! There should be a “more” button to the right of the sunset times. Click it. )

Or, the other night Jim and I were looking at M51 and M63, two distant galaxies. Wonder how they compare? Enter:

M51 M63

Or maybe Joe would like to know more about the double star, Almach, Gamma Andromeda, that he looked at the other morning. Enter:


Amazingly it knew it was a star and among other things it say it is 354.5 light years from Earth. Hmmmm. . . we’ve been able to hit a top speed of about 24,000 miles an hour when going to the Moon. I wonder, at that speed, how long it would take us to get to Almach? For the answer, enter  – no, wait – it’s not that simple. You really do have to learn how to ask it questions to get the most out of it. In this case, I found this works:

speed=24,000 miles per hour distance=354.5 light years

Try it – be prepared to be a bit shocked at the answer – and keep in mind, Almach is one of our closer stars!

WolframAlpha does a heck of a lot more than astronomy. It deals with all sorts of data. But the critical point here is it has gone way past Google and the typical search engine in the sense that it is not simply retrieving information, but attempting to do something useful with the information it retrieves, extending it.

For example, being diabetic I’m interested in how my blood sugar this morning rates in terms of typical blood sugars. So I simply entered:

blood sugar 86

I learned that 66% of the population have a blood sugar that is higher  – good!

And how common is the name “Gregory?” How’s that compare with my friend Dominic? Or my brother, Don?

Gregory Dominic Don

Oh there’s much, much more. But the key is, don’t treat this like another search engine. Take some time – go in and get  to know it. It can pay huge dividends in all sorts of fields – like comparing, well, two stocks for example 😉

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Having not seen it for 10 days or more – I don’t actually count cloudy days and cloudy nights because they’re too depressing, but boy we have had more than our share for May – so I have not really seen the universe beyond our own neighborhood – the solar system – for a painfully long interval.  This morning I got a slight glimpse of it in the form of Mu Capricornis, I believe, in the same field of view as Jupiter as I put my ultimate grab ‘n go scope to the test and tasted a bit of what I am pretty sure Galileo was doing precisely  400 years ago.

Grab  'n go - 50mm Sparrow Hawk at the ready!

Grab 'n go - 50mm Sparrow Hawk at the ready!

The Clear Sky Clock called for a brief break in the skies during the late morning, but when I got up about 3:30 am it was still overcast as expected. I meditated for half an hour and when I opened my eyes the dawn was already filling the East with light and it looked like the skies might be clear in that direction. I slipped on shoes and a coat and grabbed the ever-ready Sparrow Hawk aka “Little Rascal” and headed out. When I say “ever-ready,” I have taken a cue from my friend Dom who leaves his Sparrow Hawk on a tripod set up and ready to go. Great idea. So mine is now ut of its case and  sits expectantly in the corner of the library on its tripod with laser’finder attached and with the addition of two small pouches, discarded from some  forgotten use long ago. The pouches are attached to the tripod legs with Velcro ties and each holds an eyepiece.  I leave the 20mm Televue Plossl in the scope for wide field views. In one of the attached pouches is an 8mm TMB Planetary yielding 26X and in the other, a 5mm TMB Planetary clone giving 41X.

I haven’t weighed this set-up, but it has to be less than 10 pounds total and is easily carried in one hand through doorways and around bushes. I was soon in my neighbor’s back yard where I can see over the tree line to the southeast where Jupiter was already getting dim. But as Galileo had reported in the “Starry Messenger” in March of 1609, there were indeed four moons  just visible in the increasing light. It took the 8mm to reveal them and with the  5mm I could see the moons, plus one of the equatorial belts, as well as Mu Capricornus a star just slightly brighter than the moons that will figure prominently later this month in the scene as Jupiter makes its first of three rendezvous this year with Neptune.

The rising Sun, still well hdden below the horizon, was drowning out this scene quickly, however, so I switched to the much brighter – and lower – Venus. Though there were high clouds around it – and sometimes over it – it too was just as Galileo had reported, showing a phase going from crescent to “quarter moon.”  Magnificent!  Here the twilight was a help rather than a hindrance. Venus showed best with the 8mm, I thought, but in any event also showed some ghosting – a second image just to its east. This is typical, at least in my experience with this brilliant planet. It’s shinning at about -4.5 right now and I find it very hard to see well in a dark sky. But put some light behind it and it comes into sharp focus. Put more light behind it and the ghosting vanishes, so it got better as twilight brightened the sky.

How brilliant, though, of Galileo to see those four moons doing their dance about Jupiter – and to understand what he saw. And to see lovely Venus, going through these phases and to understand that this, too, was world-shaking news – clear evidence that  the universe did not revolve around the Earth, but as incredible – and uncommonsensical – as it seems, the Earth itself was both rotating on its axis every 24 hours and revolving around the Sun. I wonder if later in that Spring of 1609  he perhaps looked at Venus and Jupiter again, as I did this morning, and said “Yes, yes! I am right!” And, of course, for being right he landed in jail and suffered the ridicule of colleagues. I just recently came acrosss this wonderful quote from philosopher Jean Bodin writing in 1628, 18 years after Galileo had made his key discoveries, reported on them, and others had confirmed them independently.

No one in his senses, or imbued with the slightest knowledge of physics will ever think that the earth, heavy and unwieldy from it sown weight and mass, staggers up and down around its own center and that of the Sun; for at the slightest jar of the earth, we would see cities and fortresses, towns and mountains thrown down.

Understand – I am not making light of Bodin. I am in complete sympathy with his view. It makes excellence common sense. But Galileo was showing us something else. He was showing us the uncommon sense of science. He was revealing that there is much more to this universe then what we see and comprehend from the perspective of our own scale and viewpoint. What an incredible breakthrough. And how much fun it is indeed to grab the Sparrow Hawk, step out into the rain-drenched dawn, listen to the resident cardinal greet the day, and confirm for my own soul and sanity, that Galileo had it right.

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