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Archive for January, 2012

Well, the Quadrantids were a drizzle at best for me – either this “shower” came early, or came late, or didn’t come at all. Haven’t seen other reports yet – but it wasn’t there for me. And now, too late, I discover there’s a new “app” designed by NASA to help you record what you see during a meteor shower and automatically send it to NASA to help their research!

Wow! Maybe that’s why it held off – I wasn’t properly prepared! 😉

Seriously folks, I saw one great Quadrantid meteor – it was fabulous – right up there with the best half dozen of meteors I’ve seen in  more than half a century of sky watching.  It came at 10:15 pm last night as I boldly stepped out onto the deck in the  18-degree cold – sub zero, really, with the strong wind we had – and bang, I was warmed up by a meteor  that took so long to go from the area of the Great Bear to  somewhere near Procyon that I could have called you and told you to look had I your number and my phone handy.

It was a fireball of at least magnitude -2 – the brightness of Jupiter. And sooo slow – well, I would estimate it took three seconds to cross the sky, but who’s counting/ –  and it looked, for all the world, like a plane going down in flames.  And no sound.  Just an eerie silence as it flared near the end. And I thought “what a great way to begin a night of meteor  observing – yes, and to end it. I should have quit when I was ahead.  I stayed out about 15 minutes and saw no more and rather than freeze I came in and settled down at the sliding glass door = room lights off of course –  where I could see a good segment of sky to the northeast and I watched and saw nothing. Now I won’t say I watched until midnight. I wrote the time downs and I took breaks – but I watched a lot and amidst the moonlight, saw nothing.

So some time after midnight I curled up on the couch and went to sleep and awoke about 2:30 am.  Ahhh – still clear, despite the forecast. OK – I got really warmly dressed ( it was now 15-degrees Fahrenheit) and went out again.  And to make a long story short in a solid half hour of being out and looking up  I saw three meteors – a short little dude near the Dipper again, now very high in the north, a really decent one in the northwest that zipped towards Capella, and another very nice one in the south heading down below  Leo.

All I observed were observed when outside – though I looked for much longer stretches from inside – always giving it at least 20 minute  watches. Now inside I maybe lost half a magnitude – but that still gave me magnitude 4.5 skies – very decent for meteor watching.

I  NEVER see anything like the advanced predictions for  various meteor showers. But I consider a good shower one where I can see about 20 an hour – and this could generously be put at 6 an hour for me.

Now about that APP – it looks intriguing. I learned about it on Spaceweather.com this morning. It’s put out by the NASA folks who keep track of meteors. Here’s part of the NASA pitch for the APP which you can download from the APP Store at Apple for free.

Surprising but true: Every day, on average, more than 40 tons of meteoroids strike our planet.  Most are tiny specks of comet dust that disintegrate harmlessly high up in Earth’s atmosphere, producing a slow drizzle of meteors in the night sky.  Bigger chunks of asteroid and comet debris yield dozens of nightly fireballs around the globe. Some are large enough to pepper the ground with actual meteorites.

With so much “stuff” zeroing in on our planet, NASA could use some help keeping track of it all.

Enter the Meteor Counter–a new iPhone app designed to harness the power of citizen scientists to keep track of meteoroids.

“Using our app, people from all walks of life can contribute to authentic NASA research,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, which sponsored the project. “The data will help us discover new meteor showers, pinpoint comet debris streams, and map the distribution of meteoroids around Earth’s orbit.”

Whenever you go outside for a bit of stargazing, take your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch with you, advises Cooke.  Start the Meteor Counter, lie down in a safe dark place, and be alert for shooting stars.

The Meteor Counter operates using an intuitive “piano key” interface. Every time you see a meteor, simply tap the key corresponding to its brightness.  Keys on the left correspond to dim meteors—barely visible to the naked eye; keys on the right denote jaw-dropping fireballs.

After the observing session, the app uploads your data for processing by NASA personnel. [video] [download]

With each keytap, the Meteor Counter records critical data such as the time you saw the meteor, the meteor’s magnitude, and your location.  You can even turn on an optional voice recorder to capture your own description of events.  Experts could comment on the trajectory and radiant of the meteor, while novices might prefer to simply shout out–“wow!”

Afterward, these data are automatically uploaded to NASA researchers for analysis.

Hey, is that cool – or what? Well, it would have been freezingly cool this morning. Too cool for me – and too cool for the Quadrantids, apparently.  Hope others had better luck. Me -I’m heading off to the APP store to get the Meteor APP and give it a try. As NASA urged:

Cooke encourages citizen scientists everywhere to try it out.

“The app is available free of charge in Apple’s app store,” he says.  “Just search for Meteor Counter, and let the observing begin.”

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Well,I didn’t count them, but that’s what it felt like ths morning – several zillion stars at least and countless aged photons – and all being drawn into mye eyes and mind after a multi-million light year journey to my inexpensive 15X70 Celstrons and slightly more expensive 20X60 Pentax binoculars.

Part of the inspiration for this little journey was having just watched a Nova in which one of the main features was the incredible Ultra Deep Field image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004.  Here it is.
Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image Reveals Galaxies Galore
Source: Hubblesite.org

Now what gets me is, of course, that this image shows a tiny section of sky and in it what looks to the casual eye like a lot of faint, blurry stars is nothing but one distant – and huge – galaxy after another – and each galaxy containing something in the order of 100 billion stars or more.  Now that’s beyond mind blowing. That just leaves my little bunny brain neurons numb. Mind blowing of an order I can handle is what you can do in your own backyard – or in my case, on the back deck – with relatively simple instruments – binoculars – aided tremendously by a flexible mount, such as the  one I have  which is a standard parallelogram mount made some years ago by Charles Funk.

That mount makes using the binoculars a pleasure – holds them steady and allows you to bring them to your eyes without the usual gymnastics and neck strain that binoculars just mounted on a tripod would bring.  And yes, it was cold – but reasonably so – right around the freezing mark. And it was clear – super clear, but not so great in the “seeing” department which is why I decided to focus on the faint fuzzies and see if I could make some binocular inroads into the  Virgo Cluster of Galaxies – our local gang, so to speak.

My starting point was simple enough – I looked at the spot halfway between Denebola at the tail of Leo and Vindemiatrix and Virgo.  Well, that’s where I was told to look in some direction I read.  I’ve prowled this area many times, but with big telescopes.  The binoculars, with their much wider field, would, I felt, give me a better feel for what all is there – if I could see any of it.  There’s a wonderful chain of galaxies in that general vicinity and I know some of them are within reach of the binoculars.

Denebolar at the tail of Leo and Arcturus provide good guide for getting pointed in the right direction. The Virgo Cluster galaxies are in and about the general vicinity of the target shown. (SkySafari Pro screen shot, modified. Click to enlarge.)

Well that didn’t work! Not with the 15X70s anyway, so I decided to start with Vindemiatrix and work my way westward towards Denebola.  The first thing that caught my eye was this great triangle of stars with a bright one right in the middle of it. That’s the guide point I love because it jumps right out at you when you pan across the general area with binoculars. Here’s how it showed up in SkySafari 3 on my Ipad. (Yeah, I was ducking in and out to a warm room with only a red light on.)

This triangle with a bright star in the center was the kind of asterism that jumps out at you and it was just west of Vindemiatrix by about a binocular field. I used it and a nearby 7th magnitude star to form a triangle with the galaxy M60 to give me a starting point.

OK – that should work, but my next question was – is M60 something I can really expect to see with the 15X70 binoculars? I checked the SkySafari and it said the magnitude was 8.85 – hmmm, wonder how that compares with the familiar trio of galaxies in Leo I know I should see with these binoculars – M66, M65, and NGC 3628?

I quickly swung over to these three which have a wonderful “J” asterism to guide you – they’re like  cosmic fish caught on the hook of the “J.”  Again – here’s how SkySafari shows them on the Ipad.

The Leo Yriplet of Galaxies is well known and for me an indicator of how transparent the skies are - if I can see them easily in binoculars I know it's a good night for galaxy hunting. Well, if I can see two out of three - the two Messier objects being the easier ones.

I found my “J Hook” and the big fish – M66 – jumped right out at me. I can’t explain that. It’s always this way. That galaxy is just plain easy. M65 takes at least 30 second more for me to pick it up – and NGC3628 either eludes me entirely, or leaves me with a ghostly image that I’m not positive I’m seeing. And thus it was this morning. Now why this puzzles me is M66 is listed as magnitude 9.01, M65 magnitude 9.22 – just a tad dimmer – and NGC3628 as magnitude 9.17. In short, they’re all pretty much the same brightnness according to the numbers. But the numbers are just a rough guide because we’re not talking about a point source of light like a star. Instead we’re talking about light spread over an area – and frankly, even when you take this into account it doesn’t make sense to me that M66 should prove to appear so much brighter than the others – but it does to me.

All of which is interesting, but not the point – the point is M60, my target in Virgo, is listed as brighter than any of these at magnitude 8.85,  though it’s companion, M59, is fianter than any of them at magnitude 9.72. And using the numbers as a rough guide that’s exactly how it proved to be.  I found M60 without much trouble – and I was not sure whether I found M59 or not. But this gives me a foothold – an entry port into the Virgo cluster and I will use it on other nights in the coming months to explore much more. I have two sets of binoculars on order – new Celestron 20X80 and some used Zhummel 25X100. While neither are high quality, they should open that door with style once they arrive – though I’m not sure if my mount can handle the 100mm ones – we’ll see.

Meanwhile, I was so thrilled with how well M60 showed, I had to go cheking on some familiar targets and I quickly surveyed M51 ( the wonderful Whirlpool of a colliding pair of galaxies), M81 and M82 – just a terrific – and relatively bright pair in the Big Bear – and M101, a very faint, but large spiral that you can track down by following a trail of stars up and out  from Mizar.

And that lead me to the 20X60s Pentax. Their field is significantly narrower and with 60mm lenses rather than 70mm they shouldn’t deliver as much light – but the higher magnification and narrower field should increase contrast – and boy did it! The view of all the galaxies was significantly better in these binoculars – partly, I suspect, because the objective lenses are better, but mostly because the field is smaller, cutting down the background light and improving contrast.

So all in all, it was a great morning. Not quite Hubble Ultra thing – but because in this case the photons were really pinging my brain – not being captured by a piece of silocn and eventually represented by a pixel on a computer screen – I found this experience far better.

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