Posts Tagged ‘astronomy’

I’m starting a new  a “Star Hopper”  education program for anyone who wants to learn about telescopes and how to find their way around the night sky with or without a computer. It will be run out of “Driftway Observatory”  – my backyard in Westport, MA, so obviously you need to be in driving distance and participation on any given night will be limited.  The way this works is invitations are sent out to the email list of participants on the morning of a night when the forecast is favorable.  Participants can then respond and space is reserved on a first come, first served basis.

You can use your own telescope, or use one of the telescopes here.

I see this also as an excellent parent/child shared learning opportunity, however, each child must be accompanied by an adult – one child/one adult, two children/two adults.

Other requirements for participants are:

1. That you purchase a copy of the excellent guidebook,  “Turn Left at Orion, ” which we will use for every observing session.

2. That before you attend any night observing session you complete a day-time workshop on telescope use in general, but particularly on the new line-up of telescopes at Driftway Observatory. 

3. That you have – or purchase – a pair of handheld binoculars suitable for exploring the night sky. 

The learning goals of this program are simple:

1. Learn your way around the night sky using the unaided eye and binoculars. (My “Prime Time” web site will be a major resource for this.)

2. Learn your way around the universe by finding examples of the major classes of astronomical objects (double stars, open clusters, globular clusters, nebulae, galaxies, etc.) with one of the telescopes at Driftway, or your own telescope if you have one and wish to use it instead. 

3.  Apply the classic advice of Sherlock Holmes – learn to “observe,” not simply to “see.”

My role will be to suggest appropriate targets (from “Turn Left at Orion”), have telescopes and large binoculars available for you to use, and coach you in their use.  Your role will be to read about your targets and how to find them before coming out to observe. You will find yourself involved in setting up instruments, using them, and putting them away when done. Most importantly, though, you will find objects on your own with some direction from me.

I hope you will find this approach very satisfying, but I’m not sure this style of learning is appropriate for everyone. You’ll have to decide if this is what and how you want to learn. If this interests you, please respond by sending me  email ASAP and ask to be added to the Star Hoppers list. If you know someone else who might be interested, please have him/her contact me.

I will schedule appropriate times for one or more persons to come here to learn about the telescopes in daylight. We will be using the three most popular types of astronomical telescopes – all relatively inexpensive models, by the way: A 12-inch Dobsonian (simple manual control), a 4-inch refractor on an Equatorial mount (mostly manual), and a 6-inch computerized, “go-to” catadioptric.   If you master those, I’ll be happy to show you how to do astronomical video as well.

You can find a copy of “Turn Left at Orion” at a local bookstore – Barnes and Noble has had it in stock – or at an online store, such as Amazon.com.  One caution. There are still several editions of this book available.  If you have an older one, that’s fine, otherwise get the most recent one (fourth edition 2011), and I suggest the spiral bound one because it folds flat and is easier to use in the field. Here’s the complete title of the book and a link to Amazon.

Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them [Spiral-Bound]

Guy Consolmagno (Author), Dan M. Davis (Author)



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My indoor, impromptu observing set-up. Click image for larger view. If picture is a bit fuzzy, it was handheld and very slow shutter speed - best I could do.

Through half a century of amateur astronomy I’ve been a good little boy, following the rules as I read them in various books – this morning I threw them all out the window and had a great time prowling the Moon!

OK – the main rule I broke is I sat in a heated sunroom looking through a rather dirty, double-thick pain of glass, while the lights of a nearby Christmas tree danced off said glass. And guess what? Not only did this beat hell out of freezing my butt off outside in the snow, but I actually explored an area of the moon that wasn’t familiar to me and I enjoyed doing it.

Oh – and did I mention I was using a dinky little 50mm scope on a dinky little camera tripod with some new-old-fashioned, ridiculously inexpensive “symetrical” eyepieces? That’s breaking three more “rules.”  Did I see all sorts of detail I’ve never seen before? Of course not. And I’m sure a serious lunar observer would scoff at the view with good reason.  But I’m a casual lunar explorer and  while I can recognize all the major seas and many craters and have explored in detail  areas such as the Apollo 15 landing area, there are still tons of mountains and craters on the moon that are new to me.

This morning – yes, I was doing this shortly before 6 am – what caught my eye was the area between the striking crater pair of Eudoxus and Aristoteles, and Cassini. There was a mountain range crossing the gap between those two – part of the Alps, I assume – and these were really catching the evening sun beautifully.  Now I should have gotten down to brass tacks and figured out what was the smallest crater I could see well, but I was having too much fun and by the time I decided to do that, a pine tree in the front yard had moved between me and the Moon! Drat it! That’s what comes from living on this spinning platform.

But seriously, the traditional caution of not observing in comfort through window glass needs to be challenged, especially if you live in areas of the country that can get down-right uncomfortable at certain times of year – and especially if you are a beginner, or casual observer just seeking the essential experience of communing a bit with the universe.

Sure, there was probably an advantage here to not trying to be too bold. A larger scope with more power might not have fared as well. But I grabbed what was handy, which was my tiny “Little Rascal” aka “Sparrow Hawk” made by Stellarvue. Right now someone is probably flinching at my calling this charming little scope “dinky,” but relax. Consider it a term of endearment. This is the second one of these scopes I’ve owned and the guy who sold this one to me included a couple of eyepieces he had gotten from Bill Burgess that are marked as a “12.5 UHC Symmetrical” and “UHC Symmetrical 6” respectively. They come to focus at opposite ends of the 50mm’s helical focuser which is a bit of a pain, but he told me the UHC  eyepieces werer marketed at $10 each by Burgess with about $2.50 shipping. (Hmmm… wonder what UHC is supposed to mean? Burgess fans, feel free to chip in here and educate me.) Bottom line – these are not the big guns of the eyepiece world and they don’t perform as well as my Naglers which cost about 20-25 times as much. Duh!

On the Sparrow Hawk these delivered  about 16X and 34X respectively – well, at least by the numbers. The apparent field seems somewhere around 40, but that’s just a  guess. (That’s my guess from looking at the 2-degree cacade of stars in Cygnus between the center star of the “cross” and Albireo. That cascade fit comfortably in the 12.5mm yield what seemed to be about a 2.5 degree true field of view.)

Last night I was out – freezing because this time I was under the stars radiating what little body heat I had to the black void – and I could indeed see fainter stars with the Naglers. But the 6mm gave a charming split of Albireo, and as I was prowling in the general area of the Andromeda Galaxy I swept up M33 using the 12.5mm. That kinda knocked my socks off. I know this galaxy is easier to see at low power and it was very near the zenith at that time, but I really didn’t expect to have it pop out at me as I was rather hastily moving towards another target.

Bottom line – the cheapy eyepieces are small, compact, and a good match for this scope. Their performance is a pleasant surprise. I found a unused soft case, attached it to the tripod with a Velcro strap, and the two eyepieces are now part of the permanent grab ‘n go set up. (They came in really neat plastic cups with a wider top to accommodate the rubber eye guards – nice touch.)

Oh – and the tripod – I’ve forgotten what brand it is, but it’s one of those generic camera tripods with flimsy, thin aluminum legs with plastic flip lock thingees on them. I put an old Orion slow-motion adaptor on top of it simply because it was lying around doing nothing else useful. It is not really necessary at these low powers, but it does help sometimes.

Could I have cranked the power up? Yes -a tad. I tried a 5mm Nagler (41X) and liked that view best. A 2.5mm Nagler (82X) was too much.

But the bottom line is this. I observed, seated in warmth and comfort. You can find hundreds of things on the moon with 10X50 binoculars. You can find more with this set up and it’s more comfortable to sit and give your arms a break. (Yes, mine get tired holding binoculars.) And if you’re a newbie just learning your way around the moon, this is a great way to do it. It should whet your appetite for some more serious exploration with larger telescopes, unobstructed by heat waves and thick glass. And if you want to sit outside in sub-freeziong temperatures, bless you! I’ve certainly done more than my share of that kind of observing.

But honestly, as I get older, winter becomes less and less fun, so I’m going to continue to explore what’s possible with this kind of indoor observing that fits my comfort zone!


Last night there was a brief hole inthe clouds, so I pointed the little scope out the sliding glass doors – and in quick succession was able to find M36, M38, and M35 – all witht he 12.5mm Symmetrical eyepiece. Now, could a newbie do this? I’m not sure. These did not jump out atme – I had to look and I knew what I wa slooking for – but I could see them clearly.  would it have been better if I were outside? Yes – and colder – much colder. 😉

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Sometimes it’s just feels betters than others – this morning was one of those times.

I’m talking about solitude. There’s a rough line between solitude and loneliness, a sort of no-man’s-land where it’s not good, but not bad. Loneliness is bad. But if you can make it across that line, you discover the wonder of solitude, and that’s where – through no particular effort of mine – I found myself this morning.

It was cool – 34 degrees – and it was clear, with a few high, thin clouds – and there was a pretty powerful Moon washing out large chunks of sky and making my backyard seem more like twilight than 4 am. I frequently retreat to the Observatory on such mornings – it has a feeling of security. but I’m discovering I feel just as  secure iu the open on the Observing Deck. So that’s where I went this morning, quickly attaching the Televue 60 mm scope to the large Universal Astronomics T-Mount.  This is much more mount than is needed for this scope, but it moves oh-so-smoothly and it means i can pull up a comfortable chair, sit in one place, and still reach about one third of the sky before I have to move the chair. And that’s what I did.

And almost immediately an incredibly deep serenity settled around me.  I had a few observing goals in mind – and as I was settling down I sought out Saturn, which is now chasing Leo up the eastern sky. But I didn’t linger. It was still low and the atmosphere was making it dance. Higher up, Mars was still flirting with the Beehive and was much steadier. It’s disc is still very small – it’s abut 100 million miles away right now – and I didn’t expect to see anything on it, but I was wrong. Using the 2.5 Nagler (144X) I actually could make out the features in the same gross way that you might look at a very blurry map of the Earth and be able to discern the continent of Africa. It looked like a faded red marble with some olive-green splotches and a hint of a polar cap on the north end. We never see Mars well – but right now it’s disc is only about 8.5 seconds of arc across. That’s roughly one third as large as it can get,  about one fifth of what Jupiter is right now, and about 1/200th the apparent diameter of the Moon. Mars will offer the best viewing this time around in February 2010 – but it still will be quite far awayand its disc will only get to be about 14-seconds in diamter.  On it’s closest approach, the Mars disc can be 24 seconds in diameter, but that happens rarely.

Right now the real fun of Mars is seeing it – 10 light minutes away – in the same field of view with the  Northern and Southern donkeys that bracket the Beehive cluster whose stars some 600 light years away.  I won’t belabor this. I was looking at it the other morning as well. But it’s one of those sites that illustrates so well how what we see tells us very little about what we are looking at.  That is, there are few or no clues here that Mars is 600 trillion times closer to us than the stars of the Beehive, but that’s  a valaid rough estimate.  Such thoughts meant more to me this morning because of the sense of solitude – they penetrated a little deeper because I was  not reaching hard for them. I was sitting, relaxed, sipping tea and letting them reach me.

After a while I turned to a new sector of the sky, the Northwest, and did a futile search for Kemble’s Cascade. Actually, I may have found it, but I’m not sure – the moonlight was really washing out this area of sky and I had no chart with me, so I let it drop in favor of marveling at the stars around Mirfak. Why don’t people rave about this “cluster?” I hardly ever see it mentioned. I thought of this a couple years ago when Comet Holmes was passing through it. What a wonderfully star-rich region. I put Mirfak to one edge of the field and with the 24mm Panoptic (15X, 4.5° fov) quickly counted more than 60 stars – and this with  the moon not that far away! If nothing else, this makes a great binocular field, but in the 60mm it was perfect.

Here’s how it shows up in  Starry Nights Pro with the field flipped the way my 60mm refractor flips it, horizontally.


Click for larger image - Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

(Hmmm . . . Burnham’s Celestial handbook does mention it and says about 120 stars here have been identified as all moving in the sam egeneral direction and presumed to be part of a cluster – but it still has no name.)

Also perfect was nearby M34. This is a long-time favorite because the brighter stars are in a pattern that always reminds me of a Klingon battle cruiser.  Really.  And again, even with the Moon, they looked great, especially with the 5mm at 72X. This is another object  I need to return to when there’s no interference from the Moon.

By this time I had been observing for more than an hour and my tea was getting cold, but I had a few more things in mind. I checked out Rigel very carefully, looking for its companion. I could not see it, though I did a few night ago, It was getting pretty low – about 22 degrees – so I was looking through alot of atmosphere. However, I did find W Orionis, the carbon star, very quickly – in less than 30 seconds, really, using the new technique of searching from the shield rather than the belt. Jumped rioght out at me – and looked redder than I remember. Maybe because I was less frustrated from searching too long 😉

I also just sat back and marvelled at the impresison made by Rogel 800 light years away, and Sirius, just at eight light years away and much brighter.  What I saw was two bookends of modern American political history. Thel ight from Sirius started its journey about the time of the 2001 terrorists attack on America – an event that I’m sure will shape us for years.  Rigel, on the other hand, brought to mind the roots of our democracy – the signing of the Magna Carta.  All of what we might think of as modern history takes place in the span of time it took the light to travel from Rogel to me.

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Boy, this cloudy weather continues ad nauseum, but there was a little break yesterday and it did come just as it began to get seriously dark, so for a couple hours I got to share some quality time with old friends.  The seeing was very good – the transparency, marginally good. But I turned the 120mm refractor immediately to the double-double and with the 5mm Nagler (180x)  had a beautiful, clean, classic split. I just stared. The sight was familiar, but I kept trying to get the numbers straight.

See, between each pair of stars there’s something in the order of 150 astronomical units. That’s roughly 20 light hours. And between the two pairs there’s a much larger gap – variously  stated as two tenths or a quarter of a light year. I’ll accept two tenths. That’s 1,752 light hours. That meant the gap between the two pairs was nearly 900 times as much as the gap between the two stars that make up a pair. It just didn’t seem that much, though,  and I guess if I had been more scientific about it I would have gotten out the reticle eyepiece and tried to measure it.  Maybe I’ll do that some night. But then, if I did so would it mean anything? I tend to assume we’re looking at this system from above or below  – I forget that these pairs of stars are slowly – very slowly – orbiting one another and where they are in that orbit and how that orbit is oriented to us could make them appear closer together than they really are.

All of which is pretty idle speculation on my part, but did move be a bit closer to appreciating the complex system I was seeing.

I wandered on over to M57 for a peek, but as I said, the transparency wasn’t that great – just very steady skies. I decided that I needed to find my way to  a couple objects in Cygnus I’ve never spent much time looking at before.  The first is a binocular triple – Omicron Cygni. This should be a fun challenge for a good night at Allens Pond this summer. Locating the brightest star is pretty easy – it’s fourth magnitude and is in – or near – what I think of as the western wing of the swan.  What I didn’t know until I checked Jim Kaler’s Web site just now was that in viewing these I managed to miss a carbon star nearby (U Cygni). Dang! And the mental image I retain tells me I saw it and didn’t pay close attention, but I have an overall impression of a very red star in the field.  I was using the 32mm Plossl which gives me a comfortable field of more than 1.5 degrees. Didn’t have any appropriate binoculars handy, but judging from the view in the finder, it should be easy to spot two of these stars while the third will be difficult.  And I’ll have to remember to look for U Cygni next time I have a chance.


My next step was to drop a trail of bread crumbs on the way to 61 Cygni. This fifth magnitude star is off the eastern wing of Cygnus and is the fourth closest star in our night sky and the first to have it’s distance from us measured (11 light years) more than 150 years ago. It’s sometimes called Bessel’s Star or Piazzi’s Flying Star – Bessel’s Star because he first measured its distance in 1838 and Piazzi’s Flying Star because he noted how fast it appeared to be moving (partly because it is so close to us) about a half century before Bessel made his measurement. Me – all I wanted was an easy way to find it in a  kind of busy area of the Milky Way and I discovered that it was conveniently at the apex of rwo bright triangles easy enough to pick out in wide field binoculars.  (See the chart to the left  modified from Starry Nights software.)

Funny – the North American Nebulae has always eluded me, yet for some reason with the 120mm on a night with transparency poor, I felt I could see it fairly easily using the 32mm eyepiece in the 120mm refractor. There was a fairly obvious change in background brightness where it should be. So I need to revisit this with that instrument on a better night.

By this time I was getting tired, however, and the clouds were moving in, so I made one final excursion. This time I swung to the western sky where Izar was still very high and in the steady air, very easy to split  – though I really had to crank up the power to get a comfortable view. I used the 2.5mm Nagler giving 360x – well above 60x per inch – but it worked fine which said good things about the quality of the scope, the quality of the eyepiece, and the quality of the night.

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Up shortly after 2 am – skies somewhat clear – dressed, got tea, and was in observatory by 2:30 am using 120mm Skywatcher and my grab ‘n go kit – 32mm TV Plossl, 8-24 Hyperion zoom and 6-3 Nagler zoom.

My first target was Rasalhagethi (Alpha Herculis)  and it showed nicely in the Hyperion zoom, splitting cleanly at 8 and one click-stop above 8. However, it split much better with the 6-3 Nagler zoom. Some flaring of the primary with the  8-24 Hyperion – pure, round star images with 2-3 diffraction rings using the 6-3 zoom. Judging from the drift, secondary is due east of primary.

These two zooms are far from par focal with one another. However, in double star work I can use the 32mm Plossl and go directly to the 6-3 Nagler with little or no refocusing.I was amazed to find this was so.

I was working at my liesure with no targets in mind. Figured I would  check out Gamma Delphinus, then move on to the last quarter moon which was now above my tree line. Gamma split easily – even split at 24mm, but was real nice at 8mm. No flaring with these two more evenly matched stars (4.5 and 5.5). Restored some faith in the  Hyperion zoom. Of course, they are also more than twice is far apart as Rasalgethi.

I was enjoying this when zoom – the clouds came in – in about five minutes it was 80% overcast. So my observing session went simply from 2:30 am to 3:15 am, then I packed up and headed in.

Ah well – given the terrible weather we’ve been having, this was a refreshing little interlude – and for a while the skies were very clear and very steady.

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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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