Friday, August 26, 2011

Several Astronomical League Certificates

It has been a successful summer in completing AL clubs. San Antonio has had mostly clear skies, and the time I have spent in Ohio has also had great viewing opportunities. After moving back to my Ohio home, I have been tickled pink to discover that Beavercreek Ohio has some pretty good skies. At the zenith, I am easily able to see magnitude 4.5 stars. I occasionally catch hints of the Milky Way. I may have seen the Andromeda Galaxy naked eye - at least I think that with averted vision I can see it. This is not as good as the Frio Cielo Texas property we bought last year, but considerably better than my house in Helotes, TX.

Over the last few months I received my Herschel List certificate, my Master level Outreach award, and the Sunspotter club certificate. I now have 29 hours of meteor watching in the log, toward the 36 hours necessary for the certificate in that club.

Once the Meteor club is done, I will have the ten clubs necessary for my Master Observer award - something I have been working toward for several years now. These are the clubs I have or will have:

Required clubs:
Messier Club
Binocular Messier Club
Lunar I club
Double Star Club
Herschel 400 Club

Optional clubs:
Binocular Deep Space club
Outreach Master Level club
Sunspotter club
Caldwell club
Meteor club, 36 hour award

That will give me the prereqs for the Master Observer Club

Other clubs I have plans to work on in the coming year:
Asteroid Club
Urban Skies Club
Galileo Club

Thanks to everyone who has helped me along the process.

Dark Skies, Risk

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Herschel 400 Complete

Well, that was fun. I just confirmed that I have now observed all the objects on the Herschel 400 list.

Over the weekend, I was able to get two long observing sessions in at the Frio Cielo starfield. Both sessions started at about 90 degrees at 945 PM. On Friday afternoon, it had gotten up to 105F at the ranch. On Saturday it reached 107F. That weather was a "polar opposite" to the sessions at the end of January and March that both got into the teens by morning. I remember my fingers getting very stiff and painful on those nights. This weekend, I only had to deal with an incessant wind.

My single spaced, typewritten log of the objects is 47 pages long. In creating that log over the last two years (I began at Garner State Park in June of 2009) I have learned a LOT about star hopping and have been impressed, over and over, how huge cosmos is. The H400 contains hundreds of galaxies. Some so tightly spaced that there are more galaxies than foreground stars. Each of those galaxies contains in the neighborhood of 100 million to a trillion stars.

Every item was found with my trusty combination of Telrad, finder scope and telescope. All were found by star hopping. Most of the objects were seen with the 16 inch Meade mirror, though the design of that telescope changed three times during length of this project. I used the wonderful Stephen O'Meara H400 book to be able to have a good photo and a rational order for seeing the objects. I believe it is the best tool there is for finding the objects.

Like I said, all objects were found by star hopping. In the beginning, I used the star hopping diagrams of O'Meara's book. For the last half of the list, I used an iPad with StarmapHD, a great program by Frederic Descamps. It was much easier for me to star hop with this tool than with any other atlas or set of diagrams.

My thanks to SAAA club members who have followed my progress through this list. For those of you who listened for hours as I mumbled into my voice recorder, paying scarce attention to your companionship, I apologize. That goes double for Diane who bore most of that concentration, and also to Matt who was often with me as I was working my way through the list. He is good! On several occasions, we would race to an obscure object by star hopping, and he would find it first.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Caldwell Club Observing

This last weekend, I finally put the finishing touches on my astronomy shed in the Texas hill country. I even had a few minutes to sit down and plan an observing night. There is a special pleasure in opening books, and beginning to find a way to work through a major list of objects.

The Caldwell list is 109 objects chosen by Patrick Moore, the British observer par excelence. It's only been 15 years since he formulated the list, but it has become quite popular in the astronomy groups I frequent. Its about the same spirit as the Messier list - lots of famous objects, but was chosen to be excellent targets instead of comet imposters - as Messier intended. The Astronomical League rules on this club are simple and clear. Observe 70 of the 109 objects and you get a certificate. Observe all 109 and you get another pin. The catch is that to get objects 80 - 109 you just about have to be south of the US. South America or Australia would do quite nicely!

Because Moore chose these objects on purpose, it would seem appropriate to to spend some time figuring out why they were chosen and what is interesting about them. And the AL makes that part of the club as well. Descriptions of the object should be written so that "the detail should be sufficient to convince your society's awards coordinator that you did in fact expend the time and effort to find and, hopefully, appreciate the reason that Sir Patrick selected the object for a place of honor on his list."

I began the process with Steve O'Meara's excellent book about the Caldwell List in hand. Steve does a great job of essay on each object, and this makes it much easier to quickly learn about the marvel or mystery of the object in hand. So far, I have not found it possible to read the entry on each object while observing. Some of that is done beforehand, and some is done afterward.

Though a number of the objects on the Caldwell list are also on the Herschel list, I decided to make fresh observations for this club. For one thing, it is rewarding to go back to an object seen in the past and see it with fresh (and more experienced) eyes. For another, I intend to write longer descriptions of the Caldwell objects than I did when I worked through most of the Herschel List.

For my first night, I star hopped through about a dozen objects. Several, like the Helix Nebula and the milkweed seed galaxy were real "wow" experiences. I had not seen either of these in any other list I have worked through. Each was very beautiful in its own special way.

So now it's time to reduce my recorded observations from that night to the log and start planning for this coming weekend.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Herschel Weekend

A dry cap of air settled into southern Texas on Friday, bringing clear skies. It is still a week from new moon, but that means that the early night hours are free of the moon. So astronomy was on order for the weekend.

Friday, I packed up my camping supplies and the Looking Glass 16 inch scope in the back of my pickup. I had a firm intention to get back to the Herschel list which I had last worked on in January. (We have had WAY too much cloudy weather in the San Antonio area.)

I arrived at the White Tail Run Starfield about 5 PM and weed wacked a living space in the grass about 40 feet on a side. I got the scope out and set up, finding that I was not missing any critical pieces, books, or equipment I needed.

My plan was to do some testing of two technologies - using an iPad with StarMap HD software for finding Herschel objects and an OFF Clip-On mosquito repellent device to act as chemical bug net for the year's bumper crop of mosquitoes.

I had seen the advertisements for the OFF Clip-On, and had heard some good words at star parties from people who were using the blue device. I looked up the technology and found that the insect repellent was methofluthrin - accepted by the California toxicology studies. (Just don't get the device in water with fish!)

This chemical was first introduced in a DeckMate product and gives area protection. The difference with the Off product is that there is a motor blowing air through the impregnated paper. The device can be worn while around a telescope and can be open without the motor for sleeping in the back of my truck.

The chemical was very effective for astronomy purposes across the weekend. I was able to be still next to the scope for several hours without mosquitoes around my head. (Even though DEET keeps mosquitoes from biting, it does not keep them from buzzing around my ears.) In addition, I was able to keep mosquitoes out of the back of my camper shell with the device - even with the motor not running. I was able to sleep with my legs and chest exposed to the night air without any DEET and I did not wake with any bites! That is good stuff!

The second technology was the iPad software. This was more than sufficient for finding the objects on the Herschel list. I found 40 of 40 objects I was looking for. I almost never needed to refer to the star hopping charts in Steve O'Meara's excellent book on the Herschel list. The big advantage of the software is that the chart is right side up on the dome of the sky. There is no having to orient the chart to the horizon in an uncomfortable way. I did find that there is an annoying shine of mostly white light at almost a 90 degree angle to the screen even when the program is set for night vision. I need to get a sheet of theater filter to make the light redish.

Over the two evenings of the weekend, I was able to log about 40 objects I had never seen before. The sky was about mag 6 for viewing and the seeing was fairly stable. I am now done with July through December on O'Meara's month by month compilation of the Herschel 400 objects. Is it possible that I will be able to complete the list by next spring? For the fall, I think I may start to concentrate on the Caldwell list.

In the middle of the other activities, I had a great night on Saturday when Diane joined me for camping, we had a nice dinner with friends near the starfield, and several folks came by for a 45 minute star party.

It sure was nice to be able to see the sky again in dark skies!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Stargazing 101

Last evening, Diane and I drove to a suburban parking lot that happens to have expansive horizons and moderate light pollution. We hoped to sit for a while and watch for meteors after the sky began to darken.

The sky was clear when we left the house, and on the way we decided to buy a couple of the new electric fan type of mosquito repellent devices. By the time we arrived at the park, Venus, Arcturus, Spica, Saturn, and Mars were obvious. A close look further west revealed Mercury to be a naked eye object just above the treetops.

The placement of Mars, Saturn, and Venus is quite pleasing now. Diane mistook the Mars-Saturn pair as Gemini. Its been so long since we have been out in the summer sky at sunset that I hardly blame her for mistaking the planet pair for a constellation that set well before sunset.

We had a few moments of fun trying to decide if we could tell Mars from Saturn by the color difference. We both decided ("final answer") that the lower of the pair was reddish and therefore had to be Mars. We were correct. Its color was also very similar to Antares in the Southeast at the focus of the Scorpius triplet.

Very high cumulus moved in from the West as the sky became darker, reflecting the light pollution of San Antonio and making the sky less than ideal for meteor watching.

The experiment with the mosquito repellent devices was a failure, for lack of bugs. It must be one of life's unwritten rules that when we buy an electronic repellent for bugs, the buzzing mosquitoes suddenly quit bothering us. Its probably just a special application of a broader lesson we have seen before.

After enjoying the light breeze and moderate temperature of the evening for a spell, we put the chairs back in the truck and headed back to our house - more enriched with our time together than we would have been with another hour behind our computers or in front of our TV.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Un-degenerate matter

I was reading about the compressed matter of white dwarf stars in Burnham's Celestial handbook. It occurred to me that there could be situations which could add enough energy to such systems that their degenerate matter could expand back into normal matter. Maybe a collision between such stars at high velocity? Maybe a focused beam of cosmic energy from a black hole jet? Maybe a nearby supernova?

Maybe some of the heavy matter our solar system is composed of comes from this process instead of all of it coming from supernovas themselves?

I was also considering his case of cooled dwarfs composed of degenerate matter as a component of the dark matter the universe requires. I'm not sure I have seen that discussed in any of the few articles I have read.

Oh well, back to more mundane work.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A pleasing sky refresher

South Texas has been under almost constant threat of rain since mid-winter. My plan to keep up with the Hershel List fell short in January and I have been clouded out more times than I can count since then.There have been very few clear nights in the favorable window for deep sky objects when the moon is not washing out the black sky.

All of this weather wash out has occurred while I simultaneously searched for a small piece of dark sky property. In January, I thought I had found just the piece I wanted. But there were a couple problems I could not get worked out and that fell through. A second slice of dark sky property fell into my lap in the intervening months, and Diane and I now have a little camping spot with a water spigot 75 air miles west of the edge of San Antonio.

The last two weekends I have camped at the ranch star field and have been able to get about an hour of observing in each of the weekends. The first weekend was cut short by the moon rising a little before midnight. The second was cut short by a quickly developing haze which opacified Into a solid cloud deck.

I was joined the first weekend by my friend Matt. As we sat around waiting for the sky to turn dark, and the few clouds to evaporate, we began to find the bright planets as they popped out of the evening sky. Venus was first and she made a good target to refine the aiming of our TelRad finders and finder scopes.

Each of us has a severely modified 16 inch Dob that started life as a Meade Lightbridge. The scopes have moved down paths away from the original version according to our individual tastes.

Soon Saturn was visible and showed us that seeing was very good indeed. High power (in my case, a 10mm Radian eyepiece on the 1800 mm scope) resulted in a crystal clear image of the rings and the dark line of their shadow on the southern side of the rings. 5 moons were easily visible, three dimmer moons to the west, and bright Titian and an out-of-plane moon to the east.

After just a little while longer, the field stars of the major constellations became visible and we started our search for Messier objects. M13 in HER looked for all the world like a pile of salt on dark paper. That led me to think about Omega CEN which was visible in break in the trees to the south.

We tracked down 6 galaxies from UMA and CVN, Messier objects 51, 101, 81, 82, 63, 94. The last two were a memory stretch for me and I found myself pulling out my StarmapPro to find them in the big black sky.

About that time, friends who were spending the holiday weekend on their own property in the country arrived for a little star party. For the next 3/4 of an hour we were able to share our recent familiarization of these objects with folks that appreciate the sky but don't yet know their own way around in it very well.

After those friends left, Matt and I sat down in lounge chairs while the moon began to lighten the sky. He remarked how it was nice to become familiar with the summer sky again. I agreed. It was frightening how much of the summer sky I had forgotten, but it was nice to realize that it all came back quickly.

The following weekend, the Saturday night forecast was for severe clear, with the moon rising about 3 AM. Diane and I headed for the ranch star field with high hopes. However the closer we got, the more high cirrus developed.

The early evening was similar to the previous week, with Venus and Saturn stealing the show. I was able to share all the objects with Diane, that Matt and I had observed the previous week. She practiced finding them on her own.

It was about this time that I decided to take a look at the "Tonight" feature of the SkymapPro program. It was a good memory jogger for some very obvious Messier objects which I had forgotten. M3 and M5 are especially good summer targets with Arcturus overhead.

Unfortunately, just as I was getting into this as a technique for finding other less obvious targets, the stars began winking out due to clouds and my laser beam grew as fat as a telephone pole in the moisture near the ground.

This coming week is new moon, and I already have plans to continue my search for a clear dark sky. May it come quickly Lord!