Tuesday, October 8, 2013


The thing I love about this hobby are the occasional surprises the sky seems to deliver up.

It's a mistake to think that the sky is just static. Far from it! In fact, it's rare that I'm not startled or surprised by something. Usually it's nothing too shocking but all are pleasant surprises. Take the other night when I was out with my 8" schmidt-cassegrain. I was looking over the asteroid Juno and about to move on to something else when all of a sudden, I saw a satellite entering the field of view.

This actually isn't that irregular occurrence. I've had as many as two or three pass through the field of my finder and even telescope before. As I sat there, adjusting the telescope to follow it, I realized what I was looking at...a satellite in geo-syncronous orbit! Why not let the planet do the work for me!? So I turned off the scope's drive and watched the satellite stay put as the stars wheeled past! It was an amazing thing to be so connected to a spot in space 26,000 miles above my head!

Sometimes that technology can do some amazingly unexpected things. Now, I'm not one for UFOs and visitors from "out there." But one cold January night observing with friends on a cold northern road outside of Killarney, we saw...something! Now, we were all of different opinions about what it was but it looked like a small gaseous cloud in the sky that kept to one spot but slowly spread out. My personal opinion...a very rare sight of a satellite outgassing its fuel. One friend opted for the "small spot of aurora" explanation. NONE of us were thinking aliens. Because we're amateur astronomers.

Meteors are a frequent apparition in night sky. Little flecks of dust that hit the atmosphere faster than a bullet. Sometimes larger chunks hit the atmosphere and can put on amazing displays. Like the time a friend and I were watching a lunar eclipse. Suddenly, my friend screams "WEST!!" and I have just enough time to turn around and see a meteor streaking across the sky! Or the time I was sitting in my backyard looking through my telescope and, out of the corner of my eye, I see the area light up with light and all the shadows are moving. I have just enough time to see the meteor finish its trek across the sky.

Don’t forget those surprise auroras that seem to come out of nowhere. Very pretty at first, then you realize its washing out a section of sky you want to view for faint fuzzies. And that’s where surprise turns to personal conflict! "You're very pretty...now GO AWAY!!"

Of course, there are more terrestrial surprises brought on by wildlife. Sudden visitations by four legged creatures including ones with black and white stripes that encourage you become the stillest you have ever been! A veritable statue!!

And surprise discoveries and sights you didn't expect to see like new deep sky objects or features on an otherwise familiar object you weren't expecting to see! The Lunar X is one of my favourites that sometimes show up when I wasn't expecting to see it.

Of course, one of the themes throughout these stories is the presence of friends. While amateur astronomy is sometimes a solitude activity, it's nice to share it with like minded people who all have an appreciation for the night sky.

So get out there! You might be surprised by what you see!

Clear skies!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Day sights too!

I like a challenge!

I mean, anyone can go out on a clear night, look up and see stars and planets! It's dead easy, really - unless, of course, you're stuck under city lights. If that's the case...not so much! But even being in the suburbs opens more opportunities for night time star gazing.

But...what about the day? People may say "Yeah, the sun! And maybe the moon! But that's it! Right!?" Oh, ye of little imagination!

Sun's up? Let's see what's there!
 I remember the first time I saw Jupiter in the daytime! It was at Star Fest. The waning crescent moon happened to be passing close to Jupiter in the morning sky which created an opportunity to use it as a landmark towards spotting Jupiter. So, with my trusty 80mm Celestron refractor, I took aim at the moon and moved the scope southwards a bit and...there it was! No FREAKIN' WAY!! Not that it was the BEST view of Jupiter I'd ever had. But it was there.

Then came the time when I saw Venus for the first time. I was in the backyard with the sun a couple of hourse away from setting. I looked...and looked...and looked some more! No way I was going to...wait...THERE it is! No FREAKIN' WAY!!! Time to go get the telescope!

Over the years, I've uncovered multiple opportunities to spot Venus and Jupiter during the day and all to varying degrees of success. Usually the moon or Venus - which is intrinsically bright anyway - act as guideposts to Jupiter. 

However, while I've occasionally bemoaned computerized "goto" mounts for telescope as "cheating," I've used them myself and they've given me some unique opportunities. For instance, seeing Saturn before the sun went down prior to the start of an observing session. Yes! I did! I even have witnesses who can verify!.

Then last summer, I had another goto I used to see the constellation of Auriga's brightest star (and sixth brightest in the entire sky) Capella at about 9 a.m. "Now we're getting somewhere!"

So last week, I decided to go even further! It started the night before setting up the scope in the evening to do some general observing using a goto mount! It performed decently well and most of the objects came in pretty well centered. Then the first inklings of a thought began to percolate! Why not repeat your Capella achievement tomorrow morning!? 

With that in mind, I set the mount to 'sleep' mode and went to bed. The next morning, I got up early and set about it...and couldn't find Capella! Seriously!? With some assorted cursing, I decided not to throw in the towel and try for something else. Jupiter! I hit the appropriate buttons...and there it was! A little off to the side, but still in the scope! Okay! That's more like it! Well, if that would work, how about...Sirius!!?? Yes! Why not. More button pushing and...no FREAKIN' WAY!!! There it is! 

Keep in mind...the sun is up by a couple of hours now! And I'm actually stargazing in the daylight! 

So I put the mount back into 'sleep' mode and waited for later when Venus would clear the trees. Later came and...there it is! But, what about Mercury? Assorted buttons pushed and...there Mercury was! 

Now, I'll acknowledge at this point that all of this was done with an electronically assisted mount! However, some correction did have to be done by me! And the conditions were superbly dry in the sky as it was a brilliant shade of deep blue which seems to be a major requirement for this kind of activity! And some well-placed trees or a house to block the worst of the sun. So it was a wonderful convergence of electronics, some skill and weather conditions. But so worth the effort!

Hmmm...I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow?

Clear skies!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Facebook Nova

I heard about it in mid August pretty much the way I learn about a lot of these things now...Facebook!

And what a lot was being said about it! A nova in Delphinus! But not just a dim, far away star that would challenge the limits of a backyard telescope! Nope, this was turning into one of the brightest novae in recent record. Certainly in my lifetime.

Two words that sparks all kinds of thrills for an amateur astronomer: naked eye!

If you're new to astronomy or not familiar with the terms, basically a nova is a star going "boom!" Well to be more precise, it's a runaway thermonuclear reaction from a small star stealing matter from a larger companion which then goes boom. But I'm not here to pick nits!

I found out the location, again off the many Facebook posts that linked information from the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) which gave coordinates in the sky. Plotting it out showed that it was in a remarkably straightforward location. Although the nova was officially within the boundaries of the constellation of Delphinus, the dolphin, it was most easily located using Sagitta, the arrow. It was pointing right at it!

And the amazing thing was how bright it was proving to be...around magnitude 5.5 or so. Just above the limit for naked eye visibility! Armed with my binoculars and a sky map, I set out to find it, anticipating it to still be a challenge. We're talking the night sky, after all! There's a lot of stars up there. But nope! After a few careful minutes comparing sky map to actual sky, there it was! After a couple of days, I could very easily make it out with my naked eye, even with the interference of a bright and nearby moon!

I've been watching it over the last few weeks. The last few days have been...well...cloudy! But I continue to eagerly await clear skies again to watch it some more. It's dimming now and, while to me it has always had a dim yellowish hue, the last time I was out it was definitely yellowy-orange! Such is the morphology of novae.

And this is the true appeal of it! That's because, far from being static, the sky is full of change! New stars appear and disappear sometimes from our own galaxy and even in distant galaxies! Far from sedate, the sky shows incredible violence but also, from that violence, stunning beauty! It's a stark and awe-inspiring contrast!

So go out and find it for yourself if you haven't already seen it!

Now, if only we could get Betelgeuse in Orion to go SUPERnova!

Clear skies!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

So how's that space program?

Wow! Talk about a cosmic wake-up call!?

On Friday (Feb. 15), our little blue planet got two visitors - the known half football field-sized asteroid 2012 DA 14 and another unknown 15-meter piece of rock that exploded in the air over a city in Russia. And both these incidents put a giant exclamation point on the fact that we truly do live in what has been described as a cosmic shooting gallery!

It was the kind of coincidence you don't really expect to ever see in your own life time. But just as we were waiting on one asteroid to pass harmlessly by, another smaller one came through the atmosphere and burst over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, injuring nearly a thousand people and breaking windows with a blast stronger than the Hiroshima bomb.

In short...we got lucky.

You see, that rock could've been a lot bigger! And even with several programs currently underway to scan the skies for incoming rocks, there are likely many that are escaping detection or aren't going to be detected until they are almost right on top of us. And then there's the comets! They can be just as tricky and can carry as much if not more wallop because they can sometimes appear to come out of nowhere and be considerably larger than asteroids.

It's a warning of sorts from the cosmos. "So...how's that space program coming along?"

Hopefully, it's got people thinking. And tops in their thoughts should be how do we take make sure fewer of these things sneak up on us?

It's an opportunity for even more amateurs to get "in the game" and for more professional/amateur collaborations. Here's hoping they get started soon.

Clear skies!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Getting some perspective

That's really what this hobby is all about.

When it comes to astronomy, the more you learn, the more you appreciate just where we sit in the grand scheme of things. It's both shockingly humbling and exhilaratingly uplifting at the same time.

Everyone is familiar with this picture, Earth as seen by Apollo 17 astronauts as they headed for the moon. Inarguably, it was one of the most important photos ever taken. It is credited with inspiring an entire generation to rethink their relationship with the planet and its finite resources - the environmental movement was born.

However, this image and this image are both important too. The first is the product of our recent visits to Mars. In 2004, on its 63rd Martian day, the rover Spirit caught this image in the early morning sky over Gusev crater. A close-up shows elongation which hints at the moon being imaged with Earth. It would be a stunning view in a Mars-bound telescope!

The second image is the famous "Pale Blue Dot" taken by Voyager 1 in 1991 as it departed the solar system. The image was requested of NASA by astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan who lobbied for a 'backward look' at the solar system. Except for Mercury, which was too close to the sun, and Pluto, which is too faint, all of the remaining planets were imaged.

As an amateur astronomer, I'm frequently confronted by people's rather limited understanding of the universe and our place in it. And I encourage them to view these pics.

It's not a condemnation. It's simply a fact that, as we go about our daily lives, we have little opportunity for the "big" thoughts. Except for a lucky few of us, our lives are confined to short distances to work or school or after-school activities with the kids. Our city skies are awash with light, hiding the stars, and we have countless distractions from the television that run from the sublime to the ridiculous to the disturbing.

Occasionally, we touch on something more. We seek higher ideals and sometimes feel we've found them in religious observances or charitable works. But sometimes, those too turn inward. In religion, we can be restricted by narrow interpretations of sacred scriptures that preclude notions of great time or close association with the natural world - opting instead for the conceit of 'special status.' Charitable works, while noble, require focus on the task at hand, even as we revel in the opportunity to improve the lives of our fellow human beings.

For me, amateur astronomy, while sometimes simply an aesthetically pleasing activity, also allows for "cosmic thoughts." Contemplating the depths and breadths of space and time, one is confronted with the fleeting span we are born, live our lives and then pass away, comparatively brief as snowflakes settling to the sun-warmed ground in a springtime flurry.

We are small. And yet, we are also unique. Each of us apparently a single event in the long, 14.7 billion year history of the cosmos. This particular arrangement of particles coming together in this particular order, perhaps creating great works of art, literature or discovering scientific or mathematical insights. Finding things thing further the evolution and development of a particular species of ape that has evolved on this small blue marble orbiting this small star in the corner of this particular galaxy which is one of billions!

And, if that doesn't grab you entirely, listen here to Carl Sagan himself put it all into perspective!

Kinda gets ya thinking, don't it!?

Clear skies!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Happy birthday Neptune

That's the headline you're reading a lot but, really, that's not entirely accurate. It's more of "New Year" celebration.

Specifically, July 12 marked the completion of one Neptunian revolution around the sun since its discovery in 1846. Here is a great video that shows how much history has occurred in the 165 Earth years since its discovery!

Of course, part of that history includes an actual robotic visit to the planet by Voyager 2 in August of 1989. We saw an amazingly cold planet, circled by a moon that traveled in a backward direction. The smallest amount of heat influences some of the most extreme weather in the solar system!

Neptune is muddling around in the constellations of Capricornus and Aquarius. And, when it gets high enough, in a telescope it will be..well..underwhelming. But, the chance to see a planet a couple of billion kilometers away is worth it. Awesome!

Clear skies!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dawn approaching

Dawn is fast approaching!

That's the NASA Dawn probe to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres with it's first stop at the brightest asteroid Vesta. At present, it's about 100,000 kms from Vesta and closing fast for it's July 16 rendezvous! At last, I and the rest of humanity are going to get an up-close-and-personal view of one of the asteroid belt's biggest denizens, rather than just a dot of light in the eyepiece of a telescope!

Not that we don't know what asteroids look like. In fact, about a dozen asteroids have either had close-up encounters with Earth-based technology or, at the very least, been viewed from a distance by them. Near Earth objects Eros and Itokawa have even been orbited by them. But Vesta is a unique one. It's a remnant of a remarkable time in the solar system's history when the planetary gallery resembled something more like a raucous rave party than the stately gathering we have today.

Imagine back about 4.3 billion years ago. The solar nebula had collapsed and bodies from the size of peas to objects as big and bigger than the planets we have today were still settling into their orbits. Indeed, many astronomers suspect we had many times the planets we have now, all jostling for position. The worlds of our current solar system were simply the winners of a titanic battle of bulk, gravity, time and even dumb luck!

Some of that "raw material" remains in the form of asteroids and comets. So getting a close look at these tiny bits of cosmic flotsam could give us profound insights into the early history and evolution of our solar system.

Vesta and Ceres represent the largest members of this population of bits and pieces. They're big enough that mass and gravity have acted to turn them into roughly spherical shapes. However, they're still too small to be considered planets, giving astronomers a challenge to understand them in the grand scheme of the solar system.

As Dawn has approached Vesta, the image of this 500 kilometer-sized body has swelled in size and detail. And the amount of detail they will gather will be even further increased by the fact that, over the next year, Dawn will orbit Vesta before departing for an encounter with even larger "protoplanet" Ceres.

For myself, Vesta holds a special place in my heart as the first asteroid I've ever caught sight of. They're difficult objects to spot and track and finding one gives one an appreciation for the challenge of discovery they represent. They are tiny dots of light that move slowly against the background stars. Hard to believe that, at one time, they were considered "vermin" of the solar system, introducing unwelcome streaks to long-duration photos of objects.

Now, they represent one of the greatest mysteries of modern science - how the solar system came to be.

So tune in, folks. With the approach of Dawn comes a whole new day of astronomical discovery!

Clear skies!