Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Youth Programs at the SkyCenter

Final post in my run of work related posts...but at least now when someone in my family asks "what is it exactly that you do?" I can point them to the blog...

Over the past two months I have been very fortunate to be working alongside NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellow, Pacifica Sommers, as she has developed broad based overnight science trips up Mt. Lemmon.  These trips have culminated in an overnight stay at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter where the students have learned how to operate the 20 inch Jamieson Telescope at the mountains summit. 

While our public observing programs continue to flourish and grow, these educational trips are a new facet of our programming, and already one of the most rewarding.  Feedback from students and teachers that have come on these trips has been excellent and we have already learned many lessons as to what works and what does not work with a bunch of middle school students.

While I am posting a few images below, I encourage you to read the UA News article that goes into some depth about these trips.

Discovery story of Comet P/2012 T7 (Vorobjov)

This is the second of three posts that relate to my work at the University of Arizona's Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.  In an earlier post I mentioned that a comet had been discovered using the 32-inch Schulman telescope at the SkyCenter and now UA News has written a piece that details the partnerships and circumstances that led to the discovery.  It was gratifying to have this comet discovered at the SkyCenter as this demonstrates exactly the type of public access that was envisioned when funds for the telescope were generously provided to the University by the Schulman's Foundation.

Read the UA News Story by following this link.

Next up...coverage of our pilot youth programs...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Adam Block and the Cosmic Canvas

Lots of exciting news coming out of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter this week-  so prepare for a small run of blog posts regrading my day job.  First off, Adam Block who manages our public observing programs received a distinguished award this past weekend for his significant contributions in astrophotography and astronomical outreach.  The Hubble Award is presented annually at the Advanced Imaging Conference and everyone that knows Adam understands how deserving he is of this achievement award.  You can read a nice story about the award and Adam on the University of Arizona News Website by clicking the link below.

Adam Block and the Cosmic Canvas | UANews:

Next up tomorrow, a detailed story regarding the partnership that led to the discovery of Comet  P/2012 T7 (Vorobjov) at the SkyCenter last week (original post on this comet here).

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Comet Discovered at SkyCenter!

Most of you know that I work with the Mount Lemmon Skycenter at the University of Arizona, and this week we had a significant first!  A comet was discovered by an observer using our 32 inch Schulman telescope remotely.  Mr. Tomas Vorobjov discovered what is now known as Comet Vorobjov last Sunday night while acquiring data searching for Near Earth Objects. Mr. Vorobjov directs the Data Reduction Team of the International Astronomical Search Collaboration (IASC) project, and discovered the comet in data he acquired through work with IASC.   The comet was officially recognized, designated, and named Thursday afternoon through the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center, as P/2012 T7 (Vorobjov).

At left is the sequence of discovery images acquired remotely, in partnership with the Sierra Stars Observing Network (SSON).  Ignoring the blue and green circled objects, the comet can be seen moving near the center of the image and a faint tail can be seen moving along with the comet on its right side.  As I mentioned, this is significant for us as we work in partnership with SSON to make the .8 meter (32 inch) Schulman Telescope available for remote use to astronomers, educators and citizen scientists world-wide.  This level of public access to the Schulman Telescope is central to our mission of education and public outreach.  This is the first comet discovered by Mr. Vorobjov, as well as the first comet discovered by observers using the Schulman Telescope.  Yippee!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Seeing the light in the dark

I just returned from Portal, AZ where I spent two nights with very good friends observing under some of the darkest skies in the western U.S.  I have blogged previously about Portal and what a great place it is to relax by day and observe by night, and this trip was certainly as rewarding as any.  We camp out at one of the premiere observing retreats known to amateur astronomers, the world famous Rancho de Farrar.  The early days of Rancho de Farrar are mostly unknown, however, historians have accepted local legends of it's beginnings...stories that seem to center on bonfires, whiskey, and heavenly bodies.  Speaking of amateur astronomers, below you can see our group of heavenly bodies as dusk settles over the ranch.   From left to right: Chris H., Shak (the 20 inch Dobsonian), Mike W., yours truly, Bill G., and El Jefe of the Ranch, Jerry F.

Folks living in places like Arizona are fortunate in that we often have clear views of the eastern horizon after sunset and can appreciate the beautiful colors of the "Belt of Venus."  The distant horizon and clear dry air in Portal combine to show beautiful colors as night approaches.  The blue color just above the distant hills is the shadow of the Earth being cast on our atmosphere and slowly ascending as the Sun continues to descend below the horizon.  As we say, often seen, rarely noticed!

Last week I acquired a very nice lens for my Canon T2i, a 15-85 mm EF-S.  I had wanted something that I could use to walk around with that was of higher quality than the kit lens, and also something that had a very wide field so that I could try to take some shots of the night sky.  I quickly learned that one of the most difficult parts is focusing the lens on the stars.  Simply turning the focus to infinity results in blurred stars, and there seems to be a sweet spot not quite to infinity.  The images of the milky way are far from perfect, however, I am  happy with them given that they are simply single shots, 25 seconds each with the lens at the 15mm setting...and that these are really my first attempts at this kind of photography from a dark site.

At left is an image of the Milky Way running nearly vertical into the foothills of the Chiricauhua Mountains.  This was taken at ISO 6400.  It is somewhat noisy, yet that is currently my trade off for obtaining the most color in the Milky Way.  Another reason why I need to get back to learning how to use Photoshop.

Below is an image of the Milky Way with a different composition, and I am not sure which I like better...And if you are a faithful reader that is not much into astronomy, I should point out that the reason that Milky Way is so bright in the south, is that we are looking toward the center of our galaxy in this area of the sky.

The image below was taken from a bit further back of the Ranch in order to capture some of gear.  It was also a 25 second exposure, but with an ISO of 3200.

 This next picture is a bit higher up in the sky and shows the Milky Way as it runs through Cygnus and the asterism known as the "Summer Triangle"

Despite all these pictures, I spent quite a bit of time looking through the telescopes that we had assembled within the circled wagons on the ranch:  a 20 inch Dobsonian, two 12 inch Meade SCT's, an 8 inch Celestron orange tube SCT, a TEC 140mm refractor, and a Zeiss 62mm refractor.  Truly, it was an embarrassment of astronomical riches.  And while we all enjoyed the various views, Mike was in and out of the "command center" where he was checking in on the data streaming in from his remote imaging set up.  Soon, I expect he will post a very impressive image of M 33, the Triangulum Galaxy, on his blog.

While he was imaging M 33, we observed it in nearly all of the telescopes on the field, save the 8 inch.  In my own 12 inch SCT I was blown away by details I had previously not seen in this low surface brightness galaxy.  Instead of the usual broad "S" shaped galaxy with two arms and a handful of bright knots, I was able to observe two additional spurs (arms) of the galaxy and more bright HII regions than I had ever seen.  Realizing how transparent the night was I pointed the scope at M 31, the Great Andromeda Galaxy and was again stunned by the detail.  Two dust lanes were easy and the edges of the lanes hinted at a mottled structure.  As I panned around, I was awestruck my M110, a satellite galaxy that is undergoing a merger with Andromeda.  As I pushed the magnification up to about 235X there was clearly mottling to this galaxy, and the bright nucleus was offset from center.  As I continued to observe  I realized that the reason the core seemed offset was that I was detecting an elongation of the galaxy back toward Andromeda.  This "light bridge" was confirmed by both Bill and Jerry.

I have been observing comet 168P/Hergenrother on and off over the past week and wanted to take a look at it from Portal.  I was not disappointed as the comet sported a stubby fan shaped tail- yet with averted vision there was clearly a long stream heading to the SE.  You can see this stream in my sketch at left, although it appeared fainter than in my drawing (obviously).  In addition to the comet, we observed a faint galaxy in the field of view, which Chris identified for us as NGC 7777, a 14th magnitude galaxy.  How dark was it last night?  We were able to detect this galaxy with averted vision in the 62mm Zeiss!  Had we not known it was there it would have been missed, however, with patience we were all able to tease it out of the background.

Another target that I had been planning to observe was the Veil Nebula, using my TEC 140 and an OIII filter.  With inspiration from the website of Steve Gottleib and using the chart at right I was able to observe many of the various labelled components.  I started at the "Witch's Broom" NGC 6960 and was able to easily identify the knot labelled 'D'.  I then moved back up to Pickering's Triangle also known as Simeis 3-188 and enjoyed the ethereal structure of this region while training my eye to pick out the fainter regions.  I then panned south and was able to detect the brighter portion of the "Thin Thread" as well as the knots labelled 'J' and 'I'.  I then relocated to the eastern portion of the Veil, NGC 6992 and 6995.  This is my favorite section of the nebula and my most traveled.  I made a point to observe IC 1340 and then located the star that would serve as a marker for knot 'A' which is Simeis 3-210.  This proved to be a little tougher than I expected given the glare from the star, but after careful observation I was able to positively identify the thin wisp of nebulosity.  Again, both Jerry and Bill were able to confirm this observation.

As the night wore on, we observed many targets from the popular Messiers, and double stars to interesting Arp galaxies, and of course Jupiter.  One of the highlights for me was Chris locating Comet 2012 J1 (Catalina) in the 20 inch despite it being close to the "Dob Hole" near the zenith.  This comet is cruising through Pegasus not far from Hergenrother and is approximately magnitude 14.5.  I had attempted this unsuccessfully in the 12 inch SCT.  I spent a few minutes revisiting some planetary nebula that I had observed from Portal two years ago with my buddy Christian (now back in Eurpoe), NGC 246 in Cetus, and IC 5148 in Grus  See this post for sketches of these objects.

Finally, a picture that was hard to take and that I had to mess with in photoshop to try and bring out the subject.  It is an attempt to image the Gegenschien, which is actually sunlight, back-scattered by interplanetary dust.    This soft glow forms opposite the Sun within the zodiacal light band and is only subtly brighter than the sky.  This is a phenomenon only visible under the darkest of skies.

All in all it was another great trip that ended all too quickly.  As great as the skies and observing are, it is the great friends and the unparalleled hospitality of the proprietor of Rancho de Farrar that make the trip.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Comet 168P/Hergenrother

Yesterday I heard reports that Comet 168P/Hergenrother had made a sudden brightening, with some observers estimating the comet to be around 10th magnitude.  Predictions for this periodic comet have it around 15 magnitude, which would be out of reach of my telescopes from my suburban yard.  Last night I opened up my observatory to look for this comet with my TEC 140.  I utilized the Minor Planet Centers Ephemeris Service to generate coordinates for the comet and sent my mount off into northern Pegasus to see  what this icy interloper was up to.

The comet was a nice visual treat after so many months without making any cometary observations.  It was obvious in the 140mm telescope, with a condensed bright nucleus and a short stubby tail.  I am notably poor at making estimates of magnitude but I would optimistically report that it was a little brighter than 10th magnitude.  Naturally, I wanted to try and take a picture with my Canon T2i DSLR, so below is a 25 second exposure at ISO 1600, taken at 0421 UT on October 6th.  Interestingly, this image is far less impressive to me than the visual observation of the comet.  I am headed to Portal, AZ next weekend and if the weather cooperates I will make some sketches of the comet.