Sunday, December 19, 2010

Care to dance?

In just about 36 hours, we will be treated to a rare spectacle when the full moon is totally eclipsed from the Sun, by the Earth's shadow.  These events are quite spectacular and I will be observing this celestial dance from the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter where we will be hosting approximately 30 guests for a special lunar eclipse program.  For information on this and other eclipses, I highly recommend NASA's Eclipse Web site.  I took the picture to the left with a handheld point and shoot camera near maximum of the October 27th 2004 Lunar eclipse.  The color and darkness of the moon varies from eclipse to eclipse and is affected by the amount and types of dust, volcanic ash and other pollutants in the atmosphere.  The diagram below can be found on Fred Espinak's 2010 lunar eclipse page and shows the path of travel the moon will take through Earth's shadow, as well as the various timings of the event.

Penumbral Eclipse Begins:          05:29:17 UT
Partial Eclipse Begins:                06:32:37 UT
Total Eclipse Begins:                  07:40:47 UT
Greatest Eclipse:                        08:16:57 UT
Total Eclipse Ends:                    08:53:08 UT
Partial Eclipse Ends:                  10:01:20 UT
Penumbral Eclipse Ends:            11:04:31 UT

While all the talk is of the moon this week, I did manage to get out this morning and observe the Sun through my Hydrogen Alpha Solar Telescope.  There is not a tremendous amount of activity, with only one active region (AR 11135) near the central meridian in the northern hemisphere.  There are some small plage areas in the east, yet none are remarkable.  Perhaps the most interesting features were the striking dark filaments along the northeastern limb, as well as the broad filament dominating the southern polar region.  The sketch was completed at 1658 UT (9:58 AM MST) under slightly hazy skies.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Celestial Poetry

In addition to astronomy, I have always enjoyed poetry- it is a little known fact that back in the late 20th century, I studied English literature on the way to my bachelors be specific, I studied Shakespeare extensively, as well as a few other Renaissance era poets.  Shakespeare's plays and poems are filled with celestial imagery and metaphor, and perhaps in future posts I will share some.

Today, my good friend Laura sent me a poem that resonated with me instantly.  She found it on the website of American Public Media's The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor. If you enjoy it, google the author and buy his books!
Flying at Night
By Ted Kooser

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us,
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.

Friday, December 10, 2010

It's time for a revival!

On Jupiter that is!  Typically, the king of planets sports two distinct cloud belts, creatively referred to as the north and south equatorial bands (NEB and SEB respectively).  This year has been an interesting one on Jupiter as the SEB had disappeared!  To the left is an image from Mr. Anthony Wesley in Australia that provides a comparison of Jupiter's appearance from 2010 to 2009.  North is up in these images and you can clearly see the missing SEB, leaving the Great Red Spot (GRS) all alone.

In mid November, observers around the world began to take note of what has been termed the SEB Revival.  There is an interesting article on NASA's webpage that details much of what has taken place since the SEB's disappearance in the spring, including many spectacular infrared images.  Two nights ago I opened up the Lost Pleiad Observatory just at sundown to begin to let the telescope acclimate to ambient temperature.  There was a bit of high level cirrus hanging around and I noticed that Jupiter was blazing through the thin cloud layer.  Visual observers know that often a slight bit of haze can actually improve views of Jupiter by cutting down on the brilliance and allowing for greater contrast- so I decided to put dinner on hold and take a peek at the king...and I was not disappointed!  I was treated to a steady view of the SEB revival.  While the sketch to the right does not do the eyepiece view justice, you can see that there was a distinct dark band in the south, that included a bright knot on the central meridian.  The band appeared to curve up toward the equator on the proceeding limb (left in the sketch).  Utilizing my TEC 140 refractor at 196x, the sketch was completed at 0043 UT on December 9th (5:43 PM local time on December 8th).

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mount Lemmon SkyCenter

Just a quick post to encourage you to check out the new blog for the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter (MLSC).  It may look a bit familiar in design, if you read this blog with any frequency...but you get what you pay for!  Please visit the blog, send me your feedback if you are inclined, and once you are there click on the link to be a follower!

It will be a great blog to follow as we will post news and happenings from the MLSC, as well as recent images taken with the 32 inch Schulman telescope, and occasional content from guest writers.

The image to the left is NGC 2359, known commonly as Thor's Helmet.  Image is Copyright Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sunrise spectacular

Here in the "Naked Pueblo" we are somewhat famous for our beautiful sunsets...head pretty much anywhere with a view of the western horizon, on pretty much any day of the year, and chances are you will be treated to picture postcard view.  This morning as I headed out to work I was treated to an absolutely fantastic sunrise.  A heavy dose of cirrus clouds were illuminated beautifully, along with an old waning crescent moon.

Click on and look carefully at the picture below, you will notice Venus above the moon- it is labelled in the second picture in case you missed it...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Carbon Stars, cold weather and other notes...

Thanksgiving has brought very cold temperatures to the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  Thanksgiving day saw a high temperature of 56 degrees, the lowest high temperature since the mid 1970's!  Last night was quite cold with temperatures dropping below freezing for the first time this winter.  Overall, this low pressure system has created fairly poor seeing conditions...however, holidays mean lots of free time to observe as well as markedly reduced light pollution from Tucson.

Last night, I decided to do some observing with my TEC 140 prior to moon rise.  I was rewarded with some of the darkest skies I have seen in the observatory in a long, long time.  Not only were businesses around town closed, but there must have been no one on the roads as the light dome over Tucson was perhaps 25% of its usual brightness, maybe less.  Two observations from last night are worth reporting here.  First, I wanted to find a nice Carbon Star that I could use while leading programs at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center.  Carbon stars are late-type giant stars whose atmospheres contain more carbon than oxygen.  The chemical reactions that take place in the upper layers of the star result in increasing production of carbon compounds, surrounding the star with a "shell" of carbon dust.  This leads to a ruby red like appearance at the eyepiece.  While there are hundreds of these stars known, some of the more famous ones are Mu Cephei, R Leporis, and T Lyrae.  I have been showing T Lyrae during programs, and R Leporis is not quite high enough in the sky yet to utilize.  Mu Cephei is too bright and most observers see it as simply a bit more orange than Betelgeuse in Orion.

If you are interested in observing some of these stellar gems, I'd suggest you visit this webpage which contains a list of carbon stars brighter than visual magnitude 8.5.  The image to the left is of a carbon star in the constellation Canes Venatici and was created by Greg Parker and Noel Carboni of the New Forest Observatory.  I decided to have a go at S Cephei, a long period Mira type variable star.  It's listed as magnitude 7.5  - 12.9 and has a period of 487 days.  Mira type variables are characterized (among other things) by very red colors and are in very late stages of stellar evolution.  These stars will eventually shed their outer layers and become planetary nebula.  S Cephei is currently around magnitude 9 - 9.5 and fading.  It appeared as a brilliant gemstone like red in the eyepiece and will be a very useful example of a carbon star in my programs.

The second Thanksgiving observation I'd like to share is that of NGC 253, the Sculptor Galaxy.  I have observed this object many times in just about every telescope I have owned.  It is a very large spiral galaxy in an intense star birth phase.  It is remarkable in the eyepiece as it reveals extremely complex dust lanes throughout.  Recently I observed it through the 32" Schulman telescope at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center, and was treated to more detail than I could ever capture with pencil and paper.  I wondered how it would look in my 140mm refractor, and last night was perfect for this as the constellation rides low in the south, where typically the light pollution is at its greatest from my location.  I made the sketch below at 75x with a 13mm eyepiece.  To the right of my sketch is an image of this galaxy, taken from the Mount Lemmon Sky Center (south is up in the image, down in my sketch).

Copyright Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Finally, speaking of the Mount Lemmon Sky Center, todays Astronomy Picture of the Day features NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula as imaged by my colleague Adam Block at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center.  This is the first MLSC image chosen by the APOD folks since the installation of the 32" Schulman telescope...check it out!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fall observing

Been awhile since the last post!  Mid-October through mid-Novermber was a busy month on the astronomy front for me- I attended the All Arizona Star Party, made a quick trip to Portal, AZ and also led about a half-dozen programs at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter...all since the last post!

Rather than try and write a long post to capture it all, I'll just provide some brief details and some photos and hope that your imagination is as great as the real events were!  The All Arizona Star Party (AASP) is an annual event, that was held this year at what is referred to as the Antenna site...basically about 2 miles south of Interstate 10, and about 80  miles west of Phoenix, AZ.  I attended with my friend Jerry Farrar, and we camped next to Kevin and Brian from Lunt Solar Systems.  This was quite a treat as they brought the entire Lunt arsenal of scopes and filters.  I had a chance to double stack the new 60 front mounted etalon on my scope (to the left) and it was awesome!  Not only were the views of surface features rich with contrast and detail, but we observed an M 5.4 class solar flare on Saturday morning.  Below is my sketch of the sun, including the flare in region 11121.

Naturally I observed many nighttime objects as well, including many galaxies in the constellation of Aquarius.  Using my 12" LX-200 SCT, I observed NGC 7171, NGC 7184, NGC 7218, NGC 7392, NGC 7723, and the pair NGC 7724 & 7727 that shared the field of view at 152 power.  I also observed NGC 7492 which is a very faint, diffuse globular cluster.  This appeared almost as a mist in the eyepiece with about 6 stars resolved.  I spent some time observing NGC 708, the faith group of galaxies, also known as Abell 262, located in Andromeda.  I was drawn to check out this group of galaxies by a recent image created by my colleague Adam Block as part of the first light of the new 32" Schulman Telescope at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center. Below is a Digitized Sky Survey image and my sketch (reversed left to right), and underneath that is Adam's image of the galaxies.

Copyright Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

If you have read my blog over the past many months, you know that Portal, AZ is home to Rancho del Farrar, one of my favorite places on earth to observe.  Jerry invited me out for a quick trip with some of his family and friends.  While the observing was pretty laid back, we had a great time and the company was excellent.  Prior to leaving Portal, Beth and Ian and I went on a short hike in Cave Creek Canyon to a small cave that can be explored in about 10 minutes. Enjoy the photos of our trip!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Solar powered observing

It's been far too long since I had some time on a Saturday morning to observe and sketch the sun.  Lest you think that this morning was all sleeping in, drinking coffee and observing, I only had about an hour to set up the scopes, make the observations, and attempt some sketches due to Ian's little league game.  (Incidentally, he was 2 for 3 at the plate and perfect in 5 chances in the infield- whose kid is that?!?!)

The seeing this morning was nearly perfect.  There was only occasional slight atmospheric turbulence, but well over 90% of the time the image was steady as a rock even at high power.  This sketch was completed at 1625 UT (9:25 MST) using my Lunt Solar Systems 60mm HA scope with 12mm blocking filter.

Active region (AR) 11112 is the feature du jour, sporting some bright plage as well as a large and beautiful snakelike filament.  AR's 11113 and 11115 contain much weaker plage, yet there are obvious dark spots associated with these regions...this inspired me to set up my TEC 140 and Lunt solar prism to examine the spots in white light.  Finally, there is a bright ephemeral region on the central meridian in the northern hemisphere.

Below is my sketch of todays sunspots.   While nothing was noted in the ephemeral region, each of the aforementioned AR's contain spots.  AR 11113 contains a single spot, as does AR 11115 although it's umbra seemed like it may be splitting in two.  AR 11112 contains multiple small spots and is quite disorganized. This sketch was completed (quickly) at 1638 UT (9:38 MST).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Moon Madness

This past weekend I went down to Portal, AZ to do some new moon observing with my good friend Jerry.  If you have read my previous posts regarding visiting and observing in this area, you already know that the skies are some of, if not THE, darkest and transparent skies in the United States.  We were joined this trip by our friends Bill Gates, Jerry and Debbie Hyman, and Christian Weiss.  In estimating the quality of the skies, we looked to stars of known magnitudes, and each of us was able to detect stars as faint as magnitude 7.  Before I share some of my observing highlights, I do want to mention what a great group we had.

Bill, is the master observer of "things that are not really there" objects.  He is a remarkably skilled observer who spent a fair bit of time hunting down some of the faintest nebulosity you can imagine...these areas are so faint that many of them do not even have catalog designations.  Bill finds them by downloading images from the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS)  and enhancing them on his computer to the point that he can see these faint clouds of gas.  He then hunts them down in the eyepiece.  Bill is observing objects that in all likelihood have never been observed visually by others...Both because they are virtually unknown, and also due to his incredible eyesight.  It is safe to say that while we use the expression "eagle eyes," eagles refer to themselves as having "Gates eyes."  Bill was able to identify stars as faint as magnitude 7.4 naked eye!  7.2 was the best I could muster...Of course, I was distracted by the bright zodiacal light and the Gegenschein, a phenomenon I had heard of but never seen...

Jerry and Debbie are friends that we have come to know through various "all Arizona" star party events.  They are quite passionate about amateur astronomy and spending time observing with them is always a treat.  I learn a lot from them, and the crisp wide-field views through their binoculars were simply stunning (not to mention the new 8 inch Celestron Edge HD they brought!).

Christian has been visiting Tucson while completing the research for his Masters Thesis in optics.  He is modeling the optics for Giant Magellan Telescope (I hope I have that right Christian!) and soon will return to Switzerland where he will graduate.  Christian is the type of observer who inspires each of us with both his passion and skill.  I know we will all miss him.  It is so refreshing to spend time with a group like this who appreciate observing all types of objects and sharing the experiences with each other.

I am only going to post a few of the highlights from my two nights in Portal, beginning with Comet 103P/Hartley.  You can read about this comet that I have been observing over the past month in some of my earlier posts.  What was amazing was that the comet was visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy spot in the constellation of Cassiopeia.  It has brightened considerably and while still diffuse, sports a bright nucleus and extensive coma.  The comet is now appearing to move swiftly, approximately 5.8 arceseconds per minute during the time I was making the sketch...that translates to about 2.5 degrees of sky per day!  The sketch was made on the night of 10-10-2010 through my LX200 12 inch SCT and a 13mm Ethos eyepiece, yielding a magnification of 234X and a field of view of.4 degrees. The comet's distance from the earth was approximately .142 AU, and its distance from the sun was 1.093 AU (one AU = 93 million miles).

With Christian leading the way, I observed several planetary nebulas over the weekend. One of the benefits of having a telescope with 12 inches of aperture is that I can now begin to see subtle detail in these nebula that was not available to me with lesser aperture.  The sketch to the right is of NGC 7009, commonly known as the Saturn nebula, due to the extensions on either side the nebula that resemble Saturn's ring structure.  This nebula is obvious in most scopes at magnitude 8.3 as a small disc of uniform brightness. Magnifying this cluster with a power of 305 reveals the outer halo and extensions.  Careful observation also revealed some subtle darkening toward the center. This nebula is approximately 2900 light years away in the constellation of Aquarius.

To the left is another large but faint planetary that flies through the sky low in the south in the constellation of Grus (the crane).   IC 5148 is large, approximately 2 arc minutes in diameter, yet faint at magnitude 11.  Using a 20mm eyepiece (152X) and an Ultra High Contrast Filter (UHC) the nebula appeared to have a rift running through it, alomst separating it into two distinct objects.  The east half was marginally brighter than the west half, and the entire rim was brighter than the center.  I also observed this object through Christian's 16 inch Dobsonian, and he tells me that this object is actually designated twice in the IC, as object 5148 and 5150.  Either way, this is a very unique planetary and one well worth observing if you can see it from your location.  In Portal, it was perhaps 18 degrees above the horizon.

Finally, I'll share with you a sketch I made of NGC 246, commonly referred to as the Skull Nebula, haunting the constellation of Cetus.  This object was simply stunning from the dark site as it revealed several bright arcs along the perimeter, as well as dark cavities within the nebula itself.  the 12th magnitude central star was easily seen as well as a few other stars superimposed on the nebula.  NGC 246 is large, twice the apparent size of IC 5148 at 4.1 arcminutes in diameter.  It resides approximately 1300 light years away, and is estimated to be about 15,000 years old.

Of course, none of this would be possible without Jerry-  From sharing his property to sharing his food, no one hosts a better star party.  I have been to star parties in Colorado, California, Arizona, and even the vaunted Texas Star Party and can honestly say that there is no better place, and no better host than Jerry.  I have mentioned before that he is my mentor in observing and all the sketches above are due in part to observing and learning from him.  Thanks my friend.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stormy sunset

One of the things that I enjoy about working at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center are the incredible experiences that only happen on a mountaintop.  We had a small cadre of guests earlier this week who decided to come up despite stormy weather that would preclude use of the new 32" Schulman Telescope.  As part of our "cloudy night" program, we headed over to the west ridge of the mountaintop to see what view, if any, we may have of sunset.  I think that these pictures speak for themselves....(and one thing they tell me that while the point and shoot camera is convenient, I may have to invest in a DSLR camera)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mount Lemmon Sky Center update

I have had a hard time posting this month, due to being incredibly busy as well as being limited in my observing time.  One of the things that has taken up more of my time has been volunteering up at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center (MLSC).  Previously I have posted about my efforts up there, and the week of September 13th, the 24" RCOS scope went offline as the new 32" RCOS Schulman Telescope was installed!  I spent a bit of time up on the mountain during the installation of the scope and thought that these pictures may be of interest.

Above you can see the telescope assembled with the west fork arm opened up.  This fork arm contains the optical encoders that communicate the telescopes position in declination to the computer.  The east fork arm (not shown) contains the declination motor and brake.  One of the neat things about this telescope is that it operates with friction drives and is therefore very quiet and has none of the periodic error that is inherent to geared drive systems.

Above left is the secondary cage and the approximately 12 inch secondary mirror.  In the mirror you can see reflected the primary mirror covers.  These are opened and shut electronically and the scope was not yet operational when I took these images, so no picture of the primary mirror yet.  Above right, is the brains of this telescope...this box contains a computer, drivers, and all the electronics necessary to communicate with the mount and telescope. 

Finally, this pictures was taken several nights later when we went up to do some adjusting of the polar alignment of the mount. You can see how massive the scope is in relation to the computer desk to the right.  This scope is the largest scope in the State of Arizona dedicated solely to public outreach and education.   One of the reasons I have been spending so much time at the MLSC of late, is that in addition to the typical volunteer duties assisting with outreach programs, I am now training to begin conducting the SkyNights programs!  It is very exciting and quite a bit of work.  While the telescope is impressive, it is simply a tool that we use to provide guests with an opportunity to learn and experience the night sky in ways that they never have before.  Mount Lemmon is a fantastic location for this program. Just as satisfying as hearing a guest exclaim "WOW!!" when seeing a globular cluster for the first time, is the contemplative silence of guests as they appreciate that their own shadow being cast on the ground is actually blue and not grey or black.  I can say that I learn as much as the guests each time I am there. As evidence, take a look at the picture below.  This picture was taken just prior to sunset looking opposite the sun in the sky, to the east.  In it, you will see a mountain range in the distance, as well as what at first glance appears to be a second, higher mountain in the background.  Look closely and you will see that it is not in fact a high mountain in the distance;  Rather, it is the shadow of Mount Lemmon being cast on the atmosphere.  This is just one example of something that can be experienced at the MLSC, something that most people have never seen before.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

103P/Harltey Update!

Cometary update! I had a chance to get out last night and take a look at this comet again (see the previous post).  It seems to be slightly brighter than my previous observation, as I was able to hold it in direct (as opposed to averted) vision.  The coma appears to be a bit brighter to the north, however, there is no central condensation to the comets nucleus that I could see.  NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory maintains a website where one can generate orbital diagrams for this comet, and they indicate that the comet is currently .317 AU from Earth, and 1.244 AU from the sun (and getting closer!).  The comet is moving approximately 1.67 arc seconds per minute across the sky, so it does not yet appear to move that far from night to night.  I estimated the comet to be between magnitude 10 and 10.5 and it is in the constellation Andromeda.  The sketch was completed at 0508 UT on 9-11-2010, which was 10:08 PM MST on 9-10.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Comet 103/P Hartley

In November of this year,  the EPOXI mission spacecraft will make a close flyby of comet Hartley 2, also known as 103/P Hartley.  The EPOXI name is a combination of EPOCH (Extrasolar Planet Observation and Characterization) and DIXI (Deep Impact eXtended Investigation).  The goal of this flyby is to gather data that will help us understand the structure, formation and composition history of cometary nuclei.  This information is important as it relates directly to our increasing understanding of the origin of our solar system.

This comet is predicted to reach naked eye brightness in late October, perhaps as bright as magnitude 5.  Last night night I decided to see if I could spot the comet in the LX200 12" SCT as it is currently well placed in the constellation Lacerta.  I had downloaded ephemerides for this comet from the IAU (International Astronomical Union) Minor Planet Center which indicated that the comet may currently be as bright as magnitude 8.5.  I was a bit skeptical as I had "googled" this comet and there are not many amateur images out there, suggesting that it is not exactly an interesting target...yet.  Gary Kronk maintains an excellent site called Cometography and there is information on this comet as well as a couple of images if you are interested.

Despite my skepticism (unusual, I know) I slewed the scope over the comets location and saw...nothing.  I decided to completely shut off the dim red lights that were on in the observatory and increase the magnification to 234x to darken the sky background in the eyepiece.  Sure enough, there in the center of the eyepiece was the faint glow of the comet.  My sketch of this comet is at left, and you will probably need to click on it so you can see the full size image.  It was hard to sketch such a faint glow, one that was essentially seen using averted vision.  It was also difficult to ascertain the size of the comet as it was extremely diffuse with no central condensation visible.  I would estimate that this comet is closer to magnitude 10-11, as it has a very low surface brightness...but again, I do not know the extent of the comet, so any estimate of it's magnitude is more of a guess than anything.  I completed this sketch at 0346 UT on 9/5/2010 (which was 8:46 PM MST on 9/4).  I should mention that the sky conditions were excellent with seeing that was estimated at 4/5 and a level of transparency that was as good as it gets from my location on the city's perimeter.  The milky way was visible from Sagittarius through Cygnus and beyond.

After spending some time on the comet I decided to have a look at NGC 40, a planetary nebula in Cepheus, also known as Caldwell 2.  Since I installed the 12" SCT I have been having fun observing planetary nebulas looking for features that were not visible to me with my previously smaller telescopes.  NGC 40 is a wonderful target, one that deserves more popularity.  The 11.6 magnitude central star is visible in most telescopes, and it is surrounded with a large circular shell of nebulosity.   As you know from previous posts, planetary nebula often hold up to greater magnifications without breaking down as other targets do, and NGC 40 was no exception.  I observed NGC 40 using an 8mm Ethos eyepiece, which in the 12" results in  a magnification of 381x and a field of view of .3 degrees.

You can see in the sketch that at high power the nebula is no longer a neat circular haze, rather it has bright arcs on both the east and west sides.  The arc on the west is the brighter of the two, and it seems to arc away from the nebula to the south in a manner reminiscent of a galactic spiral arm.  This planetary nebula is approximately 3500 light years away and spans a diameter of 38 arcseconds.  If you have never observed this target, it is highly recommended.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Meade LX200 12 inch SCT!

The rumors are true... Introducing the Lost Pleiad Observatory's new Meade LX-200 12 inch Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope.  This telescope is well traveled, having started its career several years ago as a research instrument at the Arkansas Sky Observatories.  When it was retired from research it was sold to a private individual who used it for a few years before deciding to pass it along.  I had been looking for a larger SCT for some time and when I saw this scope advertised, decided to take the plunge.  It has been optimized  through several modifications, such as the two cooling fans which have been installed to circulate filtered air behind the mirror.  This aids the mirror in reaching ambient temperature. The stock focuser bearings have been upgraded to provide very smooth focus with minimal image shift, and the interior of the optical tube has been flocked to eliminate internal reflections and scattering of light.

Above left is the business end of the scope where you can see the the focal length is 3048mm resulting in an F/10 instrument.  The center image shows the cooling fans and on the right you can see the internal flocking.  I have had an opportunity to test the scope out over the past three nights, and without hesitation I can say that it is the best SCT I have owned.  Both my original 8 inch and the 9.25 inch that I have been using were fine performers, yet this scope is in another league.  Certainly the aperture increase is significant, however, planetary images in this scope are sharper than either of my previous SCT's.  In addition, contrast is excellent and the fine detail that I have been able to observe from my backyard has been rewarding. While splitting double stars is the realm of my TEC 140 refractor, this big blue monster has impressed me.

So far I have sketched two objects observing through this instrument.  For my first light sketch (to the right) I decided to attempt M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. This was the first planetary nebula discovered by Messier and is one of the showpiece objects of the summer sky.  This nebula is approximately 20,000 years old, a baby in astronomical time. I observed this nebula with and without my Baader UHC-S filter to bring out some of the nebular extensions.  The magnitude 13.9 central star illuminating the nebula was easily visible as were about 10 other stars within the nebulosity. 
Planetary nebula are fuzzy objects, and typically hold up well to higher levels of magnification than other targets.  I was observing NGC 6818, the "Little Gem" nebula in Sagittarius and decided to pump up the magnification and see if what was a small, circular, light blue fuzz-ball at 234x may reveal structure at 609x!  Typically one would not use magnification that high, but decent seeing combined with excellent optics transformed the nebula from a featureless disc into a nebula reminiscent of M57, the Ring nebula. To the left is an image of this nebula, while below are my sketches of this "Little Gem" at 234x and at 609x.  For reference in the high power sketch, the stars to the NW and SW of the nebula are magnitude 12.5, while the star to the east of the nebula is magnitude 13.5.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Solar report August 28th, 2010

The monsoon weather pattern remains intact here in the Old Pueblo, which means that there is no nighttime observing.  This year we are actually ahead of the average annual rainfall, and for that, even the amateur astronomers are grateful.  Personally I can't wait for a good clear night so that I can try out the new to me 12" LX200 SCT that I recently purchased...tune in next month for a review of this scope.  And, if you are interested in buying a nice 9.25" SCT, by all means send me an email!

A quick shameless self-promotion...Lunt Solar Systems, the manufacturer of my solar telescope, maintains a blog on the company website.  Yesterday, yours truly was the subject of the blog...check it out here: Sky to Paper

This morning I set up my solar telescope and was treated to nearly perfect seeing.  The atmosphere was unbelievably stable and even at the highest powers, details on the sun remained sharp.  It may have been the most stable solar observing session I have had, since purchasing the scope.  Transparency was not quite as good as there was a bit of haze in the eastern sky, but this is typical this time of year with such high humidity in the desert.  I completed the sketch below at 1530 UT (8:30 AM MST).

There is only one officially numbered active region on the face right now, AR 11101 in the northeast.  This region contains a very dark spot, that at high magnification appears to be splitting in two.  It will be interesting to watch this spot over the next 24 hours.  To the northwest of the spot, there are three small areas of plage.  The southern two of these areas are separated by what appears to be some bi-polar filamentary structure. Again, this could be a sign of increasing activity in this region, and it may develop into a distinct active region over the next day.  There is also an area of plage in the southern hemisphere, although this area did not display any signs of activity and may be what is termed an ephemeral region.

Cai-Uso Wohler, a solar observer and imager in Denmark, captured the photo below about 5 hours before my observation, and posted it on the Cloudy Nights Solar Observing forum.  You can see that the sunspot in AR11101 was not yet showing any signs of dividing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Weekend Sun

I had a pretty busy weekend as I spent Friday night and all day Saturday working at the Mount Lemmon Sky Center.  Friday night we had a SkyNights program and Saturday saw the Discovery Days event.   To the left is a picture of the current 24" RCOS telescope.  Excitement among staff at the Sky Center is increasing  as in mid-September, this telescope will be taken offline and a new 32" will be installed!  If the quality of the mirror is as good as the 24", visitors to the observatory will be in for quite a treat.  I am told that this telescope will be the largest telescope in Arizona that is solely dedicated to public observing, education and outreach. Pretty neat if you ask me.  Below is a picture I took outside the dome (about a week ago) and you can see the moon as well as Venus.

Anyway, Sunday morning I was fairly tired from the events, but the sky was as clear as it had been in two days and I decided to pull out my solar scope and make a sketch of the sun.  My sketch was completed at 1535 UT (8:35 AM MST).  While there is a mildly active region in the southwest (AR 11100) that includes two dark filaments, I was rather impressed with the large prominence in the northeast.  Of course, my sketch to the right does not do justice to the ethereal nature of this prominence.  Fortunately, a solar observer named Michael Buxton in California made a time lapse video of the prominence and posted it on you tube.  Check it out!