Thursday, June 24, 2010

Charles and Wanda's 50th

A little break from the astronomy blog as we are in North Carolina visiting Beth's family.  Tonight we got together for a "neighborhood" celebration of Charles and Wanda's 50th anniversary.  Beth planned what turned out to be a fun and meaningful affair for approximately 45 of Charles and Wanda's close friends.  It was a special night for them as it brought together their neigbors from Loop road from over 45 years ago; neighbors they lived with in Greenbriar for 39 years; as well as neighbors from the new neighborhood.  Below is the slideshow- Hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers day weekend - outreach part 1

Fathers Day has arrived, and a big Happy Fathers Day to my own dad, Jack (are you reading the blog?)  While I receive some nice cards and get to eat a delicious brunch with the family, the day is most important to me as I reflect on being a father to such a wonderful son as Ian.  He is more than I ever could have hoped for in a son and I learn things from him every single day.  This may be the last blog post for awhile as we are about to embark on several adventures...first to the beach in North Carolina with Beth's family and then Ian and I, along with my niece Cierra, to Colorado and Utah for three weeks of camping and outdoor adventure.  Don't despair though, I will be attending a star party in Colorado and doing some observing if I can find a computer, I'll be posting some updates.  To the left is Ian during our trip last summer to Colorado.

Quite a busy weekend for the Lost Pleiad Observatory staff (that's me!) with lots of observing and outreach.  Recently I have started volunteering at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, assisting with the SkyNights public observing program on the 24 inch RC Optical Systems Ritchey-Chr├ętien telescope seen at left  (Photo credit to Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona (Board of Regents)). I will post more on this in the future, but yesterday I assisted on the mountain with the Discovery Days program.  This program introduces visitors to all kinds of science that takes place on the mountain, from tree ring research, to near earth object (NEO) research, to visual observing.  In the image below (Photo credit to Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona (Board of Regents)), you can see a few of the domes on the mountain.  The dome to the left houses the 24 inch and the SkyNights program; the dome to the rear of the image houses the 60 inch telescope that is the primary instrument of the Catalina Sky Survey;  the dome on the right is remotely operated the government of South Korea; and the silver dome in the foreground is the Jamieson telescope.

I spent the day assisting with the 24 inch telescope, where we showed visitors Venus and a few bright stars; as well as facilitating white light and hydrogen alpha solar observing through solar telescopes.   Of course I forgot my camera so I do not have any pictures of the days events.  Before the public started arriving, I made quick sketches of the sun in both white light and hydrogen alpha in order that folks would know what to look for through our telescopes.  As you can see below, the sun was not that active although most visitors were able to see the active regions, the large dark filament, and the beautiful prominences on the suns east limb.  The spots were harder for visitors to see as they are rather small features, although many succeeded in seeing them.

After a good nights sleep, I awoke this morning to a very calm sky, although temperatures were climbing quickly.  I set up my Lunt 60mm scope and made the sketch below with pencil on white paper.  For kicks, I inverted the sketch and I kind of like the result-

Compared to yesterdays sketches, you can see that while the large dark filament near the central meridian of the disk has weakened, the active region itself (#11082) has strengthened and now shows distinct spots as well as a long curving filament that traverses the entire region.  There are also many large but faint prominences on the east limb.  Stephen Ames made a fantastic sketch of the prominences as seen to the right.

I'll be spending the day enjoying fathers day, and this evening I will be heading to the Biosphere for part two of the weekends outreach...My good friend Jerry Farrar and I will be taking a group of local science teachers on a telescopic tour of some of the showpiece objects visible in tonights sky.  Stay tuned for the blog report tomorrow...and tonight I'll bring the camera!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Comet McNaught!

As an amateur astronomer, I have always found it much easier to stay up late observing than to go to bed on time and wake up in the middle of the night to observe.   For the past several nights I have wanted to wake up around 3 AM to check out Comet McNaught (C/2009 R1), which has been surfing its way through the constellation Andromeda and now into Perseus.   This comet is making its first trip through the inner solar system, and reports had it at the threshold of naked eye visibility.  I had seen a few pretty pictures of the comet (see Gary Kronk's Cometography website, for instance) and was interested in making some visual observations. Comets are quick movers when hurtling through the inner solar system around the sun, and typically one can observe their motion relative to the background stars over a period of a few minutes to a couple hours.  NASA maintains a website with quite a bit of orbital and other technical information if you are interested.

Last night I decided to set up my Stellarvue 90mm triplet (on an alt-az mount, since most of my gear was packed up from a failed observing trip this past weekend).  I thought I would do some observing of some of the milky way treats that I have not yet observed this season, and then turn in early, leaving the scope set up for my 2:45 AM rendezvous with the comet.  I observed several Messier objects and some double stars, and decided to make a sketch of M17 (NGC 6618), the Swan Nebula before turning in.  To the left is my sketch, and on the right is a sketch made by John Herschel in 1833.

Done sketching, I set my alarm for 2:45 AM and turned in.  Turns out I did not need 2:30 AM my eyes blinked open as if on cue, and I headed outside to find the comet.  I had looked up the location previously and knew that it was in Perseus, not too far from Alpha Perseus (Mirfak).  I actually know this area fairly well as in 2007 Comet 17/P Holmes made a spectacular and now famous pass through this same area, when it suddenly and without warning brightened by a factor of over a half-million.  It was amazing through telescopes and was even visible to the naked eye.  

I had brought out my binoculars and as soon as I began looking below Mirfak, I spotted the dirty little snowball hanging out.  I removed the binoculars from my eyes, and with averted vision was just able to make out the comet.  I spent about an hour observing the comet (including drawing the sketch at left) and in that time the motion of the comet relative to nearby stars was obvious.  It is not moving quickly, but in the time I spent making the sketch I noticed a change in position.  The sketch was completed at 1020 UT (3:20 AM MST) using my Stellarvue 90mm refractor, at 63x.  The comet is estimated at magnitude 6.2 and was approximately 1.14 Astronomical Units from us, or about 169.9 million kilometers.  At the eyepiece, the comets tail was fainter than what is represented in the sketch, but it is hard for me to draw such a low contrast feature. In addition to the long thin tail blowing off the comet, there was also a small secondary tail that appeared much wider and shorter in length than the primary tail.

Dean Ketelsen, fellow member of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, took the picture to the right of the comet on Sunday morning, about 24 hours prior to my observation. He posted it along with other images and his observing report on his *Excellent* Blog.  (In fact, Dean inspired this blog!).  He took the image from a lookout on Mt. Lemmon at about 7000 ft.  Dean also explains on his blog that this particular comet is in a hyperbolic orbit, and is making one pass through our solar system never to return...Even more reason to hunt it down!

An update just for kicks...I was playing around with my sketch of the swan nebula above and digitally added some sparkles to some of the stars...I kind of like it...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Solar observations

Excellent atmospheric conditions this morning for solar observation!  This was somewhat of a surprise considering that the last several nights (of course with no moonlight), have featured wind, dust, and generally unfavorable conditions.  A "cold" front has passed through leaving temperatures this morning in the mid 70's with highs only predicted to reach 92!  I set up my Lunt Solar Systems 60mm solar scope, grabbed a cup of coffee and enjoyed a relaxed observing and sketching session.  While the sun is only mildly active, there were several interesting features.  Below is my sketch completed at 1528 UT (8:28 MST) as well as an image from Thomas Ashcraft taken at 1446 UT (7:46 MST).  Keep in mind that the images are reversed E-W.

Active region 11081 displayed a wealth of detail in Hydrogen Alpha, including 3 spots and a long thin filament following the region.  The most interesting features, however, were in the northeast where there is a group of complex and bright prominences that are associated with a dark and "barbed" filament as well as some plage. It will be interesting to see if this area develops over the next day or so.  To the right is a high resolution image of the northeast limb captured by Cloudynights solar forum contributor Steve, that compares favorably with my sketch.

Below left is a hydrogen alpha image taken by the SOHO spacecraft at 1319 UT (6:19 AM MST), and to the right is a hydrogen alpha image from the Solar Monitor website taken at 0950 UT (2:50 AM MST).  Both of these images are also reversed E-W from my sketch above.

Finally, well before the sun rose at the Lost Pleiad Observatory, Cai-Uso Wohler in Denmark captured this fantastic image of a "lift-off" prominence that departed the northwest limb.  The earth has been added to the image for scale.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hercules Globulars

It has been awhile since I last posted any of my night time observations.  Despite the lack of blogging about the night sky, the Lost Pleiad Observatory continues to keep a scope to the sky 3-4 nights per week.  Last night was an exceptional night with skies that were very transparent, and fairly steady.  On the mount was my TEC 140 APO, which provides razor sharp images with excellent contrast.  I opened the observatory at about 7:30 PM so that the scope could acclimate, and at 8:00, I pointed the scope toward Saturn.

Always the romantic, I invited (begged) Beth to come and take a look at Saturn and a few of its moons.  She sat down and and when I explained to her that the single moon just off the rings was Tethys, she says "it looks like there are two moons there..."  I look and think to myself "no way," but always the good husband, I know to trust her.  I consult my new iPod with Sky Voyager (an incredible scope-side tool from Carina Software) and sure enough, Enceladus is right where she is describing it.  I look again, and with averted vision, sort of see it.  This is very impressive as Enceladus is about 1/10 the size of Titan, and very faint.  It is often lost in the glare of the planet and is only observable when it is at its furthest from Saturn in its orbit.  Below is a graphic representation of Saturn at the time of her observation.

After claiming her bounty, Beth headed back indoors and I spent some time planning my observations for the evening.  As the night progressed, it grew quite dark and I decided to have a look at M 13, the great Hercules Cluster.  I have observed this object many times, but it never ceases to amaze me.  To the right is a sketch I completed of this cluster some time back.  It does not do justice to the view in the eyepiece.  This cluster is approximately 23,400 light years away and has a diameter of around 140 light years!  It contains in the neighborhood of a half-million stars, which is impressive as typical globular clusters contain from tens of thousands to a couple hundreds of thousands of stars.  From a dark sky location, this cluster is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye as a fuzzy star.

I decided to observe two other globular clusters in Hercules, and first up was NGC 6229.  This little cluster is fairly bright, with a hint of mottling although resolving individual stars proved challenging.  At 196x, the cluster displayed a distinct core and a grainy outer halo.  It is joined in the eyepiece with two bright stars to the west, and together these objects form a pleasing image.  This cluster is much further than M 13, residing 102,000 light years away.  Despite the distance, the cluster shines at magnitude 9.4 and spans 4.5 arc-seconds.  To the left is my sketch of NGC 6229, and to the right is an image (reversed E-W) of this cluster from the Digital Sky Survey (DSS).

Since I was having fun in Hercules, I decided to slew the scope over to M 92 (NGC 6341), another fine globular cluster.  If this cluster were not neighbors with M 13, it would likely be observed more frequently and considered a showpiece object.  It is very large and rich, and at 25,000 light years partially resolved in my 140mm scope.  The cluster is twice the apparent size of NGC 6229, at 11.2 arc-seconds.  The actual diameter of this globular is approximately 80 light years.  As I spent some time trying to sketch this cluster, I noticed that there is a distinct chain of stars on the clusters east side.  In addition, there is somewhat of a gap in the outer portion of the cluster, on its west side.  To the right, is my sketch of this object.

Having had enough fun sketching, I turned my attention to some other globulars in the constellations Serpens, and Ophiuchus.  I observed NGC 6535, a faint and ghostly cluster nestled in amongst many faint stars; NGC 6539, another faint globular reminiscent of a dwarf galaxy; and, NGC 6517, which was faint and not resolved.  As it was approaching 11:30 PM and the milky way was well above the horizon, I took aim at some of the other famous Messier globulars such as M 10, M 12, and M 14.  Each of these is impressive and the views in the TEC were nothing short of spectacular.  I'll sign off this post with images of these objects.  The left image is M 10 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the center image is M 12 also by Hubble, and the right image is M 14 taken from Kitt Peak National Observatory with the .9 meter scope.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

More Solar Observations

So perhaps I am becoming obsessed with Solar observing?  I know it is becoming serious when I am thinking about how to piggyback my scopes in the observatory so that I can do both hydrogen alpha and white light observing simultaneously.  Right now I either need to switch scopes, or set one up on a tripod...anyway, with summer hitting the naked pueblo full force this week, the best observing is actually before 8 AM.  This means that if I am moving early enough I can actually observe and sketch the sun before going to work.

Below is a sketch that I completed yesterday (6/2) while observing through my Lunt Solar Systems 60mm hydrogen alpha scope, along with an image from SOHO, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory.   My sketch is reversed E-W from the SOHO image.

Below is an image taken by photographer Alan Friedman from Buffalo, New York.  His website is well worth a visit as it contains some spectacular astronomical imaging.  The false-color image is centered on the prominence on the northeast limb and provides a good sense of what a prominence looks like at the eyepiece under extremely favorable atmospheric conditions.  Also captured in this image is the spiculing all along the limb.  These are the small dagger-like projections that are actually waves of plasma ebbing and flowing around the chromosphere.

The large active region, NOAA #11076, in the southwest of my sketch contains several sunspots, and early this morning I had a chance to observe and sketch them in white light.  Below is my sketch, as well as an image taken by Paul Robertson from the U.K.  You can visit his blog here.  Again, my sketch is reversed E-W from the image.