Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Shadow of Mt. Lemmon

Most of the time when I am at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter I am showing guests the sunset as part of our nightly SkyNights program.  Last night I had gone up the mountain with my son Ian to do a little work and help out one of my colleagues.  Given that he was leading the program I was able to look to the east at sunset and observed the shadow of Mount Lemmon being projected on the inside of the Earth's atmosphere.  This phenomenon is observable from many high mountaintops, and last night the colors were particularly beautiful.  Ian took the image below just as we were heading off the mountain.  Notice the dark blue shadow just above the mountains in the distance.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lunar Eclipse ~ There's nothing to see here...move along

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Odds are that if you are reading this blog you know that this morning just before sunrise western North America was treated to a total lunar eclipse.  This eclipse was unusual in that the Moon entered totality at 7:06 AM local time, just before sunrise, and then set behind the western horizon while still in the central umbra of Earth's shadow.  For a very good primer on Lunar Eclipses, visit the website of Mr. Eclipse, Fred Espenak of NASA.  I took the picture at left during the total lunar eclipse of October 27th, 2004, with a much better camera than I presently own.  Typically, total lunar eclipses render the moon shades of red/orange depending on the types and amounts of particulate matter in the Earth's atmosphere.  Everything from dust to automotive exhaust, to volcanic ash affects the color of the Moon during a total eclipse.

I had planned to get out of bed at about 5:30 to brew some coffee and start watching the eclipse, but subconsciously I must have been fairly excited as my eyes popped open at 4 AM and I could not fall back asleep.  I took a look outside as the predictions were for thick cirrus clouds and to my surprise the skies were reasonably clear.  I had not been up at this hour to do any astronomy in quite some time, so with well over an hour prior to the eclipse, I opened up my observatory and took my first look at Mars during this apparition.  Unfortunately, the seeing was poor and using my 12 inch SCT I had to keep magnifications very low to obtain a steady image at the eyepiece.  As Mars is only about 7.5 arcseconds in diameter right now, it was very difficult to tease out any of the features at low magnification, other than the bright north polar cap...and even that was ill defined.  Given that Mars was high overhead in Leo, I was not expecting much more when pointing the scope over to Saturn.  Saturn is not far from the bright star Spica and is sitting much closer to the southern horizon.  Similar to Mars, the image of Saturn in the eyepiece was mush.  Back inside to warm up and pour a cup of coffee and start eclipse watching.

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It was quite relaxing to be able watch the moon move through the partial phases from the warmth of my kitchen window while sipping some fresh coffee.  Occasionally I would go outside to appreciate the "all-sky" view that I was not getting through the kitchen window.  I did not have a watch on, but sometime about 6:43 - 6:45 MST (1343-1345 UT) I observed a satellite moving straight up from the western horizon.  What caught my eye was it's sudden brightening and immediate fading leading me to believe it may have been an iridium flare.  As the moon approached totality and began to turn red/orange, I again wandered outside to get a better view and to try and capture a photo. The image at right was taken with my little pocket sized Cannon point and shoot but gives you an idea of how dark the moon appeared as it neared and entered totality.  In fact, as the moon entered it's total phase, it became invisible to the eye.  Binoculars did not help either.  I believe that the lack of contrast due to the dawn light in the sky as well as the extinction of the moonlight as it passed through the atmosphere near the horizon led to the complete disappearance of La Luna.  There is something quite tranquil about watching a Lunar eclipse, and as much as I wanted the eclipse observing experience to continue I immediately thought to myself, "there is nothing to see here,  move along."

While I am not a photographer, I do want to call attention to accomplished Arizona amateur astronomer Tom Polakis who imaged the eclipse.  Based near Phoenix, Tom Polakis captured several nice images that he stitched into a time lapse.  Click on the image below to see the time lapse full size.  This represents exactly how the eclipse appeared to me visually.

Tucson based amateur astronomer and photographer Sam Rua traveled east of Kitt Peak National Observatory and captured this beautiful photograph of the eclipsed moon and some thin cirrus clouds setting behind the observatories. You can visit Sam's gallery by clicking here.

Rock and Roll Sun

This video is a must see- from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.  You can watch it over and over and each time you will see more and more activity on the Sun...simply amazing!

According to the SDO group:

"Over the past 24 hours we have seen some beautiful solar events. None of them have a direct impact on Earth, but they are astonishing to watch. It just shows how an active Star our Sun really is. Far from boring. 

On December 8, 2011 a twisting prominence eruption occurred on the lower eastern limb. The view through the AIA 304 angstrom filter shows us this beautiful eruption.

In the early hours of December 9, 2011 SDO observed a little bit of a different eclipse. An erupting cloud of plasma was eclipsed by a dark magnetic filament. The eruption is still on the far side of the Sun, behind the eastern limb and is slowly moving forward and over the limb sometime next week.

In front you can observe the filament of relatively cool dark material floating across the Sun's surface in the foreground. That filament partially blocks the view of the hot plasma eruption behind it."

Make sure your speakers are on for the full rock concerto....

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving thanks to Herschel

Tonight was the third clear night in a row here at the Lost Pleiad Observatory, and unfortunately, the last night of this extended Thanksgiving weekend.   I knew that I would not last as long tonight so decided to concentrate on just two constellations in my Herschel 400 observing program, Triangulum and Pegasus.  Together these constellations account for 6 of the Herschel 400 objects and one of them in particular is quite captivating...

Triangulum - The Triangle:

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NGC 598 - The Triangulum galaxy, M33.  This object has always been fascinating to me.  I have seen it with naked eye averted vision from Portal, AZ., and on other occasions been unable to see it in binoculars.  It has a very low surface brightness and despite it's large apparent size, detecting any spiral structure is a challenge.  My best view has actually been in my TEC 140 APO from Portal, AZ.  Tonight, in my 12 inch SCT I was able to make out the "S" shape of the galaxy, as well as several knots in the arms, particularly the northern arm.  The small nebular HII region NGC 604 was the brightest.  Not one of my best, but the sketch at left was completed tonight (0345 UT 11.28.2011) using a magnification of 145x.

Pegasus - The Winged Horse:

NGC 7217 - A fairly large and slightly elongated 11th magnitude galaxy with a slightly brighter nucleus.
NGC 7331 - A famous target in this constellation that I have observed in many different telescopes.  Very bright, elongated galaxy with a very bright elongated nucleus, containing an even brighter central region.
NGC 7448 - Large galaxy, much fainter than previous two.  No detail seen- slightly elongated.
NGC 7479 - Another galaxy that I have observed frequently in the Schulman 32 inch telescope at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter where I work.  This galaxy is quite elongated in the eyepiece, but no trace of the spiral arms is noted tonight.  Slight brightening in the middle.
NGC 7814 - A very bright elongated galaxy with a very bright but small nucleus.

Herschel 400 count:  65 down, 335 remaining!

Herschel 400 ~ Part Deux

William Herschel
Well, night number two of the official Herschel 400 observation program was more relaxed than the aggressive pace of night number one.  Last night, (Saturday night) I headed out a little bit later to continue my observations.  We are just past new moon, and with a long Thanksgiving holiday weekend it is wonderful to have these dark nights with no reason to get up early in the morning.  Unfortunately, the seeing (atmospheric stability) was basically garbage {I had some better adjectives, but this is after all a family friendly blog} in the best of moments.  Bright stars were blobs of shimmering light and even the faint stars were hard to bring into focus.  I consoled myself thinking about all those great nights we do have here in the desert and went ahead using a maximum magnification of 145x under what were truly very transparent skies.  All observations made with my Meade Instruments 12 inch LX-200 SCT telescope.  I took several breaks to drink some mint tea and just gaze naked eye at the milky way.  Last nights constellations were in the same general areas as night number one and consisted of Auriga, Taurus, Orion, and Eridanus.  While it may seem like a lot of sky, (and in truth, it is) these four constellations only represent 19 of the Herschel 400 objects.

Auriga- The Charioteer:

NGC 1664 - An open cluster that displays several relatively bright stars, spread well apart, with a nice line of faint stars leading away from the cluster.
NGC 1857 - Another open cluster with many more stars than the above cluster; more condensed and generally a more pleasing view.
NGC 1907 - A fainter cluster than the ones above, but I'd still consider it bright overall although it contains many more faint stars.
NGC 1931 - As stars go this is nothing unusual for an open cluster...however, near the center is a very bright patch of nebulosity that contains three very close stars.  Most of the time, due to seeing, only two stars were visible but at high power during the fractions of a second where things steadied, a third star popped into view.
NGC 2126 - A medium sized open cluster with about 20-30 stars.
NGC 2281 - Another typical open cluster.  Unremarkable.  About 10 bright stars with a smattering of fainter ones.

Taurus - The Bull:

NGC 1647 - A very large cluster nearly filling the field of view (eyepiece TFOV = .7 degrees) with several brighter stars.
NGC 1817 - A pretty open cluster with well over 100 stars, the richest cluster yet tonight!  Less than .25 degree in size.

Orion - The Hunter...I've spent a lot of time in this constellation and previously observed most of these objects:

NGC 1788 - A bright patch of nebulosity with two stars embedded.  It is irregular in shape.
NGC 1980 - Another bright nebula at the end of the sword of Orion.  Small, surrounding the star Iota Orionis.  Often ignored in favor of it's famous neighbor, the Great Orion Nebula.
NGC 1999 - Another "bright" nebula.  Not much to look at visually, but photographically this is the famous "keyhole" nebula, containing a true dark void (not dust) in it's center.
NGC 2022 - Yes, a planetary nebula...probably my favorite class of deep sky object due to their subtle nature.  This one is definitely blue/green with a brighter center.  No sign of the central star.
NGC 2024
NGC 2024 - The Flame nebula- have seen this in much better detail from a darker site...still obvious in the suburbs, but rather ghostly.  Dust lanes most visible when Zeta Orionis is moved out of the field of view.  Image at right copyright Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
NGC 2169 - A nice compact grouping of similarly bright stars that exactly form the numerals "3" and "7"...I recognized this cluster at once as the "37" cluster but did not recall the NGC number!
NGC 2186 - A compact group of fainter stars, maybe 30 of them...a deep sky stepchild in this constellation.
NGC 2194 - An unusually shaped cluster, almost a rectangle.  Fairly bright and rich and well condensed.

Eridanus - The River:

NGC 1084 - This is an elongated galaxy that appears a little brighter than its listed 12th magnitude.  No details seen.
NGC 1407 - A round galaxy with an obviously brighter nucleus.  These targets are low on the horizon making observations challenging.
NGC 1535 - A striking planetary nebula that is quite blue in color.  Quite round.  The central 2/3 of the nebula is markedly brighter than the outer 1/3.

59 objects down, 341 to go!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Herschel 400, the official start

Often when observing at night, I tend to follow a familiar pattern.  I will observe any planets that are in the sky, I make sketches of any available comets, I visit some of my favorite Messier objects, and then I'll pick a constellation and observe some of its deep sky objects until I am ready to head indoors.  Last night was a very dark and clear night at the Lost Pleiad Observatory, and on a lark I said to myself  "self, lets finally, officially, start the Herschell 400."  Now faithful reader, you have been brought in on one of my secrets...I talk to myself.  Why, you ask?  Well, to be honest, I usually agree with myself.

According to Wikipedia, The Herschel 400 are a "subset of William Herschel's original deep sky catalog of 2,500 deep sky objects, selected by Brenda F. Guzman (Branchett), Lydel Guzman, Paul Jones, James Morrison, Peggy Taylor and Sara Saey of the Ancient City Astronomy Club in St. Augustine, Florida, USA circa 1980."  They represent 400 of the brighter deep sky objects cataloged by William Herschel and are all observable from mid-northern latitudes.  I have probably observed well over half of these objects already, but I have done so in a haphazard fashion and being a poor note taker, likely have no record of many of them...and even where records exist in my notes, they are written in a notebook by date of observation and are not collected or organized in any fashion whatsoever.  As a resource, click here for the Herschell 400 catalog arranged by constellation published by the Astronomical League.

Distribution of Herschel 400 objects
Red = Galaxy///Green = Nebula///Yellow = Star Cluster

We just had a fairly wet storm leave the area and temperatures last night were much cooler than they had been over the past few weeks.  I had a feeling that the night could be one of the few at my observatory where dew would actually be a concern.  I pulled the dew shield for my 12 inch SCT out of storage, screwed it on.  After observing Jupiter and taking a look at comet C/2010 G2 (Hill) (ephemerides here), I began to officially observe the Herschel 400.

The darkest and best skies from the Lost Pleiad Observatory are to the North and East and I decided to start my observations in the constellation of Andromeda...that and alphabetically they are first on the list, so it just seemed the right thing to do.  All observations are made at  magnifications of 145X and 234X, with occasional looks at planetary nebula and galaxies at 305X.  While transparency was excellent last night, the seeing 9atmospheric stability) was average to below average...it never really became steady.  Regardless, in order of NGC designation:

NGC 891
Andromeda - The Princess

NGC 205 - Also known as M110 this is a large satellite of the the Great Andromeda Galaxy and at low power shares the view with M31 herself.
NGC 404 - Very close to the orange star Beta Andromeda, commonly called Mirach...sometimes called the Ghost of Mirach.  Moving the star out of the field of view reveals a brighter nucleus and a round galaxy.
NGC 752 - One of only two Herschel 400 objects in Andromeda that I do not recall observing.  An open cluster of stars, pretty, bright and not condensed.  Magnitude 5.7
NGC 7662
NGC 891 - An old favorite.  This is an elusive edge on galaxy that I have observed in almost every telescope of decent aperture I have used.  Dust lane visible with averted vision, quite ethereal.  Sketch above right made with the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter 32 inch Schulman Telescope
NGC 7662 - The Blue Snowball nebula shows a nice blue color and increasing the magnification reveals the incomplete bright inner ring.  Sketch at left also made with the Schulman 32 inch.
NGC 7688 - The other Herschel 400 object in Andromeda not previously observed.  Another bright open cluster...what else is there to say?

Aries (A good second constellation as it is my "sign"):

NGC 772 - A small 8 x 5 arcminute galaxy which is slightly elongated.  No sign of arms, however, the nucleus is somewhat brighter than outer areas.  Also known as Arp 78.

Cassiopeia - The Queen.

NGC 129 - Open cluster, attractive with many bright stars, probably 30-40 overall.
NGC 136 - A very small, faint, condensed patch of light...averted vision reveals a smattering of elusive pinpoints of light.  Apparently an open cluster, but perhaps I am observing something in the background of the cluster?
NGC 185 - Also known as Caldwell 18, this is a small galaxy that seems slightly disturbed using averted vision.  Also, a touch elongated.
NGC 225 - Another open cluster of bright stars...probably better in binoculars.
NGC 278 - A small round galaxy with a brighter nucleus.  Just a couple arcminutes in diameter.
NGC 381 - One of the nicer open clusters so far with 50 - 70 stars, many of them faint giving the cluster a busy appearance.
NGC 436 - Yet another open cluster, containing many brighter stars with a few multiple stars among them.
NGC 457 - One of my favorite open clusters out there...looks best at low power where it looks like a winged creature.  I like to call it the Owl, but at Halloween call it the Bat...some locals call it the Kachina Dancer.  Whatever the name, it appears to have two bright eyes staring back at the observer while spreading it's wings wide.
NGC 559 - Another open cluster, bright stars, not very impressive.
NGC 637 - Duplicate of the above!  Different stars, same impression in the 12 inch scope...yawn...
NGC 654 - OK, a little better in the eye candy department with twice as many stars as the above two objects and a higher level of condensation.
NGC 659 - Back to basics...maybe 10 cluster members well spread apart.  Where are my (goto) binoculars?
NGC 663 - Now we are talking!  Many faint stars, well condensed, at 145 power this cluster should be more famous.  It has a delicate appearance with a dark lane running the length of the cluster.
NGC 1027 - Another open cluster, typical of others in this constellation.  Bumping the telescope I think I can detect a subtle nebulosity enveloping this cluster...averted imagination?  Maybe...Worth returning to at a truly dark site.
NGC 7789 - Wow!  This is a beautiful cluster with well over 100 stars.  As I continue to observe this cluster it started to appear as if it had a spiral shape to it...maybe time to get some rest.  I took a walk around the yard to get the blood flowing, took a drink of water and came back to the scope.  Sure enough, this cluster has a distinct spiral shape to it...once noticed I can not avoid seeing this obvious pattern.  Favorite Herschel 400 object in Cassiopeia!!
NGC 7790 - What else?  Another open cluster...about 30 stars gathered together...a let down after the previous cluster, but typical of these Cassiopeia clusters.

Cepheus - The King.

NGC 40
NGC 40 - This is a favorite planetary nebula that I have observed and sketched a couple times previously (example at left).  The central star is easily visible in a circular shell of nebulosity with a bright "polar caps".  Also known as Caldwell 2.
NGC 6939 - A well populated open cluster with many chains of stars emanating from its central regions.  Probably upwards of 75 stars.  In a lower power telescope one can observe this pretty cluster together with the galaxy below
NGC 6946 - A small low surface brightness galaxy that is very nearby to the cluster above.  No sign of spiral arms, and only a slight brightening toward toward the nucleus.  Also known as Caldwell 12, The Fireworks Galaxy.
NGC 7142 - Run of the mill open cluster- 20+ stars, fairly bright.
NGC 7160 - Barely an open cluster in the 12 inch scope...not many stars at all, although they are relatively bright ones.
NGC 7380 - A bright cluster embedded within some nebulosity.  From a dark site this would likely be striking.
NGC 7510 - Open cluster (too many of these tonight!) with approximately 30 stars in the cluster.  Relatively bright at magnitude 7.9

Perseus - The Hero.

NGC 651 - Planetary nebula widely known as the Little Dumbbell, M76.  Pushing the power up to 305 reveals the bipolar nature of this nebula with brighter regions at the poles.  Hints of the nebulous looping extensions noted when nudging the scope, although these would likely be invisible if I did not know they are there from previous observations.
NGC 869 and NGC 884 - The famous "Double Cluster" is the only object tonight for which I pulled out the 56mm plossl.  At very low power I can almost appreciate the beauty of these two objects, containing several hundred stars, including some colorful stars near the center of each cluster.
NGC 1023
NGC 1023 - This is a bright elongated galaxy nicely offset by a chain of stars south of the galaxy.  A bright nucleus with some faint extensions make for a sight unique so far tonight.  I took a break from simply observing and sketched this galaxy as seen at right.
NGC 1245- An open cluster, containing a fair number of stars, somewhat condensed with stars of similar brightness.
NGC 1342 - Another open cluster, not much to note, maybe 40 stars.
NGC 1444 - Small and faint cluster of stars, Herschel must have been sleepy by this point!
NGC 1513 - This is an interesting cluster in that it is shaped somewhat like a "U"...it is a bright a large cluster with 30 to 40 stars.
NGC 1528 - This is also an interesting open cluster with dark lanes passing between the lines of stars.
NGC 1545 - Final open cluster of the evening...and not an impressive one by any stretch.  Dominated by two brighter stars.

Well, that is my report on night one of the official Herschel 400 observing run of the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  I may try and get a few more objects in tonight, but am already quite happy with my Thanksgiving weekend start.  40 objects down, 360 to go!  That means that if I average one object per night I should finish in a year...we'll see!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Photon Phix

Click to enlarge
First time since November 5th that I've been able to observe and sketch the Sun- Life has been busy and the few chances I have had to observe at all have been quick looks at Jupiter in the evenings.  I am a fairly dedicated solar observer so I was excited to have time on my hands this morning to get my photon fix.  At 8:30 AM the sky was partly cloudy and it looked like I would have enough of a clearing to observe and sketch the Sun.  Turns out I was being fairly optimistic as it took me about an hour and a half to make the sketch due to passing clouds.  At one point I had to take a solid 20 minute break from sketching.

Seeing was fairly poor overall between passing clouds and the mostly unsteady air overhead- perhaps a 1 or 2 out of 5.  The sketch was completed at 1721 UT (10:21 MST) using my Lunt Solar Systems 60mm pressure tuned hydrogen alpha telescope.  During the time of my sketch, active region 11354 near the eastern limb exhibited a mild flare.  I do not know what time the flare started or ended due to the clouds but I noticed it at approximately 1645 UT.  While there are several numbered active regions on the face of the Sun right now, none of them were that remarkable.  The complex of three regions rounding the northeast limb are enticing and perhaps the next several days will see some nice activity.  The large filaments in the east are quite dark, which indicates that they are much cooler "waves" in the surrounding sea of plasma.

For comparison purposes, below are images taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory Atmospheric Imaging Assembly.  The image at left was captured at 1727 UT and the image at right captured at 1722 UT, essentially the same time as my sketch.  I have flipped the SDO images horizontally to match the orientation of my sketch with west at left.

Friday, November 11, 2011

NGC 7008 by eye and camera

Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
We continue to be completely clouded out here in the Old Pueblo (Tucson), prohibiting any observational astronomy day or night.  At least we are in the bright moon period so I am not missing too much.  Just this week, Adam Block published an image of NGC 7008 that was captured at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter using the 32 inch Schulman telescope. It is quite a beautiful planetary nebula, with a pair of bright (relatively) colorful stars to the south of the nebula.  Looking at the nebula, I immediately recognized the object as one that I had sketched earlier this year.  At left is the image and below is my sketch.  Together they illustrate the difference between what can be seen with the eye versus a camera.  In both the image and sketch, North is up and West is to the right.  I completed my sketch on the night of July 2nd 2011, using my 12 inch LX200 SCT and a 10mm Pentax XW eyepiece yielding a magnification of 305X.

This nebula resides in the constellation of Cygnus the swan, approximately 2800 light years away.  It was discovered by William Herschel in 1787 and is sometimes known popularly as the "fetus nebula."  This nebula resulted from a brief phase near the end of life of the central star when it was shedding off its outer layers.  This process resulted in a much cooler star, known as a white dwarf.  Incredibly, that single star has created a nebula that is about one light year in diameter!

You can see some of the other examples of the world-class imaging being done at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter by Adam Block and guests of the programs by visiting this web page.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sunspot region 11339

Click to enlarge
Currently, there is a massive sunspot region in the northern hemisphere of the Sun that has rotated into view over the past several days.  Numbered region 11339 is large, complex, and already responsible for a X class solar flare.  We are between weather fronts here in Tucson, and today the atmospheric stability was as bad as I have seen it in some time.  I observed the Sun in white light using very low magnification (approximately 55X) to make the sketch at left.  During the time of my sketch there were only fractions of a second every now and then where the seeing stabilized at all.  I suspect there are many more small spots and pores in regions 11339 and 11338 than I was able to capture.  As it was, this sketch took me about 40 minutes to complete, as I patiently waited to spot spots.  I completed the drawing at 2020 UT (1:20 MST).

For comparison, below is the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory Daily Sunspot Drawing:

Click to enlarge

This is a video I created using the freeware program JHelioviewer that shows the rotation of this spot group from about 2000 UT on 11/2 through 2000 UT today.  The data is from the Solar Dynamics Observatory Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA):

Friday, October 28, 2011

ISS Solar Transit

We had a very unique opportunity today in Tucson to see the International Space Station transit across the face of the Sun.  I have seen the ISS many times naked eye, and have even observed it through a small refractor as it tracked across the sky one night...so in truth, while I thought it would be neat I was not that excited for the event.  Fortunately I had thrown my white light solar observation equipment into my truck before work this morning, so as the time approached I was able to drive straight to our observing location, the Babad Do'ag vista on the Mount Lemmon Highway.  There I met up with Dennis Nendza and Jerry Farrar who were already setting up for the event.  Dennis was going to take both video of the event, as well as digital still images through his C8 telescope.  Jerry was planning to observe the transit in hydrogen alpha and I was going to make a sketch.

Click to enlarge
The transit was scheduled for 1:39 PM local time, and we knew that we had to be looking in advance and not paying too much attention to the exact time or we could miss it.  The ISS after all moves rather quickly and in fact only takes approximately 1 second to transit the Sun!  There was a pretty good breeze while I worked to sketch the Sun in advance of the transit, making it difficult to see fine detail.  At Approximately 1:30 I had the spots sketched and was now ready for the event.  At 1:38 I began to observe the Sun continuously and at approximately 1:39:12 the ISS flew on across!  I have to say that it was actually quite exciting and I am glad that Jerry kept reminding me throughout the week that this event was upcoming.  At left is my sketch which shows the approximate path of the ISS (hey, it flew by in a second!) as it moved northward.  It was very easy to see the central module, as well as all the solar panels arrayed out to either side.  In terms of size, the ISS appeared about the same size as the large sunspot AR11330 (although my sketch shows it slightly larger).

At the time of the transit, the Sun was at an altitude of 39.4 degrees and an azimuth of 210 degrees.  I hope to see the images and video that Dennis captured soon, and see how closely I was able to note the transit path during the one second I had to observe it.  The exact coordinates of the Babad Do'ag vista that we observed from are: 110:43:14.4 West, 32:18:32.9 North.  At right is a picture of our happy group, after our successful observation.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Near and Far

I just returned home from a quick two night trip to Portal, Arizona where I had two excellent nights with my good friends Jerry Farrar and Bill Gates.  If you appreciate dark skies and stars, you owe it to yourself to make a visit to this little back country area on the southeast flank of the Chricauhua Mountains.  The weather was extremely cooperative and we had two nights of very low humidity and transparent skies.  While Friday night was excellent by most standards, Saturday night was very nearly perfect.  (For the astronomers among you, Bill commented that his impression was that we were experiencing sub-arcsecond seeing).  In terms of naked eye limiting magnitude at the zenith, I could see stars around magnitude 7.2...while Bill could see fainter.  At left is a picture of the purple light that was filling the western sky shortly after sunset.

HST image of NGC 6751
I observed many targets over two nights, near and far, more than I can recount here without putting you quickly to sleep.  For example, using my 12 inch LX 200 SCT, I observed the central star in the ring nebula at 610 power.  In addition to this easy planetary nebula, I decided to make a tour of some of the planetaries within the constellation of Aquila.  I made a few notes on about a half dozen of them with the most interesting (in other words, something more than a diffuse stellar blip, or an ethereal glow) being NGC 6751 and NGC 6804.  NGC 6751 revealed an easy central star at 381x, and increasing the magnification to 610x brought out the delicate structure, central hollow, and slightly brighter arcs on the perimeter.  NGC 6804 is a large oval shaped nebula with an easy central star and two additional stars superimposed on the nebula.

For some time I had been wanting to make a sketch of the Pleiades star cluster and nebula.  Considering the honored place that this object has in my life (it is after all, the Lost Pleiad Observatory), I was waiting for a trip to Portal where using my TEC 140 APO and a low power eyepiece I could fit the entire cluster into the field of view and see the nebula.  At left is my sketch completed at 0730 UT on October 23rd.  The bright stars of the cluster are very young in stellar terms, only about 100 million years old.  They are approximately 400 light years distant appearing in the constellation of Taurus the Bull.  While I was drawing, I enjoyed memories of camping with my late sister-in-law very near to Portal and looking up at these same stars.

Relatively near to us, almost two astronomical units away (about twice the earth-sun distance), Comet Garradd continues its slow trek through the solar system.  The comet has brightened considerably, and I would estimate it very close to magnitude 7.  Under the dark and steady skies of Portal, the tail was extensive with three main streamers visible, although not nearly as bright as my sketch at right would imply.  My drawing was completed at 0255 UT on October 22nd, at 147x with the 12 inch SCT telescope.  Comet Garradd is currently in Hercules and is an easy target even in a pair of 7 x 50 binoculars.

Finally, something far away...well, extra-galactic anyway.  Guided to the location by Jerry Farrar, I made an observation of Globular Cluster G1 (Mayall II) in the Andromeda Galaxy.  At 2.52 million light years away, this is the brightest cluster in the Andromeda galaxy, and quite possibly the remnant core of a dwarf galaxy that has merged with Andromeda.  What confirms this observation is separating the small 15th magnitude stars that closely attend the cluster.  While not much to look at, it is incredible to consider that using a small telescope we are able to see this object as clearly non-stellar, in another galaxy! Obviously, it is very massive, probably twice the size of Omega Centauri, the largest known globular cluster in the milky way.  It is theorized that there may be a black hole at the center of G1.  I made the sketch below with my 12 inch SCT at a magnification of 381x.  At right is an HST image of the cluster.  This cluster resides approximately 130,000 light years from the core of the Andromeda galaxy.  (If you are interested in hunting it down, it is at RA 00:32:46.8 ~ DEC +39:34:42)

HST image
Click to enlarge

Friday, October 14, 2011

SkyNights update

Momentum....Inertia...Whatever it is, I need to ride it.  I have managed to make several blog posts over the past month and do not want to slip back into infrequent posting mode.  The fact that you are loyally reading this right now is the very reason that I am taking a few quick minutes to post.  As you know (or should), I have been working at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter leading public SkyNights programs and conducting occasional other outreach events.  Last weekend I conducted a program and one of the guests was a professional photographer named Howard Paley.  As it turns out, not only is Howard an accomplished photographer, he has known my family from as far back as the late 1980's.  That is one of the neat things about Tucson - no matter how it grows, it still feels like a one-horse town.  Howard sent me some images that he took during the program and provided me permission to post them below.  I'd strongly encourage you to visit his website and see some of his incredible photos from around the southwest.  All of the images in this blog post are copyrighted and should not be used without Howard's explicit permission.

One of the atmospheric phenomenon that visitors to our programs can experience, is to see and understand that shadows on earth are actually blue...not black or grey as commonly thought.  The short explanation for why our shadows are blue is that our atmosphere scatters blue light and this is what colors our shadows.  For the long explanation you need to come to a program.

Sunset is incredible from the summit.  At right, is a very pretty image of the Sun heading toward the horizon, approximately 3-4 minutes before the start of sunset.  At sunset, guests often see a unique phenomenon called the green rim.  How do I know that this photo is 3-4 minutes before sunset?  Come to the program, learn the answer, and see the green rim for yourself.

At left is an image of the nearly full moon that Howard captured during the program.  What is incredible is that this image was not taken through a telescope.  It was taken with a tripod mounted camera.  No doubt what makes it special is the photographer.

Finally, a beautiful image of the inside of the dome just after sunset.  While the red light was coming from dim lights within the observatory, the white light shining into the dome from the left is light from the moon.  Know what constellation appears through the dome slit?  If so, send me an email and if you are right I'll make it worth your while!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Solar sketch October 8th

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A tremendous amount of activity on the Sun this morning, in terms of active regions and prominences.  We are having a cold spell with temperatures in Tucson lower than those in Minneapolis due to the jet stream residing overhead.  This is very unusual weather down here for early October and it has resulted in some poor atmospheric stability.  I completed the sketch at left at 1547 UT (8:47 AM local time) with my Lunt Solar Systems 60mm dedicated hydrogen alpha pressure tuned telescope.  Most unusual is the faint, expansive prominence off the east limb that appears to he lifting away from the Sun.  There were two distinct brighter knots in this arc of plasma.  Hopefully, some of the accomplished solar imagers around the world will post photos of this event soon.

Active regions 11309 and 11312 in the northern hemisphere both contain dark spots, and it appears that there is another active region rounding the northeast limb.  The southern hemisphere is awash with activity, although much of the plage regions are faint and the poor seeing conditions made visual observation challenging.  Region 11311 in the southwest contains a spot, as does region 11308 (or maybe it is 11310, I am having trouble figuring out which regions are which this morning...).  In the southeast, active region 11313 is the most dynamic of the regions with bright plage and what appears to be some bi-polar activity.  There are spots in the east and west ends of the region, along with some dark fibrils arcing between them.  There is an additional region of plage in the southern hemisphere, on the meridian, which is as of yet unnumbered.  Below are comparison images from Big Bear Solar Observatory at left (taken at 1556 UT) and from the Solar Dynamics Observatory at right (taken at 1539 UT).  Note that the image from SDO captures the massive prominence on the east limb beautifully.  Look closely at the Big Bear image and you can see that the prominence is ghostly just on the extreme edge of the field of view.

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Twice the fun

Yesterday afternoon I visited one of the local astronomy vendors, Stellar Vision, to see if proprietor Frank Lopez had some hardware that would allow me to piggyback my Lunt 60mm Hydrogen Alpha Telescope onto my recently acquired Astro-Telescopes 102mm f/11 achromat.  I have been using the achromat for white light observations of the Sun and had been thinking about how great it would be if I could have both telescopes mounted simultaneously.  The great thing about Frank is that he is like the Wizard of Oz- he goes behind his curtain (literally) you hear some wheels turning, metal parts clanging around, steam venting, and soon enough out he comes with some hardware that achieves exactly what you are looking for.  Frank has spent years in the telescope business and deals in so much used equipment that I am not sure even he knows how many parts and he has behind the curtain.  At left you can see my current set-up...Thanks to Frank for the mini, ring-top saddle that allows me to piggyback the Lunt!  (Certainly I could have gone online and ordered this part from Losmandy, but I always believe in suporting the local vendor).  While mostly convenient for me, this piggyback arrangement will be very useful for outreach activities.

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As luck would have it, we are in the middle of about a half-day of clear skies and I was able to get everything together this morning and make my first two sketches of the Sun without changing scopes.  Right away I discovered how fun it is to notice a feature in either white light or hydrogen alpha and then to see if there is any associated feature visible in the other scope.  The skies were not great, with passing cirrus and haze but I was still able to tease out quite a bit of detail, particularly in hydrogen alpha, as seen at right.  This sketch was completed at 1535 UT (8:35 AM local).  Active regions 11302 and 11305 continue to show significant activity as they rotate toward the Western limb.  The spots in 11302 seem to have diminished a bit in size, although the plage and filaments in the region remain complex.  Regions 11306 and 11307 seem to be decaying as the plage areas in these regions are markedly fainter than previous days.  There is a new region that has rounded the NE limb that appears to have a spot (confirmed in white light...yeah!), and the region noted in the SE over the past two days has now been officially numbered 11308.  There is a very large and beautiful prominence associated with this region.

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At left, is my white light sketch completed about 20 minutes later at 1557 UT (8:57 AM local).  In addition to the numerous spots in the numbered regions, the new region in the northeast contains two very large spots, as well as a smaller spot.  These spots appear elongated when near the solar limb, due to what is called the "Wilson Effect."  This apparent elongation is the result of perspective- Keep in mind that the sun is a sphere.  When looking near the center of the disc we are looking straight into the Solar atmosphere, yet when looking near the limb, we are actually looking across its atmosphere.  Add to this the fact that sunspots are akin to depressions in the solar atmosphere and you get an obvious elongation.  This same effect can be seen looking at craters along the extreme limb of the moon.  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Welcome October!

Today is the start of October and right on schedule the weather here in the Old Pueblo is changing.  While the Sun is shining steadily in clear blue skies this morning, later today will see heavy cloud cover, and increasing moisture for a few days.  By weeks end, temps in the upper 80's!!

Quick report today, the Sun appears much as it has for the past two days.  5 active regions are making their way westward across the northern hemisphere of the sun.  AR 11305 displays the strongest plage, and 11302 covers the largest area and contains the most spots.  There is potentially an emerging region that has come around in the southeast, as well as a small ephemeral region of plage that has persisted since yesterday in the south.  My sketch was completed at 1623 UT (9:23 AM local time) under very steady skies.

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Below are images in Hydrogen Alpha from the Big Bear Solar Observatory (taken at 1634 UT), and the Solar Dynamics Observatory (taken at 1514 UT).  I particularly enjoy the Big Bear image at left, as it is monochrome and more closely resembles the eyepiece view.

Click to enlarge

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Solar Sketches 9-29

Today is the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year-  To everyone reading, I wish you a happy and healthy year!  Being that I am off work, I set up the solar scopes today and made some afternoon sketches of the sun.  I am quite pleased that the weather has changed enough to allow for 2 PM sketching.  Only a couple weeks ago, I would have been overcooked by the time I placed pencil to paper.  Not so today.  While the temps are in the mid 90's, it actually feels nice out.  Maybe I am truly turning into a desert rat?

The sketches below were made at the times reflected in the captions, and the images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory also have the time of capture below them.  It is worth mentioning that neither my white light sketch, or the SDO white light image contain the detail and number of spots that were visible in AR 11302.  I would estimate that that region alone contains in the neighborhood of 50 spots.  It is interesting that while there are a half-dozen numbered active regions on the face of the sun, all of them are in the northern hemisphere.

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2100 UT

2045 UT

2138 UT

2000 UT

Finally, the Mount Wilson Observatory in California has a 150 ft. Solar Tower from which they create a daily sunspot drawing.  Not too many professional observatories create sketches, and below is today's sketch:

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Chiracauhua Astronomy Complex Grand Opening

Price Ranch and Perseus intersection
"Eat more chicken"
This past Saturday night, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) held the grand opening to show off the completed "phase 2a" construction of the new Chiracauhua Astronomy Complex (CAC).   I had wanted to take my telescopes to some dark skies this weekend, so on Friday afternoon I packed up and headed to the site one night early.  I had checked the weather forecast and while there was a slight chance of thundershowers each night, Friday looked to be most promising.  As I approached the CAC, I was met by the official bovine sentries, who upon seeing all the gear I was hauling, decided to let me pass unharmed.  Here are a few quick images of what has taken shape under the dark skies of Cochise County.  In hindsight I should have taken pictures of the amphitheater, the 18 inch dobsonian, and the inside of the observatory, but perhaps I can add some images to this post if any of the TAAA folks in attendance would like to share (Keith...are you listening?)

At left, you can see my scope cooling down on Friday night when I was alone at the site.  The sky was incredible and if I had a decent camera (and knew how to use it), I could have taken some amazing images.  Below left, is a picture of the roll off roof observatory that houses the new C14 and AP1200 mount donated by Wally Rogers.  The picture is taken from the amphitheater looking southwest.  In the background you can see some of the new member observing pads.  In the picture at right, you can see that there are ten of these pads, each measuring 12 x 12 with electricity.  This is a great size for a pad as there is ample room for a large telescope, a table and two or three chairs.  At one point, I had two telescopes set up on my pad, and still had room for all my gear.  The pads are spaced several feet apart, with just enough room to navigate but close enough that you can still chat with your neighbors without having to shout.  As you can see in the picture, we filled up all 10 pads on Saturday night for the grand opening.

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In terms of observing, Friday night was excellent, with transparency around 9/10.  Using my 12 inch SCT I observed many objects, and made a sketch of comet 2009 P1 Garradd.  I have observed and sketched this comet several times over the past month, and this was the first time that I was able to detect streams in the tail.  The sketch at right was completed at 0320 UT on September 24th.

Overall, despite getting clouded out early on Saturday, it was a fun weekend at a great astronomy complex.  Kudos to everyone in the TAAA that had a hand in the development of the CAC.  Not only are the skies excellent, but having access to an observatory housed 14 inch telescope, restrooms, showers, and observing pads with power make for an amateur astronomers dream.

Update...below is an image of the attendees preparing for "first light" of the clubs new 18 inch Obsession Telescope...Thanks to Bill Lofquist for this image.