Friday, December 28, 2012

Solar maximum...did I miss something?

Click to enlarge
With some time on my hands today, I opened up my observatory at high noon to take a look at the Sun and see what was up.  As anyone who follows the Sun is aware, we are well along in solar cycle 24 and despite being somewhere near Solar maximum, things have been generally calm.  Sure there has been the occasional strong flare, and every now and again we have been treated to several active regions at once.  Overall, however, the Sun is relatively quiet.  It was no surprise then that there were very few spots today that were visible in white light.  There are a couple active regions that have rotated into view on the east limb, as well as a region departing to the west.  For the most part though, the solar disc remains featureless in white light.  At left is a sketch that I made at 12:40 PM local time (1940 UT) and I am embarrassed to say it is the first sketch I have made since the Annular Eclipse in May!

Thinking about the relative calm of Solar Cycle 24, I decided to visit and see what the sunspot number was for today (78, in case you were wondering).  Interestingly they had a story and graph from the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center addressing exactly how calm (in relative terms) this cycle has been as well as when maximum is predicted to occur.  Here is the chart they had reproduced:

Updated in early December, the above chart shows you the actual number of observed spots from January of 2000, through November of this year.  With the red line identifying the predicted sunspot values for the remainder of this cycle, it is curious to see that we are well below the line of even what was predicted to be a weak cycle.  And while the cycle certainly progressed slowly, has noted that we may already be past the maximum for this cycle!  I agree, as it appears to me that the actual observation curve (the blue line) has begun to taper down.  There are historical cycles that have had double peaks, so what happens over the next year will be interesting.  If you care to see the cycle that was predicted (in May of 2009) click on the graph at right.  You can see that the maximum was predicted to occur in mid-2013.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Best ISS video yet!

If you have not yet seen this video, grab yourself a cold drink (a soda...what were you thinking?) and settle in for an amazing 25 minute tour of the International Space Station.  If I had 20 million dollars, I'd buy my space tourist ticket right now!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sunset behind Kitt Peak

I first started this blog nearly two years ago, partly inspired by the blog of fellow amateur astronomer Dean Ketelsen and his wife Melinda.  In what has become an annual tradition near the winter solstice, Dean and Melinda trek up to near milepost 9 on the Catalina Highway and observe the Sun setting behind Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO).  Each year Dean and Melinda invite folks to come along, and this year I decided to join them for the first time.  At left you can see our little group set up, passing the time until sunset, observing the Sun through Dean and Melinda's big binoculars and 5 inch SCT.

In preparation for taking pictures of the sunset, I constructed a filter using Baader photographic solar film, cardboard, and high density foam.  Mounted on the front of my Canon 70-200mm f/4 L lens, I was prepared to take white light images of the sun setting behind the various telescope domes at KPNO.  As we were setting up, Dean offered to let me borrow his 1.4x teleconverter which effectively turned the lens from 200mm to 280mm.  This proved to be a great piece of hardware, and at right you can see a test shot of the Sun about 45 minutes prior to sunset.  Note the sunspot regions on both limbs, as well as the brighter facula surrounding the spot regions.

I aligned the camera on the center of KPNO, installed the solar filter and waited for the Sun to enter the cameras field of view.  As soon as it did, I started taking images every few seconds.  I did not really time the sequence, but took 20 images during the event.  Sunset lasts two minutes, so assuming I was close, that means I snapped off one picture about every 6 seconds.  It was really a learning experience as once the Sun was about halfway set I was having to change the shutter speed in between exposures.  The reason for this is the significant decrease in sunlight with each passing second.  Below are a couple of my favorite ones, including a shot of all the domes illuminated, as well as the closest I have come to capturing the green rim phenomenon in a picture.  As always, click to enlarge the images to full size:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Las Cienegas observing

With all the excitement regarding the close pass of Asteroid 4179 Toutatis (see the previous post), I neglected to share that the night before I made the trek to the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area to do some dark sky observing.  For many years, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association utilized an old airstrip within Las Cienegas as a dark sky site for monthly club star parties.  Despite being about 45 minutes from the east side of Tucson, the skies are quite dark, and it is my experience that the naked eye limiting magnitude at zenith can approach 7.0.  It is much darker than the clubs site west of town at TIMPA.  Over the last few years the TAAA has discontinued use of the site for regular star parties due to the acquisition and development of a club owned dark site about about 2 hours from town.  In addition, many members are uncomfortable driving down the sometimes rutted dirt road that leads to the old airstrip.

As mentioned, the site is about 45 minutes from Tucson, and from my house I can arrive in about 60-70 minutes.  This affords me the ability to work all day and then head to the site in time for darkness.  Last Monday night I made such a trip, joining my good fiends Jerry and Bill for several hours of dark skies, conversation, and of course observing.  Recently, we have identified a very nice spot in Las Cienegas to set up our telescopes, that is only about 5 minutes drive from the entrance.  The spot is in a slight depression in the rolling grasslands, which does seem to affect the temperatures, with cooler air settling in more quickly.  During our session temperatures were balmy, in the mid-20's, about 15-20 degrees colder than back at home.

Below is a 20 second exposure of Orion rising in the east.  The yellow glow on the horizon is the light dome from Fort Huachuca.  Despite how bright it seems in the image, the skies are still markedly darker than in Tucson as evidenced by the winter milky way extending down left of Orion.  Click the image to enlarge it.

I had decided to make the trip very lightweight and brought along an alt-az mount for the TEC 140.  I spent quite a bit of time panning through the milky way from Cassiopeia eastward.  This is the less bright region of the milky way in our sky, as we are peering away from the center of our galaxy.  I chose this area due to the simple fact that the summer milky way from Cassiopeia westward is where I have spent the last several months observing.  The skies were quite cooperative and I enjoyed my first extended views of objects such as the various nebulas in Orion (M42, M43, the Flame, The Running Man, etc).  One of the great things about a refractor are the beautiful low power wide field views one can achieve.  I was truly lost among all the open clusters in Cassiopeia, as every nudge of the telescope seemed to bring another into view.  At times, I would wonder what NGC cluster I was looking at, but before I could get up and go consult a chart I would again lose myself in the sheer aesthetics of the view through the eyepiece.

We had a great compliment of telescopes for the evening, with a 63mm Zeiss refractor, my 140mm TEC refractor, and a 9.25 inch SCT.   If you know Bill, it will not surprise you to hear that he was able to spot the same 14th and 15th magnitude Arp Galaxies in his 63mm Zeiss as we could observe in Jerry's 9.25 SCT.  Certainly there were no galactic details to be seen in the Zeiss, but the fact that we could detect the small, faint glow at all says something about the quality of the telescope and the transparency of the skies.  And yes, I said "we could detect," as I also observed some of them in Bill's telescope.

This has been a fairly long winded post for a Sunday morning, but if you are reading it and are a Tucson based amateur astronomer, I would strongly suggest that you consider the Las Cienegas area as a nearby location.  It's ease of access and reasonably dark skies make it quite enjoyable.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Asteroid 4179 Toutatis

Tonight was a first for the Lost Pleiad Observatory staff (that's me...sole proprietor, operator, custodian and resident trouble maker).  Asteroid 4179 Toutatis is in the process of making a close pass to Earth, and while I have observed asteroids previously, tonight I decided to take a series of pictures of the asteroid and then stitch them together to make an animation.

Before I provide the goods, it is worth knowing that asteroid Toutatis will only come within 4.3 million miles of Earth on this pass.  The images at left are computer-generated views of Toutatis, constructed using radar observations from NASA's Goldstone Observatory.

Toutatis is about 3 miles wide and makes one trip around the sun every four years.  Toutatis is a potentially hazardous asteroid, meaning that it could pose a threat to our planet at some point in the far future. The current flyby is no cause for concern, however, and I suppose that if you are reading this you know this to be true!  You made it through the night! At its closest approach, which was at approximately 11:40 PM MST Tuesday night, Toutatis was about 18 times farther away from Earth than the moon is.

Using my TEC 140 APO, along with my Canon T2i and the software program BackyardEos, I ended up with 49 usable exposures of the asteroid (don't ask about the others...even the dog managed to mess a few up!).  Each exposure was for 30 seconds and I have stitched them into the looping GIF below at 10 frames per second using Photoshop CS6.  I did no processing of the images, other than to reduce the size of each exposure so that the GIF was not a bazillion megabytes.  As it ended up the animation is a 12.8 MB GIF, so do allow it time to load.  The animation runs from approximately 8:59 to 9:48 PM local time, or 0359 - 0448 UT 12/12/12.  (Or, as folks in the UK would note the date, 12/12/12.)  Finally, you may notice that the background sky is brighter in the later frames...this is due to the asteroid appearing to move in the direction of the Tucson light dome.  Without further ado...the GIF!
Click to enlarge (and remember to give it time to load!)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Auriga Messier Clusters 36, 37, 38

Tonight I thought I would try something a little easier and I took some pictures of the three Messier open clusters in the constellation of Auriga, numbers 36, 37 and 38.  Again, I am using my Canon T2i and my TEC 140 refractor (f/7). The best part of the time I spent taking these pictures tonight was sitting back in my observatory and enjoying the crisp night air.  Carefully, so as not to touch the telescope, I also enjoyed the views through my 50mm Stellarvue finder scope while waiting for the camera to finish it's business.

Without further ado, here are the images (reduced in size for the blog)...each of them was 25 seconds at ISO 1600.
Click the images to enlarge them.

M 36

M 37

M 38 with NGC 1907 at upper right

M42 The Great Orion Nebula

So far this November and December has been unseasonably warm here in Tucson.  It is a bit disconcerting, actually, as the days are still comfortable for wearing shorts.  Working as I do on Mount Lemmon, I have this nagging feeling that we may not get much snowfall this winter, which the mountain needs.  This is not a post about climate change,  but I do want to point to an excellent piece by Phil Plait today taking on climate change denial.

With the high pressure system that seems to have permanently parked itself in our neck of the planet, we have had some phenomenal nights for observing at the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  With temperatures requiring only a sweatshirt, I spent the better part of last night cruising around the winter milky way.  Using my TEC 140 I spent hours enjoying many wide field views, especially those of my old friends the Messier objects.   Before retiring I thought to myself  "self, you should try and take a picture of the Orion Nebula!"

I brought out my laptop and camera and using BackyardEOS took a few images of the Great Orion Nebula.   Below is the result, of which I am shocked!  This was taken with the moon up in the sky, without accurately polar aligning my CGEM mount, and with a Baader UHC filter.  The single image is 50 seconds at ISO 3200, and was actually a little more detailed before I messed with it in Photoshop to try and make the background sky more black.  I should probably give the raw image to my friend Mike (are you reading this?) and he could make it very pretty.
Click to enlarge

Most amazing is our camera sensor technologies...look at images in astronomy texts from even 15 years ago and see what was being generated with large instruments over hours of exposure time...and consider that I am using a 140mm telescope and an exposure of less than one minute!