Lonely Venus

venus-20170227

When dusk murk enshrouds
Sentinel Venus remains
But nobody sees

 

Advertisements

Which Deep Sky Objects are Good to View Right Now?

m37-02

Last week, when viewing conditions where still great and just before I got a bad cold, I was perusing the skies with my big (10-inch Dob) telescope.  It had been a while since I was outside with the heavy equipment just browsing for new stuff above.  So after taking a good look at all things Orion and the Pleiades, I used my Sky Map app to see if any DSOs might be worth viewing.

Since they were around Zenith (and still are) at my best night viewing time, I decided to look for three open clusters, Messier objects M36, M37, and M38.  They are in the constellation Auriga, above Orion and Taurus.  All three clusters are nice, but I found M37 in particular to be amazing.  Even from my light-polluted suburban skies I could see dozens of concentrated stars, if not more.  It had been a while since I had an awe-inspiring find, and this was finally it.  I am hoping, if weather conditions improve this coming weekend, to try sketching M37.

We are in the middle of Winter and looking towards Spring.  Are there any deep sky objects you enjoy viewing at this time of year?

A Despondent Stargazer’s Haiku

dark-clouds-02

Chill winds lure gray clouds
Sad rain kindles my despair
No stars shine tonight

 

How to (and not to) Get Kids Interested in Astronomy

solar-system-01

Through my studying of astronomy and stargazing, as well as interactions with my younger relatives, I have come to opinions on the best methods to introduce children to the wonders of the sky.  Some are obvious, and you will find these in most any Internet advice write-up on the subject.  Others are not so much, and may even be contrary to other guides.  Still, I feel these are sound recommendations based on research, experimenting, and common sense.

First, What NOT to Do!

#1 Expensive Does Not Equal Better!  Do not go out to buy the biggest, most expensive telescope you can afford.  It is nearly a guaranteed waste as far as children’s use.  Any telescope over US $200 is not worth the entry price.  Note that for adults getting into astronomy, this may be viewed slightly differently.  While adults should still not, under any circumstances, spend thousands of dollars on a first telescope, you may factor in your risk sentiment if you want try for a more advanced first scope like a Mak-Cass.

#2 Too-Big Binoculars  Avoid binoculars at first for kids.  I know this may go against popular thought, but hear my reasoning.  Binoculars are (a) bulky, (b) difficult to steady, especially for kids, and (c) not an intuitive learning instrument for children.  In short, binoculars take practice to use correctly, and you don’t want your kids’ first stargazing experiences to be of them thinking they need to hit the gym to hold up those binoculars all night long.

Again for adults, the case for binoculars is different.  As this is meant to be a kids’ article, I will table that discussion for now, and write an adult’s guide to beginning astronomy later.

#3 Meteor Shower Hype  Stargazers get excited when meteor showers come around annually, but let’s be frank – they usually require a boring wait and almost never live up to expectations.  While older folks like me may have no problem sitting in the dark at 4 a.m. enjoying the sky, younger people and particularly kids will not be so patient.  I feel it is best to avoid meteor showers altogether unless you can appropriately time box the event with realistic expectations of what may be seen.

orion-nebula-02#4 Bright, Colorful Objects Need Not Apply  We all know of those wondrous images of nebulae and galaxies with countless stars that look so magnificent and vibrant.  But what you need to understand is that those pictures are achieved from intense post-processing of many long-exposure camera images.  This isn’t to say those images are a lie, only that it is impossible for the human eye to view them like that from any telescope.  These objects are thousands and millions of light years from us, and the photons (light) from them are extremely limited.  The techniques used to get amazing pictures of deep sky objects capture as many photons as possible, usually over hours of imaging exposure, well beyond what our eyes could ever hope to see.  Think of paint slowly dripping onto a canvas to eventually form a picture.

Most deep sky objects as seen through a telescope will likely be gray.

Before Proceeding, A Public Service Announcement…

As a general warning, NEVER use an optical device to look directly at the Sun unless it has a proper solar filter secured to the front (not the eyepiece side, but to the other, big end).  Permanent eye damage can result!  My advice for solar viewing with telescopes is to SKIP IT, at least at first, until you the responsible adult are familiar with your telescope and understand how to properly attach and use a solar filter.  Focusing on only the nighttime sky is more than enough for kids when starting out.

My Steps for Children’s Astronomy

#1 Just Look Up  It’s easiest and costs nothing to step outside on a clear, dark night and enjoy our galaxy’s showcase.  Granted, your mileage will vary based on light pollution, with extremely dark skies making objects even beyond our galaxy, like the Andromeda Galaxy, visible to the unaided eye.  But still, have them see the Moon, bright planets, and bright constellations and star patterns (asterisms).  A variety of star map apps for your phone or tablet can help to locate what is in the current night sky.  If you are reading this in Winter (in the Northern Hemisphere), by all means focus on Orion the Hunter!

Again in the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper (Bear), part of Ursa Major, is always visible at least in part year-round, so it makes a great first star pattern for kids to learn (after Orion, which is not always viewable).

#2 Get a Star Finder Dial/Map  You likely know what I am talking about – those pinwheel star maps that you rotate to see the visible stars for your time of year (normally at a preset time of night).  They are inexpensive and a good entry point for kids to learn about what they are seeing above.

#3 Get an Children’s Beginners Astronomy Book  It probably makes sense to acquire this along with the pinwheel star map.  I am not promoting any particular book, and I trust it is not too hard these days to do an Internet search to find several good books that offer beginner’s lessons on astronomy.  A perquisite should be good pictures, especially of the constellations, so that kids can relate what they are seeing to what is shown in the book.

#4 Persistence  Keep letting the kids see the night sky when possible, but without overdoing it.  Try for good nights on the weekends.  At the very least, show them the changing phases of the Moon.

Are the kids still interested by this point?  If so, now you can consider buying a telescope!

# 5 Buy a Good First Telescope  You will want to get a good beginner’s refractor telescope from one of the “big three” merchants in the U.S. (may be different in Europe and elsewhere).  These are Celestron, Meade, and Orion.  I am not promoting any brand or company, so I will just say to go for a 60-70mm refractor with two eyepieces (high and low power), and offer up one suggestion from each:

celestron-astromaster-lt-70

Celestron AstroMaster LT 70AZ

meade-infinity-70mm

Meade Infinity 70mm

orion-starblast-70

Orion StarBlast 70

Also, get a 25% Moon filter along with the telescope (I think 25% makes more sense for a refractor’s small aperture, versus the normal 13%, but you could get by with 13% too; 25% and 13% are just indicators of the total amount of light let through, so 25% only shows a quarter of the total visible light).  This will dim the Moon, making features easier to see and only costs about $20.  Remember to use the Moon filter only for the Moon!  It will otherwise make planets (except Venus, see below), stars, and deep space objects too dark for the human eye to enjoy.

Why a refractor?  It is the most basic of telescopes and requires little if any maintenance.  Reflectors need ongoing maintenance, called collimation, which may be a bit too much for kids just starting out (and the adults supporting them).  Collimating a telescope is not hard, but it is also not a core activity to enjoying astronomy.  Any other telescope variety, like Maksutov-Cassegrains, SCTs, and apochromatic refractors are too advanced and/or expensive for young beginners.

A side benefit to simple refractors is that they may be used for daytime terrestrial viewing as well.

#6 Set YOUR Expectations of the Telescope  As the responsible adult, learn how to operate your telescope.  This seems basic, but you should understand how to quickly adjust the telescope, as objects move very fast in the sky.

What will you see?  Refractors offer a very wide view, which is nice when viewing groups or stars or the surroundings of the Orion Nebula.  They will reveal small but still discernible views of the planets.  All of these views are perfectly fine for beginners.  Always start with your low-power eyepiece (e.g. 25mm) and switch to the high-power (e.g. 10mm) to zoom in.

#7 Show Them the Stars  Use the telescope on bright stars.  You and your kids will be amazed at how each of these gems look, as well as noticing the surrounding faint stars only visible through the telescope.  As an added treat, look for double-stars – stars that look like one to the eye but are actually two stars in the telescope!

#8 Show the Partial Moon  Use the telescope on the Moon.  Focus not on the full Moon but on the phases.  Those are the most interesting through a telescope because you can see the crater shadows.

moon-20160709-03

#9  And Last, Show the Planets  I am recommending to focus on the planets last only because they will appear small through a 60-70mm refractor.  But they will still be impressive in their own rights.

Here is a breakdown of the what to expect with each planet:

  • Mercury – this planet is so elusive I recommend not searching for it with a telescope, for beginner kids.  If you have ideal conditions of clear skies and with Mercury at an ideal distance above the horizon (dawn or dusk), then you can give looking for it a try, though keep in mind it will be very tiny in your telescope.  I also don’t recommend viewing Mercury to eliminate any chance of looking at either the rising or setting Sun.
  • Venus – it will be very bright and never a full disc, being anywhere from about 80% to a thin crecent.  You will only be able to make out the shape and not planetary features.  Hint: if you do have a Moon filter, Venus is the one planet you can try it on.
  • Mars – this planet’s brightness will vary the most.  When Mars is at opposition to Earth, it will be very bright, even rivaling Venus.  You may be able to see some planetary features, like the dark mara and polar icecaps.  When Mars is far away, it is very dim, and very small in any telescope.  These extremes are due to Mars being small and its wildly varying distances from Earth.
  • saturn-20160805Jupiter– the largest planet will consistently look like a bright star.  Though small, you will see up to the full four Galilean moons and the planet’s cloud bands.
  • Saturn – will appear like a faint star.  Through the telescope, you should be able to see its rings.
  • Uranus – too faint to find with a beginner’s telescope, or at least it is not worth the effort.
  • Neptune – ignore this planet as it is too dim and distant for beginner’s astronomy.
  • Pluto (the non-planet planet) – searching for and finding Pluto requires an advanced technique, so ignore it as well.

#10 Try Sketching  Wait, what?  Sketching?  Yes, I really believe that sketching both the direct sky as well as through the telescope will be a surprisingly fun activity for children.  It does not take a lot to do but requires a bit of preparation:

  1. Get a small red flashlight (one per child so there is no fighting over one flashlight).  Red is needed to keep our eyes acclimated to the dark.
  2. Obtain a solid writing pad with paper and pencil (one set for each kid, of course).
  3. Optionally for telescope sketches, use a compass to draw a big circle to frame the eyepiece view.
  4. Some kids will prefer to sketch the open sky’s star patterns while others will want to focus on the telescope view.  Either approach is fine!
  5. Instruct the children to start by drawing the brightest stars first in recognized patterns like lines, triangles, and rectangles.
  6. Once the bright stars are complete, they can turn their attention to filling in the details of the fainter stars between the bright ones, if they so wish.  Many children will be proud of their work from just sketching Orion’s primary stars, as an example.
  7. Make sure each kid writes the date and time of their sketch on their drawing, as well as a short description of what they drew.

I hope these ideas help in getting your kids interested in astronomy.  If you have any comments on my guide, or suggestions, please leave a comment below.

The Dog, The Hunter, and The Bull

orion-sirius-aldebaran-01

Click to enlarge.

February 21st, 2017, 9:00 p.m. local time

While out late in my driveway, I could see the constellation Orion high in the Southwest sky.  What an imposing and wonderful sight!  People young and old(er) are amazed whenever I point it out.  And while I would love to take credit for this incredible cosmological discovery, Orion has been around for a rather long time, and it’s a shame most people will never pause to look up at it.

Given their framing in my sky this night, it occurred to me that Orion’s Belt, those magnificent three stars in the middle, offer the perfect gauge to find two other stars of neighboring constellations.  Although forming not quite a straight line through the belt, the stars Sirius and Aldebaran are on opposite and effectively equidistant sides.  Sirius, the eye of Canis Major and brightest star in the sky, is easy to find, though for me in the U.S.A. it is always somewhat low in the South sky.

On the opposite side from Sirius is Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the Bull.  Aldebaran is the faintest of the five stars here in question, and there are no obvious markers (or asterisms) in its immediate vicinity (Sirius has no obvious patterns either, but it is so bright you cannot miss it).

Putting it all together makes for the cool ancient story of Canis Major chasing after Orion the Hunter while he attacks Taurus the Bull.  They are a fantastic sight on these Winter evenings, guaranteed to be better than anything on TV tonight.

The Thinning and Brightening of Venus

venus-20170217At least as of late last week, Venus was about as bright as we ever see it.  It is also getting thinner and thinner by way of its crescent reflection of the Sun.  That seems a bit counter intuitive, but I suppose the combination of Venus’s distance to Earth, its size, and proximity to the Sun all make this stunning magnitude possible.

Soon, Venus will quickly descend back towards the Sun.  The journey started in the summer last year, when I began searching for Venus just above the horizon after sunset.  Back then, the disc was probably 70-85% illuminated but on the wrong side of the Sun.  Over the ensuing months Venus climbed higher and higher.  Ideal viewing, at the highest and brightest, just finished, lasting about two months.

So we (or at least I) say goodbye to Venus, for now.  That leaves us with a bummer time for planetary observing.  Mars is very dim.  Saturn it close to the Sun and in the low morning sky.  The only upcoming hope is mighty Jupiter – visible from mid evening until sunrise as it travels across the Sun’s elliptic during the night.  I’m anxious because in about another month or two, we will be back in prime Jupiter viewing season once again.

I took the above image with my 127mm Mak-Cass using a 7.5mm Plossl eyepiece and Baader Neodymium filter, afocally with my smartphone (stacked video).

About Last Week’s Lunar Eclipse…

moon-20170208

I kind of did and I kind of did not forget to write about the lunar eclipse event from last week.  It was, from my location, a non-event.  I saw the Moon very clear and bright, albeit through gathering clouds.  Shortly after, well before the peak of the eclipse, I could not see the Moon at all as the clouds rolled in even more.  Only hours later, through some cloud breaks, could I see the Moon as normal once more.

I recall a very similar partial lunar eclipse decades ago, so I have a generally good notion of what this one was about.  The Moon last Friday, I assume, was still visible, just dimmed.

I have the horrible notion that I am not meant to see any good astronomical events.  Last year, during the Mercury transit, I had the absolute worst cloud cover.  Even a small break in or thinning of the clouds would have allowed my telescope to get a glimpse of the little dot going across the Sun.  Just once over a seven-hour period was all I asked.  The night before, I had my telescope set up, solar filter securely attached, and all my eyepiece and astrophotography equipment laid out, ready for the following day.  Needless to say, it was a big disappointment.

I am more than sure this year’s North America solar eclipse in August will come, for me, with the darkest, thickest, blackest storm clouds ever seen in the Midwest.

Lighting Up the Bull

taurus-20170214

February 14th, 2017, 8:40 p.m. local time

Despite the light pollution in my neighborhood, I have to admit that the wonders of the night sky are still aplenty for me, and sometimes offer wonderful surprises.

As I was scanning Orion both through my telescope and via unaided observing, I noticed something I had not before.  Around Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus, were a whole bunch of dim stars.  Usually I ignore Taurus, since its sole visible representative, Aldebaran, does not offer much, beyond gauging its relative spacing with everything else in that area of sky.  But tonight, being clear and with no Moon and my eyes properly adjusted, I could see a number of stars in proximity, just to the West of Aldebaran.

This event made me realize that you should not take any part of the night sky for granted!  I will try to do a better job studying my sky’s “empty” spaces.

When I Decided to Build a Telescope

telescope-build-01

When you enjoy using your telescope to look at the night sky, you are bound, one day, to decide that you want a second telescope.  You may have “aperture fever” to gather more light, to see more.  Or you may have a reflector and want to complement it with a refractor.  Big vs. small.  Stationary vs. portable.  Sketching vs. astrophotography.  There are many reasons you will (and you will) consider having a second telescope.

Almost a year ago, I bought my first “real” telescope, a 127mm Maksutov-Cassegrain.  It is relatively small in the overall scale of telescopes, but I did not want to buy too much in case I quickly lost interest.  But I did not lose interest, and really enjoyed using it to view the Moon, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and the Sun (with appropriate solar filter).  I have also used it to view deep space objects like the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters, and nebulae.  Although the latter are viewable, it is clear to me that my small 5-inch Mak-Cass is primarily intended for solar system observations.

After a few months, I decided to investigate getting a second telescope that (1) had a noticeably larger aperture and (2) would specialize in viewing deep sky objects.  I immediately understood that the most obvious trade-off would be in size and weight.  If I desire, I can take my 127mm Mak-Cas anywhere with minimal effort.  But something far bigger would likely require greater setup and planning to transport, even just from my house into my yard.

I also wanted to at least leave the door open for astrophotography.  With the Mak-Cass, I use the afocal method to take pictures.  Afocal photography is just a fancy term for holding a camera up to an eyepiece (versus the more sophisticated method of bypassing the eyepiece and using a proper T-ring or other adapter for a DSLR camera).  I have a few afocal adapters that allow me to take pictures with my smartphone; most of the pictures on this blog were taken afocally.

After reviewing the major types of telescopes, I was leaning towards a Newtonian reflector, specifically a “Dob” or Dobsonian.  I will blog about the Dob’s namesake, John Dobson, in a future post.  Reflectors in general are the most economical per size, and are intended solely for night use (since the images appear upside down, you can’t really use them for terrestrial applications).  They are also primarily intended for eyepiece viewing, versus photography, but some sort of photography method is entirely possible if you want to.

I went down the path of reviewing Dobs from the major telescope companies (there are three primary ones in the U.S.A. – Celestron, Meade, and Orion).  During my investigations into price and features, somehow I came across the idea of building a homemade telescope, from scratch.  This intrigued me, as I had built a few other projects around the house before, even though I am not a craftsman by trade nor do I have any type of workshop (except for the half of my garage that becomes a de facto workshop when I do one of these projects).

If you search online for homemade telescopes, you will see a wide range of designs and efforts.  Some look crazy.  Some are well beyond anything I would attempt.  But others seemed far more modest and manageable to execute.  After a lot more research, I decided to give it a go.  I figured that a telescope, after all, is ultimately a technology hundreds of years old, so with the right planning and designs, it should not be too difficult for anybody like me to build one.

And building a telescope, I thought, would come with a great sense of accomplishment.

So I intend to write about my telescope building experience.  I will not write a “how to” guide, as there are a number of perfectly acceptable guides on the Internet, as I will reference.  Instead of a step-by-step chronology, I plan to give insights into my efforts over the several months it took to plan and build.  When I am done, you will probably have a adequate idea anyway of how I built my 10-inch Newtonian reflector on its Dobsonian mount.

In my next telescope build post, I will discuss one of the first major decisions – whether to build or buy the primary mirror.