The Stranded Stargazer

When there is nothing but gray, day and night
As layers of dark clouds canvas the sky
I recall how I would ponder and write
About what’s seen from the telescope’s eye

For with a clear sky you can catch the Moon
Or observe planets, like Venus and Mars
And with telescope, find distant Neptune
Among the constellations drawn from stars

But rude Winter cloaks all that shines above
First by snow, then sleet, then widening frost
Denying this stranded stargazer’s love
To remain indoors dreaming of nights lost

Yet Winter will not always reign as king
I shall see Orion at start of Spring

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No Moon in February!

Do not adjust your screen, there really is nothing to see here.

I admit – though not accurate it makes for a sensational headline.  “No Moon in February!”

Of course there is a Moon.  There is always a Moon, our Moon, somewhere, visible to some degree nearly every day, weather permitting.  But February 2018 has no Full Moon, as the adjoining phase bounds this time happened first on January 31st with the next on March 1st.

When Pope Gregory XIII introduced his namesake Gregorian calendar in 1582, I am sure foremost on the 16th century mind was that February at times would have no Full Moon.  A 28-day month fits very snuggly into the 29.5 day cycle of the Moon, if you allow it.

How often does this happen?  Roughly four times per century, according to Sky and Telescope.  The last Full-Moonless February was in 1999.  That was a long time ago.  So long ago that America was still launching its own manned space missions via the space shuttle fleet (though as The Science Geek explains, the dearth of American human spaceflight may be rapidly approaching its end).

A February without a Full Moon makes for a January and March with two Full Moons each.  But this post is about poor February.  Let her 31-day brothers have their hoarding bragging rights in their own times.

Nonetheless, February should not feel too bad.  Lack of Full Moon is merely an anomalous quirk of our calendar, cured easily with time and a healthy dose of 2019.

We’re in the middle of a February with no Full Moon.  Logically, that means we are close to the New Moon phase.  It’s a great time for stargazing, if you can bear the cold and find a sky free of Winter clouds.

Waiting for Winter to Reopen the Sky

Ice-covered Lake Michigan this winter.

I wish there was more to say and show from the past few weeks, but the weather has not been cooperating.  Cloud-blanketed days and nights intermingled with furious snow bashings have created a mid-Winter with little time for anything beyond work and shoveling.  But I keep my back deck snow-free in hopes that a prolonged break will come one evening and I can get either a telescope or camera out for at least a brief time.

There are a few matters to report.  First, we are now in prime time viewing season for Orion.  From the northern hemisphere, it’s high in the South around 8 to 9 o’clock.  I very much want to take a wide-field view of this constellation, especially since I recently bought a better wide-field lens that I am eager to try out.  I did catch a brief glimpse of Orion last night through a break in the clouds, but certainly not predictable or long enough to warrant getting equipment set up to photograph.

Over the weekend, in between my snow removal shifts, I was up very late, around 1:30am, and noticed to the East that Jupiter was already visible through my trees.  This is great news as it means opposition is rapidly approaching, and in another one-to-two months it will be available for observation and photography at reasonable evening hours once again.

Finally, all the snow in my area made we wonder if my neighbor’s buried outdoor lights would lessen the area’s light pollution for the time being.  With a small break in clouds last night, I did look up for a few minutes, but did not notice any difference.  My guess is that any mitigation of pollution due to covered lights is offset by the highly reflective white snow cover.

Moon on the Following Morning after the Lunar Eclipse

February 1st, 2018, 07:10 a.m. local time

I took this picture just over 24 hours after I witnessed this year’s Lunar Eclipse.  The Moon was still very full, despite having been over a day into its Waning Phase.  It was a very cold morning, but clear enough for the Moon to shine brightly in the West.

Weather Reports from the 2018 Lunar Eclipse

January 30th, 2018, 08:00 p.m. local time

Very thick cloud cover throughout the sky.  No sign of the rising Moon.

January 31st, 2018, 12:20 a.m. local time

I stepped outside for a moment.  Clouds everywhere, but the circular form of the Moon shown through them from above.  It was blurry, but obviously visible.

January 31st, 2018, 05:30 a.m. local time

Incredibly, not a cloud in my Western sky!

The night before, I had prepared my 127mm Mak-Cass and digital camera with tripod, hoping to see and capture this morning’s Lunar Eclipse event.  Though bitterly cold, I persevered, and it was well worth the effort.

I did not get to see the entire eclipse, as expected, but I saw a great deal of it.  The full eclipse happened about 15 minutes after Sunrise when the Moon had already set past the West horizon.

This was the nearly Full Moon at about 5:30am:

Click for full size.

About ten minutes later, darkness was obviously beginning to enshroud the upper-left of the Moon:

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And 15 minutes after that:

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Approaching 6:00am, the Moon was about to descend below a house.  This was the last picture I took while it was still visible:

Click for full size.

At this point I scuttled, I mean abandoned…err just left my telescope where it was, in favor of the more mobile digital camera on tripod.  This allowed me to quickly get at angles between trees and houses to see the Moon as it began its final descent.

Around 6:30am, the Moon looked almost like its normal crescent, but of course we know this shape was caused today by the Earth’s shadow:

Click for full size.

January 31st, 2018, 06:45 a.m. local time

A half hour before Sunrise, I caught my last view of the Moon this morning, now just a fading red arc, like a gliding feather about to touch the ground.

Click for full size.

Soon after I took this last picture, clouds started to blanket the Western sky once again.

Extreme Planet Hunter: The Dwarf Planet Ceres

Location of Ceres the night of January 25th, 2018.

January 25th, 2018, 11:15 p.m. local time

On Thursday night, a few hours after I photographed the Orion Nebula, I searched for the asteroid and dwarf planet known as Ceres.  Ceres was nearing its current close distance to Earth, so this was an ideal time to find it.

I had to wait until the location was high in the East, almost approaching Zenith, due to my blocked Eastern view.  Specifically, I wanted to ensure that I could identify the front of Leo the Lion, to act as my lower guide, with the stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini framing the top.  Though the top of Leo is not very bright, Regulus is, so once I found Regulus, it was easy to star hop to the tip of Leo.

The “tip” star of Leo, as shown above as the last star in Leo connected by the blue lines, is called Algenubi, magnitude 2.95.  Looking very carefully, I then found Alterf, a 4.3 mag star, and after that a 4.45 mag double star, as shown by the orange lines.  I now knew approximately where Ceres should be.

(It’s worth recalling here that the higher the magnitude number, the fainter the star.  The Sun is about -27 magnitude and Pluto around 9, for comparative reference.)

Enter my binoculars, as I had already taken my telescope in for the night because I wasn’t sure if I would still be awake by this time.  Consulting with Stellarium, I knew Ceres’s magnitude that night was 6.89, well within my binoculars’ view.  Near and above Ceres were a 6.00 mag pulsating variable star (top left, below) and a 5.4 mag star (top right, below), forming an isosceles triangle with the dwarf planet.  No other objects in this immediate area were close to Ceres’s 6.89, so identifying this triangle would logically reveal Ceres.  And it did turn out to be so, as Stellarium showed:

This was another “first” in that I had never seen an asteroid before.  If this were the early 19th century, I’d be saying I had seen one of our 11 or 12 planets in the Solar System.  But being 2018, I will settle for witnessing the largest object in the asteroid belt.

The Orion Nebula via Smartphone

The Orion Nebula, M42

January 25th, 2018, 8:30 p.m. local time

The skies were very clear last night and the temperature in the mid-30s (F), with no wind.  It was a great opportunity to take my 10″ Dob outside for the first time this year.

There were many targets in the sky, but as it was a school night, I decided to focus (no pun intended) on the Orion Nebula.  I first observed it for a while with only my 2″ 32mm eyepiece.  It still looks as I recall from the prior season of observation.  Worth noting was the presence of the Quarter Moon, so the skies were nowhere near ideal for deep sky observations.

I then proceeded to attach my phone via mount to the eyepiece.  Understand that my attempts at photographing any deep sky object, such as M42, accentuate the limits of my astrophotography equipment.  I do not have an equatorial mount, so I cannot take the needed exposures for truly rich images.  One image I took at a four-second exposure brought out the nebula’s shape in surprising clarify, but the long star trails make the image unusable.  I settled for a few ~0.3 second exposures, lightly edited afterward in PaintShop Pro.

NEWS: Moon Seen in Daylight

Contrary to popular belief, the Moon (upper left) can sometimes be seen in daytime.

BRIGHTVILLE, ILLINOIS – After concerned citizens reported a UFO in the low Western sky, the apparent same object was spotted late in the afternoon the following day.

The previously unidentified object, known as the Moon, was seen last Friday in the hour before sunset and shortly thereafter.

While most people paid little heed to the event, some Brightville residents did report their sightings to the Illinois Department of Illumination.

“We’ve had motorists and pedestrians calling our office to report seeing the object for a second day,” said an IDOI spokestalker.  “Though it appeared slightly larger in the sky than last night, we do still firmly believe it is the Moon again.”

Though the Moon is a natural and predictable sight, it is nonetheless not approved to appear in Illinois skies.

As IDOI explains, “To date, nobody has yet filled out the necessary paperwork or filed a license application for the Moon to appear in our skies like it does.”

The unlicensed Moon sightings have fueled assertions from the Nighttime Lighting Association to increase the number of streetlights throughout the state.  The rational is that more artificial outdoor lighting will make it difficult to impossible to see any objects in the sky, day or night.

Though the NLA was unavailable for comment, the organization’s website says they are, “committed to the propagation of street lamps, spotlights, and high-intensity outdoor home bulbs so that we’ll never see the dark of night again.”

Critics of the NLA’s position believe that it unnecessarily harms natural night environments by contributing to light pollution.

BREAKING NEWS: Moon Visible Despite Excessive Light

Experts acknowledged that the object (lower-left center) witnessed by several persons is known as the Moon.

BRIGHTVILLE, ILLINOIS – The Earth’s only natural satellite made a surprise appearance in the sky yesterday evening, alarming the few onlookers who happened to noticed its thin crescent near the Western horizon.

Sources confirmed that the Moon may have been visible for a limited time on Thursday, until about an hour after sunset.  It appeared as what astronomers call a Waxing Crescent, since each night there will more of its disc visible, until it reaches its Full phase on the 31st of January.

“I was walking to my car in the parking lot after work and, you know, just happened to see something in the sky that wasn’t an airplane,” said one anonymous blogger.  “It’s so hard to see anything up there with all these lights.”

Though the appearance of the Moon is not typically a concern to most people, Illinois has taken aggressive steps in recent years to illuminate its night sky more.  In particular, the installation of new ultra-bright LED lights along the state’s streets and tollways have greatly contributed to what critics call “light pollution.”

“We received many reports from concerned motorists about a curved-shape UFO low in the sky,” said an Illinois Department of Illumination spokesperson.  “After review with top meteorogical experts, we are confident the object was indeed the Moon.

“Understanding the anxiety this event caused, rest assured that we will be looking to install even more high-powered LEDs throughout our roadways.  We simply cannot have our motorists distracted by objects appearing in the sky from nowhere without official approval.”

Due largely to the Chicago region, Illinois has one of the highest Bortle scale ratings on the planet.

“Our goal, and the goal of every Illinois citizen, is to achieve the highest Bortle scale rating in the country and throughout the world.”

Illinois authorities warn that in areas without cloud cover, the Moon may be more visible and brighter every night for the next ten days.