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.

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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:

Click for full size.

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.

The Brightness of Algol, Part I

Click to see the full-sized image. Afocal image taken from a 254mm reflector.

“I will definitely be looking out for Algol and will try to take pictures.”
Me on September 12th, 2017

The star Algol, in the constellation Perseus, is known as an eclipsing binary star.  As explained at Scott’s Sky Watch:

“Algol’s brightness changes as we see it here on Earth. It’s not because its inherent brightness itself is changing, but because another star is passing in front of it, blocking out some if its light, just like the Moon did to the Sun last month, but much farther away. From its 90 light years, we can see it as only one star. Algol was the first star of this type to be discovered, so this type is sometimes called an Algol Binary. We here are fortunate to be able to see this.”

I had been hoping to take pictures over the course of days to see if changes in its brightness could be detected.  I was only able to image the star on one night so far, several weeks ago on December 19th.  I did log the telescope, lens, and camera settings, so that I can try to reproduce the imaging event at a later date.  The above image, from December 19th, is unaltered except for an increase in color vibrancy that can be applied easily to the next image.

There is still some time this season to capture Algol again.  I just need both the Winter weather and skies to cooperate together on a single night.

Constellations VI: Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, and the Quest for the Andromeda Galaxy

Click to see the full-sized image.

I was motivated this weekend to try to find the asteroid 3200 Phaethon.  But after reviewing its location, I realized it would be tough to see from my vantage point.  Saturday night brought in a clear sky with calm weather, so I decided on another venture – more wide-field astrophotography!

My primary target was Pegasus, but I knew I could also capture nearby Andromeda as well as Cassiopeia.  I took about 40 15-second exposures with my digital camera, followed by the customary 15-ish dark and bias frames, put them all into DeepSkyStacker, post-processed them in PaintShopPro, and the above image is the result.

There are a lot of starts in this picture, taken by pointing my tripoded camera above and a bit to the West around 8:15pm local time.  In case you cannot see the constellations, here is the same image with the major shapes traced:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Also highlighted is the area of the Andromeda Galaxy.  In my very light-polluted neighborhood, none of the galaxy is visible unaided, but I can see its center with my binoculars and telescope.  In this picture, the center is visible as a very small spec.  Keep in mind this picture was taken with my widest-possible lens setup, so details would be scarce regardless.

In Andromeda, the main guide star is Mirach.  In my above images, I don’t have this star labeled, but it is the closest star that is part of the orange connection lines to the final “a” in the word Andromeda.  Stellarium shows Mirach in relation to galaxy M31 as:

Mirach in relation to the Andromeda Galaxy.

For comparison to my actual results, here is that section of my image zoomed in.  You can see Mirach, the Andromeda Galaxy, and all the main surrounding stars as they match up to Stellarium’s database:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Next, I would like to try the same long-exposure exercise through my telescope, pointed at the Andromeda Galaxy, to determine if I can capture any detail beyond the galaxy’s center!

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 24:

  • Ursa Minor
  • Draco
  • Leo the Lion
  • Aquila
  • Sagitta
  • Delphinus
  • Velpecula
  • Lyra
  • Cygnus
  • Taurus
  • Perseus
  • Camelopardalis
  • Auriga
  • Cassiopeia
  • Cepheus
  • Scorpius
  • Ophiuchus
  • Virgo
  • Cancer
  • Leo Minor
  • Lynx
  • Ursa Major
  • Pegasus
  • Andromeda

References:

Four Nights, One Lamp, Four Phases

Click for larger image.

November 28th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time
November 29th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time
November 30th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time
December 1st, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time

On Tuesday, November 28th, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon high above.  I decided to take a picture with the only camera I had available, which of course was my smartphone.

On Wednesday, November 28th, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon high above.  Standing in the same spot as the night prior and at roughly the same time, I look a picture of the Moon again.

On Thursday, November 29th, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon above.  Standing in the same spot that I did on the prior two nights, I look a picture of the Moon again.

On Friday, December 1st, I disembarked from my normal train home from work.  It was a clear night with the Moon towards the East.  Standing in the same spot that I did on the prior three nights, I look a picture of the Moon again.

This format was unintentional at the start, but by Thursday I decided to trek along with the experiment for as long as the clouds would stay away.  In the end, I had four image sets, each 24 hours apart, pointed in the same direction.

The walkway light proved an excellent anchor to align the images day by day.  Obviously, they are not 100% exact.  I tried to stand in the same spot each night, but as this wasn’t a controlled environment exercise, the Moon’s path and location is ever so slightly off, but hardly noticeable.

Keep in mind that the Moon moves backward every day from its position the prior day.  This was demonstrated quit visibly in August as the Moon past over the Sun from right to left.

Here is the same image with each day’s date tagged to its Moon phase: