Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Comet ISON on 11-20-13

Five days have passed and this is the first morning it's been clear enough to try and grab photos of Comet ISON again. On the one hand Stellarium says that ISON has increased in brightness to mag ~3.75. On the other hand, it will be lower in the sky, arriving closer to dawn and combating a nearly full moon. All this means that it's effective brightness (measured as apparent extinction) will be about mag 4.75. So effectively it will be no better than five days ago, just lower in the sky. Which means that, given light pollution and haze, it's still not visible to the naked eye.

The good news is that I was able to photograph it back then, so I had high hopes for today. I trudged out at 5:45 (trying really really hard not to wake my fiance) pointed the camera in the right place and immediately started taking photographs. When the photos didn't show anything obvious I trudged back inside for the laptop and Stellarium to figure out exactly where to point the camera.

Because there are trees to the east I figured I had a relatively small window of opportunity - about 10 minutes around 6am before dawn started to interfere with my observing. I quickly found where I needed to be and starting snapping photos. I played with several settings from about 15 sec to as little as 2 seconds. I got my best results with my canon t5i at a 2 sec exposure with an ISO setting of about 1600. More than that and there was too much noise and background brightness. Go in the other direction and you get too much movement (long exposure time) or simply not enough photons (too low ISO). The camera also has a zoom lens (faux telephoto) which allowed me to get closer. I'll have to look up the specs on that if asked.

Anyways, here's the best of the bunch from this morning, courtesy of Flickr.  They are considerably embiggened there. Enjoy!

Comet ISON on 11-20-13

Comet ISON on 11-20-13

So basically, you can see the greenish coma and a little bit of the tail. Not bad for obviously hazy skies. I don't know if I'll get clear weather again, so this may be the last I see of ISON prior to its solar encounter.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Comet ISON on 11-15-13

This is my observation of ISON at about 5:45 ET from the light-polluted city of Morgantown, WV. The conditions were a hazy pre-dawn (the sword in Orion's belt was difficult to see through binocs. ISON was not visible to the naked eye, but photographable. Attached is said photograph. ISON is circled in red. Kudos, as always, to Stellarium for helping me star-hop to find the comet.

comet ison 11-15-13

Based on the surrounding stars in the photograph I estimate the brightness of ISON's head to be about 4.75 mag. Which is awesome for a comet that was about Mag 8 a week ago and Mag 5.5 a day ago. I was not able to observe any sort of tail.

Here's a link to the photo on flickr:

Photographic details:

Camera: Canon T5i
ISO: 800
Exposure time: 15 seconds
Aperature: f/3.5

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Finding Uranus with my 10" Meade and Stellarium

So tonight was the first night I've had to go star gazing in over a week. In the interim there's been some excitement about it being November and there being multiple comets out there either within the range of a small aperture telescope or almost within the range. Of course all those are early morning objects and I can't get up that early... instead I decided to focus on something actually in the night sky. Uranus. Uranus is currently in pisces, which is a portion of the night sky where the stars are mostly obscured by the glare of the city lights. From my backyard there are no nearby stars that I can pick out as guide stars. Star-hopping is therefore required. Which means I get to bring my laptop and Stellarium outside.

Stellarium is an open source software that is pretty darn good when it comes to star locating. Its not perfect, but it comes close. And the price is right. So, laptop in hand, I picked out the most obvious nearby star I could see and started star-hopping. About ten minutes later and only a few wrong turns I was looking at Uranus.

So I should say right now that Uranus isn't much to look at. There's a reason it was never identified as a planet in antiquity. Its small. Its 3 arc-seconds in total size right now. At about 30x that makes it just slightly larger than a point of light. Kicking it up to about 60x and you can clearly see a tiny, nice, sky-blue sphere. Atmospheric turbulence meant that it was a blurry sphere - but that's the atmosphere.

So that's it. Short and sweet. Picked up a nice planet tonight - and one not visible with the naked eye. Nice.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Observing highlights 10-21-13

So tonight we had another (mostly) clear night. (Woo hoo! two nights in a row). Additionally there was an extra hour (50 mins) before the moon came up. So I was pretty excited about taking the 10" out again. The goal tonight was to look at some of the more diffuse nebulae. I was happy with how open clusters looked and bright nebulae like the Andromeda Galaxy. But how would some of the dimmer ones fare?

My first stop was M101. M101 is a galaxy in Ursa Major  - which itself was just above the neighborhood rooftops. It took a little bit of star hopping, but I did eventually come to the appropriate spot only to find it completely empty of nebula-matter. Oh well, no matter. Its a hard find, regardless, and it was pointed towards the heart of the city. I was tempted to go after M51 as well, but it was still below the rooftops and I was impatient.

The Northern Cross was almost directly overhead and I figured that would be about as good as conditions would get. I started hopping around nebulae there. First was the North America nebula (NGC7000). Again, I did find the stars in and around this nebula, but not the wispy-cloudy bits. I then gave the Veil Nebula (NGC6992) an unenthusiastic shot, with similar results. Clearly, these low brightness, large surface area nebulae aren't great for the city. Basically, I was re-learning what thousands of observers before me had discovered.

I started to pack up when my fiance's little one wandered out to come look at the stars. So I quickly unpacked and pointed it at the rather dim but dense Ring Nebula (M57). The Ring Nebula rarely disappoints. The ease in which its found combined with its higher unit brightness makes it a 'go to' nebula, despite it's dim apparent magnitude of 8.8. We pulled out a bunch of eyepieces and looked at it through several different magnifications. Something around 150x was the best trade-off between size and clarity.

Buoyed by this easy success, I went on to look at some of the nice binary systems - the double double in epsilon Vega, Alberio in Cygnus as well as several small "binaries" which probably aren't listed as such but look really nice in the Cygnus star field.

The evening ended on a high note when, on a whim, I decided to make a wild stab at picking out M27 - the Dumbbell Nebula. The Dumbbell Nebula is one of those highlights that really isn't near anything. Consequently it requires either a LOT of star hopping or just sweeping an area. I elected to do the latter. And wasn't I surprised and pleased when after only a few minutes it popped out, big as life! Though the Dumbbell Nebula is only Mag 7.5, its a very even brightness across its face. Details weren't that obvious, but I was getting a little cold by then and called it quits.

Overall, it was a good night. Star hopping is great with the scope. The modifications made to the scope over the weekend have worked out wonderfully to this point and the increased familiarity I'm getting with the scope is sure to pay off once Comet ISON shows up in a few weeks.

A little cartoon to celebrate legalizing same-sex marriages in NJ.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Observing highlights 10-20-2013

Tonight's goal was to align the finder scope to my Meade 10" Lightbridge telescope I recently had refurbished. The scope has been sitting in a corner of my basement for about a year and a half now waiting to be repaired. (It had a faulty mirror). Now that has been repaired it's time to get it out into the moderately light polluted skies and see what an additional 2 inches of aperture can do.

My finder scope is an Orion EZ Finder Deluxe. It's been my favorite for quite some time now (I honestly can't remember when I bought it, but it was at least a couple years ago). Getting it aligned took a bit of work. Partly because at some point I had reversed the base to the mount and had to take the base off the main tube. And, of course, I did this in the backyard and dropped one of the tiny bolts. Fortunately I have several neodymium magnets and after four or five minutes of sweeping the grass with them I recovered the bolt. After reversing the base, aligning the scope was a snap.

At this point I was down to about a half an hour before the just past full moon would peek over the surrounding hills. I pointed the dob towards Cassiopea and saw several things through my 2" 32mm eyepiece. Eta Cassiopeia - a nice double - was particularly clear. This double is a little different in that it's two stars have vastly different magnitudes. Nightwatch lists the brighter as mag 3.5 and the dimmer as mag 7.3. The Mag 7.3 was nicely visible, though, and i could see the 12" separation pretty clearly. Moving from there I picked up NGC 457, the Double Cluster and M 103.

From there I moved over to Andromeda and picked up the Andromeda Galaxy and one of the smaller galaxies (to the up and left in my eyepiece). Even under light polluted skies the Andromeda Galaxy has some nice definition. I couldn't see any particular details within the galaxy, but I could see the outline of the galaxy nicely. (The 8" Orion dob only showed me the central core under the same conditions).

At this point I could see the sky brightening in the east, so I tried for one more object - M15 in the end of Pegasus. This I found remarkably easily despite it being ~mag 6.3. I should point out that anything dimmer than mag 6.0 is pretty unobservable with my 8" dob under these conditions - although the ring nebula (at Mag 8.8) shows up as a tiny spot. However, M51 is too dim to observe in the 8" scope.

 Regardless M15 looked quite nice in the 10" scope. After that I packed everything up and came inside. I hope that the skies will hold out for at least one more night and I'll be able to catch a few things tomorrow night.

Friday, September 27, 2013

My "Mariano Rivera" moment

With the imminent retirement of Mariano "Mo" Rivera, people all around the 'net are reminiscing with their favorite or special Mo-ments. While I had the fortune to see many Yankees games in the 1990s and early 2000s at Yankee stadium, the moment that I want to share takes place at the Yankees spring training facilites at Steinbrenner Field.

It was sometime around 2000 and the Yankees were playing the Braves. The game quickly turned into a laugher, with the Yankees up by more than ten runs after a few innings. In other words, a typical spring training game. Both teams substituted vigorously.

My sister and I were sitting on the home team (First Base) side, about three or four seats from the bullpen. As you might expect, the bullpen was busy that day, with players getting their throws in, warming up and prepping to come into the day. After awhile we got used to the constant sizzle and *thwock* of a major league pitcher throwing to his catcher. It was a soothing  sound.

In the seventh inning however, there was a pause and then something happened. The soothing sounds stopped and were replaced by what I can only describe as the crack of a bullwhip mixed with the sound of a pistol firing. the sound was loud enough to assault the ears. The natural inclination was to seek shelter, away from whatever made that un-godly noise. I looked over to my sister an we both scooted over to the end of the row where a crowd had begun to gather around the noise.

At the center was Mariano Rivera, warming up. Without the benefit of the wall between us and him, the sound really sounded like a rifle retort.

I couldn't imagine what amount of money would be necessary to get me to stand in the batter's box with that sound only a foot or two from my ears. I remain convinced to this day that, professional ball players included, there wasn't enough money present at that field to coerce me into the box, much less pick up a bat and try to swing at the ball. At least with Mo throwing, the ball wouldn't hit me. God knows what would happen if I actually interfered with its flight.

All too quickly, Mo finished his warm-ups and jogged out to pitch. I imagine the poor Braves players were thinking the same thing as they didn't do much against Mo that day. We left shortly thereafter. Since then, I've moved away from the Big Apple. I wasn't able to attend any of Mo's going away ceremonies and I haven't kept up with the Yankees this year like I should. Those years from the mid 90's through the first decade of the 21st century will remain special to me as they will to the millions of fans that this team has touched. We were lucky enough to glimpse through these players a fraction of what the great Yankees dynasties of the 30s, 40s and 50s were like. Thank you.