October Phoenix Nights

After the weekend showers the day skies have been crystal clear, but the nightglow persists no matter what, I suppose. It was an average viewing night. I could clearly make out the top three stars defining Cassiopeia, could barely make out the fourth, and just couldn’t quite see the bottom of the famous and easily identifiable W.

With the naked eye I kept thinking I saw a fuzzy patch about where I imagined I have seen Andromeda. With the skyglow and the earliness of the evening, I didn’t believe it, so I went and got the binocs, and there was nothing there.

While using the 15×70 Orion Little Giant binoculars I was of course hoping I would then see Andromeda. I never look in the right place, so I have to go indoors, check Starry Night Pro, and go back out. I’m indoors now (natch) and not planning to go back out again until just before bedtime.

But a gray, swept-wing silhouette of a large jet flew into my field of vision. As far as I could tell, it had no running lights. It was too high to hear any sound. And tracking it led me right past the North American Nebula (according to Starry Night Pro). When learning the night sky, I’ll take any stage props I can get.

A year ago (September 2005) I wrote of the “Cassiopeia Neighborhood” and my “discovery” of a cascade of stars falling out of the bottom of the “W”:

Below Cassiopeia (as it rises in the East), cascades a long spilling trail of stars down into the rising constellation Perseus. It is quite rich. I call it Yosemite Falls, and on a clear night you can practically hear it; in fits of romantic fantasy I imagine the sound of wind chimes.

I suspect this area is part of Perseus, but without more careful study I couldn’t say for sure. I wouldn’t say it was scintillating tonight, but with the 15×70’s it was still a delight to see. Even with average urban night skies, and a little patience, there is always something so see. Maybe I won’t wait for bedtime to go back out there after all!

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Observational Doldrums

There hasn’t been any real activity in the Astronomy department in about a year. It’s not for lack of interest. I just haven’t been doing any observing lately.

Beyond the metropolitan skyglow and pathetic Clear Sky clocks, I spend as much time as ever “armchairing” the universe through the magazines, internet and an occasional new book.

The last time I set up a telescope, Bob was still alive. I had to have him act as “spotter” as I hefted our massive Orion 10″ reflector and guided it onto the Atlas mount, down here in Phoenix. After dark, the sky didn’t offer a rich selection of targets, but mighty Jupiter shone brightly in the southeast. This was “first light” for the Atlas/Orion, and I got a rough polar alignment on the mount, and tracking seemed to work great.

Jupiter swung into view, and I switched to the highest power eyepiece I thought traffic would bear. I refocused and held Bob steady so he could look through the eyepiece.

“Oh my GAWD!”, he exclaimed, and I was rewarded with one of Bob’s increasingly rare genuine smiles. It was a truly beautiful sight, and a grand way to remember the last time he looked through a telescope.

People who have been together for a long time naturally divide up tasks according to what they do best. I was best at star charts and celestial mechanics. Bob was best at setting up and programming the AutoStar device for our Meade 8″ SCT. The device, which remains a thorn in the side for me, is remarkably similar to a TV remote. That was right up Bob’s alley. In the old days, I would do the mechanical setup, Bob would initialize the scope’s computer, I would find objects like Andromeda when Autostar didn’t seem to, and we would share observational delights.

I won’t pretend that half the fun of observing isn’t sharing with someone else. I still have the scopes. I will set up the Meade again, probably on vacation in October. I’m not confident I have the strength to set up the 10″ Orion without some help. The penalty for dropping an OTA is just too steep.

There’s enough fun in entry-level observing to keep me going for a long time, when I get back into it.

For naked-eye observing, last night was exceptional. I enjoyed a late night dip in the pool (it will soon be too cold for the pool) and saw Cassiopaea, the full sideways “W”. I knew Andromeda is somewhere to the east of that, but I wasn’t trying to identify objects, so much as enjoy. The night sky was fairly crystalline. Sometimes just looking in wonder is enough for me.

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Clouds Ahoy

Shiver me timbers, matey. There’s a cloud on the horizon. Make haste for the forecastle hammocks before we’re beset by foul weather. Arrrr, avast and belay!

In Phoenix we had near-perfect skies all day, and then, at dusk, the clouds came marching in from all corners and a hot wind blows from the west. I’m sure the city fathers will manage whatever July 4th displays they have planned – heck, if San Francisco can do it, so can Phoenix. In our neighborhood, we have to climb onto the roof to see anything at all of this; the neighbors’ bottle rockets and strings of firecrackers will intrude sufficiently. Some years, from a predictable part of town, we can hear yahoos unleash the 14-round auto pistols and the AK-47’s, and then we hear some sirens, and then nothing.

It doesn’t look like an ideal viewing night.

Yesterday it was cloudy most of the day (“slight chance of showers”) and then cleared up nicely by nightfall. At 9PM, yawning, I went out for a quick visual inspection of my night sky. It was hazy to the west and the skyglow was intense. If going back indoors, you’d notice, under such conditions, you don’t need any lights on inside at all to navigate safely, or to clearly see all the objects in the living room.

I was able to locate Polaris, but not the Little Dipper attached to it. In time, I was able to trace out the Big Dipper, but almost never can see Ursa Major of which the Big Dipper is a part. Overhead, the “summer triangle”: Vega of Lyra, Deneb of Cygnus, and Altair of Aquila. I am rarely able to pick out those particular constellations without a guidebook or starfinder, but I was delighted that I was actually able to see Corona Borealis.

It was not an ideal viewing night. But it might have been my best shot. Tonight, the Clear Sky Clock below tells the whole story.

Yesterday, I had gotten up at 6AM that morning, done the yard work, gone to a movie, and missed my nap. I was really tired, and went to bed after the visual viewing session. Now, there’s an excuse you don’t hear too often, for it’s too namby-pamby to be faked.

Tonight is “amateur night”, and you know what? I have a lot of fun staying indoors in the air conditioned living room, listening to music, and reading Sky and Telescope. At 9PM, I’ll go out anyway, just to see what I’m missing. I may take a short cooling dip in the pool. Now, I know this is stranger than fiction, but true: you know what else? When I start yawning, I’m off to bed. What would a perfect vacation be without plenty of shut-eye? (wink wink)

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Orion Neighborhood

Orion Sketch based on Sky & Telescope plate.

I drew this sketch based on a plate in a Sky & Telescope book review. It is not much as sketches go, but it helps me learn the night sky without resorting to GoTo or RA & Dec setting circles.

The book, which I intend to order, was very favorable. As I recall, the review recommended it for beginning stargazers or even experienced amateur astronomers who want a fresh take on the nightly panorama. I’m sorry I don’t recall the month of the S&T review (it would be fall 2005, I think), but the book is:

Backyard Stargazer by Pat Price
(Beginners Guide) Quarry Books 1999
ISBM 1-59253-148-2 paperbound
Sky Publishing

A Google search shows the book available at Amazon, and Anacortes Telescope & Wild Bird, to name a couple of sources. I ordered mine at Amazon ($13.99) as it’s time to stock up on some of the other books on my list too.

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Morning Sky Delights

I do my eyedrops in the morning. They take two minutes, eyes closed. I like to do this routine on our celebrated apartment balcony while I marshal my resources for the commute and day ahead. It’s quiet and peaceful at 5:30 AM, and still a good half hour before first twilight. When I think two minutes are up, I open my eyes. At that point, I have great night vision.

From the balcony we can see from a little west of North to about southeast. Being a second floor balcony with a third floor balcony above, the vertical sky is limited to about 45 degrees elevation.

This morning was exceptionally clear. I could see the familiar twins Castor and Pollux, with bright Saturn currently below and a little south. The Big Dipper was plainly visible, and probably the Little Dipper hanging down underneath Polaris, when I learn to pay attention. Standing on the north balcony edge, Cassiopeia was plainly visible – all 5 points. The ‘W’ is flipped in orientation from the evening view, and so looks like a lopsided ‘M’.

No binoculars this morning. For Castro Valley, this was naked eye observing at its best. Rats, time to shut down the house and leave for work.

Stepping out onto the parking lot on the SW side of the building, I am treated to the bright three-star belt of Orion, and the whole of Orion as well. If I’d paid more attention and shielded my eyes from the parking lot lights, I would have seen Taurus and my friends the Pleiades a little to the west, as well.

Here, it doesn’t get any better than this! It was a great day at work, too. I was jazzed all day.

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Last night’s plane to Phoenix was late, so justifying staying up to enjoy Autumn night skies at midnight. And it was worth it, as those skies were exceptionally clear for an area like ours.

Cassiopeia shone brightly, all of the legs of the sideways W clearly visible. As the heavens advance, in a month or two it will really be a “W”.

At midnight, everything has rotated enough so that I am a little disoriented. This is a good thing for me. The tendency to look for objects in relation to the Castro Valley Porch (600 miles away) is strong. I finally find the glow of the Andromeda Galazy fuzzball in the binoculars. It is elliptical tonight – a first for me.

The cascade of stars falling out of the bottom of Cassiopeia is now almost horizontal. I am still no amateur astronomer, I realize: more likely, an amateur layperson. Why do I have trouble identifying objects I thought I knew well as a student 40 years ago? The passing of the years is only part of the answer, and perhaps not an unimportant part. The urban skyglow from one of the biggest metro areas in the United States, another. Much of it is simple disuse: I do not get out here often enough.

Mars is high enough to be clear of the ground glow – the blanket of light pollution that obscures the bottom 15 degrees or so above a “real” horizon. It is unmistakably red, unmistakably Mars. Ah, but what is this? The red glow to the northeast looks like my old friend Aldebaran. That means I should see the V of Taurus. At first I do not see it. It is lying on its side. There it is!

That means I should be able to see the Pleiades. And I do, the unmistakably and crystal clear Seven Sisters, the blue-white giants cradled in their nursery of cold gas.

But, last year, we saw them way to the southwest! How can the Pleiades be so far “north”? Ah, you old simpleton, they will climb high in the sky and then descend gently into the southwestern night, as we saw them before. I trace the arc, and see that it is true. How can one so schooled in the complicated things take so long to really grasp something as simple as that?

What star charts do I use? Starry Night software, and the center foldouts in the magazines, whatever is handy: out of an abiding conviction that I should know these things, I never take them outside with me. They are a distraction. I’m not recommending this to others, but I am not trying to train an 8 inch mirror on an area of a few arcseconds. I normally check the references out after my observing sessions.

Slowly, kicking and screaming, I will rid myself of dependence on the fixed reference points: Polaris, porch corner. Andromeda, high above the middle eaucalyptus tree. How primitive! I am finally learning to fix the stars in reference to themselves. And having a wonderful time stargazing, with just the naked eye and binoculars, at that.

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Cassiopeia Neighborhood

DSCF3137.jpg ... Click image for larger file.

Almost a year ago, we did a piece called The Fearless Observer in which we complained that, with our night sky light pollution, I had a hard time recognizing my old friends The Pleiades, and Taurus the bull.

In early August we wasted a great deal of time identifying a different constellation. Three linchpin stars that define the right angle “dipper” of the Big Dipper turned out to be the only part of Cassiopeia that we could recognize with the unaided eye. We used our Starry Night Pro software sky chart to correct our mistake. If you click the small image, you’ll find a grayscale copy of the Starry Night Pro chart which shows this neck of the woods for this time of the year in the California Bay Area.
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The Fearless Observer

Naked Eye Observing – the Known Universe from Castro Valley

The Known Universe - click image for full-size sketch.Here we peel back the sordid, squalid, seamy underside of practical amateur astronomy. In a world of GPS GO-TO computerized alt-az mounts, 16″ dobsonians, and stacked CCD image processing, some us – by choice or by force of circumstance – have adapted to naked-eye, visible-sky observing.
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Lunar Eclipse October 27, 2004

Lunar Eclipse 6:25PMWe didn’t have time to really prepare for this, the last full lunar eclipse until 2007. I was able to set up the D100 digital camera on a tripod. This shot was captured shortly after sunset (taken at about 6:25PM Pacific), over the hills east of Castro Valley, California.

The bright dot to the upper right of the moon was a jetliner.

This shot was captured at ISO 800, 1/20 sec, f10. The moon disappeared shortly after this picture was taken, but came back later. Exposures up to 2 seconds later caught the red glow, but I didn’t use a remote shutter release and there was some blurring, so I’m not posting here.

For a large 1024×768 verion of this JPG, click the image to the left.

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Cloudy Nights

Yes, it’s true that Cloudy Nights is the excellent website one goes to for reviews, opinion and exchanging ideas with friends who share the same excellent hobby (astronomy) you do …’Cloudy Nights’ is also an excellent description of the night sky November 8. I was all set for the total lunar eclipse this time, but the weather had other ideas.

As the moon would already be well into totality by the time of moonrise (5:21PM PST), I knew that if I could see the moon from the living room, I could photograph it from the living room. I set up indoors and aimed just over the horizon for that break in the clouds that never occurred.

As a consolation prize, I posted this photo on one of the Cloudy Nights forums with the following note:

“I too favor the Orion 127 Mak for limited space apartment living. As you can see here, even the balcony is crowded. I took the Mak off the equatorial mount and set it up INDOORS for the Nov 8 total lunar eclipse. It rained cats and dogs for the entire duration, and I never got even a short glimpse of the moon. The thinking was that if an opportunity presented itself, I could have opened the slider for a quick shot, without getting myself or the equipment wet. That’s a digital SLR mounted at prime focus, waiting for the shot that never came.”

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