The Weather Down Here

We Californians are blessed (a.k.a. “spoiled”) with some of the best weather on the planet… and that goes double for those of us nearer the coast, and in those coastal inland valleys! At least this has been the case historically. This season, however, has been an exception- a rather stark one at that. For astronomical purposes, this spring & (approaching) summer have been downright abysmal for conditions! Windy, cool (if not cold), overcast, rainy, followed by yet more of the same. Its now early June, and we’re just now breaking out the March “weather”… February’s had grown long-in-the-tooth after four months of incessant wear ‘n tear.

Lest i complain too loudly, it shall be duly noted & appreciated that not many Californians have recently given their life over things atmospheric, which cannot be said for much of the midwest, and even the eastern U.S., where tornadoes have ripped apart cities, towns, & lives. A few quotes off the web:

“April 2011 will go down as the most tornado-choked April since weather records have been kept, according to Storm Prediction Center (SPC) data.

A ‘normal’ April sees 163 tornadoes; the previous record total for April was 267 twisters in 1974.

April of this year has eclipsed the 1974 tornado tally by a long shot. Over 730 tornado reports have been received so far in April.”

and:
“Approximately 1,000 tornadoes. Nearly 500 dead. The numbers are staggering as the 2011 tornado season rages at a record pace.”

and:
“Jeff Masters at Weather Underground discussed yesterday the causes of this year’s high tornado count and summarized his thoughts with the following:

    ‘In summary, this year’s incredibly violent tornado season is not part of a trend. It is either a fluke, the start of a new trend, or an early warning symptom that the climate is growing unstable and is transitioning to a new, higher energy state with the potential to create unprecedented weather and climate events. All are reasonable explanations, but we don’t have a long enough history of good tornado data to judge which is most likely to be correct.’ “

and finally:
“First, on the ‘are all these tornadoes a manifestation of global warming?’ question, there is a consensus on that, but it’s neither comforting nor conclusive. We simply don’t know…. Tornadoes are extremely capricious events, and teasing out statistically significant trends from historical records is very difficult.”

So with THAT understanding established, i’ll venture forth to say that most of my viewing since February of this year has involved a television and/or a DVD player, due almost entirely to rotten weather! Cobwebs adorn most of my telescopes & astro gear. And while its true that my observing buddies & i managed to get out for a great darksky observing weekend this February, a *first* for that segment of the calender, its ALSO true we ain’t been out SINCE then- yea, nary a once; March (historically the launch of our season), April, May, and now June have all been mired in atmospheric muck! So i’ve long since caught up on all my sleep… i’m good ‘n ready for a li’l healthy sleep deprivation.

Venting these frustrations on a blog, however, seems to have raised the barometric pressure… suddenly warm, gorgeous, summery weather is upon us. Naturally, it arrives just in time to be dowsed in a bright full-Moon, its glory swamping everything but the brightest of stars & clusters.

But we’ll TAKE IT!

Tomorrow nite gets blessed with said full-phase Luna, but it also coincides with our annual cub scout campout & stargaze, so i and a scope will be out there, basking in the glow of the Moon, showing Saturn to a few hundred youngsters waving 500-watt flashlights! If the atmo will hold nice ‘n steady, where Saturn can really dazzle with her glorious rings & retinue of satellites… i might just succeed in hooking one of these young fellows, converting them into a fellow astrohead!

“Great”, you say- someone ELSE to help complain about the weather….

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Good-bye to some old friends…

As an amateur astronomer, particularly in this age of the “information-highway”, where all that obsessively compulses for stuff- the shiny glass & metal trinkets that tantalize at the very limits of an electron’s highway speed- today i’m mourning the loss of a uniquely memorable set of gear.

This equipment, while not primarily astronomical, has served me amazingly well for over twenty years, and has accompanied me thru riverbeds, up mountains, across endless parks & trails, has seen three boys raised from knee-high-to-tadpole unto grown men, has trekked faithfully beside four dogs… and has kept me solid under the stars for countless hours- sometimes ALL night- and from sea level to 5,000 feet! I s’pose it could be stated that the success of said gear could best be measured not in inches, but feet. Specifically, MY feet!

Yes, i went to strap on my pair of good ol’ “Cabella’s” boots, when it became apparent that something inside them had died… yet not the normal, subtle aromatic suggestions- somethin’ had definitely broken loose, and was now painfully crimping down on my left foot! No matter how determined my attempts to manually manipulate the decrepit innards for resolution of comfort, their demise was clearly evident. These dogs had run their course, and run it well. ‘Twas now time to lay ’em to rest.

I have no idea where old boots go when they die. And while we may never know fersure, i’m contemplating conducting a quiet, personal memorial… perhaps some lush plants, a few flowers, and a dog or two in attendance. They held together well, even in death, so possibly an open-box service?

The loss is manifest in significant ways- felt most keenly in my feeble attempts to break in a *new* pair, picked up at a local Big 5 sporting goods. I certainly don’t remember the old ones ever being so uncomfortable at the first- and amazingly, they were mail-order’d- a stunt i’d never even consider trying now! Our UPS guy already sees a steady stream of footwear heading both directions- the candidates arriving, and 90% of them failing my wife’s fit/style/color evaluation matrix!

Yet the intangible loss aches in an entirely different manner. The memories. There was our first home in this community, perched on the fringe of town, backed up to the San Benito river & its piles of miles of brushy, undulating riverbed… a 5-year-old boy and a 100-pound shep-collie dog named Bear, pleasant afternoons and evenings ’til dusk spent walking these boots up & down the river with them. The animals we saw- deer, a red-fox, hawks, eagles, ‘coons, possum, and an occasional cat that would puff-up double-size-wise at the sight of Bear! Then another boy-child arrived, followed by a third- and Bear, my boots, and i would walk these young pups all over creation- which by now had expanded to include hikes thru the Pinnacles State Park south of us, church camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains, various lakes & campgrounds scattered all over the state of CA.

And then there was the stargazing escapades to Fremont Peak State Park atop mountains to our west, Pacheco State Park in the mountains to our east, boys camp in the Sierra’s, and more recently to the south in the mountains of Panoche Pass. Staggering around bleary-eyed in the dark ’til crazy-late hours is NOT the time to cut corners on footwear! These faithful ol’ buddies never let me slip, nary a once.

Funny, how we yearn to truly & deeply identify with another person, and express this by “walk a mile in their shoes“. And if we’re the practical & down-to-earth sort, then its said we have “both feet on the ground“. If we’re antsy about impending events, then we’re “waiting for the other shoe to drop“… and trouble coming is “ahead”, but when its actually here, its “afoot“. For those that are shy & reserved, well they have “cold feet“, and if we’re in a big rush to go, we “hot-foot” it there. If getting there involves a computer, then ya first gotta “boot-it-up“… and if it must download updates in order to survive, then there’s a good chance you’ll also need to “re-boot” it! For those who enjoy wealth, they’re “well-heeled“. You’ll never see a shirtery, nor walk into a glovery- but you can find many a “bootery“. And for remembering our first child, its not their first sleeper or jammies or jumpsuit we hold onto… we “bronze” their first pair of shoes so they’ll keep forever. Hey- i wonder if…. oh, never mind.

And no matter how hung-up, sold-out, and starry-eyed the whole world may be over meters, we Americans remain steadfast on our feet… or working in our yards.

And when i consider the vigorous work-out these ol’ boots endured, and their duration… it may well be that this next pair, now being broken-in, may last me until… well, until i no longer need boots! In fact, they may be attending an open-box memorial– for ME… assuming i’m up to the task.

Yet until such time, i shall remain ever looking up- up at the heavens, my old & familiar friends there- i & they both placed by their Creator, for enjoying one another… and He. And it may indeed be a worthy pursuit, one which connects both man & his footwear, being good for their souls.

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February 2011 Sky Washing

Crawlin’ out of the icy cold January weather we enjoyed most of the month, February dawned with new hope- of milder temps, some clear skies… and a New Moon weekend first crack out of the box! Shore ’nuff, the New Moon coincided with dry conditions, milder temps, AND clear skies! Normally this time of year is wet enough, and probably cold enough too, that skygazing ventures are limited to scurries out the back door- warmth, shelter, and other amenities being close at hand… and mud & four-wheel-drive all non-issues. But this year my buddies & i decided to try something we’d never before done: head out to our dark-sky site in the hills of southern San Benito County… in February!

Most everyone was unable to ditch their pesky commitments (like jobs) for a Friday night run, so it was agreed to try for a Saturday night into Sunday deal. Since each previous year had begun the astro season with a March trip, and one of the guys had a new (to him) scope he was itchin’ to feed photons, there was quite a bit of anticipation in the air… each of us cautiously eying the forecast as the weekend approached. While scant days earlier the overnight temps were down near freezing, day by day things were getting less severe- and by midweek the forecast (aka “the foreguess”) was calling for beautiful sky conditions, and overnight lows around 40 degrees F… doable for us landlubbers.

Shoulda gone Friday:
Yet it seems there was a bit more than anticipation in the air. Saturday dawned clear, but as we all began our trip to the site, there began spreading from the west a cloudy haze- creeping like a blanket across the sky. By the time the last of us had arrived, and began deploying our gear for the eve’s observing, there were swaths of soup spilled all over the sky- a sense of “what for” began clouding everyone’s mind; it sure seemed like we’d come all the way out there to eat some good food, enjoy some fellowship, and go to sleep early for lack of anything better to do; the sky appeared to be a lost cause. It was early February- what were we thinking?

After wolfing down a robust dinner of fresh-kill burritos, chips, & salsa, everyone tended to their scopes. The darkness continued developing, amidst moderate breezes- but amazingly, chunks of sky remained clear- enough that entire constellations could be seen! Gratefully, Orion was one such constellation, so three telescopes began pointing that general direction, hoping to catch not only the “best” show in town, but about the ONLY show still playing!

Air Fair:
My scope’s first slew into Orion’s neighborhood was for syncing my onboard computer-object-locater to the sky, bright & beautiful Rigel being the target. Acquiring the star in the eyepiece, i was pleased by how sharply it focused up, even clearly & sharply revealing its faint stellar companion. “OOooo, nice air” said i. Then, to help better center the star in the view for more accurate syncing, i defocused Rigel into a large, bright disk of light- to better sense its centeredness within the circle of the eyepiece view. It was then i was struck- the disc of defocused starlight, which would normally be boiling, flaring, & undulating due to air turbulence, was instead crisp, calm, & silvery like a fine china dinner plate! Faint concentric rings could be seen across the entire disc like ripples on a pond, subtle but distinct.

I knew what i was seeing, but was entirely unaccustomed to seeing it; the mild evening temps meant the scope & its optics were thermally stable, and the air above was amazingly steady- nearly motionless. Aside from the clouds, and in spite of the ground-level breezes, this could be an atmospherically phenomenal night for observing!

Blown away:
And so it was, for a decent stretch of time. We would hop from one part of the sky where it was clear for observing objects, to another part of the sky when the current patch grew overcast. Each area afforded 20-30 minutes of observing, so was far superior to being stuck with only “sucker-holes” offering quickie glimpses. Having good skycharts, along with a healthy dose of combined experience, made the patch-grazing approach quite fruitful- numerous galaxies, nebulae, & colorful double-stars were able to be sought, found, & enjoyed by all- folks often wandering from one scope to another to enjoy the differing sights offered by each.

However, the decent stretch of time came to an end about 11pm; what had been a variably light breeze all evening, suddenly changed to a hearty gust of wind- announcing its arrival by an unearthly howl coming from the hill behind our observing area. The howl of wind thru brush, grass, & oaks provided just enough warning to grab a hold of whatever wasn’t large & heavy, or nailed down, and steady it for the imminent blast.

My gear was pretty much hunkered down in modestly heavy cases, small eyepiece caps being sequestered well inside foam cut-outs, so none went flying. But my Dobsonian scope, standing a bit over 6-feet when aimed straight up, its strut-poles covered with a fabric shroud for dust+light protection, became a large sail for these gusts, and i would grip a couple of its struts thru the shroud as a gust approached, to make sure the whole rig didn’t go swinging or tipping!

Amazingly, i was able to continue observing in this fashion for the better part of an hour, altho it wasn’t my idea of a restful evening under the stars… it was more a labor of love. So long as a gust wasn’t howling thru camp at the moment, the atmospherics remained quite good for viewing! Yet leaving my scope unattended seemed an obviously bad idea… a sense shared by everyone, as all stuck by their gear to quietly enjoy the night sky.

My companions, on the other hand, were significantly bugged by this development- the one with a new scope was laboring valiantly from within an observing tent, the flaps & walls of which would become downright alarming in the gusts, even threatening to whap into his scope more than once. So he finally decided to pack it all away for the night. His mission had been accomplished: The new scope had been fed a good meal of starlight!

Yet it finally came to pass that about 90 percent of the sky became shrouded from view, so i pivoted the “Dob” down to its lowest profile, locked down each axis, & braced its struts onto my steel-frame observing chair. Taking up residence right beside it in my comfy footrest camp chair, binocs in hand for stargazing, i watched as my buddies each dealt with the worsening conditions. This would include one particularly horrendous gust, maybe 30-35mph, that blew charts & plastic eyepiece caps clean off the observing field & down the hill into tall grass- and even took a folding camp chair with it! All three of us jumped into action, retrieving all we could, one even venturing down the hill to save the chair- rescuing more than one plastic cap on his way back up. Unbelievably, nothing was lost!

After this, the other fellow- having a lonnng refractor on an otherwise hefty mount- decided he was done… these gusts would set the whole thing to wobbling, using the long arm of the scope’s tube as a lever. It just stopped being fun… so he packed it all away, secured all his gear, & crawled into his tent for a good night’s sleep. Not the worst idea, all things considered….

The Weather’d Man:
As many an astrohead will tell you, get involved deeply enough in this pursuit of Astronomy, and you’ll become an avid weather-watcher, as well. Not sure if that works in reverse, but i know of several professional weather guessers who are also amateur astronomers.

My take on things that night, expounded fruitlessly to my fellow skygazers between wind gusts, was that this was the trailing edge of a “system”; storms frequently announce their arrival, and their departure, with steep isobars of atmo pressure- meaning wind for we Earthlings. I left my scope up & functional in the hope that the wind would eventually die down, and that its presence NOW would actually, eventually, clear the sky of overcast.

Well, this specific time i guessed right! Not too long past midnight the sky had cleared to reveal a glorious canopy of stars, and the wind gusts had, slowly but surely, grown less severe & less frequent- finally vanishing entirely. So for the next 90 minutes, my one still-awake friend & i enjoyed tremendous views of several deep-sky objects thru the Dob, the air still being fairly steady & stable. Even Saturn, by now rising higher in the south eastern sky, provided good images of its incredible rings & satellites.

Finally exhausted from the night’s excitement, my companion finally gave it up & headed for his tent, a bit past 2 ayem. His final word for the night was to announce the current temp, as we’d been watching it all night; so much for a predicted ~40 degrees… we never dipped below 50! Not that any would complain…

For the next hour i chased down a number of objects- old favorites, plus some never-seens. As i ran out of steam, the wind began to, again, pick up its steam… and the sky began glazing over. At about 3 ayem i began taking the scope apart, to stow the more sensitive aspects (ie. optics) where they’d be safe from any subsequent surprises. The weather’ll do that, yaknow!

So ended a rather amazing observing session- one conducted in the face of elements we’d not experienced at this location before, nor enjoyed so early in the season. Thinking about it, we’re truly fortunate nothing was damaged or lost… and all things considered, we really made out like bandits!

Under the Weather:
That was three weeks ago, and this February’s weather has nearly stifled any further ventures into the stars. Even last night my Dob was assembled in the backyard under beautifully clear, blue late afternoon skies; by the time i’d finished dinner, the sky was 90 percent clouded over. Another storm is headed this way, and this one is promising such cold temps that the weathermen are predicting snow down to the valley floor- possibly even to sea level!

I could wish to enjoy “weather-watching” half as much as i enjoy star-gazing… but it ain’t so!
Rain & clouds- go away…
Mikey & scope wanna play!
Why spill starlight until it clears,
‘Tis so much better bounced off his mirrors!
So bring on spring, show clouds the door-
Bring on Leo, galaxies galore!
Saturn awaits, ringed with glory,
As does the Mazzaroth- to tell His story!

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Fun? under the Sun

Astronomy sure would be a serious drag if it were not for the Sun, “Sol” as its also called. Okay, it must first set behind the horizon before MOST, & conventional astronomy starts gettin’ interesting… unless you’re one of those that enjoys looking at the sun itself for their kicks. And there’s an ever-growing cadre of Sun watchers, using these fancy new solar scopes designed for this purpose. I must admit, their prospects for sleep can look mighty attractive at times… and they’re not nearly as likely to lose body parts to frozen temps, like their “normal” nighttime brethren! This, too, might seem somewhat compelling at a surface glance.

But the conventional astronomer has SO much more going for them… once ol’ Sol has “set” over the hill; countless bazillions of stars, galaxies, nebulae, planets- all featured against the velvety black of deep space! Not only this, we own the mosquitoes, and hot coffee & cookies never tasted so good as at 2 ayem, when its thirty-somethin’ degrees. All this, plus the “normal” people & their attendant clutter & clamor are hushed, asleep, and you’re left alone with the cosmos, serenaded by the night creatures.

Yes, this is the good stuff, and such fine therapy for the mind & soul! All it costs is a little sleep deprivation now & then… maybe an itchy bite or two, and some cold appendages.

But getting back to the Sun– yeah, we need it to keep us warm & fed… not sayin’ astronomy would be the only thing bein’ a drag without good ol’ Sol. Plus the Moon & planets we night gawkers like to point our scopes at need the Sun for illumination, having no light of their own- else we’d be left with only stars & their dusty interstellar friends. So the Sun is good to have around most of the time, so long as we get a break every 24 hours or so, enjoying its apparent absence by hiding-out on the darkside of our planet… and so long as Sol behaves, and plays nice, things work pretty well.

Plays nice? Yes… i know, we don’t give it much thought. But we forget– the Sun is a “variable star”, though its variations are typically very, very mild as variables go. We have its 11-year sunspot cycle, which is generally predictable… yet even this will vary. In fact, this last cycle seemed to go into sleep-mode, the resumption of sunspots actually running a couple of years behind schedule; everyone was wondering what was going on with that! This, and there’s a growing body of evidence that its actually the SUN & its routine cycles which drives our “global-warming” (i know- imagine that!), as well as the now-forgotten “global cooling” that folks were tearing their collective hair out over, back in the 1970’s.

But there’s yet another aspect to the Sun’s unpredictable behavior that we civilians are all too guilty of overlooking, or even being outright oblivious to; its been known to throw an occasional tantrum. And when something THAT big, THAT hot, THAT thermonuclear, and THAT near to us has a conniption fit, you’d better grab your Y2K survival kit, some serious SPF sunblock, & be prepared to eat pork-‘n-beans in a cave for quite a spell! Try doin’ a search for “1989 Quebec solar storm”, or “1859 coronal mass ejection”… that kind of thing’ll put starch in anyone’s BVD’s!

This is just one of the many fascinating chapters in a 2008 book entitled “Death from the Skies!” by Philip Plait… a little light, recreational reading i picked up a few weeks ago. After the first chapter delves into oblivion served up cold, in the way of asteroids & comets that could plaster us into the stone age, the second chapter wastes no time in setting forth in painful detail the various ways our friendly neighborhood star can undergo numerous types of excursions- any one of which could wreak havoc on our existence. Or worse.

Subsequent chapters launch into threats from farther away, MUCH farther- like supernovas, hypernovas, and black-holes… some of which is still cutting-edge theory, and all of which is very much farther down the scale of likelihood. But the antics of our own star are much more a matter of historical record, and while the specific mechanisms that drive these antics are still in their theoretical infancy, the fact that they have already occurred, and fairly recently too, should really be a wake-up call to humanity! And i believe this was the primary intent of the book.

Following along with Dr. Plait’s explanations of Solar behavior was an enjoyable read, and in many ways a reminder of things i’ve heard before- yet like so many of us, things i’ve too easily forgotten. You might call it a friendly tap on the shoulder…

But just when we thought it was safe to relax, and get on with the business of “normal”… along comes a second tap on the shoulder- and regarding this same matter of solar misbehavior! Retrieving from my claustrophobic li’l mailbox the February issue of “Sky & Telescope” magazine, i was quite astounded at the issue’s feature & title. Yup, shouting up at me from the cover were concerns over these very same threats to life-as-we-know-it, stemming from the Sun and its off-the-reservation antics. Hmmmm. Someone’s definitely got my attention, now!

Not that i’m now expecting a solar-inspired version of Armageddon in the weeks or months ahead, nor am i a 2012 doomsdayer, or even 2013 for that matter… but i have certainly appreciated a renewed sense of civilization’s vulnerability to extraterrestrial sources! And some bright folks at Nasa must share this same sense, what with the current swarm of satellite missions to comets, asteroids, and those dedicated to studying the Sun in ever-deepening ways. So if a 2008 book & a 2011 magazine aren’t enough to give one pause for serious reflection, i’d really hate to imagine what it might take!

Maybe the ancient Mayans had those same thoughts?… or we’re now, today, interpreting them that way? Yet there’s no question the ancient writers of our Bible foresaw some noteworthy astronomical convulsions in Earth’s future. Isaiah (ch. 13) describes what many Old Testament writers also did- the Sun, Moon, & stars’ light diminishing, as did many N.T. writers… but in Luke’s gospel, in ch. 21, v.25-26, the description of events sounds like a modern apocalyptic movie review, and the Book of Revelations can be even more unsettling on this matter! Ch. 6, v.12-17 reads like the script to a sci-fi movie, complete with people hiding underground from imminent threats from outer space; ch. 8, v.7-12 describes those threats hitting, and possibly the aftermath; And ch. 16, v.8-9 specifically describes an assault by the Sun itself– very much akin to some of the dangers described in today’s book & magazine readings.   (image: SOHO, NASA and ESA)

So for those rainy days & overcast nights, where visual astronomy is tenderly & lovingly placed on a back-burner, may i recommend some invigorating reading materials? “Death from the Skies!” by Philip Plait, Ph.D., available at bookstores & Amazon.com, and Sky&Telescope magazine, Feb. 2011, available on a news stand near you. And check out the Scriptural references cited above- see how they may color the matter… although i’d recommend finishing up things with a little Psalm 23, and maybe Ps. 8 for good form… and more solid sleep.

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Moons Near & Far

As close as our own Moon is, and overloaded with fascinating & highly detailed features to sight-see, i must admit to a strange fascination with the so-called “moons” (technically, & properly known better as “satellites”, but….) orbiting neighbor worlds. And even though some may be of similar size to our own satellite (often referred to by name as “Luna”), they are sooo very far away that they appear telescopically as bright “stars” adjacent to the planet, or small BB-sized dots if enough magnification can be employed. Yet there’s a huge difference to viewing them, as opposed to viewing Luna.

While Luna takes about a month to orbit us Earthlings, and does so by its lonesome, the moons of the outer planets orbit much faster around their parent planets, often lapping them in days or weeks- plus they’re doing so in relative hordes! Watching them can reveal their changing positions over even a few minute’s time! For Jupiter, the inclination of its satellites’ orbital geometry is always seen from Earth as nearly edge-on, and the four brightest satellites shuttle around at a vigorous pace, many times displaying curious groupings & “conjunctions” with one another- as well as the planet itself. In Saturn’s case, the satellites’ orbital system is usually tilted to our line-of-sight, but that means the interplay can take on more of a 3-D sense, plus there’s the planet’s spectacular ring system in the picture! While we can’t really “see” 3-D in the heavens because of the distances involved- nonetheless, our mind (if properly informed & exercised a bit!) can “add” the understanding to what our eyes are seeing- and the sum total effect can be quite engaging! Saturn’s rings also add to the effect, in that the planet’s shadow cast across the rings on one side is quite visible, and is a clear & easy give-away to the 3-D geometries occurring.

It was a few nights ago that i was out in the yard, happy as the proverbial clam, scoping on Jupiter while it was in the midst of a satellite “event”- a type of which i’ve long been a huge fan of; a satellite “transit”. More specifically, a satellite’s SHADOW transit. The pale, cream-colored disc of the satellite is usually easy to spot when on the planet’s edge, and presents an interesting contrast against the backdrop of the planet’s cloudtops, but can be relatively difficult to visually track while it crosses the rest of the face of the cream-colored areas on the planet… although i’ve seen this when the air is steady enough (rarely) to resolve a finer level of detail. But the satellite’s shadow- that’s a horse of a different color… BLACK, to be specific! It looks like a neighbor kid shot Jupiter clean through with his Daisey BB gun!… but the “BB-hole” MOVES as the minutes roll by!

When the Sun-Earth-Jupiter geometry is aligned, around the time we “lap” Jupiter on the inner track of our orbit, this shadow will fall very near the satellite itself, nearly “stacking”. However, when the Sun-Earth-Jupiter geometry is NOT aligned, we Earthlings see the shadows cast laterally- sometimes quite a ways to the side of the satellite! Such were the conditions the night i was viewing. The satellite named Ganymede was, itself, already off from the face of Jupiter & well off to the side when its shadow bit the first nibble out of Jupiter’s opposite side. Slowly, but surely, the bite-shaped crescent of Ganymede’s shadow grew larger & larger, until suddenly it became more obviously disc-shaped… then more so.

Finally, the entire circular shadow was clearly & entirely onto the face of Jupiter’s limb, with no trace of shadow “touching” black space on Jupiter’s edge. Then began the hour-or-so long track across Jupiter’s face, riding just beside a thin, darker, & grayish belt zone.

Watching the fully-sized shadow of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest satellite, i began to marvel at how truly large this shadow appeared- compared to the other satellites’ shadows i’ve seen cross Jupiter’s face. In contrast to two of Jupiter’s other primary satellites, Io & Europa, which are just a skosh smaller than our own Moon, Ganymede is a relative giant!– being 50% larger, and even bigger than the planet Mercury. That places it at about 40% the size of Earth! Seeing this behemoth of a satellite, in shadow form, cruising slowly across the face of Jupiter, is an amazing display of solar-system perspectives; even Jupiter’s huge size, 11 times the diameter of Earth, is notably challenged by this large black Ganymede ghost!

Still, even with the remarkable sizes, distances, & speeds involved in all these things, it should not be lost on us how beautiful our home planet & its Moon really is… how perfectly designed it is for supporting our life- yea, for enabling us to live abundantly, feast voraciously on its bounty, recreate within its delightful constraints of temperatures & environments- snow, to lakes & seas, to tropics- daytime splendors, to nighttime grandeur– each a paradise in its own right. Nowhere else in the known universe is any place like it to be found!

There’s no place like home!

May you enjoy a happy, healthy, and completely blessed new year!

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The Star of Bethlehem

A friend just recently loaned me a video presentation involving one possible astronomical scenario for the famous Biblical “Star of Bethlehem” phenomenon. Oddly enough, the presenter, the fellow who did the research to dig up the info , was not an astronomer- amateur or professional- but an attorney.

It seems Rick Larson became interested in this matter through a side-door of personal events, a story he relates at the beginning of his presentation. And we all probably have our own curiosity regarding this event- every year some prominent publication trots out a new story (generally a rehash of an old story) for what this “star” would’ve or could’ve been. Everyone, scientist & theologian, has had their take & put their spin on the matter… varying all the way from “fable”, to “natural phenomenon”, to “impossible”… to “miracle”.

Well, i’ve never had an issue, personally, with the “miracle” version- after all, the Book deals with the miraculous, and quite frequently. Yet if there really was a plausible naturalistic explanation for the “Star of Bethlehem”, then that would be great to discover or be aware of! Such are the thousands of archaeological items that have already been dug up over the years, verifying and “fleshing-out” so many Biblical accounts & events.

Rick Larson may very well have done just that- showing a plausible naturalistic & astronomical explanation for this “star”… the miracle then being its timing, and its direct effect on Earthly characters- instructing them of the significance & purpose of the event, as well as leading them right to Him, the Christ child, during His stay there in Bethlehem.

The DVD, the information surrounding it, and a healthy dose of accolades from the likes of Nasa & Sky&Telescope magazine, can be found at the webpage dedicated to Rick’s efforts in unraveling this story. It’s also available at Amazon-dot-com, and other internet sites. Highly recommended, particularly in view of the Holiday we’re all about to celebrate!

Waytogo, Rick!

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Sky Events – December 2010

December sometimes brings us stargazers something interesting to work with, other than the usual suspects- overcast, blustery winds, & frosty cold nighttime temps… the latter two being the most keenly felt, as overcast typically means re-runs of M*A*S*H… indoors! This year December’s celestial offerings include a tough-to-spot planetary conjunction, an excellent Lunar eclipse, and the usual meteor shower (Geminids) we cruise through each year at this time of our orbit around the Sun.

Dancing Planets:
At dusk on Monday evening the 13th, just as the Sun sets behind the horizon (and safe from any accidental brush with optical instruments- definitely NOT something you’d want to chance!) a small crescent-phase Mercury slides about a degree north of the tiny orange globe of Mars. While Mars is a slightly larger planet, it will appear less than half Mercury’s size due to its greater distance from us– beyond the Sun & Mercury, and then across its entire orbital distance, on the far track. Whereas Mercury, somewhat smaller, now lies nearer to us than the Sun, on its “inside-track” as it were… which is why we see it as a crescent (telescopically).

These two planets are normally fairly bright to see, yet sky will also be bright at this point- this exercise will take binoculars, a clear & unobstructed southwest horizon, and patiently scanning the skies about 10-degrees to the left of where the sun sets, and about 7-degrees above the horizon… even lower as the clock ticks, and the sky rotates further down into the west.

Flying Rocks:
Then, since you’ve now got your observing hat on & your gear outside, come back to it after midnight, after the Moon has set, and catch some Geminid meteors (a.k.a. “shooting stars”)! While most showers are caused by comet debris, the Geminids are actually thought to be small bits off the asteroid 3200 Phaeton, left in its wake like breadcrumbs- the Earth passes through this debris field each year at this point in its annual orbit. Like snowflakes hitting the windshield of a moving car, this debris (from either a comet or asteroid) gets swept up & enters the “windshield” of the Earth’s atmosphere where it burns up on re-entry, providing us the beautiful lightshow we call a “meteor shower”!

Once the Moon’s glow is gone from the sky, and the Earth has rotated around to where the sky above us is pointed in the direction the planet is moving (like our “windshield”) more debris will be seen flashing into view- to the tune of 2 or more bright “shooters” per minute between 1:00am & dawn… possibly more, hopefully not much less.

If you haven’t already hauled it outside, this would be a great time for a comfy lawnchair- plus some warm clothes, sleeping bag, and pillows! Brew some hot chocolate, coffee, or tea for on hand, maybe have some binocs at-the-ready for any non-Geminid sights that pique your interest. Some folks even bring out their radio or MP3 player for acoustic accompaniment during the show!

Moon Swoon:
Finally, on the night of Monday the 20th (what’s with this Monday theme, anyway?) we west-coasters will be treated (weather permitting, of course) to an amazingly beautiful sight- a total Lunar eclipse! The last few years our Earth-Moon-Sun geometry has not been particularly well suited to these, so they’ve been a bit rare for occurrence… so don’t miss this one if you can help it! The next one for us, around these parts, will be April of 2014! No fooling.

The Sun being slightly larger than the Earth, by the paltry factor of about 109 times, means the Earth’s shadow projecting back into space is not a “tube” in shape, but rather a CONE. We can see a bit of an analogy to this where a large fluorescent ceiling light casts a double-shadow of our hand+fingers on the table; a darker inner-shadow bounded each side by half-dark outer shadows. So it is with the Earth’s shadow cast from the Sun: the half-dark outer shadow region is called the “penumbra“, and the darker, full-shadow region inside is called the “umbra“. Together they’d look like a target bullseye- and so the eclipse diagrams typically show them.

At the Moon’s distance from us in space, the umbra is several times larger than the Moon- so its not a perfect fit, a “bullseye” need not be scored for the show to go on. Yet some of these eclipse events will have the Moon simply grazing the edge of the umbra, never fully entering what they call “totality”. This is not that event! This time, ol’ Luna is diving deep into totality!

The first noticeable darking of the Moon’s eastern limb is supposed to occur shortly before 10:00pm… and from there it gets more and more interesting. By 10:33 the leading edge of the Moon will begin sliding into the umbra, darkening substantially! By 11:41 the entire globe of the Moon will be engulfed in deep shadow. Many times this shadow will be bright copper in color, or blood red, or even reddish-brown… it all depends on the condition of the Earth’s atmosphere at the time of the eclipse- its our atmo that acts as a filter around the edges, casting a hue into the shadow by refraction. Cool, huh!

The Moon traverses the umbra until, by around 12:53am, its edge begins to exit- a sliver of brighter Moon emerging from the umbra, and into the much-lighter shaded penumbra. By 2:01 it’s predicted the Moon’s orb will have completely cleared the umbra.

Here’s some links you may find more enlightening than my rambling:
simulation, NASA, Wikipedia

I’m certainly hoping to catch this event- i hope you can, too! Enjoy it with a youngster- someone who’ll no doubt get a kick out of staying up late… since there’s probably no school that week, right? If you know you’ll be out to see it, please give me a holler beforehand- maybe we can enjoy it as a group! That way maybe i’ll have a youngster to enjoy it with, as mine are all grown… i guess too many Moons have gone by?

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Gear 102: More on Telescopes

The term “telescope” means, literally, “see-over-a-distance”… just as telephone means speak-over-a-distance, and television means VIEW over a distance. I s’pose that ogling retail goodies on internet websites would be “teleshopping“, using a credit-card to purchase them would be “telepaying“… and banks and congress use “telefee” to strip us of our disposable income so we can afford to do a lot less of the former. If you’re captain Kirk, you “teleport” down to the planet’s surface with an away-team… although that might be a somewhat nuanced definition, as they’re really moving the distance without actually, technically, traversing the distance… at least without wearing out their shoes in the process, or pestering Engineer Scott to pull a shuttlcraft out of the garage & warm it up.

Be that as it may, at its most basic, a telescope’s purpose is to gather as much light as possible- using a collector, also called a “primary“- a lens or mirror that’s of far larger aperture than the quarter-inch pupil of the human eye… and to then focus that light down into a point, where it’s magnified & viewed by an “eyepiece”, or “ocular”. If this collector is a lens, then the scope is a “refractor“; if a mirror, the scope is a “reflector“; if using both elements & a more complex configuration, it’s called a compound or “catadioptric” scope. Functional, respectable, & relatively affordable examples of each of these types are common & available.

So a telescope helps us see objects which are farther away- overcoming (to some degree) distance’s diminishing effects on both apparent size & brightness. In fact, with enough aperture (collector size) put to the task, an object’s brightness can be boosted enough to render large & nearby objects as visible, where they’d otherwise be invisibly dim to all but owls, and perhaps a few cats. It may be surprising to consider that there are several nearby galaxies in outer space that appear larger on-the-sky to us Earthlings than our own Moon, but are very difficult (if not impossible!) to see without optical aid! Yes, they’re large… just very, very dim.

This, then, is a telescope’s “power” to see stuff- its aperture; the more light it can collect & then feed into your eyes to boost their viewing capabilities, the more power it has! The magnification used is more like the gears on a ten-speed bike; if you’ve ever tried to pedal one up a grade, then you know that the gear doesn’t supply the “power”… YOU do! And if in too high of a gear, your legs feel it- big time! So it is with telescope magnification- the scope’s “legs” is its collector size; the larger the aperture, the more power available… and therefore the more magnification (“gearing”) range possible, and the more you can see.

Refractors:
The first telescopes to be developed (around 1608) were refractors, which are pretty basic scopes, often representing what most people think of when it comes to a telescope.

"Refractor", from "Wikipedia"

from "Wikipedia"

Optically, they have a lens group at the “top” of the tube, and a focusing mechanism for an eyepiece at the bottom end, modern versions commonly utilizing a 45-degree angled mirror at the focuser so as to present the image in a more ergonomic manner… otherwise you’d need to be a contortionist to enjoy using them whenever viewing up higher in the sky! Since a scope’s magnification factor is linked to its focal length (remember “FL”?), some early refractor versions were comically long & cumbersome rigs, supported by aerial wires & scaffolding!- just to get “power”. That same “power” lust is used to advertise many WalGetCo scopes, making outrageous claims for magnification in their ads & on the scope’s box. Not much has changed in 400 years…

Highly functional refracting telescopes can be found having primaries from 2.4 inches (60mm) up to about 5-inches. Larger refractors can be had, but their length & weight become expensive to produce, and to properly mount; an 8″ F7 refractor (remember FR, FL, & D!) has a tube about 5-feet long, and one that’s quite heavy- especially at the top end! I have a friend with a 6 inch F9 refractor of about that same length… it sits on a $2,000 mount, and takes TWO able-bodied guys to get it there safely!

Another aspect of refractors is their tendency to break visible light into some degree of spectrum while focusing it to a point. In other words, not ALL the wavelengths focus precisely to that same point. The result is some color “fringing” around focused images of brighter objects, also termed “chromaticism“- and the “faster” the scope’s optics, the more severe this will be! At F15 most refractors are very forgiving, producing nearly perfect images in this regard; F8 refractors still do fairly well, yet at F6 they’re starting to get a bit challenged at keeping the spectrum intact, and by F5 the brighter objects can get a bit messy, with pretty colors flaring off the edges. However, fainter objects can still fare decently in fast optics.

So the game is between FR & tube length, extremes in either creating complications in use, so optical designers are aiming for a happy balance- a point that can vary quite a bit depending on what the scope is designed to be viewing- Moon & planets at F10+, or else wide & starry vistas at F6-. Yet most newcomers to astronomy will be notably disappointed if their shiny new scope provides them soft, rainbowesque images of planets! And while refractors are often the choice for terrestrial viewing, the chromatic effects of the faster versions can be unsightly in this application, as well.

The other solution to the refractor chromaticism gremlin is to produce primary optics that do a better job of focusing the entire visible spectrum to a true point, instead of a “range”. But to do so typically jacks the scope’s price up, and by no small degree! And the larger the aperture involved, the more severe the price bump. Here are a few links to illustrate this conundrum:
70mm F10 achro; 80mm F7.5 apo; 4-inch F10 achro; 4-inch F9 apo

These pricier refractor types are called “apochromats“, or “apo” for short, with some versions termed “ED”, and are not really recommended for folks just starting out. This would be particularly true where larger apertures are desired- there’s a better way to get into aperture! Lets go check out the “reflecting” telescope section…

Reflectors:
In its simplest, and probably most common form, this scope type uses just two mirrors, and is called a “Newtonian Reflector”after its inventor- Sir Isaac Newton, in around 1668.

"Newtonian", from "Wikipedia"

Largely unchanged since then,  optically simple, & wonderfully functional, a Newtonian has its primary mirror at the bottom end of an open tube, and a second, smaller mirror near the top- mounted at a 45-degree angle. This mirror, having a flat & aluminized surface, “picks-off” the focusing cone of light off the primary, & bounces it at 90-degrees through the side of the tube where a focuser & eyepiece provide the image.

The primary mirror in a reflecting scope is, basically, like a “vanity” mirror that magnifies one’s image for shaving or grooming- one polished into having a concave shaped, which is then aluminized. And since there are no LENSES in this scope’s arrangement, not even any glass for light to pass THROUGH– only aluminized reflecting surfaces- there is absolutely NO chromaticism happening! The resulting views display the benefits, too- sharp images without ANY “false color”… at least none from chromaticism.

Newtonian reflectors have an additional advantage over other scope types, in that they’re typically available at about half the price point for the same aperture, being commonly available from 3-4 inches up into the 10-12 inch aperture range. Reflectors of 4-8 inch aperture can even be found in the optically sweet F6-F8 FR range, and riding on equatorial mounts (recall from last time?), like these. Less costly versions come on simple, sturdy “lazy-susan” type swivel-base mounts working in alt-az (left-right & up-down) fashion; reflector types thusly mounted are termed “Dobsonians“, or “Dobs” for short- after the mount’s inventor- John Dobson, in the 1960’s. An 8-inch F6 or 6-inch F8 reflector, on either mounting type, makes for a killer scope- beginner or seasoned enthusiast!

Reflectors of 10-inch aperture & larger can be used on equatorial mounts, but like their larger refracting brethren, tube length & weight dictates heavy & expensive mounting… definitely material for astro veterans, folks heavily invested in their pursuits! However, these larger reflectors are also available in Dob format, utilizing solid-tube architecture up to 12-inch aperture, and also available in “strut” or “truss” structures for scopes 8 to 16-inches of aperture. Yet once you get into 12-inch “tuber” Dobs, they can be quite a handful- they’re lovingly referred to as “water-heater” Dobs, and for obvious reasons! The tubes on these will not fit in many smaller cars… 10-inchers seem to be about the largest size that’s commonly handled & transported by most folks & most cars, assuming a teen or adult of average size & strength.

“Truss” & “strut” Dobs, which by their design break down into smaller & lighter components, can generally be stored and/or transported by most users (& their vehicles), yet such a scope architecture introduces some complications & fuss-factor, requiring significant investment in time & patience on the part of their owners- perhaps not the best choice for a “first” scope, unless someone more experienced is on-hand to assist.

Newtonian reflectors are great all-around scopes, offering sharp views as well as the ability to see “wide”. The two main concerns that pertain uniquely to this design are maintaining their mirrors’ optical alignment, and when built faster than about F6 (typically the case with Newts 8-inches & larger), contending with their own optical bugaboo- an effect known as “coma“. In addition, Newtonians are not so well suited for viewing terrestrial sights.

Optical alignment of a reflector’s mirrors, a process called “collimation“, is a basic necessity for pretty much any of the species, a simple ritual every reflector owner will learn. Unlike a typical refracting telescope having fixed optics & a sealed tube, which are generally (although not always) simple “plug-‘n-play” affairs, a Newtonian reflector is an open tube, with adjustable holding-cells on both its mirrors. Yet for F6 & slower optics, it’s a quick & easy process, and fairly forgiving for results. An 8-inch F6 Newtonian of mine years ago was very easy to get (and keep!) collimated. However, larger scopes usually come F5 (& even faster!), where collimation can be a bit fussier & perfectionistic, and they really benefit from some good collimation tools- a small investment, really, for the optical benefits gained.

As for “coma”, an optical gremlin inherent in a Newtonian’s optical design, most folks aren’t bugged by it to the degree they might be by an inexpensive refractor’s chromatic effects… yet at F6 & faster its definitely there to be seen- turning stars in the outer edges of the view into varying degrees of fan-shaped blurs. At F5 more folks will see the effects of coma, as they’re encroaching farther into the field. Generally by around an FR of F4.5, most reflector owners will eventually break down, have a fit, and purchase themselves an optical coma-correcting widget & be done with the matter. Not necessarily a deal-breaker, yet as with collimating a faster Newt, investing in good tools & optical widgets is one more cost factor to consider in ownership.

So here lies the line of distinction on Newtonian reflecting telescopes: An 8-inch F6 & smaller/slower scope provides the most bang-for-the-buck in optical capabilities, yet remains simple to maintain & easy enough to handle & transport for almost any user, young or older. 10-inch & larger/faster scopes become somewhat costlier, more cumbersome to manage, and a bit fussier to deal with optically… yet, ultimately, will see more due to their larger aperture. This, or something very similar to this, is the conclusion reached by many seasoned veterans who address the matter, particularly in regards to someone just starting out in astronomy.

Mixed breeds:
There remains one more basic telescope type, which is a kind of “hybrid” between a refractor & a Newtonian reflector. These are called “compound”, or “catadioptric” telescopes, and they employ a full-aperture lens up front, called a “corrector”,

"Mak", from "Wikipedia"

a concave mirror inside the tube & mounted at the rear (much like a Newtonian), and a smaller secondary mirror attached to the center of the corrector. So all together, there are THREE optical elements- and a sealed tube. They’re probably more akin to a reflector than a refractor, yet are different enough from either to warrant a distinct category!

Smaller versions of these, usually from 3-1/2 inches aperture up to 6-7 inches are of a specific optical design called “Maksutov”, and are affectionately known as “Maks“… whereas larger variants, apertures from 5-inches up to 14-inches, are of a design variation called “Schmidt-Cassegrain”, or “SCT” for short.

"SCT", from "Wikipedia"

While made in longer FRs, typically F10 to F15, their “folded” optical design allows for a very short, stubby tube, and makes them fairly lightweight in smaller apertures, and therefore quite portable & easy to mount. Some versions are used as telephoto lenses on cameras, for terrestrial & wildlife shots, and also sporting events. Larger versions, though still short & stubby, get to weighing quite a bit, so require beefy mounts for adequate support. I used a 10-inch SCT for over a decade, and lifting its weight out of storage & onto its mount was enough to make one a bit sore of muscles the next morning!

Maks and SCTs up to maybe 5-inches are usually more “affordable”, as good telescopes go, and while this design is slightly more complicated optically, are usually pretty well built, and can be fine performers. The Mak design is particularly well regarded for viewing the Moon & planets! The two gremlins that pester these scopes are, primarily, dewing of the exposed corrector lens up front, since its so exposed to the elements, and that their long FR design makes them relatively narrow for view. Yet “dewshields” are fairly easy to purchase or make, and in smaller apertures, the narrower field is really not all that significant.

In the final analysis, a 3-inch F10 refractor, this 4-1/3 inch F9 Mak, and a 5-inch F7 Newtonian reflector will be far more similar than different in use, and in the views they provide- assuming they’re each of comparable build & optical quality. Yet refracting scopes beyond 4-inch & catadioptric scopes beyond 5-inch aperture can start getting more expensive, whereas Newtonians (especially of Dob mounting) remain relatively affordable into the 6-8 inch aperture range. This factoid may or may not enter into one’s scope shopping equation- but it’s worth mentioning.

I certainly hope this information has been helpful, and not too confusing or otherwise off-putting for any trying to make sense of these matters. After quite a bit of time, having used & studied samples of each of these scope types over the years, including those of the WalGetCo variety, i’ve come to the conclusion that telescopes have personalities, in addition to FLs & FRs & other technical specs; this aspect can have a strong effect on how people & scopes interact with one another. So along with the info, opinion, & advice given to this point, it should also be stressed that getting some hands-on experience with the hardware is ALWAYS a good idea- whether that be at a friend’s house using his/her scope, at a public “starparty” where several scopes are set up for the public to view with, or even if merely spending time at a good astronomy retailer- fiddling with their demos on the showroom floor!

Update: Sky & Telescope magazine, an excellent & time-proven observing companion for many of us astroheads, has posted on their website a similar article- one with very nice graphics. Perhaps this stalwart resource can compliment the search, pointing readers toward the right scope?

Final musings:
While it’s true that a telescope’s purpose is to gather as much light as possible, and to help us see objects which are farther away, too faint… or both- those are both rather cold & clinical descriptions of its function. Yet there’s something very significant still missing from this idea… so please allow me another run at it:
A telescope offers us the privilege of seeing that which most folks never get to see, things that mankind has only recently even been able to see, things which have been up there and “out there” since the very beginning of time… things which have been seen, experienced, & enjoyed by only OneHe who created them, in the beginning, for His own enjoyment.

Like a little child who’s daddy has lovingly hoisted him up so he can see over the fence into the world beyond, this wonderful use of glass & metal, skillfully combined & crafted, allows us to share in something way beyond ourselves, our grasp, understanding, & wildest imaginations! Could it be true, as stated by the famous Astronomer, Johannes Kepler, that a telescope helps us “think God’s thoughts after Him“?

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Gear 101: Finding a good scope

There’s very little question about it… this ol’ astrohead enjoys stargazing far more than blogging about stargazing. But this must be understood in context- i’m actually enjoying this whole “blogging” thing! If my noggin is a reservoir into which the splendours of the heavens continually rain, then this blog has been a floodgate- allowing the blessings i’ve enjoyed to stream out. Please, ignore the occasional trout… they have their place, too.

Yet all this floodgating i’ve recently been engaged in has given me pause to think; for those who’ve spent time investing themselves in amateur astronomy, there is one aspect that’s often referred to as a “hobby-killer”. I would be remiss if, in all this heavenly enthusiasm, this aspect didn’t get adequately addressed… especially at this (shopping) time of the year.

I believe it was the “Dilbert” cartoon that coined the term “WalGetCo”, as a silly euphemism representing the “big-box’ retailers we all enjoy shopping at… so i’ll continue in Dilbert fashion when referring to same. And we DO often shop at them, as they tend to be unbeatable for many goods & commodities- in price, quality, & availability. That being stated, they’re almost always a poor option (if not a disaster!) when it comes to obtaining quality optical gear for astronomical observing! Even if the optical components you find at your favorite WalGetCo are “decent” (i’d hate to guess at the odds), the mount that carries & supports them will be so poorly crafted, wobbly, and entirely inadequate to the task, that you would be limited to shaky, low-powered views… of EVERY thing!

Yet the optics that are typically provided on these are of marginal quality- in particular, the eyepieces supplied are frequently of abysmal caliber, providing dark & blurry views… to match the mount’s wobbly, shaky performance. Better eyepieces can be found, if one knows where & how to look, and i’ve actually seen where taking this step has notably improved the views produced!

But if there’s a computer attached anywhere to this WalGetCo scope- RUN, man!… do not even walk to the nearest exit! And the up-coming holiday shopping season will, no doubt, have the store shelves stacked to the rafters with precisely this type of thing. All things considered, the telescopes typical of this species will frustrate their owners pretty quickly, and end up collecting far more dust than photons… often even landing in yard sales, where- if they’re lucky– they get scrounged by experienced tinkerers who may give them major overhauls to fit them for limited duty… on their best days!

So please, don’t go there– for your own stargazing enjoyment, nor as a gift for a friend or child you’re trying to encourage into the sciences. There really are solid, economical solutions available. While i shall not beat that horse any further, its a point that can NOT be over-emphasized. And if you’re one of the many who have already purchased such a scope, or received one as a well-intentioned gift, don’t despair! Sometimes there are simple, effective, & low-cost steps that can render them fit for modest duty… but don’t labor the thing unnecessarily, either. If it seems to be a clunker, it very likely is. Please read on, where i shall attempt to offer some useful alternatives for obtaining the observing gear you’re after- that which can inspire & provide joy… instead of frustration.

Retailers:
Inhabiting the Monterey Bay region, as well as the “Silicon Valley” area, we are truly fortunate to have in our midst an excellent retail source for good, solid, quality, & affordable astronomical gear! That would be Orion Telescopes & Binoculars- with stores in Watsonville & Cupertino. Even the least costly scope they carry will at least be serviceable, and their range of stuff offered will satisfy the appetite of nearly every observer, newb to celestial veteran. And while their shipping charges may not be the absolute cheapest (or so i’ve heard), they have a nice ‘n handy website full of goodies- and a customer service record that is second to NONE! This is one place that’s really hard to “go wrong”… and even if you did, they’re great at helping you get things straightened out. Highly recommended!

Whenever i’m down near San Diego, another brick ‘n mortar i’ll visit is Oceanside Photo & Telescope. The mere mention of “Oceanside” will get my wife’s lovely eyes rolling up into her head… she can see it coming before the words have even cleared my tonsils! As with my ventures into Orion T&B, i’ve caught her attempting to tie a rope around my waist & to the car’s bumper, so that at the appointed time i can be hauled OUT the door with minimal damage to the OPT floor-displays, interior finishes… or our credit-card. Again, highly recommended source for excellent gear!

Another favorite place of mine for gear is in the midwest- Astronomics, in Norman Oklahoma. All my dealings there are by web & phone… yet the same rope sits at-the-ready, for the simple act of perusing their website can land me in a timewarp, where the family ‘puter can get monopolized. Plus, there’s another reason i’m quite fond of this specific retailer, which i’ll get to shortly.

There are many more excellent vendors out there, physical stores and/or web-based, enough that almost everyone on the continent can find one relatively nearby… and while i’ve not actually done “business” with them all, most i’d imagine to be more similar than different, offering much the same in the way of brands, prices, quality, & customer support. Here’s a website that actually lists many of them (“places to buy”), as well as their user-ratings (as well as much of the gear itself- “equipment reviews”!).

Binoculars!
There is probably no more universal piece of equipment for delving into the heavens, beyond the use of our own eyeballs, than a good set of binoculars! They offer about THE most comfortable mode of scoping, engaging both eyes for natural views & minimal eyestrain, and capture the w-i-d-e-s-t views possible of any optical gear.

The best choice here are for 7×35’s on the smaller/lightweight end of the scale, to 10×50’s on the larger end; both should be hand-holdable for respectable periods of time for most folks, and even longer for those reclined on a lawnchair, or otherwise having their elbows supported. Some variants of these will be 7×50, 8×40, etc… the first number in a binoc’s description being the magnification, the second number being the primary lens size, in millimeters.

A bit heavier and harder to hold steady for most would be 10×70 & 15×70 models, although i’ll confess to having used & enjoyed such. But they’re getting into the range where, for all but the strongest & steadiest of arms, they’ll be wanting a photo-tripod for support; some of this is due to their weight, yet mostly its the magnification– as anything beyond about 10x is generally suggested to have a solid mounting. And once you venture away from hand-held types, you’re significantly upping the complication & cumbersome factor, as well as squelching the spontaneous-use factor… and the likelihood of their being used less- or even not at all… the remote & dusty closet shelves too often becoming the common graveyard of harder-to-use hobby gear!

However, its worth mentioning that ANY binocs will benefit from a tripod mounting, at least as an option in the toolkit. Having the optics held steady like this will maximize the binoc’s quality of view & faintness of objects visible- simply by removing the shakes inevitable from being hand-held!

Avoid any & all binocs advertised with “zoom” magnification, ruby-coated lenses, and/or displayed at WalGetCo- or anywhere else, especially if priced at $19.95; there are surely going to be serviceable binocs that fit these descriptions, but the odds are against it… and who needs the frustration? As they say, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of a low price is forgotten“. ‘Nuff said.

One of the absolute best sources for binocs i’ve found is BigBinoculars.com From what i’ve seen there, their least expensive offering will be far better than those i’ve just recommended against, and their prices are unbeatable! This is a solid outfit, and their website is easy to follow, with excellent descriptions of all the binocs they carry. Another good source for binocs is Garrett Optical– and there’s actually quite a bit of overlap between what these two vendors carry. In some instances their prices can be matched by the larger astro-gear retailers mentioned above, yet in many cases these two sources will have the better deals- and for pretty much the same, good quality stuff.

Telescopes!
There is something mysteriously compelling about a telescope. Most certainly its this allure that the WalGetCo’s of our world are tapping into… especially around the holidays, when logical buying rationale is often suspended, & glitz & glamour rules the aisles! This is particularly true if the scope brandishes a sexy, white tube- even better if it’s equipped with plenty of shiny, scientific looking knobs, sprockets, & gizmos! Cover your ears to the siren calls, and please keep going…

Telescopes come in three basic flavors, and two basic types of mounting; size, complexity, features, and costs range from there. Any of these discussed, and referred or “linked” to beyond this point can be assumed to be “recommended”, at least as a starter scope for a youngster, or anyone just beginning the journey.

The two primary numerical values that describe any scope are its aperture (primary lens or mirror size- we’ll term “D“) and its focal length (how far from the primary to the place where it focuses light to a point- we’ll call “FL“). Also, dividing FL by D will give us what’s called the scope’s “F-ratio”, we’ll call “FR”.

Scopes with low FR values, less than F6, are more difficult & costly to produce at decent quality levels, and scopes fitting this description will typically be better-suited to breathtakingly wide views of the skies, yet will be more challenged at showing really good planetary & lunar views… especially at higher magnifications. These are often referred to as “fast” optics, a term carried over from cameras & photography.

Scopes with higher FR values, F10 and above (yes, called “slower”), are much easier to produce in good quality, and will be better at producing sharp views of the Moon & planets, and doing so at higher magnifications- yet will not have quite the wideness for field-of-view (“FoV”) offered by their “faster” brethren.

However, scopes of very “slow” FR, like F11 to F15, can get mighty long-of-tube, and may present mounting difficulties, as well as certain ergonomic issues. Generally speaking, traditional refracting & reflecting scopes work really well for all types of observing when they’re made in the “medium”, F8 range… at least in the smaller-to-modest aperture size range. Scopes having “compound” optics, with a light-path that’s “folded”, are typically made at F10 or slower, while still being short & compact in tube. These can make for a very happy compromise for many scopists, though they will suffer from having the less-wide FoV commensurate with their longer FL & higher FR values.

More on telescope optics later…

Mounting:
Key to the performance of ANY telescope, including higher-power binoculars, is a solid, stable mounting- one that can be easily used to move the scope from one object to another, and that will remain wobble-free while you are enjoying the views therein, without creeping, sagging, or otherwise drifting off the target. As stated above, if the magnification employed is 10x or less, as with most binocs, your hands & arms can adequately do the job. Yet for most telescopes, the mags used will be five to thirty times that figure! This is NOT the place to go chintzy on support!

So solid, stable & smooth-of-motion gets the mounting job done. Some mounts, moving in simple altitude & azimuth (up-down, & left-right, called “alt-az” for short) will do nicely- especially for smaller scopes utilizing less magnification, and/or where the scope gets double-duty, being used for terrestrial viewing- birds, mountains, boats on the harbor, etc. The mount linked here is one i’ve used & enjoyed myself.

Another mount type is designed tilted over at an angle, such that its azimuth axis points not straight up-and-down, but directly at the “North Star”, also known as Polaris. This enables the scope mounted upon it to precisely follow a celestial object as the sky turns with the Earth’s rotation. The sky’s “equator” describes an arc across the heavens, its height off the horizon depending on one’s terrestrial latitude- the higher your latitude, the lower the celestial equator rides across the sky. At the North Pole, the celestial equator is a hoop practically laying around your horizon!

Therefore, such a tilted-over mounting is called an “equatorial” mount, and has many benefits when applied to scopes viewing the heavens! An effortless turning of a simple knob as one views through the scope will easily keep an object in-sight, even at high magnifications. Even better, an electric motor installed on this axis can permit hands-free viewing for long periods of time, as the scope “tracks” the object being viewed!

This effect can easily be appreciated when attempting to view a celestial object without such a mount, particularly if one is using  150x or more… the Earth’s rotation will cause the object being viewed to zip through the FoV in a mere 60 seconds or so! When a group of folks is lined up, waiting for a peek through your scope, the dance that occurs in such a scenario- as you attempt to line-up the incoming object for a fly-by glimpse for each and every viewer, then dart out of the way for others to step in for a quick peek… well, i’ve been there & done that, and an equatorial mounting for one’s scope can definitely be a nice feature to have handy! Such a mount commonly sees action in my own yard. Smaller, lighter scopes can easily make due with lighter gage (and less costly) mounts, like this one, which has also spent time in my kit.

Along with the scope’s weight to be carried is the magnification range expected to be used- larger quantities of either will necessitate better, heavier, & costlier mounting. As with optics, there are no shortcuts recommended in mounting, either. This is particularly true if photography through the scope will be considered- an enterprise i’ve never attempted, nor am ever likely to try, nor would recommend– especially to anyone just starting out! Amateur astronomy, like fishing, is a pursuit for the patient… mixing photography with that is not for the impatient, faint of heart, or thin of wallet!

In the next installment i’ll delve into the various scope types- to describe their strengths, limitations, & details of use. Many others have already done so, and no doubt better than i can- and here is a major reason i’m so fond of the Astronomics astro-gear retailer mentioned previously; they also sponsor what has to be the all-time best discussion forum, as well as repository of well-written review articles on everything astro, both the gear & use of! The place is called “Cloudy Nights”, and i’d heartily recommend perusing the contents there- forums, articles, reports– as a follow-up reading & research to any suggestions i may make here, or subsequently. Also listed down the right margin of the CN website homepage is a list of vendors, besides Astronomics itself.

In my profession as an architectural drafter, we have a saying: “Measure twice, draw once!” A slight variation on this wisdom might apply here… “study twice, purchase once!” So until next time… keep studying!

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Come and see Jupiter! – Jovian Shadow Transits, October 2010

Enjoying an alien world solar eclipse… from above… doubled… and Twice!

Event called for cloudy conditions… hopefully another time will soon  present itself!

The Moon is a beautiful sight in our skies- its surface encrusted with craters, mountains (the “whiter” regions), and plains (darker regions, also called “seas”) of ancient lava spills. And though its surface features remain unchanging over the years, the shifting light & shadow of its “phases” each month seem to make it always interesting to our eyes. Further adding to its intrigue are the occasional alignments with the Earth & Sun which create eclipses; the “Lunar eclipse” being where the Moon is covered as it enters the Earth’s shadow, turning deep red & darker shades of brown- and a “Solar eclipse” being where the Sun is “covered” from view from small areas on Earth’s daylit side… areas where the Moon’s shadow falls.

The latter condition, when viewed from space, would show a small black dot on the face of the Earth, one which would travel across the Earth as the Moon continued in its orbit- until finally moving off the edge of our planet & out into space where it becomes invisible. The fact that the earth is a “small” planet (as these things run), plus the Moon itself is in a relatively large orbit (so its shadow is fairly small by the time it reaches us), creates a condition where eclipses of any type are somewhat uncommon.

Further compounding the issue is that we Earthlings are rationed only ONE natural satellite, which we fondly call “the Moon”, or “Luna”. Eclipses may well be fine events… but Earth just ain’t the happenin’ place to enjoy them, deprived as we are for quantity & geometry!

The planet “Jupiter”, however, knows no such restrictions- the Lord of the heavens having graced it with “moons” by the dozen, four of which are near the size of our own! These are, collectively, known as the “Galilean satellites“- Io, Europa, Ganymede, & Callisto- first spotted by Galileo & his historic first skyward look with the newly invented “telescope” around the year 1610. Even better, these four are in fairly close orbits to Jupiter- so their shadows are larger, and more likely to intersect their parent planet in space. To ice the eclipse cake, Jupiter itself is about eleven times the diameter of the Earth! Therefore it presents a far larger backdrop to “catch” any eclipse shadows that happen by!

The result is that here on Earth folks pay good money for fancy cruises (and flights, too!) along the path of an eclipse; yet to the Jovians such occurrences are merely a regular nuisance. However, if an Earthling were inclined to see what a “Solar eclipse” looked like from above, as if from orbit, a modest telescope turned toward Jupiter at the appropriate time would give a pretty good representative view… albeit an unearthly one.

But if you care to see TWO eclipses happening at once, this may indeed be your night! First Ganymede’s shadow, then Europa’s will be cast upon the face of the giant planet, each slowly drifting across its beautifully banded disc until vanishing off into space on the other side. This type of event is termed a “shadow transit”, and this night we get TWO of ’em for the price of admission!

In fact, this month we get TWO separate occurrences to pick from- even better, they’re both Saturday evenings- and not even too late! The first being October 23rd, the second occurring October 30th… the latter event being better positioned for west-coast observers, and the one we’ll be shooting for.

This is something we’ll NEVER, ever see occurring on Earth- having only the one satellite to bring to the party. So make sure not to miss this sight! Yet if you do, don’t sweat it… Jupiter has these “double-transit” events occurring every few months; these just happen to be well-scheduled for us here in the USA. I can still recall the TRIPLE-transit event of a few years ago!

Here’s some links to images & animations of some of these (past) events:

Also making a guest appearance near Jupiter will be the giant planet Uranus. Its diminutive telescopic disk is barely perceptible as such, yet it tantalizes the eye with its other-worldly grey-blue color!

This particular subject, Jovian satellites & their transits, reminds me of the passage in Scripture- Job chapter 26, verses 7 & 10: “He stretches out the north over empty space;
He hangs the earth on nothing… He drew a circular horizon on the face of the waters,
At the boundary of light and darkness.”

When & where:
The Reeds, a local family in the region, are willing to host a get-together at their place, enabling us to set up some scopes for viewing the action- Jovian & otherwise. They have a perfectly beautiful rural location that’s easy to find, great for occasions like this!

Weather permitting, i’m hoping to be set up & ready for lookers by around 7:00pm Saturday eve (Oct. 30th), the first Jovian satellite excitement commencing around 7:25pm… and the eclipse shadows start flyin’ shortly after 9:00pm! Even Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot” should rotate into view later that night!

Any and all reading this would be welcome to come, and to bring family & friends. There’s even discussion evolving over coffee & dessert-type nibbles being made available- so stay tuned here for details & breaking news! Make sure to pack layers of clothing, in case it gets chilly. A lawnchair and binoculars might be handy, too- bring ’em if you’ve got ’em!

And if you have any questions, ideas, or need directions, please don’t hesitate to give me a holler via the “comment” device here in this blog– and leave me an email if a response is needed. You can also check the blog the event afternoon, if anyone grows suspicious of the weather conditions for the night… our fine & fluffy-white friends aloft. I will post if the gathering is being called for weather.

Also, if arriving after dark, and/or planning to leave for home when others are still staying to view, please park away from the group- so car headlights don’t fry people’s night vision! There will be an area allocated for parking, which should be fairly obvious & easy to spot. Thank-you for that consideration! And please have a safe drive home, too.

Hope to see you out there!… here’s wishing my fellow stargazers clear & fogless skies!
Mike B, the Binosaur

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