Monday, July 31, 2017

Moon and Milky Way

Milky Way and the Moon - the "Tea Pot" of Sagittarius and constellation Scorpius are visible on opposite sides of the central tree. The bright star above Moon is Arcturus.

The Cuyahoga Astronomical Association hosted a public star party the night of Saturday, July 29. While I did not take my telescope to the event, I was happy to have attended and brought my camera setup. I spoke with several people, answering questions about the night sky and pointing out a few areas of interest. I was also able to observe planet Mercury through one of the club's telescopes. The tiny world was in a crescent phase - the first time I've witnessed that (Mercury can be very difficult to observe due to its proximity to the Sun and obstructions along the local horizon.). Aside from viewing Jupiter and Saturn via others' telescopes, my main interest was trying out my camera and lens setup on the Milky Way.

Moon - July 29, 2017

Light from the waxing Crescent Moon and from the nearby city of Medina made the Milky Way's star lanes appear as misty clouds but they were more noticeable in photographs. I hope to return some time soon, on a moonless night, and make a few more efforts at local Milky Way photography before human-made light pollution makes it impossible.

A small meteor streaks through the wispy clouds of the Milky Way. July 29, 2017.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sadly, not much observing to report over the past months! The demands of "real life" helped distract me from the night sky. Weather - cloudy and rainy skies - have provided the worst issues. That is, if you ignore the fact that the handbox controller failed hobbling my six-inch Meade refractor! I was able to locate and purchase a replacement for the failed handbox and a recent test showed it to be an improvement; it's better than the original!

Most of my observing attempts have been through Open Night events I hosted, or attempted, at Hiram College's Stephens Memorial Observatory. The big refractor there isn't computerized but its nine-inch objective lens gathers plenty of light and is very contrasty. The sky in Hiram, on a clear night, is darker than in the cities allowing the Cooley Telescope to deliver excellent views... when weather permits!

Highlights of the year, so far, were observations from Stephens...

On May 20, on a night threatened by cloudy skies, I observed Jupiter and its Galilean Moons. The best sight of the night, however, was seeing the Great Red Spot rotate into view from Jupiter's limb. Cloud banding was also seen: the equatorial bands and traces of other atmospheric features.

The night of June 24, following evening storms, Jupiter would have been visible from Hiram but quickly dropped behind neighboring trees. Hit of the night was excellent viewing of M57 - the Ring Nebula. The view was clear and bright where usually the ring appears as a dim "gray donut."

July 22: Partly- to mostly-cloudy skies after daytime storms allowed brief decent viewing of Saturn. The seeing was unsteady but I was able to glimpse Titan and several of Saturn's smaller moons, the Cassini Division, and some atmospheric banding! The rings were tilted at an open angle allowing optimal viewing.

See the weather theme?

And that's pretty much it! Recent years and, particularly, last year and this (so far) have seemed increasingly cloudy at night. I'm hoping my efforts to improve observing from home will allow more opportunistic viewing; future efforts may include building a tall, permanent telescope pier or purchase of a new telescope of Cassegrain design ... the long refractor's eyepiece demands neck strain as I point the scope higher towards the zenith to avoid serious light pollution here!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Waiting for dark

Wow! It has been a long time since my last post, nearly a year! I'm going to have to review the past year and catch up. For now, I'll simply record the fact that this year looks good for personal observing. Today I set up my big personal telescope to make certain everything was present and in working order. I tested the Safety Herschel Wedge by looking at a somewhat hazy Sun. Then I parked the scope, now waiting for dark. Only "fair" seeing conditions are expected tonight, and we've plenty of light pollution. Still, the big scope is set up for testing after a long time in storage. If alignment is good enough I'll mark the ground where the tripod feet rest! #astronomy #telescope #meadeinstruments

The 6-Inch Meade all set up for Tonight
LATER THAT NIGHT: How did it go? Pretty well. The scope worked great but the operator.... let's just say that it's pretty important to tell the telescope control system what the current MONTH is if you want it to point the telescope accurately! If you enter "June" as the month when it's actually April, you're in for plenty of frustration! I missed that simple data point several times. Ugh! Once manually aligned, the scope found objects pretty accurately without precise polar alignment. Through light-polluted, hazy cloudiness, I observed Jupiter with Io emerging from behind, saw the beautiful stars of M44 - the Beehive Cluster," saw the Hercules Cluster - M13 - as a fuzzball (no individual stars), and experimented with several eyepieces. I need a couple of really good eyepieces. Finished up around midnight, tore down and stowed the scope. Now it's off to bed!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

2016 Transit of Mercury

Mercury's Transit in Progress: Mercury is the tiny dot at the lower-left. Smudge near the center is a group of sunspots. Photo by James Guilford.

I've been quite remiss in keeping up this online journal. No excuses; I have simply neglected the work! This week, however, we were treated to a fairly rare space event though the weather interfered a bit!

May 9: Our Solar System doesn't care about our local weather. When something rare and interesting like today's transit of Mercury across the solar disk takes place, it happens and there are no "rain checks." And so it was this morning when the day dawned clear to partly-cloudy allowing us to glimpse the beginning of Mercury's trek only to have the show stopped by rapidly encroaching clouds progressing to solid overcast!

Transit of Mercury: Mother Earth's atmospherics begin to block the view! Photo by James Guilford.
At the predicted hour Mercury appeared as a tiny dot, silhouetted in the lower left-hand quadrant of the Sun's bright disk. Using protective filters, observers on the ground watched as the small dot slowly moved inward from Sol's limb. I used my trusty Canon DSLR camera paired with a 400mm telephoto lens to see and record Mercury's trek. During my brief photography session I occasionally used a 2X telephoto converter with the 400mm and swapped between an "orange" glass solar filter and a white light solar film filter.

NASA's GOES East spacecraft shows how much of the U.S. was blocked from seeing the 2016 Transit of Mercury.
Here in Northern Ohio, transit watchers were treated to the beginning of the show and could have seen its entirety but for the clouds; the transit started after dawn and ended in the afternoon. Much of the nation missed out entirely, however, with cloud cover already in place at dawn!

NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft, is unaffected by Earth's pesky atmospherics and its technology produces some very dramatic images. One of my favorites shows Mercury about to cross between the satellite (us) and the Sun's glowing photosphere; the planet has the active solar atmosphere as backdrop. Planet Mercury is 3,030 miles in diameter, not much bigger than Earth's Moon, and looked every bit as tiny as it is compared with our nearest star!

The View from Space. Credit: Data courtesy of NASA/SDO, HMI, and AIA science teams.

The transit of Mercury took place over several hours. For us in Northern Ohio, the transit began at about 7:12 AM Eastern Daylight Time with the Sun barely up. Midpoint of Mercury’s passage was at 10:57 AM, and the transit ended at 2:42 PM.

The orbits of the inner planets are tilted with respect to each other making difficult the perfect alignment needed for a transit.
Because of the orbital inclinations of the inner planets, the alignment needed to produce a transit of Mercury happens only about 13 times per century making even a glimpse of the event something special. After today's, the next transits of Mercury will take place in November 2019, November 2032, and November 2049.

At least we won't have to wait for so long as we must for the next transit of Venus -- that happens in December 2117.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Impressive train of sunspots

Train of Sunspots, November 4, 2015

An impressive train of sunspots has been making its way across the face of our nearest star this week. In the photo above: Designated AR2447 (small group to the left), AR2443 (bigger and darker, near center), and AR2445 (far right), the "Active Regions" have the potential of unleashing flares. In fact, AR2445 was the source of a flare that caused this week's "northern lights" sighted across northern latitude locations around the world. Unfortunately for hopeful aurora watchers in Northern Ohio, the nighttime displays were not strong enough to give more than a tantalizing flicker on the horizon to observers on the shores of Lake Erie.

Now rotating over the Sun's limb, AR2445 won't be aimed at Earth for a while -- if ever again -- but AR2443 has potential for high-energy flares.

Photo credit: James Guilford. Canon EOS 7D II: ISO 400, f/11, 1/1250 sec., 400mm lens with Astrozap film solar filter, heavily cropped, November 4, 2015, 2:22 PM.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September 27 "Supermoon" Total Lunar Eclipse a Challenging Event to View

Beautiful in its Own Way - Full Moon Peeking through Heavy Clouds - 8:21 PM EDT

The much-anticipated total lunar eclipse of September 27, 2015 was a challenge for me, a big disappointment for many others. The night started out with a thick layer of clouds floating overhead, a few breaks (known as “sucker holes) visible here and there. I was pretty sure I would see nothing. In fact, conditions in Hiram, where I had planned a public eclipse viewing event, were expected to be so poor I had to cancel the event (it apparently rained there during the midpoint of the eclipse).

"Supermoon" Emerging from Pre-Eclipse Clouds for a Moment - 8:56 PM EDT

Enough openings appeared, however, that I got my tripod and cameras ready just in case. I’m glad I did! When it did appear, the Moon was slightly larger and somewhat brighter than it might otherwise have been: the eclipse took place during a perigee Full Moon, a so-called "supermoon." A perigee total lunar eclipse is a fairly rare event and isn't to be seen again until the year 2033.

Totality at 10:43 PM EDT: Within minutes of moment of greatest eclipse (10:47)!

By standing on my balcony, watching, camera pointing to where the Moon was behind the clouds, I was ready for the brief appearances it would make. The passing breaks in cloud cover often allowed only a few seconds of relative clarity for photography. I was able to see most stages of the eclipse and capture some reasonably good images, considering the conditions ... there never was a time when I had truly clear sky!

Totality Ending - Eclipsed Moon at 11:20 PM EDT - Dot(s) to the right are stars of constellation Pisces.

The hours of watching seemed to pass quickly and before I knew it, the event was ending. We are privileged to have the opportunity to see only a few total lunar eclipses in our lifetime so it’s best to make the most of each one!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Clouds give way to stars, right on cue

This is Alumni Weekend at Hiram College and, as is becoming traditional, Friday night we hosted a special stargazing event for alums. Recently the weather has been mostly-cloudy, rainy, even stormy and Friday was no exception. It appeared stargazing would be canceled due to cloudy conditions but, because a few alumni may have wanted to simply visit Stephens Memorial Observatory, I opened the place. Good thing I did. As the first group of visitors arrived -- excited, even raucous mostly older folks -- the sky to the south cleared and Saturn manifested himself! And so, as visitors came and went, we presented decent views of the Ringed World until the scheduled closing time of 11:00 PM. Wouldn't you know it, the sky clouded over and Mother Nature put an end to the show herself and on time! Approximately 44 visitors, including a group of about eight current college students, got nice views of Saturn and some of its moons.

The next night was a scheduled Public Open Night at Stephens and, true to form, a storm system had spread clouds across the Great Lakes Region. I was pretty sure skies would be too cloudy for Saturday night stargazing but, remembering the previous night's experience, I opened the observatory as planned. Within minutes after opening the dome a small patch of relatively-clear sky was replaced by thick clouds rolling in from the north. I expected to close before anyone arrived. Nope. First a couple, then a family, then another group of folks arrived as darkness fell. Clouds still ruled the sky, so I talked about the telescope and the observatory and answered some questions.

I took regular peeks through the open dome, hoping for a "sucker hole" in the overcast. After a while a bright star appeared directly overhead, peering through. Visitors excitedly pointed at a few dimmer stars as they made an appearance. Finally, in the southern sky, Saturn! Thinking cloud cover might interfere at any time, I ushered folks quickly to the eyepiece for some very nice views of the planet. We were able to see the Cassini Division, some hints of cloud bands in Saturn's atmosphere, and, again, a nice assortment of moons. It wasn't over.

Instead of clouding over, the sky cleared and we were presented with a sky full of stars and pretty good seeing conditions! I moved the telescope and quickly found the Hercules Globular Cluster (M13) overhead. The star cluster was glorious in the eyepiece. Viewed at about 129X, the globular filled the field of view with diamond dust and impressed viewers.

Next I moved the scope to view the Ring Nebula (M57) which, in the past, I have generally found easy to locate. That night, however, I fished and fished in Lyra and could not seem to find, what I call, the gray donut. Just as I was about to dismiss the last several visitors -- VoilĂ  -- the Ring appeared in the eyepiece, bigger and brighter than I had ever seen it before! I was experimenting with a new two-inch zoom eyepiece by Baader Planetarium company and it really paid off.

It was well after 11:00 when the last of the approximately 20 visitors left but a fine and rewarding night indeed; a night that I had nearly written off as best spent watching old movies on TV.