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.

On astrology, I always say...

At a recent observatory Public Night a visitor asked if I could recommend books on "astrology" and I told her no. There are, however, many excellent books on astronomy. As I always say, astrology is astronomy's illegitimate parent.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Astrophoto blitz - an exciting start

Venus Setting with Gemini - May 23, 2015

Saturday night, May 23, the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA) hosted their first Public Star Party for 2015. The event took place at the club’s observatory situated on the grounds of the Medina County Park System’s Letha House Park in Spencer, Ohio. As a member I was in attendance with my massive Meade 6-inch refractor, one of many members there to share telescopic views with public visitors. Attendance was light, around 50 for the event, though folks were generally enthusiastic excitedly moving between telescopes. The sky was beautifully clear and allowed high-quality views of the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, the Hercules Star Cluster (M13), and other amazing things.

Things quieted down early and, after a while, our visitors disappeared. I’d brought my DSLR camera hoping to try some through-the-telescope astrophotography. As other club members began packing their gear, I hastily attached my camera, focused on the Moon, and began a quick photo run of several interesting objects. My telescope's "go-to" function had been running very well during the star party, so I had high hopes that I could trust it for photographic aiming!

Waxing Gibbous Moon, May 23, 2015

I shot the Moon, M13, M4, Jupiter + moons, M57 – the Ring Nebula, and M81/M82 – formerly aka Bode’s Nebulae, or (now) Bode's Galaxies. The Moon shot (above) was easy and beautiful and M13 (below) was pretty good considering how little time I was able to spend on it.

M13 and Star Field

The Bode Galaxies (as they are sometimes now known), aka Messier 81 & 82, were literally a shot in the dark; I couldn’t see them in the camera viewfinder due to their faintness. I let the telescope system aim and I triggered a couple of brief exposures and was not disappointed.

M81 (left) and M82 (right) as "Faint Fuzzies"

Even with the galaxies depicted as the "faint fuzzies" they are to the oberver's eye, when excessively brightened (below), the digital image begins to show the spiral pattern of M81 extending far beyond the bright core seen above. The elongated, split appearance of M82 is also quite visible in my blitz-images. Seeing the galaxy pair in the same telescopic field of view is one of my fond memories of visually exploring the sky; seeing it mimicked in one of my photographs is pretty cool. Seeing how how much detail begins to emerge using a single brief (10-second) exposure excites further efforts!

Image Excessively Brightened Reveals some Recorded Data

To end my night at Letha House Park, I took flashlight in hand and, with camera now mounted to a tripod and camera lens installed, hiked down to the edge of the park’s lake. Reflected in the still waters was brilliant Venus, close to the horizon and about to set, the stars of Gemini floating above the Goddess of Beauty. I made several hurried exposures of the lake scene and returned to my telescope to pack up and head home.

I arrived home at 1:00 AM and moved my gear into the house, then downloaded the camera’s image files to my desktop computer. Looking at the camera’s preview window, I had some idea of how well things went but the computer's much larger display reveals all. I was delighted with what I saw. The telescope had located each of the several objects without my needing to look through the viewfinder — some were too dim to see there — and tracked those objects well enough to prevent most movement during the several seconds of each exposure. I had been able to perform only a rough alignment at the beginning of the public event!

There, on the screen, was a beautiful gathering of stars — the M13 star cluster — and the best deep sky image I’d ever made. The dim and distant Ring Nebula (M57) also registered, even displaying some color. Less impressive was my image of the M4 star cluster in Scorpius, though it registered well enough to be readily identified.

By today’s amateur astronomy standards, mine are primitive beginner’s efforts. Still, I’m pretty happy and very excited with what I got during my photographic blitz session. The successes were promising indications of what is to come as I continue to image the sky.

Photo Notes: The camera was attached to the telescope, in essence, using the telescope as a 1,200mm telephoto lens; this is called the “prime focus” approach. Moon shot was ISO 400 and 1/200 sec. Most stellar images were shot with the camera set at ISO 2000. Exposures of eight to 10 seconds worked best, given alignment limitations. The large, bright star cluster M13 in constellation Hercules is made up of about 300,000 stars and is located 22,000 light-years away. The Moon was in waxing Gibbous phase, 5.9 days old, and 396,748 km (246,528 miles) distant.