Monday, July 9, 2018

In the months since the "Great American Eclipse" total solar eclipse of 2017, life has been busy. Aside from conducting a few public observing nights, I've done little with personal astronomy. There was a beautiful conjunction of Moon, Venus, and Mercury that I observed and photographed one cloudy evening (March 18, 2018). Mostly, I've been observing and photographing weather. If you can't beat the clouds, enjoy them!

March 18, 2018 conjunction of (left to right) Moon, Venus, and Mercury over Letha House Park (west), in the Spencer, Ohio area. Clouds threatened to hide the event but cleared enough to lend mystery to the scene.

At any rate, last night (July 8) presented a decent opportunity to set up my big refractor in the backyard and take a look at the cosmos. The sky was clear, temperature and humidity pleasant, and I had no distractions.

The shed that must serve as my "observatory" and the big Meade (6-inch) refracting telescope. I set the scope up in the early evening and left it outdoors in preparation for nightfall. 

Unfortunately, with no permanent setup for the mount, north alignment for my telescope is usually off by a bit and last night was typical. The telescope's computerized "go-to" system was able to aim the telescope close but not directly on my targets; I needed to manually fish for each object I wanted to observe. I also wanted to do some photography experiments and a slightly out-of-alignment equatorial drive is not a good thing for imaging! I found that I could get reasonably round star images if I set the DSLR for an exposure of 20 to 30 seconds and covered the objective lens for the first five seconds after the shutter triggered in order to dampen out vibrations. I've got to see if I can use "live shooting" in place of the regular mirror/shutter combo to prevent camera vibrations!

Still, I did observe several objects and here are a few impressions:

Jupiter: By the time the scope was ready to use, the "King of Planets" was descending into neighboring trees. I had but a few minutes of almost decent viewing. I had hoped to see the shadow of moon Io on the planetary disk but could not resolve it. The best I could make out was Jupiter's most prominent cloud bands with Io floating not far from the planet's limb.

Messier 4: The globular star cluster in constellation Scorpius was, sadly, faint and somewhat indistinct in our light-polluted sky.

Saturn: Not as sharp-edged as I'd hoped, I could barely make out the Cassini Division but could discern the planetary disk in relief over the planet's ring system. I could also see some cloud bands, though not distinctly.

Mars: Mars is nearing opposition and is brilliant and red. I was easily able to observe the planet as a disk but, due to a global dust storm, couldn't make out any surface features -- well, maybe a shadowy area at the center of the disk but certainly not anything beyond that.

Messier 25: Photographic only. The open star cluster made a decent test to refine exposure and vibration-dampening techniques.

Messier 22: A bright globular that showed up, even in the viewfinder of the DSLR, it also provided a good photographic test target. The photo results were far from "stellar" (pun intended) but showed some promise.

Time passed quickly, the activity was thoroughly engrossing, and I packed it in at about 1:00 AM EDT. It was a good night.

Messier 22, a globular star cluster. A beginner's deep-sky effort, I'm happy to have reasonably round stars and to be able to see some of the many thousands of stars present in the cluster. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eclipse: Tired, dirty, and happy

The Sun at Maximum Eclipse - 2:32 PM EDT - Note Sunspot at Lower Left

Yesterday (August 21) millions gathered along a thin path crossing the continental United States to watch a total eclipse of the Sun. Those with favorable viewing conditions along the path of totality enjoyed an amazing sight and experience. Totality fell close enough to a west-to-east center line across the continent that at least a partial eclipse was visible to anyone with access to clear sky.

Since, with some self-doubt, I had decided not to travel to the path of totality, I organized the Hiram Eclipse Watch event. With the support of the Hiram College Physics Department, it took place on the campus of the college.

I set up two telescopes: a six-inch Meade refractor with a Baader Planetarium Safety Herschel Wedge, and a 90mm Meade refractor with a Thousand Oaks glass/metal filter. I also went equipped with my Canon EOS 50D camera, 400mm telephoto, and 2X teleconverter (>1,200mm focal length equivalent), and white light film filter. Physics staff ran a Lunt Ha scope and an experiment recording temperature and solar energy changes during the eclipse.

Progressing Toward Maximum - Silhouette of the Moon Moves Across the Solar Disk

Summarizing, despite last-minute worries over cloud cover, we had clear to partly-cloudy skies for the duration of our 80-percent partial eclipse. An estimated 375 visitors came out to share the experience, and by all reports had an excellent time. Some families even brought blankets and enjoyed a picnic on the lawn in the shade of old trees!

Detail from Above - Look Along Moon's Edge and Notice Bumps: Lunar Mountains and Ridges in Silhouette

It was very hot and fairly humid and I labored in the sunshine erecting and operating the telescopes, rationing out eclipse viewing glasses, explaining the eclipse event and solar features, and making a few photographs of my own. By the end I was dripping with sweat and very tired but had to rush home to process and upload a photograph of maximum eclipse to a newspaper.

By the end of day, I was was tired, dirty, and happy.

The (Ravenna) Record-Courier - August 22, 2017 - Page 1

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.