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Monday, December 15, 2014

Comet Lovejoy Heading Our Way

The latest Comet Lovejoy should reach 5th magnitude in late December and January when it will be nicely placed high in the dark for your binoculars or telescope in the northern hemisphere. There is also a possibility the comet could even become detectable naked-eye.

A new Comet Lovejoy, designated C/2014 Q2, is heading our way out of deep space and out of the deep southern sky. The object may brighten to 5th magnitude from late December through a greater part of January as it climbs into excellent viewing position for the Northern Hemisphere, high in the dark winter night.

The New Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 G2  Imaged by Gerald Rhemann.
The New Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 G2
Imaged by Gerald Rhemann.

This is Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy's fifth comet discovery. He measured the 15th magnitude "dirty snowball" in the constellation Puppis last August, in search images that he took with a wide-field 8-inch scope. It hasn't moved very much since then, however, it's still in Puppis as of December 11th, however, it's now hundreds of times brighter now at visual magnitude 6.8, reports David Seargent in Australia. On December 9th "I saw it easily using a pair of 6x35 binoculars," Seargent writes. Using a 4-inch binocular telescope at 25×, he says it was a good 8 arc minutes wide with a strong central condensation and no visible tail.

In the early part of January, there will be a collaboration between Insight Observatory and Kohout-Dingley Observatory in Kingston, MA (located at the Sacred Heart School campus) for a community viewing session with the recently installed 11" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Please check back on our website for exact dates and time.

Alan MacRobert
Sky and Telescope Magazine

Source: Binocular Comet Lovejoy Heading Our Way 
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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Observing Objects in the Summer Milky Way

On the evening of October 27, 2014, Joe Masi, Science Teacher at Sacred Heart High School, and I had our first successful observing run at the newly renovated Kohout-Dingley Observatory in Kingston, MA. This observing session was the first since the installation of the new Celestron 11 telescope mounted on a Losmandy Equatorial mount. Due to the unstable weather here in New England this fall, we have been challenged with finding a clear night to start getting acclimated with the new telescope system. 

Observing with the 11" Telescope.
Observing with the 11" Telescope.

Joe and I figured we could do a dry run of with equipment before having the students present. I arrived at the observatory shortly before sundown. The waxing crescent moon was hanging in the western sky. As I waited for Joe and total darkness to arrive, I thought I would get a glimpse of the moon through the C11 for the first time. The full disk of the moon (due to earthshine) fit nicely in the field of view of the 23 mm Axiom 2" eyepiece. The optics displayed fine detail in the moon's terminator, especially when steady pockets of air passed allowing good seeing. When Joe arrived at the observatory, I still had the moon in the eyepiece that allowed him a chance to get a good look of the moon as well. Joe was just as impressed with the optics performance as I was.

As the sky became darker, we configured the telescope and mounting system so we could utilize the Gemini 2 GOTO system. Once we completed the two-star alignment method with the GOTO system, our goal was to slew our way up through the summer Milky Way. The first targeted object was M8, the Lagoon Nebula. The object was so slow in the sky; the nebulosity was faint due to the murkiness of the horizon. The next object of choice was M11, the "Wild Duck" open star cluster in the constellation of Scutum. We then observed common deep-sky objects in the summer Milky Way such as M57, The "Ring Nebula" in Lyra and M27, the "Dumbbell Nebula" in Vulpecula.

NGC 869 and 884, "Double Cluster in Perseus" Imaged by Tristan and Alek, students from the Plymouth Community Intermediate School
NGC 869 and 884, "Double Cluster 
in Perseus"Imaged by Tristan and Alek, 
from the Plymouth Community 
Intermediate School

I noticed the constellation of Pegasus was getting higher up in the sky and knew we could get a good view of M15, a nicely condensed globular cluster that rivals M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. Joe very impressed with this deep-sky object commented on how bright the cluster was. As we winded down our observing session, we ended with a nice view of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy and the double open clusters NGC 869 and NGC 884 Cluster in Perseus. As Joe sat in the observing chair comfortably, he could detect the difference in the colors of some of the stars.

Content with this successful dry run, Joe and I then closed up the dome and parked the new telescope system. This observing session inspired us to introduce the students in the school's astronomy club and science classes to this newly renovated observatory with its new state-of-the-art instrumentation.
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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Telescope or Telescope Binoculars - What's The Difference

The basic difference between binoculars and telescope binoculars is their intended use. A pair of field binoculars are generally used for magnifying a set object that is relatively close and within a certain field of vision. However, telescope binoculars are made specifically for stargazing and possess a much larger focal length than traditional binoculars.

Image of Orion BT100 Premium Binocular Telescope
Orion BT100 Premium Binocular Telescope

Why Use Telescope Binoculars vs Telescope

The truth is that a person can see more of the night's sky with a good pair of binoculars than an inexpensive telescope. And another thing, it can be easier to peer through telescope binoculars with both eyes open than through a telescope with one eye closed.

Viewing the stars and planets through a telescope for any length of time can certainly tire your eye muscles and actually cause focusing problems. As a matter of fact, there are more and more amateur astronomers looking into the benefits of telescope binoculars because of the ease of use. These stargazing binoculars can be mounted on a tripod for additional stability, and a better view of the cosmos.

How Telescope Binoculars Work

Firstly, these binoculars are designed specifically for stargazing and feature a wider aperture opening which allows more light to enter the lenses. This provides for a brighter field of view and the object being observed. The prisms on telescope binoculars are different in that they are better suited for astronomy. Their prisms actually absorb less light making the viewed object stand out and appear brighter. They are especially useful when viewing in low light conditions.

How to Select the Right Telescope Binoculars

There are a number of different kinds of binoculars on the market today that can be used for astronomy. But one thing to insist on is that your desired telescope binoculars have what is called a Porro prism. This prism is geared for low light viewing and ideal for stargazing.

The more common prism utilized in binoculars is called a roof prism and is not conducive to good nighttime viewing. But technological advancements have allowed for the upgrading of optical and lens capabilities and improved viewing quality. Despite these upgrades, you will still benefit by using the Porro prism binoculars. Their quality is better for astronomical uses and generally cost less.

Stabilize Your Telescope Binoculars for Better Stargazing

When selecting telescope binoculars, make sure they have the capability to be mounted on a stable object, preferably a tripod. When looking at smaller objects in the skies, any movement of your binoculars will result in a blurred or shaky image.

Whether you are stargazing with telescope binoculars or a standard telescope, a fixed placement will enhance your viewing experience. It is really worth the cost of purchasing a tripod and avoiding all the frustration that comes with constant re-focusing on your desired celestial body.

Telescope binoculars are an alternative to the traditional telescope and can increase your stargazing pleasure. If you prefer viewing the night skies with both eyes open, this is the perfect choice for you!

William Wilson

Article Source: Telescope or Telescope Binoculars - What's The Difference?
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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Observing the Summer Milky Way with Binoculars

Late summer is one of the best times of year to observe the full brilliance of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

The Milky Way used to be visible on every clear, moonless night, everywhere in the world. Today, however, most people live in places where it's impossible to see the Milky Way because of overall light contamination caused by lights left on all night long. Seeing the Milky Way requires a special effort for most people, but it's well worth the effort. 

Milky Way with North America Nebula and Comet Hale-Bopp Image by Michael Petrasko, Muir Evenden and Tom Lucia
Milky Way with North America Nebula and Comet Hale-Bopp Image by Michael Petrasko, 
Muir Evenden and Tom Lucia
To see the Milky Way, you'll need to travel far from any city, to a rural area. Even in a rural farming country, there are still a lot of bright lighting fixtures that wipe out the night sky. I am fortunate to live in a dark area on Cape Cod where there are no street lights of any kind to hinder my view of our galaxy.

The clearest skies appear just after a cold front passes through. This time of the year in September, this happens more often. Even then, you need to spend some time under a dark sky before your eyes become fully adapted to the darkness. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes for human eyes to become fully sensitive to faint light.

What does the Milky Way look like? Not like any of the photographs you see online because those are made with cameras that accumulate light in ways the human eye cannot. What you will see is a faint, whitish glow, stretching in a huge arc from the southern to the northeastern horizon. It has a mottled effect, kind of like a fluffy cloud. There are brighter areas, especially down toward the core of the galaxy in the southern part of the sky. There are also darker patches, where nearby clouds of interstellar dust block the light from beyond.

Orion 9x63 Mini Giant Astronomy Binoculars
Orion 9x63 Mini Giant Astronomy Binoculars

The most obvious of these dark nebulae is the Northern "Coal Sack", just below and to the right of the bright star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus. Just below Deneb is one of the brightest parts of the northern Milky Way, worth examining with binoculars. This is the North America Nebula, famous in pictures for its resemblance to the continent of North America. Under a very dark sky seeing with my 9x63 Orion astronomy binoculars, I am just able to see the "continent" feature.

One thing you won't see in the Milky Way, either in binoculars or with the naked eye, is any color. Images register the reddish glow of hydrogen gas, but the light is too faint to trigger the color receptors in the human eye, so all you'll see are shades of grey.

In the northern range of the Milky Way's arc, you'll see the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus. When you look in that direction, you're looking outward from the spot within the disk of the Milky Way toward its outer edge, and the stars are far less dense than when you look inward toward Sagittarius.

On a clear dark night, it's easy to see the grand sweep of the Milky Way galaxy and discover all of the deep-sky treasures it possesses.
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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Observing in the Age of Modern Technology

Last Sunday morning, my longtime friend and co-astronomy enthusiast, Muir Evenden and I went observing again together for the first time since 2006. Growing up together on Cape Cod in the late 1970s and 1980s, Muir and I continued to foster each other’s interest in the field of astronomy Back then Muir would bring along his Celestron 8 telescope and I would cart my Edmund Astroscan 2001 4.25" Wide-Field telescope. We would observe with these instruments through those years, bringing them to numerous observing programs for astronomy education and public outreach. After Muir relocated to the Phoenix, Arizona area back in the early 1990s, I would make a point to travel out there at least once a year. On those annual visits, we would travel down to the Tucson part of the state, rent telescopes for the week and observe at the base of Mt. Hopkins, site of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. Muir and I continued this tradition until the fall of 2006 as he then relocated to Poland shortly thereafter.

Image of NGC 253  - Image by Muir Evenden & Michael Petrasko
NGC 253  - Image by Muir Evenden & Michael Petrasko

Of course, Muir and I have always kept in touch through the years via Skype and eventually founded Insight Observatory together. However, because of the technologies that are available to amateur astronomers as well as students studying astronomy, Muir and I were actually able to observe the night sky while I was in my home office on Cape Cod and Muir at his residence in Poland. Via Skype, I shared my computer's desktop with Muir and we logged into the remote robotic telescope network located in New South Wales, Australia, operated by itelescope.net. As we chose their telescope T13, a Takahashi SKY90, 3" f/4.6 telescope with a One-Shot color CCD camera, we looked at the list of recommended images to shoot and we chose NGC253, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Sculptor. We took a series of 5, 10-minute exposures of the galaxy. After each one was taken, we could go to the feature itelescope.net provides called a "Last Image Preview" and glimpse at the results. Muir then stacked and processed the 5 images in the imaging processing software called PixInsight. NGC 253 is one of the brightest galaxies in the sky, the Sculptor Galaxy can be seen through binoculars and is near the star Beta Ceti. It is considered one of the most easily viewed galaxies in the sky after Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Sculptor Galaxy is a good target for observation with a telescope with a 12" diameter or larger. In such telescopes, it appears as a galaxy with a long, oval bulge and a mottled disc. Although the bulge appears only slightly brighter than the rest of the galaxy, it is fairly extended compared to the disk. In 16" telescopes and larger, a dark dust lane northwest of the nucleus is visible, and over a dozen faint stars can be seen superimposed on the bulge.

Image of "Grus Quartet" - Image by Muir Evenden &  Michael Petrasko
"Grus Quartet" - Image by Muir Evenden and Michael Petrasko

After imaging NGC253, we skimmed through the planetarium software, Stellarium, and saw there was an interesting quartet of large spiral galaxies, in the constellation Grus. This quartet of galaxies is known as "The Grus Quartet". The spiral galaxies are physically very close together and strongly interacting. The high starburst activity of two of the members, NGC 7552 and NGC 7582, is also thought to arise from tidal galaxy-galaxy interactions and subsequent formation of a bar in the disk. Several tidal tails are visible extending from NGC 7582, one pointing toward the neighbors in the east and the other toward NGC 7552, which lies at a projected distance of approx. 30' to the northwest. Muir and I then decided to take one 10-minute exposure of the group with T13. We were amazed to see how each galaxy in the image frame had a unique characteristic.

After spending those couple of hours remote observing and logging out of the remote telescope network, I said to Muir "I actually feel like I did in the old days after a good observing session."
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Saturday, September 13, 2014

5 Great Astronomy Apps for the iPad

One of the benefits of working in the field of astronomy education is the opportunity to try out all of the different astronomy apps designed for iPads and iPhones. iPhones have been very popular in the past couple of years. Exploring the objects in the night sky is fun on an iPhone, however, even better on an iPad. There is simply no comparison between the experience that you get from an iPad astronomy app and its counterpart for the iPhone. The larger screen, especially the iPad 3′s retina model, makes a whole lot of difference.

In the event that you are into stargazing and need to utilize your iPad to investigate the objects in the night sky more than ever, these 5 astronomy applications for the iPad will have you prepared:

Star Walk App Screen Capture

Star Walk: provides you with a breathtaking experience with the stars right on your iPad. Can identify the stars as you explore them on your device too.

Red Shift App Screen Capture

Red Shift: Is another wonderful astronomy app for the iPad. It covers around 100,000 stars and 500 plus Deep-Sky objects. This app provides support for iPad 3′s retina display. The 3D flights to the moon and planets are breathtaking.

GoSkyWatch Planetarium App Screen Capture

GoSkyWatch Planetarium: This astronomy app contains all the stars visible to the naked eye. This is not only a great learning tool for amateur astronomers, but it can also serve as a handy object identification tool. It also offers information on moon phases and sunrise and sunset times for all locations.

Solar Walk Planetarium App Screen Capture

Solar Walk: Assists you with investigating the Earth's planetary group to the fullest extreme. This app covers all of the planets and their satellites in our solar system.

SkySafari 3 App Screen Capture

SkySafari 3: Is an astronomy app that has everything you need to explore the stars and other objects. You can use this to identify the stars. The night mode allows an observer to preserve their night vision. The Pro version offers many more features.
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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Telescope Installation for School Completed

Phase two of the telescope and mount installation for Sacred Heart School's observatory in Kingston, MA is now complete. This past week Insight Observatory staff members Harry Hammond and Michael Petrasko completed the tasks of balancing and polar aligning the telescope, as well as configuring the Losmandy Gemini 2 GOTO system that controls the Losmandy G11 equatorial mount. After many attempts at the planning phase, 2 have failed due to the unstable weather conditions during this New England summer, there was finally a nice cool front that pushed through allowing good seeing conditions to align the telescope with the north celestial pole and achieve first light through the Celestron 11 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope that was physically installed a few months ago.

Insight Observatory staff member Harry   Hammond configuring Gemini 2 GOTO system.
Insight Observatory staff member Harry
 Hammond configuring Gemini 2 GOTO system.

While taking advantage of daylight in the early part of the evening, the IO staff used the opportunity to balance the telescope with the additional counterweight needed to offset the weight of the 2" eyepiece that was provided with the telescope by the manufacturer. Once the telescope was perfectly balanced, the sky started to darken so they could then polar align the telescope. Once Polaris (the North Star) was visible, they were successful with the polar alignment. First light with the new telescope was the red star Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes. It was confirmed that the polar alignment was accurate by viewing Arcturus in the eyepiece over a time period of about five minutes. The star never drifted out of view as the tracking was perfect.

The next and final step was configuring the Gemini 2 GOTO system that would allow observers to slew the telescope to any astronomical object in the system's database of thousands of deep-sky objects. Once the Gemini 2 was configured with the latitude and longitude of the observatory's location and other required information, the IO staff's first GOTO deep-sky target was to be M13, the great globular cluster in the constellation of Hercules. Once the target was entered into the LCD hand controller, the telescope slewed its way directly to the open cluster. The view of this celestial object was amazing! The stars across the plane of the cluster resolved nicely and as Harry commented, the object was "Very defined."

M13 - Globular Cluster in Hercules - Image by Michael Petrasko
M13 - Globular Cluster in Hercules - Image by Michael Petrasko

The Sacred Heart Observatory is now ready for hands-on observational astronomy education. This new contemporary telescope and the mounting system should provide students with an awe-inspiring portal to the universe.
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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Wide-Field Galaxy Imaging

The night sky in the spring is packed with a plethora of galaxies just waiting to be observed and imaged. Recently I was browsing through my copy of Sky and Telescope's "Pocket Sky Atlas" by Roger W. Sinnott. I came across the pages that cover the constellations Virgo and Coma Berenices. After noticing how many "red" symbols were on the page representing galaxies in the area of these constellations, I had the idea of remotely imaging a particular area that would be condensed with some of these galaxies with a wide-field telescope.

Galaxy Group in the Virgo Cluster with NGC 4461 in the Center - Image by Michael Petrasko and Muir Evenden
Galaxy Group in the Virgo Cluster with NGC 4461 in the Center Image by Michael Petrasko and Muir Evenden

I then accessed the planetarium software on my computer, "Stellarium", to determine the best time to image a cluster of galaxies. After surveying the night sky in New Mexico in the software, setting the time of night roughly an hour and a half after sunset there, I found a grouping of island universes in Virgo that would be worth giving a shot at. I found a galaxy in the grouping that would be the "targeted center galaxy" for the image frame. This galaxy would be NGC 4461, a spiral galaxy in Virgo. I ended up taking a series of ten luminance images over a period of two nights on T14, a Takahashi FSQ Fluorite 160mm telescope with an SBIG STL-11000M CCD camera via the itelescope.net remote robotic telescope network. My associate, Muir Evenden, then processed the raw image files using the CCD image processing software PixInsight. What I found interesting with the results was all of the different types of spiral galaxies that were caught in the image.

This type of data gathering could be a fun and interesting exercise for students participating in astronomy education projects. Students could be tasked with identifying the designations and galaxy types in the image field utilizing astronomy software and/or star atlases as I did.

The galaxies caught in my image are located in the Virgo Cluster. This cluster of galaxies whose center are about 53.8 light-years away in the constellation Virgo. Comprising approximately 1300 (and possibly up to 2000) member galaxies, the cluster forms the heart of the larger Virgo Supercluster, of which the Local Group is an outlying member.

Many of the brighter galaxies in this cluster, including the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87, were discovered in the late 1770s and early 1780s and subsequently included in Charles Messier's catalog of non-cometary fuzzy objects. Described by Messier as a nebula without stars, their true nature was not recognized until the 1920s.

The cluster subtends a maximum arc of approximately 8 degrees centered in the constellation Virgo. Many of the member galaxies of the cluster are visible with a small telescope. Its brightest member is the elliptical galaxy Messier 49; however, its most famous member is the also elliptical galaxy Messier 87, which unlike the former is located in the center of the cluster.
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Monday, July 7, 2014

The Great Fireball of 1966

At around 7:15pm on Sunday, April 24, 1966 - forty-eight years ago tonight - I was 8 years old and just passing by the open front door to our house, which faced due west, at 55 Haddon Ave., Falmouth, Mass. I remember that the sky was still light and absolutely cloudless (about 30 minutes after sunset) when I noticed a ball of light about the size and brightness of the full moon approaching from just slightly to the left, or, south. I remember feeling frozen in place as I watched this thing – I thought it was maybe a burning aircraft – moving parallel with the rooftop of the Hall School which was about 200 ft. away, directly across the street from the house. My brother, Barry, and cousin, “Binky”, yelled over to us as they crossed the front yard later that night, that they had seen a “flying saucer” earlier, just above the Falmouth Public Library, which was just across the street to the south. Something was mentioned about the Lawrence High School just across Shiverick’s pond to the west, and the Falmouth Fire Department were mentioned also. Funny that I did not connect these two events! (This is the night I had run out the front door into the street and stubbed my big toe!)

Sky and Telescope Magazine Cover - June 1966
Sky and Telescope Magazine Cover - June 1966

The object was very bright and seemed to have what I thought of as “sparks” coming from the trailing end, which was teardrop-shaped. It had a long, even, a white train of smoke trailing behind it, much like a thick contrail, which crossed the entire length of the sky. At times, the object's trailing edge became greenish in color, the leading edge yellow-orange, while the main body remained white. It seemed to pulse slowly several times, brightening with each pulse and I wondered if something else was going to happen to it. During these moments of brightening, the “sparks” separated from the main body and trailed it by at least two or three diameters. I remember thinking how strange it was that these sparks, or fragments, were detaching from the object and that they became visible only after they were some distance behind it. The fragments themselves alternated green and orange and left short trails of their own. I distinctly remember thinking that I couldn’t account for what it was I was seeing and I was especially boggled by the fragments trailing behind the object, seems to ignite only after they were some distance away. I wished that I could predict what was going to happen to the object next but I had had no similar prior experience with anything like this. I felt quite at a loss for an explanation for what I saw. Later that night, I had heard my mother on the phone, tell someone that there had been an announcement about the object on TV, about halfway through The Andy Griffith Show. I don’t know what channel it was or what the station call letters were.

The object seemed to move perfectly parallel to the school rooftop, which was just a degree or two below the object, as it moved in a South to North direction. I was struck by the objects slow speed – about the speed of any plane I might have seen at the horizon at any other time. It seemed to take a long time to move across my entire field of view, which was clear all the way from the south to the north, except for the low school rooftop. The rooftop spanned almost the entire length of the western horizon but was itself only about five degrees in height and perfectly flat. I don’t remember hearing any sound at all. I remember thinking that the thing was going to explode at any time after it had swelled again and again. I remained quiet the whole time, not wanting to call out or call attention to the thing, but just watch and wait to see what was going to happen next. I don’t remember anyone else being around, anyway. Again, it seemed as if the event was endless and it struck me how the object seemed to go through many changes during its flight. I estimate the duration of the flight at about 30 seconds. Finally, it seemed to break apart completely and fade out just before disappearing below the tree line in the NNW.

A similar, nearly identical incident occurred in the summer of 1979 or 1980, during the late afternoon (I don't remember the date), which I also witnessed while at work at Quickset Harbor. A similarly sized object had entered the atmosphere - I estimated somewhere over Maine or Nova Scotia - at the NNE tree line and disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean, at roughly the SE tree line. I was able to time the duration of this object's flight - or as much of it as I had witnessed - at 45 seconds. The object's train, speed, and its color approximated that of the 1966 incident. My sister, Linda, claimed to have seen the object while in a friend's boat on Vineyard Sound, just outside of Falmouth Harbor.

I feel very lucky to have seen such rare and wonderful things.

Almost three months after the 1966 incident, on Friday, July 1st, Barry and Binky’s band, “The Beau Brines” opened for “The Animals” at the Cape Cod a-Go-Go, in Yarmouth, MA. On Christmas of that same year, I received my second telescope, a 3-inch Newtonian reflector. It had a white cardboard tube with a screw-clamp ball-and-socket tripod mount. I saw the moon for the first time with this instrument. I also had a black-tubed 3-inch alt-azimuth reflector a year or two earlier, but other than burning my retina with it trying to locate the sun, I only remember using it to try to locate the moon. I didn't find the moon but I did find the sun! This was also the year that I got to sit in the pilot’s seat of John Glenn's Mercury space capsule, “Friendship 7”.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Supernova Next Door

The fierce and brilliant blast of a supernova heralds the explosive, violent death of a star, and these stellar conflagrations can glare so brightly that they may even outshine their entire host galaxy--at least for a time. On January 21, 2014, an exceptionally close stellar explosion became the brilliant object of pursuit for astronomers all over the world--as well as for several NASA spacecraft. The blast, dubbed SN 2014J dazzled the galaxy M82, situated a "mere" 12 million light-years away from our planet. SN 2014J is the closest optical supernova to light up the sky in twenty years--and it is potentially the closest Type Ia supernova to flare-up during the life of today's missions, astronomers said--providing a rare chance to study such Cosmic occurrences.

Image by John Strong of Galaxy M82 with SN2104J.
Image by John Strong of Galaxy M82 with SN2104J.

SN 2014J is the most brilliant supernova to be spotted from our planet since the gigantic stellar blast that popped off back in 1987--just 168,000 light-years away. In fact, the January 2014 supernova was so dazzling that it was brilliant enough to be discovered with a small 'scope peering up at the murky cloud-shrouded sky hovering above north London. On January 21, 2014, Dr. Steve Fossey, an astronomer at University College London, was taking a group of 21 students through a routine lesson with a 35-centimeter 'scope at the urban University of London Observatory. As he showed his students images of the galaxy M82, also known as the Cigar Galaxy because of its shape, they spotted something odd--a brilliant star nestled at the very edge of the galaxy's disk. M82 hangs just above the bowl of the Ursa Major (Big Dipper) constellation, and it has long been a favorite deep-sky target for astronomers.

The brilliant star, that Dr. Fossey and his students saw on an image snapped during a 10-minute viewing session, seemed to be a newcomer. Dr. Fossey could not remember ever seeing it before, and it was not present in images that he and his students looked up on the Internet. "It kind of looked odd," Dr. Fossey said on January 23, 2014, Scientific American.

According to the students who spotted SN 2014J, the exciting discovery was a stupendous surprise.

"One minute we're eating pizza, then five minutes later we've helped to discover a supernova. I couldn't believe it. It reminds me of why I got interested in astronomy in the first place," said student Tom Wright in a January 2014 statement to the press.

Another student, Ben Cooke, also commented in a January 2014 press statement that "The chances of finding anything new in the sky is astronomical, but this was particularly astounding as it was one of the first images we had taken on this telescope."

Something New In The Sky

All stars, large and small, "live" out their entire hydrogen-burning, main-sequence "lives" by maintaining a very critical and delicate balance between two constantly opposing forces--gravity and radiation pressure. The radiation pressure exerted by a star pushes everything outward and away from the star, and it keeps this huge, seething, glaring sphere of roiling gas bouncy against the squeezing crush of gravity, that mercilessly and relentlessly attempts to pull everything inward. The radiation pressure of a star on the main-sequence results from the process of nuclear fusion, which begins with the burning of hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant atomic element in the Universe, into helium--which is the second-lightest atomic element. This process, stellar nucleosynthesis, continually fuses heavier atomic elements out of lighter ones. In fact, all of the atomic elements heavier than helium (termed metals by astronomers), were created in the searing-hot nuclear-fusing hearts of the billions upon billions upon billions of stellar inhabitants of our vast Cosmic Wonderland--or else in the spectacular blasts of supernovae heralding the end of that long stellar road.

Most supernovae ignite when a solitary star runs out of its necessary supply of hydrogen fuel, and blasts itself to smithereens, thus meeting its fiery ultimate doom. Often, the supernova progenitor is a massive star, with an extremely heavy core that tips the scale at approximately 1.4 solar masses (the Chandrasekhar limit). Smaller, less richly-endowed members of the stellar community, such as our own Sun, normally do not die in the incredible brilliance and violence of a supernova conflagration, like their more massive starry kin. Small stars, like our own, perish with relative peace, and incredible beauty. Our Sun, at present, is a common garden-variety and a rather petite main-sequence Star. There are eight major planets, a multitude of lovely moons, and a large number of other, smaller objects, circling our Sun, which is happily situated in the distant suburbs of a majestic, large, barred-spiral Galaxy, our Milky Way--which is a beautiful, starlit pin-wheel twirling in Space. Our Sun, like all stars, will not live forever. Like all stars, it is doomed to, at some point, run out of its necessary amount of hydrogen fuel. Stars of our Sun's relatively petite mass can "live" out their main-sequence lives for about 10 billion years, happily and contentedly fusing their core's supply of hydrogen into heavier things.

However, our Sun is not exactly a spring chicken. In fact, it is a middle-aged star. It's not old, but it isn't young, either. However, it is experiencing a happy and productive mid-life, and is still sufficiently bouncy to go on merrily fusing hydrogen in its hot heart for another 5 billion years or so--alas, it has already lived for about 4.56 billion years!

When small stars like our own have finally succeeded in fusing most of their supply of nourishing hydrogen fuel, they swell into the glowering, bloated red giant stars. The elderly Sun-like star at this point carries a worn-out heart of helium, encircled by a shell in which there is still some lingering hydrogen that is being fused into helium. The shell swells outward, and the star's expiring heart grows progressively larger and larger, as the doomed star grows older and older. Next, the helium heart itself begins to shrivel up under its own weight--and as it does so, it grows hotter until, at last, it has grown so extremely hot at its center that the helium starts to fuse into the still-heavier atomic element--carbon. The Sun-like, petite star winds up with a tiny, searing-hot heart that manufactures more energy than it once did, long, long ago, when it was a vibrant young main-sequence star. The outer gaseous layers of the elderly, doomed star have become swollen and red. Tragically, in our own Solar System, when our Sun has finally become a bloated, old, red giant, it will furiously cannibalize some of its own planet-offspring--first Mercury, then Venus, and then (perhaps), our Earth. The temperature at the fiery surface of this hideous, hungry red giant will be considerably cooler than it was when our Sun was still a vibrant, young, life-sustaining Star!

The death of small stars like our Sun is relatively gentle, characterized by the "soft" puffing off of their outer gaseous layers of shining, multicolored gasses into the space between stars. These objects are so enchantingly beautiful that they are often referred to as the "butterflies of the Cosmos" by astronomers who are bewitched by the spectacle.

Our Sun will perish this way--with great beauty, and in relative peace. But this is because our Sun is a solitary star. It has no companion star around to disturb its hermetic bliss. The Sun's corpse will be a dense, small stellar relic called a white dwarf, and its shroud will be a glimmering, shimmering, "butterfly" with flying wings of many colors.

However, something very different occurs when a Sun-like star has another star for a companion--rudely disturbing its peaceful solitude. This can cause some very explosive things to happen. Small stars usually do not carry sufficient mass to go supernova. However, this kind of blast can happen if two stellar-relic white dwarfs collide and merge, or if a solitary white dwarf dwells in close contact with a companion sister-star--and victim. The unlucky companion star could be either a main-sequence star or a swollen red giant. In either case, the white dwarf, with a vampire-like hunger, sips up material from the companion star--and gulps down as much as it can until, at last, it can drink no more. The white dwarf "goes critical" just like the big guys, and blasts itself into oblivion in the supernova event called a Type Ia.

The Supernova Next Door

Astronomers think that SN 2014J is a member of the Type Ia class and that it can help explain how these supernovae develop. Type Ia supernovae are "standard candles"--that is, they are used as Cosmic measuring sticks by astronomers to help them determine the increasing expansion of the Universe.

Observations of SN 2014J's spectroscopy revealed its status as a Type Ia. This type of supernova brightens rapidly. Even though many such supernovae are spotted annually, they are usually much further away than the Cigar galaxy.

Astronomers around the world will now carefully observe the exact way in which SN 2014J brightens. They have used the consistency of the brightnesses of Type Ia supernovae in the past to make very precise distance measurements. In fact, these Cosmic "standard candles" were of critical importance in the discovery of the dark energy in the 1990s. Dark energy is a mysterious force, a property of Space itself, that is causing the Universe to accelerate in its expansion.

The Cigar galaxy's close proximity means that there are many existing images of it, dating from before SN 2014J exploded, including some that were derived from the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers will carefully study those images, searching for what existed in this region before the stellar blast. The Cigar Galaxy is heavily shrouded with dust--the light of the supernova shines on the dust in such a way that it may teach astronomers something about the galaxy, as well. One team of astronomers is currently searching for radioactive elements there, such as nickel, that some theories predict form in Type Ia supernovae.

One of the first telescopes to gaze at SN 2014J was NASA's orbiting Swift observatory, which captured an image of the supernova and its host galaxy, with its Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope.

"Finding and publicizing new supernova discoveries is often the weak link in obtaining rapid observations, but once we know about it, we can observe a new object within hours," Dr. Neil Gehrels told the press on January 27, 2014. Dr. Gehrels is the Swift observatory's principal investigator at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Judith E. Braffman-Miller is a writer and astronomer whose articles have been published since 1981 in various newspapers, magazines, and journals. Although she has written on a variety of topics, she particularly loves writing about astronomy because it gives her the opportunity to communicate to others the many wonders of her field. Her first book, "Wisps, Ashes, and Smoke," will be published soon.

By Judith E Braffman-Miller

Article Source: The Supernova Next Door
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Friday, July 4, 2014

Supernova SN1989B

On February 11th back in 1989, Mike Petrasko and I were doing research for the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's SUNSEARCH program, headed up by amateur astronomer and big-rig driver Steve Lucas, which allowed us to concentrate on monitoring a particular group of galaxies for the rare occurrence of a supernova event. Mike had recently acquired a copy of the Thompson-Bryan galaxy charts, which were then available as individual reinforced cards. These cards are used in comparing the appearance of a galaxy through a telescope to a known representation of the galaxy and its accompanying starfield. Any difference in telescopic appearance and chart appearance can be readily noted.

Supernova 1989B in M66 by J. Salmi of Finland
Image of Supernova 1989B in M66 by J. Salmi of Finland

We had set up in a secluded open field in N. Falmouth earlier in the night. It was early February and the temperature was, well, cold. Mike was using his mostly self-assembled 6-inch f/8 Newtonian, a scope he and I had put together in an afternoon, and myself an 8-inch f/6 Newtonian cross between a Meade and a Parks Optical, and both scopes equipped with a driven German equatorial mounting. Either scope has the capability of picking out galaxies in the depths of space to a distance of beyond 60 million light-years, which is the distance of the Leo-Virgo galaxy group containing the spiral galaxy M66 in the constellation Leo. That's roughly 6 trillion miles x 60 million, which is so far out into the Cosmos that I can’t even calculate the distance on a typical calculator – all the zeros won’t fit!

After we had set up, we took a break and drove down to Dunkin’ Donuts in Falmouth, which was open 24-hours back then, to get some coffee to bring back with us to the observing site. We set our still piping hot coffee down on a small, flat boulder nearby and resumed our observing session.

Through a telescope eyepiece, most spiral galaxies appear as a very dim, homogeneous, oval-shaped patch of light, spanning about a quarter of the field of view of the eyepiece, with little or no internal detail. It is the breaking of this homogeneity by a bright knot of light that we are looking for during these scans.

The method is simple enough; find the galaxy by slewing the telescope in right-ascension and center it in the eyepiece. Then slew the scope so that the galaxy is off to one edge of the field of view and slowly move the tube with your hand so that the galaxy moves across the field to the opposite edge. Moving the galaxy across the field in this way several times, while introducing an intentional tremor in the image by tapping lightly against the tube, allows the sensitive rods in your eye to pick up any breaks in the general homogeneous appearance of the galaxy. Normally, there are no breaks in continuity and we had been at this for years with nothing remarkable to note. By the way, after about an hour sitting on the boulder - our coffees were frozen solid blocks of ice which we never got to drink.

Mike Petrasko and his 6" f/8 Newtonian used to spot SN1989b on 02/11/1989
Mike Petrasko and his 6" f/8 Newtonian used 
to spot SN1989b on 02/11/1989

Then, around 2:00am, while observing galaxy M66, a spiral galaxy much like our own Milky Way galaxy by this method, something caught Mike's eye on the second slew across the otherwise black field of the eyepiece. He had noticed a tiny, bright dot of light near the outer edge of the galaxy. Asking me to take a look at it through my scope, I thought maybe this could be a foreground comet or asteroid or a foreground star in the field of view, the only other three things it could possibly be besides a supernova. We checked the Thompson-Bryan charts and there were no foreground stars noted in the area. Comets and asteroids are moving in orbit around the sun and the thing to do would be to watch for a period of a few hours to see if this new object was stationary or moved slightly from its current position.

We checked the position of the object again at about 5:00am and it hadn't moved. I was convinced that what I was observing was a star exploding in another galaxy. A thought crossed my mind… what if this star was the parent star of a planetary system in orbit around it, much like our solar system? What if one of the planets in orbit around this star harbored life of some kind, possibly intelligent life? A supernova explosion would almost instantly vaporize its planetary system far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Could I possibly be watching the extinction of an entire race of sentient beings in some far-off galaxy? With this thought, in the cold, frigid, lonely darkness, I began to tear up. It is akin to what Alyosha in “The Brothers Karamazov” might have felt in 1880 when, staggering out into the night from Father Zossima’s death-bed and “weeping even over those stars,” he perceived that “there seemed to be threaded from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over in contact with other worlds.” Mike and I packed up our equipment at dawn and went home, myself satisfied but slightly saddened, that we had actually watched a star explode in another galaxy.

The next day, Mike contacted me by phone and said he was able to confirm a supernova explosion in spiral galaxy M66, discovered several days previously by a Reverand Robert Evans of New South Wales. In astronomical discoveries, the first two discoverers share the credit if the reports are within several hours of each other. Alas, neither Mike nor myself fell into that category - this time. The object will forever be known as SN1989B. “SN” stands for supernova. “1989” is the year of discovery and “B” means the second supernova discovery of that year.

After years of searching, we had finally witnessed one of the many things in the night sky we had hoped to observe. I immensely enjoyed the time I spent at the telescope eyepiece, searching for supernovae and observing other objects such as Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, comets, asteroids and many other night sky wonders. Many, many more are to come. O-Team, over and out.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Monday, June 30, 2014

Insight Observatory Installs New Telescope for School Observatory

Insight Observatory was recently contracted by the Sacred Heart School located in Kingston, Massachusetts, to search out, find and install a suitable new telescope with a mounting system for their Sacred Heart Observatory located on a hill in the back of the school's campus. The 10' observatory dome was originally built on a structure back in 1999 that originally housed a 12" telescope. The observatory has been without a telescope since 2004 due to several technical issues with the instrument that could not be overcome. 

Sacred Heart Observatory, Kingston, MA
Sacred Heart Observatory, Kingston, MA
The observatory has since undergone renovations this past spring as part of Sacred Heart's STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) initiative. Part of these renovations included selecting a new instrument that would be an integral part of the astronomy curriculum and astronomy club that will be offered at the school in the fall of 2014. After visiting the observatory and meeting with the institution's Director of Advancement along with school's astronomy teacher, taking various measurements and discussing the requirements of the functionality of the telescope for the curriculum, Insight Observatory's staff set out to research equipment that would suit the astronomy program's needs.

C11 OTA Mounted on a Losmandy G11 Equatorial Mount
C11 OTA Mounted on a Losmandy G11
Equatorial Mount

The result was a Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain 11" (C11) Telescope Optical Tube Assembly (OTA) to be mounted on a Losmandy G11 Equatorial Mount. This setup would allow users to enjoy good visual observing experiences as well as allowing the opportunity of getting involved with the imaging of deep-sky objects and planets. This advanced mounting system is equipped with a "Go-To" system that allows an observer to slew the telescope to objects stored in its database. This "Go-To" system can either be controlled with a hand-pad (included with the mount) or from software on a computer connected to the mounts console. If desired, the system can be connected and accessed remotely via the Internet as a remote robotic telescope. Phase one of the installation has been successfully implemented (physical assembly and mounting to the observatory's custom-made pier) and phase two (polar alignment with true north) will commence within the upcoming weeks.
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Monday, June 2, 2014

Messier 45 - The Pleiades Open Star Cluster

In astronomy, the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters (Messier 45 or M45), is an open star cluster holding center matured hot B-sort stars spotted in the fall constellation of Taurus. It is among the closest star groups to Earth and is the group most clear to the bare eye in the night sky. The heavenly substance has a few implications in distinctive societies and conventions.

This past school year, 6th-grade students at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School imaged objects in the Winter Milky Way utilizing remote robotic telescopes for astronomy education located in New Mexico, Spain, and Australia. Kevin D. and Jenna F. imaged this fine deep-sky object remotely from New Mexico using a 106mm wide-field telescope.

M45 - The "Pleiades" Imaged by Kevin D. and Jenna F. from the Plymouth Community Intermediate School

The group is commanded by hot blue and greatly radiant stars that have shaped inside the last 100 million years. Clean that structures a weak reflection nebulosity around the brightest stars was thought from the beginning to be leftover from the arrangement of the group (thus the interchange name Maia Nebula after the star Maia), yet is currently known to be a pointless dust cloud in the interstellar medium, through which the stars are as of now passing. Machine reenactments have indicated that the Pleiades was most likely structured from a minimized design that took after the Orion Nebula. Astronomers evaluate that the bunch will make due for about an alternate 250 million years, after which it will scatter because of gravitational communications with its galactic neighborhood.

Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to view the Pleiades through a telescope. He in this manner uncovered that the group holds numerous stars excessively lower to be seen with the stripped eye. He distributed his perceptions, including a portrayal of the Pleiades indicating 36 stars, in his treatise Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610.

The Pleiades have long been known to be a physically related gathering of stars instead of any chance arrangement. The Reverend John Michell ascertained in 1767 that the likelihood of a chance arrangement of such a large number of brilliant stars was just 1 in 500,000, thus rightly deduced that the Pleiades and numerous different groups of stars must be physically related. At the point when studies were first made of the stars' fitting movements, it was observed that they are all moving in the same course over the sky, at the same rate, further showing that they were connected.

Charles Messier measured the position of the group and included it as M45 in his inventory of comet-like items, distributed in 1771. Alongside the Orion Nebula and the Praesepe group, Messier's consideration of the Pleiades has been noted as inquisitive, as the majority of Messier's items were much fainter and all the more effortlessly confounded with comets—something that appears to be barely feasible for the Pleiades.
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Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Visit to Frombork and Copernicus

We may still not know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, but even more surprising is the fact that only in the past decade has the definitive resting place of the great astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus been determined. To view his final resting place we must visit the small town of Frombork which sits next to the Baltic Sea in the north of Poland, a place where Copernicus resided from 1497 to 1543 and was buried in Frombork Cathedral after his death. 

Frombork Planetarium
Frombork Planetarium

Because Copernicus' will state that his funeral is modest, his grave was not marked in any way, and for a long time, his burial place was thought to be near the altar of St Bartholomew in Frombork Cathedral. Over the centuries many have looked for Copernicus tomb - even Napoleon ordered such a search in 1807. Eventually in 2004 scientists from various fields organized a search and tests ultimately led to the discovery of the remains of Copernicus at the altar of St Cross in Frombork Cathedral.

In 2010 a ceremonial reburial of Copernicus took place, and today you can visit his tomb beneath a beautiful monument dedicated to the late astronomer.

When you are finished paying your respects, head on over to the planetarium just a dozen steps from the cathedral and enjoy the show, knowing that one of the great minds of science is not too far away.
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Saturday, May 31, 2014

An Introduction to Astronomy and Stargazing

Mankind has always been fascinated with the heavens since time immemorial. Stargazing was not just a pastime on lovely nights. People navigated the seas and crossed continents with stars as their guide. They even thought the constellations charted their fates. But that was before the giant leap from astrology to astronomy. 


Astronomy literally means 'law of the stars,' from the Greek words 'Astron' (star) and 'nomos' (law), but astronomers would rather accurately define it as the 'scientific study of celestial objects (such as stars, planets, comets, and galaxies) and phenomena that originate outside the Earth's atmosphere (such as the cosmic background radiation), and is concerned with the evolution, physics, chemistry, meteorology, and motion of celestial objects, as well as the formation and development of the universe.'

However, long-winded Wikipedia's definition seems, don't let it tick you off. There's more to astronomy than theories, calculations, and tedious observations. One thing's certain, though: astronomy is not for jocks.

However, don't get the impression that you need a PhD in astrophysics to get suitably curious with the fascinating display of stars on a clear moonless night. Amateur astronomers have made many important astronomical discoveries. In fact, astronomical societies encourage the involvement of amateur observers, the sky being too wide for just professional astronomers to cover.

By Jim Oneil

Article Source:  An Introduction to Astronomy and Stargazing
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Monday, May 26, 2014

Astronomy for Beginners

Many people are interested in what lies beyond the Earth and the moon. Humans by nature are curious and, therefore, it is only natural that people want to learn and understand more and more about stars, planets, comets, and galaxies. Also, popular sci-fi television serials and movies have further fueled the yearning to look beyond the Earth. 

However, if you are a beginner of astronomy, there is more to this subject than just identifying the stars lighting up the night sky. It also involves understanding how different celestial bodies move and how they influence other celestial bodies. Recently, it has been concluded that astronomy is very similar to astrophysics.

Stargazer's gathered at a Star Party
Stargazer's gathered at a Star Party

Astronomy consists of two branches, namely observational astronomy and theoretical astronomy. Observational astronomy deals with gathering and analyzing data, while theoretical astronomy deals with making models that help to explain the different astronomical objects and astronomical phenomena. Then results from both branches are used in order to explain all the observations made and to confirm the results of the theories.

Many amateur astronomers have left their mark on this field of science. They have been instrumental in making amazing discoveries. In fact, astronomy is one of the fields of science where amateurs and beginners are allowed to play active roles. So, if you want to cultivate this hobby, you are not alone. There are many clubs for amateur astronomers and the members of these clubs are very serious about observing the positions of various celestial objects.

As a beginner in astronomy, you will need a telescope to help you identify the different celestial bodies in the night sky. Conduct research on the different types of telescopes and buy one that suits your needs and budget. You can also check out various online forums for amateurs and beginners where you can get useful tips on making the right selection on a telescope. Also, invest money in a good book that will help you identify the different stars and celestial objects.

Start out slowly and once you gain confidence and knowledge, you can graduate to mapping the movements of the different celestial objects. Also, during the course of your observations, you will see many nebulae and star clusters that are not only beautiful to observe, but also amazing. The sheer size of the universe is mind-boggling.

The world of astronomy can open the doorway to the universe. You can learn about the different planets, stars, galaxies, comets, black holes, nebulae and more as you dig deeper into this subject.

Kum Martin

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Kum_Martin
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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Astronomy For Kids Training Tips

Nearly every child has an interest in exploring the stars. Being able to learn astronomy online is something special that a mere ten years ago was not even offered. Let's take a look at the many benefits of having the ability to learn astronomy on the web and at some astronomy for kids instructing suggestions.

Every child desires to stay up late and astronomy is the ideal justification. Let's be realistic, they want to be outdoors plus they desire to remain up until the early hrs of the morning. Why not utilize that to your great advantage and teach them something that they are keen to learn?

Students studying Astronomy Online.
Students studying Astronomy Online.

Kids are clean slates with regards to astronomy. They are hungry to learn and do so with great passion since it is a topic they delight in. It is extremely important to pick appropriate instructional resources which are also interesting to the child if you wish to learn astronomy online. Astronomy for kids is amongst the most enjoyable subjects you can attempt to teach. Teaching about space by simply reading through a textbook is not nearly as exciting as going outside or observing the stars through a computer program.

When buying astronomy software, the very first thing to check is if the program can run on your computer. Be sure that the software not only runs on your variety of computer (PC or Mac) but additionally that your computer is powerful enough to render the 3-dimensional images. The system specs for software programs are commonly boldly shown on their website.

The excellent astronomical software allows you to learn astronomy online by observing the sky not merely from your local position, but often from out in space itself. One huge advantage of astronomy software packages is that your youngster can easily do a search for precisely what they wish to view and instantly observe it. Finding objects in the night sky is a difficult activity and many brand new astronomers become discouraged by their lack of ability to find objects like Venus or Mars.

One more enormous benefit of having the capacity to learn astronomy online is that it does not demand clear skies or pleasant weather conditions to enjoy. Nothing can spoil a well-planned astronomy trip quicker than clouds or rain. Teaching astronomy for kids can be done just about anywhere that you can carry a laptop.

As you gain experience instructing astronomy for kids you will see that there are several important features to look for in astronomy software: The ability to view events in past times (or future), simple to use interface, and most of all guarantee that the info is provided by a dependable source such as NASA. Make sure that you are providing the information is that correct.

Astronomy for kids is as gratifying a topic for the educator or parent as it is the little one.

Father, hubby, article author, and recreational astronomer in that order. JohnnyB assists with Learn Astronomy Online and spends as much of his time with his family as possible.

John Beam

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=John_Beam
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