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Sunday, March 23, 2014

M42 - The Great Orion Nebula Imaged with T31

M42, The Great Orion Nebula, is still one of my favorite deep-sky objects to image and visually observe. I recall seeing the nebula for the first time through my Sears and Roebuck 3" refracting telescope in the winter of 1979. I have to admit, it was a little disappointing on how it looked as it didn't nearly compare to the pictures that were published in "Sky and Telescope" and "Astronomy" magazines at the time. However, it was still a bit exciting seeing the "fuzziness" of the object along with four major stars that make up the "Trapezium" in this brilliant stellar nursery. Due to the advanced technologies of remote robotic telescopes for education, capturing a detailed colored image of this fine object has become more possible. 

M42 - Imaged by Michael Petrasko and Muir Evenden
M42 - Imaged by Michael Petrasko and Muir Evenden

On the morning of March 16, 2014, I logged in remotely around 6:00 am EDT to T31 (hosted by iTelescope.net in New South Wales, Australia - 9:00 pm, Australia time) from my home office on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The moon was nearly full, however, the skies were very clear according to the image of their "All-Sky Camera". Telescope 31 was available, that is Planewave 20" (0.51m) CDK imaging telescope equipped with an FLI-PL09000 CCD camera. After consulting the Stellarium software on my iMac for a good object to image that at least close to 60 degrees away from the moon, I saw that the constellation Orion was pretty much still high enough in the sky to allow me to image M42. I simply took four images at five minutes. Each image was taken with a Luminance, Red, Green and Blue filter on the CCD camera. My colleague and friend Muir Evenden then downloaded the raw data from the iTelescope FTP site and proceeded to stack and process the four images using the CCD processing software named PixInsight. After Muir was done with his "pre-processing", I then performed a bit more processing in Photoshop CS6. We were amazed by the results of taking four 300 second exposures and just executing some quick processing with these powerful software packages.

Some Interesting Facts about M42:

The Orion Nebula (also known as Messier 42, M42, or NGC 1976) is a diffuse nebula situated south of Orion's Belt in the constellation of Orion. It is one of the brightest nebulae and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky. M42 is located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light-years and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The M42 nebula is estimated to be 24 light-years across. It has a mass of about 2000 times the mass of the Sun. Older texts frequently refer to the Orion Nebula as the Great Nebula in Orion or the Great Orion Nebula.

The Orion Nebula is one of the most scrutinized and photographed objects in the night sky and is among the most intensely studied celestial features. The nebula has revealed much about the process of how stars and planetary systems are formed from collapsing clouds of gas and dust. Astronomers have directly observed protoplanetary disks, brown dwarfs, intense and turbulent motions of the gas, and the photo-ionizing effects of massive nearby stars in the nebula. There are also supersonic "bullets" of gas piercing the hydrogen clouds of the Orion Nebula. Each bullet is ten times the diameter of Pluto's orbit and tipped with iron atoms glowing bright blue. They have probably formed one thousand years ago from an unknown violent event.
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Beginner Books

Looking at all these great images taken from remote robotic telescopes that grace our website and you might be thinking: these are certainly nice to look at, but how can I learn for myself where these objects are located in the night sky? Maybe you just want to learn the patterns of the constellations, or desire a more in-depth understanding of celestial mechanics? Well for adults and kids alike I would go no further for a first astronomy book than H.A. Rey's "The Stars, A New Way to See Them".

The Stars, A New Way to See Them
The Stars: A New Way to See Them

I myself read this as a young astronomy enthusiast in my pre-teen years and I recall how much I enjoyed reading it. Don't be fooled by your initial impressions if you check it out on Amazon: although lacking any photographs and possessing whimsical drawings by the same creator of Curious George, it is exactly these qualities that I find endearing and inspiring about the book. Highly recommended!
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Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Real Joy of Astronomy - Observing

Even though we now have access to remote telescopes in various locations in the world where we have the ability to capture starlight and store it on our personal computers, there is also a way of enjoying astronomy as I did throughout the years and still do today. It is very exciting and rewarding to capture images of galaxies and nebulae, however, I still enjoy simply looking through a telescope and looking at astronomical objects visually. For example, while I'm logged into a remote telescope from my home office, I will have the 10" Dobsonian reflecting telescope set up in the front yard.

Clark University student Stephanie Fussell and I  visually observing galaxies for her astronomy class project - "Classifying Galaxy Types"
Clark University student Stephanie Fussell and I  
visually observing galaxies for her astronomy 
class project - "Classifying Galaxy Types"

As I am imaging objects in New Mexico, perhaps I will be enjoying a good view of M81, the spiral galaxy in Ursa Major from my home. Sketching astronomical objects can be just as beneficial as imaging them. Our eyes can see details in astronomical objects visually through a telescope differently than an image can.

I would like to share part of an article I wrote back in 1987 when I was Secretary of the Cape Cod Astronomical Society for its monthly newsletter. It is titled "The Real Joy of Astronomy - Observing".

Interests in the night sky came about when man first looked up to notice a strange phenomenon. This was called "Starlight". Astronomy is one of the oldest of sciences known. It was curiosity, wonder, observation and thought throughout the centuries that brought us to the current understanding of the universe. It was with the most valuable instrument that humans started to learn the properties of heavenly bodies... The unaided eye.

Observing is really what amateur astronomy is all about. I can recall the exact day I became hooked on astronomy. It was a warm spring back in 1975 that allowed my best friend and me to ride our bikes after dinner until the sunset brought on the twilight. There was one particular night that detoured our attention from the earth and put it into the sky. Both of us were pedalling as fast as we could to beat the darkness that was quickly falling upon us to get home in time for dinner. As we turned down the last road before reaching our houses, suddenly there was a swift burst of light that caught the corner of my eye. My sense of curiosity forced me to stop instantly. When I took a good look at the spot where I saw the light, I noticed that the light was no longer there. The only thing that was there was a newly constructed house. My first and only thought was that it had to be a light was left on in the house. Not being convinced, I slowly backed up and there it was... the bright light. To my astonishment, it wasn't a light bulb at all. In fact, it was the waxing gibbous moon reflecting off the garage window.

Sears and Roebuck Refractor and Celestron SCT Telescopes
Sears and Roebuck Refractor and Celestron SCT Telescopes

I had received a small refracting telescope made and sold by Sears Roebuck for Christmas the previous year. I was always looking for an excuse to get it out and use it and this was it! After pointing out the light source to my friend, Scott, I shared my idea of getting out the telescope and looking at the moon with it. Scott and I biked to my house as fast as we could with excitement and anticipation. After carrying the small telescope out to the front yard, it was then my lifelong passion for astronomy began! As I pointed the telescope to the moon and focused the eyepiece, I couldn't believe my eyes. "Whoa!! You have to see this!" I shouted. As my friend Scott to peek, Scott yelled: "Look at all of the mountains!" It was a simple view of the moon that started a lifelong journey through the universe.

It was visual observing that maintained a strong interest for myself in astronomy. In 1976 my family and I relocated to Cape Cod, MA. It was there I met Muir Evenden whose family had just moved into my development from Colorado. It was amazing that we discovered we both shared the same interest. As time went on, we both advanced our knowledge of astronomy in our own ways. While Muir used to read numerous books on the subject, I would enjoy viewing documentaries. However, there was one thing we always shared equally... Observing! Muir had his Celestron 8" SCT and I eventually acquired an Astroscan 4.45" wide-field reflector.

 M57 - "Ring Nebula" in Lyra Image by Emily & Allie - PCIS
M57 - "Ring Nebula" in Lyra Image by Emily & Allie - PCIS

It was Muir who showed me all for the first time through his C8,  M31 - The "Andromeda Galaxy", M57 - The "Ring Nebula", and M13 - The "Great Globular Cluster " in Hercules. In exchange, I recall introducing Muir to M27 - The Dumbell Nebula. I recently asked Muir what he gets from observing... "When I find a Deep-Sky object for the first time, I feel a great deal of wonder, excitement and a bit of relief as if it were a big accomplishment. Observing, to me, is an adventure."

It has been 27 years since I wrote this article for the CCAS Newsletter. It brought back a lot of fond memories of my observing adventures while transcribing to this blog post. 

My point of posting this old article is to convey how visual observing can be just as enjoyable and productive as gathering imaging from a remote robotic telescope. Both practices go hand in hand.

As Featured On EzineArticles
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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Arizona Adventures: Then and Now

It doesn't seem that long ago (almost 10 years ago already?) when our annual trips to such astronomy meccas in Arizona like Kitt Peak, Whipple Observatory, and Lowell Observatory took place. Not only were we inspired by being in the presence of such famous facilities, but we also took the opportunity to enjoy the same bit of clear Arizona night sky that they were using...with our own eyes, telescopes, and maybe a film camera as well, we explored the heavens as they did. 

The McMath Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak imaged at the  Advanced Observing Program - November 2004
The McMath Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak imaged at the Advanced Observing Program - November 2004

Because we grew up with astronomy as a hobby we had the prerequisite posters on our walls: images of the Orion Nebula, Pleiades, and others - taken from these large telescopes we were so enamored with. As our backdrop to the wider universe, these images held a special power to inspire.

Now for the past decade or so what was once the realm of large university telescopes perched upon remote mountaintops has made its way into the hands of astronomy enthusiasts of all types. When we see the images that amateurs can produce with internet accessible telescopes and compare it to those taken 20 or 30 or more years ago with vastly larger professional telescopes, it is truly a revelation...just looking at the images obtained by students at the Plymouth Public School as part of a collaborative effort with Insight Observatory and iTelescope.Net and I realize we are truly in a new era of astronomy.
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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Supernova in Galaxy M82

On January 21, 2014, a group of astronomy students spotted an extragalactic supernova in the galaxy known as M82, the famous nearby irregular galaxy is located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It peaked at magnitude 10.5 during the first week of February, but as of February 28th, it was still quite visible in amateur scopes about magnitude 11.7.

The discovery of this extragalactic supernova will provide an opportunity for students and amateur astronomers to study such an event utilizing remote robotic telescopes for astronomy research and education. Students and amateur astronomers could take sequential images of the galaxy over a period of nights to compare the supernova's change in magnitude.

Before and after photos of the galaxy M82 showing the appearance of a  brand new 11.7 magnitude supernova.  Images by E. Guido, N. Howes, M. Nicolini
Before and after photos of the galaxy M82 showing the appearance of a  brand new 11.7 magnitude supernova. 
Image by E. Guido, N. Howes, M. Nicolini

Spectra showed it to be a Type Ia supernova  (an exploded white dwarf) with debris originally expanding at up to 20,000 kilometers per second. It is significantly dimmed and reddened by dust in M82 along our line of sight. By one estimate, it would be two magnitudes brighter if we were seeing it in the clear.

< Because this new supernova is currently at magnitude +11 to +12, it's definitely not visible with the naked eye. You’ll need a 4-inch telescope at least to be able to see it. That said, at 12 million light-years away, this is (at the moment) the brightest, closest supernova since SN 1993 J exploded in neighboring galaxy M81 approximately 21 years ago. M81 and M82, along with NGC 3077, form a close-knit interacting group.

M82 is a bright, striking edge-on spiral galaxy bright enough to see in binoculars. Known as the Cigar or Starburst Galaxy because of its shape and a large, active starburst region in its core, it’s only 12 million light-years from Earth and home to two previous supernovae in 2004 and 2008. Neither of those came anywhere close to the being as bright as the discovery, and it’s very possible the new object will become brighter yet.

Image: John Strong - T24 M82 with SN 2014J
Image: John Strong - T24 M82 with SN 2014J

The supernova occurred when the dwarf packed enough pounds to reach a mass 1.4 times that of the Sun, it can no longer support itself. The star suddenly collapses, heats to incredible temperatures, and burns up explosively in a runaway fusion reaction. What we see here on Earth is the sudden appearance of a brand new star within the galaxy’s disk. Of course, it’s not really a new star, but rather the end of an aged one.

T24 is the largest iTelescope system in the Northern Hemisphere. It is big, it is beautiful. Situated under dark and clear skies deep in its Sierra mountains remote location in Northern California USA. This is the same location Insight Observatory plans to host the 16" Dream Astrograph Telescope.

T24 - 61 meter (24") CDK  Reflecting Telescope
T24 - 61 meter (24") CDK  Reflecting Telescope

T24 is .61 meter (24") CDK reflecting telescope and the result of long and careful planning, manufacture and final configuration. Featuring the latest in imaging trains and software control systems T24 is sure to produce amazing images and groundbreaking deep science for its users on the iTelescope.Net network.
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