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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Observing Iridium Flares

On the evening of Wednesday, October 7th, my girlfriend, Christine and I had the pleasure of experiencing a bright Iridium flare at 6:30 pm EDT. Earlier that afternoon, my Insight Observatory Associate, Harry Hammond called me to inform me of a -3 in magnitude Iridium flare that could be seen roughly 62 degrees high and directly due north. Harry's source for the sighting was the website Heaven-Above. Heavens-Above tabulates the altitude and azimuth of each iridium flare event, but you can also use the site to plot a particular flyover against the stars as follows: once you have the list of flares generated by the steps given above, click on a particular spacecraft ("Iridium 53," say), and then click on "Passes." This will give you a list of that spacecraft's passes over your location for the next several days. Click on one of those passes by date, and you can get a star chart showing the spacecraft's quickly changing position among the stars.

Iridium Satellite 54 - Photo by Christoph Lohuis.
Iridium Satellite 54 - Photo by Christoph Lohuis.

My first visual experience of an iridium flare occurred when I was attending the 2006 amateur telescope making convention known as Stellafane that is held annually during mid-summer in Springfield, Vermont. I was relaxing in my lawn chair staring up at the summer Milky Way overhead roughly around midnight. As I was enjoying the clear night sky, I overheard two gentlemen discussing iridium flares. Not knowing much about them myself, I couldn't help but start to listen in on their conversation. As they continued to discuss the topic, one interrupted the other and muttered, "Look right below Sagitta (the constellation of the arrow) In 5, 4, 3, 2, 1..." Immediately after his countdown, a bright burst of light that resembled a star suddenly brightening, then fading, appeared right below the constellation Sagitta as promised.

Of the roughly 3,000 spacecraft in Earth's orbit, just about 100 stand apart: the Iridium communications spacecraft, which skim the uppermost, most rarefied region of the atmosphere (the exosphere) at altitudes around 800 kilometers in six steeply inclined orbital planes (orbits that nearly pass overhead at the North and South Poles). Known as an iridium flare, the glare from these satellites is well known to many astronomers.

How we see Iridium Flares
How we see Iridium Flares

What causes Iridium Flares? Iridium satellites are unique because their flat, shiny, door-sized antenna arrays periodically reflect sunlight toward the ground, causing a brief, but brilliant flares that can momentarily reach an apparent magnitude of –8, brighter than the planet Venus. Also, these flares are predictable and their orbital elements are public information. Thanks to websites such as Heavens-Above, satellite-watching enthusiasts are able to witness these brilliant occurrences. The illustration to the left demonstrates how Iridium Flares are seen from the Earth.
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Technology Used in Astronomy Today

Astronomy is a topic in science. For most of astronomy, there are scientific instruments in use. These can be telescopes, which have different technologies, and also that of using computers. In this article, we will take a look at the technology used in astronomy today.

Since the dawn of time, man has looked up at the stars in amazement. What were these shimmering lights in the night sky? A torch to light our way? It certainly has been used for farmers, sailors, and many other areas to determine the seasons and other important aspects, however, let us look at the technology used in astronomy.

Hubble Space Telescope in Earth's Orbit.
Hubble Space Telescope in Earth's Orbit.

What was the technology that stone age man and any man or woman today who looks up at the night sky? What is the principle in what is happening when people observe those objects? For certainly the Sun is not as big as my thumb, but actually, a size which could eat up Earth and still be hungry!

The point is simple. The stars and other objects in the sky can be millions of light-years away. As you look at these objects the light travels to meet your eye. As it meets your eye, it goes through the pupil of your eye. This is the technology of man, and to see more, you will need more light entering.

If your pupil was as large as the Earth, our Moon would appear to be like your hands in front of you. This means that the more light we let in, the more we can see, and the bigger it will appear to be.

This is what astronomers and scientists have dedicated themselves to for years. It makes sense. However, the telescopes of today are not using today's technology. Yes, many have some new features, but at the back of it all, they pretty much use 2 different systems.

One of the systems is the famous Galileo's refractor. This works with letting light come through a big lens, and finally through other lenses get focused to meet your eye. What happens here is that you get to see objects far away more magnified. In effect, you have increased the pupil of your eye!

Another system that is widely used is Isaac Newton's system of the telescope. This technology used in astronomy telescopes widely available is that light enters and bounces off a mirror, and comes back up to find another slanted mirror that sends the light through a lens to meet your eye. Again, increasing your pupil in effect, with technology.

There is much more to the technology used in astronomy today. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope and many other astronomical devices. However, one thing that is becoming more common is to utilize a computer which drives the telescope. This has allowed navigation of the night skies to be much easier than it used to be.

Do you want to see what the planets look like? Discover more about astronomy and telescopes and astronomy binoculars by now visiting these links: buy telescopes | Meade telescopes. 

Koz Huseyin

Article Source:  Technology Used in Astronomy Today
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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Checkbook Astronomy

Held annually under the dark August skies of Springfield Vermont, a large gathering of amateur telescope makers unfolds on weekends chosen to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower. Called Stellafane, this “Shrine to the Stars” happening is attended by thousands of amateurs from around the world. They are all hoping to get in some dark-sky observing and to admire telescopes designed and fabricated by others. This is all conducted in a friendly outdoor-camping, "down-home" atmosphere (which belies all the genius and mind-boggling technology at hand).

1990 Stellafane Convention - Springfield, Vermont.
1990 Stellafane Convention - Springfield, Vermont.

In the late seventies, during a Stellafane's Friday night “Under the Tent Talks” sharing, I had the good pleasure of hearing a relative newcomer to the world of amateur astrophotographers. He had quickly zoomed nearly to the limit of what one could do with amateur gear, and his inspiring work was showing up in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy Magazines. His name was David Healy, and he was from Long Island, NY.

David stepped behind the modest podium and said respectfully to the assembly of mega-nerds, “I am not a telescope maker (huh? This is Stellafane!), I am a telescope BUYER.” The audience was caught off-guard and cracked up. He then went on to explain how his astrophotos were made with gear he had purchased. It was a talk graced with wit, insight and plenty of self-effacing humor.

Hey, who has not lusted over those shiny Schmidt-Cass telescopes, CCD cameras, and exotic telescope mounts, jumping from the full-color pages of astronomy mags? But oh those prices! Gonna cost you to crank out dramatic astrophotos, son! David Healy candidly admitted he had the dough, being a NY based stockbroker/analyst. But he lacked fabrication skills and hit the hobby head-on with his checkbook, with superb results.

I have always been scratching for funds to do astronomy. It’s just the way it is. No sour grapes toward Mr. Healy or anyone else who can afford big-ticket toys, particularly if they are used as productively as David’s were.

But for me, there is a significant upside to being a "bucks down" amateur. Maybe I can make what I need. If you think there are limits to the telescopes and gear that can be made by nonprofessionals, take a trip to Stellafane, or browse the pages of Sky and Telescope to nix that notion. True, I had a decent scope that I had saved up for, to serve as the platform for my system. What I needed but could not afford, were costly accessories to create long focus color shots of galaxies, nebulae, and clusters.

Many of my homemade projects cannot be described in detail here, but they were necessary items, like a permanent scope pier, gear racks, a heated dew cap, modest electrical gear and the like. One particularly rewarding item was a “cold camera”, which chilled film with dry ice during exposures to enhance light response. (These were pre CCD days!) Challenges to keep the film dry (but cold), handling film under the night sky, and developing exposed color film chips all had to be overcome. But they were.

And there is the nub. Sure it's exciting as ever to open that FedEx package to extract the astronomical treasures therein. But how about “rolling your own” once in a while? Let’s get our hands dirty because benefits abound. An accessory that you’ve designed, constructed, and put to successful use can be a source of immense pride. I still take joy in the fact that Astronomy Magazine used an article and photos I put together describing the construction of the aforementioned dew cap, to produce a three-page feature color article on it! Best of all, that dew cap worked beautifully. Total cash outlay? Ten bucks.

I guess one could call that piggy bank astronomy.

Harry Hammond
Mashpee, MA
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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Searching for Extragalactic Supernovae

Just a few weeks ago I was down and out with one of those annoying summer colds. Having no energy to do anything, laying there next to my plethora of cold remedies, I started reminiscing about the days when fellow astronomer, Dale Alan Bryant and I would go out night after night visually hunting for extragalactic supernovae. Of course, while reliving those fond memories, I couldn't help but dwell on the night we independently discovered the extragalactic supernova in the spiral galaxy M66 in the constellation of Leo on the morning of February 11, 1989.

"Grus Quartet" - Imaged by Michael Petrasko and  Muir Evenden of Insight Observatory.
"Grus Quartet" - Imaged by Michael Petrasko and  Muir Evenden of Insight Observatory.

I started thinking about how great it would be to start or join such an exciting and fulfilling program again. I could actually start "observing" galaxies while recovering from my cold without taking the risk of worsening my condition by staying up during the late-night hours visually observing galaxies. My other thought was that there aren't many galaxies to observe in the northern hemisphere during the nighttime hours this time of year.

But wait! I can now observe galaxies and hunt for extragalactic supernovae during the daytime hours. I got out my Chromebook and loaded up the Stellarium planetarium app and briefly scanned for galaxies that I could image and look for exploding stars within. Stellarium showed me a grouping of four different types of galaxies in the southern constellation of Grus, the crane. I then logged into our account on the telescope network that we utilize for astronomy education here at Insight Observatory. I figured a wide-field telescope would be the appropriate instrument to capture all four galaxies together within the same frame. The remote telescope of choice was a 4-inch Takahashi FSQ ED refracting telescope mounted on a Paramount PME mounting system along with an SBIG STL-11000M CCD imaging camera.

Unfortunately, the telescope network was quite busy that day with other users accessing the remote instruments from all over the globe. However, the telescope network has an intuitive reservation system that allows users to reserve telescope time and create an observing script to run during the time allocated for our use. As I started losing my energy once again, I figured that would be the best solution. I reserved a block of telescope time on the 4-inch refractor for the following day. The script I created was taking a series of 5-minute exposures with luminance, red, green and blue filters. This allows a color image to be created with the monochrome CCD camera.

Fortunately, the weather was good the following day at the remote telescope site in Australia to acquire the images. Once the raw data was uploaded to our cloud-based server, my colleague Muir Evenden, processed the series of images in PixInsight to create a color image. I then took that image and post-processed it in Adobe Photoshop.

After analyzing the final product. I realized that this contemporary process of gathering data for extragalactic supernova searching is two-fold. There is the process of gathering the data that can be taught to students as well as the actual examining of the data.

The Grus Quartet is a group of galaxies in Grus the crane. They consist of, NGC 7599, NGC 7590, NGC 7582 (largest and brightest) and NGC 7552 (farthest away from the main trio).
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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little, Red Star

This is a COMSIM of the recently discovered planetary system, Gliese (GLEE-ZUH) 876, a red, type-M star with some similarities to the Sun (type-G), 15 light-years away, with three planets in orbit around it. It was discovered by the Kepler Mission Space Telescope.

As can be seen, planets do not necessarily orbit their host stars in an orbital plane, perpendicular to the star's axis of rotation, in the way that the planets of our solar system do. This came as a bit of a surprise to me when I found out that a high percentage of exo-planetary systems actually exhibited this arrangement (I don't have that figure with me at the moment).

Illustration of the Gliese 876 Planetary System.
Illustration of the Gliese 876 Planetary System.

The green disk represents the extent of the habitable zone (popularly referred to as the 'Goldilocks Zone'), of Gliese 876, in which, two planets, "876 b" and "876 d", partially occupied, in eccentric orbits, relative to each other. The zone is shown at an angle perpendicular to Gliese 876's axis of rotation.

The parent (host) star of this system, Gliese 876, is an 11th magnitude star. This means that, although the system is 87,000,000,000,000 (87 trillion) miles away - it can actually be seen in a medium-sized (6" aperture) telescope. Take a look!

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Prague Astronomical Clock

One of the nice things about living in Europe is the abundance of artefacts and places of astronomical interest...amidst all the culture and history you would expect to encounter travelling and visiting different cities and countries, one finds that they eventually run across a historical attraction which piques the interest for those of us who have a passion for astronomy. Today we visit the city of Prague (about an 8-hour train ride from my residence in Krakow Poland) and look at the Astronomical Clock in Prague.

Prague Astronomical Clock.
Prague Astronomical Clock.

The Prague Astronomical Clock is built into the facade of Old Town Hall in Prague and is believed to have originated around the year 1410. Various modifications, upgrades, and reconstructions have occurred over the centuries (the details of which could be a whole book in itself), but what I found particularly interesting was the wealth of data they were able to convey from the gears, pulleys, and flywheels of the clock.

When viewing the Astronomical Clock we can see time on four different scales:
  • Old Czech (Italian) Time: Marked on the outer "24-ring", a new day is counted by the setting of the sun.

  • German (Local) Time: Marked by Roman numerals on a disk inside that of the outer ring.

  • Planetary Time: Measured from the rising to the setting of the sun, used in astrology.

  • Sidereal Time: Shows current position of starfield above, indicated by a star on a zodiac ring.
Other useful astronomical information can be derived from the clock as well:
  • The height of the sun and the moon above the horizon is shown throughout the year.

  • The rising and setting of the sun and moon are shown, as well as the current phase of the moon.

  • The astronomical night is indicated (when the sun dips 18 degrees below the horizon).
Along with the useful astronomical data on display we also have a number of features of purely artistic or religious purposes, most notably:
  • A number of carved wooden figures stand aside from the clock. When the clock hits the top of the hour and the bells chime, the figures animate and move - the most interesting of these is the skeleton which pulls the rope that chimes a bell and he (she?) turns an hourglass over, a symbol of the passing of time.

  • Also at the top of the hour when the clock chimes two shutters above the clock open and figures of the twelve apostles appear in the windows briefly.
You can see the clock in action below as the top of the hour is reached:

It was enlightening to discover what our ancestors were capable of without the use of modern computers and technology!
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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Here Come the Perseids!

The 2015 Perseid meteor shower will peak around August 11. The new moon on August 14, 2015, will create perfect conditions for watching the meteor shower.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the annual Perseid meteor shower probably ranks as one of the best and most popular meteor showers of the year. This epic event takes place during the dog days of summer when many families are on vacation. As this time of year offers comfortable temperatures during the overnight hours, this allows us to lay back under the stars for hours and enjoy this spectacular display of comet debris. No matter where you live worldwide, the 2015 Perseid meteor shower will most likely be fine on the mornings of August 11th through the 14th. 

Radiant of Perseid Meteor Shower
Radiant of Perseid Meteor Shower

On a dark, moonless night, you can often see 50 or more meteors per hour from northerly latitudes, and from southerly latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps about one-third that many meteors. Fortunately, in 2015, the waning crescent moon comes up shortly before sunrise, so you’re guaranteed of dark skies for this year’s Perseid meteor shower. Thus, on the Perseids’ peak mornings, moonlight will not obscure this year’s Perseid meteors.

For observers in the Southern Hemisphere, the Perseid radiant never climbs above the horizon, which will considerably reduce the number of Perseid meteors you are likely to see. Nevertheless, on the night of maximum, it is possible to see 10-15 meteors per hour coming up from the northern horizon.

There are other, weaker meteor showers going on around the same time as the Perseids, but the Perseids will generally appear to move much faster across the sky than meteors from the other showers. In fact, the Perseids are among the fastest moving meteors we see every year. Another way to know if the meteor you saw was a Perseid is to trace the meteor backwards. If you end up at Perseus then you have probably seen a Perseid meteor! If you are not sure where Perseus is in the sky, the following chart pictured to the left will help you find it from both the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere.

Perseid Meteor Shower 2012. Image by David Kingham
Perseid Meteor Shower 2012. Image by David Kingham

Where do the Perseids come from? - Made of tiny space debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus. This is because the direction, or radiant, from which the meteor shower seems to come in the sky lies in the same direction as the constellation Perseus, which can be found in the north-eastern part of the sky. While the skies light up several times a year by other meteor showers, the Perseids are widely sought after by astronomers and stargazers. This is because, at its peak, an observer can see 60 to 100 meteors in an hour from a dark place.

If you have a chance to get away for a long weekend with the family and you live in the New England area, be sure to look into the annual Stellafane Convention. It is a gathering of amateur telescope makers and astronomers from around the globe. Due to the convention falling on the weekend of August 15th this year, along with the non-existing moon in the sky, the dark skies will provide excellent viewing for the Perseid meteors. Even though the peak will be over on August, 14th, there will be still many meteors to catch for about a week after.
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Friday, July 31, 2015


Though I've never played a game of golf in my life - I used to frequent the Woods Hole Golf Club's course, at Woods Hole, Mass. - in the middle of the night, that is. You see, I'm an astronomer/astrobiologist.

On any given clear night, fellow astronomer Mike Petrasko, and I, used to drive our car and light pickup, equipped with my 8-inch, and Mike's 6-inch, 50-inch long, 70-inch high Newtonian reflector telescopes, up onto a fairway at the golf course, in Woods Hole, to about the course's center.

Woods Hole Golf Course, Woods Hole, MA.
Woods Hole Golf Course, Woods Hole, MA.

There, we set up the telescopes and connected their motorized clock-drives, to our vehicle batteries, with cables and alligator clips; this was necessary so that, as the Earth rotates during the night - and the stars drift slowly across the sky, the telescopes, when aimed at an object, could counter that motion and follow along, defeating any tendency for the object to drift, in the telescope's field of view.

During the winter months, we'd usually arrive at the golf course just before midnight, set up the equipment and prepare to spend several hours in sub-freezing temperatures - many times, in the single digits. We'd break down the equipment and leave just after dawn. This happened three or four nights a week - regardless of our regular work schedules, of course.

Meade 826C Newtonian  8" Telescope.
Meade 826C Newtonian  8" Telescope.

We chose that particular observing site because the sky there is relatively dark, free of light pollution, to the north, and absolutely black in the south, over Vineyard Sound. Mike and I had been monitoring a list of galaxies, for possible, extra-galactic, supernovae outbursts.

Extragalactic supernovae are exploding stars, located in galaxies beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, the closest being several thousand light-years away. These outbursts occur, on average, only once every hundred years, or so, in any given galaxy - including our Milky Way. We actually discovered one, one morning, in February of 1989. It is known, today, as SN1989b and is located in the spiral galaxy, M66, in the constellation Leo, the lion. I remember that night very well... - it was 4°F!

One morning, around 4:00am, a local police officer drove up onto the course in his cruiser, with spotlights glaring, and parked next to my truck. In a mock tone of extreme concern, he asked me, what kind of weapon it was that I was using, and what it was pointed at! I told him that, that was highly-classified information and that I could not give him a meaningful answer. He enjoyed the comeback.

After we had explained that we were astronomers, with the SUNSEARCH program, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory in Cambridge, and that the unusual-looking instruments in question were astronomical telescopes, he pointed out that we were not supposed to be there, without express permission from the owner; we could only agree. But, he said, since our activity was benign - and possibly even useful, and since the ground was frozen solid (being February, our tires didn't mess with them, normally, immaculate grass) - that it would be OK, though, he suggested we try golfing there some time, instead.

Some of the finest - and loneliest - hours of my life were spent on that golf course, scanning the universe with my telescope and witnessing, first-hand, many of its mysteries, free of charge. It is where, one night, for the first time, with the use of my Skalnate-Pleso Observatory star atlas, that I had experienced a keen awareness of my bearings and my relative position on the Earth, and its position within the solar system, and the solar system's position within the Milky Way galaxy. At that moment, I simply felt like, for the first time, I knew exactly where I was.

It was there, throughout the year, that I did several Mars and Saturn observing sessions, and was witness to a global sandstorm, one night on the red planet. I also made note of any changes, over time, in growth or shrinkage in Mars' south polar ice cap, as Mars progressed through its seasons throughout the Martian year. I've seen Saturn's rings, both in an edge-on aspect and wide open. The interval between those two extremes is about three-decades-long. Yup, I've been around folks.

Maybe, someday, I'll take that officer's suggestion and play a game of golf there... after I learn how to play, of course... “Fore!”

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Monday, July 27, 2015

Astronomy Questions and Answers

I'd like to thank Mike Petrasko for inviting me here to share some of my experiences in astronomy, which, more often than not, included Mike himself! I'm an Amateur Astronomer with something like 35 years of experience being bent over the eyepiece of a telescope (and boy is my neck sore!) Mike and myself have had, probably some of the most interesting, sometimes bizarre (but usually entertaining) experiences in the history of observational astronomy. I will share them with you here as I recall them...

M66 Imaged by Adam Block.
M66 Imaged by Adam Block.

After having read my recent article on supernova SN1989B, my brother (not an astronomer!), texted me the following questions one night, included here with my answers:

Q: In your article, you talked about a star going supernova. If there was a planet with life orbiting the star, how much warning would their scientists have to save their civilization?

A: Scientists would know about the star’s condition long before it went supernova and would have had time to prepare—that is if there were actually any other place to go. However, after the explosion, the ejected material from the star would be travelling toward the planet at 10% of the speed of light and would reach the planet within just a few hours. The planet would be vaporized instantly.

Q: So, what could happen to our Sun to cause us a problem here on Earth?

A: The Sun has done nothing out of the ordinary in its entire history. It is a very stable star. It has an 11-year sunspot and solar flare cycle which occasionally causes us electrical problems here on Earth, but that’s about it. Its internal nuclear forces are able to balance its gravitational forces which will not allow it to collapse in on itself and then explode.

Q: So the Sun will never go supernova?

A: No, the Sun is not massive enough. Only stars 3 solar masses and more can go supernova. A supernova explodes after it uses up its nuclear fuel and collapses under it own weight. What’s left, if it has enough mass, will collapse even further to the point of no return and become a black hole—with a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape. If the star doesn’t have enough mass to become a black hole, it may become a sphere of carbon under pressure. We all know what happens to carbon under extreme pressure—it becomes a diamond! Yes, there are stars out there that are a pure diamond. "Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky” was more accurate than anybody knew, at the time! But if it continues to collapse, it will become a neutron star; literally, a ball of neutrons packed so tightly together that a teaspoonful would weigh millions of tons!

Q: So, just what will happen to the Sun?

A: The Sun, being a rather small star (specifically, a type G2 Yellow Dwarf), will begin to swell as it ages and move off the Main Sequence of stellar evolution to become a red giant star—a very slow process so no surprises here. Its edges will reach out to almost the orbit of the Earth. This is not good news for anybody sticking around as the Earth will be burned to a cinder! But there will be plenty of time to prepare; it will not happen for another 4.5 billion years.

Q: How are we related to all of this, supernovae I mean?

A: Well, the heavy elements such as iron, nickel, copper, magnesium, zinc, beryllium and the rest of the metals that make up terrestrial planets like Earth, and even our own bodies, were forged in the interiors of supernovae. That’s the only place in the universe these elements are created, along with minerals and silicates that become rock, sand and dust. They travel across space together to cool and condense into planets - and people! So, the atoms in our bodies once existed in the interiors of stars! To quote the late Cornell University professor of astronomy, Carl Sagan - “We are all star stuff.”

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering Clyde Tombaugh While New Horizons Visits Pluto

On the afternoon of July 14, 2015, just hours after the first images from the New Horizons spacecraft were transmitted back to earth from its close flyby encounter with Pluto, a fond memory came back to me as I stared at the images of the dwarf planet. This memory I am writing about is the day I had the honor of meeting Pluto's discoverer, Clyde W. Tombaugh. The event took place on crisp fall day back in the early fall of 1987. Mr. Tombaugh was the keynote speaker for AstroAssembly, an astronomy convention put on annually by the astronomical organization known as Skyscrapers, Inc. based in Scituate, Rhode Island.

Dale Bryant, Clyde Tombaugh and Michael Petrasko  at AstroAssembly - 1987
Dale Bryant, Clyde Tombaugh and Michael Petrasko 
at AstroAssembly - 1987

I was attending the convention with my good friend and current Insight Observatory Science Writer, Dale Bryant, as well as other members of the Cape Cod Astronomical Society. Dale and I attended nearly all of the morning and afternoon talks given by both professional and amateur astronomers. After the final talk was given before the dinner break, we ventured out of the society's clubhouse and suddenly found ourselves within feet of Mr. Tombaugh and his wife, Patricia. I recognized him immediately from pictures of the planet discoverer in astronomy books and magazines I had read growing up. I recall my reaction was that I was simply stunned accompanied with excitement. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for a picture, I asked Mr. Tombaugh if we could have a photo taken with him. He graciously replied, "That would be fine". At that moment a fellow member of our astronomical society, Rich Zitola, took a picture of Dale and me with the famous astronomer. For many years an enlargement of this picture has been a permanent fixture on my fire mantle.

As I studied the detailed images of Pluto on my computer while this wonderful memory came back to me, I couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy. I was thinking how much I wish Clyde was still around to experience these spectacular images with us of the planet he spent years looking for and finally discovered on February 18, 1930. It is only fitting that a small portion of his ashes was placed aboard the New Horizons spacecraft with the inscription on the container "Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system's 'third zone'.
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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Pluto's Craters from New Horizons

I processed this image to emphasize, that (contrary to popular belief), there actually ARE craters on Pluto! Apparently, there is some geological activity going on at the surface involving ice - and, possibly, some degree of erosion.

It is my opinion that, since Pluto wasn't one of the original planets of the solar system during its formation but, rather, was gravitationally captured at some point afterwards, (evidenced by its highly inclined orbital plane), that it didn't experience the early period of bombardment by rogue asteroids and other debris (remnants of the solar system's formation), that the terrestrial planets did, and as our moon's surface reveals. Earth suffered as much of the bombardment as did the moon, but, due to atmospheric and geologic erosion, much of the impact evidence has disappeared over the aeons since, whereas the moon, being nearly geologically inactive and possessing no significant atmosphere, has preserved its geologic past.

New Horizons Image of Pluto in False Color.
New Horizons Image of Pluto in False Color.

If Pluto was present during part of the bombardment period, it, too, may have suffered impacts, but, like Earth, much of that evidence has been eroded away, hence, the scarcity of impact craters at its surface.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

An Astrobiologist's Brief View on Life

What are life-forms on Earth, made of? What about celestial objects, like other planets, comets, asteroids, and stars – what are they made of?

As can be shown, by an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, they all share the same, fundamental chemistry of Earth and its companion planets. All of these are made from the common chemicals, minerals, and metals that are found in and on the Earth.

MACSJ0717.5+3745 Galaxy Cluster Imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.
MACSJ0717.5+3745 Galaxy Cluster Imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Living organisms - animal, bacterial, fungal and floral, are composed of various combinations of these elements, which express themselves in varying molecular arrangements and can be found in the Periodic Table of the Elements. The myriad of potential arrangements accounts for the diversity of life on this planet.

Beyond hydrogen, all of this chemistry - entry but if it - was forged in the interiors of stars, namely, a type of star called a supernova.

A supernova is a catastrophic, stellar event, in which, the progenitor star collapses under its own weight, then, rebounds, blowing itself to smithereens - much of it, reduced to atomic nuclei. Due to a process called stellar nucleosynthesis (fusion reactions that take place at a star’s core, at extreme temperatures), at a certain temperature all of those elements are converted, one from the other, from the available hydrogen fuel; hydrogen is converted to helium; helium to lithium; lithium to beryllium, and on to the heavy metals.

The galaxies (galaxies are, simply, large collections of stars, bound by a common gravitational field) and all of the planets of our solar system, its comets, asteroids and our star, the Sun, and the exoplanets orbiting other stars (more than 2,000 have been confirmed by NASA/JPL and more than 350 are Earth-like) - all of these - including our very selves - are composed of these various molecular arrangements of those elements. Living things are not made up of some unique, special or mysterious substance. Cornell professor of astronomy and exobiologist, Carl Sagan, once made this accurate statement: “We are all star-stuff.”

Every niche, on this planet, is aggressively occupied by some form of life; no territory is wasted. Earth and its supporting star, the Sun, are rather average places; there is nothing outstanding about our Solar system – the sun and its planets - and, possibly, even ourselves and yet, life arose here just the same. So, what are the chances of life arising elsewhere, in our or other galaxies in the universe? It seems to me that life, will, ultimately prove to be the rule and not the exception.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Environmental Science Camp Receives Observatory

The staff at Insight Observatory has recently taken on a new project at Camp Bournedale, an environmental and science located in Plymouth, Massachusetts. A foundation is known as the S.T.E.P (Science, Technology, Engineering of Plymouth) also based in Plymouth, MA raised funds and generously donated a complete setup for a remote robotic observatory for astronomy education. The equipment consists of a 3 foot in diameter domed observatory, 10" Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope, SBIG CCD Camera and a computer in which the equipment will be operated with from a building nearby the observatory's location on the campus.

Insight Observatory staff measure for the telescope mountInsight Observatory staff measure for the telescope mount.
Insight Observatory staff measure for the telescope mount.

The purpose of this equipment is to allow students and faculty attending the camp to monitor real-time solar activity (such as sunspots), the moon as well as the brighter planets such as Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. There will also be opportunities for smaller groups to learn how to image deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae.

The first phase of this endeavor is designing and constructing a mount for the telescope to be installed in the observatory. This task is nearly completed and should be ready for installation in the upcoming week. The second phase will then be networking the dome, telescope, and imaging camera to the building that will house the computer system. The domed observatory has been constructed on a decking platform that allows the observatory to be easily be accessed for equipment maintenance. The observatory is also located on an open space where camp attendees to learn the night sky while witnessing the dome and telescope slewing around to image the planets.

The observatory that will house the remote robotic telescope.
The observatory that will house the remote robotic telescope.

When the observatory installation is completed, two plaques will be presented for dedication, one for William Luzader (former Director of Blake Planetarium located at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School and one for the Sheehan Family Foundation, both of whom were instrumental in making the observatory project possible.
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Monday, July 13, 2015

July Meteor Watch

July highlights a few meteor showers, however, none ascents to significant status. The Piscis Austrinids and Alpha Capricornids delivering a maximum of 5 meteors for each hour at their late July peak, however, Southern Hemisphere observers will have better perspectives. The Alpha Capricornids are active for over a month lasting from July 6 through August 10. Unlike most showers, the Alpha Caps have a plateau-like maximum with maximum activity lasting from July 25-30. Since maximum activity is still 2 weeks away, hourly rates will be less than 1 no matter where you are located. The radiant is currently located in the area of the sky that is located in northeastern Sagittarius, roughly 3 degrees north of the 4th magnitude star known as Rho 1 Sagittarii. The radiant is best placed near 0100 hours local daylight time (LDT) when it lies on the meridian and is highest in the sky. With an entry velocity of 22 km/sec., the average Alpha Capricornids meteor would be of slow velocity.

Radiant of the Southern Delta Aqaurid meteor shower.
Radiant of the Southern Delta Aqaurid meteor shower.

The month's best performer is the Southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which ordinarily delivers 15 to 20 meteors for every hour. Sadly, the shower peaks the morning of July 30th, one day preceding the month's second full moon. The event does keep up its crest level for a few days so meteor watchers will get a better show on the off chance that they observe within the hour or two in the middle of moonset and the beginning of morning dusk of July 27th and the 28th. The Delta Aquariids get their name because their radiant appears to lie in the constellation Aquarius, near one of the constellation's brightest stars, Delta Aquarii. There are two branches of the Delta Aquariid meteor shower, Southern and Northern. The Southern Delta Aquariids are considered a strong shower. The shower originated from the breakup of what are now the Marsden and Kracht Sungrazing comets. Meteor showers can provide fun for astronomy education projects such as visual meteor observing as described in last April's post, "Methods for Observing the Lyrid Meteor Shower".
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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Field of Planetary Dreams

On the evening of May 29, 2015, the Insight Observatory and Cotuit Library staff had the pleasure of hosting a planet observing session opened to the public in Cotuit, MA, a village of the town of Barnstable located on Cape Cod. The event was attended by around 20 people of all different ages and as young as 3 years old. These folks were eager to get their first telescopic view of the planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn as well as the gibbous Moon

The youngest attendee getting her first  look at the Moon through a telescope.
The youngest attendee getting her first
look at the Moon through a telescope.

Several telescopes that were provided by the Cotuit Library and Insight Observatory were set up just behind the pitcher's mound at Lowell Park, the baseball field that is the home of the Cotuit Kettleers. The Kettleers baseball organization was very generous to allow this observing session to take place on their home field. Due to the phase of the moon almost being full, the observing session was focused on observing the planets that were visible and the moon itself.

The first target of the evening was the planet Venus that was starting to dip down towards the west just after twilight. Insight staff member, Harry Hammond was manning the library's 8" Dobsonian telescope (which is available for checkout for those who have a Cotuit Library card) and I had the controls of Insight Observatory's 10" Dobsonian telescope. When our guests were viewing the planet, they would shout out with tones of astonishment "It looks like it has a phase like "the moon". We only see a little over half of it".

We then moved on to Jupiter, about 20 degrees east of Venus. I figured that the excitement of seeing 4 of the giant planet's moons was going to be the highlight of viewing this planet, however, it was the equatorial cloud belts that the observers could see on the planet's disk is what amazed them most.

Then there was the bright gibbous moon farther east from Jupiter that was waiting to be viewed by everyone. The "Wow Factor" here was wonderful! The observers could not believe the detail they were seeing on the lunar surface. Two of the Moon's most prominent craters, Copernicus and Clavius stood out very prominently.

Now for the grand finale, Saturn had just risen above the trees toward the east, so we guided both telescopes toward the ringed planet and because Saturn had recently reached opposition, the view was spectacular with Cassini's division obviously visible separating the rings. One observer said, "I thought I would never see the rings of Saturn in my lifetime, thank you!"
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Monday, May 4, 2015

Students Observe Venus, Jupiter and the Moon

The rewards of witnessing students acquire their first visual views and photographic images of Venus, Jupiter and the Moon are absolutely priceless. On the evening of Tuesday, April 28th, 2105, at 7:30pm EDT, 10 students from the Astronomy Club at the Sacred Heart School in Kingston, MA, gathered at the Kohout-Dingley Observatory located on the school's campus grounds. The goal for the evening was to observe and learn a little about Venus, Jupiter and the Moon through the observatory's 11" telescope with direction from staff members from Insight Observatory.

Students Prepare to Observe at the Observatory.
Students Prepare to Observe at the Observatory.

Shortly after the sunset and the observatory dome was opened up with telescope ready to go, a few students started to trickle in along with school's longtime science teacher and astronomy club advisor, Joe Masi. As twilight began, we pointed out Venus, the "Evening Star" as it began to shine bright in the western sky. The 11" telescope was then trained on the inner planet to allow students to get a peek. Most of the observers reacted by stating, "I can see a phase... It looks like a gibbous moon like tonight’s moon phase."

Sacred Heart Senior, Cam K. Photographs the Moon
Sacred Heart Senior, Cam K. Photographs the Moon.

After all the attending students got their first look at Venus through a telescope, we then slewed to the bright-gaseous planet, Jupiter. The seeing was fantastic as usual during and just after twilight. The North and South Equatorial Belts were very apparent. There were also four of Jupiter's moons visible in the field of view. I had every student sit comfortably in the observing chair to allow them to take their time viewing the solar systems largest planet. After they focused the telescope to best suit their view, just about every one of them responded "Wow! That is so amazing! I can see the moons and belts... The belts are a reddish color".

The Moon Featuring the Crater Copernicus Imaged by  Sacred Heart Student, Cam. K. w/ his DSLR Camera.
The Moon Featuring the Crater Copernicus Imaged by
 Sacred Heart Student, Cam. K. w/ his DSLR Camera.

Last but not least in any way for sure, was our last target and Grande finally for the evening... The Moon, Earth's nearest neighbor. The phase was a waxing gibbous that provided an excellent view of the popular crater, Copernicus. The shadows observed within the craters and mountain ranges of the moon made the viewing that much more spectacular. One student attending, Cam K., brought his DSLR camera with him as he was there to photograph the observatory and its equipment for a school newspaper article. After viewing Jupiter and the Moon, he asked if he could try photographing the objects through the eyepiece. Cam used the method of holding the camera and zooming into the eyepiece with a telephoto lens as well as steadying the camera on a tripod. This method of astrophotography is known as "eyepiece projection".

In most cases, one would get a camera adapter to fasten the camera body to the focuser of the telescope for this method. However, just as an experiment, his very first results were surprisingly good. Cam is now interested in learning more about astrophotography. While cam is an avid photographer, he made a comment while he was photographing Jupiter through the telescope..."This is the farthest object I have ever focused on and photographed."
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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Methods for Observing the Lyrid Meteor Shower

This month’s Lyrid meteor shower isn't one of the year's strongest displays, and with Moon being in a thin, waxing crescent, it won't offer much competition. As with January’s Quadrantids, the Lyrids put on a fairly brief performance, and this year the predicted to peak on April 22nd at 23:00 UT.

Lyrid meteor photographed back in the 2012 shower
Lyrid meteor photographed back in the 2012 shower

The Lyrid meteors appear to radiate from a location near the Hercules-Lyra border, which is high in the sky from about 11 p.m. until dawn. The Lyrid meteor shower has been observed for more than 2,000 years; Chinese records say "stars fell like rain" during the shower of 687 BC. But in recent times, the Lyrids have generally been weak, though at intervals of about 12 years the shower occasionally delivers up to 10 times more meteors than normal. The Lyrids did show a brief surge to a Zenith Hourly Rate of 90 back in 1982, but a spike like that has not been reported in any of the Lyrid's since.

Here are a few methods on how to record the Lyrid meteors...

Visual Meteor Observing - An easy way to observe meteors visually is known as the "'counting method". An observer notes the meteors seen on a tape recorder or just a piece of paper. He or she gives the estimated magnitude of the meteor and whether or not it belonged to the observed shower (e.g. Lyrid or non-Lyrid). This method is most applicable for major showers like the Quadrantids, Perseids, and Geminids. You have to decide which observing method, plotting or counting, can be used most favorably. Personally, my preferred method of recording meteors is photocopying a page from a star atlas that includes the shower's radiant and when a meteor is spotted, I would then draw an arrow on the photocopied page of the star atlas pointing in the direction I saw the meteor moving in across the sky. The length of the arrow represented how far it travelled.

Recording meteors on a star atlas
Recording meteors on a star atlas

Photographing Meteors - The first thing you have to have if you want to capture a meteor in a photograph is a camera capable of doing so. I realize there are still folks who use film cameras but the cost and effort of using film to shoot meteors is too great to include as a method, therefore, I will recommend just on digital. However, when I did use film years ago, I used a Pentax K1000 camera and use during meteor showers for long exposures.

There are a lot of digital cameras out there capable of capturing excellent images of meteors. It is possible to catch a meteor on nearly any camera that allows for manual or semi-manual control and exposures of at least 15 seconds. Once you have your camera there are several other things you really need to have.

1. Sturdy tripod - No images shot during dark/dusk or in any low light condition will work without it. 

2. Cable release - You don't want to be hovering over your camera all night with your finger pressed on the shutter and if you did your photographs wouldn't be as good as they could have been b/c you will cause a slight movement every time you touch the camera. Some cable release cords have settings that allow exposure length (bulb) to be specified which is a big help. 

3. AC adapter or several batteries - Most digital SLR cameras have AC adapters available but if not several batteries should do the trick.

4. Memory cards - More than likely you will be taking lots of pictures in attempting to catch a meteor so make sure you have enough memory. An 8 GB card should be good for all night. A 4 GB card should work if your exposures are longer (1-2 mins). Another option is connecting your camera to a computer and controlling it via the computer and having the images saved directly to your computer. The down-side here is that a slight delay between shots (1-3 seconds) could cause the observer to miss something.
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Saturday, April 11, 2015

The March 2015 Solar Eclipse

When I heard that March 20, 2015, the total solar eclipse would be visible as a partial solar eclipse from Krakow, Poland, I had a dilemma: how can I observe this event when I possessed no adequate filter to protect my camera so I could photograph it? In the past, I used to own a specialized solar filter made from mylar, and so I thought: what do I have now that has such a similar property? 

The author's image of March 20, 2015  Solar Eclipse visible from Krakow, Poland.
The author's image of March 20, 2015
Solar Eclipse visible from Krakow, Poland.

The answer was remarkably simple: a blank DVD. Luckily I possessed a blank DVD with no artwork on the top that might diffuse the sun's image, and with my (cell phone) camera I went out and captured the eclipse in a matter of minutes. Please click on the image to enlarge to see the eclipse in more detail.

WARNING: Even though my plan was to photograph the eclipse through the DVD using my cell phone camera, you should NEVER use a CD/DVD/Bluray disk as a filter to look directly at the sun with your eyes: invisible radiation may get through the improvised filter and damage them! So please be careful trying this method to photograph a solar eclipse!

Some interesting facts about this solar eclipse:

It so happened that this solar eclipse occurred that same date as the 2015 March equinox (the moon turned new only 14 hours after reaching lunar perigee) moon’s closest point to Earth in its orbit. Thus this moon was a "Supermoon" – at the new phase – not visible in our sky, but having a larger-than-average effect on Earth’s oceans. Plus this new "Supermoon" swung right in front of the equinox sun on March 20, so that the moon’s shadow fell on parts of Earth.

Who was able to view the March 20 eclipse?:

In other words, only those along that path (at high northern latitudes, near Greenland and Iceland) were able to observe the total eclipse. The path of totality started at sunrise to the south of Greenland, circled to the east of Greenland and Iceland during midday, and ended to the north of Greenland at sunset. The best spot to watch this total solar eclipse from the land was the Faroe Islands and the Svalbard archipelago, which reside right on the semi-circle path of totality.
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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Astronomical Sketching

I guess it is valid to say that this post is a follow-up to one of my most recent posts called "Keeping an Observing Log". Recently, I was searching for some good RSS Feed content for our Insight Observatory's blog and stumbled upon a website that is similar to NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website. The difference is that it's entitled "Astronomy Sketch of the Day" and features astronomical sketches of astronomical objects or phenomena observed in detail submitted by amateur astronomers around the globe. 

Lunar Crater Gassendl Sketched by Achim Rohe
Lunar Crater Gassendl Sketched by Achim Rohe.

As I may have mentioned before in one of my previous posts, the art of astronomical imaging today allows observers to acquire fine detail of astronomical objects with minimal effort thanks to remote telescopes that are accessible via the internet. However, there is much to be said about sitting at the eyepiece of a telescope and taking the time to sketch out the detail of an astronomical object. This process forces the observer to perhaps see more detail due to the time it takes to get a good representation of the object on paper.

M42 & M43 Sketched by Jeremy Perez
M42 & M43 Sketched by Jeremy Perez 

As I mentioned in my previous post, the method I used for drawing the planets, galaxies and nebulae observed through my 4.25" and 6" reflecting telescopes I used to own was using colored or graphite pencils on plain sketch paper. One method that was also popular years ago was using white chalk on black construction paper. However, I never got around to trying that method. After browsing through the astronomical sketches created by observers on the website "Astronomy Sketch of the Day", I have been exposed to a contemporary and interesting way of recording visual observations at the eyepiece of the telescope. It seems the most popular method of astronomical sketching today is utilizing graphite and watercolor pencils on white sketch paper, then scanning the drawing on a personal computer, proceeded by saving the image with reversed values in an imaging program such as Adobe Photoshop. I have included a few examples on this post.

There are many tutorials on various methods of sketching astronomical objects on the internet as well as the book I found entitled "Astronomical Sketching: A Step-by-Step Introduction (The Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series). Not only is astronomical sketching a good way to learn detailed characteristics of astronomical objects in the world of astronomy education, but it is also a great exercise for enhancing one's artistic skills. However, please keep in mind, it may take patience.
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