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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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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cloudy Sky Blues and a Visit to the Planetarium

I needed a little inspiration: too many cloudy days here this winter in Poland...what else should I expect? Luckily relief was not too far behind. In early February I found myself on a trip to Warsaw with my wife to explore the city and its culture, including a visit to the new Copernicus Science Center, and most importantly to their Heavens of Copernicus Planetarium.

Heavens of Copernicus Planetarium, Warsaw, Poland
Heavens of Copernicus Planetarium, Warsaw, Poland

< It was my first visit to one of the newer style of planetariums that utilize a number of digital projectors (no large Zeiss or Spitz dumbbell projector here), as well as a "tilted" dome that makes it easier to see the whole dome without straining one's neck.
The show was "Space Journey": a trip in the not so distant future from Earth to Saturn, along the way discussing the mechanics of getting there. We as the audience provided input during the show on what items we would bring on our trip, which would have to bear later in the show as we had to use these items to try and deflect a comet passing by Saturn from its trajectory towards an imminent collision with Earth. All in all an enjoyable show, and the one thing most obvious during the presentation was that the youngsters (mostly 8 - 14 years of age) were the most engaged during the interactive portions of the show, frequently answering questions ahead of the adults! Good to see them get excited about astronomy and space travel.

 2D and 3D Projection System
2D and 3D Projection System

Finally, it was nice to see a familiar sight on the planetarium schedule: the ubiquitous Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" laser light show can also be enjoyed at the Heavens of Copernicus Planetarium. The last "Dark Side of the Moon" show I experienced was at the Flandrau Planetarium in Tucson Arizona over 20 years ago, so it's about time to see it again. Top of the to-do list for our next trip to Warsaw!
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Astronomy Bingo Games

Recently I was browsing the Las Cumbres Global Telescope Network education section of their website and came across an entertaining and fun way for students to participate in astronomy education... Play Bingo with Charles Messier. 

Charles Messier was an astronomer who lived in Paris in the 18th century. He wanted to become famous for discovering comets. When he looked through his telescope he often re-discovered objects which were already known and were not comets. So he didn't waste time, each time he found an object that did not move in the sky he catalogued it.

Play Bingo with Charles Messier
Play Bingo with Charles Messier

As I read more on the topic of entertaining ways of teaching astronomical subject matter, I discovered more "Astronomy Bingo" type games. When we think about the study of history and some other subjects, we instinctively know that these subjects involve learning many facts. In history, for example, details such as what happened on a particular date, or who was the King of France at a particular time, are critical information. On the other hand, we often tend to forget that studying science subjects also involves learning many facts. Astronomy is no exception from this general rule - there are many facts that students must become familiar with - the names of planets, moons and other stellar objects, the different types of stars, and of course astronomical jargon and terminology.

Thus, one of the challenges that educators face when teaching astronomy, is how to get these facts across in a way that students can easily remember. In olden days, teachers used to simply stand in front of their class and lecture their students. Today, however, both teachers and students are looking for something more interactive and a bit more fun too! Educational games are gaining more and more popularity in the classroom, and in particular, educational variants of the game of bingo are increasingly widely used.

Astronomy Bingo Card
Astronomy Bingo Card

Bingo turns out to be ideal for use in education. In large part, this is because virtually everybody knows how to play bingo already, but since the game is so simple, even people who don't can learn to play quickly, plus that bingo can be adapted to teaching virtually any subject, including astronomy, by simply using bingo cards printed with squares containing words or phrases related to astronomy, instead of numbers. Furthermore, bingo also has the distinct advantage that the game does not require expensive specialist materials - which is quite an advantage bearing in mind the financial limitations that educators work under today.

In order to play bingo in the classroom, each student is given a printed bingo card, the teacher takes the role of "bingo caller", and then you play. Of course, a teacher may well choose to alter gameplay in order to focus students on the educational elements, perhaps by asking students to describe the items that they have marked off from their cards, or by having a class discussion as each item is called out.

Of course, if you want to play astronomy bingo, you won't be able to play unless you have bingo cards containing those items which form the subject of the lesson. The simplest way to get such cards is to print them off using a computer. This is very easy, thanks to ready-made free bingo printables that can be downloaded from the Internet, and affordable bingo card maker software, which can print whatever type of bingo cards that you might want.

Article Source: Tanna, S. (2008, January 11). Astronomy Bingo Cards. Retrieved March 8, 2015.
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Monday, March 2, 2015

Old Dogs and New Tricks

As Mike Petrasko shared in "A Pilgrim's Progress" right here on Insight Observatory, we recently had the pleasure of delivering a talk at a local library, outlining our experiences with amateur astronomy over the last 30-plus years. While composing the astrophotography content of the talk, one thing was glaringly apparent: things have changed!

Celestron 8" Telescope Prime Focus Astrophotography  Setup Circa 1995 - Photograph by Jefferey R. Charles
Celestron 8" Telescope Prime Focus Astrophotography 
Setup Circa 1995 - Photograph by Jefferey R. Charles

So, at the risk of sounding like the old-timer who laments "well, back in MY day....", it might be worth noting the differences between taking an amateur astrophoto before robotic telescopes, and after, now that the process can be entirely automated. Back in the day, unless you were operating a sophisticated observatory telescope, there was no scrolling menu to pick desired objects to observe, no automatic telescope alignment, no automatic correction to telescope tracking errors, etc. Spending an hour or more with your eyeball glued to a guide star while the exposure was underway (to correct for tracking errors) was par for the course. (And of course, this assumes one actually had the object framed in the camera.) Handling film pieces, strips or rolls carelessly could destroy a whole night's efforts.

Modern equipment available to the amateur has streamlined these tasks immensely. With accurate alignment provided by the newer amateur scopes and mounts, one need not even SEE the object. If you have selected an object from the telescope's large library (THOUSANDS of choices), you can be sure the mount has slewed to the correct location. Cameras for astrophotography have kept pace too. No more struggling with accurate focus, loading film, changing filters, monitoring shutter time, etc.

Let's take a look at how an image was acquired in the "old" days, perhaps circa 1995. Start with careful set-up and accurate polar alignment of the telescope. Focus on an available star (sometimes a marathon of frustration in itself!). Acquire the object to be photographed in the field of view, assuming it can be seen (otherwise, just how good are your setting circles?). Find a guide star nearby, bright enough to do the job and center the guiding optics on it. Take a deep breath to let all vibration settle down, then open the shutter with the cable release. Now just, er, relax! Only an hour or so of awkward close monitoring of the guide star with tiring eyes, cross-hairs, correcting motors and joystick...

Modern Remote Robotic Telescope For Astrophotography
Modern Remote Robotic Telescope
For Astrophotography

Well, as satisfying as results could be from those techniques, modern, robotic and remotely managed telescopes are the rage. How about sitting at a nice warm desk, picking an object from a computer program, kicking off an automated process, hitting the sack, and waking in the morning to find a knockout astrophoto, (or two or more, even of different objects) sitting in your inbox? You can learn how to accomplish dramatic results through Insight Observatory's partnering with iTelescope, using robotic telescopes located in dark skies in the U.S., Spain, and Australia.

Yep, there is a bit of nostalgic romance when doing things the old way. But this Old Dog likes the best of both worlds. I still like to get out under the night sky, but I now leave the cold temps and no-sleep marathon sessions to iTelescope's New Tricks, using world-class gear.

Remote control and remote imaging are here to stay, and the results stand for themselves.

Harry Hammond
Mashpee, MA
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