Bringing the Universe to Classrooms
and Homes Around the World!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Remote Robotic Telescope Lab Notes - Part 2

One of the exciting parts about working on the ATEO project is the opportunity to try out and play (and yes 'play' is the correct term here!) with the newest technologies. One such piece of hardware that will be an integral (and crucial) part of ATEO environment is the computer that is required to operate the telescope, camera, and other ancillary functions. Typically a full-size desktop computer is chosen for this task, but with this comes additional problems and support issues, including maintenance of the OS (upgrading and patching), hardware (failures of hard drives, power supplies, etc), and increased power requirements, to name a few. Since our plan is to run like a minimal system as possible (running TheSkyX Professional to control the mount/camera/filter wheel/focuser, plus some additional custom software), we don't necessarily need a high powered desktop system when we have Raspberry Pi.

What is Raspberry Pi? Simply it is a computer about as powerful than the average smartphone with about the same form factor (a bit bigger due to the additional ports) and power requirements. With the addition of four USB ports (which will connect to our mount, camera, etc), and ethernet port (plus wifi and HDMI output), it has all the capability we need.

A RaspberryPi - Ain't it cute?
A RaspberryPi - Ain't it cute?

Running the Raspbian OS (a variant of Debian Linux), Software Bisque (as of December 2016) now has a supported version of TheSkyX built for this platform. Below is an image of TheSkyX running on our Raspberry Pi:
TheSky on Pi
TheSky on Pi.
What are some of the benefits of using a RaspberryPi over a full-sized computer?
  • Minimal power requirements (a cell phone charger will power the Pi)
  • Minimal cost (<$100 worst case for a RaspberryPi with case and microSD card)
  • Low cost means we can easily afford to have a spare Pi on site ready to go as a backup in case the main one fails
  • Better reliability (in theory) since there are fewer physical components to fail
Of course, we will have a full-sized computer (donated!) on hand in case we need it...but with our Pi, I have a feeling we won't be needing it too much :).
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Saturday, December 24, 2016

What to See with Your New Telescope

I remember receiving my first telescope back on Christmas Day, 1975. My parents knew I had an interest in the night sky, therefore they purchased a 2.5" refracting beginners telescope from Sears and Roebuck. It was with that telescope I became totally hooked on astronomy. My first glance at the waxing gibbous moon with the high powered eyepiece that came with the telescope introduced me to the moon's cratered surface. From then on, many objects in the universe.

The Waxing Moon
The Waxing Moon.

Maybe this holiday season you received a new telescope yourself. This is very exciting as you could be on your way to discovering many amazing farthings in the night sky. Although most of them are so far away and faint that just detecting them can be the challenge! Whether your new scope is a long, sleek tube or a compact marvel of computerized wizardry, surely you can't wait to try it out.

The waxing Moon picture in this post is just before the first-quarter phase, as it appears in an amateur telescope magnified about 40 times. The Moon changes phase from night to night, revealing new features every step of the way. The Moon will next be at this particular phase, with the terminator running almost down the middle, on the evening of January 4, 2017.

Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, advises some important tips on getting started. Read the full article at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-news/what-to-see-with-your-new-telescope-2/
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Monday, December 19, 2016

Backyard Projects for Amateur Astronomers

As some of my past posts on this blog, I continue to advocate for amateur astronomers to contribute to professional astronomy by getting involved with backyard amateur astronomy projects.

Research isn’t just for the professionals. Amateur astronomers are able to participate in cutting-edge science as well, usually by partnering with professional astronomers in pro-am collaborations. Thanks to their ability to move and observe when and where they choose, amateurs are also often better at tracking asteroids or hunting for new supernovae than many pros. Amateurs are also branching into spectroscopy, splitting starlight into its constituent wavelengths to study the composition of stars and other celestial objects.

Amateur Astronomer with his Backyard Telescope
Amateur Astronomer with his Backyard Telescope.

In this post, I have listed a few other projects that are possible to partake in from your home with a personal computer or a small backyard telescope with imaging equipment or visually through the eyepiece...

Observing Variable Stars - Since professional astronomers often do not have the telescope time needed to follow a particular star or group of stars, the participation of amateur astronomers is often an invaluable means of collecting information. This is very true in the field of variable star astronomy. Since 1911, thousands of amateur astronomers from all over the world and from all backgrounds have contributed observations, one at a time, to make up the more than 18 million data points housed in the AAVSO International Database!

Anyone can be a variable star observer. All you really need to begin observing are:
  • Your unaided eyes, a pair of binoculars, or a small telescope
  • Some variable star charts to help you navigate your way through the sky (available through the AAVSO)
  • Some basic instructions
  • Some Patience

Comet Hunting - With a lot of patience and careful work amateur astronomers can, and do, discover comets. Once again, it turns out that professional astronomers simply can't keep watch on everything going on above them. So amateurs have an important role to play.

One such comet hunter is Terry Lovejoy, based in Australia. On Aug. 17, 2014, Lovejoy discovered his fifth comet, Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). At 14th magnitude, it was as dim as distant Pluto. But as the comet moved in its orbit over the next few months it brightened enormously. Comets are compact bodies of rock, dust, and ice ranging in size from 0.1 to 300 kilometers. They originate from a scattered disc of icy bodies way beyond the orbit of Neptune, and every now and then one will enter the inner Solar System. They're of importance to astronomers wishing to keep an eye on near-earth objects or to study the composition, orbital characteristics, and behavior of comets themselves.

Searching for Nova and Supernovae - Most recently there has been a renewed interest in the search for both novae within our own Milky Way galaxy (the "Galactic Novae") - and those that occur seemingly more frequently in other galaxies, or the "Extragalactic Supernovae". This overview is NOT intended to be all-inclusive, but to invite telescope users to examine the possibilities and the remote chance of the actual discovery of a "new star" in the heavens. Novae and Supernovae searches can be conducted:
  • Visually, using good star charts and the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope

  • Photographically, patrolling the same selected area(s) of the sky at every opportunity and comparing images over time

  • Electronically, with CCD imagers which can provide not only rapid discovery information but also serve as a photometer to accurately measure the brightness and color (hence an early indication of spectral type) of the new star. Being Ready for the Nova Event - It is likely that no amateur will be fortunate enough to be viewing, at just the right time, a starfield out of which one star will rapidly increase in brilliance by a magnitude of thousands. The rise to the maximum light of the nova is very fast, requiring only hours to increase perhaps as much as 15 to 20 magnitudes. For discovery work, you should be concerned only about detecting a new nova as soon after the event takes place as possible. Others may jointly discover and report the new star, but it takes no worth away from your discovery.
These backyard amateur astronomy projects are just a few mentions that have always interested me. Who knows... with some patience and perseverance, you may be the next comet or extragalactic supernova discoverer.
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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Observing Planetary Nebulae

Planetary nebulae are very interesting objects to view due to their delicate-distinct shapes and pastel colors. Not only a treat to the eye, but they also possess subtle details that test the limits of your vision. For example outer rings, darker centers, and those frequently faint central stars that are barely visible from behind the pale veils of nebulosity. Only averted vision could bring out these shy stellar objects.

Image of A Hubble Space Telescope sampler of planetary nebulae. NASA / ESA
A Hubble Space Telescope sampler of planetary nebulae.

The planetary nebula, so-called because their generally round shapes reminded early observers of planets, represent a late stage in the evolution of Sun-like stars from a red giant to a white dwarf. Powerful stellar winds emanating from the star's core blow away its outer layers, creating an expanding shell of gas and dust.

The planetary nebula phase is brief, lasting only around 10,000 years before the cast-off cloak became so distended it slowly fades from view. Only the lonely white dwarf and whatever planets it might still possess soldier on. Such will be the fate of the Sun, one of the reasons that observing planetaries gives pause to reflect on the future of our own Solar System.

There are an estimated 10,000 planetary nebulae in our galaxy alone, of which roughly 1,500 have been cataloged to date. Many are very small and can be mistaken for stars. The only way to tell them apart is to "blink" them with a nebula filter such as an Oxygen III filter. Nebula filters pass the light of ionized oxygen, prominent in planetary nebulae while suppressing skyglow and manmade light pollution. To "blink" a planetary, slide the filter back and forth between your eye and eyepiece while gazing at the nebula. The filter will cause the object to sharply become brighter compared to the neighboring field stars, immediately identifying it as the nebula.

An O III filter blocks natural and human-made light pollution while allowing emissions of doubly ionized oxygen in planetary nebulae to pass through. The filter darkens the sky background and increases the nebula's contrast and visibility.

Read more on hunting and observing planetary nebula by Bob King on Sky and Telescope magazine's website, "Hunting Giant Planetary Nebulae".
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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Lonely, Little Telescope That Could

If you own a telescope that is similar to this one - regardless of the particular brand - that is long, thin and mounted on a tripod, you may have tried to use it, but given up on it in frustration, because of its poor performance, especially for the beginning user.

Telescopes, like this one, are generally found in department stores, camera shops, and similar outlets. Most manufacturers, typically, supply high-powered eyepieces with these telescopes; these are the short, interchangeable lens barrels which are inserted into the narrow end of the tube and, which, the viewer puts her, or his eye up to for viewing. The big problem here is, that, the manufacturers want to sell you a "high"-powered instrument, which, indeed, they are. But the eyepieces that are supplied - typically, two - are usually oculars of high and very high magnification. High power like this sells telescopes - but renders them, virtually unusable, by anyone but a very experienced user. In order to get any kind of acceptable performance from, these, otherwise, fine instruments, eyepieces which provide lower magnifications are needed.

Small Refractor Telescope - Image by Celestron
Small Refractor Telescope - Image by Celestron.

Typically, the manufacturer supplies eyepieces with focal lengths in the 4mm to 12mm range. The barrels of the eyepieces will have these figures engraved on them. The "mm" stands for millimeters and the number gives the focal length of the eyepiece, in millimeters.

*Most important* to remember here, is: the SMALLER the number on the eyepiece - the HIGHER the magnification, or, "power" of the instrument, as a whole - the BIGGER the number on the eyepiece, the LOWER the magnification. So, in reality, telescopes are neither, inherently, powerful, nor are they not powerful. Telescope eyepieces are interchangeable. Power, all depends on the eyepiece being used at the moment.

If your telescope came with a 4mm, 3mm or 2mm eyepiece - throw it away - or use it as a paperweight - but that's about all it's good for! But keep the 12mm, or bigger number, eyepiece. Contact the manufacturer or most any other supplier of telescopes, and order replacement eyepieces, in the 9mm, to 28mm, or higher-numbered, millimeter range. Eyepieces of up to 40mm can be found, but a good range of magnification will be found in the 9mm to 28mm focal lengths.

The 9mm will now be your high-power eyepiece. Depending on the focal length of the telescope, typically 700mm-900mm, a 12mm-18mm eyepiece will produce medium powers, and a 28mm+ eyepiece will produce low powers. Magnification (power) is determined by the formula:


where M, is the magnification to be found; Fo, is the focal length of the telescope's objective, or, main lens, and Fe, is the focal length of the eyepiece. Rule-of-thumb: maximum usable power (magnification), of ANY telescope, is 50-power per inch, or, per 25.4mm of aperture, or objective lens diameter.

For example, if your telescope's objective lens has a diameter of 60mm, your maximum, usable power is 120x. Any image, using magnifications beyond this, will be degraded, both in resolution (sharpness) and brightness. A good, usable - "no-frustration" - range of magnification is about 25x-100x.

In a telescope with a 700-millimeter focal length, an 18mm eyepiece will produce a magnification of 39x, meaning, that, that magnification will produce an image which appears 39 times the diameter of the image as seen with the unaided eye. A 9mm eyepiece will yield a power of 78x diameters; a 6mm eyepiece will yield an image diameter of 117x. This should be about the highest power you'll need from your telescope.

If you're fortunate, your scope also came with a Barlow lens, at either 2x or 2.5x. This, effectively, gives you four eyepieces! A 2x Barlow lens doubles the magnification yielded by any given eyepiece. So, if you've got a scope with a focal length of 700mm and a 2x Barlow lens, with 18mm and 12mm eyepieces, you've actually got powers of 39x, 59x, 78x and 117x!

It's really a shame, that so many of these types of telescopes end up in the attic, or basement, out of frustration, because of lousy experiences with them - but it doesn't have to be that way! If you've got one locked up somewhere for that reason - get it back out! Replacing the supplied eyepieces with ones that will work within the usable range of magnifications, it'll seem like a different instrument altogether. You'll find your "new" telescope to be very enjoyable and enlightening. That's a promise!

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Godspeed John Glenn

Someone, once exclaimed, "God's Speed, John Glenn!". It was Glenn's fellow astronaut, Scott Carpenter, as the mission controller for the Mercury-Atlas-6 mission, Glenn was flying. I'll second that quote.

I've always felt, a rather close association with Colonel Glenn. Why? --- I got to sit in the pilot's seat - the very seat that he flew his Mercury spacecraft "Friendship-7", into orbit from, three times around the Earth, in 1962 - the first American to do it.

John Glenn, 1921-2016
John Glenn, 1921-2016.

My opportunity, to feel as Glenn did (to a very small degree, albeit), came two years later at what is now, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, in Washington, DC. I was 8 years old.

Not realizing, at first (due to it's, surprisingly, small size), that, it was the actual space vehicle that Glenn took into orbit, two years previously -- I climbed up a small set of steps, and looked inside, through the already open hatch. It was, indeed, that very same vehicle. The cockpit was so small, I wasn't sure there was even a seat to sit in! It took a second for my brain to locate and recognize, what was there, as a seat! Then, I took it...and in my mind - I never really left it...

In Nov of 2012, I found myself, once again, standing beside the "Friendship-7", at the National Air & Space Museum, during a trip to the House of Representatives. This time, the historic spacecraft was -entirely- encased, in an inch-thick shield of Lucite®! - and, entirely, untouchable.

I've always wanted to meet the man: the spacecraft pilot; the astronaut - now, "untouchable", as well, that once lent me his seat, in "Friendship -7". "Godspeed", John Glenn...

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Things are Looking Up at SkyPi

Here is a quick update on our hosts at SkyPi: A week or so ago we received an update regarding the current status for hosting Insight Observatory's Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) at SkyPi Online Observatories from the owners, and with the news of all the current and planned growth and activity taking place at the SkyPi location in Pie Town, New Mexico, it was great to hear that we are still on schedule for setting up the ATEO in one of their pods in 2017. Many thanks to John and Janet at SkyPi for keeping us in the loop and for being super people to deal with!

If you haven't seen the SkyPi website yet I'd suggest taking a look at http://skypionline.com. In particular take a look at how the observatories themselves are constructed (ex: Phase 2 – Bravo).


These are really well-designed roll-off style observatories which will provide us with ample space for our scope and equipment. Sometimes co-hosting telescopes in a single roll-off roof type observatory can be tricky depending on how the roof is designed and how much space is allocated for each scope, but it is obvious that these have been engineered in a thoughtful manner.

And once we get our scope in place at SkyPi we certainly won't be lacking in the dark sky department: note that from the location of Pie Town itself the night skies can reach a Bortle scale rating of 1 which is about the best you can get (for a quick rundown of what the Bortle scale ratings mean see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bortle_scale).

All in all, these are exciting times especially as we enter 2017!
Image of Bravo Observatories
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Saturday, December 3, 2016

How Many Galaxies Can You Find

Back in the early '90s, I would go out with my 6" Newtonian reflector telescope and challenge myself to see how many galaxies I could find with it. One clear night in October of 1990, I was out with the Criterion RV6 and saw a target galaxy on my Sky Atlas 2000 that I had never observed before. NGC 7331 (also known as Caldwell 30) is an unbarred spiral galaxy about 50 million light-years away in the constellation Pegasus that is one of the brighter galaxies not included in Charles Messier's famous 18th-century catalog. It was discovered by William Herschel in 1784. NGC 7331 is the brightest member of the NGC 7331 Group of galaxies. 

Galaxies in Pegasus Image Credit & Copyright: Péter Feltóti
Galaxies in Pegasus Image Credit & Copyright: Péter Feltóti.

The other members of the group are the lenticular or unbarred spirals NGC 7335 and 7336, the barred spiral galaxy NGC 7337 and the elliptical galaxy NGC 7340. These galaxies lie at distances of approximately 332, 365, 348 and 294 million light-years, respectively. In both visible light and infrared photos of the NGC 7331, the core of the galaxy appears to be slightly off-center, with one side of the disk appearing to extend further away from the core than the opposite side.

I was able to find the 10th magnitude celestial object almost immediately and took the time to sketch it over a half hours time. After examining the sketch the next morning, I referred to "The Universe from Your Backyard" by David J. Eicher. The photo in the book was very similar to my sketch. Of course, back in the 1990s backyard astrophotography was limited compared to today's technology, therefore the detail in the image was limited.

The galaxy is similar in size and structure to the Milky Way, and is often referred to as "the Milky Way's twin". However, discoveries in the 2000s regarding the structure of the Milky Way may call this similarity into doubt, particularly because the latter is now believed to be a barred spiral, compared to the unbarred status of NGC 7331.

What inspired me to write this post was the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) that is posted today. Not only does it consist of an incredible image of the galaxy, but it also contains a disturbed looking group of galaxies at the lower left which is the well-known Stephan's Quintet. About 300 million light-years distant, the quintet dramatically illustrates a multiple galaxy collision, its powerful, ongoing interactions posed for a brief cosmic snapshot. On the sky, the quintet and NGC 7331 are separated by about half a degree. Not only do you see NGC 7331 and Stephen's Quintet in the image, but you also can spot several other smaller and fainter galaxies if you zoom in on this spectacular image.

How many galaxies can you find?
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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Pluto: Secrets Of The Heart

Far away in the semi-darkness of perpetual dusk, there is a frigid domain in our Solar System's outer fringes where our Sun can shine with only a frail, faint fire. Here, in this region of icy, dancing bodies, there resides a little world with a big heart. The dwarf planet Pluto, a denizen of the Kuiper Belt--the home of a swarming sea of frozen comet nuclei--has, ever since its discovery, captured the imagination and affection of humanity. Perhaps this is because it is so remote from Earth and the golden, melting heat of our brilliant Star. On July 14, 2015, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, at last, reached this strange world, circled by an extraordinary quintet of moons, and began to uncover some of the very well-kept secrets of this icy world. In November 2016, planetary scientists announced that their new research reveals fascinating clues about Pluto, indicating that this frozen sphere at the outer limits of our Solar System is much more active than anyone had ever imagined--and may harbor a subsurface ocean beneath its secretive big heart.

Pluto's heart holds clues about an underwater ocean on the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.
Pluto's heart holds clues about an underwater ocean on the dwarf planet. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI.

Indeed, the presence of a liquid ocean situated deep beneath Pluto's frozen, icy surface is the best explanation for certain mysterious features unveiled by New Horizons, according to two new studies. The possibility that Pluto contains a subsurface ocean is not a new idea, but this research provides the most detailed investigation offered yet of its possible starring role in the evolution of certain important and unexplained features on Pluto--such as its low-lying, vast plain named Sputnik Planitia (Sputnik Planum).

Sputnik Planitia is a 1,000-kilometer-wide basin located within a big heart-shaped feature observed on Pluto's surface, and the new research suggests that it could be in its current location because the accumulation of ice made the ice dwarf planet that is Pluto rollover, thus forming cracks and tensions in the crust that suggest the possible presence of a liquid subsurface ocean.

Sputnik Planitia, which forms one side of Pluto's famous big heart-shaped feature observed in the first New Horizons images, is mysteriously well-aligned with Pluto's tidal axis. The probability that this is a mere chance occurrence is only about 5%. Hence, the alignment indicates that extra mass in that particular location interacted with tidal forces between Pluto and its largest moon Charon to reorient Pluto. This reorientation placed Sputnik Planitia directly opposite the side facing Charon. However, a deep basin seems unlikely to provide the additional mass necessary to result in that particular kind of reorientation.

"It's a big, elliptical hole in the ground, so the extra weight must be hiding somewhere beneath the surface. And an ocean is a natural way to get that," commented Dr. Francis Nimmo on November 16, 2016, University of California, Santa Cruz Press Release. Dr. Nimmo is a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz and first author of a paper on the new findings published in the November 16, 2016 issue of the journal Nature. A second paper, appearing in the same issue of Nature, led by Mr. James Keane at the University of Arizona in Tucson, also proposes that this reorientation occurred and points to fractures on Pluto as evidence that this happened.

Dancing In The Dark

Where Pluto resides in our Solar System's deep freeze, our Sun appears in its murky sky as if it were just an especially large Star floating around in a strange sea of starlight. Mystery tickles the imagination, and Pluto has been an intriguing mystery for almost a century. Situated as it is, far from our Sun, Pluto remained unexplored until the New Horizons spacecraft successfully accomplished its historic closest approach to Pluto, at about 7,750 miles above its secretive surface--about the same distance that it is from Mumbai, India to New York City--making it the first space mission to finally explore this brave new world so far from Earth.

Pluto, Charon, and the other four relatively small moons belonging to the Pluto system reside in the frigid Kuiper Belt--a dimly lit and distant domain beyond the beautiful dark blue ice giant planet Neptune, the outermost of the eight major planets orbiting our Sun. In this previously unknown and unexplored region of our Solar System, a dazzling and icy host of tiny worldlets do a mesmerizing ballet around our distant Star. Pluto is a relatively large denizen of the Kuiper Belt, and it was originally classified as the ninth major planet from our Sun soon after its discovery in 1930. However, a better understanding of the true nature of the Kuiper Belt, and its heavy population of icy inhabitants forced astronomers to come to the realization that Pluto--a beloved, frozen, small "oddball"--is only one of the at least several large denizens of the Kuiper Belt. This realization prompted the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to formally define the term "planet" in 2006--and, as a result, poor Pluto was unceremoniously booted out of the pantheon of major planets, and re-classified as a mere dwarf planet--specifically, an ice dwarf due to its frozen nature. Nevertheless, Pluto still remains a small world of mystery and affection--and debate, since its re-classification as an ice dwarf is not universally accepted among astronomers.

The Pluto saga began when a young farmer's son from Kansas, the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997) had bestowed upon him the difficult task of hunting for the elusive and possibly non-existent Planet X. According to theory, Planet X is an elusive giant planet that keeps itself well-hidden from the prying eyes of curious astronomers, where it lurks in the cold twilight zone of our Solar System's outer limits. Tombaugh, who used a telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona, did indeed discover a faint tiny pinpoint of light. However, in one of the many instances of scientific serendipity, Tombaugh did not find what he was looking for. He found something else. What Tombaugh found was not Planet X--it was the little world now known as Pluto!

Like the other Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), Pluto is primarily made up of ice and rock. A small world, sporting only about 1/6 the mass of Earth's Moon and about 1/3 its volume, Pluto displays a highly inclined and eccentric orbit that takes it from 30 to 49 astronomical units (AU) from our Sun. One AU is equivalent to the average distance between our Earth and the Sun, which amounts to about 93,000,000 miles. Pluto periodically wanders inward towards our Star at a closer distance than Neptune. However, luck prevails, and orbital resonance with Neptune prevents the two worlds from blasting into each other with catastrophic results.

The Kuiper Belt is very far from us, orbiting our Sun well beyond the realm of the four majestic gaseous outer planets. The Belt itself extends from Neptune's orbit to approximately 50 AU. Neptune's average distance from our Sun is about 30.1 AU--its perihelion (when it closest to our Star) is 29.8 AU, while its aphelion (when it is furthest from our Star) is 30.4 AU

The ice dwarf Pluto was named for the Roman god of the underworld. Pluto's largest moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978 by the American astronomer James Christy. Some astronomers have suggested that Charon is really an enormous chunk of Pluto. According to this theory, Charon was once a part of Pluto that had been blasted off as a result of a violent collision between Pluto and some unidentified small world that was making a destructive rampage through the Kuiper Belt. The mess occurred when the doomed object met up with Pluto and crashed into it. Charon is the result of this ancient collision.

During most of the 20th century, astronomers thought that Pluto was a solitary small world, situated in the frigid outer limits of our Solar System. However, in 1992, the very first KBO (other than Pluto and Charon) was spotted, and astronomers came to the realization that Pluto is far from alone. The realization that Pluto is just another constituent of the madding crowd of icy KBOs, resulted in its removal from the pantheon of major planets, and its reclassification as an ice dwarf.

Launched on January 19, 2006, New Horizons successfully completed a five-month-long reconnaissance flyby of the Pluto system and is now en route to our Solar System's frozen fringes in order to study more distant small worlds inhabiting the Kuiper Belt, as part of its extended mission. New Horizons will help shed new light on the mysterious and very remote worldlets lingering in our Solar System's deep freeze. The Kuiper Belt is actually a lingering relic of our Solar System's ancient birth, and the population of frozen objects residing there has preserved in their frozen hearts some very important long-lost secrets of its past. New Horizons promises to uncover the amazing story about the origins of our Sun and its family of objects.

Pluto: Secrets Of The Heart

Like other large basins in our Solar System, Sputnik Planitia likely formed as the result of a catastrophic impact by a large crashing meteorite, which would have blasted away an enormous amount of Pluto's icy crust. If a subsurface ocean had been present, this would result in an upwelling of water pushing up against the weak, thin, and fragile shell of crustal ice. Because water is denser than ice, at equilibrium, that would still leave a rather deep basin with a slender crust of ice covering the upwelled mass of water.

"At that point, there is no extra mass at Sputnik Planitia. What happens then is the ice shell gets cold and strong, and the basin fills with nitrogen ice. That nitrogen represents the excess mass," Dr. Nimmo explained in the November 16, 2016, UC Santa Cruz Press Release.

Dr. Nimmo and his team also considered whether the extra mass could be provided by just a deep crater that is filled with nitrogen ice, in the absence of upwelling of a subsurface ocean. However, their calculations indicated that this particular scenario would demand an unrealistically deep layer of nitrogen--more than 25 miles thick! The astronomers found that a nitrogen layer approximately 4 miles thick blanketing a subsurface ocean provides sufficient mass to form a "positive gravity anomaly."

"We tried to think of other ways to get a positive gravity anomaly, and none of them looks as likely as a subsurface ocean," Dr. Nimmo continued to explain.

Dr. Douglas Hamilton, who is of the University of Maryland in College Park, and a co-author of the study, formulated the reorientation scenario, while Dr. Nimmo came up with the subsurface ocean hypothesis. The subsurface ocean hypothesis proposes a scenario that is similar to what occurred on Earth's Moon, where positive gravity anomalies have been precisely measured for several large impact basins. However, instead of a subsurface ocean, the dense mantle material buried beneath the lunar crust pushed up against the thin crust of the impact basins. Lava flows then gushed up and flooded the basins, thus providing the extra mass. Icy Pluto, however, experienced this sort of scenario with a different ingredient. Instead of lava, the basin on Pluto filled with frozen nitrogen.

"There's plenty of nitrogen in Pluto's atmosphere, and either it preferentially freezes out in this low basin, or it freezes out in the high areas surrounding the basin and flows down as glaciers," Dr. Nimmo noted in the UC Santa Cruz Press Release. Indeed, the images obtained from New Horizons reveal what appear to be nitrogen glaciers flowing out of mountainous terrain surrounding Sputnik Planitia.

In reference to a subsurface ocean, Dr. Nimmo added that he suspects it is composed mostly of water with some unidentified antifreeze added to the mixture--which would most likely be ammonia. The slow refreezing of the ocean would cause stress on the icy shell. This stress would cause fractures that are consistent with features seen in the New Horizons images.

Pluto is not alone where it resides in the Kuiper Belt. There are other large kindred bodies dwelling in the Kuiper Belt that resemble Pluto both in size and density, and Dr. Nimmo noted that these other objects likely also contain subsurface oceans. "When we look at these other objects, they may be equally interesting, not just frozen snowballs," he added.

In a second study also appearing in the November 17, 2016 issue of the journal Nature, Dr Isamu Matsuyama and his doctoral student Mr. James Keane, of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory cite evidence of frozen nitrogen pileup that threw all of Pluto out of kilter, in a process termed true polar wander. This has been compared to a spinning top with a wad of gum stuck to it.

"There are two ways to change the spin of a planet. The first--and the one we're all most familiar with--is a change in the planet's obliquity, where the spin axis of the planet is reorienting with respect to the rest of the Solar System. The second way is through true polar wander, where the spin axis remains fixed with respect to the rest of the Solar System, but the planet reorients beneath it," Mr. Keane explained in a November 16, 2016, University of Arizona Press Release.

Planets usually spin in a way that minimizes energy. This means that planets tend to reorient in order to move extra mass closer to the equator while moving any mass deficit closer to the pole. In order to visualize this, if a large volcano were to grow in San Francisco, our planet would reorient to move San Francisco to the Earth's equator.

But, in order to visualize how polar wander works on Pluto, it first needs to be realized that unlike Earth, whose spin axis is only slightly tilted so that the regions around the equator are gifted with most of the sunlight, Pluto is more like a "spinning top that is lying on its side." This means that the dwarf planet's poles receive most of the sunlight. Depending on the season, it is either one or the other. Furthermore, Pluto's equatorial regions remain extremely frigid all the time.

Pluto is almost 40 times farther from our Star than Earth. This means that it takes the distant icy little world 248 Earth-years to complete one Pluto-year. At Pluto's lower latitudes close to its equator, temperatures are bitterly cold at minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. At this almost unimaginably frigid temperature, nitrogen turns into a frozen solid.

Nitrogen and other exotic gases, over the span of a Pluto-year, condense on its dark side that is kept in perpetual shadow. Eventually, as Pluto circles around our Sun, our Star's melting heat causes the nitrogen and other substances to become gaseous again and re-condense on the other side of the little world. This results in seasonal "snowfall" on Sputnik Planitia.

"Each time Pluto goes around the Sun, a bit of nitrogen accumulates in the heart. And once enough ice has piled up, maybe a hundred meters thick, it starts to overwhelm the planet's shape, which dictates the planet's orientation. And if you have an excess of mass in one spot on the planet, it wants to go to the equator. Eventually, over millions of years, it will drag the whole planet over," Mr. Keane said in the November 16, 2016, University of Arizona Press Release.

"I think this idea of a whole planet being dragged around by the cycling of volatiles is not something many people had really thought about," Mr. Keane added.

The two University of Arizona researches used observations made during New Horizons' flyby and combined them with supercomputer models that enabled them to take a surface feature such as Sputnik Planitia, shift it around on Pluto's surface and observe how it alters the ice dwarf's spin axis.

As a result, in the computer models, the geographic location of Sputnik Planitia wound up intriguingly close to where one would expect it to be.

If Sputnik Planitia were a large positive mass anomaly--possibly as a result of loading of nitrogen ice--it would migrate to Pluto's tidal axis with respect to Charon, as it approaches a minimum energy state. Therefore, the massive building up of ice would wind up where it would cause the least wobble in Pluto's spin axis.

In addition, the supercomputer simulations and calculations predicted that the accumulation of frozen volatiles in Pluto's big heart would result in cracks and faults in the planet's surface in precisely the same locations where New Horizons spotted them.

The presence of tectonic faults on Pluto suggests the existence of a subsurface ocean at some point in Pluto's history, Mr. Keane noted. He added that "Before New Horizons, people usually only thought of volatiles in terms of a thin frost veneer, a surface effect that might change the color, or affect local or regional geology. That the movement of volatiles and shifting ice around a planet could have a dramatic, planet-moving effect is not something anyone would have predicted."

Judith E Braffman-Miller

Article Source: Pluto: Secrets Of The Heart
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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Deep Sky Image Database - M81 and M82 Galaxies

As the crew of Insight Observatory works on getting the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) ready for first light in 2017, it is now time to start compiling databases of deep-sky images as well as designing a curriculum for teaching deep-sky imaging using remote robotic telescopes. As the Insight Observatory deep-sky image database accumulates, it will be available for educational purposes as well as material for software publications. 

Seeing that the ATEO will be hosted in the mountains of New Mexico, we thought it would be a good idea to start the deep-sky image database using the remote robotic telescopes on the iTelescope network hosted at their Mayhill, New Mexico facility. Their dark-sky site is very comparable to the site the ATEO will be hosted at the SkyPi Remote Observatory located in Pie Town, New Mexico.

M81 (left) and M82 (right) imaged on T20 by Insight Observatory
M81 (left) and M82 (right) imaged on T20 by Insight Observatory.

On the morning of November 10, 2016, we compiled raw data of the galaxy pair of M81 and M82 located in the constellation of Ursa Major. The two objects were nearly perfectly placed at the meridian when the images were acquired. The telescope system that was used is known as T20 on the iTelescope network. The instrument is a very wide-field telescope, typically used for wide-field RGB / Narrowband Imaging, but also carries a Photometric V filter.
T20 is a great platform for wide-angle imaging and can also do valuable scientific research with its photometric V filter. This small Takahashi FSQ could also serve as a tool for scanning for asteroids and working on variable stars. Nothing can match its very wide field portraits and its performance on the sky's larger extended objects such as large nebula, clusters, bright comets and even catching fast-moving Near-Earth Objects.

T20 - iTelescope.net
T20 - iTelescope.net.

After the raw data was taken on T20, it was then stacked and processed using a CCD imaging software package called PixInsight. The images of M81 and M82 that were stacked consisted of five Luminance (clear) images at 300 seconds, four Red filtered images at 180 seconds, four Green filtered images at 180 seconds and four Blue filtered images at 180 seconds. After the images were processed in PixInsight, the final image was then post-processed using Photoshop CS6.

A few Facts about M81 and M82:
  • Messier 81 was first discovered by Johann Elert Bode on December 31, 1774. Consequently, the galaxy is sometimes referred to as "Bode's Galaxy". In 1779, Pierre Méchain and Charles Messier reidentified Bode's object, which was subsequently listed in the Messier Catalogue.

  • Only one supernova has been detected in Messier 81. The supernova, named SN 1993J, was discovered on 28 March 1993 by F. Garcia in Spain. At the time, it was the second brightest supernova observed in the 20th century.

  • Messier 81 is located approximately 10° northwest of Alpha Ursae Majoris along with several other galaxies in the Messier 81 Group. Messier 81 and Messier 82 can both be viewed easily using binoculars and small telescopes. The two objects are generally not observable to the unaided eye, although highly experienced amateur astronomers may be able to see Messier 81 under exceptional observing conditions with a very dark sky. Telescopes with apertures of 8 inches (20 cm) or larger are needed to distinguish structures in the galaxy. Its far northern declination makes it generally visible for observers in the northern hemisphere. It is not visible to most observers in the southern hemisphere, except those in a narrow latitude range immediately south of the equator.

  • Messier 82 (also known as NGC 3034, Cigar Galaxy or M82) is a starburst galaxy about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. A member of the M81 Group, it is about five times more luminous than the whole Milky Way and has a center one hundred times more luminous than our galaxy's center. The starburst activity is thought to have been triggered by interaction with neighboring galaxy M81. As the closest starburst galaxy to our own, M82 is the prototypical example of this galaxy type. SN 2014J, a Type Ia supernova, was discovered in the galaxy on January 21, 2014.  In 2014, in studying M82, scientists discovered the brightest pulsar yet known, designated M82 X-2.

  • Messier 82 was previously believed to be an irregular galaxy. In 2005, however, two symmetric spiral arms were discovered in near-infrared (NIR) images of M82. The arms were detected by subtracting an axisymmetric exponential disk from the NIR images. Even though the arms were detected in NIR images, they are bluer than the disk. The arms were previously missed due to M82's high disk surface brightness, our nearly edge-on view of this galaxy (~80°), and obscuration by a complex network of dusty filaments in its optical images. These arms emanate from the ends of the NIR bar and can be followed for the length of 3 disc scales. Assuming that the northern part of M82 is nearer to us, as most of the literature does, the observed sense of rotation implies trailing arms.

Sources: Wikipedia M81 and M82
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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Great Attractor

The large galaxy in this, artist's, computer-generated image, is the Milky Way galaxy.

All of the other galaxies shown, are either being swallowed by it or are hidden by it. They were revealed using the CSIRO's Parkes radio telescope by non-visible radio imaging, by the University of Western Australia's ICRAR (International Center for Radio Astronomy Research) program and lie in a region of space known to astronomers, as, the "Zone of Avoidance" (well, yeah, for obvious reasons!).

Artist's computer-generated image of the Milky Way Galaxy
Artist's computer-generated image of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The Milky Way galaxy, itself, was not formed by standard galaxy formation theory; rather, it is an aggregation of interacting (no one is yet sure how many), formerly individual galaxies.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Saturday, November 5, 2016

ETI Signals Would Look Like This

Well, the answer to the age-old question, "Are We Alone?" - might, very well, soon be answered. And if the current, apparent, scenario is confirmed by two other teams of astronomers, that answer will be: "No. We Are Not." - for better or for worse.

Ermanno F. Borra and F. Trottier, two astronomers from Quebec's, Laval University have published a paper in the Astronomical Journal, announcing that they have received signals, from an area of space which contains 234 stars of near-Solar spectral type, that, after having ruled out all of the 3 other possible causes, exactly correspond to an ETI communications hypothesis published prior to their most recent submission.

Graph from the Astronomical Journal of December 2012.
Graph from the Astronomical Journal of December 2012.

Astronomers, generally, have an idea of what would likely be expected in an intentional beacon signal, broadcast by an extraterrestrial civilization to the stars. It might be a signal generated in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, or, the more recently favored optical window near to, or including, the visible light band. A signal generated from the latter would be visually detectable by humans, and interestingly, I think, by any ET species which had evolved on a planet of a star in the F-G-M spectral range. Our star, of course, is type G2V yellow dwarf star, "Sol", or, the Sun. They would want to direct their signals at stars similar to their parent star, for this reason.

Borra and Trottier's paper shows signals, embedded in the SDSS (Sloan Digital Sky Survey), spectra which conform to these expectations, in the form of nano-bursts, or, pulses, which include varied and repeating time intervals in between, which were outlined in Borra's previous work and which are, "so unusual that it can only be artificial. A most unusual signal would be made of a spectral modulation of the spectrum that is so unusual that it warrants more observations, which will then reveal that it is artificial." Borra and Trottier make it clear that the signals confirm "exactly" as outlined in the paper of 16 OCT 2016 to the Astronomical Journal. Current technology allows humans, to send such signals out to at least 1,000 light-years, without any significant degradation, using a spectroscope and a 10-meter optical telescope, at an energetic 15,000 photons per 3 nanoseconds.

Any signal by an ETI located at a distance of 1,000 light-years from Earth, means that the signal had to have been sent at least 1,000 years ago. Considering the current level of human technology, and ETI technology, which was the rough equivalent of humans 1,000 years ago must be wildly advanced by present-day standards.

The commonality here is the EMS. It's available to anyone, anywhere, and obeys the same physical laws bestowed upon Earthlings. It would be the universally agreed-upon method of trying to get the attention of any other sentient beings that may exist in the galaxy.

The ETI hypothesis as a source for the signals is the only hypothesis that was not ruled out by Borra and Trottier but it needs confirmation by at least two other teams, trying to find natural reasons for the signals.

So - the answer to that age-old question - is still ways off, for now.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Saturday, October 22, 2016

Remote Telescope Fundraising

Now that all of the components for Insight Observatory's remote Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) have been acquired, our organization has officially launched a fundraising effort to cover the cost of hosting and maintenance of the telescope.

The instrument is slated for installation at the SkyPi Online Observatory located in New Mexico in 2017.  Once up and running at the remote hosting site Insight Observatory will be assessed a monthly fee that will cover the hosting and maintenance. This is where we need help. If we want to accomplish our goals of bringing the universe into the classroom it is essential to call upon the generosity of those who are willing to pledge their support to keep the ATEO operational.

Students Studying Astronomy Online
Students Studying Astronomy Online.

Fundraising is being accomplished through Patreon, a crowdfunding platform ideally suited for organizations like ours. By supporting Insight Observatory via Patreon you not only provide the much-needed funds, but your generosity is also amply rewarded. Depending on how much you choose to give you can receive rewards ranging from recognition on our website to accessing our image database to actual reservation time on the telescope itself. Please visit our Patreon page for more information and details on how to become a patron of Insight Observatory's remote Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach.

Image of Support on Patreon
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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Big Bang!

Back around 1993, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) of Great Britain (the ONLY authority, on celestial nomenclature, naming of celestial objects, etc.)**, put out a sort of 'call for papers', in Sky & Telescope magazine (yup, we astronomers are so creative when it comes to magazine titles), to all astronomers, both amateur and professional, worldwide; it was a request (demand), to come up with a new name, for a long time, 'thorn-in-the-side' issue: "The Big Bang".

Artist Rendition of the "Big Bang"
Artist Rendition of the "Big Bang".

Like all astronomers, the IAU wanted to crush it. It was childish, nondescript - and it had to go.

The specs for the new term: two words only - and, it had to be descriptive, in some way, of the current state of the universe...

So, after I read the call, I went outside to my telescope, threw my elbow, up onto the optical tube, looked up at the clear, dark night and asked myself, "OK - what is the universe doing, right now?"

Well, it was doing, basically, one thing - expanding. That expansion was the largest, most powerful event that had ever taken place - anywhere!

Instantly, I thought, "The Great Expansion!" (Ooh! - how clever). And, that was the term I submitted to the IAU...

Three months later, in Sky & Telescope, the IAU published the results of the request. They had adopted a new term, to replace "The Big Bang". This term had been submitted by only six astronomers, worldwide - and I was one of them: the term was, 'The Great Expansion'. I was afraid, for a moment, that I was going to launch into a performance of, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" - or something - right there in my living room - right in front of my wife! Thankfully, after a spell I regained my composure; then I told my wife... Well, the public didn't seem to care much about the IAU's decision; once it gets something so "cute" stuck, in its collective craw, it becomes difficult to dislodge and, so, 'The Big Bang', remains the term, of favor, to this day...

International Astronomical Union
International Astronomical Union

**(AUTHOR'S NOTE: The International Star Registry™, and similar organizations, charge a fee to "name a star" after you, or some loved one, and even present you with a certificate saying as much. However, that "certificate", is just an agreement between you and them - no one else. If that's OK with you then, go for it; you've bought yourself an agreement. In fact, competing companies market their own name catalogs, so, the 'name' of any given star, depends on which company you're doing businesses with! The IAU neither sells naming rights nor does it authorize any other company or organization to do so. The IAU cautions consumers that products and services marketed by other entities have no formal or official validity whatsoever. With a few exceptions of ancient, or Arabic names, all-stars, are in fact, designated by a Greek letter and catalog number only.)^

^(In 1998, the International Star Registry™ has issued a violation by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs for deceptive advertising, for claiming "official" naming rights, and have since discontinued this claim).

Outside of the IAU, no organization, an individual, or other entity can, technically, legally, or in any other respect, 'name' a star, for or, after, anyone.

Dale Alan Bryant
Senior Contributing Science Writer
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Monday, October 17, 2016

Remote Robotic Telescope Lab Notes - Part 1

This will be an ongoing series of articles focusing on the testing of our telescope and all the components that make up the entire imaging system. The goal of these exercises is to thoroughly test every component and the entire system together prior to installation at SkyPi in 2017. We want to hit the ground running when the scope is installed; fixing problems after final installation would not be impossible, but due to the remote location it would be time-consuming and potentially more expensive than if we identify all problems beforehand.

The Lab...
The Lab...

We recently acquired a second-hand Finger Lakes Instruments ProLine 16803 camera: this large 16-megapixel camera will image wide-field views through our fast 16" Dream Astrograph. The goal for this exercise is to simply test out the camera for basic functionality; as a second-hand camera, we need to be sure it still functions properly.

The first test was to install the FLI Software Installation Kit (with apps, drivers, etc) on a Windows machine (specifically Windows 10), connect the USB cable from the camera to the computer, and then attach the power supply to the camera. With the camera powered up the FLI software successfully connected to the camera. So far so good!

Our next test was to connect to the camera from TheSkyX Professional (again on Windows 10) and grab a test image...once again no problems.

Test on Windows 10, Success!
Test on Windows 10, Success!

Now things got interesting: for our next test, we wanted to connect to the camera from TheSkyX on Linux (Ubuntu). We wanted to test this scenario because we plan to use a Raspberry Pi device to run TheSkyX and drive the mount/camera at the observatory, and since I did not have a Raspberry Pi device immediately available, trying on Linux was the next best thing. After a few false starts and failure to connect issues, I got this to work by installing the FLI SDK and compiling an FLI module that could be loaded into the Linux kernel. Once this was done, we connected successfully and grabbed a test image.

Finally, we wanted to try connecting from Linux using INDI (KStars & Ekos: http://www.indilib.org/about/ekos.html... We are not sure if we will use these tools or not in our final environment but it would be nice to know if it did work. The good news is we had no problems connecting to the camera with Ekos and capturing a test image. Hurrah!
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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Cool Nights and Clear Skies

Some of the clearest nights of the year arrive in late summer and early fall. In much of North America, September and October bring clearer weather than any other month. If that's not enough incentive for you to get out and do lots of stargazing, consider what comes next.

Last evening was one of those crisp nights with sparkling skies that urge me to take out the telescope and/or binoculars and do some observing. November tends to have increased cloud cover, which largely persists until mid to late spring. October is known to be the clearest of the 12 months throughout a wide span from New England through the South and lower Midwest to Texas and the Great Plains.

The Pegasus-Andromeda area spans a huge area of sky Screenshot from Stellarium
The Pegasus-Andromeda area spans a huge area of sky Screenshot from Stellarium.

Much of the country is more than 70 percent cloudy in various months. In September and October, only bits of Maine and the Northwest are so obscured. However, from November through April as much as a quarter to one-third of the country is on the unfavorable side of the 70 percent "isoneph" (line connecting points of equal cloudiness).

A mere absence of clouds is one thing, a beautifully clear and transparent sky is another. In much of North America strong cold fronts in September and October often clean the air to superb transparency. At such times we get deep blue skies by day and some of the best observing nights of the year.

What stellar sights can we behold on these nights? In the early evening, there are fewer bright stars than usual. Arcturus is setting in the west-northwest, and the Big Dipper is getting low in the southwest. The only high and bright stars are those of the Summer Triangle: Vega, Deneb, and Altair.

Capella is peaking up in the northeast. Above it, the forked branch of Perseus is ascending. Much higher is the "W" of Cassiopeia, the queen.

Face east and look high and you will see the 2nd magnitude stars of Andromeda and Pegasus forming a very long, nearly horizontal line. It starts with Gamma Andromedae on the left, fastens to the Great Square of Pegasus, and ends with Epsilon Pegasi way over in the south.
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