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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Friday, March 11, 2016

An Eclipse Chaser’s Tale: February 16, 1980

Among astronomers, Eclipse Chasers are generally defined as those lucky enough and well-financed enough to travel the globe, placing themselves in the moon’s shadow wherever and whenever it falls. Some witness dozens of these stunning events during a lifetime. Me, well not so much. I’ve witnessed exactly one. Yet I am an “Eclipse Chaser” of a sort, nonetheless.

Glow of the Solar Corona During Totality All Photos by Harry Hammond
The glow of the Solar Corona During Totality All Photos by Harry Hammond.

Dirt roads in the bush of Africa can be notoriously lumpy, carved with ridges and scalloped with potholes galore. Bouncing around in a safari style van, we steered from village to village in the Southern corner of Kenya, seeking our quarry of clear skies. No matter the discomfort, though; totality was approaching, and we still could not dodge the thin morning clouds overhead while staying within the predicted path of totality. Our driver, a local called “Eddie” was a native Kikuyu, and knew his way around; we trusted him to make the best guesses at where we would find clear skies. As we quite literally bounced up and down, to and fro, we occasionally stuck our heads out windows, peering through handheld solar filters to get a look at the partial phases. We checked our watches nervously. We needed to pick a site soon.

Moon Eclipsing the Sun
Moon Eclipsing the Sun.

With perhaps 30 minutes until totality, we skidded to a dusty stop in a remote village and chose a clearing near a sagging and well-worn schoolhouse to set up equipment. Our group ranged in experience from neophytes to experts, and gear ranged from the simple naked eye to plastic covered Mylar filters to sophisticated astrographs. At 11:19 local time, we experienced what we came to see. It was four-plus minutes of incredible sensation. Observing totality is, well, surreal. Breathtaking, moving, life-changing; all you’ve read about, and more.

As the moon continued past totality and partial phases resumed, the local school kids (perhaps aged six to ten) happily celebrated with us. One of the most memorable experiences of the entire trip was watching these youngsters see the eclipse through a telescope. Invariably, as the view settled in the eyepiece, they would give a shriek of excitement, pull back, laugh uproariously, and begin dancing. What a delight! A dozen or more barefoot, raucous kids running in circles, jumping, laughing and shrieking joyously. They had just witnessed the unreal, the magical.

Solar Prominences During Totality
Solar Prominences During Totality.

You do not have to travel to Kenya or any other exotic locale to see next year’s solar eclipse. If you live in the United States, August 21, 2017, will find a host of “Eclipse Chasers” heading for the 70-mile wide path of the moon’s shadow as it travels almost diagonally across the U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina. Those outside this path will see the sun partially obscured by the moon, the amount dependent on the observer's distance from the center line. You can chase this one on modern, four-lane highways. Don’t miss it.

Information on solar eclipses, along with a century’s worth of scheduling can be found on eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/

By Harry Hammond
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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Buying a Telescope: A Beginners Guide

So you have decided to buy a telescope! Whatever the inspiration to do so, a well-informed decision will result in greater satisfaction with what you buy, and we would like to provide some suggested guidelines to follow as you begin your search for a telescope. Please note that this article is geared towards those people looking for a telescope for visual observing...if you want a scope that you can hook up cameras to and take images, that is a whole other topic for a future article. Let's begin...

Orion SkyQuest XT6i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope
Orion SkyQuest XT6i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope.

Know what to expect...
If you are lured by adverts for telescopes accompanied by beautiful images of nebula and galaxies and expect to see the same with your eye as you look thru a telescope, you will be sorely disappointed. Unless you have prior experience looking thru a scope at astronomical objects, here is an important first step on the road to telescope ownership: take the time to find a local person or astronomy club, ask about when they have public viewing through their scopes and plan to attend. The important point of this exercise is for you to gain the experience of looking through a scope so you know what to expect when the time comes to look through your new telescope. Not impressed with what you saw? Nothing is lost except for a bit of your time and you didn't sink any money into an instrument only to discover it wasn't for you. Like what you saw and want more? Good! Onto our next piece of advice:

Size matters...
Size does matter in more ways than one when it comes to backyard telescopes - bigger optics (mirror/lenses) can capture more light and you will be able to see fainter objects. This also means that the scope is now larger and more difficult to move around, and this can be critical if you live in a light polluted area and must transport your telescope to a dark location in order to use. So choosing a scope that has optics large enough to give you visibility to hundreds of deep sky objects while at the same time easily transportable is very important.

Like a rock...
Stability is the key word here: we on earth are in constant motion as we rotate on our axis and orbit around the sun. At a quick glance, the stars in the sky appear to be stationary, but any time spent looking at a highly magnified image in a scope and you will immediately notice that the stars will drift out of the field of view. Having a steady mount for your telescope is important not only to eliminate shaky viewing which can limit what you see and make observing an aggravating experience but also make it easy to manually track the image (necessary for those mounts without an automatic tracking mechanism). Be sure the scope you buy is on a solid and sturdy mount.

Some assembly required...
Don't forget that once you have your telescope you will need to know how to locate objects in the sky with it! It seems obvious, but it can initially be a frustrating experience for beginners to locate even simple objects. Expect to take the time to learn your way around a star map and the sky as you learn to use your new telescope. Again tap the resources at your local astronomy club, bring your new scope to their next star party and they can provide hands-on training, saving you hours of frustration.

Recommendations...
Finally, we come to our recommendations for a good first scope: Choose a high-quality reflector with optics between 6 and 8 inches in diameter on what is called a "Dobsonian" mount - this is a setup that is not so large to be unwieldy, the optics will give you visibility to hundreds of objects, and the mount is easy to use (and some even include computers to aid in locating celestial objects). Below are a few good examples:

  • Orion StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope
  • Orion SkyQuest XT4.5 Classic Dobsonian Telescope
  • Orion StarBlast 6 Astro Reflector Telescope
  • Orion SkyQuest XT6 Classic Dobsonian Telescope
  • Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope
  • Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian Telescope
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