Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

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 as 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 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 mention that has 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 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!

By Dale Alan Bryant
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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...

By Dale Alan Bryant
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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 90's, 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 1990's 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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