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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Winter Break at SkyPi

While the snow has been falling at the high elevation of 7,800 ft. in Pie Town, New Mexico, there has not been much imaging time during the last week or two. Therefore we took advantage of the "down time" of the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO) to take care of some annual maintenance and upgrading. As we posted earlier, the crew at SkyPi Online Observatories successfully cleaned the 16" primary mirror of the remote telescope with a polymer solution. That was checked off our list!

The ATEO patiently waits for the snow and skies to clear-up in the high elevation of New Mexico.
The ATEO patiently waits for the snow and skies to clear-up in the high elevation of New Mexico.

Muir Evenden, Insight Observatory's Systems Engineer, sent down to the staff at the New Mexico site a few adaptors to install for reaching the "Sweet Spot" of the CCD cameras field of view. This allows the coma in the outer area of the field of view to diminish. Muir also sent along an Astrodon brand "V" filter to replace the Ha filter that had been in the CCD camera filter wheel since its installation last May. The purpose of this filter is to allow users of the telescope to perform real scientific research. The projects included can be studying variable stars and their magnitude changes as well as recording the changing magnitudes of asteroids.

The black Wall Mounted Flat Frame Light Box (left) to be mounted in Gamma Observatory   at SkyPi Online Observatories where the ATEO resides. Photo by Dustin Smith.
The black Wall Mounted Flat Frame Light Box (left) to be mounted in Gamma Observatory 
at SkyPi Online Observatories where the ATEO resides. Photo by Dustin Smith.

This telescope maintenance period also convinced us it would be a convenient time to purchase a Wall Mounted Flat Frame Light Box for creating flats for image processing of data taken by the telescope. The light source is an electroluminescent panel housed behind a sheet of translucent white acrylic, providing perfect even illumination of the field edge-to-edge. A dimmer will be included so we can easily adjust the panel brightness to fit our needs. The alternative to purchasing this built-to-order device was to rush through twilight to shoot all of our flat frames. The lightbox will be mounted in a position inside the observatory where the telescope park position is so we can take flats anytime. With the beta version of Insight Observatory's remote telescope access portal being released within the next few weeks, we thought the timing of delivery of the flat field box to Gamma Observatory where the telescope is housed to be more than ideal.

Last but not least, Muir successfully installed and tested the latest updated version of TheSkyX software by Software Bisque remotely from his home office. This software application runs all of the telescope and imaging equipment with a Linux operating system installed on a Raspberry Pi. We will be sending notices out to of our subscribers and social media followers when the online beta portal is released.

Once again... Many THANKS to the wonderful staff at SkyPi Online Observatories for all of their hard work and assistance with the maintenance and upgrades on the Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (ATEO).
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Friday, February 23, 2018

Comet Hunters

Main-belt comets are a recently discovered population of small bodies residing in the Solar System's asteroid belt exhibiting distinctive tails that we typically associate with comets. Very little is known about main-belt comets as only about 10 have been discovered to date, but with a larger sample, we could probe the origins of the Solar System and the active processes occurring in today's asteroid belt.

View of Mauna Kea (one of the best astronomical observing sites in the world) from the Subaru Telescope Cat Walk - Image Credit: M. E. Schwamb
View of Mauna Kea (one of the best astronomical observing sites in the world) from the Subaru Telescope Cat Walk - Image Credit: M. E. Schwamb.

Zooniverse.org has initiated the Comet Hunters project to try to greatly increase the discovery rate of these objects. Some main-belt comets were first known as inactive main-belt asteroids and then were only found to have cometary activity in later observations. Asteroids frequently appear by chance in wide-field astronomical observations, and so by scanning through these images, we may have a chance of finding more active objects. We have extracted images of known main-belt asteroids from the public archives of the Subaru Telescope, one of the largest telescopes in the world (at 8.2 meters, or 27 feet, across), located on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. None of the objects we are targeting have been previously known to show activity, but most have so far only previously been studied using small telescopes that may have missed faint activity.

Discovery image of comet-like activity in bright main-belt asteroid Griseldis taken on the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea - Image Credit: Adapted from figure by D. Tholen, S. Sheppard, C. Trujillo - original image.
Discovery image of comet-like activity in bright main-belt asteroid Griseldis taken on the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea - Image Credit: Adapted from a figure by D. Tholen, S. Sheppard, C. Trujillo - original image.

This is important because we believe we can discover many more main-belt asteroids if we can detect fainter activity, and the way to detect fainter activity is to use larger telescopes like Subaru. Detecting comet-like activity is not easy. Comets can have a wide variety of appearances, and it is difficult to design automated routines to detect all the different types of cometary behavior that might exist in telescope images. In contrast, the human eye can easily spot tails of many different shapes and size that indicate cometary activity.

This is where you come in. By reviewing asteroid images on the Comet Hunters website to identify whether the asteroids have a tail or not, you can help find new candidate main-belt comets that the Comet Hunters science team will then follow up with ground- and space-based telescopes. Most of these chance asteroid observations have never been reviewed for cometary activity before. You just might be the first to discover that an asteroid is really a comet!

Zooniverse.org would love to see Comet Hunters incorporated in the classroom:

A wide variety of ages should be able to perform the task we are asking volunteers to do in the main classification interface in order to help identify new comets residing in our Solar System’s asteroid belt.

You might find some resources on NASA's Asteroid and Comet Watch page helpful. If you are interested in building a scale Solar System to show students where the asteroid belt is located, you can find a guide here.

The Comet Hunters Blog is also a great place to keep up with the latest science results and news from the project. Comet Hunters are currently showing images of previously discovered asteroids with well-characterized orbits.

If you develop a lesson based around Comet Hunters, please consider sharing it by uploading it to the Zooniverse Zoo Teach platform. Also, check out the Zooniverse's Education Talk discussion board to interact with the Zooniverse Education Team and other teachers interested in utilizing citizen science in the classroom.

Learn more at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/mschwamb/comet-hunters/about/research
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Sunday, February 18, 2018

ATEO Primary Mirror Gets a Cleaning

The 16" primary mirror from Insight Observatory's remote-operated Dream Astrograph imaging telescope (Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach) received its first cleaning. The staff at SkyPi Online Observatories (the hosting site of the remote robotic telescope) performed the cleaning using a polymer solution known as First Contact™ Polymer.  This polymer solution is a one-part easy to use strip coating. It cleans and protects precision optics, telescopes, mirrors, and surfaces in use, storage, assembly and in shipping. Using this method you paint, spray, dip or pour liquid on, let it dry and peel off the flexible, strong, resilient film. First Contact™ is specially formulated to minimize surface adhesion and yet clean surfaces safely and effectively while leaving zero residues.  It is an inert, non-toxic polymer system designed to remove dust, fingerprints, residues, and contaminants from delicate, sensitive, and precision surfaces such as telescope mirrors, without scratching or damaging them.

SkyPi Remote Observatories Technician,  Caleb Ramer,  applies the polymer solution to the 16" primary mirror.   Photo by John Evelan.
SkyPi Remote Observatories Technician,  Caleb Ramer,  applies the polymer solution to the 16" primary mirror. 
Photo by John Evelan.

First Contact Polymer™ Solutions will safely clean and protect nanostructures, precision surfaces, optics, glass, fused silica, silicon, crystals, nonlinear crystals, metals, first surface mirrors, and precision aerospace surfaces. First Contact™ Polymer also cleans and protects diffraction gratings, phase masks, and pinholes! All reflective coatings and surfaces can be safe, easily cleaned and protected with First Contact™. The fluid solution conforms to any contour, including nanostructured features, dries, and then the polymer film releases easily.

16" ATEO Primary Mirror Cleaning


This was the crew at SkyPi's first attempt using this method for mirror cleaning and as you can see from the video above, John Evelan, SkyPi Online Observatories Managing Member, can be heard commenting "It really works!". This method of mirror cleaning was also recommended by Dream Telescope's owner and manufacturer as a preferred method of mirror cleaning. This maintenance project was part of our ongoing assurance to provide optimal performance of the remote online imaging telescope.
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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review: Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Telescope

Since we have been spending so much time focusing on the implementation and operations of the 16" astrograph online telescope in New Mexico, we wanted to take a step back and go back to our roots of simple backyard astronomy. When the crew at Insight Observatory host public and private star parties, out of all the backyard amateur telescopes they used, they favored the Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Telescope.

The constellation Orion, named so because of the hunter of Greek mythology, is one of the most recognizable groups of stars in the night sky. The excellent Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 allows amateur astronomers to see it like never before, with its state-of-the-art clarity and its value for money. The Orion name brand in the market of telescopes is one of the most popular due to their high-quality products. Orion Telescopes & Binoculars was established in 1975 in California.

Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Telescope is extremely portable. Image by Orion Telescopes.
Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Telescope is extremely portable. 
Image by Orion Telescopes.

The Dobsonian refers to the style of the base, popularized by the famous "Sidewalk Astronomer" John Dobson in the 1960s, designed to produce large and affordable backyard telescopes. The general distinguishing features of this particular variety of telescope include the Altazimuth mount and a large objective diameter relative to its cost.

This instrument falls in the higher range of reflector telescopes, and there is a good balance between costs, convenience, and clarity. It is not as small as the XT6, which has been criticized in the past for not being capable of capturing good views, nor as large as the XT10, which has been said to be too bulky to carry even in the back of a car (we speak from experience). As we had both the XT8 and XT10 Dobsonian telescopes side by side at our star parties, although there is  2" difference in the primary mirror size, our attendees could not really distinguish a difference in the views using the same powered eyepiece on both telescopes. 

Eight pictures were taken through the Orion XT8 to make this stitched   composite of our Moon, using an Olympus E510.   Image by Justin Mohorich
Eight pictures were taken through the Orion XT8 to make this stitched 
composite of our Moon, using an Olympus E510. 
Image by Justin Mohorich

The Orion XT8 Telescope is suitable for all types of stargazers, whether they are beginners, amateurs or die-hard observers. This meaning those who are new to the art of astronomy will find this telescope easy to use, and experts will find most of the functions satisfying. It is also family-friendly, allowing children to enjoy the fascinating hobby of stargazing, and the beginning of their sky quests to flourish. The easy-to-use finder and optical tube allow viewing of most extra-terrestrial deep-sky objects like star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. A camera can be attached to the telescope with a ‘T-adapter’ (not included) for imaging the moon and brighter planets.

Setting up the SkyQuest XT8 is fairly straight-forward; the telescope comes in two easily attachable parts, which need to be connected by the integrated springs. It should take around 30 minutes to assemble the telescope solo or 15-20 with someone else lending a hand. 

In Summary... The Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 is a great telescope for any kind of observer of the skies, and especially good for families who want to introduce their children to it. Its specifications are more than capable of observing a wide array of objects, and with surprising detail- satellite craters can be clearly viewed, as well as obscure nebulae. Its minimalistic yet very ergonomic design is also very appealing. Owners of this telescope may want to consider purchasing additional lenses or filters to truly get the best out of this brilliant telescope.

Learn More Here...

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Astronomy Information for Beginners

Were you bitten by the astronomy bug you while you were out stargazing last night? Suddenly feeling inspired to learn about the more about wonders of the night sky, the solar system, and all the science behind them all? Sky and Telescope Magazine has a page on their website that will serve as your guide to astronomy for beginners.

Check out what's up in the night sky this week. Get advice for buying your first telescope. And find the best coverage you’ll find online of upcoming celestial events such as eclipses and meteor showers.

Ali Matinfar captured this image of stargazers under the Milky Way from the Mesr Desert in Iran.   Ali Matinfar / Online Photo Gallery
Ali Matinfar captured this image of stargazers under the Milky Way from the Mesr Desert in Iran.
 Ali Matinfar / Online Photo Gallery.

What's Up In the Night Sky Tonight?

The best guide to astronomy for beginners is the night sky. All you really need to do to get started is look up - preferably at night! You'll find an amazing treasure chest of astronomical wonders, even if you don't have a telescope.

Sky and Telescope's most popular (and free) offering, "This Week's Sky at a Glance," guides you to the naked-eye sky, highlighting the major constellations and planets viewable in the evening sky, with occasional dips into a deep-sky territory. (Download the free app for iTunes or Android.) Insight Observatory shares this guide weekly on their social media pages such as Facebook and Twitter.

If you'd rather listen while under the stars, download Sky and Telescope's monthly astronomy podcast and take it with you when you venture out tonight for a guided tour to the night sky.

Or do your own sleuthing with their interactive sky chart.

If there are any major celestial events, such as comets, eclipses, or meteor showers, you'll find all the latest information (including instructions on where to look and detailed sky charts) in their observing news section.

For more information on astronomy for beginners please visit http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-information/
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