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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Insight Observatory Introduces ATEO-2

On Wednesday, May 16, 2018, Insight Observatory Project Developer, Michael Petrasko traveled to the southwest for his first annual trip for servicing the 16" Astronomical Telescope for Educational Outreach (now called ATEO-1). This voyage turned out to be more successful than he could ever imagine. Besides the laundry list of minor adjustments and enhancements that were slated to be made to the 16" remote imaging telescope, a new telescope was added to Insight Observatory's network.

ATEO-2: Williams Optics 5" f/7 Refractor Remote Imaging System going live in July 2018.
ATEO-2: Williams Optics 5" f/7 Refractor Remote Imaging System going live in July 2018.

Wednesday evening after I arrived, SkyPi Online Observatory's (where the ATEO-1 is hosted) managing member, John Evelan and I were discussing in detail how Insight Observatory came about choosing SkyPi for its hosting solution for the telescope. I explained options the company had explored, such as becoming an affiliate on another remote telescope whereas the imaging system would simply plug into the telescope's network online portal. Seeing that Insight Observatory was already underway with developing their own portal, they continued searching for the ideal hosting location that would fit their exact needs. That location was SkyPi Online Observatory and after our first full year of hosting the ATEO-1 there, Insight Observatory could not be happier with their final choice!

After Michael finished his story, John asked: "So the online portal you have developed for your telescope can run any telescope like a refractor?" Michael replied "Yes... The portal developed by Insight Observatory's System's Engineer, Muir Evenden, can add any remote setup implementing a config file to the online portal with the imaging systems specifications and as long as it runs on TheSkyX in the background." John proceeded to get up and grab a set of keys from the house. John then walked me to his small observatory off the deck and unlocked the door. There was a Williams Optics 132 (5") f/7 FLT apo refractor mounted to a Paramount GT100S Equatorial mount equipped with the following:

  • Atik 490EX Color CCD Camera
  • Orion 80 guide
  • Starlight Express Loadstar guide camera

ATEO-2 pictured with its complete imaging equipment listed above in Omega Observatory  at SkyPi Remote Observatory.
ATEO-2 pictured with its complete imaging equipment listed above in Omega Observatory
at SkyPi Remote Observatory.

This is when ATEO-2 was born! Michael and John worked out an agreement whereas the remote imaging system will be added to Insight Observatory's network of online telescopes for education and the general public as Insight's first affiliate member.

Insight Observatory was actually planning their next remote telescope (ATEO-2) to be a refractor with a one-shot color CCD camera to compliment the 16" astrograph imaging telescope installed just over a year ago. Michael and Muir are very excited to be partnering up with John and SkyPi Online Observatory with this endeavor. As of now, the telescope is expected to be on Insight's telescope network in July 2018.

Besides the efforts that John and his team at SkyPi went above and beyond with during Michael's stay, they recently constructed an observatory that houses an 18" Dobsonian telescope that can be used by their hosting clients during their visit on site. As John and Michael were scanning galaxies in the constellation Virgo one night, they could hear the ATEO-1 slewing in the distance collecting imaging data for an 8th-grade class research project. That definitely added to the ambiance!
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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Featured Deep-Sky Object - NGC 4361

The night sky in spring harbors many galaxies that are prime imaging targets for the Astronomical Telescopes for Educational Outreach remote online telescope. However, there are other deep-sky gems such as NGC 4361, a 10.9th magnitude planetary nebula in the constellation Corvus, the crow. Insight Observatory's Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden, noticed the object in the Kstars planetarium software he uses for selecting objects to image. After Muir decided to make a go at it and processed the image he found the characteristics to be interesting as the remaining central star of the nebula that is left from the gas expanding outward was extremely apparent.

NGC 4361, Planetary Nebula in Corvus zoomed in imaged at 300 sec LRGB (Lum. 1x1, RGB 2x2)  Image by Insight Observatory.
NGC 4361, Planetary Nebula in Corvus zoomed in imaged at 300 sec LRGB (Lum. 1x1, RGB 2x2)
Image by Muir Evenden - Insight Observatory.

The above is a zoomed in and cropped the image of planetary nebula NGC 4361 that was taken and processed by Muir on the evening of May 11th. One of the benefits of having a sky coverage of 1.36 x 1.36 degrees with this remote robotic telescope is being able to display objects with the full CCD image size of 4096 x 4096 pixels as well as being able to zoom in and not lose the quality of the image. As mentioned in previous blog posts such as "Hidden Galaxies", it is exciting to detect other objects in the frame of the targeted object. In this image, you may see a faint edge-on spiral galaxy between two stars halfway up above the planetary nebula in the image frame.

The central star of the nebula was once very much like our sun before it evolved and expanded out its outer layers. This object, called a planetary nebula, is unusual in this case as it has four lobes, or jets, of ejected material instead of the standard two in most planetary nebulae. Astronomers suspect there actually may be two dying stars inside the nebula each producing a bipolar jet. In a few tens of thousands of years, the nebula will dissipate and fade from view. However, other stars in the constellation Corvus will take its place. The stars that outline Corvus's "sail" will face that same future, and some of them in the relatively near future, astronomically speaking, sometime in the next few million years.
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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Another Slice of Pi

Well, it's almost been a full year in service and I would have to say that we are extremely pleased with how our Raspberry Pi has performed as the primary computer controlling the ATEO telescope at SkyPi observatory in New Mexico. What do we like best? Let's see:
  • Boots up quickly
  • Easy to maintain (at least if you have some Linux experience!)
  • Runs TheSkyX natively
  • Low power usage
  • Stable platform - we've been running for months at a time between restarts
  • Cheap and inexpensive
New Raspberry Pi with battery and power controller board.
New Raspberry Pi with battery and power controller board.

Of course, not everything is roses...what are some of the downsides?
  • If power is lost unexpectedly it may not shut down cleanly, so there is the potential for corruption
  • No internal clock needs to set time from the internet when booting
  • We are running a Linux OS so cannot use many windows only Astro apps

New Pi in its housing, along with the 64GB USB flash drives.
New Pi in its housing, along with the 64GB USB flash drives.

With some experience under our belt, we felt it was time to build in some redundancy into our setup in the event that the primary Raspberry Pi goes down and in the process address some of the shortcomings outlined above. Here's what we plan to do:
  • We have purchased a second Raspberry Pi which will be used as the primary computer to control the ATEO, and the current Pi in service will be kept online as a backup if the primary goes down.
  • In addition, this new Pi will have some additional capabilities added to it:
  • An internal battery that will be used as a UPS to power the Pi in case power is lost
  • An internal fan to cool the CPU
  • Software that will cleanly power down the Pi if it is on battery power for an extended period of time
  • (2) 64GB USB flash drives: One serving as the main drive and the other as a mirror copy of the main drive (a 'pseudo' raid!) to be used as a backup if the main drive goes down due to corruption, hardware failure, etc.
  • Software to allow the ability to run windows apps: we've been able to run Windows apps such as 'CCDInspector' on the Pi, giving us more flexibility
We hope with these improvements we will make ATEO even better!
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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What's in the Sky - May 2018

Get outside with your telescope (or without a telescope) on clear May evenings to see celestial treats recommended by Orion Telescopes and Binoculars! With weather warming up and skies clearing up, there's no shortage of celestial delicacies to view with telescopes and binoculars. Here are a few of Orion's top suggestions for May observing:

Radiant of the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower peaking before dawn on May 6th.
Radiant of the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower peaking before dawn on May 6th.

Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

Grab a blanket or a comfy lounge chair to sit back, relax and watch the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, one of two annual showers caused by dust particles from Halley's Comet. Catch the peak of the dazzling show before dawn on May 6. The waning gibbous Moon might outshine some of fainter meteors, but there will still be opportunities see meteors streak across the night sky at the approximate peak rate of about 30 per hour. Look for meteors appearing to radiate from the constellation Aquarius.

Bright Jupiter

Jupiter reaches opposition on May 9th, making it the best night of the year to explore the gas giant planet and its four brightest moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Since Jupiter will be directly opposite the Sun from Earth, it will be visible all night long. Opposition occurs when a planet reaches its closest approach to Earth in its elliptical orbit. Take advantage of Jupiter's brightest night of the year and take a closer look at its cloud band "stripes" and four Galilean moons with any size telescope.

M97, the "Owl Nebula" in Ursa Major (left) and M57, the  "Ring Nebula" in Lyra (right).  Images by Insight Observatory.
M97, the "Owl Nebula" in Ursa Major (left) and M57, the  "Ring Nebula" in Lyra (right).
Images by Insight Observatory.

Four Big Planetary Nebulae

Use a 6" or larger telescope and an Oxygen-III or UltraBlock filter to catch nice views of four relatively large planetary nebulae in May skies. See the "Ghost of Jupiter," NGC 3242 in Hydra; M97, "the Owl Nebula" in the Big Dipper; NGC 4361 in Corvus, and the famous "Ring Nebula", M57 in Lyra just a few degrees from bright star Vega. To help you locate these objects, use the The DeepMap 600.

New Moon, Dark Skies

Take advantage of the dark skies provided by the New Moon on May 15th to scope out the many star clusters, galaxies and other deep-sky gems on display. Pack up your astronomy gear using our full line of telescope and accessory cases and head to a dark sky site for the best viewing conditions.

M13, the "Great Globular Cluster in Hercules (left) and M3, Globular Cluster i n Canes Venatici (right).  Images by Insight Observatory.
M13, the "Great Globular Cluster in Hercules (left) and M3, Globular Cluster i n Canes Venatici (right).
Images by Insight Observatory.

Five Glittering Globular Clusters

Five picture-perfect examples of globular star clusters will be visible in May skies. Check out M3 in the constellation Bo├Âtes. M13, the "Great Cluster in Hercules" will be visible near the zenith. M5 can be found in Serpens, and M92 in the northern section of Hercules. Be sure to track down M4 (NGC 6121) in Scorpius on May 27th, as it will be in a great position for telescopic study throughout the night, reaching zenith around midnight. Big telescopes will provide the best views, but even a pair of humble 50mm or larger binoculars will show you these dense balls of stars from a dark sky site.

Crescent Moon and Venus

After the sun sets on May 17th, you'll find a stunning view of the waxing crescent moon to the left of brilliant Venus. While you're observing the pair, use at telescope to look for the crater Furnerius at the lower right of the crescent moon's face. Try Orion's 1.25" Orion 25% Transmission Moon Filter, perfect for crescent phases, to improve lunar contrast and tone down glare.

M101, Face-On Spiral Galaxy in Ursa Major (left) and M51, Face-On Spiral Galaxy in Canes Venatici (right). Images by Insight Observatory.
M101, Face-On Spiral Galaxy in Ursa Major (left) and M51, Face-On Spiral Galaxy in Canes Venatici (right).
Images by Insight Observatory.

Four Face-On Spirals

Use a large telescope to see the classic pinwheel shapes of galaxies M51 and M101 in the Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major, and M99 and M100 in the Virgo galaxy cluster. There are also dozens of additional galaxies to explore in the Virgo cluster with a large aperture telescope.

All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars.
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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Hidden Galaxies

Ever since our new flat field light table was installed on the south wall in Gamma at SkyPi Remote Observatories, the quality of the images coming back from ATEO-1 has greatly improved. Recently the crew at Insight Observatory were imaging random deep-sky objects to test their image processing with the new flats and as they were imaging a few of the most common deep-sky objects for testing, they uncovered a potential project for students that could be a lot of fun while creating colorful deep-sky images...

M97, the "Owl Nebula" imaged by Muir Evenden with a circled unidentified anomaly.
M97, the "Owl Nebula" imaged by Muir Evenden with a circled unidentified anomaly.

One of the objects randomly imaged was the planetary nebula known as M97, the "Owl Nebula" in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear.  As Insight Observatory's Project Developer, Michael Petrasko, was post-processing the 300-second image originally acquired and processed by Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden, Michael noticed a smudge-like anomaly towards the lower right bottom of the image. The object had very similar characteristics to that of a comet. However, the object was yellowish in color and comets, for the most part, show up on images as bluish-green in color.

As Michael zoomed into the image to get a closer look at the aberration, he saw many dim disk-like objects randomly scattered throughout. These objects were in fact galaxies.  However,  Michael could still not resolve what that blurry spot of light was in the frame even after being at full zoom. He then circled the object and forwarded it off to Muir for his consultation of what it may be.

Screenshots of the galaxy cluster identified from the Aladin Deep Sky Atlas Software.
Screenshots of the galaxy cluster identified from the Aladin Deep Sky Atlas Software.

Muir was also baffled by the oddity of light so he referenced the SIMBAD image database included in the Aladin Sky Atlas software. With this application, Muir could overlay one of his original luminance frames to determine if the object was in fact in the SIMBAD database of images for comparison. Identification of the blurry object was then confirmed by Muir using the software. The object was a small cluster of galaxies and when viewing an enhanced image of the object from the SIMBAD database, the single blurry object can be resolved as multiple galaxies.

As students acquire images of common deep-sky objects, it would be good practice to task them with zooming in and panning around their images to look for other anomalies such as this one and attempt to identify them with an application such as the Aladin Sky Atlas.
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