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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The O-TEAM: A Thousand and One Nights

(Late - very, very late; one night in 1989...)

As one-third of that, one-time, infamous trio of hard-core, dedicated, 'back-woods', 'MacGyver'-ish, observational astronomers: the 'O-Team' - Mike Petrasko, Muir Evenden, and myself, who's late-night and, sometimes, 'deep-freeze' telescopic adventures, back around 1989 (typically, in below-freezing temps) -- I would never, ever have believed that one day - our telescopes would be able to, practically, "take us by the hand", and give us a detailed, orated tour of the night sky - all by their artificially intelligent selves. Nope - that's the kind of thing that only happened in sci-fi films...

Moreover, how could any of us possibly have imagined, that, variable stars - those, peculiar stellar anomalies who are light-output, vary over periods of time, from about a few hours to several days, should turn out to be *variable* - because there were planets getting in the way! - by crossing the faces of those stars (as seen from our perspective)...of all things!!

Telescopes used by the O-Team on The Woods Hole Golf Course - Illustration by Dale Alan Bryant.
Telescopes used by the O-Team on The Woods Hole Golf Course - Illustration by Dale Alan Bryant.

Many times, over the "O-Team years", some 30-something years ago, I had made painstaking efforts at trying to capture such things, as, the North America nebula, or the galactic core in Sagittarius, on film, using a piggy-backed, 35mm SLR, loaded with Fujichrome 200, acetate slide-film. With a lot of patience, and, even more, practice, something like this could be gotten - in as short a span as 45 minutes - using the telescope, as a guide scope, during the exposure. I could never have imagined (not even in any of my wilder dreams) that, film - the conventional platform for photography, since its invention - the century, before last - would soon be replaced with the microchip capable of generating an equivalent image in 10-20 seconds - un-guided!!

Unfortunately: I have missed out - entirely - on the GOTO, computerized, Dobsonian-mounted telescope revolution: that is - the kind of amateur astronomical telescopes that are capable of re-positioning themselves, by 'slewing' across the sky, via, computer-controlled, stepped servo-motors - to any celestial object in the heavens, using the celestial coordinates, right-ascension, and declination - by converting them into their alt-azimuth counterparts - all on command!"....

I've never used one. In fact - I've never even SEEN one (at least, not 'in person').

No. My active days (or rather, nights) as an observational astronomer with the O-Team were the kind, where, in the cold months, you got dressed for the weather using three layers of outer garments, three layers of warm socks for your feet - wrapped over, with plastic trash bags to keep the warmth in under your boots - and, at least, one wool cap and a pair of mittens (mittens hold in heat better than gloves).

If you didn't look like you were ready to start training attack-dogs - you were missing some clothing.

When you were finally ready - you disassembled your scope and packed it into the back seat, trunk, or bed of your vehicle, and - if you could, still, just slide into the front seat - you were ready to drive yourself, along with your gear, to one of your, very, best-kept secrets: a chosen, dark, secluded and, preferably, isolated observing site! (We actually had two sites that we frequented, but, one, in particular, was, by far, our preferred nocturnal "delinquency". You see: on many, many starry nights, you could find me, and my telescope (well - and, my truck!), and Mike and Muir, and their vehicles, perched on one of the fairways at the Woods Hole Country Club's plush, green carpet, of highly-manicured grass. To say that we were obsessed - well, that would be a really, really accurate statement...

On any, given, clear night, we would abandon the warm, blissful comfort of our cozy beds at around 12:00 midnight, and drive out to our, apparently, God-given observing station; or any party-cloudy night, for that matter - just in case. And if you've never seen the unlikely, ominous sight of a silhouetted Volvo, parked in the middle of a golf course in the middle of the night - before, well, you just haven't lived!

From our perspective, golf courses were built, and designed, for astronomers. They offer wide expanses of sky, and - serendipitously - are covered with a durable, and, surprisingly well-kept swath of grass - which, seems to run on, in all directions, forever! Now, what philanthropic soul had done this great service for science? (I never did believe in the rumors, that, they also used these green havens, for other, unimportant 'sporting activities', as well).

Here's how it usually went...

After arriving at the golf course, and, having driven, up, onto the fairway, you set up your scope and connected it, via, mini-jumper cables w/alligator-clips, to your vehicle's battery. This was to run the electro-mechanical clock-drives, that, slowly moved the scope, in synch with Earth's rotation, across the sky to follow the particular celestial object you were observing. Muir used an 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain. Mike had an Edmund Scientific, 4.25-inch AstroScan, and I used an 8-inch Meade Newtonian reflector.

The next step was to set up the card table and lay everything out on it: a very good, laminated star atlas with reticle templates, a red-filtered, military-style elbow flashlight, eyepieces w/case, pocket shortwave radio, tuned to WWV (for timing anything you wanted to time) along with, Mrs. Holmes' home-made brownies, if you were fortunate enough - and pray that you didn't completely drain your vehicle's battery, by dawn. (There were actually statements, like: "Oh, well; if my battery dies, I'll just call a tow-truck in the morning.", made, frequently...who cared?!)

Now, all this was usually set up near the frozen, ice-covered, first-hole putting-green of the WHGC - regardless of winter, or its threat of frostbite, or - of the threat of getting booted off the course by the local law enforcement. You see, we once (once?!) had a brief encounter with a police officer, who, was out on his rounds and, spotting, three, parked automobiles - in the middle of a golf course - had decided to drop by our private, highly-manicured observatory.

Having noted our three, rather large-ish, optical instruments, tables, chairs, ladders, and vehicles - electrical connections and all - the officer, slowly and cautiously approach our bunker, and asked, "What kinds of weapons", we were using to, obviously, protect ourselves against, the potential, horrors of the night sky. Naturally, we all-too-excitedly broke into a rather lengthy discourse about the myriad wonders - galaxies, nebulosities, etc., that we had seen that night, and offered him a view for himself; with such fervor and passion (which, he, apparently didn't share with us), that, he probably just couldn't wait to escape the bizarre situation.

Over time, they eventually learned to ignore us, entirely and, for the most part, we continued to have the WHGC, all to ourselves for our continuing, awesome onslaught of the universe, at large.

And that's how those days went.

But times have changed dramatically. Today, all this is done, remotely, with a laptop, or tablet, or even, smartphone - right from the comfort of your own bed!!

What will the next, 30-something years in amateur astronomy bring?.....

Dale Alan Bryant
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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Annual Visit to SkyPi Remote Observatory

Its that time of year again! Insight Observatory Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden and I are onsite at SkyPi Remote Observatory in Pie Town, New Mexico performing annual maintenance and systems upgrades to the Astronomical Telescopes for Educational Outreach (ATEO). Since we installed the 16" f/3.7 astrograph reflector, ATEO-1, exactly two years ago this month, we have been running the remote robotic telescope entirely with a Raspberry Pi. Although the Pi was very dependable to run the entire imaging system, we figured it was time for an upgrade. We successfully installed a Fitlet 2 Mini PC installed with Linux to run the ATEO Portal software that is integrated with The SkyX. With the upgrade in memory to 4GB and the 64GB external USB storage devices, we have noticed a difference in speed performance. The Raspberry Pi will remain in place for redundancy.

Insight Observatory Managing Member / Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden with ATEO-1.
Insight Observatory Managing Member / Systems Engineer, Muir Evenden with ATEO-1.

Another priority item on the "to do" list on our visit is collimation of the telescope's mirrors. The last time we performed this was on our last visit a year ago. Fortunately, we have found it necessary to only perform collimation only once a year so far. However, if collimation needs to be done again before our next visit in 2020, the reliable staff at SkyPi Remote Observatory is there to perform the task if needed in our absence.

Insight Observatory team members Michael Petrasko and Muir Evenden performing maintenance on ATEO-1.
Insight Observatory team members Michael Petrasko and Muir Evenden performing maintenance on ATEO-1.

Another important task to be completed was installing a new flat field table in Gamma observatory where the ATEO-1 imaging system is housed. Muir has been successfully acquiring sky flat fields in the past at twilight using a script he wrote, however, although that method was successful, it can be tricky at times. John Evelan, Managing Member of SkyPi Online Observatory, LLC, was gracious enough to install an LCD backlit flat field table on the observatory wall for our use. Other items on the list of tasks for ATEO-1 completed consisted of adjusting the shutter on the Proline 16803 CCD camera, LRGB, V filter inspection, performing a T-Point adjustment in the SkyX, focusing the guide scope and having a tree topped that obstructed the southern view from the observatory.

Affiliate remote telescopes ATEO-2A and ATEO-2B at twilight during testing with Venus rising (lower left).
Affiliate remote telescopes ATEO-2A and ATEO-2B at twilight during testing with Venus rising (lower left).

After our chores are completed with ATEO-1, we will be moving on to our affiliate remote robotic telescopes, ATEO-2A and ATEO-2B. We will be working with John, who owns the Williams Optics 5" f/7 refractor, ATEO-2A and the Celestron 11" f/10, ATEO-2B dedicated planetary telescope. John and his staff at SkyPi have fully modified Omega observatory where both telescopes are tandemly mounted on a Software Bisque GT1100S mount. We will be working on integrating those two imaging systems into the ATEO Portal as well as Insight Observatory's new "Starbase" dataset library that is currently in development to be released in mid-June 2019.
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Thursday, May 2, 2019

What's In The Sky - May 2019

Get outside with your telescope on clear May evenings to see celestial treats! With the 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 Telescopes and Binoculars top suggestions for May observing:

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 6th. The approximate peak rate is 10-30 per hour, but meteors should be visible from April 24th through May 20th. Look for meteors appearing to radiate from the constellation Aquarius.

M97 - The "Owl Nebula - Planetary Nebula in Ursa Major. - Imaged on ATEO-1 by Joe Masi.
M97 - The "Owl Nebula - Planetary Nebula in Ursa Major. - Imaged on ATEO-1 by Joe Masi.

Four Big Planetary Nebulae

Use a 6" or larger telescope and an Oxygen-III 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 the bright star Vega. To help you locate these objects, use the Orion DeepMap 600.

New Moon, Dark Skies

Take advantage of the dark skies provided by the New Moon on May 4th 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 and M3 Imaged on ATEO-1 by students from Plymouth South Elementary School, Plymouth, MA.
M13 and M3 Imaged on ATEO-1 by students from Plymouth South Elementary School, Plymouth, MA.

Five Glittering Globulars

Five picture-perfect examples of globular star clusters will be visible in May skies. Check out M3 in the constellation Bootes. 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.

M101 and M51 Imaged on ATEO-1 by students from the Astro Club at Sacred Heart High School Kingston, MA
M101 and M51 Imaged on ATEO-1 by students from the Astro Club at Sacred Heart High School Kingston, MA.

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.

May's Challenge Object

May skies present some of the best opportunities to grab a view of Omega Centauri - the brightest globular star cluster in the sky! While it's big and bright, even visible as a "fuzzy" star in binoculars, the challenge Omega Centauri presents is its low position in southern skies, which can make it unobservable from higher northern latitudes. If you're having trouble locating the famous globular cluster, Bruce McClure from EarthSky.org suggests letting the sparkling blue-white star Spica help you. He explains that when Spica climbs highest up for the night, so does Omega Centauri - look for it 35 degrees directly below Spica.
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