Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Insight Observatory Reflections: IC 1805 - The Heart Nebula

Insight Observatory is currently collaborating with Mr Michael Gyra and his "Astro Junkies" at Barnstable High School, Barnstable, Massachusetts. Mr Gyra has all five of his senior astronomy classes utilizing the Astronomical Telescopes for Educational Outreach (ATEO) online remote robotic telescopes to image deep-sky objects in the night sky. The students are using Insight Observatory's Educational Image Request (EIR) form to submit their image requests to its 16" f/7 reflector remote telescope located remotely an elevation of 7,778 ft in Pie Town, New Mexico.

This program was made possible by a generous grant from the Barnstable Education Foundation. After the students received their deep-sky images, Mr Gyra tasked them with an assignment designated "Insight Observatory Reflections". The assignment includes students writing about their experience using Insight Observatory's ATEO-1, the result of their image, and some scientific facts about the deep-sky object. The "Astro Junkies" from his first class (Class D) were kind enough to share their papers with us. All of them were very inspiring and we would like to share a few of them with you in our blog starting with IC 1805, The "Heart Nebula"...

IC 1805, The Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia - Imaged on ATEO-1 by Lauren S. and Kristen A.
IC 1805, The "Heart Nebula" in Cassiopeia - Imaged on ATEO-1 by Lauren S. and Kristen A.

"I was working with a friend, scrolling through Insight’s website, gazing at all of the opportunity we had. We could pick M42, or M1, or M57! The possibilities seemed endless--nebulae, planets, star clusters. Finally, we came to a decision: IC 1805, The Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia. Valentine’s Day is around the corner, the nebula was in flawless view in the nighttime sky, the timing seemed perfect. This emission nebula was laced with hydrogen, the reddish hue screaming to be imaged from the website. The decision was made in record timing: we had to image this beautiful nebula. Since it is only 7,500 light years away from Earth, the Heart Nebula would have an advantage over some of the farther-away images. The telescope would be able to capture the detail that we had seen in the professional images online.

And then came the waiting period. This was the hardest part of our project. We ached to see the beautiful nebula in all its glory. Every day was 24-hours closer to the most exciting part of our week. Finally, Mr Gyra showed us our images. My partner and I were astonished. The image came out so much better than we could have ever hoped for; the outlines of the hydrogen were exquisite, the foreground stars had the most beautiful diffraction lines I had ever seen before. The Heart Nebula had finally reached us, here on Cape Cod. This experience was completely made possible by the Barnstable Educational Foundation’s funding for our astronomical learning and the great minds over at the Insight Observatory. I personally am wholly thankful for their dedication to our education and the expansion of our horizons out into the unknown. If it weren’t for them, I probably never would have experienced something so outwardly, especially not to this degree. The BEF and Insight Observatory made it possible for students to do their own research on something they were passionate about, which is really the true essence of learning and education. This is why I am grateful for their kind efforts, and this is why I wanted to become a varsity stargazer in the first place.

With gratitude, Lauren S., Barnstable High School "Astro Junkie"."

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Saturday, March 9, 2019

What's In The Sky - March 2019

Take your family on a journey to the stars from the comfort of your own backyard! Here are some of Orion Telescopes and Binoculars top picks for March stargazing:

Orion Continues to Shine

Constellation Orion is still well-placed in March skies for telescopic study. Check out bright nebula M42, also called the Orion Nebula, which is visible as the middle "star" of Orion's "sword" just south of the three recognizable stars of Orion's belt. While easily detected in astronomy binoculars, the wispy Orion Nebula will reveal more intricate details in a telescope. After March, our namesake constellation will get lower and lower in the west, making it harder to see as the Sun moves eastward in the sky.

Brilliant Binocular Clusters

Grab a pair of 50mm or larger astronomy binoculars in March for great views of the Pleiades star cluster (M45), the Beehive cluster (M44), and the must-see Double Cluster in Perseus. These sparkling sky gems are simply beautiful when observed with big binoculars, or use a wide-field eyepiece and short focal length telescope for a closer look.

M81 and M82 Galaxies in Ursa Major Imaged on Insight Observatory's 16" f/3.7 Reflector (ATEO-1) - Image by Senior Astronomy Class Students Aidan K. and Trever B. from Barnstable High School, Massachusetts.
M81 and M82 Galaxies in Ursa Major Imaged on Insight Observatory's 16" f/3.7 Reflector (ATEO-1) - Image by Senior Astronomy Class Students Aidan K. and Trever B. from Barnstable High School, Massachusetts.

Galaxies Galore

By about 9-10pm throughout March, Ursa Major, Leo, and the western edge of the Virgo galaxy cluster are high enough in the eastern sky to yield great views of some of our favorite galaxies. Check out the bright pair of M81 and M82 just above the Big Dipper asterism. Look east of bright star Regulus to observe the Leo Triplet of galaxies M65, M66, and NGC 3628. In the northeastern sky, check out the famous Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). While the Whirlpool can be seen with modest 50mm binoculars, using a 10" or 12" telescope in a location with dark skies will display the distant galaxy's beautiful spiral arms. With an 8" or larger telescope and a dark sky, this region of the sky harbors dozens of galaxies — try to find them all!

March 11-13

In the evening sky the Moon, Mars, and the Pleiades star cluster will be in close proximity.

Mid- to Late-March

A cone of faint illumination known as the zodiacal light is visible from northern latitudes in the west just after evening twilight for the last two weeks of the month.

March 16-17

On the night of March 16th and the morning of the 17th, the waxing gibbous Moon will have a close encounter with M44, the Beehive star cluster. They come within 0.5 degrees of each other just before they set below the horizon before dawn.

March 20

This month the full Moon rises on the same day as the vernal equinox — the start of spring! It is also the final “supermoon” of the year, meaning it will be nearly at its closest distance from the Earth, and thus nearly at its largest apparent size.

March 27

In the morning hours, the Moon and Jupiter make a pretty pair, separated by only about 4 degrees. Also, for the next seven nights, Mars will brush to within 4 degrees of the Pleiades star cluster (M45). Have a look at this cool conjunction with your binoculars!

March 29

Visible in the morning sky, Saturn will appear about 3 degrees from the waning crescent Moon.
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Monday, February 18, 2019

Chasing Auroras in Finland

As described in a blog post I wrote last year, my wife and I took a trip to Tromso, Norway in late April 2018. While there we caught a planetarium show all about the aurora borealis or 'northern lights', with some wonderful time-lapse photography. We were hooked and decided that at some point in the future we would like to see such displays first hand for ourselves. Our Tromso trip was too late in the spring to see the auroras, so we'd have to plan another trip in the future, during a more opportune time for viewing.

Fast forward to early this year. My wife every year has a two week winter holiday from school, and this year it was to take place in mid-February, so this was our chance to try and see the auroras. A promotional deal from Wizz Air to Turku, Finland quickly helped us determine our starting point. After arriving in Turku we travelled by train north to the town of Rovaniemi (home of none other than Santa Claus), right at the Arctic Circle: this was going to be our home base for three days.

First sighting of the Aurora Borealis - Photo by Muir Evenden.
First sighting of the Aurora Borealis - Photo by Muir Evenden.

Rovaniemi has many tour guides and providers to take visitors on a variety of experiences (husky or reindeer sleigh rides, skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, you name it - including viewing auroras of course). Unfortunately, Rovaniemi has its share of light pollution so to really appreciate the auroras it is recommended to find a spot outside of town beyond the reach of the lights. Our first few days in Rovaniemi we were unsuccessful in seeing any aurora as the weather was either cloudy and/or the light pollution made it impossible to see anything but the moon or brightest stars.

Our hopes for viewing the aurora rested on a tour we had booked with the tour company "Lapland Welcome" on February 14th. Our aurora tour broke down roughly as follows:
  • 8 PM: Guides pick up clients (us!), go to the office and dress up in warm clothing/boots.

  • 8:45 PM: Drive clients to the remote location, about 50 minutes of travel time.

  • 10-12 PM: If lucky and sky is clear and Aurora is present, view/photograph aurora, warm up if needed in shelter and snack on provided sausages and hot drinks.

  • 12 PM: Return back to Rovaniemi (we got back at our hotel at 1AM).

While we were travelling to the observing site our tour guides were keeping an eye open for signs of aurora activity. Auroras can be fleeting and short-lived at times so if it showed itself before we reached our destination the plan was to stop immediately and get our viewing/pictures then. On our trip the aurora borealis finally made an appearance right as we were arriving at our final destination; the guides urged us to quickly go and get some photos while we could as there is no predicting how long it would last. We spent the next 10 minutes climbing a short hill to a better viewing location, and the Aurora picked up right as we arrived on top.

The Aurora Borealis captured at the top of the hill - Photo by Muir Evenden.
The Aurora Borealis captured at the top of the hill - Photo by Muir Evenden.

Needless to say, we were all excited! I kept snapping pictures as long as I could until the aurora faded away, and even then I captured some nice shots of the moon which provided some light to illuminate the landscape.

The Moon illuminating the landscape - Photo by Muir Evenden.
The Moon illuminating the landscape - Photo by Muir Evenden.

An aurora (plural: auroras or aurorae), sometimes referred to as polar lights, northern lights (aurora borealis) or southern lights (aurora australis), is a natural light display in the Earth's sky, predominantly seen in the high-latitude regions (around the Arctic and Antarctic).

Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere) due to Earth's magnetic field, where their energy is lost.

The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emit light of varying color and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes. Source: Wikipedia
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