Today is the first day of school for my youngest daughter. So, contrary to other times, I was up. As I went outside to let the dog out, I noticed that Orion was up. Orion is quite possibly my favorite constellation, as it has so many things in it to look at.
I quickly went inside and retrieved my 10 x 50 binoculars and was able to see the Orion Nebula (M42) to some extent. The dawn was already breaking, so it was not very clear because it was fighting sunlight and morning clouds.
However, it’s good to see my old friend again. I can’t wait until I can see it in darkness again.
Aside from the cultural history of Mars, it is noteworthy that it wouldn’t be a particularly fun place to stay. Too cold, covered in rust, and only a tiny bit of yucky tasting acidic water. Yes, if I were a Martian, I would want to invade the Earth. Earth girls are cuter.
Now, on to my rant.
See all those stars in the Star Walk picture? See all the stars in the picture of Mars that I took? What? No stars in the picture I took? Just Mars, right?
Folks, I did this observation in my company’s parking lot, which is flooded with light. That night I could see Mars, Spica (lower right hand star in the “box” in Virgo), and Jupiter. That’s about it.
That’s light pollution for you.
Seriously, it is a real problem. I’ve heard of complaints from city folks when they went out to the country and thought people were poisoning the air because they saw a “cloud” that extended for the length of the sky (er, that’s the Milky Way, city mouse).
The first time I really SAW the Milky Way was when I was bowhunting in Sullivan County, PA (Northern Tier). I was camping in my car and was awakened at 3AM by a bright light. I opened my eyes and looked outside to see loads of stars, very much like the picture above. I marveled in wonder and felt sad that where I live, one is not able to see such sights.
I live in a “white zone,” an area classified as the highest level of light pollution available. Where I live, I can see the larger, brighter constellations. That’s about it without a telescope. In the following link, which includes my town, Havertown, you can see how white it is.
Compare that with Cherry Springs State Park, near Coudersport, PA, an International Dark Site (one of the darker places in the country). That’s in blue, which means it is better. I suspect the grey area below is either not measured, or even better, but not easily accessible.
Today I braved the elements again and got in another observation. This time I went a little west of Cassiopeia and looked at Andromeda and the Andromeda Galaxy/M31.
Again, I had focus issues with my camera. I think what happened was a combination of star drift and too wide an aperture. I was using my 50mm lens, and I noticed that I had stuff out of focus at 1.8, but when I moved my aperture to 3.5, it improved. I was able to get a picture that wasn’t too incredibly horrible out of about 20 shots. In this one, the Andromeda Galaxy is somewhat present.
Here is the image with a little more of a guide to what you kinda sorta are seeing:
That smudgy thing in the circle is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is around the size of the moon, about 2° in size. It is noteworthy that Mirach (β Andromeda) is a red giant. By naked eye this could not be seen, but it could be seen in the above photo.
Here are some clearer views in Stellarium.
I also spent some time fiddling with a multi reticle red dot finder that I purchased which goes on top of the 25x100s. Got it to work by zeroing in on the moon. It does make finding things easier, assuming I can star hop to where they are. With binoculars, though, compared to telescopes which are inverted and/or upside down, it is far easier. the Finder can also double as a rifle sight (yet another hobby of mine).
While what’s below isn’t my actual red dot finder in action (it was a bugger trying to take a picture of it due to depth of field issues), this is essentially what it would look like looking through it.
Here is my observation report for tonight:
Sadly, due to shifting transparency conditions, I was not able to see the Andromeda Galaxy using the 25x100s tonight, although I was able to see it with my 8x30s earlier in the evening.
Andromeda is named after the daughter of Cassiopeia. Andromeda was apparently chained to a rock to be eaten by the monster Cetus, which is behind Pisces. It is bordered above by Perseus, below by Pegasus, to the right by Andromeda’s mother, Cassiopeia, and the Pleiades are to the left. Pisces and the Triangulum are to the left, but closer. Only one or two stars in Pisces were visible tonight, and Pegasus was behind trees.
The Andromeda Galaxy/Messier 31 is one of the largest deep space objects of the Messier group. It is a spiral galaxy about 2.5 million light years away from Earth. It will collide with the Milky Way galaxy in the future! In 3.75 billion years. Not high on my list of anxieties this week.
Today focused on a constellation for the Constellation Hunter Program, Cassiopeia. The weather was pretty bad for viewing. I put up with it, though, because we are expecting 3 storms this week, and it is probably the best I’m going to do for now and the near future. About all that one could see were constellations and Jupiter. I only saw about 4 stars of the Little Dipper–it was pretty bad.
For the record, until tonight I pronounced it Kas-eee-OH-Pe-Ah. Apparently this is how you pronounce it. It is also the most boring video I’ve ever seen on the topic. Needs more of a body count. But, now you know.
Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, and I’m already sampling woodchuck recipes and posting them on Facebook in the hopes that Puxatawney Phil is browsing prior to his big time tomorrow morning. I’m not going to let an oversized agoraphobic rodent get in the way of my learning about the wonders of the universe.
Here’s my official observation log for tonight. I think my sketching is getting progressively better.
That being said, I thought I’d try taking pictures with my nifty-fifty lens (50mm) to see if the pics came out clearer. In my infinite wisdom, I took it off of Autofocus, and never managed to remember that I needed to manually focus it. I’m just grateful that anyone who knows anything about photography, videography or the like is not reading this.
Anyway, here are some of the pics, such as they are.
Cassiopeia from Stellarium. The Andromeda Galaxy is in the lower left (not observed due to weather conditions). This is what Cassiopeia is supposed to look like, at least on the computer.
I left work a little early, as we had a blizzard recently, and I had a number of cancellations at the psychotherapy practice for which I work. I looked up at the sky, and as is typical for after a major storm, the sky was clear. Cassiopeia was clear as day.
But, we are talking about MY luck, right? I got home and had to get a few things done around the house, then we had a guest, and then I went outside, and clouds had formed. Cassiopeia was gone. Orion was around (it often is), but I saw that the last time. Jupiter was in a clear patch, so I took a pic or two.
Couldn’t get any real detail on Jupiter–that will have to wait until I start bringing out the telescope (too darn cold right now–14 degrees F, with a wind chill of 5 degrees F! Brrrrr!). But, I was able to see Castor and Pollux, the “twins” of Gemini with the naked eye (the conditions stunk, so that’s all of what I was able to see of Gemini). When I took the picture, I took it at the widest setting, and cropped like mad. Picture quality did improve compared to earlier pics, and I noted that Castor appeared to be a blue star! I had never seen a blue star before! Of course, I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it turns out that the blueness is an artifact of the fact that it is light from several very close stars (see below). Even on the cruddiest nights, one can experience new things.
α Gem (Castor): the second brightest in the constellation [of Gemini] after Pollux. Castor is a sextuple star system 52 light-years from Earth, which appears as a magnitude 1.6 blue-white star to the unaided eye. Two spectroscopic binaries are visible at magnitudes 1.9 and 3.0 with a period of 470 years. A wide-set red dwarf star is also a part of the system; this star is an Algol-typeeclipsing binary star with a period of 19.5 hours; its minimum magnitude is 9.8 and its maximum magnitude is 9.3.
So, how do you get started? There is simply too much info out there and it is easy to get lost.
So, here’s a really simplified way to get going.
As a rank beginner, there are three things I have learned. I call these the 3 Looks.
1. Look UP.
Before buying gadgets, worrying about eyepieces and filters, declinations, the ecliptic, all of that, just look up. See what is up there and ponder it. Remember constellations you are already familiar with and try to find them. Try to find the man in the moon. See if you can identify planets vs stars (hint: the planets don’t twinkle). Watch for shooting stars (which are seasonal). Just spend some time getting lost in the stars and noticing what you can notice. Engage your curiosity. Ponder who we are in relationship to the universe. Engage the WHY of astronomy.
2. Look AROUND.
Find resources. In the US, find your local member society of the Astronomical League. Go to a Star Party and look at the stars through what equipment they bring and ask questions. Find a mentor. Join and participate in your local member society. Read intro books. Get knowledge.
Also, get resources. Find a nice, flat place to view the stars that is away (if possible) from metropolitan areas and that allows people after dark (GOOD LUCK). Let people know where you are before you go, bring a reclining beach chair and/or a blanket, and have fun. It is far more fun if you are able to go with others.
3. Look THROUGH (Viewing Aids).
Telescopes are sexy. But start simpler so you can get your bearings. Use just your eyes. Use a project such as the Astronomical League’s Constellation Hunter Observing Program to learn your way around the constellations, or use a planisphere (here‘s how to use one) or a book such as Nightwatch. That and a jacket, warm hat, gloves (all as needed), and flashlight with red cellophane tied onto it with a rubber band (to allow you to keep your night vision), and you are good to go.
Before you go, though, be sure to use the Clear Sky Chart for your area, which tells you whether or not you are going to have a productive time or if you will be looking at clouds all night. In the example below, Sunday night looks horrible. Monday night doesn’t look too bad.
If you absolutely must engage your inner geek at this point, consider an app for a smartphone such as Star Walk (as of January 2014, it is available for a whopping $2.99), or, if you have a laptop, consider Stellarium (http://stellarium.org), which is FREE. Make sure you use “Night Mode” when using it, to preserve your night vision.
Then, consider upgrading to binoculars. 7×35 porro prism binocs will do just fine and are nice for looking at constellations. I have a set of 10x50s that I use which are in general recommended in astronomy forums as the standard, but find these to be about at the limit of handheld usability (due to shakiness). My 25x100s really bring things up close, but need a very stout tripod. Start with the 7x35s or similar. Easy to hold, don’t shake much, easy to transport, and if you don’t like astronomy, you can use them for other purposes. 7x35s, especially wide angle ones, are excellent for introduction to the starry skies. Flea markets and garage sales are good places to get them cheap. Just be sure to check mechanical functions and alignment before buying. Also, stay away from fixed focus binos and zoom binos–your ability to get crisp images will be limited. While binos don’t have the reach of telescopes, they provide more contrast and you will see more using them.
Later on, consider telescopes, considering a Dobsonian (good bang for the buck) as an entry option. At this point, you should have someone helping you select, as there are many telescopes you simply want to avoid.