Tech Terrace Park, 17-June-2016


8” Celestron SCT       Gary Leiker

10” F/5.56 dob          Mark Smith

4” F/7 ED doublet    Collin Smith


I arrived at 9:45 PM, which was a little later than I’d written for the invitation (9:15-9:30), but still early enough to encounter a good deal of twilight and still be the first person there. Fortunately, Polaris was just visible, so I began to set up my AstroView mount via the polar alignment scope and clock.

Gary Leiker showed up a few minutes later followed by Mark Smith. A little later, Neetu and my girlies Maya and Sofia appeared, followed by Wade Estepp with his chair to start the evening. Maya was ready to stay up and enjoy the night, but Sofia was asking about food, even though we’d eaten a pizza and everyone else in the family was full. But at least they got to see the planets.

Although Mark started out with horizon-hugging Saturn, I went for Jupiter, almost two weeks past Eastern Quadrature. Unfortunately, I tried my Baader Classic Ortho 10mm with Q-Barlow for a 4-4/9 mm equivalent eyepiece, but the image was dim and featureless, so it didn’t look promising for high-powered planetary viewing, and in fact, it proved not to be. Just the same, using my Brandon 12mm with Old School Made-in-Japan Orion 2x barlow worked, as well as the TeleVue DeLite 7mm. And my early mount aligning efforts paid off, with only a slight amount of drift at the eyepiece. Jupiter looked great in all the scopes, of course. That show-off, by Jove.

I split Algieba, Gamma Leonis, but it’s not a very interesting double, with both primary and secondary stars a yellow-white. I moved on to the near-zenith Cor Coroli, Alpha Canes Venatici, which was a bit better, with a green-white primary and yellow-white secondary. It certainly offered more contrast than Algieba could muster.

Wade and I were simply looking higher up into the northwestern section of the sky when we both caught a strange, greenish-white object that brightened quickly, then faded just as quickly, the whole thing lasting a few seconds. It didn’t seem like a meteor, and we suspected an Iridium flare, but checking the Heavens Above website for Iridium flares doesn’t turn up anything, though perhaps it was a brief satellite, or maybe a meteor after all? Was quite dramatic, that’s for sure.

The best view of Mars was from Gary’s 8” SCT. In particular, the view with his Meade 18mm HD-60 eyepiece produced the sharpest image we’d get of the Red Planet. My own refractor produced a miniature version of Gary’s image, which wasn’t bad, but about all one could expect from half the aperture.

On the other hand, Saturn in Mark’s 10” and Explore Scientific 8.8mm eyepiece was the best view there. The Cassini division was easily apparent, as well as the significant brightness of Ring B relative to A, and the translucent Crepe ring added a mysterious reverence.

I went after M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, just for the heck of it. I found it, but was a washed out shell of itself given Luna’s intense late gibbous glare. Mark’s 10” did a better job, of course, but it wasn’t nearly as good as what we can get out at the Gott on a dark sky night. In the neighborhood, Mark brought up the Double-double also in Lyra (Epsilon Lyrae), a target I’d forgotten about, so I put my refractor on it. Honestly, after comparing the Brandon 12mm-with-Barlow to make it a 6mm equivalent view, I preferred the TeleVue 7mm DeLite’s view. I was surprised at this, but it was indeed true. The split seemed cleaner and I appreciated the larger framing.

As the night grew later, Albireo, Beta Cygni, was now high enough to tackle above the east-facing tree which shielded us from both streetlights and all low eastern targets. This one is a crowd pleaser, with its yellow-orange primary and blue secondary.

Many of the desired targets out of the way, it was time to turn my eye to the Moon. The moon was really only two nights shy of full, so VERY large. I found that the entire globe would fit comfortably enough in the Nagler 9mm T6. It took up almost the entire eyepiece, but one could move one’s eye around and see the whole thing, from the sunrise on the terminator to the slight greenish hue along the edge with space that my ever so imperfect F/7 FPL-51 4” doublet puts up. Tycho and Copernicus were prominent, the sun rising along the southern cratered highlands remarkable.

It was after midnight and it’d been a long week, so time to pack it in. All in all, a pleasant night out under God’s heavens.

April Fools + 1 + Muleshoe WF

Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge, Paul’s Lake Observation Site
April 2nd-3rd, 2016

Gary Leiker & Scott Harris hauled via rented U-Haul, assembled and setup Gary’s custom tracking 30″ dobsonian
Scott Harris — 5″ ES triplet on Explore Scientific Heavy Duty Twilight II Mount
Mark Smith — old Club 10″ F/6-ish dobsonian
Your humble narrator — Celestron 102GT on Orion AstroView mount (EQ-3/CG-4 old style) and single axis clock
Robb Chapman — observer

I arrived late, which surprised none of the guys there, joining Robb, Mark, Scott & Gary at about 10:15. No less than 3 minutes after I arrived, Dr. Ram Iyer of the Math Department and his wife Mary showed up to glory in the night sky and take a look through the 30″ and 5″ refractor. The Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge is here …

… and generally offers some of the darkest skies until one gets to Caprock Canyons State Park, the alternative site for the McDonald Observatory near Quitaque, Texas. The sky conditions were, however, not as good as they normally are. There was a bit of brightness to the background we were unaccustomed to at this location. Not sure exactly why, but that’s the way it was. Also, as I arrived and surveyed the beautiful canoply of the heavens, I noted all stars up to at least 45 degrees off the horizon were twinkling rather strongly, indications of a turbulent upper atmosphere. Planetary viewing would not be optimal. Too bad, I was REALLY looking forward to great vistas of Jupiter which was at opposition on March 8th, but c’est la vie. But as less than optimal as the seeing was, this was my first astronomy outing for 2016, every Saturday night of the year so far taken by familial obligations, clouds, winds or inertia. But if you drive 70 miles into the West Texas darkness on a cool, clear April night that’s not too windy, the Lord God Jehovah shall not disappoint.  Add Gary’s 30″ dob and Scott’s 5″ triplet, and, well, disappointment is relative, and given all the conditions on your side, reasonably good eyesight, and breath, well, carpe noctem. The several meteors I saw early in the evening, appearing to eminate from Orion’s head toward the ground testified to the beauty of it all.

I had planned to test my two refractors against one another, the Kunming (Orion Premium Refractor) 102mm ED F/7 and the Celestron 102GT. By the time I finished setting up the Celestron 102GT on the AstroView equatorial mount, I got as far as assembling the SkyWatcher AZ-4 mount, never getting around to putting the OTA into the rings, but I had a few other things to do — like visual astronomy! And long before I could even get the 102GT setup, I was oogling over M42, the vast Orion Nebula, in the 30″. Although the “F” star wasn’t visible in the unsteady skies, the Nebulosity looked 3-D, like you were flying into it in this 30″ photon gathering rocket. Small push buttons near the focuser directed the voyage. The entirety of M42 wouldn’t even fit in the FOV of the 30mm 82* eyepiece, even though this scope is something like F/3.3. But the view wasn’t a problem. The layers in the nebulosity were simply stunning. Yeah, this one view made the whole trip worth it, but the best was yet to come.

We saw LOTS of targets, and I have to say that, despite the 30″s impressive display of galaxies and nebulae, refractors still offer a lot in the telescopic experience. It’s a foolish thing to say one is better than the other, exactly. They both offer something the other cannot, and complement each other quite nicely, especially on an atmospherically turbulent evening like this one. The stars are simply more pinpoint, crystal clear, and defined in the refractors. I realize, on a more optically perfect evening, there may be no difference, but I don’t get the luxury of observing under perfection, only what was available on April 2nd, 2016, at the Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge. Also, of course, the super huge perspective of the 30″ could be stepped back a bit with the refractors, to help frame the awesome views of the 30″, or not, as M101 demonstrated.

Gary has said that besides arms, he’s seen H-II regions in M101 at Muleshoe before, but we got none of that on April 2nd. M101 was a perfectly uncooperative blob. A bigger blob in the 30″, but mostly just a blob. You could make out some structure in the arms faintly, but the view was about the same in all the telescopes. Even my lowly 97mm clear aperture achromat showed M101 as a ghostly perhaps winged thing, but real definition was missing, and M101 stays coy unless the skies are particularly black. Don’t know what was causing the whitening of the sky. Cities are pretty distant (small light dome in the northwest for Muleshoe proper, but not too bad, and of course a bit of whitening to the southeast where Lubbock is, but nothing unusual — about 15-20 degrees and the darkness appears to overtake the distant urban blight).

Ironically, I noticed some mottling in M1, for the first time in my life, in Scott’s 5″ refractor. I’ve never seen that before, but there it was. I’d never seen mottling in the Crab nebula in anything smaller than a 10″ dob. Now, it looked better at Emma in the 10″ dobs I’ve seen it with there, but seeing it at all in a modest aperture refractor is an observing first for me. So even though some aspects of viewing were less than optimal, others were not. Made out some mottling in Mark’s 10″ dob.

The twinkling starred atmosphere made for inconsistent seeing, manifest with Optimus Maximus. Jovian views were limited in the ES 127 triplet and C102GT to 7mm eyepieces. Going lower didn’t help the image ever, in any telescope. In fact, the view suffered, though that’s possibly due to the eyepiece I had. I own the Meade 5000 5.5mm, and although I’m happy with it, I have to tell you an antedote that really seems to indicate the Nagler T6’s are, in fact, a cut above the ES 6.7mm’s (and Meade 5000 5.5mm?) in quality.  Scott and I were comparing views of Jupiter between his ES 6.7mm and my Nagler 7mm T6. I noticed in his 6.7mm a nice white line that seemed to run across the South Equatorial Belt. Immediately after putting in the Nagler, I didn’t see this, but eventually the seeing settled, my eye adjusted, and there it was. But something else evident I had missed was the GRS rotating into view. This might not have been fair, and simply timing related, still, I didn’t notice the GSR in the 6.7m but saw it clearly in the T6. Not that the view through the 6.7mm was bad, only that the T6 looks a little better, at least in the 7mm model. Not saying a Pentax XW or TV DeLite or Delos wouldn’t have been better. Might have been, but didn’t have those handy so can’t make a judgement one way or the other on those oculars, only what was noticed between the ES 6.7mm 82* and TV 7mm T6.

Without a doubt, M51 with NGC 5195 in tow were simply STUNNING in the 30″. The pair looked drawn into the eyepiece by an expert astronomical sketcher in a blue-gray, psychedelic 3-D style. Considerably better than Lord Rosse’s sketch — Whirlpool, indeed!

The Black Eye Galaxy, M64, had me saying “I’d rather fight than switch”, which had my friends recognizing the old Tareyton ad. Heck, I’d forgotten the brand of cigarettes and thought it was for Lucky Strikes. I was in second grade when tobacco ads were banned from TV, so I remember them, but might be a bit fuzzy on the details. But the details weren’t fuzzy in the 30″, and the Black Eye Galaxy easily lived up to its name.

A peak at the Markarian Chain galaxies was likewise glorious in the 30″. The details in M81 & M82 were also quite nice — especially M82 and its fractured edge-on self. The Leo triplet was amazing, too, which we had to pan about to the various galaxies to see. But the image looked something like this.  Honestly, you could see the dust lane in NGC 3628! The Rosette Nebula wouldn’t fit in the FOV, but one could move about and explore the various cloud formations, like a miniature M42, but still quite large-feeling.

This is not to say that the refractors brought nothing to the party. Although Jupiter, and particularly the GRS, was much brighter and colorful in the 30″ than in the refractors, the overall view of Jupiter was at least as good in the 5″, with the 30″ dob more affected by the unsteady air currents. Therefore the view through the refractors was, though not steady, more so than the dob, which offered better coloration, but no more detail in the bands, and perhaps a little less. The 5″ triplet here was MUCH better than the 97mm achromat. Interestingly, on DSO’s, the 97mm acrho did quite a good job, but on Jupiter, the chromatic aberration was more destructive to the view than I’d expected. The ES 5″ triplet is simply one fantastic telescope. It costs far more than a 10″ dob or the C102GT (more than both, in fact!), but it delivers contrast & resolution that’s hard to beat in any other single scope — and it offers a nice large TFOV, to boot.

We packed everything up by about 2:15 and headed back to Lubbock. I’ve been tired all week trying to catch up on my sleep, but this was genuinely worth it!

2015 SPS Fall Star Party

Sat Oct 17, 2015 5 day old moon
Society of Physics Students Fall outing

I arrived at the Gott late, around 8 PM.  My wife fixed us a huge late lunch, around 3 PM, and I wasn’t even slightly hungry at 6 PM.  But I arrived with my Orion 102mm F/7 ED scope on my Orion AstroView (EQ-3) mount.  Not a big fan of EQ mounts, but since this was the Fall SPS event, thought the tracking might be helpful.  Took some getting used to after using an alt-az for so long, but I was able to put any target in the eyepiece, even those near zenith.

Dr. Clark had plenty of scopes in the shed whirring when I got there for the students.

As I was setting up, I looked at Saturn, low in the west, in Gary Leiker’s 12″ dob.  He had a low power eyepiece, probably his Meade 25mm HD, and it threw up a very nice image.  Of course, looking at Saturn now, very low in the west, in the muck, is not an ideal time to view the planet, but even under these unfavorable circumstances, I could make out the Cassini Division (from time to time) and equatorial banding.  Pretty good for low power in the muck!

Once set up, I went after the moon and put that in my eyepiece.  Gary & Scott had set up on the southeast corner and I was in the north-central area of the eastern half of the pad.  So the Physics students would naturally want to look through mine first, then Gary’s.  We warned them against that, though, since after viewing the night-vision destroying 5 day old moon in mine, they’d not see much of Saturn.  So they went to his, then mine, as a general rule.

Gary had M57, the Ring Nebula in his and of course it was beautiful.  I would view it later through my refractor.

Albireo split very well in Gary’s 12″ and my 4″, of course.  I prefer the view through the big mirror; it has enough light gathering to really bring out the color variation. It looks nice in a refractor — stars just do, of course, in their unobstructed light path — but the more photos the big mirrors bring to a colorful pair, the more color you can see.  At least I can.

Mark arrived and began setting up his Meade 6″ Maksutov Newtonian.

Gary’s dob made M31/32/110, the Andromeda Galaxy complex, look awfully nice.  The moon and City of Lubbock were doing their best to destroy the night sky’s dark contrast, but those light pollutants couldn’t eliminate the beauty of these three.  With Gary’s, they wouldn’t all fit in the same field of view, but they were glorious as they were.  Gary had left his 2″ eyepieces at home, so he borrowed my 28mm Explore Scientific 68*, while I put the 31mm Hyperion Aspheric in my focuser to put the trio into a nice 3.1 degree field.  That was awful purdy!

Then we all went after M27.  It looked very good in all the scopes.  I was particularly pleased with the view in Mark’s 6″.  It’s quite amazing how much light a 6″ gathers, and Mark demonstrated it quite well Saturday night.

The Double Cluster (NCG 869 & 884) is a crowd pleaser we all put in our scopes.  Jerry Hatfield arrived around this time and began setting up his scope.  I liked the wide angle view of mine with the 31mm Hyperion, but later in the evening, Jerry put this in his 10″ dob and you could see a lot more detail in Jerry’s 10″ mirror.  I think he had a 20mm 100* AFOV eyepiece, so quite a nice wide field, higher power view than my 4″ refractor could muster.  Jerry’s got an excellent mirror in his scope, and he proved it again Saturday night.

Jerry put the Globular Cluster M2 in Aquarius in his scope.  I had wanted to see it but with all the students in line, he’d moved on by the time I could’ve checked it out.  But I didn’t make the same mistake with the Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009.  Lying just above the “belly button” of the “bikini bottom” the constellation Capricornus draws on the sky, but technically within the bounds of Aquarius, the Saturn nebula sure looks good in a bigger mirror, and Jerry’s didn’t disappoint.

Gary put the Veil Nebula in the 12″ with an O-III filter, and that was nice.  Later Jerry did the same with his 10″ and an UHC filter.  The Veil is an interactive treat to navigate through visually and physically.  I moved both scopes from the “top” where the Witches Broom is to the bottom of the brighter nebula, which is reverse the position in the sky due to Newtonian image reversal.  But whatever way you look at it, the Veil’s a wondrous spectacle to cruise, huge 3 degree supernova remnant in Cygnus that it is.

Jerry also put the brightest galaxy in Pegasus, NGC 7331, in his 10″ Orion dob for us all to behold.  At an angle similar to Andromeda from our terrestrial perspective, it makes for a very bright spindle. Another beauty, this “star island” is 40 million light years distant.

I used my Meade 5.5mm eyepiece to split Delta Cygni, a blue-white star pair, the right hand star of the crossbar of Northern Cross fame as seen from the South Plains.  It wasn’t an easy split, but she split just the same.  I’ve been wanting to try this to test my optics.  It passed.

Then Jerry put the Blue Snowball in Andromeda (NGC 7662) into his eyepiece.  What an intriguing site!  I had to try it out in mine, and thus began my misadventure.  I wasn’t alone.

Dr. Clark pulled out his personal 18″ F/5 dob and began his own difficult finds.  I heard Dr. Clark, Jerry and Gary talking about first M52, on their way to NGC 7635, the Bubble Nebula. Gary said he’d never seen it visually, and Dr. Clark admitted the same, even though he’s successfully imaged it before.  While they fought for that, I struggled with the Blue Snowball, NGC 7662.  I finally found it.  Not sure if Dr. Clark, et alia, saw the Bubble, or if they did, if they were impressed, but I must say the Blue Snowball through a 4″ refractor isn’t the same thing as through Jerry’s 10″ dob.  Very underwhelming for all the work to find it.  Oh well, getting a bigger 8″ reflector might solve my problems, but we’ll see.  Also, Dr. Clark looked for Stephan’s Quintet.  I didn’t look through his eyepiece but heard him mutter about 3 or so objects.  Did I mention the moon was out?

Jerry found NGC 7008 in northern Cygnus, a planetary nebula near Alpha Cephei known as the Fetus nebula.  In the referenced picture it looks to me like a tadpole, but I suppose that’s fine, too, given that the phylotopic period of human embryonic development moves through the various stages of evolution from fish to us.

But NGC 7008 isn’t as impressive a planetary in 10″ or even 18″ scopes compared to M57 in my 4″.  I checked, and indeed, this was true.  I hadn’t put the Ring Nebula in my refractor, and after my rather disappointing Blue Snowball find, it was just what I needed to keep me inspired.  I know for someone like Dr. Clark he gets tired of M57, but I haven’t seen it in at least a month in a telescope, so I was VERY happy.

Inspired by the Ring Nebula, I thought M33 might be just the ticket, but forgot about the moon and the City’s influence on that wonderful but low-light surfaced galaxy.  M33 is absolutely spectacular at a very dark sky site, but the luna and Lubbock made for a rather washed out blob.  The funny thing in even my scope, though, was that if you simply stared at it a while, you’d begin to get a taste of its glory, with spiraling arms flowing off.  Of course, this was better in the bigger scopes than my lowly 4″, but since we were all suffering the effects of stray light, heavenly and earth-bound sources, the views were more similar than not.  For another night after Last Quarter near New Moon.

Being in the Andromeda neighborhood, I decided to go after the other side.  M15, the globular cluster off Enif, was a nice catch in my little 4″-er, though it looked more differentiated in Gary’s 12″ (surprise).

I walked over to the north side of the observatory for a little break and looked westward, with Hercules staring down at me, so when I got back to the southside pads, I had to see M13. Again, a nice find in a little 4″ refractor.  Jerry had picked it off earlier in the evening with the students, who by this time had mostly left.  That was another target I didn’t catch early, so was glad to see it later in the evening.  Wish I’d remembered to try and split Rasalgethi, but another night.

Turning eastward, we could all see the Pleiades glistening in the muck.  But M37, 36 & 38 looked “do-able”, so off I went.  M37 was awfully low and particularly distorted for my view, which isn’t surprising, given how low it was. M36 was okay, and I could see the “Zia” symbol in it, but, again, a little low.  Later, Jerry commented on it, and I’m sure it was better because the longer one waited, the higher up things climbed out of the thick lower eastern atmosphere. But M38 was, for me at that time, the right height.  And the its ghostly companion NGC 1907 stood by.  What a nice pair!

I tried for M1, and all I could think was “bluh”. Far too low and just a big blob.

I turned back to the west and pulled out M11, the Wild Duck Cluster.  Very nice, and everyone enjoyed that vista.  The Wild Duck cluster is very nice in a refractor.

Gary asked if I could split Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double, so off I went.  Just a little past zenith, it was still pretty easy to get in the refractor on the EQ mount.  In went the Meade 5.5mm, and yep, they were split.  You couldn’t drive a truck through them, but they were indeed separated (you could optically squeeze through them).

In the general vicinity, I put back the Meade 20mm SWA in the diagonal and went over & above Cassiopeia’s W low side angle to see if I couldn’t tease out NGC 457, the ET Cluster.  Again, another crowd pleaser that looks quite good in a refractor.  But honestly, in Gary’s 12″ with the 28mm ES 68*, it looked pretty darn good, too.  In fact, it had more faint accompanying stars.  Of course, the field of view was smaller, but the extra stars made it more detailed and interesting.  NGC 457 looks very good in a refractor, but if you’ve got a big mirror with a wide field eyepiece, it looks even better.

Around this time Dr. Lance Drager of the Math Department who’d been there since 6 PM called it quits.  I’m sure I would have, too, if I’d been there since 6.  I was getting tired, but wanted to pull a few more celestial treasures out of the sky and into my optic nerve.  On a night like this Saturday the 17th of October, 2015, it’s hard not to feel that way.  There had been almost no wind all evening.  The moon provided plenty of glare, but now even she had left stage west.

Next up was M45.  By now, the Pleiades weren’t simply glistening in the muck — low in the east, mind you, but not deep in the eastern atmospheric muck.  So I put ‘er in there.  Now here is a place where the refractor can’t really be beat.  Jerry put it in his 10″, with the 20mm 100* ES, and it was big & beautiful (and all there!), but still, I prefer the 1.9 degree view through my refractor with the Meade 20mmm SWA.  Didn’t put the Hyperion 31mm in for 3.1*, and that may have been even better, but a 1.9 degree view ain’t half bad.

After this, I remembered the two Andromeda beauties we’d forgotten, Mirach’s Ghost, NGC 404, and Almach.  I didn’t bother with the refractor.  Gary was off looking through Maurice’s 18″, so I asked if I could find it in his 12″, and he obliged.  Mirach’s Ghost through a big reflector is a surprising find. Found it for the first time at a Copper Breaks Star Walk in the early 2000’s by accident, driving a 16″ Obsession dob for a fellow who had both a 16″ & 18″ Obsession dobs to drive and realized I knew enough about scopes to run it and not ruin it.  He was right about that, but I was trying to split Almach when I came across this white, non-double star with an amazing nebulosity beside it.  Of course, it wasn’t Almach at all; it was Mirach!  And the ghostly companion was NGC 404, an elliptical galaxy seven arcminutes away.  Mirach is 197 light years away, but NGC 404 is 10 million light years hence!  After Mirach I did split Almach with my refractor.

By now most everyone had left and the wind, which had mostly been absent, began to blow a bit. It was around midnight.  Mark had already packed up his scope, and Gary & Scott pulled down the 12″. I began the slow process of disassembling the refractor, while Jerry made quick work of breaking down his dob.  But Dr. Clark decided to go after Neptune with his 18″.  He had to star hop a bit, since Neptune is NEVER easy, but eventually he put Neptune with Triton in the eyepiece.  A fitting ending to a GREAT night of astronomy.

October’s Presentation – Project Apollo Archive

Project Apollo Archive

Project Apollo Archive

Tonight is the October meeting of the club and I am presenting a few of the 10,000 images from the recently released Project Apollo Archive, . I would encourage you to take a look at the archive, which is a collection of unedited images taken during the Apollo missions.

2015-10 Project Apollo Archive

September meeting

Tonight is the September meeting at St John’s UMC at 15th and University. Tom Heisey will give a 3rd presentation on the New Horizon’s mission. On Labor Day, the mission started sending high resolution, uncompressed images of the close encounter with Pluto. The probe was very busy in the two or three days it flew past Pluto! Thanks to the vast distances to Earth, the transmission is slow and it will take more than a year to deliver all of the data and images to Earthbound scientists!

2015-09 New Horizons update

Facebook page

We have recently rolled out a Facebook page to keep the general public informed about events, post photos, etc. We will still keep this website active as a resource for club members, but the Facebook page will allow a wider audience to learn about public events because it will automatically be pushed to their wall if they have ‘Liked’ the page.

The address for our Facebook presence is:

StarLog Observing Report – 4/21/15 – A Sea of Crises

The last couple of nights, I have been teased with a thin Moon and clear skies, but bad winds. Tonight the sky was still mostly clear, but the winds had died down considerably, so I decided to get in a bit of observing while I could.

Venus and the thin crescent Moon were near each other in the sky tonight, making for a breathtaking sight. I ended up taking several photos of the pair.

Venus_Moon1     Venus_Moon2

Formed during a large meteor impact, Mare Crisium (Sea of Crises) is over 345 miles in diameter. In 1969, the Soviet Luna 15 probe crashed here. Tonight, dawn had arrived on the large feature, with its rim showing up well past the terminator. This gave the Moon the appearance of the Death Star.

Another notable feature on the Moon tonight was seeing sunlight glistening off a few lunar peaks beyond the terminator near the south pole.


Appearing as beautiful to the naked eye on Earth as its namesake, Venus is one of the most hostile environments in the entire solar system. The high temperatures from being near the Sun and a runaway greenhouse effect have heated up the surface to around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. This has created a thick, cloud-covered atmosphere of primarily carbon dioxide, with traces of sulfuric acid in the clouds.

Using my telescope at high power, I was able to detect its gibbous phase. I could have used a filter to cut down on the brightness and see it more clearly, but didn’t bother with it tonight.

I was still waiting for the twilight to darken into night, so I turned my telescope towards the king of the planets. Jupiter did not disappoint. The Great Red Spot (GRS) was easily visible, as were several cloud bands. The GRS is a huge storm in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter that has been around since at least 1665, and is over 18,000 miles wide (two or three Earths would fit inside it!). A narrow white band of clouds was seen separating the GRS from the Southern Equatorial Belt (SEB), making it appear to pop even more.

Also crossing Jupiter’s disk was Ganymede. Although I couldn’t detect the moon, I was easily able to make out its shadow. Seeing both the GRS and a shadow transit got me so excited, I ran inside to tell my wife to take a look. She was also impressed.

NGC 2392 (Eskimo Nebula)
Planetary nebulae are the result of a sun-like star that has spent all of the hydrogen in its core and the outer layers are ejected into space while the core contracts. This will be the fate of our own Sun in a few billion years. While a horrible cataclysm to have to try to survivie, from a distance, it is often a beautiful sight.

NGC 2392 is no exception. At low power, it looks like a fuzzy star near another, brighter star. Increasing the magnification to 122x revealed a bright central star with a wide circle of nebulosity surrounding it. Using averted vision, I could begin to detect a few wisps of detail, but nothing definite. I’ve seen it look a lot better from darker skies.

NGC 2420
This open cluster was in the neighborhood of the Eskimo, so I thought I would take a peek. It is small and not that bright, appearing as some background glow with a sprinkling of stars. I kicked up the power to 203x, and a few more stars began to resolve, making it look better, but still not that impressive.

M104 (Sombrero Galaxy)
By pointing the scope about halfway along a line from Porrima to Beta Corvi, it is easy to find this galaxy. Right away, I could tell that galaxies were going to be hard to find tonight. Although it was obvious even at low power, it didn’t pop out like it usually does. The galaxy appeared as a long thin line with a bright central core. The famous dust lane was barely detectable, even at 81x.

Leo Triplet
To confirm my suspicions, I pointed the scope at the Leo Triplet. M65 and M66 were visible, but barely. I was completely unable to spot NGC 3628, even though I have observed it on several other occasions.

Deciding to give up on galaxies this evening, I thought I’d try a globular cluster. M53 was nearby in Coma Berenices. This was more difficult to locate than I expected, because with my light pollution, none of the Coma Berenices stars were visible with the naked eye. I ended up using Porrima and Vindemiatrix as pointing stars to find it. The cluster was small, so I kicked up the power to 122x, which offered the best view (203x was mushy). The cluster appeared as a round spot of nebulosity that quickly faded out to the edges. A few stars were resolved at the edge of the cluster.

The wind was really starting to pick back up at this point. To test the conditions, I put the scope back on Jupiter. The GRS was now nearly centered on the planet, and Ganymede had just passed the edge of the disk and appeared as a bright little bulge on the side of Jupiter. The image was wiggling wildly in the wind, so I decided to pack it in for the night.

An Evening With the Lady Who Discovered Pulsars

This is a different sort of observing report than what I usually post…

This evening at the college where I work, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave a free lecture about how she discovered pulsars in the 1960s. It was a great talk about how she was doing her PhD thesis and had to build her own radio telescope to look for quasars, and discovered something else that was just as fascinating.

Without going into the lecture in great detail, here are some of the highlights (for me):

* She had to contend with a lot of bias against women. Case in point: even though it was her data and her telescope and her discovery, her thesis mentor ended up getting a Nobel Peace Prize and she got barely a mention.

* Upon receiving their Master’s Degree in astrophysics, graduates were given toolkits to help them in their later career, including wire cutters and a screwdriver.

* Radio astronomy was only about 20 years old and far from mainstream, and in order to complete her thesis on quasars, she had to go out and build her own radio telescope. It was about 57 tennis courts in size, and took her 2 of her 3 years in the doctorate program just to get it completed. She only had about 6 months of data collected before she graduated.

* She had no access to computers, and the telescope plotted signals with an ink pen on rolls of graph paper that had to be changed out every 20 minutes. It completed one pass of the sky every 4 days, and each pass took up 121 meters of paper. She sorted each roll of paper by its declination and pored over every centimeter of it.

* Whenever she saw something strange, she had to pore over plots of the identical parts of the sky to see if it was also present 4 days before.

* Several other people *almost* discovered pulsars first, but didn’t recognize what they were seeing and/or dismissed it as some manmade phenomenon.

* Since her thesis was almost due when the discovery was made, her mentor told her it was too late to change topics and she had to continue writing a paper about quasars, but cheated a bit and put a footnote about her discovery in the paper.
Dame Jocelyn was a great speaker and talked about hard science in an easy-to-understand way, and the talk was also sprinkled with a lot of humor. A great evening that ended much too early.

March Madness


After being socked in by clouds for the last week (without seeing much of the needed rain), the Sunday sky cleared and a group of six of us showed up at the Gott Observatory to give our photon-deprived brains a good healthy dose of starlight.

As I arrived, a visiting farm dog came by to see what we were up to. He was very friendly and stayed with us the entire evening. He was well-behaved for the most part, but did have a tendency to try to lick your face whenever you would sit at the telescope and bend over to look through the eyepiece. No eyepieces were buried in the dirt, no telescopes were “marked” as dog territory, and when a few coyotes showed up in a nearby field (or were they chupacabras?) his growls gave us comfort in having a safe night of observing, so for me at least, he was a welcome addition to the group.

One person was a first-time visitor to our group, so of course, the rest of us were happily showing him the gems of the sky. He was soaking it all in and asking lots of great questions, so I think we’ll be seeing more of him at future events.

Strangely enough, everyone brought reflectors tonight, ranging in size from 6 to 12 inches. We starhopped to many perennial favorites, including the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter. We also saw highlights in Canis Major (h3945, M41, NGC-2359), Orion (M42/43, Rigel), Gemini (M35, NGC-2158, NGC-2392, Castor), Auriga (M36), Taurus (Hyades, Pleiades), Cancer (M44, Iota), Perseus (Double Cluster), Leo (M65/66 Triplet), Canes Venatici (M51), and Ursa Major (M81/M82 Triplet, M97, M108, M101). Rather than make this report any longer than it already is, I will only go over a few of the more memorable (to me) sights of the night.

As darkness descended, the pairing of the Moon and Venus stole everyone’s attention. With the naked eye, the earthshine on the Moon was incredible, and the darker the sky became, the more surreal it looked. By blocking out the thin sunlit crescent, the top half of the moon looked similar to what you would see during a lunar eclipse, except it retained a gray color. Very cool!

Through the telescope, Venus was very bright, but its gibbous phase was distinctly visible. The Moon showed a lot of craters that popped out in 3D.
After showing the newcomer the big obvious targets (Venus, Moon, Jupiter, M42), I showed him the beautiful double star h3945 in Canis Major. He already knew many of the constellations, so I showed him more precisely where it was located by letting him see where my Telrad was pointed. We agreed this was a flea on the dog’s back.

The double itself did not disappoint. He was impressed at the obvious double nature of the star. Then I told him to look closer and tell me what colors he saw, or whether both were white. He took a second look in the eyepiece and reported the same orange and blue colors that I normally see. I think this exercise actually made him get more enjoyment out of observing some of the later and fainter objects, because he was already learning to observe carefully and soak everything in, rather than just take a quick peek.
NGC 2359 (Thor’s Helmet)
One of my nightly targets tonight was Thor’s Helmet. I cannot see it at all from my backyard and wanted to take advantage of the darker skies to try to nab it. The southern skies at Gott are hardly pristine, as the sprawling city of Lubbock lies only about 10 miles to the south, but it was still a lot better than what I could see from my house.

Unfiltered, I “thought” I could see something very dim in about the right spot, but I threw in an O-III to make sure. Pop! Now I could easily see the half-circle helmet shape, but the horns still eluded me. Still, it was larger than I thought it would be, and even as dim as it was, I could make out a few details within the nebula. I can’t wait to see this from a truly dark site.

NGC 2158
I also enjoyed trying to tease some detail out of NGC 2158, an open cluster very near to M35 in Gemini. at low power, it was detectable as a hazy smudge off to the side of M35. I was able to squeeze out 203x out of my telescope and could barely start making out a few faint stars within the haze. Not that impressive by itself, but considering that NGC-2158 is about twice the distance away as M35, it makes for a cool comparison.

M97 and M108
Using one of the other club members’ 24mm Panoptic in my 8″, I was barely able to squeeze M97 and M108 into the same field of view. This made for a great sight, seeing a large planetary nebula and an edge-on galaxy at the same time. Although at this low power, no real details could be seen, it still was a great image.
Everyone had a great time and we reluctantly started heading home around 11:30 as we all had to go back to work the next morning.

The King’s Ball

Tonight was clear and unseasonably warm. And with the Moon not scheduled to arrive until after 10pm, it looked to be a promising night for observing. A group from the SPAC decided to meet out at the Gott Observatory to take advantage.

Most of the evening was spent going from favorite to favorite, comparing the views in different telescopes. We saw dozens of objects throughout the night, but I am only going to list some of my favorites here. They are in the approximate order that I observed them:

COMET 2014 (Lovejoy)
I wanted to make sure I took a final peek at Comet Lovejoy before it faded out of sight once again. The comet appeared large and round, with just a tinge of color left in it. The best part, though, was that the sky was dark enough to see parts of the tail, which I had not yet been able to see from my backyard.

M42 (Great Orion Nebula)
Although the nebula looked great as always, with dark green, billowy filaments of gas and dust fanning out across the entire field of view, we spent most of the time concentrating on how many stars we could see in the Trapezium cluster nestled inside. Five stars were easily visible most of the time through my 8″ dob, but in moments of good seeing, I could make out the sixth star.

This is always a treat, but through Jerry’s 10″ dob with 100° 20mm eyepiece, it was flat-out gorgeous. The large clusters fit nicely in the field of view, with hundreds of stars visible.

M31 (Great Andromeda Galaxy)
The Great Andromeda Galaxy looked great tonight, with its spiral arms stretching out for miles, or rather, light years. The most fantastic view of it tonight, however was again with Jerry’s 100° eyepiece, where its two companion galaxies, M32 and M110 could also be easily seen within the same field of stars.

H3945 (Canis Major)
Collin pointed us to this pretty double star, nicknamed the “Winter Albireo” after its famous counterpart in the summer sky. One star was a deep orange and the companion was a medium blue, making a striking sight in even a small telescope. The stars were far enough apart to be easily split in a small telescope, yet close enough together to be visually appealing as a double star. This was definitely added to my “favorites list” tonight.

This was the first time I had seen this awesome nebula. My first view was through the TTU 18″. After nudging the bright nearby star Alnitak out of the field of view, it was obvious, shaped a lot like a Christmas tree and even appearing green, with a dark interior.

The King of the Planets was definitely the highlight of the night. It was absolutely fantastic. Many cloud bands were visible, and the Great Red Spot was obvious as well. During moments of good seeing when the atmosphere settled down, the details were incredible.

But even Jupiter was about to be outdone by his own court. The Galilean moons twirled around the planet tonight, each one easily identifiable by their slight differences in size. Callisto appeared larger than either Io or Europa, and Ganymede was larger still. Through the 18″, you could even discern that Io was slightly paler and more of a creamy color than Europa.

Most of the evening featured Io (and its shadow) crossing Jupiter’s disk. The shadow appeared as a very tiny black dot crossing between the equatorial bands of Jupiter. As the moon approached the edge of the disk, Io became visible as a bright dot in front of Jupiter, with its black shadow following right behind. Around 11:30pm, Io completed its journey across the face of Jupiter and eclipsed Europa. It was interesting to see two moons merge into one and then split apart again. As they came together, the two moons looked like what Collin termed a snowman.

Shortly after this, you could see Europa become noticeably dimmer for several minutes as it slipped behind Io’s shadow. The dance of the moons was lovely to behold and made a great finale to a wonderful night under the stars.