CNYO Observing Log: Clark Reservation State Park, 21 August 2015

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

With Perseid Week just behind us, Bob Piekiel and I set up shop for one final Summer 2015 observing session at Clark Reservation. As was mentioned in a Clark Reservation post from last year, it isn’t a great location for heavy-duty amateur astronomers – Syracuse (and its light pollution) lies very close to my hometown of Jamesville (or vice versa, I guess) and even thin cloud cover acts as a dirty mirror to brighten the ground (and sky) around us. For the new observer, however, Clark Reservation is an excellent spot to get one’s feet dewy – it’s close to civilization (and easy to find) and the light pollution wipes out many of the dimmest stars (it probably isn’t far off to say that the sky goes from 2000 to only 400 visible stars thanks to stray city light), making constellation identification significantly easier.

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Early attendees listening to the first welcome lecture.

The session started slowly enough around 8:00 p.m. with a small group of attendees present for our introductory observing lecture/white light warning/usual canned schtick. It wasn’t until after we hit the 40 people mark that I found out that this session was mentioned in the Post-Standard paper as a Weekend’s Best. As we hit the near-80 people mark, we both turned up the lecturing knob to keep people informed and entertained as the observing lines cycled through our two scopes. The crowd was excellent, interactive, and very patient.

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A shot of half the crowd waiting for the ISS.

Every year, I find that some aspect of observing gets a kind of special attention that then becomes part of session dogma (past years being the focus on the hiding of smartphones and flashlights, the very deliberate explanation of how to (and how not to) observe through the scope, and the emphasis on the circumpolar constellations as the best way to get into seasonal constellation identification). The purposes of each of these is, simply, to simplify the session for the attendees (call it a “crash course” in observing). This year, it’s been observation by way of a “hierarchy of observables” (something that Bob and I both have used often). It goes as such:

Early in the evening (including before sunset), non-solar observers have the Moon in all its grandeur (itself possibly the best observable there is for amateur astronomy). While all of the classical planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) can also be observed, they require a little more time to get to the point of being interesting. Maybe 20 minutes after sunset. By the time that Vega, Arcturus, Deneb, Antares, and Altair are visible (usually coincident with the planets), the most prominent double stars in the sky are visible enough for decent magnification (here, specifically mentioning Albireo in Cygnus and Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major). Another 20 minutes later, the brightest Messiers are visible – specifically M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra and M13 in Hercules. 20 minutes later, some of the dimmer Messiers become (just) observable – here, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31 and M32) in Andromeda, and M27, the Dumbbell Nebula in Velpecula. 20 minutes later (so we’re now 80 or so minutes after sunset), the Messier gates flood open and one can begin to make out more objects than can usually be gotten through with a +40 crowd in 2 hours anyway.

Add to this list the ISS, Iridium Flares, random other satellites, a few shooting stars, and some of the detail of the Milky Way inside of Cygnus and down to as much of Sagittarius as the tree line will allow, and you’ve (hopefully) gone a long way to introducing a brand new observer to some of the very best sights available in the nighttime sky (with the above list obviously biased towards the Summer and Fall skies).

To the list above (with only Saturn and Neptune in the planetary observing list), we added at least two meteors (one in the right direction for a Perseid, one not) and a dimmed, by still present, Milky Way band. The lecturing itself didn’t stop for the entire two hours, and we were thankful for the questions that kept us (and others around us) occupied.

With the end of Summer in sight, part of CNYO’s yearly outreach will now include more library lectures and, of course, Bob’s monthly sessions at Baltimore Woods. Stay tuned for event announcements!

CNYO Observing Log: Perseid Week @ Marcellus Library, Baltimore Woods, Beaver Lake, and Green Lakes, 11 – 14 August 2015

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

2015aug25_two-moons-hoaxThis was, far and away, the busiest and best-attended Perseid Meteor Shower week in my history as a CNY-residing amateur astronomer, ranking third overall in public interest behind a Darling Hill Observatory session for the closest approach of Mars in 2003 (the origin of that completely useless meme about Mars and the Moon appearing the same size this (and nearly every one since 2003) August) and the Transit of Venus event held along the Armory Square Creekwalk back in 2012. I would argue that a large part of this local interest (as pertaining to CNYO events, anyway) was due to the efforts of Glenn Coin at syracuse.com in keeping science (and, specifically, space science) in the local paper/websites. His articles following the days approaching, as well as the instigation of we locals to take another shot or two at seeing anything on alternatively partly-cloudy nights, can be found at the links below:

* 6 Aug – Catch the Perseid meteor shower at Baltimore Woods viewing party (by Emily Nichols)

* 10 Aug – Perseid meteor shower: What’s the best night to see it in CNY?

* 12 Aug – ‘Amazing’ Perseid meteor shower: When, where and how to see it in Central NY

* 12 Aug – Perseid meteor shower update: CNY skies should be mostly clear for peak

* 13 Aug – Miss the Perseid meteor shower last night? Try tonight

* 13 Aug – Perseid meteor shower: Watch video of amazing display above the Finger Lakes (by Lauren Long)

Our continued thanks to Glenn Coin and syracuse.com for covering the big yearly astronomy events!

Solar Observing Session At Marcellus Free Library, August 11th

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sunspots_1024_20150811Our Perseid week actually started in the daytime, with a Solar Observing Session run by Bob Piekiel as part of a How-To Festival at Marcellus Free Library on Tuesday, August 11. Like the Sun itself, the Sun’s importance in irradiating comets as they pass into the inner Solar System and melt enough to leave the trails of cosmic debris that become our yearly meteor showers cannot go unnoticed. This session featured Bob’s Coronado 90 mm H-alpha scope, a small Baader’ed refracting scope, and Christopher Schuck’s Coronado PST. Over the course of about 90 minutes (from the session start to the Sun slipping behind the high tree line), we had about 25 people cycle past the scopes to observe numerous medium-sized prominences and a reasonably clear Sunspot 2396 (click the image at right for a larger view from NASA/SOHO).

Besides the continuous dialog about all things solar, more than a few attempts to capture images through the scopes were had. While smartphones are not the ideal gear for accomplishing this (due to both the difficulty in proper placement and the relative sensitivity of the sensors to monochromatic light (in our cases, the dark red H-alpha band)), Chris did manage a pic that included multiple prominences, one power line, and the ever-constraining tree line (below).

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Smartphone Coronado PST pic by Christopher Schuck. Click for a larger view.

A Three-For: Baltimore Woods (Aug. 12th), Beaver Lake (Aug. 13th), and Green Lakes (Aug. 14th)

Bob and I handled scope and lecture duties for the three peak Perseid nights, hitting well-separated locations and a few overlapping attendees. As all three sessions were nearly identical in their content and observing targets, I’ll briefly summarize the unique aspects of each event before giving the combined (and nearly identical) observing lists.

Baltimore Woods (August 12th)

With the best time for the Perseids predicted to be between the late evening of the 12th and 13th, Baltimore Woods Nature Center was predictable busy. Attendees began to arrive around 8 p.m., with total attendance maxing out at about 65 people (and the parking lot itself maxing out before that). With an introductory lecture and white light warning provided, the entire 8:30 to near-11:00 p.m. session only included three shooting stars. Two were moderately bright (and fleeting). A third, the best of all three days, hit atmosphere above a large set of clouds, yet was bright enough to light the clouds like a green-twinged lightning bolt.

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Bob Piekiel and the calm before the storm.

The evening itself turned out mostly cloudy, providing just enough open pockets of dark sky for views of Saturn, a few Messiers, some Constellation touring, one ISS pass, and the three observed meteors that graced the skies that night. Cloud cover became all-consuming just after 10:30 p.m. and we packed up and were gone by 11:00 p.m.

In the interest of trying to catch at least one Perseid by photo, I trekked out to Cazenovia Lake around 4:00 a.m. in 30 minutes of trying, I managed only a single shooter (in the image below, it looks like a white arrow (at bottom) pointing to some dim objects).

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A sharp streak of a Perseid in an otherwise poorly-balanced image. Click for a larger view.

Beaver Lake Nature Center (August 13th)

CNYO’s official seasonal Beaver Lake Nature Center session was greatly simplified by having the Baltimore Woods session the night before (meaning Bob and I could attend both sessions with no overlap). With the session moved from the Beaver Lake rotunda to the overflow parking, we found ourselves in a darker, lower tree-lined, and easy to arrange location (meaning we may request that all future sessions be held in the same spot!). Beaver Lake skies were not much clearer than Baltimore Woods, but the waits between observables was shorter and our ability to cycle through objects and attendees was improved. With additional announcements on syracuse.com, the final Beaver Lake count was five meteors and about 75 people from our 8:30 introductions to 11:00 p.m. pack-up.

Green Lakes State Park (August 14th)

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Upcoming festivities announced during our session.

Our Green Lakes State Park session in July peaked near 120 people (some for the stars, some for the s’mores), which is quite a crowd for 3 scopes! Despite the predictions of clearer skies than previous days and generally excellent evening weather, the August session capped itself at about 70 people (with a bunch of them being young amateur astronomers who packed it in early, leaving a smaller group of about 15 to stay until our 11:00 p.m. Ending to pick off several Messiers after Saturn slid behind Green Lakes’ high southern tree line. Going solely by “ooh-and-aah” statistics, Green Lakes attendees may have seen a total of 5 Perseids (none rivaling the one from Baltimore Woods, but easily seen in the mostly clear skies above).

Observing List (More Of The Summer Same, And For Good Reason)

As has been discussed many times on this website, the importance of introducing new observers to easily observed and described objects cannot be understated. The hunt for dim NGCs and equally dim Messiers is always worthwhile with sufficient time and clear skies, but the brand new observer (arguably) benefits more from prominent views of objects such as the Moon, M13 in Hercules, Alcor and Mizar, M57 (the Ring Nebula) in Lyra, The Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and the bright visible planets each evening. These objects are easily seen by anyone approaching the eyepiece and can be used to give new observers a kind of “upper limit” on their expectations of what a scope is capable of magnifying from ground level. Amateur astronomy, like chess, can become a lifelong training in subtlety. That said, the mechanics are easy to learn by slowly introducing the many kinds of players.

With two scopes and +60 attendees at each session, we were definitely limited in our observing variety simply by the lengths of the lines behind each scope. That said, we were able to give all of the patient attendees some great views of the night’s best for each Perseid session. The short list of objects is below (listed according to the order in which they’re observable as the skies get darker and darker):

* Saturn (our bright planet for the Summer and Fall)
* Alcor and Mizar in Ursa Major, Albireo in Cygnus, Herschel’s Garnet Star in Cepheus
* M13 (globular cluster) in Hercules, M57 (The Ring Nebula) in Lyra
* M27 (The Dumbbell Nebula) in Velpecula
* M31 (The Andromeda Galaxy) and M32 (one of its two satellite galaxies) in Andromeda
* M51 (The Whirlpool Galaxy) in Canes Venatici

M13, M57, and M27. Photos by Bob Piekiel. Click for a larger view.

In closing, we had an excellent week-long turnout for the sessions and are grateful to everyone who came out to make this a busy Perseid show. We hope all of the new faces on our meetup and Facebook pages keep track of upcoming events – and we hope to see your dark, featureless outlines at another 2015 session!

NASA News Digest: Space Science For 30 July – 20 August 2015

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

The NASA News service provides up-to-date announcements of NASA policy, news events, and space science. A recent selection of space science articles are provided below, including direct links to the full announcements. Those interested in receiving these news announcements directly from NASA can subscribe to their service by sending an email to:

hqnews-request@newsletters.nasa.gov?subject=subscribe

California “Rain Debt” Equal to Average Full Year of Precipitation

RELEASE 15-162 (Click here for the full article) – 30 July 2015

2015august20_15_162_masterA new NASA study has concluded California accumulated a debt of about 20 inches of precipitation between 2012 and 2015 — the average amount expected to fall in the state in a single year. The deficit was driven primarily by a lack of air currents moving inland from the Pacific Ocean that are rich in water vapor.

In an average year, 20 to 50 percent of California’s precipitation comes from relatively few, but extreme events called atmospheric rivers that move from over the Pacific Ocean to the California coast.

“When they say that an atmospheric river makes landfall, it’s almost like a hurricane, without the winds. They cause extreme precipitation,” said study lead author Andrey Savtchenko at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

For more information about NASA’s Precipitation Measurement missions, visit: pmm.nasa.gov

NASA’s Spitzer Confirms Closest Rocky Exoplanet

RELEASE 15-160 (Click here for the full article) – 30 July 2015

Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have confirmed the discovery of the nearest rocky planet outside our solar system, larger than Earth and a potential gold mine of science data.

Dubbed HD 219134b, this exoplanet, which orbits too close to its star to sustain life, is a mere 21 light-years away. While the planet itself can’t be seen directly, even by telescopes, the star it orbits is visible to the naked eye in dark skies in the Cassiopeia constellation, near the North Star.

HD 219134b is also the closest exoplanet to Earth to be detected transiting, or crossing in front of, its star and, therefore, perfect for extensive research.

“Transiting exoplanets are worth their weight in gold because they can be extensively characterized,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for the Spitzer mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “This exoplanet will be one of the most studied for decades to come.”

For more information about NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, visit: www.nasa.gov/spitzer

NASA To Share The Universe With Tumblr Users

RELEASE 15-167 (Click here for the full article) – 7 August 2015

2015august20_15_167cNASA is launching an official Tumblr profile that will give Tumblr users a regular dose of space in a blog-like format through text, photos, videos and more.

Tumblr is a social media platform that allows users to connect and follow other content creators in a collaborative micro-blog format. People are able to discover, share and create content that expresses their personality, hobbies and interests. The NASA Tumblr profile will share information, images and video about the agency’s missions of exploration and discovery.

To follow NASA’s new Tumblr account, visit: nasa.tumblr.com

For a comprehensive list of NASA social media accounts and platforms, visit: nasa.gov/socialmedia

Oxymoronic Black Hole Provides Clues To Growth

RELEASE 15-165 (Click here for the full article) – 11 August 2015

2015august20_15_165Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the 6.5-meter Clay Telescope in Chile have identified the smallest supermassive black hole ever detected in the center of a galaxy. This oxymoronic object could provide clues to how larger black holes formed along with their host galaxies 13 billion years or more in the past.

Astronomers estimate this supermassive black hole is about 50,000 times the mass of the sun. This is less than half the mass of the previous smallest black hole at the center of a galaxy.

“It might sound contradictory, but finding such a small, large black hole is very important,” said Vivienne Baldassare of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, first author of a paper on these results published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. “We can use observations of the lightest supermassive black holes to better understand how black holes of different sizes grow.”

An interactive image, podcast, and a video about the findings are available at: chandra.si.edu

For more Chandra images, multimedia and related materials, visit: www.nasa.gov/chandra

Send Your Name To Mars On NASA’s Next Red Planet Mission

RELEASE 15-171 (Click here for the full article) – 17 August 2015

Mars enthusiasts around the world can participate in NASA’s journey to Mars by adding their names to a silicon microchip headed to the Red Planet aboard NASA’s InSight Mars lander, scheduled to launch next year.

“Our next step in the journey to Mars is another fantastic mission to the surface,” said Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “By participating in this opportunity to send your name aboard InSight to the Red Planet, you’re showing that you’re part of that journey and the future of space exploration.”

Submissions will be accepted until Sept. 8. To send your name to Mars aboard InSight, go to: go.usa.gov/3Aj3G