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CNYO Observers Log: International Observe The Moon Night At Westhill School District, 12 October 2013

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

Larry Slosberg and Ryan Goodson took their New Moon Telescopes on the road to the Westhill School District for the October 12th International Observe The Moon Night (IOMN, facebook, twitter). With a fistful of our A Guide For Lunar Observing brochures in tow, both report that the near-or-exceeding 100 attendees were full of great questions and enjoyed close-up views of our nearest natural satellite.

CNYO was delighted to be a part of this local IOMN activity and strongly encourage other schools and local groups to do the same. The Moon is the easiest observing target we have, good at all magnifications (including no magnification) and all times of year. It has been a test for physical theories, the guide for calendars throughout human history, unwitting recipient of meteor impacts (still!) that might have made random Tuesdays quite hectic on Earth, muse of artists and musicians alike, and all the light needed for many a midnight hike. If you missed the “official” IOMN session, grab a pair of binos soon and give the Moon a gander!

Below are a collection of images from Larry Slosberg’s observing station (and one great image of the Moon), courtesy of Michelle Marzynski. Click on any image for the full-size version.

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While Larry kept the festivities mostly Moon-centric at his scope, Ryan reports having put many of the best objects in the mid-autumn night sky on full display, including The Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the globular cluster M13 in Hercules, the double stars Albireo (a colored pair in Cygnus) and Mizar/Alcor (a double that becomes a triple at moderate magnification in Ursa Major), the open cluster M39 (“everyone’s fave it seemed” – L.S.) in Cygnus, and finally the Ring Nebula (M57) and the Double-Double in Lyra.

For myself, I celebrated IOMN early from the comfort of a window seat at 36,000 ft. With luck, I hope to be on the ground and running yet another scope for next year’s IOMN session!

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CNYO Observing Log: Baltimore Woods, 27 September 2013

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

The September 27th Baltimore Woods session was notable for several reasons. On the down side, my drive to Marcellus through Fairmount was delayed when a minivan with far too many large dogs in it had one of its automatic windows dropped down to the delight of an ejected dog that bounced off my driver side door (my non-astro thought for the day – if your pets are your children, please use the child safety options built into your very modern vehicle!). On the up side, for the first time since March, a Baltimore Woods session started at 7 p.m. The skies were dark enough to begin seeing the brightest stars with ease and cold enough to freeze out the many bugs that frequent the BW Nature Center.

Attending scopes included Bob Piekiel‘s massive 16″ Meade GOTO (with some included heavy lifting by the two of us to get it set up and torn down), Larry Slosberg’s 12″ New Moon Telescope, and my 12.5″ NMT Dob (herein referred to as “Ruby”). A fourth scope appeared early in the evening with the first attending family, but ended up not getting too much use. Despite being a bit worse for wear, their “retail store” Stratus 60mm refractor scope surprised the owners (and kids) with a good view of a distant cellular tower and a fuzzy but noticeably “half-moon cookie” Venus (whatever description works is fine with me).

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Bob inspecting the Stratus 60mm.

The final size (25ish) of the crowd (and the number of first-time attendees) dictated the observables for the evening, with all of us sticking mostly to bright, easily identifiable objects. As for our local neighborhood, the good news was that more than half of the planets were out for the evening (counting the views of Earth). The bad news was that Venus and Saturn set early (both due to the time and the high trees along the Western horizon), leaving the very distant Uranus and Neptune as targets for later-night observers.

As has been my standard procedure, I picked one object from my standard list of “kinds of” objects so those at my scope would be sure to get a sampling of the types of objects we amateur astronomers look forward to looking at. My list included:

* (Hopefully) One Planet – From my (scope’s) vantage point, Venus and Saturn were impossible catches behind large trees. Neptune and Uranus were, for the entire viewing session, nestled within the glow of Marcellus (and Syracuse beyond), so I didn’t even bother attempting to find them. Bob, however, had at his disposal a massive GOTO, so the gathered crowd was able to take in at least one of the two distant planets (making them part of the way-less-than-1% of the entire planet who can claim the same).

* One Star – At Bob’s request, I gave special attention to Herschel’s Garnet Star (mu Cephei) in Cepheus. One of the real benefits of magnification through good optics (or long-exposure photography) is the appearance of color in many stars that are otherwise just too slightly colored to be noticeable to Naked Eye observers. While the different colors of the binary star Albireo are generally obvious to most people, the Garnet Star jumped out to everyone through every eyepiece as a very orange star. This red supergiant, affectionately known to some as Erakis, is BIG. Those who have seen the image below in one of our CNYO library lectures…

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The scale of familiar objects in our vicinity (click for the wikipedia version).

Will recognize Mu Cephei as the third star from right (in the “Big Block” 6) in the bottom of the image. Our own Sun peters out in Block 3. If a super race of aliens were to swap out our Sun for the Garnet Star, the outer edge of its plasma would engulf Jupiter and either engulf or roast Saturn. Big. Not only big, but old to boot. Mu Cephei is what is known as a “carbon star,” one that has nearly exhausted its helium (which is produced from all the fusion of hydrogen, which it then exhausted quite some time ago) and is now producing carbon in the star’s core. The near-exhaustion of the star’s fuel means that it’s likely only a few million years from going supernova (somewhere between a finger snap and ringing wine glass in cosmic terms) and is currently identified as a variable star for its subtle and erratically changing brightness.

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Mu Cephei, Cepheus, and surrounding constellations.

As you scour Cepheus some evening, do take the Garnet Star in. If you’re scanning randomly along the bottom of the barn, you can’t miss it!

* One BinaryAlbireo in Cygnus remains an easy favorite. Everyone saw Albireo A as slightly orange or yellow, while Albireo B appeared as slightly to “clearly” blue (clearly a demonstration of the importance of dark adaption and cone sensitivity in the retina). One point of interest is that we’re not entirely sure of Albireo is an optical binary (the two just appear close, but one is much farther away than the other as projected onto our two-dimensional sheet of the Night Sky) or a gravitationally-bound binary pair. If gravitationally-bound, the two are likely far from one another, with the orbital dance occurring over 100,000 or more years.

* One Open Cluster – The Double Cluster (Caldwell 14) in Perseus

* One Globular Cluster – The ever-obvious M13 in Hercules

* One Nebula – The Veil Nebula in Cygnus – typically, this would be considered one of the less-easy objects for a new observer to make out. Through an OII filter, however, the wispy-ness jumps out and new observers, with a little patience, can even see the curvature of each fragment well enough to know where the Veil must be radiating from.

* One Galaxy – M31, The Andromeda Galaxy in Andromeda (and M32 and M110), which were easy for all to spot with a little scope nudging.

As has become the norm recently, I packed up Ruby around 9:30 p.m. and pulled out the Canon T3i and tripod for an extended session of scope-less astrophotography. Three highlights include a very discernible Milky Way, complete with Great Rift, from opposite the direction of Marcellus…

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The Milky Way (plus one bright plane and one dim satellite). Click for a larger version.

A dimmer part of the Milky Way that seemed to radiate from (and be washed out by) Marcellus…

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The Milky Way and Marcellus (plus a dim plane (dashed line) and dim satellite). Click for a larger version.

And a quite decent view of the varied objects in the vicinity of the constellation Perseus (in the pocket between the two trees and closer to the left tree), including the components of the Double Cluster, NGC 884 and 869 (the fuzzy splotches at the base of the small necklace – 1/3 over from the left edge and 1/4 down the image).

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Perseus, NGC 884, and NGC 869. Click for a larger version.

I packed it in around 10:00 p.m. in great anticipation! Within the glow of Marcellus lay the Pleiades (M45) and just a hint of its closer cousin the Hyades in the head of Taurus the Bull. These objects have likely served as markers for many millennia that the clear, dark, steady, and uncomfortably cold night skies of winter approach.

CNYO Observing Log: Baltimore Woods Solar Session, 24 August 2013

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The gathered crowd at Baltimore Woods.

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

As CNY completes a remarkable span of bright days and clear nights around this year’s Harvest Moon, we finally catch up on our observing logs with a recap of Baltimore Wood’s Solar Session held on an equally bright and clear August 24th.

Despite its importance as the primary reason we and this Solar System are here at all, the Sun often gets neglected by some amateur astronomers who opt out of expensive solar equipment in favor of expensive deep sky equipment. The Sun, like all stars, is a seemingly simple ball of light that reveals great complexity depending on what you use to observe it. Some filters knock down all but 0.001%(ish) of the Sun’s light to provide great Sunspot detail, while other filters let only very specific wavelengths of light through – these filters then providing insights into the surface structure of the Sun based on the excitation of specific atoms on the Sun’s surface or in its corona.

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An observer at a Coronado H-alpha scope.

Despite its close proximity and constant activity, the Sun is just like any other astronomical object – patience is the key to appreciating the view. At low magnification and over only a few minutes, Sunspots and prominences appear to drift slowly, if at all, in the field of view. Changing to high magnification reveals dynamic views around Sunspots as they undulate or merge with other spots, with changes that are apparent to trained eyes occurring over many seconds. Observers with good memories can return to their scopes over several minutes to see very obvious changes to large prominences. While the differences may be subtle to the eye, they are anything but subtle on the Sun. Keeping in mind that 107 Earths fit across the diameter of the Sun, seeing changes to large prominence over the course of minutes means that plasma on the Sun’s surface is racing at dizzying speeds. The drama only seems slow from our safe distance.

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The gathered scopes (and gathering observers).

The two hour session at Baltimore Woods provided ample time to sample both the range of filters and the range of timescales, thanks primarily to the ever well-equipped Bob Piekiel and his Baader, CaK, and H-alpha scopes. To this list of equipment was added Larry Slosberg and his Baader-filtered New Moon Telescope 12″ Dobsonian (the big primary mirror of the session), then myself with a Coronado PST (H-alpha). And speaking of filters (and taken from CNYO’s A Guide For Solar Observing brochure)…

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A solar projecting scope (left) and Larry Slosberg’s Baader’ed NMT Dob.

Baader Filter – The Baader (“Bah-der”) filter works by reflecting 99.999% of all of the incoming light (almost a mirror), leaving you with a pale yellow disk. You’ll see no prominences or fine surface detail, but Baader filters are excellent for observing sunspots.

CaK (Calcium K-line) – The CaK filter lets through a wavelength corresponding to the 393.4 nm Ca K-line transition (you see it as violet). These filters provide excellent surface detail.

H-alpha (Hydrogen-alpha) – This filter lets through a hydrogen electronic transition corresponding to a wavelength of 656.28 nm (you see it as a rich red). H-alpha filters are excellent for prominences and good for surface detail.

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The Sun through different filters (see above).

Thanks to the SOHO (Solar And Heliospheric Observatory) satellite and its website, it is easy to find the Sun’s snapshot on August 24th to see exactly what we were looking at, complete with a week’s worth of images from the days before to see how the positions of Sunspots changed as the Sun’s plasma rotated about its axis (the final image in yellow is the view from the 24th).

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The week before the solar session (images from NASA/SOHO).

Technical details aside, the session was an excellent one, with approximately 30 people enjoying many views of the Sun and all the solar details Bob, Larry, and I could remember. Of specific note was a prominence that started small at the beginning of the session but grew to contain a clear, dark hole more than one Earth diameter wide over only an hour’s time. The fun wasn’t restricted to scope observers, either. With filtered binoculars and simple Baader glasses, the dimmed ball of light itself was just as interesting a target.

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The unmagnified (and nearly unmagnified) view of the Sun through Baader glasses.

While I didn’t hear it mentioned, it is worth noting that the unmagnified (but filtered) Sun appears to be about the same diameter as the unmagnified (and unfiltered) Moon – a point of no small significance during Solar Eclipses. And as the Moon is slipping away from us at a rate of 1.5 inches per year, the Solar Eclipse is also (very, very slowly) becoming a thing of the past in favor of what will become Lunar Transits. All the more reason why it’s a great time to be observing!

I leave you with the most informative 30 seconds on the website (so far). To demonstrate the dangers of observing the Sun without some kind of filter, Bob and Larry set to work reproducing the fabled ship-burning apparatus of Archimedes (also of Syracuse) by burning one sheet of paper and one dark leaf at low magnification. As Bob explains, this same burning would occur on your retina without something to greatly knock down the Sun’s brightness. I even found myself jumping rather anxiously at one intrepid observer trying to look through the eyepiece of Bob’s projecting scope. Solar safety (and eye safety in general) is no joke!

It’s as informative and definitive a video on solar safety as you’ll find on youtube, so feel free to pass the link along to any and all.

CNYO Observing Log: Beaver Lake Nature Center, 8 August 2013

Our summer CNYO observing session at Beaver Lake Nature Center was a reminder to always have something else to say when the skies prohibit observing. In the case of Thursday, August 8th, we had kept track of the weather conditions all morning and afternoon in hopes of seeing a clearing or two over Baldwinsville, NY. While the skies favored a canceling of the session in favor of an August 15th re-scheduling, Beaver Lake already had a healthy list of attendees and inability to contact them all by the time of any official decision, so Larry Slosberg, Bob Piekiel, and I headed out with both observing gear and lecturing gear in tow.

Having taken the advice of Stu Forster a few years before, a prepared observing host is only ready for anything when they can move the group indoors for one of several new or canned astronomy lectures. The muggy evening of August 8th was just such an instance, as the skies remained 98% or so overcast for a good 3 hours, opening up tiny holes only briefly. Larry and Bob kept watch for potential clearing outside while I extended the discussions of a three-part lecture in hopes of one of them running inside with good news. Over the course of an 80 minute lecture (that likely seemed longer to the 16 attendees), no luck.

Speaking of lectures (and on the bright side for the night), I am pleased to report that Beaver Lake now has an LCD projector to go along with their large screen (so future lecturers can rely on Powerpoints and/or leave their own gear at home).

And as part of trying to keep the observing sessions entirely outdoors, CNYO has several brochures available to help direct discussions (with cheap red flashlights in tow) that were also available indoors for future reference. They continue to be well-received and without major error yet – and were even used during the lecture to address an easy way to start learning the constellations (starting with the circumpolar constellations) and to introduce the Perseid Meteor Shower to attendees. We encourage you to download them and hopefully find them useful. All of them are summarized on our CNYO CHEAT SHEET.

Meantime, we are currently planning our winter session at Beaver Lake. stay tuned!

2013 Perseid Weekend Part 2: Baltimore Woods Perseid Session And International Starry Night Event – August 12th, Marcellus, NY

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A view to the Southwest from the Baltimore Woods parking lot.

The peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower this year turned into a pair of observing sessions for several CNYO members. Both sessions, I am happy to report, included the observation of several Perseids by attendees and good-to-excellent clear, dark skies.

Following the first of several updates on Perseid weather conditions by Dave Eichorn (LINK 1 and LINK 2) at syracuse.com and the event itself by Andrew Donovan at NewsChannel 9, Larry Slosberg and I met up with Bob Piekiel at Baltimore Woods for their official Perseid Session that CNYO was delighted to have listed as an International Starry Night event (see that background for this event HERE). The partially-to-mostly overcast skies all afternoon opened up around 8:30 p.m. (as Eichorn had predicted) to give us over two hours of excellent clear skies.

The total (and limited) equipment list for this session reflected the Perseid-centric nature of the session. Bob brought an his 11″ SCT, Larry brought his NMT 12″ Dob, and I brought my Zhumell 25×100’s and, again, a Canon Rebel T3i in the hopes of capturing a Perseid or two. Most importantly, all three of us had reclining chairs in tow for the end of the session (after our respective scope duties were completed for the evening).

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A view to the south from the Baltimore Woods parking lot.

A total crowd in the 35 to 40 range observed a total of 25 meteors over the two-hour session (9 p.m. to 11 p.m.) before clouds began to roll in. Those not reclined for the Perseid count were treated to some excellent scope views (Saturn and Venus being the early evening stand-outs), two ISS flybys at 9:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (both on the dimmer side but both captured and followed by several attendees), one very bright Iridium Flare, and lots of airplane traffic from the Southwest. I was fortunate to have several intrepid young observers around me for the observing session, so I spent quite a bit of time describing constellations and Messier objects and adjusting the big binos (and step stool) as the discussion progressed. Binocular views for the evening included Saturn (for comparison with the big scopes), the Moon, Albireo (with quite the neck strain to capture to color differences in these two stars), Alcor and Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper (to show another binary star system and the additional detail one gains from magnification), and a pre-nova Brocchi’ Cluster (the “Coathanger”) in Delphinus (to show how low magnification can reveal interesting objects that higher magnification simply won’t show in the eyepiece).

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Attendee reaction to headlights.

One of the “unavoidables” of observing sessions is the late arrival of attendees and their headlights, made all the brighter by the sensitization of observers already dark-adapted. One of the only problems with Baltimore Woods as an observing location is the proximity of the scopes to the front gate and parking lot. Two of the attendees were captured reacting to a later arrival (I dare not call them “late arrivals,” as everyone was there late) in the .gif above. Their captured (and long-held, as these were several second exposures each) poses speak volumes.

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Bob, Larry, and I in inaction action.

The crowd left around 11:00, leaving Bob, Larry, and I to enjoy a half-hour of scope-free meteor hunting as the clouds rolled in (maybe 3 total for the 1/2 hour). With a large patch of thick clouds moving in around 11:30 p.m., Bob began to pack up his gear. I had left the camera to capture images throughout and was able to capture one clear patch opening up just as Bob drove off (posted as a youtube video of the event and embedded below).