Tag Archives: Andromeda Galaxy

CNYO Observing Log: Camp Comstock, Ithaca, 1 June 2013


One of the great joys of public observing sessions is introducing non-observers to the immensity of our local sliver of the universe. Hubble imagery and the amazing ground-based astrophotography of the last 25-or-so years is all well and good, but to explain to a new observer that the photons from the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) currently hitting their retina have been on a 23 million year voyage, or to put all of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) into the field of view and explain that the photons on one side of the eyepiece have been traveling 150,000 years longer than the photons on the “other” side of the eyepiece, or to aim a Coronado PST at the Sun and point out that the sunspots on the surface are 3 or more Earths across – these are the images that really put the universe, and our place in it, into perspective.

One of the great joys of lecturing on introductory astronomy is being able to describe all of these visuals in greater detail, showing how observation and the rest of the Scientific Method have produced great order in our Nighttime Sky (for, at least, the parts of the sky we can see in the backyard on a clear, dark night). As is true for many of the other physical sciences, a book chapter or wikipedia page alone can be far less informative, and is definitely far less engaging, than a chance to have a conversation with someone who knows the topic well enough to relate complicated concepts by drawing from many additional resources.

And, at a time when we continually fret the state of STEM education in the US, there is nothing better for an academically-inclined scientist (me) than to have someone many years their (my) junior process the information on a slide and ask a question that (1) clearly shows a grasp of the physics involved and (2) they (I) don’t have a good answer to. Lecturing keeps the lecturer just as sharp!

It is with those points in mind that CNYO hosted a Girl Scout lecture on Saturday, June 1 at Camp Comstock in Ithaca, NY as part of their requirements for earning their Night Sky badge. Unfortunately, the mostly cloudy and otherwise unpredictable night before made the Nighttime Sky observing component impossible, compacting the badge requirement section into a combined lecture/solar observing session that went well over allotted time with no (voiced) complaints.

Instead of highlighting lecture points, my goal here is to provide a few pointers for perspective astro-lecturers of kids and young adults (although I suspect the same applies for all generations).

1. Plenty Of Lead Time For Setup

In my case, my leisurely 1 hour drive turned into a compressed 40 minute drive as I waited for a police officer to take my eyewitness statements after a fender-bender on Route 13. Lesson #1 – Don’t text while driving!

2. Short Sections

Based on the Night Sky badge requirements, I had a very good template by which to design seven short lectures that would fit nicely into a 60 minute presentation (that, with questions, then went on for two hours). A full hour on a single topic to a general audience can be way too much for even a focused audience. Make this an audience of young adults and add an un-air conditioned, 85 oF room to the mix just after lunch, and you’ve got a recipe for a very… red-shifted lecture. A very good approach for you and the audience is to pick several topics and try to make a complete mini-lecture out of each. This makes your preparation time more productive (because you can divide-and-conquer as well) and it allows you to give the audience a minute between mini-lectures to digest and freshen up for the next one. In the Night Sky badge case, my seven sections were:

A. The Local Neighborhood

– A “powers of 10” walkabout from Earth out to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey

B. Circumpolar Constellations

– Explaining how the Earth moves (rotation vs. revolution) and why the North Star doesn’t appear to. This part of the lecture was complemented by the CNYO How The Night Sky Moves brochure.

C. Constellations (What & Why) And Stars

– An overview of Western constellations and the stars that define them, including a little discussion of stellar variety (color, age, size)

D. Why Learn The Constellations?

– Stress the historical meaning of the Constellations, then their use for direction (Follow The Drinkin’ Gourd) and use for marking deep sky objects (specifically, the Messiers)

E. Don’t Panic!

– How to learn the constellations, including the circumpolar-first approach, seasonal heavy-hitters, and the Zodiac

F. Solar System Formation

– Two videos I always keep handy in the back of a presentation are “Birth Of Our Solar System” (a nice animation of the formation of the whole Solar System)…

… and “How The Moon Was Born” (a video that shows the history of the Earth-Moon system and the ever-impressive Theia impact).

G. Light and Air Pollution

– Light pollution is bad, but it does help new astronomers find the bright starts in constellations. Air pollution also helps, but at a much higher cost. We should be avoiding both!

3. Ask Lots Of Questions

The biggest lesson I learned from watching professionals present to kids is to ask those kids lots of questions and let them be A driver in the presentation (but not THE driver, as you may never get the wheel back). It keeps the audience engaged, it lets others try to explain a concept in a way that the other-others may benefit from, it breaks up the monotony of the single-presenter approach, and it gives kids a chance to “show off” their scientific knowledge (which some of them love to do).

The best kinds of questions are (1) the very easy ones (how many planets) and (2) the ones that no one there (likely) has the answer to but that all can think about and take a swing at (alien life, what happens at a black hole, how big is the Sun, etc.).

If you’re lecturing to a group of 10 year olds, find a friend with a 10-year-old and see what they (don’t) know. If the kid isn’t astronomically-inclined, assume that their knowledge is similar to that of other 10 year olds in a Regents-guided state. The Girl Scout lecture was to a room of 13 to 17 year olds, and I am pleased to report that I had to move on to the “heavy questions” quite early in the lecture.

4. Preparing For The Power-Less Lecture

The Girl Scout lecture could have been done outdoors with demos or indoors with slides. Being a very visual science, astronomy lends itself better to slides unless you’ve several really good demos planned out beforehand (or brochures to help guide the discussion). There are several demos one can use to help get away from the slide-driven lecture and I hope to eventually get to the point of not needing any power. Simple demos (that will be expanded on in future articles) include:

A. Flashlights to demonstrate optical vs. true binaries (differently-colored flashlights are great for multi-star systems)

B. A tape measure and rubber balls to demonstrate the distances within the Solar System (if you’ve a 15 meter tape measure, you can place the planets at: 14.8 cm (Mercury), 27.3 cm (Venus), 38.0 cm (Earth), 57.0 cm (Mars), 197.7 cm (Jupiter), 360.8 cm (Saturn), 729.1 cm (Uranus), 1143.0 cm (Neptune), and 1500 cm (Pluto)

C. An armillary sphere (or big labeled ball) to demonstrate Earth’s axial tilt and its motion around the Sun (with a laser pointer serving as “Polaris,” a walk around an audience member serving as the Sun works perfectly well to help explain the circumpolar constellations

5. Anticipating The Unexpected Question(s)

When I think about the Sun, the first two questions that come to mind are not (1) Isn’t there a disease where you can’t be in the Sun because your skin breaks apart? and (2) I heard that some people try to live on only sunlight with no food. Isn’t that crazy (answer: yes)?

6. The Daytime Is The Right Time

As CNYO’s Larry Slosberg has determined for his observing sessions, the afternoon sky is a perfectly good substitute for the nighttime sky provided you (1) have a solar filter and (2) plan around the first quarter Moon. In the case of (1), the Sun is an excellent observing target for new observers because they very likely have never looked at it through filters and, as you can stress in your discussion, it is the reason why we’re here.


The Sun on 1 June, 2013. From SOHO/NASA.

As for (2), it is also a reason why we’re here, but the magnified Moon, either against a black or blue afternoon backdrop, never fails to impress. To help lead discussion at subsequent daytime observing sessions, the solar-centric Girl Scout session instigated the CNYO solar observing brochure available for download at: A Guide For Solar Observing.

And A Closing Thought…


CNYO Observing Log: Baltimore Woods, 5 April 2013


Bob Piekiel’s monthly session at Baltimore Woods featured crystal clear skies, increasingly cold conditions (a recurring theme this year for all of the previous sessions), and one large scope.

This Baltimore Woods session was the last scheduled event before our Winter constellations all-but disappear from our nighttime skies. To this pressing deadline was added the last reasonable observation of Comet panSTARRS (C/2011 L4) from the same location, as the return of the foliage through May will all-but obscure the parts of the North/NorthWest horizon that are not already obscured by naked branches. The event itself was scheduled from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., ending an hour before any first observation of Saturn for the evening. The ever-dropping temperature that evening found us ending the session promptly to the sound of running (with heat on full-blast) cars and depleted propane.


Bob Piekiel and the author post-assembly.

With a confirmed heavy lifter attending (me), Bob opted to bring out a 16” Meade SCT on a homemade tripod that is (minus the scope) transported in the open – the whole considerable contraption hitches to the back of the car. After a bit of heavy lifting and careful coordination to get the scope up to the mount, the completed assembly was ready for the first signs of bright stars (in this case, Sirius and Capella) to perform the alignment. The time waiting for bright star arrivals was passed with the help of a pair of Zhumell 25×100’s that saw (1) clear views of Jupiter and all four of its largest moons and (2) Sirius in Canis Major to the West.


Bob Piekiel putting the finishing touches on a 16″ Meade SCT.

The height of the tripod combined with the extra 8” of wheels on the mount’s base meant that a step ladder was required for nearly all viewing throughout the night. With the 16” SCT aligned, the first official view (pre-dark sky) was of Jupiter, which was bright and clear in Bob’s 40 mm Meade eyepiece. The second object was Trapezium in the Orion Nebula (M42), which was also crisp and clear despite our observing it only minutes after sunset.

The third object observed combined low brightness with near-horizon position just past dusk. Bob managed to find Comet panSTARRS almost due North of the Andromeda Galaxy just as it was about to hit the bare tree line. The view was excellent for several minutes as everyone had a few looks at this increasingly difficult-to-observe object (comet’s center was reasonably well defined, but this was a 16” scope with a 40 mm eyepiece). And, it should be noted, the object database in Bob’s GOTO computer is not only older than the discovery of Comet pan-STARRS, but also quite a bit older (decade? maybe two?) than the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) that originally identified the comet. So, extra kudos to Bob for the timely find!

The cold set in quickly after these first three objects, meaning the last four objects for the evening were approached with haste. In a return to the objects of his last session, Bob treated attendees to excellent dark views of M65 and M66 in Leo, M108 (a faint edge-on galaxy near the Owl Nebula in Ursa Major that was as bright in the 16” as it was with Bob’s 11” scope + image enhancer), and the Owl Nebula (M97). Bob and I saw this final object as a confirmation that it hadn’t flown the coop during our last session, where the image enhancer failed to produce any particular view of this object (see the last session notes for details).


New supernova in M65. Photo by Felipe Pena.

NOTE: I wish I had known earlier that a new supernova was discovered in M65! As a general point of reference, those looking for the most complete and up-to-date information about supernovas are directed to David Bishop’s excellent Bright Supernova database and log at www.rochesterastronomy.org/supernova.html. Details and many, many images of the new supernova in M65 can be found at: www.rochesterastronomy.org/sn2013/sn2013am.html

The totality of views through the Zhumell 25×100’s were limited to Jupiter (as a sampling for the attendees before the 16″ was properly GOTO’ed), Sirius (just to the left of Orion and the brightest star in our Night Sky), the Double Cluster in Perseus (bright and densely packed), and the Pleiades (M45), the object for which I assume 25×100’s were originally designed to observe (near-perfect fit of the whole cluster in the field of view).

A few street lights and distant clouds to the East reflecting Syracuse back down provided all the illumination that the stars didn’t as we began to pack up the gear at 9:30 p.m.

And did the 3rd Quarter Moon affect the viewing? For those observing at “reasonable” hours, it is the case that the 3rd Quarter Moon doesn’t rise until midnight, meaning the week before a Full Moon, the week of a Full Moon, the few days before a 1st Quarter are excellent for getting outside to observe deep sky objects at “reasonable” hours (reasonable being relative, of course).


Not a lunar landing scene. Mid-way through the 9:30 pack-up.

Next session is scheduled for May 4 (Saturday) – 5 (Sunday), 8-10 p.m. and will feature Jupiter, Saturn, and hopefully a few shooting stars from the Eta Aquariids meteor shower. For details and registration, see the details on this CNYO page.

Syracuse Observing Double-Header (Weather-Pending) This Friday And Saturday – Baltimore Woods And CNYO’s Second Official Session At The Syracuse Inner Harbor

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

The skies are promising (if slightly windy) for the next few evenings, providing two observing opportunities that bring the two largest planets in our Solar System into view in one night.

Friday, April 5 – 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. – Baltimore Woods

The first opportunity is Bob Piekiel’s monthly Baltimore Woods observing session tonight (Friday, April 5th) from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Details on this event (directions, cost, etc.) can be found in this CNYO Announcement Page (which will then take you to the Baltimore Woods page for the official-official announcements). I have it on good authority (as I’ll be doing some of the lifting) that Bob will have his 16″ Meade on hand. This should provide views of Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula, and many other soon-to-set-too-early objects that are remarkable enough to last until our Winter constellations reappear in the late-Fall. Saturn, which should clear the Eastern Horizon around 10:30 p.m., will arrive a little too late for this session, but we might get one more good look at Comet panSTARRS (especially in the 16″ Meade).

Saturday, April 6 – 7:30 to ??? – Syracuse Inner Harbor

CNYO hosts its second official session of the year (weather-permitting) back at the first location, the Syracuse Inner Harbor (map below). While we established that it is far from the darkest of dark-sky locations, our first event on March 8th provided more than enough celestial eye candy and excellent discussions. If you’re new to observing, the objects easily visible from the Inner Harbor will not tax your vision or your fuzzy-object imagination, making the Inner Harbor a great place to get your feet wet (no pun intended) in amateur astronomy.

If the weather stays reasonable, this session may be the first of the year to bring Saturn into the view of our eyepieces at around 10:30 p.m. (but will be decidedly better around 11).

View Larger Map

We hope you can join Bob Piekiel on Friday, then join CNYO on Saturday! Keep track of the website or facebook page for updates Friday and Saturday afternoon.

CNYO Observing Log: 2013 March 8 At The Syracuse Inner Harbor


This past Friday (2013 March 8), CNYO hosted its first official public observing session at the Onondaga Lake Inner Harbor, centrally located between Downtown Syracuse and Destiny USA. While this may seem like a rather poorly-advised location for amateur astronomy, the Inner Harbor served several simultaneous purposes for the organization and the attending public. I shall consider these points below intermixed with a brief discussion of the event itself.

Setup began with Larry Slosberg and myself around 6:00 p.m., arriving early enough to reserve the large mound just behind the Inner Harbor amphitheater (map below) and generally take in the location. While a somewhat out-of-the-way location (in the desert between the mall and downtown), the Creekwalk provided traffic in the form of a few joggers, dog walkers, and cyclists (and, as it happened, part of our audience for the evening). The Inner Harbor itself is a very large space full of parking, calm water, airplanes into and out-of Hancock International Airport (the take-offs, approaches, and landings themselves were fun to watch) and reasonably distant horizons. All of Syracuse is visible from the mound, serving as a familiar backdrop for bright stars as they came above the horizon (and it’s just a really neat spot to take the city in – I’d recommend it to everyone when the temperature increases). The only point of minor concern was the murder of crows parked near the city school bus depot, which lead to us all keeping our scopes tilted to the ground when not in use (to spare out primary mirrors from collecting anything falling from above). The location is surrounded by sodium lights and some rather bright walking path lights. Remarkably, Destiny USA was not the major source of light pollution for the area (a bit of a tree line actually kept the mall’s glare to a minimum). As a result of the Inner Harbor and Creekwalk lights, all decent observing began about 30 degrees off the horizon (where the glare and reflection of city air particulates gives way to darker, steadier skies).

View Larger Map

Within minutes of Larry getting his Meade set up, the first public visitors appeared in the form of three teens walking past the Inner Harbor amphitheater. While I was busy setting up my 12.5” Dobsonian (herein referred to by her name, “Ruby”), Larry had Jupiter in his scope (easy to see immediately after sunset and the first celestial object to appear for several minutes before Sirius, Betelgeuse and Rigel marked their respective locations) and was describing the sight as everyone took turns with first views of the evening. Larry and I both tried to see Comet Pan-STARRS in the West/SouthWest sky, but it is clearly too early in its appearance (and too low on the horizon) for CNY viewing (perhaps the skies will clear over the next few days). By 6:30 p.m., Larry (Meade), Ryan Goodson (with two New Moon Telescope Dobsonian beauties in tow), Dan Williams (running one of the Ryan’s), Simon Asbury (with two testing pairs of Zhumell 25×100’s) and I (Ruby) had equipment out and were observing, as Barlow Bob describes it, “with attitude.” John Giroux appeared soon after with two scopes, marking the peak of operating optics for the evening.


Setup at sundown.

So, The Big Question!

What can one see from near-Downtown Syracuse when surrounded by sodium lights and a glowing skyline? In my 12” Dobsonian, my public observing list for the evening consisted of:

* Jupiter – clearly visible banding, obvious Great Red Spot, nicely steady skies for pulling out detail.

* Pleiades – fit perfectly in its entirety in my Pentax XL40 eyepiece. The coloring in my favorite binary system (Tyc1800-1961-1 (blue) and Tyc1800-1974-1 (orange)) was clear as a bell.

* Trapezium in M42, the Orion Nebula – all 6 stars were no problem.

* The rest of M42 – the filamentous nebulosity is still obvious at any magnification.

* M41 (the “Little Beehive”) in Canis Major – A multi-colored open cluster one full Telrad diameter from Sirius, the brightest star in the Night Sky. Orange and slightly blue stars were easy to see.

* M31, The Andromeda Galaxy – just a circular fuzzy ball with barely any additional structure present. But it was obviously a galaxy in the scope (and in the near direction of Destiny USA to boot).

* In Ryan’s 16” NMT Dobsonian, I was able to just barely make out M65 and M66, two of the three galaxies in the Leo Triplet (NGC 3628 was just outside of visible).

All together, that isn’t a bad list of observed objects even in dark sky locations, and several other open clusters would have been easily visible from the Inner Harbor had I focused on them (and perhaps others did).

This brings me to a lesson that I hope others planning sidewalk astronomy and similar events keep in mind (and clearly comes with my own bias). The goal of a public viewing session should not be to introduce completely new observers to subtle, dim objects that even professional amateurs require time and training to see. The goal of the session should be to expose new eyes to clear, bright objects that don’t require averted vision or averted imagination. It is commonplace in all manner of scientific endeavor for a professional to forget that they spent 10 years getting to the point where something is obvious. You can describe what someone is supposed to see all you want, but a dim face-on spiral galaxy with any appreciable NGC designation is not going to wow someone like Jupiter or the Moon. I’ve made it a point in several past observing sessions to try to get several scope owners to pick tiers of objects, with someone focused on the bright clusters and planets, then someone else focused on objects that tax the new observer who really wants to see what amateur astronomers consider to be tempting targets (and this tier-based approach has worked and failed to varying degrees).

Observing from the lit surroundings of a city does wonders for removing the dim fuzzy-wuzzies from the list of objects scope runners might consider as interesting objects. Very quickly, the observing candidates for a trained amateur astronomer reduces to the list of objects most anyone can observe and appreciate with little description beyond the interesting physics and history of the objects themselves. New observers are not taxed with seeing subtle detail. Clusters, many binaries, and planets become the pick hits that keep the crowds cycling between scopes (and are also good for new amateur astronomers, as these objects are usually the easiest to find). The Inner Harbor, despite its flaws as a location for dedicated amateur observing, is a choice location for introducing new people to an ancient craft (that, then, hopefully draws them out to darker skies). Frankly, I’m looking forward to a first Moon-centric observing session for this very same reason.


Some of the attendees pose for a first group shot. Photo by Simon Asbury. See the CNYO facebook page for more photos. From left: Mike Phelps, Larry Slosberg, John Giroux, Dan Williams, Ryan Goodson, Damian Allis, and Jack Allen.

The session concluded with a father and daughter spending several minutes with Ryan’s scope as we all talked observing, science, and general light conversation. In all, around 20 people showed, all but five of whom were somehow connected with the facebook page. Ryan, John, and I finally packed the last of our gear (and did the last search for dropped eyepiece caps) just after 10:00 p.m., a good hour after the city became quite frosty (we definitely would not have lasted to Saturn’s arrival after 11:00 p.m.).

All in all, the first official event was excellent! All had a good time despite the cold, I had my scope out earlier in the year than ever before, much observing was had through many optics, all enjoyed a broad range of conversation around the scopes, we all learned a bit about what light pollution REALLY means to city observers, and the CNYO attendees all agreed that this is something we definitely need to do on a regular basis. Therefore, stay tuned to the website and facebook page for observing announcements, hopefully with another (warmer!) nighttime session to follow after our daytime appearance at The MOST on April 2nd for their Climate Day event.

Bob Piekiel Hosts Observing Sessions At Baltimore Woods – 2013 Observing Schedule

I’m pleased to have obtained the official schedule for Bob Piekiel’s Baltimore Woods programs for the 2013 observing season and have added them to the CNYO Calendar. For those who have not had the pleasure of hearing one of his lectures, attending one of his observing sessions, or reading one of his many books on scope optics (or loading the CD containing the massive Celestron: The Early Years), Bob Piekiel is not only an excellent guide but likely the most knowledgeable equipment and operation guru in Central New York. I’ve (Damian) attended two of the Baltimore Woods sessions already and plan to be present for as many of the scheduled events below as possible.


The Baltimore Woods events calendar is updated monthly. As such, I’ve no direct links to the sessions below. Therefore, as the event date nears, see the official Calendar Page for more information and any updates on the event.


* Registration for these events are required. Low registration may cause programs to be canceled.
* $5 for members, $15/family; $8 for nonmembers, $25/family.
* To Register By Email: info@baltimorewoods.org
* To Register By Phone: (315) 673-1350

* Friday, February 8th (Backup – Saturday 9th), 7-9 p.m.

(Available link HERE) Another fabulous look at the bright winter skies and all the glories surrounding the constellation of Orion, the Hunter. The king of the planets, Jupiter, visible as well, as will the ice giant Uranus.

* March 15 (Friday) – 16 (Saturday), 7-9 p.m.

Comet Panstarrs should be visible in the west shortly after sunset. Its brightness is a guess at this time, but it could be quite a stunning sight. Jupiter will be visible, along with the winter skies and some of the brightest examples of nebulae and star clusters.

* April 5 (Friday) – 6 (Saturday), 7:30-9:30 p.m.

Comet Panstarrs will be visible in the northwest after sunset, right next to the Andromeda galaxy! While we can’t be certain of its brightness, it may be a stunning sight. Jupiter will be visible all evening, and Saturn will be rising in the east.

* May 4 (Saturday) – 5 (Sunday), 8-10 p.m.

Eta Aquariids meteor shower, Saturn and Jupiter visible all evening, and hello to spring skies.

* June 14 (Friday) – 15 (Saturday), 9-11 p.m.

Because it gets dark very late in June, it makes sense to do a 1st-quarter moon program, as we don’t need dark skies to get great views of the moon. Saturn will also be visible, and the start of summer skies.

* July 12 (Friday) – 13 (Saturday), 9-11 p.m.

The summer milky way at its finest. During the summer, we look directly into the core of our own milky way galaxy, giving great views of many beautiful star clusters and nebulae. The planet Saturn will be visible as well.

* August 12 (Monday) – 13 (Tuesday), 9-11 p.m.

It’s the annual Perseid Meteor Shower, one of the year’s finest, along with great views of the summer Milky Way, the ringed planet Saturn, and also Uranus and Neptune. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to lie back and watch for meteors when you’re not at a telescope.

* August 24 (Saturday) – 25 (Sunday), 1 p.m.

Solar observing session, with safe views of solar detail using specially-filtered telescopes.

* September 27 (Friday) – 28 (Saturday), 7-9 p.m.

Uranus will be in best viewing position all night long, plus Venus and Saturn in the west just after sunset. We will say goodbye to the Summer Skies.

* October 11 (Friday) – 12 (Saturday), 6:30-9 p.m.

Oct. 12 is National Astronomy Day, Part 2, but let’s do our usual Friday the 11th with Saturday being the backup. This will be our best chance to see Mercury for the remainder of the year, along with a crescent Moon and Venus as well, plus hello to Fall skies. We will need to start early to glimpse Mercury.

* November 4 (Monday) – 5 (Tuesday), 7-9 p.m.

Nov. 4-5 for the Taurid Meteor shower, plus hello to Winter skies. The Taurids are a modest shower, but in contrast, the Leonids, which occur on the 17th, are going to be completely washed out this year by a full Moon.

* December 13 (Friday) – 14 (Saturday), 7-9 p.m.

The Geminid Meteor Shower – the year’s best (it sure was fantastic last year!) and Winter skies, with the brightest examples of clusters and nebulae, such as the great Orion Nebulae.