Tag Archives: Comet Pan-starrs

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.

CNYO Observing Log: Baltimore Woods, 16 March 2013


ABOVE: A 15 sec. exposure from Baltimore Woods. (1) Sirius in Canis Major, (2) Orion, (3) The Hyades (the head of Taurus the Bull), (4) Jupiter, (5) the Pleiades, (6) The Moon.

The sky opened up for a crisp and clear viewing session late in the day after a long spell of heavy cloud cover on Saturday, March 16th. I made it to Baltimore Woods just in time for Bob Piekiel to direct me and my pair of Zhumell 25×100’s to the low-Western Horizon to take in Comet pan-STARRS (C/2011 L4, that is) with a light amber coloring and even a slight vertically-pointing oval that became an obvious tail at low magnification. This view only seemed to get better Sunday night (17th), where the comet was Naked Eye from downtown Syracuse!

A horizon view of pan-STARRS is shown below (above the red asterisk. Canon DS1400 IS Digital Elph, 15 second exposures). Click on the image for a larger view.


A time lapse of pan-STARRS setting below the Western horizon at Baltimore Woods is shown below (starts below the asterisk at left. Canon DS1400 IS Digital Elph, 4x zoom, 15 second exposures). Click on the image for a larger view.


A view through the Zhumell 25×100 binos is below (by way of some fancy camera balancing). Click on the image for a larger view.


spaceweather.com has a summary of the current situation on their website (as of 19 March 2013):

A growing number of people are reporting that they can see Comet Pan-STARRS with the naked eye. Best estimates place the magnitude of the comet at +0.2, about twice as bright as a 1st magnitude star. As the comet moves away from the sun, its visibility is improving. Observing tip: Step outside about an hour after sunset and face west. Pinpoint the comet using binoculars. Once you know where to look, put the optics aside and try some naked-eye observing.

By the time pan-STARRS set below the horizon, the sky was quite dark and extremely transparent. Bob and I proceeded to play for an hour with his 11” SCT, new Meade 5000 super- and ultra- wides (24 mm and 40 mm), and my personal favorite, his Collins Image Intensifier (which does exactly what it describes – increasing the brightness of objects in the eyepiece and, in many cases, making observable a dim object you might otherwise completely pass over without knowing it was there – you can see some example images here: darkerview.com/wordpress/?tag=intensifier).

Besides a thoroughly enjoyable conversation about optics, focal reducers, and new eye candy to look for at NEAF, highlights of the observing session included:

Visible Planets

* Jupiter (just to the right of the Hyades, as Taurus exchanges its otherwise brightest left eye (Aldebaran) with Jupiter as its right eye). Having given Jupiter considerable scope time this year already, we checked it mostly just to confirm it was still there.

In Taurus

* Messier 45 – The Pleiades served as an excellent cluster for testing Bob’s new focal reducer (which, basically, increases the field of view). An excellent image showing what the focal reducer does is shown below (from webcaddy.com.au/astro/f-066fr-pics.htm).


In Orion

* Messier 42 – The Orion Nebula (without and without enhancement, with the Collins brightening and increasing the extent of the nebulosity). The Orion Nebula is the brightest and most expansive nebula observable from Earth and it sets earlier every day, so we spent considerable time on it before missing it all Spring and Summer.

In Andromeda

* The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and Messier 32 – The intensifier brought out the presence of the central core of Andromeda but did not significantly enhance detail (specifically the dust lanes and spaces between the spiral arms that one can see in any eyepiece in dark skies). This was likely due to the presence of the Moon nearby in the sky (which can do a significant number to nebula and galaxy detail even when only present as a sliver), but I did learn some more about the intensifier eyepiece (see below). M32 (one of M31’s satellite galaxies) was also bright but featureless.

In Leo

* Messier 65, Messier 66, and NGC 3628 – All three galaxies in The Leo Triplet were excellent in the intensifier (and in the same field of view) despite the Moon. At the first Inner Harbor session, M65 and M66 were just visible (due to the the light pollution around the site) thanks to Ryan Goodson bringing a 16” New Moon Telescope Dobsonian.

In Gemini

* Messier 35 – an open cluster nearly the size of the full Moon, containing a few bright stars and a tight grouping of dimmer ones. The intensifier has a tendency to “haze” a bit around these tight groupings as the pixels on the CCD chip begin to oversaturate.

In Canis Major

* Messier 41 – While observing this open cluster, the over-saturation of the CCD chip became obvious in the form of perfectly circular discs around each of the brightest stars, making each appear to have a well-defined nebula around it (not that these stars need any kind of image enhancement to see clearly in any scope. As you might guess, brighter star = bigger + brighter disc).

In Perseus

Caldwell 14 – The Double Cluster – in the same way that stereotypical night vision goggles give you only shades (or different intensities) of green, the intensifier sacrifices color for “green intensity.” Accordingly, the reds, oranges, and blues in the Double Cluster that make it such an interesting eyepiece object go away, leaving you with just (well, not just) two dense star clusters. This is the best argument for intensifiers being used as tools for galaxy and nebulae hunting.

In Ursa Major

Messier 81 – NGC 3031, Bode’s Galaxy – An excellent sight in the intensifier despite the crescent Moon (which would otherwise make it nearly featureless).

Messier 82 – NGC 3034, Cigar Galaxy – M81’s gravitational neighbor (with M82 being the smaller neighbor and, therefore, more gravitationally influenced by M81). M82 appears to have two distinct cores in the intensifier (that would make it look like two galaxies about to merge). I attribute this double-core view to the intensifier picking up the massive filamentous structure perpendicular to M82’s galactic plane – but should buy my own intensifier to study it in more detail!).

Messier 97 (Own Nebula) + Messier 108 – Admittedly, Bob and I kept passing M108 while trying to find M97 and failed to recognize it as M108 (faint but pleasant in the intensifier). That said, M97 was a very difficult find despite Bob bringing a GOTO scope and, by the time I confirmed to myself that I had it in the field of view, I was under-impressed with the intensifier view (it was barely an object with averted vision, although some part of this could have been the Moon’s presence).

We closed the session around 9:15 p.m. by returning to the Orion Nebula for one last comparison of the intensifier and the Meade 40 mm.

Lessons for the evening: (1) Don’t assume of comets! And, if you observe, report to the group so others know to also not assume! (2) Just because you’re freezing cold doesn’t mean you should stand 1/2 inch from a portable propane heater. At what feels like cryogenic temperatures, your leg goes from 10 F to 150 F before your nerves notice it.

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.