Tag Archives: Gemini

CNYO Observing Log: The Winter Of Lovejoy – Green Lakes, Jamesville Beach, And New Moon Telescopes HQ – January 9 to 14, 2015

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Comet Lovejoy imaged on January 10th by the ever-impressive CNY astrophotographer Stephen Shaner. From his CNYO Facebook Group post: Last night was the first in over three months it was clear enough to shoot, but it worked out well because Comet Lovejoy is at its peak. Here’s a quick process of about 40 minutes of exposures between 8-9 PM as it crossed the meridian. FOV is roughly three degrees. Distinct pale green coma in the eyepiece but unable to make out a tail or see it naked eye.

The 2015 skies are going to be full of comets. Well, at least six, to be exact, that will be either naked eye- or binocular-visible. That’s still quite a few to those keeping track! The amateur astronomy community has taken heroic efforts to scientifically identify and track new comets in the last, say, 400 years. The rise of, for instance, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (or panSTARRS) as a method for finding and tracking both comets and near-earth asteroids (or, lumped together, “objects,” for which you might hear the abbreviation “NEOs”) has greatly increased the number of accounted-for fuzzy objects in our fields of view (and provided us a giant leap in our existential risk assessment infrastructure to boot). Quite simply, we’ve more + better eyes on the skies, meaning we’re bound to continue to find more and more comets and asteroids. You can even subscribe to NASA twitter feeds that announce the passing-by of these hopefully passers-by (see @AsteroidWatch and @NasaNEOCam).

The discovery of NEOs may or may not qualify as a modern John Henry-ism, as amateur astronomers are still discovering objects at a decent pace thanks to improvements in their own optics and imaging equipment. Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is one such recent example discovered by famed modern comet hunter Terry Lovejoy (who has five comets to his name already).

Comet Lovejoy And More In CNY

Comet Lovejoy has made the winter sky that much more enjoyable (and below freezing cold that much more bearable) by reaching peak brightness in the vicinity of the prominent winter constellations Taurus and Orion. Visible soon after sunset and before the “really cold” temperatures set in (after 10 p.m. or so), Lovejoy has been an easy target in low-power binoculars and visible without equipment in sufficiently dark skies. Now on its way out of the inner solar system, its bright tail will shrink and its wide coma (that gives it its “fuzziness”) will disappear as the increasingly distant Sun is unable to melt Lovejoy’s surface ice. Those of us who dared the cold, clear CNY skies these past few weeks were treated to excellent views, while the internet has been flooded with remarkable images of what some have described as the most photographed comet in history (a title that will likely be taken from it when a few other comets pass us by during warmer nights this year).

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The tiki lounge at Green Lakes State Park, 9 January 2014.

The first observing session around Syracuse this year happened at Green Lakes State Park on January 9th. Bob Piekiel, one of CNY’s best known and most knowledgable amateur astronomers, had his Celestron NexStar 11 in the parking lot behind the main office, which was fortunately kept open for attendees hoping to warm up between views. To Bob’s C11 was added my Zhumell 25×100’s, providing less magnification but a wider field of view to take in more of the comet’s core, tail, and nearby stars.

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A very prominent Orion and arrow-ed Comet Lovejoy from the Green Lakes parking lot. Photo by Kim Titus.

The Friday night skies were only partially on our side, offering a few short-lived views of the Orion Nebula and Lovejoy. Jupiter was just bright enough to burn through some of the cloud cover to our East, giving us slightly muddled but otherwise decent views of it and its four largest satellites for about 10 minutes. By our 9 p.m. pack-up and departure, the skies were even worse – which is always a good feeling for observers (knowing they didn’t miss a chance for any additional views by packing up early).

The night of Saturday, January 10th turned into a much better night for observing, offering a good opportunity for some long-exposure images to try to capture Lovejoy just past its luminous prime. The following image was taken from one of the parking lots at Jamesville Beach – the same spot where Larry Slosberg, Dan Williams and I observed the nova in Delphinus. Light pollution aside from the 30 second exposure, the brightest constellations are clearly visible and a fuzzy, bright green star is clearly visible in the full-sized image. Click on the image below for a larger, unlabeled version of the same.

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An array of Winter’s finest from Jamesville Beach, 10 January 2014, 8:00 p.m. Click on the image for a full and unlabeled version.

The imaging continued in Marcellus on January 10th, with Bob Piekiel producing a zoomed in view of Lovejoy.

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An unmistakable view of Comet Lovejoy. Image by Bob Piekiel.

As with all astronomical phenomena (excluding solar viewing, of course), the best views come from the darkest places. A third Lovejoy session was had up in West Monroe, NY on Wednesday, January 14th with fellow CNYO’er Ryan Goodson at New Moon Telescopes. Putting his 27” Dob to use, the green-tinted Lovejoy was almost bright enough to tan your retina. With dark skies and no observing line, we then attacked some subtler phenomena, including the Orion Nebula in Orion, the Eskimo Nebula in Gemini, and the Hubble Variable Nebula in Monoceros. The images below are our selfie with Lovejoy and the best of Winter, a snapshot near the zenith (with Jupiter prominent), and the Northern sky (click on the images for larger, unlabeled versions).

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Ryan and I pose for 30 sec, our fingers completely missing the location of Lovejoy (red arrow). Click for a larger view.

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Some of Winter’s finest from NMT HQ, including a prominent Jupiter just to the west of (and about to be devoured by) the constellation Leo. Click for a larger view.

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A view of NMT’s opening to the North, including Cassiopeia at left (the sideways “W”), the Big Dipper in the middle, and Jupiter at the right. Click for a larger view.

A Clothing Thought…

As we can all attest to, the nighttime temperatures this month have oscillated between bitterly cold and painfully cold. The pic of my Element’s thermometer at my midnight departure from West Monroe read -12 F (and the tire inflation warning light stayed on until I hit 81 South), yet with the exception of the tips of my toes, I wasn’t very bothered by the cold.

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2015jan22_nmt_layersIt’s one of the cold realities of amateur astronomy – you never realize how cold it can get outside until you’re standing perfectly still at a metal eyepiece. The solution is as old as the sediment-grown hills – layers! The top half of my outfit for the evening is shown below, featuring six (yes, six) layers from turtleneck to final coat. My bottom half featured three layers that decorum permits me from showing here. For those wondering how the blood still flows below the belt, the answer is simple – buy yourself an outer layer two or three sizes larger than you usually wear. In my case, my outer coat’s a bit baggy and my outer pants are a very tightly-meshed pair of construction pants with a 40” waist (from a trip to DeJulio’s Army & Navy Store on Burnet Ave. in Syracuse).

And don’t worry about color coordinating. The nighttime is the right time for the fashion unconscious.

CNYO Observing Log: Baltimore Woods, 16 March 2013

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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: Baltimore Woods, 9 February 2013

Ryan Goodson, Larry Slosberg, and I joined Bob Piekiel for his monthly New Moon observing session at Baltimore Woods on his weather-alternate session (having lost Friday’s session to Snow Storm Nemo). What started as a remarkably cold session, which then progressed to a bitterly cold session, and then finally to an intolerably cold session (forcing us to close shop up around 8:30 p.m.), still provided some excellent views of the Winter Sky, including the Solar System‘s largest planet Jupiter right between the Hyades and Pleiades.

For those who haven’t ventured for a session, the view from the Baltimore Woods parking lot includes a clear zenith (what luck!), a tree to the North that extends almost up to Polaris (so one must walk around it to get the view of constellations below our North Star), low-lying trees to the West, then the warm orange glow (the only thing warm on the 9th) of Baldwinsville and Syracuse to the East-Southeast. As we’re mid-winter, the evening observing was obstructed occasionally by blindingly bright snowmobiles (but one had plenty of lead time to take cover).

The evening started early with a fly-by of the yellow-orange ball that is (from the ground, anyway) the International Space Station (ISS), right on schedule with the predictions from heavens-above.com:

Date Brightness Start Highest point End Pass type
[Mag] Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az.
09 Feb -3.3 18:55:57 10° SW 18:59:16 68° SE 18:59:56 51° E Visible

Reaching a total session count of eight, the evening included several observations of Jupiter, noting specifically how quickly Io rushed from Jupiter as even 10 minute intervals progressed (the slow cooling of mirrors resulted in many returns of increasingly crisp views). A comparison of eye piece magnifications and field-of-views was performed with the Pleiades in Bob’s 11″ Schmidt–Cassegrain and Ryan’s 16″ NMT Dob. In both cases, one my my favorite doubles, Tyc1800-1961-1 (blue) and Tyc1800-1974-1 (orange), jumped right out from the center of the tea cup. The lesson learned from such an exercise is that magnification is not the key to observational astronomy – it is seeing all that you want to see in the field of view that is key to enjoying the Night Sky.

A second highlight of the evening included M35, an open cluster in Gemini that, at 2,800 light years away, still covers an area the size of the Full Moon. Clearly visible as a slight “smudge” in the upper-left corner of the eyepiece (so the lower-right corner of M35) at low magnification is the compact open cluster NGC 2158.

After Jupiter, the night belonged to the massive Orion Nebula (M42), a hydrogen cloud doubling as a stellar nursery. At a magnitude of +4.0, the fuzzy patch in Orion’s Belt is visible to the Naked Eye, increasing in density with small binoculars, and leading to magnificent views of filamentous nebulosity at low magnification in both telescopes. The splitting of the main binaries in Trapezium was trivial in Ryan’s 16″ NMT Dob even without a completely cooled mirror.

I noted to Ryan that, given the usual CNY winter conditions, “It’s a rarity to see Pegasus in the West.” The quintet of Sirius, Orion’s Belt, the Hyades, Jupiter, and the Pleiades was worth the visit with or without equipment. After 90 minutes of observing in cold, continually patchy skies, the temperature dropped precipitously, instigating a rapid retreat and scope packing by all attendees. The lessons learned – your gloves are never thick enough & always have a headlamp in the car for the end of the evening!