Tag Archives: Polaris

CNYO Observing Log: Lunar Eclipse And Syracuse Academy Of Science, 8 October 2014

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

Despite weather forecasts indicating that an early rise might have been a wasted one, a few CNY amateur astronomers braved the 4 a.m. skies and temperatures in hopes of watching our Moon all but disappear from most of the visible light spectrum. The total lunar eclipse on the morning of October 8th marked the second eclipse of the year (with the first occurring on a washed out April 15th) and the second in a series of four (known as a tetrad) that will complete with two more total eclipses on April 4th and September 28th of 2015.

Those keeping track of the local eclipse news will very likely have found Glenn Coin’s (at syracuse.com, twitter: @glenncoin) two reports (“Will full lunar eclipse…” and “To see total lunar eclipse…“) about the eclipse and the potential for us in CNY to see it, with the second article featuring a few snippets from myself and Bob Piekiel. Our continued thanks to Glenn for keeping astronomical phenomena appearing on the syracuse.com website!

Bob Piekiel reported an excellent session at Baltimore Woods that morning, producing the series of images below before cloud cover obstructed any additional views:

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The lunar eclipse from Baltimore Woods. Click for a larger view.

We had a crystal-clear break in the clouds for nearly an hour on Wednesday morning, enough to get some good views of the eclipsed Moon, as well as Jupiter, and some amazing views of M42 as the sky darkened with the setting Moon. The Moon’s covered area did indeed turn a bright red, noticeable even as the twilight approached, right up until we lost sight of it in some low clouds above the tree line.

My part of the lunar eclipse viewing was performed from my downtown rooftop. Unlike much of what we observe in the Night Sky, lunar eclipses are good from anywhere regardless of the amount of light pollution. I watched Bob’s clearing float East (the view at 4:20 a.m. Around the Moon as as perfect as one could hope for), then watched the Moon become consumed, then caught just enough of an opening to take the three images below.

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The progressing lunar eclipse. Click for a larger view.

With the camera still out and the view above me clear, I also decided to grab a quick view of Orion’s Belt and M42 (this with just a 5 second exposure – and still from downtown).

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Orion’s Belt and the Orion Nebula (M42). Click for a larger view.

With only a short window of observing to be had, the early wake-up call was well worth it (one surprise clearing is worth about two cups of coffee). With the eclipse image above and the standard CNYO presentation gear in tow, the astronomy morning ended at the Syracuse Academy of Science for their 8th Annual College & Career Fair, with over 100 students stopping at the booth to hold a piece of Mars, learn why Polaris doesn’t move in the sky, and grab all of our social media info to attend an upcoming CNYO observing session.

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From the booth at the Syracuse Academy of Science. Click for a larger view.

2013 Perseid Weekend Part 1: New Moon Telescopes Open Session – August 10th, West Monroe, NY

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Larry Slosberg, Terran Defense Force.

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.

The first session occurred on August 10th (with Friday, August 9th having been a near-total cloud-out) after an announcement from New Moon Telescopes owner and CNYO member Ryan Goodson that his observing grounds in West Monroe were going to be open for some deep sky observing. Those who hadn’t yet been to West Monroe (a good 40 minutes north of Syracuse) for a session were introduced to some of the darkest skies in Central New York, including the noticeable absence of big city lights along the horizon. The skies were crystal clear throughout the session, making the Andromeda Galaxy an obvious Naked Eye object and the Milky Way a nicely detailed object of one Great Rift and many clusters and nebulae visible as non-pinpoint patches along the galaxy’s plane.

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The Northern Sky, including Cassiopeia and M31. Click to enlarge.

The driveway and front lawn of NMT HQ were dark enough that, because of my late arrival, I wasn’t entirely sure just how many people were there in total. Ryan estimates the 20 to 25 range over the course of the 5 hour session. Several NMT Dobsonians were present on the grounds along with John Giroux’s considerable imaging setup. With a choice of NMT Dobs to look through (certainly the best way to populate a star party in NY), I packed light for the evening, bringing only a pair of Zhumell 25×100’s. Also in tow was a new Canon Rebel T3i and several new lenses to attempt my first round of dark sky astrophotographic panoramas (with the hope of capturing at least one meteor trail).

For those who’ve not traveled far north of Syracuse for any kind of observing, it is difficult to describe just how much better the skies (and, specifically, the horizon) away from city lights can be. My view from downtown Syracuse is largely limited to 3.5ish magnitude stars, meaning the Big Dipper is easy, but only the handle-end (Polaris) and bowl-end stars of the Little Dipper are identifiable without considerable work to make out the remaining stars. For diffuse objects, the nebulosity of the Orion Nebula is about all one can make out through low-power (and just barely Naked Eye).

The dark skies of West Monroe (and surroundings) fill in all of the gaps, making all of the constellations (and their component stars) clearly visible (almost too many stars for people first learning the sky). Furthermore, the Andromeda Galaxy becomes an easy Naked Eye objects, the Double Cluster in Perseus appears as a bright, diffuse nebula (requiring magnification to see that the cloudiness is really closely-packed stars), the whole of the Milky Way jumps right out, and the colors of stars become more apparent. Arizona desert observers might complain that the West Monroe skies are a “little murky,” but one can’t help but gain a new appreciation for the our local stellar neighborhood when making the relatively short trip away from city lights.

Of course, these dark skies make meteor showers even more enjoyable, as even dim meteor trails stand out against a starry backdrop uncluttered by terrestrial photons. As for the best trails of the evening, the dark sky makes these bright enough to read by! Michelle M, the most dedicated of the meteor shower observers that evening (that I knew was there, anyway), put the final count at 20. John Giroux and I both caught at least one during our imaging sessions (one of mine is shown below above the observes and their scopes):

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The group, the Milky Way, and one meteor trail. Click for a larger version.

The individual observing lists were likely varied and lengthy. High points for me included M31 at low magnification (a great view in 25×100 Zhumells), Neptune in Ryan’s 16″ Dob (and swiftly moving at high magnification – only slight coloring but the disc of the planet was obvious), and the image below of the Milky Way, generated from a 2 minute exposure at ISO 1600 with a Rokinon 8mm fisheye lens.

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The Great Rift of the Milky Way. Click for a larger version.

As for some proper astrophotography, John Giroux produced the images of Messier 2 and Messier 71 below during the NMT session. You can see more of John amazing work at his facebook page, John Giroux – Terrestrial and Celestial Photography.

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From John: Messier 2 or M2 (also designated NGC 7089) is a globular cluster in the constellation Aquarius. Canon T2i, 120 sec x 10 stacked, 120 sec x 10 dark frames, ISO 800, processed in Nebulosity 2.5 & Photoshop Elements 10. AstroTech AT6RC 6″ F/9 Ritchey-Chrétien.

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From John: Messier 71 (also known as M71 or NGC 6838) is a globular cluster in the constellation Sagitta. Canon T2i, 120 sec x 20 stacked, 120 sec x 10 dark frames, ISO 800, processed in Nebulosity 2.5 & Photoshop Elements 10. AstroTech AT6RC 6″ F/9 Ritchey-Chrétien.

I left John Giroux and Ryan around 1:30 a.m. wearing three layers and with the car heater up half-way (not entirely expected for mid-August in CNY). The skies were well worth the cold! For those interested in joining CNYO and others when Ryan makes observing announcements, be sure to “like” NMT’s Facebook page and join them on Twitter.

About The Perseid Meteor Shower (“Perseids” For Short)

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

This article has been posted in preparation for our Perseid Session and International Starry Night event at Baltimore Woods this coming Monday, August 12th (with the 13th as the weather-alternate). We might even get a view or two of the Perseids at our Thursday, August 8th Beaver Lake Nature Center lecture!

The Perseid Meteor Shower is an almost perfect combination of location and timing for amateur astronomers and the general public, as the Earth grazes a rich debris field from the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle during the peak of the Northern Summer. We’ll cover the details of this confluence below so you know what makes the Perseids the most anticipated (and observed) meteor shower of the year.

One Thousand And Thirty Words (And Two Numbers)

Comedian: “Ask me what the key to comedy is.”
Assistant: “What’s the -”
Comedian: “Timing!”

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The image above shows all of the important pieces of the Perseid puzzle. We find the Earth in its orbit around the Sun as it approaches a mid-August position (the 10th to the 14th, although one may see meteors at the fringe of Perseid territory several nights before and after) that finds Earth (and us) scraping against the edge of a debris field produced by Comet Swift-Tuttle on its 133-year orbit around the Sun. Last seen in our vicinity in 1995, observers will have to wait until the 2120’s for another good view of its flaring core. Fortunately, it leaves enough tiny pieces of itself as it draws close to the Sun to provide us with a brilliant reminder of its existence every mid-August.

Unlike Halley’s Comet, which passes close to Earth’s orbit on its way toward (producing the Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower in early May) and away from (producing the Orionid Meteor Shower in late October) the Sun, Comet Swift-Tuttle’s eccentric orbit finds it passing close to Earth only at one point, like a snapshot capturing a hula-hoop (Swift-Tuttle’s orbit) as it touches the belt buckle (Earth) of a gyrating dancer whose waist is Earth’s orbit in circumfrence.

What’s In A Name?

We refer to this meteor shower as the “Perseids” because the meteors associated with Swift-Tuttle appear to streak across the sky from a point (known as a “radiant“) originating in the direction of the mythical constellation Perseus. The shower itself has nothing to do with the stars of the constellation Perseus, only the part of the sky that Perseus occupies on the late nights and early mornings in mid-August. One might even consider Perseus the beneficiary of this shower, as the constellation has taken on a new-found importance to astronomers over the last several millennia as the marker for this shower in the August skies.

It’s All Relative

Anyone caught driving late at night during a snow storm knows the sensation of making the Millenium Falcon’s “jump to lightspeed” as the snowflakes appear to shoot towards, then past or onto, your windshield. To the driver cruising at 65 mph on a highway, the snowflakes appear to have no motion but the one directly towards the windshield. If you were standing on a snowflake, you’d notice the very slow decent to the Earth’s surface, the rapidly oncoming car headlights, then the swift rush across the windshield as the aerodynamics of the windshield combined with the high speed of the car.

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This same state of “relative observation” occurs during all meteor showers as the Earth revolves around the Sun. The meteors, themselves mostly no larger than grains of sand, are not moving rapidly towards the Earth’s atmosphere. They lie scattered about the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, a result of the comet heating enough as it approaches the Sun to lose small pieces of its surface. If Swift-Tuttle were a massive gravel delivery truck (to continue the driving analogy), these small grains would be the random pieces of rock that fall to the ground as the truck bumps over uneven pieces of highway.

Clash Of The Tinys

It is the Earth, revolving around the Sun at a dizzying 110,000 km/hour (that’s 30 km/second!), that powers the meteor shower we see on the ground. As the Earth rushes through the debris field of Comet Swift-Tuttle, these tiny grains of comet come into contact with our atmosphere at speeds so great that they ignite the air around them, causing brilliant streaks of light as the tiny grains are incinerated.

The number of meteors one can observe over a Perseid session is determined by (1) your looking at the right place at the right time (no long blinks!) and (2) the density of tiny Swift-Tuttle-ettes in the comet’s orbit as Earth passes through it. There are some meteor showers where one is lucky to see a few per hour. Because the Earth passes through a generally rich part of Swift-Tuttle’s orbit, two or three per minute may not be uncommon for a “usual” Perseid session. Those outside for the 1972 Perseid Meteor Shower were treated to what many believe to be the best meteor shower in recorded history (and those outside for the 1998 Leonid Meteor Shower (a close second by all metrics) know what it’s like to see thousands per hour raining down on dark skies).

Finding Perseus

The Perseids appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus. For your best chance of seeing Perseid meteors, it is not your eyes that should be transfixed on the heart of Perseus. Instead, you should anchor the bottoms of your toes towards Perseus, then find a comfortable piece of ground (or reclining chair) that gives you a clear view of the sky right above you. Perseid meteors will then, with a thick patch of debris field and a bit of patience, appear to blaze across the night sky from your toes (Northeast) past your head (to the Southwest).

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Perseus will appear to rise above the Northeast horizon after 9:00 p.m. Directly above the stars of Perseus resides Cassiopeia – a giant and prominent “W” in the night sky that, for many hours after sunset, will appear as a West-facing throne for this ancient Ethiopian queen. Those familiar with the many tricks amateur astronomers use to learn the Night Sky will simply find Polaris, perhaps using the two end stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper and an imaginary line along these stars in the direction of the bowl’s open face to pick out the dim North Star. Polaris does not shine with the brightness one might have imagined for the second most important star in the sky (after our own Sun), but it is in a piece of sky that contains few brighter stars, making it the most obvious member of a very modest piece of northern sky.

If you’re still too new to constellation hunting, the solution is simple! Grab a compass (or a compass app in your smart phone) and find Northeast the new-fashioned way. With luck, the Perseids will race to the Southwest at a rate of a few per minute, increasing in count, then decreasing, from around 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. local time. With the good fortunes of all the Olympian Gods, we’ll all be treated to many, many more.

Additional Information

The Perseid Meteor Shower

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perseids
earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-perseid-meteor-shower
solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/perseids.cfm

Comet Swift-Tuttle

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comet_Swift%E2%80%93Tuttle
ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?sstr=109P

Meteors And Meteor Showers

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_shower
leonid.arc.nasa.gov/meteor.html