Tag Archives: Saturn

CNYO Observing Log: Beaver Lake Nature Center, 2 May 2013


Greetings fellow astrophiles,

May 2nd served as the rain date (due to rapidly-overcasting conditions on April 25th) for our first Beaver Lake Nature Center lecture of the year – The Guiding & Wandering Stars – Key Northern Constellations & Planet Observations. On hand to run scopes and engage in lecture duties were the author with a 12.5″ New Moon Telescope Dobsonian, Larry Slosberg with one Meade SCT and Bob Piekiel with another.

The Constellations have been with us for thousands of years, but there are only a few good, clear nights each month to memorize their positions as they slowly move across the sky! This outdoor lecture by the CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) will briefly describe the history and importance of the Constellations as mythological, agricultural, and navigational guides, then will describe a simple system to begin to learn their relative positions. At the same time, Jupiter and Saturn are on opposite sides of the Southern sky, making excellent targets for binocular and telescope observing. Free and open to the public.

While the week including May 2nd will be known to some as a particularly bad week for maple tree allergies, the nighttime sky stayed quite clear and the bugs eventually froze around us to produce an excellent session. The attending crowd of about 35 served as test subjects for both our two new brochures (How The Night Sky Moves and Guide For New Observers) and our first official completely outdoors (Powerpoint-free) lecture (which, despite astronomy being such a visual hobby, worked will with just the brochure contents). In anticipation of some nighttime brochure reading, I put together some red light flashlights on the cheap locally. For anyone attempting similar, I found a four-pack of Dorcy AAA 6 LED Flashlights at Dicks Sporting Goods for $10. Some very minor surgery is needed to remove the top caps, but conversion to red light flashlights is straightforward with the help of a four-layer stack of red acetate purchased many moons ago from Commercial Art Supply in Syracuse.

406px-EB1711_Armillary_SphereDespite a little confusion about the start time (7:30 or 8:00), everyone had pulled in by 7:45 p.m., so we began the session with a good 30 minutes of physics. The goal of these Beaver Lake lectures is to not only observe objects, but to explain why the sky moves as it does so those trying to learn new constellations will understand what to expect both over the course of a night and over the course of a year. This began at the ground floor – understanding how the Earth moves around the Sun. With the help of an armillary sphere (which holds the Earth at its 23 degree tilt – see the image at left from wikipedia), the Earth’s movement around the Sun was demonstrated, specifically showing that the rotation axis stays pointed the same way as we revolve – thus resulting in Polaris appearing not to move over the course of the year despite the Earth shifting position by 300 million kilometers (2 astronomical units) every 6 months. Knowing that Polaris is always in the same place in the sky (whether it’s daytime or not) leads smoothly into a discussion of the circumpolar constellations and the benefit of learning these six constellations first (for this discussion and some how-to’s, I refer you to the CNYO brochure: Guide For New Observers).

Running a sunset-to-late-night session with a non-cycling crowd has (at least) two distinct advantages. First, the importance of dark adaption and the need to avoid smart phones (or avoid their use around others) can be stressed early in the evening. While enforcing protocols to maintain dark adaption at any kind of public lecture is usually a losing battle, anyone answering a phone did it in a very non-obvious manner, which was most welcome. Second, the mechanics of my Dobsonian telescope and Larry and Bob’s two motorized SCTs could be presented while still visible to attendees. More importantly, the proper observing technique for all could be demonstrated by showing (a) how to approach an eyepiece (I tell people to put their hands behind their back and simply lean into the eyepiece) and (b) just how easy it is to nudge a scope away from its target. Specifically for the Dob, I’m sure anyone who’s brought their scope to a public session has had at least one person lean on or pull closer an eyepiece. I’m pleased to report that, once the observing started, our collective intro to scope workings made my Dob-running life simple with no unplanned re-adjustments (just adjustments of the unmotorized kind).

As stated in a previous post (2013 March 8 – At The Syracuse Inner Harbor), new observers are best introduced to observing with easy objects that don’t require training. Deep, dim, distant galaxies are not useful starters for someone with no background in eyepiece observing. For my part, a good 70 minutes were spent on Jupiter (low in the Western Sky with all four Galilean moons present), Saturn (low in the Eastern Sky and my first view of it this year), Arcturus in Boötes (its shimmering in the sky both with and without magnification was a point of discussion for several near my scope), M13 (the globular cluster in Hercules, which served as a first “way out” object and an example of using the constellations as a “coarse adjustment” for finding Messier and other objects), and the pair Alcor and Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper/tail of Ursa Major (to show the separation and additional detail that comes with magnification).

With a much smaller crowd around 9:30 p.m., I did treat a few interested parties to some more difficult observing in my scope – The Leo Triplet – after first briefly explaining the mechanics of averted vision. Of the five people who looked, all could make out M65, all could at least tell that something “was there” where M66 rested, and three people could tell that “something else” was there at NGC 3628‘s position. And I did miss a golden opportunity to observe NGC 4565 (my personal favorite) in Coma Berenices.

We closed up shop at 10 p.m., just as Cygnus and Lyra began to peak out over the horizon and announce the approaching return of our Summer Constellations. I am pleased to report that we will be hosting a Summer Session on Thursday, August 8th (with an August 15th rain date) where we will again do a little bit of mechanics and instruction outdoors, followed by Saturn, Venus, and all that our summer view of the Milky Way can provide.

August 8 – Stargazing with CNY Observers & Observing

CNY Observers (CNYO) hosts an introductory lecture to the Night Sky, focusing on planets and other objects observable during August and September.  Part of the lecture will discuss some simple ways to learn the Constellations, while the rest of the lecture will provide details about meteor showers, observing satellites and the ISS, and the ever-expanding description of our own Solar System.  If time and weather permits, some early evening views of Venus and Saturn will be had from the Beaver Lake parking lot.  Free for members; $2 for nonmembers.

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 First Official Outing – Messier Sprint, Jupiter, And (Maybe) Comet Pan-STARRS – Friday March 8 – Syracuse Inner Harbor

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

CNYO is pleased to announce a first chance for 2013 to get outdoors and do some late-winter observing. Members and their scopes plan to convene at the Syracuse Inner Harbor on the evening of Friday, March 8, combining what we expect to be a Messier Sprint with observing of Jupiter (perhaps Saturn if we stay late enough) and, hopefully, an early evening view of Comet Pan-STARRS in our Western Sky.

Jupiter is high in the Night Sky and has been an excellent sight at Bob Piekiel’s Baltimore Woods observing sessions (with his next session slated for next Friday). Saturn will just clear the Eastern Sky around 11:00 p.m., which may or may not be too late for our first session (temperature-depending). The real treat for this weekend is Comet Pan-STARRS, which will be just at the edge of the Western Sky around sunset. At a predicted brightness of +1.5 magnitude, it will be Naked Eye (and one of three bright comets in our skies this year) for several days (provided Syracuse skies stay clear enough to observe it).

The Messier Sprint – A longer explanation of what amateur astronomers know as a “Messier Marathon” is provided below. As a full Messier Marathon (observing all 110 objects) is an all-night endeavor and we’ll be running our first session from a less-than Dark Sky location, our sprint will focus on several bright clusters, binary stars, and other reasonably bright objects just to get our scopes outside and focusing.

Our location for the event will be a high mound just off the parking lot to the west of the amphitheater, just south of Destiny USA and a location easily accessible from many different routes. A google map centered on the exact location is below:

View Larger Map

With that, keep track of the website and facebook page around 4:00 p.m. Friday afternoon for the official word on the start of our event. We hope you can join us!

Messier Marathon – A Brief Overview


The marathon owes its existence to Charles Messier who, by all accounts (and to the best of my google efforts), never engaged in what he would have simply referred to as “The Me Marathon.” Messier was a famed French comet hunter (the search for comets in the 17th and 18th centuries was THE original “Space Race,” as such discoveries were sure to bring fame and prestige) who, with his assistant Pierre Méchain, catalogued what we know today as the Messier Objects specifically because he wanted to avoid these confusing objects in his cometary searches. Yes, the man who dedicated his life to finding comets is now best known for the catalogue of non-comets he generated. C’est la vie.


The Messier Objects are simply a collection of clusters, nebulae, and galaxies that are visible through binoculars and low-power telescopes (and some are naked-eye objects). In effect, they are a collection of the “closest of the bright objects” that one might confuse with a comet, with the “closest/brightest” set including clusters and nebulae within the Milky Way and many galaxies far beyond our spiral arms. As massive, distant, and bright objects, they are stationary in the sky, making them easy for Messier to catalogue in his comet hunting efforts and, for us, making them useful guide posts both for their identification from Constellation markers and for the identification of far fainter objects based on proximity. There are 110 counted Messier Objects but, according to Pierre Méchain himself, only 109 actual objects, as M101 and M102 (the Pinwheel Galaxy) are the result of double-counting (on the bright side, when you’ve found it once, you’ve found it twice!). While the majority of the list goes back to Messier’s time, the last object added, M110, was included in 1960.

Covering the second important “what,” the Messier Marathon is simply a fun way to see how well you know the “photons in your neighborhood… the ones you don’t know you see each night.”


Up! Well, more specifically, up in the Northern Hemisphere. As a French astronomer, Messier’s catalogue contains only objects observable from his Observatory. Accordingly, all 110 objects are visible from Northern Latitudes. That means that (1) a multitude of objects in the Southern Hemisphere that WOULD have made the Messier list are not included because he simply could not point his scope into the ground to look at them and (2) those in the Southern Hemisphere do not engage in Messier Marathons as much as they engage in Messier Sprints, as they have fewer objects to identify (and, the further South they are, the shorter their list is).


Members of the Messier list grace our skies all year, with nearly every Constellation visible in the Northern Hemisphere hosting at least one object. Only two things in the Night Sky can obscure Messier objects. The first of these is “whatever else you want to see” that keeps you from looking for the Messiers. The second is the Moon, which can, in fact, obscure the Messier objects considerably (those that are naked-eye Messiers then require binoculars to see, those that are binocular Messiers then require either patience or higher power).

There is one reasonably broad “sweet spot” in the calendar year during which it is POSSIBLE to see every Messier object, with the rotation of the Earth responsible for bringing the entire list to your tripod. This is, of course, only possible because clouds, the irregularity of the horizon (such as our trees to the South and Syracuse to our North), and your ability to remain awake all factor considerably in your success. This time of year is mid-March through early April.


For the reason for the catalogue, see the “What.” For the reason for the Marathon, well, why not? Despite some criticism of the Marathon you can find online, the Marathon provides a way for amateur astronomers to test their memorization of positions in the Night Sky and, important to those of us in CNY, pull out our optics and dust off our notebooks after two or three winter months of missed practice. Again, the Messiers are not simply a set of goals for an observing session, they are invaluable tools as guide posts for the identification of other objects. If the Constellations are “feet” in an astronomical ruler, their associated stars and the nearby Messier Objects serve as the “inches.”


An experienced Messier hunter can find the complete set of objects in a pair of 10×50 binoculars. As the goal to some Marathoners is “quantity, not quality,” a low-power pair of binoculars are best for both speed and movement (although your neck will begin to object to objects at your zenith). If I may sneak in a “tortoise and hare” comparison, there’s nothing wrong with finding 20 objects and enjoying the view. You have ALL YEAR to complete your Marathon. They’re not going anywhere!

NASA Space Place – Partnering to Solve Saturn’s Mysteries

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in December, 2012.

By Diane K. Fisher

2013february2_spaceplaceFrom December 2010 through mid-summer 2011, a giant storm raged in Saturn‘s northern hemisphere. It was clearly visible not only to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, but also astronomers here on Earth—even those watching from their back yards. The storm came as a surprise, since it was about 10 years earlier in Saturn’s seasonal cycle than expected from observations of similar storms in the past. Saturn’s year is about 30 Earth years. Saturn is tilted on its axis (about 27° to Earth’s 23°), causing it to have seasons as Earth does.

But even more surprising than the unseasonal storm was the related event that followed.

First, a giant bubble of very warm material broke through the clouds in the region of the now-abated storm, suddenly raising the temperature of Saturn’s stratosphere over 150 °F. Accompanying this enormous “burp” was a sudden increase in ethylene gas. It took Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument to detect it.

According to Dr. Scott Edgington, Deputy Project Scientist for Cassini, “Ethylene [C2H4] is normally present in only very low concentrations in Saturn’s atmosphere and has been very difficult to detect. Although it is a transitional product of the thermochemical processes that normally occur in Saturn’s atmosphere, the concentrations detected concurrent with the big ‘burp’ were 100 times what we would expect.”

So what was going on?

Chemical reaction rates vary greatly with the energy available for the process. Saturn’s seasonal changes are exaggerated due to the effect of the rings acting as venetian blinds, throwing the northern hemisphere into shade during winter. So when the Sun again reaches the northern hemisphere, the photochemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere can speed up quickly. If not for its rings, Saturn’s seasons would vary as predictably as Earth’s.

But there may be another cycle going on besides the seasonal one. Computer models are based on expected reaction rates for the temperatures and pressures in Saturn’s atmosphere, explains Edgington. However, it is very difficult to validate those models here on Earth. Setting up a lab to replicate conditions on Saturn is not easy!

Also contributing to the apparent mystery is the fact that haze on Saturn often obscures the view of storms below. Only once in a while do storms punch through the hazes. Astronomers may have previously missed large storms, thus failing to notice any non-seasonal patterns.

As for atmospheric events that are visible to Earth-bound telescopes, Edgington is particularly grateful for non-professional astronomers. While these astronomers are free to watch a planet continuously over long periods and record their finding in photographs, Cassini and its several science instruments must be shared with other scientists. Observation time on Cassini is planned more than six months in advance, making it difficult to immediately train it on the unexpected. That’s where the volunteer astronomers come in, keeping a continuous watch on the changes taking place on Saturn.

Edgington says, “Astronomy is one of those fields of study where amateurs can contribute as much as professionals.”

Go to saturn.jpl.nasa.gov to read about the latest Cassini discoveries. For kids, The space Place has lots of ways to explore Saturn at spaceplace.nasa.gov/search/cassini.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


Caption: This false-colored Cassini image of Saturn was taken in near-infrared light on January 12, 2011. Red and orange show clouds deep in the atmosphere. Yellow and green are intermediate clouds. White and blue are high clouds and haze. The rings appear as a thin, blue horizontal line.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/