Tag Archives: Zhumell

CNYO Observers Log: Comet ISON At Highland Forest, 15 November 2013

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

One of the benefits of spending your time in the sciences is the development of a healthy skepticism for science news that makes it out to the major print and online news services. Be it new findings on vitamins or “breakthroughs” in fusion, there’s often an astronomical difference between what appears in initial reports and what actually settles as established fact in the laboratory or marketplace. As one of my favorite radio personalities puts it (about military conflicts, but the logic applies) “The first three reports are always wrong.”

Comet ISON started out early this year with such headlines as “Comet Of The Century?” (and that was NASA), “ISON May Appear Brighter Than Full Moon As It Passes Earth,” (from HuffPo, among many others), and other all-too-optimistic accolades undeserving of an object for which almost nothing was known at the time. But it sounded good in the small news snippets that passed around many astronomy email lists. This last month has finally seen some more serious scientific questions raised in the media concerning its composition, actual brightness, flaring, etc., as real data has made its way to us for analysis. The final result, so far, is far from advertised early on. But coal to the eyes of a non-observer can be gold to to the eyes of an observer, so many an amateur has found time to make it outside to take in at least one view of Comet ISON.

It is with the above in mind that I report on a facebook-announced CNYO observing session for Comet ISON held on Friday, November 15th at the most unreasonable hour of 3:30 a.m. The attendees, including Ryan Goodson, Hanh Le, and myself, braved the bitter cold for a 30 minute drive South to Highland Forest, an all-around excellent location for enjoying the Night Sky (and, I am pleased to report, a future location of regularly-scheduled CNYO events for 2014. Post to follow!).

And why the 15th? There are many factors that govern when an observer will drag their equipment outside.

* The easy one is the weather – cloudy nights, bitter cold, or hot, swampy nights (and their associated mosquito infestations) leave the intrepid amateur to hang out at home and in the discussion forums on cloudynights.com.

* The second one is the presence or absence of the Moon. As our closest natural satellite, the Moon is one of the most enjoyable (and brightest) objects to spend one’s time exploring (and, with a clear window, can be done just as enjoyably indoors). The downside is that the lit Moon washes out the dim details of many a fuzzy nebula, galaxy, or comet. If the Moon is out, many an amateur astronomer isn’t. In the case of the morning of the 15th, the Moon set just before 4 a.m. (at which point something as dim in surface brightness as a comet becomes a much more tempting target).

* The third is the timing of the object itself. While much of what’s observed in the Night Sky lasts for hours at a time every night, certain events occur over relatively narrow windows. The occultation or transit of Jupiter’s moons is one, satellite or ISS fly-bys is another. Comet ISON at its then-current window was yet another one, as it rose quite close to the beginning of sunrise (“the beginning” meaning the start of brightening skies that would wash its detail out) and wasn’t going to appear at any more convenient a time prior to its closest approach to the Sun.

* The fourth is the combination of all three. During the week of the 11th, the skies were predicted to clear only at the end of the week, Comet ISON was set to rise later every morning in the East, and the Moon was set to set later and later in the West. Combined with increased cloud cover on the 16th, the early morning of the 15th became THE WINDOW for Comet ISON.

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The West and constellations from Highland Forest at 4:00 a.m. Click for full size.

The group convoy’ed out to a frosty Highland Forest and set up the scopes just to the East of the main building. As anyone who’s stopped at the building before or after a hike will know, the view from this location is remarkable, with a low tree line and steep-ish hill bracketing views of the Fenner Wind Farm towards the South and just a hint of Syracuse civilization towards the North. The Winter Constellations of Canis Major, Taurus and Orion just beginning to peak out at “reasonable hours” now were in full view to the West at 4:00 a.m. Comet ISON, while approaching uncomfortably low on the horizon for a Dob, was visible as a fuzzy 4th magnitude ball with a slight tail (most definitely an obvious object in Ryan’s New Moon Telescope Dob and my 25×100 Zhumell binos). The wind was just fast and gusty enough to keep us from finding Comet Lovejoy, which was at about 9th magnitude in the same sky (it will be a target for future observing sessions).

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Ryan Goodson sneaking a low peak at Comet ISON. Click for full size.

As of this posting on 30 November, ISON has just barely survived its trip around the Sun (earliest reports saying it had disintegrated, slightly later saying it may have survived as a dark ball, now more recent reports saying something with a tail has survived) but we don’t yet know if it’s going to be observable on its “way out.” Stay tuned to future reports.

2013 Perseid Weekend Part 2: Baltimore Woods Perseid Session And International Starry Night Event – August 12th, Marcellus, NY

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A view to the Southwest from the Baltimore Woods parking lot.

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.

Following the first of several updates on Perseid weather conditions by Dave Eichorn (LINK 1 and LINK 2) at syracuse.com and the event itself by Andrew Donovan at NewsChannel 9, Larry Slosberg and I met up with Bob Piekiel at Baltimore Woods for their official Perseid Session that CNYO was delighted to have listed as an International Starry Night event (see that background for this event HERE). The partially-to-mostly overcast skies all afternoon opened up around 8:30 p.m. (as Eichorn had predicted) to give us over two hours of excellent clear skies.

The total (and limited) equipment list for this session reflected the Perseid-centric nature of the session. Bob brought an his 11″ SCT, Larry brought his NMT 12″ Dob, and I brought my Zhumell 25×100’s and, again, a Canon Rebel T3i in the hopes of capturing a Perseid or two. Most importantly, all three of us had reclining chairs in tow for the end of the session (after our respective scope duties were completed for the evening).

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A view to the south from the Baltimore Woods parking lot.

A total crowd in the 35 to 40 range observed a total of 25 meteors over the two-hour session (9 p.m. to 11 p.m.) before clouds began to roll in. Those not reclined for the Perseid count were treated to some excellent scope views (Saturn and Venus being the early evening stand-outs), two ISS flybys at 9:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (both on the dimmer side but both captured and followed by several attendees), one very bright Iridium Flare, and lots of airplane traffic from the Southwest. I was fortunate to have several intrepid young observers around me for the observing session, so I spent quite a bit of time describing constellations and Messier objects and adjusting the big binos (and step stool) as the discussion progressed. Binocular views for the evening included Saturn (for comparison with the big scopes), the Moon, Albireo (with quite the neck strain to capture to color differences in these two stars), Alcor and Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper (to show another binary star system and the additional detail one gains from magnification), and a pre-nova Brocchi’ Cluster (the “Coathanger”) in Delphinus (to show how low magnification can reveal interesting objects that higher magnification simply won’t show in the eyepiece).

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Attendee reaction to headlights.

One of the “unavoidables” of observing sessions is the late arrival of attendees and their headlights, made all the brighter by the sensitization of observers already dark-adapted. One of the only problems with Baltimore Woods as an observing location is the proximity of the scopes to the front gate and parking lot. Two of the attendees were captured reacting to a later arrival (I dare not call them “late arrivals,” as everyone was there late) in the .gif above. Their captured (and long-held, as these were several second exposures each) poses speak volumes.

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Bob, Larry, and I in inaction action.

The crowd left around 11:00, leaving Bob, Larry, and I to enjoy a half-hour of scope-free meteor hunting as the clouds rolled in (maybe 3 total for the 1/2 hour). With a large patch of thick clouds moving in around 11:30 p.m., Bob began to pack up his gear. I had left the camera to capture images throughout and was able to capture one clear patch opening up just as Bob drove off (posted as a youtube video of the event and embedded below).

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.