April 18, 2014

Addendum: Further Asteroid Occultation Highlights for 2013.

The January 26th path of the 106 Dione

occultation over the US SE.

(Created by the author using Google Earth).

You asked, and we answered. No sooner than our “Astronomy Top 100” hit the cyber-doorstep than we received “what about event X?” from several astute readers and lovers of the cosmos.  We love the feedback. That what makes this site tick and makes every year’s list of must-see events ever more weird and wonderful, just like the cosmos itself. [Read more...]

Variable Star Observing 101.

An artist’s conception of an accreting binary system. (Credit: NASA).

Bored and looking for something new to do in astronomy? Tired of hauling out that imaging rig you took out a 2nd mortgage for just to see “how M31 looks in my 10-inch SCT tonight?” Let me introduce you to the fun field of variable star observing, an exciting endeavor that you can actually contribute some real science to. But first, a little history; [Read more...]

“Trick-out” your Scope!

Our “Star-Party Special!” (All images by Author).

So, you’ve got that brand new Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cass, and you’re looking at making a few add-ons to assure your look isn’t entirely “stock”? Like digital cameras, one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life-time is the purchasing of a first telescope. True, the technology changes so quickly, today’s cutting edge instrument is tomorrow’s old tech. These days, some of said technology has even moved online, with programs such as Slooh and the like…  [Read more...]

Review: AstroMags.

 

Two of the leading competitors for your astro-dollar!. (Photo by Author).

Two of the leading competitors for your astro-dollar!. (Photo by Author).

 

  If you’ re like us, the modern electronic era has seen our magazine subscriptions dwindle over the last decade. Gone are the piles of magazines threatening to take over our attic or garage, as we consume more and more of our information digitally. No field changes quicker than astronomy, and up to the minute info is what we all seek on the new comet or solar flare activity that may or may not be eminent. But is there still room for astronomy magazines in our ever-dwindling astro-budget? [Read more...]

Review: Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope.

World Wide Telescope Logo.

World Wide Telescope Logo.

 

The market for astronomical online software has really exploded in the past few years, and amateur astronomers and educators have reaped the benefit. What was offered by many companies for prices sometimes over 100$ a pop now can be had for free. Programs such as HNSky, Stellarium, and Google Earth all offer Planetarium-style software that can be run right on your desktop. This week, we’ll look at Microsoft’s entry into the market with their World Wide Telescope (WWT).

One thing that initially struck me about the WWT was the ease for loading and use. Several larger astronomy programs have a knack for crashing or locking up mere mortal computers that many of us employ in the field. Released in early 2008, it runs pretty seamlessly for a Beta application. And this isn’t just a knock off of Google Earth; WWT gives you full access to a spectrum of surveys, from Hubble, WMAP to 2-MASS and more. The WWT promises unrestricted access to astrophysical data in an online community format. I’m particularly interested to see what users do with this access and the homemade tours they produce.

WWT Telescope II.

M92 Globular Cluster screenshot.

So, how useable is this software for in the field astronomy? Well, WWT does come with telescope controlling capability via the popular ASCOM series of controllers; in theory, one should be able to download the software plus the ASCOM drivers, connect and configure the telescope, and use it to point the instrument at various objects. Most new telescopes are now of the GOTO variety, although I’ve used similar software in a manual pointing capacity. I’ve heard of some users having difficulty getting the WWT to work in this regard…we welcome any personal success/failure stories as we have not yet attempted the use of WWT in this mode.

As a simulator, WWT does the job pretty well. For an example, we simulated next month’s South Pacific eclipse from various locales, and the WWT performed flawlessly. While use of the time controls and spatial location is pretty straight forward, we would like to see the inclusion of a local horizon and transit meridian to get a sense of our local bearings… an overall orientation does exist in the lower right side of the control panel but a plug-in addressing this would be handy, lest your telescope start pointing at the ground…

WWT Telescope III.

WWT Screenshot…its full of stars!

Which brings us to what I believe is the WWT’s greatest asset; its use for education. Star party clouded out? WWT would be a tremendous backup resource with its numerous tours of the sky; just keep in mind that it’s not a true “stand-alone” program as it does require an Internet connection to operate in the field. Right click on an object, and it gives you a quick look list of data. The format for star info is particularly refreshing… it gives you proper name, SAO, and just about any other pertinent catalog designation, all in one shot. This eliminates tedious cross referencing, as your scope may refer to a star by its esoteric forgotten medieval name (!) while you’re trying to hunt it down by SAO designator…

And heck, WWT is just plain fun to play with… I love the ability to probe the universe in infrared goggles, or pan around the Phoenix Lander site. Now in its second year, I’m really interested to see what folks will do with this new web-based tool and how new data will be integrated.  One could easily see amateur astronomers banding together to use the data to scout out new comets or asteroids, or creating historical, you-are-there tours of the cosmos, or perhaps simply sharing their latest images or favorites via the community. You can never have too many planetarium programs, and WWT makes a worthy and unique addition to any growing collection.

WWT screenshot.

Screenshot; exploring the Phoenix landing site with the WWT!

Imaging Satellites: A Low-Tech Method.

Portable Satellite Tracking "Station". (All Photos by Author).
Portable Satellite Tracking “Station”. (All Photos by Author).

We here at Astroguyz have been working for some time on an interesting technique for capturing photographs of satellites, and by popular demand, we wanted to give a brief rundown at how we were ultimately successful. Go out star-gazing on any clear night, and it’s only a matter of minutes before you’ll notice a star or two that slide silently by. [Read more...]

Spotting Space Launches; Prime Sites for Free Viewing.

New Horizons Launch! (Credit & Copyright: Ben Cooper, ).

 (Credit & Copyright: Ben Cooper, launchphotography.com ).

   I’m always surprised how many everyday (i.e. non-space buffs!) I meet that fail to realize that space shots are visible to millions on almost a monthly basis. It’s almost as if the space program is this exotic thing that happens in strange and remote places, far from the eyes of the general public. But the reality is that it may be easier to spy a launch than you might think, and anyone can easily see the International Space Station or the Space Shuttle with the naked eye while it’s in orbit. There are about a half dozen spaceports worldwide that see at least monthly action, but for this post, we’ll talk about the two most famous; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Center. 

Last year, we were able to attend the STS-125 launch at the KSC; prices for general admission currently go for about $38 dollars US. Viewing was from the visitor center complex grounds, and while I wouldn’t deter anyone from the experience, we were still quite some distance away! You won’t see the shuttle sitting on the pad, and it will only be visible seconds after it clears the tree-line. It’s interesting to note that while the mainstream media generally ignores the manned spaceflight program, tickets for launch viewing also tend to sell out fast. In fact, if the quick sellout of tickets for next week’s STS-132 mission are any indication, a vast counter-movement of space enthusiasts exists that isn’t being served by the mass media. In fact, STS-132 viewing tickets appeared on EBay at magnitudes above the sale price hours after the sellout!

Launch of Atlantis STS-98. (Credit: NASA/Pat. McCracken).

Launch of STS-98. (Credit: NASA/Pat McCracken).

The good news is you don’t have to sell the car (or a kidney) to see a launch. Several off-site areas exist where you can spy launches. If you find yourself along the Florida space coast or in the Orlando area, I invite you to keep an eye on the sky… we can even spot launches from the backyard of Astroguyz HQ, about 100 miles to the west! What follows are some tips and advice, both official and unofficial, from readers, followers, sources and personal trial and error experiences.

The first and foremost thing you’re going to want is information. When is the next launch? SpaceFlightNow is a daily “must look at” for us; it updates launches and schedules of spaceports worldwide. Keep in mind; there are only three shuttle launches left in the program! Unmanned launches are always cool as well, and look dramatically different in appearance as their payload is generally lighter than the multi-million ton shuttle. Launches out of the Cape also tend to have a more easterly track out to sea, while shuttle launches have to match up with the International Space Station in its 51.6° degree orbit and thus follow a more northeasterly track up the U.S. seaboard. For in-the-field satellite tracking, I point you towards the outstanding stand-alone free-ware resource Orbitron; just remember to update those TLEs occasionally to assure currency. Celestrak is also another ultimate resource for data, and CALsky will even give you custom built e-mail alerts for such events as dockings, solar and lunar transits, and decaying satellites. And don’t forget to follow @Astroguyz on Twitter for the latest launch updates!

Waterway to Orbit

“Waterway to Orbit”  (Credit & Copyright:  James Vernacotola). 

The official NASA page lists some areas of interest for off-site viewing: It also mentions that audio transmissions for amateur radio operators are at 146.94 MHz and boaters can tune to Channel 16 VHF-FM for Coast Guard instructions on restricted areas during launch. Keep in mind, boats aren’t allowed north of mile marker 15 on the Banana River, and photography from a moving boat may be tricky, though not impossible.

An interesting site complete with diagramed maps comes to us via Peter Vidani and his Space Shuttle Launch Viewing Recommendations. He notes that Port Canaveral has the optimal viewing locale for launches out of the Cape, but may be used for KSC launches as well. Parrish Park is noted as another prime site, as it is only 12 miles from launch pad 39A. Construction at the Max Brewer Bridge has, however, limited parking. He also notes that while Space View Park is wired up with an audio feed from Mission Control; arrive early, as it gets very crowded!

Veteran launch photographer Ben Cooper also echoes the above, stating that; “Space View Park is definitely a fan favorite, because it has trees and monuments and a pier…a very nice place compared to just being at the side of the road or something. (As for) Tips and tricks…get there early, earlier is always better even if it is too early, you can’t go wrong getting a good spot. Everyone arrives at different times but leaves at once, so expect major traffic jams after the launch or scrub.” Make sure you are also flexible in your viewing plans, as launches can and do frequently scrub. High profile launches, such as last year’s Hubble repair or the final up-and-coming shuttle flight draw the largest crowds, but even a run of the mill telecommunications launch can be interesting… you might even catch something unusual, such as when the Solar Dynamics Observatory “pierced” a solar halo during launch earlier this year! Mr. Cooper’s site also gives an excellent rundown of Titusville viewing areas, as well as examples of his own launch photography.

430072main_sdowaves_full

SDO and Sundog! (Credit: NASA/Anne Keslosky).

Generally speaking, a night launch will provide a better contrast against the night sky; I usually shoot a few calibration shots before launch to have some idea of what shutter speeds I can get away with; remember, digital film is cheap. My usual setup is a video camera mounted and running on a tripod and a hand held DSLR, with NASA TV running in the background. Keep in mind that NASA TV does have a time delay; you may well see the shuttle a few seconds before launch is broadcast. Dawn and dusk launches are the ultimate, such as the recent outstanding STS-131 launch. Keep an eye on the sky directly afterwards, as glowing neon clouds may be seen high in the Earth’s atmosphere. These are the results of condensation in the wake of a launch contrail, and can be equally photogenic.

Some photography tricks I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, are as follows;

-          Be ready and flexible for changing light conditions; a night-time launch can quickly turn into daytime conditions. I always shoot on manual, and try to pre-focus on a bright planet or the Moon if available.

-          Know your equipment: this is a basic one that’s often overlooked. Give all gear a through “shakedown” before launch day and make sure all batteries are topped off… in astrophotography, the devil frequently lurks in the details!

-          Scout out a good foreground; scenery can make a good photo great. Such landmarks as the Disney castle, the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge in Ponte Vedra, palm trees, or the Moon add individuality to a shot. Check the azimuth of the launch pad against your viewing position so you know where the launch will be visible before hand; if you use the same sight frequently, note any land marks for future use.

-          Finally, don’t shoot video in the vertical position! I know this from my own experience; I failed to realize during the STS-125 launch that the software wouldn’t “de-rotate” the video the same as stills. Hey we’re big enough to admit our own mistakes.

-          Binocs are handy for sighting booster separations; I’ve seen the SRB detachment from a 100 miles away with our Canon IS 15x45s.

-          And don’t forget those non-photography related issues; be prepared for heat, UV, and bugs in the summer; Florida nights in the winter can be surprisingly chilly. Twitter follower @Dangerbarrow ) suggests packing a lunch, arriving several hours early and viewing from Titusville on the river would a fine way to spend a launch spotting-day.   

Off beat viewing suggestions? Here are a few unique ideas that readers have batted our way;

Why not view the launch from a kayak? Adventure Central offers a unique tour viewing from Mosquito Lagoon that gives you an unrestricted and unique vantage point.  While not free, the $32 is a fraction of the KSC viewing price. Thanks to our friend Donna Frose teaching in Quito, Ecuador for sending this one our way!

Florida residents can also write their congress-person and request to view a launch; most elected officials in Florida recognize the value of the space industry and are thrilled to give their constituents a chance to see it in action, up close. Thanks to Ruth Arnold in Miami for bringing this to our attention.

Finally, why not join a NASAtweetup? These media events are raffled off periodically, and provide up-close access to launches and interviews with astronauts. Entry is open to anyone over 18 years of age with a Twitter account; simply follow the NASAtweetup page religiously, as event notifications frequently come and go.

And speaking of which, we here at Astroguyz are T-minus one week until departure for the STS-132 launch and the NASAtweetup! Follow this space as we track Atlantis in its final flight to the International Space Station…we promise we’ll keep the video camera in horizontal mode this time!     

DSC_0491

STS-131 launch as seen from Astroguyz HQ! (Photo by Author).  

Editor’s Note: And for those partaking in a day tour of the KSC, check out these money saving tips from Wise Bread.com!

A Home-made Solar Filter for Cheap.

Filter Cell.

Never Drink & (Solar) Observe! (All photos by Author).

Solar observing is just plain cool. While some celestial objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy will look exactly the same on the day you die as when you were born, the face of the Sun can change day to day, or even minute to minute. As we are currently in the depths of a solar minimum, now is the time to construct a white-light filter and prepare for those sunspots and faculae that will start to creep across the face of our nearest star in the next few years. [Read more...]

Constructing the Very Small Optical Observatory.

VSOO.

The Very Small Optical Observatory in its heyday. (All Photos by Author).

Ahhh… eternal the lure of having ones’ own observatory. Batman has the Bat-cave, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, and sooner or later, every astronomer heeds the siren song of having a place he and his mammoth telescope can call home. The perks are many fold; an observatory means you spend more time observing, not lugging, setting up, aligning, watching the clouds roll in, and packing it all back in. This week, I’m going to tell you the tale of how I built my own modest shrine to the stars, cheaply and quickly. [Read more...]

Your own Personal Astronomer: Tucson’s Flandrau Observatory.

Flandreau.

Cell Phone Astrophotography: The Moon & the 16-inch. (Photo by Author).

Looking for an affordable, innovative date? One of the kept secrets in the deep Arizona desert is absolutely free; I give you a night of star gazing and cosmic conundrums at the Flandrau Observatory, adjoining with the Science Center of the same name. Located on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Arizona, the dome boasts a 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector and a knowledgeable telescope operator to go with it.  How do I know this? Because I myself was one such operator during the heady days of 2006, and could easily state that the experience was one of the most rewarding of my life. [Read more...]

My Next ATM Project

Wolf Moon.


The Largest Full Moon of the Year. (Photo by Author).

Hey, how about that Full Wolf Moon this past weekend? We here at Astroguyz HQ managed to shoot some rising stills on Saturday, as well as put together a hyper cool video;

But on to this week’s post. This time around, I would like to make a proposal, and a challenge, mostly to myself. Loyal fans will remember my first voyage into amateur telescope making with the <50$ Stovepipe Scope. [Read more...]

Free Tools for the Renegade Scientist.

The motto here at ye’ ole Astroguyz could be “never pay good money for what you can snark for free online”…many a good stone has been spent on tools or applications that can be found, with a little thought, for free online. [Read more...]

Family Backyard Stargazing

We here at Astroguyz firmly believe that astronomy begins in the home.

    During warm summer nights, simple star gazing can be a fun family event or a fuss free date. Many think that astronomy involves expensive astronomical equipment and Carl Sagan-like knowledge of the stars; [Read more...]

Making a Newtonian Reflecting Telescope for less than 50$USD

Telescope.

Stove-pipe Telescope plus Lab! (All Photos by Author).

Most amateur astronomers harbor a secret passion to, at some point, build their own telescope. Constructing a telescope puts you in a select realm of Amateur Telescope Makers (ATMS), and gives you intimate knowledge of how telescopes and optics really work. Another plus is as with anything, be it a house or a scope, if you want features to your own exact specifications, your always best off to build it yourself. Mass produced equipment generally means compromise. And until about the 1950s (when the concept of mass producing everything first came in vogue), if you wanted your own telescope, you had to build it from scratch. [Read more...]

Starting into Astronomy: To Buy (Or not Buy) a Telescope?

   One of the questions I most frequently recieve is “what kind of telescope should I buy as a beginner or for a child?”  Certainly there is a lot of pitfalls to avoid, and very few hands on resources to test drive a potential new scope.  [Read more...]