July 23, 2014

Week 8: Of Angles and Astrophysics

The CHIPS neutrino detector in the lab.

All photos by author.

Us men are forever looking for a clandestine domain to call our own. Batman has the Batcave, Superman has his Arctic Fortress of Solitude, and supervillians seem to be forever finding secluded islands on which to build their secret lairs. And while one could argue about the psychology that underpins the drive to head to such a remote locale, said heroes and villains would have plenty of islands to choose from in our present base of operations at Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota. [Read more...]

Week 7: Parks, Planetariums and More

Looking out over Lake Superior.

(All photos by author).

Well, it’s great to be up north in the summertime once again. Summer season, whether it’s in Wisconsin or our home of Northern Maine, is so drop-dead gorgeous that it can convince you to endure the depth of a long winter, one more time. Of course, it’s not that winter doesn’t have its own charms… and while the past week has seen us slow down our pace for the long Fourth of July weekend a bit, we did manage to take in some unique sites, along with a very distinctive planetarium. [Read more...]

Week 5: Amish, Aliens and Astronomy

Observatories, old and new at Yerkes…

All photos by author.

This past week, we ventured into the crossroads of two future eclipses.

Where will you be in 2017? Last week, we crossed paths with the upcoming total solar eclipse that will span the United States, now just over three years away. It’s not too early to start planning on where you’ll greet the Moon’s umbra now, as the residents of Hopkinsville Kentucky already know. [Read more...]

May 2014: Life in the Astroblogosphere: Two Ways to Observe the Universe

Astro-gear, old and new.

It was one of the biggest blessings and curses as a teenager and astronomy enthusiast growing up in Northern Maine back in the pre-internet days of the 1980’s.

An interest in astronomy – or any academic pursuit, for that matter – was largely a solitary affair, conducted mainly in a vacuum. Once I had devoured the two outdated books on astronomy or any topic of interest at the local public library, it was up to me to simply approach and learn the night sky. The Bangor Daily News ran one monthly column on astronomy by science writer Clair Wood, and the Farmer’s Almanac gave local rising and setting times for my location. [Read more...]

Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: On Vigilance and the One That Got Away

Look! There it is!

Credit-The Virtual Star Party.

Now the story can be told.

You just never know when the universe is going to dangle a discovery right in front of your eyes. We amateur astronomers often pride ourselves on being “visual athletes,” patient steely-eyed observers who let little slip by us.

But we too can fall into the trap of routine. Just such a discovery was ours to lose a few weeks ago during the weekly Virtual Star Party held every Sunday night hosted by CosmoQuest and Universe Today on Google+. [Read more...]

January 2014-Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Bizarro Astronomy

Our (Familiar?) Moon…

Photo by author

Weirdness is where you look for it. This was drove home to me while observing the Transit of Venus back in June 2012. While we strugged to grab a few brief views of the event through the pervasive cloud cover, we noted that life around us was going on pretty much as usual.

What else would we expect? Cars honked, dogs barked, kids played, all while a dim celestial event transpired just overhead, if you only knew where to look for it. [Read more...]

Astro-Vid Of the Week: Eclipse-Rise over KSC

Eclipse-Rise+VAB. (Photo by author).

Yesterday, we told the tale of our adventures in eclipse-chasing along the Florida Space Coast. The morning of Sunday, November 3rd 2013 found us on the Parrish Park causeway outside of Titusville, Florida shooting a frame of the eclipse every few seconds. We were fortunate that we had only a low cloud deck from the front that had passed through the day before, which provided us with just enough lingering clouds to be photogenic.   [Read more...]

November 2013-Life in the Astroblogosphere: Chasing the Saros

Eclipse-Sign! (Photos by Author).

It started with a tweet.

Towards the end of 2012, our thoughts turned, as they always do in the month of December, toward the top 100 astronomical events of the coming year. Eclipses always make this compilation, and we duly noted that totality for 2013 would only occur during the brief hybrid eclipse of Sunday, November 3rd. [Read more...]

July 2013-Life in the AstroBlogosphere: Who’s Who in the AstroTwitterverse

Astrophoto-shoot take 2;

note inclusion of AstroLab!

Recently, we wrote up an article on The New Social Face of Astronomy for the August 2013 issue of Sky &Telescope. Among the many cyber-corners and crannies of ye ole Internet that we explored was the world of Twitter. Twitter is a great source of fast breaking information, tailor made for certain aspects of astronomy such as meteorite falls, satellite reentries, new comet discoveries and nova flare-ups. [Read more...]

Life in the Astro-Blogosphere May 2013: They’re Out There, Man…

Why yes, we HAVE seen the ISS!

You just never know when you’ll come face-to-face with Woo.

We recently wrote about Comet ISON on Universe Today and how conspiracy crackpots are already lining up to capitalize on the projected “Comet of the Century.” It’s really win-win for them; if the comet lives up to expectations, there’ll be lots to hype, and if it’s a fizzle, hey, NASA’s “secret mission” must’ve taken it out…

[Read more...]

April 2013: Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Astronaut or Rockstar?

1st band in space? (Credit: NASA/STS-110).

What did you want to be when you grew up? Of course, this tired old saw of a question assumes that you’re already a mortgage-paying, car-pooling adult who has had those childhood dreams tempered by reality. Hey, we all know that one guy or gal in our home town that got exactly what they wished for. For example, I knew a friend in high school that spent every waking hour drawing, designing and talking about car stereo boxes… and guess what? That’s what he does to this day. (Hopefully, the whole Ipod thing didn’t ruin his grandiose business schemes). [Read more...]

March 2013 Life in the Astro-Blogosphere: Living the NASASocial Experience.

Smartphones in Action!

(All photos by author.)

Ah, the romantic life of a free-lance science writer. Writing offers you the freedom to set your own hours and wake up slowly when you feel like it; it also earns one the right to “sing for their supper” and starve feral and in the wild, often on their very own time table. But along with the triumphs and tragedies that go with modern day writing online, you also tend to miss human interaction and that convergence of like-minded souls. [Read more...]

Exploring the Roper Mountain Science Center & the Charles E. Daniel Observatory.

The Daniel Observatory open & ready for

action!

(All photos by Author except as noted).

We love telescopes, old and new. Recently, we had a chance to explore a gem of an observatory nestled in the foothills just outside of Greenville, South Carolina. As we reported in Week 3 of our journey throughout the U.S. southeast, Greenville is the heart of all that is hip in western South Carolina. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Roper Mountain Science Center and the Charles E. Daniel Observatory houses a fine piece of astronomical history. [Read more...]

Week 6: Homeward Bound.

Sights near & far!

(All photos by Author).

Home. As Mad Max might say, “wherever you go, well, there you are,” but in the end, it’s great to come back into your own domain. Well, at least until you look at the pile of mail and backed up writing projects (such as finishing this six week article) that lies ahead. But just as Batman has his Batcave and Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, we too have Astroguyz HQ, wherever on this Big Blue Marble it might currently be located. The last week of 2012 saw us make the pilgrimage from South Carolina across Georgia and back into the great state of Florida. [Read more...]

Week 5: Down the (Future) Path of Totality.

The author & friends at the DoubleTree Hotel in

downtown Charleston, South Carolina!

(All pics by author).

It’s never too early to start planning, especially when it comes to solar eclipses. Week five of our southeastern sojourn saw us travel down the same path that the 2017 total solar eclipse will take over the Carolinas. We left the solitude and dark skies of the Appalachians as chronicled in Week 4 of the great American Road trip and headed back into civilization… and what a welcome it was!

[Read more...]

Week 4-The Quest for Dark Skies: Into the Appalachians.

A very slender Moon…

(All photos by Author).

The mountains always beckon. In the end, all astronomers must heed the call of dark, pristine skies and head into the foothills beyond the suburban lowlands in search of the universe only hinted at from our backyards. This past week we did just that in our week four installment of the great American Road Trip as we explored the U.S. Southeast and beyond. And, hey, we arrived under pristine skies just in time for this year’s Geminid meteor shower!

One Geminid of MANY seen!

Sunday saw a breakfast that couldn’t be beat at the Nosedive Bar and our departure from Greenville, South Carolina. As reported in week three of our 4-state spanning sojourn, we thoroughly enjoyed this town, a hip Portlandia-esque oasis in the South.

An armillary sphere-spotting at the Red Horse Inn!

A short drive saw us posed to hop across the North Carolina border in Landrum, South Carolina. Actually, we crisscrossed the border twice into “The North,” hitting the two outstanding wineries of Green Creek & the remarkable Overmountain Vineyards. We stayed at the charming Red Horse Inn in Landrum, where we consumed our days’ booty (a bottle of wine) under the stars in the hot tub adjoining our cabin. The Red Horse Inn would make an excellent star-gazing destination, as a short trip down the road finds you in total darkness away from the cottage lights… this would also make a fine group astronomy expedition area, especially as a good jumping off point for the graze line of the August 2017 total solar eclipse passing over the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area just to the west.

Mmmm… beer… line ‘em up!

For our next adventure we headed northward into Asheville, North Carolina. If Greenville is the Portland (Oregon) of the South, Asheville is its Seattle, set long before Grunge became a name brand. We stayed at the enormous Grove Park Inn, a massive hotel complex perched just outside the city. Asheville itself is a wonderful, rambling city sprawling over dozens of foothills that put us in mind of Amman, Jordan, repleate with art spaces and breweries instead of mosques and sheesha bars. The Arts District alone was fascinating, as was the encaustic work of Constance Williams. Hey, we’d never even heard of encaustic in our High School Art I & II days! The Moog factory was also a fascinating stop. Based in Asheville, Moog has been the proud manufacturer of keyboards and synthesizers since 1978. And hey, who knew that they still make the theremin? Sheldon would be glad know… check out the action on Moog’s YouTube and Twitter feeds!

At Moog, where the theremin still reigns!

After hitting the local Asheville  Brewing Company and a fine Tapas meal at Cúrate, it was off to Mars Hill, North Carolina and the Scenic Wolf Resort for a night of dark sky observing. Located at about 4,000 feet elevation in the shadow of Mount Mitchell (the highest peak in the Appalachians) our cabin afforded a fine view of the 2012 Geminid meteors. And this was none too soon, as BBC 5 Live called us up that very night for a Skype interview! With a limiting magnitude of +5.5, I’d say that the Geminids put on one of the best displays in recent memory, with dozen several meteors seen gracing the sky before midnite!

The skies over Mars Hill, North Carolina.

But alas, we had to depart the beloved darkness for light-polluted climes all too soon. Having reached the northernmost apex of our journey, our ingress into society saw a brief stop in exotic Lincolnton, North Carolina… more to come next week!

 

In Search of the Green Flash & More in Naples, Florida!

A Florida Gulf Coast sunset!

(All photos by author).

Sometimes, you have to go just beyond your own backyard to catch what you’ve traveled the world for and never seen. Earlier this week saw the start of our triumphant “return to the road,” and our grand tour of the U.S. southeast. We’ll be reporting on our adventures from the road weekly, and of course, you can always follow our daily escapades, musings, and ramblings on Twitter @Astroguyz, 3G willing. [Read more...]

Astro-Challenge: The Stars of Apollo 1.

Apollo 1 & the mission patch that never flew. (Credit: NASA).

What’s in a name? When it comes to stars in astronomy, a curious and often confusing system has arisen over the years; many stars are known by multiple designations from numerous surveys and catalogs done over the centuries, while many of the brighter stars have familiar designations handed down from Arab astronomers that remain fixed in our cultural lexicon. Say the name “Alpha Virginis” and you many get quizzical stares at the next star party, but everyone knows good ‘ole Spica as the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, even if few of us recall its obscure translation as the “ear of wheat”. Interestingly, even murkier stellar names seem to be making a comeback as various GOTO telescopes know exhort us to slew to “Cursa” or center “Thuban”…

This week, I’d like to draw your attention to three stellar names honoring a crew of brave pioneers that have made their way into the modern lexicon and even publication on some star maps. 45 years ago this week on January 27th, 1967, astronauts Roger Chaffee, Edward White, and Virgil “Gus” Grissom perished in a fire that engulfed the cabin of their Apollo 1 spacecraft during a training simulation. The tragedy was the worst that NASA had experienced up until that time. In fact, the argument has been made that the resolve and safety overhaul that resulted from the fire was what allowed NASA to step back, reassess, and make that ultimate drive towards the Moon. The final week of January into early February has also marks two other tragedies in the history of NASA, with the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew during launch on January 28th, 1986 and the destruction of Columbia and her gallant crew upon re-entry on February 1st, 2003. Space travel is a hazardous business, and the very fact that we as a nation and a species were able to pick up and press on marks the resolve embodied by these brave men and women.

Over the years, these astronauts have been memorialized by the naming of schools, landmarks, and more. In the case of the Apollo 1 astronauts, craters on the Moon and hills on Mars are named in their honor, as well as a plaque entitled the “Fallen Astronaut” containing their names along with those of Russian cosmonauts that perished in Soyuz 1, 11, and training accidents that was placed at Hadley Rille by Apollo 15 astronauts. But another quiet tribute rests in the springtime sky, one with a fascinating tale…

The Fallen Astronaut Memorial on the Moon (Credit: NASA/Apollo 15).

Astronauts used stellar targets to find their way during their missions to the Moon, much like ancient seafaring mariners. This enabled them to get an accurate fix on their position in time and space. This method also gave astronauts the autonomy to navigate without the help of ground control and  would have been crucial in an emergency situation if communications had been damaged. Much of this celestial training was conducted at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1966. The story goes that Command Pilot Gus Grissom conspired to have the crew of Apollo 1′s names inserted for 3 of the more obscure 36 target stars in the flight navigation manual. A November 1966 checklist later surfaced depicting the ‘revisions’ and backing up the story!

A common mis-conception is that these three stars were named in honor of the Apollo astronauts, but in fact, they themselves placed their reversed monikers among the stars, which then came into common use after the Apollo 1 fire. Astronauts can even be heard on later mission tapes referring to the Apollo 1 “stars” by their names, and they have also found their way into various star charts. The good news is that late northern hemisphere winter into early spring is a fine time to find these three modern wonders of astronomical lore; all three shine at easy naked eye visiblibility threshold in the evening skies;

Navi, a finder chart. (Graphics created by the Author using Starry Night).

Right Ascension: 00 Hours 56’ 43”

Declination: +60° 43’ 00”

The northernmost Apollo star is “Navi,” backwards for “Ivan” as in Virgil “Ivan” Grissom. Located in the central “pivot” of the “W” asterism in the constellation Cassiopeia, this star is also referred to as Gamma Cassiopeia or “Tish” in Chinese, meaning “The Whip”. Navi is an eruptive variable star with a close spectroscopic white dwarf or neutron star companion. Earlier in the 20th century Navi attained a peak brightness of magnitude +1.6 in 1936, outshining the other stars of Cassiopeia. Navi rides high in February skies immediately after sunset.

Dnoces rising!

Right Ascension: 08 Hours 59’ 12”

Declination: +48° 02’ 30”

Dnoces” as in “Second” backwards for Edward White “The Second,” is located in the constellation Ursa Major and is also referred to as Iota Ursa Majoris or Talitha, meaning “The third leap” in Arabic. Dnoces is an interesting close multiple star system first noticed by John Herschel in 1820. The  magnitude +3.12 A component has a 9th magnitude B component that was at 10” arc seconds of separation on discovery that closed down to 4.4” and closing as of 1969. The B component in turn has a faint 10 magnitude companion on a 39.7 year orbit that will reach a maximum separation from the primary of 0.9” (tiny but perhaps just spilt-able with a large scope under excellent seeing!) in 2020. The entire system is about 48 light years distant. Dnoces rises around 10 PM for middle northern latitudes in February and earlier during the following months.

Suhail… or do you say Regor?

Right Ascension: 08 Hours 09’ 32”

Declination: -47° 20’ 12”

Regor” The southernmost of the three Apollo 1 stars, is also known as Gamma Velorum in the constellation Vela. This star also has the obscure name of Suhail and is one of the brighter stars in the southern sky shining at +1.7th magnitude. Regor is a Wolf-Rayet variable star and one of the most massive known at 10 times the mass of our own Sun. The system is also a complex one comprising no less than 6 stars, tying Castor for the title of most stars in one system. Gamma Velorum is a binocular double, with a blue-white +4.2 magnitude sub-giant companion about 41” arc seconds distant. A telescope will tease out further companions C (+8 magnitude, sep 62”) and D and E (magnitudes +9 & +13 respectively) 2” apart and 94” from the primary. The entire complex system is about 800 light years distant along the galactic plane.  From our 28° degree north latitude vantage point here at Astroguyz HQ in Hudson, Florida, Regor has a maximum elevation of about 16° degrees on the meridian at midnite local on February 1st, then progressively earlier in the evening as spring arrives.

Apollo 1 astronauts during a test checkout of the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA).

What I really love about the Apollo 1 stars is the wry thought put into naming them that the astronauts obviously gave; “Regor, Dnoces, and Navi” all sound suitably cryptic and simply sound “stellar”… one could image a pedantic astronomy professor utilizing them, or a sci-fi flick entitled “Invaders from Regor!!!” As we mark the anniversary of the fire that marred the Apollo program and shaped NASA, make a point to get out and spot these stars that pay tribute to these fine brave men and the legacy that they gave us!