April 8, 2020

“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...]

15.04.11: T Pyxidis in Outburst!

We interrupt this week’s regularly scheduled book review (which will run tomorrow) to bring notice to a recent celestial goings on. Early Thursday morning, AAVSO alert notice #436 graced our inbox; recurrent nova T Pyxidis is currently in outburst.

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AstroEvent: A Lunar Occultation.

Lunar occultations can be fun events to observe. As the moon continues its 27+ day long path around our planet, it sweeps out a 0.5 degree wide path and occasionally covers up a distant background star or planet. Such occasions can be fun events to observe, as the star winks out and later seems to pop back into existence from behind the lunar limb. Such an event occurs this Sunday, the night of March the 13-14th, as the waxing crescent Moon occults the semi-bright star Mu (µ) Geminorum.

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Tricks at the Eyepiece

Sure, you’ve got the gear, you’ve got the ultimate telescope, or maybe you just like to causally observe. But have you ever given much thought as to how to observe? The simple act of looking is so reflexive that most of us do it without a second thought. In the realm of astronomy, however, the use of a trained eye is paramount to enjoying what you’re seeing.

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AstroEvent: The Passage of 61 Cygni.

To the naked eye observer, the positions of the stars will appear pretty much the same on the day you die as the day you were born; stellar motion doesn’t add up to much over the span of a human lifetime. This week, however, we’ll look at an interesting configuration that just might show some changes through the telescope over the coming years; 61 Cygni. No less an authority than Burnham’s Celestial Handbook lists 61 Cygni as “historically one of the most interesting objects in the heavens.” A good double star for small telescopes, 61 Cygni lies within a few degrees of the bright star Deneb and is currently placed high in the west for northern hemisphere observers immediately after sunset.  Sometimes known as Bessel’s Star or Piazzi’s Flying Star, 61 Cygni attracted the attention of astronomers around 1800 after Giuseppe Piazzi noted a large proper motion for the pair of 5.22” per year towards a direction of position angle 52°. This is extremely fast, currently the seventh fastest known. The pair itself is just above the naked eye visibility threshold at about +5.2 magnitude, and are currently separated by 30+ arc seconds in its 653 year orbit. In fact, the pair of orange-hued stars will reach maximum apparent separation around 2100 A.D., and thus will continue to separate throughout our lifetimes. An interesting fact about the pair came to our attention via a letter published in the November 2010 Sky & Telescope magazine submitted by Richard Stanton of Three Rivers, California: Component A of the pair is currently “flying by” a distant 11th magnitude background star, and tracking its motion over the next few years could provide an interesting challenge. The constellation Cygnus is well placed in the summer months, but you can start acquainting yourself with the pair tonight. The coordinates of the pair are;

Right Ascension: 21h 06m 54s

Declination: +38° 44’ 45”

The background star should currently be approaching a position angle of 26° and a separation of 5” the summer of 2011 and will be at its closest apparent approach on the following year at a separation of less than 3”. Sketching or tracking the pair would be an interesting exercise in observing proper motion… an even more intriguing feat would be to construct a stop motion animation of the motion of the pair. Do give 61 Cygni a look over the next few years, and marvel at the slow change of movement in the heavens!

The astroword for this week is: Proper Motion. This is the apparent shift of stars against the background as seen from our particular vantage point in space. As we wheel about the core of our galaxy, nearby stars appear to slowly shift in position due to their differing relative motion. The measured proper motion is cumulative between the observed stars’ true radial motion and that of our own solar system; generally, the higher the proper motion, the nearer the star is to us. Think of observing a flock of birds passing by; the birds closer will appear to move faster. It was this fact that brought 61 Cygni to the attention of astronomers in the early 19th century; it wound up on a short list of target stars due to its large proper motion, as it was suspected to be nearby in the galactic hood. It achieved historical notoriety in 1838, when Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel successfully measured its stellar parallax at a tiny 0.29” (this was over the span of six months!) giving 61 Cygni a distance of 10.3 light years, close to the accepted value of 11.4. 61 Cygni was the first star to have its stellar parallax measured, and is now known to be the 14th nearest star system from our own Sun. As you look at the tiny pair this holiday season, remember its place in astronomical history and the role it played in discovering that the universe was indeed a vast place!


Observing from the ‘Hood’: Good Targets for Bright Skies.

If you’re like us here at Astroguyz HQ, you find yourself in the ‘burbs under increasingly brightening night skies. But you want to use that shiny new Christmas telescope, right? What follows is a list of objects that you can view tonight from the comfort of your backyard, can of beer and barbeque in hand. This list also serves as a peek at our star party faves, which can frequently occur under less than optimal skies; [Read more...]

Review: A Classic 1x Finder!

A true classic... (All photos by Author).

A true classic... (All photos by Author).


   Sometimes the simplest devices are the most ingenious. The week, we take a look at the astronomer’s secret weapon; the Telrad Finder. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with a telescope knows that accurate pointing is a true challenge. When you are sweeping the sky at even moderate magnifications, you may be looking at a field of view much smaller than the Full Moon, itself only the size of a fingernail at arm’s length. [Read more...]

24.06.10: SOFIA takes flight.

A unique airborne telescope is now open for business after what has seemed like endless delays. On May 26th, NASA’s SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy took flight to perform its first nighttime observations of the far infrared sky. And what a long road to flight it’s been… SOFIA was first proposed in the mid-90’s as a joint German DLR/NASA venture. The primary instrument consists of a 2.5 meter telescope (similar in size to Hubble) positioned perpendicular to the fuselage of a 747SP peering out a retractable cut away opening. SOFIA operates at a wavelength of 0.3 to 1600 microns, and at a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet should give diffraction limited views at wavelengths exceeding 15 microns. SOFIA needs this lofty perch to put it above 99% of the Earth’s water vapor absorbing atmosphere; at these altitudes, seeing is typically in the 2″ to 4″ arc second range. The entire project was brought back from the brink several times; in 2006, the plug was nearly pulled by Congress as the package had just neared completion! Even with cost overruns, flying telescopes aboard planes or balloons is still many times cheaper and easier than placing them into space… SOFIA is the logical predecessor of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a 0.9 meter IR telescope that flew aboard a modified C-141 cargo transport from 1974-95. Already, SOFIA is showing its stuff on its first observing runs, and is expected to reach a goal of 150 flights a year by 2014. Service life of SOFIA is expected to be 20 years, again far longer than that of any IR-dedicated space based telescope. SOFIA will operate out of NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility near Palmdale, California. The 747 is a special performance (designated by SP) edition, capable of long duration flights and a range of 6,600 miles, ideally suited for the SOFIA mission. Of the 45 747SPs built, only 14 remain flying, from those flown by several Middle Eastern VIPs to the one owned by televangelist Ernest Angley (!) These are marked by the distinctive “stubby” or shortened fuselage design built to cut down weight. Doubtless, SOFIA has been the noblest use of this unique airframe yet…but hey, we are biased towards all things astronomical. You’ve come a long way, baby!


Astro-Event of the Week: Can You Spy Sirius B?

This week’s challenge is a tough one, and may deserve a re-visit or two over the coming decade  to yield success. Everyone knows that Sirius is this brightest star in the sky, but did you know that it has a tiny, elusive white dwarf companion? Tough to locate, this +8.7 magnitude object currently lies at an apparent separation of 9” arc seconds and growing. Usually, that wouldn’t be a tough split, except for the fact that bright Sirius A swamps it out by its -1.42 magnitude brightness! To spot it, you’ll need a telescope of at least 4” aperture, high magnification, and clear, pristine skies. Also, an eyepiece equipped with an occulting bar could prove helpful; the trick is to cover up the bright primary to the northeast while Sirius B lies to the left at a south western position angle.

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Astro-Challenge: Spotting Two-Faced Iapetus.

As the majestic planet Saturn approaches opposition on March 21st, I’d like to turn your telescopic attention to one of the most bizarre moons in the solar system; Iapetus. It was way back when in the 17th century that Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini noted that he could only see Iapetus when it was to the west of the ringed planet, but never to the east. He correctly deduced that Iapetus must not only be tidally locked, that is, holding one face towards Saturn, but must be correspondingly dark on one hemisphere and brighter on the other. In fact, Iapetus is known to vary from magnitude +10 to magnitude +12 over its 79 day orbit, a variation of 6 times in terms of brightness. the Cassini space probe has confirmed the duality of Iapetus, showing us a dark leading hemisphere with an albedo of 5% (think fresh asphalt) and a trailing hemisphere with an albedo of about 50% (think dirty snow). The third largest of the Saturnian moons, Iapetus is a “walnut shaped” world, with a large ridge running the equator of this twisted moon. Discovered by Cassini on New Year’s Eve 2004, no satisfactory explanation for the ridge is known, but the little world must have had a tumultuous history.

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04.03.10- The Edgar Wilson Award: A Look at Last Year’s Winners.

In this age of astronomical automation and ever increasingly deeper sky surveys, many believe the era of the amateur comet discoveries to be over. A look at last year’s Edgar Wilson Award winners, however, tells a different tale. Established in 1998, this award has historically split a $20,000 purse among 2 to 6 individuals who have discovered a comet in an amateur capacity.

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02.10.09: A Small Observatory Helps with a Big Discovery.

When it comes to cutting edge astronomy, many think of lofty mountaintop behemoths, such as Keck, or the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. But how many of us think of… Gainesville, Florida? This article caught my eye this morning because its literally right in our backyard here at Astroguyz HQ in Hudson, Florida. As any would-be Floridian astronomer knows, the Sunshine State is not an optimal environment for astronomy, as humid, damp, East Coast conditions predominate. But that didn’t stop astronomers at the University of Florida in Gainesville from using the Rosemary Hill Observatory in nearby Bronson to help with observations of a transiting exoplanet; HD 80606b. 200 light-years distant, this hot-Jupiter is in an extremely eccentric orbit and was only recently realized to be a transiter, i.e. to occasionally pass in front of its host star as seen from Earth. Astronomers, however, were faced with a problem; the next transit was due occur June 4th of this year, when HD 80606b would be low in the twilight sky. This meant that observations of the eclipse could only occur over a short span from any given longitude. Enter U of F astronomers Ford, Reyes and Colon, who realized that Rosemary Hill might just be positioned to catch such an event. Located, as is most of Florida, at a scant 140 feet above sea level, Rosemary Hill may just qualify as the “lowest” observatory in the world. It sports 30” and 18” reflecting telescope(s), which are primarily used for education and training, as the U of F astronomers tend to travel to the “big guns” in the Canary Islands for “serious” research. The night of the 4th, however, Rosemary Hill showed its stuff; as a participating observatory in Massachusetts was clouded out, leaving the Gainesville astronomers as key to gathering data at their respective longitude. Colon noted that the experience of actually guiding the telescope and monitoring the star during transit was “definitely unique” and different from the remote observing now prevalent at larger observatories… the data gathered will go far towards understanding this bizarre exoplanet and its 111 day orbit. And the moral of the story is…every telescope can contribute, even your home town observatory!

29.9.9:Hubble Spies a Galactic Jet.

The formerly ailing Hubble Space Telescope spied something remarkable earlier this year; a rapidly expanding jet around the massive galaxy M87. Dubbed HST-1, this blob of matter is the first object with a Hubble designation, and has been tracked for over seven years. Brighter than the galaxies’ own core, the gas knot is 214 light years from the core and receding. M87 is visible in the constellation Virgo with a backyard telescope, and is part of the massive Virgo cluster of galaxies about 54 million light years away. The growth of the brightness of the jet expanded by 90 fold over the past decade, giving astronomers the opportunity to examine an active galactic nucleus in action. As the refurbished Hubble begins to strut its stuff, doubtless HST-1 will be an object of increased scrutiny!

Searching for Robert Burnham.

Sometimes, the quietest minds among us also have the most to share with the world.

Last month, on a warm summer’s day in August, the East Valley Astronomy Club, in connection with the Robert Burnham Jr. Memorial Fund, honored a man with the dedication of a small plaque placed on the Pluto walk at the Lowell Observatory. That man is probably the most unknown, but influential amateur astronomer of the 20th century; Robert Burnham Jr. a man that but for a singular colossal work, might have passed on into total obscurity. The book is Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, a three volume guide to the wonders of the night sky. [Read more...]

14.9.9:U Scorpii:A Nova in Waiting?

(Image credit & copyright courtesy of Mark A. Garlick; used by permission.

Please do not use this image in any way whatsoever without first contacting the artist).

Recurrent novae are among the rarest of beasts. While one-off galactic nova come and go throughout the year, recurrent novae are among those very few stars that have been known to exhibit nova-like flares multiple times. This week, I turn your attention towards U Scorpii, a known recurrent nova in the head of the constellation Scorpius. As the bright Moon is currently out of the evening sky, now and next month is the time to peek at this unique star before it slides behind the Sun. First discovered in 1863 by English astronomer N.R. Pogson during an outburst, U Scorpii stands as one of the fastest recurrent nova known, [Read more...]

Viewing the STS-125 launch and a Servicing Mission 4 Update.

On Monday, May 11th, 2009 at 2:01PM EDT local the Shuttle Atlantis blasted off on a historic mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope(HST) one last time. The day was blistering hot at the Kennedy Space Center(KSC), but the launch went off without a hitch. I’d like to share our notes on the launch viewing experience, as well as give you an update as to what’s happening in orbit.

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Review: The Universe in a Mirror by Robert Zimmerman.

NASA is going back to visit and old friend, one more time.

As we gear up for the collective adventure of the final (?) shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope (HST),  The Universe in a Mirror: the Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who built It by Robert Zimmerman serves as a fine look back at the history of the storied telescope, as well as a peek at where we might be headed. The tale of how Hubble came to be traces its origins back to past the dawn of the space age. Although much press, both good and bad, has been written on Hubble, much of its origin has never been told. The tale the author weaves in Universe is a fascinating look into the politics of NASA and how the telescope evolved over the periods of successive administrations. [Read more...]

Mirror Collimation; Some Tips & Tricks.

This week, we here at ye ole Astroguyz are going to delve into an oft avoided but crucial technique that will allow you to get the most out of your shinny new (or old!) reflecting telescope; the fine art of mirror collimation. Sure, nearly every owner’s manual gives you a how to, but I’m going to share some neat tricks learned in the field through years of mistakes and experience. Ready? Let’s collimate!

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