The big gun

It seems that updating my astronomy blog hasn’t been a top priority in the recent past. My reasons are many, one of which is now a toddler that makes me very proud when he points out the moon and tells me what it is. Naked Eye Astronomy before he’s even two and a half is pretty cool! Someday I’ll let him near a telescope, but first he needs to get past his urge to randomly go full-bore Godzilla on his surroundings with little or no warning. There’s also the way he can delight himself utterly when he grabs things while his hands are covered in juice or syrup, neither of which are recommended for use with optics. I’ll admit I’m absolutely dying to get to a point where I can share a view through the eyepiece with him, but like so many things, sometimes waiting is part of the journey.




Here we see an average toddler at play



Speaking of waiting, I’m currently doing a lot of that with some newly acquired astronomy gear. Every year Celestron puts the Edge HD scopes (and mount combos) on sale, every year I look at the C1100HD and CGEM DX mount combo and ask myself why I’m not buying it. Usually I answer “because it’s still a lot of money , dude”. Well, NO MORE! I finally did it after a gentle push from my wife, to whom I’m forever grateful. One of my life goals is to become proficient in the art of astrophotography and this was my first big step.

I have now three other telescopes, my 80mm f/6 refractor, one of the very last 102mm f/11 refractors ever made/re-badged by Stellarvue and a C800HD, the last of which is my most used. Wanting to take the photographic plunge, I needed a new mount anyway and the sale price for the 11″ combo was crazy good. To make sure it works, since the concept “getting what you pay for” seems as amplified by telescopes as the light they collect, I decided to have the mount “hyper-tuned” and shipped it out the day it arrived. She’s a beast, and I’m dying to get out under the stars, but it’s best to get this out of the way now. It’s a big scope though, so a big mount is needed, the primary mirror is 11″, so that means the rest of it needs to be substantial enough to hold a pretty big slab of glass.




The mount is not pictured, it was already shipped out when I took this. Mug is for scale, not the neon green catnip banana.


Photography clearly requires a camera, but it may not be so clear to the uninitiated that long exposure astrophotography typically takes something specialized for the task. In some sense, almost anything will do, a smartphone can even work, sort of. But if you want a good result, you have to get something that will push the ability to capture faint light. As many recommend, I’m starting with a Canon DSLR. I bought a used T3i on ebay and I’ve sent it out to have it modified too, in this case to allow the transmission of certain wavelengths of light through to the sensor in greater amounts than would be otherwise allowed. Again, sent it out the day it arrived. Down the road I’ll probably get a specialized CCD camera that is only for astrophotography, but since they’re about 10x the price of the used Canon, I’m OK to work my way up.

In the mean time I’ve been trying to get every other little cable, connector and adapter I can think I’ll need. There’s a lot that require power, cables, even a teperature sensing dew control system. telescopes do not work when they are fogged up. I fully expect to get out there on the first night, set it all up and discover some painfully obvious, but critical, component is missing. That’s fine, I know this will take a while. I’ve also been reading up as there’s a daunting amount to learn about not just capturing the images, but processing them so they look like something it was worth being out all night to capture. It won’t hurt to have something to share with my family too. Really, experiencing something I love in a way my family can enjoy is the only motivation I need.

At the time of writing this many of these items I’ve sent out are just about to head back to me, so in two weeks I should have something I can really assemble. then I’m going on vacation and it will languish in


Comet me bro

2016 update: funny how unpredictable comets are. Fun to look back at this and see how far off some of it was.


You are probably aware that it is the year 2013 and possibly aware that comets are a thing, but you may not know just how cometous* this year is going to be. When I was a kid, we were told that the 1986 visit from Halley’s Comet would be the one great comet we would ever get to see in our lifetimes. This was the first time in my young life I was ever given something concrete against which to measure my own mortality. I was kind of bummed about it at the time. We knew it wouldn’t return until 2061, but it freaked me out to see I date on paper I might not see in life. The good news now is that all those jerks were wrong! Well, about the comet anyway.

A tapestry from 1066 showing Halley's Comet and some Normans getting ready to invade England.

A tapestry from 1066 showing Halley’s Comet and some Normans getting ready to invade England.

I suppose that this post deserves a short reminder of where comets come from first, so here we go. I’ll try to keep it simple.

There are a LOT of comets. BILLIONS of them. Probably.

Of all the things in space that have names, my favorite name of a thing is the “Termination Shock“, which represents one of the main boundaries of our sun’s influence. Beyond (and within) this boundary lies my second favoritely names space thing: The Oort Cloud. This is were the comets live and while theoretical,  it’s generally accepted that it’s out there. Since comets aren’t that big (it varies, but probably not much bigger than 20 miles across at most), they’re orbiting at a great distance (WAY beyond the orbit of Pluto) and the region we’re talking about is friggin’ enormous, we can’t directly observe them. Even several billion comets forming the cloud isn’t enough to make it seem much more than very tenuously populated. Space is really a very big place, even within/around our solar system.


Just keep saying “Oort”.

Every once in a while, however, one of these comets’ eccentric orbit brings it a bit closer to the sun and becomes more noticeable. If you’ve heard about comets before, you’ve probably heard the term “dirty snowball” used to describe them, which pretty much sums it up, if you make your snowballs out of dust, bit of rock, methane and ammonia. I know I do.

"This is looking awesome! Now all we have to do it get it into space!"

“This is looking awesome! Now all we have to do it get it into space!”

As the comet is warmed by the sun, some of the components of the comet start to liven up, vaporize and vent out into a cloud (coma) around the core of the comet (nucleus), which can then be blasted away by the solar wind to form a tail, which is what we typically think about when we envision a comet. Because this is how the tails form, the tail will always point away from the sun and not simply trail behind it as it moves through space, which can go against our intuition.

They come in all shapes and sizes, but seem to often resemble peanuts.

They come in all shapes and sizes, but seem to often resemble peanuts.

All of this leads to comets being discovered when they get close enough to become visible. Some (like Halley’s) do this for us regularly, as dictated by their orbits. The tricky thing is that the orbital periods of other comets are horrendously long. The smaller orbited ones we call “short period” comets and their orbits take less than 200 years. Halley’s Comet (at 75 years) is on the quick end of this scale, the furthest it gets from the sun (aphelion) being a bit past Neptune. “Long period” comets can have orbits that take thousands years, but can easily be hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. This means there are likely comets that were visible from Earth before there were any humans to see it and won’t be back until long after we’ve been eradicated or enslaved by our robot overlords.

But for now, we know of two that promise to put on a show for us this year. The first is called PanSTARRS (or C/2011 L4) and will be visible to the northern hemisphere next month. If you live in the southern hemisphere and have binoculars or a small telescope, you can see it now, but here in New England, we’re going to have to wait until the latter half of March. Currently there’s some debate about just how visible it’s going to be, but it’s probably going to be the kind of thing you’ll notice just after sunset and think is pretty neat, but nothing that is likely to create panic in the streets.


You know most people will simply think it’s nothing more than the contrail of an airplane or North Korean ballistic missile.

Comet ISON is likely to cause panic in the streets. It will possibly be brighter than the full moon, maybe even bright enough to read by, and it’s tail might fill a decent portion of the night sky. That’s VERY bright and this will be an unforgettable sight. It’s worth noting that this Halley-buster was only discovered last year on 9/21. There’s no way to know for sure exactly how big or bright this comet will appear for sure, but we know it’s going to be pretty damn impressive. I’d tell you to keep an eye out for it next winter, but I seriously doubt you’ll miss it.



This has the real possibility to be the brightest comet we see in our depressingly short lifetimes, but who knows, maybe it won’t be as bright as we hope or maybe something even grander will come along. Or maybe we will figure out how to transfer our consciousnesses into machine bodies that are immortal and WE can be the robot overlords.

Here's a pic of Comet Lovejoy the southern hemisphere peeps enjoyed recently. ISON could make even this look meh.

Here’s a pic of Comet Lovejoy the southern hemisphere peeps enjoyed recently. ISON could make even this look meh.

*My first made-up word this year! It means “full of comets”.


When I was writing this post, I knew there was a third comet to mention for this year, but I couldn’t remember what it was called and there hasn’t been too much written about it, but ONE day after I published this, I found it.

Comet Lemmon (c/2012 f6) was discovered last March by the Mt. Lemmon Sky Survey in Arizona and will be visible in Northern Hemisphere skies in April, so we could have another good one this spring.

In case you weren't sure, it will look most like the larger picture on the left.

In case you weren’t sure, it will look most like the larger picture on the left.


Happy Carl Sagan Day 2012

Ra is a busy god

The sun, as you may know, is entering the most active part of an active cycle. It’s been spitting fire and fury in the form of CMEs (coronal mass ejections) for some time now, and it’s just getting going. There are some risks to we puny humans, should one really big one hit us dead on. Only on the scale of knocking out power grids and sending us in to a frenzy of powerlessness though. It’s not at all good for something like that to happen, not to mention economically devastating, but it’s not like we’d be vaporized or anything.


Well, you won’t be vaporized if you can move fast enough.

Seriously though, there are some things we should be doing (and are absolutely NOT doing, at all, even a little) to avoid catastrophe, but that’s not why we’re here today. The reason we know about these events and what they might do is due to the advances in our ability to observe and measure the behavior and nature of our precocious home star. The most recent steps forward have given us more than just data. We now get to see in high detail the terrifying beauty of our sun’s angry fits. NASA Heliophysics recently put this HD video of a recent eruption and I can truly say I’ve never seen anything like it.



The challenge, for me at least, was to try and imagine how astoundingly small earth would seem if held up for comparison. Or, I could simply post a pic showing it. Let’s go with that.


Puny humans.


It’s somewhat comforting that we’re 93 million miles away, but still amazing that even from that distance the sun can give you a burn from its UV output, after our atmosphere has shielded you from most of it. That’s totally separate from the millions of tons of material it’s puking out in all directions now. That’s not just light, that’s bits of sun! It crosses the 93 million mile gap in days, even hours, propelled only by magnetic fields snapping after getting all wound up in writhing knots of plasma. Just yesterday, the sun let out a doosey, but again, we lucked out, it’s not directed acutely at us and it’s not a threat to our ability to access FB or watch X Factor.


Refer to the pic above for scale, that little circle in the middle is the sun. Puny humans!


Also, since I’m absolutely certain that nobody will get the reference, the title of this post is borrowed from an old-ish Happy Rhodes track from an old-ish Ambient Trance (when that was a thing) compilation.


Jupiter Impact?

Thanks to the miracle of social media, I saw a post on Sky&Telescope’s FB page indicating a possible impact on Jupiter with a picture taken by an amateur astronomer in TX.


This is a single video frame, pressing “play” will not animate anything. Maybe you should try it anyway and check out the photographer’s site though.


So, naturally, I woke up very early and took a trip down to my nearby observing site. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see everything from my yard, and the pre-dawn sky is pretty damn interesting right now. You have a crescent moon, Orion, Venus, Jupiter and a bunch of other cool stuff. My priority target was Jupiter, though I knew that even with my high-quality 80mm scope, high levels of detail would be hard to come by. 80mm is more than some of the greatest Astronomers in history ever used, but it’s about 1/3 the aperture of the scope used to take the picture above. That’s diameter too, not area. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

I managed to get up early enough that it was still totally dark, but was a little too early for my brain to be 100% working. In my stupor, I forgot my observing chair, which wasn’t the end of the world since I wouldn’t be out that long, and immediately trained my scope on Venus instead of Jupiter. For those of you who haven’t ever put Venus in an eyepiece, let me tell you, that lady is BRIGHT. Venus was crescent too, so that was still pretty cool, just shocking. Fortunately, so is Jupiter and you really don’t need dark adjusted eyes to observe it, nor will you have them once you do. Many amateur astronomers consider Jupiter to be the ideal “last target” of the night, since it does such a number on your night vision.


Venus has phases like the moon. Did I mention this thing is BRIGHT?


So, after finally targeting Jupiter, which was the first time with this scope, I was surprised at how much detail I could see in the rings. I’m not sure, but I think I may have seen a little dark spot on the northern equatorial belt. The seeing wasn’t perfect, so the focus came and went, but more than once I thought I saw something. I know there aren’t shadows from any of the moons that would cause this, but it was not so distinct that I can say what it was. It’s entirely possible my desire to see something filled in some blanks, so I’ll have to wait and see what follow up information comes up.

While I was out there, I got a great look at the Orion Nebula, which was surprisingly good in this scope. I can’t wait to spend some more time with that particular target this winter.

Scoped and mounted.

Well, after some time, luck, money, time, research, more time and some totally hilarious foibles, I finally have a new telescope. My last one was an 8″ Celestron SCT with computerized “go-to” mount. It was optically very good and the telescope itself wasn’t too heavy, but the mount was (I replaced the one it came with for a heavier duty one), as well as unruly and required power to use, all in addition to a somewhat tedious set up. Everything worked as it should, but I wasn’t using it much because it took too much effort to get everything going. I sold it and wound up getting back almost all my money, which is great, but not unusual for optics and astronomy gear.

So, I went with the nice, low-tech approach for this one. I wanted to be able to go out on my back porch and just start observing, which is exactly what this kind of setup is for. This scope was purchased used and I scored UNBELIEVABLY when I bought it. It’s from about 2004 and made by the Taiwanese company William Optics (specifically a William Optics 80mm Megrez LOMO apochromatic triplet refractor, f/6). It’s a refractor with an 80mm objective lens and a “triplet” design, which means it has two more lenses after the objective, which helps bright objects from looking like they have funny colors and is typical of “apo” scopes. High quality internal glass makes this aspect even better and this is where I scored. Unknown to the seller, this one has glass made by a Russian company called LOMO. Many amateur astronomers consider these LOMO scopes to be the best 80mm refractors ever made.



It wasn’t cheap, but it was about $500 less than it probably should have been and the condition was absolutely pristine. Sorry if that seems like gloating, which isn’t very becoming, but it was an EPIC win.


The hilarious warning sticker was an unexpected bonus.


I was looking for a William Optics scope not only because they’re high quality instruments, but also often come with these cool backpack cases. Why more makers of scopes don’t do this, I have no idea, it’s great. It all adds to the portability and usability of this scope. The tripod was ordered from KB Systems, who make the tripods for Televue, lightweight and made of wood (ash). The mount is a lightweight, all aluminum, unit that lets me just point it where I want it. Simple. The opposite of what I had before.


First light” finally came after a bit of waiting. We’d been in the grip of a mild drought (NOTHING like what the midwest was experiencing recently) and had a lot of clear nights, which ended abruptly the day my tripod arrived and provided us with weeks of rain. Sometimes occurrences like this are referred to as the “two week curse”, which amateur astronomers (with a good helping of confirmation bias) know as the period of cloudy or otherwise crappy weather following a new scope’s arrival. BIAS CONFIRMED!


The weird looking thing that resembles a black paper towel tube is my finderscope. It’s excessive.


The night turned out to be clearer than predicted and seeing was pretty good. My targets were easy things like Alberio and splitting Polaris. Everything worked very well. I even got Neptune (currently at opposition) in my field of view, but it was pretty low in the sky and between some local light pollution and the scope being on the small side, any color was difficult to see.


My plan was to go out for 30-45 minutes and just try everything out, but I was outside for almost four hours, loving every minute of it. I think I’m going to enjoy this scope 🙂

Constellation: Aries

I’m going to try something a little different, but I think this will be useful for other amateur astronomers, not to mention myself. I’m going to look at some constellations and what’s going on within and around them, from our earthly perspective.

Right off the bat, though, I want to be clear that these posts have NOTHING to do with astrology. If you think astrology is great and adds something to your life, that’s awesome, but it’s a belief in something supernatural. Period. There is no science in it, regardless of the claims some astrologers make. I’m also not interested in debating this and if you try to tell me the gravity of Mercury is ruining your day, I’m going to refer you to the math showing that the people around you exceed any gravitational influence a distant planet could possibly have, much less a star. Why small changes in gravity would do anything to the events of your day seems like a bigger mystery anyway, but I digress. It’s magic and there’s no compelling reason to think it isn’t totally fake. By all means believe in it if you wish, but leave me out of it.

Not a scientist.*

Moving on…

We have several constellations visible on a clear night in the northern hemisphere, some year round, some during certain seasons. Organized as patterns of stars that seem bright from earth, we’ve been assigning them names and imagining them as gods and beasts for as long as people could do such things. In our modern world, they’re now very useful for keeping different areas of the night sky organized. If you aren’t familiar with the constellations, the night sky is just a random bunch of little white lights.

The first constellation I’d like to look at is Aries, the ram.

It’s tempting to confuse it for something else, but that right there is totally a ram.

Or maybe it’s just a golden fleece, laid flat, from the side. It can be drawn with more lines and have a picture of a sheep superimposed over it too. Either way, it’s got some stuff going on. Near the star Sharatan, one of the brighter ones marking the head, is NGC 772, a nice spiral galaxy that’s visible as a fuzzy patch in 4-5″ scopes. Just “in front” of that is Gamma Arietis, which is a triple star system, though you’ll only see two of them. It has the distinction of being on of the first double stars to be discovered. Lambda Arietis is also a double star and delta Arietis has an orange color that would be interesting to observe. There are some other observable, but potentially challenging, galaxies near by as well, if you’re into that.

NGC 972, all up in yo grill.

So, there you go, one constellation, a bunch of cool stuff. I’m going to do these posts sort-of alphabetically and see how it goes.


*This guy isn’t (wasn’t) technically an astrologer either, but he has crazy hair and looks funny.

Astronomical spending

So, you’ve probably noticed that I have an astronomy blog. Even if you haven’t, but know me at all, you’re aware that astronomy is one of the things I totally dig. Lately quite a few people have asked me what kind of telescope they should buy if they want to check astronomy out and the fairly consistent budget they tell me they have is (seriously, every time) $200-300. I’m writing this post so I can always just send them a link and go back to looking at Carl Sagan memes.



The thing about this question that makes it so hard to answer is that it makes a few false assumptions. First, it suggests that you need a telescope to do astronomy, which you definitely don’t. Jack Horkheimer knows what I’m talking about. All you have to do is look at the sky, which I’ve mentioned before. I get hung up on that topic because just looking at the sky with the basic technology that’s standard equipment on your face works beautifully and is completely free. Second, it skips over the next least expensive (tool wise) way to enjoy observing: binoculars. Please enjoy this thoughtful explanation by Ken. Astronomy talk starts around 6:20, but listen to the intro if you’re new to all the lingo.

I have a pair of Orion binos that cost me about $99 and work wonderfully. Note, that’s a lot less than $200-300, but you can spend that much if you want. For that much you can have a nice pair, which is WAY better and more useful than a crappy telescope. In fact, every amateur astronomer I know of always takes binos into the field along with their scope, sometimes they exclusively use binos. Seriously, they’re just two little telescopes you aim manually and you don’t have to worry about mounts (unless you go BIG) or eyepieces. If you’re determined to buy some gear, buy nice binoculars first, but just handheld ones, 8×42 or 10×50. Maybe get some cheap app for your smartphone that can tell you what you’re looking at.

But, can you buy a scope for $200-300 that isn’t a worthless hunk of slag? Of course. The trick with scopes is all the baloney that goes with them. Even if you can get a good scope with a mount for the budget, you’ll want a selection of eyepieces and what-not that will make it easy to blow past your target budget. If you get some cheapo scope with cheapo parts (hint: quality scopes aren’t sold by advertising magnification power) you’ll be disappointed and nobody wants that.

Think of it like a used car. You can get a used car for $500 that might function in the most basic ways to be considered a working car, but it’s probably going to break down on the highway, cause a huge accident and kill you, along with dozen other people. Innocent lives snatched away from this world, leaving a bloody wake of chaos and sorrow.  Wouldn’t it have been been better if you had just gotten binoculars?

Inferior to a nice pair of binoculars, even when it was new.

I hope my vehicular manslaughter metaphor doesn’t come across as discouraging, I really want more people to get into this stuff. The thing that I don’t want is people to spend a few hundo, get frustrated, disappointed and think astronomy is lame. Managing your own expectations is key, but don’t get caught up in the material trappings of it all. Sure, there’s some fine stuff out there, plenty I’d love to have, but the actual enjoyment of observing has nothing to do with it. Really. I swear.

Spend a few nights looking at the sky, maybe have your snazzy $2 smartphone app show you around. If you want to see more, get some binoculars, you’ll always want to have those anyway. From there, it’s a question of what you want to see and how you want to see it.

Or, maybe you just want to own a telescope. In that case, buy this one.

Water, water everywhere…

Firstly, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge  is more than just that one line and you should totally read the whole thing. You’ll definitely never shoot an albatross with a crossbow after that.

Secondly, the reason I pulled that line for the title of the post has nothing to do with cursed sailors.

Once again, we have found what seems like another large body of liquid water in our solar system. Titan was already an interesting place, with it’s thick atmosphere that permanently obscures the surface, complex weather systems and ethane/methane lakes, all on a measly moon of Saturn. Now, it seems that it may have a sub-surface ocean of liquid water and ammonia. This is not confirmed, but fits a number of observations made by the Cassini spacecraft.

The next step will be making a spacecraft capable of slicing a huge wedge out of it, so we can get a better look.

The Saturn system is also home to Enceladus, which despite its small size (only about 300 miles in diameter), spews water thousands of miles high through the most spectacular example of cryovulcanism we have seen so far.

Enceladus uses cryovulcanism. It’s super effective.

Of course, when you talk about water in our solar system (and you aren’t referring to Earth or comets), you have to include Europa. Orbiting Jupiter and delighting Galileo, this one is visible through mediocre binoculars and has shown strong evidence of a hidden ocean since it was visited by Voyager. In fact, the features (not one or two, but essentially ALL of them) indicate that there is a deep ocean of liquid water that keeps the surface separated from the interior of the moon.

More cracks than a plumber convention.

Here we have three moons (even though Titan is bigger than Mercury) and three oceans of liquid water that by all estimations are bigger than all the water we have on earth combined, each. Even little Enceladus, which has so little gravity that the water escapes into space and forms the “E ring” around Saturn, is loaded with the stuff. Mars was probably a wet mess once upon a time too.

So, here we are, in one solar system, water a prevalent feature on several bodies and in liquid form no less. We know now that solar systems like ours are more than likely the rule and not the exception, the total number of planets now seemingly outnumbering stars by a hefty margin. I can conceive of no reason to think that water is any less common elsewhere, so this universe is (probably) absolutely soaked. Wild.

But what does all this mean?

It means there’s probably a lot of water. Duh.

Does this mean that there’s life in all of these alien oceans though? Maybe, maybe not. If we find life (in even a very simple form) on Europa, but not anywhere else, we’ll know life is totally possible under certain, if very different, conditions than the idealistic Earth . If we find life on Europa AND Titan AND Enceladus, well, that’s something else. That would suggest that life is like all the planets around so many stars, the rule, not the exception. It’s an exciting possibility. There’s only one way to find out though: through well funded planetary space programs. If we spent half of what we spend on defense on exploration, I’d have a time share on Triton by now.

If you’re the type that needs to see meaning in things though, there’s something for you here too. All of these discoveries and with whatever they will eventually reveal about us, our solar system and our universe, leave one thing resolved without even the slightest question…

Aliens will never invade Earth for our water. That would be stupid. It would be like hiking across a desert to find a store that sells sand. No aliens that dopey could ever figure out how to get here anyway, they’d have long since killed themselves off after using up all their own resources, overpopulating, and rapidly changing their climate.

They would probably look like this. Scary, I know.

Relocation 67% complete

I’ve been a lazy blogger over the last come of months, but I find all of my own excuses completely satisfactory. From here, I plan to get back on the ‘ol blogging saddle and perhaps even finish that Voyager mission series. Since Today marks the exact half way point of 2012, it seemed like a good day to start writing again.The reason today is the half-year point is because 2012 is a leap year, but even more, yesterday we had a leap second. Little teaks that keep our clocks and calendars making sense.

My relocation has been (and continues to be) from Boston to a small town in Central MA, which just happens to be the same town as my special observing site. It also gets me closer to the more recent astronomy club I’ve joined and since been almost totally absent, since it was so damn far away. This should make observing more regular and interesting. I think observing will actually be pretty OK from our new backyard as well, which could be very convenient.

Since I’ve been not blogging, the Venus transit happened and while we were clouded out in Boston, the internet allowed me to see it in a number of wavelengths and from several locations. Here’s my favorite pic from the event, which was snapped by a Japanese satellite.

I’m not surprised some people thought this was fake. You can see sun shining through the atmosphere of another planet, which is astounding.


I also managed to completely miss NEAF this year due to our move and the planning (not to mention money) it required. My wife tells me we’re definitely going next year, which I’m not about to argue. She’s a good wife.

So, expect some new posts which will definitely be rich in bad puns and worse jokes, but will probably have some content relevant to astronomy.