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.

Making the effort

This is something to which any amateur astronomer can relate. Often times just getting out there and doing it, even if the odds of success are low, is the key to a meaningful reward. Allegory for life much?

This short article has actually helped me make some decisions about my equipment that I was having a hard time making.

Clouds? What-evs.

Making the Effort
Bill Pellerin
Houston Astronomical Society
GuideStar Editor

The weather looks uncertain today. It was nice yesterday, but other obligations kept me from getting out under the stars. So, the dilemma – go to my observing site and hope the sky is clear tonight, or continue to work on this article for the Astronomical League web site?

Now that it’s daylight saving time (the bane of astronomers) it’ll be a few hours before sunset, and another hour before it gets really dark. We’ve all been in this position, right? Having to decide whether to make the effort to observe today or wait for a more certain set of circumstances. There’s the risk that you’ll miss a good observing opportunity and there’s the risk that you’ll prepare for an observing night that doesn’t happen.

I consider amateur astronomy an effortful endeavor. That is, to be successful you have to be willing to make an effort to get out and observe even if the probability of success is uncertain. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. What drives that willingness to make the effort to get out and observe? I believe that it is our passion for the subject – our desire to know more about the sky and the universe and how it works. I see this passion in my amateur astronomer friends and in the professional astronomers that I’ve had the opportunity to meet.

Since our club’s observing site is about 80 miles from home, getting the car loaded and driving that distance can easily be a two-hour proposition. When you get there, you still have to unload and set up for your observing session.

Is it possible to balance the effort and the reward? Yes, I believe that it is. On a beautiful clear day with no forecast for clouds (and a dark blue Clear Sky Chart), the risk that your session will be ruined by clouds and haze is low, and the reward (especially on a near new moon night) is very high. On a day where there is a good chance of clouds and the moon is in the sky the probability of a pristine observing session is lower and the potential reward from your effort is lower.

What can you do to improve your chances of success? Having a plan B, or even a plan C can help balance the reward to effort ratio. You want this to be a high number. A great night, with no clouds, is a high reward, so keeping the reward to effort ratio high is easy. Even if you expend a lot of effort you’d probably consider the reward to effort ratio to be 1 or higher.

Suppose that there is another site, your back yard, a nearby park, where you can go and do some observing with a simple to carry and simple to set up telescope. What kind of observing could you do from here? Bright stars, double stars, carbon stars, brighter variable stars, the Moon, planets, satellites and more. The Houston Astronomical Society, my home club, has set up ‘Urban Observing’ nights at a park not very far from my home. One purpose of these events is to provide observing opportunities for novice observers with more experienced observers attending to help the novices. Everybody gets to observe on a night, perhaps during the week, when you might not otherwise get out. Good reward for modest effort also provides a greater-than-one reward to effort ratio.

Other observing opportunities exist. How about a public outreach event? Last weekend, for example, a group of us set up telescopes at the Houston Arboretum (perhaps 5 miles from downtown) for an Arboretum fund raiser. The visitors were amazed by the views of the 2 day old moon, the moons of Jupiter, and Mars. They were delighted by Sirius (“the brightest star in the sky”), Betelgeuse, and Rigel. Even the Orion nebula was visible.

Plan C may involve doing some work with binoculars. Think you can’t see anything in a large city with binoculars? Wrong. I live three miles from downtown, and the skies in town are pretty bad, but I have observed comets from my driveway and plenty of double stars, planets, asteroids, lunar eclipses, and other things.

Getting out with a nice pair of binoculars is very satisfying (a good book is Binocular Highlights by Gary Seronik, available from Sky Publishing). I also suggest that you go out and identify bright stars in the sky. How many of the alignment stars that your computerized telescope uses can you easily identify in the night sky? The reward is sufficient for a low-effort endeavor so, again, your effort is in line with your result.

Can you pick out the star Zosma from the spring sky? Me neither; I have to look on my star map to identify it, but it’s one of my telescope mount’s alignment stars. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if I knew these stars without looking them up? (Zosma, it turns out, is in Leo and it is the northernmost star in the triangle of stars that define the tail of the lion.) Identifying these stars can be an unaided eye exercise. New knowledge of the sky for a limited effort.

So, in the end, it’s all about making an effort (small or large) to get out and do something. Not every outing under the stars needs to be a major all-day or all-night event. Even a half hour observing some bright objects can be fun. If you are at a loss for what to do, check out the Observing Clubs list on the Astronomical League web site. Many of these clubs are designed for bright sky observing.

Dark nebulae

While the title of this post would make a fine name for my next punk band, I’ll skip past any personal interest in the term and make this post about astronomy stuff, as always.

The term “Nebula” was first used (so far as I can tell) by William Herschel in the first half of the 18th century to describe the fuzzy stuff in the night sky, as opposed to the single points of light we see from stars and planets. Some of these things are whole galaxies, like M31, which was (and sometimes is still) called “The Andromeda Nebula” and M83, which is the name of a band, the Southern Pinwheel galaxy. The “M#” designation refers to the Messier catalog, which is a list of astronomical items with nebulosity, btw. The others are BIG clouds of gas and dust within our own galaxy. The term seems to stem from the Greek words for “cloud or fog”, nephele or nephos, which seems sensible.

Of course, the reason we see these at all is primarily because of the stars within these pockets of gas and dust, some of which are forming stars and planets , even as I write this. Our sun and planet were born in a nebula, long ago, from the scattered remains of a big star that met a violent end. But what if there aren’t any (or enough) stars around to light everything up? If we’re talking about visible light, this would mean it remains dark. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t easily see the center of our own galaxy, it’s because there’s so much of this stuff in the way. You have to leave the visible spectrum of light and delve into the longer wavelengths of infra-red to see through it.

Here’s a picture of LDN 1622 that illustrates this very well.

Hey LDN 1622, you make a better door than a window.


Even with better known nebulae, like the famous one in Orion, the stuff you see is only part of the picture, they have expanses beyond what’s normally illuminated that block the light of other stars. Or, even the center of a galaxy that’s less than 30K light years away when they team up.

Shooting it with lasers seems like the answer.


So, if it weren’t for these things, we’d see many more stars than we do now. Of course, it was stars that made them (the parts that aren’t just hydrogen anyway) and if it weren’t for nebulae like them our sun wouldn’t be here, so neither would we. Seems like a fair deal to me.

Three degrees of separation

While this winter has been a total let-down as far as any kind of abundance of clear skies has been concerned, there is some good naked-eye planet observing to be had right now. Fortunately, looking at unmagnified bright planets doesn’t require especially ideal conditions, or even much knowledge of the night sky. You look at the bright stuff, even from within the limits of a large city, and see something special. It’s pretty cool.

The thing that is standing out right now is Venus and Jupiter only about three degrees apart in the night sky, from our perspective anyway. As far as bight planets go, Jupiter is second only to Venus and they’re the second and third brightest objects in the night sky, so this is pretty obvious.

Alan Dyer of ( took a great photo of this last night.

Venus and Jupiter are the bright ones in the middle.

Additionally, both Mars and Mercury are visible, though Mercury is going to be gone pretty soon. A few days ago, Mars was at Perigee with Earth (Perigee = as close as it gets) and is easily visible as a conspicuously red dot. In New England, Mercury only gets about five degrees above the horizon and we have a lot of trees and hills, so spotting it can require a good vantage point. Don’t feel too bad if you miss it this time around, it’ll be back in a few months. Mercury is pretty weird and its year is only about 88 Earth days long, while its day (the time it takes to make a full rotation on its axis) is about TWICE that. So, one Mercury day takes two Mercury years. Like I said, weird.

Look at this weirdo.

I always imagine Jack Horkheimer smiling that Jack Horkheimer smile when I talk about naked-eye observing, but there’s something truly excellent about seeing a point of light in the sky and knowing what it is. Even if you don’t know what they are, yet, you should “keep looking up” anyway. Maybe you’ll see something that will make you want to learn more.

Farewell, Valley of Death

As bad as I’ve been about keeping this blog blogging, last week I had the finest excuse possible: I was in Death Valley with close to no internet access. This was mostly intentional. While I won’t post my amazing (to me and my wife only) vacation pics on here, there was some astronomy stuff that happened.

First ad foremost, I was able to view totally dark, clear skies and see the milky way clearly. It’s hard to find skies that dark around here and it had been a long time since I’d enjoyed them. It was wonderful. Since the moon was 3/4-ish full, it happened pretty early too and then we were able to watch the moon rise over the mountains. It totally kicked ass. Then, the following morning, we were greeted with this:

This is all the astrophotography you're getting from me today.

The other big highlight was Venus and Uranus being right on top of each other, which made Uranus an easy target. I was actually able to see that little blue bugger with binoculars, which was wild, even with Venus shining brightly nearby. Obviously Uranus isn’t little and Venus isn’t anywhere near it, but you know what I mean.