Monday, September 28, 2009

Ordered my Scope!

Dang it! I almost forgot the biggest news to date!

Those who have been following my blog know that I've been using a Celestron SkyMaster 15x70 Binoculars to do my star gazing.

Well, after 3 months of deliberation, self-doubt, research, nail-biting, posting on Cloudy Nights, and reversing myself a dozen times, I pulled the trigger.

I have finally ordered my scope. It's a Meade 8-inch SCT ACF ("advanced coma free") on the LXD75 mount. Here's a picture of the thing, and a link to the site where I purchased it, OPT:

Also, you can see my thinking, and the thread that helped me get to my decision on this thread at Cloudy Nights: "Did my research, but still need help choosing"


Hey, I almost forgot, I wanted to post about 3 books that I got really cheap. They may not be the greatest in the world, but I found them at a bookstore that I hardly visit, and they were on sale.

The bookstore was Border's Books at the "Shops at Atlas Park" Mall in Glendale, a quick ride down the street on Metropolitan Avenue, across Woodhaven Boulevard, and down Cooper Avenue. See, I had just left my bike at the bicycle repair shop for a tune up and clean up (the gears had gotten finicky). Having no transportation back, I wasn't too eager to hoof it back home, about a mile, so I stopped into the bookstore to just see what they had.

I found:
  • Atlas of the Constellations: Discover the Secrets of the Night Sky, by Giles Sparrow a hardcover book, with dust jacket for $2.99. 112 pages.
  • The Stargazer's Handbook, an Atlas of the Night Sky, a large-format, full-color softcover with beautiful pictures and good narrative in short spurts, again by Giles Sparrow, for $9.99. 272 pages.
  • The Illustrated Atlas of the Universe, by Mark A. Garlick, with star maps by Wil Tirion. This, too, is a large-format, full-color, softcover book, and it was also on sale for $9.99. 304 pages.
All told, I was getting 3 illustrated, really nice books for the bargain price of about $25.

But then came the clincher. I'm on line getting ready to pay for these books, and wondering how hard it will be to get these back to my house using Sneakernet ("hoofing it"), when a young lady behind me asked me if I'd like to have a 20%-off coupon, she had printed 2 on the computer and didn't need one. I said I'd love to have it, thanks, and gave it to the cashier.

At the time I thought it was 20% off the total price, but looking over the receipt now, I realize it was only 20% off of one book. Still, I'm really happy when I get a break, I need all the breaks I can get.

Pleiades, Great Orion Nebula, and 3 Star Clusters

A few nights ago, I went out to quickly do a little upward viewing. It was really cold for a late summer night, but I had to take advantage of the clear sky.

This session was started at about 3am, I had been up surfing the Net and decided that I should take a peek before bed. I'm glad I did! Orion was up in the sky. Using the planisphere that I purchased from Barnes and Noble, I quickly identified some objects to view and set after them.

The first was again the Pleiades, just because it grabs my attention being faintly visible to the naked eye, even in my light polluted neighborhood of Forest Hills, NY.

Soon after I saw that, there was a spot just below Orion's belt that needed investigating (M42), being the brightest nebula in the sky. What a beautiful sight!

I then headed to the 3 star clusters M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga, right under Capella. (Using the planisphere, I determined that I could get to Capella by making a bee line from Rigel in Orion, through its sister star Bellatrix, also in Orion.) The faint fuzzies were fuzzier than ever, but I did see them.

After that night I was really starting to feel like I could definitely get the hang of this, and that I just needed to take it easy and go step by step.

M2, M15, M27, M29

Sometime last week I decided to try to bag some M's. I sat at the computer going through Stellarium to see which Messier objects I could get to at that time, which must have been about 11:00pm or so, I can't remember exactly (I slacked on the blog, yes). Having taken my MacBook Pro outside, with my binoculars on the tripod, I went through a repeated manual search of Messier objects in Stellarium, one by one, starting with M1.

What I found was that M2 was available to me, near Jupiter, as well as M27, M29, and back to M15 at the end. So I started hunting for M2. this was possibly the hardest one, because what I was seeing on Sellarium was getting hard to match up in the live night sky. But after about 20 minutes of going from my computer screen, to my binoculars, and trying to match up asterisms, I was finally able to bag M2. Yes!

So I went onto M27 and M29, because I was looking at the summer triangle and happened to turn on a feature in Stellarium where the labeling for nebulas and globular clusters were turned on, and I saw that M27 and M29 were very near to Deneb. Using the asterisms starting from Deneb and its closest stars I starhopped myself to these two Messier objects in no time at all. The faint fuzzies in my binocs were able to be seen, but of course not as clearly as M31 that first night. I had to use averted vision to make sure that I was seeing the right objects and not imagining things.

After these two I realized that M15 was available to me as well, and swiftly went after that and spied it too.

By the time I was done, I had realized that it was about 12:45 and that I really needed to get to bed. So I packed it all up, with a big feeling of satisfaction and had a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pleiades and Andromeda M31

Three nights ago I tried to find the great nebula in Andromeda (M 31). I used Stellarium to try to identify the stars and hop from place to place. Unfortunately, I had a grouping of star patterns that I saw in the sky and couldn't quickly identify in Stellarium because of the difference in seeing and what Stellarium was trying to show me. I dialed the light pollution up to a 9, and then I found the grouping after some magnification, but quickly lost it again.

Last night, the seeing was exceptionally good. I started with the Pleiades, and was surprised to see how many stars were in the grouping just with my binocs. It certainly is a beautiful sight. At that point I decided to try to find the nebula in Andromeda again. It took some doing, but I finally got to see it after about a half hour of trying last night and spotted it at 1:30am!

Using Cassiopeia as a starting point, I used the three brightest stars to help me point to Mirach (or Merak) (β Andromeda). From Mirach, I went due North, to a grouping of stars which made a triangle, followed that grouping to ɥ Andromeda, to ʋ Andromeda, and finally to the nebula. Here's a graphic to show the hop:

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Learning the Lingo

One of the reasons I want to get into Astronomy and sky-gazing is that the power of photography has done serious damage to my will. If you know me as a photographer, and you know the kinds of things I shoot, you know I like sharpness, and color, and contrast.

Every astrophotograph I see, that's well done, has pinpoint sharpness, beautiful color, and high contrast. It's what pulls us in.

Well, in an effort to begin learning what I need to for astrophotography, I have been researching. The first bit of research, as you probably know, is my quest to a telescope. I am currently fighting my child-like instinct to get the best I can afford, even when I don't know what I can do with it. The problem is that I get near the price range of affordability, and then find out how much more I actually need. And that serves as a wake up call to reduce expectations and start off small with a visual scope, and non-EQ mount.

But then I see the photographs again, and I'm back at square one.

Well, I have to figure it out soon, otherwise I'll never get started. But as I said, while the scope search goes on, I must learn all I can. I feel like I'm at the beginning of my photography learning phase again. Everything is exciting, and I'm curious about all aspects.

So when I Google things, and find threads and go off on trails, I don't expect to stay long on a site. Well, I found an exception. A great site, a blog on Blogger. The pictures will amaze you. The equipment amazed me. His attitude amazed me. The pictures... oh I said that already. They really are cool.

Here's the site: Andy's Astrophotography

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Choosing A Telescope Isn't Easy

I've been hunting for a telescope. Price is certainly a consideration, but I don't want to be cheap either. I don't want to spend bad money on a trashy scope.

So the good folks at CloudyNights forum have been helping me by answering my questions.

I started out thinking I wanted a large SCT. That's a Schmidt Cassegrain design for the uninitiated. This is what one looks like:

Then there were refractors. These are the kind that we normally think of as a telescope -- that long tapered tube.

Lastly, are Dobsonians, which are basically Newtonians on a mount made popular by John Dobson. This one is from Orion:

Now there are lots of other variations, based on the same basic Newtonian or short-tube SCT design, but I'm primarily looking at these, and I think the SkyWatcher Dob may be my first scope, even though I really wanted a nice large Refractor.

The problem is that for astrophotography, a refractor -- or any scope -- must be mounted on an equatorial mount, like the one in the first picture. The mount, the tripod, and the scope are all different pieces, which can be mixed and matched, but many companies sell kits all together. Then there's the other accessories like the eyepieces, which can run anywhere from $60 to hundreds of dollars depending on quality and brand.

This is not a cheap hobby. But I'm quickly tiring of my binoculars, even though they work so well. The stars are dim where I live. And I'd like to see more than I'm seeing now.

Next, I'm such a tinkering designer, that I'm thinking of building a small geodesic dome on my flat-roof garage so I can have a nice observatory. More to come on that later.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Summer Triangle

September 3, 2009 [ Thursday ]

Long day at work. Didn't actually get to go outside and look till 11pm. Very short session, but very useful.

Altair, Deneb, and Vega form the summer triangle. Each one is part of a different constellation.

Deneb is almost directly overhead at this time, and is part of Cygnus the Swan, or Summer Cross. It looks like a Christian cross in the sky, though in some light polluted areas, you can't see the bottom of the cross.

Vega is part of the constellation Lyra. There are two less bright stars very close together right next to Vega, and I found them in Stellarium.

Altair is part of Aquila. Nothing special to report about this one yet.

Also found Capella peeking just above the roof of the neighbor's garage. Closer inspection found the stars next to them and matched them up in Stellarium.

Interesting to note that Vega is noted in Stellarium as mag 0.00, and Capella as 0.05. Those who know astronomy a bit, understand that when the magnitude scale for brightness was created, the brightest star was noted as zero magnitude. Less bright stars get larger magnitude numbers. Later as brighter stars were found, they were given negative numbers. Therefore, if you want to know what a star of magnitude zero looks like, just look at Vega.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Inwood Astronomy Project

September 2, 2009 [ Wednesday ]

Picked up Manny, a friend and client, and drove to Inwood to meet Jason Kendall who is running The Inwood Astronomy Project to bring 100 nights of astronomy to the folks of New York City. I admire this guy very much to give his time and energy to making astronomy approachable for people.

We set up my binocs on the tripod I brought, and let people look at the moon and Jupiter.

We lined up to see Jupiter and its moons in Jason's SCT. We also got to see the star cluster (in Pegasus?). Heard Jason talk some about the size of Jupiter, how many moons it has (far more than what we learned in grade school or even college), and other things about the night sky. He also showed a globular cluster, which I didn't see.

We left after about an hour which passed very quickly. There were too many people waiting to look through the scope.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Second Night

September 1, 2009 [ Tuesday ]
I went out with the binoculars again at about 9pm. This time Jupiter had 4 moon visible.

Looked at Stellarium to figure some things out, and finally figured out which one was Polaris. The light pollution is about a 9 so you can't see all the stars to figure out the constellations.

Spent about 2 hours.