Exploring the Early Spring Sky

Returning to Deep-sky objects
Even though Roanoke County has a decent amount of light pollution, probably a 4 or 5 on the Bortle Scale, there are still a great deal of Galaxies, Star Clusters and Nebula visible in the night sky. These DSOs (Deep-sky objects), provide challenging yet rewarding targets for most amateur astronomers. With the assistance of Skysafari 4’s “Tonight’s Best” guide and the Intelliscope Computer Object Locator of the XT8i, the location of some of these more difficult to find highlights of the early spring sky came into view.

March 29, 2016: Highlights
Beginning in the Western portion of the sky, M38, the Starfish Cluster, was visible around 9:05 PM. While observing M38, a satellite passed through the field of view. These kinds of events are pretty common seeing as how many objects are in orbit. To the upper right of the Starfish Cluster, NGC 1907 barely registered as a slight blur at low magnification using averted vision. Moving over to the South West, the Rosette Nebula continues to refuse to reveal itself, but the open cluster that makes up the heart of it, NGC 2244, was a nice sight. Shifting down towards the neighborhood of Orion’s Nebula brought Sigma Orionis, the highlight of the night, around 9:30 PM. What appeared to be a triple star system revealed a 4th star at 200x magnification. In actuality, it is a quintuple star system, but the 5th star is difficult to pick up with amateur equipment. Attempts at viewing the Crab Nebula came up as disappointing as usual, it was barely visible in the Western sky around 10:25 PM. Finishing out the night was the always impressive pair of galaxies known as Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82. At magnitudes +8.39 and +6.90, they never disappoint as distinctive galaxies even if they are around 12 million light years from earth.

ISS Passing Near NGC 2395

March 30, 2016: ISS Fly Over
From 8:53 PM to 9:03 PM the International Space Station sailed over Roanoke, Virginia from SW to NE. In an attempt to view it, SkySafari 4 was used to see if the station would appear near any objects during it’s 5 minute pass. This would allow the Computer Object Locator to know where the telescope needed to be pointed before the ISS reached this object, so there could be a quick view of it flying through the eyepiece. Thankfully, at 8:57:51 it would cross near NGC 2395. Right at that time and location, with Lauren looking through the eyepiece and myself looking through the finder scope, we viewed the ISS through the telescope. Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour and being viewed at 48x magnification, the station only appeared in the eyepiece for a second, but the details were impressive. As detailed before from a previous viewing in 2010, the solar panels and cabin compartments of the Space Station were visible. The only difference noticed was that the panels appeared more tilted than on the previous sighting of station back. After the initial contact at NGC 2395, the stations was tracked for another minute or two, on and off, providing additional views as it raced across the sky.

Space Station and Shuttle Flyover’s this Week

With only two more Shuttle launches scheduled, following the completion of Discovery’s mission this week, any opportunities to view the Space Shuttle while in orbit should be taken now, because they will soon by a thing of the past.  To help capitalize on any observing opportunities, NASA has a website that details when flyovers of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station occur.
NASA Flyover Site

When to View
Luckily, several times this week, the International Space Station and Space Shuttle will both be viewable from our vantage point here in Southwest Virginia. Beginning on Monday and continuing through Friday the celestial pair will be visible flying overhead for anywhere from 2 to 4 minutes, depending on the day.  It appears as though Monday will have the Space Station and Space Shuttle docked for the flyover, with them being a few minutes apart from Tuesday on, following Discovery’s departure from the Station.

Observing Tips
Be sure to use the NASA website to figure out what direction the space ships will be coming from, go outside a few minutes before the scheduled flyover and face that direction.  The pair of ships should appear as dim stars forming up above as they slowly sail across the sky.  Moving over head, they will gain in brightness until moving towards the horizon and dimly fading away just as they had appeared.  The best way to view them is with your bare eyes, although binoculars can also be useful.  Only a telescope can pick up any detailed structure as was noted in my observation of the Space Station last year.  It may just look like a moving star going over head, but knowing that there are people working and living in these craft as they travel 200 miles above orbiting the Earth at 17,000 mph, makes the magnificence of these sightings all the more special.

Star Log: March 20, 2010

After a late Friday night, I awoke at noon on Saturday and walked over for brunch to find around a hundred people standing outside of the Colket Center with two fire trucks near by.  Thankfully all was well, save for a minor fire in the kitchen area.  Lauren returned from her trip to Boston later in the day and we went on a nice walk to an antique store in downtown Salem.  Upon returning to the dorms, I came across an internet article about the International Space Station and thought it might be a good idea to see if  it would be flying over anytime soon.  Surprisingly, later that night at 8:12pm it would be making a 5 minute fly over from North West to East South East, making  tonight a perfect opportunity for my first attempt at viewing the ISS through a telescope!

International Space Station Fly Over:
Around 8:00pm, my friend Andy and I set up the telescope on the back quad of the college.  The sun was setting and we had spent about a half hour observing the Moon.  A few minutes before the fly over, two men from  a music group called Barefoot Truth, who were performing on campus that night, came over and asked what we were looking at.  They took some quick views of the Moon and were very interested in seeing the ISS.  Around 8:11 the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life appeared from the distance, it was Lauren, who was fashionably late, showing up just seconds before the Space Station.  8:12 swings around and right on schedule a dim star appeared right above the Colket Center sailing across the sky.  It began faint but became as bright as Venus it passed over head.  Now came the hard part, attempting to view in through the telescope.  It can be difficult enough to find and track a slow-moving planet, never mind a football field sized Space Station moving at 17,000 mph and orbiting 200 miles above the Earth.  After about 20 seconds of attempts,  it finally became visible and flew through the field of view in less than a second, looking like a very bright blur.  At this point there were now 5 people hanging around the telescope and all got at least a split second view of the space station through the eye piece while I tracked it through the finder scope.  As it continued to move across the sky one more attempt was given to actually try to keep it in the eye piece’s field of view for an extended period of time.  This was accomplished just as the Station was near its highest point in the sky and through tracking it for around 5 to 10 seconds the bright blur that had been viewed earlier turned into a detailed object.  At 48X magnification,  the pods in the middle where the astronauts are located were somewhat visible, but more amazingly and sharp were the two sets of solar panels on both sides of the Space Station.  The way is which the Station glowed with brightness, particularly the inner pods, along with the detail that was discerned from its solar panels truly made this one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in astronomy.

Sketch of the ISS as viewed at 48X magnification:

Later in the night, Mars, Saturn and the Moon would be observed, but none of those objects could hold a candle to the couple of seconds spent viewing the Space Station with its inner pods and detailed solar panels.  Never before have I observed an object in space that has people working and living on it through a telescope.  As we looked up and saw the Space Station sailing across the night sky, I couldn’t help but wonder if one of the astronauts was looking down at us here on Earth.  Hundreds of thousands of people have seen the Space Station at night, whether they realized it or not.  My guess is that only a few thousand have observed it through a telescope.  After tonight you can add Lauren, Andy, two guys from Barefoot Truth (thanks for the free CD’s, by the way), a random college employee whose name I didn’t get and myself to that list.

Pictures of the Crescent Moon, taken on this night, complements of Lauren: