Live Updates: The Transit of Venus

6:04-Venus has just begun to touch the farthest edge of the Sun.

6:10-You can just barely make out the half of Venus that is over the upper right corner.

6:22-Venus is now completely covering its little part of the Sun as it continues to sail across its surface.

6:27-Clouds and some rain have come into the area. Hopefully it will clear, but either way we got to see the transit and it won’t happen again for 105 years!

The Return of Big Red

“Guess who’s back, back again. Big Red’s back, tell a friend!”
Eminem-February, 2012

(Referencing the orbital cycle that bring Mars and Earth near each other for incredible views every two years)

Good ole Slim Shady has it right once again. If you are into planetary observing, now is the time to pull out the long johns, put in the hand warmers and take out the scope as Mars returns for some spectacular views over the next couple weeks.

Every two years the orbital gods bring Earth between the Sun and Mars making the two planets closer together. This is known as an opposition. It is at this point every two years that amateur astronomers get their best views of our red headed neighbor. The last opposition of Mars and Earth occurred in early 2010 as I noted during one of my first blog posts on March 19, 2010.

Now, nearly two years later, with a clear night presenting itself  just prior to one of our only snow storms of the season thus far, I went out and took a long awaited view of Mars.  Using a 6mm eyepiece showing 200X magnification, the polar ice cap popped out as a bright white feature on the northern most tip of the planet. As the atmosphere would occasionally settle down, sharp views occasionally stabilized revealing some fine detailed land features in the extreme Southern hemisphere. This is where patience pays off in astronomy, particularly for planetary observing. One or two seconds of sharpness can provide some of the best memories from an evening out.

I’m hoping for a couple more nights of observing before Mars and Earth quickly begin to move away from each other starting in mid March. As Mars rotates, it shows a different side of itself to Earth every night; land features such as Sytris Major and Terra Meridian will show up as dark defined regions at 200X magnification. If you are interested in planetary observing now is the time to see Mars, it won’t be at this close distance to Earth for another two years and with the Mayan 2012 calendar coming to an end this upcoming December there is definitely no time like the present to observe our closest planetary neighbor.

This image from the iPhone’s SkySafari app shows a zoomed in view of Mars at the time of observing.

Star Log: February 18th, 2012

The Summer of Clouds

With the fall air turning ever so colder, I thought it would be a good time do an overview of how my “summer of astronomy” went. Being a teacher, I was looking forward to June, July and August to provide me with some late night observation opportunities. While, there were some nice and clear nights throughout those 3 months, I was surprised at how cloudy it was during most evenings and nights. Even though there were not as many opportunities to go out this summer as I had hoped, there was one object in particular that I was very excited to observe, and the summer months did allow me some great views of it.

Saturn is probably my favorite object to view, so using the new 6mm Zhumell eyepiece at 200x magnification on it over the summer was quite a treat. As opposed to last year, where Saturn’s rings were head on with Earth providing a less than spectacular showing, this year they appeared much more tilted from our perspective as part of Saturn’s 29 year orbit around the Sun. This will continue to provide memorable views and glimpses of the famous Casini divide over the next 10 years. As was pointed out in my review of the Zhumell 6mm Planetary Eyepiece, the views provided from it were sharp and detailed from edge to edge providing the best sights of Saturn I have seen to date from my telescope.

While the Summer of 2011 was a bit of a disappointment overall, there were still several times when I was able to take out the telescope for some good viewings. This just goes to show that it is always a good idea to take advantage of the clear nights you are given, because you never know when another one will come along again.

Planetary Observing Tips

Planets are the reason I wanted a telescope as a kid. My first views of Saturn and Jupiter came at a very young age. I was amazed at being able to see cloud patterns on Jupiter and splits in the rings of Saturn. To this day, Saturn and Jupiter are my favorite objects to view and show off to others. Due to the higher magnifications needed to view the planets, there are some guidelines that if followed can provide exceptional views of these objects.  Along with this and Saturn being out in full glory for the remainder of the summer, here are some tips for how to best view the planets of the nighttime sky.

1. Make sure the scope has plenty of time to cool down to the outside temperature.  This can range anywhere from one to a couple of hours depending on the size and type of telescope being used. A telescope not cooled will cause turbulence between warm and cool air in the tube, creating poor high magnification images that will not allow fine detail of the planets to come through.

2. Not every night is a good night for viewing planets. A steady atmosphere is crucial for sharp planetary observing. If the wind is blowing and the stars are twinkling (this occurs from atmospheric turbulence) the planets will appear as wavy and washed out images in any scope.

3. Magnification is key to getting details out of the planets. The particular telescope being used is a major factor in how high it can be pushed. However, any scope regardless of aperture is usually limited to around 300x magnification because of atmospheric conditions and how fast the object moves by in the field of view if a tracking motor is not installed. For my 8 in reflector, I have found that 110x and 200x magnifications provide amazing details of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and the Lunar Surface.(To find your telescopes magnification, divide the focal length of the telescope by the eye piece being used: My Telescope and Eyepiece Combination; 1,200mm/6mm=200x magnification)

When observing with a friend or family member, nothing can compare to the awe and excitement of knowing that some of the stars in the sky are actually planets with detailed cloud formations and ring structures. Using these tips can help ensure the highest quality out of the views provided by our incredible celestial neighbors.

“The Cosmic Ballet Continues”

The title for this post comes from one of the best episodes of the Simpsons “Marge vs. the Monorail”.  Why is this a favorite episode, you may ask?  Well, it was written by Conan O’brien, has a song performed by Phil Hartman and the above mentioned quote comes from none other than a very famous passenger on the monorail, Mr. Leonard Nimoy!  Aside from all that “awesomeness,” it also is a great way to describe the celestial occurrence witnessed just a few nights ago.  The transit of Jupiter and one of her moons!

On September 20th of this year, Jupiter made its closest approach to Earth in decades.  The following night, I decided to take the scope out after a long days work to take a peak.  While it was hard to discern any change in size from its closeness, the views of Jupiter rarely disappoint and when they do it is because of the turbulent atmosphere distorting the image, similar to a haze of heat rising from a roof on a hot summer day.  Putting in the 25mm eyepiece revealed the great Galilean moons of Jupiter with one in-particular being very close, nearly on top of the gaseous giant planet.

After going in and coming back out a half hour or so later, I pushed the magnification up to 120X and took another look at Jupiter.  The view was very sharp, with brief seconds of near perfect viewing here and there.  Something was different about Jupiter this time, however.  At first, I thought I was viewing a very dark cloud on its surface until it hit me: the moon that was previously near the very edge of Jupiter had moved in front of her and was now casting a very small nearly pen dot black circle on the surface of the planet.  The moon, which I later found out was Europa, looked as though someone had cut a very small hole on Jupiter’s surface.  I came out about a half hour after the inital sighting and the small hole had moved to a new location, showing how fast Jupiter and her moons orbit each other creating the incredible transits.

Star Log: September 21, 2010

The Great Red Spot of Jupiter

At 3:40am, a noticeable blob peaked its way into view moving across Jupiter’s surface.  Located where the missing southern cloud belt should have been, it became apparent very quickly that this was something I had wanted to view since childhood.  The location and size left no doubt that this was the Great Red Spot (GRS) of Jupiter.

Earlier views of Jupiter around 3:00am had shown the basic cloud belts, but its fast 10 hour rotation (Jupiter day) brought about new features quickly.  With a size between two and three times that of Earth, it is the largest storm in the solar system.  Over the past couple hundred years the GRS has varied in size and faded in and out but has constantly remained one of the most interesting features to view in the solar system.  To help with observing, I found putting half of a polarizing filter on my eyepiece cut down on the glare (I’ve also found that a full polarizing filter works as well and can be adjusted to best effect).  This reduction in brightness, brought much needed contrast that allowed another smaller blob to pop into view just to the lower left of the more massive GRS.  I’m not sure if this was Red Junior (GRS’ little son) or just a random cloud system near by.  Another first, came from noticing the inconsistencies of the cloud belts.  What had appeared as straight lines in the past revealed themselves to be imperfect clouds with wrinkles and folds.  Finely tuned optics, enough cool down time and waiting for pristine moments of atmospheric conditions will help to reveal details such as these .  Excited at seeing this type of detail at 120x magnification, I went inside and brought out a notepad to sketch the features I could make out.

Not every night do I get to view something that I have wanted to see since childhood.  Reading books and seeing videos of the Great Red Spot when I was a kid always made me want to view it.  Even if it does appear smaller with less detail and color, nothing can replace the feeling of excitement in knowing that you have viewed the largest storm in the solar system with your own eyes.

Star Log: July 15, 2010

Here is a visual of the size of the Great Red Spot compared to Earth and a  representation of what I saw through my telescope.