Some Lunar Views and Spotting Saturn’s Cassini Divide

I love setting up a telescope with the Sun setting and the sky slowly transitioning from day to night. There is something exciting about planning what will be viewed and the anticipation of what is to come.

The night started out with some brief views of the crescent Moon. This is my favorite time to view the lunar surface. The shadows that are cast from the mountains and craters display incredible depth and make the Moon almost appear 3d though the eyepiece. Sadly, anything over half full and its surface becomes boringly flat, turning the Moon into a nuisance that does nothing more than spoil the view of deep sky objects with its light pollution.

Continuing into the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Saturn was visible in the early nighttime sky. Easily, a favorite of mine and Lauren’s, its rings are now tilted to a point that will offer incredible views of the planet for years to come. Pushing the telescope up to 200 times magnification revealed the beautiful angle of its rings as well as the cassini divide that splits the rings themselves.

Holding up my iPhone to the eyepiece, I was able to take some pretty good video of the planet. The cassini divide is too thin to view in the video, but you can easily make out the divide between the rings and planet disc itself.

Starlog: May 25th & 26th, 2012

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The End of the Transit and Meeting a Fellow Amateur Astronomer

On the way back from a short trip to Bedford, Lauren and I noticed someone with a tripod on the top of a hill at Hollins University. We pulled over and walked up to the man, who, I had assumed correctly, was viewing the transit of Venus through a telescope with a solar filter. Unfortunately, the clouds did not part enough for Lauren and I to get a view through his telescope, but we did talk to the nice man, for several minutes, sharing some amateur astronomy stories and shooting the breeze about a variety of topics. I was very envious of his telescope, a classic 90mm “Questar” that, as he explained, has exceptional optics for planetary, lunar and solar viewing. It is rare that I get to meet someone else with a passion for this hobby, and it was the perfect end to an exciting day of views that were literally once in a lifetime!

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!

Don’t Miss The Transit of Venus on June 5th

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THE EVENT
Around Six-Thirty on Tuesday, June 5th an event will occur that has not been seen for eight years and will not be view-able again in our life time, the transit of Venus across the Sun. From our vantage point, Venus will appear to sail across the surface of the Sun, leaving a very small, nearly pinpoint sized, hole on its surface. Making this event all the more exciting is the fact that this will not occur for another 100 year, so unless you are an infant or Larry King, you are not likely to see this again!

USE PROTECTION
As with any solar viewing, using proper and certified protective filters and glasses is required to insure there is no eye damage that would likely be permanent. The best and cheapest way to view this transit comes from a company called “Rainbow Symphony” who have solar viewing glasses that block out all harmful ultra-violet and infrared radiation from the Sun.

Come Together
As I’ve always said, the best way to enjoy astronomy is to do it with others! Invite some friends over, lend them your protective glasses and give them a taste of the excitement. Simple out reach like this can go a long way to educating the public  and raising interest in astronomy as a whole.

Additional Links
NASA Coverage 
SPACE.com Coverage
ASTRONOMY.com Coverage

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 Buying Guide: Telescopes For Kids

Where To Start?
So, your kid wants a telescope? While your first thought might be to run and buy “Star Trek” on Blu-Ray and leave it at that; know that there are many affordable options that most importantly are easy and fun to use. One website, I continuously come back to is telescopes.com. They have a wide selection of choices for beginner to expert level amateur astronomers. Telescopes, eyepieces and accessories found here are generally of good quality for a reasonable price with low to free shipping and handling.

Beginners Telescope for a Kid
Buying for a child interested in astronomy is a very daunting task. It seems that as many objects there are in the sky there are choices of telescopes to buy. For a kid who is showing some interest in astronomy, the best telescope to get is a refractor. They require very little to no maintenance and are what a child imagines when they think of the design of a telescope. Meade’s NG70-SM refracting telescope is a great example of an affordable and useful beginners scope for a child. It’s 70mm aperture, 700mm focal length and included 9mm and 25mm eyepieces will bring in enough light for some nice low and medium power views of the craters of the Moon, cloud belts of Jupiter and even the beautiful rings of Saturn.

Getting Started
The telescope arrived, your child unwrapped it with excitement and now what? Where does he or she begin? How do they know what to look at? Why is this 70 dollar telescope collecting dust in the corner of my living room a month after Christmas? First things first, sit down with your child and walk through the directions on how to build and use the telescope. While directions are boring, reading them carefully for assembly and giving your kid a tutorial on how the telescopes works will help lessen future frustrations. On the first clear, somewhat warm night, take out the telescope just after sunset and find the Moon. Have them start out with the 25mm low magnification eyepiece and use the red dot finder to center the object in the field of view. After some time with the 25mm, switch to the 9mm for some closer views of the shadows and craters.

What’s Next?
Depending on the age of your child and continued interest shown, there are a couple avenues to consider. After spending sometime on the Moon, finding Jupiter and Saturn will probably be their next challenge. Online resources and iPod Touch/iPhone Apps can be used to find out what part of the year they can be viewed and when in the night time they are out. Moving on from these, I would suggest putting in the low power 25mm eyepiece and having them slowly scan the sky. They can explore interesting constellations and star patterns and might even come across a surprise deep sky object (Galaxy and Nebula) or two.

Additional Resources
If your kid is showing interest a few months to a year in you might want to consider purchasing some additional resources for a Christmas or  birthday present . The first thing you might want to add are some books and movies on space. In terms of books, nothing quite beats the Backyard Astronomers Guide. While this might be too advanced for kids, I would highly recommend it for teenagers who are looking for everything from basic facts to in-depth knowledge of amateur astronomy. The History and Discovery Channel’s have some incredible series that could entertain and educate anyone on the concepts of space. The Universe and When We Left the Earth are two of my favorites, giving a rich scientific and historical perspective of our place in the universe and our accomplishments in manned space flight.

Telescope Accessories
In terms of accessories for the telescope, a more powerful eyepiece for some closer views of the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn might be needed. A good affordable choice would be the 6mm Zhumell Z Series Planetary Eyepiece. It will provide 117x magnification views through the Meade NG70, which is probably near the limit of what this telescope can handle. Most importantly, this is a nice eyepiece that could be used with any potential telescope upgrade down the road.

Enjoy it!
Astronomy can be a great way for you and your child to bond over something that can help shape their perspective of our planet and their place in the universe.  Astronomy can also easily become an aggravating nightmare. Hopefully, following this basic buying and observing guide will alleviate some of those challenges and uncertainties and replace them with memories of excitement and exploration for you and your child.

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.