Saturday, January 14, 2017

 

Issue #526: The Novice Files Part I


It’s 1965 and I’ve just gotten my first real telescope, a 3-inch Tasco Newtonian (a pawn shop refugee). I really don’t know what the heck to do with it other than look at the Moon—which is wonderful, of course. Shortly, though, my first issue of Sky & Telescope arrives. Surely it will clue me in to everything I need to know about this amateur astronomy business. Alas, after looking through it I wind up more puzzled than I was before.

Sure, there was ample amateur astronomy in the magazine (if not as much as today) following the pro/science articles up front. But the writers seemed to think I already knew enough about astronomy to understand them. Heck, even the advertisements were indecipherable due to the jargon. I was getting nowhere in a hurry.

What was a “clock drive”? When the author of an article said an object in the telescope was “30’ northwest” of another, did that mean the object was 30-feet from the other one? How could you tell what was north or south or east or west in the eyepiece anyway? What was a “Meridian” or an “Ecliptic”? What did “R.A.” and “Declination” mean? What was “figuring” a mirror? Why did it have to be “parabolic”? What was a “prime focus”? What in God’s name was a “drive corrector”?

My confusion didn’t last too long. Between the mutual support and advice me and my buddies gave each other in our little proto-astronomy club, the Backyard Astronomy Society, and the wisdom dispensed by some of Patrick Moore’s books, I finally got off square one. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, though, and I sure wished somebody had explained all those puzzling things somewhere clearly, simply, and in one place.

Today, with the Internet, things are easier, much easier, but it would still be nice to have explanations of the basic concepts and terms of practical astronomy in one spot. Certainly astronomy is every bit as foreign and confusing for beginners now as it was back then. There’s a reason for that. At the beginning of the last century, U.S. secondary science educators decided to deemphasize geology and astronomy in favor of biology and chemistry. Most students get very little on astronomy after the occasional middle school “space science” unit, and its ideas and language are a mystery to most.

The sky globe...
So? In hopes of making that learning curve a little less steep, here are some brief solutions to the head-scratching puzzles you, Joe and Jane Newbie, are running into on the Internet and in the astronomy magazines. There won’t be room to give you everything you need to know in one go, so we’ll do a part II (maybe even a part III and IV) in fairly short order.

The Sky Globe

Many beginners have an awfully hard time wrapping their heads around the way the sky works. All those imaginary lines and stuff, and it’s always in motion! There is an easy way to understand it, however. What did the Ancient Greeks think the sky was? They believed it was a great crystalline globe surrounding the earth. The stars were points of eternal fire, or maybe they were holes in the sky globe allowing the eternal fire beyond to shine through. Of course, today we know that is nonsense. The sky isn’t a glass globe. If, however, you can suspend your disbelief for a while, thinking of the sky as a globe makes it easy to understand how it works.

So, we have this great crystal rotating about the earth once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds (a “sidereal day,” see below). Yes, I know it’s really the Earth that’s rotating, but remember what I said about "suspension of disbelief"? To our eyes, it’s the sky that is turning.

Lines and Points

Celestial Poles

If you have a basic knowledge of Earthly geography, the globe of the Earth, understanding the lines and points of the sky is easy. Let’s begin with the celestial poles, the analog of the Earth’s poles. Extend the axis of the earth north and into the sky. The point where the Earth’s axis penetrates the sky globe is the North Celestial Pole (NCP). Extend the axis south into the sky globe and you have the South Celestial Pole (SCP). The sky globe appears to be rotating on this axis, which extends from the North Celestial Pole, through the Earth, and into the South Celestial Pole.

Where are the poles in the sky? They are found at an elevation (north or south) equivalent to your latitude value. Down here, I am at 30-degrees north latitude, so I find the NCP 30-degrees above the northern horizon, conveniently marked by the bright 2nd magnitude star, Polaris (which is actually about ¾ of a degree from the true NCP).

Celestial Equator

Do the above with Earth’s equator, extend it into the sky as a flat plane, and you have the Celestial Equator. The Celestial Equator is the imaginary line that divides the sky globe into a Northern Celestial Hemisphere and a South Celestial Hemisphere, just as the earthly equator separates the globe into northern and southern hemispheres.

Latitude (Declination)

Look at the globe of the Earth. How do you find your position north and south of the equator? Simple: there are imaginary lines of latitude. We have the same thing on the sky globe, lines of latitude. They perform exactly the same job; they allow you to find your position north or south of the Celestial Equator.

As on earth, latitude is measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds beginning at the equator, which is 0-degrees. For some odd reason some beginners tend to think the equator should be 90-degrees, but 90 degrees north or south of the Celestial (or terrestrial) equator brings you to the poles. The equator in the sky or on earth is 0-degrees. Latitude is measured in (angular) degrees, minutes and seconds.
Conventions for stating a latitude value? Degrees are indicated with a degree symbol, a single quote (‘) is minutes, and a double quote (“) is seconds, just like in your high school geometry or trigonometry courses.  A minute is a distance equal to 1/60th of a degree, and a second is a distance that’s 1/60th of a minute. North thirty degrees, thirty minutes, and thirty seconds is written as 30°30’30”. If you don’t have a degree symbol in your font, a lowercase “d” will do.  If the latitude in question is a south latitude, a latitude south of the Celestial Equator, a minus (-) sign is placed in front of the value. You can put a plus (+) sign before a latitude to indicate “north,” but the lack of a minus sign is taken to mean it’s a north latitude.

There is one difference between latitude on the Earth and latitude in the sky:  in the sky this north-south measurement is called “declination” (abbreviated “dec”) but that is the only difference. “Declination” might sound forbiddingly technical to you, but it’s not; it just means “latitude on the sky globe.”

Longitude (Right Ascension)

Just as the sky globe has lines of latitude, declination, that allow us to locate points north and south of the Celestial Equator, there are also lines of longitude that enable us to find positions east and west. Just as on Earth, the combination of heavenly latitude and longitude allows us to find anything we want—stars, planets, and deep sky objects.

Celestial longitude is actually simpler than earthly longitude. On earth, longitude is in east and west values. Just as latitude is stated in relation to distances north and south of the equator, longitude on Earth is stated in terms of how far east or west (+/-) you are from the Prime Meridian (the zero line of longitude, which runs through Greenwich England). Longitude in the sky is simpler in that it begins at the sky’s Prime Meridian and runs east, increasing in value, until it comes back around. There is no east/west in celestial longitude.

When talking latitude, it’s easy to see where you measure from. On Earth or in the sky, it’s obvious you begin at the equator. But for longitude, you must choose a starting place. There’s no really obvious place to place the 0 line. On Earth, that line runs through Greenwich, England. Why? Britain was the world’s preeminent naval power when navigation was being sussed, and led the world in the quest to figure out how to determine longitude at sea (not so easy). But where to put the 0 line of longitude in the sky?

Ecliptic

Before talking about the sky’s Prime Meridian, you need to understand another line, the Ecliptic. The Ecliptic Is the Plane of Earth’s Orbit. The major planets are in orbits that are almost in the same plane as the Earth's. As such, they always appear close to the ecliptic. In terms of what you see in the sky with your eyes, the Ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun through the sky. This path does not remain in the same positon throughout the year, however.

The Vernal Equinox
You may have noticed that the Sun’s path is farther north in the (Northern Hemisphere) in summer, and farther south in the (Northern Hemisphere) winter. The path of the sun moves north and south over the course of the year. When the path is farthest north, it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Farthest south and it is winter (reverse that if you live in the Southern Hemisphere). The Sun’s moving path across the sky and the change of the seasons are due to the tilt of the earth’s axis. That’s why we have seasons. It’s not because, as some astronomy newbies (and other people) imagine, the Sun is closer in the summer thanks to the Earth’s elliptical orbit—the reverse is actually true in the Northern Hemisphere.

Vernal Equinox

Back to celestial longitude. The chosen point, the place the 0 line of longitude, the prime meridian in the sky, runs through is the Vernal Equinox. The Vernal (spring) Equinox is the point where the ecliptic intersects the celestial equator. As winter ends, the path of the ecliptic moves north, and eventually runs into the Celestial Equator. When the path of the Sun reaches this point, when the Sun hits the Celestial Equator, it is spring. The zero hour line of celestial longitude passes through this point. The Vernal Equinox point is also known as "the First Point of Aries" (the Vernal Equinox no longer lies in Aries, but don't worry about that right now).

Right Ascension

Since, as above, there is no east/west value for celestial longitude, that makes it simpler to work with. Two things make it more complicated, or at least complicated sounding to novices, however. The first is its name. Just as celestial latitude is not called “latitude,” celestial longitude is not called longitude. It is “right ascension” (abbreviated R.A.) That’s scary sounding, but just remember right ascension = longitude. What hangs most newbies up is not celestial longitude’s name, but the way it is measured.

Rather than being given in degrees, minutes, and seconds as latitude is, right ascension is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. What you have to understand is that these hours, minutes and seconds do not really describe time; they describe distance. One hour of right ascension is 15 angular degrees. 1-minute is 1/60th of that and 1-second is 1/60th of that.

The seasons...
Why “hours” instead of degrees? Since the sky is always in motion, it makes a certain amount of sense. Let’s say you go out one evening and look to the eastern horizon. You notice the bright red giant star, Aldebaran. “Pretty!” you think. But you want to watch a rerun of your favorite program, Jersey Shore, on TV. You hop inside and enjoy Snookie’s antics. Afterwards, you wander back outside and immediately notice that in one hour Aldebaran has risen 15-degrees in the sky. It has moved a distance equal to one hour of right ascension (multiply 15 times 24-hours and you will come out with 360-degrees).

If you just understand that R.A. = distance, 1h = 15-degrees, you will do OK. The convention for stating R.A. is a lowercase “h” denoting hours, an “m” for minutes, and an “s” for seconds as in: 19h17m00s.

Zenith

The Zenith is the point in the sky that is directly over your head. It never moves.

Nadir

The Nadir is like the Zenith, but is the point that is always directly beneath your feet. Like the Zenith, it never moves.

Local Meridian

Yet another imaginary line you need to know is the Local Meridian. It is the line that runs from the North Celestial Pole to the Zenith, through the South Celestial Pole, through the Nadir, and back around. It never moves. As time passes, celestial objects—the Sun, the Moon, planets, stars, deep sky objects, everything—hit and cross this line. When an object touches the Local Meridian, it is said to be “culminating” or “transiting.”

When an object culminates is an important thing for a sky watcher to know. When a star, for example, is on the Local Meridian, it is as high as it ever will get in your sky. If it’s located very far north or south in declination, that might not be very high, but it is still as high as the star will get. And that’s the best time to observe it, when it is as far from the thick, dirty air on the horizon as possible.

Solar day...
Local Sidereal Time (LST)

How do you know when an object will transit the Local Meridian? You check the local sidereal time. When a line of right ascension is straight overhead on the Local Meridian, that is the current LST. Say the 11-hour line of right ascension is on the Meridian. That means the LST is 11:00. Any object with a right ascension, a celestial longitude, of 11h is culminating.

How can you find out what the LST is? Most astronomy program, especially planetarium programs, will give LST. Some, like Stellarium, will display this value as “Mean Sidereal Time” and/or “Apparent Sidereal Time,” but for our purposes that's the same as LST. Right now, it’s 19:17 and globular cluster M56, which has a right ascension of 19h17m, is on the Local Meridian and high in the sky. Typically planetarium program, including Stellarium and Cartes du Ciel, display LST in the information window that comes up when you select an object.

Sidereal Day and Solar Day

Yes, yes, I know back in first grade your teacher, kindly Miss Franklin, told you a day is 24-hours long. But that’s not exactly true. Not always. The actual time it takes the Earth to rotate once on its axis (as measured by the time it takes a star to make two transits of the Local Meridian) is 23 hours, 56 minutes, and four seconds.

So what’s with the “24-hours”? That’s a Solar day, the time it takes for the Sun to transit the Meridian twice. Why the difference? The Sun is close compared to the stars, and the fact that the Earth is moving along in its orbit in addition to rotating, means a bit of parallax error comes into play. As you can see in the picture, when the Earth has rotated once on its axis, it’s moved along in its orbit (greatly exaggerated here) as well, and, so, has to turn a little more on its axis to put the sun back overhead. That extra time is the nearly four minute difference in the two varieties of day.

Measuring Distances in the Sky

All this degrees and minutes stuff is well and good, but how do you judge distances in the sky? Luckily, nature has provided you with a convenient measuring tool. Your outstretched fist covers about 10-degrees from thumb to pinky. Your index finger is approximately 30’ across. “But Rod,” you might say, “I have small hands.” Nevertheless, this should still work. Most people with small hands have correspondingly short arms, and your outstretched fist will still span 10-degrees.

Whew! That was a lot. Nearly too much for one sitting, so we will stop here. Go over these concepts until you are clear on them; these are things every astronomer needs to know. Even in this day of do-everything computerized telescopes, I believe it is still vital—for understanding and enjoyment—that you know how the great sky globe works.

Next time? I am not sure. I’d say that if the weather continues to be as lousy as it is right now, we might go on to Part II of the novice files. Or I may talk about the new Stellarium. Or something else may come into my mind (such as it is). We shall see.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

 

Issue #525: This is the End, My Friends


And, so, we find ourselves at the end of the Messier road. Don’t feel sad, though. While we’ve caught ‘em all here, if you haven’t seen them all with your own eyes and your own telescope, you have a huge adventure in store and I envy you. Even if you have observed the entire list, you, like me, will likely never tire of these beauties. Why not give the Ms another go? This is a great time to begin that; the fall wonders are still around, the winter spectacles will soon be riding high, and before you know it the multitudinous Messiers of spring will be on parade.

This actually isn’t the end of Messiers in the blog. Since I am mostly focused on bright and spectacular deep sky objects these days, you can expect another Messier series shortly. I won’t keep you in suspense about it, either.  The new articles will involve me viewing the list as John Mallas did for his and Evered Kreimer’s famous book, The Messier Album, with a 4-inch refractor. When will the series begin? That depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the weather.

What will I see with my Celestron C102 compared to what Mallas saw with his 4-inch Unitron? Will my drawings even remotely resemble his sometimes-eccentric/fanciful looking ones? I actually did some observing along these lines some years ago, writing more than a few blog entries about the experience. At the time, however, I didn’t have a 4-inch refractor—I used a 5-inch MCT instead—so I think it will be fun to revisit the Messier Album with a scope more similar to what John used. I also plan to be more systematic this time, drawing every object John drew. If you want to follow along, I urge you to get this fine book. It’s out of print but easily available.

M106

M106
Messier 106, a bright (as galaxies go) Sb spiral galaxy in Canes Venatici, is one of the least visited and least appreciated M-galaxies. Why? I am not sure. While it’s large at 18’36” x 7’12”, it’s also bright at magnitude 8.41, and its intermediate inclination means its light is not badly spread out. Certainly, it’s a nice sight in the suburbs with 10-inch range scopes, and is visible in smaller instruments.

Part of the problem may be that while not exactly tough to find, M106 is kinda out in the middle of nowhere, lying about halfway along a line drawn between Chara, Beta Canum Venaticorum, and Phecda, Gamma Ursae Majoris (a bowl star in the dipper asterism). Thanks to the galaxy’s relative prominence, it shouldn’t be tough to run to ground manually, however. If you need further guidance, it is 1-degree 40’ southeast of magnitude 5.25 3 Canum Venaticorum.

What will pop into your mind when you arrive on the field of M106? “Whoa! Bigger than I thought.” You may see as much as 10 – 12’ of galaxy, and it will be obvious that it’s strongly elongated. Even on poor nights you may also make out a small nucleus, albeit with some difficulty, as I did one hazy backyard evening with my C11:

M106 is surprisingly attractive despite haze. Easily visible in the TeleVue Panoptic 22mm with direct vision. Occasionally, I think I see hints of a nucleus, but not often. obviously elongated North/South.

On good nights from a darker site, a 10-inch class scope should reveal at least trace of dark details.

M107

There are globulars and then there are globulars. Ophiuchus has plenty, but not all are like its two gems, M10 and M12. M107 is not a bad glob, mind you, just not an outstanding one. Think “M53.” It’s resolvable from the suburbs, but you will likely need 10-inches of aperture to do it, and upping the power is a must.

M107
One good thing about M107 is that it is trivial to find, lying only 2-degrees 43’ southeast of a prominent star, magnitude 2.50 Saik, Zeta Ophiuchi. Position your scope on the star, insert a medium power eyepiece and scan slowly and carefully south-southwest. This magnitude 8.85, 13.0’ across star cluster likely ain’t gonna put your eye out, so be careful.

On the cluster’s field, my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, showed this as a loose looking globular with but a few stars resolved. This was on a typical hazy summer backyard night. Under better conditions, M107 will look better, but as I noted in my long entry, “It’s a Messier, but truly not much of a Messier.”  

M108: The Surfboard Galaxy

I’ve always liked M108. It’s distinctive, and its nearness to another of my favorite objects, M97, the Owl Nebula, adds even more interest. But we are a long way from “spectacular” here. Under suburban skies, anyway. In an 8-inch telescope, M108 is a dim streak, as its stats would suggest:  magnitude 10.70 and a size of 8’42” x 2’12”. In an 8-inch in my backyard, it is often an averted vision object. It is better in the 10-inch (a 10-inch really gives you a leg up in the backyard), but not worlds better.

Like M107, M108 is at least trivial to find. If you can locate the Owl manually, all you have to do is move the telescope 48’ west-northwest roughly back in the direction of the bright dipper bowl star Merak. If you are coming from Merak, move 1-degree 30’ northeast. As with M107, but even moreso, go slowly. Higher magnification, maybe with a wide-field 12mm ocular, will help.

Don’t expect too much when you do find this bugger. You should be able to tell it is elongated, but that will likely be about it. From a better location than the backyard, things do improve in a hurry. In an 8-inch at the club dark site, I can begin to make out dark detail that makes the galaxy look somewhat like a miniature M82. In reality, this object is nothing like weirdly disturbed M82, being a more normal dusty spiral.

M109

M109
In a large aperture scope, or with a deep sky video camera, Ursa Major’s M109 is distinctive and interesting looking. It’s what I used to call a “tie-fighter galaxy” when I was doing the Herschel Project. It’s a barred spiral that looks a lot one of Star Wars’ bad guy spaceships if you’re seeing the bar without the full extent of the delicate and dim spiral arms that extend from it. Other people call these “theta galaxies,” but that’s other people, not me. At magnitude 10.6, M109 is not overly bright, but neither is it too large at 7’36” x 4’42”, so it is at least doable from average suburban digs.

Like M108, M109 is easy to find thanks to its proximity to Phecda, the dipper bowl star. Move 29’ south-southeast of the star and you should have M109 centered. With a 12mm wide-field, you may be able to move the star to one edge of your field and have the galaxy visible on the other edge if your scope isn’t overly long in focal length.

What you will be able to make out of M109 depends on scope and sky. With 8-inch and smaller instruments, all you are likely to see from the backyard is a dim oval thing that may require averted vision. Even with larger aperture telescopes at considerably better sites, you still may not pick up much beyond that. Well, perhaps a subdued nucleus. To see the bar and arms, I cheated, using my Mallincam deep sky video camera on the C11, which made the galaxy’s tie-fighter aspect easy from my back forty.

M110

And, finally, at the very end of the road is one of M31’s two nearby satellite galaxies, a magnitude 8.07 E5 elliptical. While it is rather bright, it’s also fairly large (21’54” x 11’00”) and is not always trivial from the backyard. It is much more difficult than M32, and on poorer nights M110 can be surprisingly difficult—or invisible—with a 4-inch.

M110
At least you don’t have to worry about hunting. Surely, you can find its great parent galaxy, M31, if you are beyond the greenhorn stage. M110 is located 38’ northwest of that huge beast (farther from the center than the brighter satellite, M32, that is). It is well separated from the “nebulosity” of the galaxy.

On good nights, M110 can be tantalizing, even from the backyard. In a 10-inch, I can not only see that it is quite elongated, as befits it with its E5 classification, and that it brightens towards its center, but that there are occasionally tantalizing hints of dusty detail just on the very edge of perception.

And that…is all. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and I also hope that, if you haven’t seriously attacked the list yet, I’ve encouraged you to do so. Folks, there is an absolute lifetime of enjoyment in these special objects.

Nota Bene:  What do I use these days when I need a planetarium program? I use Stellarium. It does everything I need to do and more. And it is free, and you know I like that. The news is that version 15.1.1 is on the streets, and the program is better than ever, now including a DSS function that allows you to superimpose DSS images over the charts (if you have an Internet  connection). There is no reason not to upgrade, folks; go get it.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

 

Issue #524: Good Riddance 2016


Hello 2017!  Just hope you are better than the monster of a year that’s just departed. Bad as it’s been for numerous reasons, li’l old optimist me at least takes comfort in—what else?—the eternal stars. Oh, they are not really eternal, but they seem so for ephemeral creatures such as ourselves. I’ve learned that when my path is dark and dim, those distant stars can illuminate it. I am comforted to look up and see the stars of Orion look just as they did when I was a boy.

Anyhoo, in lieu of the next Messier column, which will come next week, I give you my yearly summary. Reading back over all these articles, what was the main thread this past annum? If I had to sum up my astronomical year in a few words? I guess it would be “the year of the refractor.”

January 2016


If you were reading the blog in 2015, you probably noticed, maybe even with dismay, my gradual transition to refractors, which was presaged by the beginning of a series of articles called “The Refractor Way.” If those had paved the way, this one cemented things. This entry recounts the arrival of my SkyWatcher Pro ED 120.

It was one heck of a big change. The telescope I sold to finance the new refractor was my time-honored Dobsonian, Old Betsy, who had been with me for over 20 years, the peak years of my amateur astronomy career. Everything turned out OK, though. While I sometimes still miss Betsy, I wasn’t using her, and her replacement, Hermione Granger, is good at so many things, including visual observing, where she competes well with a C8. It was indeed the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


You must have been living under a rock if you haven’t been aware of how big an effect smartphones and tablets have had on amateur astronomy. The astronomy apps we’ve got now, like SkySafari, are incredibly powerful. At the time this article came out, I hadn’t yet tried interfacing scope + phone, but even without that, the utility of smart devices for our avocation was more than obvious. Last nail in the coffin of print star atlases? Maybe.


The next two articles in my refractor manifesto concerned a big dream of mine (regarding amateur astronomy, anyway). I’d wanted that holy grail, the 6-inch refractor, since I was too young to have even been able to lift one. I finally realized that dream last January in a surprisingly inexpensive fashion.


It isn’t just telescopes where I appreciate "simple and easy" these days. Stellarium, the free planetarium program, is both those things, but it is also profoundly, powerful. In these latter days, there are not too many astronomy things I want to do that I cannot do with Stellarium.

February 2016


As above, smart devices (and computers) may have somewhat supplanted the print star atlas, but there are still good ones, and some of us still like to use paper star maps at least part of the time. There are even new print atlases being published, like Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition. It won’t really fit in your pocket, but it is a substantial improvement on its already great predecessor. Just get it, even if you have SkySafari.


Namely, the AR102 achromatic refractor from Explore Scientific. Yeah, its dew shield sure is funny looking, but you get so much for your money. Great f/6.5 optics, a decent finder, an excellent star diagonal, and maybe most of all, a kick-butt focuser. Everyone should have one, and given its modest price almost everyone can. The legitimate heir to the much-loved Short Tube 80 of the 1990s.


Coincident with my switch to refractors (mostly), was my return to looking at the pretty stuff. Like the Messiers. This entry is my take on the first five.


Occasionally I feel the need for the SOMETHING DIFFERENT. This time that was Pensacon 2016, Pensacola, Florida’s big comicon. Had a wonderful time, bought some cool stuff, and saw one of my idols, Neal Adams.

March 2016


More Messiers to include Ms 6 – 12. I got enough positive—nay enthusiastic—comments about this one to impel me to soldier through all 110 Messier objects.


“Big Ethel” being my new 6-inch achromat. What did I discover? When collimated, she became a powerful performer. Also, the Celestron VX mount was up to the task of holding this big tube. Or would have been if I’d had a pier extension for the tripod. As it was, I had to be careful not to let the tube bump into the tripod, which would happen when slewing anywhere near the zenith.


Here, I pressed on with Objects M13 – M19


This article, which formed the basis for my recent Sky & Telescope “Focal Point” column, concerns the battle over computerized telescopes in astronomy. I actually think this war is over, since my column didn’t create nearly as much controversy as my last Focal Point on buying stars did (why do a Focal Point if you can’t ruffle some feathers with it?).

April 2016


Still more Messiers, Ms 20 – 27.


A lot of you sure have some weird ideas about the astronomy magazines, and especially Sky & Telescope. What kind of weird ideas? I’ll direct you to the Cloudy Nights “Astro Art, Books, and Websites” forum if you want a taste. Herein, I try to correct some of those occasionally odd misconceptions.


I continue with Messier 28 – 35.


Well, is one? While I primarily use refractors these days, a lens scope wasn’t always the scope for me. While they now are the scope for me, that doesn't mean they are for you. The quiz at the end of this article should help you decide if you are a refractorphile in the making.

May 2016


This far in, with Messier 36 – 41, I was finding out that, surprisingly, writing about these good old DSOs was not boring at all. Not only was it fun, I found I still had a lot to say about them (even after writing a book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, which covered many of them in detail).


This (smaller, more informal) springtime edition of our local star party was notable for several reasons. It was my first experience imaging with Hermione Granger under truly dark skies, the spring weather actually cooperated fully for once, and I only stayed two days. Lately, I find two – three days at a star party is quite enough, and was happy to scurry home on Saturday to enjoy Free Comic Book Day.


This one was notable for containing everybody’s fave, M42. Also present were M43 – M49.


Not only was this a tutorial on planetary imaging in general, I gave some tips for using the new stacking app everybody was talking about, Autostakkert.

June 2016


This batch, which featured M50 – 56, found me, almost unbelievably, at the halfway point. Things would slow down a bit for a while after this, however, since I spent much of the summer traveling to distant star parties and astronomy clubs.


Since I knew my roadtrips would intrude, I squeezed in another couple of M-articles, this one containing numbers 57 – 63.


And one more for good measure, with M64 – 70. By this time, the series had picked up some fans, and some folks were actually printing the articles out for use at the scope. ‘Magine that!

July 2016


There are plenty of great deep sky observing planning programs like SkyTools and Deepsky, but I make no bones here that the one I’d used most in recent times was Phyllis Lang’s venerable Deep Sky Planner. “Venerable,” sure, but Ms. Lang had just updated her soft with version 7 and guess what? It was better than ever.


The time had come for me to talk to my fellow Baby Boomers about many things, including what should you do about all that astronomy gear you’ve accumulated over the last 40 or 50 years.


We all—well most of us anyway—love the Messier objects. The question on my mind, however, and perhaps on those of my fellow increasingly lazy baby boomers, was “How small a scope can you use to profitably view the list?” In the process of writing this one, I had a ball observing the Ms in the backyard with 4-inch and 3-inch telescopes.

August 2016


It was, as July ran out, time to get on the road for the late summer and early fall star party season. The first stop was a week at the Maine Astronomy Retreat way up north. To sum up:  great observing, great people, great food, great facility. I’d go back anytime. Only slight bummer? Had nothing to do with the retreat, but with my airline. My flight out of Boston was cancelled. I spent an evening in a hotel in the midst of an industrial park near Logan. Oh, well…the hotel bar and cable TV kept me entertained. And it was nice to enjoy the air conditioning after an uncharacteristically warm week in Maine.


Next stop was the NWSF in a state I’d never visited, Wisconsin. This was another great time. A little shorter, but great food, people, and observing too. Nice facility, and to top it all off, tenderfoot me “camped out” in a brand new Fairfield Inn and Suites. Coming back to that beautiful new room each night helped make a great experience even better.


Back home for a quick breather, it was time to get after Messiers again with objects 71 – 77.

September 2016


I’ve been to this star party, held in West Virginia on the slopes of Spruce Knob Mountain, so many times over the last decade that it was difficult to find something new to write about. Nevertheless, great skies and friendly folks made this a winner. For me, “no surprises” is a good thing.


With objects 78 – 84, we were definitely beginning to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.


I observed the 2500 Herschel objects over the course of about three years. I don’t consider that a huge feat; it was more just having the right equipment, a plan, and a little perseverance. People still ask questions about how I did it, though. While this article did answer some of those questions, its main goal was to encourage you to get out and begin the Herschel 400. Come on in the water is deep but fine. 

October 2016


With Ms 85 – 91, we were entering the final phase, and I was still having a ball with these articles.


Though I was close to the end of my main Messier series, having nearly covered ‘em all, I still thought it would be a good idea to give short “executive summaries” on all the objects in two articles, since the fall observing season was upon us and many folks would be out in the old backyard chasing Ms.


What can you see from a dark site with an humble and easy to transport 4-inch achromat? A lot, it turned out.

November 2016


After those go-go years of the Herschel Project, it’s nice to spend a star party doing leisurely visual observing. Which is exactly what I did at the 2016 DSSG using my 6-inch Achromat. She performed beautifully (people were sure she was an ED scope). As is my wont of late, I was only on-site for three nights of the 5-night event, but those were the best nights of the star party. Sometimes I do get lucky.


‘Twas definitely that with Messiers M92 – M98.


What do the experts say? You can’t do astrophotography with a fast achromatic refractor. I set out to see if that was true. Was it? Read the article to find out, but I will say the humble Explore Scientific AR102 is one heck of a little jack of all trades.


In case a simple achromat just wasn’t good enough for you, I kicked it up a notch in the next one, using a fine APO refractor, but still kept deep sky astrophotography as simple as it can be.

December 2016


This is the coda for the “Refractor Way” series. Why did I switch to refractors? You get the full answer here.


Didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but a couple of years of philosophical musings about my life led to some musings about amateur astronomy and its fate as well. The answers I arrived at may, alas, not make you happy. This article garnered the most attention and responses of any in 2015. Don’t wanna toot my own horn overmuch, but this is a must-read, campers.


M91 – M99 and we were indeed almost there. One more to come; next week perhaps.


And, so, with my traditional Christmas Eve message to my readers, we were done for another year. What will 2017 hold? My crystal ball is hazy on that, folks. Let us hope for the best, however, and keep fingers and toes crossed. OH, I think it will be a great year for astronomy no matter how the eclipse goes weather and crowd-wise. The rest, though? I am not so sure about that, I must admit.

Nota Bene:  As I’ve mentioned, Steve Tuma is discontinuing sales and support of his excellent Deepsky program. Steve tells me he’s looking for a server somewhere to upload the program files to so everybody can continue to download and enjoy the program—for free. If you know of a suitable site, please contact Steve at stuma@comcast.net



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