Really pretty view of Orion this morning

As I was walking out of the house this morning, I happened to see a really pretty view of Orion and Canis Major in the South. Orion was near zenith, and Sirius was burning brightly just below and to the left. Off in the East Venus was peeking through the trees. I wished I had the scope set up and about 1/2 an hour of time to take it in, but I had to get to work.

Daylight Venus, redux

Today I repeated my ‘Daylight Venus’ observation. All in all, it wasn’t too difficult. While I was standing outside my daughter’s classroom, waiting for the door to open so I could take her home, I spotted the crescent moon. Knowing that today and tomorrow were the days that the moon would be the closest to Venus, I shielded my eyes from the sun with my right hand, while I looked to the left of the moon for Venus. After a few minutes I spotted it, about two fingers-breadth away from the moon, to the left.

(No, I didn’t care that people were looking at me weird as I stood in the playground with my hands up in the air, peering at the sky. Some events are just too much fun for decorum!)

This was in full sunlight, at about 4:00 PM!

Tomorrow I’m going for a three-peat! The moon will be just above and to the left of Venus, and about the same distance away. Get out and take a look!

See also this post, and this one too.

Observation Log: 20081229 17:30

Oh. My. Lord.

I grabbed my Christmas present from the family, a pair of 8×56 Celestron Skymaster binoculars, and went out specifically to view the conjunction.

Wow.  Just… wow.  I had mostly clear skies, and the seeing wasn’t great due to some high altitude moisture.  Venus had a ring around it, it was so bright, and  I could pick out Jupiter with no problem.  Mercury couldn’t be seen at first except with the binoculars, but after about 20 minutes I could just make it out without them.

With the binocs, even against the skyglow, I could see 2 of the galilean moons.   I could see visible discs on all three planets (well, a half-disk on Venus).

All three of the planets were set against the 5% crescent moon, and the four objects were just beautiful together.  Every time I glanced up, until the moon set over the hills,  the moon and Venus reminded me of a parachute and payload, falling up through the sky.  I think it reminded me of the picture of the Phoenix lander that Phil Plait picked as his top picture of 2008.  That’s the one that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped with the HIRISE camera while Phoenix was on the way down.

If you missed it tonight, you have two more chances.  On Tuesday December 30, the moon will be slightly larger and higher in the sky, closer to Venus.  On Wednesday December 31, the moon will be just above Venus, and Jupiter and Mercury will be about 1.3 degrees apart.   This Week’s Sky at a Glance has some graphics of what you should be looking for.

UPDATE: Phil Plait also has an entry on his blog about the conjunction.

UPDATE 2: Tavi Greiner has photos here, here and here.

30-inch mirror, 12-foot focal length, 10-year old operator

The Challenger Telescope at Fremont Peak is (as amateur telescopes go) a monster.  It weighs in right around 2000 lbs, but is so finely balanced that you can move it with a fingertip.  It’s on a fixed ‘English Cross’ mount, and can hit any point in the sky (with the exception of near-horizon objects due to the observatory walls).

With a 30-inch mirror it can pull in objects as faint as Pluto and can gather enough light to make potography of faint diffuse nebula a reality.  Planned upgrades include additional automation for imaging.  This is a serious telescope.

With a serious piece of equipment, operators must be trained by the Association before they are allowed to run the telescope.  This involves several pages of written materials on procedures and rules, as well as a hands-on training session in moving the telescope.   While the telescope is fitted with digital setting circles, it is moved by hand.  My oldest daughter was trained and certified to run it two years ago, at the age of ten.   At the time, she was the youngest person ever trained to run the telescope.   Now that record has been broken.

When Hannah was trained, she was 2 months away from her 11th birthday.  Now her younger sister Rosie has also been trained.  Rosie is a bit over three months away from her 11th birthday.

I’m looking forward to bringing Rosie up to the peak and letting her point the scope during a public session. That’s always a blast, to see young people, especially kids her age, really getting into astronomy.    One of these days I’ll post some scans of her sketches.

Jupiter and Venus in the morning

Here’s a snapshot I took with a handheld camera at 6:30 this morning of Jupiter (not Mercury, as I had incorrectly identified it earlier) and Venus together. Venus is the brighter one (obviously) at -3.94, while Jupiter is at -1.83. They’re only about half a degree apart ( 0°35’6” ). All I had was a cheap Kodak digital, and I braced against my car in order to steady myself. The streak to the left of the planets is a jet contrail that I had to wait for as it passed in front of them.


Venus, Saturn and Mars before breakfast

If you haven’t gotten out in the dark mornings yet this month, make it a point to do so before the moon washes it out. This morning, the skies had cleared from our overnight rain, and with a pair of cheap binoculars I paused for a couple of minutes to look at Venus, Saturn and Mars. Venus and Saturn are together in the the eastern morning sky, with our nearer neighbor blazing away at -4.45, completely outshining the larger but more distant Saturn (0.77). Mars was near but a bit south of zenith, just above Orion, but shining brightly at Mag . 0.33, sitting about 20 degrees above Betelgeuse, no slouch itself at Mag 0.6.

Of course, I also admired searing Sirius, scintillating bright red, blue, and green in the early morning air.

The Earth, the Moon, and the pain in my neck.

Ok, in case you were hiding under an astronomical rock, you know that this morning we had a total lunar eclipse. This one was well-positioned for viewing from the West coast of North America, as well as Hawai’i. When I checked the times for the eclipse, I was disappointed, as it looked like I would miss the whole thing; I would have to get up at about 01:30 (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC -7hrs) and stay out until nearly 03:00 to catch it. I get up at 05:00 to make it to work by 06:30. So, I thought it would not be a happening thing for me. However, fate intervened.

I have some problems with my neck. The disks between C5/6 and C6/7 are bulging, hardening, and are pressing on the nerves that feed my right arm (primarily) as well as touching the spinal cord. The neurosurgeon went into excruciating detail about the excruciating pain in my neck, shoulder, and arm. Sometimes I also feel a loss of sensation or tingling on the back of my head and extending around to the right jaw and cheek.

I’m scheduled to have cortisone injections at the end of September, which the doctors hope will reduce the inflammation and allow the disks to heal without surgery. In the meantime I’m trying to find comfortable positions to sleep and work. Every few weeks I get a pack of oral Methelprednisolone, which is great stuff, even though it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth for hours. It so happens that I got one Monday. Now, this stuff, which is a corticosteroid, is taken over the course of six days. The first day you take six, and you reduce the quantity by one each day. Having been in a great deal of discomfort over the weekend, I elected to take all six in the afternoon, which is allowed, but not recommended because it can make you jittery and sleepless.

Guess what? I woke up around Midnight, and was jittery and sleepless.

So, at about 1:30 I wandered out into the back yard and began watching the moon, just because I knew I wasn’t going to get any more sleep than I had done already.

As I was watching the moon, a thought struck me, and I went back in the house for my trusty Palm T/X, and fired up WiFi, and brought up Twitter. You can follow the progress of the eclipse on my Twitter profile, or you can just read the rest of this post.

Here is NASA’s plot of the eclipse which will help explain the point references I will be using below. There’s also a website that explains lunar eclipses for beginners here. Update: Here’s an animation of the eclipse, and here are Charley’s photos of the eclipse. Astroprof also has some pictures.

  • P1: The moon contacts the penumbra. The penumbra the partial shadow of the earth, where the sunlight is partially blocked. It is represented by the lightly shaded area of the plot above.
  • U1: The moon contacts the umbra. The umbra is the complete shadow of the earth, where the sunlight is almost completely blocked. I say ‘almost’ because the atmosphere of the earth bends the sunlight through it and around the earth, which causes the moon to take on a reddish, coppery color during the period of totality.
  • U2: The moon enters totality. It’s also the name of a pretty good band
  • U3: U3 is the point at which the moon contacts the far side of the shadow of the earth, and begins to leave totality
  • U4: U4 is the point at which the moon breaks contact with the umbra.
  • P4: P4 is the point at which the moon breaks contact with the penumbra

According to Twitter, I started my tweets at 9:10 UTC, or 02:10 PDT. I’ll translate the Twitter entries UTC into PDT, and try to paint a word picture of the eclipse.


P1 + 38m
When I went outside to begin looking the Moon was already in the Penumbra, and almost to the Umbra. It was still very bright. I could see the entire back yard clearly, and I would bet that I could have read a newspaper under the light. I could only see the brightest stars (For example, the summer triangle was visible to the West) and I could not make out Cassiopeia in the North, or anything close to the moon. The sky was awash with moonlight, and I could not see any of the city sky glow. At this point, I decided to use Cygnus as my standard of viewing. At this point, only Deneb is visible in Cyg.
U1 + 0m
At the beginning of the contact with the umbra, the moon itself still looked very bright. U1 was marked by the top left limb of the moon beginning to look indistinct and fuzzy. Then the shadow grew from that point until it began to look like someone had carved a thin slice off of that spot on the moon.
U1 + 20m
By this point, the moon was about 1/3 into the earth’s shadow.
U1 + 22m
Large dark shadow with a faintly reddish edge to it along the upper left (yes, I said ‘right’ in my tweet, blame it on being jittery and sleepless and awake at 02:12) limb. Still very bright outside, can only see the four brightest stars in Cygnus. Can see Vega in Lyra, but none of the other stars. Except for Altair, I still can’t see anything in Aquila, which was fairly close to the moon.
U1 + 22m
U2 – 38m
It’s now a lot darker than when I started viewing. At this point I could begin to make out the disc of the moon in the shadowed portion. It appeared first as a slightly less dark semi-circle of sky, but then took on a reddish tinge.
U1 + 29m
U2 – 33m
I could make out 8 stars in Cygnus, but some of them only visible by averted vision (a technique of looking slightly to the side of an object of interest, which helps picking up faint objects, or faint details in brighter objects), and because I knew where to look.
U1 + 37m
U2 – 23m
50 percent of totality (approximately) I saw something out of the corner of my eye, coming up over the neighbor’s yard to the East, but when I looked at it, it went away. I consulted 2sky (a now defunct planetarium program for the PalmOS), and discovered that I was seeing (barely) the Pleiades. I could only see them in averted vision. By this time I could see 10 stars in Cygnus.
U1 + 43m
U2 – 17m
A dark disk with dark copper edges was visible. I could see 10 stars in Cygnus and now also 3 in Lyra.
U1 + 45m
U2 – 15m
80 percent/total. Copper color much more visible along dark disk limbs.
U1 + 46m
U2 – 14m
I could now see the Pleiades in direct vision
U1 + 48m
U2 – 12m
The shadows cast by the moon on the ground were almost gone.
U1 + 51m
U2 – 10m
95 percent totality. The Moon’s dark disk was hauntingly beautiful, with deep, rich copper colored edges and a darker reddish-brown in the center.
U1 + 54
U2 – 5m
The Moon was just a sliver. 11-12 stars visible in Cygus, 5 stars visible in Lyra Pleiades were getting brighter.
U1 + 55
U2 – 4m
The moon was nearly gone, just a thin bright crescent on the southwest limb. No visible shadows were being cast at this point.
U2 + 2m
Totality. Aquarius became visible around the moon, which was a coppery-red and brightest at South and West limbs, darker at NE limb and darkest in the center. I note that there is a time discrepancy between when I marked totality and the NASA table above. I believe that this is due to (1) it taking me a long time to enter that in the dark and (2) a possible delay in the tweet getting to twitter and (3) my uncertainty as far as the exact point of totality
U2 + 5m
The moon was strikingly beautiful in totality. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a total lunar eclipse before that struck me as this one did. The color was a rich, deep coppery-red, not ‘blood’ like others have described it. It hung there, like Aquarius’s beach ball (Luna Aquarii?). I turned to my left and looked at Mars blazing away next to Aldebaran, looking like a pair of red eyes, the right one winking. The Pleiades were sparkling away above the pair. I stood out under the sky for a while longer, before deciding that I should go in and try to catch another hour or two of sleep.
U2 + 8m
Note to self; next time bring your flashlight and remember where the rosebush is!
U3 + 57m
U4 – 3m
I woke up in time to see the tail end of the eclipse. The moon was moving out of the umbra, and I watched it until the last shadow of the Umbra was gone.