Great American Total Solar Eclipse

We are now in the home stretch for what is being called the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. Not in 99 years has a total solar eclipse made its way across the continental U.S. and surely it will be one of the most observed total solar eclipses in history.

Total Solar Eclipse – February 26, 1998

The last total solar eclipse that I was present for was on February 26, 1998. Nineteen years ago my wife and I took a 7 day cruise and saw the eclipse on board the ship off the coast of Aruba in the Caribbean. Seeing the eclipse at sea was a very special treat indeed. With a flat horizon for 360 degrees it’s easier to see the moon’s shadow build on the horizon, speed toward you at almost frightening speed, over take you and speed away. I vividly recall the emotional response it generated in me and all who were there to see it. No pictures or movies can accurately reproduce this type of event. It simply must be experienced. I learned first hand that day why and how some many people become eclipse chasers. Sounds odd to those who don’t give a second thought about astronomical events but rest assured the experience drives people to see it over and over again. Kind of like a roller coaster junkie or sky diver who lives for the thrill and once seen longs for the next high from his or her obsession.

Partial Solar Eclipse October 23, 2014

If you are not lucky enough to live along the path of totality or are not planning to travel to the path of totality and you live in the U.S. then you can still take part in this eclipse minus the totality part. In other words, you’ll still get to see a partial solar eclipse. During all phases of a partial solar eclipse eye protection is a must. Do not look at the sun unless you are using the special eclipse glasses (made of solar grade Mylar). These glasses are available from many retailers across the country. I have seen them at Walmart and Lowes locations here in my area. If you can’t find them you can always order them online. Search “solar eclipse glasses” on amazon.com for a host of sellers. Don’t wait to long. As I mentioned we are getting very close to eclipse day.

Media outlets will be ramping up coverage as we approach eclipse day on August 21, 2017.  There will be live streaming coverage on the internet from a host of locations across the country.  NASA TV and other cable TV channels will be broadcasting the event as will local stations. That is great if you are trapped inside for the eclipse but if you aren’t then might I suggest getting outside and watching it yourself. You can always review the eclipse coverage via your DVR later.

If you are traveling to the path of totality I’d suggest leaving a day or two early and allowing time to get to your destination. Attempting to travel on eclipse day to see the event might  be more troublesome than you initially thought. Traffic will be extremely heavy and gridlock might occur in some places. The last thing you want to do is spend what you thought was going to be fun day with the kids watching the eclipse only to end getting in late and having to rush around or worse watching the eclipse from the car on the side of the highway.

Whatever you end up doing for the Great American Total Solar Eclipse of 2017 I wish you clear skies and hope you are able to take a peak at the event given your busy schedule or better still enjoy totality! And if this one doesn’t work out in your favor then shake it off and start planning for the next one which occurs for us here in the U.S. on April 8, 2024.

If you are needing eclipse data on your location regarding start time, max eclipse and end time as well as what percentage of the Sun will be obscured by the Moon you can go to this special Google map. It allows you to drill down and select your location to produce important eclipse data. It also lists the 2024 eclipse so you can start your planning!

Solar Funnel Project

5″ Meade Newtonian reflector with solar funnel.

Doing star parties over the years I have witnessed long lines of party-goers queued up to take a peak through my telescope. I’ve found this to be the perfect time to talk to folks about what’s being looked at in the telescope. I like to throw out some fun facts and this always spawns more questions and curiosity in the gathered group. Talking to adults and kids about the night sky is one of the greatest aspects of doing star parties.

There is a limit to how many people can look through the scope at any given time, put simply it’s one at a time.  But when I saw this neat gadget called a “solar funnel” I immediately knew it would be great at eclipses to show participants the partial phases and better yet it could do this via projection so many people close by can view the eclipse at once.

After a quick study of what was involved, the materials needed, the construction of the device, etc. I decided to get to work on it. It seemed easy enough. I already had an eyepiece lying around that I could use. So all I really needed was the funnel, hose clamps, and the rear projection screen material. All total I spent less than $20 (minus the eyepiece) for these materials from the auto parts store, hardware store and online ordering the rear projection screen.

The solar funnel works as advertised. This will be a great tool to use during solar eclipses. While testing it out I saw birds, planes  and clouds all pass in front of the sun. I was able to see a very small sun spot as well. In my pictures there of course was not an eclipse in progress so the sun appears round.  Alas, I can’t post any eclipse pictures with it just yet but at this writing we are only 3 months almost to the day away from the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.

To give the sun the orange color in these pictures I threaded on a #23A orange filter just for kicks. Otherwise you can use a yellow filter or no (eyepiece) filter at all for a white sun.

The solar funnel is best utilized with a small refractor telescope. You might be saying “then why are you using a reflector telescope?” As long as you stop down the optical tube to one or two inches by using an aperture mask (see first picture on this post) you can use a Newtonian reflector. Not stopping down the telescope can be dangerous and will result in permanent damage to your reflecting telescope.

This device is not recommended for catadioptric telescopes or scopes that incorporate both lens and mirrors. Also, be sure and remove or cap off your finder scope before observing the sun. This is also a good time to give the obligatory warning about never looking at the sun with your naked-eye or especially with a telescope if you are not absolutely sure about your equipment and filters. Seek professional assistance before you attempt to observe the sun if you are unsure. They’re your eyes. You only get two (in most cases) so use them wisely.

The solar funnel instructions can be found here. This was an easy and fun project that I’m sure will be a crowd-pleaser at eclipses.

Happy eclipse chasing!

CHAOS OR COSMOS IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON

The lure is there. Friends and family not going to the eclipse are quick to say “be sure and take some good pictures!” You of course were already planning on taking pictures but now there is added pressure to get it done, and those shots had better look great! The last thing you want to do is have to show them some blurry, unfocused, dark, eclipse pictures.

Partial Solar Eclipse 6/10/02

Recording a total solar eclipse on film, digitally or using a video camera can quickly become a huge task that monopolizes your time. The logistics of getting all your equipment to your observation site and setting up in a timely manner alone introduces stresses that factor into your experience.  All of this adds up and can in some cases ruin both you and your family’s eclipse experience.

Here are some suggestions for helping to ease the stress level and to allow you to get the shots you want and need all the while enjoying the eclipse. But that can’t be done, can it? Sure it can.

Planning.  You have to plan in advance. Months, and in some cases years in advance are needed if you factor in travel arrangements. The last thing you want to do is grab your gear a day or two before the eclipse and then go on a test run or worse, just pack it willy-nilly and forget it.  This might seem like a no-brainer but people actually do this and then incredibly expect it to go well. Seldom is that the case.

Meade ETX and Nikon D60
Meade ETX and Nikon D60

Know your equipment. Practice taking images using your weapon(s) of choice now. The Sun is out most days. Do not wait until eclipse day to wonder about f stops,  shutter speeds, whether to use 100, 200 or 400 film speed settings, or to introduce a new unfamiliar piece of equipment. That’s asking for trouble.

Test your equipment as best you can and make notes.  Find out what works. Make a game plan that does not require you to be joined at the tripod leg for the entire eclipse and then stick to it. As I said earlier, you can very quickly become consumed in recording the eclipse only to find out afterwards you really missed the good stuff because you were so focused on the camera work.

Packing. Many people in the “planning” stage have already put in writing a list of things that they want to accomplish during the eclipse. So it’s natural for their packing list to spin out from that planning list. Once you have planned and tested you’ll then know what worked and what didn’t. You’ll have some decisions to make and then you’ll be ready to start your packing list. Do not wait to make this list or skip it.  Make the list while it’s fresh on your mind. Lay it all out on the floor and note everything you need to pack. You’ll be surprised how much there will be, and I promise you’ll catch items that need to be added to your list that otherwise would have been forgotten and sorely missed. I know this from experience.

This is also a good time to begin the realization of what you can and cannot bring do to space or travel limitations. If you are flying to the eclipse spot you’ll most likely be limited. If you are driving and have the entire trunk or back of the van to play with then you can get more creative about what you want to bring. A good rule of thumb here is not to burden yourself with things that you can do without.  Pack the essentials and necessities that will allow you to get the job done.

Outer Corona Structure

Knowing your equipment,  what works best for you and sticking to your strengths is key. Eclipse day is not the day to learn about all the buttons and gadgets on your somewhat new DSLR camera. It’s not the time to get to know the new telescope you ordered either. Stick with what’s reliable and effective. Your chances for success are multiplied this way. Don’t over tax yourself. Manning four cameras yourself is not the best way to relax and enjoy an eclipse with all the amazing things happening around you. Allow yourself time to find a good spot, to unpack and setup well before first contact and then go over your game plan and test your gear.

Meade ETX and Nikon D60
Meade ETX and Nikon D60

Relax and enjoy the eclipse. This is very easy to say but can really be difficult for some people to accomplish. Realize that all your shots will not make the cover of Sky & Telescope. By that I mean, do not worry so much about the pictures. Follow your game plan but enjoy the eclipse and when it’s all over you can relish the great pictures you’re bound to get. If your game plan changes due to an unexpected issue follow the NASA protocol just “work the problem” as best you can but do not allow it to spoil the eclipse.

Make sure you have a list of things you know you want to just see, not photograph. While the partial phases march along slowly time moves swiftly as totality draws near and begins. Things happen very quickly and depending on just how much totality you have 1, 2 or 3 or more minutes, this time will go by in a flash.  I make it a point to ensure that I see the Moon’s shadow expand on the horizon as totality sets in. Just experiencing the diamond ring and Bailey’s beads can be reward enough. If you have your head down at the camera or are scrambling around to shoot with other cameras you’ll miss things entirely. A very effective tactic is to setup a video camera and set it to take images at specific intervals during the eclipse but before totality starts make sure it films continuously and captures your setup and all your friends.

Shooting the Eclipse

When totality sets in get your shots but slow down. Look around. Take it all in. You have very little time. I know I sound like a zen master or something. I don’t mean to but you’ll be glad you did because you’ll see more, experience more and remember more. Most of all have fun and enjoy the grand celestial spectacle that is a total solar eclipse.

 

 

Light, Distance and Time Travel

How far can we see into space? A very long way indeed. But not only are we seeing objects that are far away we are also seeing them as they existed (past tense). Why? Because as much as we would like to think light is instantaneous it actually travels at a measured or finite speed.

How fast is it? Light travels at 186,282 miles per second or roughly 300 million meters per second. Pretty darn fast but when you start talking astronomical distances the speed of light becomes apparent. Once you know the distance to an object you can then calculate how long it takes light to reach it.

1st Quarter Moon

The light reflected from the Moon takes 1.255 seconds to reach us here on Earth. Light emitted from the Sun takes over 8 minutes to get to us. And so on. The most distant galaxies in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image are 13 billion light-years away.

What’s a light year? A light year is the distance light travels in a year or almost 6 trillion miles. So to get back to what I was saying about seeing these distant objects as the existed, it should now make sense to you that the farther we look into the universe, the farther we also look back in time.

The Great Galaxy in Andromeda
Meade LXD55 10″ Schmidt-Newtonian

Take the Andromeda Galaxy pictured above. Under a dark sky you can actually see this galaxy with the unaided eye. The galaxy is about 2.5 million light years from us. So when we look at that galaxy we see it as it existed 2.5 million years ago. Why? because it’s taken that long for the light we are seeing to make it to our telescope mirrors and eyes.

So the next time you look up at the night sky remember you are not only an observer of the stars but also a time traveler and that telescope of yours is your time machine.

Updates to the Blog Site

I’ve been busy working on the blog site and have added a number of things that should be useful to visitors. Here’s the run down.

After having been removed several months ago due to issues it had with the WordPress site theme, the Events Calendar makes its return.  You can now check on specific dates for astronomical events, star parties and much more on the calendar or give a glance at the “upcoming events” in the right-hand column on the home page. The calendar still needs to have events added but April and May are done.

Next up is both a link in the main menu and social media icons to both the Scott’s Astronomy Page Facebook Group page and Twitter accounts. The Twitter account has been featured on the site now for some time but not the Facebook Group page. I recently made the Facebook page public in order to allow for visitors of the blog site to access, join and follow the site. I have to admit the Facebook Group site does get updated more frequently than the blog. So Join, Follow and Share!

Next up is the Astronomy News page.  I added this content a few months ago but didn’t really advertise the fact that I had done so. Through the miracle or RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) I’ve pulled in content (specifically astronomy and space related news and podcasts) into one page making it easy to access. I still plan more tweaks for the page as I’m not entirely in love with the look.

Then there is the new Astro Data Sets page which provides a great deal of information for folks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  On this page you’ll find a Moon phase chart which also includes morning and evening twilight, moon rise and set and sun rise and set times all in tabular form and predicted out for the next 10 days.

Also on the Astro Data Sets page is the Planetary Data table which shows each planet and gives its rise and set times, the time the planet crosses the meridian as well as the constellation the planet is in and a visibility prediction. And if that is not enough the same page has a 10 day International Space Station prediction grid and visible iridium flares table showing those flares that can be seen in the next seven days. Again, all of this is specific to the DFW area.

Last but not least there is now a Current Sky Map page which displays the sky for the DFW area as it exists the moment you load the page. The link for the sky map is in the menu under the Astro Data Sets listing. This can be a helpful guide for you to pull up and then head outside to pin point an object in the sky.

Not in the DFW area are you? No worries. There is also a link on this page for those not in the DFW area to go to and pull up a map for their neck of the woods. This map is provided by Astro Viewer.

I enjoyed adding all this new content and welcome your feedback. Thanks for checking out the blog! Shoot me a comment and let me know what you think.

Crepuscular Rays

Crepuscular rays over the rooftop.

Crepuscular rays or Sun rays are rays of sunlight that appear to radiate from the point in the sky where the sun is located. These rays, which stream through gaps in clouds or between other objects, are columns of sunlit air. Despite seeming to converge at a point, the rays are in fact near-parallel shafts of sunlight, and their apparent convergence is a perspective effect (similar, for example, to the way that parallel railway lines seem to converge at a point in the distance).

Crepuscular rays.
Crepuscular rays.

The images on this page were all taken on the evening of April 4, 2017. Including this one below of anticrepusculer rays. The sun rays seen below were captured directly opposite in the sky from the picture seen above.  Interestingly the rays  seem to converge where there is no Sun!

Anticrepuscular rays.
Anticrepuscular rays.

You can see more pictures like these on my blog site page devoted to crepuscular rays as well as other weather and atmospheric phenomenon including Solar Halos, Lunar Halos, Thunderstorms, Rainbows, Sundogs and others.

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova

As 2016 comes to a close corks will be popping and fireworks firing to be sure. But make sure in all the excitement you don’t miss the celestial fireworks!

There will be the opportunity for you to see periodic Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova in the constellation Capricornus.  This comet has an orbital period of just 5.25 years that takes out to Jupiter’s orbit before plunging back toward the Sun.

The best time to view will be just after sunset on new years eve, December 31, 2016. The south-western sky will be filled with other great objects for you to observe besides the comet including the Moon, Venus, Mars and Neptune.

Comet P45
Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova on December 31, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. CST as seen from DFW

The sky chart above shows Comet 45P at about 21 degrees above the horizon and roughly 5 degrees away from the Moon. This will make for great viewing with binoculars or a telescope.

In early February this comet will pass within 0.1 AU of the earth. It is predicted to reach maximum brightness of magnitude ~7 in early January.

Below is a broader view of the same area of sky on 12-31-2016 showing the other planets, Venus, Mars and Neptune which will also be visible.

Comet 45P and Planets.

Mars and Neptune will be mere 0.2 degrees a part and visible in the same field of view of a telescope.  Use high power eyepieces on Neptune to see it’s small blueish disk. Mars’ red color will be easily discernible.

Shining brightly at -4.4, Venus will be the show stopper. Known as the morning or evening star, as it never wanders far from the Sun from our vantage point, seen through a telescope Venus will appear as a gibbous disc that is about 60% sunlit.

So while the party is going on slip out into the cool or cold night air and view the big show of planets and comets. And take note, these celestial orbs will be setting about the time to red orb drops in NYC.

Happy New Year!

Current amateur astronomy information such as points of interest and events in the night sky, star party dates, educational information, telescopes buying tips and much more.