All posts by Scott

Star Parties This Fall 2017

As the Autumnal Equinox passes us by the nights start growing longer and cooler in this part of the world. It’s the perfect time for a star party. I thought I would offer up some star parties that you’ll want to add to your calendar. Star parties are great opportunities to get out under the night sky, visit with like minded folks and peek through an assortment of telescopes.  This can be very rewarding especially if you are thinking about buying a telescope.

The events listed below are within an hour or so drive, or closer, from the DFW area that I have  been to in the past and have found to be very enjoyable. Some have presentations at the beginning of the evening explaining basic astronomy concepts and discussing what can be seen in the sky and telescope that evening. Don’t miss this presentation as it will provide important info and guidelines for the evening as well as help set the tone and your expectations. Also, sometimes there are astronomy related giveaways or door prizes that you can get in on too.

If you plan on attending here are a few things you’ll want to consider. Should you stay the night and camp out if that is an option? Be sure to keep a close watch on the weather as the event approaches. The weather can change quickly and impact your plans. Should you arrive early on the day of the event and take in hiking or fishing and maybe a cookout?  At the very least I’d suggest getting there a bit early to settle in, find a good spot and look around. I find that arriving as the event is getting underway or a little late just does not allow for a relaxing and enjoyable evening. This is especially true if you are taking your own gear and need to set up or find a spot to camp, etc. Oh, and don’t forget the essentials like bug spray, a chair, drinks, a snack and warm clothes or a jacket. You might be surprised at how quickly the temperature can drop after sunset.

Astronomy Day, Saturday, September 30, 2017 – Check your local listings! Astronomy groups and clubs as well as state parks, science and history museums, and planetariums, etc. are sure to have activities and events planned on Astronomy Day.

Praire Sky Star Party @ Tandy Hills Natural Area, Fort Worth, TX on October 14, 2017. The Fort Worth Astronomical Society holds a monthly star party on the 2nd Saturday of the month weather permitting at the Tandy Hills Natural Area 3400 View Street, Fort Worth, TX 76103. FWAS Members will be on hand with several telescopes set up from 7:00 PM – 11:00 PM at Tandy Hills for viewing the night sky. This event is still free & open to the public. All ages welcome.

Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Star Party @ Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, Strawn, TX on October 14, 2017. Palo Pinto Mountains Star Party will be on Saturday, October 14th beginning at 4:00 pm. PPMSP is a new TPWD park property near the town of Strawn, Texas which serves as the gateway to the newly acquired state park property.  Members of the Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas and the Fort Worth Astronomical Society host this free event. There will be telescopes that you can use to view stars and constellations. Palo Pinto Mountains State Park, 1915 FM 2372, Strawn, Texas. Google Map.

20th Annual North Texas Skywatch Star Party @ Lake Mineral Wells State Park, Mineral Wells, TX. – This years NTSW star party will be held on Saturday, October 28, 2017 which is also International Observe the Moon Night. Come to the Lone Star Amphitheater where you can learn about astronomy and to have a chance to see the night sky through a wide variety of telescopes. There will be a beginner’s astronomy slide presentation at sunset. Held at the Lone Star Amphitheater in Lake Mineral Wells State Park, 100 Park Road 71, Mineral Wells, TX, 76067. The program is free with paid park entrance fee or a State Park Pass.

6th Annual Rio Brazos Star Party @ Acton Nature Center, Acton, TX.  The Rio Brazos chapter of Texas Master Naturalists will be hosting a star party on Saturday, November 25, 2017 from 7:30 to 10:30 pm at Acton Nature Center, 6900 Smoky Hill Ct. Granbury, TX 76049. We will have a guest speaker at the twilight program under the pavilion adjacent to the parking lot starting at 7:30 pm followed by a short walk down the path to the farmhouse where we will have telescopes with guides. Please bring a blanket or chair to sit, water to drink and enjoy the evening. Restrooms are available on site.

Total Solar Eclipse From Hopkinsville, KY

What a great adventure to Tennessee and Kentucky to see the Great American Total Solar Eclipse. I viewed the celestial show from Hopkinsville, KY with several coworkers who also made the long drive.

TSE 08212017 – The moment before totality

The “solar funnel” (solar projection cone) seen below that I had made a few months back in preparation for this eclipse was a huge hit with eclipse chasers! I received many compliments and plenty of return visitors to check the progress of the partial phase.

 You can view the HD video I shot before, during and after totality below. Totality begins at about 10 minutes into the video.

You can find many more of my eclipse pictures as well as pictures of the telescopes and fellow eclipse chasers on my Total Solar Eclipse – 8/21/2017 page that I’ve added to this site. Click the link just above or navigate to Astrophotoghaphy > Eclipses > Total Solar Eclipse – 08/21/2017 on the menu in the upper left on this page.

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.

Update – Here are some pictures of the solar funnel in action during the total solar eclipse of 8-21-2017

 

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.