Thursday, September 21, 2006

Almost Heaven Star Party

I've been meaning to blog about the Almost Heaven Star Party, which was an unqualified success last month. It's about the only stargazing I've managed to do all summer, hence the spotty blogging. I'll make a full report tomorrow, but in the meantime, here's a picture of our little setup before the hoardes arrived:

New developments at StargazerTees

I've got a bunch of new designs up at StargazerTees. I'm particularly fond of the Astronomer/Werewolf design—but maybe my sense of humor is just a little skewed. The Cosmic Birthday shirt currently is set up for decade years from 40 to 90, but I can easily customize it for other ages.

Friday, July 21, 2006

If you're in the capital today...

The National Air and Space Museum celebrates its 30 years on the Mall Friday with "Mars Day!," a day of free family activities. The museum opened in July 1976 at a ceremony that began with a signal from the Viking 1 Mars explorer. There will be hands-on art workshops, talks by curators, the latest images and a Red Planet quiz show. Admission and all activities are free.

"MARS DAY!" Friday from 10 to 3 at the National Air and Space Museum, Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza, Smithsonian). 202-633-1000 or

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Little-known astronomer's disease

A lot has been made of so-called "aperture fever"—the uncontrollable desire for bigger and bigger telescopes. But you don't hear much about our other major compulsion—eyepieces.

You know who you are.

You're the guy in the club who always has the latest and greatest and most expensive glass. You refer to Al Nagler as "Uncle Al," and chase him down at astro conventions just in case he might impart some pre-release tidbits you can impress your buddies with. For you, no apparent field is ever wide enough, no carrying case deep enough, no scheme to hide your latest purchase from She Who Stingily Controls The Purse Strings is cunning enough.

Anyway, Stargazer Tees has a shirt for you:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A 3-hour cruise?

Virgin Galactic Aims to Fly Passengers by 2008
Designer Philippe Starck, former soap star Victoria Principal and "Superman Returns'' director Bryan Singer have booked their flights for tourist trips in outer space, an official from the company selling the galactic voyage said Monday.

Ummmm... maybe it's just the mention of washed-up actor Victoria Principal, but I'm thinking "outer-space version of Gilligan's Island" here. Oh wait, they already did that.... "Lost in Space." But still.

According to the article, crazy rich people are paying $200,000 for the privilege of going up in the air for an hour, entering suborbital space for 15 minutes (of which 5 minutes will be in freefall), and then coming back down. The weightlessness part sounds like it might be fun—except when you remember how uptight airlines have gotten about passengers wearing seatbelts at all times and not waiting in the aisle outside the bathrooms. And you can bet there won't be any beverage service in freefall. Or bathrooms, for that matter.

Helping fight light pollution

I feel pretty strongly about light pollution, especially since I live in a heavily light polluted area that gets worse every year. Not to mention that every year, my club's observing sites become more encroached upon by exurban sprawl. Currently, I'm driving 60 miles to get to darkish skies. In a few years, it will be 80 miles.

I've been planning this for months, but I finally got some time to reorganize the Stargazer Tees site and put all my designs into sections, including a section for anti-light pollution designs.

To put my money where my mouth is, I'm donating a dollar of every item purchased from the Light Pollution section to the International Dark-Sky Association. I've currently got three t-shirt designs (lots more coming!), some bumper stickers, and a license plate frame. Check it out and let me know what you think:

When I get a few sales, I'll start a running tally of how much I've raised. Not only will the IDA be able to do some good with the money, but I hope if people wear the shirts, it will help raise awareness. After all, bad lighting is not only detrimental for stargazing, but it's incredibly wasteful, and has been proven not to increase public safety (contrary to popular misconception).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What's going on with Venus?

Lots of findings and groovy images from the Venus Express team. In particular this strange vortex discovered at the South Pole (imaged in infrared), which has an unexpected elongated morphology.

I wasn't aware that Venus has no intrinsic magnetic field, unlike Earth, to shelter it from the solar wind. Apparently the reason for this is not well understood since presumably Venus has a similar metal composition to the Earth and may also have a molten core. A quick internet search suggests that the prevailing theories posit Venus's slow rotation and/or lack of plate tectonics as possible causes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sign #357 of the apocalypse

Probably these so-called "megacryometeors" are old news to you. But I'm just getting to hear about them, so on the blog they go.

Exhibit A, giant ice chunks fall out the sky in Spain in 2000. Since then they've been reported falling in many other countries, including a "440-pound behemoth" in Brazil. The Spanish researcher who chased down the ice chunks and analysed them speculated that low ozone levels due to global warming might be the cause.

It's no wonder all those wacko fundies think the End of Days is nigh. I'm really looking forward to swimming to work while trying to dodge giant ice balls from the sky and snakehead fish from below.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Top five astronomy sites you may not know about

Most experienced amateur astronomers will already have this information, but the hobby attracts newbies all the time who have to learn everything from scratch. So if that latter description fits you, here are a few websites you need to know about:

Heavens Above -
You have to register to make best use of the site, but it's well worth it (and free). Enter your latitude and longitude and you'll be able to look up sun and moon data for your location as well as transit times for various bright satellites, most notably the International Space Station (ISS) and Iridium satellite flares. Most people use this site to track satellites, or to identify a satellite they saw after the fact. If you haven't seen an ISS pass, it's well worth it, especially if you know exactly what time to look up and can persuade your dinner guests to step outside for a few minutes.

Cloudy Nights -
Cloudy Nights is the top telescope review site on the web, although it covers more than just scopes. Volunteers write reviews on everything from astronomy software to eyepieces to CCD cameras. The reviews are available to anyone, although you have to register to post to the classifieds and the bulletin board. Definitely check this site out before you buy.

AstroMart -
After you've read the reviews on Cloudy Nights and know what equipment you want, you'll definitely want to check out AstroMart, which has got to be the largest online astronomy buy-and-sell community. Registration is required and free. Most experienced telescope buyers will avoid eBay for astronomy gear because eBay tends to have nothing but department store telescopes that are being sold by people who never used them. On AstroMart you'll usually get a fair to excellent price on used equipment that has been thoroughly vetted (and often upgraded) by the owner. The site also has paid classifieds from commercial retailers selling new equipment and an active bulletin board and review section.

SkyMaps -
The SkyMaps site publishes monthly sky calendars that list the best small-telescope objects for that month. While not particular useful if you have already progressed beyond the basics, SkyMaps are perfect for children's groups or sky tours and they allow free distribution to educational groups and individuals. Also, they have a really nice online store with astronomy books, atlases, and posters.

Clear Sky Clock -
The Clear Sky Clocks page is one of the most valuable resources to active astronomers that you've probably never heard of. It's basically an astronomy weather page that is uncannily accurate down to the hour. A totally home-grown effort by programmer Attilla Danko, the site is supported by individuals or clubs who usually sponsor a map for their particular observing site. If your local site isn't up there, it's well worth becoming a sponsor to have it added.