Friday, April 28, 2006

Where's the Strauss?

Some enterprising fellow captured a video of Suitsat flying by Vega. In theory, this is pretty cool since we're talking about an astronaut's suit that's orbiting the earth rather than the usual space junk—tiles, wrenches, bolts, urinal pucks, freeze-dried ice cream (I'm guessing here...). But in reality, the video is a bit disappointing, since it looks like every other satellite you see flying by at high speed.

I realize I was irrationally hoping it would be more like those videos of the ISS crossing the sun. Or better yet, a silhouette of the suit tumbling by slowing, with one hand outstretched as if it were waving to us, preferably to the strains of a Strauss waltz.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Evil eyes

This very beautiful image was released by the Spitzer team today showing a galaxy merger in Canis Major. I don't know much about the physics of these things, but what's intriguing to me is the fact that the galaxies seem to be merging edge-on. Possibly, this is just an optical illusion—the larger galaxy certainly seems to be face-on to our line of sight, but the smaller one may be tilted in some dimension.

I would think the odds of galaxies merging in the same plane would be pretty small unless there's some gravitational force inclining them that way. Another possible explanation, of course, is that face-on galaxy mergers make nicer pictures.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

By the numbers

I had occasion recently to receive some advertising information from a major astronomy magazine which contained the results of their reader survey. As you would imagine, amateur astronomers are overwhelmingly male, upper-income professionals, but I was surprised by the fact that more people reported having attended a star party (19%) than belong to an astronomy club or observing group (15%).

Male: 86%

Mean age: 52.6 years

Household income: $95,800

College grad or better: 68.7%

Professional/managerial/technical career: 69.1%

Involved in astronomy hobby (mean): 21.3 years

Replacement cost of current astronomy equipment (mean): $2,614

Average hours per month spent on astronomy activities: 8.9 hours

Readers who describe themselves as intermediate/advanced: 61%

Average magazine subscription: 6.3 years

Actually, this correlates pretty well to the demographic makeup of my club—or at least he folks who ever show up for anything (about 10% of membership). So I reckon this is probably a pretty good description of the people who are really involved in the hobby. I'm sure lots of kids are interested in astronomy, at least in general, but it's really more of a hobby for grownups since it involved staying out late, owning plenty of equipment, and possessing more a little patience.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Backyard comet observing

After my abject failure to locate Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann the other night (scroll down for post), I decided to give it the old college try again last night. Conditions were about the same: clear, warm, plenty o' light pollution, Corona Borealis barely visible over the trees next door, through the power lines. This time I set up the Meade 2080 instead of the TV-60, for maximum light-gathering.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm dealing with, there's a sodium streetlight about 12 feet from my back deck such that I don't need a flashlight to read or sketch (and a floodlight across the street at the neighbor's and downtown Silver Spring about 2 blocks away in the other direction). I did get a towel to use as a shroud, so that I didn't get light bouncing off my eyeball onto the eyepiece (yes, this is an issue).

While I was waiting for the earth to turn, and by way of comparison, I checked out galaxy M94 (mag 8.2) and the globular cluster M3 (mag 6.2) in Canes Venatici. I figure if I could find M94, I ought to be able to see this comet, right?

I had two charts, the one from S&T's May 2006 issue and a printout from (link courtesy of Belt of Venus). The charts were crucial since I could only see about 3 stars in CrB naked eye -- I had to do all my other navigating in the finder scope and eyepiece. Here are my results:

I think I might have found fragment B, but it really looked like a double star, so maybe that's what it was. I was pointed a little bit east of eta CrB. I kinda wish I had one of those astronomy software programs so I could know for sure.

Then I turned my attention to fragment C. This should have been a lot easier to find, but it took a while. I didn't actually have a location for where it should be last night, so I had to extrapolate from my charts. I eventually found it about halfway between R and iota CrB. This was definitely it, but it was so faint, I actually lost it once after finding it -- I just couldn't see it anymore and I twiddled the controls and lost it. Anyway, found it again, but boy was it ever faint -- much harder to see than M94. Oddly, putting on a shroud didn't help, it just made it harder to see.

Painful, but worth it!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Banner day in news reports today that:

Doomsayers and Chicken Little-types can now strike "deathray from a star" from their list of possible ways to die. A new study finds that the chances of a gamma ray burst going off in our galaxy and destroying life on Earth are comfortingly close to zero.

Sigh. I don't know where people get these wacky ideas. Everyone knows you don't DIE from gamma-rays. Just ask this guy:

Stargazing accessories

I really want to go to star parties, but the only one I've managed to make it to is our club's Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia. And I had to go to that one because I was signed up as a volunteer. It was a great experience, but I still haven't figured out the whole star party thing. How do people deal with things like:

1. Getting away from work during the week
2. Leaving my sweetie by himself for days on end since he probably doesn't want to be stuck at a star party for a week with a bunch of astronomy geeks he doesn't know
3. Driving anywhere further than a day away by myself (and driving back)
4. Flying, but then having to lug astronomy gear, rent a car and camping gear?
5. Camping by myself for a week

I could see driving somewhere 4-6 hours away, let's say, and maybe going for a long weekend. But anything longer than that and I'd essentially be taking a vacation without himself. Which seems really lame, and not particularly enjoyable. Which kind of limits my options.

I can only figure that people either take their whole families to these things, or their spouse is also an astronomer, or they don't particularly care about their spouse and don't mind spending a whole lot of time apart.

But I think I may have solved at least one of these issues. We got a wild hair and decided to buy a popup camper this weekend! It's about 22 years old, but in quite good nick. And I'm hoping it's going to enable me to -- if not start attending a lot of star parties -- at least get out to somewhere dark with the sweetie, with the camping gear, and with the telescope.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Comet frustration

I spent about an hour last night in my heavily light-polluted backyard trying to locate Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann—to no avail. I swear I was looking in the right place, according to the May 2006 Sky & Telescope charts, but no dice. I started a bit early and had to wait for the appropriate region of the sky to rise above the treeline across the street. But I figured it should have been a short hop away from alpha CrB, right? And according to S&T, it ought to be around Mag 7 by now. I just didn't see anything that looked like a comet. I figure one of the following went wrong:

1) I was looking in the wrong place (not too likely)
2) Light pollution washed the sky out too much
3) The comet might be largish, making for a low surface brightness
4) The TV-60 just doesn't have enough photon-gathering power for this object

or some combination thereof.

And to top it all off, the smell of lilacs near the deck was so cloying as to induce mild nausea. I never have cared for perfume.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


I have this nerdy trick question that I like to ask people sometimes:

"What's the furthest you can see?"

Usually people assume you mean on the earth, so they'll say a mile or ten miles or whatever. But then I get a smug look and tell them, "Well I can see for about 2 million light years." (OK, I never actually do this because it would be insufferable, but I'm thinking it.)

Even in light-polluted skies, on a clear night you can see the Andromeda Galaxy, which is more than 2 million light years distant. A fact which strikes me as one of those mind-blowing bits of trivia that's so well-known as to have become banal. Which is what gave me the idea for this design:

And then there's the Grand Canyon. In Arizona, your sense of visual distance is easily fooled because the air is so clear, you don't get the usual clues that help you determine distance and scale. For example, we were walking around the Painted Desert and saw some striated mountains in the distance. They looked just like all the other sandy hills you see there, and we wondered out loud how far they must be. After a few more minutes of walking we realized that they were only a few dozen yards away and were in fact, only about 30 feet high!

Similarly, we drove from Canyon de Chelly to Monument Valley. A few miles out of Tuba City, still about 80 miles from our destination, we saw a distinctive mesa in the distance which looked just like the ones you see on postcards from Monument Valley. But we thought, there's no way we could see that from here. We were wrong again.

And don't forget the Grand Canyon. When you're on the south rim, it looks like the north rim is easily a couple of miles away. Come to find out, it's ten miles! And at the Grand Canyon, on a clear night, you can see at least 10 million light years -- NGC 891 in Andromeda is a naked-eye object, if you can believe that.

All I'm saying is that every stargazer should go there once before you die, if only to see what the real sky looks like.

In my experience, that rocky outcrop is the single best place to set up your telescope in the lower 48 states.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Certificate of authenticity

If you've already blown through the Astronomical League's observing lists and have run out of places to get official kudos for your observing prowess, you're in luck!

The authors of The Night Sky Observers Guide have come up with two new observing lists for which they are offering certificates.

1. The Showpiece Objects Certificate – An introductory certificate requiring the observation of 94 objects. This is a listing of Kepple and Sanner Volumes 1 & 2 ***** objects with Declinations north of –30o. It includes many bright, familiar objects (e.g., M-Objects) and helps the observer begin his pursuit of the more challenging Comprehensive Certificate. While the Declination “cut-off” of –30o eliminates 7 spectacular objects (e.g., NGC-5139 and NGC-5128), the remaining objects should be observable by individuals from northern latitudes similar to that of the Kiski Astronomers.

2. The Comprehensive Certificate - This is a listing of all Kepple and Sanner Volumes 1 & 2 ***** and **** objects regardless of Declination. Observing all 400 objects may require observations to be conducted from various sites at a variety of latitudes. Kepple and Sanner recently updated the visual ratings of several of these objects. Consequently, 7 of them were promoted to while 9 others were removed from the ***** and **** lists. Thus, your volumes will not be in a 1:1 agreement with the attached K&S logging sheets.

They'll even give you credit if you've completed the AL's Messier list. The certificates are being offered through the Kiski Astronomers club of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Off-topic: Word play

On the way home yesterday, I was thinking about made-up words that are a combination of two other words, like ginormous or stepmonster or edutainment or sacrelicious.

There's a kind of subclass that describe hybrid objects where you need a new word:

Fork + Spoon = Spork
Skirt + Shorts = Skort

A couple of my other favorites are "Spave" (when you spend in order to save) and "Swunt" (an unintentional bunt, when you swing but don't make connection with the ball properly).

(I googled "made-up words" and came across an index called -- a great time-waster if you're a word junkie like me.)


Spitzer Space Telescope Podcasts

I'll be checking these out at lunch. By the way, it's OK to misspell "sightseeing" when you're talking about web SITES. At least, that's what I say.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Space ride more realistic than planned reports that a second person has died after riding Disney's "Mission: Space" amusement park ride. To paraphrase the old saying, to lose one customer is a misfortune; to lose two starts to look like carelessness.

Still, Disney does assert that "This ultimate interactive thrill-packed adventure is as close as you can get to blasting off into space without leaving Earth." With some of the inherent dangers, too, it seems.

I don't know how many people have been on this ride so far, probably tens of thousands. If we assume 100,000, then that's a death rate of only 0.02%. Compare that with actual space flight. According to Wikipedia, 457 people have been in space. Of those, 21 have died on the job. That's a rate of 4.5% -- WAAAAY higher than the death rate even among Alaska fishermen (which is popularly thought to be one of the most dangerous civilian jobs around), at 0.1%.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Abhors a vacuum

Astroprof has one of the most interesting blog entries I've read in a while: What happens when the human body is exposed to a vacuum.

Which immediately brings to mind that cartoonishly yucky scene in Total Recall where the governator starts to experience explosive decompression on the surface of Mars. And, for those of you who were into Farscape, the fact that one of their alien characters (d'Argo) could survive for several minutes in a vacuum. They never explained how, exactly, but it was a crucial plot point in at least two episodes.

Image from

Monday, April 10, 2006

Gamma-ray bursts

We had a great guest speaker at our club meeting last night: Dr. Derek Fox, an assistant astronomy prof at Penn State. He's a young guy with a ton of enthusiasm for the subject matter, which was admittedly intriguing: short and long gamma-ray bursts. After summarizing the history of our observations of GRBs and the evolution of various ground- and space-based detectors, he showed us the research that led to the current theories of the two types of GRBs. The most fascinating part of the presentation (along with the sexy "Hollywood" animations of stars collapsing and polar jets forming), was the evidence that led his team to be the first to pinpoint a short GRB and measure its distance.

It's experiences like this that make me regret I didn't go into sciences like I intended to in college. The thrill of discovery must be really fantastic, and I think Dr. Fox did a great job of giving the audience a brief vicarious experience of that thrill.

Astronomy Day

If you're in the Washington, DC - Northern Virginia area or know someone who is, our club is planning a rockin' Astronomy Day fest. Last year being our 25th anniversary, we pulled out all the stops and got John Dobson and Richard Berry so speak. This year's speakers will be less-well-known club members, but it should be pretty great nonetheless. I've got a wedding to go to, so I'll be giving it a miss this year, unfortunately. A downloadable PDF flyer (do I even need to say, designed by yours truly?) is available from the club website:

Friday, April 07, 2006

Earth Day 2006

I think Earth Day counts as an astronomy topic.

This year Earth Day will be on April 26. And Astronomy Day follows hard on its heels on May 6.

Anyway, I'm having a lot of success at Stargazer Tees with my Earth Day 2006 t-shirt. This is actually an illustration I did a few years ago for a Christmas card, but I think it works OK in this context:

Yes, it's true, only women have purchased this design. Oddly enough, I'm making at least half my sales to women, even though astronomy is a hobbly largely pursued by men. I assume that this is because women are the "gift buyers" in the family. So, the conundrum becomes, should I design shirts that appeal to men or shirts that appeal to women shopping for men? Welcome to retail.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Spirit is willing, but the wheel is stuck


Spirit is literally dragging a wheel through Mars' dusty soil since the right front wheel has stopped working. And, based on the picture above, it looks like all that dragging has scraped off some of the wheel treads. Must be pretty abrasive soil.

As we all know, the Mars rovers have lasted waaaay longer than anyone expected, and they're still hoping there's life in the old girl yet. NASA engineers are using test rovers to figure out how to get around on Mars with only five wheels.

I just can never get over the fact that these awesome pictures are from the surface of another planet! I always wonder if people will eventually get to Mars and how they'll feel about running into one of our old rovers or crashed spaceships. I sort of imagine it would give you a weird time-traveller feeling. Because it's not like the equipment is going to get all rusty or covered with vines. They'll probably look exactly the same in 500 years as they do now. Maybe covered with dust, though.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Magical occultation 4.1.06

I had a lot of fun telling people last week that I'd be going out on Saturday to view an "occultation of the Pleiades by the Moon." Occultations are one of those things that no-one outside of astronomy has heard of, so you can really bamboozle them with big words: "Ogga-what?"

I'm the first to admit that the Moon passing in front of a bunch of stars doesn't sound like something rare or particularly interesting, but you really had to be there to appreciate it. Here's my description from Saturday night (with a very rudimentary sketch):

So beautiful to watch—the unlit part of the moon is clearly visible against the sky—kind of a velvety dove-grey against black—can see some details of lunar surface even in the shadows.

Even the photo gallery at Space Weather doesn't convey how magical it was. Every time a star would get close to the edge of the Moon, someone would yell out and we'd all fix our eyes to scopes or binoculars. You'd hold your breath, and as soon as the star winked out, everyone let out an involuntary exclamation, "Oh! There it goes," or something like that. Just the sight of the Moon amid the starry field was particulary lovely since it's something you don't often see.


We had a fair amount of cloud drifting in and out early on, so there was as lot of time to chat and check out other people's scopes. But I did bag a few Messiers. I'm currently re-working my way through the list and doing sketches of every object so I can apply for the Astronomical League certificate. One of the things I love about sketching is comparing my drawing with a photograph of the object. I'm always amazed how close they look. (The drawing is mislabeled: the actual magnification is 105x.)