Stuck in the doldrums

It's been far too long since I last got out and observed (well, 11 days to be exact) and it's starting to annoy me now. On nights when I've got the time available it isn't clear; on nights when it's clear I'm busy with something else. It's made all the worse by the fact that I spent most of the summer looking forward to having nice long nights (and now they're starting to get shorter again) and now that they're here I'm hardly getting the chance to use them.

It's enough to make me feel quite apathetic about observing. Hopefully it'll pass. Hopefully it's one of those phases you have to get through when you get into observing for the first time (or, in my case, back into observing for the first time in about 20 years).

Still, at least I've not been totally inactive this year.

File Under: Amateur Astronomy, Observing.


Weather station now installed

Over the weekend I finally had the time to install my new weather station. You can read about how the install went over here and you can read about my first stumbling block over here. Hopefully I'll get the latter problem sorted out one way or another pretty soon.

The nice thing about having this up and running is I can now log pressure and wind speed along with my observing logs.

File Under: Personal Weather Station, WS3600, Astronomy Observing Logs, Geek Toys.


More astronomy on your Google homepage

After yesterday's play with Google's new homepage extension API I've decided to have another play. This time I've written a little module to display the latest image of the Sun as found on SpaceWeather.

It works — after a fashion. Because SpaceWeather don't provide a "today's image" image that gets updated each day I've had to write some code to construct the URL for the image for today. The main problem with this is that I'm quite a few hours ahead of the SpaceWeather people so, for part of my day, I don't have an image to view (and, of course, the same problem happens if they don't have an image for a given day).

I did have a play with some code that would try and figure out what the latest image is (by looking for an image for today, then yesterday, then the day before that, etc...) but my knowledge of javascript and all the related tools isn't that good so it's defeated me. I won't bore you with the details but it all seems to come down to security and now allowing code-based access to sites other than the host site for the code. Security's nice but, sometimes, it gets in the way.

File Under: Google Homepage, Google Homepage Developer API, Google Astronomy Hacks, SpaceWeather, Solar Image.


Astronomy on your Google homepage

Google have been offering a personalised homepage facility for quite some time now and I've been using it for a few weeks. It's handy, but I've generally been disappointed with the range of items you could add to it.

Today, in the Google Blog, I noticed this article. It mentions the Google Homepage API. After a quick read of the Developer Guide I couldn't resist having a go at knocking up something astronomy related.

A short while later I had my own little "Hello, World!" program up and running in the form of a Phase of the Moon display. It's nothing clever, it simply makes use of the UNSO Virtual Reality Moon Phase image.

With some luck there'll be some astronomy-loving programmers out there who'll start to add some astronomy modules to the Homepage Content Directory.

A word of warning about my test module: I can't guarantee that it'll always be available — I might take it down at some point in the future. Also, if you have your own Google homepage and you decide to try it out, don't be surprised to find that you see slightly different versions of it from time to time (some that don't look very good); it seems that there's some sort of caching system going on and different versions can get served up now and again (I found this happening a lot while I was playing with the code — despite turning off the cache for that module in the developer module).

Update: After reading the API discussion group I see that I'm not the only person seeing the caching problem I mention above. I've also noticed that my Moon module looks pretty awful in Microsoft Internet Explorer. In FireFox (which I use) and Opera it looks just fine. No, I'm not surprised.

File Under: Google Homepage, Phase of the Moon, Google Homepage Developer API, Google Astronomy Hacks.


Monstrous act of civic vandalism

Hopefully most astronomers in the UK are now aware of the proposed Barnsley Halo project — a project that Robin Scagell of the SPA called "a monstrous act of civic vandalism".

If this post to the SPA BB is anything to go by it would appear that at least one councillor is opposed to the idea.

File Under: Barnsley Halo, Light Pollution, Robin Scagell, Society for Popular Astronomy.


Peak performance?

It's not uncommon to find people wondering about the point and purpose of amateur observational astronomy and, as I've said before, it really comes down to what you personally make of it and take from it. Last night I had another nice little example of why I find it an exciting and rewarding interest.

Because the sky was reasonably clear (although a little misty with a threat of cloud moving in), but because the Moon was past 1st ¼, I decided to have another evening observing and getting to know the Moon using just a lunar map and a 10x50 binocular on a tripod.

Part way into the observing session I noticed what appeared to be two sunlit peaks inside the nighttime portion of the Moon, roughly south and west of the southern "headland" of Sinus Iridium. I had a good look at my lunar map and, as best as I could tell, the peaks I was seeing belonged to Mons Gruithuisen Gamma and Mons Gruithvisen Delta.

Later on, after the cloud had got the better of me and I finished the session, I decided to double check my decision using the Virtual Moon Atlas. From that Mons Gruithuisen Gamma and Mons Gruithvisen Delta did appear to be the features I'd seen. But then I read something in the information that had me doubting myself: the size of each dome is given as around 12 miles by 12 miles.

That seemed liked an awfully small feature for me to have seen with a 10x50 binocular.

This is where the fun and the reward comes in. Last night's session, rather than just being an exercise in passive observing, has now turned into a little journey driven by a desire to test my assumption that the features I'd identified are too small for me to have seen. At the moment I'm not fully sure how I'm going to answer the question but, one way or another, I'll seek out an answer.

And I'll have a lot of fun doing it.

And, if you've got an answer, please feel free to let me know. Learning from knowledgeable and experienced people is part of the fun.

File Under: Observational Astronomy, Lunar Observing.


If you can't beat it — enjoy it

Anyone into amateur astronomy will know what a pain the weather can be at times. It's not that weather is a "bad" thing, it's not that you can't actually enjoy watching or experiencing the weather, it's just that when you want to be out observing it's annoying when conditions don't allow it.

One option is to shake your fist at the overcast sky and go and find something else to do (build your own astronomy website, for example), another option is to actually take an active interest in the weather.

Today, I'm taking the first step towards the second option — with a geeky twist of course. I've just taken delivery of a WS3600 personal weather station. Once I've figured out how it all works, found good locations in my garden for the instruments, figured out how to interface with it from one of my computers (I'm hoping I'll be able to ignore the Windows-based software that comes with it and do something with one of my GNU/Linux boxes) and got it all up and running don't be surprised if a new section appears on one of my web sites with lots of pointless weather-related data.

File Under: Weather, Personal Weather Station, Meteorology, Geek Toys.


Why sketching isn't just part of astronomy's history

Anyone who reads my ramblings on a regular basis will know that the issue of sketching has come up a few times (see here and here for example).

A number of posts made today on the SPA's BB have, for me anyway, demonstrated why sketching is still an important and enjoyable method of observing and recording what you see when you venture out at night.

The first post I saw today was this sketch of M45 done by Jeff Stevens. The second was a sketch of M42 done by Joe Cummings. What I like about them is that, in both cases, they give you a really good impression of what the objects appeared like at the eyepiece while the observations were being made; they give me a real sense of being there with the observers.

Another post that caught my eye was this set of images taken of various deep sky objects by James Dyson. As luck would have it he'd included images of M42 and M45. I've had some enjoyment today comparing the images with the sketches — both approaches deliver something you can really appreciate (both in terms of the content and the skill involved) and, just as importantly, both approaches convey something very different but equally as informative.

To top it all off Joe has produced this side-by-side comparison. How can anyone, when seeing the images compared like this, seriously suggest that sketching is no longer an important observing tool?

The only annoying thing about all of this is that it's been quite some time now since I've had a combination of a free night, clear sky and no Moon.

File Under: M42, M45, Sketching, Imaging.

Where's SG1 when you need them?

Just seen this report in The Guardian — looks like another "asteroid to hit Earth" scare.

I had to have a smile at the name of the body: Apophis. As an incurable Stargate fan the name Apophis has some appeal.

And, of course, SG1 once saved us from an asteroid.

File Under: Apophis, Asteroid, Stargate, SG1.


My magazine's bigger than your magazine

Amateur astronomy must be looking up in the UK — it seems that the two monthly magazines that we've got (Astronomy Now and Sky at Night) are having a slight disagreement over who has the most subscribers. First there's this press release from the Sky at Night camp, and then there's this information from the Astronomy Now camp.

File Under: Sky at Night Magazine, Astronomy Now, Astronomy Magazines.


Missing out

There seems to be a fair bit of buzz going around regarding sunspot 826 and I feel left out. The weather's pretty nasty around here at the moment (right now it's overcast and raining).

I did manage to see the Sun for a brief moment about an hour ago — I popped out with eclipse shades to have a quick look. I think I could see 826 with the naked eye but there was so much cloud around that I was only getting very brief views.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sunspots, Sunspot 826.


A superb souvenir

n 1: something of sentimental value
[syn: keepsake, token, relic]
2: a reminder of past events
[syn: memento]
Yesterday I mentioned that a letter I'd written to the editor of Sky At Night magazine had been published in the December edition. I also noted that I didn't have a copy yet (I still don't). Knowing that I wasn't going to get my hands on a copy of the magazine for a few days a friend was kind enough to let me know what the reply to my letter was (the reply is also to two other letters published regarding the same subject).

A copy of the reply has also been posted to the SPA BB. One bit of the response doesn't make much sense to me:
I think digital imaging will encourage many more people to get into astronomy as it gives you a superb souvenir of your nights observing
While I don't doubt for a moment that it's true that images you produce are a "superb souvenir", the response is written such that it implies that sketches aren't. I'd have said that sketches are a "superb souvenir". Sure, my sketches might not be that good but they do act as a great reminder and record of the experiences I've had at the eyepiece so far.

Something else that annoyed me slightly about the editor's response was that it didn't deal with (and, arguably, made worse) the central point of my letter: the suggestion that imaging and sketching were somehow mutually exclusive activities. It seemed odd that he didn't deal with the point at all. He also didn't deal with the cost issue either. And then, when I was provided with a copy of how my letter had been published, I found out why. Here's what I originally wrote:
In the November edition of S@N magazine D Fisher asks the direct question "I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects." Sadly, you don't seem to offer a direct answer to D Fisher's question; "we won't be publishing sketches regularly" suggests that sketches might be accepted for publication but it also suggests a reluctance to publish them too. It would be nice to see a clear and concise statement of the magazine's position.

More alarming is the suggestion in your response that CCD imaging is "now very affordable". Relatively speaking that might well be the case but it's this kind of attitude that makes astronomy appear to be an inaccessible interest unless you have a startup budget that is heading well into four figures (£300 for the camera, then there's your telescope, etc...). Worse still, it suggests a false dichotomy with sketching on one side and imaging on the other.

I've seen enough letters to astronomy magazines and enough posts to astronomical bulletin boards on the internet to know that a good number of people starting out in this interest are under the impression that you're not really doing anything useful if you're not imaging with webcams or the latest CCD technology -- this is a situation that isn't helped by the sort of answer you gave to the question.

I'm also concerned by the suggestion that sketching is mostly part of "astronomy's past" and, these days, it only serves a useful purpose when recording "transient events". Sketching, if nothing else, is an excellent way of learning to actually observe. It's also a rather good method of recording how an object appears in the eyepiece.

I'm sure captured images make for a more eye-catching magazine and I'd understand a decision not to publish sketches, but could we at least have a clear guideline as to what this magazine will and won't accept? Personally I'd like to see something that encourages people to observe and sketch -- especially given the heritage that this particular magazine draws upon.
And here's what got published:
In November's BBC Sky at Night magazine, D Fisher asks, "I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects?" Sadly, you don't seem to offer a direct answer. I'm also concerned by the suggestion that sketching is mostly part of "astronomy's past". Sketching, if nothing more, is an excellent way of learning to actually observe. I'm sure captured images make for a more eye-catching magazine and I'd understand a decision not to publish sketches, but could we at least have a clear guideline as to what this magazine will and won't accept?"
Now, sure, I'm well aware of the fact that there's only so much space in a magazine &mdash especially for a letters page — but that's almost a totally different letter they've published there! I really would have liked to have seem them deal with the issues of cost and the false sense of "sketching vs imaging".

It's also interesting to note that this line:
especially given the heritage that this particular magazine draws upon
was left out; the irony here being that the first edition of the magazine came with a lunar map produced by Patrick Moore — a map that was hand-drawn.

I'm disappointed. Not because I want them to publish sketches, but because they seem to be adding to the impression that sketching isn't such a worthy observing technique any more.

File Under: Sky at Night, Sky at Night Magazine, Sketching, Imaging, Sketching vs Imaging.


Annoyed of Lincolnshire writes....

Last month I wrote about my reaction to something I'd read in the November edition of Sky At Night magazine. I think I forgot to mention that I also wrote a letter to the editor.

I've just been informed that my letter has been published in the December issue of the magazine.

Annoyingly I don't have a copy at the moment and probably won't get my hands on one until the weekend. I guess I'm going to have to wait that long to see if my comments were useful or were shot down in flames...

Looks like I'm having a bit of a "annoyed of Lincolnshire" week this week.

File Under: Sky at Night, Sky at Night Magazine, Sketching, Imaging, Sketching vs Imaging.



Google Sightseeing is a really neat site at the best of times — but I love it even more when it comes up with stuff like this.

File Under: Google Sightseeing, Google Maps, Google Earth, Tunguska.

Oh no! Not another list!

While reading the December edition of Sky & Telescope I noticed a great article about an astronomical list that I've never seen before — the Levy list. However, my initial interest soon gave way to a feeling of worry, how long would it be before I started reading rants about this list?

The worry comes about from something that I only recently became aware of. Until I started to get back into astronomy in a serious way I'd never heard of the Caldwell Catalog. I did a bit of searching about it on the net and soon found out that it's a list of objects put together by Patrick Moore. It was during that search that I first came across what might be described as a rant against it. Since then I've read a thread or two on usenet that have attacked the list — there's even been a thread about it on the SPA's BB where some people had negative things to say about the list.

So, given this, I'm wondering how long it will be before the sorts of accusations leveled against Patrick Moore will be leveled against David Levy.

Personally I don't get it, I don't really see the problem. For someone like myself, with a small telescope and a desire to see stuff, lists such as the Messier List and the Caldwell List come in very handy; they provide me with a list of objects that are generally within the grasp of the equipment I own; they provide me with a useful tool for learning what's out there and for helping me record what I've observed. The rants I've read that deal with the Caldwell List seem to assume that it's about some desire for fame and glory on the part of Patrick Moore, they seem to think that someone like me might fall for the "trick" and that I might ignore the astronomical heritage that can be found in older lists and catalogues. I can't help but think that this borders on insulting (insulting to me, the observer, the person with a keen interest). It also seems to miss the point that the knowledge and experiences of other observers are a valuable learning tool for the less experienced.

I'm happy to add the Levy List to my list of lists, it's something else to consult when trying to figure out what's up there and within the grasp of any equipment I own or might own in the future.

I hope this list doesn't come in for the sorts of flack that others have.

File Under: David Levy, Levy List, Patrick Moore, Caldwell List.


It's astronomy, not astrology!

Grantham has a weekly paper called The Grantham Journal. In last week's edition there was an article about how StarLincs paid a visit to a school in Colsterworth. The article spoke about how the children had learnt about "astrology" and how they'd been told about a "new planet" called "Zena".

I'm not really one for writing letters to magazines or newspapers (I've probably done it three times in my life, two of those being in the last month — the other one being to Sky At Night Magazine) but I couldn't really let this one slide. So, last Sunday, I composed and sent an email to the editor.

Fast forward to today and the new edition of the paper is out. Look what I found on the letters page.

Shame the heading draws on the Zena/Xena thing when the real error that needed correcting was the astrology/astronomy thing.

File Under: Astronomy, Astrology, Grantham, Colsterworth, 2003 UB313.


£3.65? For a space programme?

Well, okay, not quite, but....

Here's something I didn't know: according to this item over on the RAS website we, in the UK, spend £0.01 per person per day on civil space activities.

File Under: UK, Space.


Sunspot 822 heading out of view

Today, unlike yesterday, I managed to get in a quick observing session to see if I could still see sunspots 822 and 824.

What a difference one missed day makes! For starters I could no longer see 822 with the naked eye (although I wonder if it was down to the misty conditions more than anything). Also, when viewed with my Solarscope, it looked a lot less "busy" than it has over the past week. It also appeared very obviously foreshortened due to the fact that it's now getting close to the Sun's limb.

I wonder if it'll last long enough to come back around again — just like sunspot 798 did?

File Under: Sunspot 822, Sunspot 824, Solar Observing.


Sun run finally comes to an end

After seven observing sessions in a row the run of observing the Sun has finally come to an end. It's been overcast all day today. Shame, I was hoping to be able to track sunspot 822 right until it disappeared over the Sun's limb.

File Under: Sunspot 822, Solar Observing.

The shadow of Venus

Pete Lawrence has been doing some amazing work again. This time he's been photographing the shadow of Venus.

File Under: Pete Lawrence, Shadow of Venus.

Sunspot 822 and a cold Scottish morning

Tim Haynes has published a really nice photo of the Sun rising on a cold Scottish morning. Look carefully and you can see sunspot 822.

File Under: Sunrise, Scotland, Sunspot 822, Tim Haynes.


End of a good run? No!

Earlier today I said

Annoyingly, at the moment, it seems to be getting rather overcast so there's a good chance that I won't manage to make it to seven days.
Happily it cleared up again. The sky was much more misty than it has been of late but I did manage to get in my 7th consecutive solar observing session.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sunspot 822, Sunspot 823, Sunspot 824.

Solar talent

Given that I don't have any imaging equipment to speak of (although I've been known to employ the camera in my mobile phone when I'm feeling a little silly — examples being this, this, this and this) I tend to rely on sketching and notes when recording what I see during an observing session.

Because of this I tend to keep a keen eye out for other people's sketches — it's nice to see other people's work anyway but, better yet, there's a lot you can learn from seeing how other people produce their records.

Sunspot 822 has resulted in two sketches that have really impressed me. Yesterday, on the SPA's BB, Joe posted a really impressive sketch and then, this morning, I was reading Top of the Lawn and saw Peter's amazing sketch in this observing report (scroll down about ½ way — but do be sure to read the whole of the report anyway). I'm so impressed by the talent that's behind sketches such as those.

I find both of those images impressive, educational and inspirational. I'm so glad that people like Joe and Peter share their output with everyone else.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sketching.

End of a good run?

As of yesterday I've managed to observe the Sun (and follow the progress of sunspot 822) for six days in a row. As well as following 822 I've watched 823 appear and, yesterday, saw 824 for the first time. Annoyingly, at the moment, it seems to be getting rather overcast so there's a good chance that I won't manage to make it to seven days.

Given all this solar observing I've done of late I've also now added a sunspot index for my logs.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sunspot 822, Sunspot 823, Sunspot 824.


Live Moon webcast - 19th November

Peter Grego, the director of the SPA's Lunar section, will be running another live webcast of the Moon on his website from 01:00 UT to 02:00 UT on the 19th November.

File Under: Moon, Webcast, Peter Grego, Society for Popular Astronomy.

Four days of sunspot 822

Seems I didn't tempt fate too badly yesterday — I've just managed to make another observation of sunspot 822. I've not had time to type up the notes yet but a scan of the sketch is on my site.

I also notice that Ian Musgrave has been having a look using binocular projection.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sunspot 822.


A good run at the Sun

Okay, I'm probably tempting fate by writing about this...

I've now managed three days of Solar observing — following the progress of sunspot 822. That's much better than back when I was trying to observe sunspot 798, then I only managed two days in a row (although I did manage three observations in total).

It's been really fascinating following the progress of the sunspot group and, if forecasts around here are to be believed, I might just get two or more days observing in.

All I need now to top it off is for it to be the cause of a nice auroral display. Nights are getting dark quite early now and we're getting clear skies each night (well, apart from last night, when there was a fair bit of high haze about that resulted in some people seeing nice displays of Lunar halos).

File Under: Solar Observing, Sunspot 822.

Live Moon webcast - 18th November

Peter Grego, the director of the SPA's Lunar section, has announced that he's going to be running a live webcast of the Moon on his website from 01:00 UT to 02:00 UT on the 18th November.

File Under: Moon, Webcast, Peter Grego, Society for Popular Astronomy.


Solar observing on the cheap — failed

Earlier on this month I made a filter for a rubbish little telescope I've got thinking that it might work as a cheap method of solar observing. Now that there's a good sized sunspot on the surface of the Sun I thought I'd give the 'scope a proper test.

It was rubbish. Really rubbish.

I could see more detail in sunspot 822 with the Solarscope than I could with the rubbish 'scope. Also, to top things off, when I'd finished observing I managed to rip the filter while trying to take it off the 'scope; seems I'd made it a little too tight and it was a hell of a struggle to get it off.

Still, it's not that much of a loss. I didn't use up much of the Baader filter to do this and it was a first good test at making a filter for a telescope.

File Under: Sunspot 822, Solarscope, Solar Observing, Baader Filter.

Moon, Mars, Mobile

What do you get if you point the camera in a mobile phone at the Moon and Mars?

It was a bit of stupid, idle mucking about. I expected to get a bright blob for the Moon but I never expected to get Mars.

File Under: Moon, Mars, Mobile Phone.


Sunspot 822

It cleared up again so I went back out with the eclipse shades and, sure enough, Sunspot 822 would appear to be visible with the naked eye. I then got the Solarscope out and did a quick sketch (as you can see above).

File Under: Sunspot 822, Solarscope.

Sunspot 822 naked eye?

While looking at SpaceWeather.com this morning I noticed that there is a new Sunspot coming into view and, better yet, it looks like a rather big one. I popped outside with some eclipse shades and had a quick look and I'm sure I could see it with the naked eye. Annoyingly there's a lot of cloud around and as I was looking the Sun disappeared behind it. An hour later and the sky is overcast.

Hopefully things will clear up this afternoon (the forecast I saw this morning suggested that it would) and I'll be able to get the Solarscope out and have a proper look (might even be a good time to give the cheap 'scope a proper go).

File Under: Sunspot 822, Solarscope, SpaceWeather.com.


Comet Hyakutake — 1996

As I mentioned back in October, a fellow poster on the SPA BB has been kind enough to scan a series of slides I took of Comet Hyakutake back in 1996. When I get the time I'm going to work through them all and build a page for them on my website. I couldn't resist putting one of them up as soon as possible.

Special thanks go to Neale Hind for scanning the slides for me.

File Under: Comet Hyakutake, Astrophotography.


National Astronomy Week

It's just come to my attention that the next National Astronomy Week will be held in 2009. Looks like it should be a good year for promoting astronomy. Let's hope that my local society is still up and running by then.

File Under: National Astronomy Week.

International Year of Astronomy

According to the RAS things seem to be looking good for 2009 being the International Year of Astronomy.

File Under: Royal Astronomical Society, International Year of Astronomy, UNESCO.


No more Newton's Astronomical Society?

I had some rather sad news over the weekend: it's starting to look like we might need to suspend Newton's Astronomical Society.

Basically the reasons are twofold.

The first problem is that we're struggling to increase the number of members — in fact just sustaining the membership numbers is proving to be difficult. There could be any number of reasons for this but I suspect it isn't a lack of good speakers. Given where we meet it generally seems easy to attract good quality speakers. The main reason for the low numbers mostly seems to be down to the fact that Lincolnshire is a largely rural county and Woolsthorpe is a reasonable distance from anywhere. Even if you're traveling from Grantham you've still got to get into a car and drive there.

The second problem, which also involves the first, is that the National Trust have just rationalised their charges for use of their facilities. The new charging scheme means that the cost of room hire (for nine meetings in a year) alone will use up almost all of our membership subscriptions and door takings for the year. Once that is paid there will be nothing left to pay for speakers, let alone things like FAS subscription, tea, coffee, nibbles, etc...

When I first read that there was an astronomical society starting up that was going to be associated with Woolsthorpe Manor I was shocked to realise that there wasn't one anyway (having only recently moved into the area I'd not checked yet). For some reason I sort of assumed that an organisation like the National Trust would encourage and nurture such activity given the historical associations between those buildings and astronomy (speaking to a number of friends about this I find that they're also a little surprised that this isn't the case). Since joining I've been proud and delighted to be part of something that, to me anyway, is quite special (even more so given that membership of the society has been instrumental in me getting back into active observing). If we have to suspend the society, or have to find a venue that's more affordable for such a small society, I can't help but think that we'll have lost something important.

I can't help but think that Woolsthorpe will have lost something too.

File Under: Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's Astronomical Society, National Trust.


University Challenge

I see from their news feed that the RAS have been invited to submit a team for University Challenge: The Professionals.

If they get a team together I'll have to keep an eye out for that.

File Under: Royal Astronomical Society, University Challenge.


Predict your future with perfect clarity

Anyone who knows the first thing about astronomy will know that, when you look through your telescope (heck, when you just look at any body in the sky with the naked eye), you're looking back in time (perhaps amazingly far back in time).

Now, for as little as £29.99, you can purchase a telescope that lets you look into the future. If you can't see it at first glance (or on the off chance that someone fixes it) the first item in the list of features says:

262.5x astrology telescope
Sadly it seems it only works
in the winter night sky

File Under: Cheap Telescopes, Advertising Goofs, Astrology.

NASA World Wind — Now with the Moon

I've had NASA World Wind installed on my machine for a while now but it was only today that I noticed that you can now use it to browse around the Moon too. Time to start downloading the latest version...

File Under: NASA World Wind, The Moon, Clementine.

Stolen equipment alert

If anyone out there, in the UK, is in the market for a second-hand telescope and you're currently looking at sites that sell such things (or perhaps adverts in your local press) can you please keep this post in mind? Also, if you're able, can you get the word out as far as possible?

I won't go into how I feel about this sort of thing, I prefer not to use strong language here.

File Under: Stolen Telescope, Second-hand telescope, Sky-Watcher.


Solar observing on the cheap

£10.00 telescope. Camera in a mobile phone. Baader filter. Ok, it's not going to win any awards, but it was fun to have a go.

File Under: Solar Observing, Baader Filter.

Two more moons for Pluto?

Bad Astronomy Blog and Tom's Astronomy are both reporting on the possibility that two new moons of Pluto have been discovered.

File Under: Pluto.


Mars -- not looking too bad

Managed to get just over an hour of clear sky, 'scope and Mars tonight! Didn't think it was going to happen — the forecast wasn't looking at all good. Seems I got lucky.

By my calculation I managed to view it within about six hours of closest approach. Yes, I know, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference but it does make for a nice milestone on my path back to observing on a regular basis.

And it's been pointed out to me that the radio version of The War of the Worlds is available for download from http://www.mercurytheatre.info/.

File Under: Mars.

Mars -- not looking too good

The close approach of Mars is almost upon us (opposition is still a few days away) and, annoyingly, it looks like it's going to be cloud all the way for me. I'm starting to detect a pattern...

Slightly related: I noticed this morning that the date of closest approach this time around is also the anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles' version of The War of the Worlds.

File Under: Mars, British Weather, Orson Welles, The War of The Worlds.


Sketching -- just part of astronomy's history?

In the November edition of Sky at Night Magazine one of the letters to the editor asks:

I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects
Sadly, the response from the editor doesn't really seem to answer the question. The nearest thing to an answer is:
while we won't be publishing sketches regularly, I'm certain we will cover the art of drawing astronomical objects at some point in the future
which, if I'm reading it correctly, looks like a "no" and a "yes" all at the same time.

The ambiguity in the answer given is bad enough, but some of the other comments made by the editor's reply seem to head off on a strange tangent. Take, for instance, this suggestion in relation to imaging with CCDs:
it's now very affordable, with the cheapest dedicated CCDs available for under £300
Doubtless, relatively speaking, that is cheap compared to prices from a few years ago, but in my opinion it totally misses the point and creates a false dichotomy. This isn't an either/or thing. If CCDs came free in every cereal packet I'd still want to sketch. I don't sketch because I don't have any form of imaging device, I sketch because I like to sketch, it's a great way of helping you concentrate on what you're observing and it's a great method of recording what an object actually looks like in the eyepiece. When I finally get some equipment for doing imaging I aim to make a point of sketching and imaging various objects so as to have a method of comparing what I see with what I can capture.

Another comment that concerned me was:
sketching is a hugely important part of astronomy's past
But not an important part of the present of amateur observing? Sorry, I just don't buy it. It's this sort of thing that has people getting into astronomy thinking that they've got to have a budget getting into four figures before they can really start to see and do anything worthwhile. It's bad enough when you see this sort of attitude on various astronomy BBs, it's very worrying to see it being published in a magazine that trades on the name that is synonymous with amateur astronomy in the UK.

If, as I suspect (and I wouldn't blame them for this), the magazine has identified that captured images look nice and sell more copies then they should just come out and say so — there's no shame in being honest about the economics of publishing a magazine. But is it really necessary to suggest that sketching and imaging is an either/or issue and that sketching is now part of the history of astronomy? It seems to me that sketching and imaging are both very useful.

File Under: Sky at Night, Sky at Night Magazine, Sketching, Imaging, Sketching vs Imaging.


Lunar 100

The weather is still pretty awful around here....

So, while I'm waiting, another index for my logs: The Lunar 100. It's sort of worrying to notice how little I've managed to observe the Moon so far this year.

File Under: Moon, Lunar 100.


More work on my logs

Over the past few days I've been playing some more with the electronic version of my logs (the weather's been rather unkind of late). The main change is that I've been extending the mini-markup. On top of the markup for things like Messier objects (plus the NGC and Caldwell markup that I added a while back) I've now added markup for equipment, star, const (for constellations), filter, planet and jovian (for the moons of Jupiter, obviously).

Initially the idea is to provide a method of marking up text that can be turned into links when I convert the source XML for a log into XHTML but, in the long term, the idea is that this markup will be useful for creating different types of index into the logs and also to provide a method of searching the source XML.

As an example (taken from this observation):

<li><star>Upsilon2 Cancri</star></li>
<li><star>Upsilon1 Cancri</star></li>
<li><star>28 Cancri</star></li>
<li><star>24 Cancri</star></li>

The resulting XHTML has links to various places relating to the stars that I mention:

The links are created with some XSLT files, the hard work being done with Sablotron.

The nice thing about this is that the logs will be a little quicker to type up (compared to having to hand-input the links), I get the links in my log pages "for free" (in other words I don't have to go looking them up each time I type up a log), if I want to change the way a whole set of links work I've only got to change one file (the xsl file) and I'm also starting to build up a useful markup for future searching and indexing needs.

Doubtless I'm solving a "problem" that other people solved a long time ago, but it's nice to have a cross over between hacking on a computer and astronomy.

File Under: Astronomy and XML, Observing Logs, Astronomy Log Formats.


Possible use for a terrible telescope

Back in July this year, on a whim, I purchased a really cheap and nasty little refracting telescope. The main reason for getting it was that it'll do for letting my Son look at the Moon — it's not much good for anything else and I don't really care that much if he manages to break it.

Given that he's not really old enough to look through it yet (not to mention the fact that he's got his own little toy telescope, which used to be my toy telescope) it's been sat around doing nothing.

While at the SPA convention last Saturday I purchased a sheet of Baader solar filter. I intend to make a filter for my binoculars and I started to wonder what else I could make a filter for (I might make one for my main telescope). Then I got to thinking: this rubbish little 'scope might actually work as a cheap and cheerful white-light solar telescope.

It's not going to be anywhere near as good as having and using a Coronado PST but it looks like it might work as another handy tool to use for observing our nearest star.

File Under: Solar Observing, Solar Telescope, Baader Solar Filter.


A picture is worth...

I've just made a new addition to my little astronomy website: a gallery. It's nothing grand, and mostly came about because I had an urge to code some more on the site. Another motivation is that a fellow poster on the SPA's BB has offered to scan some slides I took of comet Hyakutake back in 1996. If the scans come out ok (I've never really properly seen the slides as I don't actually own a projector) I hope to place them on the site and a gallery section seemed as good a place as any.

Currently the gallery only contains a handful of scans of sketches I've made recently. Nothing that amazing, just the random scribbling of someone who is more keen than he is talented.

File Under: Astronomy Gallery, Astronomy Sketches, Comet Hyakutake.


SPA Convention 2005 - A short report

Statue of Fred Hoyle
Last Thursday I mentioned that I was hoping to attend the first ever SPA convention at the Hoyle building at the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. I'm happy to say that I made it and that it was a fantastic day out.

The day comprised of a series of short talks by the directors of each of the SPA's observing sections and a talk by Prof. Carl Murray entitled "Voyage around Saturn — Images from Cassini". As well as the talks there were some trade stands to have a look around — including some equipment to try out — and, of course, the chance to meet other amateur astronomers.

Some of the highlights of the day for me were (in no particular order):

  • Peter Grego's Lunar Section talk. Not only was this an infectious talk (pretty much convincing me that the Lunar Section is one of the sections I should look into joining) I was also delighted to find out that Rupes Recta is still part of the observing programme — when I was a child and a member of the JAS (as the SPA was then called) I was a member of the Lunar Section and did quite a number of drawings of that Lunar feature.

  • The talk about the Solar Section. Again, this was another talk that has me seriously thinking about joining the section. In this case I'd not really considered the Solar Section — incorrectly thinking that there probably wasn't much that could be done or contributed. It turns out that useful contributions can be made with very little equipment, knowledge, experience or time. The idea of spending more time observing and learning about our nearest star holds a lot of appeal for me.

  • The talk about the Variable Star Section. Yet another talk that has got me thinking seriously about looking into this "flavour" of observing. As with the talk about the Solar Section it was interesting to learn how contributions can be made with very little equipment and I'm very interested in the idea of learning the skills involved in estimating the magnitudes of stars.

  • Prof. Carl Murray's talk about Cassini (no, I've not forgotten the Huygens probe — it's just that the talk was mostly about Cassini imaging). While many of the images shown were known to me there were a couple of new ones that I'd not seen yet (one such image, which seemed to draw the biggest reaction from the audience, has just been highlighted over at Tom's Astronomy Blog).

I'm sorry to say that I didn't manage to attend the section talks that were held during the afternoon, partly because these were of a lesser interest to me, but mostly because I also wanted to have a look around the various stands and I also wanted to take the time to have a chat with various names I know from the SPA.

Arguably the joint best and worst experience of the day was getting the chance to have a look at the Sun through a Coronado PST that had been set up outside by Green Witch. Despite the fact that I've seen plenty of images produced via the PST I still wasn't really prepared for the "oh wow!" moment that came with actually looking through it. The reason this is also the "worst experience of the day"? Simple — I really, really, really want one but I just can't justify spending £449 on a telescope that's only good at looking at a single object.

In conclusion I had a really enjoyable day. It was really nice to put faces to names and to meet in person various people who I've corresponded with via the SPA's BB. On top of that I came back having been infected with an even greater enthusiasm for astronomy as a hobby and an interest (this fact alone should tell those who organised the event that it was a great success — hopefully I wasn't alone in being infected this way).

Talking to a couple of the organisers I get the impression that, although the event was planned as a one-off, if they believe it was a success the plan is to hold the convention once every two years. I hope they do decide that it was a success and I look forward to attending it again in the future.

Update: Robin Scagell has posted a gallery of pictures he took during the day.

File Under: Society for Popular Astronomy, Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, Astronomy Convention, Solar Telescope.


SPA Convention 2005

This Saturday sees the first ever SPA convention. All being well I'll be attending. I'm rather looking forward to it — especially since I've got to know a few names via their BB; it'll be nice to put faces to names.

File Under: Society for Popular Astronomy, Astronomy Convention, Cambridge.


Back to Woolsthorpe

This Friday sees the start of the new meeting season of Newton's Astronomical Society. I'm really looking forward to it. We generally have a couple or so months off during summer and I've really started to miss the monthly meetings.

File Under: Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's Astronomical Society, Isaac Newton.

Missing the point?

Yesterday, when I wrote "What's the point?", I had to pause for thought for a short while after writing the following:

for the vast majority of hobbyist observers there's little to no chance that you're actually going to do any "real science" or actually discover anything
The reason for the pause was that I was concerned that some people might get the wrong impression, that they might think I was suggesting that it's difficult or even impossible for your average amateur astronomer to contribute something useful to the field of astronomy.

Eventually I decided that it should be obvious what it was I was driving at and decided that the text was fine as it was. At one point I did write a parenthetical remark to qualify what I meant but I decided that it wasn't really needed.

Seems I was wrong.

When I got to my desk this morning I found two comments pointing out that amateur astronomers can make contributions. "Ok," I thought, "I suppose it's a point that needs to be made anyway, amateur astronomers can and do make contributions too and I suppose that my wording was clumsy and I should probably have left the qualification of the remark in there."

Still, at least the authors of the two comments I got seemed to have understood the main thrust of my article.

But worse was to come.

I then went on to catch up with the astronomy blogs I like to read. Imagine my horror when I got to this article on the excellent Astronomy Blog and found my article linked to via the text:
a post about it being difficult for amateur astronomers to contribute to real science
Having a couple of comments that addressed a point I wasn't making was bad enough; having my post held up as an example on such a popular blog was even more worrying.

Ok, I hold my hands up and admit to the error. I shouldn't have posted that article without qualifying what I meant. The wording was clumsy and open to misreading.

Let me try and clarify what it was I was trying to say: What I had in mind was the sort of person who probably wrote the letter to Astronomy Now that I mentioned. I imagine that the author of the letter was a lot like me in terms of available equipment, available time and in terms of practical experience.

I wasn't saying that a person in that position can't make contributions to astronomy, far from it. I wasn't even trying to suggest that it's difficult for them to make contributions. What I was trying to point out is that I could, to some degree, sympathise with the source of the "What's the point?" frustration. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of people generally don't start out with the time (and time's important here, please don't forget to take that into account) to engage in even the simplest of contributions and, because of that, such contributions generally won't be one of the factors in motivating someone to drag themselves outside and into the cold and the dark (or even into the warm and not-so-dark during summer). Having shown that I could sympathise with the question that was asked, I then went on to point out that — for me at least — the motivation for getting outside came from the enjoyment there was to be had in conducting my own little experiments, in getting to know my own equipment, in expanding my own experience and in the simple joy of learning something.

In other words: I wasn't saying that it's difficult for your average person in their back garden to make contributions. I was saying that the chance of making contributions to astronomy in general doesn't need to be a motivating factor — contributing to your own knowledge and experience is what initially counts.

Here's hoping that I've clarified what I was trying to say. I've got an awful feeling that I might actually have opened a can of worms instead...

File Under: Amateur Astronomy, Observational Astronomy.


What's the point?

A couple or so months back there was a letter published in Astronomy Now that more or less asked the question, in relation to observing the night sky, "What's the point?" The main thrust of the letter was that when you've got all these fancy images from the likes of Hubble and given the problems of light pollution, what's the point of ever venturing outside and actually doing any observing?

On the surface there's a good point here: for the vast majority of hobbyist observers there's little to no chance that you're actually going to do any "real science" or actually discover anything and it doesn't really matter just how good your personal setup is you're never really going to see anything or capture anything that comes close to the sorts of images we see in astronomy magazines each and every month.

For me though, once I start to think about why I'm interested in astronomy, the point fades away. Last night's observing session was a good example of why the point quickly fades away. I spent an hour or so trying as hard as I could to tease some detail out of Mars. I didn't get to see anything nearly as impressive as your average observer capturing images with a webcam, let alone anything as impressive as the images you get from various probes that we've sent to Mars. Was I despondent or disillusioned? No, not in the least.

The motive for me heading out into my garden last night wasn't to try and produce images that approach or rival those acquired by other people, it was to try and see what I could personally see with the equipment available to me. It was about conducting my own little experiments with my telescope, eyepieces and filters to see which combination would deliver the best view. I went out knowing full well that I wasn't going to see anything that came close to what I can see online, in books or in magazines. I went out full of curiosity and with a desire to see what results I could personally produce.

And, just as importantly, I had a lot of fun doing it.

File Under: Observational Astronomy, Mars.


Chance of a naked-eye comet next year?

Tom's Astronomy has an article that suggests we might get a naked-eye comet next year.

Fingers crossed. Now that I'm back into observing on a regular basis it'd be nice to have an easy-to-see comet kicking about.

File Under: Comets, Tom's Astronomy, 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, Naked Eye Astronomy.

Anthony Ayiomamitis

I've been a fan of Anthony's work for some time now but I was really blown away by his image of the recent eclipse that was posted this morning on the SPA's BB.

File Under: Anthony Ayiomamitis, Society for Popular Astronomy, Solar Eclipse, Partial Eclipse.


New site now live

My new astronomy website is now "live". The site replaces the astronomy pages on my personal site and, as much as possible, I've set redirects over there to carry people over to the correct place on the new site.

File Under: Vanity Domain, Astronomy Website.

Kemble's Cascade and winter hazards

Last night wasn't the best of nights, a fair bit of mist about, but I decided to venture out with binoculars and chair and spend a bit of time sweeping around the sky again — I just fancied seeing what would turn up.

Quite by accident (well, that was sort of the point) I happened upon Kemble's Cascade in Camelopardalis. Although I'd read about this asterism before and knew more or less what it would look like I was still slightly shocked and very delighted with what I saw. Although the night sky, especially through binoculars, presents you with lots of patterns of stars that stand out and catch your eye there's something a little different about a (more or less) straight line of so many stars.

I also found that it's a great little test of how well dark-adapted you are. After first finding it and having a good look at it I went inside to check a couple of books and also to check on the net. Of course, when I did this, what dark adaption I'd built up was destroyed. When I went back outside again I could hardly see any of the stars in the cascade. Within 10 minutes many of the stars were visible to me again. I can imagine this being a useful test during the winter months.

Talking of winter — I had my first experience of a winter observing hazard I'd not given much thought to before now: smoke. Nights are finally starting to get a little cold here and, accordingly, those people who heat there homes with open fires are starting to use them again.

File Under: Kemble's Cascade, Asterisms, Camelopardus, Winter Observing Hazards, Smoke.


The morning after the morning before

Do I really need to say anything more?

File Under: British Weather, Sunny Day.


Obscured by clouds

Any chance that "partly sunny" means it'll be overcast now but nice and clear between about 9:00 BST and 11:00 BST?

No, no chance at all. It stayed overcast:

Not Partly Sunny

Any hint of blue you're seeing in the above picture is just down to how rubbish the camera in my mobile phone is. Trust me, it was gray and horrible.

This is the closest I came to seeing the eclipse:

Webcast of eclipse

Don't you just love webcasts?

As nice as it was to watch it still wasn't the same as seeing what I should have seen.

File Under: Solar Eclipse, British Weather, Cloud, Failure.