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.