Close approach of asteroid

Seen over on the BBA website:

Asteroid 2006 VV2 passes close to the Earth at the end of March and the early part of April. At its closest, on March 31, it will be 0.0226 AU away (8.8 lunar distances). This will be the closest known approach by an object this intrinsically bright until May 2036, when binary asteroid (66391) 1999 KW4 (H=16.4) approaches within 6 lunar distances. Observers should be able to see it through modest telescopes as it reaches 10th magnitude on March 31st and April 1st.
That sounds worth keeping in mind and having a hunt for if I'm out and observing at the right sort of time.

Fun Flickr Sunsets

I recently started having a play around with Flickr (and I'm mostly impressed by it; it is a little easier than maintaining my own photo gallery) so when I saw this story on Astronomy Blog this morning it really caught my attention.

How cool is that?

I just love it when the "obvious" is found in "not so obvious" places.


Venus at Sunset

There was a really nice looking sunset yesterday evening, just a touch of mist, really nice subtle colours in the sky. I just had to grab the camera and head out to the edge of the village and run off a few pictures.

While they don't quite qualify as astrophotography I did make a point of including Venus in some of the shots.

Even better, when I got back home, I noticed that Venus was still visible from my back garden. I immediately got the Antares 905 out and had a session observing the planet. I think this is the first time I've ever observed Venus through a telescope. It's definitely the first time I've observed it via a 'scope since I got back into observing.


Moon and Venus

I was lucky enough to have some clear skies last night so I went out with the EOS 400D and a tripod and took some photographs of the Moon and Venus together.

As it was they didn't turn out that well, I really need to work on getting the focus right.

I notice that Ian also took some images and also did an animation too. Although, as always, he seems to have managed to photograph everything upside down. ;)


Star Cards

Last Saturday I was up in York, visiting family. While up there we took a trip to the Castle Museum. There wasn't an awful lot there related to astronomy (there was a display case full of instruments made by T. Cooke & Sons — which included a really nice brass achromatic telescope) but, in the display of children's toys, I did find these rather nice "Star Cards":

Sadly I couldn't see any information about them. I'd love to know who made them and what the story was (and how many there were in a set).

They reminded me of the time when, as a child, I made my own set of constellation cards.


BAA/CfDS/CPRE star count results

The BAA website now has the results of the December and January star count.

Nearly 2,000 people took part in the star count. Only 2% of people who responded to our online survey said they could see more than 30 stars, compared to 54% who saw fewer than 10 stars in Orion – a level which indicates severe light pollution.
Have a look at the article for a full breakdown of the results (there's also a map of the results too).

Also, don't forget the GLOBE count. I've not had the chance to have a go yet, but time and weather permitting I'm planning on it.


SPA Convention 2007 - A Short Report

It's been almost a year and a half of waiting but, finally, last Saturday arrived and it was time for the second Society for Popular Astronomy convention.

The day was laid out similar to that of the first convention with various talks during the day, the main talk being The Planet Venus and the Venus Express Mission by Professor Fred Taylor. Alongside all the talks were various stands by the sections of the SPA and also various stalls hosted by a number of vendors of items relating to astronomy.

The doors opened around 09:30 and the main reception area seemed to fill up very quickly – for a short while there was even a queue to get in. Around 10:00, after people had had a chance to get in, get a drink (drink and food was available for sale all day) and have a look around some of the displays and stalls, the bell was rung and people filed into the lecture theatre to hear Dr Ian Crawford deliver the welcome and then hand over to Nik Szymanek for the first talk of the day.

The talk was mostly for beginners and provided plenty of information on how to get started photographing the night sky. Nik also went on to relate some of his experiences photographing from the top of La Palma while showing us some of the results acquired during such trips (including some excellent images of daytime atmospheric phenomena).

A tea break followed and I joined a guided tour of the Thorrowgood and Northumberland telescopes. The Thorrowgood telescope had been set up to track and project the Sun (and, as you'd expect, this happened to be a day with no sunspots visible) while the Northumberland had been set up to track Venus. Sadly, during the tour I was on (there were many such tours available during the day), there was just enough cloud cover to make such an observation impossible.

When I got back from the tour it was time for Nik's second talk of the day, this time an interactive question and answer session dealing with all aspects of astronomical imaging. Given that I'm not that interested in imaging at the moment I decided to skip this and, instead, have a wander around the stalls. I had a chat with Greenwitch — mostly about last year's and this year's Astroblast (the good news is that this time round there will be catering!) – and I also had a good look around the stall run by Astronomica (while there I picked up an affordable 2x barlow to replace the rather terrible one that came with my Explorer 130M – I'm hoping it should do a better job and I'll report on that when I get the chance to try it out).

The next talk was in two parts, the first was about the Terran Planets and was delivered by Michael Hezzlewood; the second part was about observing Saturn and was delivered by Ian Phelps. The talks were slightly delayed due to problems with the projection system and part of the talk was slightly marred by the lack of a microphone (leading to the occasional shout of "speak up!" from the back of the room). Despite the technical problems both parts of the talk turned out to be interesting and informative.

After that talk I spent some time wandering around some more before having lunch. Around this time it was pointed out to me that Martin Rees was wandering around (given that we'd taken over his place of work for the day I guess it was no surprise) and he was kind enough to pose for some photographs.

Finally it was time for the main event: Professor Fred Taylor's talk about Venus and the Venus Express mission. It was great to see that the talk itself had been over-subscribed and that the lecture hall was packed out (despite having a ticket I ended up sitting on the floor at the front, although that was because I'd been helping out checking tickets on the door).

Professor Taylor started out with a background of Venus, paying particular attention to those questions that Venus Express was designed to answer. I found this pretty fascinating given that I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about Venus (at least, things that would be interesting to and understandable by an amateur with a layman's interest). I was particularly fascinated to learn about the Venus Polar dipole.

Professor Taylor then went on to explain some of the background and design of Venus Express, following up with an explanation of what it would be doing for the duration of the mission and also telling us about some of the results that have been acquired so far. He then finished off with a really fascinating sequence of slides that illustrated a visual connection he'd made between the latest images of the polar dipole and the Lorenz attractor.

Another tea break followed and after that was a quick talk about Comet McNaught followed by a talk entitled Instruments for Planetary Observing. I skipped these while I took the opportunity to have another look around the various stands (and to also start helping with a bit of tidying up). The day then finished off with the raffle (I didn't win anything, Paul Sutherland, on the other hand, managed to win twice – grrrrr!).

In conclusion, from my point of view, the day was an incredible success. I spoke to many people during the day and every one of them said they they were really enjoying themselves – this included people who weren't members of the SPA (but, fingers crossed, will be some time soon). I really enjoyed it. The talks were interesting, entertaining and informative. The atmosphere of the whole day was friendly and welcoming. It was great to meet up with various names from the SPA again. It also felt like it was all over far too quickly.

It now looks like the convention will be held every other year and the next one, in 2009, promises to be extra special.

I can't wait.

SPA Convention Photographs

I've not had the chance to write up a report of the SPA convention just yet. I have, however, uploaded my photographs of the day.


How wide is your hand?

Most people who have an interest in astronomy (or atmospheric phenomena) will know the usual tricks for measuring angles and distances in the sky. The general idea is that you hold your hand at arm's length and, using difference parts of your hand, held in different ways, get a reasonable measure.

But how accurate is this approach?

Robin Scagell, via a post on the SPA BB, aims to find out:

I would like to find out what is the average dimension of a hand span in degrees. It is often said that a full hand span at arm's length is 20°, but I would like to get some accurate figures on this. So I have checked the distances between several well-known stars in the early evening sky and would like people to go out and test it for themselves.
Have a look Robin's post for full details of the experiment.


SPA Convention 2007

It's almost here! One more day and it's the SPA convention 2007.

I'll be heading out to Cambridge rather early tomorrow morning (about 0600UT) as I'm going to lend a hand setting things up. As such it should be a long, but enjoyable, day.

The main themes for this year's event are astrophotography and planetary astronomy and talks include:

  • Pixel Magic - Getting the best from your Astro Photography

  • Saturn and the Terran Planets

  • Venus and the Venus Express Mission

  • Instruments for Planetary Observing
There's also going to be a few trade stands there if there's money burning a hole in your pocket (I'm pleased to see that Aurora Books will be there — I know Martin from the days when I was a member of York Astronomical Society and it's always nice to catch up).

If you're going to be there do keep an eye out for me and tap me on the shoulder and say hello. I'll probably be wearing a name badge and, if it helps, the picture of me chimping over on my photo.net page should give you a bit of a clue about how I look these days (chances are that I'll be chimping away there too <g>).


Pluto is a Planet (Says New Mexico)

Seems that the state legislature of New Mexico has decided that Pluto is a planet.

Apparently March 13th 2007 (only 2007?) will also be "Pluto Planet Day".


Not Just Red - Infrared!

Once again Pete Lawrence comes up with an interesting spin on astrophotography. Via this article on the SPA BB:

The eclipsed Moon was quite dim in visible light but reasonably bright in IR. I managed to grab 4 quadrant shots of the Moon at the time of totality, mosaic them together and then overlay a DSLR colour shot on to. In this way the IR provides the luminance information while the DSLR shot provides colour. The result is an IR biased colour shot of totality. As the IR signal was reasonably bright, the details on the Moon could be imaged with a reasonable amount of sharpness.


World-Wide Star Hunt

Back in December last year I reported on the BAA/CfDS/CPRE star count. Stuart picked up on this and, in the comments on Stuart's blog, Ian sort of got to thinking about an international effort to do something similar.

This morning I had an email from Robin Scagell, alerting me to Globe at Night. Here's an excerpt from the press release:

The international star-counting activity known as GLOBE at Night returns from March 8-21 in two flavors: the "classic" GLOBE at Night exercise that anyone can have fun doing with their unaided eyes, and a new effort to obtain precise measurements of urban dark skies using digital sky-brightness meters.

The GLOBE at Night 2007 program is intended to build upon the worldwide participation sparked by the first GLOBE at Night campaign in March 2006. This inaugural effort drew more than 18,000 citizen-scientist participants in all 50 U.S. states and 96 countries worldwide, who submitted nearly 4,600 observations of the darkness of their local night skies during the 10-day event. The program is designed to aid teaching about the impact of artificial lighting on local environments, and the ongoing loss of a dark night sky as a natural resource for much of the world's population.
It seems they're also using Orion as the patch of sky for doing comparisons and, helpfully, they have a set of magnitude charts to help in estimations (and don't you just love the fact that they've produced just such a chart from a cloudy night).

There's even a nifty little tool for testing your estimation ability.

This all sounds like just the sort of thing that Ian will like.

Lunar Eclipse Movie

Tim Haynes (friend and BOFH for the machine I host my websites on) was also out on Saturday night, observing and photographing the total lunar eclipse.

Not only did he take a whole load of images of the event, he also produced a pretty neat video of it too:

It's a shame that the Moon has got squashed in the YouTube version (the original looks better) but, that aside, I think it's a pretty neat record of the event.


What the hell is happening?

After reading this entry on Rich Daley's blog I was reminded of something I was thinking about on Saturday night.

What do people who have no knowledge or interest in astronomy make of something like a total lunar eclipse? Here in the UK you'd be hard pushed to find someone who didn't know that a total solar eclipse was coming, it's such a rare occurrence that it would be reported everywhere for days prior to the event (as it was in 1999). Most partial solar eclipses won't be noticed, most people who haven't been told about it won't know it's happening.

Partial lunar eclipses probably aren't noticed either, I'm guessing that most people, even if they noticed that part of the Moon was missing, would assume it's just one of the Moon's phases (it's not uncommon for people to think that the Earth's shadow is responsible for the Moon's phases).

But a total lunar eclipse seems a little different to me. It's one of those events that can be reported in such a way that people don't know it's happening (personally I only ever saw mention of Saturday's eclipse, in passing, during weather reports on the BBC news) while, at the same time, is very obvious to the naked eye – if you were out and about on Saturday night you'd be hard pushed not to notice that the Moon was full but wasn't bright and was a very strange colour.

I wonder what Rich's bouncer was really thinking. I wonder what ideas had gone through his mind. I wonder what possible reasons he'd entertained. I wonder how many other people were in the same position last Saturday, faced with something out of the ordinary, something impossible to ignore, something needing an explanation. I wonder what hypotheses they entertained.


Lunar Eclipse 2007-03-03 - Log now up

I've now uploaded my observing log of the total lunar eclipse.

Lunar Eclipse 2007-03-03

As I'd hoped a couple of days earlier the weather played ball and last Saturday night was nice and clear.

So I got to observe the whole of the total lunar eclipse. For some detail of my observing session have a look at the short report I wrote on the SPA BB this morning – I'll be adding my full observing log later on today.

I didn't bother to attempt any photography (other than a few afocal shots with my mobile phone, through the Antares 905 – a small example can be seen above), I just wanted to observe and enjoy the whole event (and it's not like it wasn't going to get photographed by anyone else <g>).

I thought totality was reasonably dark, personally I'd rate it as L2 on the Danjon Scale.

Just one downside to the whole event: I managed to stand on my glasses and scratch them so badly that they're not really useful any more. Thanks to that I think this has been my most expensive observing session yet. It was also kind of annoying to find myself observing a great naked-eye event and find that the only bit of optical equipment I had with me that wasn't working was.... my eyes.

There was a nice little bonus to the whole evening though. After we'd packed up (after last umbral contact), and because there was so much dew on the grass, I stood with my back to the full Moon and noticed a nice, if faint, example of Heiligenschein.


Welcome to March

So, it's March again. March is sort of important to me in astronomy for a few reasons:

All being well March should be good this year too. First up, weather permitting, is Saturday's lunar eclipse. The current forecast from the Met Office is for clear skies on Saturday night.

Secondly, a week on Saturday, it's the 2nd SPA convention. I'm really looking forward to that. The first one in October 2005 was very enjoyable so I'm expecting this to be a good day out too.

So far it's been a terrible start to the year, other than a couple of brief views of comet McNaught, and a brief session observing the Moon and Saturn, I've hardly been out so far this year. I'm hoping that the next two or three months offer up some good nights before the long days of summer take over.