Archive for the 'astronomy' Category

“Stu’s Last Lesson” – Sky & Telescope’s Focal Point For December, 2014

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

As posted on the CNY Observers website (direct link).

Greetings fellow astrophiles,

2014oct23_stuDr. Stuart Forster (a.k.a. STU – full caps) was one of the THE fixtures in the CNY amateur astronomy scene and his name still comes up regularly, often as part of some pearl of wisdom being imparted to new observers and seasoned members alike (I’ll leave you to read the top of the Stuventory page for more info about STU and to check out links to some of his images on the Syracuse Astronomical Society website). The trials and tribulations of Ryan Goodson and myself to handle the massive equipment collection we’ve come to refer to as the “Stuventory” is olde hat to local observers who’ve kept track of the process from a far. The sorting, documenting, and distribution of the Stuventory has taught us both about how very unique the hobby of amateur astronomy can be when you step beyond the 1×7 mm binoculars in your head and effort the collection of more and more photons.

To that end, and to prod others to recognize the complexities of sorting through the mound of gear inhabiting their basements, garages, and domes by those who follow when the unexpected happens, I am honored to have an article on the topic, “Stu’s Last Lesson,” included as the December 2014 Focal Point in Sky & Telescope magazine.


The article can be distilled to a single, all-encompassing message – Imagine you not being around to help your family unload your astro gear, then take steps to simplify their lives. Think about all the boxes, hex wrenches, leftover focusers and brackets from your modifications to other scopes, eyepieces (eyepieces!), cables, controllers, everything, and organize it all, either in a notebook or with a bunch of pics and notes on your smartphone.

If you read the article and have other ideas on how to help organize your equipment, by all means let others know (post a comment here, write a letter to the editor with your ideas, start a cloudynights.com thread, etc.). In the meantime, I hope the article gives you the impetus to block out a Saturday afternoon listening to astronomy.fm as you commit your astronomical obsession to pen and paper (or keyboard and monitor). Better still, I’m pleased that readers of Sky & Telescope (of which he had the full collection back to 1964) will learn a little bit about one of CNY’s great amateur astronomers.

Remembering The Godfather Of Solar Astronomy, Robert “Barlow Bob” Godfrey

Friday, June 20th, 2014

As appeared on the CNY Observers & Observing website on 20 June 2014:

The field of amateur astronomy hosts many different personalities. Some love to know anything and everything about astronomy equipment. Some prefer the study of astronomy through the ages. Some enjoy the banter around a large scope with others at midnight. Some enjoy the quiet solitude of a small dome or open field. Still others enjoy setting their equipment up in the middle of the chaos of a large group of people to show them the sights. Some take their love of outreach well past the observing field, taking it upon themselves to educate others by taking what they know (or don’t yet know) and making it accessible to the larger audience of amateurs and non-observers alike.

Amateur astronomy has seen a few key players pass this year, starting with John Dobson this past January and the noted comet hunter Bill Bradfield just a week ago. Both are noteworthy in their passing in that, amongst a large, large number of astro-hobbyists, their names are held in higher esteem because of their unique contributions to amateur astronomy. In the case of Bill Bradfield, he singly was responsible for finding 18 comets that bear his name, making him responsible for helping map part of the contents of our own Solar System from his home in Australia (reportedly taking 3500 hours to do so). In the case of John Dobson, he not only synthesized many great ideas in scope building with his own to produce the class of telescope that bears his name, but he also made it part of his life’s work to bring the distant heavens to anyone and everyone through his founding of what we call today “sidewalk astronomy.”


Barlow Bob at the center of the 2014 NEAF Solar Star Party. Click for a larger view.

The CNY amateur astronomy community learned of the passing of Barlow Bob on June 13th through an email from Chuck Higgins of MVAS. I suspect most people in the community didn’t even know his real name was Robert Godfrey until the announcement of his passing. The announcement of his passing had much farther to go, as the list of people and clubs that Barlow Bob had made better through his own outreach is as large as his many contributions to solar astronomy. For the record, below is a snippet of his contributions to the CNY astronomy community generally and to me specifically.

The Postman And Telephone Operator of Northeast Astronomy

I have a decent handle on all of the astronomy clubs in the Northeast thanks to Barlow Bob’s habit of forwarding newsletters and email announcements around to his email list. Those who’ve not edited a club newsletter do not know how much this simple gesture was appreciated! In my 2008 reboot of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter the Astronomical Chronicle, the biggest problem facing its monthly continuation was new content. Not only did Barlow Bob provide a steady stream of articles for “Barlow Bob’s Corner,” but I learned about several free sources of space science news from these other newsletters (the NASA News Feed and the NASA Space Place being chief among them – still sources of news and updates freely available to all). He saved myself, and the SAS, several months of organizing content and finding relevant material. Those newsletters remain available in PDF format on the SAS website, many peppered with varied hot topics in solar astronomy that Barlow Bob chose to write about for “Barlow Bob’s Corner.”

As part of his aggregative exploits, amateur astronomers in his email loop were also treated to a yearly events calendar of nearly all of the East Coast star parties and special events. His and Chuck Higgins’ 2014 Events Calendar makes up the majority of the non-celestial phenomena listed in CNYO’s current calendar.

I also had the pleasure of being one of the recipients of his many (many!) phone calls as a regular of his “astro-rounds” call list, during which I learned early on to have a pen and paper ready for all of the companies to check out and solar projects to search for. Barlow Bob loved being on the edge of solar observing technology, both in pure observational astronomy and in solar spectroscopy (his Solar Spectroscopy History article is among the most concise stories of the history of the field). A number of his voice messages lasted little more than 15 seconds, but provided enough detail for a requisite google search and email exchange after.

“You keep writing them, I’ll keep publishing them.”

Barlow Bob was, by all metrics, a prolific writer on the topic of solar astronomy. My Barlow Bob CD contains at least 50 full articles along with pictures, equipment reviews, and society newsletters including his articles. Barlow Bob took great pleasure equally in his own understanding some aspect of solar astronomy and his committing that understanding to keyboard and computer screen for others. While many amateur astronomers delight in knowing something well enough to be able to talk about it with authority, precious few in the community actually take the next step and distill all they know into something others far beyond their immediate sphere can appreciate. Even those who’ve never been to NEAF likely knew of Barlow Bob through his writings. Along with his founding of the NEAF Solar Star Party, his many articles will serve as his lasting contribution to the field. We will continue to include Barlow Bob’s articles on the CNYO website and we hope that other societies will consider doing the same. Some of those articles are available on his dedicated webpage at NEAF Solar, http://www.neafsolar.com/barlowbob.html.

The Bob-o-Scope Comes To Syracuse


Barlow Bob and “the works” at Darling Hill Observatory. Click for a larger view.

While Syracuse only managed to have one solar session hosted by Barlow Bob, that one session provided a number of lasting memories. After a few months of planning around available weekends and Barlow Bob’s own vacation schedule, we finally settled on the early afternoon of 30 July 2011 for a solar session (with a lecture by CNY’s own Bob Piekiel to follow that evening, making for one of the better amateur astronomy weekends in Syracuse) at Darling Hill Observatory, home of the Syracuse Astronomical Society.


Very likely him at Darling Hill Observatory. Click for a larger view.

Our initial plan was for an 11 a.m. set-up and a noon to 3-ish observing session. Saturday morning started a bit earlier than I expected with a phone call at 9:30 a.m. – Barlow Bob, ever ready to be out and about on a clear day, was outside the locked front gate of Darling Hill Observatory. A frantic prep and drive out later, Barlow Bob and I set up and placed his many scopes on the observing grounds to the delight of about 30 attendees. I myself took one look through the Bob-o-Scope and began calling people, telling them “you have to come and see this.” A full day of observing in, Barlow Bob didn’t end up leaving Darling Hill until just before 5 p.m. The hour we took to leisurely pack his station wagon with all of his gear was full of shop talk, people and equipment to be made aware of, and plans on a similar event at some point in the future. That hang and the view through his Bob-o-Scope are two of my favorite memories during my tenure as SAS president.

Barlow Bob and a spectroscopy mini-lecture at Darling Hill Observatory, 30 July 2011.

The Sun, being the excellent, usually accessible target that it is, is ideal for hosting impromptu observing sessions at most any location. Members of CNYO now do as a small group (and with cheaper equipment) what Barlow Bob would do single-handedly – set up and observe “with attitude.”

Not Just NEAF

Barlow Bob is known to many in the community as the founder of the NEAF Solar Star Party and as the author of articles for “Barlow Bob’s Corner.” To those of us with a bent towards public outreach, Barlow Bob is an example of someone who could take some fancy equipment and his own know-how and run a one-host show. Barlow Bob committed a great deal of his own time and talent to doing for our nearest star what those like John Dobson did for far more distant objects. Despite the many, many amateur astronomers in the world today, it’s still a field where a single person can have a strong influence simply by being a perfectly-polished primary mirror that reflects their own love of the field for others to appreciate. Amateur astronomy outreach can learn a lot from Barlow Bob’s example and CNYO will continue in his footsteps of making safe, variously-filtered solar sights available to the public as part of our observing efforts. May we all become a bit more familiar with our nearest star, following in Barlow Bob’s footsteps to observe it “with attitude.”


“It’s like looking in a mirror!” Barlow Bob and I at Kopernik’s 2013 Astrofest.

* Announcement of his passing on Cloudy Nights: cloudynights.com/ubbthreads/showflat.php/Cat/0/Number/6581115/Main/6578514

* David Eicher’s announcement at astronomy.com: cs.astronomy.com/asy/b/daves-universe/archive/2014/06/16/solar-astronomy-guru-quot-barlow-bob-quot-dies.aspx

* A memorial webpage at forevermissed.com: http://www.forevermissed.com/robert-a-godfrey/

The 16-inch f/4.5 Collapsible-Truss Dobsonian From New Moon Telescopes – Feature Article In Astronomy Technology Today

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

As first appeared on the CNY Observers & Observing website, www.cnyo.org, on 22 June 2013.

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

As if NEAF wasn’t already an excellent first showing for Ryan (and Heather!) Goodson and New Moon Telescopes (including discussions at Cloudy Nights (link 1, link 2) and a recorded observation in Sky & Telescope in this month’s issue), I am pleased to provide a full copy of the result of their first NEAF meeting with Gary Parkerson, Managing Editor of Astronomy Technology Today (www.astronomytechnologytoday.com): A feature (and cover) article (by yours truly) giving the NMT 16″ f/4.5 Dobsonian a complete walk-through in the May-June 2013 issue.


Before anything else – I’d like to personally thank Gary and all at ATT for providing a platform for my review of the NMT scope, their continued support of other amateur astronomers through many years of excellent equipment reviews, and their complete coolness with allowing CNYO to repost the complete article for your viewing pleasure.

Click HERE For The Full Article (PDF, 2.3 MB)

From the article:

New Moon Telescopes (NMT, newmoontelescopes.com) is a very recent addition to the list of manufacturers of custom Dobsonians, having made their first company appearance at the Kopernik Winter Star Party (kopernik.org) this past January and their commercial appearance at NEAF 2013 this past April.

While NMT is now making itself known to the larger amateur astronomy community, NMT is no secret to Central New York observers. Amateur astronomers in several CNY astronomy clubs have seen the expert woodworking skills and design choices of NMT’s owner and sole craftsman, Ryan Goodson, first-hand, giving CNY observers and their always unpredictable weather conditions the honor of being NMT’s original customer base both in rebuilds and new Dobsonians.

The article introduction is no joke! There are three NMT Dobs owned just by CNYO session hosts alone (Larry S, Dan W, and myself), not counting whatever Ryan brings to our observing sessions, then several additional just in the CNY area (one CNY customer’s beautiful 18” Dob having been on display at NEAF). I remember just within the past ten years when SCTs and fancy mounts seemed to rule the observing grounds at Darling Hill Observatory, now all of the sessions I attend are populated by light buckets. The GOTO is increasingly being superseded in favor of memorization. I say excellent!

As a point of discussion in the article, I make reference to Ryan’s high-end component choices (the MoonLite focuser being high on the list – my “Ruby” (NMT #1) is named for its red focuser). I spent an extra block of time discussing the merits of a primary mirror purchase from John Lightholder at Lightholder Premium Optics.

Just as I have seen many an amateur astronomer start with seemingly decent eyepieces, then eventually sell and buy their way up to TeleVue (my personal bias, anyway), I have heard too many stories of observers with primary mirrors that eventually have their faults found out over the course of many observing sessions (the primary mirrors, that is). The solution, while not cheap, is simple – start with the best you can get and never, ever, find yourself regretting an “intermediate” purchase when you go to finally take the plunge on a high-quality primary.

The mirror alone cost more than many of the major vendors are currently charging for complete-and-shipped 12-inch Dobsonian telescopes. The reason is simple – it is absolutely worth it.

A final thought about the whole enterprise comes from Gary himself at ATT:

The Goodsons’ telescopes captured my attention, as did the Goodsons themselves, for the simple reason that they represent one of the aspects I love most about the telescope industry. Astronomy enthusiasts are primarily served by what are essentially cottage enterprises, populated with business people and craftsmen for whom their astro products and services represent labors of love. Most are family businesses, as is ATT, a fact that is reinforced with each trip to NEAF as I am privileged to again greet in person the family partnerships who gather there each year.

I am grateful to Gary and ATT for allowing us to repost the complete article on the CNYO website (and this pruned version of the issue was generated from the PDF I obtained as an enlightened subscriber to the digital version of ATT). It remains an excellent source of information from real users of equipment, a kind of completeness of analysis and discussion many of us had the pleasure of experiencing during discussions with Stu Forster and still have the pleasure of experiencing with my favorite local scope-sage Bob Piekiel.

And why yes, now that you mention it, it is easy to subscribe to ATT today! Click on the image below for more info!


Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Lyra

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

As first appeared in the July 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle.

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

“The muse is upon me… bring me a small lyre!” – Caesar (via Dom DeLuise)

I have come to the conclusion that the constellation Lyra is my favorite, as it has all of the qualities one looks for in a celestial marker for a student of astronomy history, an amateur astronomer, and a part-time musician (well, drummer). Within its defined borders reside a famed double-double star system, a planetary nebula, a small globular cluster, at least one reasonable galaxy, one of the brightest stars in our night sky, a near-perfect parallelogram (if these were brighter stars, they would rival the Belt of Orion in geometric significance to terrestrial observers), one corner of the largest asterism in the night sky (the so-named Summer Triangle), and a host of other stars and dimmer objects (including even a few comets right now). This great variety of objects all lie in a small piece of property just off the band of the Milky Way and, during the summer, they are all ideally suited to near-zenith or at-zenith observing.

For our overture, we begin with the history of this mythic instrument. Lyra has most oft been associated with the famed musician of olde Orpheus, where Orpheus’ lyre was disposed of in a river not long after Orpheus himself was disposed of by maenads despite Orpheus giving the performance of his life (or for his life as the case may have been, as his playing reportedly kept rocks and sticks at distance, requiring the maenads to forego accouterments and pluck Orpheus apart with their own hands). Zeus, with his ever-present eye for collector’s items, ordered the lyre placed in the heavens along with the eagle that recovered it (and some old drawings of the constellation still include a bird of some kind in the rendering).

The show continues with the frame of the lyre itself, rendered in the opening image as a parallelogram topped by a “T.” When I see the constellation, I don’t see the “T” as much as I see an additional triangle composed of Vega, ζ1 Lyr (a double-star that connects the triangle to the parallelogram), and ε1a/ε2a Lyr (far left of the image above, connected by the red line). Now then, ε1a/ε2a Lyr is a sight to behold in a telescope, as it is not one star, but instead a pair of binaries, meaning four stars total that resolve nicely under reasonable magnification (it is reported that, under ideal conditions, the two pairs themselves can be split naked eye). This famed “double-double” star is shown below in an image from the Harrison Telescopes website.

Vega is the fifth brightest star in the Night Sky (making it the sixth brightest star in our sky) and is the second star to appear during the summer months after Arcturus. During June and July, Vega first appears high in the North-Eastern Sky and is obvious to anyone waiting at Darling Hill for their eyes to adjust after sunset. This makes Vega an easy marker for anyone learning the Summer constellations, which then makes Lyra an easy constellation to get under one’s belt at the same time. The parallelogram (where one might imagine the plucked strings of the lyre to be) is oriented nearly North-South and runs along the neck of Cygnus the Swan, a Constellation embedded well into the river of stars that make up the Milky Way.

With the constellation of Lyra identified from its two prominent geometric themes, the search for the subtle tones in this constellation can continue. After M13 in Hercules and the famous M31, the object I learned to identify from the relative positions of stars was M57, the Ring Nebula. M57 sits like a tuning knob at the base of Lyra, almost centrally located between the binary star Sheliak and Sulafat. While far from the brightest object in the night sky, the Ring jumps out immediately even under low-power binoculars as something clearly not a pinpoint of light. New scope owners looking to find anything(!) in their scope are well-advised to consider M57 as a target for low-magnification observing, as the appearance of Sheliak and Sulafat in an eyepiece help to set bright boundary conditions between which to scan for the nebulous ring. On ideally clear and steady nights, the central star of the Ring is visible, although this can be a heroic undertaking for even seasoned pros. A comparison of what Hubble sees and what you’ll likely see is provided on the previous page.

Containing the Ring Nebula would be enough for any constellation to be noteworthy to an amateur astronomer, but Lyra is famous as being a host to yet another Messier object in the form of M56, captured above-right by Stu Forster in July of 2010. This small globular cluster has been tagged at 13.7 billion years of age and can be found most easily by drawing a straight line between Sulafat and Alberio (the head of Cygnus the swan) and scanning the midpoint with larger-aperture binoculars or a small telescope.

For those listening most intently to the orchestrations of this constellation, the irregular galaxy NGC 6745 is just visible in medium-sized telescopes (shown above from Hubble). NGC 6745 is decidedly less J. S. Bach and decidedly more John Cage, as 6745 is actually three galaxies in the process of a violent dance. Like a famous Big Band moving through a town of jazz combos, the largest galaxy is pulling stars from the two smaller galaxies, populating itself at the expense of the disrupted musicians.

There are even themes implied but not heard that enhance the complexities of Lyra. To date, over 13 exoplanets have been discovered in Lyra, at least three of which are attributed to the position of the Kepler Mission observing envelop just beyond Cygnus (see the image above, which shows Kepler frames just to the edge of Lyra).

– Happy Hunting, Damian

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Camelopardalis

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

As first appeared in the June 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle.

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

We continue our presentation of CNY circumpolar constellations with a relative newcomer to the great list of 88 constellations (in Western Culture, anyway). Camelopardalis the Giraffe is lucky to be identified as a constellation at all, as neither the Greeks nor the Romans saw this part of the sky as interesting enough to, dare I say, stick their necks out and define the stars here as anything of importance. Its Western history dates to approximately 1612, when the famed Dutch astronomer and cartographer Petrus Plancius (who also provided us with Monoceros, another recent constellation in the Northern Hemisphere) grouped the stars with the name Camelopardalis which, loosely translated, breaks down into “camel” and “leopard,” the combinations of “long neck” and “spots” being a reasonable first approximation to the features of an animal most of Europe had likely never seen at the time. The Chinese and Indian astronomers, on the other hand, were far more meticulous in their use and definition of stars in the Night Sky and the brighter stars in Camelopardalis are all defined in one asterism or another. The positions are obviously the same, but the history and mythology of the stars in Camelopardalis are markedly different.

Referring back to the main image in my first article on circumpolar constellations (Ursa Minor, Jan/Feb/Mar 2012, above), that vast majority of Camelopardalis lies above the Northern Horizon, with its head region tightly packed between the boundaries of Draco and Ursa Minor. I’ve seen several stick figure representations of Camelopardalis that attempt to depict only the legs (from the brightest stars in the constellation), only the legs and torso (by cutting Camelopardalis off at the knees and connecting these two starts to make a body), only the legs and half the neck (using bright stars again), the legs and full neck (getting a head in there as well), and the full-on head-neck-torso-short-leg variation that looks most like a giraffe but, likely, deviates most from classical definitions. The correct line drawing for you is, of course, the one that helps you identify the constellation easiest.

During the June mid-evenings, Camelopardalis is oriented with its feet standing firmly on the Northern Horizon (perhaps with its legs obscured behind tall trees that serve as celestial underbrush during our observing sessions). With no star brighter than 4th magnitude and most in the 4th to 5th range, one does have to work a bit harder than usual to mark out the legs and torso of Camelopardalis from Darling Hill, as the electromagnetic diaspora emanating from Syracuse consumes an ever-increasing expanse of the Northern Sky (a solution, then, is to simply observe from somewhere comfortably North of Syracuse!). As you check for the neck, consider the head of Camelopardalis reaching for the bowl of the Big Dipper. The brightest star near where the head would be, the appropriately named “HIP47193,” will sit just to the left of Polaris for your early-night June observing.

Neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor most any Western Culture, nor Charles Messier or his assistant Pierre Méchain found anything of importance to amateur astronomers among the stars we know as Camelopardalis. It took until the 18th century for William Herschel to identify an object worthy of cataloguing in the forms of the sort-of elliptical/sort-of spiral galaxy NGC 2403 (shown above, from Hubble). We now know that this region of the sky contains many interesting, but faint, observables, some of which lie within the Milky Way (such as the planetary nebula NGC 1501 and the open cluster NGC 1502) and many which lie far, far beyond, all likely visible only because they lie away from the galactic plane of the Milky Way (and, therefore, are identifiable because they are in a relatively barren stellar savannah that doesn’t obscure our view). Among these are NGC 2655, IC 342 (shown below in infrared from NASA WISE), and NGC 1569 (all exceptionally tough targets due to Syracuse light pollution).

– Happy Hunting, Damian


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