CNYO Observing Log: The Winter Of Lovejoy – Green Lakes, Jamesville Beach, And New Moon Telescopes HQ – January 9 to 14, 2015

A re-post from the CNY Observers website (www.cnyo.org).

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Caption: Comet Lovejoy imaged on January 10th by the ever-impressive CNY astrophotographer Stephen Shaner. From his CNYO Facebook Group post: Last night was the first in over three months it was clear enough to shoot, but it worked out well because Comet Lovejoy is at its peak. Here’s a quick process of about 40 minutes of exposures between 8-9 PM as it crossed the meridian. FOV is roughly three degrees. Distinct pale green coma in the eyepiece but unable to make out a tail or see it naked eye.

The 2015 skies are going to be full of comets. Well, at least six, to be exact, that will be either naked eye- or binocular-visible. That’s still quite a few to those keeping track! The amateur astronomy community has taken heroic efforts to scientifically identify and track new comets in the last, say, 400 years. The rise of, for instance, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (or panSTARRS) as a method for finding and tracking both comets and near-earth asteroids (or, lumped together, “objects,” for which you might hear the abbreviation “NEOs”) has greatly increased the number of accounted-for fuzzy objects in our fields of view (and provided us a giant leap in our existential risk assessment infrastructure to boot). Quite simply, we’ve more + better eyes on the skies, meaning we’re bound to continue to find more and more comets and asteroids. You can even subscribe to NASA twitter feeds that announce the passing-by of these hopefully passers-by (see @AsteroidWatch and @NasaNEOCam).

The discovery of NEOs may or may not qualify as a modern John Henry-ism, as amateur astronomers are still discovering objects at a decent pace thanks to improvements in their own optics and imaging equipment. Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is one such recent example discovered by famed modern comet hunter Terry Lovejoy (who has five comets to his name already).

Comet Lovejoy And More In CNY

Comet Lovejoy has made the winter sky that much more enjoyable (and below freezing cold that much more bearable) by reaching peak brightness in the vicinity of the prominent winter constellations Taurus and Orion. Visible soon after sunset and before the “really cold” temperatures set in (after 10 p.m. or so), Lovejoy has been an easy target in low-power binoculars and visible without equipment in sufficiently dark skies. Now on its way out of the inner solar system, its bright tail will shrink and its wide coma (that gives it its “fuzziness”) will disappear as the increasingly distant Sun is unable to melt Lovejoy’s surface ice. Those of us who dared the cold, clear CNY skies these past few weeks were treated to excellent views, while the internet has been flooded with remarkable images of what some have described as the most photographed comet in history (a title that will likely be taken from it when a few other comets pass us by during warmer nights this year).

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Caption: The tiki lounge at Green Lakes State Park, 9 January 2014.

The first observing session around Syracuse this year happened at Green Lakes State Park on January 9th. Bob Piekiel, one of CNY’s best known and most knowledgable amateur astronomers, had his Celestron NexStar 11 in the parking lot behind the main office, which was fortunately kept open for attendees hoping to warm up between views. To Bob’s C11 was added my Zhumell 25×100’s, providing less magnification but a wider field of view to take in more of the comet’s core, tail, and nearby stars.

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Caption: A very prominent Orion and arrow-ed Comet Lovejoy from the Green Lakes parking lot. Photo by Kim Titus.

The Friday night skies were only partially on our side, offering a few short-lived views of the Orion Nebula and Lovejoy. Jupiter was just bright enough to burn through some of the cloud cover to our East, giving us slightly muddled but otherwise decent views of it and its four largest satellites for about 10 minutes. By our 9 p.m. pack-up and departure, the skies were even worse – which is always a good feeling for observers (knowing they didn’t miss a chance for any additional views by packing up early).

The night of Saturday, January 10th turned into a much better night for observing, offering a good opportunity for some long-exposure images to try to capture Lovejoy just past its luminous prime. The following image was taken from one of the parking lots at Jamesville Beach – the same spot where Larry Slosberg, Dan Williams and I observed the nova in Delphinus. Light pollution aside from the 30 second exposure, the brightest constellations are clearly visible and a fuzzy, bright green star is clearly visible in the full-sized image. Click on the image below for a larger, unlabeled version of the same.

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Caption: An array of Winter’s finest from Jamesville Beach, 10 January 2014, 8:00 p.m. Click on the image for a full and unlabeled version.

The imaging continued in Marcellus on January 10th, with Bob Piekiel producing a zoomed in view of Lovejoy.

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Caption: An unmistakable view of Comet Lovejoy. Image by Bob Piekiel.

As with all astronomical phenomena (excluding solar viewing, of course), the best views come from the darkest places. A third Lovejoy session was had up in West Monroe, NY on Wednesday, January 14th with fellow CNYO’er Ryan Goodson at New Moon Telescopes. Putting his 27” Dob to use, the green-tinted Lovejoy was almost bright enough to tan your retina. With dark skies and no observing line, we then attacked some subtler phenomena, including the Orion Nebula in Orion, the Eskimo Nebula in Gemini, and the Hubble Variable Nebula in Monoceros. The images below are our selfie with Lovejoy and the best of Winter, a snapshot near the zenith (with Jupiter prominent), and the Northern sky (click on the images for larger, unlabeled versions).

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Caption: Ryan and I pose for 30 sec, our fingers completely missing the location of Lovejoy (red arrow). Click for a larger view.

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Caption: Some of Winter’s finest from NMT HQ, including a prominent Jupiter just to the west of (and about to be devoured by) the constellation Leo. Click for a larger view.

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Caption: A view of NMT’s opening to the North, including Cassiopeia at left (the sideways “W”), the Big Dipper in the middle, and Jupiter at the right. Click for a larger view.

A Clothing Thought…

As we can all attest to, the nighttime temperatures this month have oscillated between bitterly cold and painfully cold. The pic of my Element’s thermometer at my midnight departure from West Monroe read -12 F (and the tire inflation warning light stayed on until I hit 81 South), yet with the exception of the tips of my toes, I wasn’t very bothered by the cold.

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2015jan22_nmt_layersIt’s one of the cold realities of amateur astronomy – you never realize how cold it can get outside until you’re standing perfectly still at a metal eyepiece. The solution is as old as the sediment-grown hills – layers! The top half of my outfit for the evening is shown below, featuring six (yes, six) layers from turtleneck to final coat. My bottom half featured three layers that decorum permits me from showing here. For those wondering how the blood still flows below the belt, the answer is simple – buy yourself an outer layer two or three sizes larger than you usually wear. In my case, my outer coat’s a bit baggy and my outer pants are a very tightly-meshed pair of construction pants with a 40” waist (from a trip to DeJulio’s Army & Navy Store on Burnet Ave. in Syracuse).

And don’t worry about color coordinating. The nighttime is the right time for the fashion unconscious.

Some Light Non-Science Reading: Circle Templates – Know Your Field Of View!

As appeared in the May 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter, the Astronomical Chronicle.

From the “why didn’t I think of that sooner?” department…

Binoculars are, far and away, the best way to start in observational astronomy (after you have some of the constellations figured out first, of course). The Moon reveals great new detail even at low magnification, the four Galilean Moons of Jupiter are obvious (when they’re not transiting or being “occulted” by Jupiter), all of the Messier objects are find-able (with a little practice and either lots of time or one lucky clear evening in March), and the sky becomes a busy highway of satellites that are otherwise too small to reflect significant light for naked eye viewing. Perhaps less pragmatically but nonetheless significant, the ownership of one simple, easy to produce, easy to use, easy to master piece of paired glassware connects you to the magnification-enhanced world of astronomy begun with Galileo, who used a much poorer quality and lower magnification telescope than those found in Big-Box Stores to forever and disruptively change how Western Civilization (and beyond!) placed itself in the Universe.

That all sounds profound I guess, but you’ve got a book open and are trying to keep track of a flashlight while keeping your arm still as you bounce your head back-and-forth in this really dense part of sky because you don’t know if you’re looking at M36, M37, or M38 in Auriga and you know you’ll NEVER find that part of the sky again. The, if you’ll pardon the expression, dark art of star-hoping is one that absolutely requires practice. More importantly, it requires having a proper frame of reference. I admit that I spent more than a few months with my trusty Nikon Action 12×50’s without ever actually having a handle on just how big the piece of celestial real estate I was staring at was.

It may seem obvious but is something you (well, I) didn’t think to use to your (well, my) immediate advantage. The magnification in the binos does NOT change! You are constantly looking at the same-sized region. This means that you can easily correlate magnification to real estate and know exactly what the limit of your in-eyepiece star-hopping is.

My solution, and one that is generally applicable to all your binoculars (and low-magnification eyepieces in your scope), was to buy an architects circle set. Yes, one of the green numbers with all the holes. If you have one book you’ve committed to (in my case, Sky And Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas, but I also have a copy of the Cambridge Star Atlas that hasn’t had its spine properly cracked yet), find some obvious star groupings, see how many of them you can get in your field of view, crack your book open to the right page, and overlay until your circle engulfs only what you see.

Simple! This simple tool dramatically improved my star-hopping aptitude. Keeping with my circumpolar theme this year, using the Sky Atlas and a pair of 12×50’s, I can just barely get the stars Mizar/Alcor and Alioth from the handle of the Big Dipper into the field of view – this corresponds to a 1.1250″ circle…

For the Cambridge Atlas, this same circle is 0.8125″…

I can plot the path to dim or densely-packed objects at leisure by finding bright stars or small groupings and “walking” my view along the path of overlaid circles, always knowing what I should and should not be seeing at any time (minus the odd planet, satellite, Milky Way supernova, etc.).

The same applies to scopes, although you’ll hit that smallest circle quickly (and you’ll find yourself having to flip/invert the image in the piece of paper)! My solution for that was to buy the BIGGEST eyepiece I could find to make sure I’m getting the LEAST amount of magnification. The circles get you to the object, then the magnification draws you in…

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Triangulum

As first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

I remember my first foray into Constellation memorization, still the first thing I recommend for anyone beginning in amateur astronomy (primarily for using these imagined creations to memorize the locations of far dimmer objects when you graduate up to binoculars or small scopes, but also simply to develop a sense of, well, the space between these creations as you jump between objects).

Orion, yeah yeah… Scorpius, O.K. obvious… The body of Sagittarius looks like a teapot, that’s not bad… Cassiopeia is the great big “W” Jonathan Winters discovered in “It’s a Mad … Mad World“… The “Dippers” are dippers… Canis Minor is composed of two stars, and they happen to be in a straight line! At least it contains a bit of animal lore and the great Procyon. That should be easy to find.

Ah! Triangulum. A famed triangle of stars. Named after the famed shape called “The Triangle,” and believed to be the last Constellation drawn out by Ptolemy as one of the original 48 Constellations of Antiquity. It bet it was supposed to be “The Great Northern Spearhead,” but Ptolemy must have been a pacifist. It is believed he committed it to papyrus at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday before the scribes began copying the first edition Monday morning.

I have to admit, this Constellation seemed like an odd member of the original series, if for no other reason than the seemingly minimal amount of work (or so I thought) that must have gone into its creation. As I hope to convey to you in the next few paragraphs, this little Constellation has stood the test of time for a few good reasons.

To begin, the heart of Triangulum dates back all the way to the Babylonians (which means it likely also dates back further into pre-recorded history) who, with the inclusion of what we now know as γ-Andromeda, called this Constellation MUL.APIN, or “The Plough.” With this simple extension added in red in the image above, I hope the resemblance is now obvious. To my technologically-biased mind, the nondescript triangle of the modern sky instantaneously becomes the (seemingly) everlasting testament to the power of agriculture and the shining reminder to all of the simple tool responsible for the creation of a commodity we know today as “surplus.” I don’t think that’s going too overboard in the description.

You are here.

We have these “organic farming” discussions where people ask you “Where do you think your food comes from?” It has been quite a recent phenomenon in the long history of this little sphere Carl Sagan referred to as a “Pale Blue Dot” (that’s you at right) that the members of a society have been relieved of the strain of producing for themselves by technology that improves efficiency and, more importantly, vastly increases quantity. If I take the comparison to the extreme, the Constellations that represented tools or deities have been replaced in many societies by the gigantic billboards that celebrate the financial well-being of companies continuing their crusade to relieve you of your currency, an economic reality impossible in a society where everyone’s working entirely to maintain a base subsistence level. The world remains in transition towards a time when all are at the same technological level as the First World countries (and it is only a matter of time), meaning something as simple to many of you reading this as an animal-driven plough remains a vital key to survival in other parts of the world.

I vote we re-designate the “Summer Triangle” as the “Summer Plough!”

While it may have been a signal for a Late-Summer party at the very beginning of some harvest, the Babylonians used the presence of their Triangulum to mark the “Way of Enlil,” the apparent path of the Sun after the Summer Solstice. In a society that used the Heavens as their Calendar, this simple Constellation took on a wholly more significant meaning.

Thanks to wikipedia, I know that a more recent attribution (to only the Triangle, not the Plough) of this Constellation is to the goddess Ceres, who successfully convinced the god Jupiter to add the island of Sicily (at left, the football that the boot of Italy appears to be kicking towards the U.S.) to the Night Sky (perhaps a preferred way to leave your mark in history, esp. given the alternative taken by Atlantis).

Sicily, featuring an active Mount Etna (Image by Jacques Descloitres, NASA MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).

Given this most interesting history, is there anything to actually do with a pair of eyes or an eyepiece in this part of the sky? I’m pleased to report that this part of the sky is actually quite busy (the Star Map at this beginning of this article is about as busy as one can get without looking at Sagittarius), with Triangulum serving as a useful anchor for finding a number of objects in our Eastern sky this month.

M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Photo by Hunter Wilson.

As it happens, one of the precious few naked eye galaxies (provided ideal viewing conditions) in the Northern Sky lies just to the South (to the right as you’re looking at it) of α-Tri. M33 (at right), appropriately named the “Triangulum Galaxy,” is a member of the Local Group of galaxies (the most famous member being our Milky Way, the second most famous being the Andromeda Galaxy) and, at 2.9 million light years away, lies (by some estimates) 700,000 light years farther from us than the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) AND, according to measurements using the Very Long Baseline Array, is moving at 190 km/second relative to us and towards M31 (the demolition derby will not be pleasant for M33, given it contains only 4% of the stars of M31 (how many mopeds are there in a semi-rig?). It is still under debate as to whether or not M33 is a companion galaxy to the more massive M31 (they do share proximity), but it certainly stands on its own as a spectacle in a good telescope on a dark night. This first recorded observation (it all comes down to paper) is attributed to Giovanni Battista Hodierna around 1650 (above at left), the most famous recorded observation (it all comes down to publication) can be given to Charles Messier (above at right) on August 25-26, 1764 (now that’s bookkeeping!).

Giovanni Battista Hodierna (left) and Charles Messier (right).

All of the other objects in the boundaries of Triangulum are dim (10>th order or dimmer), making your time spent with moderate optics in this area short compared to the time you’d likely spend just on M31 alone. As a good practice for the next Messier Marathon, you can use M33 (*1) and M31 (*2) to mark the Southern side of a rectangle composed of M33, M31, M34 (*3) and M76 (*4, these last two are right on the Perseus-Andromeda border). As M33 will give you M32 and M101, that’s a quick-six to check off as you plough your way through the list of 110.

Comet Hartley 2 and NGC 457 (the E.T. Cluster). Photo by SAS member Stu Forster.

AND, as long as were in this neck of the woods (and the tree line in this part of the sky at Darling Hill is now just becoming more bearable to the impatient observer with the falling of leaves), we can use the Babylonian form of Triangulum to quickly point our way to M76, then slowly walk the Telrad to the North (left) until we reach the Southern Double of the famed Double-Double, which then puts into view both members of the Perseus Double-Double Cluster (NGC 884 and NGC 869) and Comet Hartley 2, which is working its way through our neighborhood. Our own Stu Forster managed to capture Hartley (green glow at left) as it passed through the local neighborhood of NGC 457, more commonly known as the Owl or E.T. Cluster (yes. tha E.T., the two bright eyes work for both).

Clear skies, Damian