Archive for the ‘Star Viewing’ Category

August observing report – What’s Up ?

Much like in this photo from 2004,  Members of Gove astronomers gathered at our Dhupma Rd site for an observing night on Sat 18th Aug 2012. Using a refracting telescope that is similar (but shorter focal length) than the one pictured, we took in some classic deep sky targets.

  • The first constellation visible on the night was, as is usual this time of the year, the bright stars of Alpha & Beta Centaurus. They point the way to the southern cross & this was our first target .
  • The sparkling stars of the aptly named Jewel Box adjacent to the blue/white star Beta Crux and its dim red companion Ruby Crux made a fine trio in the wide angle low power view offered with the combination of a 600mm Refractor and a 32mm pan-optic eyepiece. Giving a magnification of just 18.75x allowing all 3 targets to be easily seen.
  • With the obvious pairing of Mars, Saturn & Spica this was clearly our next target. The rings of Saturn being just visible at this low magnification.
  • The fully dark sky now beckoned us to look at the dim fuzzy ball that is Omega Centuri, the faintest object to the naked eye in Centaurus. However with the scope a  ball of 1000’s of stars is revealed as a fuzzy cotton ball. Just a hint of what through a larger aperture telescope, is a sparkling bowl of diamonds.
  • Pointing the little scope almost straight up to the Zenith revealed the dual star cluster’s & Nebulas of the Trifid & Lagoon nebulae in Sagittarius, again easily fitting in the field of view.
  • Some searching along the rich star field of the Milky Way revealed many star clusters and some interesting “asterisms” of stars making chain like patterns against the myriad of stars of the spiral arms of our grand galaxy.
  • Stretching the little scope to its limits I sought out the dim smoke ring of the well named Ring Nebula, a stellar remnant in the constellation of Lyra ‘The Harp”

Much of the night was spent relaxing in camp chairs looking at the glorious vista of the Milky Way stretched out before us. This time spent patiently looking at the clear night sky was rewarded several times with some spectacular Meteors. One of which was orange in colour and lasted for several seconds.

Its was great to see so many members of Gove Astronomers out under the night sky (about 20) several of whom are new members in the club. 

The next observing night for GAA will be on Saturday the 15th of September, with I hope by then our large aperture (18″) scope “Big Blue” back in action for an observing session up at the Gun Club, where we plan to establish a more permanent observatory for Gove Amateur Astronomers.

August Skies 2012

The month of August has already proved interesting with the Perseid meteor shower putting on a good display on the 12th and 13th.

Jupiter & Venus

Jupiter and Venus continue to make a good pairing in the morning sky after their close conjunction on the 12th with the moon. Venus is always worth a look through the scope to check out it’s current Phase & the constantly changing face of Jupiter with the dancing moons, Io, Ganymede, Callisto & Europa providing a constantly changing visual feast.

Mars & Saturn

The western early evening sky hosts two other planets in close conjunction with the bright star Spica in Virgo. On the 21st Spica, Saturn and the Moon have a close encounter, followed by the Moon and Mars the next night on the 22nd. Mars is little more than a small red dot as it recedes from the earth in its orbit. However Saturn never fails to impress with it’s gossamer thin glowing rings.

Blue Moon

There is a “Once in a Blue Moon” event this month, well literally, as there is a “Blue Moon” on the 31st. Well not actually Blue, but being the second full moon for the month it is classified as a Blue Moon.

So there you go, lots to see, so rug up and get out under the night sky with your Star Disc and Red light to discover the Secrets of the night sky this month.

Mars Science and Climate Change

Techniques pioneered by the European Space Agency (ESA) for use on Mars are set to have a very down to earth use here on planet Earth and beyond to the Icy moon Europa, circling the Gas Giant Jupiter as well as another Ice moon Titan, the biggest of Saturns Moons.

ESA’s Mars Express has aboard some pioneering radar experiment currently investigating the Red Planet and searching for any evidence of sub-surface reservoirs of water and ice.

The technology used by Mars express cannot be used directly here on earth, as the frequency of 5 Mhz used for Mars would quickly interfere with radio communications.

Experiments are currently underway to adapt the technology for use at 435 Mhz where the radar will not cause disruption to earth based communications.

So what are these experiments all about ?

In a boost for earth science research, funded by ESA’s General Studies Program, the new study has been dubbed the Advanced Concept for RAdar Sounder (ACRAS)

This technique has been proposed once before by ESA in the late 90’s, however at that time the technology was not available to filter out false signals. These false signals come firstly from the earths Ionosphere and then secondly from terrain outside the radar’s target area.

ACRAS appears to have found a way around this problem by the use of multiple radar beams, in this case 3 beams, each with slightly different properties, using the principles of the Doppler effect .

The Doppler effect is best demonstrated by the changing pitch of siren on a fast moving vehicle, as it first moves towards you then away from you.

This new study is meeting with success and opens the doors for even more precise instruments that could work around Earth. A satellite fitted with this type of radar could accurately estimate the ice sheet thickness of the Antarctic and other ice covered regions. The data coming back would reveal the three-dimensional internal structure of the ice sheets, the contours of the underlying terrain and give information right down to the bedrock. Watching how this changes over time will give climate scientists invaluable data.

Currently work such as this is largely done by expensive and difficult drilling programs.

As we all hear in the news day after day, melting ice from the polar regions is set to have a huge impact on climate change

The most recent example of this is the large scale break up of the Ross ice shelf in Antarctica.

The ACRAS study is set to conclude in October this year. Although a fully-fledged satellite mission is a long way off yet. Florence Hélière, the ESA study officer, says, “We hope to conduct an airborne test of the technique.” Source: ESA.

As you go out to gaze up at the night sky, looking at the prominent planets Mars and Saturn in the early evening and Jupiter late in the evening. Spare a thought for the hardworking scientists who have made it possible for this pioneering work to be done.

Not only could this make a real difference to our understanding of the effects of climate change here on the lovely blue green planet we call home, it could unlock the doors to the search for life in our own solar system.

The Best Telescopes for Kids

Discovering astronomy with your first look through your first telescope at one of our major planets such as Saturn or Jupiter and even our very familiar moon is the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure, in discovering the wonders of the night sky. However if the first telescope you get is a standard tripod mounted refracting telescope (one using lenses not mirrors) as found in most department stores, the experience is usually one of frustration and disappointment instead.

It is very tempting I know, when you see the telescope for maybe $90 to $150 with claims of “Magnifies 600 times” or “See galaxies and nebulas” to think that this will delight your children. The reality is one of these telescopes will have a wobbly tripod that will not allow you to see anything at 60 times, much less 600. The aperture (that’s the diameter) of the lens will typically be 70 to 90 mm and this will never gather enough light to see faint and distant galaxies, most of which are millions of light years away.

So what can you do? Well, in my experience of almost 10 years of showing 1000’s of children and my own 3 kids around the night sky, the best way to start is in fact with a Star Disc, a red light and a pair of low powered binoculars. The reason is that for starters you will need to find something worthwhile to look at. A Star Disc will show you a few bright deep sky objects that are easily seem with binoculars on any given night. The red light will allow you to see the Star Disc without ruining you night vision. Your night vision takes at least 20 minutes away from white light to adapt to the darkness. A low powered pair of binoculars (EG: 8×50 – 8 times magnification and a 50mm lens) will show you many faint galaxies, nebulas and star clusters. A picnic blanket is a good idea to lay on as well. What a great way to get the family together!

Perhaps you have already done this and are ready to make the next step, and really want to get that telescope. What should you do? My experience and that of my astronomy peers from around Australia and across the world have shown me that the telescope that is (a) Quick to set up and pack up (b) Easy to use and (c) has preferably at least 200mm (8″) of aperture will get the most use and provide many years of observing pleasure. Not just for the kids but the whole family and many friends.

What does one of these telescopes look like? Well, it is not a refractor and it is not on a tripod. It is a Dobsonian mounted reflector. A reflector is much like the telescopes used in professional observatories (only much smaller!) Put in simple terms the telescope is mounted on a horizontal (azimuth) turntable close to ground level allowing you to move the telescope to all points of the compass and a vertical pivot point allowing you to move the telescope from the horizon to directly overhead (the zenith) through 90 degrees. The eyepiece (this does the magnifying) is in the side of the telescope tube at about 1.3 meters above the ground, an ideal height for kids. A 200mm (8″) Dobsonian is lightweight enough that a child of perhaps 10 years old can easily move and set it up in the park or backyard. Confused about what it looks like? Just imagine a cannon that spins around and can point straight up.

How much is one of these going to cost you? You may be thinking thousands of dollars. In fact, a 200mm Dobsonian can cost as little as $550 in Australia and a similar amount in the USA. So start into astronomy the fun and easy way and your Christmas present will live on for many years to come.

Hunting the Ice Giants

With the inner planets now gracing the morning rather than the early evening skies & Jupiter setting early in the evening, it is the ideal time to go hunting for slow moving Uranus & Neptune in their cold dark outer orbits. The timing is good, especially for viewing Uranus, with its current position being close to the Zenith (overhead) mid evening, in the constellation of Aquarius (the water bearer) & with Neptune not far away in Capricornius (the sea goat).

Finding Uranus

Uranus at Magnitude +5.9 will be just visible to the sharp eyed observer under clear dark skies (avoid moonlit nights and city lights) Neptune at Magnitude +7.9 on the other hand is almost twice as dim and cannot be seen with the naked eye. A good pair of 10×50 binoculars will allow you to locate both of these planets, however a telescope will be needed to see any detail.

Uranus (at 3 billion kilometers away) is in a good position to be found, located as it currently is about ½ way between the stars Phi Aquari & Lambda Aquari. These stars are close to the meridian (the central part of the sky) in the early evening soon after twilight.

With a moderate sized telescope or greater (150mm or 6 inchs) you will be able to see the Blue dot that is Uranus. However you will need Approximately 150x magnification to see the small aquamarine disk of the planet & the same goes for Neptune.

Unlike Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, there are no surface or cloud features to be seen unless you have a very large telescope and the season is right for storm formation on Uranus or Neptune.

Finding Neptune

Neptune (at 4.5 billion kilometers away) is a little harder to find, but once you have located the fainter but none the less distinctive triangle of Capricornius, locate the bright star (Magnitude 4.5) Iota Capricorni. Approximately 2 degrees (2 finger widths) away from this star and outside of the Triangle you will see the small deep blue disk of Neptune.

Once in a Blue Moon

A once in a lifetime event for astronomers is always worth waiting for. Although the Mars opposition occurs once every twenty-six months, it can still be regarded as once in a lifetime event if you take into consideration the last time that a Mars opposition occurred on the exact same night as a blue moon. Planetary opposition is an occurrence that takes place when the planet rises as the sun sets. This typically occurs when the Earth is directly between the sun and the planet, causing the planet to follow the same elliptical path as the sun. Add that the moon will be full twice in the month of January, called a blue moon, then there is much to get excited about. What is the reason for all of the excitement? The second full moon of the month of January is on the 30th, the same day that Mars will be in direct opposition.

The planetary opposition of Mars in relationship to the sun has fascinated stargazers for centuries. Most astronomers took the opportunity to simply observe the passing of this phenomenon, while watchmaker David Gill, in 1877, used the opportunity to use exact measurement devices and calculations to calculate the solar parallax simply by observing Mars. This was an amazing astronomic breakthrough as it was responsible for redefining the calculations for finding the distance from the earth to the sun. The parallax has recently been updated with more accurate calculations, but using the same formula that brought David Gill to his conclusion.

With the newest opposition in sight, the eminent return of Mars has prompted much ado. The night sky will be illuminated by a full moon on January 29th and 30th, as the Red Planet rises at Six O’clock PM, EST. This, however, is not the beginning of the event, which is set to last nearly a week and is marked with the closest the red planet has been to Earth since August of 2003. Mars is actually closest to the earth on the 27th of January, and it will slowly ascend upwards as the days progress. If you are wanting to catch a glimpse of the beautiful red surface of this planet at its absolute closest. Brave the cold, or enjoy the balmy summer night if your in the southern hemisphere on the 27th and get your telescope into focus. This will be the best night for optimal viewing of the red planet, as it will slowly diminish in size in the following weeks. Mars will shine at Magnitude -1.28, almost as bright as the brightest star in the sky, Sirus. Don’t delay or you will have to wait another twenty-six months for the March of 2012 opposition. However, the next time that the opposition of Mars will occur on the same night as a blue moon depends on the cycle of the next blue moon.

Not only does the opposition and Blue Moon occur on the same night, Mars is just a hand span (7 degrees of arc) away from the Moon. It is important, then, to document the events of this night to say that you were there. Perhaps even some Photographs to mark the occasion. For the next time this occurs, you children or grandchildren will be the ones to witness it.

Comet Lovejoy-A Solar Survivor

Comet Lovejoy is also known as C/2011 W3. It’s a periodic comet discovered by Terry Lovejoy, an amateur astronomer. He discovered the comet on the 27th of November 2011. The path of the comet was predicted to head right through the Sun’s corona, resulting in its destruction.

Predicted Demise

Many experts thought that the ice core of the comet wasn’t massive enough to survive passing through the Solar Corona, considering it’s several million degrees in there. The comet passed only 120,000 km up above the actual surface of the sun. Researchers thought the case was cut and dry, but were still very interested in getting to actually observe a comet passing through the suns corona, due to the possibility of valuable research from the event.


At 12:35 AM UTC time, on December 16th, the comet surprised everyone by reemerging from the sun. There were five separate spacecraft there to provide a video feed of the event. Two different NASA space observatories for Solar Dynamics, two different probes, and a microsatellite from Europe captured the miraculous rebirth of the comet from a variety of different angles.

In the video, you can see the comet wriggling as the tail enters into the sun. Some researchers say that it might be due to the comet’s interaction with magnetic fields that exist across and through the atmosphere of the sun, but no one knows for sure why the tail moved in the way it did.

The unexpected rebirth of the comet will get continued coverage from video feeds, since scientists are interested to know what exactly the effect of moving right through the sun had on the comet. Some say that the core of Lovejoy must have been at least 500 meters in diameter to have enough sheer matter to not be instantly sublimated by the journey through the star.

The behavior of the comet as it moves back deep into the outer solar system, will give scientists clues as to how extensive the damage was, structurally. Some believe that the comet may now fall apart from the stress.

The interaction of comets and the Sun isn’t yet well understood by scientists, so all such events bring well needed information to the community.

Sun Grazers

Lovejoy is part of a group of comets called “Kreutz Sungrazers.” These are a particular group of comets that have orbits that take them very close to the sun. Some believe that they were originally one large comet that has broken up over time, perhaps from the closer encounters with the sun. the comets are often large enough to actually be visible to the naked eye when they pass near the Earth.

An Emerging Great Comet

At the time of writing the comet was displaying a tail of some 13 Degrees of Arc (more than 1/2 a hand span) This display is visible in the southern hemisphere. Initial photos have been coming out of Australia, showing the spectacular tail. Perhaps it might be as good as comet Mcnaught of 2007. Already it is much better than the well known Hayleys come

Mars, Antares, and the Moon

The night skies are fascinating to people the world over. Astronomy has its roots in the ancients, who marked the movement of the stars to help them to navigate on both land and sea. They have been the source of myth and legend from the earliest times, with all manner of powers attributed to the various celestial bodies.

With the advent of the telescope, and the ability to study more closely objects as they moved across the night skies, we became more, rather than less fascinated by them. One of those fascinations is the star Antares.

Just as a bit of trivia, the very name Antares is taken from the ancients and was given to the star by virtue of the similarity that can see between it and another equally reddish colored entity, Mars. The ancient name, Antares came from the words- holds against Mars- in ancient Greek.

Antares holds the distinction of being the brightest star that is found in the constellation Scorpius. The color it shows has made it something that people have found curious and interesting all through history.

Antares, as you may know, is a class M supergiant variety of star. It has a radius that is said to be between 700 and 800 times larger than the sun.(the correct number depends on who you ask) It is about 600 light years, give or take, from our solar system. Antares is easily visible with naked eye viewing, but don’t pass up the chance to use a telescope if you have it.

The current night sky see’s Mars high and bright in the constellation Leo with May seeing it slowly moving toward Regulus. The first quarter of the moon will be below Regulus and left of the red planet on the night of the 20th. Mars is beginning to dim however, and Antares is becoming more brilliant, reminiscent of Mars in many ways, but outshining it this time of the year.

There is a bit more than one month’s time until we reach the summer solstice. The moon is at first quarter on the night of the 21st and at full status on the evening of the 28th. It is brilliantly glowing, with less than 2 degrees (a few finger widths) of the equally brilliantly lit super giant star–bright red Antares– which will be coming into even closer proximity to the moon on the night of the 27/28th of May.

The very best time to see Antares in any year is generally around the end of May. The star is opposing the Sun, rising at dusk and setting at dawn. You will be able to view it nearly all night long, while the worst time to make the attempt is in mid to late November when it is not at all viewable, being lost to the sun.

The proximity of Antares to the moon can be viewed with the naked eye. Naked eye viewing is preferable of course to seeing nothing, but if you have the option, use a telescope for far more closeup view of Antares and the moon.

To locate the star Antares, seek out the heart of Scorpius in the eastern sky in the early evening, or if you know how to find Orion, look in the opposite direction from Orion as it sets and locate the three stars that make up the scorpions head and look below. You should be able to find a distinctly red colored star that will be glowing brilliantly beside the full moon, rivaling Mars in its journey through the constellation of Leo.