The weather is warming and the clouds are vanishing

Seattle in the summertime, oh how I love it.  Today, the temperature breached the 80°F mark, and there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky.  A sign of things to come.

M31, M32, and M110 As has become common practice for me now, anytime there hasn’t been clouds, I’ve been out at night with the telescope and last night was no exception.  I decided to take Friday morning off from work, so I could stay out late on Thursday.  I headed out to Rattlesnake Lake and set up my telescope around 9pm, and arrived back home at 4am.  The moon was nearly full last night, which put a damper on finding a lot of things – faint fuzzies are hard to spot in moon glow.  I did manage to knock a good deal of objects off my Messier list, and was shown some phenomenal views in Barry’s brand-new 11” Celestron.  Consider me jealous of telescopes with goto capabilities: I’m tired of manual setting circles. :)  I’m also exceptionally jealous of his 41mm Tele Vue Panoptic.

A few awesome things from last night, before I get into the technical nitty-gritty of my viewing.  The moon set at about 3am.  Simultaneously, we noticed three things: coyotes starting howling, the milky way suddenly showed up overhead, and Jupiter came up from over the hill and tree line.  Awesome stuff.

Last night’s viewing was primarily spent hunting open clusters and globulars, as they were the most visible.  I did manage a few nebulas and galaxies, too:

Not a bad night of viewing: 19 Messier objects I hadn’t seen before.  I was particularly impressed that I was able to star-hop to M63 and M64, as they were buried in moon glow by the time I got to them.  M64, in particular, was tough: I could just barely make out a slightly brighter spot in the moon glow than the surroundings.  I’ll definitely need to go back to it on a darker night.

The atmospheric conditions weren’t all that great, and this was obvious when Jupiter came up.  If I slightly defocused the telescope, I could see major air currents over Jupiter; even when in focus, I couldn’t make out any of the cloud bands.  I can’t wait to get better views of it later in the year when it’s higher in the sky.

I’m now up to 54 Messier objects viewed, with 56 to go until completion of all Messier objects.  Only 16 more until I’ve completed basic work required for the Astronomical League’s Messier Club.  A good portion of the 56 remaining are winter-only items, and I hope to wrap up the rest of the summertime items at various star parties this year.

I’ve got my process for stargazing pretty well locked down now.  I create a list of the Messiers (or whatever I want to look at that night) in AstroPlanner, and print out the list.  I also take with me a list of alignment star coordinates (so I can set my manual setting circles), and a pencil.  As I’m running through the printed list, I check off things I find and make any relevant notes or quick sketches.  I’d like to supplant this with a digital audio recorder at some point so I can talk through observations rather than writing them down – it would be nice to be able to document things without leaving the eyepiece.  The next day, I log my observations in AstroPlanner, and write up a blog post with lots of Wikipedia links.  I’ll also often compare what I saw to imagery in the WorldWide Telescope to make sure I saw what I think I saw.  I’ll probably put together a post in the near future about what all I bring onsite to aid others that are learning this stuff, as I am.

[edit May 19 – fixed a bunch of grammatical errors.  I must have been tired when writing this!]

Telescoping: April 11

We’re having an odd break in the weather here in the Seattle area, and last night the clouds cleared.  (Not to mention it’s beautiful and sunny today, and supposed to hit the low 70’s!)  Diann & I went out to Rattlesnake Lake, where the temps were hovering in the mid-40’s.  The moon was up in it’s last quarter, so that definitely put a damper on finding some of the fainter objects, but there were still galaxies to be found.  Further complicating things was the gusty wind and the turbulent atmosphere – it’s difficult focusing in on tiny points of light when your telescope is jumping around because of the wind.

Last night’s viewing included Saturn (with Titan, Tethys, and Rhea just barely visible), Mars, M109, M108, M106, M105, and M51 (as well as NGC5195) again.  Mars was a particularly interesting view – it was about a degree away from the moon, so looking at it looked as though you were looking at an orange ball in a white mist.  We also took a peek at the moon once we were ready to kill our night vision, and I started putting some of my planetary filters to use.  I used the Meade #38A Dark Blue filter to look at the moon – which is great, because it cuts out about 80% of the light that comes through it.  If you’ve never seen the moon through a telescope, you’d be shocked at how bright it really is.

We also were able to catch an Iridium Flare – our first view of that.  Overall, I’d call that anti-climactic, but I guess it was worth taking the eyes off the telescope for a few minutes to catch.  It really is amazing how much space junk is up there: I saw satellites and/or debris shoot through my field of view several times while looking through the scope at galaxies and the moon.

After about an hour and a half of fighting the wind, we decided to pack it up and go home.

Telescoping in January, again!

Seattle’s getting some bizarre weather this month.  The other day, I was able to drag out the little telescope (Meade ETX90) and tonight the clouds cleared again.

image Today, I yanked out the big scope (Meade LX50).  It’s 28°F outside again, and I spent the first hour and a half or so setting up the scope.  I haven’t really had a good chance to use this telescope yet, so it took me a while to figure out what went where, and what parts I was missing and needed to search the house for.

Nearly full moon tonight, so most of the viewing wasn’t that great, but I did get a good close-up look at the Pleiades (M45), a fair amount of the moon, and a brief stab at Mars.  I need to get the spotting scope tuned in better before I do any significant viewing.

Cold and on the ground

According to Weather Underground, it’s currently 28°F outside.  It snowed a fair amount last night, and now the snow that thawed most of the day is turning to ice.  It’s been interesting watching people try to drive up the hill into our neighborhood.

I heard tires spinning about 2 hours ago, so I decided to peek outside.  Turns out that someone had abandoned their car a while back and was now trying to get it out of the middle of the road.  Fun stuff.  I then noticed that the moon was out, and Orion was out.  The ever-present winter clouds had pulled back.  This means two things: it’s gonna be cold tonight, and I had a great opportunity to take some pictures.

DSC_4760 (2)I grabbed the camera, threw on the 70-300mm lens, and unpacked the tripod.  It was in one of the few boxes that we decided not to unpack.  Out I went, shooting pictures of the moon and Orion with varying degrees of success.

The moon is easy enough to capture. It’s actually really bright – since the sun is reflecting off the moon, it’s actually nearly as bright as the surface of the earth would be.  The rough rule of thumb for moon photography is an aperture of f/8 at 1/125th second exposure.  I took the picture at right at f/8 and 1/100th second at ISO200.  A 300mm camera just captures enough detail to start identifying craters, but a tripod is an absolute necessity.

DSC_4748 Enough with moons: how about stars?  Orion was out, so I pointed my lens that way.  My 70-300mm lens worked again here, just barely fitting Orion into the view at 70mm.  My best picture came out at ISO800 at f/4 with a 13 second exposure.  Unfortunately, there seems to be a big dust bunny on my Nikon’s sensor that I need to clean, but otherwise I’m very pleased with the photo.  Even at the scaled down version here, Orion’s belt, Betelgeuse, and Rigel are easy to make out.  Looking at the full-size picture (click the photo to see it), you can actually make out the Orion Nebula (M42) and some binary star systems at the bottom of the photo.

I decided at this point to drag out the small telescope, a Meade ETX-90.  Using eyepieces between 26mm and 9mm, I watched the moon move around the sky for about a half-hour before I turned towards Orion.  Since I was laying on the ground looking through the scope (no tripod for this one, sadly), it took me quite a while to find anything related to Orion – but eventually, I found what I was looking for: M42.  With the ETX-90, I couldn’t make out the vivid colors of the nebula, but I could make out 5 stars of the trapezium cluster with some of the tell-tale nebula clouds around them.

Unfortunately, about that time our local clouds decided to crowd back in, and that killed my viewing for the night.  Next time it’s this clear at night, I’m going straight for the big telescope.