Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trick or Treats, Sidewalk Astronomy and Candy

Well, it's been a busy year. Busier than I expected and I've not spent nearly as much time on astronomy. Tonight I did something about that.

Although the next full moon is a few days off, the view through our 60mm Parks refractor with a 26mm lens was still spectacular tonight. I set the scope up on the front yard just off our sidewalk. As kids came up to the porch yelling "trick or treat!", we'd pass out candy and then invite them to check out the moon through the scope. Some passed - usually the high school kids in large groups, too concerned about looking cool to listen to their inner kid and look through the scope - but most took a look, the response usually being "ooh", "ahh" or "that's awesome!". Many times parents came up from the street to take a look, too. Usually with the same response.

We always have a good time passing out candy on Halloween. Tonight was extra special, though. Usually we hear lots of "thanks", but there's nothing like listening to kids go running down the street yelling "Ma! I got to look at the moon!"

Clear skies!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Musings on My Granddaughter's Bright Future

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm a typical doting grandfather when it comes to the first of our kid's kids, Kaili. At almost 2 years old, she's a bright, curious, happy girl. And the fact that I don't have any daughters of my own surely doesn't influence my attitude towards her.

Anyway, while listening to a 365 Days of Astronomy podcast recently it occurred to me how lucky Kaili is to live in a time when women can achieve almost anything. The podcast, Women on the Moon, highlighted a number of women who were pioneers in astronomy from Caroline Herschel to Christa McAuliffe. Even though I'm sure there is still a glass ceiling in astronomy and astrophysics, girls who have an interest in science don't have nearly the barriers to success that they had 200, 100 or even 50 years ago.

Not to say that Kaili will show any interest in astronomy (though it won't be from lack of exposure - she'll get to spend plenty of time under the stars with her grandparents as she grows up), but if she does then it's good to know the barriers are lower than they've ever been.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How is Astronomy Like Sailing?

There are actually a number of parallels...
  • Both can be experienced simply and casually: a relaxing day sail where you wander where the breeze takes you and the laziness of laying out under the stars tracing the constellations and watching meteors flash across the sky.
  • Or, as a highly technical and challenging past time or way of life: for sailing, everything from local circuit racing to the Olympics, America's Cup and round-the-world races and, for astronomy, challenges such as comet and NEO hunting, planetary and deep sky imaging using advanced scopes, mounts and cameras and, of course, professional astronomy. At this end of the scale, sailing and astronomy have something else in common: both can be incredibly expensive.
  • One thing shared by both astronomy and sailing is the opportunity to get a little closer to nature, to experience a sense of awe at the majesty of the world around us and the universe beyond.

Unfortunately, there's at least one more thing they both have in common: being at the mercy of the weather. Just as you can't sail if there isn't enough (or there is too much) wind, earthbound astronomers can't observe if it's too cloudy. Yes, I know advances in technology have changed that to a degree - I've written here about
using Slooh to image/observe on nights when I can't get my own scope out because of the weather - but even remote observing sites are still at the mercy of local weather conditions.

This subject came to mind after our trip last week to
Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. I had hoped to take advantage of the lack of light pollution to experiment with some star trail photography using my Nikon D40, possibly even getting some starlit shots of some of the icons of Yosemite such as El Capitan or Half Dome.

As it turned out, it just wasn't to be. The first couple of nights we'd had long, long days in valley and because the Park Service had evening programs scheduled for later in the week we turned in early each night. We did try catching a glimpse of the sky from our cabin but looking up through the trees all we could see was Ursa Major, almost straight over head. Unfortunately, over the course of the remainder of the trip there were thunderstorms almost daily. Never a lot of rain - usually about an hour or so a day - but each night it was so cloudy there was nothing to see.

Most amateur astronomers I know are as pragmatic about the weather as most of the sailors I know... being so dependent on the weather, you get used to enjoying clear weather when you have it and finding something else to do when you don't. So, although we didn't come home with any star trail shots, we did come up with a few shots like this one of a beautiful sun pillar (read more about them here). I won't say I wasn't disappointed that we didn't get to spend time under the sky during this trip but it passed quickly. After all, now I have another reason to return...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Earth Hour: Dallas

A bit late posting this (been a bit of an absentee amateur astronomer lately thanks to a busy schedule at work), but thought I would share what it looked like to see the lights of downtown Dallas go out in celebration of Earth Hour, an event organized by the World Wildlife Fund to bring attention to the need for solutions for global climate change.

On March 28th, 2009, the Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas hosted an Earth Hour star party on the roof of West Village in uptown Dallas. TAS members brought out with their telescopes and the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science Planetarium staff presented shows in their portable planetarium. The real excitement started at 8:30 pm as downtown lights went out. What a spectacular site!

Also, check out this article for great shots of other major cities around the world celebrating Earth Hour.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Celebrating Sun Day

In this case, although it is the first (or seventh, depending on your perspective) day of the week, I'm not talking about Sunday but Sun Day, the final outreach event of 100 Hours of Astronomy, a cornerstone project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. All over the world, people are checking out a somewhat average, yellow star - our Sun. We're not seeing much of it here in Florida today thanks to the clouds but even if it's cloudy where you are you can still read about the Sun, find out what others are doing today to celebrate and even watch the Sun. In fact, unless you live near one of the solar viewing parties happening today or have your own solar telescope, the best place to see the Sun is over the Internet. Check out some of these sites for spectacular views of the Sun, both in picture and video (some are even live!):

Astronomy Picture Of the Day
Live View (4/5) from Solar Telescope in Italy (check out the solar prominence!)
Space Weather

If you decide to get out and check out the Sun today yourself, be sure and observe safely. You can find instructions on how here.

Happy Sun Day!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Around the World in 80 Telescopes

Want to a chance to experience the worlds premier observatories? Head to the 100 Hours of Astronomy webcast site now! A cornerstone project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, the 100 hours of Astronomy is a huge outreach program that aims to get as many people as possible in front of a telescope between April 2nd and 5th. And for 24 hours, from 9:00 Universal Time on April 3rd through 9:00 UT on April 4th, you can view a round-the-clock webcast from 80 of the largest telescopes around the world.

It's already well under way but don't worry, the web site has all the videos already shown. Each webcast opens with background video on that telescope followed by live  interviews with professional astronomers on-site as they describe their current observing project. It's a great way to learn more about some of the most advanced, innovating technological achievements of man. Check it out...  I'm watching the Keck webcast now!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lights Out for Earth

This Saturday, March 28th, at 8:30pm local time all across the United States and the rest of the world, people and businesses will heed the World Wildlife Fund call to turn off their lights for an hour to express their concern for global climate change and commitment to finding a solution. Called Earth Hour, it is a great way to cast your vote for Planet Earth. 

The list of supporters who've pledged to participate is growing and includes some historic sites including the Pyramids in Egypt, the Acropolis in Athens, the Broadway Theater District, the Space Needle in Seattle and the Chrysler Building in New York. You can hear actor and Earth Hour USA Ambassador Edward Norton discuss Earth Hour with Larry King on Wednesday, March 25th at 9 pm ET on CNN. 

We're also celebrating here in Dallas. In anticipation of much of downtown Dallas going dark, the Texas Astronomical Society of Dallas is conducting a star party. Everyone is invited to join attend at West Village in uptown Dallas this Saturday night starting at 7:00 pm. TAS members will be out with their telescopes and the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science Planetarium staff will have their portable planetarium set up. The real excitement should start at 8:30 pm as downtown lights go out. Come on out and join us! For more information including directions, go to the TAS homepage.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

GLOBE At Night Update

As mentioned in my previous post, from March 16th through 28th this year people all over the world are helping catalog current light pollution conditions as part of a project called GLOBE At Night. Based on the map reflecting up-to-date observations since the 16th, it looks like there has been broad participation across the United States so far.

Click for full-size image

Although I'm planning to submit several observations over the course of the project, checking various sites besides my own backyard, that's the only observation I've submitted so far but I've at least gotten that much done. Have you taken your turn yet? Come on... step outside tonight, enjoy the evening sky and help advance our understanding of the impact of light pollution on the world!

Click for full-size image

Monday, March 16, 2009

Help Measure Light Pollution Around the Globe

The GLOBE at Night project is an opportunity for students, parents, teachers, amateur astronomers or anyone else interested to participate in real science. Held this year between March 16th and 28th, the project will use observations made by people around the globe to capture information on current light pollution levels. In addition to telling us what things are like now, the observations will also be compared to information collected in previous years so this is a great way to do your part to help identify how much light pollution has changed in areas all over the world.

Participating is as simple as:
  • Find your location in longitude and latitude

  • Locate the constellation Orion in the evening sky about an hour after sunset

  • Match what you see to examples provided on the GLOBE at Night web site

  • Report your observation

It's that easy. The project web site provides everything you need including tools to find your longitude/latitude, magnitude charts and even links to see what others around the world have reported. Keep in mind that the more observations reported, the more accurate and complete the project results will be so you can help by checking the sky over multiple nights and even from other places near where you live.

This is another great way to help celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. Get outside tonight and do your part... I'll be out there, too!

Update: Having gone out and done my observation for tonight (plan on doing other locations over other nights of the project), I have a suggestion: skip the step to look up your longitude and latitude. When you go to the link to report your observation, there is an option there to select long/lat by specifying an address. It is just as simple to wait till you report your observation as to look it up in advance and remember it to enter later on.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Venus and Crescent Moon Conjunction

In my post on seeing Venus during daylight, I mentioned that today would be a great day to try since Venus would be very near the moon. Sadly, here in Mesquite it is completely overcast today so I'll miss the event. If you live west of the North Texas area and it isn't cloudy where you are, step outside now to see whether you can spot it. Venus will be about a half-dozen moon-widths from the moon opposite its sunlit crescent side.

Even if you miss spotting Venus during daylight today, be sure to step outside in the evening to check out the beautiful pairing as it gets dark. It's already dark in the U.K. and folks like Nick Bramhall have already starting capturing this stunning sight. Read more about it at NASA Science site.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Comet Lulin at Closest Approach

Step outside this evening and look up high in the southeastern sky for a bright yellow star. That's Saturn. Just to the right and above it, you'll see a small, fuzzy patch of green. That's Comet Lulin (C/2007 N3). It is now at its closest approach to Earth, speeding by on its way out of the Solar System.  Although it's at its peak brightness and appears closest to Saturn tonight, it will still be visible for a while so if you miss the show tonight so you still have time to catch it.

If you live in an urban area, you might have a tough time spotting Lulin. To get a really good view of it, especially under light polluted skies, you need binoculars or a telescope. If you don't have a that kind of equipment or it's cloudy where you live you can still see live images over the web.

To start with, check out the Comet Lulin webcast at the Coca-Cola Space Science Center at Columbus State University. They have live webcam images that updated every 15 seconds throughout tonight.

If you want to see Lulin (whether tonight or in the coming weeks) and you think you might enjoy remote access to professional telescopes at an affordable price, go check out Slooh. They have a site in the Canary Islands, one in Chile and another one under construction in Australia. You can purchase 100 minutes of viewing for $14.95 or just check things out (including the ability to control the telescopes) with their 7 day free trial. And tonight they are highlighting Comet Lulin; see the mission schedule here

Since we've got poor seeing tonight, my plans to get out with my camera and telescope fell through so I've spent the evening following the comet at Slooh. Here's a shot I saved a while ago.

Hopefully, we'll have clear skies in the next couple of days so I can get some shots with my own equipment but, in the mean time, it's great to have access to someone else's gear.

For more information on Comet Lulin, check out these sites:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Spotting Venus in Daylight

I've been planning a post on how bright Venus has been in the evening sky lately, but it's turned into more of a research effort than I expected. I still plan on posting about that eventually but in the meantime let's talk about a side effect of how bright Venus is.

At its brightest, Venus is normally1 the third brightest object in the sky behind the Moon and the Sun. We don't typically see celestial objects during the day other than the Sun and, depending on its phase, the Moon. The reason has to do with contrast - the difference in brightness between two objects. To see an object in the sky, it has to be brighter than the background. That's why you can see stars at night but not during the day: the scattering of sunlight in the atmosphere makes the sky too bright compared to the stars. This is also why you can't see the Milky Way in urban areas. Light pollution increases the brightness of the sky, reducing the contrast between the Milky Way and the background sky until there isn't enough difference for the Milky Way to stand out.

So, if you can't see stars during the day then is it possible to see Venus? As bright as it gets (apparent magnitude -4.7), it is still not nearly as bright as the Moon (-12.6). As it turns out though, it is bright enough to see in broad daylight. You just have to know where to look.

As bright as Venus is right now and given how far it is above the Sun (its elongation), now is a great time to try spotting it during the day. To find it, it helps to have something else nearby to start your search from. A good candidate is the Moon. I checked using one of my favorite pieces of software (Planetarium) and found that over North Texas the Moon and Venus will be just a few degrees apart about 2:30 p.m. on February 27th. Although the Moon will be a thin crescent on that date, it should still be a good starting point for finding Venus. I plan to try this approach on the 27th but in the meanwhile there is another alternative that you can try tomorrow. 

First, find a building with an exterior wall that runs generally north and south. The next step is to know what time during the day Venus will be directly over head (it's transit time). To find that for your location, use this tool hosted by the U.S. Naval Observatory. Scroll down to Form A, enter the date, Venus as the object, your state and city and optionally your elevation above sea level, then click on the Compute button. The resulting data includes the time Venus rises and sets but more importantly its transit time and how high in degrees above the southern horizon it will be at that time (its altitude). 

With this information in hand, grab a pair of binoculars and stand next to your north/south wall shortly before the specified transit time. It needs to be a wall facing east so that as you stand next to it you're in shade (or, if viewing when Venus is in the morning skies, use a wall facing west as Venus would transit before the sun). This will avoid glare from the Sun as you search for Venus and also guard against accidentally looking at the Sun through the binoculars. Standing next to the building, search the sky just along the edge of the roof of the building, scanning back and forth at approximately the angle Venus should be above the southern horizon. 

I tried this yesterday and it worked great. Venus was to be straight overhead at 2:57 pm at an altitude of 67 degrees. Our house faces due south so all I had to do was step outside on my patio and stand next to the east-facing wall.  By scanning the sky along the edge of the roof overhead I was able to spot Venus easily through my Canon 8x25 binoculars (you don't need big, powerful binoculars - almost any decent pair will do). I got a great view of a crescent Venus. 

For something a little harder, once you've spotted Venus through binoculars try searching that same spot without them. It takes a bit more effort but once you know where to look and what you are looking for it is possible to spot it with the unaided eye. 

I'll post an update the next time I've spotted Venus during the day and include a photograph. In the meantime, once you've succeeded in spotting Venus in the daytime yourself, share the wealth and show it to your friends, family or neighbors. I bet they'll be amazed!

1 According to this Wikipedia article, objects (past and present) brighter than Venus include the Crab supernova of 1054 and Iridium satellite flares.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Geek's Night Out

Man, it was hard to get up this morning. Didn't even budge when the dog jumped on the bed around sunrise. Understandable after not getting to sleep until about 1:30. No, I wasn't up late out under the stars with the telescope. Last night was more like the last time I went to a rock concert...
  • I quit work early
  • Linda and I had an early dinner and drove all the way across town
  • Showed up an hour and a half before the doors opened to be sure we got good seats
  • Sat in rapt attention throughout a show that was supposed to last about 2 hours but went on for over 3 hours
  • Stood in line afterwards for 45 minutes to get an autograph
  • Didn't get home until well after midnight
...but this wasn't a rock concert. It was all to see an astrophysicist!

As mentioned in my last post, we'd heard last week that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was scheduled to speak at University of Texas at Arlington last night. Thankfully, we also got a reminder email that mentioned they expected a large turnout. It was good we got there early as, by the time Dr. Tyson took the stage, Texas Hall was completely packed, all 2700 some odd seats. Although the long wait could have been boring, we ran into RCYC friends - Burt and Mary Scott - and had a great time visiting. Burt teaches Astronomy at Eastfield College and is also an avid amateur astronomer - I enjoyed hearing about the new telescope he is building while we waited for the show to start.

If you've ever seen Dr. Tyson on PBS, the Tonight Show, the Daily Show or any of his other appearances on TV, you understand what a dynamic speaker he is. And while many people know him as one of the most vocal advocates for the idea that Pluto is not the 9th planet but instead the first Kuiper Belt object discovered, that wasn't what he was in town to talk about. Instead, he was here to talk about science illiteracy in America and to explain his ideas on what to do about it.

Before getting down to business, Dr. Tyson first got comfortable, unloading his pockets of wallet and cell phone and even shedding his cowboy boots. Although he was born and raised in New York, he spent 6 years working on a Masters Degree at University of Texas in Austin and obviously picked up on our local fashion sense and attitudes towards casual attire.

Dr. Tyson then illustrated and described the history of commitment to science by various countries and cultures, starting with a series of diagrams based on the Periodic Table of Elements. This wasn't anything like the PTE you dreaded in high school - it was more of a map and timeline, showing things like which countries discovered (and named) each element, when they were discovered, etc. In the end, the picture he painted was that until recently the U.S. has been a dominent force in scientific discovery but that the new trend is diminishing emphasis on (and investment in) science. He then went on to cover numerous examples of our cultural scientific ignorance including our fear of the number 13 (most buildings still don't have a 13th floor) and celebration of Groundhog Day (when you didn't have advanced computer models to tell you what to expect of the weather, you might as well let a ground hog decide but why do we still bother?).

There were two other key points from Dr. Tyson's presentation. First, that significant investment in science most frequently stems from war or, in the past, colonial expansion. Examples include the influence the Cold War had on the Space Race between the U.S. and Russia and the failure to fund completion of the Super Conducting Super Collider as the Cold War ended. Second, that there is no better way to ensure economic growth and prosperity than through scientific innovation. The bottom line? It's that our future depends on changing the trend, finding ways to increase interest in science education, bring about cultural change such that we celebrate and embrace science and scientific advancement rather than shun it, and to stimulate investment in scientific research. Preferably without another war.

Many of the ideas he proposed centered on NASA. In speaking on NASA's role in American science, he suggested that instead of continuing to invest resources in "going where hundreds have gone before" - sending men into low earth orbit - NASA should leave that to commercial companies and go back to pushing the boundaries of space exploration, pursuing lofty goals such as sending men to Mars or mining asteroids for natural resources. Besides facilitating accomplishments for which there is not yet a viable business model, NASA would be continuing its historical role of achieving the seemingly impossible and, in doing so, inspire new generations of scientists. Of course, that sort of thing isn't cheap but Dr. Tyson stressed how little it would take citing that NASA's entire budget is currently only 6 tenths of a cent out of every tax dollar. Imagine what they could do if we spent just another 6 tenths of a cent per tax dollar to double NASA's budget...

Dr. Tyson ended his talk with a mathmatical progression, starting with 1 and ending with one quadrillion, using each step to relate the number to something concrete such as the number of grains of sand on a beach (having fun with dimmed lights and the number Sextillion along the way). While some people look at images such as the densely packed starfield projected behind Dr. Tyson to illustrate septillion (the number of stars in the observable universe) and feel small, he said that he prefers to look at it in a different way. Knowing that we are made of the same elements as the cosmos and that, in spite of how little we understand about the universe, the human mind was capable of building the Hubble Space Telescope and discovering just how vast the universe is gives him a feeling of connection to the cosmos and an appreciation of its majesty.

After his presentation Dr. Tyson conducted an extended Q&A session, finally wrapping up over 3 hours after he started. It's late now (need to catch up on the sleep I didn't get last night) so I won't get into details on his responses other than to highlight one of the last and most amusing. A 10 year old boy stepped up to the microphone to ask what Dr. Tyson would do with a black hole if he could control one. After asking why the boy was up so late (answer: he's home schooled and was there on a field trip with his parents), he explained how hard it would be to control a black hole but that, if you could, what a great trash dump it would make!

By the way, if there is any question of who the Geek is in the title of this post, who do you think surprised Dr. Tyson by bringing an article on the Pluto debate from the December issue of Sky and Telescope for him to sign? I guess that makes me almost as big a geek as the guy who brought in a telescope eyepiece for him to sign.

Another great way to celebrate IYA2009!

Related links
UTA article on Dr. Tyson's apperance
News video on WB 33 TV
Interview on KERA program Think
The Pluto Files

Friday, February 13, 2009

Opportunity to Meet a Star

For those of you in the Dallas / Ft Worth area, you have an opportunity to hear Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted astrophysicist, author and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, speak at the University of Texas at Arlington on February 17th. Probably best known for his appearances on numerous PBS science programs and for his position on the status of Pluto as a planet (that it isn't one), Dr. Tyson is a visible and vocal advocate for science, astrophysics and space exploration. His appearance at UTA as part of the Maverick Speakers Series is open to the public and attendence is free. For more information and tickets, see:

Maverick Speakers Series - The University of Texas at Arlington

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Help Choose Where to Point Hubble

If you're like me, you've enjoyed seeing some of the really amazing photographs produced over the years by the Hubble Space Telescope like this one of the Cat's Eye Nebula. Whether your interest is in the scientific advances associated with its imaging or just the sheer beauty, I think most all of us find the Hubble images uniquely fascinating.

Well, now you can have a say in where Hubble will point next. In conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy 2009, NASA has created a site - You Decide Hubble's Next Discovery - where you can vote for one of six possible targets.

Votes can be cast through March 1st, after which Hubble will image the winning object. It will be released during the IYA 100 hours of Astronomy held April 2nd through 5th. After casting your vote, you can also register to win one of 100 prints of the released image. If you are a teacher or educator, NASA has also developed special classroom activities so your kids can participate in the event.

So get over there now to cast your vote... I have. We'll see who's favorite shows up in April!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Astronomical Tunes

As mentioned in my last post, Tom Noe performed a few songs about Galileo's impact on our view of the universe at the January Texas Astronomical Society meeting. Listening to Tom sing brought to mind one of my favorite songs, one that also has an astronomical theme (though more science than history). 

Back in 2000 our twins, Brian and Chris, and I made a trip with others from their Boy Scout troop to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. For the first few days on the trail we were led by a ranger, a kid from the University of Florida the boys called Scuba Steve. While hiking, Steve taught the boys a few songs to pass the time. One called Why Does The Sun Shine? was particularly fun. We found out later that it is from a 1950s album called Space Songs performed by the folk singer Tom Glazer and later popularized by the group They Might Be Giants

Why Does The Sun Shine? doesn't highlight Galileo so it isn't as fitting for the celebration of IYA2009 as the pieces Tom sang, but given the main presentation of the meeting (David Dooling's talk on the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope) it might have also been an appropriate theme song for the evening. On second thought, a better choice would have been another TMBG song,  Why Does The Sun Really Shine? (The Sun Is A Miasma Of Incandescent Plasma), one they wrote to address the inaccuracies identified in the lyrics of the original, 1959 version.

The TMBG songs seem as popular today as they were when they were released. Here is a YouTube video that looks like a mash up of Why Does The Sun Shine? and

New Texas Astronomical Society Member

One of the first goals I set for this year and for participation in the International Year of Astronomy 2009 was increased networking with other amateur astronomers, in part through membership in the Texas Astronomical Society. Well, meet the newest member of TAS!

I attended my first TAS meeting tonight (well, first one as a member) and had the pleasure of listening to guest speaker David Dooling, Director of Education and Outreach for the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, talk about the next big NSO project, development of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (ATST). When built, it will be the world's largest optical solar telescope with a 4 meter primary mirror. David also talked about his plans for the Sunspot Solar System Model, a 1:250-million-scale model of the solar system with the sun located at the NSO site in Sunspot and other planets and solar system bodies leading back along the highway towards Cloudcroft and spread across much of New Mexico. Both talks were engaging, informative and entertaining.

Speaking of entertainment, after the break one of the members, Tom Noe, provided music in the spirit of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, singing Did Galileo Pray? (by Paul Ellis) and Do You Really Wanna Know (by Peter Mayer). I didn't expect to hear music tonight but it was great fun. Listening to Tom sing brought to mind a favorite song of mine that also has an astronomy theme... more on that in a future post. Meanwhile, in addition to his involvement in house concerts I understand that Tom is a telescope maker - see his Teleport Telescopes web site for more information on what he calls the LTFWT (largest telescope factory in Wylie, Texas).

As for networking, I didn't get very far tonight - though I did run into someone I know, Chaz Hafey. Chaz was director of the Science Place Planetarium (now the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science Planetarium) back when Linda first started working there. It was good to see Chaz again, but at the next meeting I look forward to meeting other members who I haven't met before.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

City Lights

Although I enjoy spending time in the countryside, I'm a city boy at heart. I enjoy too many of the amenities conveniently available only in the city... a wide variety of restaurants, the symphony, major museums, etc. That said, there is one thing I don't like about living in town - I've watched the night sky from my backyard disappear over the last 20 odd years.

Our youngest sons are just about to turn 24. When they were small, we could sit in the backyard and clearly see the Milky Way rising up from the southern horizon and crossing overhead. I can't see it at all now and haven't been able to for probably 10 years or more.

While I can still enjoy observing from my own yard, the best targets are obviously the moon and planets... dim fuzzies are just too dim. As an example of the night-time illumination in my area, see the photo City Lights to the right. No, that wasn't taken during daylight. Look closely and you'll notice some faint star trails and even Polaris just to left of center. That shot was taken around midnight under clear skies; the exposure was 30 minutes at F/11 and ISO 200. Compare it to Twinkle ..., taken by Jamal Alayoubi in the Swiss countryside northeast of Lake Geneva. His exposure was almost 4 times as long at F/5 and ISO 500.

One of the most dramatic examples of just how bad light pollution has gotten in certain areas is the light pollution maps at The Night Sky in the World. To see how severe the problem has gotten in my hometown, check out this light pollution map for Dallas, Texas provided by Mesquite is about half-way between the center of the image and the right side. Ouch!

While it is a shame to lose the connection our ancestors had with the sky, there are serious reasons for concern over light pollution including wasted energy, upsetting the natural rhythms of nocturnal animals and birds and possibly even impacts to our own health. The good news is that the issue seems to be getting more attention in the press. National Geographic published a great article on the subject this past November. And while reviewing the International Dark-Sky Association web site for other media coverage, I discovered that Think, one of my favorite programs on our local PBS radio station, KERA, recently highlighted the subject of light pollution. Hopefully, the increased attention - possibly aided by the International Year of Astronomy 2009 events - will begin to make a difference. I'd love for my grandkids to some day see the Milky Way from my backyard.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

First Full Moon of 2009

Nearly Full Moon, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

Hazy Moon, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

Moon Ring, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

A few quick shots to record the lunar start to IYA2009. Snapped one Friday when it wasn't quite full yet, then tried again this evening once it was full. Too many clouds, so I never got a clear view. Around midnight, though, I stepped out one last time to catch a spectacular moon ring! That definitely made up for missing out on a clear view tonight.

It was interesting to note that the moon was nearly straight overhead when I took the moon ring shot above. Not only was it near the zenith, but was about 73 degrees above the horizon. Why so high? As Astroprof explains, it has to do with the earth's tilt and the fact that since the full moon is directly opposite the sun, during the time of year when the sun is low in the sky for our hemisphere the full moon is at its highest. 

I am still researching but suspect that the moon being nearly straight overhead contributed to how large the moon ring was. I'll post more when I have an answer.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

And now for something completely different

So, this blog is supposed to be about the wind and the sky (as in astronomy), right? Well, bear with me for a minute... bats fly at night... and night time is when we usually go out to observe... and "The Bat" in German is Die Fledermaus... which is a piece by Strauss performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra tonight!

Ok, so I'm off topic on this one, but the new DSO music director, Jaap Van Zweden, pulled off a variation on the traditional Viennese New Year Concert tonight - all three encores - and it was FUN!

I have to say with some embarrassment, I've donated a lot of money to the DSO over the years. No, not the donations the tax man recognizes - done plenty of those and proud of it. I'm talking about the number of times I've spent good money to attend a concert only to doze through some portion of it. It isn't that I don't enjoy the music... most of it I really enjoy. It's just that with season tickets some times I have to be there but am too tired or stressed to really focus on the music. Not tonight! It was an hour and a half of lively, moving music... I even enjoyed the Stokowski version of Pictures at an Exhibition.

I'm not the expert that each of my classically trained sons are (Brian on viola, Chris on trombone), but I do know what I enjoy and I thoroughly enjoyed all the music tonight. Of course, it might be a bit of nostalgia. Back when the DSO was less famous, they used to come and perform at area schools as part of their student outreach. Tonight's concert, with The Light Calvary Overture, The Typewriter and the Thunder and Lightning Polka took me straight back to grade school. Of course, now the schools go to the DSO - we were surrounded by kids from several area schools. I hope they enjoyed the concert as much as I did!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Seeing the Real Thing

As announced in the latest newsletter from the UT Arlington Astronomy Department, The Starry Messenger, in addition to their state-of-the-art planetarium they will soon have a new observatory. Housing a 16" Meade LX200 (including CCD camera), it is primarily going to serve the students of the department, the school also has plans to host public viewing nights. The observatory is scheduled to be operational in Fall 2009.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Astronomer's Friend

I've recently added a widget for the Dallas Clear Sky Chart to the site. It is a great tool for getting a sense of what the sky conditions will be over the next couple of nights (as well as during the day for folks who enjoy solar viewing). It uses weather forcast models published by the Canadian Meteorological Center to show key factors that can affect viewing. While I configured my widget form conditions in Dallas, they are available for sites all over North America.

As cool as that is, the point of this post is something that takes this to the next level. I just received the following email (and I get email on my phone, so I saw it come in immediately):

Favorable observing conditions at Dallas
Based on your Default subscription.
Opportunities to observe at: (Clouds/Trans/Seeing)
01-08 @ Hour 19 for 4 hours (0%/Transparent/Good)

Check out your clock at
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Consider a sponsorship of the Clear Sky Alarm Clock.
Reach over 3000 astronomers every week with your message.
Inquire at

This tells me that the skies above Dallas will have no clouds, will be very transparent and will have good seeing at 7pm for the following 4 hours. Based on this, I can take a closer look at the clear sky chart itself and also see that it won't be incredibly dark until the wee hours when the moon sets, that the wind and humidity will be low and the tempurature moderate.

Very cool, huh? This is thanks to the efforts of Mark Casazza, who runs a site called Clear Sky Alarm Clock. When you sign up for Mark's service, you can configure one or several "alarms" that trigger an email like the one above when a specific set of conditions are coming up. I have one alarm (Default) that tells me when the seeing will be generally good at my home. I also have one that goes off when conditions are going to be excellent and one for when daytime solar observing on the weekend will be good. I won't go into the details of all the features here - go check it out for yourself.

Meanwhile, it's time for me to run... need to get ready to get the scope out and take advantage of the clear skies!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Family Affair

Something I should have mentioned from the beginning is that I'm not alone in my interest in astronomy. My wife, Linda, presents planetarium shows (both formal presentations and ad hoc sky shows) at the Dallas Museum of Nature and Science. As much as I enjoy getting out under the sky at night, I don't know nearly as much about the sky as she does. So, we welcome you to our little corner of the blogosphere where we'll be joining the rest of the world in celebrating 400 years since Galileo first turned a telescope on the sky.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009 2009 Quadrantid meteor gallery 2009 Quadrantid meteor gallery

Although I missed seeing the Quadrantids due to clouds, plenty of others managed to catch sight of a few.  Some sites apparently reported up to 150 meteors per hour. 

A Quiet Sun

A Quiet Sun, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

IYA2009 shot for January 3rd. The Sun, shot with Nikon D40, 55-200mm VR lens at 200mm, through Baader solar film filter. Deep in the depths of the solar minimum, no sun spots in sight. For information on when sunspots are visible, be sure and check out

Moon, Venus and Photographers

Moon, Venus and Photographers, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

Here's my post for 2nd day of the IYA2009.

Back in December 1956, when my Mother was 5 months pregnant with me, she and my Dad climbed the levee on the south side of the Trinity River below downtown Dallas and took a shot of the city skyline. Having recently had all my Dad's slides digitally scanned, we ran across that shot and decided to recreate it. We went down to the same spot with a family friend to shoot the skyline at sunset and after dark. You can see one of the skyline shots here.

While my Dad and Steve took a break from shooting downtown, I turned my camera on the two of them with the Moon and Venus in the sky behind us.

New Year Moon

New Year Moon, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

This was a "first light" shot using my Nikon D40, new T-Ring and remote shutter control with my Meade LXD55 SN10. I had a devil of a time getting focus right - focusing the D-SLR at prime focus is a bit more difficult than the old Minolta SRT201 was - but I learned a lot and it was a beautiful night to be out under the sky.

Mercury at Twilight

Mercury at Twilight, originally uploaded by neatonjr.

One of my first targets for this year, Mercury hanging low in the western sky not long before sunset. Not as exciting as the view from the front-row seat spacecraft Messenger has, but still a beautify site. I only wish I'd gotten a good shot of Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and the Moon a day or two earlier.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Plans for IYA2009 Projects

Thinking about how to do my part to help celebrate the International Year of Astronomy, a couple of ways come immediately to mind:
  • Networking with other amateur astronomers. I've been meaning to join the Texas Astronomical Society (TAS) for years... it's about time. I've also enjoyed observing with folks like Dwight and Paul before and look forward to doing so again this year.
  • Through my photography. Yes, it'll be fun but, more importantly, my hope is that everyone who sees my work - whether here, on Flickr, or anywhere else - will appreciate the sky in a new way or learn something new about astronomy.
  • Through star parties. Linda and I have participated in one every year or two for Mesquite schools. Hopefully, there will be more opportunities this year - whether for MISD or other organizations (TAS, etc.). Seeing people's reaction the first time they see Saturn or a crater on the moon is incredibly rewarding!
  • Sharing here. As I run across news articles, other people's photos and anything else about astronomy on the web that strikes me as interesting, I'll reference them in posts or add them to Recommended Links.
In addition to these - and in some cases, in conjunction with them - there are some personal projects I have in mind.
  • Photographing a solar analemma. What is an analemma? Learn about it here. This would be a huge project so not sure whether I've got the time and energy, but I do have some ideas on a way to pull it off.
  • Capturing a suburban view of meteor shower. Although I've never had any success watching a meteor shower from our backyard, I've seen a few nice ones out near the lake. This year, I hope to capture images of one (or more) shower. I'd also like to contribute to information gathering efforts to document meteor showers.
  • Capture image of a young crescent moon. This is a key event in the Islamic calendar but is also of interest to me both for the challenge and as a unique photography subject.
More to come...

Saturday, January 3, 2009

International Year of Astronomy 2009

One of the key points of creating this blog is to have a forum for celebrating the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Not exactly sure how this will work yet - I'm going to take another shot at a 365 project on Flickr, this time posting one astrophoto a day. That might prove as challenging as managing 365 shots of anything that came to mind last year, so my goal is going to be to use this blog to tie it all together over the course of the year.

About the title...

So, welcome to Wind and Sky. The point of this is to celebrate three of my favorite hobbies... sailing, astronomy and photography. Yeah, title doesn't really speak to that last one - but this is as much (or more) a photo blog as anything.