The Great Red Spot

The Great Red Spot
Ok, I wish I took this picture, but it is actually a Hubble image of Jupiter. Incredible isn't it?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Moon Webcam

So I have this idea to create a webcam that continuously shows an image of the moon, while it is up of course.

Now I thought this must exist but so far I have not been able to find it. Incredible don't you think? Well I search and searched but no luck. PLenty of sites that show the moon image with its current phase, but no live images.

So I have set about to make this happen. It is actually not trivial to create this webcam. It will basically be an automated astrophotography set up. It will have to acquire the moon from a parked position, track the moon and then park in the morning to be ready for the next night.

The optics required are not that complex. I already have a 1600x1200 pixel Point Grey Research Scorpion camera which would be ideal. Inputting the chip size into Ron Wodaski's CCD calculator reveals that a focal length of 400mm would be quite ideal. Well that is the focal length of the trusty Orion ST80. I threw those two together along with some spacers from Scope Stuff and tok it for a spin tonight. This is a screen cap using PGRs FlyCap as the acquisition program.
I certainly think that this is a credible first attempt. next I need to find a mount that will acquire and track the moon for me. I think I am going to try a Celestron CG5 ASGT as a first attempt. I have no experience with this mount and I have not been able to find answers on my usual sources so I guess it will be trial and error.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All Sky Cam on the web!

Ok now Fred has posted code to allow images from the All Sky Cams to be posted on the web and on your signatures. I think this is pretty exciting. Check it out.
[Moonglow Tech All Sky Cam - Streetlight Observatory, Bryan, Texas, USA]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

All Sky Cam

I just got my All Sky Cam online and it sure works great. I am running Intel Atom based PC outside next to the telescope and I had the usual problems getting that to work. It however is running great now and I can access it at anytime via VNC.

The All Sky Cam is mated to a separate analog to digital converter and software which I think is a must buy. With the two pieces, the installation is seamless and the images are great. Check it out here. Now I just need to figure out how to post those images on my website.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Astronomical League Observing Clubs

I have been spending much of my recent observing time working on fulfilling the requirements of a couple of observing clubs that are part of the Astronomical League.  For those of you who do not know, The Astronomical League is a club of clubs.  It is made up of a number of local organizations my local one being The Brazos Valley Astronomy Club.  The local club is then a member of the larger organization The Astronomical League.  This is a national group that provides leadership and organization.  One of the great parts of the Astronomical League are these observing clubs
Observing clubs are guided observing programs that are designed to expand you experience in a specific area of astronomy.  They are self driven.  You accomplish the recommended observations and document them.  Those documents are ten inspected by the club chair or other designated person.  If you are judged to have met the requirements, you get a certificate and a nice pin.  More importantly, you get the knowledge you gained from the experience. 
I recently completed the Lunar Club observing program.  I have looked at the Moon for years but with a small amount of time spent, I have really gained a new appreciation for the Moon.    In fact, I now look forward to those clear moon lit nights rather than considering  them a "wasted" deep sky observing opportunity. 

Yesterday, I completed the requirements for the Binocular Messier observing clubI observed 53 Messier objects using my Canon 15x50IS binoculars. The observations of the following objects are recorded:

M 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 31, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51, 52, 55, 65, 66, 67, 79, 80, 81, 82, 92, 103

I independently located each one of these objects using nothing more than a star atlas and except for rare exceptions the binoculars were hand held.

I found this to be a most valuable experience. At the start, I just saw this observing club as an appendix to the telescopic Messier club. I was observing and recording my observations from a dark sky site about 50 miles from home. The distance and the fact that it is a private residence limits the frequency that I use the site. So work on the observing list was going slowly. I had previously tried to locate deep sky objects from my backyard (mag 3.5 to 5 skies depending on conditions) using an 8” Celestron SCT only to give up in frustration time and time again. In fact, I was given the C8 in 1976 by my parents. Over all these years, it has been sparsely used because it is not GOTO and I was never able to find anything other than planets with it. I am also working on my Urban club list with a CPC1100 and that is going quite well. On night when observing some Messier objects at home using the CPC1100, I was inspired to see if I could not observe the same object with the binoculars. Lo and behold, I was both able to find and observe the object with unexpected ease. This emboldened me to attempt the remainder of the Binocular Messier list from my backyard. I am proud to say that 33 of the 53 observations I submit were made in this fashion. Finding the objects with the binoculars has substantially improved my skill at navigating the sky. In fact, I am now much more successful with the C8 than I every was before. I plan on attempting to complete the remainder of the telescope Messier Club list from my backyard as well!

A good star map is of course the sky to finding deep sky objects. Over the years, I have invested in several but I have found the digital planetarium programs have proven to be much more useful. I fact, much of my success needs to be credited to the program StarMap for the iPad. It was completely revolutionized my observing. It is better than a paper start chart in 2 major ways. First, I allows you to easily change the scale of the map. This is a tremendous aid for orienting yourself in the night sky. No more getting “lost” in the night sky. The second and even more important feature is the ability to zoom in and give you a simulated view through your eyepiece. This allows you to be absolutely certain of your object identification and allows you to effectively star hop even under very adverse sky conditions. 

I encourage any of you who are interested in expanding your astronomical observing experience to look up the observing clubs.  They certainly are a great way to learn the sky! 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Messier Marathon

March is upon us and that means it is Messier Marathon time.  For the uninitiated (likely none of you), it is an attempt to master the art of finding astronomical objects and find the entire catalog of Charles Messier in one night.  While a good percentage can be found on any given night, the days around the new moon in March present the best opportunity to bag all of them in one night. 

Now living in a very light polluted area, it is very difficult for me to find all but the very brightest from my backyard without computer assistance.  It usually takes me a considerable number of tries to localize any of the major objects in the field of view of my telescope on the nearly starless skies that are over my house.  By the time I find 3 to 4 of them, my enthusiasm has waned and I go back to checking out the planets or other easier targets.  Under dark skies, it is a different issue.  Having guide stars and skies that look even a little like the star atlas makes finding objects fun if not tiring. 

Last year, my club, the Brazos Valley Astronomy Club, hosted a Messier Marathon and I was lucky enough to join them.  I went for the experience and a chance to see more of the sky than I had ever seen before.  Since I had so little experience star hopping or finding objects geometrically, I decided to cheat from the start.  I would use GOTO and see how may objects I could see in one night.  This degree of cheating is the equivalent of riding a motorcycle in a bicycle race.  It totally defeats the purpose.  Or not.  The idea of the Marathon is to have fun and fun was had.

I started the evening by myself tracking down objects with good success.  I could not capture M74, the first object of the evening because the sky was still too bright and I did not know what I was looking for.  But after that, the trusty computer brought object after object into view.  What a blast!  As the night wore on, I started to collect other club members at my scope who had tired of their hunting and wanted the easy way out.  As the list of objects seen got longer, the numbers of scopes remaining became fewer and fewer until but 2 am there were only 2 scopes still up, mine and the scope of a member who was doing a proper Marathon.  But 4 am, everything was coated with ice as the temperature dropped.  As the dawn came, the last object M30, also proved elusive because of some poorly placed trees.  However, this was undoubtedly the best evening I ever spent at the scope and only whetted my appetite for doing a proper Marathon.

This year I started by purchasing a proper guidebook.  I opted for The Year-Round Messier Marathon by Harvard Pennington.  It is an excellent guide to this endeavor.  I studied the diagrams and read the recommendations.  I spent some time under my light polluted skies at home learning the constellations.  Another invaluable aid in this project has been my iPhone!  There are excellent apps on the iPhone that really help with night sky navigation.  My favorite is StarMapPro.  With it you are able to point at the sky and it tells you what you are looking at.  Incredible!  With it, I have learned the constellations better than I ever knew them before.    I however failed to get some reasonable dark sky practice finding those faint fuzzies.  This will surely present a problem on Marathon night when one needs to find to identify objects with considerable speed. 

I opted to use my Celestron CPC1100 over my vintage Celestron 8.  The C8 is nimble and will have a wider field of view but the CPC1100 will be driven and I think that will be important in the hunt.

This year I do not have aspirations of finding all of the objects.  In fact if I find half of them, I will consider it a great victory.  However, with the awful weather we have been having, I think expectations need to be lowered and I will have to be happy if we have the opportunity to observe one object.  One object or 110, I know it will be a great time.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jupiter 2009

In 2009, I spent a fair amount of time learning some of the basics of planetary photography.  Like any other discipline, the learning curve is quite steep.  It helps though, that there are a large group of very adept amateur planetary photographers who are more than happy to help a newbie along.  I found the planetary photography forum on Cloudy Nights invaluable.  I found quickly that the drive on my 1978 vintage Celestron C8 was not up to the task of long focal length planetary photography.  On Astromart, I found a used Celestron CPC1100 and soon it was making its way to me.  I also purchased a SkyNyx 2-0M video camera, some Astronomik RGB filters and a large pile of other miscellaneous bits and parts and soon I was up and running. 

It does not take a genius to figure out that it takes more than strapping the appropriate goodies to a telescope and pointing it to the sky to get good images.  Astronomical seeing, the steadiness of the atmosphere, is also vitally important.  In central Texas, you probably never get ideal conditions.  But you can get decent conditions.  To find these best conditions, it requires continuous monitoring of the weather, both on the ground and in the upper atmosphere.  I used the site Skippy Sky to help me identify when it was ideal to photograph.  The process is a little like waiting for a perfect storm.  What typically happens is that you wait for weeks to have good conditions only to have them occur on a evening for which you are otherwise committed. You know the drill.

Once in a while though, conditions come together and you are able to take some pictures.  You take video images in blue, green and red.  You then stack the images from the video into one image to improve the signal to noise ratio.  Finally, you combine the red, the green and the blue image into one color image.  Whew!  It is a bit time consuming.  In the end, you can get pictures like this one.  While there are many areas that con be improved upon, it will work for a beginner. 


Astro blogging

I am starting this blog so I can collect in one place the things I am learning about astronomy.  Don't expect anything earth shattering here.  It is just a hobby and it is just for fun.  I also plan to post my photos here and to start I will collect some old ones I have taken so that I can be caught up to the present day. 

To date I have mostly done planetary observing and photography.  I chose the planets because they are bright and easily observable from an urban environment.  In the Bryan/College Station Texas area, we suffer from a lack of good, dark sky, observing sites.  I know this is a problem everywhere, but here, outside of the major urban centers, it just seems kind of strange.  Through the Brazos Valley Astronomy Club, I have been able to do some dark sky observing, largely through the generosity of one club member, Mark Spearman. Without Mark, the club would have no place to observe.  This puts a fair amount of pressure on him, which is unfair.  Narrow band imaging is also an option from my mag 4 skies.  I am working on equipment for this but narrowband filters are expensive and I have to save up to buy them.  So planetary photography is the way to go for now.