Somewhere Out There, Updated

Tuesday, 28 March 2017, 16:34 | Category : Science, Stargazing
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Constellation Opiuchus

Walk outside some clear evening this summer, and look to the south (assuming you’re in the Northern hemisphere!). You’ll see a bright red star – Antares – and if you’re familiar with the night sky, you’ll recognize the constellation Scorpius. Look above Scorpius, into a fairly dark area without many bright stars. This is the constellation of Opiuchus (a bit of trivia here: Opiuchus is actually the 13th Zodiacal constellation, but having only 12 makes things simpler – sort of like how the Big Ten Conference continues to call itself the Big Ten even though it has somewhere between 12 and 16 teams, depending on which reports and rumors you believe). While you’re looking at Opiuchus, think about the mantra of some on the Right, that government can’t do anything right. And then think about this: somewhere in the patch of sky containing Opiuchus, a spaceship called Voyager 1 is continuing the journey begun on September 5, 1977; Voyager 2, actually launched 16 days earlier, and Voyager 1 had a combined cost of about $250 million (not including support in the ensuing years, which has raised the entire mission cost to somewhere around $900 million). Both spaceships have continued to perform important scientific missions as they hurtle in roughly opposite directions towards stars they won’t reach for 40,000 years. Their nuclear power plants will stop long before that – another 10 years or so – but as long as they have power they will continue to send data back to Earth. Currently, Voyager 1 is about 12,800,500,000 miles from Earth (that’s over 12 billion miles). Voyager 2 is about 10 1/2 billion miles in the opposite direction, in the constellation Pavo (the Peacock) in the southern hemisphere.

And we’re still learning. Data from Voyager 1 has revealed that the structure of the solar system isn’t quite what we thought. There’s a layer at the edge that wasn’t suspected. Is this important? Well, we don’t know, and won’t for a long time. Did 15th century Europe know that the islands they had discovered in the western ocean were one day going to be of vital importance to western civilization? Here’s what we do know: science matters, even if you try to deny the sometimes uncomfortable truth. And science at the level of the Voyager missions is only done at the national level. No private research lab is ever going to do science at this scale. Government does, and often does it very well even at the bleeding edge, and in these times of budget cuts and debt reduction, we would be wise to remember that.

Somewhere Out There

Wednesday, 5 December 2012, 15:44 | Category : Science, Stargazing
Tags :

Constellation Opiuchus

Walk outside some clear evening next summer, and look to the south (assuming you’re in the Northern hemisphere!). You’ll see a bright red star – Antares – and if you’re familiar with the night sky, you’ll recognize the constellation Scorpius. Look above Scorpius, into a fairly dark area without many bright stars. This is the constellation of Opiuchus (a bit of trivia here: Opiuchus is actually the 13th Zodiacal constellation, but having only 12 makes things simpler – sort of like how the Big Ten Conference continues to call itself the Big Ten even though it has somewhere between 12 and 16 teams, depending on which reports and rumors you believe). While you’re looking at Opiuchus, think about the mantra of some on the Right, that government can’t do anything right. And then think about this: somewhere in the patch of sky containing Opiuchus, a spaceship called Voyager 1 is continuing the journey begun on September 5, 1977; Voyager 2, actually launched 16 days earlier, and Voyager 1 had a combined cost of about $250 million (not including support in the ensuing years, which has raised the entire mission cost to somewhere around $900 million). Both spaceships have continued to perform important scientific missions as they hurtle in roughly opposite directions towards stars they won’t reach for 40,000 years. Their nuclear power plants will stop long before that – another 15 years or so – but as long as they have power they will continue to send data back to Earth. And we’re still learning. Data from Voyager 1 has just revealed that the structure of the solar system isn’t quite what we thought. There’s a layer at the edge that wasn’t suspected. Is this important? Well, we don’t know, and won’t for a long time. Did 15th century Europe know that the islands they had discovered in the western ocean were one day going to be of vital importance to western civilization? Here’s what we do know: science matters, even if you try to deny the sometimes uncomfortable truth. And science at the level of the Voyager missions is only done at the national level. No private research lab is ever going to do science at this scale. Government does, and often does it very well even at the bleeding edge, and in these times of budget cuts and debt reduction, we would be wise to remember that.

Venus Transits

Tuesday, 5 June 2012, 21:01 | Category : Stargazing
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I took a fairly low-tech approach to observing the Venus transit, setting up my Orion 70mm refractor with a 26mm eyepiece, projected onto handheld white paper. Like this:

Scope Setup
Scope Setup

It worked surprisingly well, especially after I remembered that even in daylight I needed to align the equatorial mount towards the north (very fine hat is optional). I got it all situated just in time to catch the beginning of the transit at 5:09 PM Central time. I took these photos using my iPhone to capture the projection – and because I was hand-holding both, the aspect ratios are a little off in some.

Here’s the sequence of pictures:

Venus Transit, beginning

Venus Transit

Venus Transit

Venus Transit

By this time, clouds were beginning to be a nuisance (but the iPhone camera picked up on some sunspots through the clouds):

Venus Transit, attracting clouds

I got one more good shot before the sun dropped too low:

Venus Transit, beginning

And then it was in the trees:

Venus Transit, beginning

But refocusing the refractor gave me an interesting shot:

And then it was down in the trees. The great Venus Transit of 2012 was over for me. But it was a fascinating couple of hours.

How Not To Find A Comet

Monday, 11 October 2010, 12:48 | Category : Stargazing
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-Get binoculars down from closet shelf – Check!

-Get telescope out of workshop, set up in yard – Check!

-Pick out low-power and medium-power eyepieces to avoid fumbling in eyepiece case in the dark – Check!

-Position nice comfortable chair in location for best observing spot – Check!

-Get up at 2:30 in the morning when comet is in best viewing position – Check!

-Locate comet using star map showing comet’s location for that date – …

-Locate comet using star map showing comet’s location for that date – …

-Locate comet using star map showing comet’s location for that date – …

-Fail to find comet because star map was for previous day – ummm, check, OK?

A Little Stargazing

Monday, 13 September 2010, 13:45 | Category : Stargazing
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M31

This past Friday night, I spent a fine evening at Rainwater Observatory with my new (to me) telescope, an 8″ f/7 Discovery dobsonian, getting reacquainted with M6, M7, and M80 in Scorpius, and M69, M70, M31, and Jupiter, including the shadow of Ganymede as it completed its transit of the planet. Too warm, too humid – the globular clusters particularly were messy – but still really nice to be back out under the stars. I hadn’t been observing in over a year, and I really wanted to get a look at M6 (the Butterfly Cluster, and probably my favorite cluster) before it disappeared into the autumn sunset, and I wasn’t disappointed. The view of that cluster wasn’t affected by the humidity, which seemed to build as the evening went along. Little glowing blue jewels in the shape of a butterfly, if you have even a little bit of imagination.