Mars -- not looking too bad

Managed to get just over an hour of clear sky, 'scope and Mars tonight! Didn't think it was going to happen — the forecast wasn't looking at all good. Seems I got lucky.

By my calculation I managed to view it within about six hours of closest approach. Yes, I know, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference but it does make for a nice milestone on my path back to observing on a regular basis.

And it's been pointed out to me that the radio version of The War of the Worlds is available for download from http://www.mercurytheatre.info/.

File Under: Mars.

Mars -- not looking too good

The close approach of Mars is almost upon us (opposition is still a few days away) and, annoyingly, it looks like it's going to be cloud all the way for me. I'm starting to detect a pattern...

Slightly related: I noticed this morning that the date of closest approach this time around is also the anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles' version of The War of the Worlds.

File Under: Mars, British Weather, Orson Welles, The War of The Worlds.


Sketching -- just part of astronomy's history?

In the November edition of Sky at Night Magazine one of the letters to the editor asks:

I was wondering if you would accept sketches of planetary, stellar and other objects
Sadly, the response from the editor doesn't really seem to answer the question. The nearest thing to an answer is:
while we won't be publishing sketches regularly, I'm certain we will cover the art of drawing astronomical objects at some point in the future
which, if I'm reading it correctly, looks like a "no" and a "yes" all at the same time.

The ambiguity in the answer given is bad enough, but some of the other comments made by the editor's reply seem to head off on a strange tangent. Take, for instance, this suggestion in relation to imaging with CCDs:
it's now very affordable, with the cheapest dedicated CCDs available for under £300
Doubtless, relatively speaking, that is cheap compared to prices from a few years ago, but in my opinion it totally misses the point and creates a false dichotomy. This isn't an either/or thing. If CCDs came free in every cereal packet I'd still want to sketch. I don't sketch because I don't have any form of imaging device, I sketch because I like to sketch, it's a great way of helping you concentrate on what you're observing and it's a great method of recording what an object actually looks like in the eyepiece. When I finally get some equipment for doing imaging I aim to make a point of sketching and imaging various objects so as to have a method of comparing what I see with what I can capture.

Another comment that concerned me was:
sketching is a hugely important part of astronomy's past
But not an important part of the present of amateur observing? Sorry, I just don't buy it. It's this sort of thing that has people getting into astronomy thinking that they've got to have a budget getting into four figures before they can really start to see and do anything worthwhile. It's bad enough when you see this sort of attitude on various astronomy BBs, it's very worrying to see it being published in a magazine that trades on the name that is synonymous with amateur astronomy in the UK.

If, as I suspect (and I wouldn't blame them for this), the magazine has identified that captured images look nice and sell more copies then they should just come out and say so — there's no shame in being honest about the economics of publishing a magazine. But is it really necessary to suggest that sketching and imaging is an either/or issue and that sketching is now part of the history of astronomy? It seems to me that sketching and imaging are both very useful.

File Under: Sky at Night, Sky at Night Magazine, Sketching, Imaging, Sketching vs Imaging.


Lunar 100

The weather is still pretty awful around here....

So, while I'm waiting, another index for my logs: The Lunar 100. It's sort of worrying to notice how little I've managed to observe the Moon so far this year.

File Under: Moon, Lunar 100.


More work on my logs

Over the past few days I've been playing some more with the electronic version of my logs (the weather's been rather unkind of late). The main change is that I've been extending the mini-markup. On top of the markup for things like Messier objects (plus the NGC and Caldwell markup that I added a while back) I've now added markup for equipment, star, const (for constellations), filter, planet and jovian (for the moons of Jupiter, obviously).

Initially the idea is to provide a method of marking up text that can be turned into links when I convert the source XML for a log into XHTML but, in the long term, the idea is that this markup will be useful for creating different types of index into the logs and also to provide a method of searching the source XML.

As an example (taken from this observation):

<li><star>Upsilon2 Cancri</star></li>
<li><star>Upsilon1 Cancri</star></li>
<li><star>28 Cancri</star></li>
<li><star>24 Cancri</star></li>

The resulting XHTML has links to various places relating to the stars that I mention:

The links are created with some XSLT files, the hard work being done with Sablotron.

The nice thing about this is that the logs will be a little quicker to type up (compared to having to hand-input the links), I get the links in my log pages "for free" (in other words I don't have to go looking them up each time I type up a log), if I want to change the way a whole set of links work I've only got to change one file (the xsl file) and I'm also starting to build up a useful markup for future searching and indexing needs.

Doubtless I'm solving a "problem" that other people solved a long time ago, but it's nice to have a cross over between hacking on a computer and astronomy.

File Under: Astronomy and XML, Observing Logs, Astronomy Log Formats.


Possible use for a terrible telescope

Back in July this year, on a whim, I purchased a really cheap and nasty little refracting telescope. The main reason for getting it was that it'll do for letting my Son look at the Moon — it's not much good for anything else and I don't really care that much if he manages to break it.

Given that he's not really old enough to look through it yet (not to mention the fact that he's got his own little toy telescope, which used to be my toy telescope) it's been sat around doing nothing.

While at the SPA convention last Saturday I purchased a sheet of Baader solar filter. I intend to make a filter for my binoculars and I started to wonder what else I could make a filter for (I might make one for my main telescope). Then I got to thinking: this rubbish little 'scope might actually work as a cheap and cheerful white-light solar telescope.

It's not going to be anywhere near as good as having and using a Coronado PST but it looks like it might work as another handy tool to use for observing our nearest star.

File Under: Solar Observing, Solar Telescope, Baader Solar Filter.


A picture is worth...

I've just made a new addition to my little astronomy website: a gallery. It's nothing grand, and mostly came about because I had an urge to code some more on the site. Another motivation is that a fellow poster on the SPA's BB has offered to scan some slides I took of comet Hyakutake back in 1996. If the scans come out ok (I've never really properly seen the slides as I don't actually own a projector) I hope to place them on the site and a gallery section seemed as good a place as any.

Currently the gallery only contains a handful of scans of sketches I've made recently. Nothing that amazing, just the random scribbling of someone who is more keen than he is talented.

File Under: Astronomy Gallery, Astronomy Sketches, Comet Hyakutake.


SPA Convention 2005 - A short report

Statue of Fred Hoyle
Last Thursday I mentioned that I was hoping to attend the first ever SPA convention at the Hoyle building at the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. I'm happy to say that I made it and that it was a fantastic day out.

The day comprised of a series of short talks by the directors of each of the SPA's observing sections and a talk by Prof. Carl Murray entitled "Voyage around Saturn — Images from Cassini". As well as the talks there were some trade stands to have a look around — including some equipment to try out — and, of course, the chance to meet other amateur astronomers.

Some of the highlights of the day for me were (in no particular order):

  • Peter Grego's Lunar Section talk. Not only was this an infectious talk (pretty much convincing me that the Lunar Section is one of the sections I should look into joining) I was also delighted to find out that Rupes Recta is still part of the observing programme — when I was a child and a member of the JAS (as the SPA was then called) I was a member of the Lunar Section and did quite a number of drawings of that Lunar feature.

  • The talk about the Solar Section. Again, this was another talk that has me seriously thinking about joining the section. In this case I'd not really considered the Solar Section — incorrectly thinking that there probably wasn't much that could be done or contributed. It turns out that useful contributions can be made with very little equipment, knowledge, experience or time. The idea of spending more time observing and learning about our nearest star holds a lot of appeal for me.

  • The talk about the Variable Star Section. Yet another talk that has got me thinking seriously about looking into this "flavour" of observing. As with the talk about the Solar Section it was interesting to learn how contributions can be made with very little equipment and I'm very interested in the idea of learning the skills involved in estimating the magnitudes of stars.

  • Prof. Carl Murray's talk about Cassini (no, I've not forgotten the Huygens probe — it's just that the talk was mostly about Cassini imaging). While many of the images shown were known to me there were a couple of new ones that I'd not seen yet (one such image, which seemed to draw the biggest reaction from the audience, has just been highlighted over at Tom's Astronomy Blog).

I'm sorry to say that I didn't manage to attend the section talks that were held during the afternoon, partly because these were of a lesser interest to me, but mostly because I also wanted to have a look around the various stands and I also wanted to take the time to have a chat with various names I know from the SPA.

Arguably the joint best and worst experience of the day was getting the chance to have a look at the Sun through a Coronado PST that had been set up outside by Green Witch. Despite the fact that I've seen plenty of images produced via the PST I still wasn't really prepared for the "oh wow!" moment that came with actually looking through it. The reason this is also the "worst experience of the day"? Simple — I really, really, really want one but I just can't justify spending £449 on a telescope that's only good at looking at a single object.

In conclusion I had a really enjoyable day. It was really nice to put faces to names and to meet in person various people who I've corresponded with via the SPA's BB. On top of that I came back having been infected with an even greater enthusiasm for astronomy as a hobby and an interest (this fact alone should tell those who organised the event that it was a great success — hopefully I wasn't alone in being infected this way).

Talking to a couple of the organisers I get the impression that, although the event was planned as a one-off, if they believe it was a success the plan is to hold the convention once every two years. I hope they do decide that it was a success and I look forward to attending it again in the future.

Update: Robin Scagell has posted a gallery of pictures he took during the day.

File Under: Society for Popular Astronomy, Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, Astronomy Convention, Solar Telescope.


SPA Convention 2005

This Saturday sees the first ever SPA convention. All being well I'll be attending. I'm rather looking forward to it — especially since I've got to know a few names via their BB; it'll be nice to put faces to names.

File Under: Society for Popular Astronomy, Astronomy Convention, Cambridge.


Back to Woolsthorpe

This Friday sees the start of the new meeting season of Newton's Astronomical Society. I'm really looking forward to it. We generally have a couple or so months off during summer and I've really started to miss the monthly meetings.

File Under: Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's Astronomical Society, Isaac Newton.

Missing the point?

Yesterday, when I wrote "What's the point?", I had to pause for thought for a short while after writing the following:

for the vast majority of hobbyist observers there's little to no chance that you're actually going to do any "real science" or actually discover anything
The reason for the pause was that I was concerned that some people might get the wrong impression, that they might think I was suggesting that it's difficult or even impossible for your average amateur astronomer to contribute something useful to the field of astronomy.

Eventually I decided that it should be obvious what it was I was driving at and decided that the text was fine as it was. At one point I did write a parenthetical remark to qualify what I meant but I decided that it wasn't really needed.

Seems I was wrong.

When I got to my desk this morning I found two comments pointing out that amateur astronomers can make contributions. "Ok," I thought, "I suppose it's a point that needs to be made anyway, amateur astronomers can and do make contributions too and I suppose that my wording was clumsy and I should probably have left the qualification of the remark in there."

Still, at least the authors of the two comments I got seemed to have understood the main thrust of my article.

But worse was to come.

I then went on to catch up with the astronomy blogs I like to read. Imagine my horror when I got to this article on the excellent Astronomy Blog and found my article linked to via the text:
a post about it being difficult for amateur astronomers to contribute to real science
Having a couple of comments that addressed a point I wasn't making was bad enough; having my post held up as an example on such a popular blog was even more worrying.

Ok, I hold my hands up and admit to the error. I shouldn't have posted that article without qualifying what I meant. The wording was clumsy and open to misreading.

Let me try and clarify what it was I was trying to say: What I had in mind was the sort of person who probably wrote the letter to Astronomy Now that I mentioned. I imagine that the author of the letter was a lot like me in terms of available equipment, available time and in terms of practical experience.

I wasn't saying that a person in that position can't make contributions to astronomy, far from it. I wasn't even trying to suggest that it's difficult for them to make contributions. What I was trying to point out is that I could, to some degree, sympathise with the source of the "What's the point?" frustration. The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of people generally don't start out with the time (and time's important here, please don't forget to take that into account) to engage in even the simplest of contributions and, because of that, such contributions generally won't be one of the factors in motivating someone to drag themselves outside and into the cold and the dark (or even into the warm and not-so-dark during summer). Having shown that I could sympathise with the question that was asked, I then went on to point out that — for me at least — the motivation for getting outside came from the enjoyment there was to be had in conducting my own little experiments, in getting to know my own equipment, in expanding my own experience and in the simple joy of learning something.

In other words: I wasn't saying that it's difficult for your average person in their back garden to make contributions. I was saying that the chance of making contributions to astronomy in general doesn't need to be a motivating factor — contributing to your own knowledge and experience is what initially counts.

Here's hoping that I've clarified what I was trying to say. I've got an awful feeling that I might actually have opened a can of worms instead...

File Under: Amateur Astronomy, Observational Astronomy.


What's the point?

A couple or so months back there was a letter published in Astronomy Now that more or less asked the question, in relation to observing the night sky, "What's the point?" The main thrust of the letter was that when you've got all these fancy images from the likes of Hubble and given the problems of light pollution, what's the point of ever venturing outside and actually doing any observing?

On the surface there's a good point here: for the vast majority of hobbyist observers there's little to no chance that you're actually going to do any "real science" or actually discover anything and it doesn't really matter just how good your personal setup is you're never really going to see anything or capture anything that comes close to the sorts of images we see in astronomy magazines each and every month.

For me though, once I start to think about why I'm interested in astronomy, the point fades away. Last night's observing session was a good example of why the point quickly fades away. I spent an hour or so trying as hard as I could to tease some detail out of Mars. I didn't get to see anything nearly as impressive as your average observer capturing images with a webcam, let alone anything as impressive as the images you get from various probes that we've sent to Mars. Was I despondent or disillusioned? No, not in the least.

The motive for me heading out into my garden last night wasn't to try and produce images that approach or rival those acquired by other people, it was to try and see what I could personally see with the equipment available to me. It was about conducting my own little experiments with my telescope, eyepieces and filters to see which combination would deliver the best view. I went out knowing full well that I wasn't going to see anything that came close to what I can see online, in books or in magazines. I went out full of curiosity and with a desire to see what results I could personally produce.

And, just as importantly, I had a lot of fun doing it.

File Under: Observational Astronomy, Mars.


Chance of a naked-eye comet next year?

Tom's Astronomy has an article that suggests we might get a naked-eye comet next year.

Fingers crossed. Now that I'm back into observing on a regular basis it'd be nice to have an easy-to-see comet kicking about.

File Under: Comets, Tom's Astronomy, 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, Naked Eye Astronomy.

Anthony Ayiomamitis

I've been a fan of Anthony's work for some time now but I was really blown away by his image of the recent eclipse that was posted this morning on the SPA's BB.

File Under: Anthony Ayiomamitis, Society for Popular Astronomy, Solar Eclipse, Partial Eclipse.


New site now live

My new astronomy website is now "live". The site replaces the astronomy pages on my personal site and, as much as possible, I've set redirects over there to carry people over to the correct place on the new site.

File Under: Vanity Domain, Astronomy Website.

Kemble's Cascade and winter hazards

Last night wasn't the best of nights, a fair bit of mist about, but I decided to venture out with binoculars and chair and spend a bit of time sweeping around the sky again — I just fancied seeing what would turn up.

Quite by accident (well, that was sort of the point) I happened upon Kemble's Cascade in Camelopardalis. Although I'd read about this asterism before and knew more or less what it would look like I was still slightly shocked and very delighted with what I saw. Although the night sky, especially through binoculars, presents you with lots of patterns of stars that stand out and catch your eye there's something a little different about a (more or less) straight line of so many stars.

I also found that it's a great little test of how well dark-adapted you are. After first finding it and having a good look at it I went inside to check a couple of books and also to check on the net. Of course, when I did this, what dark adaption I'd built up was destroyed. When I went back outside again I could hardly see any of the stars in the cascade. Within 10 minutes many of the stars were visible to me again. I can imagine this being a useful test during the winter months.

Talking of winter — I had my first experience of a winter observing hazard I'd not given much thought to before now: smoke. Nights are finally starting to get a little cold here and, accordingly, those people who heat there homes with open fires are starting to use them again.

File Under: Kemble's Cascade, Asterisms, Camelopardus, Winter Observing Hazards, Smoke.


The morning after the morning before

Do I really need to say anything more?

File Under: British Weather, Sunny Day.


Obscured by clouds

Any chance that "partly sunny" means it'll be overcast now but nice and clear between about 9:00 BST and 11:00 BST?

No, no chance at all. It stayed overcast:

Not Partly Sunny

Any hint of blue you're seeing in the above picture is just down to how rubbish the camera in my mobile phone is. Trust me, it was gray and horrible.

This is the closest I came to seeing the eclipse:

Webcast of eclipse

Don't you just love webcasts?

As nice as it was to watch it still wasn't the same as seeing what I should have seen.

File Under: Solar Eclipse, British Weather, Cloud, Failure.

Bloody British Weather!

Saturday morning: not a cloud in the sky.

Sunday morning: not a cloud in the sky.

Monday morning: yes, you guessed it, at the moment it's totally overcast out there. All forecasts I've seen in the past 24 hours suggest it'll be a morning when it's "partly sunny" — that's still the current forecast from the Met Office.

Any chance that "partly sunny" means it'll be overcast now but nice and clear between about 9:00 BST and 11:00 BST?

File Under: Solar Eclipse, British Weather, Clouds.


Venus during the day

I've just been having a look for Venus during the day. Here's my log from that little observing session.

WARNING: If you decide to try this yourself it's vital that you do it such that there is no way you'll accidentally look at the Sun.

File Under: Venus, Daytime Observing.