Comet Tuttle Appears To Pass By Galaxy M33

Comet Tuttle continues to brighten and is replacing Comet Holmes as an object of interest for many comet observers.

Last night was spectacular, with the comet appearing to pass by the Galaxy M33. The skies here in the Atlanta area were cloudy until after the main part of the comet's passing by the galaxy.

The photo above was taken at 1832 UTC. The one below was taken at 2145 UTC.

This photo was taken at 2242 UTC.

The one below was taken at 0102 UTC, and the comet is barely in the photo.

Fortunately, I had reserved some time with the robotic telescope on the Canary Islands, http://www.slooh.com/. I took several images, and put them together in this animation that I made this morning: http://www.myslooh.com/data/members/1627/1199114448.gif


Observing Planets

Mercury is always so low on the horizon, that it is difficult for me to make any worthwhile observations. The last time I observed Mercury it was moving across the face of the sun, which is called a Transit. Mercury is near the bottom of the image - the other dark, irregular object, is a sunspot.

I've seen one transit of Venus (June 8, 2004) , and hope to see one more in my lifetime in 2012. If you miss that one, you have to wait until 2117 for the next one.

Although the transit of Venus is rare, seeing Venus is easy. It is often the brightest star-like object in the morning or evening skies. Through the telescope, it appears, as does Mercury, as a moon-like phase.

Sometimes, Venus is just a downright disappointing blob.

At other times, it is a spectacular phase.

I've made an animated GIF from 18 images I've been taking during 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 of the planet Venus. You can tell how the distance between Venus and the Earth increases and diminishes over time, and how the planet Venus, being an Inner Planet (between us and the Sun), has phases like the moon.

The images were taken through the telescope at http://www.slooh.com/.

To see the animation, click http://www.myslooh.com/data/members/1627/1198986501.gif.


Mars is often a very disappointing object for the inexperienced astronomer - and when it is a great distance away, it can be disappointing to anyone.

However, as Mars moves to "opposition," meaning it is opposite from the sun, which actually simply means it is pretty close to us, we can make out some features of Mars.

Jupiter is always fun to watch. The four brightest moons, called the Galilean Moons because Galileo discovered them, move quickly around the planet. Their movement is easy to discern in hours rather than days. There 11 moons known to orbit Jupiter when I was a child. We now know of 63 - well, at least that is what the figure was last week.

The Red Spot, seen peaking over on the left side, is a good target to look for among the Jovian clouds.
Of course, nothing beats seeing the planet's atmosphere scarred from having been hit by a comet.


Saturn has a similar cloud structure, but it is the rings that capture our attention.

Twice every 29.2 years, the rings of Saturn appear edge on. In 2002, the rings were as open as they get in the current cycle. I missed it by a couple of years, making my first photo in 2004.

They will be edge on in 2009, and as you can see the rings are beginning to appear smaller than in 2004.

Uranus appears featureless through small telescopes. The challenge is to try to identify the moons.

Between these two images of Uranus, I imaged the 5 moons of Uranus known to exist when I began to become interested in astronomy as a child. We now know of 27 moons orbiting Uranus.
The most interesting thing about observing Neptune, besides watching it move against the background stars from night to night, is to observe its moon, Triton. When I became interested in astronomy as a child, there were only 2 known moons of Neptune. There are now 13 known moons. Triton is the largest and was discovered just 17 days after the discovery of Neptune. You can see why - the moon is bright even at this 200x magnification.

Pluto offers nothing of interest to even the largest earth-bound telescopes. It is not difficult to see, however. The challenge is to know what you are looking at. Pluto just appears as a dim star. The best thing to do is to image the planet over several nights and to determine which star-like object is changing position in relation to the other stars.


Comet Holmes, Christmas Day

Comet Holmes continues to amaze me. It is HUGE. I cannot see it with any sort of magnification - but can only view it in a low magnification, such as through a view finder or binoculars.
The image below was made with a robotic telescope in the Canary Islands, using one of their four telescopes: a Televue 85 APO refractor with a magnification of 50x.
When using a higher powered telescope - Slooh's 14 inch SCT with a magnification of 470x. Below is such an image, and all you see is the small nucleus. As you see, the coma has so disipated that it can't be seen at higher powers.


Solar Activity, Comet Holmes, and A Gift For Kenya

The sun is finally getting interesting, even though we are in the low point of a solar cycle.

For months we've seen little activity on the solar surface, sometimes going weeks without a single sunspot. There is one group, at almost dead center. There are 44 spots by my count - a number of which are simple pores. I put the classification at "Eai." The Wolfe number is 54.

Last night I took another look at Comet Holmes. In light polluted skies, it is barely disernable with the naked eye. It is clear in the binoculars. It is difficult through even the lowest powers of my telescopes. The comet continues to enlarge, and this means its surface brightness is decreasing. It is the strangest comet I've ever observed!

In addition to using binoculars, a 10 inch reflector and a 3.5 Questar, I used the telescope that Artie (a colleague from Slooh) donated for the Kenya trip.

Thanks for this great donation, Artie! The kids in Kenya will love it. I viewed M42, and the image was very clear and sharp. Mars shows up fairly well, but I think it is always a disappointment in a small telescope. I took a peak at several open clusters and a couple of galaxies.


Telescopes for Kenya

Great news -- I'm getting ready to go to Kenya in January!

I'll be taking along telescopes, binoculars and astronomy charts and books. I'm looking forward to instructing teachers in a school there on how to use the telescope and its computer system, and how to teach astronomy to the children.

I'm getting very excited about it, because one of my fellow Slooh.com members has donated a Nexstar 100mm telescope for the project. It is tremendously gracious of him -- thanks Arthur!

So - what's the scoop about my going to Kenya?

Long story short - I'm the Senior Pastor of the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in the Greater Atlanta area. This is a church that is very involved in missions. We send medical professionals and others to Haiti several times each year to work with the people there. Even though 2 years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, some of our members are going to Mississippi monthly to work there.

We are now developing a relationship with Project Kenya and its Mountain Park Academy in Kenya.

Our plan is for the Associate Pastor to take a group of church members to Kenya this summer to do some work at the school (pictured below) and a proposed orphanage there.

So how does astronomy work into all of this?

We decided early on that the Senior Pastor - that's me - needed to go first.

First - to be sure that this is a safe trip (yep, I love that part).

Second - to keep a blog while I'm there and to do some programs at the church in February and March to build excitement for the summer trip.

Third - to evaluate the work of the school to be sure that the school and our church could work productively together.

And this is where astronomy comes in.

How could any astronomer from the northern hemisphere go to the southern hemisphere without a burning desire to see something new and different?

There are whole constellations I've never seen.

I've never seen NGC 3372, or a great number of other deep sky objects that can only be viewed south of the Earth's equator.

And of course, there are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

If I'm going to Kenya, I have to take a telescope!

Then it occurred to me that instead of taking one of mine, I could take one or more telescopes with me and just leave them with the school. Why not use this as an opportunity to give a gift of the universe to these children?

I've been in contact with several teachers in Kenya, university professors throughout Africa, and amateur and professional astronomers throughout the world. I've gotten some good support from many of them! Including Arthur who will be mailing me a telescope on Monday morning!

So come January 17-28, I'll be traveling to Kenya, visiting the Mountain Park Academy and looking at some other programs and missions there, taking in a Safari (YESSSS!), and enjoying the stars in the company of teachers and students.

My wife can't go. She is a public school teacher and won't be about to take time off from work, but the good news is my son is going. He is home from deployment in Germany and will be able to take the time in January to go with me.

In the year 2009, the world will celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's use of the telescope to study the skies with the International Year of Astronomy.

Well, I can't wait that long!

Kenya - here we come!

And yes - I'm still taking donations of telescopes, binoculars and books. Email me at Maynard@pittendreigh.net for information.


Comet Holmes

Amateur astronomers do not seem to be observing Comet Holmes as much as we were last month, but it is still a wonder to behold.

Seiichi Yoshida from Kanagawa, Japan, offers this visualization of the amazing developments of 17p/Holmes with its sudden and dramatic increase in magnitude - quite unlike any other comet! And especially odd when considering this comet was well on a course away from the sun rather than nearing the sun. The graph also shows that the comet is still rather bright.

I observed the comet at 250, November 28, UTC.

Skies were clear, but light polluted. The nearly full moon was rising.

The comet is no longer a naked eye object. I could not find it in the binoculars. It was not visible in the view finder. I've talked with an observer in Belgium and one in Germany and they say in their dark sites the comet is still visible with the naked eye.

Through the 3 1/2 Questar, the comet is very large, but very, very faint.

I lugged out the 10 inch reflector because it gathers more light than the Questar. It was easier to find.

Had I not known there was a comet in that area of the sky, I would easily overlook it.

The comet is elongated. There is no nucleus. Averted vision is needed for the comet.

I took the photograph over a 5 minute exposure.


Comet Holmes - Changing Nightly

Astronomy is a science that offers the unexpected delight at the most unexpected times.

Comet Holmes has been so different from any other comet I've ever observed. It was a nothing little comet that would swing around every 6 point something years and go largely unnoticed. On the way out from the sun, it brightened!

It has stayed bright and remains a naked-eye object.

Each night brings a wonderful moment of "wonder what it will look like tonight?"

Compare this image taken on October 31st ...

With this image taken on November 15th.

Here is the evolution of the comet taken at a low magnification - which is currently the best way to enjoy Holmes...

Comet Holmes

I have observed Comet Holmes through the telescope this evening. It remains a naked-eye object, but through the telescope it has changed considerably. I can no longer locate the nucleus, even with averted vision.


I Saw The Most Amazing Thing Tonight

I saw the most amazing sight at the Bradley Observatory tonight.

It was my first visit. Bradley is the observatory on the campus of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA -- one of the fomerly separate towns now enveloped by Atlanta. The telescope is a 30 inch Cassegrain.

The night began with a lecture by the Chris De Pree, Director, Bradley Observatory Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy -- "Sixty Years of Amateur Astronomy". I expected a 75 year old man sharing his own experiences, but instead De Pree is much younger than 60. The "60 years" in the lecture was the life span of the Atlanta Astronomy Club. He did a great job, and made a lot of interesting points.

He ended his lecture with a definition of amateur astronomy, pointing out that "amateur" comes from the Latin word, "amator" - meaning lover.

"Lover of stars."

I like that.

Well, it is interesting, but not amazing.

We went into the small planetarium and Amy Lovell, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy, conducted a program for us. She did an awesome job, and she had a great group of young people asking lots of questions.

As good as Amy did in the planetarium, that was not the amazing thing I saw tonight.

When the planetarium program was over, we climbed the dark stairway to the observatory. It was completely cloudy when I arrived Agnes Scott, but now it was a very clear sky.

We looked first at Alberio, a double star that has a dramatic difference in color. You can see this difference in this photo from my files, which I snapped in August 2004:

As interesting as this double star is, it is not what I found to be so amazing tonight.

We then looked at Comet Holmes. For this we did not look through the main telescope, but through the smaller 6 inch refractor mounted on the side of the larger 30 inch telescope. After observing this for several nights, I was stunned at how dim the comet was. I could barely see the nucleus, and only with great effort with averted vision. The smaller, inner coma, and the larger halo that I've seen previous were not present - it was just one squashed halo.

When I got home, I looked through my Questar so I could compare "apples to apples" in terms of using the same telescope I've used for the past several nights. The view was the same. Comet Holmes is disappearing.

The remote observatory in the Canary Islands was shut down for clouds by the time I got home, but earlier this evening it was up and running. Olaf from Belgium shot these images using both the higher powered 14 inch SCT and the wide field of the Televue 85 APO refractor:

But the fading of the comet is not amazing - it is expected.

The most amazing thing I saw tonight came while I waited in line in the observatory.

The dome was open and you could see the light-polluted skies of Atlanta through the slot. There were red lights throughout the small, circular room. In the center of this room is an old telescope that once belonged to an amatuer astronomer (lover of stars), which was then sold to Agnes Scott.

The first person to look through the telescope was a child. He climbed this ladder, which from his perspective must have been hugh. Each step was an effort for his tiny legs. When he looked through the telescope he was silent.

"Can you see anything," someone asked.

The child said nothing.

"Can you see the stars," someone asked.

The child said nothing.

An adult climbed next to the child and said, "Let me see if I need to reset the telescope so you can see it."

"That's OK," he said, without moving his eye from the eyepiece.

"What do you see?"

"I see a blue star and a white star," the child said, still not stirring from the telescope.

I had the feeling that what the child really wanted to say was, "Leave me alone. It's taken 385 years for this light to arrive to Earth, and I need to savor this moment."

That was what I found amazing.

Or perhaps the word is "moving."

Or "inspiring."

I was witnessing a child becoming an amateur astronomer - amator - lover of astronomy.



Comet Holmes from Villa Rica

I drove to the Barber Observatory, the Atlanta Astronomy Club's site at Villa Rica, Georgia.

Viewing was great!

The first thing I looked for was Comet Holmes. I took this photo, approximating the naked eye's ability to see. The comet seems to be growing!

Here is an image taken through the Questar.


These two images were taken this evening, using the remote controlled telescopes on Mt Teide on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The first image was taken with a Televue 85 APO refractor, which shows about a 5 degree field of view. The magnification is about 50. It captures what I'm able to see with my own eye looking through a 10 inch reflector at lower powers.

The second image used the 14 inch SCT, with a power of about 450. The image captures what the eye cannot see at that power. Notice the hint of trails coming from the nucleus? I've been able to see just a hint of one such trail, with averted vision, and with well dark-adapted eyes.

There are three ways I can use a 14 inch SCT with imaging equipment. One is to go to a friend's house who graciously lets me use this equipment AND who is patient enough to spend some time teaching me how to use the imaging equipment. The second way is when I travel and visit an astronomy club in Florida and use the club's equipment.
The third way is available to everyone. Check out Slooh.com. Anyone can sign up for a membership. Membership allows you to reserve several blocks of time in 5 minute increments. You can program the telescope to look at whatever you desire (as long as the object is at least 20 degrees above the horizon). You can also take images, such as those above.
You can also "look over the sholder" of others who have programmed their missions.
One of the best things about Slooh is the community. It is the only chat room I've ever felt was worthwhile. Folks there represent professional as well as beginning astronomers, and everyone there is glad to share in the teaching opportunities.


Comet Holmes, November 2 UTC

Taken with 14 inch SCT, with a magnitude of about 400x...

Comet Holmes Observational report, November 2nd 0200 UTC

Local time, November 1st.

UTC: 2007 November 2 0200 UTC.

10 inch reflector. 2" E-lux eyepiece: Most prominent feature tonight is a star in the background that Holmes occulted earlier tonight. It is still in the outer halo.

The comet is still large and bright. Still appears to have a star on the edge of the inner coma. The inner coma is uniform. No mottling. Averted vision adds nothing. Surrounding halo continues to have a distinct edge on the NE side. On the opposite side, the SW side, it fades away - but I don't believe it fades as much as it did last night.

With 32 mm eyepiece, everything looks sharper. I can see the stellar nucleus and the bright star it is passing through, which was visible with the 2". Now I can see a third star on the SW side. I can see that third star only with averted vision.

There is some mottling on the halo.

With averted vision, the inner coma takes on a hint of a oval shape rather than round.

32mm with 2x barlow: Fills about 1/4 of FOV. More stars become visible. Next to bright star in the halo, there is a second star, not nearly as bright. It is at this point that star is on the SE side. Distinct edge is still distinct. Again, averted vision reveals a hint of oval shape rather than round shape in the inner coma.

Definite mottling on outer halo. There seems to be rays or streaks radiating from the stellar nuclus.

12.5 mm with 2x: certainly takes the entire FOV. The inner halo is definitely oval.