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.