The Serried Multitude of the Stars

Observing report: August 17, 2013—Nova Delphini 2013

On August 14, amateur astronomer Koichi Itagaki discovered a nova in the constellation Delphinus. He did this with a 180 mm reflector telescope.

For comparison, my Zhumell Z8 is a 200 mm reflector. Amazing job, Mr. Itagaki! (His reflector is probably on an equatorial mount as his discovery was through photographic comparison).

We had a nice viewing of it on Saturday night, Aug. 17th. I was able to spot it very quickly with 12x70 binoculars and Sky and Telescope’s helpful star map:

1. Start at Delphinus

2. Scan north-northwest to locate a funny, lopsided trapezoid with two little “eyes” in the middle.

3. Move west a couple of degrees to the nova. For orientation, a magnitude 5.7 star lies just 1 or 2 degrees N-NE of the nova. Both that star and the nova have slightly dimmer close neighbors, though these may not be visible in binos. The 4 stars together form a long, narrow rectangle.

I used the ED80 (80mm f/7.5) at 20x (30 mm William Optics widefield eyepiece) for a more detailed comparison to the Uranometria 2000.0 star atlas and to share the views with others. Through the ED80, the nova appeared to me to be at least 5.5 in magnitude, by rough comparison to its 5.7 neighbor, which is in the ballpark of professional estimates.

So what is this nova thing? From the Sky and Telescope article:

A classical nova happens in a special kind of tightly-orbiting binary star system: one where a relatively normal star pours a stream of hydrogen onto the surface of a companion white dwarf. When the layer of fresh hydrogen on the white dwarf’s surface grows thick and dense enough, the bottom of the layer explodes in a runaway hydrogen-fusion reaction — a hydrogen bomb in the shape of a thin shell roughly the size of Earth. The underlying white dwarf remains intact, and as new hydrogen builds up, the process may repeat in a few years to tens of thousands of years.

Overall, it was a fun treat to witness such a relatively ephemeral cosmic event. Thank you, Mr. Itagaki!

EDIT—Here’s a neat diagram from the wikipedia entry on novae.


EDIT 2—I misread the chart I found. What I took for star designations were actually just the magnitudes. I’ve corrected the above entries.

EDIT 3—This article at Universe Today has the clearest diagrams I’ve found that show the exact location of the nova.

Early winter treats—Orion, Pleiades, Jupiter in conjunction with Taurus

The skies were clear tonight and the weather was slightly less ridiculously cold than it has been recently. I did some quick observing of a few standard winter treats including M42 Orion Nebula, M45 Pleiades, and Jupiter which is just past opposition and a very nice sight even in my small ED80 telescope. Both equatorial belts were easily visible. I thought I saw the Great Red Spot, but I just checked my Stellarium software, which tells me that the GRS didn’t come into view until after I came inside. Ah well, wishful thinking.

Jupiter is in conjunction with HIP 20417, a lovely red star in Taurus. Tonight, it looked like an eccentric fifth Galilean moon, hanging just southeast of Io. I snapped a few pics of the evenings events.

Jupiter and the Galilean moons with a guest


M45 Pleiades


Review: The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 1

Apologies for the long absence. Let’s restart our exploration of the serried multitude of the stars with a review of some lighter (and simultaneously darker) quasi-scientific entertainment.

The Manhattan Projects is an ongoing graphic series by writer Jonathan Hickman (of Pax Romana and The Nightly News fame) and artist Nick Pitarra (Hickman’s collaborator on The Red Wing).

The Manhattan Projects is an alternate-history retelling of the Manhattan Project, the secret US government program that created the atomic bomb. The main characters include the Manhattan Project director Leslie Grove, Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Robert Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Harry Daghlian, Werner von Braun, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt 

The first twist in this alternate universe is that the atomic bomb is the merest trifle in the Manhattan Project’s super-scientific advances, which include dimensional portals and contact with extraterrestrials.

The second twist is that the alternate versions of these famous geniuses are all deranged in some manner, ranging from garden-variety narcissists and alcoholics to multiple-personality-disordered psychopaths.

The storyline is dark, cynical, and violent. This will not be to everyone’s taste, but if you can stomach this sort of thing, it’s also incredibly imaginative, thrilling, and darkly hilarious. Who doesn’t want to see famous scientists machine-gun down Japanese robots?

Pitarra’s art is beautiful—detailed and energetic, leaning in the direction of Geof Darrow and Moebius (two of my favorites), while still maintaining absolute clarity of action.

I’ve finished Volume 1, which collects issues #1-5. Issue #11 is already out, so I must decide whether to wait for Volume 2 or to catch up on the individual issues. Regardless, I am hooked.

The tagline on the back cover of Volume 1 reads: “Science. Bad.”

And when it’s bad, it’s oh so good!


Observing report—July 21, 2012

Last night, our friends Jim and Izzy joined my wife and I for an outing at an undisclosed location north of San Francisco. I’d noted three potential yellow-zone locations to check out—2 categories darker than the red zones where we all live. The roads to two were blocked. The third turned out to be an excellent site.

About light-pollution zones:

Our yellow zone site was indeed noticeabley darker than Berkeley. On Friday night, I could see only Alpha, Mu, and Beta Serpentis in Serpens Caput, but last night, I could easily make out the brightest 7 or so stars in the constellation. In addition, we had a 360° unobstructed view, with noticeable skyglow only to the south.

Jim brought his 4.5” reflector on an EQ (equatorial) mount. I brought my 8” Dobsonian reflector.

A note about equatorial mounts: I know nothing about them other than what I have read. Their big advantage is that one of the rotational axes of the mount can be aligned with the the Earth’s polar axis (or the star Polaris, which is close enough). This allows easier tracking of objects as the Earth rotates (or the sky rotates if referring to a fixed reference point on the Earth’s surface). The disadvantage is more difficult set up and operation compared to a simple mount like a Dobsonian, though this difficulty is reduced or erased with experience.

Equatorial mount

Dobsonian mount

We were set up around 9:45 and got in over 90 minutes of observing. Because of the unobstructed view to the west, I decided to tag some of the Messier objects in the Virgo galaxy cluster, pretty much the final chance to see them this year.

  • M49—Fairly easily located by starhopping west and south from Epsilon Virginis aka Vindemiatrix. M49 is just west and north of a convenient nearby landmark—a line of three stars, the western pair closer together.
  • NGC 4526—a bonus item that I was not looking for. This galaxy lies right in between the two closer stars of those three in a line.
  • M61—And then hopping further south and west from there. This galaxy makes a lopsided rectangle with three nearby stars, one of which is a variable (which makes it standout on star maps, even if not to the eye).
  • M60—Back up to Vinemiatrix, then northwest to find another line of three stars: 41 Virginis, a fainter star (actually a multiple), then 34 Virginis (also a multiple). This line points right at M60, about 1° from 34 Vir.
  • M59—Just west of M60 and a hair north.
  • M58—Moving west there are six stars that form a sort of squashed wedge, like a banana, pointing northeast. M58 lies just east of the northern tip.
  • M89 and M90 are a hop to the north. These two were just barely visible to me, much more faint than M58. This makes sense since M89 is a hair dimmer in magnitude than M58 and M90 is similar in magnitude to M58 but larger and thus more diffuse.

All in all, a great night of observing with great friends at a nice location. I am tempted to name this viewing site Lot 49, in honor of one of my favorite authors and the secret nature of its location.

Observing report—July 20, 2012

Summer is the season for backyard astronomy… except when there’s fog, which is most of the time in the San Francisco Bay Area! Tonight was a nice clear night, with the moon both a thin crescent and setting shortly after sunset.

Summer is also the season for Hercules and its neighbors. Tonight was a globular mini-marathon.

  • M5—The only Messier object in Serpens Cauda (Serpent’s tail) and a lovely one.
  • M10 and M12—Neighboring clusters in Ophiucus. M12 is slightly lower magnitude (less bright) than these other clusters, and a bit harder to locate in light-polluted skies due to slightly sparser nearby stars.
  • M13—The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. I’ll never tire of this amazing sight.
  • M92—The other big cluster in Hercules, and sometimes overlooked, but still amazing.

New Moonlite CF focuser!

The focuser of my Orion ED80 was damaged in shipping when I bought the scope several months ago. Fortunately, it was insured and USPS reimbursed me the cost of a replacement focuser. Since then, I’ve had my eyes out for a used focuser to replace it, or better yet an upgrade.

Finding a used focuser is like playing the lottery because you not only have to find the right focuser at the right price, but it also has to have the right type and size adapter to match your telescope. This is especially true for refractors. A focuser that fits an Orion ED80 will not fit a Meade 80ED, even though the two scopes share a similar size primary lens. You can buy the adapters/flanges separately, but that quickly erodes the savings of buying used.

After diligently monitoring the astro gear classified sites for months, I found a beautiful Moonlite CF focuser that fits my scope! Thanks, Joe at Cloudy Nights!

Moonlite focusers are arguably the best focusers currently produced. The Feathertouch and JMI focusers are also right up there technically, but, in my opinion, the Moonlites are more distinctive and beautiful. Swoon…

Can you tell which focuser is the new one?

New vs. old focuser

What’s so great about the Moonlite focuser?

The Moonlite is a crayford focuser. My old focuser is a rack-and-pinion*. Is a crayford focuser better? Not always, but in this case it is. A poor quality rack-and-pinion focuser has a lot of slop or backlash, due to imprecision in the dimensions of the parts. It’s very expensive to machine gears to tight tolerances, so high quality rack-and-pinion systems remain in the realm of professional-grade telescopes. The crayford focuser is an ingenious design that has no gears, which makes it possible to create smooth, slop-free focusers that are affordable to amateurs. So the hierarchy of telescope focusers is roughly:

  1. entry-level amateur: rack-and-pinion, cast metal and low-quality machining
  2. high-end amateur: crayford, medium to higher-quality machining
  3. professional: rack-and-pinion, high-precision machining

That’s not a hard and fast rule (there are good lower-end rack-and-pinions and bad crayfords), but it gives you an idea of the unique niche of crayford focusers.

The Moonlite is dual speed. It has a secondary knob for fine focusing, in this case at an 1:8 ratio compared to the main knob. This is very nice to have.

It’s higher quality. You get what you pay for.

All this adds up to a much smoother focuser. Using a rough focuser goes something like this: move the knob… wait for vibration to settle down… move the knob some more… wait for vibration to settle down… You get the idea. For reference, my big reflector has a dual-speed, crayford focuser by GSO (Guan Sheng Optical), and I can just focus right in on objects without any vibration to the image.

This afternoon, I zoomed in on some houses up in the hills and the Moonlite focuser was buttery smooth. Very nice! I can’t wait to get it out under the stars.

* Astute readers may note that the Orion ED80 and ED100 come standard with a Synta crayford focuser. Oddly enough, a previous owner of my scope replaced its stock focuser with a rack-and-pinion, I am guessing from a Celestron 102. In any case, the Synta focusers are reported to be of good but not exceptional quality.

Universe Sandbox--an astronomy/physics game!

I picked up this game today, a neat looking astronomy/physics sandbox game. It’s 40% off in the Steam summer sale for $5.99 or in a 5-game bundle for $9.99 (I went for the bundle).

I’ll post a review after I’ve tried it out.

Bicycle Astronomy on Kickstarter: Liftoff!

Punkastronomy is a fantastic blog I follow. Doug Reilly is starting a brilliant new project to do bicycle-based sidewalk astronomy outreach. Please support this great project!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Burnham

Yesterday, June 16, was the 81st birthday of Robert Burnham, Jr. He was the author of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, a classic text for amateur astronomers. When the Celestial Handbook was published, first in 1966 as a self-published, loose-leaf serial and in 1978 in the 3-volume Dover edition, it was the only such text for amateur observers. Since then, there’s been an explosion in the number of high-quality books and magazines targeted to amateurs. Yet, the Celestial Handbook remains unique as the first and as one the most personal, heartfelt works of astronomy literature.

The introductory section of Volume 1 contains one of the most concise and accessible explanations of interstellar distances that I have read. It is easy to understand these vast distances in an abstract sense, but Burnham’s explanations make it easy to grasp intuitively our tiny size within the grand, cosmic scale:

How much will we have to enlarge this picture [of our Milky Way Galaxy] in order to find the Sun, its planetary family, and our home, the Earth?

The answer, as we expected, is literally numbing to the mind, but once again serves to shock us into some degree of comprehension of the vastness of space. An enlargement of a few times will not help us—or of a few hundred times. But suppose we can enlarge the picture until it covers all of North America. Then the billions of individual stars will appear as pinpoint specks averaging about 600 feet apart. The Solar System—if we can locate the exact spot to look for it—will be about two inches in diameter, and the Sun and Earth will appear as two pinpoint dots about 1/30 inch apart. The Earth, in fact, will be totally invisible to the naked eye on this scale, and we shall have to examine our super-enlarged picture with a super-microscope to eventually locate the Earth as a sub-microscopic dot a few millionths of an inch in diameter.

Keeping this scale in mind, let us now begin a tour through the Galaxy…

Despite such passion and brilliance, Robert Burnham, Jr.’s life is one of the open tragedies of the world of astronomy.

He was a loner, never married, never attended college. But he built his own telescope and discovered his first comet in 1957 (the first of six that he would discover). The following year he was hired to work at Lowell Observatory where he was employed until 1979. After 21 years, he was let go due to lack of funding (he refused the janitorial job that was offered to him).

Despite growing book sales and wide respect in the astronomy community, his life went downhill, he suffered a mental breakdown, and eventually he dropped out of sight. He spent his final years poor and alone, living in an apartment in San Diego, selling his paintings of cats at Balboa Park. When he died in 1993, it was over 2 years before his family knew about it and much longer than that before the astronomy community learned of his death.

He was honored belatedly with a memorial plaque at Lowell Observatory.

When I first read about Burnham’s life, it reminded me, of all things, of William Kotzwinkle’s novelization of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The book is a far out, fairly psychedelic re-telling of the film from E.T.’s perspective (not surprising from the author of The Fan Man). What stays with me still is Kotzwinkle’s explanation of E.T.’s physical illness as cosmic loneliness, a sickness of body and soul caused by being stranded on Earth instead of out amongst the stars where he belongs.

I imagine the first 48 years of Robert Burnham, Jr.’s life, out with his home-made telescope under the dark skies of Arizona, then within the monastic refuge of Lowell Observatory. And then it was all lost to him. Stranded on Earth. I imagine he didn’t even have access to a telescope at the end. But he still loved the stars—after the fact, people realized that he’d attended many of the San Diego Astronomy Association’s programs at Balboa Park.

Perhaps it is the exacting, obsessive nature of astronomy or its introverted practice that attracts personalities prone to social anxiety and isolation. Perhaps it is the grandiose promise of infinity, which must remain undelivered within our mortal coil, that places astronomers at risk of cosmic loneliness.

Of course, there’s no evidence of any such predilection—the great astronomers of history were all celebrated scientists and scholars of their time, welcomed at various royal courts. Even Galileo was widely held in high regard, even as he was persecuted by the Catholic church.

Yet, these were the great astronomers of record with theories and discoveries to glorify their names. How many nameless others labored away behind telescopes into the quiet hours of night, the records of their observations scribbled onto parchment or notebooks subsequently lost to history?

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is not a record of scientific triumph and discovery. It is not Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium or Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It did not set the scientific world on fire. The Celestial Handbook is simply the personal notebook of someone who loved the stars and wanted to share it with others.

Thank you, Mr. Burnham, and Happy Birthday.

Articles about Robert Burnham, Jr.:

Sky Writer, by Tony Ortega for the Phoenix New Times

An Interview with the Author of the Celestial Handbook, by Robert Burnham, Jr. (an amusing, lengthy “self-interview”)

Observing report—June 14, 2012

I lucked into a nice, used copy of Uranometria 2000.0 at a great price. A detailed star atlas is very helpful for dealing with light-polluted skies, especially when navigating through sparse sections of sky.

Tonight, I took another shot at knocking off the remaining Messier objects in Leo in the M96 group. Starting at 73 Leonis, I worked my way west using my widest eyepiece (40mm) in my 8” reflector. I could barely see anything beyond magnitude 10ish, so the U2K which shows down to 9.75 magnitude was a perfect guide. I located 52 leonis, then south to the binary star and 7th mag star that triangulate M105.

  • M105—could just barely see it at first, but it became more prominent as the sky darkened.
  • NGC 3384—after a few minutes, I could make out M105’s neighboring galaxy. I tried to make out their other close neighbor NGC 3389, and spied some suspicious and fleeting fuzziness, but I’d be lying to lay claim to seeing it definitively.

And before I could locate M95 and M96, the neighbor’s darn tree got in the way. I tried relocating to another part of my yard to no avail. I moved to a third spot, but different trees were in the way. I’ll start at this third location tomorrow night or the night after, as it may give me that extra few minutes I need. It’s a race against the stars!

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