Pluto finally gets a face!

I admit it, I am one of those people who has a bumper sticker that reads “Pluto is SO a planet!” I grew up with nine planets, Mercury through Pluto, and no group of astronomers (not planetary scientists!) was going to kill that childhood memory. Yes, it is irrational, sue me. Regardless of it’s current planetary status the object known as Pluto is the furthest object we have visited and taken close range photographs of, and it is not at all what we thought. Lets start with the probe we sent, New Horizons.


Launched on January 19th, 2006 from Cape Canaveral Florida on the back of an Atlas V rocket it took nine long years to reach it’s ultimate target. At around one thousand pounds Sir Patrick Moore made comment that it resembled a piano glued to a cocktail bar-sized satellite dish.


The closest images were taken at approximately 7,800 miles above the surface of Pluto on July 14th, 2015. Data took about thirteen hours to travel from the spacecraft back to Earth making the first images from this distance arriving early in the morning on July 15th, my birthday!


What is fascinating is that just when you think you know what is out there, science throws you a curve ball. We expected tons of craters since it is near the Kuiper belt, we see few. We expected a fairly featureless ball of ice, we see mountains, valleys, and a huge smooth area being called the heart. This heart shows in false color as two distinct areas that could be caused by geologic activity, or surface erosion. Amazing. There is still more data to come and it will be slowly streaming in and being processed for quite some time, around sixteen months to be a bit more accurate. Stay tuned to NASA for more!

More information on New Horizons and the latest pictures of Pluto are on NASA’s website.

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You don’t have room to carry a telescope?

One of the concerns I hear from potential astronomers is that they have to travel to a dark site to do any serious observations or astrophotography and they just don’t think they can haul that much equipment. Sometimes it is a matter of driving a small vehicle, sometimes a matter of weight they have to carry. Either way I can usually talk to them a little and help dispel their concerns.

Lets start by saying you can have a lot of fun with nothing more than binoculars which can be worn on a strap around your neck. Whether walking, riding a bicycle, a motorcycle or a car, there is no excuse for not participating with binoculars. Often I have two pair of binoculars with me when I go out for a night. They are too easy to just throw into the back of the car or in the backpack. Many astronomy clubs even have Messier events where observers attempt to view as many Messier objects as possible in one evening with only binoculars. Even for seasoned astronomers this can be a really fun event and is often combined with cookouts or outreach programs.


In many countries motorcycles are an extremely popular method of transportation for the majority of people, and indeed in the US they are fairly popular with college aged people for their great gas mileage and affordability. Unfortunately there is no way to do any astronomy beyond binoculars when you only have a motorcycle, right? Wrong. Assuming you are not pulling a trailer with your motorcycle (which would allow you to carry a full astrophotography kit without a problem) you still have room for much more than just a pair of binoculars. In fact, here are two options I can carry on my motorcycle should I want to take it for a night observing.


First is an iOptron SmartStar E R80 setup which was designed to be portable and is even featured in my Getting Started: Budget Astrophotography book. Included is the tripod, go-to mount (and they have a GPS version as well), all electronics running off battery power, camera, several eyepieces and remote shutter release. This entire kit fits without issue and will easily go on just about any motorcycle or even a bicycle as it mostly fits into a medium sized backpack.


Next is something a little bigger, an Orion 90mm refractor, and an older version is featured in my book Getting Started: Using an Equatorial Telescope Mount. While this simple EQ mounted telescope and has no computer or electronics at all, it is still a very nice little visual setup to grab and go on an unexpectedly clear night when you just want to run out for a couple hours.

So what about small cars? I drive a MINI Cooper S Countryman which although not the smallest out there I believe qualifies as a “small car”. I regularly carry my full astrophotography rig, table, two laptops, fan (for summer), blankets (for winter), chair, cooler, and on occasion a second telescope or AP setup.

room6In the above image, everything but my laptop and cooler which are in the front seat are in the back. There is still plenty of room for a complete second observing telescope/mount combination.

Family cars can be used as well without sacrificing the back seat. My 8″ dobsonian with all my eyepieces, accessories, chair, table, computer, cooler and much more all fit neatly in the trunk of my Wife’s Buick. We could still carry five full sized adults.

There certainly are limitations but you should never think that you can not do any real astronomy or astrophotography because of what you drive, ride or even if you walk.

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Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2

Comet Lovejoy was a fantastic comet to both image, and view in medium telescopes.

Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2

The image above is my best image from Comet Lovejoy 2015, a single frame taken on February 18th at 8:27pm CST. Comet Lovejoy was discovered by Terry Lovejoy with an 8″ SCT telescope on August 17th 2014. Anyone who thinks that they can’t contribute to astronomy with their little telescope should take note that Terry has discovered five comets so far with his Celestron 8″ SCT mounted on a Vixen Sphinx mount. His equipment is readily available to any amateur astronomer. Admittedly that in addition to a CCD camera is a little more money than many people want to spend (around $4,000 US to start).  It certainly is far less than what most people think of when they think of the telescopes used to discover comets and get them named after you.

Imaging & Viewing Comet Lovejoy

I had a lot of fun imaging Comet Lovejoy for two hours on one telescope while I observed it in two other telescopes (my 127mm refactor and the college’s 16″ SCT). With a reasonable quality eyepiece it was pretty easy to see and with a high quality eyepiece that helped to increase the contrast the tail just jumped out at you. When I was viewing it the comet was roughly magnitude 4 making the nucleus (the central region) a naked eye object from a dark site and easily observable with binoculars. When looking at the area it looks like just another star until you really stare and see that it is a little fuzzier than the other stars around it. Once you lift your binoculars up however, it becomes quite obvious. These are the objects that are great fun to take the kids out to see or to go knock on your neighbor’s house and let them have a look. Nothing builds interest in astronomy like this! I can only hope that the next comet to pass earth is this spectacular.

More information and images of Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 can be found on Wikipedia.

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Observing the moon in daylight

Moon in daylight? You have seen it, I have seen it, it is broad daylight and there in the sky is the moon. If you stop and think about it you realize that the moon is up in the daytime just as much as it is at night, we just don’t tend to notice it. In my opinion this is a direct result of the fact that the moon has a much higher contrast at night since it is the only rock we see directly illuminated by the sun.

moon in daylight when imaged

The picture above was taken during the day on March 31st 2012. It is a stack of images run through registack to improve detail and sharpness. Yeah, it might be a little too sharp, but that’s OK with me.

One question I always get asked is if I shot that picture in the daylight, why is the sky black? Remember that the moon is very bright, even the moon in daylight is a light gray rock being lit by the sun. The atmosphere is lit by scattered light. In order to darken the moon so that it is not just a white blur you have to reduce the amount of light hitting your camera sensor. This reduction not only darkens the surface of the moon but the sky around it as well. If you look close you will see that the sky around the moon in the above image is not really completely black although it is very dark.

What the moon in daylight to our eyes

In this picture you can see the blue sky, but the moon is way too bright. This is why when you take an image and want to be able to see the surface details you need to darken the image.

What does this mean if you just want to observe the moon in daylight and not take pictures? Remember that moon filter or polarizing filter you use at night? Yup, use that in the day too. The amount of sunlight bouncing off the moon is the same whether it is also shining on you (daytime) or not (nighttime).

If you don’t have one or you want a really nice one there are a few options. First you can purchase neutral density filters which simply reduce the amount of light by a specific amount. The trick is that these reduce all colors of light equally making your view darker, but still correct. You can get both a Baader Planetarium Neutral Density 2″ ND 3.0and a Baader Planetarium Neutral Density Filter 1.25″ ND 3.0 which covers either 2″ or 1.25″ needs. Note the ND 3.0 specification as there are ND 0.9 and ND 0.6 versions as well. The 3.0 is the darkest of them and if you are going to bother I would get the darkest to start with.

You could also go with a variable polarizer which can provide a similar experience. It works by removing stray light that comes in a different angle and only allowing direct rays of light. These can make for sharper images by reducing glare and stray light but often do not cut light as much as the neutral density filters listed above. They also come in both sizes as well such as the Orion 5562 2-Inch Variable Polarizing Eyepiece Filter and the Orion 5560 1.25-Inch Variable Polarizing Filter.

I enjoy viewing the moon in daylight in winter as it is much warmer. Just remember that the seeing conditions are typically worse in the day than at night. This is minimized in the winter when you have the cold crisp air but the light scattering off of particles in the air still present an inferior image in daylight as compared to night.

moon in daylight over some trees

This still is a great way to do some outreach without having to have a group of kids and their parents tripping all over your equipment in the dark in the library parking lot. It is also a lot of fun to observe while waiting for it to get dark so you can observe or image other targets.

When you are ready to do some exploring you can use Sky & Telescope’s Field Map Of The Moon or the Sky & Telescope’s Mirror-Image Field Map of the Moon. I never go out without one of these in my astrophotography kit. These little laminated maps are fantastic for identifying features without getting so detailed as to be overwhelming.

Where do you look? Before the full moon, look in the afternoon. After the full moon, look in the morning. Regardless go outside and look up into the sky!

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Carl Sagan’s Birthday!

One of my childhood hero’s, Carl Sagan was instrumental in getting me and keeping me interested in science and astronomy in particular. I still remember my father and I watching the TV show Cosmos in the late 1970s. It, like any TV program back in those days, was a big family event which sometimes included popcorn or actual TV Dinners on a TV tray (this did not happen very often). Carl Sagan On November 9th, 1934 in Brooklyn, New York, astronomer, astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Edward Sagan was born to Russian immigrant Samuel Sagan and New York housewife Rachel Molly Gruber. Sagan’s interest in science was ignited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair at the age of four. That fire was continued with his exploration of the public library at the age of five. He was looking for a book about stars. He also took trips to the American Museum of Natural History with his friends at the age of six or seven, again looking for books. His education included a bachelor’s degree in 1954, bachelor’s degree in physics in 1955, Master of Science in physics in 1956, and a PhD in both astronomy and astrophysics in 1960. His popularization of science kicked into high gear with the writing of Cosmos. The book was made into a very popular television documentary named Cosmos: A Personal Journey.

Cosmos The show consisted of thirteen episodes and originally aired in 1980. Cosmos has won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and been seen in more than sixty countries by over half a billion people. This was so popular that it has been rereleased multiple times worldwide with the latest being the digitally restored and remastered 2009 five-disc DVD set in the UK. His show even sparked a spinoff Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey [Blu-ray] hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson who was an acquaintance of his. Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan who was a coproducer of the original series is an executive producer on the new series.

He wrote several other science related books including A Pale Blue Dot in 1994 as a sequel to Cosmos. His book The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence even won a Pulitzer Prize. Sagan was also a science fiction author writing such books as Contact, which was made into the movie Contact [Blu-ray] or Contact (DVD) starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. This movie won the 1998 Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation. 

Carl Sagan was the designer of the gold plaques containing the universal message from Earth on two Pioneer spacecraft as well as the gold record on the Voyager spacecraft. Many of his theories and ideas have been proven over the years including the surface conditions of Saturn’s moons Titan and Europa and his ideas on global warming.

One of Sagan’s greatest passions was the search for extraterrestrial life. He served on the SETI Institute Board of Trustees. He was one of the founders of The Planetary Society with Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman in 1980. The society promotes and participates in astronomy and planetary sciences. It is quite possible that no other person in the history of astronomy has been as successful at popularizing astronomy and science in general as Sagan. Carl Sagan passed away on December 20th, 1996 at the age of 62.

carl sagan Happy birthday Carl Sagan, we miss you!

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Burnham’s Celestial Handbook

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is an astronomy book that has been something I have heard about over and over again ever since I have really been into astronomy. I was always dubious as to their value to my astronomy as they were old (1978), not available new that I could tell (if they were really good, wouldn’t they still be in print?) and pretty large (2138 pages total).

Burnham's Celestial Handbook covers After getting a set in good shape from a used book store, for more than the original new price I might add, I have spent some time looking through them and actually using them. What I have found is that they can indeed be very useful.

Burnham's Celestial Handbook spines If nothing else, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook will make you learn. To use them you need to read the first 101 pages which tell you how to use the books. These pages alone are worth the price of admission as they discuss topics such as sidereal time, celestial coordinates, the classification of stars and galaxies, the H-R diagram of stellar luminosities, spectral classes, and of course, the nomenclature used throughout the book. Even if you are familiar with most of this the review is quite nice. After getting antiquated with the basics he starts systematically and alphabetically going through all the constellations detailing all the objects within each one. The pages are filled with pictures, charts, diagrams and his “descriptive notes”.

Burnham's Celestial Handbook star chart A great example is his notes for Alpha in Canes Venatici: “ALPHA (12 Canum) Mag 2.89 (slightly variable); Spectrum A0p or B9.5p. Position 12537n3835. Name- COR CAROLI, “the heart of Charles”. The popular story is that the star was so named by Halley in honor of King Charles II of England. According to R.H.Allen, “This was done at the suggestion of the court physician Sir Charles Scarborough, who said that it had shone with special brilliance on the eve of the King’s retun to London, May 29, 1660.” Of course the text goes on quite a bit just about this star but this excerpt should give you the general idea of the wealth of not just scientific information but the story behind some of it as well.

Burnham's Celestial Handbook sample pages One could spend their lifetime simply following in the footsteps of Burnham as laid out in Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. How he completed such a fantastic work is beyond me. That may be why such a project is a rarity. If you have not read at least some of this set I urge you to do so. If you have a copy and no longer ready it, I would ask you to share it with others. Make sure that your astronomy club’s library has a copy.

You can often find copies of this wonderful astronomy book on Amazon.

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Dark site etiquette

Dark site etiquette is an important part of astronomy to ensure that everyone enjoys their evening under the stars.

Dark site etiquette

When you are going out to an astronomy club dark site there are some guidelines you should follow to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone. Some of them probably seem like commons sense, and they are, to someone who understands what is going on. Unfortunately a lot of newcomers have no idea and this can cause friction. Help avoid the friction and stares by following a few simple astronomy etiquette guidelines.

Dark Site Etiquette Guidelines

  1. If you park anywhere near where people are observing make sure you arrive before dark and park your vehicle so that the headlights are pointed away from the observing field. This makes sure that when you leave before the serious observers or astrophotographers (and you will leave before them unless the sun has already risen) your headlights will do as little damage as possible.
  2. Get everything out of your vehicle as soon as you arrive. Stack it next to the vehicle if needed but whatever you do avoid opening the doors and causing the lights to come on repeatedly after dark. It is amazing how bright your interior lights are once everyone’s eyes have adapted to the dark. Many astronomers and astrophotographers go one step further with this dark site etiquette by removing or disabling their interior vehicle lights completely.
  3. Speaking of amazingly bright lights, do not use that super bright LED flashlight or the light on your phone to shine on the walkway so you can see where you are walking. Wait by your car until your eyes adjust to the darkness or bring a dim red astronomy light (available on Amazon or to light your way. Even if your light is red, never shine it at anyone’s eyes or towards their equipment unless you ask first. Astrophotography is about photographing dim lights in the night sky, many of them red, so your red flashlight will ruin an hour long exposure and tend not not make you any friends. If you want a red flashlight used one specifically for astronomy as they are not stupid bright, one such as the Celestron 93588 Astro Night Vision Flashlight is an excellent choice and very affordable. Getting a dedicated red light for this will show everyone you really care about dark site etiquette.
  4. Never touch someone’s telescope without their express permission. They could be imaging and you are fumbling for an eyepiece to look through, destroying their image they have been exposing for the past hour. Or maybe they are in the process of aligning their telescope and your touching could move it off center messing up the computer’s calculations. Or they could be one of “those” people and they could get pretty hostile that you got handsy with their $1200 eyepiece on their $10,000 telescope (why did you bring it out here then goofus?).
  5. Watch where you step. Remember that many of these telescopes run off power cords, and those power cords run across the ground to outlets. Also watch for the legs of tripods. Tripping over either one can completely destroy an astrophotographer’s entire evening and cause a visual observer to waste thirty minutes or more setting everything back up.
  6. Use the restroom before you come out, some dark sites have no facilities. The bushes may be fine for you but you will be in mixed company and quite possibly have other people’s children running around.
  7. Laser pointers should only be used by experienced astronomers who frequent this dark site. Not only is it dangerous to point a pointer towards a person, it is more than bright enough to ruin someones image should the beam enter the area where they are shooting. In addition, it is not only bad astronomy behavior, but it is also a federal crime in the US and many other countries to point at an aircraft. Do you know where the local flight patterns are around this dark site? I know exactly where they are around mine because I constantly see planes there.
  8. If you borrow something, take it back immediately when you are finished. This is not only respectful but makes sure that the item is available should someone else want to borrow it.
  9. Lastly, if you take your children, please make sure they understand the expected astronomy behavior and keep a close eye on them. While most astronomy events welcome children and indeed are geared towards them in many cases, everyone wants both the child and the very expensive telescopes to survive the night undamaged.

When in doubt about astronomy behavior, ask around. Most astronomy gatherings have more experienced people who will be happy to lead you around and show you the appropriate dark site etiquette. Don’t let these guidelines scare you, we all make mistakes. As long as they see you are making an effort you will probably be excused for any little faux pas you may inadvertently commit.

I hope you enjoyed my article on dark site etiquette!

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