Looking Up, Part 2

My former co-worker, he of the Planet of the Geeks, asked me a few questions about selecting a telescope recently, and inderectly inspired me to write this post.

Backyard astronomy is one of the most popular geek pastimes. Like espresso making and photography, it’s one of those hobbies where there’s basically no limit on how badly it makes you want to break your budget. There are such gadgets, oh such gadgets

The rule of thumb in purchasing a telescope is the same as in purchasing an espresso machine – “poor people can’t afford to buy cheap things.” I am not going to write a telescope purchasing advice post though – enough is written on the subject already.

What am I going to write about is the motivation for purchasing telescopes, eyepieces and other stuff. Really, why should you want to buy these expensive toys, drag your butt out into the cold of the night and crouch in uncomfortable position when there’s Hubble Space Telescope and Astronomy Picture of the Day?

Well, first off, seeing a high resolution picture of Saturn taken by a billion dollar space probe somehow pales in comparison with seeing a blurry tiny speck of an image produced by the cheapest telescope. There’s something magical about having the actual photons reflecting of or generated by the celestial body hitting your retina. These almost physical things travelled over ridiculous distances end up hitting your eye forming an image. The feeling is completely different.

Most scope advice sites tell beginners to not even think about astrophotography. My advise to you is to disregard this. Astrophotography is one of the most rewarding things you can do. That picture won’t be of Hubble quality, but it will be yours. A detailed mosaic of the lunar surface makes a great wall hanging or wallpaper. Again, there’s something different in the pictures that you took. People don’t stop snapping pictures of New York just because they can buy professionally made postcards, do they? If you do buy a telescope, buy one that can be made suitable for astrophotography.


I don’t own a serious telescope right now, and never did. All I have is an old Celestron C90 spotting scope (actually mine is an older model that looks rather differently. The idea was to use it later as a telephoto lens (which I did) and a spotting scope for a big telescope that I ended up not buying. Even with that, I managed to take this photo of the Moon.

Besides subjective experiences, there’s a very good reason to own your own gear and doing your own observations. The space is so huge that there’s still room for a complete amateur to make a discovery or just gather some useful scientific data.

The humblest in amateur research is doing Cepheid variable observations. You basically record how certain stars change their brightness from night to night. It’s painstaking and boring work, but it helps to chart galactic distances or something to that effect.

On the plus side, while looking for Cepheids, you can spot a nova or even a supernova. Nova discoveries by amateurs are not super frequent, but are not too rare either. Here’s one, for instance.

Another mainstream field of armature research is occultation recording and timing. Occultation is a transit of one celestial body behind another. For instance, you can watch Saturn disappear behind Moon’s disk and reappear again. By watching a bright star or planet pass behind the Moon, for instance, you can get some interesting information. First of all, by recording the time you can help calculate Moon’s orbit more precisely. Secondly, yo can see lunar terrain backlit, seeing outlines of mountains. In theory, something can be learned about atmosphere of planets and maybe even moons by watching occultations, but that requires some serious gear. In any case, space probes do a much better job.

Blah blah, meticulous observations by amateurs, blah, tiny little pieces of data, blah. Let’s kick it up a notch, crank up the hubris. Remember that Simpsons episode where Bart discovered a comet? Although the chances are low and the competition is fierce, it is possible for an amateur to discover a comet. And comets are the only things that are named after their discoverers these days.

They don’t let you name asteroids, but discovering one is rather cool. If you find an Earth orbit crossing one, you can _potentially_ join the Planet Savior club. They’ll name stuff after you then.

If that’s not enough, start looking for a planet. They won’t let you name it too, but putting “found a planet” on your resume is very cool. Of course, there is a lot of debate if those huge Trans-Neptunian objects such as Pluto and 2003 UB313 aka Xena are really planets. I say the more the merrier. Xena is magnitude 19 by the way, which is bright enough to be seen in high end amateur telescopes in dark sky conditions.

There’s also the category of looking for major stuff that most probably isn’t there. Searching for planet Vulcan is likely to be futile, as Einstein explained away Mercury’s orbit.

Major planets probably have way more satellites than are catalogued. It’s probably impossible, but maybe the Moon might have one too? In any case, hunting for satellites might be fun.

Also, you have the Nemeses theory. It might just be that good ol’ Sol is really a binary star (binary stars are much more common than single ones) – Nemeses, it’s partner is a brown dwarf beyond the Oort Cloud. It’s possibly bright enough to be detected with an amateur scope. Now, that would be a discovery.

How do you look for all of that stuff? Well, you mostly line up and “blink” photographic images of the same piece of sky taken at different times. Most stars are so far away that they don’t change their positions. Planets, asteroids and satellites have larger proper motion and appear to move in blinked photos. A lot of them will be artificial satellites and already discovered stuff, but hey – you never know. Public astrophotographs are available for this sort of thing, and there are ways to cheaply rent time on professional telescopes over the web, but it’s not as fun and generating your own.

Even if your scope sucks and you live in a very light polluted place, you can still look for transient Lunar phenomena. Maybe you’ll see some aliens while you are at it.

Happy Winter Solstice

You know, it’s winter solstice and stuff. So on our lunch “hour” me and my wife went to see the Sun Triangle sculpture in front of McGraw Hill building do it’s thing.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

“In winter the Sun’s path across the sky stays low. Its rays align exactly with the lower side of the triangle at noon on the winter solstice (December 21), when the Sun ascends no higher than 23° in the sky. At noon on the spring and autumn equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the Sun’s elevation is intermediate, aligning exactly with the third (upper) leg of the triangle. No side of the triangle is vertical—for good reason. At no time of day and on no day of the year is the Sun directly overhead in New York City.”

Major disappointment. First of all it was cloudy. Second of all the lower edge of the triangle points directly at an ugly wedding cake skyscraper which name I don’t know.

Besides maybe I got the date wrong. According to most tables I’ve seen solar noon occurs on December 22nd in 2003, but I see a lot of references to it occurring on December 21st.

Bang! Zoom! To the Moon, Alice!

There is a big map of the Moon hanging above my bed. I bought it in Lowell Observatory’s gift shop. It hangs mostly as a decoration, I never spent much time studying it. My knowledge of Selenology is limited to being able to identify sea of Tranquility , sea of Crisis and craters Tycho and Copernicus. I suck.

Yesterday I was looking at the map. And here’s what I learned: right below Sea of Crises are seas of Waves (Undarum), Foam (Spumans) and Fertility (Fecunditatis). On most maps Fecunditatis is translated as “Fecundity“. One more SAT word.

And now – a Rorschach test.

I am planning on reviving Brooklyn College’s observatory. Unfortunately it has been closed for many years. When I asked to see it, I was told that inside everything is covered with pigeon poop and that it’s a health hazard. I never had the time to be more persistent in gaining access there, but maybe this year I’ll find some time. Supposedly there is a 7 inch planetary refractor there. I’ll have to spend some money and time, but it will be less than the price of such a scope, not even counting the fact that it’s in a rotating dome.

I think I’ll spend some time looking for TLPs, even though such research is poo-poohed by most astronomers.

One thing is for sure – I am going to invest in a nice lunar atlas. There are no good Moon maps on the Net.

What Do You Want to Drink Today?

I was always fascinated (yeah, yeah, I am easily fascinated) with project code names. There are lots of interesting stories connected with project names.

For instance, in the olden times Apple code named Power Macintosh 7100 “Sagan” in honor of Dr. Carl Sagan. He sued them for the use of his name. Apple developers renamed the project “BHA”. Which everybody knew stood for “Butt-Head Astronomer”. [by the way, I don’t know what the whole “Millions and millions” thing is about. I’ve never seen the show.]

Anyhoo, when I have some free time I will try to make a huge database of software, hardware project and military campaign name database. Oh, and server names. Those are a barrel of fun.

I searched for, but never found a list of all Microsoft project names. Tahoe, Longhorn, Chicago. I can never keep those straight.

One Microsoft project name in particular taught me something. One of the Pocket PC OS versions was code named “Talisker”. I did not know what “Talisker” was. I looked it up on the web, and then decided to try it. That’s how I got introduced to single malt scotch. And Talisker is still one of my favorites. :)