Looking to the Sky…

It’s been a while since I used my telescope, and with Jupiter, the Moon and Venus so near to each other in the evening sky, I thought it was time to dust it off.  I was quite keen to get out and do some observing, so I set up the telescope before sunset, and made sure it was collimated. Thank goodness for laser collimators, as I got the scope collimated in 10 minutes, as opposed to the good half hour it used to take me.

Once the sky was dark enough to see the brighter stars I set up the scope, and had a look at the crescent moon.  I always enjoy looking at the different phases of the moon, as there is always something interesting to see, particularly on the edge of the light and dark parts of the moon, when the details of the mountains and craters are most obvious.  I turned the scope to Venus next, and enjoyed the view of its crescent phase as well.

For me, though, the highlight was the chance to see Jupiter.  Jupiter is definitely one of my favourites to observe, and while I don’t have an eyepiece with enough magnification to see a lot of surface detail, the ever-changing positions of the Galilean moons is always rewarding.  The other rewarding aspect of astronomy is seeing other people’s reactions when they see something for the first time.

Last night it was my wife and mother-in-law having their first experience.  My wife has done a bit of observing with me, but she’s not had a chance to see Venus with a pronounced crescent phase, nor has she seen Jupiter.  Both of them found the sight of the moon amazing, and loved Jupiter and Venus too.  I still haven’t found anything to show my wife which will replace Saturn as her favourite thing to view, though.

As the evening darkened I decided to see if I could get a photo of the moon through the scope.  After much messing around I managed to get my phone camera lined up with the eyepiece, and snapped a few shots.  I was quite happy with the result, to be honest.  They’re not the greatest shots, being blurred from my hand movements, but there’s still a nice amount of detail.

Clearly if I want to do more of this sort of thing I’ll need a way of attaching a camera to the scope.  A bit of messing around this afternoon suggests it might be possible to rig up a mount strong enough to hold a small compact digital camera.  While I won’t be photographing deep sky objects with such a set up, it will be more than enough to get some half decent shots of the moon, and maybe planets.

Crescent Moon
Crescent moon, captured on iPhone 6 camera using eyepiece projection.

Adventures in Astronomy…

It’s been an exciting week in astronomy.  The big event was the transit of Venus, where Venus traveled across the face of the sun as seen from here on earth.  You could be excused for thinking that this might happen fairly frequently, and thus not be worth getting excited about, but that’s not the case.

As it happens, due to some peculiarities about the orbits of Earth and Venus, we only see a transit of Venus happen fairly infrequently.  We see two transits about 8 years apart, and then nothing for over 100 years.  This transit this week was the last one until 2117, a gap of 105 years.  So, unless there’s a fairly major medical breakthrough, none of us currently on the planet will see another one in our lifetimes.

I considered taking some or all of the day off from work to go look through telescopes to see it, but my conscience, and the need to fix stuff for a customer got the better of me. Instead I satisfied myself by watching a live Internet feed of the event. While I guess it’s not the same as seeing the transit through a scope, at least I did get to see it.

I think perhaps that watching the transit on a computer may have been a little less exciting than seeing it live through a telescope, and it got me thinking about an event which sparked my interest in Astronomy.  Back in 1986, I was lucky enough to see Halley’s Comet (and boy do I feel old when I realise that it was 26 years ago…).  I was in primary school at the time, and we learned1 a bit about the comet, and a few bits and pieces about astronomy.

I can remember bugging my dad to take me outside to see the comet at some ungodly hour of the morning, and while the small fuzzy blob I saw wasn’t anywhere near as spectacular as the pictures I’d seen, it was still enough to spark what has been an ongoing interest ever since.  I can’t help but wonder if the transit of Venus has had the same effect on a new generation of budding astronomers.

About Time…

Late last week I was searching the ‘Net, trying to see if there was any chance of finding amateur astronomers near me that I could meet up with.  I’d tried the Astronomical Society of Tasmania, with limited success.  The site had information about past meetings nearby, but the last one was almost 2 years ago.  I was beginning to think that perhaps they’d all been abducted by aliens or something.

I struck pay-dirt on Friday, when I noticed that the list of events had been updated to include a statewide meet up, and it was being held a short distance from me.  Score!  I hastily made plans to go after I finished work on Saturday.

Saturday came, with the first thick fog of the year.  The rest of the day was pretty cloudy, but the forecast was for a clear night, so I crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.  I headed out to the observing site mid afternoon, and arrived about 4pm.

I wandered around, looking in awe at the collection of telescopes already set up.  I was a bit nervous, truth be told, as I knew nobody there, so I just said hi to the first person who wasn’t in the middle of setting up their scope, and introduced myself.  Turns out, I’d no need to be nervous, as everyone was incredibly friendly.

The observing session was just what the doctor had ordered.  While I enjoy getting my scope out by myself, it’s an entirely different experience to be able to do it as part of a group.  As part of a group, you can call on the knowledge of other people, something I found invaluable.

Highlights of the night for me were:
1) Getting my telescope correctly collimated, which improved the views I was getting to the point where it felt like I had a different telescope.
2) Meeting other people who share the same interests, and being able to share their knowledge (it’s safe to say that I learned more in one night about practical astronomy than I’ve learned elsewhere).
3) Being able to pass on my knowledge to others.

The worst bit about this is that I’m determined to purchase a much larger telescope so that I’ll be able to see faint objects a lot easier.  Of course, having tried a few different telescopes and eyepieces, I have a much better idea of what I want to buy, it’s just a case of finding it at the right price.  Well, that and actually saving the money for it first, too…

Our Place in the Universe.

I chanced upon a fascinating video while reading an astronomy forum this morning.  In 1996 and 2004, astronomers using the Hubble space telescope pointed it at two apparently blank areas of sky for over 10 days each time.  The results they got are nothing more than amazing.

Rather than getting a blank picture, what they recorded was over 3000 galaxies in the 1996 image, and over 10000 galaxies in the second.  This video has a run down of the results, and what they mean.  Even more impressively, the astronomers measured the red shift of the galaxies, and used the data to create a 3d representation of the space these galaxies inhabit.

It’s worth noting that the area of sky imaged in each case was incredibly tiny (likened to the area covered by a grain of sand held at arms length), meaning that there are a mind boggling number of galaxies throughout our universe.