Planet hunting with data from the Kepler satellite

The Kepler satellite is looking at 150,000 stars, searching for planets as they transit these stars. Although software sifts through the science data to search for transits, the human eye is can often find transits that the software miss. If you’d like to look through Kepler science data for planets that the software missed, go to Planethunters.org. There is also a very nice article from Time that describes “Hunting for Planets from the Comfort of Your Own Home

The Herald-Bobroff Astroatlas

Review by Bill Travis

I first saw this atlas at the Sterling Star Party. David Dunn had it in his collection, along with Sky Atlas 2000.0 and the old Skalnate-Pleso Atlas of the Heavens (which was fun to look at and brought back memories of the 1960s when it was the best an amateur could get). Needing to purchase an atlas, I tested all three on a group of obscure galaxies that Bill Possel showed me one night at Pawnee, and the Herald-Bobroff was the only one of the three atlases that had them all.

This is an unusual star atlas for several reasons. It is Australian, and went out of print in 2002. Then Robert Haler, owner of Lymax, an astronomy store near Kansas City, decided to buy the rights to reprint it. Lymax was apparently forced to trim the sheet size to suit U.S. printing presses, which reduced the size (and scale) of the maps slightly. Also, in comparing my new copy with David Dunn’s original at Fox Park in July, I noticed that the print was less distinct, that is, the ink saturation was lower and some of the lines and symbols less readable, especially under dim red light. The atlas comes ring bound, and only in black objects on white paper. It is thick: 214 charts, arrayed in six series at increasing scales (that is, covering a smaller and smaller part of the sky, in increasing detail and limiting magnitude).

If you want to find pretty much everything there is to see (without benefit of the HST that is) in, say, Puppis, you start with the all-sky chart A-02, which points you to chart B-12 (or to BS-12, which is the same map with south at the top for southern observers — the atlas is Australian, after all; there is also a BM-12 which is the same as B-12 except that all star magnitudes are plotted); then you are referred to the C-series chart that suits you (several of which touch on Puppis). So you try C-69, which adds stars to 10 or 11.5 mag (depending on the chart) and gets really busy. Finally you’re at D-22, with the same stars but larger scale, so it is less crowded (the last two offering more deep sky objects than you could have imagined). Four parts of the sky (the Virgo galaxy cloud, the Magellanic Clouds, and Carina) have an even more detailed E Chart (Virgo goes to 13 mag stars and 15 mag objects).

In addition to variable-scale maps, the other unusual aspect of the HB Atlas is its symbology for deep sky objects. An amazing amount of information about each object is encoded in the symbol. Galaxy symbols (the well known ellipse) are angled, notched, dotted and spiked to tell you PA, inclination, morphology, and size. The simple square for bright nebula is notched or spiked in no less than 37 ways, to tell you everything from brightness to color, to shape, to source of its light (emission, reflection, or both). These examples only scratch the surface of this celestial cartography run amok, and even the authors recognize that they have so left Norton’s in the dust that some users may be overwhelmed. Though, as they suggest, I’ve found that even without deciphering all their deep sky Morse code, the atlas can still be used effectively. It served me well for navigating areas rich in galaxies, though I haven’t memorized all the symbols, and didn’t wish to further loose night vision by staring at the legend (a full-size, laminated, loose version of the legend is included).

One weakness is that the atlas does not outline nebula even on the more detailed charts; the squares or diamonds just get bigger. And navigating the H-B atlas can be as difficult as navigating the actual sky. Trying to balance the atlas on my lap, perched on a stool at my 9.25 SCT, resulted in it impaled on a few cacti at Pawnee. It weighs in at 3.4 pounds. In fact, though some of you may think it unconscionable to perform surgery on a book, I believe that a strong dose of exigesis is in order. Though the binding does not encourage it, I plan to cut out the entire BS (southern perspective) and maybe BM (magnitude-listing) series to lighten the load.

My copy arrived with a small blemish on one of the plastic pages and the back cover not properly attached to the ring, but otherwise I’m happy with the atlas. Still, the slightly reduced chart size, scale, and print quality might recommend searching for a used copy of the original.

The Herald-Bobroff Astroatlas
by D. Herald and P. Bobroff
Canberra, Australia (1994)
Now licensed to Lymax’s Earth, Sky and Astronomy Inc.
Independence, MO (2003)
$79.95 plus $5.00 shipping;
see: www.lymax.com

Ohio Astronomical Places

by Bill Possel

When you think of famous astronomical places, Ohio probably isn’t very high on your list. Yet, there are a few lesser known but quite interesting sites in the Buckeye State that have made significant contributions to the science. One is the home of the late Leslie Peltier, author of Starlight Nights: The Adventures of a Star-Gazer, and the other is the Cincinnati Observatory.

Delphos, Ohio is a small, rural town on the north-western side of the state, about 20 miles from Lima. I have read Peltier’s book, Starlight Nights, several times and was fascinated by his experiences. David Levy describes the book as “Many books explain how to observe the sky; Starlight Nights explains why. I have not encountered a single work that comes close to capturing the passion of skywatching.” Peltier lived in Delphos his entire life, from 1900 to 1980. There he made 132,000 variable star observations and discovered 12 comets and 6 nova, most of them with a 6″ telescope.

My Mom lives in Lima (and bought me the book several years ago) so it was an easy to convince her to make the field trip with me. The town has changed very little from when Peltier was alive but much of the surrounding farm land is now housing developments. The Delphos library was well prepared for tourists and had a thick binder of newspaper and magazine articles about Peltier. One thing that struck me was how famous Leslie was in astronomical circles but locally an unknown. Astronomers such as Walter Scott Houston, David Levy and Harlow Shapley came to see him! It wasn’t until late in his life that the town realized they had a famous amateur astronomer in their midst. In front of the library are two markers; one from the Ohio Historical Society and the other from the American Association of Variable Star Observers. His home is on the edge of town and his wife, now 95 years old, still lives there. Unfortunately, his observatory deteriorated over the years and was taken down.

The next stop was my annual pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Observatory. This was my fifth visit but as always, I learned something new. The observatory is located on top of a hill in an older part of town called Mt Lookout. I attended one of their public nights but the weather didn’t cooperate. So instead we had a wonderful lecture and tour from the staff.

The observatory was founded by Ormsby McKnight Mitchel (who later discovered the “Mountains of Mitchel” on Mars) in 1842. He was a professor and generated local interest in astronomy through a series of lectures. The Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS) was formed by Mitchel and 300 “shareholders” who helped fund the new telescope. Mitchel had the observatory building constructed and bought a 12 inch objective lens from the famous physicist, Fraunhofer of Munich. It was originally intended to be for another telescope at the Czar’s observatory in Pulkova, Russia, but when Fraunhofer died before the lens was finished, the Czar was no longer interested in having it. Mitchel heard about the lens and worked a deal with Fraunhofer’s company to purchase it. This lens was later refigured to 11 inches and the refractor’s tube shortened. The telescope was built by Merz und Mahler and is the oldest telescope still in use in the US.

One historic tidbit is that the scope made one of the observations which confirmed the discovery of Neptune. The story is that Mitchel’s wife made the observation and the report was telegraphed to the Berlin Observatory. The 160+ year old telescope tube is still the original ash wood, veneered with mahogany, and in excellent condition. Instead of baffles, the wood tube tapers from 11 inches at the upper end to a couple inches at the eyepiece. In 1904 another observatory building was added and the new owners, the University of Cincinnati, purchased a 16 inch Alvin Clark & Sons. During the 1900’s both telescopes were active in minor planet research and public education.travel

Today the Cincinnati Observatory Center, a partnership between the university, the observatory’s neighborhood residents, and the local amateur astronomers, manages the buildings and grounds. These magnificent telescopes are still active today with classes for local K-12 schools and amateurs giving public viewing sessions. Also, the Friends of the Observatory and the Cincinnati Astronomical Society are working to develop techniques to use the scopes for variable star measurements and extrasolar planet search.

The University of Cincinnati continues to fund the observatory but the center hopes to run operations independently within the next five years. The local community and the amateurs seemed determined to keep this going and I believe the “O” will continue to inspire future astronomers for years to come. If you’re ever in the area, make sure you visit it.

For more information, their website is http://www.cincinnatiobservatory.org/

Building Portable Observatory Panels

by Bill Travis

Even under suburban skies I want to use my backyard for deep sky observing so avoiding stray light is important, and I do suffer neighbor lights. So I built a set of light-blocking portable observatory panels. Arranged in a semi-circle around my observing spot, they create a nice dark area, room for scope, chair, table, etc. and some protection from cold breezes in winter.

DIY Observatory Panels
DIY Observatory Panels
I made seven using one inch pvc pipe as a frame with dark cloth attached. I’m not very handy, but the commercial alternative would cost over $600 for what I made with about $140 of material. Here’s the recipe: The pipe comes in 120 in. lengths, so I made the panels 74 in. tall (to block light even from a standing position) by 46 in. wide. Cut the pipe at 74 in. (one up-right), and the left-over is one cross-member. You’re always one cross-bar short (because you need three per panel) as you cut the pipes. Cut the up-rights in half for a t-connector to add a mid-height, stiffening cross-member. The pipe cuts easily with pretty much any saw that happened to be at hand in the messy garage. Each panel needs four elbow and two “t” connectors. I bought the glue for these but ended up not using it, the pieces fit snuggly and I thought I might want to disassemble some panels.

The big challenge is the light-blocking material and attaching it. I went cheap, and used a woven black weed barrier (comes in a big roll, so each panel is just pennies worth of material). I doubled it up on the top (this cuts a nearby street light nicely), used one thickness across the bottom (not as critical because well below eye level), cut it roughly to overlap the frame, and screwed in to the pvc using a small, drilled guide hole, and one inch screws with a wide washer to grab the fabric. As many screws as you like, but I just used corners, intersections, and each cross-bar middle. So, no hemming or sewing! I let the top panel flop over the bottom and all sides hide the white pvc pipe.

I first used cheap (97 cent) two inch clamps to hinge the panels together (two per hinge; 12 total for my seven panels), but they didn’t work well, so went with better ($4-5) clamps that have a 2-inch interior space when closed and a lock-release trigger. The panels swing quite nicely on this “hinge.” Set up is just a few minutes from the garage, two at a time (can’t imagine traveling with them, but they could be broken in half, and depends on vehicle; anyway, light is usually not a problem at star parties). The set-up handles wind up to 10 mph if configured to shed the breeze, but this is a lot of sail area and would need guy lines in any more wind.

Article copyright Bill Travis. Reproduced with permission.

Messier Marathon Observing Report

by Mike Luckow

Here’s a report on the Messier Marathon that three of us attempted on the night of Friday, March 11, 2005, at Cactus Flats. The participants were Jim Adams, who is also a BASS member, Dr. Shane Rea, and myself (Mike Luckow). Also, Bill Travis was with us off and on until almost midnight, and he kindly helped us identify a few of the objects. Thanks, Bill!

I’m fairly new to astronomy, and I used my Meade 12” LX200GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain “go-to” scope for the marathon. I know that it’s considered “cheating” by some people to use a go-to scope for a Messier Marathon, and I know that Messier Marathons aren’t even “real” astronomy at all. I just thought that it would be fun to see all those objects in one night anyway, and it was! I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is interested.

Mike Luckow's Messier Marathon at Cactus Flats
Mike Luckow’s Messier Marathon at Cactus Flats
Altogether, we managed to see 106 of the 109 Messier Objects. (According to Steven James O’Meara, the author of “Deep Sky Companions: The Messier Objects,” in an article in the March, 2005, issue of Sky and Telescope, it has now been concluded that M102 is the same object as M101, which makes the total number of Messier Objects 109, not 110.)

We started as soon as it was dark enough to see anything, and there were some scattered clouds to the west, but we eventually found all the Messier Objects in the western sky through gaps in the clouds except M74, unfortunately.

Working our way from the west to the east horizon, we were able to see about 70 objects by the time we went to bed in our tent at 1:30 a.m. We gave the world a couple hours to turn some more to expose the rest of the objects in the sky, and we dragged ourselves out of bed at 3:30 to start looking at them. We knew ahead of time that we wouldn’t be able to see M30 because it was rising immediately before sunrise, when the sky would be much too bright to see it. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to see M72 because it was too close to the eastern horizon and there was a little too much light there at the time, so we saw 106 Messier Objects altogether (all but M74, M72, and M30).

Anyway, it was a lot of fun even though there was some wind and blowing dust at times. I’d definitely like to try it again, and hopefully be able see all 109 of them in one night. We learned a few tricks that will help us be a little more efficient next time. For example, when morning twilight began, we should have started looking at the eastern-most objects at the end of the list and worked our way backwards toward the west where the sky was darker. Also, we spent a lot of time admiring the features and structures of the first 30 objects or so, and we didn’t get much sleep as a result. Next time, we’ll move more quickly during the marathon and spend more time looking at features in more detail on other nights.