A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?
— Neil Gaiman, Stardust
We’re back! With this issue, the Celestial Observer has been re-launched as a quarterly publication. This will give VP and Editor in Chief Dick Luecke an opportunity to gather lots of interesting content and to format this seasonal newsletter in an engaging way. Please don’t hesitate to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know if you’d like to contribute an article to a future issue.
It is with high hopes that I welcome our 2016 board members, Dick Luecke, Ron Sampson, John Hobbs, Ray Ferland, and Bryan Stone, and I sincerely thank our outgoing President Ed Burke for his steady leadership and much appreciated efforts to streamline our meeting procedures and secure new observing sites. And many thanks are due to outgoing treasurer Kevin Ackert for his many years of service to NSAAC. We wish them both well.
Ed leaves behind a lot of the right stuff: a new meeting format that minimizes bureaucratic overhead and emphasizes entertaining and informative speakers, a new more accessible meeting place, and a total of five observing venues, two of which are literally just minutes away.
Several more changes are in the works. Among other things, we’re working on our social media presence with lots of new website updates (check out http://www.nsaac.org), Facebook changes and a new Twitter account; these things will take a little time to show results but will in the end bring us more accessible information, interested folks and new members. And there have been changes in the NSAAC clothing store. Check out the updated clothing line at: http://www.cafepress.com/nsaac.1301428685. Brewster LaMacchia will be posting events on the website and on our Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/northshoreastronomy/ . Those Facebook notices will also go out as tweets, as will every post, through our new account @NSAACNews. Follow us!
Our primary new observing site, Boy Scout Park in Boxford is plowed in the winter, allows observing right out of the back of your car, and is less than a mile from the Community Center. This will be a reliable and darker replacement for the VMP parking lot and will offer us all the opportunity to observe again after our Friday night meetings–if the weather ever permits. We also have a number of other local observing sites available to us, thanks in large part to the efforts of John Hobbs, who has done a lot of legwork. Don’t neglect to thank John when you see him.
Amateur astronomy means something a little different to just about everyone who engages in it, but I believe one thing stays constant: we do it because it’s fun. This is the single overarching truth about what we’re doing when we get together as a club, and as a club we forget it at our peril. We’re fortunate to belong to a great club with a long history of commitment to its members and to the public, a healthy bank account, several convenient observing sites and increasing meeting attendance. What’s not to like? We want you to come to meetings, have some fun with fellow astronomers, and to observe with us: these are the things we’ll be trying to facilitate in the coming year. I look forward to seeing everyone soon, at the Community Center and on the observing field.
NEAF Report, April 9-10, 2016
Photo: Kevin Hocker
Several amateur astronomers from our area made the four-hour trek to Suffern, New York, site of the annual Northeastern Astronomy Forum. Among them were Kevin Hocker, Dennis Gudzevich, Ron Sampson, Barry Yamtov, Mario Motta, and Jim Koerth.
Kevin was drawn to a standing room only presentation by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which recently sent back stunning images of the former ninth planet. “This was the highlight of the forum for me,” he said. “Stern’s presentation covered the Pluto flyby, its uniquely American ingenuity, and how that relates to space exploration and possible future Kuiper belt targets for New Horizons in 2017 and 2020.”
Photos: Kevin Hocker
NSAAC member Barry Yomtov also attended Alan Stern’s session in company with his 18-year old nephew Jake Effron, a budding astronomer and astrophotographer. And like Kevin, Barry rated it the highlight of his NEAF experience. “I found Alan’s talk very inspirational,” he said, “delivered with the same passion and enthusiasm that characterized the Apollo missions. And the newest images were spectacular. Even with the controversy over the classification of planetary bodies, Alan wanted to make sure that the public recognized the importance of Clyde Tombaugh’s 1930 discovery of Pluto, which set the stage for today’s exploration of the outer solar system.” Barry continued:
New Horizons is really a mission to understand the architecture of our solar system. Once the Kuiper belt was discovered in 1992, our perception of the solar system changed. The giant gaseous planets are now considered the middle solar system.
Editor’s note: Alan Sterns is an articulate, entertaining and inspirational speaker. Check out his NEAF 2014 presentation of the New Horizons mission and his critique of the International Astronomical Union’s controversial definition of “planethood,” which downgraded Pluto. You won’t be disappointed.
A presentation by Christopher Go, Astro Imager for the JUNO spacecraft, was also on Kevin Hocker’s NEAF to-do list. “Unlike previous space missions,” he reports, “professional scientists will not be the only ones producing the processed images, or even choosing which images to capture. Instead, the public, including amateur astronomers, will act as a virtual imaging team, participating in keys steps of the process, from identifying features of interest to sharing finished images online.”
Ted Blank, a recent emigrant from New England to Arizona, led another presentation: “Getting Started in Asteroid Occultation Timing.” He highlighted the work of the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), a volunteer science and research organization launched in 1983. Kevin encountered Ted later at the IOTA exhibit area booth, where Ted was demonstrating the occultation timing software and gear that amateur astronomers can use as citizen scientists.
Meanwhile, NSAAC members Dennis Gudzevich and Ron Sampson ventured into the financially perilous area of the Forum: The Exhibitors Hall. “We didn’t attend any talks,” Dennis told us later, “as our trip is all about the products.”
I was interested in checking out the 50mm Lunt Solar Telescopes, and was pleased to see that they had a double-stacked version of one at the solar star party. It performed amazing well. In my opinion, it clearly outperformed the double-stacked PST that was set up there, with the image noticeably brighter and more surface detail easily visible. The PST was no slouch though. Yes, it had a darker image, making detail harder to see, but a light hood would make it appear much better, as it does with mine.
I also wanted to check out the Lunt 8X32 SUNoculars. Unfortunately, the only way to try them was to buy them. So I bought a pair from Woodland Hills and waited until the Sun was out on Sunday for my first view. I was not disappointed! The contrast is very high in them, and though they have low power, I could easily see the large sunspot that was visible, and distinguish between its dark umbra and the lighter penumbra.
Ron was interested in the new turret eyepiece holder from a new company called astronSCIENTIFIC. They call it ROTARION, and it is the first automatic quick eyepiece changer for telescopes. It is definitely made for a better setup than I have, but seemed a good fit for Ron’s.
Another area of the Exhibitors Hall that captured Ron and Dennis’s attention was the Classic Telescope exhibit. Two old Unitron refractors were among the scopes on display; both had gravity drives. “I had never seen a gravity drive,” Dennis noted, “and was amazed that they could provide good accuracy with basically a weight on a long screw, pulled down by gravity, and moving the telescope.”
Photo: Barry Yomtov
Giving over to his own case of gear fever, Kevin Hocker reported stops at the booths of Teeter Telescopes and Celestron, among others. At the first he examined the construction, features and operation of Teeter’s new “Journey” compact travel scopes (which come in 10” and 11” apertures) and their travel cases (all that stands between Kevin and one of these scopes is a winning lottery ticket!). At the Celestron booth he was intrigued by three design features of that company’s new “Inspire” line of small refractors: a lens cap that doubles as a smart phone photo adaptor; an integrated red light tray lamp, which can be removed and used as a red flashlight; and the mount’s built-in folding accessory tray—one less thing to screw on during set-up.
Most of the other usual vendors were there, including Tony Costanza (Astronomy Shoppe).
FYI: NEAF is held on the campus of SUNY Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY, 28 miles north of NYC. Attendance fees this year were $25 (1-day) and $45 (2-day). The next NEAF gathering is scheduled for April 8-9, 2017. See
http://www.rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html for details.
Sky Objects of the Month
Glenn Chaple’s object for May is M100, a 9.5 magnitude, face-on spiral galaxy in Coma Berenices. As usual, Glenn has provided interesting text about this object’s discovery along with a handy star chart you can use to locate it. It’s all on the Club website (nsaac.org).
|M100 Photo: Mario Motta|
And while you’re at the website, check out Glenn’s pick for April: NGC 3077, a 9.9 magnitude Irregular Galaxy in Ursa Major. NGC 3077 is a small object visible in the same low power field as M81 and M82. This might be a tough one to see if your location is not particularly dark, but give it a try. If you fail, you’ll have M81 and M82 to feast on–always a treat.
If you’re new to the club or to astronomy, let Glenn’s monthly “Sky Object” articles be your guide. Each has a handy star chart and verbal description of the month’s object and how to locate it.
www.spotthestation.nasa.gov This is a handy source for the dates and times of International Space Station (ISS) flyovers. Just enter your country, state and city. Look for passes whose “Max height” is over 15 degrees. Otherwise the ISS may be hidden by trees or buildings.
www.cosmicpursuits.com A regular source of informative articles and notices sent to you by email.
www.moongiant.com This site will give you the moon phases for all of 2016.
http://cosmicpursuits.com/912/how-to-choose-astronomy-binoculars/ Thinking about a purchasing a binocular? This site explains the pros and cons of different types and what to look for.
www.eyesonthesky.com David Fuller provides instructional videos on many aspects of amateur astronomy. He also has sky charts you can download and print. Very useful! Better still, he offers plans for making neat stuff: like an attachment for taking pics through the eyepiece with your smart phone; a fold-up tripod for a table-top DOB (see photos); etc. Give it a look.
Photos: David Fuller
YouTube.com Entertain yourself and learn something new on PBS’s “Crash Course Astronomy.” There are 47 short, authoritative lessons in this series, all narrated by the astronomy world’s fastest talking man, Phil Plait. Go to YouTube and search for “crash course astronomy #1,”etc.
Getting Started in Astrophotography
With so many people getting into astroimaging—and many more thinking about it—we asked NSAAC member Dave Aucoin to share some of the things he has learned since dipping his toes into those waters a little over a year ago. Thanks, Dave.
I have always been fascinated with the pictures taken through telescopes. I had the good luck to know a very talented man who had the means to buy top-notch telescopes and cameras, like a Takahashi Mewlon. He took great pics with hypered film using nitrogen to cool down the film in order to eliminate reciprocity. That “old” technology has faded into the twilight. Today we have CCD and CMOS cameras, but alas, I’ve heard that CCD (charge coupled device) cameras will soon begin to disappear, with CMOS (complimentary metal oxide semiconductor) cameras becoming the new standard.
Inexpensive CMOS cameras can be bought today, but you will still pay at least $175 for a beginner model like the Celestron Neximage 5. One can spend upwards of $1,500 for a very good CMOS camera and more than $5,000 for excellent CCD cameras such as those sold by the SBIG.
Two Approaches to Imaging
There are two ways to image an astronomical object. The first is “lucky imaging,” that is, imaging planets and deep sky objects when perfect skies and weather conditions prevail. I say “skies” because there’s more to sky conditions than weather. You can go out any clear night and think that you have a pristine opportunity to shoot the planets or the moon, but the atmosphere has it’s own conditions to contend with—transparency, air turbulence, darkness, humidity and wind–and these will play into your imaging plans.
Typically, I do not venture out for imaging if the wind is more than 10 mph because it will shake the telescope and ruin my images. Watching Jupiter shake wildly on my laptop screen gets to be annoying. When that happens I have two choices: wait until the wind dies down or take shaky images and try to process the heck out of them to get a good image. Lucky imaging is also a faster approach to imaging an object because it involves nothing more than a One Shot Camera (OSC), such as the color CMOS camera I’m currently using.
The second way to image involve the use of a monochrome camera and a filter wheel with red, blue, green (RBG) and Luminance filters, each on it’s own wavelength; these are combined in post-processing to render a color image. I only take Luminance images, because the colors, RGB, are already incorporated into the CMOS chip processing firmware. This also involves taking many individual images, say 5 seconds each for 10, 20, 1,000 times and then taking those 1,000’s of images, stacking all of them into a single image, and then post-processing to get a final picture.
Here is the process: Align your scope, whether Alt/Az or equatorial. Set up your camera for focus while attached to the telescope. Start up your image-taking software, which, for me, is Firecapture. Select an object, say Jupiter. Set the exposure time, gain, and ROI (region of interest). The smaller the ROI, the more frames per second you can achieve. Watch your histogram, doing so will help you get a good result. Finally, hit the start button, sit back, and watch the images accumulate.
A typical exposure of Jupiter is about 60 seconds because the planet is so bright. The other planets have different brightness’s, so exposure times will vary. Deep sky objects (DSOs) imaging involves basically the same techniques as planetary, and the same processing, but the gain is noticeably stronger because DSOs are so much fainter, although some can be as bright as Neptune when it is in the good parts of the sky (i.e., 40 degrees or more above the horizon). When using Firecapture, just select your target before you hit start; the software will automatically select the best exposure, gain and imaging time. The images taken are usually in AVI format, but you can also get SER, MOV, BMP and TIFF.
After you get your images, you can post-process them in two popular programs: Autostakkert!2, which will select the best images as determined by the slider for which you select in percentages, typically 50%. It then analyzes your data, selects the best 50% of your images and stacks them into a final image. This is still raw data and needs to be further tweaked in a program called Registax 6, using wavelets to get the right histogram, RGB channels, curves, brightness, contrast, etc. Even after fiddling with all those sliders, you may or may not come out with a perfect image. It takes practice and I am still learning, even after a year of imaging.
What camera should you consider? I recommend the ZWO line. They have good models ranging from $229 up to $700 for their cooled cameras, which reduce the “noise” of the image while recording. The model I use, the ZWO ASI224MC, is an OSC (One Shot Color), which makes it easy to image without taking separate color channels and combining them to produce a full color image. You can, however, buy the monochrome camera, which is a bit more expensive, and purchase separate filters and a filter wheel.
My camera cost $359 and came with the USB 3.0 cable, an All Sky lens, caps and software CD. I added a 0.5 focal length reducer, IR/UV blocking filter, different length spacers to reduce or gain in image size, and a 2X barlow for taking planetary shots. I plan to purchase an IR 850nm filter for taking pics in infrared of the planets, a CH4 Methane filter, again for taking planetary pics and, eventually, an expensive UV filter for capturing detail on Venus. In the future, I may purchase the cooled version of my camera..
ZWO cameras range in price from $259 for the ZWO ASI 120MC camera to $699 for the cooled version and up to $1,180 for the newer 1600MC. The company just released two new models, the 290MC and the 1600MC, also available in monochrome. All are CMOS cameras and all come in USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 versions, but I suspect ZWO is leaning towards USB 3.0-only cameras in the near future.
There are other considerations to take into account when you buy a camera. Pixel size, QE peak factor (how much data can be accumulated before being dumped into the image),low noise factor, shutter (whether global or rolling shutter), bit rate, and FPS (frames per second ability–the more frames per second, the better the image), exposure range, resolution and interface (USB 2 or 3). My camera has one of the best low noise features, but a smaller QE peak factor and pixel size is pretty good as well.
Here is the ZWO website: http://astronomy-imaging-camera.com/. Check out their camera line and find the one that is right for you!
If you have any questions, email me at email@example.com –Dave Aucoin
Upcoming NSAAC Events
It’s about time for everyone to get outside and begin feeding the mosquitos. With that in mind, there is a list of scheduled events:
NSAAC monthly meetings: Friday, June 3 and Friday, August 5, 8PM at the Boxford Community Center, 2nd floor. There will be no July meeting.
NSAAC sponsored star parties:
May 26 Witchcraft Height Elementary School, Salem
June 2. Public event at Sagamore Hill, Hamilton (Essex Greenbelt), Cloud date. June 7.
June 14. River Valley Charter at Salisbury Beach Campground. No cloud date.
Get in touch with Brewster LaMacchia (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you can volunteer your scope and time for any of these events.
Collins Observatory is closed for the summer. It will reopen in September on its usual schedule: Monday when SSU is open and the sky is clear.
Mendel Observatory Merrimack College’s observatory is open every Wednesday from dusk until 10 p.m. when the sky is clear. Check http://nsaac.org/about-the-club/merrimack-college-mendel-observatory/ before driving out.
Upcoming Non-NSAAC Events
The 8th Annual Acadia Night Sky Festival, September 22-25, 2016. Yes, it’s a way off, but it’s not too early to start planning. As always, this year’s Festival will be packed with a full schedule of events: daytime workshops, internationally recognized speakers, solar viewing, and nighttime observing from one of the darkest locales on the eastern seaboard.
GAAC Summer Star Parties at Halibut Point State Park. The schedule for these three summer events in Rockport is being finalized with the park; stay tuned to the listserve for details when they become available. Scopes are always appreciated, and there is always observing afterwards at this mag 6 site.
Article Proposals Welcomed!
The Celestial Observer welcomes proposals for original articles of 500-900 words. Do you have something you’d like to share with NSAAC members: recommended telescopic targets for the upcoming season? an equipment review? your experience with something that others might try, such as renting time on a large on-line telescope? If you do, send a brief proposal to email@example.com.