Bertha Bites the Dust (AGAIN!)

I was hoping that this web site would serve as a great tool for posting exciting observations and cool astrophotos that I imaged with my new camera. Bertha returned last year on the dubious day of September 11th, and has really worked well since her return. On Friday night I opened the dome and went about some visual observing of Saturn and other goodies. Shortly after telling Bertha to slew to a new location, the Autostar handset started blinking and beeping and I had to turn off the scope to reset it. This meant that lost my polar alignment and would have to realign the scope before continuing any GOTO activities.

Enjoying the clear sky, I decided to manually flip the scope over, pointing to Polaris, and began the process of alignment. After about 10 minutes or so, I slewed to Leo and wanted to observe the deep sky elements in that constellation. Slewing from one Messier object to the next, I was pleased that the scope brought each object into nearly the center of my 26mm eyepiece. I got lost in the sites of clusters and galaxies, and eventually started feeling the cold. I decided to call it a night and parked the scope. This time, however, instead of the scope slewing to the normal park position, it stopped halfway and was done. I had to turn off the scope, which meant for the second time that night I lost my alignment.

As you can imagine, I was beyond perturbed, and called Meade as soon as I could on Monday. After I explained the hundreds of hours lost in the past six months since her last repair, they agreed to service it again. Fortunately I still had the shipping boxes left from the last delivery, so off she went today. I just hope it doesn't take ANOTHER three months. There goes another Messier marathon down the drain. Better luck next year I guess.

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New Camera!

Thanks to my awesome wife, Bertha has a new pair of eyes. Well, one eye, really. She gave me a Meade DSI Pro III CCD camera for Christmas! My first photo with it tonight, stopping only to share my excitement, pour some wine, and eat dinner is to the left.

First photo with DSI Pro III
First photo with DSI Pro III
The camera is awesome and so is the software that came with it. Although the moon is quite bright tonight, I'm going to try my hand at some other objects later.

The Autostar Suite software that came for free with the camera is really terrific to use. It has taken out many of the issues I've had with other attempts, including autoexposure and auto-stacking of multiple images. I slewed the scope to the moon and selected the area I wanted to image, and clicked "Start." After I manually focused, it took 30 images and stacked the best. Here we go!

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Starry Christmas Gifts

Inspired by the August 27th podcast titled, "Need a Unique Birthday Gift? “Buy” a Birthday Star"  from the 365 Days of Astronomy, I thought I would share my views on the topic.  Patrick McQuillan and his son Ryan did a fabulous job presenting the rather silly side of buying a star in someone's name. I did a little research and found for any where from *9.95 to a whopping $154.95, I could name a star for someone. The "Ultimate Kit" included some very exciting components:

Beautiful 12" X 16" full color parchment certificate personalized with the star name, date and coordinates. The certificate comes beautifully double matted in a gold metallic frame. The outer mat is a cream colored "flannel" and the inner mat is a dark delft blue which matches the colors in the certificate.

A Personalized 12" X 16" sky chart containing the star name, star date, the constellation and the location circled in red where the star is in the sky. The personalized star chart is framed also in this package. The frame measures 20" X 16" and matches the frame in the Deluxe package.

A booklet on astronomy written by a professional astronomer with additional sky charts.

A letter of congratulations/memorial for the recipient.

The package also includes a complimentary personalized wallet card imprinted with the star name and coordinates.


My favorite is the wallet card. Imagine how many times the recipient will whip that out at a party and share it with friends and family. A gift that keeps on giving. Granted, there is "some" value in two items that are framed. At least you get two frames to put something of real value in later. Second, this kit was offered by the one and only "International Star Registry."  Please note, there is one and only one organization in the world that has anything to do with the naming of stars. It is the International Astronomical Union which also has a very interesting article on this topic. This is the group that declared Pluto was now considered a dwarf planet and reduced our solar system to eight planets.

So, if you want to name a star for someone, send me the $100 and I'll do the same ridiculous things as the online services and store the registration in my own official registry which is as real and official as those online. However, if you want to do something fun that is a little more real, make up a certificate for a "Birth Star". No, there isn't a registry and no one's name will be attached. What I'm suggesting is do a search on star distances and pick one that is the same number of light years away as the receiver. This means that the light that everyone sees left that star the year the person was born. It's a gift that you can keep on giving each year, as you'll have to pick a different star, but hey, it's free and it's fun, and it's not a load of junk that the star naming sites offer.


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Winter Solstice

When people are asked the question, "What causes the seasons on Earth?" the most frequent answer is our distance from the sun. Unfortunately, for our science teachers success record, that is not the correct answer. The reason for the seasons is that the Earth is tilted towards or away from the sun. When it's winter time, we are tilted away from the sun, so the sun light glances off the planet and is also lower in the sky, giving us much less energy and much less heat than in the summer.

The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical) seasons as seen from the north and ignoring the atmosphere (no clouds, no twilight).
The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical) seasons as seen from the north and ignoring the atmosphere (no clouds, no twilight).
The Winter Solstice occurs exactly when the earth's axial tilt is farthest away from the sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. Though the Winter Solstice lasts an instant in time, the term is also colloquially used like Midwinter to refer to the day on which it occurs. For most people in the high latitudes this is commonly known as the shortest day and the sun's daily maximum position in the sky is the lowest. The seasonal significance of the Winter Solstice is in the reversal of the gradual lengthening of nights and shortening of days. The Winter Solstice is also the shortest day or lowest sun position for people in low latitudes located between the Tropic of Cancer (23°26'N) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23°26'S). Depending on the shift of the calendar, the winter solstice occurs some time between December 21 and December 22 each year in the Northern Hemisphere, and between June 20 and June 21 in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminid meteor showing is about to happen, peaking December 13th-14th. The good news is that this meteor shower starts around 9:00, so we don't have to wait until the wee hours of the morning like we did with the Leonids. The dust that cause the Geminids doesn't originate from a comet, but instead is thought to be from an asteroid called Phaethon. The particles will be traveling around 86,000, and are believed to be the remnants of when Phaethon may have been a comet. Perhaps it traveled too many times thorugh our solar system that it lost all of its icy shell and now it's just a rock? That shell is what we hope to see tomorow night. Hope you have clear skys and dress warmly!

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Leonid Meteor Shower

Late on Monday night, around 4:00 am EST, the Leonid meteor shower will be in full force. Expected to be better than average this year with about 500 meteors per hour, we should be in for a real treat. The Earth is passing through the debris left by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle as it passed through our solar system in 1466.

The image on the left shows Leo at the center, which is where the name originates. The meteors don't actually come "through" Leo, but it gives the viewer the impression that they do. Plus, if you're looking towards Leo, you will have a better chance of seeing them. The image on the right is from Sky and Telescope magazine's article on the event.

A meteor storm is when there are 1000 or more seen per hour, so this will be "half a storm." But, many of the meteor showers we see are around 100 or so per hour, so this should be a real treat. Again, the time to first see them is Monday night, which is technically Tuesday morning. It will be repeated the following night to some degree as well. Either way, you won't likely see much of anything until after midnight. Let me know if you like the show!

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Bertha's in the House (Dome, actually)

Taking a gamble that UPS was more reliable than Meade's estimate, I reported yesterday that Bertha was due to arrive today. Fortunately the gamble paid off and Bertha was delivered! After carrying the box inside and unpacking her, I carried up to her spot in the dome and set her back up. This time when I turned on the power, the handset actually lit up properly and the buttons worked.

Of course, Bertha came home on a rainy night. The only good news is that I was able to get her inside before the rain started. I also tested the declination drive by slewing the scope a bit manually, and it sounded much better than when I shipped her away, so hopefully they adjusted that too.

I say, "Hopefully" because I received nothing in the way of documentation on what was done. I guess when you're getting service done "for free" on an insurance package they can do whatever they want. I still would like to know what they repaired or replaced. Oh well. The good news is that after almost three months, I'm back in business. Now for some clear skies!

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Bertha Returns

It seems like forever ago since I was able to gaze at the stars with Bertha. In fact, I reported on July 1st that Bertha has Brain Damage and the AutoStar II controller wasn't responding. Even after receiving a new one from Meade, I was getting the same results. The hand controller was completely dead and the scope wouldn't respond. The only option was to ship it back to Meade in California.

Fortunately, I purchased the Sky Assurance package, which as of this repair has paid for itself. The program includes shipping in both directions, including sending the shipping materials to you, so I avoided tons of shipping charges for a hundred pound instrument. Plus, all the repairs were included, so that saved a ton too.

So, Bertha went back to the factory, which is actually now in Mexico, to be repaired. I'm assuming the main board in the base of the yoke was replaced. I also had them check the declination motor, as it was starting to act funny as well. With fingers crossed, I hope to be able to report tomorrow night that Bertha is back in the dome and functioning properly again.

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See Sun Spot(s)

Many of my stargazing friends spend a lot of time look at our day time star. No wonder, as it yields a number of interesting sights. Thanks to a tip from my friend Bill, who helped me build the observatory, he told me that after a two-year low in the number of sun spots to see, there are now some to view. Jumping on the chance to try out my solar filter, I manually guided and focused my brain-dead telescope and found my first sun spots ever.

Sun Spots
Sun Spots
As the picture at right shows, those little dark spots, which have to be many times larger than the size of the Earth, showed up in Bertha. It was a bit of a challenge to get it to focus reasonably well, and I can't see the actual bubbling of the Sun's surface, but the spots are definitely there, as you can see.

On a much larger scale, I checked on the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), to see an image of the sun spots from space. SOHO was launched on December 2, 1995. The SOHO spacecraft was built in Europe by an industry team led by prime contractor Matra Marconi Space (now EADS Astrium) under overall management by ESA. The twelve instruments on board SOHO were provided by European and American scientists. Nine of the international instrument consortia are led by European Principal Investigators (PI's), three by PI's from the US. Large engineering teams and more than 200 co-investigators from many institutions supported the PI's in the development of the instruments and in the preparation of their operations and data analysis. NASA was responsible for the launch and is now responsible for mission operations. Large radio dishes around the world which form NASA's Deep Space Network are used for data downlink and commanding. Mission control is based at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

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Starkle, Starkle, Little Twink

Some months ago my mother shared this little version of every astronomer's favorite nursery rhyme:

Starkle, starkle, little twink,
Who the heck you are I think?
I ain't under the alchofluence of inklehol,
As some thinkle peep I are.
The drunker I sit,
The longer I git.
I fool so feelish,
I don't care see who's me.

Happy 4th of July!

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