Sunday, June 2, 2019


I have just gotten back from a scheduled HAL Star Party at Alpha Ridge Park. The company alone was worth the drive out there, although the conditions were marginal at best. I kept waiting for Jupiter to make its appearance, until I realized that what I thought was just unusually bad light pollution to the east was actually an impenetrable cloud bank. No Jupiter. High, thin clouds over the rest of the sky drowned out all but the brightest stars no matter where you looked. Frustrated in looking in other directions, I finally settled in on the Big Dipper, which was in the darkest part of the sky this night.

I slowly scanned the sky from star to star making up this most famous of asterisms, until I came upon Mizar and Alcor. Ahh.. finally, the gods were smiling upon me. I must have observed this beautiful stellar pair for a good 20 minutes or so. With enough aperture Mizar is, of course, amongst the easiest of double stars to split, and although due to the conditions I had only bothered to set up my 60mm Stellarvue refractor (my smallest scope), I enjoyed to the utmost what was still possible to do. Using my 24mm Televue Panoptic eyepiece, Mizar could just barely be split, but it was easier than easy with my 9mm Nagler.

There was Mizar, clearly two separate stars. Alcor remained one. However, going to the googles, I learn that this system is far more complex than meets the eye. Mizar, although we amateurs can see only two stars, is actually four, whilst its (apparently) solitary companion Alcor is itself a double star. Six stars instead of one! What really fascinated me, however, were their colors. They seemed to change from moment to moment. Mizar's four components appeared in my eyepiece as two stars, one big and bright, and the other considerably dimmer and nestled right up against the brighter one. At first, the brighter looked white and the dimmer somewhat orange. But examining them again after a few minutes, I thought they looked blue and yellow respectively, not unlike Alberio. But after a bit, they appeared to swap colors - and then back again!

Now I know perfectly well that all these mutations are quite subjective - occuring in my eye, and not in the stars themselves. But to me, that just intensifies my interest in how we stargazers perceive color through our eyepieces, and reminds me that we should not be dogmatic about what colors are "out there".

FOOTNOTE: It's been almost 24 hours since I wrote the above, and now I'm wondering whether the shifting colors were a result of chromatic aberration. The seeing was frankly awful and I was using a particularly small aperture last night. Perhaps the "action" was going on, not in my eye, but in the eyepiece. I wonder. Would the colors have appeared steady had I been observing with my 102mm refractor, instead of my 60mm?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Stargazing and Peace

"Saguaro Twilight"
Watercolor by myself
Based on a photograph taken by Fr. Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski, a blogger for the Vatican Observatory Foundation, recently posted a reflection on stargazing as a useful corrective for persons prone to being workaholics. The measured pace of our hobby, combined with the seeming eternity of the objects we observe, can make for a rare opportunity to slow the often all too frenetic pace by which we live.

You can read his posting here:

What I found interesting about his reflections was his recognition that we can all to easily drag our workaholic tendencies into what ought to be a restful hobby. Now everyone knows that I am not an astrophotographer, so I'm not tempted by the Byzantine complexities of astrogear that might take hours to set up, and can be the occasion for spending most of what ought to be a relaxing evening under the stars in cursing some recalcitrant piece of equipment that refuses to operate properly.  But even we purely visual stargazers can get caught up in a race (of our own making) against the clock, trying to cram the maximum number of DSOs into the minimum amount of time. I now look back with mixed emotions at my pride at observing 19 DSOs, 4 planets, plus a number of Perseids and the ISS in a single night at last year's Stellafane. Just what was I trying to accomplish? And who was I competing against? True, I knew that it would likely be the one and only clear night I would spend in all of 2018 under a really dark sky, so maybe I had some excuse for wanting to see as much as I could.

But I must confess that I can fall into the same trap right here at home in suburban Maryland, under our battleship gray light polluted skies. I find myself at times needing to take a deep breath, and just look...

One "spiritual exercise" I've found most effective is to randomly point my telescope at some spot in the sky, slap in a widefield eyepiece, and DON'T MOVE ANYTHING for a half hour or so. Don't look for things to observe - let them come to you. With my 90mm Stellarvue  refractor and my 30mm Pentax eyepiece, it takes about 2 minutes for a star to traverse the entire field of view at its widest point. This is of course, assuming I've pointed my scope due south. The further north one looks, the slower objects will move across the FOV (and if you're pointed at Polaris, it will never move at all). So every 2 minutes, the view is completely different.

And really LOOK at what's in your eyepiece. Once again, don't sweat it; that's not the point here. The object is to synchronize your mind and body to the motions of the universe, to move at its pace. And it can be amazing what you chance across in this exercise. I've "discovered" globular clusters that aren't in the Messier catalog, but go by lowly NGC designations. I've seen brilliant double or multiple star systems that I would never have otherwise looked for. On rare occasions, the faintest of all imaginable smudges will traverse my FOV, and I'm left wondering whether I've caught sight of a distant galaxy or a gas cloud within our own. But mostly, I see stars, stars, stars. Swirls and knots, streams and spatters of them, intriguing asterisms and possible open clusters.

It takes a good 10 minutes or so to "get in the groove", for your mind to settle down and abandon the urge to look at something else. After another 10 minutes, you find you don't want to stop. When you finally do come back down to Earth after 30, 40, 50 minutes, or even an entire hour, it feels like you've been there, leaping from star to star, cruising the Milky Way, tossed about by the stellar winds of distant suns.

Now I certainly do not recommend a steady diet of such stargazing, but once in a while it's good to just let go and allow the turning Earth do all the work for you.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Learning to See

I've been sketching what I see through the eyepiece practically since the day I got my first telescope, back in 2010. I still have the very first astrosketches I ever made. Here is my first planetary sketch, of Mars, from the night of 14 April of that year.

Pretty crude, I'd say. But I wasn't that experienced yet as to planetary observing, and I was only using a 120mm refractor. So perhaps I ought not be that critical. There's Syrtis Major, plain to see, and a (doubtlessly oversized) polar icecap. (To see the sketches/paintings at full resolution, just click on the image)

2 months earlier, I had finished this drawing of my first sighting of the Asteroid Vesta.

I'm fairly sure that this is my first ever astrosketch, since I have nothing older than it (and I don't throw anything out). I began it on 14 April, but didn't finish it until 2 nights later. On the 14th, I wasn't sure which of the 2 "dots" at the lower left was the asteroid. It wasn't until my second look on the 16th that I could see which one had moved.

Well, time rolls on, and my observing skills gradually improved, as did my practice at recording what I saw. For evidence of such, just look at this 2014 sketch I made of pretty much the same face of Mars that I had drawn 4 years earlier.

The scope used here was actually smaller than I one I was looking through 4 years earlier (only 90mm), but my eye was far better trained... and it showed!

The high point (so far) in my sketching career was when, on a whim, I sent in one of my lunar sketches to Sky and Telescope magazine, and by golly if they didn't publish it! (June 2016 issue, page 73) Here it is:

Hundreds of sketches later, I am still a passionate advocate of the practice. Sketching an object compels you to PAY ATTENTION to what you're looking at, to notice little nuances. Is that crater wall brighter than the one right next to it? Is it more jagged, more broken up? Which mare is darker - the Sea of Tranquility or the Sea of Serenity? And why do you think they're different?

When sketching Saturn, I find myself noticing detail that I might miss when just looking at it, such as the planet's shadow on the rings, or subtle variations in color on the surface (much harder to detect than with Jupiter).

Now most HAL members know I have a fondness for tracking down anonymous uber-faint stars. Sketching the field of view after successfully spotting them makes going back to them all the easier, because you've fixed the environment in your mind. Many years ago, I used to teach Russian at Howard Community College. I discovered that the more parts of the body a student used in learning the language, the faster (and more permanently) he expanded his vocabulary. Just reading a new word was practically useless, as far as memorization was concerned. Saying it aloud was much better. But best of all was writing it down. (Actually, better than "best" was to do all 3 at once.)

The same goes for stargazing. It's a full body sport. Just looking at NGC whatever is good, as far as that goes. There's no way to "say it aloud", so let's just skip over that step. But sketching the danged thing? Aaaah, now that's the ticket! I guarantee that you'll remember the difference between M13 and M92 after you've sketched them both, and you'll appreciate their differences.

Now lately I've expanded my repertoire a bit, and have taken up watercolor painting. (A lot harder than I anticipated before getting into it!) What with the execrable weather of late, plus another round of health scares, I haven't had much opportunity of late to "paint the sky", but I have been practicing on some more mundane objects - like trees. Here are a few examples of recent work:

Now once again, painting trees has forced me to really look at them for the first time. I never before noticed just how radically sunlight alters the perceived color of leaves, how much variation there is in light and shadow, how many varieties of shape can be seen in even 2 examples of the same species.

I hope to be able to turn my attention skyward in the next few weeks, and make use of this new (to me) medium. I'd like to get similar benefits from painting the Messier catalog. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Seeing Orion Through the Clouds

Last night I went outside to put the week's recyclables out on the curb, and happened to look up (I usually do). Nothing but clouds, clouds, clouds everywhere, right down to the horizon. But wait! Straight ahead of me I could see a dim red beacon visible despite the gray ceiling - Mars. That cheered me up a bit, and I started looking around to see if anything else had managed to batter its way through the cloud cover.

Ahh.. There was one bright star in the east, and at first I thought I was seeing Sirius. But then golden Betelgeuse popped out to its left, and I realized I had been looking at Rigel. Once I had my celestial geography (that can't possibly be the right term) nailed down, I managed to make out Orion's belt halfway between that constellation's two brightest stars.

Further afield, I could see Capella drifting in and out of denser cloud patches. A kind of "Now you see it, now you don't" sort of thing. But other than that, nothing. Unrelieved gray wherever I looked. It hit me that, in the ages before light pollution, all that gray would have been the blackest black imaginable, and what few stars I could make out would have stood out all the more due to the greater contrast.

I wasn't ready to go straight back indoors, so I amused myself by trying to figure out what was where above all those clouds. Let's see now, Gemini ought to be right there, and the Pleiades somewhere over there. Maybe I could see Aldebaran? Nah, no such luck.

After 10 minutes or so of the most pathetic one-man impromptu star party ever, I decided to declare victory and head back indoors. But even so, I did see the stars... six of them. (And thousands of them in my mind's eye.) And one planet.

Better than nothing, I guess.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Last night I saw Neptune...

... and thought about horizons.

("Last night" was actually last Saturday, but I did start to write this on Sunday.)

I grew up in Arizona in the 1950s and 60s. I took for granted that the horizon was 30, maybe 40 miles off, and the sky overhead was an infinite expanse of blue, blue, blue. I have vivid memories of topping a rise on one of my many family trips "up north" (to Payson or Flagstaff) and seeing revealed to my eyes range after range of mountains receding into the distance, each one 30 to 40 miles further away that the one in front of it.

How different it is here "back East" (as we used to say). Here the horizon is seldom more than one or two hundred yards away. On rare occasion (usually on a highway when you're paying no attention to such things) you might actually see a mile or more in front of you, but that's not so often and you're almost always distracted from enjoying the view by the need to watch the traffic right next to you.

I remember (when I was old enough to see the humor in such things) laughing whenever the weatherman said that "visibility is 10 miles at BWI" when I could plainly see the Moon overhead. I wanted desperately to shout at the radio, "No! Visibility is one quarter million miles!"

Neptune, as seen from Voyager II

Neptune is not the easiest target to find in the night sky, especially for someone like me who resolutely (some would say fanatically) eschews any and all electronic or mechanical aids to observing. My "finder scope" is a pair of 8X56 binoculars hanging round my neck. And, no matter how faint the objective, I stick with starhopping as my one and only method of navigation. Last night, it was find the Water Jar in Aquarius. From there, it was a fairly easy slide down to Lambda Aquarii, a star on the ragged edge of naked eye visibility in light polluted suburban Maryland. Then scan westward until I have a kite shaped asterism centered in my field of view. Neptune (in my mirror imaged view) hung off the left side - a tiny blue dot with just a hint of a disk. Switch to a higher powered eyepiece and the non-stellar nature of the dot became more apparent.

A quick check with the ephemeris and one finds that Neptune is currently two and three quarter billion miles from the Earth. Knowing full well that I will never see Pluto or any other Trans-Neptunian object with even my largest telescope (a 102mm refractor), I acknowledge that this electric blue dot in my eyepiece is the furthest thing I will ever see within our Solar System with my own eye. And I cannot tear myself away from it. I care not that there are hundreds of DSOs clamoring for my attention on this rare evening of perfect conditions. I can't get enough of this sight, this "dot".

I don't care how silly this sounds, but 2.75 billion miles I can understand. But interstellar distances? They defeat me. Oh, it's easy enough to say the words, "This star is 840 light years away," but we all know that such words don't really mean anything to us. The distance is simply too great to comprehend. And don't get me started on intergalactic distances!

I think I spent maybe all of 20 minutes drinking in the view and pondering what I was seeing. Then it was on to some double stars that I really wanted to observe that evening. But it was Neptune that haunted my thoughts all the way home, and Neptune that first came to mind the following morning.

We don't think much about horizons in suburban Maryland - not when houses, buildings, and trees restrict our view to a few yards around us. Stargazing can be a useful corrective to our everyday perspective on things.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Bring it on Home

Considering the appalling events of the past few days in our country, I cannot in good conscience continue to exist as though I am not part and parcel of the world around me. I cannot pretend that it is possible to isolate myself from what is happening to us. If our "hobby" of amateur astronomy has nothing to say to the terror and pain around us, then to hell with it! But... it has a lot to say, a lot to teach us, a lot to teach the world.

The following is a reposting of something I wrote several years ago for my now defunct blog, Celestial Pilgrimage. It is more relevant now than when I first posted it:

Everywhere I look in the sky, no matter what the direction nor how distant the object, whatever I see is either acting on or being acted upon by something else. It is either orbiting something else, or is itself being orbited. It is either attracting something else, or is in turn being attracted. It is either illuminating its surroundings, or is itself being illuminated. Nothing is alone; nothing exists in isolation. There is a bedrock fundamental something to be discovered here, and double stars are perhaps the clearest visible illustrations of whatever this is to the amateur astronomer.


But allow me to digress a bit. I am forever amazed by how much the whole of my subsequent life has been influenced by the relatively short time I spent in the Army (1975-1979). I truly believe that I learned and grew more in those four years than in any other comparable length of time. From insignificant mannerisms (how I stand, what I do with my hands while walking, the fact that I always start off on the left foot) to fundamental ways I view the world, I keep finding bits and pieces of my Army experience down there in my subconscious, nudging (or pushing) me in one direction or another.

One really good example is foxholes. One of the first things we learned in Basic Training at good old Fort Ord, California, was the correct (that is, the Army’s) way to dig one. And if you have some picture in your mind taken from a host of cheesy WWII movies (hole in the ground, head and rifle sticking out) – get rid of it now. What we were taught was the DuPuy foxhole, named after the general who invented it. DuPuy had studied the carnage of Vietnam (remember, I enlisted only about 3 months after the fall of Saigon), and realized that everyone had been doing it all wrong ever since, well… ever since ever. The problem with firing out of a hole in the ground was that an advancing foe could fire right back at you. Thus the high casualty rate on both sides in a defensive battle.

General DuPuy (right) with Westmoreland in Vietnam

What DuPuy came up with was a system of mutually supporting two-man foxholes. “Buddy Teams” of two soldiers would each dig their own pit, piling all the excavated dirt directly in front of the hole, completely blocking one’s view straight ahead. When you were finished, you could fire diagonally to the left or to the right, but immediately in front of you was this great earthen berm, higher than your head. The end result was that, in a line of these DuPuy “Defensive Fire Pits” (to use the official term), each buddy team was responsible for protecting the team to either side of them, while their own defense was left in turn to those teams. To work, the system required complete trust between the teams. You yourself could do absolutely nothing to protect yourself, and concentrated all your attention and efforts on defending your neighbors.

Take a moment to ponder this. There is a really profound principle at work here. One that I think goes to the very core and fundament of our being - of the universe itself. It is the indispensable principle behind How We Must Live. As the poet Charles Williams so beautifully put it:

This abides – that the everlasting house the soul discovers is always another's; we must lose our own ends; we must always live in the habitation of our lovers, my friend’s shelter for me, mine for him.

The consequence of ignoring this is not just selfishness. It is not just missed opportunity or a life sadly lacking in color or meaning – it is a violation of the very nature of reality. To attempt to live for one’s self is an exercise in futility – you will fail.

One of the most awesome passages in the New Testament (for me, at least) occurs near the end of the Gospel according to Mark. Christ has been crucified, and various passersby taunt Him, asking why He doesn’t “save yourself and come down from the cross”. They conclude with the scoffing remark, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save”.

Wow. Read that again. What was meant as a contemptuous dismissal, as a cynical comment on apparent failure, turns out to be the very key to The Meaning of Life itself. We cannot save ourselves – we must rely on others. And it is up to us in turn to save them. This is what it means to be a Human Being. When we fall short of this principle, we fall short of and even deny altogether, our very Humanity.

Think about that, the next time you are admiring a particularly beautiful double star... or the next time someone shoots up a House of Worship out of fear of the "other".

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Queen of the Gods!

Our best image of Juno, showing its highly irregular shape. 
Juno is 145 miles across at its widest.

Exactly 2 weeks from today will be your best chance to observe the third asteroid to be discovered (although by far not the 3rd largest) - Juno, named for the mythical wife of Jupiter.

Bottom line on top: This will be Juno's most favorable opposition since 2005, and will not be this close to the Earth again until 2031 (by which date I will either be 79 years old, or dead). This is due to Juno's highly eccentric orbit, worse than Mars, which makes for some oppositions being far more favorable than others. (See illustration below.)

Although assigned the number 3 due to its order of discovery, Juno is actually only the 11th largest asteroid (exceeded by Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, Hygeia, Interamnia, Europa, Davida, Sylvia, Cybele, and Eunomia). Where it does excel, however, is in its high surface reflectivity, which with an apparent magnitude of 7.5 makes Juno (at opposition) brighter than Neptune. No wonder it was one of the first asteroids to be discovered! Juno was even listed amongst the planets for 38 years before being demoted from that lofty status to mere asteroid in 1845.

Although opposition does not occur until the 17th of November, the 11th will be your best chance of actually seeing Juno, due to its near miss of naked eye star 32 Eridani (magnitude 4.46) on that night. Try to spot it on the 10th (weather permitting, of course), and take a second look on the 11th. See which star in 32 Eridani's vicinity has moved since the night before - that's Juno! And if conditions permit, go for the 12th as well. After that, Juno will increasingly blend in with the anonymous mass of similarly looking points of light which are, of course, the background stars.

Useful hint: Sketch the stars near to 32 Eridani each night as accurately as you can. That will aid you immeasurably in positively identifying Juno, since it will be the only "dot" that moves night to night.

Juno will be bright enough to observe this opposition uning only binoculars - no telescope required. In fact, that is my intention - to spot Juno using only my 8X56 binos. If that does not work, then and only then will I resort to a telescopic search.