We’ve recently had some good views of Jupiter and, more to the point, got to see some intriguing Jovian moon interactions.

One night we watched the moons coming in for an incredibly close interaction around Jupiter itself. We got to watch Callisto transversing the pole of Jupiter, which was something I’ve not seen before, and then as it was leaving the surface Io was approaching and both Ganymede and Europa, which had very close together, were also approaching from the other side. The three on the same side were less than half a Jupiter distance apart. It was fun to watch them coming together over the evening (the seeing wasn’t great for much else) and especially exciting to watch the disks of Io and Callisto coming and going over the limb of Jupiter – tiny white blobs appearing and disappearing.

Another night there was a shadow transit on one of the main cloud bands – directly below the Great Red Spot. It wasn’t the best view of the GRS I’ve ever had, but it was nice to see such a conjunction of objects.

I think what I like about observing Jupiter is that it is a dynamic system. I like that the moons offer different stylings over the night and from night to night. I like that different conditions determine what level of detail you can see in the cloud bands and that you get different experiences of it as a result – and that that too changes over the night as Jupiter revolves.

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Reclaiming my observing

I do not like finding faint fuzzies.

There. I said it. I’ve always known it but for a long time I’ve been embarrassed to own it. It has often felt like if you’re an amateur astronomer, the whole point is to go hunting for faint galaxies and planetary nebulae. Which is why so many of them get aperture fever and hunger after ever larger and faster mirrors for their Dobsonians.

But I have a refractor.

This is actually a chicken and egg scenario. My – our – first telescope was a Tak refractor, because that’s what James bought me for my birthday. So with that to learn on, I went to what it was good at looking at: planets and double stars. Planets were always going to be one of the great joys of my observing life. I was initially unsure about whether hunting double stars was worthwhile, but with some time and an understanding of what refractor was able to do, I discovered the joy of tracking them down and in particular how awesome it is to look at the differently coloured ones. Having a 90mm refractor meant that looking at faint galaxies was never going to be worthwhile.

But even when James got his 16” Dob, and started chasing faint fuzzies, I didn’t get the bug. In honesty I don’t think I have the eyes for it, and that has certainly added to the frustration the few times that I have joined in the galaxy quest (heh). Plus I just don’t get it. All I see are fuzzy grey blobs that rarely have any shape to speak of (to my eyes) and so… what is the point?

All of this has meant that I’ve sometimes felt on the outer amongst amateur astronomers. As if looking at things that aren’t incredibly hard to find is somehow… cheating? A waste of time? Letting down the community? Demonstrative that I haven’t levelled up to being a ‘real’ astronomer? Which hasn’t been a lot of fun.

Of course this is all at the same time as having people comment that my refractors have excellent optics and that the stars look great through them and the view of planets are wonderfully sharp. I never said it was entirely logical.

Anyway. I’m slowly owning all of my own preferences and desires and peculiarities. I don’t have to go along with what anyone else likes and thinks is right in such incredibly subjective areas. I can look at whatever I like.

If I want to spend the entire night looking at Orion’s Nebula, Jupiter, and Saturn, and then the Eta Carina Nebula in a 31mm Nagler, then that’s okay. And would be quite a nice night, actually.

Of course if James pulled up the Eight-Burst Nebula or the Ghost of Jupiter, I’d sure go have a look at those. Maybe the Grus quartet. But anything from the ARP catalogue? Nah.

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OzSky Star Safari: the Stars

James and I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 2014 OzSky Star Safari a few weeks ago. Originally designated the Deepest South Texas Star Party, OzSky aims to show northern hemisphere astronomers just what they’re missing out on by living on the wrong side of the equator.

A good star party has two nearly-equal aspects: the star part, and the party part. So I’ve split the recap into two, to match.

The party part

The star part

Saturday night: cloudy when we went to bed… then clear by 1.30am. There was thumping on doors at 2am with the announcement that “Sky’s clear!!” – so we observed until 5am.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday: clear as clear, only forced to bed by that stupidly bright Venus rising pre-dawn. (Alex piked early on Wednesday.)

Thursday: cloudy. Alex was sad but not too sad.

Friday: cloudy… until 10.30pm. When it came clear and some of those crazy northerners announced that hell yes, it was their last night observing in Australia so they absolutely wanted the telescopes uncovered, thanks. It fogged out at 12.30am, but over those two hours more and more L1000535people emerged from their rooms to have one last look at southern glories and faint fuzzies. It was a near perfect end to the week.
Part of the attraction of OzSky as an event is that the organisation behind it owns a bunch of big Dobsonian telescopes which get brought along, set up, and collimated by the volunteers. We decided to take along our own telescopes as well, figuring that there wouldn’t be any other refractors so ours would enable people to see things a bit differently – especially with its very wide field, plus Jupiter was going to be primo early in the evening – and that another Dob wouldn’t go astray.


We had quite different observing experiences.



I spent most nights at my own telescope. Of the southern stuff, I particularly enjoyed showing off the Eta Carina nebula in the widest eyepiece I could. It’s all very well and good to go zooming in on the Homunculus (which is awesome and we managed to see lobes just resolving in my 4.7mm), but the entire nebula really is incredible. Additionally, there was the Jewel Box and Gem Cluster (best at lower power where the colours really came out), and Omega Centauri and 47 Tuc (I hadn’t realised our globular clusters were another thing the south does better). The Tarantula Nebula and LMC in general were also winners in the wide field.

Of the non-southern stuff, I did indulge my weakness for planetary observing and forced anybody wandering past to blast their eyeballs, despite occasional protestations. And I don’t think anyone complained… well, not much. Early on, Jupiter: I didn’t think they were the absolute best views ever, but still seriously awesome. Several cloud bands evident, plus the Red Spot, and on one night the end of a moon’s shadow transit, which is always exciting. Later in the evening, Saturn was looking very fine: the Cassini division very obvious, striations on the surface, etc. And then there’s Mars. I have never, ever seen Mars that well. To my lasting joy, we saw ice on Mars – Hellas Basin and a polar cap. We saw markings on the surface of Mars. We saw clouds on Mars. I felt like I was living in a science fiction novel.

I did go off and look through other telescopes occasionally, when someone wanted to play on my telescope or someone else convinced me that there are other things worth looking at. I risked my neck climbing a ladder at midnight to see the Eight-Burst Nebula through the 25 inch, and I saw some galaxy through the 30 inch (when it wasn’t pointing straight up because that ladder was a frightening prospect for me). I got to be a guinea pig on the star chair with its 25×150 binoculars attached; using the joystick to move around was like being in a 1980s-SF-movie VR game. And when I got to the point that my feet left the ground and I felt like I was lying on my back… well. Someone likened the experience to being Luke in the gun turret of the Falcon. And I also got to play with the ground-mounted 12″ binos, whose view of Omega Centauri blows every other view out of the water. And, of course, I got to look at a few things through James’ scope – including Pluto! Which means I’ve bagged every planet (Mercury only naked eye).

Also, the Milky Way in general. It was dark enough that the Emu (Coal Sack + dark lane through the Milky Way) stood out beautifully, and the LMC and SMC were visible even when I wasn’t wearing glasses (that’s my litmus test).



8x10 Print Scan4


So the first thing to note about all the observing was the unseasonably damp nights we had.  It’s pretty unusual in Oz to end up with water pouring off dew shrouds on big scopes etc.  In Victoria I hardly bother even putting mine on most of the time. In a curious reversal from normal Coona conditions, then, we had exceptional seeing and only ok transparency – it was still a dark site, but not the ink blackness which it can have.  The views of objects which need high power, though, were among the best I’ve seen… Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all gave up all their visually discernible secrets; the Homunculus was nothing short of breath taking – a true treat for our international friends to enjoy.

I split my time helping folks with the various scopes, aligning Argos and giving little sky tours with my 16″. I spent one evening setting up the 30 inch solo; that’s enough to make me glad I only have a baby telescope. Puffing at the top of a 15ft ladder after hauling the scope around to yet another object! The 12inch binocular scope is spectacular to look through, but suffered badly without dew heaters etc.  The 25×150 Fujis on the star chair is likewise an exciting way to explore the broad subject which is our Milky Way view.

Some folks were chasing down long lists of southern objects, others were making photos and enjoying the eye candy.  One of the more enjoyable evenings was spent with fellow SDM owner Robert Werkman as we worked through a huge range of objects culminating in a tour of the Centaurus Galaxy cluster before kicking back and enjoying some of the best Mars views any of us had seen in our lives.

The combination of lots of big scopes, friends and guests to share with is pretty unbeatable – that and a motel room 100m from the field. We look forward already to next year.

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OzSky Star Safari: the Party

James and I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 2014 OzSky Star Safari a few weeks ago. Originally designated the Deepest South Texas Star Party, OzSky aims to show northern hemisphere astronomers just what they’re missing out on by living on the wrong side of the equator.

A good star party has two nearly-equal aspects: the star part, and the party part. So I’ve split my recap into two, to match.

The star part

The party part

Despite the fact that most of the observers are staying up until ridiculous times, OzSky very sensibly still organises daytime events. Partly this is to make sure the non-observing partners (not just wives!) don’t go stir-crazy; partly it’s a fall-back in case the nights are all clouded out; partly it’s
because for many people, this will be their first visit to Australia, so it’s good to show off. On top of all of that, the location of the Safari meant that going to astronomy-related things is entirely feasible. So off-campus, there were bush walks, and visits to the radio array at Narrabri (picture below).



L1000551 And then there was the  Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring (inside, at left) which was AWESOME because they made the dome move while we were inside it which was FREAKY. (James loved the control panels, below.)L1000546



Back at the ranch, attendant experts gave talks in the afternoon – on photography and polar alignment and Charles Messier. We made a massive Aussie-style BBQ on the second night that introduced the foreigners to kangaroo meat, cabbage and noodle salad, and pavlova. (I say we, but the organisation was done by one person working all day – the rest of us helped with a bit of grunt work in the evening.) Probably the best thing for the party aspect was that dinner was available each night at the motel, so we got to sit at big tables and compare cultures. We discussed drop bears and education; politics and triathlons; guns and history; accents and the singularity. It was intriguing to spend a week with people brought together by one consuming passion, and then find all the ways in which we diverged.




The view from the railing on the outside of the Anglo-Australian Telescope


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ASV Star-b-cue 2013

Last weekend we travelled to the ASV dark site for the annual star-b-cue, and it was awesome.

We went up on the Friday night. We set up in the early evening and then had to wait around for hours as the sun slowly went down. I did manage to get a good look at the moon, in a lovely crescent – I haven’t made the effort to see the moon in a long time, and it was glorious. That night involved a lot of reminding ourselves of the sky and also introducing some friends to our telescopes. One of them is an exceptional astronomer but from the northern hemisphere, so it was amusing to hear him talk about which bits he can’t see at all from home (like 47 Tuc!). And complain that Orion is upside-down. I didn’t have a viewing plan for the evening so I went with whims. Amongst the best things I saw was two moons around Uranus (Oberon and Titania, apparently) and I split Sirius! Unbelievable! I piked earlier than I had hoped – around 1am I think – I had hoped to see Jupiter but we were in spot such that it was still behind the trees when I was flagging.

Saturday was the actual star party. During the day I set up the solar telescope and various people looked through it; there were, I think, maybe six solar scopes set up – more than I’ve seen at any other time. And the sun was looking pretty fine; not incredibly active but some beautiful prominences and a set of sun spots in a cluster. I also took a wander around the site and checked out the new radio shack they’ve set up, recording the sun, meteors and Jupiter. The guy in charge was very pleased to play us the recording of a solar flare from October.

The evening progressed as these things do. The Lions Club provided a great BBQ dinner; there was a quiz – entirely music based this time, so I did ok; and there were heaps of people. There were dozens of scopes set up on the observing field; I didn’t bother going down to the photographers to check out their set ups. It makes me too sad to see Takahashis being used solely for imaging. Anyway eventually the sun went down, again; I looked at the moon, again, and had to make sure I stopped doing that early enough that I could get light-adapted, given how very bright it was. Again, I had no plan… so I looked at some globular clusters, and some planetaries; I saw some galaxies through the Dob. And I stayed up late enough to see Jupiter. Not a great view, to be sure, but when the seeing snapped in it was definitely worth staying up until *mumble230mumble*. Galilean moons all in a row.

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The Argo Navis, as reviewed by a non-technical user

When we were debating which telescope to buy initially, one of the considerations was whether to get something with a guidance system or not. I voted nay, at least partly for money reasons, but also because I felt like a guidance system was basically cheating. I wanted to learn my way around the sky, and find things all by myself thank you very much.

About a year later, we went to the 2010 Ice in Space camp. It was the first time I’d ever been around lots of fellow amateur astronomers, and it turns out that actually a lot of them have guidance systems of one sort or another. And most of them still know something about the sky and finding their way around it. By this stage I had started getting interested in searching out double stars, and was finding it increasingly frustrating: I was often having trouble just finding the point-of-reference star, let alone the faintish double that was meant to be close by.

You can tell where this is leading. I soon sucked it up and agreed to getting a guidance computer. It helped that James had had his Dobsonian blinged out with a ServoCat and a computer and that I was just a wee bit jealous.

UnknownWe both got an Argo Navis. The first thing I asked on seeing the product was “Why is their symbol an Egyptian hieroglyph when their name is Greek?”, but that’s neither here nor there.* The Argo is of Australian design and manufacture, which is very cool, and it works an absolute treat. (I also had to get a new mount to go with the Argo, and we went with the Losmandy GM8. But that’s another post.)

The Argo is very simple to use. It has two buttons and a scroll wheel, and a screen that can show two lines of text. The Losmandy is a GEM (German Equatorial Mount), so setting it up is easy: having aligned the mount with celestial south (so that it tracks properly… and let’s be honest, it’s close to south but probably usually “southish”), wait for two bright stars to be obvious, line the telescope up with your finder/telrad, let the Argo know which stars they are, and you’re away.

There are several ways you can use the Argo, and you can of course change your method over the night. If you don’t have specific plans for your night’s viewing, you can use the Argo’s Tour mode, and choose what you’d like to have a look at: Popular Deep Sky objects? Planets? Messier objects? Planetary nebula? Choose your category, state whether you want to look within a small area (if, say, Sagittarius is high and you want to know what’s within it) or over the entire sky, and what magnitude limit you want, and then… go where the Argo tells you. What sort of mount you have will determine how you actually find things, of course, but for me it’s just a matter of pushing the scope around, following the arrows, and watching the numbers for RA and Dec count down to zero (and then the arrow reverse, and the numbers rise, when I overshoot…). The Dob has a ServoCat, so it automatically goes to your object when you hit ‘enter’. The whine of the motors is amusing in the middle of the night…

Alignment is an important part of how the Argo works. The Argo gets a sense of where it is, what the sky looks like, and hence where other stars and objects should be according to Right Ascension (RA) and Declination (Dec). When you dial up M42, for example (who doesn’t love the Orion Nebula?), the display will indicate in which directions (up/down, left/right) the telescope needs to be moved in order to centre on it. The numbers reduce as you get closer, and become more precise as the object gets closer. I found it quite intuitive, and easy to use. And I’m pretty hopeless spatially.

As I said, there are other ways of using the Argo while observing. There are some clever flow-on effects of the Argo knowing where it is pointing; for example, you can identify an object you’re looking at, by going to the appropriate mode setting (Identify). Because it also tells you the coordinates of the area in the sky you’re pointing at, you can also use the Argo to find something – say from an atlas – that isn’t otherwise listed in the Argo’s menus. This is particularly useful when looking, for example, for double stars.

The Argo comes with a cradle, and with the Dob it was simply a matter of constructing a little tray for it and the Servo controls. The ingenious solution for using it on my tripod was velcro. I have velcro on all three legs of the tripod and on the back of the Argo (and the hand control, and the dew heater…). So I can move the Argo around to whatever side I’m on, and I can just slap it onto the tripod when I want to have my hands free. Velcro: best invention ever.

In all, the Argo is very easy to use, even for someone like me who is neither particularly tech-savvy nor very good with directions.

*Turns out Argo Navis is the name of the constellation that today is Carina, Puppis and Vela. There you go.

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Moon Calendar

A while back James emailed me the link to this moon calendar. Sure, I said! Get one! It took some time for him to do so, but finally this arrived on our doorstep*:

photo 8.39.57 PM

This letter and the accompanying moon calendar arrived in an awesome triangular package that kept the calendar nice and secure. We’ve stuck it on the wall – and although it looks wonky because the new moons keep shifting back a day each month, it looks great and I look forward to referring to it over the year. Thanks Erik!

ETA: the moon calendar looks like this:



– with thanks to Erik for permission to post this!

*I mean literally. I walked out the door and nearly tripped over the package. 


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