Friday, August 28, 2009

Nova: Welcome to Mars; My Reflections

I decided to use my netflix account to educate myself in the area of astronomy. I watched "Nova: Welcome To Mars" a documentary on the Mars rover Spirit and Opportunity. I found this video to be excellent. The film crew was there on hand during the crucial moments at NASA's JPL. I was in college during the the launch and landing of the rovers.. but at that time I wasn't that interested in astronomy.

I found this video very entertaining and educational. My wife was asleep on the couch when I started he video but she woke up and decided to watch it. That is saying a lot for this video.

Nova did a great job with narration of this film. Also, great care was given to get interviews with appropriate people. They had access to lead investigator Steve Squires even during key moments in the rover missions.

The visuals in this video are "out of this world" (haha), but seriously it was great seeing the NASA computer animation and more exciting access to images from Mars.

Watching this video makes me want to go out and spend some quality time observing Mars. I wasn't around when humans landed on the moon but I sure that people who watched those first steps must have felt compelled to take a second look at the moon. I know I'll take a second look at Mars next time I observe.

I really liked the humanistic side of the video. They explore how the JPI rover teams adjusted their schedule and lived on Mars Time. They even interview a couple who both work on the Rover Mission and how their schedule affects their children. They even state that due to the stress of the work many of the JPL scientist switched their diets to ice cream.

I found this video excellent and recommend it to anyone interested in Mars, astronomy or science.

In fact you can watch the video right here:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Garner State Park Report

My wife and I left Helotes at 2:30pm following Rick and his wife through Bandera, Tarply, Utpoia then Lakey. We went straight to the restaurant. When driving to the restaurant we noticed high siris clouds... not a welcome sign.

Tina, Diane, Rick and I were the first to arrive at the restaurant so we waited and soon the rest of the group came from their camp at GSP. We enjoyed some good food and then went to the park. Rick and I set up our 16" Meade Lightbridges up while a few others started to set up... still others waited until later to get their telescopes out. The clouds kept coming and Don was keeping tabs on the weather using is laptop and the park's wifi connection. He noted rain that was heading toward us but predicted it would break up before it got to us. Later another group of SAAA members came in from San Antonio.

We all nervously watched the sky as the sun plunged below the western hills. To the east we could see some lightning off in the distance. But overhead is was clearing. I helped Danielle collimate her 12" Porta-ball.

Don started the program after sunset with a sizable group of park goers. The sky continued to improve. When the first group hit the telescope field we had some fairly good views despite some clouds. As the night went on it cleared up more. We saw many meteors last night. One was extremely impressive starting in the Northeast crossing the sky all the way to the Southwest, it was about magnitude -1.5 with a nice greenish train (smoke trail). After that great meteor both Keith and Don yelled "that free folks" to the crowd.

I showed and observed many objects with my 16" telescope: M51 "Whirlpool Galaxy", M31 "Andromeda Galaxy", M6 "Butterfly Cluser", M8 "Lagoon Nebula", M70, Jupiter, M57 "Ring Nebula" and some other objects. About 11:20 PM the last of the public left. (Earlier one of the visitors lost their keys and searched for a while and eventually found them, we allowed them to use the dreaded white light to search.)

Also, by this time a few SAAA members left and headed back to San Antonio.

Rick began working on his Astronomy League stuff. Soon I joined him as he hunted down Hershel Objects. We were have a great time star hopping to 11th Magnitude faint and fuzzies... then...

Around midnight we heard a horrific sound. On the hill up above the observing site (HWY83 at the Old GSP entrance) we heard a loud crashing sound then screeching tires and eventually we could see and hear the vehicle rolling... we watched the headlights as they signed erratically and we hear thud after thud until eventually it stopped It must have flipped about 5 times. We knew it was a major accident. We called 9-1-1 and reported it. We watched not knowing if we should go or what the dispatchers told us to just stay in the park since we reported other cars stopping. About 20 minutes later EMS arrived. Thought the whole thing we could hear yelling but couldn't quite make out the what was being said. We were worried it was an SAAA member from the group that left earlier, but the car was northbound so we felt that was unlikely.

We sat watched through binoculars about an hour later we saw the tow truck with what looked like a sports car on it (we later found out is was a full size dodge truck just so smashed it looked like a small sports car)

In the morning we drove out their to see what happened. We say the vehicle hit the guard rail at high speed (no skid marks before the impact on rail). It took out about 8 poles and the car went sideways across the highway and hit the hill wall and we could see things thrown about from the care for about the length of a football field. Sadly we know of at least one fatality a white dog that was laying on the road must have been ejected from the vehicle during the ordeal. Chuck noted seeing a front bumper off a dodge truck at the initial impact of the rail. We were shocked to see kids toys all over the highway.

We hope and pray that the dog was the only fatality.

The wreck really put a damper on the GSP event, but prior to that we had a blast with good viewing.

ALSO: On a dark sky front good news! Don baker expressed concern earlier this week about the light over the old gate and they changed out the entire fixture to a full cut off IDA approved fixture. It really made a difference.

- Matthew

Thursday, August 20, 2009

So your a Photographer But Not an Astro-Photographer??

Well, this is a question I get a lot when people find out I own a photography business. Yes, I'm a photographer...but I really haven't made the jump into calling myself an astrophotographer. I've dabbled in it a little and I'll post some of those images on this blog (see below), but there is a huge difference between wedding/portrait photography and astrophotography.

The main reason I don't do astrophotographer is I classify myself as a "starhopper" my telescope arsenal is mostly dobsonian telescopes ranging in size from 3 inches to 16 inches. (One of them is signed by John Dobson himself) None of my dobsonian telescope have the ability to track/go-to or even digital setting circles or a "push to" locator.

In astrophotography you need a the ability to track objects accurately over time. When people tell me what is keeping me out of doing astrophotography there are two things that come to mind: 1. My light polluted skies I live in and 2. my wallet. The most important thing in astrophotography is your mount it can make or break an image. If you can't can't photograph! A starting mount for astrophotography such as a Losmandy G?? cost well my DSLR camera is worth. Then you add the telescope, CCD camera, Guidescope, Guidescope's Camera, laptop and power tank. It all adds up. To take a serious start into astrophotography I image one needs to shell out about $6,000. My house is located near a football stadium on the northside of San Antonio. On nights there isn't a game we don't have much light pollution... but FORGET observing on a game night.

So I realistically look at what is needed to do some astrophotography and realize I'm just not ready to take that step. I do however have 3 Digital SLR's and I do wide field astrophotography and I have a modified webcam I use to image with my DSX90AT telescope (essentially it is a EXT Mak-Cas on the cheaper/less accurate Meade DS mount.) At this point in my life I haven't completely dismissed the idea of getting more serious about Astrophotography but at this point I feel that I'm a "Star-hopper" or "Dobonain-ian" Astronomer. I like simplicity and no-frills astronomy.

Some of my images:
Star Trails in at my Observing site taken with a Canon 20D.
Pioneer Skies Sight

Photographed with 90mm Mak-Cas Telescope on Meade DS go-to mount with Autostar 497 handbox, Modified Logitec Webcam and stitched using PhotoStitch software.

Done at Fort McKavett, Texas During the Thanksgiving Star Party Put on by the San Antonio Astronomical Association. This was taken with my Canon 20D.
Fort McKavett Stars

Iridium Flare over McDonald Observatory.
Iridium Flare over McDonald Observatory

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Star Party Movie

Info from YouTube: "'Star Party' is an hour-long documentary about amateur astronomers that aired on Colorado Public Television in 2004. VHS copies are available for FREE, providing you cover shipping & handling. Drop us a line; we'd love to spread the word."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The New Generations of Dobsonian Telescope

John Dobson is credited with the invention of the Dobsonian Mount. Mr. Dobson's goal was to make affordable telescopes that were simple in design. Typically the smallest dobsonians have been around 4 inch-6 inch Newtonian reflectors.

This year Celestron came out with a 3 inch (76mm) Newtonian Reflector on a dobsonian mount. It is the International Year of Astronomy's Celestron First scope. I've written about this little $50 telescope that comes with a 2 year warranty before. It comes with 2 eyepieces and no finder. (An accessory kit includes a finder, additional eyepieces and software for $20.) Here is a video:

Celestron seems to have been the first company to make such a small Dobsonian telescope. Now Orion Telescopes seems to have exploded this cheap, small dobsonian mount market. I was surprised earlier this week when I received a catalog from Orion and saw a trio of little dobsonian. Orion makes the little 76 mm Newtonian Reflector that is just like the Celestron First Scope... but this one includes a "red-dot" finder and they kept the price at $49.99 same as the Celestron. Additionally the Orion comes with a tripod mount (something I modified my Celestron to come with). Now instead of recommending the Celestron Telescope I'm pointing to that little Orion.

I tip my hat to Orion Telescopes for producing some nice affordable telescopes for new astronomers. The Dobsonian mount is steady unlike many "Affordable/Beginner/Department Store" telescopes which are very frustrating and shaky. Another downside usually the eyepieces. I tell people to spend an extra $60 to get some nice eyepieces like the like the Celestron X-Cel or the Orion ED-2's both are essentially the same and all powers have 20mm eye relief.

The names of the telescope "Funscope"-the 76mm $49 Reflector, the 80mm "Go-Scope", a refractor for $99, and the 90mm "Go-Scope", a Mak-Cass. for $199.

Keep in mind that the I feel this scope would be great for kids..but adults might want to look else where. I feel the best telescope in this line-up is the "Funscope". The $199 scope is tipping the budget and I feel a person might be better off getting the Orion 4.5" Skyquest Dobsonian or 6 inch Starblast.

**It is important to note I don't work for Celestron, OPT or Orion Telescope.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nova: Mars Dead or Alive

First things first: The peak of the Perseid meteor shower is today.

I recently watched "Nova: Mars Dead or Alive", a documentary on the Mars Rover missions. This was the second time I watched this video. Both times, I found this video both educational and entertaining. I'm really impressed with the video. It was really great to see the development and struggles of Spirit and Opportunity. I found this documentary to be the of the highest quality. I highly recommend it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Tool for Astronomy and other purposes.

Today as I write this, you're not actually reading my writing but a transcript of my speaking. I recently purchased a Sony digital recorder it is ICD-SX700D from Sony and I got this recorder for the purpose of working on my Messier certificate from the Astronomy League.I plan to use it tomorrow night when I will be viewing the meteor shower at our dark sky location near Fredericksburg, Texas.

I'm speaking this blog into the recorder and I'm using some software I'm called "Dragon voice recognition", or something like that, to convert my speech into text so this is kind of trial and error.

I decided to get a recorder that can do this because it would be valuable when I'm submitting information to the Astronomy League and also as as an educator I plan to use this in the classroom for students and also just for him collecting data on my special needs population in my class. So it's really has two purposes.

I can do note taking out at the telescope and not have to worry about pens and pencils, which often freezes up cold-weather/hot weather. I don't have to juggle a flashlight and clipboard at same time so it can be really helpful. I'm testing out the speech to text recognition now and hopefully it goes well.

(It was about 80% correct... not bad for the first time.)

Encounter with Cactus and Meteors. (weekend Star Party)

Saturday afternoon I loaded up my Jeep with my favorite folding chair, my homemade 4" Dobsonian and other gear. After double checking my packing list I headed to Rudy's BBQ on I-10 in Leon Springs. Rudy's is a great BBQ place, but they advertise as the "Worst BBQ in Texas." I guess this little ad campaign works because every time I've been there it was busy and to day was no exception. This was the meet-up place for the members of the San Antonio Astronomical Association who were planning on driving out to the Cat's Meow Bed & Breakfast, our dark-sky site to do some maintenance on the observing field and get in a little viewing.

I got there and enjoyed a plate of BBQ with a few of the members. Once we finished dinner we each got in our vehicle and caravaned out to our dark sky site near Fredricksburg, Texas. A few of people where already there. I parked grabbed my shovel, bucket and started searching for those needle covered things we call cactus. I filled my bucket a few times and soon the sun was starting it's plunge below the trees in the western horizon. I went to my jeep and began setting up for the evenings activities. My scope of choice was Snoopy the "Helotescope" (my home built 4" telescope). Then I set my chair in the circle of dicussion that was going on behind one of the member's telescope trailer (which houses a 30" Obsession Telescope).

During the that majestic hour after sunset when the stars slowly come out to play, a group of us shot the breeze for a while talking about various other topics while watching stars appear in clear sky that was overhead. Then when it was nice and dark we parted our ways and headed to our telescopes. I we set up behind my Jeep in the pasture we called the "Telescope Field." To the North of my telescope was another dobnosian whose user had a plan to observe a few Messier objects. To the south was our club's newsletter editor who was waiting for Jupiter to rise so he could photograph it with his Jupiter with a webcam.

We enjoyed about an hour of a moonless night and I looked at the Whirlpool Galaxy (m51)and the Ring Nebula (m57). Then clouds started coming in from the east. Before they settled in I used my telescope to observe M80 in the same fashion as Hershel by letting the image drift across the eyepeice. I did this repeatably to train my eye to notice details in smaller star clusters such as M80. I must have viewed M80 for about 30 minutes.

Then he clouds dominated for a while. While they moved through the astronomers on the telescope field socialized. We could see the moon rising behind the clouds.

About an hour later it was clear again. But now the moon was lighting up the night sky. I took in some views of Jupiter and the moon. This have me a chance to try out my Meade Planetary filter set that I had for a while but never really used. I could see two shadows of the Satellites of Jupiter on the planet. Being a 4" I could resolve the planet as good as some others that night so I headed over to Mr. Kelly's Schmidt-Cassegrain where we observed Jupiter and tired filters on Jupiter. We found the green filter really enhanced the banding and the shadows.

Around midnight I put my scope back in my Jeep and walked over to the circle of chairs and settled in for the Meteor shower. This night wasn't the peak but it was really enjoyable. There is something to be said for just sitting there watching the sky for hours on end. Bryan the obsession owner had Music playing and it was relaxing. I worked on my Astronomical League Meteor Observing list while we sat there, talked and joked around. Sometimes we'd hear snoring as someone drifted into a nap... but I remained awake and logged four hours toward the six required for the Leagues award pin. I logged 30 meteors that night most near Cassiopeia. The brightest I estimated at magnitude -4 at 3:50 AM (CST).

While sitting there star gazing Bryan our club's chairman got his green laser pointer and taught us about visual magnitudes using Lyra. He taught us about variable stars (ones whose magnitude-brightness changes) and about the Chicago Conference he attended about Citizen Science with Epsilon Aurigae.

About 4:30am we caravanned back to San Antonio. I got home about 5:30 am ate dinner and went to bed.

Saturn without rings until September?

If you are a fan of viewing Saturn then you might want to note that it's rings will be tilted edge-on to the Earth from August 10, 2009 to September 4, 2009, making them impossible to see even with a telescope. You are lucky to witness such a rare event such as this alignment with earth and the rings as it only occurs every 14 to 15 years.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Perseids Meteor Shower- Morning of Aug. 12, 2009

On August 12, 2009 you will be able to see the Perseids meteor shower in the morning. The radiant point for this shower will be in the constellation Perseus. Look to the northeast after midnight.

To prepare you for this I found this wonderful resource:

Upcoming Showers
Orionids - October 21, 2009 in morning moon will be near new Moon.
Leonids - November 17/18, 2009 at night and in morning; moon will be new Moon.
Geminids - December 13/14, 2009 at night; moon will be near new Moon.

Time Lapse Video I found of the Perseids Video from 2007:

For more information: