First Light: Celestron NexStar 8 SE

The clouds finally lifted, and last week I got the check out my new NexStar. After setting up the red dot finder, I was ready to go.

Having already entered my latitude and longitude info into the scope’s computer during one of the cloudy nights, alignment was very easy. From my backyard I could see the moon, Saturn, and Mars in the sky, so I decided to try using the Solar System Align. I got the moon centered in the scope, hit the button, and the scope immediately began to track.

I still love my dobsonian, but it’s so great to let the scope do the tracking instead of having to nudge the scope every few seconds. I think it’s really going to help with photography.

Next I hit the button for the scope to slew to Saturn, and there it was, right in the center. Then I told it to go to Mars, and the result was the same. Very satisfying. Although I do hope to learn the constellations better, the GoTo functionality is going to be great for short sessions where you want to see something quick.

So far so good. I hope to post some moon or Saturn pictures in the next couple weeks.

June 15, 2008 | Posted in: Astronomy | Comments Closed

Curse of the New Scope

I’ve got a brandy-new scope, a Celestron NexStar 8 SE… so of course it has been raining or overcast every night since I bought it last week.

The good news is that I got the scope-to-Starry Night interface working, so once the scope is aligned I can use Starry Night to slew it. I’m really excited about the tracking features on this scope – should make both observing and photography much easier.

More detail when the clouds clear…

June 9, 2008 | Posted in: Astronomy | Comments Closed

Lucky Shot

Took this from our balcony in Phoenix last week. You can see the moon, Jupiter (top left), Venus and Mercury (bottom right), and Earth. That’s a personal best for most heavenly bodies in one shot!

Click the image for full-size version at flickr.

March 9, 2008 | Posted in: Astronomy | Comments Closed

Eclipse Pics

Here’s a couple pictures I took during last week’s total lunar eclipse.

I’m not a real photographer so I sort of didn’t know what I was doing with my camera settings. There’s no filters on any of these, just varying exposure times.

Here it is starting:

Here’s one very near totality. You can also see Saturn (bottom left) and Regulus (above the moon).

I kept running in and out of the house. I was too cold to keep taking pictures all the way through. Here’s the last one I did before zooming out for the moon & saturn pic above.

February 27, 2008 | Posted in: Astronomy | Comments Closed

Mars Pic

Mars is on its closest approach for the next 9 years, so I checked it out a few nights ago. They aren’t kidding when they call it the most disappointing object in amateur astronomy. I hoped that computer enhancement would help out a bit, but not much.

As always, gear was an Orion XT8i scope and NexImage camera. This is not natural color, it was shot through a red filter. You can make out some of Syrtis Major and maaaybe some south polar ice cap but that’s about it. Oh well. Still, I can cross Mars off my list.
















More Moon Pix

Here are two more moon pictures taken during a very brief moment last week when it was both clear and not too cold.

Each picture is actually a composite of 2 photos, which themselves were made by averaging several hundred frames of video. Some time I’d like to do a composite of the enitre moon. I wonder how many images that would require.

The first one shows Mare Crisium on the moon’s eastern limb. The second is centered on Mare Serenitas, which is more toward the north-east-center of the moon. If you want to put these features in context and see much more detailed pictures (or perhaps find out the names of those Mister-Bill looking craters), check out the Full Moon Atlas.

Mare Crisium
Mare Crisium

Mare Serenitas
Mare Serenitas


I’ve been participating in the Stardust@Home project. It’s in the same spirit as the SETI@Home project, except you’re actually doing something instead of just donating computer cycles.

The Stardust spacecraft flew near comet Wild2 in January 2004. Returning to Earth in 2006, it brought back particle samples from the comet’s coma.

The Stardust@Home project has scanned the aerogel collector from the spacecraft. Volunteers go online and (after taking online tutorials and passing a test) examine a tiny area at a time searching for interstellar dust particles. If you believe you’ve found something you mark that slide.

In and of itself, not a very exciting activity, but it’s pretty cool to have a chance to be a part of space science from your own home. Or office – I’ve been examining samples at lunch. I can hold a turkey burger in one hand and work the “virtual microscope” with the other. The project keeps track of your statistics, as well as throwing in the occasional “calibration” slide to keep you on your toes and measure your effectiveness.

Here’s my current stats:

Calibration Movies Answered Correctly 61    
Calibration Movies Answered Incorrectly 3
Your Overall Score: 58
Total Real Movies Viewed: 154
Your Rank: 7054 out of 16171
Specificity: 100%
Sensitivity: 92%

I’ve identified only 2 possible dust particles so far. Other volunteers view the same slides for confirmation and then it moves on to the scientists. Haven’t heard any verifiction yet. It supposedly takes a while.

October 12, 2006 | Posted in: Astronomy | Comments Closed

Atlantis Launch Today

Atlantis on the launch pad. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann The shuttle Atlantis will (hopefully) launch this morning around 11:41 AM EST. The schedule for this mission, STS115, has been moved around a lot but it’s finally getting off the ground.

You can read the mission overview on the STS115 page. NASA says:

NASA’s ready to get back to building the International Space Station, which means the shuttle program is coming up on some of the most challenging space missions ever. And it all starts with the launch of Atlantis on STS-115 in August.

Atlantis’ six crew members will install a second set of solar arrays on the space station, doubling the station’s ability to generate power from sunlight and adding 17.5 tons to its mass. It’s a mission they’ve had four years to train for, and it’s still no cakewalk.

“It’s a very busy flight,” Atlantis Commander Brent Jett said. “We’ve never had to fit so many activities back to back on consecutive days.”

Watch the launch on NASATV

Update: the mission has been postponed until Saturday at 11:14 due to a problem with a fuel system sensor.

September 8, 2006 | Posted in: Astronomy | Comments Closed

How Planets Are Named

The Planetary Society has a brief article by a member of the IAU Nomenclature Committee about the naming process for planets, planetary features and so on.

For example:

We maintain a database of potential names for planetary features, which must all fit within a theme for that body. For example, eruptive centers on Io are named after mythological deities that are related to fire, Sun, or thunder (Loki, for example, is a Norse blacksmith as well as the trickster god).

It’s a good read, check it out.