It seamed like it might be fun to toy around with brand-new raw images just received from the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn. I must say I didn’t do much with the image. Still, it was fun to see details emerging from a formerly soft, gray picture as I made adjustments to the image. I’m away from my home office so I used GIMP instead of Photoshop but I’m sure to play with pictures like this more often in future!
Unexpected business led me to visit the observatory Tuesday night. Since I was there and the sky was nicely clear, I decided to open the dome and do a little observing.
Orion is low in the west these nights and the great nebula (M42) was actually only visible through the bare limbs of the neighbor's trees. The view was splendid, however, and at low magnification the cloudy expanse took on a fan shape. The stars of the Trapezium were clearly displayed, nestled in the gauze.
Using star Sirius to set R.A. and my notebook computer's The Sky software to find the coordinates, I was able to use the telescope's ancient dials to locate the "twin" star clusters M46 and M47 — not visible to the unaided eye this night. Declination settings are not visible on the old scope so I had to do some fishing. Still, it was gratifying to be able to get in the right neighborhood using the telescope's century-old devices. The clusters were more attractive through binoculars –a fuzzy path glowing path across the view– than through the telescope though, at low magnification, M46 filled the eyepiece with diamond-dust stars.
Turning the telescope further east as the Moon was rising, I located Saturn. The ring system is still close to edge-on and opposition took place only a few days earlier (March 22). Through the fist-sized, low-magnification eyepiece the planet was crisp and bright. Faintly visible in the field of view were tiny glowing dots — some of the Ring World's family of moons. It was a lovely sight. I had my camera with me so tried a few afocal (hand-held, lens-to-eyepiece) shots. I got a fairly good image (seen here, cropped to imitate an eyepiece view) that depicts the ring plane's angle and even hints at the rings' shadow on the planetary body. Of course, the moons don't show at all being much too dim compared with Saturn.
I closed up at about 10 PM with the Full Worm Moon rising and drowning out the light-songs of everything nearby. It was a good night of unexpected astronomy.
Despite clear skies our events nearly did not happen. Pulling the ropes to open the observatory's dome shutter I head a loud squawk echo through the chamber — the shutter had jammed for some reason and would not open fully and would not close. Repeated efforts finally resulted in the shutter opening all the way and we were free to see the sky.
The night saw 26 visitors between 9:00 and 11:00 and they were treated to superb views of the Earth's Moon. As usual the old nine-inch scope excelled at lunar landscapes but the Moon was very high in the sky –not far from the zenith– and the telescope was not tracking well. We settled for moderate magnification (133X) and enjoyed nearly three-dimensional viewing of Mare Imbrium's crater-marked lava expanses. Wrinkled crater walls, mountain ranges, and long, low, lines of hills looking like frozen ripples in hardened plaster were seen vividly. Views of Saturn were also quite good: the rings tipped towards us at only about three degrees (minimum tilt was reached in January but we missed that). Moments of very good seeing revealed a slight shadow across the planetary disk cast by the rings and a hint of gap between the planet's limb and the inner rings. A special treat was the sight of four of Saturn's moons and, over the course of the evening, noting their changing positions relative to each other and to their planet. Galileo, 400 years ago, never saw the Moon or Saturn a fraction so well as we did. He was, however, very meticulous and a skilled observer of what he could see. The Moon, while beautiful to look at, also lit our less-than-perfectly transparent skies causing quite a bit of glow so we confined ourselves to viewing only it and Saturn. The last visitors departed at about 11:10 PM.
All was routine as I began closing up until I attempted to close the dome. Squawk, boom! The shutter stalled and jammed again on its tracks. This time, however, it was stuck. After many attempts with the ropes I climbed into the opening. I found one of the lower wheels on the shutter had derailed so I lifted the shutter back on to the track. Not enough! The main problem was with the track at the top of the dome! There's no way to reach that point without scaffolds or ladders. It was going on midnight and I didn't know what to do but to keep trying. If anyone was watching from outside it must have been quite a sight… the silhouette of a man in the aperture, bright lights on inside an observatory dome, pushing and pulling and shaking the shutter, until finally it settled into its closed position. Tired, sore, and worried, I shut off the lights, locked up, and headed home at about 12:20 EDT. What a night!
Sunday She and I rose late (I got into bed at around 2:00 AM) and we slowly got around. The day had dawned clear and sunny, if a little chilly, and we had to get out. Since we were both tired, we took a drive to the lakefront town of Vermilion. There, we enjoyed a stroll down to the beach where we watched tug boats working out on Erie. Walked around the downtown area and sampled chocolates made in a small shop there. Wildflowers grew in someone's front yard and at the base of a treelawn tree. A lovely place to visit. Then we headed home. A leisurely day.
As the sun turned to clouds this afternoon my thoughts began to return to the Observatory and the situation there. What are we to do? If we cannot open and close the shutter on the century-old dome, we cannot use the Observatory. Somehow it must be repaired.
Something happened with our PC systems –something to do with the change to Daylight Saving Time– that did not go well at all. So yesterday I arrived at the office to be asked casually by someone, "did you notice how all the computer clocks are off?" The clocks were off by an hour or two, or more, or even a day or so. Ulp! I still don't know what happened to the computers but I did spend a full 12-hour day shutting off security on each of the 50 or so computers, correcting the clocks, installing Microsoft updates and patches (hoping that helps), and turning security back on. All that while people were in the building. Odd, though, the PCs went through the change from DST to Standard Time last fall with no issues at all. I'm still investigating the incident and trying to find out what to do to avoid its repeating. I'd love it if the world's governments would finally just give up on this "saving time" business and stick with Standard Time year 'round; there are many good reasons to do that.
The unexpected additional work hours did, however, have a small bright side — I generated enough compensatory time off that I was able to stay home for the better part of the day. I used that time to create Web presence for the Big Publishing Project. Tomorrow I see and (presumably) approve proofs of the job and nearly all of my work on that 20-page, full-color beauty will be complete. I'm looking forward to some time off during my time off.
It's looking like the skies may be clear this weekend for a re-scheduled observatory public night. So, instead of kicking back and relaxing Saturday night, I'll probably be in a cold, dark dome keeping a century-old telescope aimed at the planet Saturn. Thing is, thinking about that right now makes it seem like a chore; I'm so very tired. There is, however, something about hearing "WOW!" and "COOL!" and "It's so beautiful!" from folks enjoying their first good look at Saturn that recharges my spirit.
Yesterday was bright and sunny. Today we have returned to winter gloom. It doesn't look good for the weekend, either, and Saturday night at the Observatory I was supposed to host our first Public Night for the year. Oh well, at least it looks like the sky conditions will be unambiguously opaque — no second-, third-, and fourth-guessing a decision on whether to open. The worst times are when we have an event planned and maybe it will be cloudy and maybe it won't be cloudy. Do I drive to the Observatory or not? Because this was going to be a Saturn Observation Campaign special event, we have a rare "rain" date –next Saturday– in case sky conditions prevent our opening. That's Northern Ohio for you… not exactly the astronomy capital of the world.
This year's big event calendar publishing project seems to have taken forever! In fact, we ought to be in print right now and might have been except we needed to find a new printing company. It seems Rohrich Corporation closed its doors, apparently late last year, and I was left scrambling looking for a new company that could provide excellent quality and service at an affordable price. I got three estimates and selected the new provider. About all that remains on the publishing end is a page or two of text to place, copy-fitting, and a photo caption or two. I hope to be able to >>finally<< finish the publication tomorrow (a scheduled day off) and ship the CD-ROM off to the new guys. Celebration will be in order. A bonus: this year, for the first time ever, I won't do the majority of shipping and distribution from my house! The new printer will handle that. What a relief: you have no idea how much 20,000 full-color "magazines" fresh off the press can stink up your house unless you've actually lived with it! Of course, I'll lose the exercise of lugging 20 or so cartons of 35 pounds each down into the basement and back up again over the course of a few months — I guess I'll have to do strength and cardio training some other way.
My thoughts go out to the fine folks formerly with Rohrich. So sorry to learn of the closure and job losses for people we worked with for many years. Here's hoping they all find better times not long ahead.
Weekend: We plan to visit the Cleveland Auto Show. Yes, a little pre-shopping.
It is an unexpected clear night, and it is cold: 17 degrees (F). Between the temperature, recent snows, and being tired it did not make a lot of sense to either set up a telescope (in my situation*) or drive to the observatory to look for the green comet Lulin (C/2007 N3). I did want to see it, however, and it should be easy to spot since bright Saturn and Lulin would be very near each other in the sky.
Even with a relatively clear sky the light pollution of our suburban area is bad. Only the brightest stars and planets were visible this night: Venus was brilliant in the twilight and for a couple of hours after sunset, as it has been all winter. Now Saturn rises at a decent hour and tonight it was well above the southeastern horizon in the great constellation Leo and, due to its golden color, was easily found. Leo was difficult to make out so I'm glad I didn't depend upon it!
Standing in my winter coat and pajama bottoms –yes, it's 17 degrees– I aimed my 10 x 50 binoculars at Saturn. The brilliant dot floated in the visual field. I couldn't make out the planetary disk but nearby, and to Saturn's south, was a faint, diffuse, oblong cloud — Comet Lulin. Invisible here to the unaided eye, it's being estimated at between magnitude 5 and 6. No nucleus was visible and no color noticeable. That should not be surprising given less than ideal base sky conditions, light pollution, and the small-aperture binoculars. I took one last look at the semi-starry sky and gingerly walked the icy path back to the house.
Still, I saw the comet on the night when it is passing closest to Earth. And I got out under a "clear" sky with an optical instrument for the first time in months! It has been a long, cold, snowy, and cloudy winter and I'm hoping conditions improve soon. Our first public night for the year is set for March 7 when we'll be looking at Saturn — the rings will be edge-on this year. And maybe I'll get a better look at that little green fuzz-ball Lulin. You never know!
* I've only purchased equatorial, tripod-mounted refractors til now. For occasions like this, however, a nice Dobsonian-mounted reflector would be great as a grab-and-go telescope. Hmmm…. is there room left in my basement?
Saturday was a kind of personal "astronomy day" for me.
First I met my predecessor in the position of Observatory curator. Bob was coming to town for a visit with family and wanted to meet me at the college Observatory. He's 77 now but active in his retirement as a tour guide at a professional observatory facility in Arizona — "for the perks!" The job gives him access to the facilities himself. He filled me in on some of the recent history and background of the Ohio facility and the workings of our century-old telescope. Though he rarely visits the area, he has taken an interest in the progress we're making with the Observatory and cares about its future, especially, of the vintage instrument. I'm sure we'll be in communication with each other for some time to come.
Sky conditions for Saturday night were forecast to be excellent (for Northeastern Ohio). I learned that some friends from the astronomy club were going to the club's observing site. I decided to take advantage of the situation and use my own telescope for the first time in more than a year! Well, even our usually accurate sky forecast can be wrong and this one was! An unexpected thin layer of cloud moved in so that, by twilight, it covered the darkening sky with a thin "haze." Drat! Everyone was disappointed as it was our best chance for stargazing for the entire holiday weekend. As it turns out the experience served us well as a shakedown. Lynn was learning how to operate the Sphinx computerized telescope mount (much cursing), Steve was apparently having focus problems (maybe atmosphere related but he wasn't sure), but I had a pretty good night.
I remembered how to put everything together –which was a bit surprising– and, even more surprising, my own computerized telescope system performed flawlessly. It had been very tempermental most times in the past. My telescope's alignment was a bit off (my fault) so the system wasn't perfect in finding things, but I did manage to find and enjoy views of Saturn (beautiful), Mars (tiny and disappointing), galaxies M81 & M82 (unimpressive this night due to atmosphere), and a surprising view of M104 –the Sombrero– which I had never seen before. The Sombrero, to my eye, looked like a long string of stars, like a stretched star cluster, instead of a fuzzy cloud — the way most galaxies look when viewed through a small telescope. Optically my big refractor did at least as well as neighboring Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescopes (SCT) delivering excellent quality images of, especially, Saturn under the less than ideal conditions. I was very happy with the beast! I also spied my first Iridium flare which is an extended "flash" of light reflected off one of the many Iritium communications satellites that circle Earth. I had forgotten the custom dew shield for the telescope and, by about midnight, the objective was getting fogged up — the telescope tube was already just about dripping!
I came home happy but late after a rewarding day with friends and the night sky.