My Heavy Binoculars | Now Steady

I really like my Celestron Skymaster Pro 15×70 mm binoculars. Their wide field of view, bright optics, and sharp focus enhance views of the night sky. What I don’t like is how heavy they are at 3.75 lbs (1.70 kg). They came with a tripod mount which works fine. But, I have found getting into good viewing position to look steeply up in the sky can be a challenge. The tripod legs are extended too far if I am standing which adds to it shaking. Sitting to view doesn’t work better as the tripod and my legs compete for the same space.

I wondered if there was a better and cheap solution to holding the binoculars steady and giving me flexibility for viewing. I browsed the local hardware store for inspiration and found this tool in the paint section. The tool had a swivel head with about 60˚range of motion.

In a display of extendable poles, I picked one that was a bit taller than me in its longest position. Total cost was $20.

The binoculars rest firmly on the foam pad of the paint tool with enough friction so they don’t slip. A small bungee cord might be a good idea. I can easily grip them and the pad and adjust focus if necessary. The adjustable pole gives comfortable and very stable control of height. I can tilt up-down and right-left easily to scan a portion of sky. Set up and take down is fast. Best of all, no more shaky binoculars. This is a winner for me.


Fireballs Across the Sky

My great-grandparents were married in 1870. They farmed in west-central Illinois a mile from his brother. The brothers moved to Illinois from Ohio. Earlier, they moved to Ohio from Virginia during the Civil War. The rectangle in this 1941 aerial photo shows the location of the farmstead where my great-grandparents lived after they were married.


Here are my great-grandparents and their five children in about 1890. My grandfather is the one in the center back row.

Here is my great-grandfather’s brother and his wife. They eventually had seven children. Notice a date of Oct 74 at the bottom. That is when a relative photographed the original photo from nearly 100 years before.


Show me more…

Electricity | How States Make It

How is electricity generated where you live? That question was addressed in a New York Times story by Nadja Popovich on 24 Dec 2018. Electricity is made from several energy sources including coal, natural gas, petroleum, nuclear, water flow, wind, solar, and biomass. The mixture of sources for each state is quite different and depends on the availability and cost of resources for that state.

The article looked at the range of time from 2001 to 2017. The mixture of energy sources has varied over time for each state and for the United States as a whole. Here we see the sources charted for the United States. Note the increase trend of natural gas and the decrease of coal. Nuclear and hydroelectric have remained constant. Wind grew to 6%. Solar in yellow is barely visible in the lower right. Click image for detail.

New York Times | Nadja Popovich and Josh Williams | 24 Dec 2018

Continue reading

Ceres | My First Views

Update: Second date of views (4 Jan 2019) is at the bottom of this post.

The largest asteroid Ceres has been orbited by the ion-engine powered DAWN spacecraft since early 2015. DAWN ran out of fuel to maneuver in October 2018 and will remain silent in orbit at Ceres for decades. Previous to Ceres, it visited the second largest asteroid Vesta. This fly-over video gives a close view of Ceres.

The asteroid is far away and quite small and dim. It is not something most people have ever seen with the naked eye or in a telescope. I’ve been tracking Ceres with desktop planetarium software with hopes to see it. I am happy to report success.

Show me more…

Coal Train From Space

We drive through southeast Iowa to visit family. About 20 minutes of our journey parallels the BNSF railway (Burlington Northern – Santa Fe). It is a heavily used freight line and is also used by the California Zephyr of Amtrak between Chicago and San Francisco. We usually see at least one freight train during the time we are near the tracks. Often, we see a long train loaded entirely with coal. The road is often only 100 ft or so from the track giving us good views. Try zooming and dragging this window to change your view.

I’ve wondered how many cars typically make up the coal trains. It is not easy to count them, especially while I am also driving. My guess has been around 100 cars. I wondered if Google Maps might help me find out. I located the route in Google Maps and started scanning the tracks between Ottumwa and Burlington. It didn’t take long to find a long train. I zoomed in for a closer view.

Continue reading

New Horizons | Ultima Thule Flyby | 31 Dec 2018

The New Horizons spacecraft was launched in January 2006. It coasted by Pluto 14 July 2015 giving us our first close views of the dwarf planet and its moons. Previous posts highlighting events of the mission are found here.

After that flyby of Pluto, the mission gained a new challenge. It is headed for a flyby of a Kuiper Belt object called Ultima Thule. The flyby occurs late on New Year’s Eve about 11:30 pm CST. The closest approach distance will be about 2200 mi (3540 km) which is 1/3 the distance it was in the flyby of Pluto. I invite you to read remarks by Principal Investigator Alan Stern as New Horizons makes its final approach. Quoting Stern:

“What will Ultima reveal? No one knows. To me, that is what’s most exciting—this is pure exploration and fundamental science!”

From the New Horizons web site:

We will only know what Ultima Thule’s surface looks like once New Horizons has sent back the first pictures after it has flown by, although based on observations of similar-sized Solar System objects, it will almost certainly display impact craters. The lighting environment at its surface is very dim, as it receives only about 0.05% of the light from the Sun that Earth does. We do know that Ultima Thule has a reddish color, probably caused by exposure of hydrocarbons to sunlight over billions of years. The flyby will also reveal whether it has any moons, or even a ring system. Ultima Thule belongs to a class of Kuiper belt objects called the “cold classicals”, which have nearly circular orbits with low inclinations to the solar plane, and which have not been perturbed since their formation perhaps 4.6 billion years ago. Ultima Thule will therefore be the most primitive planetary object yet explored, and will reveal to us what conditions were like in this distant part of the Solar System as it condensed from the solar nebula.

I will be monitoring the progress of New Horizons at this site for the latest update news and images.

Christmas Morning | ISS Lunar Transit

Passes of the International Space Station are very predictable. There are internet sites that will email you notification of a coming pass. This one by NASA is easy to use. I use a site called CalSky which also notifies me if the ISS is going to pass in front of the Sun or Moon for my location. These transits are brief lasting barely more than a second. I’ve written about seeing several transits of the Sun in these posts.

Transits of the Moon are more difficult to see. The CalSky site has notified me fewer times about lunar transits. When they do occur for my location, the weather is sometimes a problem. This Christmas morning a transit was to occur but the forecast called for very cloudy skies. I woke not expecting to see it. When I looked out the window, the Moon was shining brightly in a clear patch of sky. I got my camera ready and hoped it would stay clear. It did just barely long enough. Here are three frame-grabs from the video showing the ISS just before, during, and after the transit.

This is the video slowed down to 50% speed. It is best viewed on a large screen with quality set to HD. It is not likely visible on a phone or tablet screen. The transit begins at the 7 o’clock position and ends at the 2 o’clock position of the Moon’s face. It lasts only 2.5 sec on this video, only 1.24 sec in real time.

I’ve waited a long time to see this. It was great to have it occur on Christmas morning. What a nice present.