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.

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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.

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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.

Comet 46P/Wirtanen in 3-D

A big story lately in the astronomy community has been the passage by the Earth of Comet 46P/Wirtanen. The comet was discovered in 1948 by the American astronomer Carl A. Wirtanen of Lick Observatory. It has a period of orbit around the Sun of 5.4 yrs. What makes it so noteworthy now is how close it has come to the Earth, about 30.1 times father than our Moon. This image shows the comet’s orbit as an elongated light grey ellipse. The orbit is tilted slightly with respect to the plane of the inner planet orbits. Earth’s orbit is the 3rd one out from the Sun in light blue.

JPL | Small-Body Database Browser

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Comet 46P / Wirtanen

There has been much news hype lately about a special Christmas comet zooming across the sky. It is perfectly place for observers in the northern hemisphere. Two nights ago (14th) I scanned the sky with 15x binoculars below the Pleiades. There was a very faint smudge of light. Maybe that was it. We set up our 4.25″ Astroscan scope. I was convinced. Melanie less so.

Last night (15th) was especially clear. I set up the 8″ Celestron. This time it was brighter due to the bigger scope. (2x diameter = 4x light) Quite a lovely sight. But, without special equipment, there is no way I could have seen it as hyped in the news. Stories like that suggest to readers there is something special to see. They go look, see nothing, and mutter what a waste of time. Stupid science!

With good seeing conditions, proper equipment and techniques, the comet is a beautiful thing. Here is an image by Sven Melchert of Stuttgart, Germany. He captured 68 images and used software to ‘stack’ them into a composite which produced one high quality image.

For more images of the comet, click on the image below. It will direct you to a new url where you can click on any thumbnail for a detailed view. Consider bookmarking the site for return visits. If you are an astronomy buff, the site always has new and interesting images.

Noon @ Ollantaytambo

We climbed the 245 steps to the top of the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo in Peru and reached the Temple del Sol. It was noon with the sun high overhead. Someone looked up and noticed an ice ring encircling the sun. I had to capture this photo.

I grew up and continue to live at about 40-42˚ north latitude in the center of the U.S. The sun has never been directly overhead. But now, at noon about 13˚ south latitude, the sun was nearly straight up. I looked down to my feet and saw something I’d never seen before. My shadow was directly below me. That was fun to see.