December 21, 2015 – Electronically Assisted Astronomy, Cloudy Nights, and “Cloudy Nights”

Another of the “what I did last summer” items was to learn about the wonders of Electronically Assisted Astronomy.  This is where you attach a video camera to the focuser or eyepiece and observe from a tablet or laptop screen instead.  One of the AAA guys at the outreach sessions, Jason, had one of these setups at a Carl Schurz outreach with a Mallincam camera attached to the eyepiece and a 7″ tablet to view it on.  There was also someone with a similar setup at the AAA Urban Starfest.

Jason used his on the moon, and I must say the detail was tremendous.  Much better than what you could see with your eye at the eyepiece.  He was seeing detail in Copernicus that I could barely hint at with visual in my scope just a dozen feet away.  While the detail was a little bit soft and fuzzy, it was definitely there.  The guy at the Urban Starfest had set his sights on the Dumbbell Nebula, M27.  He was able to show it on a screen as being a few inches wide/tall and with color.

Another user I’ve come across in my travels on Cloudy Nights is Rafael.  With his C5 and an EAA set up on his roof about a mile south of me in Manhattan (which means his LP is probably even a little worse than mine), he’s been able to get some pretty amazing captures, down to about 14th magnitude, including the Ring Nebula (M57) and hints of its 14th magnitude central star, the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the Triangulum Galaxy (M33), and the Orion Nebula (M42).  He’s even been able to image the Crab (M1) and Horsehead Nebulas.  He puts his captures up here.

EAA is not for me – at least not now.  For me, the entire magic of observing is having the real photons travelling either 400 million miles or 400 light years into my telescope and then directly right into my eyeball.  I certainly do respect what you can do with EAA.  The results are truly amazing, even and especially under heavily light-polluted skies, with results way beyond what you can see through the scope visually.  But pictures on a screen are just that – pictures on a screen.  I can see those pictures anywhere on the net.  Pictures on a screen just don’t come anywhere close to my seeing it myself with my own eyes.  That could change though, if I come into some money.  I’ll admit that there is a certain magic at pointing at a picture knowing you took it yourself.

Meanwhile, December has been very much of a bust, astronomically speaking.  With the exception of seeing Venus and the moon a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been almost totally clouded out for at least a solid month now, with the weather forecast providing no change in the near future – with the exception of last night.  Last night was relatively clear, so I got to see the 9-day-old moon, and conduct an impromptu outreach session with about a dozen people who where partying on my apartment building’s roof.  After the partiers left, I continued on my quest to see one of the craterlets on the floor of Plato, but there was nothing there to be seen.

As a high haze continued to roll in all night, I stayed up late to see if I could get my first glimpse of Jupiter for the season.  I was not disappointed.  Even though Jupiter was only about 20-25 degrees above the horizon at about 1:30am, the haze meant that the seeing was steady.  Although Jupiter and three of the moons were dimmed significantly, I could still see three bands pretty easily.  I had just missed an Io shadow transit at 1am, and as I waited, I tried to see the reappearance of Io itself after its transit at 2:12am.  By that time the haze had gotten even thicker.  Io was eclipsed both by the murk and was overwhelmed by the “glare” of Jupiter, so no dice.

So, what to do to satisfy your need for astronomy on all those cloudy nights?  Why, Cloudy Nights, of course.  When I first got back into astronomy in a big way about a year and a half ago, Astronomy Forum and Cloudy Nights became one of my gateway drugs.  For the reason I discussed here, I no longer visit Astronomy Forum.  But I have been a dedicated reader at Cloudy Nights the entire time.

I first started out back then in the Beginner’s section, reading new posts that I was interested in pretty much on a daily basis.  But as I’ve gotten more “mature” in my astronomical knowledge, I’ve both moved on and slowed down.  I now generally spend most of my time in the General Observing section, as well as in the Cats and Casses section, with particular attention to – what else? – Maks.  I still go to the Beginner’s section, too, to see if there’s something else that’s basic that I’ve missed, or that I can help a newb out with.

And, of course, I still ask basically any old question that pops into my little brain.  One of the great strengths of Cloudy Nights is the incredible knowledge of the frequent posters there – they really know their stuff, and many of them can explain very complicated concepts well.  I have learned an enormous amount sitting at the feet of the masters there.

However, there is the incredible tendency for the threads to quickly degenerate into the incredible minutia of a topic, or more to the point, off-topic.  For example, a recent post of mine asking a simple question as to why commercial Chinese Maks had the focal lengths they do quickly became a doctorate-level seminar on the testing of Maks for spherical aberration, with graphs, and charts, and plenty of incomprehensible terminology.  This happens all too frequently on the site, and I think it’s a shame.

Another problem that occurs with great frequency is a Men Are From Mars problem – and since this is very much a male hobby, well over 95% of the people posting on Cloudy Nights are men.  Like I said, I’ll frequently ask any old question that pops into my head, just out of sheer curiosity.  The result frequently becomes what we men do – we fix “problems”.  I might ask a specific question about, say, a 6-inch refractor, and people – men – will chime in and say, “Whaddaya want a 6-inch refractor for, when you can get a 12-inch dob for the same price?”  when I don’t want to buy anything at all.  I just ask idle questions, seeking knowledge, but the response is to fix “my problem” and recommend something else to buy instead.

Nowadays, I visit the site about twice a month, around the 1st and 15th, read some posts of interest, and comment where appropriate.

Beyond just reading websites, there’s plenty else to read in book form – there’s a ton of great astronomical literature out there.  And, in one particular case, I really do mean literature.  Other than observing the beauty and grandeur of the heavens, to me, the most important point to even doing astronomy is to understand what it is you’re seeing.  Sure, the Pleiades are gorgeous, but what are they, exactly? What are we looking at when we see the Ring Nebula?  Understanding the structure of our galaxy, or of the universe, became the way it is, to me is central to why I’m observing in the first place.

The literary classic in the field is Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, which is practically prose in the way the author describes the sky.  Published in three volumes in 1978, it is the work of a man who was an underappreciated genius in his time, but has gone on to become one of the standard reference works for the hobby.  Burnham takes the sky constellation by constellation and describes the major stars and DSOs in each, with a few photographs and charts sprinkled in here and there for good measure.  His three volumes are still in print almost 40 years later, and can be bought used on Amazon for just a penny each – plus $3.99 shipping.  Quite a bargain.

The books are clearly a labor of love for the author, written on a typewriter by a man with “only” a high school education.  (The published volumes are simply photostats of those typewritten pages, in their original eye-straining courier font.)  After discovering a comet, he got a job at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona as a photographer doing a survey on stellar proper motion.  He used the same 13-inch refractor and blink comparator that was used to discover Pluto and worked there for 20 years before completing the survey.   I actually came across these volumes as a kid in my local library about 30-odd years ago, but I wasn’t intellectually mature enough at that time to fully appreciate them.

Burnham lays it all out in his volumes, one constellation at a time.  He gives listings of DSOs in each constellation, including double stars, variable stars, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, complete with right ascension and declination coordinates, magnitudes, and distances.  He describes the mythology and history behind the constellation groupings in lovely prose, with various charts thrown in.  He then goes through each of the major stars of each constellation, giving various facts about each, both descriptive and historical.  Finally, he describes the astronomical understanding of the DSOs themselves.  His Ursa Major entry alone is 83 pages long.

However, in the nearly 40 years since their publication, both our information about and our understanding of the universe has increased and evolved greatly.  And therefore, the need for a newer incarnation, an “update”, if you will, to Burnham’s classics.  Following in Burnham’s footsteps, authors Jeff Kanipe and Dennis Webb have begun to put out a new serialized set, called Annals of the Deep Sky.

Each volume is about 350 pages or so, with a few constellations dealt with in each.  They cover the same basic ground in seemingly equal depth as Burnham, but with much more modern information and a better cosmological understanding of what’s going on – and fortunately, with more modern typefaces, graphics, and photographs as well.  I haven’t yet read these, as only the first two volumes of what promises to be about a dozen-volume set have been published so far.  But they certainly look promising, and reviews have been glowing so far.  Their plan is to release a couple of volumes each year, so the set will take at least until the end of the decade to be completed.

Another favorite author of mine is Timothy Ferris (not to be confused with Timothy Ferriss), who has published a number of books in the area.  One of these is Seeing in the Dark, about the broader field of amateur astronomy, how it’s changed, and how it’s evolved in recent times.  He is an excellent author and a good solid read.  I’ve got a few of his books on my bookshelves.

There is also the giant in the field, Sir Patrick Moore, who had a long-running astronomy show on the BBC, The Sky at Night, for over 50 years.  In addition to having a series of specialized astronomy books published in his name, the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series, Moore himself wrote prolifically on all topics astronomical.  One of my favorites of his is called Astronomers’ Stars, where he discusses individual stars that made a difference, so to speak – particular stars whose study has led to a better understanding of how they work, and in turn, how our galaxy works.

Finally, I have recently discovered author Bob Berman, who has a talent for writing about astronomy in a humorous vein that makes reading his books a pleasure.  I recently read his Secrets of the Night Sky and enjoyed it immensely.  Not because of the wealth of new information in it – it being both 20 years old and a very basic, introductory book, there hardly was any.  I enjoyed it because of his clever and funny writing style.  It is well worth the read.

So to misquote Jack Horkheimer, if you can’t “keep looking up”, look down for a while and read up on just what it is you’re seeing up there.  You’ll get a lot more enjoyment and wonderment out of the hobby that way.

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