Well, for the past few weeks, the annual monsoon season has completely descended on Denver, leaving me more time to write my blog and catch up on my astroreading. Mars opposition? What Mars opposition? Unless “Mars” is now the new name for “cloud bottom”. Which, given the global dust storm on Mars, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn.
But, anyway. The Denver Astronomical Society certainly has its highlights and benefits. The Denver metro area is a hotbed of aerospace development and space science, with 500 different aerospace companies having facilities here. Satellites and launch vehicles are being developed here at United Launch Alliance, while the Southwest Research Institute has one of its main offices in Boulder. The Space Weather Prediction Center – yes, that is a thing, and a most important thing for protecting satellites from solar storms, flares, and coronal mass ejections – is also located in Boulder.
Big aerospace hitters with offices and facilities in the metro area include Boeing, Raytheon, Ball Aerospace, Harris, Sierra Nevada, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell. The Air Force’s 460th Space Wing is located about 3 miles east of me as the F-35 flies, here in Aurora. (No, I don’t know where the other 459 wings are located. And ah say, ah say, that’s a joke, son.) Colorado Springs, 60 miles south of Denver, is the home of the Air Force Academy. Data flows in from all parts of the universe into our little corner of Colorado to the Space Science Institute, where the Cassini mission and Juno information is analyzed. The huge aerospace industry here – second largest in the country, behind California – acts as a big draw to others involved in the field.
As a nice side benefit of all of this, we get some great speakers to come to the DAS monthly meetings, because many of them are already right here in the neighborhood. Recently, one of those speakers was someone who lives right nearby in Boulder, home of Mork & Mindy, the University of Colorado, and NIST. And the home of Jeff Kanipe, author of Annals of the Deep Sky.
By way of background, forty years ago, an eccentric genius named Robert Burnham put together a comprehensive three-volume observing guide covering every constellation in the sky, and the most prominent DSOs, stars, and double stars in each of them. The compilation was the first of its kind for observers. Called Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, it is still in print today (and each of the three volumes is available used for about $4 each if you hunt around). It remains a valuable reference to be read on those cloudy nights when you can’t be out observing. However, in the years since its original publication, a good part of the information in it is now outdated or has since been superseded.
Finally, after 40 years, there is a brand new dissertation on astronomical objects, the Annals of the Deep Sky. More than just an update to Burnham’s, it is less an observing guide and more intended to be a complete survey of the most important DSOs and stars in each constellation, along with providing the background information as to why those DSOs are interesting, and what they tell us about the universe. The volumes are also incorporating into the series the latest, most current developments in astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, as well as astronomical exploration and discovery.
Jeff Kanipe is the author of each volume; Dennis Webb is the illustrator. At the lecture, Kanipe spoke about how he chooses which objects to include under each constellation. Obviously, the bright and the beautiful always make the cut – that’s all the gorgeous Messiers, plus a lot of the more important NGC objects, as well as certain stars. But where Burnham’s was more of an observing guide, as in, “here are the coolest, most interesting objects in the sky,” Kanipe has taken a much broader view.
Many of the objects are things that he personally finds interesting, regardless of the fact that amateur-sized telescopes have no chance at seeing them. If there’s something about these very dim objects that helps relate a particular astrophysical concept or story, it goes in.
Each volume is something under 400 pages, which is the upper limit the publisher, Willmann-Bell, will allow in this format. Willmann-Bell publishes all astronomy, all the time, so check out their website. And no, I don’t get money from your purchases. I wish!
In the first 5 volumes, he’s covered 21 constellations so far, just short of a quarter of the grand total of 88, so it appears that the entire set will end up being about 20-odd volumes, give or take a couple. He estimates that he’ll be coming out with a new volume every 9 months, so that means that the remaining 15 or so volumes in the completed set won’t be finished for another dozen years. However, he believes that there are some time-saving methods that he’s looking to incorporate into the writing process that might speed this up (fingers crossed!).
Because the publishing of the entire set spans such a significant amount of time, this means that by the time he’s wrapping up around 2030, some of the science and observations made in the earlier volumes will have become outdated. Indeed, in just the 2 years since he published the first volume which included Andromeda, new observations have recently come out which have changed our current estimates of the size of the Andromeda Galaxy dramatically, as well as the origins of its satellite galaxy, M32.
He expects to be able to address updates like these as time passes in terms of “second printings”. When the publisher runs out of printed books for any particular volume, he’ll get a chance to go back and correct/update/revise the information in it as it has changed over time before the publisher goes to press again. He’s also eventually looking towards a time when the books can be put online and updated instantly as new information arises, Wikipedia-style.
Obviously, from the covers, you can see that each volume covers a few constellations, and they’re issued in alphabetical order. In addition to covering the constellations, the first volume also has two “introductory” sections, one on Basic Astronomy and the other on Astrophysics. The second volume has an Essential Terminology Glossary; the third has a section on the search for Exoplanets. These aren’t just 5 or 10 page articles; these are 40, 50, 60-page essays on the subject.
Note the quotes around that word “introductory”. These volumes are not Turn Left at Orion, The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, or Nightwatch, written for those with an interest in astronomy and who are just entering the hobby for the first time. The actual content of the volumes is a bit dense. In other words, you can’t be a rank beginner and read these books; ya gotta be a bit more advanced than that. However, it only takes a limited background in astrophysics knowledge to be able to get more than a little something useful out of them.
Once again, this goes right back to my concept of “making astronomy sexy“. Most DSOs just aren’t all that interesting-looking visually through small (5 inches and under) and medium-sized telescopes (6-10 inches) – the kind that the vast majority of us have and use – especially under light-polluted skies. That means that you have to use your mind to take an object that isn’t all that special visually and make the object that much more interesting using the knowledge that you’ve gained about it.
Kanipe informed us that the sixth volume of Annals should be coming out in time for the holidays, so now you know what to tell your significant other to get you. Volumes seven and eight are also already pretty much completed, but are still in the process of being proofed, edited, illustrated, formatted, laid out, etc., which seems to take a significant amount of time.
Kanipe mentioned that in the 5 volumes issued so far, he has written over 450,000 words. When the series gets to the final total of about 20 volumes, that means he will have written close to around 7500 pages, and about 1.8 million words. Quite an undertaking. Fortunately, Kanipe is “only” 65, and feels pretty good about his health, so 77 years old is not a stretch for him to be when the entire set is finally complete by about 2030. Good luck, Mr. Kanipe! (Heh, heh!)
Contrary to what I said at the top of this post, finally, the monsoon cleared out for a little bit, right around Mars’ closest approach to the earth, which I just learned is NOT the same as the opposition. I got out for a good, long Mars observation session on the morning of the 31st for the closest approach. Mars was very bright at -2.8 magnitude; Mars was darn big at just over 24 arcseconds; and, well, Mars was still pretty blank at being covered by the ongoing global dust storm. Not completely blank, but it’s so hard to really say.
I was using my Mak because I was testing out a cord problem – the Mak goto handset has a telephone jack/plug on the end that plugs into the scope, and over almost four years of heavy use, the wires had gotten stripped, rendering the handset, the goto, and pretty much the entire scope, relatively useless. Fortunately, someone in the DAS was kind enough to bring his computer networking equipment out to the Kanipe lecture and fix that for me, and this was my first chance at testing it all out. Success! The handset worked absolutely perfectly.
The seeing was terrific, especially by Denver standards. There was a nice steady wind coming in from the south, basically where Mars was, so it was parallel to and did not jiggle the scope. The best way to focus on a planet is to focus on the moon first, because this ensures your focus is absolutely sharp. I was able to use my KK Fujiyama ortho with my Ultrascopic Barlow to get up to 246x with very little softening of the view, although, admittedly, it wasn’t perfectly sharp. I switched between this and my TeleVue Plossl at 193x, which was very sharp. (The 89% moon looked terrific, by the way.)
Let’s start with bright. No matter how much magnification I used, the little globe was still very well-lit; there was almost no dimming with magnification. As for big, yeah, this is easily the largest I’ve ever seen Mars since coming back into the hobby 4 years ago; it was the largest it’s been for 15 years.
As for blank, it was tough to see anything at all other than the orange disk itself. I was pretty sure I was seeing a dark albedo feature at the bottom of the disk; the Sky and Telescope Mars Profiler says that this is Mare Sirenum. And “dark” is definitely a stretch – I was just making it out. As a rule, I almost never check details like that beforehand so as to give me a good shot at seeing everything fresh without any preconceived ideas, and to limited the “averted imagination” that so often comes with “averted vision”. But that feature was consistently there as I observed for a good 20 minutes over the course of an hour.
I was also pretty sure I was seeing a whitish feature on the opposite side – the north polar cap? But it’s so hard to be sure of this when Mars is so low in the sky and atmospheric dispersion comes into play. The whitish feature definitely had a bit of a tint of blue, so it’s hard to say exactly what I was seeing there. However, there’s still a good couple of weeks left with Mars being nice and close and big, and NASA definitely says that the global dust storm has peaked and is on the downswing. So there’s still a chance to see some stuff. Right? RIGHT???