Observing 2017-11-18

I spent a few hours outside tonight with my 10″ Orion Dobsonian telescope hunting for celestial objects. These were all things I’ve seen before, but it was still really cool and very rewarding. I navigated with my iPad and used my wide-field Celestron binoculars to help me along. I fiddled with my iPhone and iPad camera a bit and produced these images. The software screenshot is from Starmap 2.

Here is my observing list for the evening:

  • Tried to find planet Uranus and this was my only failed attempt of the evening.
  • WZ Cassiopeia  – Carbon star in Cassiopeia near the star Caph
  • The Owl cluster (aka E.T. cluster) in Cassiopeia
  • M103 – open cluster in Cassiopeia
  • NGC 663 – open cluster in Cassiopeia
  • M45- The Pleiades – Open cluster in Taurus
  • The Hyades – cluster in Taurus
  • M36 – Open cluster in Auriga
  • M37 – Open cluster in Auriga
  • M38 – Open cluster in Auriga
  • M42 and trapezium cluster – nebula and open cluster in Orion
  • R Leporis – carbon star in Lepus

It was a nice cool evening. The wind was brisk. This made the seeing pretty bad. But the transparency was excellent. And the lack of a bright moon helped a lot.

CAST 2017: Astronomy Labs Using Real Data

I’ll be presenting the same thing twice at CAST 2017!  Learn how actual astronomical data products from Caltech, NASA, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey can be used for inquiry-based investigations to cover astronomy 101 topics so that students can have authentic research experiences right in the classroom. The session will focus on using web-based data tools from IPAC’s Infrared Science Archive (IRSA) and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) for doing investigations such as creating a color-magnitude diagram for star clusters and creating three-color astronomical images using actual data. Teachers will learn how to implement the demonstrated lab activities in their own classrooms and how to make their own investigations to teach topics about stars and galaxies in astronomy courses at the secondary level. The activities provided all use only a web browser with no extra software required and all resources are freely available to use for everyone.

The presentation is available here as a Google Slides Presentation: https://goo.gl/AhFVis

The lab instructions are available here as a Google Doc: https://goo.gl/K28EvC

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Great American Eclipse 2017

On August 21st, 2017 the shadow of the moon will race across a huge swatch of the U.S. Some people don’t know it is a solar eclipse. And for a small, seventy-mile wide line, people will see the sun completely disappear for a few minutes. A solar eclipse is when the sun is blocked by the moon and a lunar eclipse is when the shadow of the Earth is cast on the moon. So why so much interest?

There is a fantastic cosmic coincidence that the moon and the sun are the same size in the sky but it works to our advantage. But here’s the thing, if all the orbits were aligned perfectly, we would have eclipses every month. Instead, a total solar eclipse for your location is very rare. In fact, no one you know has likely ever experienced one. But being rare isn’t the only astounding thing. The entire lower 48 United States will experience a partial eclipse and that is a very cool astronomical event. But for people in the path of totality, the experience isn’t just scientific or photographic – it is bizarre, overwhelming, beautiful, and unforgettable.

Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” has this to say about seeing a partial eclipse versus a total eclipse “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”

But maybe you can’t get away from wherever you are. You can still expect to see a partial solar eclipse. The moon will seem to gobble up the sun. You will see a crescent sun rather than a crescent moon. People in Houston can head to either location of the Houston Museum of Natural Science where local astronomy clubs will have equipment setup to safely view the eclipse.

ISO-approved Eclipse Glasses

Remember, looking at the sun with a telescope or binoculars without the correct filter will cause eye damage and likely blindness. There is no shortage of options though. You can get eclipse glasses with ISO-approved mylar film or you can go low tech and poke a hole in a box and project the image of the eclipse onto the inside shaded surface.

In fact, projecting an image of the eclipse means you can share the view without a lot of people all at once.

But if you are in the path of totality, experienced observes all say the same thing: just watch. Don’t try to do photography. Don’t try to set up a fancy observing rig. Be prepared to be awed and silent and just experience the unmatched otherness of night erupting into an otherwise bright and sunny day. Totality is less than 3 minutes. This is a time for you to just experience something otherworldly right here on Earth.

No matter where you are, take some time on Monday August 21st and try to view the eclipse. You will be sharing in a huge cultural event and will learn some cool stuff about the solar system. And if you miss the eclipse, there will a total solar eclipse visible in Texas in 2024!

Jimmy Newland is a member of the Houston Astronomical Society and an astronomy teacher at Bellaire High School in Houston ISD.