Pleiades, Pleiades, Pleiades, Pleiades

The Pleiades is a beautiful open star cluster in the constellation of Taurus. It is one of my favourite targets during star parties because it gives different views and perspectives at different magnifications from naked-eye views to spectacular telescopic images. Recently, at the Manning Park Dark Sky Weekend and a Starry Nights event, we had people progress from a naked-eye view to using 8x binoculars while they waited for their turn to look though the telescope.

Autumn in Manning Park
Autumn in Manning Park featuring the Pleiades star cluster. Image Credit: Rebecca Bollwitt

The cluster is also known as the Seven Sisters or Messier 45. It is obvious to the unaided eye: I see it as hazy bright patch from light-polluted city skies but individual stars can be resolved from a dark site; typically 5 to 6 member stars are visible to people with good eyesight. The cluster is located about 10° north-west of the bright orange star Aldebaran which can currently be found by looking due East around 08:30pm PST.

Pleides due East at 08:30pm on Nov 7th, 2018
The Pleiades can found by looking East from Vancouver at 08:30 pm on Nov 7th, 2018
The view of Pleiades through binoculars
Binocular View

The seven brightest stars are named for the Seven Sisters of Greek Mythology: Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone. These stars plus two more, named after their father Altas and mother Pleione are clearly visible in binoculars.

A telescope and eyepiece that gives a wide field of about 2.2° provides a glorious close up view of the main stars of the cluster plus additional dimmer stars. Galileo was the first person to view the Pleiades through a telescope and thereby discovered that the cluster contained stars not visible with the naked eye. I like to think that he said “Wow” like many our star party attendees.

Telescopic View
Wide Telescopic View: click for a larger view

Messier’s inclusion of the Pleiades as M45 in his catalog of comet-like objects is curious: it is much brighter than most of other objects in the catalog and cannot be easily mistaken for a comet.

The cluster’s core diameter is about 16 light years and it includes over 1,000 confirmed members excluding unresolved binary stars. Its light is dominated by young, hot blue stars. Swirls of nebulosity are noticeable around the brightest stars from dark skies when the moon is absent. The Pleiades’ nebulae are blue-coloured which indicates that they are reflection nebula – clouds of dust and gas that reflect the blue light of nearby stars.

Narrower Telescopic View
Narrower Telescopic View: click for a larger view.

This nebulosity can be glimpsed in higher-magnification telescopic views, though it often appears as faint bluish-gray patches through the eyepiece because our eyes are not sensitive to colour at low light levels. It was initially thought that the dust may have been left over from the formation of the stars in the cluster but later observations showed the cluster just happens to be moving through a dusty portion of our galaxy. How was this determined? The radial velocity of the stars was measured and found to be different from the velocity of the dust by about 11 km/sec.

The nebulosity becomes stunning in long exposure images like this one that took almost 12 hours.

Wide-field image
Long Exposure Image. Image Credit:: Marco Lorenzi (Glittering Lights) APOD 2015 June 17

I enjoy the views of this glorious cluster despite not knowing their proper pronunciation (PLAY-uh-deez, PLE-uh-deez, play-A-deez).

 

Outer Space Institute Conference at UBC

The Outer Space Institute is holding a conference at UBC on Nov 16th,  2018 to address two immediate near-term challenges in the sustainable development of space: space mining and orbital debris. The conference includes a free public half-day discussion and Q&A on the topics of asteroid mining, space debris, space colonization, and Canadian space policy.

RSVP here for the public event.

NASA: Artist's impression of the SLS Launch, bound for Mars (dhitt)
NASA: Artist’s impression of the SLS Launch, bound for Mars (dhitt)

The Ghost of Cassiopeia

Hubble Image of the Ghosts of Cassiopeia
Hubble Image of the Ghost of Cassiopeia.  Image credit: NASA, ESA

The Ghost of Cassiopeia: About 550 light-years away in the constellation of Cassiopeia lies IC 63, a stunning and slightly eerie nebula. Also known as the ghost of Cassiopeia, IC 63 is being shaped by radiation from a nearby unpredictably variable star, Gamma Cassiopeiae, which is slowly eroding away the ghostly cloud of dust and gas. This celestial ghost makes the perfect backdrop for the upcoming feast of All Hallow’s Eve — better known as Halloween.

Credit: https://www.spacetelescope.org/news/heic1818/

DIY Ultra Wide Binoculars

Astronomy magazine recently had an ad for a pair of ultra wide field binoculars from Kasai Trading.  These quirky binoculars have a magnification of just 2.3X with 42mm objectives but give a whopping 28º field of view, about four times larger than that of standard binoculars. The Vixen 2.1×42 constellation binoculars are similar and a review and comparison of these models is available.

Image of home build Ultra-Weide Nikon 2x54 binoculars
Home-Built Ultra-Wide Nikon 2×54 binoculars

I found these appealing because the ultra-wide field provides views more like the naked eye while boosting the brightness to compensate for light pollution and aging eyes -only the cost was somewhat prohibitive.

Image Nikon TC-E2 teleconverter
Nikon TC-E2 Teleconverter lens now available as surplus.

Some research revealed a simple do-it-yourself alternative: Nikon 2×54 binos built as described in several posts on www.cloudynights.com. The key components are a pair of old Nikon TC-E2 teleconverters. These are high-quality lens, originally selling for over $150, now available as surplus on eBay for as low as $30. All that is really needed, in addition to the lens, is a holder to keep the lens together. Fortunately plans for such a holder suitable for 3D printing have graciously been made available online.

image of a Holder a Nikon Teleconverter suitable for 3D printing.
Holder for a Nikon Teleconverter suitable for 3D printing.

I had a set printed locally at Discount Printing in Burnaby through the 3D Hubs website – uploaded the plans, arranged payment, and the holders arrived via Canada Post a few days later. It was then a simple matter to connect the holders using a M5 bolt and nut from Rona, secure the lens into the holders with some double-sided tape, and attach an old name-tag lanyard as a strap.

I am quite pleased with the results and views provided by these binoculars – from my light polluted Coquitlam yard, I can

  • resolve individual stars in the Pleiades star cluster instead of of seeing just a faint hazy patch
  • see all the stars in the little dipper rather than just Polaris, and
  • find bright stars much earlier in the evening twilight.

Rather that replacing  standard binoculars or a telescope, I think of these binoculars as more like glasses that augment naked eye observing.

Upcoming Astrophotography Workshops – not RASC events

There are number of upcoming workshops that may be of interest to those interested in astrophotography. These are not RASC events and there is a cost for each workshop.

Astrophotography with DSLR Cameras
Capturing the Deep Sky – Stars, Nebulas and the Milky Way

Saturday, November 3, 2018
Early Bird Discount of $79.95 extended to October 27!
Alberta Treasury Branch, 4234 Calgary Trail NW, Edmonton, Alberta

In this 4.5-hour workshop, Alan Dyer will take you through the steps for getting those great deep-sky images, from selecting a DSLR camera, to processing the final image, with the emphasis on shooting the Milky Way, star clusters, nebulas, and galaxies with both piggyback methods (using tracking platforms) and prime focus techniques (by shooting through a telescope).

Pixinsight Workshop

November 30-December 2, 2018
$595.00 USD
Seattle, Washington, USA

Join Warren Keller and Ron Brecher for their highly acclaimed 3-day interactive workshop covering the basics of PixInsight by Pleiades Astrophoto. Targeted to beginners and early intermediates, the workshop covers the essential tools and techniques needed to produce beautiful images. The workshop is limited to an exclusive group of 30 attendees, allowing for a personal learning experience for all. 

Sacramento Mountains Spectroscopy Workshop

February 22-24, 2019
$345 USD
Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA

The first Sacramento Mountains Spectroscopy Workshop was designed to be a bootcamp to help our friends and neighbors get started and move forward with amateur astronomical spectroscopy. SMSW-2 will be bigger and better and we will be able to accommodate many more people, but the goal is still the same. We want to help newbies get started with astronomical spectroscopy and we want to help experienced amateurs learn more and get better. As far as we know, our workshop is unique. You won’t find a bootcamp like this anywhere else in the world.

International Observe the Moon Night

Tonight, Oct 20th 2018, is international observe the Moon night and the forecast calls for mostly clear skies so get out and take a look.

More information at https://moon.nasa.gov/observe-the-moon/annual-event/overview/

Some quick facts about the Moon:

  • Rises at 17:05 PDT
  • Sets at 02:58 PDT
  • Phase: Waxing Gibbous,  11.3 days old
  • 87% Illuminated
  • The Moon was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago
  •  The Moon orbits the Earth every 27.3 days at distance of 384,400 kms

 

 

 

World Space Week Oct 4th – 10th

Yesterday, Oct 4th 2018, marked the 62nd anniversary of the successful launch of Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was small – about the size of a beach ball with a weight a bit less than 84 kg – but that launch marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.

World Spacw Week Logo

It is not a coincidence that starting in 1999, the United Nations has declared Oct 4th to 10th as World Space Week.

“The General Assembly declares 4 to 10 October World Space Week to celebrate each year at the international level the contributions of space science and technology to the betterment of the human condition”

— UN General Assembly resolution, 6 December 1999

The 2018 theme is “Space Unites The World” with many events planned in many countries.

 

New Smart Telescopes – sans eyepiece

A new crop of high tech telescopes aim to provide observers with enhanced views of astronomical objects using high definition cameras rather than traditional eyepieces. These smart telescopes also integrate high tech features into small portable packages aimed at newbie observers.

Stellina Telescope
The Stellina telescope is a 3.5 inch refractor

Three examples are the Stellina from Vaonis, the eVscope from Unistellar Optics, and the Hiuni but they all have a number of features in common. Be forewarned that they are all just taking pre-orders with no expected deliveries until 2019.

Where is the eyepiece?   These smart telescopes forgo a traditional eyepiece by incorporating  digital camera that makes live-views visible on a small display or remotely on a phone or tablet.  The sensitivity of the camera boosts the brightness and colour of  objects that appear dim and colourless in an eyepiece.  To be fair, the eVscope does have an eyepiece but it is non-traditional in that it uses their “Light Amplification” technology to enhance the view.

eVscope image
The eVscope is a 4.5 inch reflector from Unistellar

Easy setup –  all you have to do is attach the tripod and turn it on.  Your location is found using GPS then the telescope, camera, and mount then work together to automatically align the scope. The telescope determines where it is pointing using a process traditionally called plate solving: the camera takes an image and compares this field of view with a database of star patterns to calculate the sky coordinates (right ascension and declination).

Image of Hiuni Telescope
Hiuni’s 6 inch Cassegrain telescope

These scopes can automatically find and track thousands of objects similar to today’s goto-mounts.  The user experience in using an tablet or phone app can be better than using a traditional hand controller.  For example, you can easily enter the name of an object rather than scrolling through long lists on a hand controller.

The built-in camera makes astrophotography easy.  Images can be taken and downloaded with the phone/tablet app.  Standard astrophotography techniques such as image stacking and stretching are applied to improve the image quality.

These new smart scopes are not without heir detractors. One argument is that viewing a digital image is not the same experience as seeing the object with you own eye. Others argue that a higher quality system with equivalent features can be put together at less cost using existing equipment and free software.  It will be interesting to see how these smart telescopes evolve and how the major telescope manufacturers respond.

 

 

 

 

Collecting More than Moon Rocks

You are likely aware of the Moon rocks returned by the Apollo missions – in fact, you may have touched one at the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre. But the manned Apollo 11 mission in 1969 was just the first of several successful sample return missions that have returned pieces of other Solar System bodies.

This year features two new sample return missions: Japan’s Hayabusa2 arrived at asteroid Ryugu in June and has just launched two rovers that have landed and hopped along the surface of the asteroid.

Image of the surface of asteroid Ryugu
Surface of asteroid Ryugu captured by Hayabusa2’s Rover-1A on September 22 while moving during a hop. Image credit: JAXA.

In August, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx started taking pictures of asteroid Bennu.

First images of asteroid Bennu from OSIRIS-REx
On Aug. 17, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft obtained the first images of its target asteroid Bennu from a distance of 2.2 million km, Bennu is visible as a moving object against the stars in the constellation Serpens.

Both spacecraft will start by surveying their target asteroids, later they will collect and return surface samples to Earth. Sample return missions are difficult and not cheap. They demand safe transit and return, like manned missions, along with the autonomy and deep-space operations of robotic missions while keeping the sample uncontaminated all the way from space to laboratory. The Planetary Society has a interesting list of  ten failed missions where the solar system reminded us sample collection is hard.

Scientist crave  pristine samples that can be analyzed by Earth-based instruments that are not limited by the power, size, complexity, or weight limitations of space-based instruments. Up to the present, samples have been collected from six Solar System bodies as well as he solar wind. Extraterrestrial samples have been collected from meteorites and cosmic dust at clean locations on the Earth’s surface, by airplanes in the upper atmosphere, and by satellites in orbit. But these methods often come a with a great deal of uncertainty in linking the sample with its parent asteroid or comet. Sample return missions resolve this vexing source of uncertainty. The  comet Wild 2 and the asteroid 25143 Itokawa were visited by  unmanned spacecraft in sample return missions.

Samples from comet Wild 2 collected by the Stardust mission in 2006 have furthered our understanding of how the solar system formed and the origins of life. The comet samples showed that the outer regions of the early Solar System were not isolated and were not a refuge where interstellar materials could commonly survive. The data suggested that high-temperature inner Solar System material formed and was subsequently transferred to the Kuiper Belt. In 2009, NASA  announced that a fundamental chemical building block of life, the amino acid glycine,  was detected in the material collected by the Stardust probe. This discovery strengthened the argument that life in the Universe may be common rather than rare.

Sample return missions  can also provide detailed understanding of the hazards and engineering challenges in future missions for mining asteroids.

Prospecting precedes on Earth, and sample return is the prospecting that will precede mining in space.
-Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, scientist on the OSIRIX-Rex and Hayabusa2 missions.

Mars remains as the ultimate goal and most challenging sample return mission. Its deep gravity well implies a hefty cost and high risk that has repeatedly created conflict between the scientific community and White House budgeteers. As a compromise, the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission includes plans to cache samples for future return. Meanwhile, NASA and China are planning sample return missions to Mars for the late 20s or early 30s, and Japan’s MMX mission plans to bring back a sample from Mars’ moon Phobos.

Blame Aquarius

The constellation Aquarius can be seen during September evenings in the southern sky.  Perhaps the recent rains are from another pouring from the Water Bearer.

sky map for the constellation Aquarius
The constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer, can be viewed in the southern skies from Vancouver during September.

The Aquarius myth follows the story of Ganymede, a young prince of Troy. Zeus kidnaps Ganymede and decides that Ganymede will become his personal cup-bearer bringing him drinks whenever he pleases. One day Ganymede has had enough and he decides to pour out all of the wine and water of the gods. All that liquid falls to Earth as endless rain for days upon days. In a rare moment of self-reflection, Zeus realizes that he has been a bit unkind to the boy, so he makes him immortal as the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer.

Aquarius is not a prominent constellation but you can find it by drawing an imaginary line through Scheat and Markab in the square of Pegasus, down about 10° to a point below the circlet of Pisces and then look a little to the right to find 3 stars marking the water jar.

If you have a telescope then the globular cluster M2 is located a few degrees to the north of Sadalmelik, the brightest star in Aquarius.

Globular Cluster M2 by the Hubble Space Telescope
Globular Cluster M2 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/STScI/WikiSky

This year, Neptune is  located in Aquarius between the 4.2 magnitude star Phi-Aqr and the 3.8 magnitude Hydor.

Sky map with Neptune between Phi Aqr and Hylor
Neptune between Phi Aqr and Hydor