Sunday, July 30, 2006


Restarted SETI@home today, using the new BOINC system.

The screen saver is a little loud... Gotta figure out how to modify that.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

scale model

I finally did it (with a little help from my friends), I built a scale model of the solar system. And all I can say is: wow!

When I was a kid, I tried building a model. I set the scale so to fit on my (small) desk. But quickly realised that scale was too small: I couldn't see the inner planets or Pluto. If I remember correctly, I reset the scale, but decided not to build it; I just looked at the numbers...

So, this Saturday morning, I recruited the troops! I got Evan and Colin to feed us adults the diameter of planets (in kilometres). Looking around the kitchen, I suggested we use an old soccer ball for the Sun. Using the circumference and a calculation with Pi, we figured out the diameter.

Now we had our scale factor: 0.000 000 000 139.

We used the following objects for the planets (and asteroids):

Mercury poppy seed
dill seed (small)
dill seed
dill seed piece
Ceres in asteroid belt
ground pepper!
"standard" size marble
pencil eraser end
pencil eraser end
poppy seed

Pluto as a poppy seed was a little too big. It needed to be about half or a quarter the size.

Then we calculated the distances. To finally get the sense of the "space" in the solar system, we headed out to a nearby gravel road where Terry paced out the planets. At over 600 metres from "the Sun" we placed Neptune. We took the average distance for Pluto, to our scale now another 195 metres from Neptune, and we reached the end of the road (Cindy ironically pointing out the dividing line between Ajax and Whitby).

Something occurred to me. Here, so far away from the Sun, why would these planets stay near and orbit the star? Gravity must be strong...

It was astonishing.

The enormous space between the planets. The tiny, miniscule, size of the planets, compared to the Sun, compared to the distances. And the reach of gravity.


Friday, July 28, 2006

fun session in Ajax

Cindy and Terry invited me over for dinner and some stargazing. After delicious pork ribs, beans with sesame seeds, and an organic salad with homegrown garlic, we took to the front yard. A thin crescent moon awaited the assembly of my telescope. It proved a crowd pleaser.

Terry liked my "new" binoculars tripod clamp. He confessed that he too often over-engineered things.

We looked at Jupiter and noted, at 9:40 EDT, the position and names of the moons. We returned to Jupiter periodically to note the changes. While it was very low in the horizon at 11:35pm, we made one final sketch. It was hard to see through the glare, light pollution, and clouds.


Early on we looked for Saturn and Mars. I soon realised that Saturn had already set; but Mars was still above the horizon. Regardless, we couldn't find it. Perhaps it was behind the low clouds. I showed the gang how to measure distances in degrees with their hands.

Terry also noted the latitude and longitude I had determined from MS Streets and Trips.

We (I should say, they) only saw 2 meteors. The first was at 9:58. It travelled past and below Cygnus to the south-east horizon. The second was from Hercules to Cassiopeia.

We spent the rest of the evening chasing down double stars (as Cindy dusted off her Greek alphabet). At first, I thought it would be fun to look for interesting colour combinations in the constellations off to the west.

We first tried for ε (epsilon) Boötes but could not seem to see anything. Rechecking the notes, we discovered that they were 2.8" apart, which was described, for some other similarly spaced doubles, as difficult. I said, "OK, let's try something that I know: Mizar." We viewed Mizar, the double, at 14", and the nearby Alcor. Terry enjoyed that. I powered up with the 18mm and we liked the increased separation. We agreed to stick to doubles with 10 to 15" separation.

Next we tried for β (beta) Lyra but I had a hard time aiming the 'scope in the straight-up orientation.

So I turned to Polaris (α or alpha Ursa Minor). We could see the very faint second star near to the bright yellow primary star.

Then I reviewed a double-star list looking for interesting subjects first. I came across the famous "Double-Double" in Lyra. So, with Terry's help, I aimed at ε (epsilon) Lyra. At first, I could easily make out the main two "stars" 3.5' apart. But as I looked closer, I could see each was double star. And they were are 90° to the other pair. Wow! Cool.

Terry brought out their 'scope: a Meade 70AZ-A refractor, a 700mm focal length, 70mm aperture, with altazimuth mount. It came with a 9mm and 25mm eyepiece. We talked about tracking issues. Tricky. And it has a mirror diagonal. Still they were thrilled to see Jupiter's moons with it. I pointed out that a small aperture 'scope is better than a larger one for observing Luna.

At some point we talked about averted vision. Useful when splitting doubles.

High clouds were moving in and the mist was rising. We packed up for the evening.

I gave Cindy, Terry, and the boys, a planisphere, a nice one by Firefly, with planet location predictors. We put it to good use tonight.

bino clamp (Toronto)

Many years ago I had bought a clamp for my binoculars. This was after reading or being told that the use of binos improved greatly if they could be steadied. I cannot remember now where I bought my clamp from...

It consisted of two metal C-shaped pieces that were hinged and wrapped around one of the main barrels of Bushnells. The bottom piece jogged in the middle with a hole that exactly fit the screw of my tripod. A wing nut was tightened to hold the metal rings together. I later added some of that grippy drawer material to improve (and at the same time soften) grip. It worked well. And I immediately enjoyed the benefits of a steady binocular view.

But it wasn't long (it seemed) that the lower clamp piece snapped. The materials looked like "white metal" I remember my grandfather talking about. And I suspected it would be difficult to repair.

Last summer, I created elaborate drawings for a hand-made unit. I bought hinges, wing nuts, long bolts, and so on. All that remained was to find a good piece of wood. All the designs "hinged" (if you'll forgive the pun) on the original design.

Last night, while watching TVO, I became inspired after Bob MacDonald--the host of Quirks and Quarks--while talking about the Sun, showed how you could use your binos to safely do a projection of the Sun onto a piece of paper. As the pair of bright white circles danced around, he recommended that mounting to a tripod would improve the image.

So today I headed out to the garage, Manfrotto in one hand, Bushnells in the other, determined to build a clamp. I reflected back to an alternate design that had wafted briefly through my mind: quite simply a flat board with a string, rubber band, or bungee, holding down the field glasses. I knew I had an old rubber bungee from (presumably) an old car roof rack system. I stumbled across a small floor laminate board scrap. And 30 minutes later, I had a working clamp!

In short order I had the binos aimed to the Sun projecting a 1" image onto a plain white sheet of heavy stock paper. And there, just off centre, was a sunspot!

I verified the location via updated images from SOHO. Cool. Or should I say: hot!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

cool pens!

I returned to Active Surplus on Queen St West in Toronto to buy more of the blue, green, and particularly red LED pens.

They are awesome!

I'm going to give a bunch away to friends and family.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

picnic table perspectives (Ajax)

Will and I returned from the GVC cocktail party to Mosport. We quickly put up the tents (since the tent-trailer is now broken) for our accommodation. Then, enjoying a nightcap, we both lay down atop picnic tables to stare at the sky.

It was quite beautiful. The Milky Way was visible with dark regions standing out. We saw a couple of meteors (one leaving an ion trail that persisted for 15 to 20 seconds!). I pointed out a satellite.

Will said later he enjoyed it.

And I must remember that Mosport is a very good place for stargazing. The skies are quite dark...

Monday, July 24, 2006

§ symbol in agenda

I started using the "section" symbol in my electronic agenda. Looks like a little galaxy.

I've been using it as break, when changing topics within a posting, in this blog.

But it occurred to me to use it in my EPOC agenda files so to offer a handy symbol for searching and filtering.

If you're curious, the § is ASCII character code 167.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

a chat with Peters

While visiting the Dunnville race track, Peter H asked me about Mars, in relation to a recently received email. Ah, another victim of the Mars hoax spam prank.

Then Peter C joined in the conversation.

I explained, once again, that the email was spam and that we were moving away from Mars...

It was an impromptu tutorial on planetary mechanics. I discussed the common orbital plane (or ecliptic) for the planets (pointing out that Pluto varies far from it).

Where's an orrery when you need one...

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Mars spam starting up again?

Cindy sent me the following in an email:
I just got another one of those "Mars will be as close to the Earth as it's been for the last 50,000 years this August; and it'll look as big as the Moon!" emails... again... Tell me it's a hoax.
I replied:
Spam! Junk! Flotsam. BS. Waste no time with the Delete key. And if a friend sent it, tell them they've been had.

Mars is moving away from us and get smaller. I think it is almost on the opposite side of the Sun from us, i.e. 400 million kilometres away! It's hard to make out the "disk" in a small telescope!

I remind you check web sites like Sky & Telescope and use your astronomy software to verify where planets are. Also, I can highly recommend the Observer's Handbook from the RASC, an annual that has excellent charts, essays, and lists. Good for planning over a whole year.

Finally, Mars is quite far away, at the best of times. And it would NEVER appear the size of Luna. (The Moon is always about 350,000 kilometres away.)

Interestingly, Mars will be within 1° of Regulus on Saturday. A treat in binoculars.
After I sent this, I rummaged around for a site that might quickly show planet locations, in a plan or top-down view, like my EPOC Procyon software does. Shortly I found Solar System Live.

Nice work.

I hate spam.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

monitoring STS-121

I've been monitoring the NASA Space Shuttle since take off, through the inspections and EVAs, the send-off dinner provided by the Russians with chocolate for dessert, and I hope to continue to watch through to the landing. It is fascinating seeing this all live and acclimating to my interests and curiousities.

You can watch the live feed from here:

Often, during lulls, NASA show the world map from the "big board." It shows the positions of the ISS station and the Discovery orbiter. I wondered if I could see the same thing. This interest arose particularly when they'd show exterior shots. I would often wonder where they were, or like astronaut Sellers would often ask Fossum during EVA, "What's that?" pointing to the spinning Earth.

I found this link in NASA. It requires Java within your browser:

It is quite good. It shows the daylight pattern like geoclocks. It includes the latitude and longitude of the station, speed, height above the Earth, and so on. Wow! If you zoom in, it goes full colour.

It was kinda of weird today mid-afternoon thinking, "Hey, they're up there." I turned to the north, looking out my window, wondering about them.

I also found a site (Heavens Above) that shows the space station floating over a globe. It gives a sense of what it looks like from their perspective. Includes other satellite sighting calculators...

I also grew interested in the layout of the space station. I continue to search for something that helps me really get a sense of its current layout... The exploded diagram is interesting. But I think I'd like something a little more interactive.

OK. I need to get back to work!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

updated my star chart "rings"

While at my Mom's recently, I discovered that the desktop edition of Tirion's SkyAtlas is a slightly different scale than the bound edition. This meant that my acetate "rings" for our various eyepieces would not be calibrated correctly for the desktop editions. So I re-did the calculations and made a new sheet.

When I returned home, it occurred to me to also include some additional items. Like the Moon. And the Andromeda Galaxy. To scale, of course. And, since I had a lot of space left, I also threw in a "handy" reference of scales (e.g. width of one's fist at arm's length is approx. 10°).