Thursday, January 31, 2008

webspotting column kick off

I've begun writing a regular "column" in the RASC Toronto Centre's newsletter SCOPE edited by Phil Chow. The series is called "webspotting." In it, I highlight an interesting or useful web site.

The Dec/Jan newsletter I actually officially started the series, but only talked about my plans. And invited people to tell me their favourite sites... The Feb/Mar 2008 newsletter contained an actual site recommendation: APOD.

In the future, I'll relay some of the discoveries I've made. And hopefully find some new great spots in the big web.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

booked for second weather presentation

Paul Markov asked me if I could be a backup presenter for an upcoming members' night Toronto Centre RASC meeting. I accepted. I'll do a presentation on the OneWorld portable weather forecaster that I bought last fall at Canadian Tire.

The tentative date is Wednesday 20 February. Of course, that's the night of the lunar eclipse. If we have clear skies, then we'll forgo my presentation and boogie outside to the Teluscape in front of the Ontario Science Centre.

Again, with clear skies, my presentation will get bumped. The "non-rain" date will be the next members' night on Wednesday 19 March.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

to see a launch!

A few members of the RASC Toronto Centre started kickin' around the idea of going to Florida to watch a shuttle launch. And I seriously thought about it. Wow... to see the rocket motors light and lift the shuttle. To hear and feel the rumble. Could be very exciting.

However, one of the members suggested moving up the date. Originally the March launch (with Canadian connection) was considered. The major disadvantage to this date was the proximity to March break (and how it affected flight and hotel prices). So, the group settled on the February 7 STS-122 planned launch date. My heart sank.

A tad too rushed for me. I'd have to scramble to wriggle out of any work commitments. When suddenly I realised that my passport was expired. Oh boy. Unless I really hustled, and paid the "rush" charges, I would not be able to get this lined up. Post 9-11 air travel is different now.

All this said, the bug has bit! I wanna see (and feel) a launch! So, after the passport is processed, I'll start looking at the calendar. And perhaps I can help Willy out with car transporting...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

loupe to LED

I converted the Princess Auto Power Fist loupe to a super bright red LED today. I deliberately used two 240 ohm resistors in parallel to raise the current into the LED to around 30mW. The primary reason for this was to generate more light atop my charts. I'll need to try it in the field to know for sure if this has been successful. A spin off, of course, is that it will let the four AA batteries last longer.


If the light isn't much better, than I can try putting more than one LED under the magnifying glass, aiming down. Won't be a issue then!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

still burning

I lit the RH hand warmer around 10PM. It's still going! It's still very hot! Wow.

The orange glow reminds me of camping...

more stars

I just downloaded the two Tycho add-ins for Cartes du Ciel (that's about 40MB of data) so I can go down to magnitude 12 stars. Sweet.

Re-examined γ (gamma) Aries. And there's the field star that I saw in the field...

Magnitude Tycho BT: 9.76
Magnitude Tycho VT: 8.63
Visual Magnitude: 8.53

How about that.


I was a little worried I had the wrong star...


That the Tycho catalogues show mag 12 will better simulate what I can see in my 'scope, which is rated to mag 14.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mars, Moon, double stars (Toronto)

Peeked outside after dinner. It was clear! Woo hoo! Wow, the Moon is right beside Mars. It's a beautiful conjunction. Out we go!

Viewed Mars, the Moon briefly, and some double stars tonight. Tried for a Messier but was unsuccessful. Few new equipment items too...


First order of business: I took the 'scope case outside and opened it to let the tube cool (takes an hour for SCTs, doesn't it?). Similarly, I put the new mirror diagonal box on the picnic table and opened it.

Back inside, put some of the dark red cel on the CRT monitor of the Windows XP computer John Smallberries as I ran Stellarium (latest version 0.9.1) and Cartes du Ciel.

Tried a small piece of the dark red cell on the Psion palmtop display. Ha ha. Red and green together...

Fired up red lights everywhere. Turned on the red circuit in the ole' living room lamp: that bulb is fading! It is becoming too yellow, too bright... Screwed in a red bulb in the kitchen stove top vent light. Turned on the bathroom red CFL. In the garage, I screwed in a red bulb and I disabled the security light.

Checked the Pearson airport conditions via Environment Canada:

temperature: -10°C
wind chill: -20°C
dew point: -17°C
humidity: 57%
pressure: 101.7 kPa and rising
wind: west 30 km/h

Put on the long underwear, cargo pants, fleece sweater, RASC-TC fleece pullover hoodie (first time observing!), synth-down winter coat, knitted toque, and leather gloves. I considered thermal socks and my boots but I skipped them. Had my Hot Paws ski gloves with me but I didn't use them. I was perfectly comfortable during the setup (although my hands started getting cold around 9:00PM).


Stared north for a long time. Cassiopeia was upside-down. Or rather, it was M-shaped... I suspected Ursa Major was low, on the horizon. Had a devil of a time getting my bearings. In the end, what I had thought was Polaris was correct.

(Still haven't put permanent markings, pointers towards the NCP, on the driveway.)

Brought AC power from the garage to the custom CLA-splitter-adapter. Ran the mount motor and other accessories. No dew heaters...

I was setup by around 7:15PM and ready to go...

temperature: -9°C
humidity: 23%
pressure: 101.1

(These readings from the CTC. My Oregon had belly-flopped and was showing 7:10PM, -19°C, -11% humidity!, and low battery...)

Aimed at Mars and took a peek. Ugh. The tube was still too warm. Very blurry image. Double images! Headed back inside for a bit.

At 7:36PM, the Williams Optics dielectric diagonal saw first light! No appreciable difference on Mars that I could see at 77x. But then, I think the OTA was still cooling.

The view at 110x power was very pleasing. Good contrast. The polar region of the planet of war was pale. Occasionally could see an inverted V dark pattern below the equator.

Put in the Celestron Ultima barlow (after the mirror, that's the only option now with the WO) for 220x viewing. It teased out some detail but magnified the mediocre seeing.

Housemate Brian came out at 7:45PM. He walked straight up to the 'scope! On a mission. Showed him Mars at 220x, the Moon at 77x, and Castor at 77x. He said he could see the two stars, "no problem." He liked these views very much. Asked how I knew that was Mars. Asked how far away everything was (I told him I thought the Moon was 300 000 km away [it's 400 000], Mars was perhaps 68 million klicks [nope, 105], Castor I just didn't know [52 ly]). He asked what the view of an airplane would be like. He asked how much all the gear cost. Lots.

I increased to 110x on Castor. Spectacular. Great contrast.

It was 8:02PM. Temperature: -8.9°C; humidity: 25%.

After examining Kym Thalassoudis's The Evening Sky Map (TESM) targets for January, I decided to try for some new Messiers. M38, M36, and M37 in Auriga were well placed from my driveway configuration. Would the Moon interfere though?

I thought I had found 14, 16, and the little rhombus of 17, 18, 19, and HR 1732. I thought I had φ (phi) Auriga. But after 30 minutes or so of trying to star hop, I gave up. Maybe I was going the wrong direction... Damn. I felt I should have got that. It was under the "binocular" listing. Oh well.

Well, let's get a new double, I thought. So, I chased down γ (gamma) Aries. Nice! They looked to be equal in magnitude [Haas says 4.5 and 4.6] and colour. White with a touch of blue. A bit more widely separated than Castor A & B [true, Haas says 7.5" vs. 4.2"]. There was a small, faint star in the field at 110x, about 1/3 of the field away (if I remember correctly)...

Returned to Mars. Back up to 220x. Waited for breaks in the atmosphere. I was rewarded, despite the moon light washing everything out, mucking with my night vision, despite the neighbourhood lights, I could see white on the pole and light and dark regions on the surface.

[The Mars Profiler at Sky & Telescope is wonderful.]

No sketches done. Too cold... I'm a wimp.

Orion had cleared the house. I kept catching the Pleiades out of the corner of my eye.

Even though the neighbours had just clicked off the back light, I was done. 9:34PM, I was a little cold, and too mentally tired to conduct more searches. It wasn't just me; the wind had picked up and the 'scope was shaking more.

And even though I've shifted my sleep pattern to quite late, I'm not prepared to stay up late for Saturn...

Last but not least: as I rounded the corner of the house to head inside, there was Sirius, blazing in the south! Good night, Dog Star!


I dropped a wing nut for the triangular accessory tripod tray. I'll have to look for it in the morning...


Tried my red LED pen at the beginning of the session. It was nice and bright but the ink cartridge would not work in the cold conditions. Switched to my Space Pen.


All my lights, flash lights, head lights, etc. seemed weak. I wanted bright red lights to work with. I ended up using the red LED converted desk light for note taking and reading TESM and Pocket Sky Atlas. Used my loupe with the atlas although the batteries were weak in it too!

Tried some of the spare CR2032 batteries in the custom red LED clip light. They all seemed weak. Should check the voltage on these with the multimeter...

Tried the flex-neck custom red LED clip light. No go. Contacts issue with this thing. Took it into the house to fix, properly!

I need more light!


I could not successfully light the new hand warmer. I had bought Ronsonol Lighter Fuel from Canadian Tire over the holidays. It is described as "best for all wick lighters." It will just not ignite with the Restoration hand warmer. I guess it's the wrong stuff. Is it not as volatile as butane? After coming in from outside, I emptied it of the Ronsonol and refilled it with Ultra Butane. Started no problem. Toasty! Incredibly warm, actually. Could have used it earlier...

The thing is stinky though! Lots of fumes (when used indoors)...


I dropped the Canadian Tire portable weather station onto the concrete driveway! Oops! But it looks like it survived. In fact, it was the only working unit, I realised after a time, when I saw that the Oregon frozen at 7:10PM. I don't know what caused it to hang. The cold?! Static? Low battery? The time shown was about the time I took it out of the file box and put it on the picnic table to acclimate.

[Time to replace the 2032s, methinks...]

The CTC unit did OK in the cold weather. Coldest conditions I've used it in. While the display continues to flicker like there's a bad connection, it gave me good pressure, temperature, and humidity readings, and let me keep tabs on the time. I still wish the backlight stayed on longer...

I've got to transfer the operating instructions onto a cheat sheet. I can't remember off the top of my head how to make the backlight stay on.


The neighbours to the west turned on their back porch light for no reason at 9:10PM. That ticked me off. I debated going over and talking to them... But I was angry. A good approach will be to talk to them on another day, during the light of day actually, and talk to them about it in principle, get their buy-in.


Doug shot a fantastic photo (hand held, no less) from Mississauga.

Moon hit my eye

I've shifted my sleep pattern (again).

So as I was reading a book in bed at 2:53 AM, the Moon lined up in my bedroom window and my noggin.

Suddenly it occurred to me: the skies are clear again! I'm not getting up now, I thought.

Friday, January 18, 2008

portal of astro info

Like any good amateur astronomer on a cloudy night, I stayed up late fiddling with my computer and researching...

A little while ago I read a favourable review from a PC Magazine RSS feed of PageFlakes. Strange name but I liked the look and feel of the DIY portal site, particularly the ease with which one could change the layout.

Tonight, I gave it a full shake. And shortly into it, realised, Wow, this is really good! And shortly after that, grokked it.

I built a couple of tabs for various themes. One of them: astronomy.

I really wanted a one-stop-shopping page with everything I needed for astronomy planning, research, etc. I wanted immediate weather information, links to satellite data, the mini Clear Sky Clocks by Attila, the moon phase, news feeds from NASA, and so on. PageFlakes let me do this with tremendous ease. The links at the top-right I built using their "Top Links" flake. The CSC clocks I built using the "Anything" flake. Easy if you can hack HTMhell.

I've more planned. I'd like to get RSS feeds from Sky & Telescope magazine. I'd like to get a direct feed or link to Environment Canada's weather site. The NASA flake doesn't seem to be current so that needs to be looked into. Also, a listing or visual tool showing the location of the planets would be sweet! I might be able to hack these myself.

One of the realisations out of all this: I'll be able to access this page from anywhere! So my "preferred" astronomy information will be able to follow me wherever I go...

clear after work (Scarborough, Toronto)

Left my client's location in central Scarborough a few minutes before 6 PM. As I exited the west doors, I could see a dimly glowing horizon. The skies are clear! Damn!

Looking straight up, I saw a star twinkling. Moving away from the building, I spotted the gibbous Moon, and then a bright Mars. Beautiful. Moments later, waiting for the bus, I took in many other stars. I suspected I was looking at Orion but I couldn't make out enough to be sure.

During the TTC ride home, I consulted Procyon on the palmtop. It was Orion, probably Betelgeuse, I saw to the right of the Moon and Mars. The bright star level with the Moon on the left must have been Capella in Auriga. And Aldebaran was in the mix too.

Back in my 'hood, west Toronto, as I walked home from the bus stop, I could easily pick out Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and Rigel, and the belt stars, of Orion. I could see parts of Taurus as well as Castor and Pollux of Gemini.

I was very hungry. I decided that after dinner I'd bundle up, skies permitting, and try out the new mirror! May be one of the last chances to take in Mars. And there's the conjunction of the Moon and the Pleiades too...

Alas, it clouded over.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

tried compiling Stellarium on ubuntu

After reloading the -dev dependencies under ubuntu 7.x, I successfully compiled Stellarium 0.9.1 for linux. But I was not hopeful as I ran the application. I had noticed in the documentation that the program needed a video card that supports openGL. I don't think the Voodoo 3000 does...

Monday, January 07, 2008

Neptune plotted for 08

Did Neptune. Plotted for 2008. Now I'm gettin' fast at this... Sun looks better in this one too.

Note that Neptune doubles back on itself in November. The path is almost exactly along that leading into this period.

New with this edition:
  • larger image: 1280 x 884 pixels
  • 51 weeks shown
  • ecliptic shown
  • other planets nearby with date stamps
  • Sun nearby with date stamp

Uranus plotted for 08

I plotted Uranus for 2008.

Again, started off with Cartes du Ciel.

Tried to use GIMP this time, for the image editing. Bad idea. Things were awkward, slow, difficult, convoluted. And it wasn't GIMP's fault! I chose the wrong tool for the job; GIMP is a photo editor not an object-oriented drawing application. Near the end, GIMP crashed and I had not saved for 2 hours! DOH!

Considered Illustrator briefly. Re-did the work in Fireworks. Went very smoothly.

New with this edition:
  • larger image: 1280 x 884 pixels
  • 51 weeks shown
  • ecliptic shown
  • other planets nearby with date stamps
  • Sun nearby with date stamp

Friday, January 04, 2008

SETI on linux box

I don't know what I was doing wrong before exactly but today I finally got it going... SETI@home is running, via the BOINC project manager, on my ubuntu linux computer.

This should double the work units I can contribute.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

new diagonal!

I bought a new diagonal mirror for my SCT today. Found a good deal.

Picked up a Williams Optics 2" dielectric 90° diagonal—the carbon fiber version. It includes an adapter for 1¼" eyepieces and a free SCT ring adapter!
  • Ultra High dielectric coating offers 99% reflectivity
  • precision 1/10 lambda surface
  • 10mm-thick mirror substrate flat
  • 2"- 1.25" adapter with brass clamping ring
  • big, knurled thumbscrews easy to turn even with gloves on
  • inside of tubes threaded to fit a variety of filters
  • inside diameter: 48mm
  • weight: 470g
Can't wait to try it.

This will allow me to choose 2" eyepieces (if I can ever afford them).

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

typo found

I was updating my online astronomical calendar for 2008. I came across an inconsistency between RASC materials regarding Mercury during times of greatest elongation, times when it is best viewed.

The calendar says that in May, Mercury will be visible in the evening, and in October, the elusive planet will be visible in the morning. The Observer's Handbook says the converse. Specifically, on page 202, the wording immediately above the table.

I put out the word on the RASC Toronto list so see if others had noticed it.

I fired up various software to check positions. Turns out the calendar is right...