Sunday, March 30, 2008

what's a psion beeping?

Phoenix was reading my blog this morning and emailed me. Piqued, she asked me to explain what I meant by "The Psion was beeping."

Is it any relation to the yellow breasted prothonotary warbler?

Guess that's a little cryptic if you've never heard of the world's best palmtop! ;-)

147 megawatts saved

The inner star chamber...

image from the Toronto Star

The Toronto Star reported that the city dropped its power consumption last night, between 8 and 9 PM, by 8.7%. Well beyond the 5% target. Thanks everyone!

Auriga treasures (Toronto)

My thoughts were outward today.

I was thinking about the fellow RASCals up at the CAO during the Messier Marathon. I was thinking of the RASCals in town planning to help Earth Hour Star Party at the Ontario Science Centre. I was wondering who would be the DDO. I ruminated on who would be reading the new content I put on the Toronto Centre web site today. I thought of my neighbours to the east who always leave their CF lights on—all night. I hoped everyone in the city would do their bit during Earth Hour. I thought of everyone in the eastern parts of the world turning off their electrics before us. Would it make a difference? Will the planet benefit? I wondered about the haves and havenots.

I broke up 5cm thick ice in the back of the driveway after 2:00 PM. I wanted to do this while the Sun was heating up things. By the time I got outside it was already past the driveway alignment. Still, it was good in the back portion. The removal was for two reasons: help when I would try to get the car out; make a better, safer space for observing tonight.

Some time early in the afternoon it occurred to me I should start workin' the plan for tonight's observing. Maybe an hour or so later I started working on it, flitting between web sites, Stellarium, AstroPlanner, and my plan word processor document. When all of a sudden I noticed it was getting dark outside! And that I had already missed the first ISS/ATV flyover. Crikey. I better stop fiddling with the observing list and actually get outside.

I still had not had lunch or dinner!

Was finally set up and ready to go quarter after 8. Aimed to Orion, aligned on the Great Nebula, M42, and pulled the cap off the new eyepiece and the front objective cover. First light at 8:39. All this atop the newish Williams Optics mirror. The baader planetarium Hyperion-Aspheric 36mm 72° AFOV 2" eyepiece beautifully framed the nebula and the Trapezium stars. The luminosity flowed around the bright stars. I considered sketching it. Tube currents were very apparent but the view was still pleasing.

There's a fair amount of vibration happening. No wind. Seems to be in the mount up... Something loose? The new heavier components on the back end? It is due to the (still) missing wing nut from the triangular tray?!

Just as I was starting to take it all in, Diane came down the driveway to drop something off in her back yard. I said hello. She asked if I was doing this because of Earth Hour. "Sort of," I replied. "But also because I knew it was going to be a nice night."

She asked how I knew it was going to be nice. I thought that slightly peculiar. I said that I watched the weather. Or did I say that I "monitored" it. I do watch it pretty closely. Is that unusual? Doesn't everyone know what the upcoming weather is going to be like? Maybe not. That threw me a little.

I'm not sure what Diane was seeing in her mind. I asked her a couple of times if she saw the 4 bright blue-white stars in the middle of the cloudy area. "Do you mean the sparkly thing?" Maybe it was out of focus for her... She did not seem chipper; perhaps the effects of her cold.

She departed to tuck the kids in. She said they were "freaking out" during the lights-out period.

Is having a light on an addiction?

Are kids today getting hooked on electricity?

At 9:15 I took in the Pleiades. First, I put the old 26mm Plössl in, so to review (remind me) what I have seen, to date, with my old setup. About 2 or 3 bright stars, and another 3 or 4 little ones. Then I loaded up the new 36mm. Wow. Nice! I could see about 20 stars. Four times the area...

As I started to get ready to target some Messiers and double stars, I flipped open the Pocket Sky Atlas. Suddenly, I could not remember if I had printed the newest acetate viewing circles sheet for this book. The new sheets for the Tirion atlases I did do. In fact I had brought them outside already. I had prepared the PSA sheet, it was the first I had done—but had I printed it onto transparency film? I debated doing this now. Finally, I got off my butt and headed inside.

As I rounded the corner of the house, I noticed the lights on at the Western Tech school. Guess nobody told them...

The Psion was beeping! That was the alarm for the International Space Station and Automated Transfer Vehicle. Was I too late? How long at the Psion been beeping? Would I have not heard it outside? Earlier today while outside I did hear other palmtop alarms... I checked the time: it was 9:30! No time to lose. I'll print the viewing circles later!

Rushing outside, I moved to the mid-point of the driveway so I could improve my WNW sight line. And waited. The 10° altitude would have it starting in the trees. Again, I thought of the RASC people at the OSC. The flyovers are always a big hit with the crowds. I waited... There! About 15 to 20° up. I ran for my notepad, pen, and OneWorld weather station. Time check: 9:35. As it rose toward Perseus and 30° it brightened up considerably and then held steady. It passed through the middle of Cassiopeia, just below γ (gamma), the middle star of the W-shape. It wasn't much longer before it winked suddenly out. 9:38.

I waited till 9:41 before conceding while in the house fiddling with my Psion that I missed the first pass, the flyover of the new European Space Agency Automated Transfer Vehicle. Darn. Well, at least I saw the Space Station.

(I should sync up time pieces during pre-planning in the future.)

Printed the new viewing circles for the PSA (without trimming it) and returned outside. The new dark red cel over the computer monitor was a big help in keeping my night vision. I began the long search for M37. Finally, at 10:15 (36% humidity, -2.5°C), I found it. Wow! Not easy. There are few bright stars in the middle of Auriga. It was challenging starhopping and it required a lot of patience. I really enjoyed the view with new baader. The open cluster was compact and revealed fine pale blue stars. There were hundreds of them. I sketched the view.

Tried the new laser pointer. Incredible! Bright.

Then I moved onto M36. Wow. Same pale stars but a lot fewer of them. A dozen or so? I sketched the view again.

I was thinking I should use my full size log sheets with this new eyepiece. The baader 36mm presents a 72° field. The large 8" circle on the log sheet will allow for more detail in my drawings and better correspond to the perceived circle in my other eye.

(Hmmm. Maybe I should also add a faint quadrant grid to my log sketch note...)

At 10:36, I found M38. Again a dozen or so stars. Maybe a handful more than M36. But the overall shape is striking. It seemed like a large arrow or cross. My view showed it pointing down. It was big too. It took up about half the 1.3° field in the new eyepiece.

All these clusters seem similar. Are they made of the same types of stars? They all had these fine, delicate, faint blue stars. Are they the same distance? (Wikipedia shows them between 4.1 and 4.6 kly.)

At 10:52, I decided to take a break from the faint fuzzies and instead hunt down some double stars. I pulled out a list I had edited earlier in the day. It was based on Sky and Telescope's winter list. As I surveyed the sky, I saw that Orion was setting. Still, the Hunter's belt was clearly visible. So I aimed at the right-most star. Or thought I did. The view through the eyepiece did not match. Oops, I was looking at ζ (zeta) Orion (aka Alnitak), not δ (delta) Orion (Mintaka). When I finally clued in, I shifted the telescope west, and all was good.

Ironically, while on ζ Orion I could see a very faint companion to the main star, very close to it. Similar colour if I remember correctly. So, I checked off that one on the double star list!

δ Orion appears as a pretty set. Widely separated, good at very low power. The main star is bright white colour; the dimmer companion is a medium blue colour.

I heard some people talking at the front of the driveway and some footfalls on crunching snow and ice. The gang from the second floor had come outside with Kris to take a look. One of them exclaimed, "Wow. When I thought telescope, I imagined a small telescope I guess. Now that's a telescope!" I explained that this really was medium-sized... Kris was wandering around with a white LED flashlight, one of those new jobbies from Canadian Tire. I asked him to shut it off.

I showed them the double star as they peppered me with questions and brought me out a beer.

At one point, someone asked how to find the Little Dipper. I pulled out my new laser pointer from my outer coat pocket... nothing. It did not light up. Crap. The temperature had affected the batteries or the laser itself. Sheesh. I can't win with this thing. I transferred it from the coat to my pants pocket to hopefully get some heat into the parts. (Which did eventually work.)

(Maybe I will get one of those 12V heating pads that I saw up at Sayal Electronics. Then, during cold sessions, I could sit things on this to stay warm, and functional...)

So I had to illustrate the Big Dipper's pointer stars the old fashioned way, by using my hands. I think it worked for the dude.

To show them something exciting, I moved the mount one metre north. And quickly bull's eyed Saturn. It looked great in the wide angle eyepiece, especially with Titan off to the left. I couldn't remember the exact power of the new baader eyepiece but I estimated it around 50 (it's closer to 56). Once everyone had a look, I switched to the Meade 18mm eyepiece. At 110x, the view was fantastic. I could see the ring shadow on the planet. I could see cloud bands on the bottom surface of the planet (particularly the NEB). I could see faint moons to the right, 2 (Dione and Tethys), and a moon directly above Saturn (Rhea). Tremendous view. Everyone really enjoyed that. Satisfied, they wandered off, headed for warmth. It was a little after 11:00.

Kris asked if I needed a light to find my way back into the house. Nope. I'm good! I can see in the dark.

(Kris snapped some photos with his digital camera. I'll have to get those.)

Tried to find Cancer. Ugh. I used Castor and Pollux to sight the head of Hydra. But, for the life of me, I could not make out Cancer, naked eye...

At 12:01 I took in Dubhe. It was pale gold and pale blue. Blue? Orange? The colour changed as I looked at it. Another wide pairing, about ¼ of the baader field of view.

I wanted to try to nab M81 and M82 in the new eyepiece. But after considerable efforts at starhopping, I realised my eyes were acting strangely. I could not seem to keep one closed. And I could not keep the other eye from blinking. Chalk it up to malnutrition... Or being tired. Or stress.

I stuffed everything into the garage save my notes. And the Power Fist loupe—the magnifier looks like it needs a cleaning. And the chilled laser pointer, of course...

I took data from the portable weather stations:
  • Oregon Scientific— humidity 57%, temperature -3.1°C
  • OneWorld from CTC— humid 48, temp -3.2, pressure 103.7hP
Back in the house by 12:45 I made a midnight snack. Ironically, I found the fridge door open a crack. It had jammed on something inside. So much for me saving energy this evening...

Somewhat satisfied with this session. The new equipment worked well. The mount and motor did OK in the cold conditions and with the additional weight on the back end of the tube. That might have been the first time I used the Power Fist loupe since converting it to a super-bright red LED... It worked really good. I left it on continuously with no worry of draining the 4 AA batteries. I had tried on other occasions to spot the Auriga open clusters without success. It was pleasing to see M36, M37, and M38 tonight. Not easy targets from the backyard though.

Friday, March 28, 2008

webspotting 3 - ADDS

First published in the Apr/May 2008 issue of SCOPE, the newsletter of the RASC Toronto Centre. It is recommended you open the link in a separate window and then follow the instructions from this window. Republished here with permission.


This begins a column wherein I will discuss a web site that I stumbled across or regularly use. I hope you’ll visit it. And maybe it will find its way into your bookmarks or favourites.

Let’s kick it off with a weather-related site (since I’ve been talking this lately). In addition to Environment Canada’s offering and the proximal Clear Sky Clock for my planned viewing location, I now regularly look at ADDS. Geoff Gaherty turned me onto this site.

1. From the Aviation Digital Data Service home page, click the Satellite (sky blue) tab. You should see a map of the United States and a smidgen of the Great White North.

2. In the Image Type section, choose a format.

Visible: Generates a black and white photographic display of the cloud cover. Since it is made using visible light, avoid dusk, dawn, or evening time frames. Infrared (Color): Generates a colourful display of the clouds. Thick bands will be represented by purple and blue tones; wisps as yellow and orange. Clear patches will show as red or dark red. Blue is bad; red is good. Infrared (B/W): Heat signatures of the clouds in black and white. Useful for night-time analyses. Water Vapor: Gives a sense of the water moisture in the air, humidity levels, lake effects, etc.

3. In the Display section, specify whether you want a single snapshot of what’s overhead right now or to set it all in motion.

Latest Image: Generates a static image, 680x680 pixels. Loop-small: Produces an animated image or small motion picture consisting of 9 frames. Each frame is 512x512 pixels. Loop-big: Same as above but at the 680x680 size.

4. Click a region. I choose DTW, between Lakes Michigan and Huron, since Ontario weather generally prevails from the west.

The static image or loop is displayed. Loops will repeat for several minutes.

The loop procedures do not require browser plugs-ins. But you’ll need to have the JavaScript option enabled.

The control panel to the left animated image should be obvious. 

I particularly like the Loop Mode feature. The first button (the default) makes the frames play sequentially, 1 through 9, then the movie restarts from the first frame again. The second button however makes the movie play forwards then backwards. Bouncing or reflecting at each end, somehow, this gives a strong impression as to how the air is moving.

To generate a new display, click the @dds Home (violet) button.  Rinse and repeat.

I hope you find this web site handy. If you’re considering going outside, debating whether you should set up the ‘scope or crack open the remote dome, now you can get a better sense of whether the clouds are going to cooperate.

Watching the web,
Blake Nancarrow

start unplugging

Tomorrow night, 8:00 PM, we "celebrate" Earth Hour.

Please start unplugging things.

I've already unplugged my mobile phone charger and microwave oven. I turned off my Macintosh bridge computer, John Parker (Mac-Win bridge), and John O'Conner (W2K server). I shut down the Linux box and disconnected the LCD and speaker adapters.

found jb

John helped me out a while ago with my Super Polaris mount (Sep '06). When I tried to visit his site at I found it not working. But I just discovered an alternate address... It's good to see he's still on the net and keen about astronomy.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

GMT on phone

A month or so ago I bought a new mobile phone. On sale. Very cheap. More modern than my Sanyo from Clearnet days!

It has a variety of "canned" desktop images built-in that you may use as the "wallpaper" on the main screen. I tried the ladybug (too summery) and the road over rolling hills (too Microsofty). Then I settled on the world map, even though I'm not a jet-setter. I set the time for the world map to Winnipeg/some-US-city to show the Central time zone during the Shuttle launch, with docked operations based out of Houston, Texas.

With the shuttle mission ended, the CST (or CDT) zone didn't seem quite right.

In a flash of inspiration, I set it to London (UK) so to match Greenwich Mean Time!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

coming full circle

As I was planning to audit Geoff's NOVA class, I offered to pick up a RASC Toronto Centre digital projector from Diane. Geoff and I then planned to meet for dinner.

It was a pleasure to get to know him a bit better, learn his background, better understand his role at Starry Night, and learn some of his other interests. Unfortunately, I had, once again, forgot to bring Geoff's "repaired" Vixen hand controller! D-OH!

I picked his brain a little on how to deliver my session to the kids at Runnymede Public School.

As we concluded dinner, Geoff mentioned that he was coordinating the annual star party in Sharon again: May 1. I offered to help.

Wow. How time flies. That was the first event I went to, I think...

good laser

I had a bit of time today after completing work at a client's and before helping out at the RASC Toronto Centre NOVA course this evening. And I was travelling from Brampton to the east end of Toronto via Don Mills. So, I thought I'd pop into Khan Scope along the way...

Eric was with a customer as I walked in. Another staff person was there talking about medicinal uses of stale bread. Ray wandered through at one point.

I asked Eric if a new shipment of lasers had come in. The other staff person piped up saying there were two new ones. We tried one and it worked good.

So, finally, I have a good working 40mW green laser pointer!

I'm mildly upset that neither Eric nor Ray contacted me to say the new units were in. But, the matter is closed.

Monday, March 24, 2008

RASC OH error acknowledged

I thought I had found an error in the 2008 RASC Observer's Handbook. But, what do I know? I'm a rookie in astronomy...

Page 202. Just above the table. The table caption or title reads: "MERCURY - MOST FAVOURABLE VIEWS IN 2008 FROM NORTHERN LATITUDES: MAY (Morning); OCTOBER (Evening)." The table title is reversed! This is incorrect. I double-checked this with various astronomy software applications. May is the best evening viewing and October, morning. Interestingly, the content within the same table is correct. I also checked this against the 2008 RASC calendar. I found it correct.

I put a question to the RASC Toronto Centre members via the Yahoo!Group listserv. The chapter president responded saying that May was best for evening viewing. And then went on to talk about the ecliptic and so on. But that was not really the point. I was trying to determine if the table was labelled incorrectly or not. Yet another member replied in an ambiguous way.

So, I was left with the feeling that they hadn't really, truly read my email. Or maybe I had not explained myself very clearly... Regardless, my question remained unanswered and the matter open.

I guess I'm stubborn...

This prompted me to go to the horse's mouth (no offence)! I attempted to contact the editor of the current edition, Patrick Kelly. Now I don't remember where I found the editor's email address, whether from the national site or from within the handbook, but I quickly learned that was not correct...

I pointed out this new problem to the national webmaster. He responded quickly saying it was actually a bigger problem than I realised. Still, he gave me Mr. Kelly's direct email address.

With correct email in hand (virtually, anyway), I forwarded my question to the editor, for his consideration. That was January 16.

Still frustrated, on March 20, I re-sent my message to Mr. Kelly.

Today, he responded:
You are correct.  I suspect that I misread the chart on page 95.  The correction should be up an the handbook web site soon.
So, finally the matter is resolved. I did in fact find an error in the handbook. It was not my imagination. The error will be noted on the national web site. I was not trying to blame anyone. I just wanted people to be able to adjust their notes accordingly. That's all I wanted...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

macro and micro

It's weird how the light glow (or throw or... pollution) from megalopolises and cities and towns and hamlets, from orbit, from the night side of the Earth, look like stars and open clusters and globular clusters within our galaxy. Or the networks of galaxies in super clusters... Or the threads and knots in the dark matter of the Universe.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

brain fade in space

Mission specialist Rick Linnehan, inside the Space Station, had given a space walker a convoluted sequence of disconnecting and connecting tethers. The astronaut paused. Then asked for the instructions again. Rick repeated. The space walker was hovering (mentally, that is). Then he apologised to Rick: "I'm sorry. I've got space brain. Can you repeat that?"

Happens to the best of 'em, I guess.

no laser news

Phoned Khan Scope. Eric said that he had not heard anything about green laser issue lately. I told him that Ray said a new shipment was due about now (so to replace my lemon). Eric said he was expecting a supply shipment but it might get held up though by the Easter holiday. He reiterated that Ray is out of town.

I asked that he follow up with Ray. And keep me advised of a new shipment coming in.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

OneWorld presentation

I delivered my presentation on the OneWorld portable weather station during the RASC Toronto Centre Members' Night meeting at the Ontario Science Centre.

I focused mainly on the OneWorld tws1000 unit (available at Canadian Tire). Occasionally I made comparisons to the Oregon Scientific eb313hg forecaster (which I did a presentation specifically on back in September).


The presentations and materials are now available for download from my companion site. Originally, a PowerPoint 2003 file; converted to Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). Also included is the handout comparing Oregon Scientific eb313hg and the OneWorld units. OW weather station presentation (640 KB). A table comparing the OS and OW (60 KB). Hope you enjoy them.


Tony lent me his "classic" analog barometer - hygrometer - thermometer which I affixed to my tripod, as a bit of a lark, during my talk.

Clarke dead at 90

One of my favourite SF authors, Arthur C. Clarke, died today of post-polio syndrome. Sad day. I will miss him.

I suddenly remembered the closing of his short story, The Nine Billion Names of God. I don't remember exactly when I read this book. But I do remember reading Clarke as early as 1975.

After the monks finished running their computer program to determine all the names of God, they went outside and looked up at the night sky. The stars were going out.

Friday, March 14, 2008

it's alive!

They got power to the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator tonight! Now they can gently heat the robot and press ahead, on time, with remaining ISS preparations.

Mr. Jean of CSA reported at the NASA briefing, "It's alive!"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

thin crescent (Moncton)

Landed in Moncton, New Brunswick, for a couple of days of work. Leaving the airport in a cab, I looked out the right window. There was the Moon, up high, pretty, tantalising. I could pick up a couple of bright stars too. But it got me kind of turned around.

On re-examining a map, I learned the route from the landing strips to downtown headed south-west, at least for a bit.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

weather presentation rescheduled again

We've reschedule once again when I'll deliver my presentation on the OneWorld portable weather station. This time we moved it up, from April, to March 19. Yep, that's this month!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

annual pass

Impulse buy. Decided to purchase an annual pass for the RASC Toronto Centre's observatory.

With this, I'll be able to go up any time I want (with no additional fees). Other members have said that with the pass, one can consider the observatory their own "cottage."

I look forward to this. I'll try to get up there for many weekends (and not just work-parties). When the snow goes, of course... Which should be around July or August! Sheesh!

Ray responds

Bumped into Mr. Khan at the Ontario Science Centre during the RASC Toronto Centre meeting. He said that he contacted his source of the green laser. Looks like there's a bad batch. He went on to say that he'll have a replacement for me in 2 weeks.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

wonky laser

The first green laser acted up. When I pressed the switch, the beam was very bright. But then it instantly dimmed. Sometimes, it would flicker or fluctuate in brightness. Tried brand new AAA batteries to no avail.

Exchanged this with another unit. It is better... But it is still fluctuating.

Sent another note to Khan...

Is this gonna be an issue buying no-name?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Earth Hour this month

Get ready to turn off our lights and electronics at 8:00 PM on Saturday 29 March.

Earth Hour started out in Sydney with a few businesses and surrounding communities. Now, it is a world-wide event.

Ontario is getting involved too. The Toronto Star newspaper is flogging the event this year. The Ontario Science Centre and the RASC Toronto Centre are co-hosting a star party.

Do your bit!