Monday, June 30, 2008

final day of GA

A lot happened today! And I'm very tired now. I'll flesh this out more later...

Bumped into Angela, Anna, Phil, and Ray during the morning coffee break.

But the highlights included watching Terry Dickinson reflect on 50 years of amateur astronomy, watching Phil Plait balance eggs, and learning of the affect of the RASC on Bob Abraham.

I had a pretty good time. Dinner was good. And the General Assembly proper is over.

Would I go to another one? That, I'll have to think about.

abrupt presenter

Denis Grey—RASC Toronto Centre president—snapped at me as I tried to assist him for his presentation to the General Assembly banquet dinner.

There were peculiar problems with the cabling between the podium and the two digital projectors. We couldn't see to get both projectors running properly. Someone said they suspected it was because we were using short (standard length) and very long video cables at the same time and that reflections were occurring.

Regardless, I jumped up and started helping. I got things working in an "acceptable" way. It was quick and dirty as we were ramping up to start.

Denis looked at the computer in front of him and said the screen resolution wasn't correct. I explained it was the only one that worked given the hardware problems. He curtly said, "I wanted the other resolution." He knows how to piss me off.

"That's what you get," I growled and walked back to my chair.


I'm flocked

Geoff Gaherty, the day after receiving the RASC Chant Medal, gave me a cardboard tube. It contained a sheet of self-adhesive flocking paper! This was a thank-you for "hacking" his Vixen DD-1 hand controller, replacing the green LED with a red one. He is very happy with his improved controller key pad.

This is genuine ProtoStar flocking material that he bought from Kendrick so to line a Dobsonian telescope that he ended up selling.

Thank you, Geoff! And congratulations on your award!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

bad cop nasty cop

Denis Grey, RASC Toronto Centre, put me in a very uncomfortable position today.

At the Ontario Science Centre, as the buses of General Assembly delegates, speakers, and guests arrived, I was sequestered by Denis to check "work the gate."

If badges did not show PAID or stamped for this afternoon's activities, it was explained to me, they were not registered for the OSC Mars Exhibit. And there were only a designated number of tickets for the Mars show.

I asked what I was supposed to do or tell people then when I saw they were not registered. Denis didn't have an answer, said it wasn't his problem, mumbled something about not letting them in, and rushed inside.

What?! Oh this is not good.

My first GA. First time meeting some of these people, from other centres, across Canada, first time they are meeting me, meeting the webmaster for Toronto Centre. And I have to be the guy to tell them "You may not enter..."

Wouldn't you know it... Dave Lane, RASC national president, and his wife, did not have the "proper" indicators on their badges. Neither did Kim Hay, national education staff. Great. Just great! I had to tell these important people, please wait, you can't enter.

They were upset. Kim was angry. I tried to explain that we were trying to do a head count. To find out if we needed to buy more tickets. Lucky! I usually can't come up with B.S. that fast.

After a quick discussion with Katrina, we determined, based on the number of people on each bus, we had a total number below the number of Mars tickets.

Relieved I told every one waiting outside to go in, "We're good! We have enough tickets."

We enjoyed our moment of exultation. Briefly. Denis and John, president of the Hamilton Centre, were standing there, with some lackeys, checking badges, and only giving out tickets to some people. Holy crap! Did I ever feel like a heel.

I implored John and Denis to buy more tickets. Stop this segregation. John, after a long delay, finally did this.

I was livid. Why did this have to happen? Who was responsible? Would the first impression visitors had of me be tarnished as a result of this poor planning and extremely poor handling?

I seriously considered telling Katrina I was not going to assist for the balance of the GA...

Sunday papers

The highlight for me was at hand. Phil Plait kicked off the morning papers with a discussion on the 7 ways you can be killed by a black hole. Please, please, please, let me not be spaghettified! He wrapped with a brief clip from Ren and Stimpy. I could not believe it! What a hoot.

(Now I must pull all my old video tapes and re-watch the original episodes!)

I popped over to registration to pay for the closing banquet dinner event thing on Monday evening. I briefly scared myself by putting my credit card in a different pocket. Yikes! That would have mucked up my day... Anyway, I'm in now. I'm all set. Later checked with Tony regarding dress code. And I'm actually looking forward to it.

I returned to Computer Science C lecture hall to catch the fascinating talk on Dr. Phil J.A. McCausland on the Tagish Lake Meteorite. Amazing stuff. Note to self: when collecting carbonaceious chondrites, remember to bring chainsaw, chop sticks, and Aunt Jemima. But leave the police dog at home...

Increasingly, they were running behind schedule so they deferred the One Metre Initiative paper until the afternoon.

I drove Richard to the Ontario Science Centre and we waited for the 3 buses of delegates and spouses to catch us. Denis put me in charge of badge checking (which I was very unhappy about). I think everything got sorted out, I hope. Still, there was a lot of confusion and some anger. And I think there was a lack of leadership from the organisers. All this could have been avoided...

Katrina made the smart move!

The One Metre Initiative (OMI) – A New Premier Telescope in Canada paper was held in the Imperial Oil hall. Incredible telescope; astonishingly poor presentation! Note to self: don't let engineers touch PowerPoint!

We partook of the new Facing Mars exhibit. I went through the "Yes, I would go to Mars" door, thinking it would be kind of like extreme camping. Ah... no. There is much to consider, including how much water do you take, how will you make more food, how do you fix your rocket when it breaks, how will you deal with dust storms, how do you not go crazy, etc? It'll be an awesome exhibit for the little ones.

Richard offered to buy me dinner. I accepted a beer. We popped into Gabby's on Roncesvalles. The place was packed to the gills! Football... Spain won as we sat down. We shared our impressions of the day's presentations. Funny: we were perfectly aligned. He's an interesting character.

Home early.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

long day and lots of walking

I arrived at York about 45 minutes before my shift was to begin. I worked the registration desk for a couple of hours. There were a lot of "special case" situations we tried to sort out.

An intriguing point was raised by a participant regarding the Sunday afternoon activities. He explained that he was interesting in going to the Ontario Science Centre but not the dinner. He was curious about travel arrangements. If he took the chartered bus to the OSC, he'd have to figure out a way to get back to the campus. Given that the bus was taking people to the restaurant and only after dinner getting delegates back to the university. He did reveal that he had a rental car so he could use it. But it emerged that he was just trying to point out that this was not very clear in the program. This piece of information I think got lost.

The conversation shifted to the afternoon program and its cost. Katrina (and a Hamilton member present) explained that it was a single, combined unit, and it had a charge associated with it. This raised a new matter. If people assumed the OSC portion was included in their daily fee, they might be surprised at having to pay another $50. Again, there seemed to be a lot of confusion around this. I tried to support the participant's point. I explained that I too assumed the OSC event was included in my Sunday conference fee.

David made an executive decision and said that people could pay $20 to go to the OSC only. That seemed OK. Later, it was decided to remove any fees for the OSC piece. And this in turn meant if you wanted to go to the Sunday banquet, there will be $50 charge. For me, that killed the deal. I'll drive to the OSC and then drive home.

After the "hockeyball" game, some helpers offered to stay back at registration so to let the bulk of us make an appearance for the group photo. Rajesh shot us from across the pit.

At that time, I was introduced to Richard from London Centre. Leslie was trying to help him with ride arrangements to and from a friend's house in Roncesvalles. I offered to be bus. This evening and for Sunday and Monday, if necessary. He bought me a beer! Nice! Tony also needed a ride home.

Denis was running around like a headless chicken. I returned to the registration area in search of a long video cable and splitter. I found those items and sent them west. Then I located the door prizes and evening sponsor signage. I carried these items personally.

Once more I returned to registration. And enjoyed some dinner. I had brought some pasta, kolbassa, carrots, hummus, cookies, and drinks.

It was pretty quiet so I fired up a game of euchre. Katrina and David had never played so Isaac and I taught them. Leslie brought us some warm beer and starting chatting. All of a sudden, it was after 9. So we closed down registration and returned to the Olga Cirak Common room. The national members's night presentations were going strong but I slid into the next tour of the York telescopes.

Tatiana lead us to the lawn north of the dual observatories and explained that the 4-storey structure was independent of the main building for increased stability. Then we headed inside to view the 60cm and 40cm 'scopes. The 60 was a dinosaur. I jotted down some of the specs:

type number: 46.02
model number: 23-3203 HA
serial number: S5
date: December 1968
manufactured by: D.C. Brown

It weighs about 4 tons.

They used to send the mirror to the DDO for reconditioning. Now they're going to have to find someone else...

I caught up with Richard and escorted him back to the Olga Cirak room. They were still doing presentations! After Tony's on the CAO, I fetched my car and tried to get as close to Richard as I could so he'd not have to go far with his walker. While I could not get past the locked gate with the car, he and Tony were able to walk up the ramp.

Dropped Richard off at his friend's near the park. Hop, skip, and a jump to Tony's. Then home. It all worked out good. Although it was very late. It's going be tough tomorrow morning!


Huh. York has an astronomy night every Wednesday...

Friday, June 27, 2008

hockey stick

Bet you thought you'd never see that phrase in my blog...

Denis called me. Some how, the "royal" hockey stick was forgotten in today's activities. They need it by 8:30 AM tomorrow.

I explained to Denis that I had divested myself of duties for tomorrow morning. But I could be considered a plan B...

The stick is at Tony's. Here's an instance where "possession in 9/10ths of the law" you wish did not apply...


I understand Elaine and Charles made a run to retrieve the hockey sticks.


As I departed the campus, I felt pangs.

delegated radios

Upon Diane's prompting, I asked Rajesh if he would keep an eye on the FRS radios this evening and in the morning, tomorrow, Saturday. He agreed. This saves me an early morning trip up to York. Thanks, Rajesh!

MDA rocks!

Fantastic experience, visiting MDA Robotics in Brampton, Ontario, Canada.

The presentations were good. It's funny though. They could have used a laser pointer... Peculiar, for such a high-tech company. Yummy cookies and beverages. A nice welcome from the MDA Robotics staff.

Space station assembly may not have been possible without robot arms.

Hubble Space Telescope repair may not have been possible without robot arms.

Many other interesting tidbits were disseminated. Robotic arms can be used in nuclear reactors. A Canadian end-effector is used on the Japanese Kibo laboratory arm. MDA bought the US company which built the arm on the Phoenix lander. Robotic arms (made without ferrous metals) are being used in MRI machines. And robotic arms are used in some medical procedures. They can cancel out the tremors made by the human surgeon...

The tour through the labs? Incredible!

First stop for group B was the rover lab! We got within inches of a prototype rover which they were using to evaluate the suspension and transport. This rover has metal wheels on legs which are also articulated. So it is able to tackle objects as high as 25 cm as well as steep inclines.

We moved to the computer vision lab. Big huge blacked out room with scaled models of spacecraft, hatches, etc. and big robots (like those used in car factories). Overhead was a frame or rails not unlike at a band concert. The MDA lighting system consisted however of one light. It could be programmed to move so to simulate orbital solar lighting (i.e. rapidly moving and fading or growing). Further back in the room was a vented box. It was used to mimic full, intense sun light! The technician then showed us these special squares covered in patterns of reflective material. The vision system could recognise these squares from various distances and angles. I got to hold one of the small squares while he demonstrated you could real-time block a portion of the coded pattern and the system would still spot it.

Finally, we were escorted to a clean room. First, however, we had to scrub and vacuum our shoes, don hair nets and white lab coats, and walk on flypaper. Then we excitedly entered a large space with lots of shiny equipment, exotic tools, rigs, and jigs. We got to see a prototype arm with the wrist manipulator, up real close. From "the stonehenge" frame we saw the wrist manipulator used during the boom extension tests. We also got very close to end-effectors, grapples, and power-and-data mechanisms. Wow!

We returned to the presentation room for a final talk on the Mars lander Phoenix.

On leaving, they handed out a "gift bag" with a printed folder, some large photographs, a shuttle mission sticker (missing from my pack), and a lovely Phoenix pin (two in my pack) with the fiery logo. Very generous! Thank you, MDA!

how to hide a bus

It was 12:45 PM. Many had congregated at the east end of Harry M Arthur Commons green space, as directed. But? Where was our chartered bus? Shouldn't it be here by now?

Katrina was nervous. She called registration and (repeatedly) Denis to get answers, the company name, the bus driver's direct mobile number.

Meanwhile, holding an empty water bottle, I scanned my surroundings to locate a place of disposal. Ah ha! I spotted recycle bins at the south-west corner of Ian MacDonald Blvd and York Blvd (i.e. the south-side, east-bound loop of York Blvd).

As I deposited the plastic into the "cans only" bin, I happened to glance west. Huh. Big white coach bus with no logo (i.e. not a Viva, TTC, or GO bus). As I circled in, like a moth, I radioed Denis for a check of the carrier. It matched. At the pristine pearl door, I did not see a driver. I knocked and wandered around. The door opened...

After a quick chat with the driver, I had found our bus.


If I had not decided to dispose of my recycleable materials, we might not have been underway (in A/C comfort) on time.

it begins

Katrina gave me my registration package.

In it included a parking pass. Turns out this thing is valid for the entire GA! That means the registration process was not correct. It's $14 for a full 4-day pass; not $14 for each day. Adam was upset: he bought 4 separate parking passes, totalling $56, thinking (like I did) that you needed one for each day! Ouch. Some refunds are in order...

Denis asked me to run an errand with the car. The hockey game jerseys were delivered to the RASC office (which is temporarily closed—long story). Subsequently, they were returned to the depot. Serendipitously, the depot was the one at Jane and Steeles. Whew! 5 minutes away. I picked up the box and dropped if off at the campus.

Headed home to do some errands, do a bit of work, complete expense reports, and have a quick lunch.

Northbound again... MDA tour time!

wrangling begins, sorta

Dropped off radios. Got some to Denis, Katrina, the registration desk.

Huh. Forget sign out sheets!

It is too frantic, furious, fast, dynamic, and frazzled, for "official" radio sign-offs.

Then Colin walked in. Oh oh! ;-)

He had 2 FRS radios (with rechargeable batteries). I added his gear to the fleet. I officially inventoried them (and Mahesh witnessed).

I think now we can say we have "lots" of radios.

strange campus without coffee

Kept hitting the snooze on the alarm. Didn't have much time left to get to York University. Decided to drive.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

tomorrow the GA starts

Tomorrow, Friday, is the official start of the RASC's 2008 General Assembly.

This affects me in two ways: I've volunteered to assist at the event; and I've signed up as a participant.

When the call went out for Toronto Centre volunteers to help run the show, I immediately threw my name into the hat. Looking back now, I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps it is because it seemed like it was a big deal, a large undertaking. And, at the time, there seemed to be some anxiety about getting everything ready. Perhaps it is also because of my experience. Running the Saab Club advanced driving schools (effectively by myself) for 5 years shed a lot of light on coordinating and implementing events involving a couple hundred people.

Anyway, I'm now fairly actively committed. Katrina is the volunteer coordinator. She's asked me to help with registration and radios and odd jobs as they come up. Somehow, I thought she might ask me to do more; but it looks like she has a good gaggle of enthusiastic helpers.

I'm scheduled for registration duty on Saturday, from 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM. That sounds like a long shift! And it's kind of in the middle of the event... I wonder how many people we'll be seeing at that point. I better remember to take a book to read. Perhaps a deck of cards!

She also asked if I would help with the bus loading for the trip to MDA. Since I'm signed up to go myself that shouldn't be too difficult to do. The only concern is having to play "tough cop" if someone doesn't have a ticket. Hopefully, everyone will play nice.

During the volunteer orientation meeting earlier this week, Katrina asked me to help out on Sunday as well (be careful what you wish for). I said I was OK with that as long as it did not interfere in the lecture I wanted to attend in the afternoon. I thought she then booked me from 10:00 AM. But I may have written that down wrong...

At the first volunteer orientation meeting, the topic of radio communication came up. I offered to handle this piece. I was successful, as of Monday evening, at collecting 13 hand-held FRS radios. Charles brought over 100 fresh AA batteries for us to use! Earlier today, I had John inspect my inventory of all the radios and accessories. I printed up a daily sign-out sheet. We're ready to go.

Still, I'm anxious about the entire affair. And I can't put my finger on it.

Am I nervous about meeting people? Is the GA going to be a whole bunch of drawn out meetings bloody meetings? Should I be concerned about losing any of the radio equipment? Am I'm concerned about money spent on parking and travel? I did not buy the meal plans (to keep costs down). But I'll have to make my own breakfast and lunches. I did not buy the banquet dinners. And, at this stage, I'm not planning to go. Will that be an issue? That's maybe not the right word. Will I miss out by not going? Will people expect me to be there? I'm very confused about the whole thing. A consolation however is that I might be able to sign up at the last minute... We'll see.

And that said, there are some things I'm looking forward to. We're going to MDA! That'll be cool to see the place where they built the CanadArms. And Dextre. Phil Plait will be delivering two talks. Can't wait to see him. And it will be a pleasure to meet some of the national staff...

OK. Let's keep this in perspective. Never been to a GA before. You don't know what to expect. Be neutral. Take it easy.


I better close off this rant. Very early start tomorrow. Being in charge of said radios...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

quiet sun (Toronto)

Looked at the sun in Hydrogen-Alpha. It's very quiet.

RASC GA this weekend

I've volunteered to help out at the RASC General Assembly. I appointed myself "radio man" to collect and wrangle FRS radios during the event. Katrina has booked me to registration jobs on Saturday evening and Monday morning and human wrangling on Friday. And I offered to help Leslie at the CAO tour.

I signed up for the tour of MDA (where they build arms and robots) and the two talks by Phil Plait. Don't really want to go to the AGM. I might assign a proxy...

Never been before (obviously). I don't know quite what to expect.

Monday, June 23, 2008

almost equidistant (Toronto)

Noticed Saturn, Regulus, and Mars, almost in a straight line, and almost equidistant, as I wandered about the driveway this evening.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

observing reducing

Eric raised a very interesting point at the RASC Toronto Centre's Members' Night meeting last night.

With the decommissioning and sale of the David Dunlap Observatory, he has not travelled up there this year, in support of the Friday and Saturday night tours. And thusly, his amount of astronomical observing is down. He sounded genuinely sad.

He asked if something might be done to replace this.

Monday, June 16, 2008

different is good

Hey! JC (John Carruthers) on Cloudy Nights sent along a macro photo from his mount. The Japanese is the same. But his metal plate has a vernier scale! What the...!

John later reported that the image is "from an early Vixen SP" that he was given to care and feed.

If this is an early generation, why did Vixen stop making the vernier scale?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

got Japanese

I immediately took advantage of my new membership in the Cloudy Nights forums. I asked if anyone had the Vixen Super Polaris mount with an intact Declination plate. And, if so, if they would be so kind as to photograph it (in macro mode) for me.

Tim (tim53) came to the rescue.

Now I can finally add the missing Japanese to my vernier scale!


Interestingly, Tim is undertaking a project to GOTO-ise his Super Polaris!

RA error acknowledged

Patrick Kelly, editor of the 2008 RASC Observer's Handbook, responded to my Sunday afternoon email regarding the transposition of the Jupiter and Pluto labels in the Right Ascensions chart.

Hi Blake:

I caught that one when I was preparing the chart for this year.  I think that James should already have the correction on the handbook web site, if not it should be there shortly.



Once again, I noticed something... This impresses me. Again, I'm not trying to rub anyone's nose in it, but a couple of things occur to me:
  • The Observer's Handbook is not perfect. I had this notion it was flawless. But there are chinks in the armour. It's damn fine armour! And, well, that's just the way it goes, I guess. A work of this magnitude, with many contributors, with imposing deadlines (I'm sure), mistakes are bound to creep in.
  • Don't trust everything (anything?) you read.
  • I'm not a slouch. I'm finding or noticing errors. And I cross-check things to see if I'm doing something wrong. I forget what that's called, where you don't lose yourself in some text, but that you're thinking about the text as your read it, questioning, evaluating.
Sorry, tooting my own horn a little. Gotta get whatever feathers in my cap that I can! Seriously, though, it shows me that I do know some things about astronomical matters.

tuned seat

Upon Ian W.'s suggestion, I put some furniture leg felt pads on the edge of the seat of the Big DOC chair. It has tilted the seat up about a degree or so. Felt good. Hopefully, this will dispel the feeling of sliding off.

Excel almanac

As I was building the visual almanac patterned off the graph in the RASC Observer's Handbook, I couldn't help but think that there must be a faster, mathematical way of doing this...

So, I did some surfing to try to track down the R.A. and Declination of the Sun and the planets for the year. I was hoping to find this all in one spot, in one table. In the end, I settled on the U.S. Naval Observatory web site and the Astronomical Applications Department's Data Services. I found that I could calculate (or have generated) the "Geocentric Positions of Major Solar System Objects and Bright Stars." Perfect.

I copied, for each planet (yes, including little Pluto) and Sol, 24 periods of data for 2008 into Microsoft Excel. Parsed the text into separate columns. Converted the h-m-s R.A. data into decimal from. Then assembled all this data into a table. Then, I let Excel build a line graph based on this data. Finally, I spent some time "tuning" the graph to look similar to the one in the handbook (but in colour).

What do you think?

I also like how now this is ready to be reused in the future...

The last thing that I added, in a flash of inspiration, was a vertical line which corresponded to the current date. In my Excel spreadsheet, every time I open it, the green date line, tied to the TODAY function, will shuffle along.


I've got some bad news, I think... I believe in the course of assembling this data, I found an error in the 2008 RASC handbook, on page 95. Pluto is way off. The RASC reference shows Pluto between R.A. 19 and 21 through the year. The USNO says that it is very steady at 17.9 and 18.1. Who's right? I quickly checked in some astronomy software to confirm all the R.A. values for the Sun and planets. It showed Pluto in the location USNO states.

I just clued in! The labels in the handbook are inverted! The Jupiter and Pluto labels need to be flipped.

surprising good

Finally got a chance to test the custom landscape of my backyard I made for Stellarium. You know, it is remarkably close...

I took a powerful loaner laptop outside with Stellarium 0.9.1 loaded. My network was acting wobbly (with this laptop) so I had to copy the custom landscape folder via sneaker network (i.e. USB key drive).

Then I headed outside. Needed something to sit it on, something high: I used the Big DOC chair, set to the highest setting. Put the laptop on the chair top.

First impression, looking at the Moon, Spica, and points west: the landscape is too high. I'll try bringing it down a smidge. Looking north confirmed this.

Second impression: particularly to the north-east, the trees are fuller now. Blocked more of the sky. They block Cepheus.

Could see the 3 bright stars in the head of the dragon, but not ν (nu), at magnitude 4.85.

And, lastly, there's something way wrong with the image of the top floor of the house. The custom landscape says I should be able to see part of Aquila and the top of Ophiuchus. Ah... no. The roof goes almost up to Hercules.

So that's really the only major problem.

There: I did something useful tonight.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

tired now

I should have napped this afternoon. Ian W. napped at the CAO last weekend in preparation for his evening astrophotography session. Gettin' old, I guess.

I should have assembled all the telescope gear in the driveway in the afternoon. For my benefit. To allow for proper telescope cooling...

I should have flagged down the neighbours to the east on Friday afternoon. They've skipped town again and every light outside the house is on.

Too tired—or lazy—to observe now.

And it's hot.

a flare? the station?

Popped outside to check sky conditions. Lots of glow in the west from the Moon, even though it is blocked by the houses to the west.

As I rounded the corner of my house, I saw a very bright white light in the sky, the brightest, about 30° up, moving slowly to the north. And, almost immediately, it began to fade.

Did I catch the tail end of an ISS flyover?

Nope. Heavens-Above says it was the Iridium 57 satellite!

Time: 23:26:51 to 23:26:52.
Magnitude: -7.
Altitude: 31°.
Azimuth: 249° (WSW).

The quick flare was just left of Denebola. And Denebola was 31° up and at azimuth 261.

Good timing!

visual almanac

When I was up at the CAO, I noticed the Sky & Telescope 2008 Almanac. You can presently buy this from the Sky & Telescope store for $2.

It is colourful, informative, intriguing. I considering buying one. But that would be kinda silly, all by itself...

So, I decided to make my own visual almanac (for 45° latitude). Inspired by, you'll be happy to note, the "Right Ascensions of the Sun and Planets 2008" graph in the Observer's Handbook. I used Macromedia Fireworks to do it.

I enhanced my version.
  • full colour, i.e. indigo background, coloured planets
  • realistic twilight
  • twilight encroaching in the corners
  • uncluttered vertical axes
  • Mercury inferior and superior conjunctions shown
Hope you like it.

Warning: the full size image is approx. 3000 pixels square.


Note: My version corrects are error in the Observer's Handbook. The labels for Jupiter and Pluto in the handbook are flipped. Jupiter should be at the bottom, the wavy line; whereas, Pluto should be at the top, the nearly straight line.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

100 weekends

At an astonishing young age, I realised that I only had about 60 or 70 summers left to enjoy. Even then, as a teenager, that seemed a small number.

Now, I have about half that left.

They are precious.

And of those summers, it occurs to me now, there will only be about 3 or 4 times when it is a New Moon.

So, there are only about 100 weekends left for me to get some good deep sky observing in...

the truth

I watched An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore.

There's not much time left.

You need to start using a lot less energy, air, fuel, plastic, food, water. You need to recycle more. You need to reuse. You need to repair more. You need to produce less carbon, waste, paper, light, noise.


It occurred to me, during the closing credits, that I've burned a lot of wood during all my camping trips. I'm going to plant trees for all this wood I've consumed.

And then some.

did a Greek check

Completed a drill, checking I recalled the Greek alphabet in the correct order.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Kibo installed

The shuttle backed away from the International Space Station today.

The new Kibo module from Japan (the long tube on the bottom right, with the short module on top) is installed.

he likes 'em

Gilles replied, after I uploaded the Stellarium panorama image files for the CAO to his ftp server:
Hi Blake,
Thanks, got everything and this is simply outstanding...
Regards... Gilles

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

someone's interested

Gilles asked for the CAO panorama files...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

CAO pano removed

Sunday afternoon I uploaded my CAO property digital photos to the computer. Once again I used the HugIn software to stitch the images together. I could tell I was feeling more comfortable with the application as I was able to get the stitching done quickly and I was able to tune the individual images.

The final large TIFF looks good, I think.

I suddenly considered that other RASC Toronto Centre members might like this panoramic image. It could be possibly used with other astronomy software. For example, I think Starry Night and The Sky could use custom images. The AstroPlanner software supports a custom skyline. So then I tried to upload the TIFF to the RASC Toronto Centre Yahoo!Group files area. Oops! A tad too big at 68 MB.

I then began to chop up the images into 4 panels and I saved them in PNG format for Stellarium. I created an appropriate INI file and ground image PNG file. Each horizon image was about 4 to 5 MB in size. I uploaded all these files to the Yahoo!Groups.

Immediately, Ralph posted a note about the size of the files and intimated that it may impact on the total available space in the Yahoo!Groups. We could leave the files there briefly...

David S then piped up and said I should put these files on my personal web server space... That's probably not a viable option, from a security point of view.

Feeling a little perturbed, I pulled all the files off the Yahoo!Group. If you want 'em, you'll have to ask.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

washed out (Blue Mountains)

The skies in the afternoon got us kinda fired up. Ian W., Tim H., and I were hoping things would improve.

After dinner, we started to set up gear.

I helped Ian align his mount and find Polaris. My green laser came in handy. He wanted a very accurate alignment if he was going to shoot photos. I continued to assist pointing out Vega, Arcturus, Regulus, Spica, Alkaid, and so on.

Offered my Williams Optics mirror to Tim for him to try.

I briefly looked at Saturn. Initially, I could not see any moons. Later, I could see Titan to the right (mirror-reversed) about 3 to 4 ring-widths away.

I noticed a faint halo around the Moon. It was about 20° away.

I noted the humidity, 85%, at 11:00 PM. It was windy, gusting at times. There were a lot of clouds about. At times, it was like we were at the bottom of a tunnel.

I looked briefly at M13 but it was faint. I could not make out a lot of stars.

Bah. What's the point. I returned to the house.

panel photos taken

I shot over 20 photos from the centre of the viewing pad at the CAO so to make a new panorama for my Stellarium software.

I'll have to make this available to the RASC Toronto Centre members...

lunar globe flashback!

As I was working on the laptop, I noticed a metal Moon globe sitting on the table. I picked it up and spun the 6" globe, noting the detailed markings. And suddenly had a flashback: I had a small Moon globe when I was a kid! It was about 1.5 or 2" in diameter and a bluish colour! I wonder where that went...

the sun, tracked (Blue Mountains)

I tried Eric's PST. It occurred to me to put it on my Super Polaris mount to track it.

Tim H. loaned me a little bolt, about 1" long, to fit the tripod mount. I used a spacer, about ¼" thick, and attached it to the plate.

As expected, viewing the Sun without having to fiddling with the tracking is sweet.

There were a lot of prominences!

Saturn's ghost (Blue Mountains)

Tim H. was working on his telescope setup. It is an interesting mixture of new and old, high and low tech.

He has an ancient Celestron orange-tube Schmidt-Cassegrain "C8" catadioptic (that he bought new 31 years ago) perched atop an imposing white Synta EQ6 Pro mount, extension tube, and husky metal tripod. He has a mysterious little black adapter on the hand controller port which is in turn connected to his Dell laptop. I think he was most recently testing a serial-to-USB adapter and it was working fine. Software The Sky 6 Pro is driving the mount.

Suddenly, he exclaimed, "There it is!" He had found Saturn, at magnitude 0.65, in the middle of the day. Particularly impressive with Tim eyeballing the polar alignment!

It was very, very pale apparition in the blue sky. It took me a moment to spot it through the Meade 18mm UW 5000 eyepiece. Variations in the air would cause it to wash out and shimmer. Occasionally, it would appear crisply, and you could easily see the rings.


I like his laptop light shield...

at the CAO (Blue Mountains)

I finally talked myself into going... The journey to the Blue Mountains was uneventful (thank goodness!). I met Ian W. and Tim H. at the CAO. Small crowd, this time! And then the thunderstorm rolled in... Alas, I'm here for a little R&R. Tomorrow (Saturday) night looks promising.


Last year, I wanted to get up to the Toronto Centre's observatory more, use one of my significant "benefits of membership." I also wanted to partake of a "regular" weekend, as opposed to a work weekend. Increasingly, I wanted to observe at a dark site. And for various reasons, this just did not happen in 2007.

Over the winter, I bought the inexpensive annual pass to the CAO. This was the beginning of the plan to visit more often. To treat the CAO as my personal "cottage."

Recently, I have begun to pay closer attention to the New Moon occasions and to consider booking weekends at the CAO near these dates.

So, this weekend represented my first non-working, pre-paid, near-the-New-Moon visit to the CAO. I had planned it some time ago, this visit. In that respect, I was anxious to go.

All that said, I was getting discouraged by the weather predictions for the weekend and thusly started seriously asking the question, "Why would you drive north for 2 hours to sit under cloudy skies?" It did seem wasteful. It would prove expensive (at rapidly rising gas prices). I had lots I could do in the city...

Then again, I could get a bit of work done, in quiet, with fewer distractions. I could gather the missing measurements from the picnic table. I could, perhaps, repair things at the site. Drop off the donor propane BBQ tank. Shoot a panorama. See if my red solar lights had been run over, crushed, smashed, or otherwise destroyed...

While at a client location in the late afternoon, I quickly checked the clear sky clock for the Collingwood area. Huh! Maybe it wouldn't be all bad on Friday night. And Saturday was looking better and better. Still, if I ended up getting one night of observing it, would it be worth it?

As I arrived home from my client meeting, a new thought filtered into my brain: "You will kick yourself if you stayed in the city, craving dark skies, and the weather turned out to be decent." That's it, then!

This triggered a new set of worries. I was anxious about my car. I've been hearing a noise in the drive line. I don't know if I'm getting thrown off by harmonics from the new (ish) tires. Or if there is something more serious going on. Having spotted an oily patch in the garage, I was starting to wonder if my differential had dropped its oil. I checked the fluid level of the transmission a weekend or two ago—seemed OK. But I have yet to check the diff. What if it is bone dry? I don't want to blow it up!

A new, last-minute worry arose regarding the cooling system. A week or so ago, my radiator broke. I had since installed a new replacement and assumed everything was fine. But, this morning, while doing some quick errands, I noticed the water temperature gauge spiking! Damn, what now?! When I got home, I tested that the auxiliary electric fan. The A/C switch in the cabin seemed to be working fine, the blue light was coming on. But the fan was not spinning! Now that's broken! What the hell? I spent an hour or so hacking it but was not able to get it going. Looks like a need a new fan...

Now, while doing the aux. fan checks, I checked the tightness of the hose clamps on the new rad. Hmmm, not super tight. Maybe, there were small leaks and the system was not pressurising. I felt a bit better about that.

"Should I drive the car a long distance?" I wondered. This felt like a catch-22. Highway travel should be OK for a front-mounted, liquid-cooled engine. But if traffic was bad, stop and go, I'd overheat, in this +30° weather. I had witnessed many retirements during the day... I didn't feel like getting stranded, like them. I didn't want to stress the S14 motor. I was very torn.

I decided to try! I'd listen carefully to the traffic reports. I'd avoid the 427 and 27 highways aiming boldly for the 410. And I'd closely watch the temp gauge. If things got dicey, I'd pull over, cool off, go home, and phone the CAO with an update...


On regional Road 2, the Moon's thin crescent caught my eye. A pretty visage among the clouds. Damn clouds!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

webspotting 4 - SkyMaps

As published in the Jun/Jul 2008 issue of SCOPE, the newsletter of the RASC Toronto Centre. Republished here with permission.


I've been regularly visiting since the summer of 2006.

Kym Thalassoudis produces a monthly two-page "report" called The Evening Sky Map. It often shows up near the end of the preceding month. I download the PDF to my computer and immediately print a hard copy.

The first page contains a fairly detailed star chart. Like a planisphere, it shows the night sky (he also offers a southern map for humans down under). The chart works for a set of designated evening times. It shows constellations, major stars (down to magnitude 4), variables, some doubles, deep sky objects, etc. The Milky Way is shaded. Special objects (e.g. bright comets) will occasionally find their way into the chart. Beside the map is a calendar.

The second page is my favourite. Here Kym lists bright and multiple stars, impressive asterisms (e.g. The Coathanger), open and globular clusters, even galaxies. What is most interesting is that he breaks down the objects by "equipment." That is to say, he tells you what you can spot naked eye, if you have binoculars, or when you've hauled out the telescope. Each item is briefly described and often includes the distance.

The monthly printout does not replace my RASC Observer's Handbook or calendar! It is a convenient complement. The sheets I hang at my desk, beside my computer. They catch my eye every day. A couple of times a week I pull them down to review what's coming up and what I missed.

The report comes with me during observing sessions. I don't worry if the pages get damp, crinkled, or go astray. I often make notes on them.

The sheets also serve as a checklist or, perhaps, life list. I use them as an on-going reference. Each month I transfer the list of viewed objects to the new sheet. Over time, I can see my list of accomplishments growing longer.

The star chart is not unlike the one found in your favourite astronomical magazine. The advantage is you don't have to rip the pages from your pristine periodical. Printed black-on-white, they may prove easy to read under a red flash light.

These skymaps are great for getting newbies started too! Tell them they can download their own chart and they'll be thrilled. Or hand them your copy!

The Evening Sky Map is free for non-commercial use. See Kym’s Copyright Permission Form for more information. Donations accepted via PayPal.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

got 'em both (Toronto)

I picked up the pin points in the west-north-west at about 15° elevation as the STS and ISS moved upwards into the sky towards Canes Venatici.

The shuttle Discovery appeared first this time. It was very bright at the beginning.

About 30 seconds later the International Space Station appeared. It was not as bright initially but grew rapidly.


Correction! Randy reminded us that the shuttle's and station's orbital data changes, particularly when they are trying to synchronise orbits... Thusly, the Heavens Above listings must be taken with a grain of salt in your eye! The ISS was first; STS second.

blue flash (Toronto)

Eric and Brenda spotted the blue flash, very near the ISS path, as well. Eric submitted it was a meteor, about -5 or -6 magnitude.

Geoff saw it too. He said that the brightness and brevity of it made him think it was a firefly.

spotted ISS; missed STS (Toronto)

Put my bicycle away and locked the garage. Then I hung out in the middle of the driveway, keeping an eye on Capella. I knew Pollux was about 20° up and Capella was about 10°.

I spotted a bright orange point moving eastward about ½° below the shimmering star. I watched the International Space Station rise up and slowly brighten, heading east, before losing it in the trees.

Did I see a bright flare at ENE? There were no Iridium's scheduled...

I then returned to my previous spot to pick up the Space Shuttle (STS-124). I thought it was a few minutes behind.

When I returned to the computer, I learned that it was only about 30 seconds behind! Oops. It must have emerged while the ISS was in Cassiopeia or Cepheus.

I'll try again at 11:39 PM...