Saturday, January 31, 2009


I delivered a brief seminar for the educators and presenters of the RASC Toronto Centre. I talked about general best practices when delivering presentations. I also demonstrated tips and tricks in PowerPoint. Good crowd: about 10 people. It was fun. I think they gained a lot from it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

LPA brochure thank you 2

Peter, chair of the Light Pollution Abatement committee, sent this along, as well:
I have to say it does look better when all the type is the same size.

Graphic Design 101, no doubt: [use appropriate] typefaces and whatever you do use, keep it the same size.

So it was a good thing to point out.

This was after I suggested some changes to the LPA brochure he sent me to upload to the RASC Toronto Centre web site.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

long council meeting

Perhaps they were reflecting on the old proverb, "Be careful what you wish for..."

A couple members of the RASC Toronto Centre council had strongly suggested I be at tonight's meeting.

I was trying to avoid it. I will continue to try to avoid them in the future. I don't like meetings. Meetings are too long. Meetings never have time limits. They are never chaired properly. They should be conducted without chairs! By that I mean, no sitting! Meetings bloody meetings are boring. The RASC TC meetings are broad in scope. No pun intended. I'm not a councillor (and no, I won't be one). I just run one committee. There's little that concerns me. I'd rather phone in or submit my committee report. I really don't need to be there, in general.

But, they insisted.

And, this time, I did have some business I needed tended to.

So, since they were going to give me some time, I thought I'd make the best of it.

I was one of the last to speak. And I hit them with both barrels... A full page worth of items!

I discussed our new MS Office 2007 software, our missing hardware, new hardware asset ID techniques. I talked about the weather server being down and that as I considered the fault tree there were many possible problems... I mentioned the new Yahoo!Group I had created for the CAO supervisors and that I had yet to put the IYA logo on the web site.

To the treasurer, at the beginning of the meeting, I submitted a cheque requisition for three Clear Sky Charts. They directed the IT committee as to the preferred ones. I reminded council that Attilla Danko does not issue reminders or ask for donations. So I will put a reminder in my/our calendar to renew annually.

Finally, I relayed that has said they can do it, give us access to our security camera and weather server! But this requires static IP. And they want more money. I asked for approval to proceed at an additional $10/month? They accepted.

can you tap?

I asked Charles if he could tap my tripod so I could affix the eye bolt for the Manfrotto tripod carrying strap.

ghosts (Etobicoke)

As Tony drove to Charles's office for the RASC Toronto Centre council meeting, after picking me up, I spotted a thin Moon, suddenly, through clouds, just above the buildings and trees! It looked a couple of days old. Tony looked higher, spotting a wispy Venus. They were about 20° apart.

We were impressed by the steep angle of the ecliptic.

LPA brochure thank you 1

I'm getting ready to upload the Light Pollution Abatement brochure to the RASC Toronto Centre web site. As I read it, I thought of a couple of improvements. I asked the author, Peter, chair of the LPA committee, if he wanted to hear my suggestions. He was receptive. I sent 'em in.
Sorry this took so long. It's been crazy here.

I added your suggestion on motion detectors.

Now I just have to build a new section for our web site.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

fiery glow

I shouldn't be seeing this. I shouldn't be seeing orange glow in the sky. Glow on the bottom edge of clouds. Clouds over the city. Heavy grey clouds lit from the city underneath. Glowing from street lights, bad lights over empty parking lots, glare over roadways and highways, swirling spot lights pointing to nothing, uplights on billboards for products I'm not interested in, that only 1% of the population is interested in. I should not be seeing clouds painted with waste light from the ground.

These clouds should be dark. Dark grey. The soft grey of backlighting. Backlight from stars.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

webspotting 8 - comet data

As published in the Feb/Mar 2009 issue of SCOPE, the newsletter of the RASC Toronto Centre. Republished here with permission.


Need to know where a comet is? Trying to simulate an asteroid occultation? Fan of astronomy planetarium  software?

I regularly use Stellarium to simulate the night sky. It is a fun program to use, perhaps a bit of eye-candy, but free! I also use Cartes du Ciel. Not nearly as sexy but again free. Neither of these programs initially showed comets. Stellarium has some of the big asteroids on file. But for the new, lesser-known, and fast-moving bodies in our solar system, you may need to update your astronomy software. Any (all) modern astronomy programs will allow you to add or update asteroid and comet orbital elements. With the proper information supplied, the software will be able to place, move, and track the object fairly accurately, at least into the near future. The less that is known about the object, the more frequently you need to update.

In some cases, you will need to add newly discovered or recently updated orbital element information yourself. How you do this, the format you use, is very specific to your astronomy application. You'll need to consult its documentation or help files for details. Then when you're ready to tackle the updating of comet or asteroid orbital elements, where do you get this information? I use a couple of web sites.  

Actually, you might know one of these already. Eric Briggs regularly refers to Seiichi Yoshida's web site ( This person is a comet enthusiast! In the "Weekly Information about Bright Comets" section, you can pluck a comet for review. In the comet profile page, along with photos, the orbital elements are listed such as "q"(perihelion distance), longitude of the ascending node, and the orbit's eccentricity.

The resource I use for asteroid orbital elements is the amazing Solar System Dynamics site over at the Jet Propulsion Lab ( The "Small-Body Browser" lets you search for objects by name or number. Once again, you'll be able to review the appropriate details like "a" (semi-major axis), "peri" (argument of perihelion), "M" (mean anomaly), and so on. Great orbital diagrams here too!

So? What are you waiting for? Get that Lulin data up to date!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

lots o' bookings

Tony and I had a long chat today while he walked his Australian Shepherd, Ben, in High Park's leash free zone (they should put leashes on the humans!). Tony has some upcoming astronomy presentation or observing gigs that he's wondering if I might be able to deliver for him or help him with. He has more on his plate at the RASC now that he's a sudden veep. Accidental veep? All in Jan or Feb. Sparks, a local Scout pack, and two grade 6 schools at a local public school. Busy busy!

Friday, January 16, 2009

no mount in mount

Finally got 'round to inspecting the large tripod in anticipation to attaching the new Manfrotto carrying strap. After I retrieved the heavy metal tripod from the garage, I saw that there was not a receptacle in the side of the base, like on my small Manfrotto 'pod! Damn. The guy in the store had asked me if I had a Manfrotto tripod. I didn't think it would matter if the base was not technically the correct make.

Now what? Return to Henry's and get a refund? And try to find something with double lassos, like I had seen up at the CAO last summer?

Or... could I simply hack the tripod?! The metal in the base looked substantial, thick, sturdy. A hole could be drilled and then it could be tapped. Only problem: I didn't have the tools. But maybe Tony or Charles could help...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

co-delivered HCI pres

Tony and I visited Mr Hope's last two Science periods today. As a special feature for his Astronomy unit, we talked about celestial objects, Moon phases, Pluto's demotion, nuclear fusion, galaxies, etc.

Tony had done the presentation yesterday. So he had some comfort with the kids and the timing. He did the first run today; I delivered to the second class.

I didn't do a great job. It was good having Tony there to assist. Kept me moving along, corrected my mistakes. The grade 9 students were great in my session. Lots of excellent questions.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


The weather page at the CAO hasn't updated for a while now...

Did the hard disk die inside the server computer? Did the computer crash or hang?

Tony said UW's SkyCam is still reporting. So that suggests the CAO is powered and the LAN is up and running.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

near GEE (Mississauga)

Venus was to be at greatest elongation, in the east, after sunset, tomorrow night. But the weather forecast was not looking good...

Tonight, it was suddenly clear! That was quite a change from the morning. In fact the entire day's weather was weird: snow storms, squalls, battered Ontario during my 6:00 AM trek to Mississauga; at lunch the temperature was still high making for slushy goo; by dusk, the temp was plummeting, puddles gelling; but the clouds were gone, vanished!

I enjoyed Venus very high up in the sky as I left work. Burning bright as I did some errands near Hurontario and Eglinton. Intense white against a darkening sky.

I sent a text to Malcolm to tell him to check it out. When he arrived, I asked if he had received my message. He didn't have that phone with him. Doh! Before he took his coat off, I sent him outside. He pegged it.

After dinner, 90 minutes later, as we emerged from the restaurant, I just knew that it would still be visible. It would have to be, given the elongation from the Sun. Took me a second to spot it, shifting further away from the building, but the sightline to the horizon permitted a good view. There she was... about 15° up now. Like a beacon.

Monday, January 12, 2009

small bodies in Stellarium

In an effort to predict comet positions and asteroid occultations for the RASC February The Sky This Month presentation that I will be delivering soon, I decided to look into adding orbital elements for some small bodies into Stellarium (version 0.9).

I learned that you enter the data into the ssystem.ini file. This is located on my Windoze XP box in the following location: c:\Program Files\Stellarium\data\. The file contains orbital data for the Sun, planets, dwarf planets, our Moon, many of the satellites in the rest of the solar system, and a descent of large asteroids.

Asteroid data is entered in the following format:

name = (949) Hel
parent = Sun
radius = 35
oblateness = 0.0
halo = true
color = 1.0,1.0,1.0
tex_halo = star16x16.png
tex_map = nomap.png
coord_func = comet_orbit
orbit_Epoch = 2454800.5
orbit_MeanAnomaly = 283.13505
orbit_SemiMajorAxis = 2.9979720
orbit_Eccentricity = 0.1988840
orbit_ArgOfPericenter = 248.62593
orbit_AscendingNode = 321.56215
orbit_Inclination = 10.69282
sidereal_period = 1896.0062682
lighting = true
albedo = 0.0487

Comet data format:

name = 144P/Kushida
parent = Sun
radius = 1000
oblateness = 0.0
halo = true
color = 1.0,1.0,1.0
tex_halo = star16x16.png
tex_map = nomap.png
coord_func = comet_orbit
orbit_TimeAtPericenter = 2454858.372534250649
orbit_PericenterDistance = 1.4390015242849589771623
orbit_Eccentricity = 0.6276770637738544600381
orbit_ArgOfPericenter = 216.1024794233911
orbit_AscendingNode = 245.5606305460352
orbit_Inclination = 4.1093091894419684351191
lighting = false
albedo = 1
sidereal_period = 365.25

N.B. One must change the "sidereal_period" to "orbit_visualization_period" for the 0.10.0 beta version of Stellarium.

To determine the orbital data, I visited the awesome Solar System Dynamics page over at JPL. Took me a few moments to learn the nomenclature and to find the appropriate fields.

a = semi-major axis
e = eccentricity
i = inclination
M = mean anomaly
node = ascending node
peri = argument of pericenter
period = sidereal period
q = pericenter or perihelion distance
tp = time at pericenter or perihelion

One datum that threw me was the epoch. At first, I used the tp parameter but that proved incorrect. Suddenly I noticed the "Orbital Elements at Epoch" heading above the main table. There it was!

new book, far away

Mom emailed me today. Said my new book arrived... I had ordered Choosing and Using a Schmidt-Cassegrain Telescope: A Guide to Commercial SCTs and Maksutovs from Chapters Indigo, along with some other items, before Christmas. The book was back-ordered.


I'll have to wait until my next visit to Union before I can check out my new astronomy book.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

worked the booth

The call went out for RASC volunteers for the International Year of Astronomy kick off event at the Ontario Science Centre. I was already signed up to assist with the outdoor portion, solar observing, during the day. When we were, due to clouds, relieved of that duty, Guy immediately put us to work at the booth within the Astronomy Fair. We answered questions, provided directions, and gave away a lot of planispheres!

Friday, January 09, 2009

strap for big tripod

My "small" Manfrotto tripod came with a nice strap. It directly screws into the base, just under the head. The other end of the strap lassos around the legs. Great system, simple, easy to use, not obtrusive.

I have a "huge" metal tripod that was given to me some time back. Awkward to carry about, heavy and long. But excellent for supporting the binoculars. It has a Manfrotto head with quick-release hexagonal receiver. I don't actually who made the base. No matter... or so I thought.

I popped into the Henry's at Hurontario & Eglinton after work to see if they had a strap system like the one on my small tripod. They did. Model #102, in silver. Not cheap, unfortunately. But then, the tripod was free...

Almost lost the screw that is to attach to the base on the way home!


On a whim, while in the store, I checked out the battery turnstile. Ah ha! I found an Energizer PX625U! This is the unusual battery type for my old light meter (but in a modern alkaline formula). Awesome. Cheap. In stock.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

bag for radio

I wanted to get a good bag or sack for transporting the Grundig G6 radio. Something that would protect it for bumps and bangs. Something more robust than the thin tight-fitting wrap-around cover provided. I also wanted some additional space for all the other doodads, i.e. ear buds, the AC adapter, the Owner's Manual. And some space for spare AA batteries!

Mountain Equipment Co-op to the rescue. I found a nice should bag style thingee. The Bon Vivant. Very inexpensive. Perhaps a tad large. But that's OK. Better than too small.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Oh, that's not good.

Reloaded my web portal page (managed by PageFlakes) this morning and the little element I produced, for some local Clear Sky Charts, showed white. Lots of white! Lots of white everywhere!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

third time with charm (Toronto)

I actually woke a few minutes before my alarm went off, maybe at 3:57 AM or so. Nature calling...

Put on the goofy red goggles and headed to the loo. Stuck my nose outside. Brrr! I'm not venturing outside, even briefly, with boxers only! Back to the bedroom for some sweatpants... From the backyard, I could see stars! Hey, hey, and my neighbours to the east had shut off their backyard lights (as per my request).

I immediately moved the telescope tube and eyepiece case outside to begin cooling.

Back to the bedroom. Put on four layers on the bottom (boxers, long johns, jeans, ski pants) and four layers on the top (t-shirt, sweat shirt, RASC hoodie, MEC winter coat). Thin socks and fleece socks over top. New RASC toque. Good to go.

Outside, I eased up the garage door as slowly as possible so to not wake the neighbours and housemates. And began, albeit slowly, the setup.

Smelling a wood fire, at 5:36 AM, too late for comet hunting, I was completely done and read to work. Just as a satellite went through the field, from bottom to top, from position 7 o'clock to 1.

DOH! Forgot my eyeglasses... Actually, it wasn't a problem while using the 'scope. Increasingly, I'm not using my corrective lenses while looking through the eyepiece or finder scope. But I couldn't see constellations...

Look at that: Saturn is edge-on! At low power, it looked artificial. Like a symbol in an astronomy program. A beige disk with a line crossing it! Reminded me of when first-timers look through the eyepiece and speak of what's on "the screen."

Using the baader eyepiece, yielding 56x power, I took in the field. Titan was clearly to the right (mirror-reversed view). The large moon lay about 2 ring-widths from the planet. Maybe a smidgen more? There was also a faint object to the left, off-plane, higher than the planet, about 8 or 10 rw away. Iapetus I bet.

Up to 77x with the Celestron eyepiece. During brief moments of clear seeing, lessening tube currents, my eyes not watering, sitting comfortably, not fogging the eyepiece with my breath, using averted vision, I could spot other objects, very faint, to the left of planet. What?! There's one very close to the rings! It was like splitting double stars! The separation was very small... Like a half-arcsecond?!

My Space Pen was being finicky; I switched to a pencil.

At 111x power, with Mom's Meade eyepiece, it was unmistakable. Two very faint moons to the left of Saturn, one about 1 rw away, and the other very close to the ring.

I sketched the field but struggled with the scale. There was a field star, closer than Iapetus, but to the right, at the 2 o'clock position (HP 56322).

I could see the thin shadow of the rings on the face of the planet. Above the rings.

It seemed to me that the left side of the ring was thicker, at the outer edge. Was this the visual effect of the two thin strips converging?

Am I seeing the Saturn's shadow on the back ring? Where's the Sun? It's to my left, in space. The mirror-reversed view is showing the darkness on the left edge. I think that's right. That means it's really on the right side, opposite the Sun.

The clouds belts immediately above and below the equator are lighter. Striations of colour, it seems, more so on the top hemisphere.

Traipsed inside for eyeglasses and a lighter.

Checked the weather stations:

The OneWorld contrast is getting poor. I think that's a tell-tale of the battery weakening. It's been a long run, this battery. That's particularly interesting given that I set it to display constantly! Anyway, it showed, at 6:28 AM, an air pressure reading of 1013, humidity of 30%, and temperature of -9.0°C.

I turned the key lock off on the Oregon Scientific and turned on the backlight. It was bright blue! Oops, forgot to set the time to Standard: it's showing 7:28. 58% humidity and -10.7 temp. Hey, the low battery icon was on. Sheesh! Not again.

No wind per se.

My upper back was cold. Wow. Need another layer on top... Legs feel fine.

I tried to light my hard warmer but it would not start! Crikey. That's not good... Ironically, I chilled my right hand, ungloved, trying to light it.

Thought I'd try for Ceres. Got out Pocket Sky Atlas and my loupe. But I was feeling very slow. Briefly tried for the asteroid but I was having a hard time finding many stars in the finder scope. The Sun's coming up soon...

At 7:11 AM, it was -9.3°C, according to the OneWorld.

I could still see, naked eye, Regulus (alpha) and Algieba (gamma) and Zosma (delta) and Denebola (beta).

I didn't think so earlier, when it was darker, but now, it was clear that Saturn was brighter than Regulus (mag 1.35).

Visions of breakfast were dancing through my head. I packed up.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Moon, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury (Toronto)

Finally came out of hibernation today. Ventured outside around 3:30 PM to return a library book (The Demolished Man) and pick up some staples (i.e. dinner). Noticed the sky was clear, horizon to horizon. Well, except over the lake—but that didn't count.

Just over a quarter Moon. It will be full in about 6 or 7 days...

Once back home, as the Sun cast long shadows, I dropped the groceries. Grabbed my eyeglasses, small tripod, binoculars adapter, binoculars, and a fresh sweater. Quickly glanced at Stellarium: Mercury was at about a 45° angle from the Sun and 14° in altitude and about 4° east of Jupiter. All right! Sent a heads-up to Toronto Centre RASC listserv. And back outside!

I headed to the Western Technical high school's west side, to overlook the soccer pitch. I hoped the sight lines would work. Never tried to observe here before but it should be a good spot...

Set up my cheapo Bushnell Ensign "fast-focus" 7x50 binoculars on my small metal Manfrotto tripod. Gently tuned the right ocular. These things could stand to be collimated again. But I was able, when I relaxed, to get a singular image.

Picked up Venus naked eye at 4:40. Through the binoculars I could see a crescent. It looked like it was slightly less that half phase. (Venus: mag -4.3, az 200°, alt 32°.)

Picked up a planet in binos at 4:50. Largish disk. Huh. It was just above the Runnymede Public School roof. I jostled for position. Up the steps to the west entrance improved my elevation but tree branches interfered. At the centre of the stairs to the field, it was over the chimney, and the heat disturbed the image. Slightly north was best, while a bit lower.

I continued to view it until it was less than a degree from the roof line. Scanning up and to the left, at 5:10, I suddenly spotted Mercury. Ah ha! So it was Jupiter! (Jupiter at 4:50: mag -1.5, az 229°, alt 10°.) I should have trusted my instincts and my assessment of the size of the planet's large disk. (Mercury: mag -0.7, az 229°, alt 11°.)

Mercury was light orange. It flickered a fair amount through the atmosphere and the heat from the school building. Good to catch it, this time of year. We were lucky, this spot of nice weather, only one day after greatest elongation... Eighth (8th) career viewing.

Picked up Capella behind me, over the roof of the high school, up high, about a 40° angle.

Lost Mercury naked eye behind the public school at 5:40. (Mercury: mag -0.7, az 235°, alt 6°.)

Another quick look at shimmering Venus.

It was chilly out there.


Stellarium says the elevation at the time I lost sight of Mercury was just over 6°. This is fantastic news. That is about the maximum height of the trees to the west. I shall definitely use this site in the future. Although there are a lot of lights nearby... Including the horrific, blazing, bright white light beside the parking garage entrance.


Had a few visitors during the brief session. Including one of the teachers. She talked about a segment coming up in September where the Grade 9s make a box, put pin holes in it, and make a constellation. Sounds like a fun exercise.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

checked skies at 4:00

I actually went outside. It was very quiet. I crunched into the back yard. Cloudy again. No chance to view Saturn. Pity. It looked really good last night...

Saturday, January 03, 2009

oh, over here...

Very subtle change in the URL... Here's the newest location for the NRC magnetic declination calculator:

Moving target. Ironic.

checked skies at 3:45

Yes, that's AM. And wouldn't you know it. Clouds. After a lovely clear evening. Bah. I had planned to set up in the back yard to view Saturn. It will have to wait.

Friday, January 02, 2009

mag dec calculator down?

I can't seem to access the NRC's magnetic declination calculator. Dead? Off-line? Moved (again)?

Old address:
Dead address:

I'll have to get hold of their webmaster...

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Sirius there; Polaris back (Toronto)

Wow. As I walked over to Tony's for the evening, I enjoyed clear skies! First time in a really long time. There were low clouds in the west. Possibly remnants of what blocked views of Mercury and Jupiter earlier for many. Cold though!

Orion was up high in the south, almost standing upright. I could make out the nebulosity in the sword region. I caught Pollux and Castor between the trees and high rises. Sirius of Canis Major and Procyon of Canis Minor showed me the way.

I really wanted to see Saturn. When I arrived at Tony's I asked if he had a telescope handy. It didn't sound like it. And that viewing from the back yard would be a challenge.

Before we knew it, it was 2:30. Grace had trundled off to bed. Trevor and Tony were still trying to debug a new computer. I was tired. So I ventured back into the dark chill, heading north-west this time.

Gemini was overhead now. Ursa Major was doing a back flip! It took me a moment to get my bearings. I was thinking backwards. But another glance at Dubhe and Merak helped me find Polaris and I was able to rotate Ursa Minor around in my end. That said, I could only see α (alpha) and β (beta) in the Little Dipper.

Clouds covered the whole sky by the time I reached home. I think I was periodically seeing Capella through breaks. No chance for Saturn now... My glasses were fogged. My stomach was sloshing. I was thinking of my warm bed.