Get ready for AstroCATS 2014: Canada’s Astronomy Trade Show!

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada – Hamilton Centre is presenting the second annual Canadian Astronomy Trade Show, AstroCATS, on 3-4 May, 2014!

The web site for this exciting event is: http://www.astrocats.ca/

The big show will open at 10 AM on Saturday 3 May, and close at 6. On Sunday it opens again at 10 and closes at 4. AstroCATS 2014 will be held in the David Braley Athletic & Recreation Centre at Mohawk College, 135 Fennell Ave. West, Hamilton L9C 1E9.

Visit the web site to find lists of vendors, special speakers, and all of the exciting highlights planned for the show in May. Hope to see you there!

Supernova SN 2014J in Ursa Minor

On 22 January 2014, S. J. Fossey discovered a supernova, designated SN 2014J, in the Cigar Galaxy, Messier 82. It’s turned out to be the brightest of its type visible in the Northern Hemisphere in living memory. M82 is in Ursa Major, nice and high in the night sky for those of is in the Great White North! It is not visible to the unaided eye, clocking in at about Magnitude 11.5, but that’s well within the capability of a home telescope on a dark night to spot, and especially with a short exposure with a digital camera on a 4″ or 5″ telescope.

I wanted to see if I could take an image of the supernova from my livingroom couch, and so used a simple web form to request an image be taken by the MicroObservatory Network in Arizona. Anyone can use this free educational system, using the on-line forms at: http://mo-www.harvard.edu/MicroObservatory/

The simple icon-driven menu asks for subject, field of view, and exposure time. All the rest is automated. I sent the request in on 25 January, and on the afternoon of the 26th I received an email message from the system indicating that an image was ready. Here’s the result. The supernova is the bright star to the right of centre of the irregular galaxy.

SN2014J in M82 20140126

Supernova SN 2014J is visible between the hair lines along the right side of this image. The cloudy mass is the Cigar Galaxy, Messire 82, in Ursa Major. This is an uncropped image as provided by the MicroObservatory Network. See the text for description. Click on the image to see it scales a little better.

The fact that the galaxy is so far over to the right side of the frame is the result of errors in the on-line system. It amounts to perhaps a 10th of a degree or less, but that’s enough to put things way off of centre. Given that this is a free, public-access system, you can’t complain too much! I wish I had had access to a system like this as a child – this and other robotic telescope systems now available to the public would make for amazing science fair projects! I have an article in a forthcoming issue of the Hamilton Amateur Astronomer’s newsletter The Event Horizon on robotic observatories, which I find a very nice way of avoiding the cold outside conditions of astronomy in Canada in the winter. Yes, I’m a wimp, but I’m a warm wimp.

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith

Public Access Astronomy: the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network

The MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, operated by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics OWN “Observing With NASA” program allows free, public access use of 6″ reflecting telescopes located at the Whipple Observatory in Amado, Arizona. If you are a teacher interested in introducing astronomy in a hands-on way, a parent wanting to show kids that they can also take astrophotos, or just interested in experiencing with Internet-based remote observatories, making use of this free system is well worth a try. This system has been in use for over a decade and is a lot of fun.

The network can be reached at: http://mo-www.cfa.harvard.edu/MicroObservatory/

Guest users can select from a pre-set menu of target objects. In December 2013 I tried shooting images of several deep space targets over successive nights. The 6″ reflectors (identified as Ed, Ben and Cecilia, Donald) are programmed with a simple web form. Once images are captured, users are sent an email message with instructions on how to retrieve the files. The files are all returned as 650 x 500 FITS files. The network also supplies MicroObservatoryImage, a free program based on Java that processes FITS files, including stacking RGB images, optimised for the small images the system produces.

The web site is well worth exploring, as there are several resources there of interest to teachers, especially.

Here are three images I captured with this system in December 2013. The images I was able to capture did suffer from several artifacts, including diffraction spikes, and “blooms” produced by very bright stars.

The Cab Nebula (Messier 1) imaged with one of the educational telescopes of the  MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network.

The Cab Nebula (Messier 1) imaged with one of the educational telescopes of the
MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network. Three images were taken, one each through a red, green, and blue filter, and then they were combined with the MicroObseervatoryImage software supplied by the network.

NGC5457, Messier 101, imaged with the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network.

NGC5457, Messier 101, imaged with the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network. This was taken as a single 60 second exposure, taken at 5:37 AM local time on 31 December 2013. The area imaged is approximately one degree of arc across.

orion1 retouched1

The Great Nebula in Orion (M42) imaged in three colours using the MicroObservatory system. The colour image was assembled as described above for the image of the Crab Nebula. This image is slightly retouched to reduce artefacts created by both diffraction effects (spikes) and also “blooms” or smears produced by very bright stars.

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith

Free Solar Observing Today at Royal Botanical Gardens

We’re going to hold Royal Botanical Gardens’ third “Solar Thursday” today (29 August 2013) from 12 noon to 1 PM, on the lawn area in front of the main visitor entrance to RBG Centre. Everyone’s welcome to join us for a view of the sun through special, safe telescopes.

If you have a solar telescope you are very welcome to join us in presenting the amazing spectacle of the sun to the public. We like to be “open for business” at 12 noon, so coming a little earlier to set up would be helpful. We have electrical power available if your telescope needs it. We start packing things up around 1 PM. RBG is located at 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario.

We will be looking through specially-equipped telescopes that filter the bright light from the sun. These filters make it safe to observe the sun’s surface. Remember:

No one should ever look directly at the sun without special, appropriate equipment. Permanent eye damage or blindness may result from inappropriate attempts to see the Sun, or the use of incorrect equipment. We will be using telescopes designed specifically for solar observation, or those equipped with filters specifically made for this purpose.

Once you’re familiar with the equipment and have things in focus, you will be able to take in the sights in just a few minutes! Some nice sunspots are visible today.

Katie

Visitors to Royal Botanical Gardens, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario enjoying views of the sun live during RBG’s second “Solar Thursday” event, 15 August 2013.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

Enchanted by the Sun

This summer I’ve been delving into solar studies. Perhaps it’s like the proverbial goldfish not noticing the water that surrounds him, but I really hadn’t paid much attention to our nearest star. Last year I did start to take my own look at the sun, using solar filters on an old 80mm f15 refractor, and that was pretty interesting. Somehow the solar bug has really bit me this year.

I’ve added some equipment to Pine River Observatory this year, and that’s helped. In addition to my Meade ETX 125 Terabeam telescope, which I now have equipped with both a Kendrick Astro Mylar solar filter and a Baader Planetarium continuum filter, I picked up a Coronado 60 mm Solar Max II BF15 Hydrogen alpha telescope a couple of months ago. The upshot of all of that is that I can take a look – and am starting to photograph – the sun at two quite different wavelengths, corresponding to different structures on its surface.

There’s an interesting feedback loop here. As I’ve been able to see the sun for myself, and consider how to take photos, and even explain what can be seen through a telescope to others taking a look, I’ve found that my curiosity has risen. I’ve been reading more, seeking out a deeper understanding of what I’m seeing. That in turn has made my observations a little better, I think, and certainly has meant I’m doing a better job of interpreting for others.

It’s also been exciting to see that there’s a lot happening in terms of science and solar observation right now. Consider these three news items from the past month alone:

  • A new ground-based solar telescope (the New Solar Telescope or NST) at the Big Bear Observatory in California has just started to produce incredible images of the photosphere and sunspots – with a resolving power that approaches 30 miles on the sun’s surface (http://www.bbso.njit.edu/)
  • A new solar observatory satellite, Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) achieved “first light” in July, and is already transmitting wonderful images back to earth (http://iris.lmsal.com/)
  • NASA has updated information available on the progress of the present solar maximum. This event, every 11 years or so, is marked by a peak in sunspot numbers, and represents a reversal in the orientation of the sun’s magnetic field. The present solar maximum was anticipated for 20111 but it’s a little late. The magnetic flip is anticipated between now and November.

These are just examples of the activity around solar observations in the past little while. The more I’ve read, too, the more I want to find out. The sun is quite addictive! More postings to come.

sun aug 2013

The sun’s “surface,” or photosphere, photographed from Burlington, Ontario’s LaSalle Park Marina on the morning of Monday 5 August 2013. This image was captured using a Meade ETX 125 TB telescope equipped with a Kendrick Astro Mylar solar filter and a Baader Planetarium continuum filter. These filters produce a green image that highlights contrast around sunspots and solar granulations. The image is a mosaic of two shots taken with a Nikon D5100 at prime focus, as the image produced by the telescope is larger than the D5100’s APS-C-sized sensor. The image was processed with Paint.net, a free image processing program. Although we might think of the sun as a big ball of hot gas it’s structure is much more remarkable than that. At its core the density is enormous – a liter of the gasses would weight 150 kg. At the surface we can see, as in this photo, the density is less than 1% of that of our own atmosphere at ground level.

 

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

 

Solar Thursdays at Royal Botanical Gardens Start This Week!

Would you like to take a look at the sun, just for fun? Are you going to visit Royal Botanical Gardens (http://www.rbg.ca) on Thursdays this summer, or just in the neighborhood? Introducing “Solar Thursdays” – a weekly one-hour chance for visitors to  directly see features on our nearest star, the Sun, at RBG.
Solar Thursdays are a chance to see the sun through specially-equipped telescopes. We’ll be set up from 12 noon – 1 PM in July and into August, weather permitting. Some clouds will be OK, but heavy clouds will mean cancellation. We’ll be on the lawn in front of the main entrance to RBG Centre. There’s also a chance that other local astronomers might join in and bring along their own solar-equipped ‘scopes, too! Our address is 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario. Parking is free. We hope you’ll visit RBG after your look at the sun.
On Thursday we’ll likely see sunspots and solar prominences.  We’ll also have a solar weather update on hand. This offering is free of charge, and is being presented by RBG staff on their lunch hour.
scope

Visit us on the front lawn of Royal Botanical Gardens Centre, 680 Plains Road West, Burlington, Ontario, for Solar Thursdays! Here a visitor takes a turn looking at the sun with a Coronado 60 mm Solar Max II BF15 H-alpha telescope.

We will be looking through specially-equipped telescopes that filter the bright light from the sun. These filters make it safe to observe the sun’s surface. Remember:

No one should ever look directly at the sun without special, appropriate equipment. Permanent eye damage or blindness may result from inappropriate attempts to see the Sun, or the use of incorrect equipment. We will be using telescopes designed specifically for solar observation, or those equipped with filters specifically made for this purpose.

Once you’re familiar with the equipment and have things in focus, you will be able to take in the sights in just a few minutes.

sun

The sun photographed on 23 July 2013 from the front lawn of Royal Botanical Gardens, by using eyepiece projection and a Sony pocket camera. Several prominences are visible in this view through a Coronado 60 mm Solar Max II BF15 telescope.

We hope to see you there!

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

Remote Astrophotography: Taking It On-Line

Since the time of Galileo four hundred years ago, astronomers have used telescopes to see the sky. Since 1839 people have tried to take photographs through telescopes. Now, anyone with an internet connection – and a credit card – can take their own photos through professional-grade telescopes.

It’s called remote astrophotography, and I’ve been getting interested in giving this a try. I haven’t done so yet myself, mostly because I don’t have a good home internet connection yet. This seems to be a good reason to get one, and I hope to report back later this winter with some results of my own. In the mean time, I thought I’d report here on this intriguing idea.

A variety of companies are now operating telescopes in places with good conditions for astronomy and offering them up on-line, with equipment and software that allows paying users to control them remotely. What’s more, these set-ups are designed for astrophotography. The telescopes are equipped with specialized CCD cameras designed for astrophotography. The lure of remote astrophotography is not just being able to use these telescopes to see on-line. They can take amazing photographs and deliver them to your home computer.

Costs for this service range from an annual subscription of around $150 at SLOOH Space Camera (http://www.slooh.com/slooh-home.php) to a fee per use running up to $100/hr at LightBuckets (http://www.lightbuckets.com/index.php), MyTelescope.com (http://www.mytelescope.com/index.html), or iTelescope (http://www.itelescope.net/). There are likely others out there, too.

A NASA image of M51 and NGC5194.

A NASA image of M51 and NGC5194. M51, a magnificent spiral also called the Whirlpool Galaxy, is on the left. It is interacting with M51b or NGC5194, the dwarf galaxy on the right.  They are located south of Canis Major, in the constellation Canes Venatici. These galaxies are well within the scope of amateurs to image. An astrophotograph of these galaxies taken by amateur astronomer Martin Pugh won the 2012 Astronomy Photography of the Year Award. (See this link for the contest: http://www.universetoday.com/97469/the-universe-shines-for-astronomy-photographer-of-the-year-winners/)

In some cases, users have to download specialized software like CCDCommander (http://ccdcommander.com/) that gives users complete control from their desktops, and even allows pre-programming of the functions of the telescope.

There are several reasons why remote astrophotography is very attractive. One of the most important from an image quality perspective is that the telescopes involved can be set up in remote locations with excellent dark skies and clear weather, such as in Arizona or even Chile. Users don’t have to make a trek to those locations to take advantage of the conditions. Another big consideration is cost. The camera, telescope, mount, and observatory systems set up by these companies can easily be worth $15,000 to $20,000 each or more. Renting some time on these set-ups is a lot more attractive than having to buy hundreds of kilos of very pricey kit. Furthermore, the remote telescopes are set up and maintained by experts. Even if money was no object, there’s a very long technical learning curve to really be proficient with big ‘scopes – years in many cases. Renting sidesteps all of that and can give you excellent results in hours, not years.

Remote astrophotography is not limited to by-the-hour rentals, either. Some people who are able to purchase their own telescopes chose to have them installed at remote locations for the same reasons as these rentals are located there: better sky conditions than at home. Clearly an expensive proposition, these private observatories have the potential to allow for many hundreds of hours of observing and photography that would be impossible under any circumstances other than moving to a dark sky location. Some people are able to take up that option, too.