Some Coming Attractions: two comets and a dwarf planet

It’s been a while since I put a post together. I thought some of the space exploration highlights to come were worth a note, so here are a few I’m watching develop.

In August of 2014 we’ll be treated to something pretty exciting: a spacecraft is due to go into orbit around a comet. The European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” probe has already done amazing things flying past two asteroids. In August it will be lined up to be captured by the feeble gravity of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After several weeks of distance observations, the probe will release a little lander named Philae that should touch down on the comet in November.

This October there will be a real “nail-biter” in orbit over Mars. A comet discovered last year by an observatory in Australia, called C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, will come no where near the earth. However, on 1 October it will swing past Mars – very close to Mars, in fact. Mars is, of course, being closely observed by all sorts of spacecraft. NASA currently has two orbiters in action around the Red Planet, and another is on the way. Comets have been described as “dirty snowballs” and this one is expected to be shedding little chunks of rocky dust as it swings past Mars, exposing the spacecraft from earth to a concentrated rain of debris travelling multiple miles per second.  Spacecraft controllers have been working hard to keep their charges safe – but it’s uncharted territory.

In a year’s time, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make the first close-up recognizance of Pluto. Whether or not you like to think of Pluto as a small planet or a very large Kuiper Belt Object, it’s fascinating territory and the last major body within the “inner” Solar System to have that we’ve never seen close up.

Night-Time Photography Cancelled

Unfortunately there haven’t been enough takers this year for the Night-Time Photography short course that Royal Botanical Gardens has asked me to present to go ahead. The course has been cancelled.

A stacked star-trails image captured

A stacked star-trails image captured along the shores of Lake Huron.

When I do offer this three night course, the program is all about learning to take photographs of the night sky with a digital camera. Ideal equipment includes any digital SLR and wide-angle lens, tripod, and remote or cable release. Other digital cameras may be usable, but it will depend on whether you can take complete manual control over the camera. Functions like ISO rating, shutter speed, aperture, colour temperature and focus should all be able to be controlled manually to get the most of out night-time photography.

The Burlington Waterfront in December 2013, photographed early on e morning.

The Burlington Waterfront in December 2013, photographed early one morning.

We talk a little about telescopes, and there’s a chance to try out some telescope photography, too. However, this introductory program is intended to help you take beautiful images of landscapes and the sky at night, especially those with interesting skies and night-time city-scapes. Subjects covered include basic camera operations, composition, planning for photography at night, controlling long exposures, and computer software for various functions such as stacking star trail images.

The Burlington Waterfront and Pier before dawn.

The Burlington Waterfront and Pier before dawn.

Our first evening together is usually in a classroom. The subsequent meetings are outdoors. Locations are chosen depending on the weather and class interest. Excellent opportunities for interesting night-time photos are often to be had along the edges of Hamilton Harbour (such as at La Salle Park Marina) or along the Burlington waterfront.

Consellation Oroion rising over a surbab street in Burlington, Ontario, on the evening of 2013 March 26. Betelgeuse, the brightest star in Orion, is in the middle of the frame and about 1/8th of the way down from the top.

Constellation Orion rising over a suburban street in Burlington, Ontario, on the evening of 23 March 2013. Betelgeuse, the brightest star in Orion, is in the middle of the frame and about 1/8th of the way down from the top.

 

The moon photographed early on the morning of 29 August 2013.

The moon photographed early on the morning of 29 August 2013. Yes, this one was taken with a telescope.

I hope the program will be invited once again. I’ll post updates if that happens.

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

Happy Perihelion for 2014!

While we make a big deal of the two annual equinox and solstice events, most people don’t realize that there’s a point when the earth is closer to the sun than at any other time during the year (perihelion) or as far away as we can get from our local star (aphelion, pronounced “ap-helion,” not “afeelion”). Perihelion is always in the first few days of January in our current epoch; aphelion comes in early July.

The earth’s orbit is an ellipse, with the sun sitting on one of the two foci of that ellipse. Because it’s not exactly a circle, there are times during the year when the earth is a little closer or a little further away from the sun than average – about 3% closer. According to the web site In The Sky (http://in-the-sky.org) the earth was at perihelion at 06:59 EST, Saturday 4 January 2014. This was just before sunrise this morning (which took place at 7:52 AM EST here in Hamilton).

I went out to take a photo of the sun on the morning of perihelion 2014. I hadn’t been following the news, and so was pleasantly surprised to spot the big sunspot on the visible disk (AR 1944) in the camera view-finder.

sun

The sun, photographed 4 January 2014. See below for details.

The photo of the sun above was taken from the LaSalle Marina in Burlington, Ontario at 10 AM EST, 4 January 2014, three hours after perihelion. The large sunspot in the lower left has been designated AR 1944 and is one of the largest this cycle. Taken with a 150-500 mm Sigma telephoto zoom lens and 1.4x teleconverter on a Nikon D7000 body; solar filter was an Orion mylar filter for white light. Conditions were not ideal – a great deal of wind, quite cold, and high, diffuse clouds.

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith

A Newsletter Article on the Sierra Stars Observatory Network

Included in the January 2014 issue of Event Horizon, the newsletter of the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers, is a short article I wrote on my experiences in 2013 with the Sierra Stars Observatory Network (http://sierrastars.com/).

You can download the PDF newsletter here: http://www.amateurastronomy.org/EH/January2014.pdf

Back issues of Event Horizon are available here: http://www.amateurastronomy.org/newslett.php

I was very happy with the article, and that the editor chose to use one of my photos (of Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS)) as the masthead for the issue.

Panstarrs

Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) imaged with the Sierra Stars Observatory Network. The image is described below.

The above image of Comet C2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) was taken with the Schulman 0.81 m Mt. Lemmon SkyCentre telescope in southern Arizona early on the morning of 19 June 2013, on-line with the Sierra Stars Observatory Network. This was a simple stack of four images (one each, L, R, G, B) of 90 seconds each. The default setting for the camera is a 2×2 binning.

The Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter 0.81 meter is an f/7 Ritchey–Chrétien equipped with an SBIG STX KAF-16803 camera. The image covers 22.5 x 22.5 arc minutes: a bit more than a third of a degree across the sky (for comparison, the disk of the full moon covers about a half a degree, or around 30 arc minutes).

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith

Thanks for a Great First Blogging Year!

A year ago I launched the “Pine River Observatory” blog as an outlet for my interests in astronomy and photography of the night sky. Inspired by summer nights with lovely dark skies along the shores of Lake Huron, I named the virtual observatory after the Pine River, a small river south of the town of Kincardine.

I’ve been very excited with the response to the blog so far. As of today (1 January 2013) my pages have had a total of 8,528 views from readers in 101 countries! Thank you so much for your interest and support! I’m looking forward to making more blog entries in 2014!

blog

Distribution of viewers of this blog in the first year, a screen capture from the stats page provided by WordPress, on 1 January 2014. Users have looked at the blog from a total of 101 countries; only the top 21 or so are listed by country.

Copyright © 2014 David Allan Galbraith