Sunday, November 15, 2015

September 2015 Variable Star Work and New Telescope Problems

  I was outside with the 10" F/4 telescope during four mornings in the middle of September and ended up doing a flurry of variable star estimates, including some YSO stars that I've observed in past years and some stars that were on Mike Poxon's list of Eclipsing Binaries that are suspected UXOR stars. (For the latter I'd requested charts with comparison stars from the AAVSO Charts Team; sometimes just days before.) I reported 31 estimates made over those four nights to the AAVSO, and my lifetime total of AAVSO estimates topped 2,000. 

  That's the good news; the bad news is that I still have dozens of estimates made between 2011 and this year that are scattered around in various notebooks, and even on the digital voice recorder, that I still haven't organized and reported. I still need to do that. But these September estimates WERE all entered into the database, and these were my first variable star observations since last May. So at least I ended the October 2014 - September 2015 AAVSO Fiscal Year on a good note.

  I won't go into detail here about these nights in September or all of the past years. I'm going to try to get all of those organized and report the estimates that still need reporting "on the side" instead of doing it on this blog. As far as this blog, I'm going to start "fresh." A new AAVSO Fiscal Year started on October 1st, 2015. And I'm going to make it my goal to report variable star estimates as they occur and keep up from this point on.

  However, I do have to write that during the last night that I did variable star observing, the predawn hours of September 22, I also realized that my 10" F/4 mount was "finished." I'd find a variable star, and then when I was trying to make an estimate ... maybe because I moved the control panel around ... the motors on the mount would suddenly turn on like they had a mind of their own and slew the telescope away from the star field I was looking at! It happened several times and it was frustrating as hell!

  I've had a love/hate relationship with the mount of my Meade LXD55 almost since the day it arrived in November 2002. I could never get the GOTO program to work correctly even though I followed the directions for aligning it as best I could. I gave up on it and tried to just manually move it to targets, but then the Right Ascension gear wheel came loose after just a few uses, making the motor run but keeping the scope from moving east to west (or vice versa) and keeping it from tracking the sky. I did quick fixes to it, but it would keep coming loose, and I never resolved that problem until I replaced the tiny inset screws that held the gear wheels in place in 2005! And by that time the silly little plastic clamps that locked and unlocked the two axes of the mount had broken off, leaving it locked, and moving the telescope with the motors was my only option. The mount always had to be plugged in to move!

  Even with these frustrating issues, I managed to get the mount to work well for the next four years or so, but a new problem happened around 2009 when it just stopped tracking! Engaging the drive caused the telescope to move quickly in the wrong direction! So I just stopped trying to get it to track the sky, and I would "nudge" it with the control pad to try to keep up with the Earth turning. And that worked from 2009 through now.

  I have had issues with the LXD55 mount for all of these years and found ways to overcome these problems, but to summarize, it's really never worked as advertised. And I'm not alone. I've read online posts for years from other LXD55 owners who are constantly fixing their mounts and finally getting rid of them in the end. Meade itself repackaged the LXD55 with a new mount after a few years and called it the LXD75, but then stopped making these telescopes altogether a few years ago.

  But these latest issues in September were the last straw. Let me make a short list of "grievances" and then present what might be some near-future solutions: 

   The 10" scope had always been tough to set up because of that awkward heavy mount. It was a back-breaker!

  It always had to be near the outside outlet by the back door because it always had to be plugged in to a power source to move. (Incidentally, the outlet itself stopped supplying power at the end of September!)

  Though I didn't mention this before, both the main cord to the mount and the cord of the control paddle are frayed with exposed wires, and I've had to tape them for a couple of years. Electrical shorts were always possible.

  The design of the mount meant that the eyepiece was often in a terrible position for me, making it necessary to either become a contortionist to look through the telescope or (what usually happened) making me loosen it up and rotate the tube to a more comfortable position.

  The little finder scope has always seemed inadequate and is always in an awkward position!

  So now here are a couple of possible solutions:

  Last in June I found a website that has a post from 2012 from an amateur astronomer named Dan Demmers who had acquired an LXD55 (I'm assuming from the photos it was a 10" Schmidt-Newtonian) from his older brother, and both had experienced similar issues with it that I've experienced. Dan decided that he either needed to modify it or get rid of it, and he ended up (among other things) putting it onto a wooden Dobsonian mount. The website and post are at

  Dan bought the mount for his scope from a company that custom makes these for OTA's. The company website is I looked over this site and sent some questions about the weight of the mount, and received prompt replies from Mark Wagner on June 29 and 30. A collapsible mount with clamshell rings, he estimated, was about 30 pounds (compared to the weight of the current mount of 55 pounds) (the OTA of my telescope is about 30 pounds also). His mount would run about $480 total.

  The new mount would be more portable, and it would keep the eyepiece at a desirable angle. It wouldn't track the sky, but my current one hasn't done this in years anyway. It would still require two trips to set up the scope but it wouldn't have to be plugged in and I could set it up anywhere. This sounds like the direction I'll be going in.

  One final note, I also found a site called that sells many telescope accessories, including a 7x50 right angle correct image finder scope that, I think, I can make work with my 10" F/4. It should keep the finder eyepiece at a good level and make targets easier to acquire.

  More on all of this later ... I'm hoping that through this winter I'll refurbish the 10" telescope, and by late winter or spring I'll resume an active AAVSO program.

  Until then, I'm going to finish 2015 by concentrating on meteor observing. The Orionid and Taurid showers, the Leonids, then the Geminids and Quadrantids. That should keep me busy until a little past New Year's Day 2016.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

AM Saturday, September 12, 2015 - Notes

  During the short work week between the mornings of Tuesday, September 8th - Friday, September 11th the sky conditions didn't cooperate too well with my observing plans. This unusual stretch of hot and humid weather we'd been experiencing all month was changing as two slow-moving cold fronts passed through our area. I'd get some clear skies on some mornings, and get glimpses of the rising Winter Constellations. But there were usually scattered thin clouds around and light fog in the air, and the patio was usually damp from light showers that had fallen during the previous evening. I didn't think it was worthwhile to get the telescope out and try to observe under these circumstances.

  The second cold front of the week moved through during the day on Friday the 11th, and it was a cool, misty, sometimes rainy day with low, gloomy clouds everywhere. By the time I was driving home around 2:00 AM on Saturday the 12th, however, the rain had been over for hours and the sky was clearing out. A steady breeze had dried out the pavement a little and also kept a lot of low fog from forming. I thought that maybe my chance to observe variable stars was finally here. But every time I checked outside the back door between 3:00 AM and 5:00 AM, I was discouraged. Low clouds continued to march across the sky in waves (altocumulus and raggedy-looking cumulus) and the pavement of the patio was still damp. (This is always a concern since I plug the mount into the outdoor socket and the cord lies on the concrete.) Though it was mostly clear, I still didn't think it the ground and sky conditions merited taking the 10" scope outside.

  I stayed up very late, and went outside around 6:10 AM. At this time the sky had cleared dramatically! I believe the limiting naked eye magnitude was at least 5.0 since I could see a lot of the fainter stars in Orion, Taurus, and Gemini that I normally can't see in this light-polluted area. The sky to the East and Southeast was very dramatic. Though I've seen Orion several times in the morning sky over the last month, this morning it was high in the sky and dramatic, with Rigel and Betelgeuse blazing away. I could even make out the Orion Nebula (though, of course, it looked star-like without optical aid). I also had my first looks of the season of Procyon and Sirius sparkling away. At this time there was just a hint of the first light of dawn in the east. The temperature in the low 50's°F and it felt very chilly in comparison to the past several mornings. The sounds of singing insects were very subdued.

  However, the really showy object was Venus! This was my first look at it as a morning object; I'd last seen it low after sunset in July. It was so much brighter than any of the stars that it just looked unreal, like it was on fire! It was just peeking over the edge of the roof of our house from the edge of the patio.

  I drew a very rough sketch of how it looked below, though this drawing really doesn't do justice to how pretty it really looked:

  If I'd stayed up slightly later and had a better look at the eastern sky, and especially if I'd had binoculars handy, I probably could have also spotted Mars just 10 degrees or so to the lower left of Venus. And by 6:30 AM (though the sky would have been getting very bright at the time before sunrise) Jupiter also might have been glimpsed, just rising over the horizon, below and to the left of the star Regulus in Leo. This would have been a challenge, though, and almost certainly would have required binoculars. The Moon rose this morning just half an hour before the Sun, and it probably wouldn't have been visible in that very bright, very low eastern sky even with binoculars.

  New Moon occurs at 2:41 AM EDT Sunday September 13 (6:41 UT September 13). There is also a Partial Solar Eclipse at that time, but, of course, nothing of it will be visible from Indiana or anywhere near North America. It will be seen from South Africa and part of Antarctica.

  Venus will continue to blaze away in predawn skies from now through the whole winter, and even through May of 2016 (though it will be getting very tough to see by early Spring). In late October it will have a showy conjunction in Southeastern Leo with Jupiter and Mars. I'll keep watching the show when I can and try to add more sketches as time goes by.

Monday, September 7, 2015

AM Friday, September 4, 2015 - Lunar Observing / Imaging

  After coming home from work once again during the wee hours of the morning, and finding the sky once again mostly clear but murky and moonlit (pretty much like every predawn these first days of September) I decided to get the telescope out again to do some lunar observing and camera work again.

  The Moon was still a Waning Gibbous, but it was getting closer to Last Quarter. This time it was in far Eastern Taurus, higher in the sky, and shedding a little less light than it had three mornings ago. Though it was hazy and there may have been high fog in the air (and also still maybe a little high altitude smoke), Transparency was better than it had been on Tuesday morning this week. This time, 3rd magnitude stars could barely be seen, though anything dimmer was impossible with the naked eye.

  I had the 10" f/4 outside and set up by 4:05 AM, and at that time I also had a look at the Moon under 39x. I wasn't really trying to image any particular targets tonight; I just thought that Mare Imbrium might start looking interesting with the sunset line halfway through Mare Serenitatus and slowly heading its way.

  Lunar Colongitude at 4:15 AM (8:15 UT Sept. 4) = 159.48°
  Lunar Colongitude at 4:30 AM (8:30 UT Sept. 4) = 159.60°

  This time, unlike Tuesday morning, I only spent one short session outside between about 4:15 AM - 4:30 AM. During that time I managed to shoot 7 photos using 39x power and 36 photos using 78x power. These photos were downloaded into Folder #69 in my Nikon Transfer folder on my laptop.

  These are the best images of the session from what I've seen so far. All of them were taken using the Nikon Coolpix L20 digital camera handheld to the eyepiece of the telescope. I'm posting them here without much comment; obviously the Mare Serenitatus area and the heavily cratered highlands on the southern hemisphere were the most showy targets; though some shading can also be seen in Mare Imbrium's features and even on Plato. All in all, I was pleased with how the photos turned out! Once again, Seeing was great even though Transparency wasn't good at all!

  The image below is of the whole Moon. 39x power. 4:18 AM (8:18 UT Sept. 4). Lunar Colongitude = 159.51°

  The next image below shows the Moon's northern hemisphere under 78x power. 4:23 AM (8:23 UT Sept. 4). Lunar Colongitude = 159.55°

  This last image shows the heavily cratered lunar southern hemisphere. 78x power. 4:27 AM (8:27 UT Sept. 4). Lunar Colongitude = 159.58°

  I had the telescope back inside by 5:00 AM after what turned out to be a very short session. There was some dew on the telescope tube and dew cap, but, like Tuesday morning, I didn't really have it outside long enough for it to be an issue. Singing night insects were in full chorus again this morning.

  5:00 AM Conditions - Temperature = 72°F, Dew Point = 66°F, Humidity = 82%, Wind = SW at 6mph, Pressure = 29.98".

Tuesday September 1, 2015 - More on the Mare Crisium "Sunset Ray"

  Tuesday morning's observing / imaging session of the Moon was  a memorable one for a couple of reasons. Ever since viewing and sketching the "sunset ray" on Mare Crisium twice in 2008, I'd never seen this feature since, so this was the first time I'd seen it through the telescope in over seven years! And this was in spite of several attempts. It was also the first time I'd ever photographed it. I seemed to have caught it right at the beginning, so it also gave me a much better idea of when the effect on Mare Crisium starts. Here's a rundown of what I know so far from photographs and sketches:

Lunar Colongitude = 121.49° March 8, 2015 3:20 UT

  The photo above was taken early last March, at a time when the mountains along the southern rim of Mare Crisium first started to cast shadows on the plain. It was obvious even when I took the photo that it was still some time before the "sunset ray" was really noticeable.

Lunar Colongitude = 122.63° September 1, 2015 7:41 UT

  My first set of photos from Tuesday morning really made the situation clear. It shows this area of Mare Crisium at the equiv 2 hours 15 minutes after the first photo. Those mountain shadows were much more stretched out, but it's also clear in the photo (and I also saw this through the eyepiece) that the mountain shadow to the north hasn't quite reached the terminator yet, so even at this point there wasn't a cut-off lit-up area in between those shadows.

Lunar Colongitude = 123.06° September 1, 2015 8:34 UT

  The photo above shows this area just 53 minutes after the previous one, and by this time the northern mountain shadow had reached the terminator; making a true "sunset ray" in between. So now I know that the complete cut-off sunlit area starts around the time that the lunar colongitude lies at about 123°. This was the other real personal discovery on Tuesday morning before dawn!

Lunar Colongitude = 124.2° Sketched August 19, 2008 7:30 UT

  Now that I have pretty much pegged down the start time of this monthly lunar phenomena, my main mission in the near future is to find the "end time" and hopefully photograph it. The sketch above was from the second time that I've ever seen the "light ray" in 2008, and I recorded the colongitude then as 124.2°, which is the equivalent of about 2 hours 15 minutes after the last photograph. At the time, the "light ray" seemed narrow and even more detached from the rim of Mare Crisium. (I'd love to get a photograph of it looking like this some day!)

Lunar Colongitude = 129.37° March 30, 2013 5:38 UT

  Finally, this photograph shows the lit-up rim of Mare Crisium with the Mare itself all in shadow. It was taken at the equivalent of about 12 hours 30 minutes after the photograph taken when the colongitude was 123.06°. It's obvious at this point that the "sunset ray" is long gone. This photo gives me an extreme upper limit to how long it lasts, but until I make more observations of the Moon between when the terminator is between colongitude 124° and 129°, I'll never know for sure how long it lasts. I suspect it could be as short as four hours, though it could possibly be three times longer than that!

  (Postscript - I posted the photo from 8:34 UT Tuesday September 1 on the Facebook page Telescope Addicts - Astronomy and Astrophotography Community on Saturday, September 5 and asked if any other group members had ever seen or photographed what I've been calling the "Mare Crisium Sunset Ray." One reply that I received was from Rick Scott in Arizona. He seemed to think that this was the famous "false arch" along Mare Crisium; where the shadows seemed to suggest a natural arch lies on the rim. This was later proven false. I've read about this in the past but I was never sure where, exactly, this feature was located. He may well be right!)

AM Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - Lunar Observing and Imaging

  I didn't get home from work until about 2:45 AM on Tuesday morning, and it was a clear but very moonlit, hazy night (there was also, possibly, still high-altitude smoke over Indiana). The Moon was a bright Waning Gibbous, about two and a half days past Full, shining in Pisces. The bright, murky sky made 2nd magnitude stars very difficult to see with the naked eye, and anything dimmer impossible. In fact, only 1st magnitude stars or brighter were obvious!

  Even though I was tired, some quick calculations earlier on Monday had made me aware that this morning I had a great chance of observing the "Mare Crisium Sunset Ray." I hadn't actually seen it since observing it twice in 2008, and I'd never photographed it (since I've only had the digital camera since Christmas 2009). So I had the 10" f/4 set up outside by 3:25 AM; the first time I'd had it out, I think, since last April! I pointed it at the Moon and went inside to grab the camera.

  Lunar Colongitude at 3:30 AM (7:30 UT Sept. 1) = 122.53°
  Lunar Colongitude at 3:45 AM (7:45 UT Sept. 1) = 122.66°

  I first went outside from about 3:35 AM - 3:44 AM and I was able to snap 5 images of the whole Moon using 39x power and 42 images using 78x. These were downloaded into Folder #67 in the Nikon Transfer Folder on my laptop. While at the eyepiece, looking to the northernmost part of Mare Crisium, I was encouraged because it looked like the "sunset ray" wasn't too far away from being complete.

  Before I was finished, a lot of very thin cloud bands moved into the sky and "dulled" the Moon. I wasn't sure if I was going to get a chance to get in a second observing session.

   Below is the best image of the whole Moon obtained during the first session outside. 39x using the Nikon Coolpix L20 camera pressed up against the eyepiece, handheld. 3:45 AM (7:45 UT Sept. 1). Lunar Colongitude = 122.66°

  Lunar Colongitude at 4:30 AM (8:30 UT Sept. 1) = 123.03°
  Lunar Colongitude at 4:45 AM (8:45 UT Sept. 1) = 123.16°

  After downloading and looking through the first batch of photos, I went outside again to find that the thin cloud patches that had been drifting through the sky were gone, so I had a second session of photo shooting between about 4:30 AM - 4:45 AM. During this time I snapped 50 photos using 78x. These ended up being downloaded into Folder #68 in the Nikon Transfer Folder on my laptop.

  I should point out that in spite of the hazy (maybe smokey) atmosphere and the humidity in the air, the Seeing conditions tonight were excellent! The images through the eyepiece were very steady with just some shimmering now and then. And several of the camera shots were very clear.

  Below is one of the best photos I obtained during this second session outside. 78x and again I took it with the Nikon Coolpix L20 camera handheld to the eyepiece. 4:34 AM (8:34 UT Sept. 1). Lunar Colongitude 123.06°. Below this is an "extreme blowup" of the same photo to show the "sunset ray" near the center, which was now clearly visible! I'd finally captured it!

  After this second session, I packed everything up for the morning to get to bed and get ready for another workday. There was dew on the telescope tube and dew cap, but I hadn't had the scope out long enough for this to really be a problem. Singing night insects were chirping, whirring, clicking, and buzzing all around me in the mild, moist night air. This was a very productive night of observing and imaging!

  4:00 AM Conditions: Temperature = 72°F, Dew Point = 67°F, Humidity = 84%, Wind = Calm, Pressure = 30.09".

  (See next entry for more information about the Mare Crisium "Sunset Ray.")

Saturday, August 29, 2015

PM Sat. August 29 - AM Sun. August 30, 2015 - Full "Super" Moon Notes

  Full Moon took place on Saturday afternoon at 2:35 PM EDT (18:35 UT August 29), so tonight and last night could really both be considered Full Moon nights; one night with it slightly prior to Full and then, tonight, slightly after Full. Both nights have been partly to mostly cloudy and hazy. This was the best photo I could take tonight around 11:00 PM, using my cell phone camera held up against one lens of my 7x50 binoculars, hand-held. The Moon was partly obscured by thin altocumulus clouds.

  Though it's next to impossible to tell this tonight, with the haze and clouds, the Moon is in Aquarius near and south of the "Water Jar" asterism.

  This Full Moon has also been referred to in the media as a "Super Moon." This is because Lunar Perigee takes place around 11:25 AM EDT Sunday (15:25 UT August 30), less than twenty four hours after the time it was Full. It looks slightly larger than the other Full Moons this year, in other words, though the media is exaggerating this as usual!

  As I was writing in my last entry, moonlight is going to be an issue through the upcoming week, as it wanes and gets closer to the winter constellations before dawn (where the variable stars lie that I want to start observing). Warmer, muggier air is also forecast to move in through the week along with chances for rain. This will be a good week to get my charts and notes ready, and hopefully by next weekend (which is also Labor Day Weekend) I'll start logging in some brightness estimates!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

AM Thursday August 27, 2015 - Observing Issues

  I decided to focus on meteor observing through July and August, and actually had some productive sessions over the last few weeks, and filled out some IMO reports online. I may write some "catch-up" entries for this blog about these sessions if time permits. I also had some interesting email correspondence through August that might result in setting up an all-sky camera here at home to image bright meteors and fireballs, and I might elaborate on all of this in the near future.

  But my plan after the Perseid Shower and the Kappa Cygnid Shower ended in late August was to go back to Variable Star Observing, and I was ready to do this when this work-week began, in the wee hours before dawn. Unfortunately, several obstacles have prevented me from doing this.

  The Moon has been a Waxing Gibbous this week, brightening the sky more and more and setting later and later after midnight. I knew that this would make observing a challenge and give me a narrower "window" of dark sky every morning. But the stars I wanted to observe, in Auriga, Taurus, and Orion, were pretty much in the opposite part of the sky as the Moon, so I thought this was an issue I could get around.

  The real problem, however, has been the sky conditions themselves. On Sunday evening, August 23rd, a cold front passed through Indianapolis. The forecast for the next several days called for milder and drier air to move in, with mostly sunny days and clear, cool nights. Unfortunately, the low pressure system that drove the cold front through our area just sat and swirled through the Great Lakes and it kept streaming a "pinwheel" of clouds overhead. These clouds have been persistent!

  And even on the mostly clear mornings (Monday and now today), there's been a real "murkiness" to the sky. I thought at first that it might just be the result of high thin cloud cover, but the culprit seems to be high-altitude smoke, just like I saw and wrote about last June. Back then, smoke was drifting into the Midwest from fires in Western Canada. Now it's smoke from wildfires burning in the Continental US. Many of the fires have taken place in the Pacific Northwest, though, as the maps below show, there are also a lot of them in the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast. The Great Plains fires are contributing to the problems I'm seeing overhead.

Map of Wildfires / Smoke Monday morning August 24th

Map of Wildfires / Smoke Tuesday August 25th

  This morning the Moon looked yellowed and the sky had a weird blueish tint to it. Stars dimmer than 2.0 magnitude were tough to see. Since Full Moon is two and a half days away, I'm probably not going to be able to observe in dark conditions before dawn for almost two weeks, even if the sky really clears and the smoke goes elsewhere! I think I'll use this time to get my variable star charts in order and write some posts about the targets I plan to take some looks at over the next few months.