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.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Saturday June 13, 2015 - Weather Notes for the Past Week.

  After a relatively mild Saturday, summer-like weather dominated our area for the second week of June. Things got hot and very humid, we had some passing thunderstorms, and there was an unusual event on Tuesday the 9th worth documenting.

  When Sunday the 7th began, the radar images seemed alarming. They showed a big arcing line of storms moving from the northern half of Illinois to the northern half of Indiana. It looked like a Derecho! Our skies stayed partly sunny but very hazy and humid through late morning, and it was windy. By noon the winds became strong and gusty and dark clouds moved in, but when I checked the radar, that menacing looking storm line had fallen apart, and scattered showers were skirting Indianapolis to the north. By afternoon, hazy and partly sunny skies returned again. I went outside to mow the front and side yards and the patio area in the back, but ran out of time to mow the back yard before I had to pick Adrian up from work and do some errands. The morning low had been 62°F and the afternoon high reached 88°F; the warmest day of 2015 in Indianapolis so far. Dew Points were in the upper 60's°F. Lines of storms developed again in northern Illinois and moved into north central Indiana by sunset, slowly sagging to the south. Even though skies grew overcast at sunset and lots of flickering lightning could be seen to the north during the hours before midnight, no rain fell in our area on Sunday. I was mesmerized every time I went outside watching the distant lightning and the flashes from fireflies all over the back yard.

  We stayed up late Sunday evening the 7th through Monday morning the 8th because severe thunderstorms were approaching from the north and west, and there were tornado warnings issued for counties near the Indiana / Illinois border. It seemed like we were in for a rough night. However, as they approached, the storms started to weaken and warnings were dropped. By 1:15 AM I could hear rumbles of thunder along with the flickering lightning, and the gust front hit our corner of Marion County right before 1:30 AM. But it was a much weaker storm than it had been two hours before. There were only a few rumbles of thunder and none of it was close. Heavy rain fell for just five or ten minutes, and the winds weren't damaging. By 2:00 AM the storms had passed and only light rain continued.

  Monday June 8th turned out to be an overcast and sometimes stormy day. It was gloomy through the morning with scattered rain showers. Just after noon, scattered thunderstorms started to develop just west of the city and started scudding to the southeast. There were pockets of brief, heavy rain in the neighborhood and lots of thunderclaps. These storms cleared Marion County by 3:00 PM, and skies showed some thinning clouds and filtered sunlight. However, I ran back into them during my drive to work, and they were just clearing Greensburg when I was walking in to the plant at 4:00 PM. Things were fairly quiet outside for both places until about 10:00 PM, when strong storms moved through Indianapolis with lots of close lightning bolts and heavy rain. An hour later, that same line of storms moved through Greensburg. I was working in Final Quality Inspect at the time, and I could see bright lightning flashes and a downpour of rain whenever the bay doors opened and shut to let the cars drive in and out of the factory. In fact, the car traffic was halted for about ten minutes due to lightning! This cleared Greensburg by midnight.

  The low temperature on Monday had only dropped to 60°F and though temperatures varied a lot with the clouds and storms during the day, the afternoon high reached just 79°F. The official rain total for Indianapolis from the NWS office by the Airport was a whopping 1.90" but my little back yard glass tube rain gauge only recorded 0.80". I'm guessing these scattered storms dumped a lot more rain at the airport than they dropped on the Southeast Side.

  Skies looked clear but murky by the time I was driving home from work after 1:00 AM on Tuesday morning, June 9th. I could see some bright stars and Saturn. I assumed that there was a high fog in the air along with some patchy low fog banks that I was driving through now and then. There were a lot of leaves, twigs, and small branches lying on the streets from the storms that had passed through a few hours before, though I'd seen much worse damage. What was strange, however, was the color of the Moon. By 3:00 AM I could see it risen above the roof of our house and the neighbors' house to our south. It was just nine or ten hours from Last Quarter so it should have still been pretty bright, but instead it was dim and very coppery in color even though it was up fairly high in the sky. By 4:30 AM, when I was about ready to get to bed, the Moon was up even higher in the sky but still looked eerie and ruddy. At that time, only stars that were 1st magnitude or brighter could be seen in the sky. I still thought that it was due to humid and foggy conditions in the wake of the storms.

  Tuesday the 9th itself was a very sunny and dry day with just scattered cumulus clouds around in the afternoon. The humidity was much lower in the wake of the passage of the cold front and the air was comfortable. But Tuesday was also a strange-looking day. From sunrise to sunset, the sky seemed very milky white or even grayish, and the sunlight was very filtered. It was hard to pick out the clouds from the sky throughout the afternoon. It should have been much clearer with strong sunlight, since the moisture level was so low. The answer to this came to me from local noon news; the meteorologist mentioned that the upper level jet stream was sending thick smoke from forest fires in Canada straight into the Great Lakes region and on southward. This was the reason for the strangeness of the sky and also explained to me why the Moon had seemed so coppery the night before. When I was at work on Tuesday evening, I saw the sun as a deep red orb set against a very dark gray sky, even though it was clear. Tuesday started out with a low temperature of 58°F and the high only reached 82°F. There was  no rainfall near Indianapolis. In spite of the unusual haze, this turned out to be the nicest day of the week!

  Satellite image from Tuesday showing the smoke in the upper atmosphere streaming into Indiana from Canada and the Great Lakes. This image is stunning to me! 

  Photo taken by me using my cell phone of the back yard early on Tuesday afternoon, June 9. This shows the ever-present haze and the weakened sunlight that dominated the daylight hours from the smoke in the upper atmosphere.

  This photo was taken by a friend of a friend in my hometown of LaPorte, Indiana, on the morning of June 9. It shows even smokier skies in far Northwest Indiana due to the smoke from Canadian forest fires. Steve Benner posted it to me on Facebook. 

  I expected skies to be hazy again when I was on my way home from work well after midnight on Wednesday morning the 10th, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. Things looked clear but murky by the time I was pulling up to the house. When I went outside at 4:30 AM, I was very surprised, because the sky was almost pristine! The Moon (now just half a day or more past Last Quarter) was shining over the roof of our house again, low in the east-southeast, but even with this moonlight interference I was sure that I could see stars to 4.0 magnitude or dimmer. There was even a hint of the Summer Milky Way that could be seen in Cygnus! It would have actually been a good morning to get the 10" scope outside and do some observing. But I was unprepared for the clear sky and it was just half an hour before the first light of dawn would have made variable star observing impossible. It was a brief, wasted opportunity. Looking back on it, it was also probably my only opportunity to get out and observe.

  Wednesday the 10th was a very sunny and hot day! Winds had shifted and were now coming out of the west and southwest. It was a mostly sunny day with a lot of cumulus clouds that built up in the afternoon and then waned away somewhat by sunset. The sky had very little haze and the humidity was relatively low with Dew Points that were usually in the low 60's°F range. The morning low was 65°F and the high for the day reached 90°F (our first day of 90 degrees or above in 2015). There was no precipitation on Wednesday even though some severe storms developed in northernmost Indiana (near the Michigan border) during the late evening hours and slowly drifted south. These storms fell apart after sunset and only brought clouds to Indianapolis by midnight.

  During the predawn hours of Thursday, June 11th skies were overcast during my drive home; the result of that northern line of storms that had petered out as they moved south toward Indianapolis. Thursday itself was a lot like Wednesday had been, There were scattered storms here and there around Indiana during the afternoon, but all of the rain stayed away from Indianapolis and Greensburg. It was cloudier than Wednesday had been with mid-level clouds around noon and then a mix of high and low clouds during the afternoon. It was also hazier than Wednesday had been, though not nearly as bad as we'd seen on Tuesday. The humidity was up. Dew Points were in the mid to upper 60's°F range for most of the day. The morning low was 69°F while the high once again reached 90°F.

  Things changed somewhat on Friday, June 12th. It was still hot and humid, but now the weather systems were close enough for thunderstorms to be generated, and this started fairly early in the day. When I was on my way home from work at 2:30 AM (after working a long evening with overtime added!) skies seemed fairly clear but murky. But by 3:30 AM the sky was full of bands of cirrus clouds that hid any stars dimmer than 2nd magnitude. Then the storms rolled in. I was woken up at 10:45 AM to the sounds of  close thunderclaps followed by brief heavy rain. This cell passed us within the hour, but other cells drifted by the Southeast Side from late morning through early afternoon, giving us mostly cloudy skies and lots of rumbles of thunder. Some of these cells were bringing down pouring rain just a few miles to our north. After I left for work, one very potent storm cell passed through Greenwood around 6:00 PM but they missed our neighborhood. There were limbs down due to strong winds and there was some damage to homes. I was told by Adrian that there were only some thunder rumbles, a little rain, and it wasn't extremely windy when this storm passed by.

  Things weren't over after sunset on Friday. Around 8:30 PM there was a strong storm band that passed through Greensburg (possibly the same one that had caused the damage in Greenwood an hour before) that brought heavy rain and frequent close lightning. I could hear thunderclaps in the Honda plant even over all of the machinery. Then another band of storms passed through Indianapolis around 9:00 PM and also swept through Greensburg around 10:00 PM. It was a very active evening during the hours after sunset! The stormy weather moved out of most of Central Indiana by midnight.

  Friday's high temperature was 72°F and the high reached 89°F, just one degree short of the highs that we'd reached on Wednesday and Thursday. Dew Points were incredible; reaching the low 70's°F range. That's like a rain forest! The official precipitation total at the Airport in Indianapolis was just 0.21". At home my little glass tube gauge only recorded 0.09". The storms were very hit and miss; some parts of Indiana, even nearby, had a real deluge!

  There was a real sky show going on when I was driving home from work between 1:00 AM - 2:00 AM from Greensburg to Indianapolis on Saturday, June 13th. Though I didn't drive through any rain, and there were some clear spots in the clouds, there were almost constant flashes of lightning to the north and northeast. It was like a strobe light! Some of the flashes were pretty bright. I realized later, when I was home checking radar images, that I was actually seeing lightning generated by severe storms that were drifting between Marion, Indiana, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. This was mind-blowing; these storms must have been 100 miles away! As I approached Indianapolis, there were also some lightning flashes to the southwest from smaller storm cells near Bloomington. These storms fell apart before reaching us.

  Saturday itself turned out to be a fairly dry day. There were scattered storm cells around us, especially to the north, but only a small shower passed through the Southeast Side of Marion County around 6:00 PM that barely wet the pavement. The low was 71°F and the high reached 88°F. Dew Points hovered a couple of degrees above and below 70°F so it was uncomfortably humid. The conditions outside convinced me not to get out and do any grass mowing or brush cutting. Instead, I was able to do some things inside the house that I'd been planning to do. After dusk, skies were mostly cloudy,. However, a little after 10:00 PM I was able to spot Venus and Jupiter just ten degrees apart in the west-northwest sky (they will be incredibly close together on the evening of June 30th).

  Forecasts called for warm, muggy, summer-like weather to continue for much of next week, with chances of rain and storms almost every day. Next week the predawn sky will be virtually moonless, since New Moon will take place at 10:05 AM on Tuesday, June 16th EDT (14:05 UT June 16). Since we're so close now to June Solstice, with Sunrises taking place at 6:16 AM all next week, the first light of dawn will set in at approximately 4:50 AM or even earlier. This is challenging to observing, but I would like to get in some more variable star observations. We'll see how it goes. If nothing else, I'm going to try to stay current in these entries with what's happening with the weather and also do some catching up of some of the amateur astronomy that I've been able to get in so far in 2015. There will be a lot of entries ahead!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015 - AAVSO Spring Meeting (Part 3)


  Group photo of participants at the AAVSO Spring Meeting, from the Facebook page. Adrian and I arrived a little too late to get in on the photo session, unfortunately! 

  If I find out that another AAVSO meeting will be taking place at a location within easy traveling distance, and if I have the time, I'm going to be there throughout the event from start to finish. Even though it was thrilling to be at the banquet, it was a little disappointing at the same time. Most of the other participants had been able to renew acquaintances or get to know each other from Thursday through Saturday. We were arriving right at the tail end of everything. I didn't have a lot of time to introduce myself or talk to many other people. Plus, I think most of them were eager to get back to their hotels and/or get back home. The banquet didn't last very long.

  When we first walked in, the first person I ended up talking to was Mike Simonsen of Imlay City, Michigan. I knew this because of the name tag hanging around his neck. Mike wasn't aware of this, but he was familiar to me. He often posted information about observing on the AAVSO website and I'd also read his posts on his own site. He is a prolific observer who has the awesome ability (to me) of making thousands of variable star estimates per year from the not-so-pristine skies of Michigan, sometimes in frigid weather. Although he seems most involved with cataclysmic variables, he's also written posts to encourage visual observers, and I also know that he's been active with the Charts and Sequences group. Mike was at the raffle table selling tickets to about ten prizes, from eyepieces to color imagers to books. When I asked him who to see about getting a name tag, explaining that we'd just arrived, he pointed us in the direction of Rebecca Turner (who I'd corresponded with through email prior to registering for the meeting).

  Rebecca Turner was, therefore, the second person we met in person. As soon as I introduced myself and Adrian, she went to work. She not only obtained name tags for us, but she also handed us cards to let the servers know we'd signed up for the braised ribs main course. Rebecca was a tall, younger woman who seemed to radiate enthusiasm and energy.

  Adrian and I went back to the raffle table and bought eleven tickets from Mike, and I put most of them in the boxes for the solar system color imager and the video imager that were being offered. Then we sat down at one of the big empty round tables in the room to take in everything that was going on. Most of the others were milling around and talking in small groups by the cash bar near the back of the room, then started drifting to the other tables.

  Two men asked if the seats to our right were taken and had a seat with us. The one closest to me introduced himself as Richard Glassner, from Jefferson City, Missouri. He was a recent retiree who had worked in the nuclear industry, and had just recently joined the AAVSO. He told me that he was starting out as a visual observer and used binoculars; he hadn't bought a telescope yet. I agreed with him that for learning the night sky and getting started in variable star observing, binoculars were the way to go. The other man was quiet and reserved, and introduced himself as Tom Bretl from Plymouth, Minnesota. The name was familiar to me, but I didn't realize until I returned home and checked that Tom was the Charts and Sequences Section Leader. Others sat down to our left; next to Adrian was Marco Ciocca from Richmond, Kentucky. He spent much of the meal chatting with a man to his left (who's name I never caught) about CCD observing; a technical discussion that was really out of my expertise. Marco did show us an image of the galaxy M101 that he'd taken once, on the screen of his cell phone.

  (Just as a side note, while we were sitting there making small talk, word got out and spread around the room that at Belmont, American Pharaoh had won the race and become the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown!)

  Also, while we were waiting for the meal to begin, Stella Kafka started to walk around the banquet room from table to table, determined to talk to every participant even if they had spoken before. Stella had just become the new AAVSO Director earlier this year, taking the reigns from Arne Henden (who was sitting with his wife at a nearby table; I never had the chance to break in and talk to him). Stella seemed very personable. She asked me how long I'd been in the organization and whether I observed visually or otherwise. She said that she was just a beginner at actual variable star observing herself, but she was eager to get started, and pleased to lead the organization. She seemed outgoing, genuinely grateful to meet the observers, and energetic. I think she'll make a fine Director.

  After the meal was over, Rebecca Turner led everyone through a trivia contest where each table was a team, and we wrote our answers to the questions on paper. Unfortunately for me, the questions were over the papers that had been presented over the last few days, and I was clueless. Marco seemed to know all the answers. Then the raffle was held, with Mike Simonsen taking over at the microphone as Master of Ceremonies. His enthusiasm and sense of humor really showed through during this event. Richard, at our table, had bought a real pile of raffle tickets. He ended up winning four of the ten prizes!

  After Rebecca had tallied up the answers from the trivia game and announced the winning table, Stella went to the microphone to thank us all for coming, and to encourage all to keep observing and sending in star estimates to Headquarters.

  Then the banquet started breaking up, though it wasn't even 9:00 PM and still light outside. It seemed like I'd gone to the bar to get a beer and turned around to find a half-empty room. I would have liked to have talked to the eight or so observers from Indiana who were on the attendee list, but I never even found out where they were in the room. I'd spotted Barbara Harris at another table; a Council Member who'd caused a stir in the amateur astronomy community in 2010 when she'd detected the recurrent nova U Scorpii in outburst in predawn skies. However, I never had the chance to meet her in person. I had some last talks with Richard and Tom, finished my beer, and then Adrian and I decided to head back to Indianapolis.

  Out in the parking lot, we ran into Mike Simonsen one last time and talked with him just a little more, then had one last drive through the Ball State campus before heading back down I-69 to Indianapolis.

  Even though the meeting was brief for me, I'd have to write that it gave me more inspiration than I'd had before to make variable star observing a priority. I'd wavered a lot over the last few years about whether to stay with it, or put more time into other projects like meteor observing or lunar work. But even this short exposure to other members and staff gave my enthusiasm a boost. I still think there are important niches that a visual observer can fill, and valuable data to be gathered at the eyepiece.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015 - AAVSO Spring Meeting (Part 2)

  Back in June 1983 I attended a week-long summer course for high school students at Ball State University. This was just before my senior year. For a few days I lived like a college student. I was housed in a dorm room with a roommate, I ate in the cafeteria and spent time in the rec room with the other high schoolers, and I attended classes at the Cooper Science Complex. This was 32 years ago. I wrote some notes about the experience in the journal that I kept then, but I don't remember it all that well. I do remember that the Cooper complex had a big planetarium inside of it and it had a roll-off roof observatory on top with several telescopes inside.

  On Saturday afternoon June 6th I had the chance to drive through the campus and walk around the south part of it with Adrian for the first time since taking that course back in 1983. It was a nice day; mostly cloudy but bright with some sunshine, light winds, and the temperature stayed in the mid-70's°F range.

  We'd found the Student Center (where the banquet was going to be held) and parked in the lot there, but we were an hour and a half early, so we walked around and took in some of the sights. The place seemed almost deserted! After all, the spring semester was over, and the students were mainly gone. We found the Cooper Science Complex where most of the meetings had taken place for the past three days, but this building seemed quiet and deserted from the outside also. (I realized, after reading through the itinerary again, that the last Paper Session had probably ended right before we got there, and the participants had probably scattered back to their hotel rooms to get ready for the banquet.) We walked back to the Student Center and waited for people to start arriving. Here are some photos I took with my cell phone during this quiet tour.

  The Beneficence Statue ("Benny") on the Ball State Campus.

The Ball State Student Center 
(where the AAVSO Banquet was held).

  The outside of the Cooper Science Complex at Ball State.


Though this isn't the clearest photo of the afternoon, I had to add this. While we were walking around the campus, we happened to see an all-black morph Gray Squirrel! I'm not sure I've ever seen one of these before first-hand! 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Saturday June 6, 2015 - AAVSO Spring Meeting (Part 1)

  I joined the American Association of Variable Star Observers in June, 1984, right after graduating from LaPorte High School. I contributed about 350 estimates when I could (since I was also attending IU and didn't have access to my 6" Newtonian) between then and 1991. Then I sort of dropped out for a decade. After finishing college, throughout the 1990's, I was mainly living in apartments on the Indianapolis south side with no telescope and, really, no place to observe. After Adrian and I finally bought our home in 2001, and I had a fairly dark back yard to observe from and my 6" telescope back, I re-joined the AAVSO. I've kept my membership up through now and I've made about 1,600 other estimates since then.

  The AAVSO is one of the oldest amateur astronomy organizations still in existence; founded in 1911. It's also still one of the best ways for observers with telescopes (or even binoculars) to contribute important data to science. The idea behind the AAVSO was that since professional astronomers didn't have constant access to telescopes and couldn't focus all of their time monitoring the behavior of variable stars, they could instead recruit amateurs to gather the data on the brightness changes of these stars. The variable stars were identified and charts of these stars along with nearby stars of constant brightness were created. Amateurs could then record the magnitude of these variables (along with the constant stars used, chart used, and date and time) and send these reports to the headquarters of the organization.

  Visual observing was the "norm" through most of the AAVSO's history. Some brightness estimates were also obtained through photography. By the 1960's and 1970's, photoelectric photometers were used more and more, and then by the 1980's and especially 1990's more amateurs started using CCD imaging and computer software to obtain very accurate magnitude estimates. Since CCD cameras became popular, the number of estimates in the AAVSO database skyrocketed. When I joined in 1984 there were just a few million estimates stored over the last seventy three years. In 2015 the number had surpassed 28 million data points.

  I briefly tried to learn how to do CCD observing back in 2010. Arne Henden (the Director) arranged the loan of a camera to me. At first, bad winter weather kept me from using it at all. By the time spring arrived I had one night where I tried it out on my 10" scope, using the Moon as a target. But I realized that night that the telescope's focusing mount didn't have the traveling length to let the camera focus, and I also found out that the mount's drive had stopped working, and I wasn't sure how to fix that. In the end, I thanked Arne and the people at headquarters for the loan, but I packed it up and sent it back to them, defeated. It looked like I'd remain a visual observer for quite a while longer.

  There's been a big debate going on over the last 15 years about the value of observing variable stars visually versus the value of observing them through photometry and CCD imaging. Plus, there are also automatic sky surveys in place now, where most of the night sky is often imaged every few nights from robotic telescopes in dark sky locations. Data on variable stars is gathered automatically with these surveys. CCD imaging provides detailed and extremely accurate data on individual stars. Visual observing often seems obsolete. It's often made me reconsider my AAVSO membership.

  In the end, I've become convinced that there's still a lot of value to making visual estimates and sending these in to the AAVSO. The automatic surveys depend on funding, and aren't always online gathering data. They don't cover the whole sky. While CCD imaging is far more accurate than making brightness estimates by eye, the CCD observers tend to concentrate on just one star per night or just a few. Visual observers can cover dozens of variable stars, and they don't need to spend time deriving a star's magnitude with computer software.

  Also, partly thanks to my correspondence over the last few years with (AAVSO member) Mike Poxon in the UK, I've realized that visual observers can fill some "niches" that aren't covered by those preprogrammed all-sky surveys or CCD imagers. Mike turned me on to observing Young Stellar Objects mainly because these stars can exhibit quick surges and fades in brightness that happen too fast for the surveys to document thoroughly, and many of them aren't covered by the observers using CCD imaging. In addition to this, there seemed to be a lot of Eclipsing Binary Stars that seem to be neglected by all observers, and that might show brightness changes outside of the predicted eclipses. I've started a personal list of these stars to observe. Mike's new program of observing "Algols that might be UXOR's" that we've discussed through email this year seems to combine both of these special interests. (I'll try to describe this in more detail in another entry.)

  The AAVSO has two annual meetings per year. In the fall they've almost always met at the Headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Spring meetings are held in various locations in and out of the USA. I realized, in March, that this year the annual spring meeting would happen at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana ... just a little over an hour away from the Indianapolis south side! This was the closest meeting that I'd ever seen. And I was kicking myself! I'd started 2015 with a lot of paid days off at work, but I didn't have many left after February (because of the partial shutdown at the plant caused by the dock strike on the West Coast, and illness). The meeting was going to take place from Thursday, June 4 - Saturday, June 6. All I could really hope for was to attend some of the Saturday events. And Saturday the 6th was also Adrian's birthday! It looked like I'd miss out again.

  However, after talking to Adrian about it, she told me she'd be interested in going. I did some email correspondence with Rebecca Turner at AAVSO Headquarters, explaining my situation, and she offered us a reduced rate for just Saturday late afternoon and evening. By early May I completed the online registration and paid the fee. This was exciting! It had been over 30 years since I first joined. The only other member I'd ever met face-to-face was Mark Bradbury (BMK) in Greenwood, and this had been by coincidence since he'd ended up working at CTB with me when I was employed there. This would be my first chance ever to talk to some people I'd only emailed before. I was really looking forward to it, even though we'd only be able to attend the late Saturday events.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Winter Weather Notes for the End of February / First Week of March

  This has been an unusual Winter, as far as snowfall. I've written this before, but things got a lot stranger right at the end!

  Between November 1st through February 15th, total snow accumulation for Indianapolis was just 8.8 inches. The most snow cover we'd had on the ground at once was about 2.5" and this had happened in the middle of November during a rare early snowstorm. There had been almost no snow at all during December. All through January and the first half of February we had small snow events that put 2" to 1" or less snow amounts on the ground (usually less than 1"). Few of these snow covers lasted more than a few days.

  Then from February 16th through March 1st; just 13 days time, we received a total of 16.7" of snow ... nearly twice as much as we'd had in the previous 107 days! There were small snow events from Monday the 16th through Wednesday the 18th that put 2" of accumulation down, followed by bitterly cold air. Then our first really serious snowstorm of the season arrived on Saturday, February 21st (see previous entry). This gave us just short of 6" in less than a day, and at least 7" of snow cover total.

  The last week of February itself was colder than normal with some minor snow systems. By Saturday the 28th we still had about 4" - 5" on the ground. But starting on the evening of the 28th through much of Sunday, March 1st, an even more potent late snowstorm passed slowly through the area and put down nearly 8" of new snow. We now had a foot or more on the ground! Here are photos I snapped that morning; two from the front yard and two from the back patio.

  The only good thing about this biggest winter storm was that since, this time, we'd received over 6" of snowfall, the city actually mobilized their private contractors to plow subdivisions like ours. Though our neighborhood streets were nearly impassable for most of Sunday the 1st, they were plowed by sunset. They were still snow covered, but they were drivable.

  Monday March 2nd was a mostly sunny day that got above the freezing point, so there was a little snow melt during the day. Then two more systems moved through on Tuesday the 3rd and Wednesday the 4th that made things a little strange. Both were southern systems. On the 3rd we started out with some nasty freezing rain in the morning through noon, but during the afternoon the air warmed enough for precipitation to turn to light regular rain and dense fog. After this system moved out, there was a major snowstorm that passed just south of Indianapolis and ended up bringing us hardly any snow, thankfully. Parts of Kentucky had over a foot of it, and counties close to the Ohio River also received several inches.

  There was one last big surge of Arctic air on Thursday the 5th and Friday the 6th. Low temperatures on both days were in the single digits °F while high temperatures stayed below freezing. The up-and-down weather had reduced our snow cover to about 5" - 6" by Saturday the 7th.

  Looking back, I'm going to think of Saturday, March 7th as the start of what became a much needed Spring Thaw. We reached 42°F on a sunny afternoon, and the snow and ice melt accelerated. I spent much of Saturday afternoon clearing snow and ice from most of the patio, hoping to get some Lunar Observing and Photography in after nightfall. Just to compare how everything looked six days after the first batch of photos, here are some I took on Saturday afternoon the 7th from the back yard. (Note: The cover on the grill looks beat up mainly due to hail storms last May!)

  There was much better spring-like weather to come as March really got underway! In hindsight, it looks like the last two weeks of February and the first days of March were Winter's Big Last Blast!