Archive for January, 2009

Clear Night in Houston Area!

Posted in observing, urban skies on January 31, 2009 by bellaireastro

Winter G made with Stellarium

Tonight the Moon and Venus are clearly visible in the western sky.

There are also a lot of really bright stars out tonight. The constellation Orion has Betelgeuse and Rigel, then there is the brightest star in the sky, Sirius in Canis Major. There is also the red giant Aldebaran in Taurus and Capella directly overhead in Auriga (the charioteer) with 3 pretty dim stars very close by in a triangle often referred to as “the kids”. There are also the twins Castor and Pollux in Gemini and lastly the star Procyon in Canis Minor. All of these stars form a huge capital letter G in the night sky.

If you wait a while later you can see Regulus is Leo and even Saturn if you wait till 9:30 or so. The big dipper will also be rising in the north east around that time. Lots to see so get out there and drag your friends and family and show them what’s up there!


Urban Astronomy

Posted in observing, urban skies with tags , , on January 29, 2009 by bellaireastro

Light pollution in the Houston area is really very bad. But there is no reason for the urban astronomer to be discouraged. Besides the brightest planets and the moon, there are a LOT of things to see from your backyard or city park.


Moonrise as seen looking along the tube of my Dobsonian reflector. The reflected target of the Telrad can be seen.

I have been able to find things at magnitudes as dim as 8.4 using my 8 inch Dobsonian scope. My dimmest target so far has been the Crab Nebula (Messier object #1) and the conditions were pretty good. I also needed patience and had to used averted vision but it paid off.

The Messier list has proven to be well worth the effort from my light-polluted location in Stafford Texas. One of the things that helps is being prepared, another thing is perseverance, and yet another is a telescope with at least an 8 inch diameter aperture. So I open up Stellarium (desktop planetarium software) or a printed star atlas to see what is up and where it is and I make a plan. I also allow a lot of time for star-hopping and trial and error. Then I have to identify those clusters, galaxies, and nebulae which usually requires several minutes of dedicated observation of the star field often requiring a bit of averted vision.

Urbanization map of the United States derived from city lights data. Courtesy Earth Observatory - NASA

Urbanization map of the United States derived from city lights data. Earth Observatory - NASA

There are lots of resources for those of us stuck with skyglow caused by light pollution. One thing to help block the glare from a neighbor’s lights or streetlights is a screen. I made a simple screen out of two 8 foot wooden fence pickets and some landscape fabric that works like a charm. The height is perfect for blocking out the back porch light from my neighbor’s house.

There is an entire section of the website dedicate to urban skies with resources and lots of links and then there is Sky & Telescope’s 111 Deep Sky Wonders for Light-Polluted Skies or you can check out the two-part interview with Rod Mollise, author of The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, over at the One Minute Astronomer blog with very practical advice on choosing a telescope to combat light pollution.

Although sometimes it is well worth the trip to get some dark skies, there is so much you can see just from your own backyard. That doesn’t mean you can’t help change things in your own area. Combating light pollution is one of the major goals of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 Dark Skies Awareness Project. Coming up in March, you can even play a part in some simple data collection to help raise awareness about the issue of inefficient and wasteful lighting.

Even with the terrible conditions of our urban and suburban skies, an amateur astronomer has a lot of possibilities with some planning and the right equipment and attitude.

Find satellites with Heavens Above

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2009 by bellaireastro

Amateur astronomers not only try to spot dim nebulae and the rare cosmic events but also man made astronomical objects in the night sky such as communication satellites, the International Space Station, and the Hubble Space Telescope. There is also an ever-growing cloud of space junk up there too.

One great way to find out when you can see a bright satellite zoom overhead is Heavens Above. You can enter a latitude and longitude or you can choose one of the location from the provided list. Track the ISS or the HST or any number of other satellites. There is also a helpful list of periodic comets that may be visible from your location.

For example, tonight viewers that happened to be at Belliare High School at7:30 would be able to see the Hubble Space Telescope as it zooms past bright Venus in the west.


Chart of path of HST For Bellaire TX

Try it out and see if you can catch HST going overhead.

Useful Astronomy Blogs

Posted in astro blogs, IYA, observing, podcasts, robotic astronomy, space on January 19, 2009 by bellaireastro

It can be hard to find useful sites related to astronomy. There is SO much astronomy news and information on the web. Over time, I have found some sites that I read everyday so I thought others might find a list of my most-read astronomy blogs helpful.

Mainly, I use Google Reader to condense all favorite astronomy blogs into a more manageable format. If a particular site I like has an news feed (as in RSS) I add that site my Google Reader list. That way it’s much easier to read the huge flood of stories. Common Craft has a cool video explaining how RSS works if you aren’t sure what all this is about and even one all about how to use Google Reader for your RSS feeds. You think I left something out? Let me know in the comments.

Daily Multimedia Posts

All-around Astronomy News and Info

  • Bad Astronomy – Phil Plait has crafted quite an image for good science news and a lot of snark
  • One Minute Astronomer – Brian Ventrudo posts astronomy tips for the busy human
  • Slacker Astronomy – this started out as an astronomy podcast and has grown to a blog and wiki too
  • Star Stryder – Pamela Gay’s astronomy blog comes with a healthy dose of her insight into astronomy topics
  • The Perfect Silence – off-beat and thoughtful content related to astronomy
  • Universe Today – lots of news and a sprawling set of topics

Observation Blogs

News & Info About Astronomy Missions

Direct from the Astronomers

Professional Astronomy Media Blogs

Let There Be Night!

Posted in IYA, observing, podcasts on January 18, 2009 by bellaireastro

Light pollution is one of the most easily remedied environmental issues. We have a chance to not only use energy more efficiently by how we light our streets, houses, and businesses without risking our community safety, but we can give access to the night sky once again to ourselves and our children.

As a part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 dark skies awareness project and in conjunction with Earth Hour 2009 where people everywhere turns the lights off for a few hours to demonstrate the broad impact we have on the environment by lighting our world inefficiently, one group is using the issue as a learning and teaching opportunity.


The podcast for today over at 365 Days of Astronomy is all about how one group of students plan to measure the degree of light pollution in their community by a simple naked-eye observation of the constellation Orion.


This is a project others can participate in. I will be doing this at Bellaire for sure and others should as well. The dates are from March 16 – March 28 2009.

It’s easy to do. Just follow these steps from the GLOBE at Night project:

1) Find your latitude and longitude.

2) Find Orion by going outside an hour after sunset
(about 7-10pm local time).

3) Match your nighttime sky to one of our magnitude charts.

4) Report your observation.

5) Compare your observation to thousands around the world.

Help do some easy and fun science and bring the night sky back to humanity.

DIY Astro Light

Posted in observing with tags on January 17, 2009 by bellaireastro

Last night at the Ft Bend Astronomy Club January meeting our president Derek Newton led us all in a DIY project to create a perfect little red light made from a Streamlight Key Mate with a replacement red low-voltage red LED.

I figured others might want to try this out since it wasn’t really all that hard. There are a couple of delicate steps but if I can make it work so can you.

You need one of the Streamlight Key Mate flashlights, a low-power red LED like you can find at Radio Shack, a small pair of pliers, and some small wire cutters. The kind of small tools one might use for craft projects are better than those used in heavy-duty electrical work.

Remove the head of the flashlight so you can get at the lamp housing. Then apply steady but rather gentle pressure and twist the lamp housing loose from the head. The white LED lamp has a very small spot-solder point that you have to break. Of course be careful with this part or your flashlight is broken!

You have to tug pretty hard to get the lamp housing out once you have loosened it from the head of the flashlight so be careful not to mar the plastic where the lamp sits or getting the old one out and the new one in will be a real pain.

Now loosen the leads from white LED until you can pull it out of the housing. Next put the red LED lamp through the 2 small holes where the white lamp leads were.

One should run straight up through the center and one will run through an opening on the side of the housing. Now bend the leads back onto the small channels just as the white lead had been. One lead should now stick through the center hole and be bent around and pointing back towards the LED and the other will be bent down and jut into the area where the bulb is.

Now trim the two leads to remove the extra but be sure to leave about an 1/8 of inch for the lead next to the bulb. This lead must make contact with the metal plate in the head of the light. The other lead will make contact with the included batteries once the head is screwed back on to the light.

Next line up the 2 plastic posts in the head with the lamp housing and snap it back in place. All you have to do now is screw the head back on and the light should work. You may have to reverse the batteries if like me you got the anode and cathode leads backwards when you inserted them but that doesn’t matter to me.

January’s Garnet Star

Posted in IYA, observing, podcasts on January 17, 2009 by bellaireastro

A few months ago I joined the Ft Bend Astronomy Club and one of the members is a high-school aged amateur astronomer that has created a list of carbon stars for the other members to located and check out.

I haven’t even started on the advanced list yet but the novice list has provided some tough targets from my Stafford Texas suburban backyard. Although the list from my club isn’t online yet, here is one to try out.

Well once I tracked down my first of these strange copper-colored dim wonders I was hooked. Let’s face it, stars colors are an esoteric pursuit for the avid astronomer. But carbon stars colors pop out of the eyepiece at you and I for one won’t look at a field of stars the same way any longer. The color stands out so strikingly that my first target WZ Cassiopeia actually made me gasp as I had when first seeing the moon or Saturn through a scope. It was just so very red.


So the January 17th 365 Days of Astronomy podcast is all about carbon stars and gives some good observing advice so head over the website and have a listen to the post from RapidEye. As always there is more info to be found by following the link.

Try finding R Leporis using the chart below made from a screen shot by Stellarium. The location is set for Bellaire TX and the time date are January 17th 2009 8:30 pm. Click the image for a larger view.

R Leporis from Stellarium 0.10

R Leporis from Stellarium 0.10