astronomy

Moonwatch

We are a two-world species, which is probably an extravagance, like a two-car family, but never mind. This is our spare world, which is not in use at the moment, but we keep it in a handy orbit, just in case. And it makes a pleasant companion in the garden on a spring evening.

I took these pictures (in daytime) with the iPhone 5 held to the eyepiece of the 6-inch reflector, and I’m pleasantly surprised with the results. I processed them a little in Lightroom to improve contrast and remove the colour channels. The picture above was taken with the 25mm eyepiece.

Detail view with the 10mm eyepiece. Annotated versions after the jump with some interesting sites and features marked.

The Pleiades

This was taken with my DSLR mounted on the telescope tube, and using the telescope’s motor drive to track the sky for a five minute exposure (click to embigulate). We have looked at the Pleiades before, but I’m quite pleased with this picture because it brings out some colours, and a tree in my garden managed to sneak into the frame. You can see that the tree blurs slightly as though it’s moving; actually, the tree stayed still, while the camera and the sky moved.

Moon Safari

The Moon! An amazing world right above your head, just three days away: ideal for today’s busy lifestyles.

I have often written about the Moon before, and taken pictures of the crescent Moon, the full Moon, craters on the Moon, a lunar eclipse, and mentioned the Moon’s powers of spiritual refreshment. It is amazing when you think all of that is available absolutely free, with no subscription required, just by looking up. Even wicked David Cameron cannot prevent us from enjoying it.

Tonight’s Moon is just past First Quarter and this is always a good time for seeing the Moon through a telescope or binoculars, because it is early morning on the part of the Moon that faces us, and so there are long shadows which give us maximum contrast. Reconnaissance satellites looking at Earth are aimed to pass over their targets in the early morning or late afternoon for the same reason. More precisely, they are often Sun-synchronous: chasing the Sun continually so that it is always morning below them, like Concorde racing across the Atlantic.

A day on the Moon lasts a fortnight, which is weird. When it is full Moon for us, the Sun is shining directly down on the part of the Moon that faces us, so it is noon there. By the time the Moon has reached Last Quarter, the Sun is just setting for the imaginary Moon folk, and when the Moon is new, it is midnight there. So it would be a very long day and you would almost certainly need a giant beer after work to recover. Luckily the nights are a fortnight long too, which would be a popular thing for the Governmint to introduce here. I would certainly vote for two weeks extra sleep a night.

This is taken with the Canon 350D and 200mm telephoto lens, a 1/10 sec exposure sharpened in the computer and filtered to remove the red channel, which gives slightly better definition because most of the skyglow here in London is red.

In conclusion, then, the Moon.

On Station

Right now, two hundred miles above your head, five men and one woman are falling freely through space, probably enjoying a healthy lunch and doing a little email. They are the crew of the International Space Station (just ‘Station’ for short, as there is only one, and likely we will not be able to afford another).

You can see them tonight, or most nights, if you pop outside at the right time and look up. Station is so big it’s clearly visible to the naked eye, crossing the sky like a lazy meteor, or a 17,000mph spacecraft, which is what it is. HeavensAbove.com will give you Station’s ephemeris (not an unsightly skin disease, but just the times when you can see things in the sky).

Skywatching is quite fun even if you do not have a telescope or binoculars, as the Mark I eyeball is quite a sensitive optical instrument and you can use it to detect Station, meteors, satellites, and even quite a few things that do not exist (at least according to the US Government).

Space is closer than you might think, only 60 miles or so away. You could drive there in an hour, assuming your car went straight up, which some cheaper models do not. The odd thing is that just getting to space does not mean getting away from the Earth. What goes up must come down, as Newton pointed out, and the only exceptions to this rule are objects travelling faster than about seven miles a second. Probably Newton could not throw an apple this fast, so we should let him off.

Why doesn’t Station come down, you inquire, worriedly. It does, but the Earth keeps moving out of the way. Imagine a bullet. The faster you fire it, the further it goes before it falls to Earth. If you fired it fast enough, it would make it all the way round the world before coming down. This is exactly what Station does - and it sinks a little bit on every orbit, like a slowly settling blancmange. If it did not get a regular boost from Shuttle or other visitors, it would fairly soon become a meteor itself and we would be treated to a very expensive firework show in the upper atmosphere.

It is worth remembering that in all the astonishing æons of life on Earth, or the tiny recent sliver of time that is human history, we are the first to cross that sixty-mile gap to reach space, and there are plenty of people alive today who were born before the Space Age. In the brief time since, we have visited the Moon and played golf there, sent robot explorers to Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the outer planets, and established a permanent human colony in Earth orbit. Have a look at it some night.

(See also keithlard’s guide to alco-stronomy.)

keithlard news

I had a super week on holiday at my Dad’s with Susan, becoming a smug Mac user. I also drank some wine and ate crisps, although I did lose weight due to doing a lot of walking. It rained incessantly, which I cannot understand as when I looked at the new Clouds layer in Google Earth, there did not seem to be any clouds about. I can only think it is a special type of magic rain.

I also learned a lot of German from my Michel Thomas German audio course, which is very good if you are walking, especially in the country. I could be speaking out loud quite unselfconsciously and stomping along muttering, “Warum können Sie nicht es mir bringen? Ich brauche es jetzt! Das ist ganz unmöglich weil ich heute sehr beschäftigt sein werde!” without being arrested as some type of spy. Michel Thomas was a counter-intelligence officer and interrogator during World War II which explains some of his teaching manner, and the fact that I cannot ask for a pint of lager in German, but I can get someone to confess where they have hidden the secret microfilm.

In all seriousness Michel Thomas courses are terrific, and if you have struggled with foreign langwidges that is the one to get. Forget Ecoutez et repetez as you will be speaking quite complicated things in German, Italian, French or Spanish in no time. I think I need to get Michel Thomas English in fact.

This week’s star news: Mars is very bright and prominent at the moment, I know it is a planet not a star tecknically so do not write in. Look high in the southeast in the evening, or if you know how to find Orion, look to the left and a bit up from there. It is the brightest thing in the sky at the moment as there is no Moon, and quite noticeably a sort of yellowy-orange. It is exciting to think that you are looking at another world, and one quite close by in cosmick terms. If the Earth is Finchley, then Mars is like Golders Green, only probably with less tasty kosher delis.

Intresting facts about Mars: eight Mars would fit inside the Earth, although that might create more problems than it solved. The average temperature is about -60°C so remember to wrap up warm. Also there is very little atmosphere, effectively none, which makes it a hard pitch for any estate agent, but there is tremendous potential for DIY enthusiasts and it is very close to local amenities such as the asteroid belt. No chain.

In conclusion, then, Mars!