In dark sky, northern-hemisphere observers can see the winter Milky Way as a featureless, inconspicuous band of haze running east of Orion and disappearing below the horizon south of the constellations Canis Major and Puppis. In light-polluted sky, the winter Milky Way is hard to see at all. But further south, into the far southern constellation Carina, the Milky Way suddenly explodes into one of its brightest, most spectacular, and most detailed sections, running through Crux, Centaurus, and beyond [Read more…] about Careening Through CarinaShare This:
The best way for an amateur astronomer to literally expand his or her horizons is to venture to the hemisphere opposite your home, to take in the starry wonders hidden from view by the pesky curvature of our globe. This is especially true for natives of the Northern Hemisphere, because the southern circumpolar sky offers some of the most spectacular sights available to any observer. Fine as the Big Dipper and the Double Cluster may be, they struggle to compete with the Magellanic Clouds and the southernmost parts of the Milky Way.
This is the philosophy that led to my three visits to New Zealand. I’m writing this from the Bay of Islands on the North Island, at 35o south latitude. I’ll share some of my observations in this inaugural edition of my observing column, Eyes on the Deep Sky. [Read more…] about Touring the Small Magellanic CloudShare This:
Sometime in 1955, Mr. David Coffeen of New Orleans, Louisiana came up with $75. In today’s currency, that’s about $700, a respectable sum. And what did Mr. Coffeen do with his hard-earned savings?
He purchased a telescope.
Which telescope? A Unitron altazimuth refractor with an aperture of just 40mm, less than that of most finder scopes today. It came with three eyepieces, a star diagonal, and a wooden storage case, because it was an honest astronomical instrument.
Mr. Coffeen used his telescope from atop his modest trailer home. There was a lot to see with that 40mm scope: loads of lunar detail, the rings of Saturn, the Galilean moons of Jupiter and a couple of belts, hundreds of double stars, many of the Messier objects, and a lot more [Read more…] about An Ode to Small TelescopesShare This:
In May of 1990, an Arizona couple were honeymooning at the Grand Canyon. One of them, Dean Ketelsen, set up a huge pair of WWII-era Japanese battleship binoculars on the rim, sometimes looking down into the Canyon, sometimes up at the stars. He and his wife Vicki soon found themselves a center of attention, with lines of tourists forming at the binoculars for a peek at whatever they had to show.
Dean, an optician at the University of Arizona Mirror Lab, now known as the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, the birthplace of the world’s largest monolithic telescope mirrors, was also a tour guide at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and an ardent amateur astronomer. He and Vicki saw an opportunity for sharing the night sky at one of the world’s finest natural attractions. They decided to try a more formal outreach event at the Canyon, and, with the cooperation and approval of the park itself, called it the Grand Canyon Star Party (GCSP) [Read more…] about The Grand Canyon Star PartyShare This:
One hundred years ago, the universe was quite small, or at least people thought it was. Not so small that you could put it in your pocket, but limited to the Milky Way Galaxy only, which was thought to be about 30,000 light-years across, or maybe a little more.
Beyond that, if there was anything at all, it was simply an empty void.
That’s because no one was sure what the so-called “spiral nebulae” really were. They were dotted across the sky, often in clusters, though they were scarce along the band of the Milky Way. When astrophysicists analyzed their light spectroscopically, those spectra showed star-like characteristics, but no telescope on Earth could reveal individual stars, either visually or photographically. They remained mysterious, and often beautiful, whirlpools of light.
So although some astronomers suspected these spirals were in fact remote “island universes”, more of them believed they were closer, lesser things, perhaps infant solar systems in the process of forming.
Slightly less than one hundred years ago, these questions were resolved, along with the galaxies themselves, and the size of the known universe expanded one hundred thousand times or more, almost overnight.
And that’s where the Mount Wilson Observatory in California comes in. Its namesake mountain sits at the edge of the vast carpet of artificial lights known as the Los Angeles Basin, looking down on it from 5700 feet above the not-so-distant Pacific Ocean. Today that massive light pollution renders the observatory useless for most kinds of nighttime astronomical research. In its heyday in the early 20th Century, it was the world’s greatest center of astronomical discovery. It was one of the first observatories ever to be sited on a mountaintop for performance, not in or near a city for convenience. Back then it could ignore the feeble lights of Los Angeles and the other small communities flickering below [Read more…] about A Visit to Mount Wilson ObservatoryShare This: