Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's trashscope season again - don't be fooled

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Even if I don't pay attention to anything else, I'll always know that the holidays are around the corner when the trashscopes come out.
  • What's a trashscope? It's a mass market telescope that over promises and under delivers.
  • How to recognize one? If you walk into a store that normally doesn't sell telescopes and there's one on display it's probably junk. That includes big box stores, camera stores, educational stores, drug stores, and department stores.
But what can you get for that budding young stargazer? How will you know what to buy? Here's some guidance:
  • Consider a good pair of binoculars and a companion book on stargazing. Your first telescope provides some guidance here. The right kind of binoculars will have a lot to offer including portability, ease of use, wide field of view, and they can be used for far more than just stargazing.
  • If you have your heart set on seeing the rings of Saturn you'll need a telescope. But before you buy take some time to learn about telescopes. Read Avoiding the Christmas trash-Telescope Blues or check out this series of short videos over at the One Minute Astronomer on How to Choose a Telescope.

Why do people buy trashscopes? Basically it comes down to the fact that most people aren't familiar with telescopes. Things about telescopes that you might think are important aren't and get over sold. As a result people can be easily mislead. High magnification, large numbers of eyepieces, large and beautiful pictures of galaxies and planets on the box are the hallmarks of this deception.

When it comes to the familiar people are more apt to spot things that look too good to be true. Consider buying a car. If you were to walk into a store and saw a car that promised to carry 10 people, out accelerate a dragster, out maneuver a Ferrari, use less gas than a hybrid, and cost only a bit more than a bicycle - you wouldn't be fooled. So the way to get a scope that you will enjoy is to learn a few basics and to remember that a telescope is no different than any other hobby item. You get what you pay for.

Please take a few moments read the articles and check out the the videos above. And when you're done visit a telescope store or find a star party and talk to the people there.

If you are looking for an inexpensive starter scope, consider the modest Celestron First Scope. It costs less than a typical trashscope and will perform much better. And if you do get the astronomy bug, remember it's called the First Scope for a reason - there will be a second once you know what you want. And if you don't get the bug, it will provide hours of casual stargazing fun.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky

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This summer I received a copy of a new astronomy book to review: National Geographic's Backyard Guide to the Night Sky by Howard Schneider (ISBN 978-1-4262-0281-0, trade paper version, list price US $21.95 / Can $26.00).

First Impressions
  • My copy had a substantial heft and feel as well as a quality glossy cover. It is everything I would expect from National Geographic.
  • It's well organized with margin notes that include useful URLs, side bars and boxes with sky facts and lore.
  • The compact size and binding don't facilitate using the seasonal sky charts in the field. I'd be concerned about the binding not really being intended to fold flat.  On the plus side, the portability makes it far more likely to be used than sit on a shelf.
  • The subject matter covered goes well beyond the role of a beginner stargazing book. The bool provides mythological, scientific, and historical back stories.  It also touches on the relationship between the science of astronomy and the nonsense of astrology.  A number of advanced topics like star formation are also introdced.
  • The information for the beginning stargazer is solid.

The well structured content provides multiple views and perspectives on virtually every page. The main text is organized into Chapters and Features which I've listed below.

  1. Sky Watching Basics
  2. The Atmosphere
  3. The Sun
  4. The Moon
  5. The Planets
  6. Stars and Constellations
  7. Four Seasons of the Sky
  8. Constellations
  9. Comets and Meteors
  10. Deep Space

  1. What am I looking at?
  2. Five Coolest Things in the Sky
  3. All about Eclipses ♦ Solar Eclipses ♦ Lunar Eclipses
  4. Identified Flying Objects ♦ Satellites in Orbit ♦ Space Junk
  5. Photographing the Night Sky ♦ Equipment ♦ Simple Techniques
  6. Five Key Star Patterns ♦ Winter and Spring ♦ Summer and Autumn
  7. Southern Skies
  8. A Guide to Telescopes ♦ Types of Telescopes ♦ Using Your Telescope

Digging Deeper

The book really isn't intended to be read cover to cover as the structure is more suited for reference purposes.  However, there are a couple of places where the reader should look at the material in order such as the introduction and first chapter on Sky Watching Basics.  One of the most fun things to do with beginners on a hike is to find a dry field (or take ground cover) and lay out looking up while your eyes adapt to the dark!

The text is well written with excellent photos and graphics. A couple of the artist impressions, like the view of Saturn and it's rings from Pluto, are fanciful but this kind of artistic license is not unexpected or uncommon.

The feature on space junk, satellites, and IFOs is welcome in a introductory guide as they are often overlooked.  Also the advice on telescopes is solid.

The skies of the southern hemisphere are underrepresented.  Southern skies contain some magnificent wonders including two of the closest galaxies. The feature helps but I would definitely want more if I lived there or was planning a trip.

A few more diagrams in some places would help. I recall reading  that globular clusters were located toward the center of our galaxy. I took a momentary double check as I'm used to thinking of them being in the galactic halo (surrounding the central bulge of our galaxy). Both statements are true.

The sections on star lore are entertaining and useful but can be confusing; especially those involving the relationships and relatives of Poseidon that give the back story to several of the northern constellations. That's not the writers fault but rather stems from the fact that the family trees of the classical Greek Gods far more resemble hedgerows of Gordian Knots than anything tree-like.

The science facts are well researched with few errors.  My errata follows.
  • I noticed a typo in the distance to the Whirlpool galaxy (M51).  Galaxies are almost always millions of light years distant.  This led me to find and correct a contradiction in the Wikipedia article on M51.
  • The back story on the discovery of planets at one point mentions that the orbit and location of Uranus was predicted. Elsewhere the book correctly points out that this was Neptune.
  • The distance to Betelgeuse used in the book was current until 2008 when new measurements revised the distance and size of this red super giant upward by almost 50%. 
  • The sections on constellations are well conceived but suffered from small annoyances. The largest was that some of the more interesting stars/objects, such as Stephan's Quintet, discussed in the section weren't always on the constellation charts.  A smaller annoyance was switching between the use of Greek letter names and symbols in the text and charts.  A beginner may know alpha (α), and beta (β), but will certainly have troubles much beyond that.

I do hope that National Geographic publishes errata and has another editorial pass before any second edition.  And while I'm at it, a fold flat edition or an accompanying set of fold flat charts would be a bonus.


The Backyard Guide to the Night Sky is an excellent addition or starter for the library of anyone interested in astronomy or stargazing.

While there are books that do a better job focusing just on stargazing, the  Backyard Guide to the Night Sky goes beyond the basics of stargazing and provides a wealth of information to foster the interest of any budding astronomer.

In practical terms, the book is an excellent general reference for stargazers and those interested in astronomy. And while a second more accurate set of charts (or a goto telescope) will eventually be needed to find some of the more interesting objects described, the beginner won't need these immediately.

In addition to the firm cover version, the book is also available in hardcover and deluxe versions. Try any of National Geographic, Chapters Indigo, or Amazon.

All images in this article provided by National Geographic and used with permission. Images may not be used without the written permission of National Geographic and subject to specific restrictions.

Other Reviews

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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carnival Quintette 122, 123, 124, 125 and 126

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Here are five, count em, five Carnivals (sorry I've been busy folks) ...

So are any of you named Stephan or come from a star in Pegasus?

What would you all look like from HD 92083b?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

FREE Spooky Star Party - OSC - Friday, October 30th

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Peter McMahon of Discovery Channel will host a Halloween flavoured star party coming up at the OSC. Costumes, scary stories, and telescopes. Oh My! Click on the image for more information.

h/t to Ray Khan

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Star Symposium @ York University - Saturday October 3, 2009

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STAR Symposium is a combined effort between the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the York University Astronomical Observatory and the York University Astronomy Club to celebrate York’s 50th anniversary and the International Year of Astronomy.  Click on the poster for more information!

Interesting speakers and events are planned for the day.  A tour of the York University Observatories will be given. 

Ivan Semeniuk, a journalist from the University of Toronto, and Bob McDonald, the host of CBC Radio’s “Quirks and Quarks” available to speak for us during the evening.

h/t to Ray Khan

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pirates on the Grand!

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A quick report on our recent Pirate Venturer canoe trip.  See here for more info.

Carnival of Space Hat Trick #119-121

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Three Carnivals:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

3 Star Parties!

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Three star parties around in Ontario
h/t to Ray Khan

Sunday, September 13, 2009

433rd 2009-2010 registration and information updates

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Please checkout our main web site for registration and event updates for the 2009-2010 season!

More updates will be coming throughout the season.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Carnival of Space #118 @ Cumbrian Sky

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This week's Carnival of Space issue #118 has moved back across the pond to Kendal UK.  Hosted at Cumbrian Sky, this week's carnival is full of great articles.  Stu has contributed articles to past carnivals but I was surprised to discover that this is his first time as host.  Go Stu!

Friday, August 28, 2009

What's up @ Gordon's Park Manitoulin

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Bookmark this article if you want to know what's up at Gordon's Park.

Check out the following:
  • Clear Sky Chart for your astronomy and observing weather forecast and a link to the Camp website - for more see Weather forecasts for Stargazers
  • Heavens Above for observing forecasts and charts covering the International Space Station, Satellites, Planets, Comets, and Iridium flares as seen from the camp
  • Google Maps for a look at the camp

Monday, August 24, 2009

Petition: designate David Dunlap Observatory lands a National Historic Site

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Byron Wilfert, the Member of Parliament representing Richmond Hill, is sponsoring a petition "Protect the David Dunlap Observatory Lands" to get the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) lands designated as a National Historic Site. This is the beginning of a process that will hopefully lead to designation of the lands. The lands contain more than the Observatory and are also of historical and environmental interest.

There are no particular restrictions on who can sign the petition such as age or location; however, the more people from Richmond Hill and Canada sign the better.

Click here for the petition itself
The petition is hosted by petitiononline.com.

Privacy note: All of the information you provide will be public except for your email address which can be set as (1) private - the default, (2) available to the Petition Author, and (3) public. I'd recommend either option (2) or (1). At a minimum you must provide your name and email to sign the petition. All other information is optional.

While I didn't provide comments or a phone number, I did give my address as my city and I made my email address available to the petition author.

A confirmation notification will be sent to the email address you provide.

For more information on the DDO and conservation efforts:

Carnival of Space 117 @ Simostronomy

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A new Carnival of Space #117 is up over at Simostronomy. Lot's of great articles including remembering the X-15 the first reusable space ship, texting aliens, Analemmas and the Equation of Time, and just what alien life might be like are some of the topics covered.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Antipodean Astronomical Weather Forecasts and more

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Astronomers in North America have been fortunate to have Clear Sky Charts for weather forecasts available.  While astronomers elsewhere may have felt they've been left out there are a couple of services for them too.

Check out Ian Musgrave's at Astroblog's report about two clear sky like services called Skippy Sky and 7 timer (pronounced tri-timer) that provide weather forecasts for astronomers down under and beyond.
  • Skippy Sky provides visual representations of forecasts based on large regions including Austrailia, New Zealand, Europe, North America, the Canary Islands, and Cerro Tololo (Chile). 
  • 7timer provides parameterized Astroweather Panels or Apanels for many locations around the globe by name or by latitude and longitude.  Unlike Clear Sky Charts these are generated on the fly.
Both are based on a global numerical weather model known as GFS or Global Forescast System run by the  NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) NCEP (National Centers for Environmental Prediction) program.  Incidentally, GFS data drives a number of weather forecasting services like Accuweather and The Weather Channel among others.

Clear Sky Charts use the more granular data available from Environment Canada and can provide data for more specific locations in the geography where they overlap.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Carnival of Space #116 @ Habitation Intention

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The Carnival is back with a new issue and a new host.  Habitation Intention is all about envisioning humans living in space.  Welcome HI and checkout the latest issue of the Carnival.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's up @ the Ontario Science Center

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Bookmark this article if you want to know what's up at the Ontario Science Centre.

Check out the OSC Calendar and some Astronomy Events at the OSC:
Check out the following:

  • Clear Sky Chart for your astronomy and observing weather forecast and a link to the Camp website - for more see Weather forecasts for Stargazers
  • Heavens Above for observing forecasts and charts covering the International Space Station, Satellites, Planets, Comets, and Iridium flares as seen from the camp
  • Google Maps for a look at the camp

Monday, August 10, 2009

Carnival of Space #115 @ New Frontier News

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Carnival returns in this issue hosted by New Frontier News.  NFN is a new space blog and a Canadian one at that- check it out!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Strange Planetary Alignment and all I got was a T-shirt.

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This summer, a good friend of mine took his familiy on a vacatation through the south west. Along the way they stopped in at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. They returned with some great memories and a few gifts including this wonderful Pluto T-shirt.

It shows the outer planets in white with the dwarf planets Ceres, Pluto, and Eris in blue.

But wait! What do my eyes behold. A strange planetary alignment. Is it just artistic license or could it be a harbinger of 2012? Are the very discoverers of Pluto in on some grand doomsday conspiracy?

On closer inspection, something else seemed wrong too. But what could it be?

A quick check of the JPL Orbit simulator for Eris shows us a different picture.

Not only is there no planetary alignment in 2012, but Pluto and Eris are inclined along very different axes.

Artistic license or conspiracy aside, I still love the shirt. It's a pitty they don't seem to be available online.

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There's a messy new bunch of kids in the solar system. Half comet and half asteroid they orbit in the main asteroid belt and leave a dusty gassy wake.

First discovered in 1996, the big question was if this was a comet that had been man handled around enough to fall into a very circular looking low inclination orbit? Or was this an icy asteroid that had formed in place. Now it turns we have the answer and there may be as many as 100 of these active thingamys.

Henry Hsieh who has been leading the investigative charge is calling them Main Belt Comets (MBCs). It's all very descriptive, but I prefer the catchier Iceteroids!

For more information see:
Perhaps they can name one of these after Pig-Pen :)

Click on the image above to check out the orbit of the 1st Iceteroid.

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Carnival of Space #114 @ Cheap Astronomy

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Another week and another Carnival of Space.  Read the latest edition here hosted at Cheap Astronomy.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hey Boo-boo, look where they hid the picnic basket!

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I came across this NY Times article about a small black bear named Yellow-Yellow that was able to defeat a well designed bear resistant food storage container.

The article includes some interesting lessons:
  • The method usually recommended for protecting food by placing it in a bag hung from a tree is routinely being defeated by bears that have figured out that an easily cut/bitten rope is usually not far away from their goal.
  • Never underestimate the power of perseverance, patience, and practice. Intelligent defenders can often be outwitted by the less brainy with an excess of spare time and focus. Or put another way, multi-taskers don't always win.
  • The folks at Bear Vault clearly get it (vis-a-vis their adversary) whereas, sadly, the folks at software companies often do not.
  • And a great quote attributed to a Yellowstone Park Ranger on bear-proof garbage cans was "Turns out there is considerable overlap between the stupidest human and the smartest bear."
  • Never, ever, market anything as being [something]-proof.
Interestingly I didn't find this on a camping or scouting site but through an information security site Emergent Chaos under the topic "Penetration Testing Your Products."

BTW. If you don't know about penetration testing, basically it is the practice of testing the security of something (such as a computer or network) by breaking into it. While this sounds all very exciting, the key thing to remember above all is that any testing of this kind requires formal permission (i.e. contracts). Any testing without permission (and I mean the kind of permission that can hold up in a court of law) could find you charged with a felony, indictable offense, or similar serious criminal charge in many countries. For more information see Penetration Testing and Ethical Hacking.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Carnival of Space #113 takes a hit @ The Dynamics of Cats

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Image from Hubblesite.org
The Carnival has landed over at The Dynamics of Cats which hosts the Extraterrestrial Impacts edition.

Among the articles are more on Apollo and the science of Apollo, things we've sent to the moon, supernova footprints in Antarctica, and Jupiter's latest black eye.

Now does anyone know where to find a steak the size of a small planet?


Friday, July 24, 2009

UK Astronomy Badge

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A few weeks back I received my second exchange in the The Great Astronomers Badge Swap.

The Astronomer's Badge from the 12th Winchester Cubs in the UK (Winchester District).

This is a great example of how to make earning a badge fun and shows a creative way to overcome the challenges of the UK's famously cloudy skies. We face similar challenges here in Toronto during the fall and winter.

The requirements for this badge are:
  1. Make a model or draw a simple diagram of the solar system.
  2. Explain the difference between a planet and a star.
  3. Identify three constellations.
  4. Find out about and present some information on the two of the following: Planets, Comets, the Northern Lights, The Sun, Eclipses,Meteorites, Black holes, The Moon, Light years, Space exploration or any other space related subject.
  5. Observe the moon, if possible using binoculars or a telescope. Describe some of its features.
  6. Know how to locate and identify the Pole star or Southern Star. Know how explorers used it to navigate and plot courses.
Their approach:
  1. They played a simple relay game where the cubs had to put the planets in the correct order from the sun. Then we made 3D models of the planets to hang up in their scout hut. They discussed how far apart to hang them to maintain scale. They thought Jupiter would have ended up about 100km away from the hut!
  2. Each of the cubs explained the difference between stars and planets and gave an example. It was interesting to see how many different correct answers they could give!
  3. With lots of cloudy nights their opportunities to actually observe the night sky were limited. They ended up constructing representations of constellations using candles and tin cans with holes. The Cubs were challenged to identify the constellations shown. They talked about some of the meanings behind the names for constellations.
  4. Each cub came up with different information about objects in space. They also played a true/false game with some facts.
  5. The Cubs did this at home. Drawing a picture or writing about what they saw. One even wrote a rather good poem!
  6. The Cubs practised finding north. Everyone drew a diagram at home to illustrate it. They also visited a local hands-on science centre, and saw some of the shows in the planetarium which the everyone really enjoyed.Badges were presented the day of the outing.
Thanks to Scouter Emma (Riki-Tiki-Tava)!

Please click on the BadgeSwap label below to see other related badges and entries.

FREE - Apollo Talk and Star Party @ OSC - Tonight July 24th 8-11pm

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Just in!

Space historian, Randy Atwood will be giving a fascinating presentationon the Apollo 11 Landing and how it narly failed. Following thatStaff from Khan Scope Centre will be running a beginners telescopeworkshop presentation.

This event is at the Ontario Science Centre located at 770 Don Mills Road (at the corner of Eglinton Avenue East) Toronto, Ontario.

Celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing and the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s astronomical use of the telescope! This free festival of events includes:
  • A special presentation, The Apollo 11 landing - and how it nearly failed
  • A model of the Saturn V rocket
  • Telescope observing of Saturn and other night sky objects with members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
  • Live Apollo-themed electronic music and movies
  • Telescope workshops for beginners
  • Astronomy displays and demonstrations.
8:00 pm ~ Special Presentation ~ The Apollo 11 landing - and how it nearly failed

Imperial Oil Auditorium ~ Speaker: Randy Attwood, Space Historian

Forty years ago this July 20,the first men landed on the Moon. How close did Armstrong and Aldrincome to failing to make this first landing? Closer than you may think.

A long list of human mistakes, poor design and just the unknowns oflanding in the lunar environment made the 12 minute descent a hairraising adventure which more than once nearly forced the lunarexplorers to call off the landing attempt and return home as footnotesto history.

9:30 pm ~ Stargazing 101 - Learn How to Use your Telescope

Do you have or are you planning on getting a telescope? Experts from KhanScope Centre will explain how to get the most out of your telescope!Learn some of the tips and tricks that make using an astronomicaltelescope easy.

Weather Permitting, Telescopes will also be set up for Astronomical Viewing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Carnival of Space #112 - The Big Moon Day Show @ Out of the Cradle

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Ken the Lunar librarian hosts his 5th Carnival and being the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing,  it is full of articles on the Moon and Apollo.  There are also lots of other spacey articles.

Check out The 112th Carnival of Space - The Big Moon Day Show at Out of the Cradle.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Nostradamus 2012: Not fit for the KYBO

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I enjoy many of the shows that air on The Discovery and a History channels. Mythbusters, Doing DaVinci, and MayDay to name a few. But there have been a few specials that weren't so special. "The Crystal Skulls" and "Nostrodamus 2012" are examples of real stinkers.

(Image courtesy Astroengine.com)

The History Channel recently aired the 2012 piece and it was chock full of the kind of high quality fertilizer best left inside a KYBO (for non-scouts a KYBO is an outhouse). Nostrodamus 2012 claimed catastrophes attributed to the Hopi Indian "Blue Star", Galactic Super waves, and Galactic and Planetary Alignments. Complete hogwash.

I won't even try to debunk all of these because others have done a fine job already. I'd recommend Ian O'Neill's articles on 2012 over at Astroengine as a good place to start. One of his best "2012 Doomsday Fabrication: Abusing Science and Making Money" with its follow the money common sense should foster some critical thinking.

There are two easy ways to debunk the 2012 Planetary Alignment hoax. The idea of this hoax is that all of the planets will line up in a nice line with the Sun and with (or without) a line to the center of the galaxy and something bad will happen. The problem with this so called theory is that they don't and won't line up that way. How do I know this, two ways:

  • Firstly, if all the planets line up with the Sun then Mercury and Venus will be directly between Earth and the Sun. When this happens we can see the planets pass across the face of the Sun as black dots. So if the planets align in 2012 then both Mercury and Venus should transit the Sun as seen from Earth. And while the next transit of Venus is in June 2012, the next transit of Mercury is in 2016. QED - no alignment.

  • Secondly, if you're still doubting, the planets don't align. Not even close. How do I know? Simply by charting the positions of the planets and looking at the result. Below you'll see the inner and outer planets charted using the JPL Orbit Simulator. The date is December 21st, 2012. The planets aren't even close to being aligned. Again, QED - no alignment.
Exhibit A: The inner planets at 1, 1, 5, and 9 o'clock ...

Exhibit B: The outer planets and Pluto at 4, 1, 7, 9, and 10 o'clock ...

In case you're curious the reference to Sedna was because I needed to give the orbit simulator an object that was not a planet. So I picked the farthest one I knew of and zoomed in.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ribs! Ribs! Ribs! .... BBQ

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Pork ribs, beef ribs, wet ribs, dry ribs, pulled pork, chicken, corn-on the cob, corn bread (it's really cake not bread), and much more.

If you like BBQ, you may want to check out one of the many Ribfests being put on all over Southern Ontario this summer. Ribfests are like mini fairs. Some of these have been running for 20 years.

These events are organized by local groups such as the Rotary, Kinsmen, Big Brothers, and more. Typically entry is based on a small donation that goes towards local service projects.

My only regret is that it's not easy to sample the many different ribs unless you can bring a small army of people to keep down the waiting and spread the cost.

The main attraction are the Ribbers, who vary from event to event. I've listed a sampling below. Not all of them have web sites.

Most of the ribbers have trailers and tall banners proclaiming their victories with their many trophies on display.

There are also entertainment, shops, giveaways, and small rides for kids.

All great fun. Enjoy!

BTW. For students thinking of summer employment next year, some of ribbers hire local help for the summer. A few have even relocated from the deep south to southern Ontario.

Mosquitos, Camping, and Astronomy, oh my

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One thing that astronomers and Scouts share is being outside at night during the summer. That also means one other thing - Mosquitoes and other biting insects.

While bug repellant works well in most cases, it causes problems for astronomers. In particular DEET can damage plastic and the expensive optical coatings on lenses.

If you're an astronomer or camper looking for a new edge in the battle of the bug, there is a piece of kit you should consider.  The Thermacell - a small appliance that requires butane cartridges and pads.  I have one and it works remarkably well.  I've field tested it in fields southern and central Ontario as well as on the beaches of southern Maine.

Here's a detailed review of the Thermacell over at the One Minute Astronomer.  I had seen the same review in Sky News  last summer and thought it was worth trying.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Carnival of Space #111 @ 21st Century Waves

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The Carnival is up and running again over at 21st Century Waves. The 111th edition celebrates the Apollo 11 launch.

There are lots of interesting articles on the Moon, Mars, Sun, Apollo and one on project Icarus which was a plan to hijack the Apollo program and solve a hypothetical asteroid deflection problem.

Good reading.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

International Space Station ISS - Watch it Build

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Ever wonder about just how big the International Space Station is?   USA Today published a nice animation from NASA showing all the flights and modules added to it over the years.

The ISS is now the brightest object in the night sky next to the Moon.   If you want to see it, check out the Heavens Above web site and enter your location.

If you're going to a Scout Camp, you may be able to find use on of my Combined Sky Forecast Charts.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Carnival of Space #110 @ Kentucky Space

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Check out the weird and wonderful Phobos Grunt, Liberty, and Pants on fire edition of the Carnival here at Kentucky Space.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pet Rocks? Naming things in Space

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Have you ever wanted to get something in space named after someone? Well it turns out you can but it's not as easy as filling out a web form or paying some money.
  • Lot's of people are interested in naming stars after someone (I regularly see queries from search engines for this). But, the truth is you can't really do it. There are lots of people who will take your money for a piece of paper. It will be for a star you'll likely never see and no one will recognize. If you really want to, use one of the free services mentioned in a related article and treat it as entertainment.
  • If you discover a comet, they'll name it after you. And if you're a co-discoverer then you'll be hyphenated. In today's world there is a very good chance the other side of the hyphen is a robot telescope like LINEAR, Catalina, SOHO, or NEAT. With all the robots looking for stray rocks, the chances of double hyphenation (ouch) are pretty good.
  • If you're good enough to discover a planet, dwarf planet, or moon then you get to submit the name. But to do this you're going to be a professional planet hunter. And if you do, the name will probably fit the current theme such as underworld deities. (And no, Kate Beckinsale does not count.)
  • If you have a talk show you might be able to hijack a poll and get some space equipment, like a treadmill, named after you.
But it turns out that there is at least one other way you might get to name something out there. And it's within reach of amateur astronomers. Mind you these are well equipped and skilled ones, but amateurs nonetheless. So if you what to name something in space go and discover an asteroid!

Once you've found it you can pick almost anything your heart desires. There are a few naming rules (non-offensive, 16 or fewer characters, and reasonably distinct). You get your very own pet rock in space!

So ever wonder who asteroid discoverers are thinking about? If you are you can checkout this list at the Harvard University Minor Planet Centre. Here are a few examples of the kinds of people, places, and things honored by asteroid hunters:

Science-fiction and other authors:
  • Douglasadams (25924)
  • Bradbury (9766)
  • Clarke (4923 )
  • Heinlein (6371)
  • Hemingway (3656)
  • Shakespeare (2985)
  • Tolkien (2675)
Famous scientists, doctors, thinkers, patrons
  • Jacquescousteau (6542)
  • Einstein (2001)
  • Fermat (12007)
  • Fermi (8103)
  • Hawking (7672)
  • Heimlich (10637)
  • Oppenheimer (67085)
  • Szilard: (38442)
  • Turing (10204)
Actors, athletes, directors, comedians, and other celebrities
  • Johncleese (9618) - silly orbit no doubt
  • Cronkite (6318)
  • Bobbyfisher (19577)
  • Flynn (2994)
  • Gehrig (5891)
  • Carygrant (9342)
  • Hitchcock (7032)
  • (Howard) Shem (30444) - of the 3 Stooges
  • Kubrick (10221)
  • Monroe (3768) - Marilyn
  • Jesseowens (6758)
  • Spassky (11268)
  • Warhol (6701)
Musicians and groups
  • Beatles (8749)
  • Beethoven (1815)
  • Enricocaruso(37573)
  • Enya (6433)
  • Pink Floyd (19367)
  • Rolling Stones (19383)
Historical figures and places and events
  • (Neil) Armstrong (6469)
  • Annefrank (5535)
  • Gagarin (1772)
  • Grant (3154)
  • Lee (3155)
  • Lincoln (3153)
  • Evita (1569)
  • Tunguska (5471)
  • Vesuvius (13897)
People, places and things from fiction
  • Beowulf (38086)
  • Enterprise (9777)
  • Excalibur (9499)
  • Nautilus (9769)
  • Nemo (1640)
  • Paris (3317) - of Troy
  • Sherlock (5049)
  • Mr. Spock (2309)

Computers and Software
  • ASCII (3568)
  • APL (132524)
  • Fortran (9548)
  • GNU (9965)
  • Edmonton (96193)

Satellites and things astronomical
  • Alouette (9995)
  • Davidunlap (70207)
Update: A list of objects named after people associated with University of Toronto can be found here. (h/t Gordo).  These include:
  • (Helen) Sawyer Hogg (2917)
  • (Ian) Shelton (5953) -who ran the DDO outreach program
  • Toronto (2104)

Of future names

Because the pace of asteroid discovery has picked up in recent years there are so many now that many will never receive names. Discoverers may take the lead of Mike Brown who discovered Vanth (moon of Orcus) by opening up for suggestions.

Here are a few modest suggestion:
  • Baden-Powell
  • MarvintheMartian
  • FlinFlon or Tarzana
  • Timbuktu or TristanDaCunha
  • TomLerher
  • Kipling

And if your confused there is a source for the meanings of asteroid names.

Finally, once you've named it or found one with a name that interests you, you can look up its orbit with the JPL Orbit Simulator.  Just look up the name or number and go. 

Related Articles:

Monday, June 29, 2009

Twisted Carnival of Space #109

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Hop on over to the 109th Carnival of Space courtesy of Twisted Physics - where you can find out about spacey B-movies, staring into a really big black hole, Apollo's plan B, solsitice celebrations, more Tunguska, Canadian fusion, a shrinking planet, and more!


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Shrinking Mars will not appear as big as the full Moon

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Every summer since 2003, emails make the rounds talking about how Mars will appear as big as the full Moon. This is complete nonsense.

I received my first Mars Hoax email of the season last week and thought I should clear the air.

In fact not only is Mars not going to be this big, in one sense it is shrinking ...

Origins of the Mars Hoax

On August 27, 2003 Mars and Earth lined up in what is known as an inferior conjunction or opposition. This is a normal astronomical event which happens every 26 months. That year the opposition was special because it was closer than normal. A lot was made of the fact that at 55.7 million km it was the closest Mars and Earth had come in almost 60,000 years.

A more realistic view is that Mars and Earth oppositions bring the two planets within the wide range of 55 to 101 million km. But they only get to close end of this range every 7 or 8 oppositions (e.g. 1956, 1971, 1988, 2003, 2018, 2035, 2050). When Mars is in close opposition it is nearly twice as close and will appear nearly twice as big. During these close oppositions Mars will appear much brighter than normal but you will still need a telescope to see it. These close oppositions are the very best times to see Mars through a telescope. The neighbouring oppositions (e.g. 2001, 2005, 2016, 2020) also allow excellent viewing opportunities.

What about 2009 through 2012?

Sorry, for 2009 the Earth is still catching up to Mars. The distance is closing but it's still over 280 million km away (see this neat real-time Earth Mars distance calculator).

Last December the two planets were on opposite sides of the Sun and almost 400 million km apart. The next oppositions in 2010, 2012, and 2014 are among the farthest and least interesting. So when the Mars Hoax email comes around in one of these poor years - enjoy a chuckle.  Mars will continue to appear smaller and smaller until after 2012 when it begins to return to its regularly scheduled close oppositions.  So in that sense, Mars is shrinking.

Click here for tables of Mars oppositions and closest approaches and a technical explanation at SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Discovery of Space).

Want to See for yourself?

Nothing helps like a visual. Try out the NASA/JPL orbit simulator, here. The reason I've used the asteroid Ceres to trick the simulator because you can't look up a planet or a moon in its database. Now you should:
  • Click the Orbits drop down and select in order: No Orbits, Earth, and Mars
  • Turn off the Distance label
  • Zoom in a bit to get Ceres out of the picture
  • Set the Way-back machine to Aug 27th 2003 (use Date or just run it backwards using "<<")
  • Rotate the frame so Earth and Mars are front and center
  • Set the Interval beside the date to 1 year
  • Step forward and back
What Others are Saying?

A quick search of Google for Mars+Hoax gets 810,000 hits. There are pages on the Mars Hoax at both Wikipedia and Snopes.com. Here are what just a few knowledgeable people are saying about this hoax:
But what if?

The diameters of Mars and our Moon are about 6752 km to 3470 km or just about 2 to 1. For Mars to appear the same size as our Moon it would need to be much closer to us. About twice as far as our Moon in fact. At that distance Mars would be inside the Earth’s Hill Sphere and we would either have a second moon or be in really big trouble (see the picture above).

On a Lighter Note

Planetary oppositions of Mars were featured in two Warner Brothers cartoons:
  • "Rocket-Bye Baby" used a close approach to Mars in 1954 to set up a cosmic mix up where a Martian and human baby were switched.
  • In the 1958, "Hare-Way to the Stars", Bugs Bunny foils Marvin the Martian's plan to blow up Earth with the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator because it obstructs his view of the planet Venus.
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Three Ring Carnivals (of Space #106, 107 , 108)

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The most recent three carnvials at:

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Carnival of Space #105 @ Space Disco(very)

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Ian O'Neill takes the helm at the Discovery Space and hosts the 105th Carnival of Space.  This week there's lots going on from why people should go to Mercury, more Tunguska weirdness put in its place, a space elevator concept that leaves me spinning, and much more.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Carnival of Space #104 - The Arrow Edition

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Welcome to ...
Carnival of Space #105 #104
... at Mang's Bat Page!

I'd like to thank Fraser for this my second time hosting the Carnival. While my first effort was a real blast, I do hope you all get a lift from this one.

This 105th 104th edition of the Carnival of Space is dedicated to Canada's CF-105 Avro Arrow the most advanced and ill-fated aircraft of its day.

Before we begin, I'd like to reflect on this amazing aircraft and its bittersweet legacy.

Arrow Reflections

In the 1950's Canada wanted a twin engine, all-weather, two seat, supersonic interceptor to defend against the Soviet bombers. The Arrow was our answer. Only it was never to be.

The Arrow was a source of national pride and shame for Canadians. An advanced fighter interceptor, widely believed to be superior to British and US projects. It incorporated many innovations including fly-by-wire, computer control, an integral missile system, and internal weapons pod. The Arrow was capable of exceeding Mach 2 with a 60,000 foot ceiling. It was even able to reach supersonic speeds without afterburners! A Mach 3, 80,000+ foot version was under study. The Iroquois engine being designed for the mark 2 Arrow was the most powerful turbojet in the world at the time. Ultimately the Arrow failed because of politics, changing roles, and a lack of buyers outside the country. For the US, Britain, and France - it was not invented there. Sadly, the five Arrows were reduced to scrap. There is even a conspiracy theory about a missing Arrow. The real tragedy was the damage to our aerospace industry and in true Canadian fashion the cancellation may have cost more than completing the program.

I grew up within sight of the production and test facilities. One of my mothers friends was a friend of Jan Zurakowski, the first test pilot, and I believe also one of the chase pilots. And when I was a child, I built models of the plane. Little did I realise that families living just down the street had been hurt by the 30,000+ layoffs and job losses resulting from the cancellation.

Others gained from Canada's loss. A group of 32 engineers went to NASA and worked on manned space programs. Others worked on the Concorde. The legacy of this project is an amazing tale.

And now the 105th 104th Carnival of Space ...

Startup, Blueprints, Models and Test Flights
Look off the Port Wing. Higher. Higher!
In-Flight Entertainment
Science and Engineering
Imagine the Possibilities
Arrow Footnotes
We now conclude our regularly scheduled Carnival and leave you with some more Arrow references:
If you are in Toronto check out the Canadian Air and Space Museum where you can see a full sized replica of the Arrow. Or in Ottawa, the Canada Aviation Museum has some of the remaining components of the Arrow.

You may want to read one of Peter Zuuring's books "The Arrow Scrapbook", "Arrow Rollout", or "Arrow Countdown".

There was also a 1997 made for TV movie called The Arrow starring Dan Ackroyd that was loosely based on the Arrow story.

So long until the next carnival!

Space Carnival ChainLast Week (103) : @ The Chandra BlogNext Week (105) : @ Space DiscoHome Base : Carnival of Space | Universe Today

<==== Don't forget to checkout the Unoffical Carnival of Space Search on the blog sidebar (near the top).

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Dunlap Asteroid

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The main belt asteroid 70207 discovered in 1999 is now called 70207 Davidunlap.  It orbits once every 3.7 yeas near the inner edge of the main astreoid belt and is 5 kilometers in size. You can see the orbit diagarm here.

The astroid was one of 62 discovered by Mike Collins, an amateur astronomer who lives in California.  Mike is a supporter of the efforts to save the Dunlap Observatory and Park in Richmond Hill.  He named the asteroid to recognize the  "extraordinary effort demonstrated by the dedicated community of Richmond Hill for the past 20 months to save its greatest landmark".
h/t to Ray Khan

Strange Orbits: Quasi-satellites, Horseshoes, Corkscrews and Earth Stalkers - Earths Other Moons II

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Source: Paul Wiegert's Quasi-satellite page at UWO. Click on image for more or see links below.
This time let's look at a number of very strange objects known as quasi-satellites and co-orbital bodies using the JPL orbit simulator.

Basically co-orbital bodies are objects that share an orbit but are too far apart for one to be a natural satellite or true moon. Even very large planets can't completely clear all of the debris out of their orbits. In fact, they create special opportunities for co-orbital bodies at what are known as the five Lagrange Points and through resonant orbits.

True Moons

Before we talk of false moons, we need to be sure of true moons. Natural satellites or true moons orbit inside a volume of space known as a Hill Sphere. This is where the gravity of a planet or other object dominates the gravity of a second more massive object like the Sun. It might help a bit to think of water running down a drain in a basin with two drains - the whirlpool is a little bit like a Hill sphere. (I'm sure there are problems with this analogy but it might make an interesting school science experiment.)

There are two points on the surface of a Hill Sphere where the gravity of the two main objects is in balance. These points are known as L1 and L2 and for the Earth-Sun system the sphere is about 1.5 million km (or 0.01 AU) in radius. While there are a number of types of orbits that will keep an object at L1 and L2, these aren't stable places and asteroids wouldn't remain there for long. However, it does turn out that L1 and L2 are very useful places to put satellites.

In practice a moon will be found well within the Hill Sphere of a planet.

Trojans (and Greeks)

The first and simplest type of false moon are called Trojans. These objects orbit at or near the L4 and L5 Lagrange Points which are placed equally forward and behind a planet on it's orbit forming an equilateral triangle with the two major objects (such as Earth-Sun or Jupiter-Sun).

The first Trojan asteroid was discovered in 1906 and named Achilles ( orbit diagram, Wikipedia ). Achilles, which leads Jupiter, and its fellows at L4 became known as the Greeks camp or the Greeks. And the Jupiter trailing asteroids at L5 became known as the Trojan Camp. There are even a couple of "spies" that were named before the convention was agreed upon.

Whenever you have one body in orbit around another you will have these points. It can be relative to a star and planet like the Sun and Jupiter, or even a planet and its moons. Saturn's moons Tethys and Dione each have Trojan moons. In theory, there could even be Trojan planets that could arise in situations like binary star systems.

Other than Jupiter, both Mars and Neptune have know Trojans. Earth has no know Trojans. Wikipedia has a list of objects at Lagrange Points.

And if you're wondering why I haven't mentioned the L3 Lagrange Point.  That point lies on the opposite side of the larger object. Anything near there would be unstable.   Beyond some science fiction like Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, there's nothing there.

Weird orbits - Truth is stranger than fiction

Finally, there are a variety of objects with very strange orbits. Some of these are called Quasi-Satellites with orbits that have been described as Horseshoe or Tadpole and Corkscrew shaped. Stranger still, some of these switch back and forth. Below are some of these:
  • 3753 Cruithne ( orbit Diagram, Wikipedia), sometimes described as Earth's second moon, follows one of these orbits. There is an interesting simulation over at the orbit and gravity simulator here that shows the long term effect much better.
  • 2009 BD ( orbit Diagram, Strange Asteroid 2009 BD Stalks the Earth | Universe Today) a recently discovered Earth Stalker. Try centering on the Earth and zooming in all the way, hit play and watch the race. Remember, Earth's Hill Sphere has a radius of about 0.01 AU - you can see that BD doesn't get that close.
  • 2003 YN107 ( orbit Diagram, Wikipedia) a small corkscrew meteoroid that switches between corkscrew and horseshoe orbits.
  • (164207) 2004 GU9 ( orbit Diagram, Wikipedia) a large 200+m corkscrew asteroid with a very stable long term orbit.
  • 2002 VE68 ( orbit Diagram, Wikipedia) A long term companion for Venus.
While the effect isn't as obvious or dramatic as the movies and animations on the UWO page, try switching from Sun to Earth centered views and using the sliders to adjust your point of view.  It may help to remove most of the orbit lines with "No Orbits" and just add back the Earth's and maybe the objects.  Don't forget to zoom in for a better look.

Suspected space junk with weird orbits

These aren't in the orbits database but may be of interest:

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