November 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
As I wrote last March, my 2013 Astronomical Calendar raised the hope of two great comets this year. While the first, PANSTARRS, was a beautiful little comet, it couldn’t be called great. The second even more exciting comet, C/2012 S1 ISON, is a sungrazer that held some promise of rivaling the Great Comet of 1680 that could be seen in broad daylight. As the months passed, that promise has faded as usually, but not always, happens with comet predictions.
Last week I wrote that there are four moderately bright comets in the morning sky right now and that we had located the easiest one named Lovejoy. ISON was one of the others. The best viewing window for ISON is now beginning to open. If ISON is to develop into a great comet it will do so in the next three weeks or so. This morning we got up to begin our pursuit of this comet.
As usual there was a veil of thin clouds toward the eastern horizon at 5:00 am local time. Also as usual for this time of year, my preference was to crawl back into bed. But I slipped into some shoes and pulled on my jacket and stepped outside still in my pajamas. The pajamas were an indicator of my low expectations. The temperature was around 22 deg F with a slight breeze. The sky overhead and to the west was beautifully clear and bright with some jet contrails near the moon. OK, I’ll take the next step.
I went inside, started a pot of coffee, and got dressed for a more serious attempt at this comet. I left the house a few minutes later armed with a cup of strong coffee, my binoculars, and a finder chart. I drove up on the hill to the west of the farm. From there I could see Spica, the star that ISON had passed a couple of days ago but not much else down toward the horizon. I leaned my back against the car and scanned the sky overhead to the south of The Big Dipper. There was Comet Lovejoy, easily found. It is relatively large and diffuse…a fuzzy spot. Back to the horizon… My locators were Spica and Saturn. The comet would be located almost halfway between them but a little to the southeast of the line connecting them. I couldn’t see Saturn yet but I started sweeping around under Spica looking for the comet. One of the problems with looking for comets when there is thin cloudiness is that everything has a fuzzy appearance if you can see anything at all. Shortly after I started sweeping I found a candidate and I watched it. Every so often I thought I could see a tail extending up and to the right. It didn’t change and I really could see a tail. This was ISON!
My low expectation of finding this comet was also indicated by my leaving my camera at home. Now I wanted it so I went back and got it. By the time I returned to the hill, Saturn had risen so I could see the three important items, each one exactly where the finder chart said they should be in relation to each other. I took several photographs.
ISON is a beautiful little comet. It is streaking toward perihelion on November 28 when it will be within one solar diameter of the sun’s surface and moving at nearly 400,000 miles per hour! If it survives that close approach it may still reach great comet status.
Postscript: Actually, WE SAW ISON; my wife Leah also saw it but I couldn’t resist using the title I did.
November 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In a somewhat surprising turn of events, there are 4 relatively bright comets in the predawn sky right now. An article by Tony Flanders at Sky and Telescope gave me some hope that I might be able to see at least one of them if a clear sky presented itself.
I got up at 4:30 this morning to look for Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1). I looked out the window and saw low dense clouds, brightly lit by the lights of Millersburg to our west. It would have been easy to go back to bed. Instead, I got dressed and found my coat, shoes, and binoculars in the dark and went outside. I found low thick clouds with occasional openings into a clear dark sky filled with bright stars beyond. The comet was on the border of the constellations of Leo and Cancer, between the Sickle of Leo and The Beehive Cluster. Several small openings passed by the general area so that I was able to figure out where I should look if a nice opening would appear. Through another opening to the south I saw a meteor, an early Leonid; then another to east a little later. A Barred Owl called in the woods north of the house.
Suddenly there was an opening east of The Beehive. I raised my binoculars and there was Lovejoy in the center of the field and more easily found than any recent comet I have seen. I watched through a couple of other openings. The lead photograph illustrates the components of my early morning viewing: clouds, a meteor in the lower left corner, The Beehive Cluster, and if you can see it, the tiny turquoise track of Comet Lovejoy. The photograph below shows the comet circled.
It was a pleasant morning and well worth the effort to get up.
September 16, 2013 § 3 Comments
In 2007, after the company that I worked for closed its doors and moved on in name only to a more distant location, I was fortunate to find part time work for several months in the Agroecosystem Management Program (AMP) at The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). I worked on a start-up project to investigate the use of audio recordings to study rhythm, function, and change in agricultural ecosystems. That first year we struggled to get recorders running reliably and to develop some analysis methods. Since then I have been working on the project at a very low level as an external consultant to maintain two recorders on a research farm. While the recorders continued to be temperamental we are closing in on two years of continuous data on those two recorders. I also was able to finally put together a webpage on the project to include in the newly updated AMP website. On it I have included some of the audio recordings I found interesting and the detail spectrograms for them.
While those details are interesting I came up with a different analysis based on the idea of the spectrogram but covering extended periods of time that I find much more interesting. The figure shown at the beginning of this post is one iteration of that method that shows the acoustical record for an entire year starting in March of 2012 and extending through February of 2013. During that time we made a thirty second recording every thirty minutes for a total of 17,520 audio recordings summarized in the figure.
The recorder was located in a brushy drainage way at the edge of a soybean field. The figure shows twelve panels, one for each month; the time progresses from left to right on each panel. The vertical axis shows the audio frequency increasing from the bottom of each panel to the top while the color indicates the intensity of the sound, increasing from blue through yellow to red. The vertical lines with red bases are the sounds of stormy periods. March of 2012, represented in the first panel, was unseasonably warm, a “false spring”. Starting about March 12th we see a series of yellow dots, changing to red a few days later at about 3000 Hz…spring peepers calling during the warm evenings. We also see trilling toads join in at about 2000 Hz around the 20th of the month. We can see birds singing in the faint yellow vertical bands in the mid-frequencies, particularly during the breeding season of May, June, and July. The bright noisiness at the bottom of most panels is a combination of wind noise and the sound of traffic on a distant four-lane highway.
But the most striking feature of the figure to me, is the appearance of the songs of summer insects starting in mid-July and extending through mid-September where they begin to fade. The diurnal cycle of sound with higher pitch songs during the day and lower pitch sounds at night, modulated by the temperature, is evident during those months.
As I have time, I want to go back into our database and construct yearly panels for each year we have data even though it is not continuous. In the meantime the recording continues.
May 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
From now through early June a beautiful dance of three planets will play out low in the western sky 30 or 40 minutes after sunset. Last evening we drove up on the hill to observe the beginning of the show. Venus, the lowest, but also the brightest was the first to appear, soon followed by Jupiter to the upper left, and finally the much dimmer Mercury, up and to the right from Venus. Their positions will change quite dramatically each evening over the upcoming week.
These planetary gathering are alway quite beautiful. They are only any more so when they are joined by a crescent moon. That will happen with this trio on June 9th and 10th but by then Jupiter will be very low in the afterglow of the passing day. By watching the entire sequence you can begin to get a feel for the orbital paths of the two inner planets but also the effect that our own planet’s motion has on their positions. The motion of Jupiter during this display is almost entirely do to the Earth’s motion with Jupiter far out beyond the Sun.
No telescope or binoculars is needed. Neither is a dark sky location. Take a look on a couple of evenings…
March 27, 2013 § 4 Comments
It is lambing time here on the farm. Regular readers will know that my wife has a flock of sheep and that while I am not a farmer, I do try to help out when asked. I was asked this morning…
Last summer some time she had purchased a creep feeder at a sheep farming show or something. A creep feeder is a feeder which allows only lambs to access the feed so they are not pushed aside by the larger animals. This particular feeder was made of sheet metal and was unassembled. Assembly is one of the things I can usually do.
She presented me with the assembly instructions and a zip-lock sandwich bag full of assorted nuts, bolts, and washers. The instructions were photocopied; handwritten and sketched. It looked pretty straightforward…two sides, a back, a front, and a cover. Just bolt them together. So after lunch she went out to the barn to get it out and I went to get some wrenches.
The first step was to bolt the two sides to the back. Four bolts and the first step was done! The second step was to bolt the front, the creep panel, to the sides. I installed all four bolts and had two tightened when I noticed something sticking out of the lower part of the back panel. What was that? I looked at the sketch again. It showed a pin where the spring that held the cover on would attach. Shoot! I had put the back panel on upside down. Ok, it’s only four bolts. I finished attaching the creep panel, removed the back panel and flipped it over so the pin was on top; tightened up the four bolts.
The next step was to install the feed pan from the top. Easy enough. I pressed it into place and went to step four, to bolt the internal divider to the sides. As I maneuvered it into place something was not quite right. The way it was, a lot of feed was going to be wasted because there was a big gap between the feed pan and the back of the feeder. Ahhhh shoot! I had put the back panel on inside out! I think that I have now exhausted all of the possible ways to attach that back panel…except the correct one. I removed the internal divider and the feed pan and then proceeded to remove the four bolts and back panel again. I turned it around and re-attached it again. The feed pan, internal divider, and cover now assembled without additional problems.
In my defense, I had never seen one of these feeders fully assembled. The two sides had the smooth sheet metal side pointed out. Why wouldn’t the back match them? In the manufacturer’s defense, when I looked closely after the fact, the sketch did show the panel oriented correctly. A note emphasizing the importance of correct orientation would have helped.
Poka-yoke is a Japanese term, roughly translated as “mistake proofing”, that refers to any method or mechanism that helps to avoid human errors in manufacturing and other activities. In the case of the creep feeder, a well-placed pin in one of the sides and a mating hole in the back panel would have saved me two mistaken assemblies. Poka-yoke is one of those funny, Japanese expressions that some Americans like to make fun of.
I wish they would take it seriously…
March 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Finally, our persistence in pursuing Pan-STARRS has payed off! The excitement is back to 100%.
At some point this afternoon the sun briefly made an appearance but retreated as a few more snow flakes blew in. By suppertime the cloudiness had at least broken up. We started to think that tonight might give us another chance to see this most recent visitor from the far reaches of the solar system. By 7:45 there was still some serious cloudiness in the west but we bundled up and gathered our gear for another cold evening on the hill.
We looked and then we waited. Then repeated the cycle several times. It cleared off very nicely! Still we couldn’t see this little comet. It was bitterly cold again. The temperature was only 30 degrees but the wind was fairly stiff and out of the west…blowing right in our faces. Leah finally asked if I was sure we were looking in the right area. The chart I had from Sky and Telescope seemed fairly straightforward but the sky had darkened and cleared enough for me to start sweeping for it. I quickly found it higher and much further north than we had been looking. Either my compass is broken or the chart is not that accurate.
What a beautiful little comet! I could never see it without binoculars but it was quite easy with them, once we knew where to point them. We looked at it until we couldn’t take the cold any longer and headed back down to the house. After I put the car away we went up in the east field a little way and could see it from there too.
We’ll keep watching it now as it fades away back into deep space whenever we get another clear evening.
March 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
When I got my 2013 Astronomical Calendar by Guy Ottewell last December, I was excited to see that there was a possibility of two Great Comets this year. My excitement subsided by about 60% when I noticed that the first was in March and the second was in late November and early December. Then it dropped another 30% when I noticed that both would be near the sun during the best viewing windows.
Excitement. Here in Ohio those months are among the cloudiest in our cloudy climate…excitement x 0.40. I never saw the last Great Sun Grazer, Ikeya-Seki, in 1965. I think it might have been a September comet (somebody chime in if that’s not right) which might be one of our least cloudy months…(excitement x 0.40) * 0.70. Those two realities placed my prospects for seeing these comets fairly low to begin with; I also understand that the magnitude projections for newly discovered comets are almost always very optimistic.
Well, the March window for viewing the first Great Comet of 2013, PanSTARRS, has arrived. Even before it was visible in the northern hemisphere it became apparent that it would never reach its expected magnitude of 0 but rather something closer to 3…that amounts to only about 6% as bright as originally expected. The comet is low in the still bright western sky 30 or 40 minutes after sunset. It is now being described as a great ‘binocular’ comet. We looked for it on March 9th. It had been clear during the day but there were clouds low on the horizon at sunset. On March 13 I got an email from my son in Maryland with a photograph, taken by one of his co-workers the evening before, showing the comet and a very thin crescent Moon framed by clouds. On March 14th he sent me another email with an attached photograph taken the evening before in Decatur, IL showing the comet in a clear sky. It has been cloudy here.
Yesterday, though, it was sunny. There were fair weather cumulus clouds in the afternoon but those often dissipate in the evening so we would have another chance. Evening arrived. We gathered up our binoculars and headed for our viewing spot. The sunset was beautiful, unfortunately because of the chaotic swirl of clouds rather than its clarity. We patiently waited for the clouds to clear away. By 8:30 we gave up, both of us chilled to the bone by the cold wind. By 9:45 the moon was setting in clear skies.
Have I written off the first Great Comet of 2013? Not at all! We don’t have much clear weather in our forecast for the next week but we’ll be alert for another chance to look for Comet Pan-STARRS.