January 2, 2016 § 2 Comments
After a week of cloudy, sometimes rainy, weather the sky cleared this morning to show Comet Catalina a little north of Arcturus. The top of the photograph is roughly oriented toward North. The comet was difficult to see this morning, possibly due to the bright, waning moon in the southeastern sky but is shows well in the photograph. The coma is visible, that’s really all that is visible in binoculars, but I can’t see any evidence of a tail.
The comet has moved off of the Sky Atlas 2000 chart 14 and onto chart 7 so I will need to scan that one and begin to annotate it. Maybe this weekend?
The ephemeris I am using shows the magnitude remaining fairly constant in the 5.7 to 5.8 range from now through Jan 20 and then slowly dimming to 6.2 on Jan 28. Our first sighting of this comet back on Dec 09 was at magnitude 6.2 so we should be able to see it at least through the end of the month given clear skies.
December 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
With the passage of strong cold front this time of year, one usually expects much colder weather and snow. Last nights frontal passage was accompanied by summer-like gusty winds, thunder, and lightning. This morning as the sky partially cleared the temperature is 56ºF (13ºC) with a nearly full moon setting in the western sky.
It was a beautiful morning to check the progress of Comet Catalina’s passage toward Arcturus.
December 20, 2015 § 5 Comments
I hesitated to post another report on Catalina again so soon. It had only moved one degree due North from where it was yesterday morning and it was no brighter. But the sky this morning was a lot clearer than yesterday and at 21ºF (-6ºC) with no breeze, it was a very pleasant morning to be outside. After I went out and realized that this might be the best viewing for a while I sent friend and fellow blogger Bruce a text to see if he wanted to come over to see it…which he did. After I talked him through the steps I had taken to locate it this morning and assuring myself that he had indeed found the comet, I made some remark about hoping it was worth his while to come out into the cold and drive five miles to see such a pathetic little smudge of light. He assured me that it was.
As comets go, Comet Catalina is pretty lacking in visual beauty…in fact it has a tendency to hover sometimes right on the edge of visibility itself. It is a nice little comet that derives its beauty from, and actually contributes to , the beauty of the universe through which it is traveling. This universe that can be understood to operate under some reasonably understandable set of rules which we human beings can examine and use to predict the future path of this comet and lots of other things for that matter. That is part of the beauty of this comet.
Later in the day, at lunch after church, I was talking to one of our pastors, about how much I had enjoyed one particular evening worship service that she had led a few years ago. She responded that it always surprised her that I was interested in contemplative worship because my interest in the sciences and so on would preclude that. I responded that I thought that was a common misconception about scientists and then backtracked a little since I don’t really know that to be the case. After that I kind of stumbled around trying to explain to her why scientific pursuits can actually lead one to contemplation. As I think back on it now it was a pretty pathetic justification.
In my defense, perhaps a church pot-luck lunch wasn’t a good venue for that kind of discussion. It is not easy to put those kinds of feelings into words…there are so many aspects to science and to the inner life. Certain aspects have to be moderated, maybe even eliminated, in one or the other realm. People you care about can be offended or hurt. You have to choose your words and tread lightly. I do view the world in a different way than most of the people in our church but ultimately the basic question of why the universe is the way it is remains a mystery. New laws of nature can never explain away that mystery any better than reliance on some supernatural being. It will always be unknown, which I think is pretty cool…beautiful.
So the inner, examined life is one that, among other things, considers how to live without knowing. For me, contemplation plays a big part in that. So does chasing comets…
December 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
We got our first snow of any note for this winter season last night. Visibility was poor and there was enough snow that the roads were white for a while…the two conditions made driving a little difficult. It didn’t last long.
This morning the clouds were still variably thick but I have found over many years in chasing comets, eclipses, etc. that if you don’t actually go outside you seriously reduce your chances of seeing anything. So I went out a couple of times to look for Comet Catalina. Finally, it looked like a clear spot might drift over the southeastern sky so I waited for what seemed like a long time. My wife had gone for a walk while I waited.
Before I went out I studied the star chart looking for some patterns to navigate from and to. I ended up drawing an imaginary line between Arcturus and Spica, dropping down to the east a few degrees from the midpoint of the line, and looking for a little dipper shaped collection of dim stars that would fit into the view of my binoculars. When the clouds finally parted that plan worked and I found the comet pretty quickly.
The forecast for tomorrow morning is for clear skies so I might add another point then.
December 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
We were surprised when we got up this morning to see some clear spots in the predawn sky instead of the rainy overcast that was, and still is, forecasted. When we got outside we found that we would have to be patient…it was difficult again to figure out where we should look for this comet. Venus had moved a considerable distance since Dec 09 and there just are not bright stars to orient with. So I went looking for the little triangular cluster of stars we had seen on the ninth. It cleared enough for me to find where the comet was on the ninth and with a little binocular movement to the north I quickly found the comet.
Encouraged by having two observations in hand, I have plotted them both on an expanded view of Tirion’s Star Atlas 2000 showing the space all the way to Arcturus. With a little luck perhaps we can plot a few more positions on it before Catalina returns to deep space.
The partly clear sky this morning was a double bonus since this morning was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. I saw five of those while I was waiting at various times for the sky to clear over the comet.
December 9, 2015 § 2 Comments
I have been anticipating the arrival of a new comet in our part of the Solar System for about a year, ever since I received my Astronomical Calendar by Guy Ottewell last year for Christmas. While Guy is pretty realistic about the prospects for seeing comets not all writers are. When early observations indicate the possibility of naked eye visibility we all get a little bit too excited. Such is the case for Comet Catalina, C/2013 US10.
Leah and I have been getting up at 4:30 or so during the past week to try to find and see this little comet. We have had interfering moonlight, cloudiness, and a few foggy mornings ranging in severity from misty to pea soup. The comet is located lowish in the southeast sky just before dawn. The very bright Venus is nearby and the star Spica is a little further away but other than that there is nothing outstanding to jump off from in our search. On top of all of that, this part of the sky takes on funny orientations relative to star charts that don’t show up when looking at objects overhead.
I think that should be enough rationalization to explain why we have been uncertain whether we have actually seen this little visitor from so far away this week. Oh, I did fail to mention that this comet is not very bright?
Having said and understood all of this is no reason to stay in bed and not look. It is, after all, a comet and in this case, one that has never visited the inner part of the Solar System and never will again.
This morning we got up again. We drove up on the hill west of our farm for a clear view and low horizon. We thought we had seen the comet yesterday in a little triangular shaped cluster of stars five or six degrees to the left of Venus so we started our search there. Sure enough the same little fuzzy spot had moved! On both days, it was very hard to see, fading in and out of sight as we looked through our binoculars. Did I mention that this is a binocular object? It is.
Leah convinced me that I should get out the camera and tripod and I am glad she did. The photograph removed any lingering doubt about the existence, location and identity of the object we were seeing. Can you see the little turquoise smudge on the left side of the photograph about a quarter of the way in and about on the horizontal center line? Out under the sky it had less starlike appearance than the photograph shows.
Maybe a little cropping would help:
The position this morning was at Dec -06º13′ and RA 14h19m. I plotted it the best I could on Will Tirion’s Star Atlas 2000 shown below.
Everyone is hoping that Catalina will brighten a little more this month. If it does it should offer us some more comet chasing opportunities into the first part of next year.
November 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
We had a very light frost this morning with the air temperature just about 32º F. When we returned from our predawn walk I got my camera to take some frost pictures in the beautiful early morning light before the sun peeked over the hill to the east. When I finished I headed inside. On the way down the walk something white caught my eye…I knelt down to see what it was. It was an ice flower! Very similar to the ice mushroom I found a couple of years ago ice flowers develop from plants on frosty mornings under the right conditions. I returned to a webpage by Dr. Jim Carter of Illinois State University that I had found at that time. He has a page devoted to Ice Flowers that includes photographs and descriptions of this phenomenon. Down the page he has photographs of ice flowers he has seen growing out the base of Blue Victoria Salvia, the same plant that these are growing out of.
I originally used the term frost flower in the title but as Dr. Carter points out this is not the correct terminology and actually refers to a different phenomenon. I deferred to correctness over the obvious alliteration that I would have preferred… :-)