What we have learned from VY Canis Majoris and how to Observe this Red Supergiant

Today a team of astronomers released a new paper on VY Canis Majoris. For those who don't know, VY Canis Majoris once held the title as largest star in the galaxy, but has been replaced by other stars that have been discovered and measured (Wikipedia LINK). I think one thing I am going to work on putting together is an observing program where you can go and take a look at these massive stars over the course of a year (the visible ones) and mark down which of these hypergriants you've seen. Anyway a paper, Large Dust Grains in the winds of VY Canis Majoris LINK released by P. Scicluna, R. Siebenmorgen, R Wesson, J.A.D.L. Blommaert, M. Kasper, N.V. Voshchinnikov and S. Wolf provides evidence and reason on why such massive stars like VY Canis Majoris lose so much mass in a given solar year (in the case of VY Canis Majoris it is losing 30 times the mass of the Earth each year). To quote the article in Astronomy Now:

But now, with the new SPHERE data, we have found large grains of dust around this hypergiant. These are big enough to be pushed away by the star’s intense radiation pressure, which explains the star’s rapid mass loss.”
The large grains of dust observed so close to the star mean that the cloud can effectively scatter the star’s visible light and be pushed by the radiation pressure from the star. The size of the dust grains also means much of it is likely to survive the radiation produced by VY Canis Majoris’ inevitable dramatic demise as a supernova. This dust then contributes to the surrounding interstellar medium, feeding future generations of stars and encouraging them to form planets.
Article on Astronomy Now: Ageing hypergiant star’s weight loss secret revealed LINK

Rather exciting news if you ask me! As that dust is pushed outward away from the star by its radiation, causing not only mass loss, but also perhaps signaling as the dust increases, how close the star may be to the end of its life (speculation on my part).  One idea that did come to me is that this gives further evidence to the notion that the supernova that caused the Cassiopeia A SNR was indeed a massive star that had shed sufficient mass in terms of large dust particles that when it went supernova, the light was indeed absorbed by these large dust particles that had been shed in significant mass loss prior to the end of the progenitor star's life. Cool!

It may also signal that as much as we anticipate viewing or observing a supernova explosion from a massive star, it may not be so tremendous as we may think. Sufficient absorption by the dust particles may lessen the view for us here on Earth. Then again, some of these like SN 1987A and others we observe from other galaxies are significantly bright enough to be seen visually. So the dust particles may explain mass loss, but the large dust particles may not hinder stars that may undergo mass loss, but not enough to hinder the light from the exploding supernova. More study will follow I am sure as we strive to find out more about these stars.  Guess we won't know for sure until we can really study a massive star that goes supernova. It could also explain why so many of the supernova's (not all, think Messier 1 in Taurus in 1054 CE) that have been seen from Earth have been from Type Ia explosions. A white dwarf exploding by colliding with another white dwarf, or by taking mass from its companion until it passes the Chandrasekhar limit of 1.44 solar masses do not generate the large dust particles prior to going supernova. It could be that is why they act more as a standard candle than a Type II SN.  Pure speculation on my ignorant part, but I welcome comments that clarify the points I have made.

So a few items. Here is a video based on the paper from ESO on the discovery. Take a look at it.

     What is interesting about that second video is this paper I have shared, explains more about how these massive stars like VY Canis Majoris are possibly viewed for losing so much mass via the large dust particles.

      Here are some pictures to give you a sense of how big a star VY Canis Majoris is (used from the public domain under Fair Use):

Yes, this is a very massive star yet in the night sky, well, if you want, use a telescope or binoculars and see what you can see and how large this star is in the sky. It is about 1.9 kiloparsecs or 3900 light years away from us here on Earth.  To help you star hop (and remember, there are more than one way to get there) I have made a few star charts that show how you may want to hop to this massive star. Again, I will be building a program of observing those most massive stars and sharing it here in the next couple of weeks, probably after December's new moon period so look for that.

1. Here is the first star chart to help you identify Canis Major if your not familiar with it. At the top of Canis Major is Sirius, the brightest star in our night sky of all the seasons.  Down from Sirius lays Wesson, at the dog's hind legs and tail. Go to Wessen to start our star hop.

2. Below is a series of hops you need to take to get in the general area to get serious if your using a telescope. 

3. Below is the way I use to get to VY Canis Majoris in my telescopes. To be honest, don't expect to see much more than a star but look to see if you can see color or anything around the star. If nothing else you can say you have seen one of the largest stars in the Milky Way.  This is a star that will end its life in a Supernova explosion, resulting in the creation most likely of a stellar black hole, or a pulsar (I learn to the black hole because of the mass of the star).  It will be interesting to see when this star does go supernova how much light is absorbed by the large dust particles and how much light blasts out.  


New video from Alexander Massey on the Mellish Method of Sketching

If you haven't seen or viewed Alexander Massey's sketching tutorial on YouTube, you should do that ASAP.  Alex gives a wonderful presentation and your able to watch as he demonastrates the techniques he uses to obtain such faboulous sketches. One thing I learned is I over think my sketching and need to think in more simple terms. Anyway, here is his video and check out his blog at  Here is the LINK to his blog.  Below is the video if you want to view it!

Also, if you haven't had a chance, take a look at Gondwana Telescopes at this LINK. Alex has some wonderful dob designs and other items that are terrific and I recommend checking out. If you ATM you may get a few ideas or if your in the market for a scope, he may interest you (if your down under but you could contact him if your in the States I am sure).  

Observing November 13th, 2015 FR006 Site 1 & October 11th & 12th, 2015; Cool . . . . Emergency Field Repairs to my DobStuff 17.5

     Well, I took the 13th of November off of work as the weather was clear and the conditions were looking great.  I loaded up the 17.5" scope, (I have the feeling to take the 14" but didn't) and drove out to FR006 Site 1.  We had had a storm come through earlier in the week and there were some patches of snow still about.  Here are some pics of the area:

This is on the drive out. By the time I got out there it was around 4:30 p.m. and the Sun was beginning to set.  The Sheeprock Mountains have their first covering of snow for the season. The drive out was fine, but as I turned up FR006 I could see snow to the side of the road in patches and the road was fine, but a little muddy . . . enough for a Subaru Outback to have some fun!

At the site, there was snow in patches as I have described, but there were enough dry areas next to where snow had melted and made the dirt there a little muddy.

The above picture is one of my favorite to take from the site. The Sheeprock Mountains to the west have a beautiful view and remind us that though we are in a desert, there are other habitats also.  You can see the patches of snow here. 

Looking to the south here on the edge of the observing field. 

Yes, the Belt of Venus starting to show to the southeast and yes, it was cold about 44 degrees F when I pulled into the site and took these pics. 

Looking south from the site. A little snow is nothing! 

The view above, vs the first one in this set of images, is more realistic of what the view is actually like of the Sheeprock Mountains. I truly live a wonderful and diverse part of the country! 

Looking southeast from the site. 

 One of the secrets of this site is that the elevation is around 6800 feet so you have elevation to get above the haze and the views are wide open.  This southern view is tremendous year round! 

Well after taking these pictures, I put down my ground cover, talked with my friend Jeff and his son Nathan (my son is also Nathan but Jeff's Nathan I REALLY like when he comes out. He really helps out and he is so positive and cheerful that he reminds me of my Nathan and he simply brightens the mood of all around!) and then brought out the equipment cases and the scope. I assembled the scope rather quickly and everything was going good. After assembly I brought out the Howie Glatter Laser and TuBlug and got to task of collimating my scope. I was rather excited because since August when I gave it a good all around collimation using my Catseye tools and my Howie Glatter tools the scope had been holding collimation with only a minor tweak needed each session. Last session though the scope for the first time had a problem holding collimation down low and when I put in the Glatter 635n laser, it was all over the place. I assumed I had a major issue, so I called my friend Jeff over to help. No, collimation was holding but the screw that attached the curved spider to the bracket on the ring, had fallen out.  The spider was now loose. 

We looked for the missing bolt (I found it the next day in the back of the Outback when I unloaded) but no luck. I was actually pretty downcast. Then a red SUV pulled up with two club members, Denise and Marlene and Marlene's husband Larry.  Marlene saved me by having an extra allen socket bolt that fit into the spider allowing me to secure the spider and to gain and hold collimation. I then inspected the scope and especially the upper ring in detail, and found that the upper ring and the spider were connected via a bracket and a wood screw that went into the upper ring. Well the wood screws did not hold the weight of the Destiny Observatory grade spider.  So the next day I tried a fix and now I have fixed the scope. I'll post more on that in a few days but basically I moved the spider six inches and then drilled a hole and put in 1/32nd bolts and used a washer and a nut to secure them to the ring. Firm as can be, steady and I will now simply check the nut and bolt to ensure that they remain tight prior to leaving for a session.  Here are some pics. 

Above you can see the bolt that I used to put through the hold I drilled and then secured it on the other side with a washer and a bolt. I kept the wood circle between the bolt and upper ring. Easy fix, one I don't think I should have had to do. Then again, a dob is always a work in progress. 

Above you can see the bolt sticking through, the nut and the washer is hard to see but is there. A much more secure version that what I will show below. 

Above is the wood screw that Dennis used to secure the spider to the upper ring. The problem on a large size dob like this is that the observatory grade curved spider from Destiny is too heavy to remain secure with just a wood screw with continued use. I shared this with Dennis and he is making the adjustment moving forward, so if you get a dob from Dennis, just make sure of this.  You can also see the black screw that holds the spider to the L bracket here and I had to replace that. The bolt is inexpensive and I have a few extra just to be save but check the tightness of your bolts from time to time, probably every three to six months. 

A better view of the L bracket holding the spider to the upper ring with a wood screw and the 1/4 inch wooden circle under the wood screw.  I kept the wooden circle under each for spacing but the bolt system above is one that is well used.  When I moved the spider and reattached it, I removed the secondary and then reattached it and gave the scope a great collimation job again using the Catseye and the Howie Glatter. 

So there you go. A fix in the field, one that after a year I was disappointed to have happen, a temporary fix that let the observing occur and then a permanent fix and the scope is probably in better shape now. I would have simply drilled through each of the current holes for the wood screws, but the one in the last two images would go through the Moonlite Focuser plate and I didn't want that.  So a simple moved is what I did.

    In the field that night I had the opportunity to really have some fun. One of the most wonderful things that night was to listen to Marlene and Denise who are relatively new share their excitement about observing. They probably didn't realize how much I enjoyed hearing them say "Andromeda, that's it, I'm done for the night. Awesome!"  As they discovered and looked at what for me were old time "eye candy" M31, the Double Cluster, M57 etc., their excitement enhanced mine.  As I came across and sketched my objects, I found that my enjoyment was enhanced by remembering how wonderful it was to be out here, observing.  I loaned Marlene my 20mm and 9mm 100 degree ES eyepieces, and tried to loan her a 12mm Delos to use also, but she was busy with what she had.  Next time Marlene, I will loan you the Delos so you can see them.  Perhaps the 11mm 82 degree ES eyepiece also.  So I have to say thank you to them for coming out and observing that evening and sharing their enthusiasm and excitement! I would welcome them anytime to come back!

At this event it was also nice to have my good friend Jeff and his son Nathan. Nathan went to the dar to read after a while but his positiveness and cheery disposition always makes an observing session an improved experience when he is with us. Jeff I believe had a good night using his 17.5 inch StarStructure to observe and got back into the swing of star hopping for those faint fuzzies.  Daniel was also along helping out, using his binoculars and seeing many more things through them then I at once thought possible. Daniel has made me use my 4 inch refractor more and more to see and discover how far I can push my observing both at a dark site and at home.

So what did I observe this night? A variety of objects and I tried some new things out sketching wise. Here are my sketches of some of the objects I observed this night.

 1. NGC 1060, NGC 1066, NGC 1067, NGC 1057 galaxies in Triangulum. November 13th, 2015; FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; 08:11pm MST/0211 UT on 11/14/15; Antoniadi II, clear, cool, 38 degrees F; 17.5" dob; 10mm, 14mm & 20mm Pentax XW; Type II Paracorr; 

1066                                         1060
1067      UGC 2201                        1057 

I have tried to label the galaxies I observed in the field above. NGC 1060 is a rather bright but small galaxy with round edges that are firm and well defined.  Makes for a nice contrast with surrounding galaxies. 
NGC 1066 is rather faint, small and roundish though somewhat slightly elongated N-S; It is about the same size as NGC 1060 with a touch fainter halo but with a concentrated and bright inner core. 
NGC 1067 is very faint, very small and found with a low surface brightness.  UGC 2201 is barely visible and seen best with averted vision as a faint smudge.  
NGC 1061 is round with even surface brightness and very small.  It is about 2.5' N of NGC 1060.  NGC 1057 was not seen in this grouping. 

2. NGC 881 & NGC 883 Galaxies in Triangulum; November 13th, 2015; 10:39 MST/0439 UT on 11/14/15; FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; 17.5" Dob; 10mm, 14mm, 20mm Pentax XW; Type II Paracorr; Antoniadi II; Clear, cool, temperature 37 degrees F.

NGC 881 is very bright, has a stellar nucleus and a bright inner core region. It is the bottom right galaxy in the sketch.
NGC 883 is small, round and diffused, with no hint of a core system. It is the upper galaxy in the sketch.

3. NGC 750 & 751 Galaxies in Triangulum; November 13th, 2015; 08:37 MST or 0237 UT on 11/14/2015; Antoniadi II, clear, cool; 17.5" dob with 10mm & 20mm Pentax XW in Type II Paracorr.

NGC 750 is sitting W-E and is elongated with a bright inner core region.
NGC 751 is more roundish and has a slight brightening at the inner core with some possible hints of structure, some unevenness in the surface brightness is apparent. Both are faint.

I captured a few other faint NGC/Herschel 2500 galaxies and then I decided to have some fun with sketching. In the following attempts, I applied the pastel chalk directly to the black sketching paper and then attempted to even it out with the brush.  I then added layers using the brush. Much happier with Messier 74 result than the M31 result, but for the cold and dark, both came out pretty good.
I will also say that I again fell in love with the 35mm Panoptic, even more than the 30mm Explore Scientific 82 degree,  which I still love, just love the 35mm Panoptic a little more.

4. Messier 31; Messier 32 (small ball on left); Messier 110 (elongated galaxy on right). 11:00pm on 11/13/2015 or 0500 11/14/2015 UT;  Antoniadi I, clear and cool, 35 degrees F, Relative Humidity 64%; FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; 17.5" dob, 35mm Panoptic; 20mm & 10mm Pentax XW; Type II Paracorr;

Not happy totally with how the camera captured the sketch. I think it looks better in person but oh well.  Not bad for such a large object.  I have to say by this time of night, no ambient light was around at all except for the star light and the Milky Way and M31 and friends were position extremely well.  One of the best views of M31 I have ever had was out on this night (to echo an earlier comment from Denise).  Not a bad effort for a cold late fall night.  I need to spread out the chalk more and make it more fuzzy but the basic concept I like here.

5. Messier 74 or NGC 628 in Pisces, Face On Spiral Galaxy.  10:30pm MST or 0430 on 11/14/2015 UT.  FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; Antoniadi I clear and cool, temperature 35 degrees with 64% RH; 17.5" dob with 20mm, 10mm, 7mm Pentax XW; Type II Paracorr;

One of the best views ever for me of this wonderful eye candy galaxy from Charles Messier's catalog. Bright stellar nuclear with bright inner core was easily viewed Both spiral arms could be discern in the eyepiece with the fuzziness of the galaxy in apparent in the background as well. Just an awesome view. Best view of the night and in my opinion, best sketch (and I am getting the camera figured out here).  WOW! is all I can say.

That was it for this night. I packed up with Jeff around 11:30pm after 4 to 5 hours of fall observing, with winter rising quickly to the east. I realized as I stood looking at the constellations in the sky how quickly the seasons change. It seems like September was just here and then October with the approach of Halloween and now November is here with Thanksgiving in a few days. The winter constellations by midnight are up in the sky and the signal that fall is giving way to winter, for me, is the rising of the brightest star in the sky, Sirius.

OCTOBER 11th & 12th, 2015

I did get a dark sky session in during October, actually a couple of them but will combine them for space.  Actually the last two sessions have had fun occurrences to them. In October, about 1:30a.m. local time, I was taking a break from observing but looking at the sky when I noticed a flash of light that to me, at first, looked like a Nova going off. It was a short, intense, bright light that flared up and then faded away.  We started to see more and more as we looked up. Well being rational, I began to think and the idea that F16's out of Hill were over the test range at high altitude and were engaged in maneuvers against each other and were dropping chaff, then I changed my mind to flares. Some may disagree with my outlook since we were relatively close to Dugway, but I really believed we were seeing USAF F16's on maneuver at high altitude letting off flares. It looked like this video somewhat, but we never saw multiple flares in sequence, just what I would suppose were some floating backwards from their launch point creating multiple effects.

The next one was the missile test from the USS Kentucky launching an unarmed Titan II missle. The Kentucky has come out of refit and after refit they test their missile system to make sure it is working right (among other tests).  I had seen another similar incidence back in 1982 in the Bay Area when Vandenberg AFB had launched a Minuteman II missile.  Daniel was there and we talked about it and he had seen that Minuteman Missile test in the early 1980's as well, and we both were confident that is what it was. We were right. It provided a break from our observing that night. I did view in the 17.5 the missle as in the 27mm Panoptic we could track it and this YouTube movie captures what I saw with 4 others in the eyepiece. In the later stages the missile would S warp after having a single cone of exhaust followed by a double cone of exhaust from each end the the spiral S pattern. This video covers what we saw until it fell below the horizon. My friend Jeff was there as was his son and two other observers.  Nathan, Jeff's son saw this event and did a great job tracking it in my 17.5" telescope. I am very impressed with Nathan's skills with a telescope for being only 14 years old! Nathan even confirmed what we were all seeing.

So two rather cool events! Haven't had that much excitement in a LONG time out observing but it was fun. Made for a good experience.

So I am just going to list the items and sketches I did from these nights of observing (October 11th, 12th, November 7th).

1. NGC 949 Galaxy in Triangulum. October 9th, 2015; FR006 Site 1; Antoniadi III; 11:29 pm MDT or 0529 on 10/10/2015 UT; 17.5" dob; 27mm Panoptic Finder; 20mm & 10mm Pentax XW; Type II Paracorr.

Small, relatively bright galaxy that lays NW to SE. It has a dull outer edge yet magnification will pull out a brighter inner core region. This is a one time visit.

2. NGC 925 Galaxy in Triangulum.  October 11th, 2015 11:45pm MDT (545 UT on 10/12/15); Antoniadi I, clear, cool temperature 28 degrees F, RH 48%; FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; Type II Paracorr on both sketches.  Top sketch was with a 10mm & 7mm Pentax XW and the bottom sketch was with the 14mm, 20mm Pentax XW and the 27mm Panoptic eyepiece. Thus the differences in appearances. 

This is a wonderful galaxy to observe in the mid to late fall with the constellation Triangulum positioned well for an easy observation later in the evening.  The galaxy is easily seen in the 20mm Pentax XW and the 27mm Panoptic eyepieces. The galaxy lays in both sketches ESE-WNW and does not have a stellar nucleus, yet has brightening in the inner core region. The galaxy is ill defined at the outer edges and at the low magnification range has hints of spiral structure at the extremities. With higher magnification that hint of structure begins to refine itself a little more. 

3. NGC 890 galaxy in Triangulum. October 10th, 2015 10:36pm MDT or 0436 on 10/11/15 UT; FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; Antoniadi III to IV, wind gusts to 20mph steady at 7mph to 10 mph; 17.5" dob; 20mm & 10mm Pentax XW; Type II Paracorr. 

This was the nights of the flares from the planes. Conditions got worse as the night came on and shortly after this I called it a night as the scope was vibrating in the wind as the gusts continued to rise as a dry cold front was getting ready to pass by thus increasing those south winds.  

This is an elongated galaxy laying SW to NE.  Bright inner core region with ill defined outer edge. It's a fun galaxy to take a look at and easy to star hop too. Triangulum has a lot more to offer besides M33, which is still wonderful, but there are many other galaxies in the constellation to observe! 

4. NGC 784 Spiral Galaxy in Triangulum.  October 12th, 2015, 12:40am MDT or 0640 UT; FR006 Site 1 Owl's Roost; Antoniadi I, clear, cool, 26 degrees; 17.5" Dob; 10mm, 14mm, 20mm Pentax XW; Paracorr Type II; 

Wonderful galaxy to view and it is fairly bright, no concentration at the core but there is mottling and uneven surface brightness near the core, combined with brightening at the core.  Elongated N to S. Another fun galaxy to observe, tease detail out with and to see. 

5. Constellation Auriga, naked eye sketch. October 12th, 2015, 1:19am MDT or 0719 UT; Antoniadi I.  

I have decided that I want to include a naked eye sketch of the major constellations and this is the first of that effort. The camera has removed some of the nebulosity that I saw in the constellation, especially around the bottom four stars and in the center.  Overall it is a decent representation of what I saw. Next up is the mighty hunter Orion as I think that will occupy me and give me some challenges. I will do that when I take the 4 inch refractor out with me to sketch and capture Barnard's Loop visually soon. Also, with this sketch I will soon upload and label it and then repost so someone wanting to poke around in Auriga can see where some of the objects are in it as a reference. 

Well there you go. A couple of exciting events, a field fix followed by a major repair that improved my 17.5" dob and some great time under dark skies in Utah's West Desert under the shadow of the Sheeprock Mountains.  Here's hoping to more of that in December and January! 


All in the Details or Pay the Price to See More . . .

     Yep, sorry, been away as I was gone for over a week in October. I spent a couple days observing and then spent a week up in Oregon and Washington with my wife and sweetheart visiting sites along the Lewis and Clark trail, and visiting the beach and ocean, one of our favorite things to do.  Then I have been busy at work and some personal items at night.  So I haven't posted my sketches or my observing sessions from October. I'll be doing that this weekend as I get ready for observing next week, I hope.

     Here in northern Utah, the weather has changed. We have moved from highs in the upper sixties to the upper forties and next week to the low forties with lows in the twenties.  That means cold weather observing and I am ready with my winter clothing and items charged and ready to go.  Now if the dirt roads out to my favorite observing sites can stay dry after our first snow next week.  Just ready to get out and observe again. My one dilemma, do I take the 14 inch or the 17.5 out?

     One item that has come up that I am very passionate about is the question of whether increasing aperture of a telescope, or improving the quality of the eyepieces one uses improves what one sees, or what really goes to improving the view.  I have been an active observer for a long time and I have well over 5000 objects in my observing logs, and I have sketched many of those objects.  Here is what I have found improves one as an observing. The huge secrets, the key to improving oneself as an observer are these two items.

     First, the main action that any of us do to improve what we see at the eyepiece is this, observe. Yep, nothing great here it is simply to observe and observe on a regular basis.  I observe typically seven to twelve times a month, sometimes more. This includes three to four deep sky observing trips, three to four lunar sessions, a couple to four sessions of double stars and open clusters.  The only way to get better at observing, the only way to see more is to pay the price and observe.  That is what it takes and to be honest, there are not a lot of people willing to pay that price to improve the details of what they observe at the eyepiece.

     There are some who think if they simply buy a premium mirror, a premium structure and premium eyepieces that that act, the purchase of premium items will improve what they see. Yes, to a point a premium setup can improve what you observe but only if you are observing. One session of deep sky observing from a backyard in a light polluted backyard and then two to four outreach events in a light polluted site are not going to make one a premium observer.  Like with anything in life, if you want to be a top notch, quality observer then you have to pay a price.  There is no other way.  I know from experience, that someone observing with say an Orion XX12i or XX12g with a decent mirror, but observing five to ten times a month, is, over time (say 3 to 5 years) is going to train their eye to see more than say someone with a Zambuto 18 inch mirror in a Teeter Teleescope who observes once a month if they are lucky and perhaps uses it at a star party for outreach twice a month.

     Yes, the 18" Zambuto and the Teeter structure are premium and yes, they will show more but to really take advantage of that, you have to learn how to observe with them and more importantly, you have to learn how to observe in order to maximize what those premium optics and structure have to offer. To do that takes using them and using them on a regular and consistent basis.

     The next thing that truly improves one's ability to observe and to see more is to leave the light polluted backyard and travel to a dark site; I mean a REAL dark site.  The first time you go you'll probably find it hard to observe because of the sheer volume of stars you see.  However, a dark site, free of light pollution and scatter, allows a high quality mirror and structure to perform at their maximum based on the sky conditions of that night.  If you don't believe me, view the Messier objects that are observable from your backyard, then take your  telescope and eyepieces and get thee to a dark site.  Then look at the same Messier objects. There is a significant difference.  Now take your time to observe the differences and if you do this over time, you'll discern that the detail level from a dark site is significantly more than from a light polluted zone.

     So do premium optics, structures and eyepieces matter? Sure they do IF you are in the process of becoming a premium observer.  IF you pay the price to view these items, observing them and comparing them, you will begin to discern the differences in the details.  Then move on to NGC items that are not so bright and large and you will learn to discern, to glean out the details on these objects, knowing which has details to offer you and which do not. You'll find eventually, you don't need to buy a book with someone else's observations, you'll be making your own.  If you own some of these fine books, you'll use them only to compare your own observations.  Again, if you don't have a premium optic or structure, that is fine. You can still learn to be a premium observer IF you pay the price and observe on a regular basis. If you can get to a dark site, that is an added plus.  The key though is to observe and if that means your backyard, that is better than not observing.

    So, to review, in my personal opinion, premium equipment and optics enhance what one sees, but the key to observing and really seeing more, is to use what you have. Use it often, use it to see a variety of objects and you'll find, over time, that you really improve as an observer.  You won't need to speak to what you see to others, because you'll KNOW what your capable of.  If you choose to upgrade to a larger aperture, you'll find that yes, aperture does increase what you see, but in truth, your eye will be trained to really show what that new scope is capable of. There is no quick fix to seeing more. If you want to see more in amateur visual astronomy, you have to pay the price of time and effort to observe on a consistent and regular basis.  Isn't it funny. This is a truth that is eternal because no matter what one does with one's life, one has to be willing to pay the price to really be good at what one is doing.  Keep looking up and enjoying the wonders of the night sky!


Survey on Amateur Astronomy

     I have just spent three marvelous days out in the West Desert of Utah, in incredible fall skies observing with my 17.5" dob.  More to come on that next week when I return from a vacation with my wife (combined with a family funeral of my uncle, my Dad's brother).  Anyway, I made a SurveyMonkey Survey that I thought would be interesting to collect data.  Feel free to take it and to share it with others who may have an interest. I will share the results with all. Nothing is implied but I am trying to gauge the commitment to the hobby and how serious people are with it and what interests people who read the blog have in astronomy. Here is the LINK:

IF you want to see the results here is that LINK.  One survey taken, I'll do mine later.

Survey Results URL:

And some teasing pictures of my trip!  Tonight is gorgeous and I wish, I REALLY wish I had one more night out there! One thing I realized this trip, I am a little rusty after 2 1/2 years of when I was pursuing that advance degree of mine!

17.5" Dob: Set up, cooling, aligned, all ready to go! Notice the earth's shadow in the background to the right and right center in the sky as the Belt of Venus comes out! 

Here is my friend Alan looking over the 17.5"  Alan is a terrific observing companion and friend. 

17.5" Dob, Ready to go! 

Magic Time! I love this time of the evening/twilight. 


Amateur Astronomer or Amateur Weather Person?

      Sometimes inspiration for this blog comes from reading different sites about astronomy. Sometimes it comes from me reflecting on the hobby and sharing something that I feel is important to me in the hobby, and then sharing it here on my blog.  Well, one thing I found tonight that is prompting this late evening post, is the role of becoming an effective amateur forecaster plays in terms of the weather in being a solid to outstanding amateur astronomer.  You will forgive me as I have touched on how I interpret the weather (I don't predict it, I interpret the weather and conditions for when I observe. I am not sure if anyone can predict the weather more than three to five days out), as this post is going to go deeper. Also, if you don't live in Utah, you can read and see the tools I use, some will work for you, some you may need to find a local replacement for.  So here I go!

     First off why is interpreting the weather so critical for being an amateur astronomer? This pertains to any facet of the hobby.  Why? It is relatively self-evident I believe. First, one has to know if the weather is going to be clear, partly cloudy (and the percent of clouds in the sky) or cloudy to even begin to decide if your going to observe. This is an even more important factor if deciding to pack up and drive and set up at a dark site some distance away from home. Second, the amount of humidity will determine for me if I bring my anti-dew equipment, and if I charge the power source for that equipment so dew doesn't ruin my secondary mirror, my eyepiece, my Telrad and finder etc.  If any of these dew up, then the observing session is over. Next, road conditions. Is it wet and muddy where I am going? Do I need to bring a tarp or is my usual ground cover okay to use? Temperature is another factor I have to look at as it controls dew point often, and it tells me what type of clothing I am going to wear while observing. Nothing will end a session more readily than when one gets cold.  These are the main factors I am going to share.

National Weather Service Site: Salt Lake City: Forecast Discussion and Local Area

   The first site I go to in order to obtain a high level view of what is going on is my local National Weather Service.  If you are in Utah, you can find that at this LINK.  I mainly use two tabs that I will cover here (I do use on other feature but I won't share that at this time) and those are the Forecast Discussion and the Local Area which are located over on the left panel. The screenshot below shows them:

     You can see above that the red arrows point to the location on the website where Forecast Discussion and Local Area are located. You access them by left clicking on them. Forecast Discussion as you can see in the screen shot below, is a general and high level look at the forecast over the next several days and upcoming week.  It is written by a member of the National Weather Service, in this case in Salt Lake City and I find it to be quite accurate. I highlighted here the parts I use in making my forecasts.  For example, tomorrow night my local astronomy club, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society has an outreach planned. If I am considering going I will look at the Forecast discussion and read to see what conditions are to be like for Saturday evening. It isn't looking very good in that forecast discussion. So right now I am hesitant but will confirm with the next website I will share.

     However, the Forecast Discussion here does provide me with a lot of hope that next weekend the forecast is looking really good for me to go observing as we move into the next new moon period. So as of tonight, I am planning on heading out!

     The screen shot below is one of the Local Area. This is a quick summation as I say, of the Forecast Discussion from above.  Again, it confirms with the Forecast Discussion about tomorrow night, see my comments in red, and then of observing come next weekend. This provides me with my confirmation of what I am seeing from the Forecast Discussion.  So if you like to read the weather to see what is going on, read the Forecast Discussion. Want the short version, read the Local Area.  From reading these reports I know (and from being outside tonight) it is not a night for me to take a telescope out and observe.  Sad, but true. Nor will I risk exposure of my equipment and telescopes tomorrow in the conditions that are out there. 

SkippySky Astronomy

     My next site that I use extensively to see conditions is Skippy Sky Astronomy found at this LINK.  It is all about the weather but instead of just writing about it, I have made a video to show you Skippy Sky Astronomy and give you a basic running tutorial of how to use it.  Screencastify and another similar tool (that I took the screenshots above with) are two tools you will see me using more on the blog.  Anyway, Skippy Sky Astronomy I have found is the closest site tied into the NWS forecast and is extremely accurate for predicting cloud cover, dew, temperature and wind. Some like Clear Sky Clock, and I'll cover that site, but Skippy Sky Astronomy is much more accurate as my observing friends and companions can testify too.  

     So above is my quick introduction on SkippySky Astronomy. It is found at this LINK.  Again, for me I have found SkippySky to be one of the best tools for forecasting the weather and conditions for amateur astronomy and to determine whether it is good to go, and what equipment to take. Again, as I say in the video, Total Cloud Cover; Transparency; Seeing; Temperature; Wind Speed and Dew Risk are the main categories I look at in SkippySky.  

Clear Outside 

     The next page that I go to, and I find it equally as valuable as SkippySky is called Clear Outside. It is located at or at this LINK.  Again, I have made a video that briefly highlights how this site works and how you can use it to help you observe. Critical here again is the Total Cloud Cover (goal is 20% or less), ISS Passover if you want to view that; Precipitation Probability (you want 0) Precipitation Amount (again want 0, I won't take my telescopes out to risk the mirrors to rain or precipitation of any kind); wind speed and direction (critical here, less than 6 mph if possible as I don't like my dobs become wind vanes or shaking); temperature, so you know what type of clothing to wear); dew point (I compare that reading to the temperature to see if I will have dew) and relative humidity. If I go above 70% I will actually hook up my dew equipment but that usually doesn't happen where I observe now).  Those are the main parts of their charts that I use, and I have to mention that I absolutely LOVE that as I hover over the sun/darkness bar near the top, I get the times for sun rise, sunset, astronomical twilight, darkness etc.  This really allows me to plan if all conditions are good on when I want to arrive, set up and be ready to go.  

    Here is the video on Clear Outside: 

     The other thing these sites provide to me is to learn the conditions of the locations that I observe from.  I have purposely hand picked by locations from years of observing and experience at the sites. I want a site free of dew, is accessible and safe for my Outback (I don't want to get stuck in the mud in the winter by myself) and I want to ensure I am dressed warmly enough to ensure a great evening of observing. The sites I have shared do that perfectly.  

National Weather Serivce: Salt Lake City; Activity Planner

     The video below will show you the National Weather Service's Activity Planner for Salt Lake City. You have to know your Latitude and Longitude for the location you want, and you can find that on Google Maps.  I won't share how to do that, it is relatively easy unless I get someone asking for that in a comment. Then I can add it.  The site allows you to pick the categories that are of interest to you, I usually pick Sky Cover, Temperature, Wind Chill (in the winter); Relative Humidity; Dew Point; Surface Wind Speed and Precipitation Potential.  Then I hit submit and the bars show up and I simply pick the day and time of day I am interested in looking at, slide the mouse along that bar for that day and time and I get the results listed in a pop up box.  Take a look. Another great fit with the tools above.

MesoWest Weather Current Weather Station Reports 

     The next website that I use for looking at the weather is called MesoWest.  You find can MesoWest at this LINK.  MesoWest is best describe from quoting for their Help Webpage. There it states: 
"MesoWest was created to provide access to current and archived weather observations across the United States. It is used by the National Weather Service to aid in forecasting, by researchers to understand severe weather events, and by the public for personal and other uses. MesoWest relies upon weather observing networks that are managed by government agencies, private firms, and educational institutions. Additional stations have been installed at key locations such as near the Great Salt Lake. Observations of temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, precipitation, and other weather parameters are provided and available through the MesoWest interface."
If you are going to use this site, I highly recommend that you review their Help Page at this LINK.  Tons of useful information there.  I use MesoWest for current conditions.  It use to be called MesoNet but that was changed to MesoWest as some networks left and some came on board.  Anyway, for current conditions and to build up a history it is a really useful site to gather weather data.  You can view current humidity and dew levels, temperature and current wind speed. You can create a profile and save that data to build up a history of sites to track how the weather is over time.  I am doing this publicly now so I can show how local weather conditions impact observing.  One feature I did not capture in the video below is the map overlays. This is a really tiny tab in the upper right part of the map next to current fires (which has a flame on it).  Here you can put in current precipitation if you want.  However, if there is rain, your not observing or probably shouldn't be.  So take a look at the video and I hope you can see its use.  


Clear Sky Chart 

     My next area is one well known in the amateur astronomical community, and that is Clear Sky Chart.  You will see by the length I spend on the video that I am not a huge fan of Clear Sky Chart. Too often it is not accurate and I have learned to use the sites I have shared prior to this one to be much more accurate and reflective of current and foretasted weather conditions.  Clear Sky Chart provides a quick view but I usually want to know more in depth in terms of weather conditions so I know whether to go, what to wear, what equipment I will need and how transparency or seeing will impact my observing. Clear Sky Clock is usually based on weather maps that change, and the site doesn't seem to update on a regular basis, perhaps once a day.  So I rely on the sites I shared previous to this one, but I still will look at it. I do find the weather maps that come up by clicking on the individual time box to be helpful.

COD Meteorology 

This site is one that I just enjoy as someone who enjoys weather. I  don't use it a lot to forecast conditions, but I do like the radar and visible images and the infrared maps and water vapor maps.  These maps can be one nationally, covering most of North America or at least the United States, and you can go regional and then down to just a couple of states level.  Lots of options to see how weather is developing and what current conditions are. Very visual and very accurate for immediate. Overtime you can develop your forecasting skills and determine your weather for 3 to 5 days out using this site. I have done that with probably over 90% accuracy.  

     There you have it. Those are the sites I use to determine the cloud cover, temperature, dew and relative humidity, wind speeds and gusts and transparency and seeing that impact observing. There are some skills to developing in terms of weather. One is knowing how water vapor in the air impacts transparency and/or seeing and how that impacts what Deep Sky Object types you may want to go after that evening or night.  Dew impacts equipment and it is important to understand how that interacts to reduce details in objects and how to combat it if you want to observe in the late fall, winter and early spring in Utah.  Clothing requirements are dictated by temperature and humidity, remember humidity can cut through your clothes if your not dressed correctly.  Wind and upper level winds impact observing as well, and knowing when the jet stream meanders away from Utah and when it is zipping over head will tell you when transparency and seeing are not going to be good or when they will be outstanding.  This LINK will help you to see that. 

     So in truth, yes, I have become quite good at forecasting the weather and weather conditions here in Utah. It is partially science and partially an art I believe. Having said that, I still often find myself heading out even with a questionable forecast. Why? Easy answer is that if you wait for perfect conditions, you will only observe two to five times a year IF it aligns with work and family and everything else you have in life.  No, what looking at all this does for me is determine IF I am going, and IF I decide to risk it, what scope to take. I won't take the 17.5" dob if conditions are questionable, I may take the 14" strut dob, or the 10" solid tube or 4" refractor.  The last two are because they are so easy to set up and so easy to break down and fit in the back of my Outback. If conditions don't clear up I don't have to worry about a 10 to 15 minute breakdown.  If it is looking good to great, then either the 14" or 17.5" dob is coming along for the ride and to observe with. 

     So my advice is yes, you probably should know the weather conditions in the area you observe. It tells you how to be prepared in terms of clothing and equipment, and where you want to go.  I hope in some way this helps and I hope if you don't live in Utah, if you have read the post, that you find local resources as I have done to aid you in reviewing weather conditions to make your observing decisions. Keep enjoy the wonders of our night sky!