NASA SOFIA, Not Air Force One, but it is COOL! Plus Top 10 Star Mysteries.

Well after linking together the information Rob put together on transparency and telescopes on mountain tops, I felt this was a good time since its raining and no observing here on the ground at 5000 feet is going to happen, to introduce some of you to NASA's new 747 airplane, SOFIA or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. This isn't Air Force One, but it is EXTREMELY cool if your into astronomy. Here is a link that shows parts of the plane off from the BBC today. IF you want to see more NASA movies then click on this link and view away as SOFIA goes through its test flights. Rather cool I think to watch that modified door on a 747 open and close. Here is NASA's SOFIA homepage. Just think what astronomers will discover when they are able to use this infrared telescope up above all the muck of the lower atmosphere! I look forward to seeing their mission updates and hope you will also.

Want something fun to review when those weather forecasters get the forecast wrong and nothing but a thick layer of clouds has rolled in and won't go away? Here it is, The Top Ten Star Mysteries over at Some you might know, however, bet there might be one or two that are new to most of us! Enjoy and may the clear skies come back to you!

Why Transparency Matters

This was shared at a local email posting group I belong to and I want to share it here. Rob Ratkowski who lives in Hawaii and is a member of my local club shared this article and picture over at Earth Science Picture of the Day. Rob uses it to explain why observatories are built high on mountain top locations, and it shows why transparency is so important. Please take a moment to take a look and read.

Here's the picture, but don't forget to go and read Rob's article for his explanation, it is tremendous!

Sketching Materials and Sketching Lamps

I've wanted to put this together and I hope it comes out like I want. So no new sketches tonight as we went out as our family does for my birthday dinner which is no small feat. Why? I have Celiac disease which means no gluten, yep, the stuff from Wheat, Rye and Barley so there are only a few restaurants I can safely eat in or I get deathly ill. Besides get really sick, the gluten causes my immune system to attack my body and in the end, nothing good comes of it. So I have to avoid gluten. I choose to go to Outback tonight, one of the restaurants I know is safe and when dinner was over with, and we walked outside, bingo, the sky was completely clouded over. No lunar or double star observing for me!

One of the things I haven't mentioned on here too much is my family. I have two teens, a 17 year old daughter named Kendra, who in the summer will come out when I'm observing and sit in a chair and talk for at least a couple of hours. At times, I stop, sit on the ground, and listen. As magical as observing can be, it is those moments, when you really connect with your child through this hobby, just by listening, that the real magical moments happen. I also have a son who is 16 and is a capable observer, though in the winter he abandons observing for the warmth of the house. He has about 30 of the Messier down and often goes to outreach nights with local schools. He was going to come out Sunday night with me, but Mom took him driving as he continues his quest to "bag" the required hours needed so he can get his license.

Anyway, outside of the two kids and my wife and I, in early March my father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer disease in the moderately severe category, and cannot be left alone. He is 82, and to be honest, rebuilt much of our home when he was younger. Yep, he was the master and I wasn't even his apprentice, was his grunt. So now much of our time is taken up in taking care of him. Observing gives me that release as the piano and music does for my wife. I'm lucky to have a wife who supports me in my hobby and kids as struggle to meet our personal goals, family interests and commitments and our commitment to love and honor, Dad, Grandpa and (my father-in-law as I don't want to use his name here). I've made a series of three sketches now to honor him, and I have to say that on two of them, they are the best work I've done. No digital enhancements, just the actual sketch, refined and on paper. Anyway, I know we all have struggles we face, but I hope that our hobby reminds us that in the end, it is people that matter, and our relationships with them. Ok, enough of that. On to the topic now.

I'm going to present images of my sketching materials and offer an explanation of why I have what I have and when I use them. I think you'll see, like with many things in this hobby, it was test and try to find the right equipment.

First off are materials and I'll start with my pencils and my case, and a couple of other items.

You can see that I purchased all my stuff from craft stores like Hobby Lobby, Roberts Crafts and other local stores. I never buy at full price but buy when they go on sale for 30% off or more. No need to pay their marked up prices if not needed. The case to hold the pencils cost me $9.99 on sale. It's leather and holds all that I need. I have Faber Castell pencils in their because they were on sale. I have a HB, 2B, 4B, 2H and 4H in there. I also have three drafting pencils as I have found that they provide me with more control than the straight pencil. I have a separate bag that holds my extra leads for these drafting pencils, and their sharpener. The three blue ones you see hold 2B, 4B and 2H. I have dots on them so I can tell which pencil is which in the dark.

Erasers: You'll see my rubber eraser there, my gum eraser is not here but in my art bag, and you'll see my kneaded eraser. My erasing shield (the silver thing) is there, and no, it is not very sturdy, but sturdy enough to erase with. An important point I think is when you erase use the shield, it protects the rest of the sketch and paper and use a paint brush (I use a modeling one I picked up) to brush the eraser that is left over way. You can also see my sandpaper lead pointer. This I use to sharpen pencils, blending stumps (sometimes, sometimes a sharpener I bought just for them), especially if I want a certain angle or edge on my pencil.

Blending Stumps. I have three sizes of blending stumps; a small one, a medium size one and a larger size. I use the small and medium the most but when needed on large items like M42, the larger stumps has come into play. I have two of the medium as I find it easier to load two different colors on my stumps to try and capture the different tones I see. The two medium are together and the small and large sizes are on the far right in the picture above.

Drawing and holding.

Here is a picture of the sketching book I use. The dimensions are 9.5 inches by 6 inches. I find that this size works best for me and allows me to sketch as I see items. I take my sketches out of the book (that is an old book when I didn't do that) because of a suggestion that I was leaving imprints on my sketch done on the previous page. It was then suggested that I take the page out and put a blank paper on a clipboard and put the sketching paper on that, or place a paper under the sketch so the marks etc. don't carry through. I now take out my blank piece (I make my circles on cloudy nights) and then sketch on a clipboard.

The other item here is a clear plastic hold that I use to hold my sketches. I don't take this in the field as I fear losing it and I have another item for that. After spraying my sketches with Blair, Very Low Odor Spray Fix, and letting them dry, I place them in that pocket that zips closed to keep them safe. The Spray Fix runs around $8.00 to $9.00 a bottle and the plastic pocket cost me $2.00 to $3.00 at Hobby Lobby.

Clipboard and Sketch Holder

Here you can see my clear clipboard that I currently use to sketch on. I'm trying to find a replacement but just not having any luck. I would like something a little thicker and just a little larger. I'll keep looking and to be honest, this is sufficient. The bag is a larger size pencil bag with a clear plastic face and I put my completed sketches in there. It protects them, especially if a night gets dewy out in the field. The green binder is the Messier Telrad Charts for all Messier Objects and I've offered it for free locally and no one has taken me up on it (in clear plastic sheet covers also!). If your local and want them, email me and we can make arrangements (I actually have two, of two different types of charts).


Not shown are the traditional, hold the flashlight in your mouth, but I loan my flashlights out so I decided that wasn't a good thing. Here are three alternatives.

The silver red light is a Walmart Reading/Book Light that I modified to make red by using Rhyolith Paper and Fingernail polish, with a plastic sleeve that can fit over the light (not shown). The neck on this is firm and flexible and I like it a lot. I have one for reading for when the wife goes to sleep. Runs on a watch like battery so keep an extra on hand though in a year I haven't lost any light with it. Edit: Cost: Priced it at Walmart for $5.99 yesterday, April 27, 2010.

The small black one is my least favorite because the neck is just to flimsy. It is like an old Gumby toy that has broken wires and the arms are hard to keep together. However, in its defense it is the darkest light I put out and great at a real dark site when not much light is needed. It's not bad, just not terrific. It is darkened like the Silver Light but to a point that it wouldn't even show up when I tried to take pictures. Runs on a watch battery also, so keep an extra if you use this one. Cost $4.00 or less at Walmart.

The last is a lamp that I bought from Walmart last summer for $9.99 (think it was less as it was on sale). I modified it by taking the clear display off the bottom, putting in Rhyolith and using red fingernail polish to darken up an edge here and there. This runs off of 6 LED lights, so it is quite bright but with the mods, it allows me to see to sketch. If I find I need more light I use this one, and to be honest, I use this one a lot. second only to the silver book light/lamp. I do wear my eye patch when using it though in my observing eye so as not to lose dark adaptation. The head of the lamp swivels 360 degrees and the arm is adjustable from 90 degrees to 180 degrees. Both are really nice features to have when sketching. I can get the light right down on the sketch if I want, or have more of a diffused light if I want it.

Clipping to the Clipboard

Here you can see each light attached to the clipboard. Fairly easy. The two smaller book lights need some extra help so I use the foam washers that are on the top of CD's or DVD's that you buy in the store. Those work like a charm. On the larger one, it doesn't need one or so it seems at first. As you get into your observing though, it will slip or fall off. So, not pictured is a block of wood that is about 2 inches by 4 inches and about 1/4 inch think that I put underneath the bottom clip and it never comes off. All three work fine for this.

The Red Lights in the Dark:

The Large Lamp in the Dark: Easy to see my sketch

The Silver Book Light: Not as Bright, but very doable.

Again, the small, black reading lamp was too dark to get an image fun. It does provide just that touch of light needed to observe with, record the observations and sketch. Great for a dark site. I think you can see that by far the LED lamp is still really bright. If that lamp was adjustable I think I would use it more. I need to take out a couple of LED lights and see if two, three or four are the best elements. I'll do that soon. The Silver book light/lamp is my favorite. It also has an adjustable arm but one that is firm and works great.

So, hopefully I've helped. I had an Orion adjustable lamp that got broken, and am ordering a new one, but I really enjoyed that lamp a lot. I recommend you go over Jeremy Perez's site and see what he did for his lighting which is adjustable I believe. You can find it here.