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Archive for the ‘Astronomy’ Category

Comet Spotting: Pan-STARRS

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Comet Pan-STARRS from Schaumburg IL
Comet Pan-STARRS as viewed from Schaumburg IL, 3/13/13

Last night I headed to an artificial hill constructed by the Schaumburg Park District that is probably the highest ground location relative to the surroundings within a 20 minute drive of my home. From that outdoor perch I had hopes of seeing Comet Pan-STARRS.

I was in place observing at about 20 minutes after sunset – about 7:20pm. Pan-STARRS would be setting at 8:18pm so I had one hour to hunt. I had not brought binoculars with me – only my camera. Almost as annoying as the bright sky was the cold. Standing in an exposed position on the top of a hill in 20 degree weather is not my cup of tea.

I looked to the horizon with some trepidation. The combination of haze and horizon glow made for a very bright sky. And street lights in the foreground didn’t help. The only celestial object I could see on the western horizon was the Moon. Below the Moon, nothing. No stars, no Mars – just glow. With a magnitude of 0.9 (the magnitude of Mars is a slightly dimmer 1.2) I has serious doubts as to whether or not I would see Pan-STARRS.

A couple times I thought I detected it using averted vision but in hindsight I think it was unlikely. Over the course of my observing I would periodically take a slightly overexposed photograph to see if I could find Pan-STARRS with my camera. I saw nothing.

Hands numb, I packed up my camera and tripod at 8:15pm and headed home. Popping my camera’s SD card into the computer I was elated to see Comet Pan-STARRS. Once I had the RAW file opened in Photoshop, I duplicated the background layer and set the duplicate layer’s blend mode to multiply. This darkened the sky significantly while leaving the comet’s brightness unchanged – thus greatly increasing the degree of contrast between the comet and the background sky.

A cropped full resolution section of the processed source photograph is used to illustrate this story. You can view the entire photograph here:
Full resolution processed source photograph of Comet Pan-STARRS
In the photo, taken at 7:58pm, you can see just how close Pan-STARRS was to the horizon. The fact that it was almost directly above a street light certainly made it more difficult for my eyes to see it. In the linked photograph, Pan-STARRS as well as a few of the brighter stars are identified with their name appearing slightly above and to the right of the associated object. Here is a link to the star chart I used for identifying the stars in the photograph:
Star chart showing Pan-STARRS on March 13 from Schaumburg IL

Hopefully there will be clear skies this Saturday at Yerkes Observatory and hopefully I’ll be able to find the time to observe Pan-STARRS from that location. The timing will be difficult as I am slated to give a presentation from 7:15 to 7:45pm – prime time for observing Pan-STARRS. Wish me luck.

Ad Astra, Jim

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A Day at Yerkes Observatory: Mars and Astronomical Art

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Yerkes Observatory
Yerkes Observatory,Williams Bay, WI

This Saturday March 16 I will be participating in both a teacher workshop and a public star party at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay WI. This will be my first time visiting Yerkes in a long time. Aside from my duties that day, I hope that I have sufficient time to explore and photograph this landmark observatory.

Packing for Mars Teacher Workshop

Packing for Mars
Packing for Mars

The theme for the teacher workshop I’m taking part in is "Packing for Mars" and uses as its focus the book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton & Company; 2010). If you are a teacher it is not too late to register. Registration includes CPDUs and lunch. A fee of $25 for the workshop will be collected on the day of the workshop.

The segment that I will be leading, What Would You Bring?, actually deals with planning a human mission to Mars. Identifying the resources a mission would need to bring along is a subset of the overall mission planning. Other aspects of mission planning include mission objectives, mission duration, infrastructure, and strategic and tactical implementation issues.

The planned agenda for the day is:

8:30am Coffee and Registration
9:00am Book Discussion: Packing for Mars
10:00am What Would You Bring?
11:00am Discussion with Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars
12:00pm Lunch provided by Stars at Yerkes
1:00pm Packing the Portable Life Support System (PLSS)
2:00pm Building Project
4:15pm Wrap up: final thoughts, additional resources, evaluations and CPDUs

To register, complete the Packing for Mars Teacher Workshop Registration Form.

Yerkes Observatory Public Star Party

In the evening there will be a public star party with, hopefully, clear skies. If you do not know what a star party is, it provides people with the opportunity to observe various astronomical wonders using a telescope. For more information, check out the Wikipedia entry for Star Party. As a part of the star party, I will be giving a highly condensed version of my presentation The Art of Astronomy which looks at the evolution of astronomical art over the years.

The star party begins at 7:00pm and ends at 9:00pm. My presentation is about 30 minutes long and will start at 7:15pm. If you plan on attending the Yerkes Observatory Public Star Party, there is a fee of $5 per person or $15 per family. To help the astronomers get an idea of how many people will be attending, please fill out the
Yerkes Observatory Public Star Party Registration Form.

Yerkes Observatory Information

Location: 373 West Geneva Street, Williams Bay WI 53191
Web Site:
Location on Map: Google Maps

Ad Astra, Jim

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Hubble 3D IMAX Movie

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Hubble 3D IMAX movie
Hubble 3D IMAX movie

What a great IMAX movie. Thursday I visited Chicago’s Navy Pier to take some photographs and attend a screening of the latest IMAX movie – Hubble 3D. I had a number of free passes so I and several friends from the National Space Society met up to see the movie.

According to the theater Shuttle astronaut John Grunsfeld, who was in the movie and was one of the astronauts on the last Hubble servicing mission, was supposed to be there. However there was no John Grunsfeld. I never did ask anyone from the theater what happened.

As to the movie, the main themes were the training for the Hubble servicing mission, the actual servicing mission itself, and simulated 3D views of some of Hubble’s better known observations. The blend of shuttle launches, astronaut training, the Hubble servicing missions, and the simulated trips through the Orion Nebula and M87 kept the movie well paced.

The 3D, which relies on polarized light rather than the red/blue anaglyph, really made the movie spectacular. When the astronauts were in the Space Shuttle’s payload bay servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, it was like being there with them. One particularly effective shot was a close in view of astronaut Megan McArthur suited up prior to boarding the Space Shuttle for the STS-125 mission. She was seated and it was like she was seated only a few feet in front of me. I felt like I could reach out and give her a high-five. Megan was a mission specialist on STS-125, the 5th and final Hubble servicing mission, and worked the remote manipulator system (RMS) used to grab the Hubble Space Telescope and bring it into the Shuttle’s payload bay.

Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula is arguably the best known and most photographed astronomical feature. Astronomically, the highlight of the movie was the simulated trip to and through the Orion Nebula, which is a stellar nursery. I’ve had an interest in the Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42 or M42, for a long time and have in the past considered putting together a presentation on the subject. If you want to know a lot more about the Orion Nebula, I recommend the book The Orion Nebula: Where Stars Are Born.


There were some slow moments during the show that relied on non-3d visuals. These were primarily news reports associated with Hubble’s initial optical problems (recall that the primary mirror was ground a fraction of the width of a human hair out of shape).

I would have liked to have seen more of the movie devoted to astronomy. There were some beautiful 3D stills, like that of the Helix Nebula, and the simulated trip to the galaxy known as M87, a giant elliptical galaxy with a super massive black hole at its center. And there was more – just not enough for me.

Bottom Line

If you are at all interested in space exploration or astronomy, then this is a movie you’ll enjoy. The 3D views are amazing and the script provides a great educational opportunity. And did I mention that the 3D views are amazing.


After the movie we headed to Bubba Gump’s for food and drink. Bubba Gump’s wasn’t our first choice but other than Harry Caray’s, it was the only place still open. For the next hour and a half we talked some about the movie but mostly about the National Space Society and the upcoming International Space Development Conference (ISDC) – which all of us have an involvement in. For my part, I am the ISDC webmaster and am the point of contact for the Call for Papers. The ISDC is being held in Chicago this year over Memorial Day weekend and is the best space exploration conference for the general public. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and many other space luminaries, will be attending. For more about the ISDC, check out the International Space Development Conference web site.

The Hubble 3D IMAX Web Site

The IMAX folks have a web site for the Hubble 3D movie. There is background about the shuttle missions, the astronauts, and a few movie wallpapers available. Be forewarned – the web site is heavy. If you don’t have a high speed internet connection the site will take some time to load. And if you don’t have a newer computer – well let’s just say that the site will put a strain on your browser. So for more about the movie, visit

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Sagan video Glorious Dawn – Art Meets Science

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

It’s great when art and science come together to produce something that is both entertaining and intellectual. The video that follows is an excellent example of that. Nothing like science set to music. The video Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn featuring Stephen Hawking (Cosmos Remixed) stars the words and vocalizations of Carl Sagan with a special guest appearance by Stephen Hawking. So sit back, turn up the volume, and enjoy the electronic vocalizations of Carl Sagan.

FYI: The best music videos are those that appeal to both my musical tastes and my aesthetic values – with a scoop of imagination thrown in.

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Space Art and Astronomy Day

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009
Astronomy Day at Harper College
Map for Astronomy Day at Harper College

Saturday May 2, the Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be hosting an evening of astronomical activities at Harper College in Palatine IL. Some of what visitors can expect includes:

  • Telescopes on Display
  • Access to the Campus Observatory
  • Astronomy Lectures
  • Displays and Photographs
  • Projects for Children

I will be one of the lecturers and I’ll be talking about space art. The title of my presentation is Art and the Exploration of Space. I provided the following description of my talk to the NSA:

Art has been used as a means of visualizing alien worlds and illustrating science fiction magazines. The arrival of the space age provided art with a new purpose: the visualization of the human exploration of space. This presentation provides a historical overview of the evolution of space art and the means by which art has been used to capture and portray humanity’s first steps into the space frontier.

This is an expanded version of a talk I originally gave in 2008 at the International Space Development Conference in Washington D.C. Note that this Astronomy Day event will be held rain or shine. Most of the activities are inside. If the sky is clear, telescopes will be available for viewing a variety of celestial objects. The event is free and suitable for both adults and children.

Astronomy Day Details
Saturday May 2, 2009 at 5:30 pm
Programs begin on the hour at 6:00, 7:00, and 8:00
The Planetarium Dome admission requires a free ticket available at the information desk

William Rainey Harper College, Building Z
Algonquin Road Entrance, Parking Lots 2 & 3
Palatine, IL

Ad Astra, Jim

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Illinois Senate Battles for Planet Pluto

Thursday, February 26th, 2009
Dwarf planet Pluto
The Dwarf Planet Pluto

The Illinois 96th General Assembly (2009-2010) fresh from demoting Governor Rod Blagojevich to non-governor status is out to balance things out by promoting Pluto back to planetary status. Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), the man who discovered Pluto on January 23, 1930, was born in Illinois. Up until the time that the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet (2006), not only could the United States boast of having a native born planet discoverer but so could Illinois. Being a native Illinoian myself I rather liked that. I even had the honor of meeting Clyde Tombaugh quite a few years ago and have an autographed copy of his book Out of Darkness: The Planet Pluto, co-authored with Patrick Moore.

Up until the International Astronomical Union’s 2006 meeting there had never been a formal definition of just what constituted a planet – it was one of those intuitively obvious things. The discovery of 2003 UB313 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. 2003 UB313 was larger than Pluto! What to do? To declare 2003 UB313 a planet would have opened the door to defining Ceres and other like sized objects as planets. It was felt that there was a need for a new category of objects, with size being just one of the factors. The result was a new class known as dwarf planets, of which there are now five members:

  • Ceres
  • Eris (aka 2003 UB313)
  • Haumea
  • Makemake
  • Pluto

In order to reclaim one of Illinois’ claims to fame there is a resolution in the Illinois Senate calling for Pluto to be considered a planet and that March 13, 2009 be declared “Pluto Day” here in Illinois. Following is the resolution that is currently before the Illinois Senate.

SENATE RESOLUTION SR0046 LRB096 04130 KXB 14171 r

WHEREAS, Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto, was born on a farm near the Illinois community of Streator; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh served as a researcher at the prestigious Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh first detected the presence of Pluto in 1930; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh is so far the only Illinoisan and only American to ever discover a planet; and

WHEREAS, For more than 75 years, Pluto was considered the ninth planet of the Solar System; and

WHEREAS, A spacecraft called New Horizons was launched in January 2006 to explore Pluto in the year 2015; and

WHEREAS, Pluto has three moons: Charon, Nix and Hydra; and

WHEREAS, Pluto’s average orbit is more than three billion miles from the sun; and

WHEREAS, Pluto was unfairly downgraded to a “dwarf” planet in a vote in which only 4 percent of the International Astronomical Union’s 10,000 scientists participated; and

WHEREAS, Many respected astronomers believe Pluto’s full planetary status should be restored; therefore, be it

RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-SIXTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois’ night skies, that it be reestablished with full planetary status, and that March 13, 2009 be declared “Pluto Day” in the State of Illinois in honor of the date its discovery was announced in 1930.

One bit of misleading information is the point that only 4 percent of the IAU’s 10,000 scientists voted. One thing that must be noted is that IAU membership is for life so included in the total membership number are those individuals who are no longer active in either astronomy or the IAU.

Due to the diverse nature of its mission and the different fields of science involved, the IAU is organized into 12 Divisions, 40 Commissions, and 71 Working Groups and Program Groups. The division that deals with planetary science is the Division III Planetary Systems Sciences which has approximately 1,000 members (active and retired).

So while the vote was open to all attending members, only a fraction would have had a direct interest in the outcome of the vote. It is also interesting to note that the outcome of the official vote was similar in proportion to that of a straw poll of Division III Planetary Systems Sciences members that was conducted earlier that day.

I am all in favor of having a “Pluto Day” and acknowledging the accomplishments of Clyde Tombaugh. This is especially appropriate as 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. However when it comes to deciding whether an object is a planet or not, I put my faith in the International Astronomical Union and not Illinois politicians.

About the Pluto Illustration

To create the illustration of Pluto for this post I began with an albedo map taken from a Hubble Space Telescope image. I then created a grayscale texture for the planet’s, oops make that dwarf planet’s surface. I then used hue/saturation and levels adjustment layers to further manipulate the texture and layer styles to fuzz up the dwarf planet’s limb. All work was done using Adobe Photoshop.

If you live in Illinois, I encourage you to contact your state Senator and let them know that you are in favor of honoring Clyde Tombaugh and Pluto but I leave it for you to decide whether to support or oppose the attempt to have Pluto classified as a planet.

Ad Astra, Jim

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