Category Archives: Astronomy

Venus & Luna Part Ways (For This Month)

Two days ago the moon was about a hand’s-width below Venus at Sunset.

Yesterday they were right next to each other.


It’s almost like the Earth isn’t flat, space is really really big and ruled by laws of physics that we can figure out, and that if you use that really fancy math (using ALL of your toes and fingers, and maybe some of your friends’ as well) you could predict this.

Who’d a thunk it?

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Conjunction Sunset – July 15th

As I “warned” you last night, tonight Venus and the Moon were at conjunction in the sunset skies. (I realize I keep using terms that might not be familiar to some folks – a “conjunction” is just when two celestial objects come close to one another from our point of view as one or both of them are moving about in their orbits.)

Tonight I brought the telescope out into the front yard for the first time at the new house.

We’re having that good LA “heat wave” weather where it’s pretty much clear as a bell, no coastal clouds this early in the evening, and no brush fires (yet!) filling the skies with smoke.

Even I was surprised at how soon after sunset you could see both the crescent moon and Venus.

As it started to get dark, I was hoping that some of our new neighbors might mosey by to see what the new weirdo on the block had in his driveway. Sadly, none did.

The close conjunction was stunning to see with the naked eye. Through the telescope Venus was a bit over half illuminated, where the moon looked as amazing as always. With the terminator (the line between night and day) so close to the limb of the moon, the contrasts and shadows really bring out a lot of detail and depth.

Through the telephoto lens (a Tamron 70-300 zoom on a Canon Rebel xTi) you could see both the moon and Venus together. Exposures were a pain because that thin slice of the moon is so bright compared to everything else, but you can see a touch of detail.

I also looked at Jupiter and its moons, and tried briefly (in vain) to find a couple Messier galaxies in the haze near the moon and the horizon. Then one of the local neighborhood cats stopped by, mainly I suspect to see if I had any food. I didn’t, it left, and the mosquitoes came.

Before I packed up I decided to try again to see if I could just hold the iPhone camera up to the lens of the telescope and take a picture. What’s the worst that could happen?

Turns out that can work okay!

Tomorrow night the moon will be well above Venus. Next month when the meet again Venus will have started back toward the Sun and when the Moon is near they’ll be barely above the horizon less than an hour after sunset. There may be very little to be seen from here due to that big peak over there. We’ll see.

I hope you got to see the conjunction tonight! If you didn’t and you have a chance, go see it tomorrow, even if the Moon will have moved up away from Venus a bit. It will still look brilliant and awesome!


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Venus & Luna Are At It Again!

Those two! Talk about your monthly meetups! It’s almost like it was foretold in the stars or something.

Star crossed lovers! (HAH!)

Sorry. (David Attenborough voiceover: “He was NOT sorry.”)

Ahem. Where were we? Oh, yes…

The moon having gone around a full month since last month’s encounter, and Venus still being big and bright in the sunset sky, and all of them staying more or less on or near the ecliptic since there’s that whole physics and Newtonian mechanics and Kelperian orbits thing going on, the two very bright and very pretty planetary bodies are converging into a conjunction once again.

By the time that I got out there, the moon was very near the horizon, it was getting nice and dark, and this is a pretty decent representation of what it looked like to the naked eye. Except, of course, to the naked eye it was AWESOME!

If all you do is glance at the moon, you see the crescent.

With a decent telephoto lens, as seen above, you can see some detail and craters, particularly along the terminator line.

But if you take your time and let your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see quite a bit of detail on the “dark” surface of the moon, illuminated by sunlight reflected off of the Earth and then back to your eyes. It’s called “Earthshine.”

(Someday I’ll figure out how to get rid of that annoying internal reflection that mirrors any bright object in an otherwise dim picture – but this is not that day.)

Now that I’ve found that tripod that I was bitching about all through June, I can take longer exposures without a lot of blurring. Sort of like this one, which might be already one of my favorite picture I’ve ever taken:

Click on it to view it in full screen. It’s not überfantastic or likely to get me invited to work at NASA or JPL next week (although if any offers come in I’m more than ready to discuss them!) but even with simple 2.5 second exposure on a tripod, a number of bright stars started showing up in the image.

So I went hunting and web surfing to ID some of them.

The bright star midway between Venus and the Moon is Regulus, or Alpha Leonis. “Alpha Leonis” means it’s the brightest star in the constellation Leo. (The second brightest would be Beta Leonis, the third brightest would be Gamma Leonis, and so on.) Regulus is about 77 light years away and is at least a quadruple-star system.

I’ve also tagged (hopefully correctly, but if you lose Final Jeopardy betting on my accuracy it’s your own damn fault) Eta (η) Leonis, Gamma (γ) Leonis, Epsilon (ε) Leonis, and Rho (ρ) Leonis. (This also just gave me a really good excuse to spend the last half hour teaching myself how to enter those Greek letters as HTML code into my WordPress document, which is probably not nearly as much of a “waste of time” as my anal brain would like to be telling me it is. “Play” – I recommend it!)

You’ll notice that some of these stars also have other names. For example, Gamma (γ) Leonis is also known (“commonly” or not) as Algieba. Many star names of today come from Arabic since Arabic astronomers dominated the field while Europe was in the Dark Ages for a few hundred years. Other civilizations have all had their own names for all of the bright stars (Algieba was known in Chinese as 軒轅十二 , i.e., the Twelfth Star of Xuanyuan, who was some Chinese deity dude) but most of the Arabic names have stuck.

You’ll also see a couple of stars named “HR 3980” and “HR 4035” – these are stars which didn’t rate Arabic or Chinese or Greek names, so instead they’re stuck with boring, precise, antiseptic names from our modern society. (As I’m typing this, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” is playing on the Saturday Night Safety Dance – “Science! Science! Science!” from the extended play disco version is probably an appropriate response to “HR 3980.”) When you see a stellar designation like this it will refer to a catalog of some sort, in this case the Harvard Revised Photometry Catalogue. (“Science! Science! Science!”)

Keep an eye on the sunset sky over the next couple of nights, tomorrow night in particular! Tomorrow night the moon will be very close to Venus and


(Okay, yeah, I had to go do a quick search to see what the HTML code for that is as well. Let the “screwing with the way the web site looks” begin!!)


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DO IT! See What Happens!

The keen-eyed among you may have notice in the background of yesterday’s BBQ pictures a large, white, tubular object on a heavy-duty steel mount off in the background.

Tonight was the night to give it a spin again. Granted, there were many reasons not to.

  • The mirror is filthy, hasn’t been cleaned in years! (But on Mars, Opportunity’s solar panels are also covered in dust and working at only a fraction of their capability, but it’s in its FIFTEENTH YEAR of its ninety day mission, so suck it up, Buttercup.)
  • With all of the rattling around over the past few months, the optics probably aren’t aligned at all! (They’re not perfect, but they work.)
  • There’s no way that pesky finder ‘scope is still aligned! (I must have done a hell of a job the last time I aligned it, it was still spot on.)
  • I can’t find any of the eyepieces, even after looking through box after box last night! (Okay, this one almost stopped me, and in a day or two I’ll have more to say about the problem in general, but this was solved by a quick trip to Woodland Hills Camera & Telescope, a wonderful place that happens to only be a half mile from my office.)
  • I’m in the middle of LA with all of that light pollution! (True – so what?)
  • There’s some haze building up tonight! (Again, true, but it’s far from being a show stopper.)

Fortunately, after spending half the day listening to my stupid head think up excuses to not even try, I finally decided to put on my big boy pants and “waste” a couple of hours seeing what could be seen.

Even with the fuzzy, dirty optics, the phase of Venus could been seen. I would have guessed about 60% to 65% illuminated – the National Observatory app says 69.2%. Close enough for government work.

Jupiter is (as always) spectacular. The four Galilean moons are clearly visible as well as multiple cloud bands on Jupiter.

I moved the scope around the yard a bit – the trees there are bigger and block more of the sky than I had thought before I tried to point a telescope through them. But there’s a nice spot over on the patio where the light from the streetlights in the front is all blocked, while there’s a lot of clear sky toward the zenith and toward the south. I think that’s a winner for now.

From there, Scorpius is clearly visible. That’s also looking toward the coast (south) and that’s where that haze was the worst, so there wasn’t a lot to see in the Milky Way and all of the nebulosity areas down around the tail of the scorpion and over toward Capricorn. (But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be better seeing on another night now that I know where to set up the scope.)

From most of the back yard the North Star, Polaris, is clearly visible above the houses next door. The hill starts to drop off that way, which means that I don’t have someone’s second story blocking my view. That in turn means that it’s a piece of cake to eyeball the alignment of the telescope stand, pointing the polar axis straight at the pole. Which meant that with the drive turned on, there was almost no drift all night, even when I let it sit and run for well over an hour. That’s awesome!

All of that in turn meant that I should have been able to spot M-13 in Hercules, the big globular cluster that should have been almost straight overhead. I didn’t. Probably a combination of the haze, the dirty optics, the light pollution, and being more than just a bit rusty in remembering which guide stars to use to point it in the right directions. A minor disappointment, but one which can be rectified with a bit of research and a bit of practice. This failure shall not stand!


The neighborhood hawk has a nest just down the hill and I could hear it calling almost constantly until the sun set. Or maybe the neighborhood hawk was out silently hunting while her chicks were calling almost constantly until sunset. It was amazing to listen to.

Several times after dark I heard an owl – not too surprising since I heard them at the old house at night and we only moved less than a mile. It was amazing to listen to also. I would love to see it some time.

If you’re quiet you can hear frogs. Down at the bottom of the hill are the flood control channels that used to be Bell Creek, which in turn form up with a bunch of other local creeks to form the LA River a mile or two away. But the creeks aren’t 100% concrete and blacktop these days with some efforts to let them go back to a more natural state where possible in some areas – I suspect that’s where I’m hearing the frogs.

The 737’s coming into Burbank Runway 08 were lining up right over the house tonight as they come down the coast from San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, San Jose, and so on. They’re at about 5,000 feet as they go overhead, which is about 4,000+ feet over ground level, but it seems like they’re much lower. It’s fun, so long as I’m not doing astrophotography.

Despite the bats (I love the bats!) in the evening, we still have a few mosquitoes. Probably from the same place as the frogs.

It’s only July 2nd, but there are fireworks going off all over the place. Often followed nearly immediately by police sirens. Because every now and then the police sirens are followed by fire truck sirens. It’s way too hot and dry for this shit, but people are morons.


Having easily lined up Jupiter with my dirty, misaligned optics (riding on a rock solid alignment of the polar axis!) can I take a picture using only my cell phone camera being hand held up to the eyepiece lens?

Why, yes! Yes I can! It’s not going to rival anything done by NASA, but as with the dancing bear, it’s not that it’s not being done well, it’s that it’s being done at all.

How about with a bigger eyepiece?

Dang, you can actually see those aforementioned Galilean moons! To get them the disk of Jupiter’s overexposed so you don’t see the bands, but that doesn’t completely suck.

What are we looking at here?

Image: From Sky & Telescope

Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io. Better yet, wondering about Ganymede so close to the planet, was it coming out from behind, going behind, going in front? Yes, the app could tell me that, but it was more fun to check back in a couple of hours. (It was coming out from a transit, passing from right to left across the face of the planet and moving off toward the lower left, nearer to Callisto.)

And if I had clean optics and at least slightly better viewing conditions and could stay up for a few more hours, I could watch Ganymede’s shadow cross the face of Jupiter.

Future goals.


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Rising In The East

Far, far off, beyond the Hollywood Hills and (probably) Griffith Park, through the late evening haze and gathering coastal marine layer, tonight I spotted the moon rising so orange and dark that it looked like it was eclipsed.

The “good” camera wanted to take a sixty-second exposure, which wasn’t useful without a tripod. (Note to self – find one of the tripods, put it on the back porch.) The iPhone did a bit better, but doesn’t properly convey just how colorful and rich the hue was.

Especially vivid was the sense of looking down on the rising moon. Our hill just isn’t that big so it’s got to be some sort of illusion or effect, but combined with the moon illusion, it was quite an attention grabber.

What the good camera did give, with the long exposure and the lack of a tripod, was some interesting effects. Here the trail of the moon actually is a pretty good representation of the color.

Something to keep an eye out for in the future. Especially after I find one of the tripods.


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Night Sky From The New Back Yard

In the front yard I get to see cool sunsets, but there’s a big street light out there interfering with the view once it gets dark. (Gotta figure a way to turn that off when I need to…) But taking the trash out tonight I note that once you get close enough to the house to be in the shadow of that big street light, there’s a little patch of relatively dark sky there. At least, dark by “in the middle of one of the top 20 metropolises on the planet” standards.

Even with just my cellphone, Jupiter’s nice and bright and of course any camera will pick out that nice first quarter moon on the right. In between, even Spica can be seen.

Just wait until I find and have a minute to start playing with the better equipment!

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Crescent Moon & Venus – June 15th

There’s a nice view to the west from the new house. Tonight we had again had a lovely, 2-day old crescent moon to float along in it.

A couple of palm trees off in the neighbors’ yards to provide a bit of foreground for perspective, but not enough to block much of the sky.

Shortly after sunset it’s still bright enough so that a fast exposure can be used and there isn’t much blurring, even with a hand-held picture.

I’m going to like this front yard in the evening.

As it got a touch darker, Venus popped into view.

The pair were lovely together, as always.

Still hand-held (I think I know where the tripod is, but it would be non-trivial to go get it right now as I unpack) but steady enough to show craters along the terminator.

I caught one of the jets coming into LAX on this one. (Middle left.) Often as they’re leaving LAX on a route up the coast or to Asia they come right over our head, but those coming back the other way swing out over Ventura County, hang a left a Malibu, turn base over Dodger Stadium, and turn final over Huntington Park. Which puts them into this view.

Looking forward to the days when I can sit for an hour and watch something like this all the way to the horizon without my brain bugging me with, “You really should be…” Yes, I know. Unpacking. Catching up on my Wing duties and reports. Catching up on my personal accounting. Cleaning up the garage. Loading up the van with stuff to go to storage.

When did sitting on your ass and breathing for an hour get a bad reputation?


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