Category Archives: Astronomy

Ice Ice Baby

In this case, a thin layer of it at about 30,000′, called cirrostratus nebulosus clouds.

Quite the pleasant surprise when you’re just going out to stretch your legs!

Other critters besides me were impressed. There was a pack of coyotes, sounded like a half dozen or more, howling away and carrying on something fierce. It sounded like they were down on the next street downhill from us to the west.

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Comet Leonard

Happy to say that I’m ending 2021 on at least one high note!

Comet Leonard was discovered last January, diving toward the Sun. Its closest approach to the Sun is coming up on January 3rd, following its closest approach to Earth, which happened on December 12th. Don’t worry, it never got closer than 34.6M kilometers (21.5M miles).

Comets are notoriously lousy at allowing predictions of how bright they’ll get, and a first there wasn’t a lot of hope for Comet Leonard. However, it started unexpectedly brightening in November, and by early December it was visible in binoculars and small telescopes. It’s just in the last couple of weeks moved to where it can be seen in the evening sky in North America.

I’ve been trying to spot it for about ten days, weather permitting. A couple of times with a really good pair of binoculars I’ve thought that I might have seen it, sorta, maybe, kinda, -ish? But it’s very low in the twilight sky in the west, even when we haven’t had outright clouds, we’ve had haze and “gunk” in the sky, and I live in one of the biggest and brightest and light polluting-ist metropolitan areas on the planet.

But I haven’t given up. And neither should you.

If you want to try to find it, there are a couple of ways to know where to look. First of all, there’s a great site at The Sky Live. Change the location in at the top (unless you too are in Woodland Hills, CA) and scroll down to the map. Tonight, just before 18:00 local, mine looked like this:

(Image from The Sky Live – click to enlarge)

Note that there are three bright planets in this view and they can be your guideposts to look. Jupiter is at the top center (really bright), Venus at the bottom right having juuuuuust set in this view (really stinkin’ bright), and Saturn between them (bright). So in rough terms, right now Comet Leonard is a little to the left of a line dropped straight down to the horizon from Jupiter, and a little bit higher than Venus, maybe a third of the way up higher than Saturn is compared to Venus.

Tonight I started looking in that area with binoculars since it was crystal clear after yesterday’s rain and before tomorrow’s rain. Still low in the sky, still a ton of light pollution, and the best view in that direction that I had from my yard was a spot where I was standing directly under that stupid freakin’ streetlight. And yet, after a few minutes, there it was!!

I looked for a bit, looked away and looked back to find it again and verify that I was actually seeing it. It did NOT look like the pictures folks are taking from the Southern Hemisphere with big telescopes. But where all of the stars I could see were pinpoints, this was a tiny, fuzzy fuzzball with a slight greenish tint and the tiniest bit of tail, pointing off to about the 10:00 position. (Ignore the orientation of the tail on the Sky Live map, it’s just an icon. The real tail will point straight away from the Sun, so to the upper left.)

COOL!!!

Before it set and before the next storm could move in tonight – could I catch an image of it? While I can’t see it through the telephoto lens, using the binoculars I can see that it’s just above the tree that’s behind the neighbor’s house’s chimney which is right above their Christmas lights. Can I shoot several sets of pictures at various magnifications and exposures and eyeballing the pointing, while using bright, bright Jupiter as an object to manually focus the lens that’s notoriously difficult to focus? We wouldn’t know until I tried, right?

(CLICK ON IT!)

Using this “carpet bombing” approach and using lots of cheap memory instead of film, there are a few captures. The comet isn’t centered since I was shooting blind. but over on that right hand side, slightly below center, you’ll see a greenish fuzzy spot, which is Comet Leonard. (The bright yellow line at the top is a power line, illuminated by that freakin’ streetlight just over my head.)

This is a 2 second exposure at 135mm on the zoom lens. What about a 4 second exposure?

Where are we looking? Compare the stars you can see to the area highlighted in this zoomed in version of the Sky Live map:

What if I zoom in? Still getting lucky?

4 seconds at 300mm zoom. Comet Leonard over on the far right center.

2.5 seconds at 300mm zoom. Comet Leonard in the upper right corner. How close are we getting to the horizon? Even zoomed in this far, at the bottom you can see the top of that tree behind the neighbor’s chimney… In five minutes, it will be gone and the air near the horizon is getting thick and soupy, fast.

This might well have been the last real chance I’ll have to see Comet Leonard given our weather forecast, but I’ll be keeping my eyes open, just in case. Over the next week or two Comet Leonard will be moving a bit each night to the left and up a bit, but it will also be getting more dim as it pulls away from the Earth.

Good comet hunting as we come up on the New Year!

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Pushing Back The Dark

It’s the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s no coincidence that all of the major religions have significant holidays around this time of year. Their ancestors knew. We sometimes forget.

These days are dark, both literally and figuratively. Let’s all work to make the coming days brighter, shining our light into the world, pushing back on the darkness. The astronomy and physics will be what it will be, even if none of us is here, so let’s work on some of the things we can affect so that we will be here in the future.

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Handheld

No tripod, an impulse picture since it was suddenly clear-ish. A little haze and the ever-present LA light pollution so there’s some washout, but not too bad.

Click on it to blow it up! Taurus (shaped like a “>”) at the top, Orion between it and the treetops. Can’t miss it.

43ºF out there – brisk!

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Moments Of Zen

It was windy. A pretty steady 20+ knots with gusts to 30+. The wind chimes were working overtime.

And dry. The hummingbird feeders were empty and Little Bastard was pissed. Every time I went out into the back yard he was buzzing me, reminding me that the feeders were empty. I finally took them down, cleaned them, and put more nectar in them.

After dark the clouds and fog of the past several evenings were gone (of course!) and our three current planetary visitors were still lined up nicely.

For those of you needing an assist to ID them:

Keep breathing, folks.

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DART Launch From Vandenberg

It’s launch night out of Vandenberg again, but we had a fair amount of clouds and fog forming to our west. We’re about 130 miles from Vandenberg, and if the weather cooperates, we can see the launches very clearly. Tonight wasn’t going to be that night. But I took the setup on a tripod out to the front yard anyway, just in case.

Good move.

It wasn’t as great as when the weather’s “clear and a million,” but it was more than I expected to see!

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Last Night’s 97% Lunar Eclipse

Did you see it?

Here in LA I thought that I might not see it at all, given the clouds that were moving in earlier in the evening, but they were scattered around 23:00 when the umbral eclipse started

But, you deal with what you have been dealt, right? So here’s the first 30 minutes or so of the eclipse from the good camera, shooting thorough the cloud layer about every 6-7 minutes, focusing as best I could (which, frankly, is marginal):

Focus getting worse? Well, yes, because in addition to the high clouds, the fog was starting to roll in off of the coast and out of Ventura County to the west. So it was getting really damp, dew was forming on the lens, and no matter how much I tried to keep it dry and clear, I was getting to this:

Now, I was also running two other cameras including a good video camera, and that stayed clear of dew and condensation another hour or so until the fog completely wiped out the view right around maximum totality at 01:02. I may be able to pull some decent still images off of that. Later. Maybe.

As for the other camera, it was just an old iPhone that I put into time-lapse mode, and that actually turned out sort of cool!

So I gave the photography and video my best shot, but it was what it was. Aside from that, it was (as always!) really neat and interesting to watch the Moon disappear and see a demonstration of celestial mechanics right there in my own front yard!

Did you get to see it?

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ISS Rising Through Clouds

Tonight it’s clouds, unlike last night’s fog and haze and layers of ice crystals making things fuzzy. Plus, we’re back into some decent ISS evening passes. Time to fire up the light bucket!

(I’m giving you the full-sized file – click on it to blow it up BIG!)

While it is fall, the foliage hasn’t gotten that red – there were a couple of cars parked there with their brake lights on.

On the left side, just to the right of the telephone pole and just above the trees, Venus is setting. Very bright.

The ISS is rising from behind that tree toward the upper right, fading out as it goes into shadow just before it passes in front of Vega, the bright star there.

Moving horizontally way off in the distance is China Airlines Flight #008, coming in to LAX from Taipei. They’ve been in the air for almost eleven hours.

Partially hidden behind that big tree on the far right is Alaska Airlines Flight #520 from Seattle, going into Burbank. They’re four minutes out on a two hour flight.

Finally, there are our scattered to moderate clouds. We’ll see how they look tomorrow night when I’m going to want to be looking at the 98% lunar eclipse.

 

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22º Halo

I went out this evening to check out the clouds. They’re moving in, which is BAD for Thursday night. (More about that in a bit.) The eleven-day-old moon is bright, but between it and the clouds…

There’s that full 22º halo around the moon, the result of the moonlight being refracted through layers of ice crystals high in the atmosphere.

The long lines on the right are aircraft contrails. It’s very pretty and all, but those clouds are expected to stick around and get worse for a few days.

The problem with that is that there’s an almost total lunar eclipse on Thursday night/Friday morning. It’s over three hours long, with mid-eclipse at about 01:00 here in California. It’s a long one, well over three hours, and pretty much anywhere in North America you’ll have a good chance of seeing it.

But only if it’s not totally obscured by clouds. Obviously.

We’ll see what Thursday night brings for Los Angeles. Tonight all I can see is the moon and (just barely) Jupiter. If this was Thursday night I would be seeing a reddish ring and not much else. Let’s hope for better in 48 hours.

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First Orion Sighting

Orion is a favorite constellation of mine. It’s bright, it’s easy to see and identify, and with nothing more than a decent pair of binoculars the Orion Nebula (the middle star in the “sword”) is an easy catch.

Tonight was the first time this fall that I’ve seen Orion. I knew that it had been rising late in the evening for a few weeks. But from the back yard there are trees everywhere, blocking the view. In addition, we’ve had a lot of fog and clouds for the last week or two.

Tonight was clear and I went out front, across the street, to finally see it rising. More than Halloween or the end of Daylight Saving Time, seeing Orion for the first time is my sign that autumn is here and winter’s around the corner.

Your next clear night, before you go to bed, go take a look at Orion. Tell it I sent you.

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