Archive for March, 2011

The MESSENGER spacecraft is now in orbit around Mercury, and soon will be revolutionizing our knowledge of the “first rock from the Sun.” Be sure to check out the official MESSENGER website at messenger.jhuapl.edu/. Meanwhile, I’m continuing my own “Mercury MESSENGER Mini-Mission” whenever possible:

8:15 PM CDT 3-23-11 (1:15 UTC 3-24-11)
Angular diameter 7.69 arc minutes
39.0% illuminated
81,181,936 miles from Earth (130,649,661 km)
30,228,369 miles from Sun (48,647,844 km)
8″ reflector, 17mm eyepiece, 2x Barlow

8:26 PM CDT 3-27-11 (1:26 UTC 3-28-11)
Angular diameter 8.69 arc minutes
23.8% illuminated
71,853,882 miles from Earth (115,637,614 km)
32,053,780 miles from Sun (51,585,559 km)
8″ reflector, 25mm eyepiece

I was blessed to have two clear evenings recently to observe Mercury in the west shortly after sunset. Below, my arsenal of telescopes arrayed to view Mercury in the beautiful evening sky, including my 7×35 binoculars, 60mm refractor, and “The Light Ship,” my 8″ reflector:

Below, the waning Moon the last couple of mornings (I probably will include these in a more detailed lunar series later on):

7:27 AM CDT 3-26-11 (12:27 UTC), only about 1/2 hour after exact Third Quarter phase

7:16 AM CDT 3-27-11 (12:16 UTC)
Both with 8″ reflector and 25mm eyepiece. All with LG VX8360 cell phone camera. Click for larger view.


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8:15 PM CDT 3-23-11
(1:15 UTC 3-24-11)
Angular diameter 7.69 arc minutes
39.0% illuminated
Distance from Earth:
81,181,936 miles (130,649,661 km)
Distance from Sun:
30,228,369 miles (48,647,844 km)
8″ reflector, 17mm eyepiece, 2x Barlow, LG VX8360 cell phone camera

Unseen within this photo is Mercury’s first artificial satellite (and its first known satellite of any kind, for that matter), the MESSENGER spacecraft, which just a few days ago entered orbit around Mercury and is now preparing for its first test image, scheduled for March 29. Its one-year mission: to photograph and study Mercury to an unprecedented degree. My much more modest mission: to observe and photograph Mercury as often as possible during MESSENGER’S mission, especially hoping to document its changes in phase. My chief “spacecraft,” my dusty, trusty old 8″ homebuilt reflector, now into its second Saturnian year of service, which I have recently dubbed “The Light Ship.” It has carried me on many voyages throughout the Solar System and beyond. Our continuing mission: to explore strange old worlds; to seek out new insights, new wonders, to go boldly where no cell phone camera has gone before … (I’m a Latin grammarian and can’t bear to split an infinitive!)

Hidden in a nondescript old shed, The Light Ship awaits its next mission …

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Note: Lots of pictures below. Don’t you always like it better with pictures than just dry text? So do I! They’re clickable for a (usually) larger view. More picture info at the bottom.

It’s been a few days now, so probably many are “moving right along” to other topics, but I wanted to illustrate a simple point about the recent “Supermoon” event, which astronomers prefer to call a perigee-syzygy, that is, “a full or new moon that coincides with a close approach by the Moon to the Earth.”

Briefly, I want to point out that this event is not a sudden or unexpected event, and it does not mean that the Moon’s orbit has suddenly shifted, something many people seem to be concerned about nowadays.

The Moon’s orbit around the Earth is elliptical, and so each time it orbits it has one point where it is closest to Earth, called “perigee,” and a point where it is the furthest from Earth, called “apogee.” Right now the Moon reaches perigee when it is in the constellation Virgo, and that’s where it was at the time of Full Moon on March 19, 2011. But the point of perigee isn’t always the same: it rotates slowly but steadily through the entire zodiac in about 8.85 years.

Here are two sets of Moon photos to illustrate the change: First, a series of pictures taken at, or near, the time of Full Moon during the last eight months. You’ll see that in August the Moon was further away at the time of Full Moon, but got gradually closer each month until March:

3:13 AM CDT 8-23-10 (8:13 UTC), in Aquarius

4:33 AM CDT 9-22-10 (9:33 UTC), entering Pisces

6:04 AM CDT 10-22-10 (11:04 UTC), in Pisces

10:21 PM CDT 11-21-10 (3:21 UTC 11-22-10), in Taurus

9:23 PM CST 12-19-10 (3:23 UTC 12-20-10), in Taurus

11:30 PM CST 1-19-11 (5:30 UTC 1-20-11), in Cancer

12:18 AM CST 2-18-11 (6:18 UTC), entering Leo

3:34 AM CDT 3-19-11 (8:34 UTC), in Virgo

Next, here is a series of pictures taken during the same period, the closest ones I had to the time of perigee each month. You’ll see it isn’t always exact, but also that the Moon looks big in each picture, since it’s closer. You’ll also see that six months ago, since the Earth was on the opposite side of the Sun, perigee happened very close to New Moon instead of Full Moon. This also qualified as a “Supermoon” event, but since the New Moon isn’t as conspicuous it didn’t get as much press:

6:08 AM CDT 9-6-10 (11:08 UTC), in Cancer

6:20 AM CDT 10-5-10 (11:20 UTC), in Leo, approaching Virgo

8:10 AM CDT 11-3-10 (13:10 UTC), entering Virgo

6:33 AM CST 11-28-10 (12:33 UTC), in Leo

8:01 AM CST 12-27-10 (14:01 UTC), entering Virgo

6:53 AM CST 1-22-11 (12:53 UTC), in Leo

12:23 AM CST 2-19-11 (6:23 UTC), in Leo

3:34 AM CDT 3-19-11 (8:34 UTC), in Virgo

Photos that expand to 880×880 were taken with my 8″ homebuilt reflector telescope and 25mm eyepiece. The ones that expand to a mere 557×557 were taken with my 60mm Meade refractor and 17mm eyepiece. One actually shrinks to 379×379: it was taken with the 60mm refractor and 25mm eyepiece. All with my usual little LG VX8360 cell phone camera.

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Here’s the nearly Full “Supermoon” at 3:34 AM CDT (8:34 UTC) on March 19, 2011, nearly filling up my standard Moon format of 880×880 pixels, since it’s at or close to perigee. 8″ reflector, 25mm eyepiece, LG VX8360 cell phone camera. Click for larger view. Watch my site for a post I have in the works explaining how the so-called “Supermoon” is not an unexpected or sudden “shift” in the Moon’s orbit or position, but simply a normal but rare close coincidence of two normal phenomena: the Full Moon and the closest approach of the Moon to Earth in its orbit (perigee).

UPDATE: Ms. Raven Yu of “Journey To the Stars” has an excellent photo with very sharp resolution here, taken a bit over 7 hours after mine from the Philippines, and some helpful links here.

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UPDATE: See my further response to the subject of alleged “Moon shifts” by clicking HERE: “A Layperson’s Guide To Dr. Lorenzo Iorio’s Paper On the Moon’s Orbit.”

Clouds stood in the way of my hoped-for view of Mercury this evening, but my consolation prize was a nice view of the waxing gibbous Moon, shining through thin clouds very high in the sky. Though in my pictures it is “leaning over,” its disk was actually oriented pretty much evenly north-south in the sky:

8:33 PM CDT 3-13-11 (1:33 UTC 3-14-11)
31.83′ angular diameter, 61.3% illumination, 60.1 Earth radii distant
8″ f8 reflector telescope, 25mm eyepiece

The following closeups were taken using the 8″ reflector, 25mm eyepiece, and 2x Barlow. Three interesting craters all were highlighted near the terminator:

Plato and surrounding area, 8:27 PM.

Copernicus and surrounding area, 8:29 PM.

Clavius and surrounding area, 8:24 PM.

Clavius is a fascinating crater and one of my very favorites. Below is a closeup of the above picture:

Compare with the view below, taken at 10:33 PM CDT 9-18-10 (3:33 UTC 9-19-10):

This picture clearly reveals all five of the arc of interesting internal craters, which from largest to smallest are designated Clavius D, C, N, J, and JA.

Perhaps I’ve now achieved my fifteen minutes of fame, as my site stats for 3-13-11 totaled 235 clicks, over three times my previous record. Somewhat dazed, I investigated and found that 188 of these visits were for one post from this last 11-3-10, entitled “Reports of the Moon’s orbit changing are somewhat exaggerated – 11-3-10
Investigating further, I found that someone had given the link to my post in the following discussion:

Here Is Proof of Moon Shift!!!! View PDF before it “Disapears”.,

On page 3 of the thread, someone called “berada” gives the link to my post, saying “This is interesting.” Thanks, berada!

The discussion concerns the following scholarly paper by an Italian astronomer named Lorenzo Iorio, readable here via pdf:

On the anomalous secular increase of the eccentricity of the orbit
of the Moon

Be aware that it is a highly technical paper, written by and for people with a graduate-level knowledge of astrophysics and mathematics, and I’m not hesitant to tell you that most of it goes way over my head. A careful reader, however, may understand much of the opening abstract as well as the summary and conclusions at the end.

Anyway, in this conversation thread at “abovetopsecret.com,” which I’d never heard of before, some express opinions and fears that a major shift in the Moon’s orbit is, or will be, responsible for various catastrophic events. Other voices in the discussion are trying to quell needless fears with scientific fact. The general gist of Dr. Iorio’s actual paper is that observations of the Moon’s distance from the Earth over nearly 39 years, using the Lunar Laser Ranging data gained from the laser reflectors brought to the Moon by Apollo astronauts, reveal a slightly larger than predicted increase in the eccentricity of the Moon’s orbit. This increase in eccentricity isn’t explainable by a number of explanations offered, ranging from “Rindler acceleration” (don’t know what it is) to “Pioneer acceleration” (ditto) to effects of Kuiper Belt objects, to effects from some massive, unknown hypothetical object in the outer Solar System. Dr. Iorio’s conclusion is simply to observe that this anomaly has not yet been explained.

How much is this larger-than-expected increase? One math-savvy person called CLPrime points out: “In fact, I just did the math, and that works out to 8.4 millimetres per year.
In the 38.7 years they’ve been observing this, the moon’s apogee has gained a sixth of a metre while the perigee has lost as much.”

So, what difference does this level of increase make? A bit later CLPrime again observes, “The paper is interesting, though. Over time, this could become a much more significant effect… especially in 89 billion years, when it causes the moon to come crashing down on the earth.” Considering that astronomers project the Sun’s future lifespan to be a fraction of that amount of time, I’m not too concerned about it.

Dr. Iorio’s paper is not an example of scandal or coverup, but simply an example of science at work: evidence is found that can’t be entirely explained by current scientific knowledge or theory, and so the hunt for an explanation begins, sometimes resulting ultimately in a revolution in scientific thought. A fascinating account of this process is found in Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

I lack access to any laser reflectors on the Moon, and I don’t know that much about the physics of orbital dynamics. But with the humble scientific equipment I have, I will continue to perform my simple, independent observational experiment, which consists of repeatedly photographing the Moon with the same telescopes, the same eyepieces, and therefore at the same magnifications, from the same spot on Planet Earth. So far I’ve observed nothing out of the ordinary as it appears larger at perigee and smaller at apogee. If anything changes I’ll let you know, but don’t hold your breath.

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Looking Moonward at 5:45 PM, February 12, 2011. I’ve been able to do more astrophotography than I expected this winter, but I’m glad that spring is almost here. We’re expecting some balmy temperatures this week in the 40s Fahrenheit, which should help melt much of our accumulated snow.

This coming March 19 will be notable, as the Full Moon will coincide with perigee (the Moon’s closest approach to Earth during its orbit), resulting in the Full Moon appearing as large and bright as it will for years. I’ve seen media reports of the Moon being “closest in years,” but as the Moon naturally has one perigee per orbit every orbit, I think the real truth is that it’s the closest Full Moon in years.

The first few photos below are repeats:

Waxing crescent Moon, nearly First Quarter, 11:50 PM CST 2-10-11 (5:50 UTC 2-11-11)
30.33′ angular diameter, 62.6 Earth radii distant.

Taken “on the fly” with my 60mm refractor and 17mm eyepiece, oriented roughly as the Moon actually appeared as it hung in the western sky.

Waxing gibbous Moon, 6:18 PM CST 2-12-11 (00:18 UTC 2-13-11)
31.40′ angular diameter, 60.9 Earth radii distant
8″ homebuilt reflector, 25mm eyepiece.

Above, the waxing gibbous Moon, 12:04 AM CST 2-16-11 (6:04 UTC),
33.07′ angular diameter, 57.2 Earth radii distant.
Once again on the fly with the 60mm refractor and 17mm eyepiece.

Above, the Full Moon at 12:18 AM CST 2-18-11 (6:18 UTC),
33.73′ angular diameter, 56.3 Earth radii distant.
A little lack of definition, but not bad considering that I was pointing the small telescope (60mm refractor, 17mm eyepiece) through the kitchen window at the rather steep angle of 51 degrees. It was a very blustery, windy, cold night, yet the Moon was clearly visible through thin, whipping clouds.

Above, one night later at 12:23 AM CST 2-19-11 (6:23 UTC),
33.77′ angular diameter, 56.3 Earth radii distant.
Waning gibbous Moon, photographed under much more favorable conditions with the 60mm refractor and 17mm once again, out in the yard instead of through the kitchen window.

Above, Waning crescent Moon, 7:36 AM CST 2-28-11 (13:36 UTC),
30.33′ angular diameter, 62.1 Earth radii distant
8′ reflector, 25mm eyepiece

This week is a momentous one in the history of the planet Mercury, as the MESSENGER spacecraft will be entering orbit around Mercury later this week. You may read all about it at the official MESSENGER website and at the Wikipedia article, which also has lots of good information. As MESSENGER serves its year-long mission of photographing Mercury from orbit, I hope to achieve the much more modest goal of photographing Mercury from here at the “Tranquility Base Observatory” (my garage and backyard) and documenting its changes in phase and apparent size. I had hoped to begin the “Modest March Mercury MESSENGER Mini Mission” this weekend, but pesky clouds have been intervening. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted.

Mercury at 6:26 AM, September 26, 2010 (11:26 UTC), taken with Bushnell 7×35 binoculars and LG VX8360 cell phone camera.

Below, a “Saturn Update” current through 2-28-11. Earth in its smaller, faster orbit steadily draws closer to its closest approach to Saturn coming up on April 3, 2011. At Saturn’s distance , 100 million miles don’t make that much difference in its apparent size. The most interesting Saturn updates will come year by year, as from our perspective the rings will continue to “open up” over the next few years. Perhaps next year they’ll be open enough for the gap inside the rings to be revealed even with my limited equipment. For some really interesting Saturn updates, visit Christopher Go’s website, as he’s been monitoring a large bright storm on Saturn with his state-of-the-art equipment.

7:37 AM CDT November 6, 2010 (12:37 UTC)
Angular diameter 15.92 arc seconds
99.9% illumination
Distance from Earth 966,825,301 miles (1,555,150,630 km)
17mm eyepiece
7:40 AM CST December 29, 2010 (13:40 UTC)
Angular diameter 17.08 arc seconds
99.7% illumination
Distance from Earth 900,415,441 miles (1,449,078,188 km)
17mm eyepiece
7:12 AM CST January 22, 2011 (13:12 UTC)
Angular diameter 17.81 arc seconds
99.8% illumination
Distance from Earth 863,698,339 miles (1,389,987,740 km)
17mm eyepiece
7:25 AM CST February 3, 2011 (13:25 UTC)
Angular diameter 18.17 arc seconds
99.8% illumination
Distance from Earth 846,417,959 miles (1,362,177,663 km)
17mm eyepiece
6:50 AM CST February 28, 2011 (12:50 UTC)
Angular diameter 18.82 arc seconds
99.9% illumination
Distance from Earth 817,203,168 miles (1,315,161,015 km)
25mm eyepiece with 2x Barlow
No, it’s not about to go over the edge of the universe! The morning sky was already blue, and Saturn was nearing the edge of the eyepiece’s field of view.

All with LG VX8360 cell phone camera.

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This article was first published in the West Douglas County Record on January 20, 2011:

Sometimes when people find out that I’m an amateur astronomer, they ask me whether I agree with Pluto’s “demotion” from full planet status in 2006, and they’re often surprised to find out that I’m OK with it. One reason why may be purely selfish, as I’ve seen all the planets from Mercury to Neptune, but I’ve never seen Pluto with my own eyes, so the reclassification enables me to say that I’ve seen all the planets! There’s more, though. From 1930, when 24-year-old scientist Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, until 1992, no other objects like it were known further out than Neptune, but now we know of three others similar in size, and as many as seventy that are somewhat smaller, so I think it makes sense to make a new category rather than keep on adding to the list of planets until there are too many to list on one page!

It’s a case of history repeating itself, because when the asteroid Ceres was discovered in 1801, it was considered a new planet, but within 50 years there were fifteen asteroids known, and the list of planets was getting long! By the late 1800s the small objects between Mars and Jupiter had been put in their own class as asteroids and the number of planets reduced once again to eight, until Pluto made it nine, at least for awhile!

Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997 at age 90, but his widow Patricia is still alive. When Pluto was demoted she was asked how she felt, and she said she was somewhat shaken, but not terribly so. She also said that if Clyde were alive today he would have been a bit disappointed, but would accept the decision. “Clyde was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when they start finding several of these things flying around the place.”

So what’s God’s definition of a planet? And what else is out there that we haven’t discovered? The answer is beyond our imagination. “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are my ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.'” Isaiah 55:8,9 NASB. Learning about God is like learning about His creation; sometimes it means replacing the old thoughts with the new.

By the way, I like the new term “dwarf planet” because the “dwarf” part sounds Walt Disneyish enough for an object called Pluto. That’s what I think, anyway, and since I’m nicknamed Mickey and I have a dog named Pluto, my opinion should count for something!

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