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Week of 16 February 2004

Latest Update : Friday, 20 February 2004 12:22 -0500

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Monday, 16 February 2004

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09:11 - We have 2" or 3" of snow on the ground this morning. It started yesterday, as forecast, and continued overnight. We're supposed to get more this evening and tonight. The newspaper this morning reported that there'd already been hundreds of accidents locally, and I'm sure that number will jump during the morning and afternoon commutes. The overnight low was to have been significantly below freezing. Unfortunately, the actual low was about freezing, and the temperature is to remain just above freezing all day long. That makes the snow and ice a lot slipperier.

Barbara made it into work this morning without incident, although I still wish we'd ordered the photon torpedo option when we bought her 4X4. She was to have taken her dad in for a physical therapy session this morning, but that's canceled. He's doing very well after his knee replacement, literally weeks better than they thought he would. I kind of expected that. Her dad is 81 years old, but he's a Marine.

Barbara didn't cancel her haircut appointment for this afternoon. I keep offering to cut her hair for her, as she does mine, but she'll have none of it. I must look untrustworthy or something. Our friend Mary Chervenak was over for dinner Saturday evening. She mentioned having her hair cut, and I offered to do it. She looked at me strangely and declined politely. Will no one ever give me a chance to try? How's a guy supposed to learn?

Mary is a member of our astronomy club, as is her husband, Paul Jones. Mary is in the beginner doldrums, having learned that locating objects isn't as easy as it looks. There's a "hump" that needs to be gotten past before everything comes together, and Mary is facing that hump. Everyone faces that hump when they're getting started, and for some reason everyone thinks it's just them. It's very discouraging to watch other people knocking out objects apparently without effort only to find that you can't locate anything at all. In fact, other than junk department-store telescopes and ill-advised attempts at astrophotography, difficulty in locating objects is the primary reason that people leave the hobby.

The three of us talked about it at some length, and decided that the next time we go out, Barbara and I are going to devote some significant time and effort to giving Mary a "jump start" on locating objects. In fact, I promised her that if we have a clear evening, she'll locate and log a minimum of 25 Messier Objects on her own before midnight. That's an ambitious plan, certainly, but it is do-able. And there's nothing like filling up a log sheet to boost your confidence. Here's the plan I laid out for Mary:

Assuming we can get out next weekend, here's what I suggest to give you a jumpstart, using our and/or Steve's 10" Dob:

1. Overview of scope components.
2. Aligning the finderscope and Telrad.
3. Explanation of how to calculate magnification, field of view
4. Using the Telrad to locate objects "geometrically"

(all of the above can be done any time, including during daylight)

5. Locating important "finder" constellations

a. Cassiopeia
b. Andromeda
c. Perseus
d. Taurus
e. Orion
f. Canis Major
g. Leo
h. Ursa Major (Big Dipper)
i. Ursa Minor (Polaris)

We'll start working from the west, because these objects are setting for the year. As soon as it is full dark (end of Astronomical Twilight), you'll locate and log the following objects:

A. M31, M32, M110 in Andromeda (M31 easy to see; M32/110 harder to see)

B. M33 in Triangulum (very low surface brightness; binocular object)

C. M74 in Pisces (galaxy; relatively hard to locate and see)

D. M77 in Cetus (galaxy; relatively hard to locate and see)

E. M52 and M103 in Cassiopeia (binocular open clusters; easy)

F. M76 in Perseus (planetary nebula; hard to find and see)

G. M34 in Perseus (open cluster; binocular; easy to find and see)

H. M45 in Taurus (Pleiades open cluster; easy)

I. M42, M43 in Orion (nebulae; easy to find and see)

J. M78 in Orion (nebula; harder to find and see than M42/43)

K. M79 in Lepus (globular cluster; relatively difficult)

L. M41, M46, M47, M50 in Canis Major (open clusters; binocular; easy)

M. M93 in Puppis (open cluster; binocular; easy)

N. M1 in Taurus (supernova remnant; moderate difficulty)

O. M36, M37, M38 in Auriga (open clusters; binocular; easy)

P. M35 in Gemini (open cluster; binocular; easy)

Q. M48 in Canis Minor (open cluster; binocular; easy)

R. M44, M67 in Cancer (open clusters; binocular; easy)

S. M65, M66, M95, M96, M105 in Leo (galaxies; easy)

T. M81, M82 in Ursa Major (galaxies; moderately hard)

That's 35 objects, which is a very challenging goal for an evening. I honestly think you can do it, but even if you get only some of them you'll learn a lot. Barbara and I will both be there to help you however much (or little) you wish. With the 15 objects you already have logged, you'll be well on your way to your Messier Certificate (70 objects with binocular or scope) and your Binocular Messier Certificate (50 objects with binocular), even if there's some overlap here with ones you've already logged.

Barbara and I are both guessing that you'll decide you like the 10" Dob and Telrad so well that the next telescope you two buy will be a 10" Dob for you rather than an Obsession for him.



Tuesday, 17 February 2004

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09:35 - FedEx showed up yesterday with a box of D-Link networking stuff.

d-link.jpg (47002 bytes)

I needed stuff like a WAP, router, PCI WiFi adapters, Cardbus WiFi adapters, and so on. The WiFi, actually 802.11g, is to link the Home Theater PC to the rest of the network, as well as to link satellite playback systems to the HTPC. I'll also probably install a desktop system downstairs at some point, and that will save me from running cable. The router is to replace my Linux router. I installed it with the idea of using it for more than just routing, but that's all it's doing. It seems wasteful to run an entire PC just for that, so I'll install a baby hardware router in its place.

Faced with choosing components about which I knew little, I did what I usually do. I asked people who were familiar with them. "Should I go with D-Link, LinkSys, NetGear, or something else? Or all they all about the same?" I got pretty much the results I expected. A few people had no strong opinion, and suggested that just about any of them would be fine. Most people had opinions, though, some of them very strong. Every company was loved by at least one person. "The only one worth buying is <fill-in-the-blank>. All the rest are junk." Every company was absolutely hated by at least one person, "Whatever you do, don't buy <fill-in-the-blank>. Anything else will work." Overall, although it was an unscientific sample, D-Link seemed to be most loved and least hated, with NetGear in second place, and LinkSys bringing up the rear.

I had about decided to go with D-Link when Jerry Pournelle called me about something else entirely. In passing, I asked him what he thought. "Go with D-Link," says Jerry. Knowing Jerry, he probably went down to Frys, bought one of each, and tried them before he decided what to use. So D-Link it is.



Wednesday, 18 February 2004

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08:44 - UPS showed up yesterday with a box from Willmann-Bell, one of my favorite companies. It contained both volumes of The Night Sky Observer's Guide, which Barbara and I bought as a present to ourselves. We'll use them to pursue the Astronomical League Herschel 400 list and Herschel II list.

When I opened the box, I thought they'd sent me two copies of Volume 2, because both books were green. Not so. Despite the images, I'd gotten one copy of each volume, and both are green. These are books that only an amateur astronomer could get excited about. They contain descriptions, catalog information, sketches, and photographs of thousands of deep-sky objects. All told, about 1,000 pages of detailed information. Just the thing for planning future observing sessions, if the clouds ever disappear.

As to why I like Willmann-Bell, they're an old-fashioned company. When you call them to order, you talk to a real person, instead of some order-line drone. When I called to order these books Monday morning, the lady said, "Oh, I imagine you'll want these for this weekend, so I'll make sure they go out today." They did, obviously. UPS did their job, and got them here from Richmond, Virginia in one day.

Willmann-Bell is devoted to amateur astronomers. In addition to publishing numerous useful books, they sell telescope building supplies. Interestingly, their books aren't available elsewhere. If you want the NSOG, you have to order it from Willmann-Bell directly. Amazon doesn't have it. Regular bookstores don't have it. I even looked on ABE Books to see if any of the thousands of used bookstores whose inventory they list had a copy. Nope. If you want it, you call Willmann-Bell and pay retail price plus shipping. Of course, retail price is only $34.95 per volume, which is pretty cheap for an 8.5X11" hardbound 500 page scientific book, and shipping is only $1.00 per order. Most people who look at these books guess they're in the $100 range each. They probably would be if Willmann-Bell used industry-standard pricing and channels.

Willmann-Bell sells a bunch of other astronomy books, including the best book I've seen for beginning astronomers who are pursuing the Messier list. We loaned our copy of that book, The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide, to our friend Mary Chervenak, who is just getting started on the Messier list. With that book and a little help from us, Mary will be up to speed in no time.




Thursday, 19 February 2004

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09:40 - Barbara and I went to the Forsyth Astronomical Society meeting last night. The whole time we were sitting there listening to the presentation, I kept wishing we were out observing instead. It was a clear night with no moon, and those have been extremely rare lately. Between clouds, sub-freezing weather, light pollution, and Luna, we haven't had much chance to observe since back before the holidays. Barbara's work schedule means we're pretty much limited to Friday and Saturday nights, with the possibility of doing a short session on Sunday nights.

For the last few months, clear weekend nights with no moon have been very rare. The few we did have were invariably extremely cold. We'll go out when it's freezing or thereabouts, but if it's much colder than that observing is no fun at all if we don't have a nearby warm refuge. At any time of year, the general advice to new astronomers is to dress for temperatures 20F to 30F cooler than actual. Even in high summer, you'll see people wearing jackets and wrapped in blankets. The problem is that the night sky has a temperature of nearly absolute zero, and your body radiates its heat away into that massive heatsink. In the winter it's worse, particularly if there's even a slight breeze. So, although the temperature may be around freezing, if there's any breeze at all it "feels like" 0F or lower during an observing session.

Unfortunately, winter is the best time to observe because it gets dark earlier. In high summer, the temperatures are a lot more comfortable, but it doesn't get full dark (end of astronomical twilight) until 10:30 or so. That means that even a relatively short session gets us home very late. Considering the time it takes to pack up after the session and drive home, it might be 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. by the time we get home.

I'm a deep-sky guy. I've never had much interest in Lunar and planetary observing, so called shallow-sky observing, but perhaps it's time I started looking at the moon and planets. That we can do from our driveway.

I'd better get to work. I'll be heads-down writing for the rest of the month, so updates may be sporadic and short.



Friday, 20 February 2004

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12:22 - Still heads-down writing.

It's beginning to look as though we may have a clear evening or two in the next few days, so we may get in a driveway observing session at least. I'd love a chance to get the scopes out. I just checked my logs, and our last serious observing session was 19 October. No wonder I'm in withdrawal.



Saturday, 21 February 2004

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Sunday, 22 February 2004

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