A View from the Past

As an evening pastime in these COVID restricted days I have been delving into the past again. Again reading the work of an amateur astronomer from long ago.

Frontspiece of Bedford Catalogue, 1844
Frontspiece of Bedford Catalogue, 1844, Capt. William Henry Smyth

I had previously read through the work of Rev. Thomas Webb, a vicar and amateur astronomer active in the late 1800’s. Webb frequently referred to the work of an earlier observer, Capt. William Henry Smyth.

Retired British Navy Captain Smyth was a backyard observer, gazing at the stars with a 150mm refractor from a garden behind his home in Bedford England. His telescope was quite good for the time, made by Tully of London, the best money could buy. This telescope was eventually purchased by the British Government to be used in the 1874 transit of Venus expedition to Egypt and the 1882 Venus transit in Jamaica. It now sits in the collection of the Science Museum, London.

Capt. William Henry Smyth's Telescope at Bedford
Capt. William Henry Smyth’s Telescope at Bedford

Smyth published two volumes on astronomy in 1844 under the title A Cycle of Celestial Objects . Volume II of this set, commonly called The Bedford Catalogue, contains descriptions of more than 1600 double stars, clusters, and nebulae, serving as a guide to what may be observed with a small telescope. The Bedford Catalogue became the standard at-the-telescope reference for other amateur observers for many decades until it was generally replaced by Webb’s Objects for Common Telescopes.

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Viewing the ISS

Occasionally we get phone calls. People have an astronomy question and decide to call an observatory to get an answer. I would caution that this is generally not the best way to get an answer, Googling the question or looking it up on Wikipedia is much more likely to result in a usable answer. Usually our front desk will politely defer the caller to some other source, Shelly is very good at doing this.

The International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour
The International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour
Shelly is also a very nice lady who occasionally takes pity on some caller. Or the caller is very polite and asks very nicely. Often she forwards the call to me, knowing that I can usually answer these sort of questions.

What sort of telescope can be used to view the ISS?

At least the question did not involve aliens or NASA cover-ups, those question would have gotten the polite brush off from Shelly.

For someone who is inexperienced in using telescopes this not the easy place to start. Most of us who have been using telescopes for decades usually do not even try to do this. The space station is quite small and would require higher magnification to see well. It is also moving quite quickly across the sky. The combination of these two factors makes viewing the ISS a real challenge, to put it politely!

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Saturn from Above

A spectacular image of Saturn from above. Even better, the image was assembled by an amateur astronomer, Gordan Ugarkovic, working with Cassini imagery taken on October 10th. Click on the image to zoom in, then zoom in some more! You can see exquisite data in the polar cloud-tops and in the rings. Keep an eye out for the shepherd moons at the edges of the various rings…

Saturn from Above
This portrait looking down on Saturn and its rings was created from images obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Oct. 10, 2013. It was made by amateur image processor and Cassini fan Gordan Ugarkovic. This image has not been geometrically corrected for shifts in the spacecraft perspective and still has some camera artifacts.The mosaic was created from 12 image footprints with red, blue and green filters from Cassini’s imaging science subsystem. Ugarkovic used full color sets for 11 of the footprints and red and blue images for one footprint. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic