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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Andrea Ghez awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics

UCLA scientist and Keck Observatory user Andrea Ghez has been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. She shares the prize with two other researchers; Roger Penrose, a British mathematical physicist and German astrophysicist Reinhard Genzel, for work in black holes and galaxies.

Andrea Ghez presents a community lecture at the Honoka'a People's Theater
Andrea Ghez presents a community lecture at the Honoka’a People’s Theater

There is no Nobel prize in astronomy and the Nobel in physics has traditionally gone to scientists involved in hard physics for discoveries of some new theory or subatomic particle. It is only in recent years that we have seen a few Nobel prizes awarded to astronomers.

Andrea is the only Nobel recipient I have known personally. I can say one thing, she completely deserves it. While her scientific achievements may justify the award, her activities beyond the science are just as commendable.

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Eyepiece Time

Given stay at home orders and a virus haunting our community I have gotten quite a bit of eyepiece time this year. Mostly quick driveway session in the evening, or sometimes the early dawn hours, a solo activity perfect for social distancing.

At the telescope in the driveway again
At the telescope in the driveway again

I usually use my roll-out scope ready in the corner of the garage, a classic 8″ Cave Astrola. Just roll it into the driveway, plug it in using the purpose located power receptacle on the corner of the lanai,. slide an eyepiece in… Ready to go in two minutes.

Last night was a perfect example… It was raining at sunset, but an hour later the skies were clear and dark. Better yet the rain had left clear, haze free air overhead with great transparency. I spent an hour hunting down dark nebulae in Aquila, dark clouds of galactic dust best visible with perfect skies.

The pages of the observing notebook fill quickly, a page or two each evening until the Moon comes back. I have so many object I have never viewed, so many easily visible from the driveway with a fairly small 8″ ‘scope.

Often I come across pleasant surprises, a pretty binary or a deep red carbon star, the region surrounding my target rich with stars and wisps of nebulae, so many wonders I have never seen despite years at the eyepiece.

A Moonlit Night at Kaʻohe

It was Norman who started it.

The last glow of Sunset over Hualālai, with Venus just about to set behind the mauna and Jupiter high above.
The last glow of Sunset over Hualālai, with Venus just about to set behind the mauna and Jupiter high above.

An innocent email… Anyone interested in a star party this weekend?

Last weekend’s new Moon star party had been a bust, heavy clouds overhead were a disappointment to those of us waiting for a good dark night.

Given the positive response to Norman’s email there seems to be a few folks ready to go despite a bright Moon in the sky. With the weather looking good the Saturday afternoon email flurry showed that a few folks were going, thus I joined in.

As per Mauna Kea normal I drove through the clouds, heavy fog on Saddle Road just a mile from Kaʻohe made the trip seem hopeless. But as I neared the turn I suddenly found myself above the clouds, the bright Moon high over Hualalai.

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A Crisp Night at Kaʻohe

I was a bit concerned as I drove to the site, a heavy fog all the way up Saddle Road persisted as I turned off on the old Saddle Road to climb the ridge to Kilohana. It was not until halfway up the gravel access road that I broke out of the fog, just a hundred yards before the Kaʻohe site.

The restored 8" f/6 Cave Astrola under a dark sky at Kaʻohe
The restored 8″ f/6 Cave Astrola under a dark sky at Kaʻohe

On top of the fog it was gorgeous, a beautifully clear sky overhead with the first stars peeking out. Time to setup a telescope!

I brought the restored 8″ Cave Astrola expecting to spend the evening exploring the clusters and nebulae of the southern Milky Way in Scorpio or a bit further south. This rich region would be well positioned through the night.

We had a small group this particular evening, just six of us… Andre and Anna, Maureen, Andrew, Cliff, and myself set up by the gravel pile. There were pleasant conversations in the night, cookies and brownies to share, and views through each other’s telescopes.

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Science Images are Ugly

One of the questions that comes up often enough is what do the pictures look like? And that question is followed by… Where can I see them.

A raw widefield 1.2um NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley
A raw widefield 1.2μm NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley

The problem… Science data is usually pretty ugly.

Keep in mind that the astronomers are often pushing the telescopes and instruments right to the limit. This means that the data is barely there, a trickle of photons that have come from unimaginably distant sources.

I have been in the observing room as the data comes in. I have watched over the telescope operator’s shoulder. It is strange to see folks so excited over a smudge.

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New Moon at Kaʻohe

It was a very nice night, clear dark skies and bright stars.

Andrew and Maureen observing at Kaʻohe
Andrew and Maureen observing at Kaʻohe

A usual the club’s dark sky star party was held this month at Kaʻohe. After two months of poor weather I was ready for a good night out with a telescope. A few others were too, and joined the club out in the dark.

Arriving at the site there was a thin cloud deck overhead. With years of experience here I looked up and told Maureen that the clouds would be gone in an hour. It did not even take that long, the clouds dissolved right after sunset, leaving a clear skies before we were finished setting up.

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