Amateur Astronomer is “Chasing Galileo”

A collage of 21-day old Moons, sketched by Galileo, (left), an image from Jane Houston Jones’ telescope, center, and Jane’s sketch, right.

Amateur astronomers have different ways of documenting their observing sessions, such as taking astrophotos or keeping a logbook. Others, like Jane Houston Jones, employ an age-old method used by Galileo Galilei himself: they take pen in hand and sketch what they see through the lens of their telescope. During this International Year of Astronomy, Jones – an amateur astronomer who also happens to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — wanted to do something special to honor the legacy of Galileo, and decided to follow through with something she has been considering for quite a while. Jones is recreating all of Galileo’s astronomical sketches as she looks through a telescope similar in size to the one used by the father of modern observational astronomy. “Every time I look through a small telescope at these same objects that Galileo did, it just gives me chills,” Jones said. “It fills me with wonder every time I think that I’m seeing the same view Galileo saw 400 years ago, and I wonder what was going through his mind as he made his observations.”

Sketching isn’t new for Jones, a Senior Outreach Specialist for the Cassini mission to Saturn. “When I made my very first telescope in 1989, the first thing I did was draw pictures of what I observed,” she said, “and I’ve just continued it. It makes a wonderful journal or diary of everything you do with a telescope.”

Jane Houston Jones' telescope alongside a replica of Galileo's telescope.  Credit: Jane Houston Jones
Jane Houston Jones' telescope alongside a replica of Galileo's telescope. Credit: Jane Houston Jones

Galileo’s first telescope had an objective diameter of 37 mm, a focal length of 980 mm, and the instrument’s magnification was 21.

Jones is using a small refractor, a Televue Ranger, which has an objective diameter of 70mm, a focal length of 480mm, and using a 25mm Zeiss Abbe Orthoscopic eyepiece, yields a comparable magnification of 19.
“My field of view is bigger than what Galileo had, but I have little less magnification, so in the end I’m getting about the same view that Galileo did. But 400 years later, with better optics, mine is easier to see,” she said. “For effect, I’m also using just a manual mount where I have to move the telescope myself up and down and side to side.”

But using a small telescope to make sketches is a challenging task, Jones is finding, and she has gained new appreciation for Galileo’s original astronomical drawings. “I’ve never observed and sketched through a small telescope before, so it’s a challenge,” she said. “I’ve always loved sketching the Moon, but I’ve usually used a much larger telescope and sketched one crater or a small feature on the terminator. I’ve never tried to sketch the whole Moon at once before, but I wanted to make the same sketches as Galileo. With his telescope, Galileo could only see a tiny portion of the Moon, maybe about 1/8 of the surface at once. And when he looked at a star cluster he couldn’t see, for example, all of the Pleiades in one view. So, I now wonder what kind of worksheet he prepared to try and connect the different views together into the larger view, because he certainly had to sweep through several views to make one sketch.”

Galileo's sketch of Jupiter and its moons, and also Neptune.
Galileo's sketch of Jupiter and its moons, and also Neptune.

Jones said her most memorable views during this Galilean exercise are some of the most basic things Galileo saw. “To me, the very coolest things I saw are the Galilean moons. Everybody who looks at Jupiter through a telescope sees the three or four little dots as the moons are orbiting around the planet. We take that for granted, seeing the moons lined up along the equator of Jupiter. But when Galileo looked at them, it was just amazing that he saw their movement and made the discovery.”

One of her most significant views included an object that Galileo didn’t realize was another, yet undiscovered planet. “Galileo also did a sketch showing the Galilean moons and one additional fixed star, which using modern astronomy software, we can go back to the same day of his observations, and now we know that fixed star was Neptune. To me, that was just so amazing to see all in one eyeview Jupiter, the four moons and another planet that at Galileo’s time, hadn’t been discovered yet, and wouldn’t be discovered for several hundred years.”

Jane Houston Jones' sketch of Saturn from 2002. Courtesy Jane Houston Jones
Jane Houston Jones' sketch of Saturn from 2002. Courtesy Jane Houston Jones

Now, she is working sketching Saturn, which is interesting given Saturn just went through equinox, meaning the rings have “disappeared” from our vantage point on Earth. “When Galileo first looked at Saturn, he thought he saw three objects – the planet and the rings on both sides of Saturn, And of course he looked at Saturn again a few years later and the rings had disappeared. I’m working on getting my sketches of Saturn over the years to try and match up what Galileo sketched.”

After Saturn, Venus is her next target for sketching.

Since Jones has been sketching for 20 years, she said she won’t quit after the IYA. “To me it makes a diary that follows a tradition that goes back centuries. I like to do that, because I can then take my sketches and look at Galileo’s or other centuries-old views of the same objects and I have a connection with those observers because we held a pen or pencil in our hand while looking through an eyepiece and made notes of what we see. I like that. Plus it’s such a fun project and I’m learning so much about Galileo’s observations, as well as some of the current scholars who are documenting his observations and researching his sketches. It’s a great learning experience, besides the artistic and personal satisfaction of drawing something. It’s a great history lesson.”

Jones and her husband Morris are members of the Old Town Astronomy group, which does “Urban Guerrilla Astronomy,” where they set up their telescopes on city sidewalks providing the public a chance to look through telescopes. Click here for a video about what they do.

In her day job at JPL, Jones does educational outreach for the Cassini mission, working with the public, museums, planetariums, astronomy clubs, and an international network of volunteers called the Saturn Observation Campaign. Additionally she is the Twitter voice of Cassini. But she also creates a monthly podcast for JPL called “What’s Up” about what is visible in the night sky each month. “It’s really neat to have astronomy part of my day job as well as my passion in life,” she said.

For more of Jones’ observations and sketches, check out her website, and this specific page about observing with a small refractor.

What’s Up podcast

Star Party at the White House and Other Upcoming Events

On Wednesday, Oct. 7, there will be an historic first at the US president’s home: a star party. From a White House press release:

“The President and First Lady will host an event at the White House for middle-school students to highlight the President’s commitment to science, engineering and math education as the foundation of this nation’s global technological and economic leadership and to express his support for astronomy in particular – for its capacity to promote a greater awareness of our place in the universe, expand human knowledge, and inspire the next generation by showing them the beauty and mysteries of the night sky.”

About 20 telescopes will be set up on the White House lawn focused on Jupiter, the Moon and select stars, and supporters of the International Year of Astronomy are encouraged to follow this event, and host their own star parties to follow the example set.

There will also be interactive dome presentations, and hands-on activities including scale models of the Solar System, impact cratering, and investigating meteorites and Moon rocks. If haven’t been invited, you can participate by watching on NASA TV, or streaming on the White House website, starting at about 8 p.m. EDT. Even if clouds or rain intervene to prevent telescopic viewing, attendees will still have plenty to do.

The White House Star Party is just one of many family-friendly astronomy events and activities happening this fall. Among the others:

* October 4-10 World Space Week

* October 9NASA’s LCROSS impact on the Moon

* October 13– Hubble’s Amazing Rescue premieres on PBS on NOVA

* October 9-23Great World Wide Star Count

* October 19-25 — Fall Astronomy Week, including Fall Astronomy Day on Saturday, October 24, organized by the Astronomical League.

* October 22-24 — IYA2009 Galilean Nights global star party ()

* November 10-30 NASA’s Great Observatories image unveiling

IYA “Live” Telescope Today – NGC 7009

Did you get a chance to catch the live action on our southern hemisphere based telescope today? Then you missed a real treat! We had a chance to view NGC 7009 – the “Saturn Nebula” live for several hours. Of course, the small aperture of the scope doesn’t do it the incredible justice that it deserves from the pristine skies in Central Victoria’s Macedon Ranges Observatory, but wow… It sure was cool! If you didn’t get a chance to see it, then thank Scopemaster Bert for shooting a video for us and make some popcorn. It’s waiting inside….

The Saturn Nebula (also known as NGC 7009) is a planetary nebula in the Aquarius constellation. It was discovered by William Herschel on September 7, 1782 using a telescope of his own design in the garden at his home in Datchet England and was one of his earliest discoveries in his sky survey. The nebula was originally a low-mass star that transformed into a rather bright white dwarf star, magnitude 11.5. The Saturn Nebula gets its name from its superficial resemblance to the planet Saturn with its rings nearly edge-on to the observer. It was so named by Lord Rosse in the 1840s, when telescopes had improved to the point that its Saturn-like shape could be discerned. William Henry Smyth said that the Saturn Nebula is one of Struve’s 9 “Rare Celestial Objects.”

The distance to the Saturn nebula is not known very well because there are no reference stars in its neighborhood that have been detected and could be used to accurately gauge its distance. Therefore, any distance is somewhat suspect. Hynes estimates it to be 2,400 light-years distance from earth. In 1963, O’Dell estimated the distance to be 3,900 light-years.

The object is on many ‘best of’ observing lists, including: SAC 110 best NGC object list, RASC’s Finest N.G.C. Objects Objects, and The Caldwell Catalog #55.

As always, be sure to tune in whenever you get an opportunity. You’ll find the link to the IYA “Live” Telescope to your right. We broadcast whenever we get a chance and you’re always welcome here!

Factual information courtesy of Wikipedia.

340 Million Pixels of GigaGalaxy Zoom

Last week the GigaGalaxy Zoom project introduced an interactive 360-degree panorama of the entire night sky, and they promised more zoomable images to come. The second of three images is now available, and it is a wonderful 340-million-pixel vista of the central parts of our galactic home. Taken by Stéphane Guisard, an ESO engineer and world-renowned astrophotographer, the image shows the region spanning the sky from the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer) to Scorpius (the Scorpion). This mosaic was assembled from 52 different sky fields made from about 1200 individual images totalling 200 hours exposure time, with the final image having a size of 24,403 x 13,973 pixels. Click on the image to get access to larger versions of the image. Jump right in and enjoy the views!

Guisard compiled this amazing mosaic from image taken at Cerro Paranal, home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. This second image directly benefits from the quality of Paranal’s sky, one of the best on the planet. The image was obtained by observing with a 10-cm Takahashi FSQ106Ed f/3.6 telescope and a SBIG STL CCD camera, using a NJP160 mount. Images were collected through three different filters (B, V and R) and then stitched together.

The very colourful Rho Ophiuchi and Antares region features prominently to the right, as well as much darker areas, such as the Pipe and Snake Nebulae. The dusty lane of our Milky Way runs through the image, dotted with remarkable bright, reddish nebulae, such as the Lagoon and the Trifid Nebulae, as well as NGC 6357 and NGC 6334. This dark lane also hosts the very centre of our Galaxy, where a supermassive black hole is lurking.

The GigaGalaxy Zoom project was create especially for the International Year of Astronomy.

Credit: ESO

IYA (Almost) Live Telescope!

Greetings! In case you weren’t tuned into Galactic TV yesterday… We had us a regular skyfest! Truly pristine dark skies ruled and the IYA “Live” telescope rocked the Aussie night away. For more than 8 hours we went from target to target – and loved every minute of it. While we could have done a lot more than four objects, allowing you time to enjoy them is a worthwhile effort, too. While I’d ordinarily spread this over a couple of days I’m going to post all our objects – M2, M41, M93 and M46 – right now because I’m outta’ here for the Hidden Hollow Star Party. Want to party at your end? Then check out information on our iPhone Galactic TV Weekend Marathon! Enjoy!!

Messier 2 or M2 (also designated NGC 7089) is a globular cluster in the constellation Aquarius, five degrees north of the star Beta Aquarii. It was discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746 and is one of the largest known globular clusters.

M2 was discovered by the French astronomer Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746 while observing a comet with Jacques Cassini. Charles Messier rediscovered it in 1760 but thought it a nebula without any stars associated with it. William Herschel was the first to resolve individual stars in the cluster, in 1794. M2 is, under extremely good conditions, just visible to the naked eye. Binoculars or small telescopes will identify this cluster as non-stellar while larger telescopes will resolve individual stars, of which the brightest are of apparent magnitude 13.1.

M2 is about 37,500 light-years away from Earth. At 175 light-years in diameter, it is one of the larger globular clusters known. The cluster is rich, compact, and significantly elliptical. It is 13 billion years old and one of the older globulars associated with the Milky Way Galaxy. M2 contains about 150,000 stars, including 21 known variable stars. Its brightest stars are red and yellow giants. The overall spectral type is F4.

Messier 41 (also known as M41 or NGC 2287) is an open cluster in the Canis Major constellation. It was discovered by Giovanni Batista Hodierna before 1654 and was perhaps known to Aristotle about 325 BC.

M41 lies about four degrees almost exactly south of Sirius. It contains about 100 stars including several red giants, the brightest being a spectral type K3 giant near the cluster’s center. The cluster is estimated to be moving away from us at 23.3 km/s. The diameter of the cluster is between 25 and 26 light years. Its age is estimated at between 190 and 240 million years old. M41 is also referred to as NGC 2287.

Messier 93 (also known as M 93 or NGC 2447) is an open cluster in the constellation Puppis. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781.

M93 is at a distance of about 3,600 light years from Earth and has a spatial radius of some 10 to 12 light years. Its age is estimated at some 100 million years.

Messier 46 (also known as M 46 or NGC 2437) is an open cluster in the constellation of Puppis. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1771. Dreyer described it as “very bright, very rich, very large.” M46 is about 5,500 light-years away with an estimated age on the order of several 100 million years.

The planetary nebula NGC 2438 appears to lie within the cluster near its northern edge, but it is most likely unrelated since it does not share the cluster’s radial velocity. The case is yet another example of a superposed pair, joining the famed case of NGC 2818.

M46 is about a degree east of M47 in the sky, so the two fit well in a binocular or wide-angle telescope field.

If you had fun with this, then make sure to tune into your TVU Channel Number 79924 on your iPhone for a weekend marathon of all the best of our IYA Live Telescope! Wishing you all clear skies and a great weekend….

Factual information courtesy of Wikipedia.

Astro Art: Artist Creates Portrait Gallery of Astronomers


Art and astronomy often intersect, and it’s wonderful when art can provide an emotional connection to science. Amateur astronomer and artist Sayward Duffano has captured the personalities of several astronomers through history as well as individuals in astronomy related fields in a gallery of paintings she created especially for the International Year of Astronomy. “I knew I wanted to paint something special for the IYA,” she said. “So last year I had started painting a few astronomers, some planets, and some other types of astro art.”

And Sayward says she is looking for a place to display her work.

“Originally, I was working on a print and book project, but due to the recent downturn in the economy, those plans were not able to be realized,” she said. “I’m not trying to sell the originals, but I do want them to be able to be seen because of their subject matter and they were painted especially for the IYA.”

Andromedan Gothic.  Painting by Sayward Duffano.
Andromedan Gothic. Painting by Sayward Duffano.

Her gallery includes astronomy notables like Galileo, Ptolemy, Cassini, Sagan and Levy and astronauts like Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, Christa McAuliffe, and even Laika the astro-dog. She also has a collection of the solar system and other astronomical objects, and a few humorous works, such as her “Andromedan Gothic” spoof, above.

She says she saw Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” when she was very young, and it inspired her to study art and created a bond with the night sky. “As time went on, I did more studying on the night sky and space, and realized it was a much bigger, more complex place than I had previously thought.

You can listen to Sayward talk about how astronomy has inspired art through the years on the Sept. 14 edition of 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

After attending a star party a few years ago, she found the dark, unpolluted skies to be very inspiring. She began painting some Messier objects and some abstracts inspired by vintage copies of Sky and Telescope.

Astronaut Fred Haise with Sayward Duffano. Courtesy Sayward Duffano
Astronaut Fred Haise with Sayward Duffano. Courtesy Sayward Duffano

In February of this year, she found out that Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise was coming to a nearby college campus in Long Beach, Mississippi. “I had painted his portrait, and wanted to give it to him,” she said. “It’s not every day (for me, at least!) I get to meet an astronaut. We went to his lecture, which was awesome, and afterward I gave it to him. He loved it.”

Sayward says she likes the abstractness of the moon and planetary surfaces. “Even the smallest craters and crevasses never fail to inspire, and the colors in space are always inspiring as well. The strange brightness of the sunny side of any planet reveals unusual earth tones, the vibrant oranges and yellows of Mars, the pale cream and contrasting red of Jupiter, the yellow ocher of Saturn, the icy greys of our Moon. They are vibrant, yet subdued in their own way.”

M 27.  Painting by Sayward Duffano
M 27. Painting by Sayward Duffano

Sayward says she grinds many of her own paints and primarily work with Mars pigments. “I feel these colors are perfect for studying the planets via brush. There are reds, browns, yellows, oranges, violets, and black in the Mars color series, usually a light and dark of the same color. The pigment comes in powder form, and it is beautiful in itself. It’s like I’m mulling Martian soils.”

“Jupiter is probably my favorite planet,” she said. “I say probably because it’s almost a tie between it, Mars and Saturn. You have the cool rings around Saturn, and that strange, irresistible orange of Mars- but Jupiter is something else all together. It reminds me of a huge, ever changing marble.”

The astronomers, planets and other studies in this series of painting for IYA are all done on archivally sound recycled materials.

Any planetarium, science center or other place interested in displaying this collection can contact Sayward through her website,

Interactive 360-Degree Panorama of Entire Night Sky Now Available

A stunning new 800-million-pixel panorama of the entire sky has been released online for everyone to enjoy. GigaGalaxy Zoom is a project for the International Year of Astronomy, and it allows users to dive right into the Milky Way Galaxy, and learn more about our celestial neighborhood. The project allows stargazers to explore and experience the Universe as it is seen with the unaided eye from ESO’s observing sites in Chile, one of the darkest and best viewing locations in the world.

With this tool users can learn more about many different and exciting objects in the image, such as multicolored nebulae and exploding stars, just by clicking on them. In this way, the project seeks to link the sky we can all see with the deep, “hidden” cosmos that astronomers study on a daily basis.

This is the first of three extremely high-resolution images that will be featured in the GigaGalaxy Zoom project. Another image will be released next week, on Sept. 21.

Click here for a preview video.

The production of this image came about as a collaboration between ESO, the renowned French writer and astrophotographer Serge Brunier and his fellow Frenchman Frédéric Tapissier. Brunier spent several weeks during the period between August 2008 and February 2009 capturing the sky, mostly from ESO observatories at La Silla and Paranal in Chile.

The resulting image, now available on GigaGalaxy Zoom, is composed of almost 300 fields each individually captured by Brunier four times, adding up to nearly 1200 photos that encompass the entire night sky.

“I wanted to show a sky that everyone can relate to — with its constellations, its thousands of stars, with names familiar since childhood, its myths shared by all civilisations since Homo became Sapiens,” says Brunier. “The image was therefore made as man sees it, with a regular digital camera under the dark skies in the Atacama Desert and on La Palma.”

Giga Galaxy Zoom site.

Serge Brunier’s website

Source: ESO

IYA Live Telescope Today: Messier 93

At last… Some clear skies in Central Victoria! (and i thought ohio was bad…) If you had a chance to check on our IYA Live Telescope today, you got a treat. We broadcast the “Running Man Nebula” for awhile, then switched over to Puppis as it rose to pick up Messier 93. Need a replay? We saved one for you…

Messier 93 (also known as M 93 or NGC 2447) is an open cluster in the constellation Puppis. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781.

M93 is at a distance of about 3,600 light years from Earth and has a spatial radius of some 10 to 12 light years. Its age is estimated at some 100 million years.

As always, keep checking periodically with the link on the left. It can’t stay cloudy forever… Can it?!?

Factual Information courtesy of Wikipedia.

365 Days of Astronomy Podcast Wins Award

The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast has been awarded the 2009 Parsec Award for the Best “Infotainment” podcast. The award was presented at the Dragon*Con convention in Atlanta, Georgia on September 5, 2009. The 365 Days of Astronomy podcast was one of 5 finalists for the award, with 50 shows receiving nominations. The novel concept of 365 DoA is to provide podcast for every day of 2009 — the International Year of Astronomy — with the content submitted from people all around the world.

“It has been such a pleasure to work with everyone on this project, from scientists and engineers who work with telescopes and space missions to passionate amateur astronomers and space enthusiasts,” said 365 DoA team member and Universe Today Senior Editor Nancy Atkinson **….

“Everyone who has participated has thrown themselves wholeheartedly into sharing their excitement and knowledge about space and astronomy, creating a collection of podcasts that is likely unequaled anywhere. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to work on this project for the International Year of Astronomy have had the opportunity to ‘meet’ so many wonderful people from all over the world – it has been a great experience!” Atkinson said.

“This show is a testament to what a group of people can accomplish when they follow both their hearts and their heads,” said Pamela Gay, co-chair of the IYA 2009 New Media Task Group. “This project has been a true community effort, with the audio coming from the entire astronomy community from around the world –professionals, amateurs, and people who just love the science. This award literally goes to a cast of hundreds.”

Gay added that although it is just three years old, the Parsec Awards have quickly become one of the most recognizable honors in science and fiction podcasting. “To have our community production receive this award was an amazing experience. This is everyone’s award.” she said.

** This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to quote myself from a press release! What fun! And all of us who have worked with the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast are very excited about the award. Thanks to everyone who has participated by either submitting a podcast or listening! — Nancy