Weekly Space Hangout: Feb 28, 2018: Will Kalif’s “See It With A Small Telescope”

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Will Kalif is the author of the new amateur astronomy book titled See it With a Small Telescope.

Announcements:
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

91 Astronomers Combine 1000 Images Into One Amazing Journey to Jupiter

A renewed era of space exploration is underway. Compared to the Space Race of the 20th century, which was characterized by two superpowers locked in a game of “getting there first”, the new era is defined predominantly by cooperation and open participation. One way in which this is evident is the role played by “citizen scientists” and amateur astronomers in exploration missions.

Consider the recently-released short film titled “A Journey to Jupiter” by Peter Rosen – a photographer and digital artist in Stockholm, Sweden. Using over 1000 images taken by amateur planetary photographers from around the world, this film takes viewers on a virtual journey to the Jovian planet, showcasing its weather patterns and dynamic nature in a way that is truly inspiring.

The images that went into making this video were collected by over 91 amateur astronomers over the course of three and a half months (between December 19th, 2014 and March 31st, 2015). After Rosen collected them, he and his associates (Christoffer Svenske and Johan Warell) then spent a year remapping them into cylindrical projections. Rosen then added color corrections, and stitched all the images into a total of 107 maps.

Much like fast-motion videos that illustrate weather patterns on Earth, or the passage of the stars across the night sky, the end result of was a film that shows the motions of Jupiter’s cloud belts and its Great Red Spot in high-resolution. Some 250 revolutions of the planet are illustrated, including from the equatorial band, the south pole, and the north pole.

As Rosen told Universe Today via email, this project was the latest in a lifelong pursuit of making astronomy accessible to the public:

“I have been into Astronomy since I was a teenager in the early 1970’s and immediately I got a passion for astrophotography, and more specifically, photographing the planets. I see astronomy as a life-long passion, so it is quite normal to strive for an evolution in what you do. I had an idea growing slowly for some years that it should be possible to animate the cloud belts of Jupiter and reveal the intricate dynamics of its flows, not just taking still pictures that might point to the changes in the structures but without the obvious visual dynamics of an animation.”

A Journey to Jupiter” was also Rosen’s contribution to the Mission Juno Pro-Amateur Collaboration Project, of which he is part. Established by Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this effort is one of several that seeks to connect amateurs and professionals in support of space exploration. Back in May of 2016, this group met in Nice, France, for a workshop dedicated to projects and techniques related to Jupiter observations.

Still-pic from Rosen’s “A Journey to Jupiter” video. Credit: Peter Rosen et al via Youtube.

Among other items discussed was the limitations that missions like Juno have to deal with. While it is capable of taking very-high resolution images of Jupiter, these images are highly specific in nature. And before a team of mission scientists are able to color-correct them and stitch them together to create panoramas, etc., they are not always what you might call “visually stunning”.

However, Earth-based observatories are not hampered by this restriction, and can take multiple images of a planet over time that capture it as a whole. And thanks to the availability of sophisticated telescopes and imaging software, amateur astronomers are capable of making important contributions in this regard. And far from these being strictly for scientific purposes, there is also the added benefit of public engagement.

“This has been a very technical and scientifically correct project,” said Rosen, “but as a photographer and digital artist I also wanted to create a work of art that would inspire and appeal to people who are fascinated by the universe but who are not necessarily into astronomy.”

Of course, this does not detract from the scientific value that this film has. For example, it showcases the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere in a way that is scientifically accurate. Hence why Ricardo Hueso Alonso – a physicist at the University of Basque Country and a member of the Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) – plans to use the maps to measure Jupiter’s wind speeds at different latitudes.

Reprocessed image taken by the JunoCam during its 3rd close flyby of the planet on Dec. 11. The photo highlights two large ‘pearls’ or storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

On top of its artistic and scientific merit, “A Journey to Jupiter” also serves as a testament to the skill and capability of the today’s amateur astronomers and planetary photographers. And of course, it draws attention to the efforts of space missions such as Juno, which is currently skimming the clouds of Jupiter to obtain the most comprehensive information about the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field to date.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first film by Rosen that combines scientific accuracy and fast-motion visuals. The short film Voyager 3, released back in June of 2014, was an homage by Rosen and six other Swedish amateur astronomers to the Voyager 1 mission. As the probe made its 28-day final approach to Jupiter in 1979, it snapped what were the most detailed images of Jupiter at the time.

These images helped to improve our understanding of the gas giant, its atmosphere, and its moons. Among other things, hey revealed the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and that the Great Red Spot had changed color since the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions had flown by in 1973 and 74. Produced 35 years later, Voyager 3 was an attempt to recreate this historic event using images taken by Swedish amateur astronomers using their own ground-based telescopes.

Over the course of 90 days, Rosen and his colleagues captured one million frames of Jupiter, which resulted in 560 still images of the planet. These were then stitched together using a series of software programs (Winjupos, Photoshop CS6, Fantamorph, and StarryNightPro+) to create a simulation that gives the impression of a probe approaching the planet – i.e. like a third Voyager mission, hence the name of the film.

“As Jupiter was ideally positioned high in the sky in 2013-2014 for us living far up in the northern hemisphere, I decided that it was the right moment to give it a try, so I contacted 6 other amateurs on our local forum that shared my passion for the planets,” Rosen said. “We photographed Jupiter as often as we could during a 3-month period and I took care of the processing of the images which took me a total of 6 months.”

It is an exciting time to be alive. Not only are a greater number of national space agencies taking part in the exploration of the Solar System; but more than ever, citizen scientists, amateurs and members of the general public are able to participate in a way that was never before possible.

To view more work by Peter Rosen, be sure to check out his page at Vimeo.

Further Reading: NASA

At ISO 400,000, This 6-Minute Film Shows Why We Love the Night Sky

Obviously, you’ve seen timelapse videos of the night sky because we share them here on Universe Today all the time. But you’ve probably not seen a video like this one before. This one isn’t a timelapse, and you’ll see the night sky in all its splendor, in real time.

“I think this one may be the beginning of something damn interesting,” said filmmaker Ben Canales, who along with cohort John Waller of Uncage The Soul Productions, shot this video with new low-light technology. Using the new Canon MH20f-SH, which has the capability of shooting at 400,000 ISO, they were able to “film in the quiet moments that have been impossible to capture until now.”

“Since 2013, I’ve been tinkering with all sorts of camera/lens/software combinations trying to move beyond a long exposure still to real time video of the stars,” Canales said on Facebook. “Sooner or later, we have to move beyond a frozen photo of the stars to hear, see, feel what it is really like being out there!”

In addition to showcasing this wonderful new low-light shooting, Infinity² really captures the emotional side of amateur astronomy and the beauty of being under the night sky. He took a group of high school students out to witness the Perseid Meteor Shower in Oregon, and the students got together with the Oregon Star Party. Together, they answer the simple question “What do you feel?”

As Canales says, “Something internal and personal draws us out to the night sky.”

Check out more on Uncage The Soul Productions, Canales’ astrophoto website and Facebook.

Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.
Still image from the film Infinity ². Image Courtesy Ben Canales.

Infinity ² from Uncage the Soul Productions on Vimeo.

Watch Where You Point That ‘Scope: Police Mistake Telescope for a Gun

One more thing amateur astronomers might need to worry about besides clouds, bugs, and trying to fix equipment malfunctions in the dark – and this one’s a little more serious.

Earlier this week, two students at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota were settting up a telescope and camera system to take pictures of the Moon when armed police approached them. The police officers had mistaken the telescope for a rifle.

Students Levi Joraanstad and Colin Waldera told WDAY TV in Fargo that they were were setting up their telescope behind their apartment’s garage when they were blinded by a bright light and told to stop moving.

Initially, they thought it was a joke, that fellow students were pulling a prank, and because police were shining a bright light at them, the two students were blinded.

Police said that an officer patrolling the area had seen what he thought was suspicious activity behind the garage, thinking that one of the students’ dark sweater with white lettering on the back looked like a tactical vest, and that the telescope might be a rifle.

Police added that their response was a “better safe than sorry” approach, and they said the two students were never in any danger of being shot.

However, Joraanstad and Waldera said since they thought it was a joke, they initially ignored the order to stop moving and kept digging in their bags for equipment.

“I was kind of fumbling around with my stuff and my roommate and I were kind of talking, we were kind of wondering, what the heck’s going on? This is pretty dum that these guys are doing this,” WDAY quoted Joraanstad, a junior at NDSU. “And then they started shouting to quit moving or we could be shot. And so at that moment we kind of look at each other and we’re thinking we better take this seriously.”

If the police had acted more aggressively, the outcome could have been tragic. Joraanstad said the officers were very apologetic when they realized their mistake, and they explained what had happened.

So, watch where and how you point your telescope.

This is a rare occurrence, of course, and is nothing like risks amateur astronomers in Afghanistan regularly take to look through a telescope and share their views with local people. We wrote an article — which you can read here — about how they have to deal with more serious complications, such as making sure the area is clear of land mines, not arousing the suspicions the Taliban or the local police, and watching out for potential bombing raids by the US/UK/Afghan military alliance.

UPDATE: Maybe incidents like this aren’t quite as rare as I thought. Universe Today’s Bob King told me that just two weeks ago he was out observing in the countryside, when a very similar event happened to him. “A truck pulled up fast, with bright lights blinding my eyes and then the sheriff walked out of the car,” Bob said. “I quickly identified myself and explained what I was up to. He thought I was burying a dead body! No kidding.”

Wow…

Source: WDAY TV

Nobody Knows What These Mysterious Plumes are on Mars

In March 2012, amateur astronomers began observing unusual clouds or plumes along the western limb of the red planet Mars. The plumes, in the southern hemisphere rose to over 200 kilometers altitude persisting for several days and then reappeared weeks later.

So a group of astronomers from Spain, the Netherlands, France, UK and USA have now reported their analysis of the phenomena. Their conclusions are inconclusive but they present two possible explanations.

Was dust lofted to extreme altitudes or ice crystals transported into space.? Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars (Credit: NASA/Hubbble)
Was dust lofted to extreme altitudes or ice crystals transported into space.? Hubble images show cloud formations (left) and the effects of a global dust storm on Mars (Credit: NASA/Hubbble)

Mars and mystery are synonymous. Among Martian mysteries, this one has persisted for three years. Our own planet, much more dynamic than Mars, continues to raise new questions and mysteries but Mars is a frozen desert. Frozen in time are features unchanged for billions of years.

An animated sequence of images taken by Wayne Jaeschke on March 20, 2012 showing the mystery plume over the western limb of the red planet (upper right). South is up in the photo. (Credit: W. Jaeschke)

In March 2012, the news of the observations caught the attention of Universe Today contributing writer Bob King. Reported on his March 22nd 2012 AstroBob blog page, the plumes or clouds were clear to see. The amateur observer, Wayne Jaeschke used his 14 inch telescope to capture still images which he stitched together into an animation to show the dynamics of the phenomena.

ModernDay_Astrophotographer2Now on February 16 of this year, a team of researchers led by Agustín Sánchez-Lavega of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, published their analysis in the journal Nature of the numerous observations, presenting two possible explanations. Their work is entitled: “An Extremely high-altitude plume seen at Mars morning terminator.”

Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

The phenomena occurred over the Terra Cimmeria region centered at 45 degree south latitude. This area includes the tiger stripe array of magnetic fields emanating from concentrations of ferrous (iron) ore deposits on Mars; discovered by the Mars Global Surveyor magnetometer during low altitude aerobraking maneuvers at the beginning of the mission in 1998. Auroral events have been observed over this area from the interaction of the Martian magnetic field with streams of energetic particles streaming from the Sun. Sánchez-Lavega states that if these plumes are auroras, they would have to be over 1000 times brighter than those observed over the Earth.

Auroras photographed from The International Space Station. The distinct Manicouagan impact crater is seen in northern Canada. Terrestial aurora exist at altitudes of 100 km (60 miles) (Credit: NASA)
Auroras photographed from The International Space Station. The distinct Manicouagan impact crater is seen in northern Canada. Terrestial aurora exist at altitudes of 100 km (60 miles) (Credit: NASA)

The researchers also state that another problem with this scenario is the altitude. Auroras over Mars in this region have been observed up to 130 km, only half the height of the features. In the Earth’s field, aurora are confined to ionospheric altitudes – 100 km (60 miles). The Martian atmosphere at 200 km is exceedingly tenuous and the production of persistent and very bright aurora at such an altitude seems highly improbable.

The duration of the plumes – March 12th to 23rd, eleven days (after which observations of the area ended) and April 6th to 16th – is also a problem for this explanation. Auroral arcs on Earth are capable of persisting for hours. The Earth’s magnetic field functions like a capacitor storing charged particles from the Sun and some of these particles are discharged and produced the auroral oval and arcs. Over Mars, there is no equivalent capacitive storage of particles. Auroras over Mars are “WYSIWYG” – what you see is what you get – directly from the Sun. Concentrated solar high energy streams persisting for this long are unheard of.

The second explanation assessed by the astronomers is dust or ice crystals lofted to this high altitude. Again the altitude is the big issue. Martian dust storms will routinely lift dust to 60 km, still only one-third the height of the plumes. Martian dust devils will lift particles to 20 km. However, it is this second explanation involving ice crystals – Carbon Dioxide and Water – that the researchers give the most credence. In either instance, the particles must be concentrated and their reflectivity must account for the total brightness of the plumes. Ice crystals would be more easily transported to these heights, and also would be most highly reflective.

The paper also considered the shape of the plumes. The remarkable quality of modern amateur astrophotography cannot be overemphasized. Also the duration of the plumes was considered. By local noon and thereafter they were not observed. Again, the capabilities tendered by ground-based observations were unique and could not be duplicated by the present set of instruments orbiting Mars.

A Martian dust devil roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) high was captured on Amazonis Planitia region of Mars, March 14, 2012 by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The plume is little more than three-quarters of a football field wide (70 yards, or 70 meters). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA)
A Martian dust devil roughly 12 miles (20 kilometers) high was captured on Amazonis Planitia region of Mars, March 14, 2012 by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The plume is little more than three-quarters of a football field wide (70 yards, or 70 meters). (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA)

Still too many questions remain and the researchers state that “both explanations defy our present understanding of the Mars’ upper atmosphere.” By March 20th and 21st, the researchers summarized that at least 18 amateur astronomers observed the plume using from 20 to 40 cm telescopes (8 to 16 inch diameter) at wavelengths from blue to red. At Mars, the Mars Color Imager on MRO (MARCI) could not detect the event due to the 2 hour periodic scans that are compiled to make global images.

Of the many ground observations, the researchers utilized two sets from the venerable astrophotographers Don Parker and Daiman Peach. While observations and measurements were limited, the researchers analysis was exhaustive and included modeling assuming CO2, Water and dust particles. The researchers did find a Hubble observation from 1997 that compared favorably with the 2012 events and likewise modeled that event for comparison. However, Hubble results provided a single observation and the height estimate could not be narrowly constrained.

Explanation of these events in 2012 are left open-ended by the research paper. Additional observations are clearly necessary. With increased interest from amateurs and continued quality improvements plus the addition of the Maven spacecraft suite of instruments plus India’s Mars Orbiter mission, observations will eventually be gained and a Martian mystery solved to make way for yet another.

References:

An Extremely High-Altitude Plume seen at Mars’ Morning Terminator, Journal Nature, February 16, 2015

Amateur astronomer photographs curious cloud on Mars, AstroBob, March 22, 2012

Stunning Amateur Timelapse of Jupiter ‘Re-enacts’ Voyager Flyby

Back in the 1970’s when NASA launched the two Voyager spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, I remember being mesmerized by a movie created from Voyager 1 images of the movement of the clouds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Voyager 1 began taking pictures of Jupiter as it approached the planet in January 1979 and completed its Jupiter encounter in early April. During that time it took almost 19,000 pictures and many other scientific measurements to create the short movie, which you can see below, showing the intricate movement of the bright band of clouds for the first time.

Now, 35 years later a group of seven Swedish amateur astronomers achieved their goal of replicating the Voyager 1 footage, not with another flyby but with images taken with their own ground-based telescopes.

“We started this joint project back in December of 2013 to redo the NASA Voyager 1 flyby of Jupiter,” amatuer astronomer Göran Strand told Universe Today. “During 90 days we captured 560 still images of Jupiter and turned them into 90 complete maps that covered the whole of Jupiter’s surface.”

Their newly released film, above details the work they did and the hurdles they overcame (including incredibly bad weather in Sweden this winter) to make their dream a reality. They called their project “Voyager 3.”

Animated gif of the 'Voyager 3' team re-enactment of the Voyager 1 flyby. Credit: Voyager 3 team, via Kristoffer Åberg.
Animated gif of the ‘Voyager 3’ team re-enactment of the Voyager 1 flyby. Credit: Voyager 3 team, via Kristoffer Åberg.
It is really an astonishing project and those of you who do image processing will appreciate the info in the video about the tools they used and how they did their processing to create this video.

The seven Swedish astronomers who participated in the Voyager 3 project are (from left to right in the photo below) Daniel Sundström, Torbjörn Holmqvist, Peter Rosén (the project initiator), Göran Strand, Johan Warell and his daughter Noomi, Martin Högberg and Roger Utas.

The Swedish team of amateur astronomers who compiled the 'Voyager 3' project. Image courtesy Peter Rosén.
The Swedish team of amateur astronomers who compiled the ‘Voyager 3’ project. Image courtesy Peter Rosén.

Congrats to the team of Voyager 3!

You can read more about the Voyagers visits to Jupiter here from NASA.

Voyager3Movie from Peter Rosén on Vimeo.

Amazing Manual Trailing of Sirius and More Astrophotos from Pakistan

Ever notice how the brilliant star Sirius appears to change colors right before your eyes? Astrophotographer Roshaan Bukhari from Pakistan wanted to see for himself how this twinkling star changes in color due to the effects of our atmosphere as its light gets refracted and he did a little experiment with his telescope and camera. What resulted was a unique and colorful astrophoto!

“I pointed my telescope to sharply focus on Sirius and put my DSLR camera to 2 second exposure while holding it near the eyepiece and focusing Sirius from the camera viewfinder as well,” Roshaan told Universe Today via email. “I started shaking the telescope in a circular manner by holding it from the eyepiece so that Sirius was dancing all over the eyepiece in an ‘O’ shape. That’s when I pressed the camera shutter button and the shutter remained open for 2 seconds, recording the colours and the pattern of Sirius within the eyepiece.”

Roshaan said he did enhance the contrast to bring the trails out more clearly, but the color saturation and hues have not been altered in any way. The changes in color in just a two-second exposure are really amazing!

Roshaan shared how astronomy and astrophotography in Pakistan is becoming a “blooming field now” — which we are very happy to hear! “And I’m very happy to say that I am a part of it!” he said, adding, “I’m one of the biggest fans of Universe Today and have been listening to it’s podcasts on iTunes since i got my first iPhone back in 2008.”

Here are few more images from Roshaan Bukhari under Pakistan skies:

Two views of the the 13-day old Moon on  June 11, 2014 at  7 pm and 2 am local time, as seen from Lahore, Pakistan.  Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
Two views of the the 13-day old Moon on June 11, 2014 at 7 pm and 2 am local time, as seen from Lahore, Pakistan. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.

How does the look of the Moon change during the night? These images of the Moon — taken 7 hours apart — were shot through Roshaan’s telescope with his mobile phone camera using the handheld afocal method!

Phase of the moon at 7 pm was 96.8%, while at 2 am it was 97.5% (rate of change of lunar phase turns out to be 0.7% in 7 hours, figures estimated from Stellarium).

Roshaan said the quality of the images is not that great since he took them while there a lot of dust was up in the atmosphere due to some strong winds, but we think they look great!

The phases of Venus from November 2013 to January 2014. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
The phases of Venus from November 2013 to January 2014. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
A closeup of four craters that appear on the limb of the Moon. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
A closeup of four craters that appear on the limb of the Moon. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.

Thanks to Roshaan for sharing his images from Pakistan.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Adventures in (Radio) Amateur Astronomy

 Is there truly anything new under the Sun? Well, when it comes to amateur astronomy, many observers are branching out beyond the optical. And while it’s true that you can’t carry out infrared or X-ray astronomy from your backyard — or at least, not until amateurs begin launching their own space telescopes — you can join in the exciting world of amateur radio astronomy.

We’ll admit right out the gate that we’re a relative neophyte when it comes to the realm of radio astronomy. We’ve done radio observations of meteor showers in tandem with optical observations and have delved into the trove of information on constructing radio telescopes over the years. Consider this post a primer of sorts, an intro into the world of radio amateur astronomy. If there’s enough interest, we’ll follow up with a multi-part saga, constructing and utilizing our own ad-hoc “redneck array” in our very own backyard with which to alarm the neighbors and probe the radio cosmos.

Repurposing a TV Dish for amatuater astronomy. Credit: NSF/NRAO/Assoc. Universities, Inc.
The “Itty-Bitty Array”- Re-purposing a TV Dish for amateur astronomy. Credit: NSF/NRAO/Assoc. Universities, Inc.

And much like our exploits in planetary webcam imaging, we’ve discovered that you may have gear kicking around in the form of an old TV dish – remember satellite TV? – in your very own backyard. A simple radio telescope setup need not consist of anything more sophisticated than a dish (receiver), a signal strength detector (often standard for pointing a dish at a satellite during traditional installation) and a recorder. As you get into radio astronomy, you’ll want to include such essentials as mixers, oscillators, and amplifiers to boost your signal.

Frequency is the name of the game in amateur radio astronomy, and most scopes are geared towards the 18 megahertz to 10,000 megahertz range. A program known as Radio-SkyPipe makes a good graphic interface to turn your laptop into a recorder.

Radio astronomy was born in 1931, when Karl Jansky began researching the source of a faint background radio hiss with his dipole array while working for Bell Telephone. Jansky noticed the signal strength corresponded to the passage of the sidereal day, and correctly deduced that it was coming from the core of our Milky Way galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Just over a decade later, Australian radio astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott pioneered solar radio astronomy at the end of World War II, making the first ever observations of Type I and III solar bursts as well as conducting the first radio interferometry observation.

A replica of Jansky's first steerable antanta at Green Bank, West Virginia.
A replica of Jansky’s first steerable antenna at Green Bank, West Virginia. (Public Domain image)

What possible targets exist for the radio amateur astronomer? Well, just like those astronomers of yore, you’ll be able to detect the Sun, the Milky Way Galaxy, Geostationary and geosynchronous communication satellites and more. The simple dish system described above can also detect temperature changes on the surface of the Moon as it passes through its phases. Jupiter is also a fairly bright radio target for amateurs as well.

Radio meteors are also within the reach of your FM dial. If you’ve ever had your car radio on during a thunderstorm, you’ve probably heard the crackle across the radio spectrum caused by a nearby stroke of lightning. A directional antenna is preferred, but even a decent portable FM radio will pick up meteors on vacant bands outdoors. These are often heard as ‘pings’ or temporary reflections of distant radio stations off of the trail of ionized gas left in the wake of a meteor.  Like with visual observing, radio meteors peak in activity towards local sunrise as the observer is being rotated forward into the Earth’s orbit.

Amateur SETI is also taking off, and no, we’re not talking about your crazy uncle who sits out at the end of runways watching for UFOs. BAMBI is a serious amateur led project. Robert Gray chronicled his hunt for the elusive Wow! signal in his book by the same name, and continues an ad hoc SETI campaign. With increasingly more complex rigs and lots of time on their hands, it’s not out of the question that an amateur SETI detection could be achieved.

Another exciting possibility in radio astronomy is tracking satellites. HAM radio operators are able to listen in on the ISS on FM frequencies (click here for a list of uplink and downlink frequencies), and have even communicated with the ISS on occasion. AMSAT-UK maintains a great site that chronicles the world of amateur radio satellite tracking.

Amateur radio equipment that eventually made its way to to ISS aboard STS-106. (Credit: NASA).
Amateur radio equipment that eventually made its way to to ISS aboard STS-106. (Credit: NASA).

Old TV dishes are being procured for professional use as well. One team in South Africa did just that back in 2011, scouring the continent for old defunct telecommunications dished to turn them into a low cost but effective radio array.

Several student projects exist out there as well. One fine example is NASA’s Radio JOVE project, which seeks student amateur radio observations of Jupiter and the Sun. A complete Radio Jove Kit, to include receiver and Radio-SkyPipe and Radio-Jupiter Pro software can be had for just under 300$ USD. You’d have a tough time putting together a high quality radio telescope for less than that! And that’s just in time for prime Jupiter observing as the giant planet approaches quadrature on April 1st (no fooling, we swear) and is favorably placed for evening observing, both radio and optical.

Fearing what the local homeowner’s association will say when you deploy your very own version of Jodrell Bank in your backyard?  There are several online radio astronomy projects to engage in as well. [email protected] is the original crowd sourced search for ET online. The Zooniverse now hosts Radio Galaxy Zoo, hunting for erupting black holes in data provided by the Karl Jansky Very Large Array and the Australia Telescope Compact Array. [email protected] is another exciting student opportunity that lets users control an actual professional telescope. Or you can just listen for meteor pings online via NASA’s forward scatter meteor radar based out of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Adrian West also hosts live radio meteor tracking on his outstanding Meteorwatch website during times of peak activity.

A simple but sophistated setup for tracking radio meteors. Credit: NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.
A simple but sophisticated setup for tracking radio meteors. Credit: NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Interested? Other possibilities exist for the advanced user, including monitoring radio aurorae, interferometry, catching the hiss of the cosmic microwave background and even receiving signals from more distant spacecraft, such as China’s Yutu rover on the Moon.

Think of this post as a primer to the exciting world of amateur radio astronomy. If there’s enough interest, we’ll do a follow up “how-to” article as we assemble and operate a functional amateur radio telescope. Or perhaps you’re an accomplished amateur radio astronomer, with some tips and tricks to share. There’s more to the universe than meets the eye!

-Also be sure to check out SARA, the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers.

An Amazing Capture of Jupiter and its Moons

It’s always a thrill to watch the action at Jupiter, as its moons pass in front of and behind the gas giant planet. We wrote recently about this month’s opposition of Jove on January 5th, marking the start of the Jupiter evening viewing season for 2014. 

Astrophotographer Michael A. Philips also recently undertook a challenging series of sequences of Jupiter and its moons Io and Ganymede, with stunning results. You can see the motion of Jupiter’s rotation, the Great Red Spot and even a bit of cloud swirl as Io disappears behind Jupiter and Ganymede begins to transit in front and cast a shadow back onto the Jovian cloud tops.

Concerning the capture, Michael wrote on his blog:

“This night was a lucky night. I had not looked at the weather forecast enough to know if it would be good or not. Cold temps aside, I decided earlier in the day to set up and go out with the 14” f/4.5 scope named Akule. As an added bonus, Mitchell Duke tipped me off to a transit of the Jovian moon, Ganymede.”

Note that Jupiter and its moons are currently casting their shadows nearly straight back from our perspective. Expect that to change, however, in the coming months,as Jupiter heads towards eastern dusk quadrature on April 1st and we see the action from a sideways angle. Watch the video in full screen mode and you’ll note that Mike captured some detail on the surface of Ganymede as well! Generally, at the eyepiece, the moons of Jupiter disappear entirely due to low contrast against the bulk of the planet, with only the black dot of the shadow seen… this video capture gives the ingress of Ganymede at the start of the transit a great 3-D appearance.

Webcam imaging of planets has really taken off in the past decade, with backyard astronomers now routinely capturing images that far surpass professional and textbook images from just a decade prior. Great images can be taken using nothing more than a telescope, a laptop, free image stacking software such as Registax, and a webcam converted to fit into an eyepiece holder… you may find that you’ve got the gear sitting around to image Jupiter, tonight.

Mr. Phillips rig, however, is a little more advanced. He notes in the description of the video that he’s using a Flea3 camera from PointGrey Research with a 5x Barlow lens yielding a 9200mm focal length. He’s also shooting at 120 frames per second, and taking successive red, green and blue images for 30 seconds. Finally, a derotation of Jupiter – yes, it really rotates that quickly, even in a short sequence – is accomplished using a sophisticated program named WINJupos.

Video stacking gives processors the ability to “freeze” and nab the best moments of seeing from thousands of frames. Some imagers hand select frames one by one, though many programs, such as Registax, use algorithms to nab the best frames from a preselected percentage of the total shot.

Local seeing conditions also play a key role in image capturing.

“I moved far away from the house as possible, and I think that helped some,” Michael noted. “I also started cooling the spit out of the mirror, aggressively. Even when cooled for a few hours in the winter, the heat in the Pyrex mirror comes back. I think there’s a small heat engine inside the beast!”

For best results, imagers tend to go after planets when they’re at their highest in the sky, and viewed through the least amount of turbulent atmosphere. This is when a planet is transiting the local north to south meridian, and when it’s at opposition, which Jupiter is this month. At opposition, a planet transits at local midnight. The same goes for the best opportunities for visual observing as well.

Shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons are also just plain fun to watch. In an often unchanging universe, they offer a chance to see something unfolding in real time. Jupiter has the fastest rotation of any planet at 9.9 hours, and the large Galilean moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are tidally locked in their rotation, keeping one hemisphere permanently turned towards Jupiter like the Moon does orbiting the Earth. The inner three moons also keep a 1:2:4 orbital resonance, assuring you’ll never see more than three of the four Galilean moons transiting from your line of sight at once. You can see two of the inner three moons, plus Callisto in transit, but never all four at the same time! A triple transit last occurred on October 12th, 2013, and will next occur for observers in eastern Europe and Africa this year on June 3rd.

We’re also currently in the midst of a series of shadow transits for the outermost Galilean moon Callisto, which end in July 2016. Can you identify the different moons by the size and hue of shadows they cast? Sky & Telescope publishes a great table for the ingress and egress of Jupiter’s moons. You can also check them out using the freeware program Stellarium.

The double shadow transit of February 6th as seen at 11:22 UT. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.
The double shadow transit of February 6th as seen at 11:22 UT. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

Can’t wait that long? A double shadow transit involving Europa and Callisto occurs in just a few weeks for western North America from 10:20 UT-12:44UT on the morning of February 6th, a chance for another stunning animation sequence…

Congrats to Michael Phillips on a great capture!

Astronomy Cast Ep. 328: Telescope Making, Part 2: Serious Gear

Some astronomers are control freaks. It’s not enough to buy a telescope, they want to craft every part of the experience with their own hands. If you’re ready, and willing to get your hands dirty (and covered in glass dust), you can join thousands of amateur telescope makers and build your own telescope from scratch.

Continue reading “Astronomy Cast Ep. 328: Telescope Making, Part 2: Serious Gear”