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

Astrophotographer Michael Phillips with the gear used to capture the Jupiter rotation animation. Credit-Michael Phillips

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”

How Amateur Astronomers Can Help LADEE

An Artist's concept of LADEE in orbit around the Moon. (Credit: NASA Ames).

You can help NASA’s upcoming lunar mission.

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is slated to lift off from Wallops Island this September 5th in a spectacular night launch. LADEE will be the first mission departing Wallops to venture beyond low Earth orbit. A joint collaboration between NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center & the AMES Research Center, LADEE will study the lunar environment from orbit, including its tenuous exosphere.

Scientists hope to answer some long standing questions about the lunar environment with data provided by LADEE. How substantial is the wispy lunar atmosphere?  How common are micro-meteoroid impacts? What was the source of the sky glow recorded by the Surveyor spacecraft and observed by Apollo astronauts before lunar sunrise and after lunar sunset while in orbit?

Glows of the solar corona and crepuscular rays reported by the Apollo 17 astronauts in lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA).
Glows of the solar corona and crepuscular rays reported by the Apollo 17 astronauts in lunar orbit. (Credit: NASA).

The micro-meteoroid issue is of crucial concern for any future long duration human habitation on the Moon. The Apollo missions were only days in length. No one has ever witnessed a lunar sunrise or sunset from the surface of the Moon, as all six landings occurred on the nearside of the Moon in daylight. (Sunrise to sunset on the Moon takes about two Earth weeks!)

And that’s where amateur astronomers come in. LADEE is teaming up with the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers (ALPO) and their Lunar Meteoritic Impact Search Program in a call to watch for impacts on the Moon. These are recorded as brief flashes on the nighttime side of the Moon, which presents a favorable illumination after last quarter or leading up into first quarter phase.

We wrote recently about a +4th magnitude flash detected of the Moon on March 17th of this year. That explosion was thought to have been caused by a 35 centimetre impactor which may have been associated with the Eta Virginid meteor shower. The impact released an explosive equivalent of five tons of TNT and has set a possible new challenge for Moon Zoo volunteers to search for the resulting 6 metre crater.

An artist's illustration of a meteoroid impact on the Moon. (Credit: NASA).
An artist’s illustration of a meteoroid impact on the Moon. (Credit: NASA).

We’ve also written about amateur efforts to document transient lunar phenomena and studies attempting to pinpoint a possible source of these spurious glows and flashes on the Moon observed over the years.

NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office is looking for dedicated amateurs to take part in their Lunar Impact Monitoring campaign. Ideally, such an observing station should utilize a telescope with a minimum aperture of 8 inches (20cm) and be able to continuously monitor and track the Moon while it’s above the local horizon. Most micro-meteoroid flashes are too fast and faint to be seen with the naked eye, and thus video recording will be necessary. A typical video configuration for the project is described here. Note the high frame rate and the ability to embed a precise time stamp is required. I’ve actually run WWV radio signals using an AM short wave radio transmitting in the background to accomplish this during occultations.

Finally, you’ll need a program called LunarScan to analyze those videos for evidence of high speed flashes. LunarScan is pretty intuitive. We used the program to analyze video shot during the 2010 Total Lunar Eclipse for any surreptitious Geminid or Ursid meteors.

Brian Cudnik, coordinator of the Lunar Meteoritic Impact Search section of the ALPO, noted in a recent forum post that we’re approaching another optimal window to accomplish these sorts of observations this weekend, with the Moon headed towards last quarter on June 30th.

An example of an impact flash recorded by the Automated & Lunar Meteor Observatory video cameras based at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
An example of an impact flash recorded by the Automated & Lunar Meteor Observatory video cameras based at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Interestingly, the June Boötids are currently active as well, with historical sporadic rates of anywhere from 10-100 per hour.  In 1975, seismometers left by Apollo astronauts detected series of impacts on June 24th thought to have been caused by one of two Taurid meteor swarms the Earth passes through in late June, another reason to be vigilant this time of year.

Don’t have access to a large telescope or sophisticated video gear? You can still participate and make useful observations.

LADEE is also teaming up with JPL and the Lewis Center for Educational Research to allow students track the spacecraft en route to the Moon. Student groups will be able to remotely access the 34-metre radio telescopes based at Goldstone, California that form part of NASA’s Deep Space Communications Network. Students will be able to perform Doppler measurements during key mission milestones to monitor the position and status of the spacecraft during thruster firings.

And backyard observers can participate in another fashion, using nothing more than their eyes and patience. Meteor streams that are impacting the Moon affect the Earth as well. The International Meteor Organization is always looking for information from dedicated observers in the form of meteor counts. The Perseids, an “Old Faithful” of meteor showers, occurs this year around August 12th under optimal conditions, with the Moon only five days past New. This is also three weeks prior to the launch of LADEE.

Whichever way you choose to participate, be sure to follow the progress of LADEE and our next mission to study Earth’s Moon!

-Listen to Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson and her interview with Brian Day of the NASA Lunar Science Institute.

-Also listen to the 365 Days of Astronomy interview with Brian Day and Andy Shaner from the Lunar Planetary institute on the upcoming LADEE mission.

Astronomer Giovanni Sostero, 1964-2012

Giovanni Sostero, 1964-2012. Image courtesy of the Remanzacco Observatory

With sadness, we learned of the death of amateur astronomer Giovanni Sostero last Friday. Universe Today readers will remember Giovanni as a member of the team of astronomers from the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy, whose outstanding work we frequently feature, especially for their observations of comets, asteroids and supernovae. Tragically, Giovanni was just 48 years old and passed away due to complications following a heart attack.

Giovanni was credited with the discovery of several supernovae, and Asteroid 9878 Sostero (1994 FQ) was named after him to honor his astronomical observations. His work was published in several professional astronomical journals and he was a leading and active member of the Associazione Friulana di Astronomia e Meteorologia, based in Friuli, Italy, and was an honorary member of the Astronomical Observatory of Visnjan in Croatia.

Not only did he work hard behind the eyepiece, but he was very active in public outreach about astronomy.

Giovanni’s closest colleagues were his co-astronomers at the Remanzacco Observatory, Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes. Both have graciously penned their remembrances of Giovanni for Universe Today, so please read on to get a true sense of not only how much Giovanni contributed to the world of astronomy, but also his unique personality. He will be greatly missed and we at Universe Today send our condolences to his family and friends.

From Ernesto Guido

Over the past eight years, I had the privilege to undertake astronomy projects working closely with Giovanni Sostero. In fact our collaboration and friendship started at the beginning of 2005. At that time Giovanni was already an accomplished amateur astronomer known both nationally and internationally for its expertise, his scientific rigor and for his overwhelming passion for the comets. For my part, I was then moving the first steps as a young amateur astronomer. Eager to do my part, I dearly wanted to be a part of any team with the best names in contemporary astronomy and for these past 8 years was lucky enough to meet Giovanni along my own personal road.

Born in Udine in 1964, Giovanni was for many years President of the Italian astronomy association AFAM of Remanzacco. He was coordinator of the comet section of UAI (Unione Astrofili Italiani) and one of the leaders of CARA Team (Comet AfRho Research Group). He began his collaboration with the UAI Comet section in 1983 (the year of perihelion passage of 22P/Kopff), and subsequently participated to the International Halley Watch watching the 21P/Giacobini-Zinner and 1P/Halley.

His passing is a great loss for all those who loved him and for the world of astronomy. It is impossible to list here the many discoveries, articles and all contributions he made to the world of professional and amateur astronomy, not only to the field of comets.

One need only recall the 11 supernovae discovered by him in the years 2005-2009, a nova in the galaxy M31 in 2000 (the first discovery by amateur means) together with dear friends of Remanzacco Observatory, the discovery of dozens of asteroids and the observation and follow-up of hundreds of comets and Near Earth Asteroids (NEOs). In the last two years, we had embarked on a new partnership and friendship with the English amateur astronomer Nick Howes. We both agreed that we could get wonderful results together with Nick, but a cruel fate took Giovanni away too soon.

It will be impossible to fill the void he leaves, but the best way to honour him will be to continue on the road we had taken together to try shed some more light via our research on the objects he loved so much, the comets.

Giovanni was a great person, a great astronomer and the best of friends. I will miss him immensely!

Comet Garradd (C/2009 PI) as it passes by the globular cluster M92 in the constellation Hercules, was taken remotely from the Tzek Maun Observatory in New Mexico by the team of Giovanni Sostero, Ernest Guido and Nick Howes.

From Nick Howes,

I first encountered the remarkable Giovanni Sostero and his long time friend and collaborator Ernesto Guido in 2010, after the successful imaging of Comet 103P in support of the NASA AOP program. I was using the 2m Faulkes Telescopes a lot for cometary imaging, and after we got chatting, onlline, we decided to collaborate as a team working on both the Faulkes scopes and also their own observatory in Italy for ongoing cometary research projects. His knowledge of the skies was truly staggering, as was his knowledge of comets in general. I learnt so much from working with him, a kind, generous and informative individual with a phenomenal sense of humour.

You only have to look at the over 1880 NASA ADS citations he has for his work, combined with several supernova discoveries and an asteroid named after him, to realise that not only the amateur community, of which we are all proud members, but the professional astronomical community, respected and loved this man.

The reaction on the social media sites and comet mailing lists has been universal, one of shock and deep sadness, that we have lost such a wonderful mind, and such a great person. I valued his friendship greatly, his mentoring, his help and passion for astronomy were invaluable, and words can’t express the deep sadness I think we all feel. The team at Faulkes…well we’re all in deep shock… as we had great plans for this year, with the ESA comet 67P mission project, our plans to track comet ISON and comet Panstarrs L4, but Ernesto and I will continue, and aim to honour his name with many great new discoveries.

You can read more words of condolences for Giovanni here.

Notes from an Amateur Telescope Maker’s Journal, Part 1

A home-made equatorial wedge used with an off-the-shelf telescope, just one of the ways you can improve your telescope experiences. Credit: Dale Jacobs

Editor’s note: Interested in DIY telescopes? Amateur astronomer Dale Jacobs will be sharing his experiences in using everyday items to build or enhance telescopes.

I am an amateur astronomer and have been since the late 1970’s. I’ll be sharing some of my adventures in building and modifying telescopes for my personal use. Hopefully I can help instill the ‘bug’ in those of you who have been thinking of building your own scope but have yet to do it, or help others avoid some of my pitfalls. I’ll also be sharing my successes, which has inspired me to continue and enhance my stargazing endeavors. As you’ll see, it doesn’t always require expensive equipment, and I’ll show you how to be creative in using some things that you may have right in your kitchen cupboard or garage.

But first: how did I get started in this great hobby? Back in the 70’s I lived in a beachside studio apartment in overly crowded southern California. One chilly mid-November night (on my birthday!) I decided to go for a walk on the mostly deserted beach in front of my apartment complex to meditate and take in whatever stars I could see through the bright city lights. When I got down to the water and looked up, I was surprised to see a swarm of meteors overhead! Wow! Unknown to me at the time, this was the annual Leonid Meteor shower. I felt blessed and lucky to see those Leonids, which fell in near ‘storm’ proportions that year. I was truly amazed and watched for hours. Soon after, I began reading Sky and Telescope and Astronomy magazines to find out more about what I’d seen and then I signed up for an astronomy class at the local junior college.

One of my upstairs neighbors in the apartment building I lived in, heard about my new fascination and offered to lend me an unused and quite dusty 80mm ‘dime store’ refractor. The telescope was mounted on a poorly built alt-azimuth style tripod and came with three overpowered and very small eyepieces. Only one of them was any good and even so the eye relief was just terrible. No matter, I was young and had good eyes back then. So I took that telescope out every chance I could get and was amazed to see Jupiter’s bands and its brighter moons, Saturn’s rings with Titan, and the great Orion Nebula! The Moon soon became a constant companion as my fascination grew.

In 1984 after breaking up with my fiancée, I decided I needed a change of pace to keep from going crazy. So I quit my aerospace job and moved to Northern California. My new ‘digs’ were on a 1,000 acre cattle ranch half way up Sonoma Mountain. The ranch was only a few miles from the town of Petaluma, yet still had that ‘country’ feel – for a ‘city boy.’ The skies were usually pretty good there, especially when the fog rolled in and covered the lights of the S.F. Bay Area. At times, the brilliant stars above literally ‘took my breath away.’ We didn’t have skies like that down in Southern California! At least not within 100 miles of the greater metropolitan area…

I opted to buy a Meade model 2040, 4-inch Schmidt Cassegrain, fork mounted telescope for about $800 rather than the T.V. I was tempted to buy. This telescope turned out to be a MUCH better ‘deal’ and has been a great night time companion over the years! Since I wasn’t dating or even interested in the opposite sex for a quite awhile, it suited and served me well. A small scope is easy to set up and transport, which is key for casual observing. I even put it on the back of my motorcycle one time and drove up to Lake Tahoe with it! (Minus the tripod – it has screw-in legs for setting up on any suitable flat surface – such as a picnic table.)

The top image is of that telescope mounted on an equatorial wedge I made for my latitude. The wedge is constructed of a hard wood core, marine grade plywood. It is very stable! The cost for this endeavor was about $10, which included the wood, glue and fasteners. It was well worth the price, and I’m still using it! The tripod is an old surveyor’s backsight that my brother, a land surveyor, found one day working way back ‘in the woods’, up on a mountaintop. It had obviously been forgotten and had been there for who knows how many years. It was probably made in the 1940’s. It sure soaked up/took a lot rejuvenating oil and rubbing to make it useful again, but I like reusing old tools.

Building this equatorial wedge was a great confidence builder and inspired me to continue my star gazing. A 4-inch scope may be considered ‘small’, but a scope this size is a GREAT beginner’s scope and is a handy adjunct for any serious star gazer. Not shown in this image is the tar paper/roofing felt tube I rubber band around the end of the scope for dew protection. Yeah… this is ‘my baby’. It has served me quite well throughout the years! I saw Comet Austin, Comet Halley, Comet Hyakutaki, and Comet Hale Bopp with this scope, along with 41 other comets! I may have been taunted by other astronomers at star parties for having such a ‘small’ scope… but I’ll tell you what… smaller scopes can sometimes ‘see’ through upper atmospheric disturbance cells and are actually better than larger scopes at doing so. I have seen where they will sometimes outperform 8-, 10- or 12-inch scopes! Many times at ‘star parties’ I was the one to found that obscure comet… long before the larger scopes did.

One thing I discovered is that while adequate for casual viewing, this scope doesn’t do all that well with faint galaxies. As a result, I’ve always dreamed of having a larger ‘light bucket’ for those clear nights, when the seeing excels. Then one day, a scientist friend of mine, who was leaving the area to work at the new Virgin Galactic space port in New Mexico, offered to sell me a 12 1/2 inch mirror he’d ground and polished back in the 1970’s. He’d never completed the project due in no small part to the arrival of babies and pressing career responsibilities. Along with the 12 1/2″ mirror he also sold me several components he’d collected to build his ‘dream’ scope, but never did. What you see below is what I ended up doing with some of those components and my own additions.

Here ‘she’ is, warts and all…. my new baby!

Dale’s 12 1/2 inch lightbucket…. or light pot. Image: Dale Jacobs.

The base of the mount I made from a modified aluminum router table. Attached to that is a Doug Fir 2X4 leveling and support base. The leveling screws I made from 8-inch long lag bolts with their rounded heads pointing downwards. The handles of the leveling screws I made from drilled out garden faucet handles. They are captured by stainless steel cap nuts and threaded inserts. The wheels on this side of the base I purchased at a local hardware store, the axle too. The two front wheels on the side opposite, are from a baby carriage! The equatorial wedge I cut from a piece of 1 inch thick plywood. The cast aluminum equatorial mount was made from an old Navy gun alignment bore sight. The R.A. axis is mounted where the spotting or alignment scope once lived. The clamps that held that bore scope now hold the R.A. shaft bearings in place.

Here’s what I did with the old refractor/bore sight.

I mounted it on a German Equatorial from an old Tasco 4 inch reflector a friend gave me. The aluminum pie pan makes the shadow for the projected solar image. To connect the imager to the eyepiece I used black PVC tubing with straightened clothes hanger metal spokes in drilled through holes. The spokes are held in place with a stainless steel tube clamp. Rubber bands behind the white projection plate hold it firmly in place. I use this scope to observe Sun spots. Not only can I see the spots but also sometimes can see the whitish faculae which frequently accompany and surround them!

I finally got the balancing just right for the 12 1/2″ scope. That was tricky! This mount allows me to move the whole assembly with a finger light touch. I made brakes to stop motion A/R in either axis from hard wood cutouts.

Here’s a view of the secondary mirror housing:

The aluminum struts I purchased at a scrap and hardware store. I made the finder scope from a pair of ‘funky’ plastic Chinese binoculars that never focused properly anyway. The finder’s body and mount are constructed from white PVC tubing and held in place with nylon screws. The base of the finder mount was made from a broken finder scope that I modified to fit with a Dremel tool. The eyepiece focuser can be moved left/right, up/down on any of the four paired dowels by loosening the attached nylon screws. Next up, I will make a ‘clocking mechanism’ so I can easily turn the secondary 90-180 or 270 degrees.

I can add other focusers, cameras or instruments on any of the 4X ‘dowel flat’ pairs. I made the secondary mirror from a precision optical flat another scientist friend gave me back in 1984 when I worked at a semiconductor equipment manufacturing company. Ever cut glass before? Triple trick! Those flats were coated with aluminum during a vacuum/deposition chamber test. The secondary housing I cut from an old fishing rod transport tube. Later, I plan to purchase a 1/10 wave or better secondary and new mirror mount. The spider legs are modified stainless steel packing straps. Both the secondary housing and main mirror housing were made from 34 qt. alum. cook pots! What’s cooking Daddy-O or Momma Mia?!

Here’s a view of the mirror cover I made from a ‘spare’ plant pot saucer. (Don’t tell the wife!) I sewed the ‘grip handles’ into the nylon mounting straps to aid in tightening the straps. Part of the two wooden brake assemblies are also shown in this view:

In this view you can see the ‘yet to be coated’ primary mirror and the ‘at that time’ mostly unpainted secondary mirror housing:

I’ll have the mirror tested and coated soon and plan on using a web cam or DSLR for imaging after I install some sort of clock drive mechanism. I hope to eventually participate in the Universe Today’s weekly online Virtual Star Parties with this ‘puppy’ (as David Letterman would say) when completed. I hope so anyway… only time will tell!

In the next episode… I hope to ‘show off’ some images! There’s that ‘only time will tell’ thing again!

Have any questions or comments for Dale about his amateur DIY astronomy? Leave comments below, or you can send him an email

All images are courtesy Dale Jacobs

Thierry Legault: Astrophotography is an ‘Adrenaline Rush’

Thierry Legault with the equipment he uses for satellite images. Images courtesy of Thierry Legault.


During one of the final space shuttle missions, photographer Thierry Legault traveled nearly 4,000 km across various locations in Europe to try and capture the shuttle docked to the International Space Station as the two spacecraft transited across the surface of the Sun.

“Essentially, I was trying to catch the clear sky so I could take images of an event that would last less than a second,” Legault said from his home in France.

This type of dedication to his craft, along with his attention to detail and quality has earned Legault the reputation as one of the top amateur astrophotographers in the world.

Amazingly, he started his astrophotography hobby — and his specialty of imaging objects in front of the Sun — just by chance. And now Legault has been shooting breathtaking images of spacecraft in orbit and astronomical objects and events for nearly 20 years.

“I began in 1993 with one of the first CCD cameras, the first year that CCD cameras were available for amateurs,” Legault said. “It was a wonderful time, because it was a time of pioneers, and it was a revolution after film.”

An Airplane in Front of the Sun Credit & Copyright: Thierry Legault

Intrigued by what could be done with digital equipment, he experimented by taking planetary and deep sky pictures and has now amassed a prolific portfolio of stunning images. In 2001 he took the first of the type of images he has become renown for.

“I took a picture of a plane in front of the Sun,” Legault recalled, “and it was published on APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), and so now I have taken many images of things in front of the Sun.”

Image of the solar transit of the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle Atlantis, 50 minutes after undocking from the ISS, before return to Earth, taken from the area of Mamers, Normandie, France on September 17, 2006. Credit and copyright, Thierry Legault

In 2006 he took pictures of the space station and space shuttle side by side just as the shuttle undocked. It was published by newspapers around the world, including a double page in the Guardian, was shown on CNN and other news shows, and was everywhere on the internet.

“It was an incredible success, which was very surprising. This type of imaging is very fun for me, as I like the challenge,” Legault said. “But it is interesting how taking a picture of a spaceship in front of the Sun is really something for non-astronomers, but yet I never received so much interest for all the other astronomy images I have taken.”

Legault said he has received emails and letters from people around the world expressing how much they enjoy his transit images.

One of the setups Legault uses for solar imaging. Image courtesy Thierry Legault

Living in the suburbs of Paris means there are plenty of lights to interfere with his astrophotography.

“Where I live is not a problem for taking pictures of some satellites, the Sun, the Moon and planets,” he said. “For deep space imaging and for the space station, I have to put everything in the van and drive 20-30 kilometers and go to the country; also for solar or lunar transits I have to go to the place where the transit is visible.”

This is the first image ever taken from the ground, of an astronaut in extravehicular activity (EVA1). Steve Bowen, attached to the end of the ISS robotic arm (MSS), was working on a defective ammonia pump. The pump was hooked to the ISS mobile base system (MBS). All major elements of the robotic arm are visible, including the structures of the motorized joints and some elements along the arms (smaller than the astronaut). Credit and copyright, Thierry Legault.

For the STS-131 mission in May of 2010, Legault traveled to Spain, Switzerland, various parts of France, and for the STS-133 mission in February 2011, where he took the first-ever ground-based image of astronaut in spacewalk he drove to Germany, and to both the south and north of France, and between 3,000 and 4,000 kilometers.

All this driving and weeks of preparation is for an event that he never sees live with his own eyes, and usually lasts about a half a second. He uses to calculate the exact moment and exact location he will need to be to capture an event.

“For transits I have to calculate the place, and considering the width of the visibility path is usually between 5-10 kilometers, but I have to be close to the center of this path,” Legault explained, “because if I am at the edge, it is just like a solar eclipse where the transit is shorter and shorter. And the edge of visibility line of the transit lasts very short. So the precision of where I have to be is within one kilometer.”

Legault studies maps, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

“My camera has a continuous shuttering for 4 seconds, so I begin the sequence 2 seconds before the calculated time,” he said. “I don’t look through the camera – I never see the space station when it appears, I am just looking at my watch!”

Atlantis during the STS-135 mission docked to the International Space Station, July 15, 2011. Credit: Thierry Legault.

For a transit event, he gets get a total of 16 images – 4 images every second, and only after he enlarges the images will he know if he succeeded or not.

“There is a kind of feeling that is short and intense — an adrenaline rush!” Legault said. “I suppose it is much like participating in a sport, but the feeling is addictive. I did it with a friend two years ago and now he is addicted too.”

Legault added that when he succeeds, it is a very satisfying feeling.

But Legault is not keeping the adrenaline rushes all to himself; he willingly shares his knowhow and techniques.

His website provides a wealth of knowledge about his techniques and equipment

In 2005 he wrote a book (in French) called Astrophotographie, that has sold over 6,000 copies, and he is working on getting it published in English. The book provides information on how to image constellations, stars, comets, eclipses, the Moon, planets, sun, and deep-sky objects, in accessible, nontechnical language. Legault also gives practical advice on equipment and technique, with answers to problems faced by every beginner. He also co-authored another book, “New Atlas of the Moon” with Serge Brunier, and in the March 2012 issue of Sky and Telescope, Legault wrote a detailed article on how to take detailed, ground-based images of the ISS.

Tomorrow on Universe Today, Legault will share his advice for avoiding “bad” astrophotography.

New Comet Discovered by Amateur Astronomer

Image of Comet C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes) made from ten 60 sec. exposures on Feb. 11, 2012. (Fred Bruenjes)


“Friday, February 10th 2012 just felt like the perfect night for a comet to be discovered by an amateur astronomer,” writes Fred Bruenjes on his astronomy blog. And, this past Friday night, that’s exactly what Fred did.

Here’s how he did it:

Using custom-written software to operate a 14″ Meade LX200GPS telescope in his self-built observatory in Warrensburg, Missouri, Fred set his system up to capture images of the sky on that cold evening, not allowing himself to be chased inside by the low temperatures or the bright, rising moon. After some technical difficulties with his dSLR, Fred managed to acquire some quality images. While making a cursory look through the blink data, Fred was surprised to spot a faint burry object visible moving across three frames. A check of online databases of known objects brought up no positive hits — this was something that hadn’t been seen before.

Raw-color discovery image. (Fred Bruenjes)

Fred describes the “eureka” moment on his blog:

A check of known objects in the region had a lot of results in the area, but all were moving eastward while my fuzzy was moving westward. Rocks don’t make U-turns. This was really getting exciting. I had Jen, my better half, an accomplished astro imager, take a look at the images and before I could point out the faint smudge she exclaimed “That’s a comet!”

Still, Fred notes, “it wasn’t a slam-dunk.” The images were faint and there could have been other causes of blurry spots in digital images. But a check of the raw color data revealed a greenish coloration to the object’s glow, which is indicative of cyanogen and carbon emission — typical hallmarks of comets. “Very encouraging,” Fred added.

Another night’s observation was needed. If it was a comet, it would appear again along its expected trajectory. Of course, with an unidentified comet there would be no known orbit, so Fred had to manually extrapolate its position. When he trained his telescope onto his calculated coordinates the following evening and began taking images, there it was… the same faint, fuzzy green blur from the previous night, slowly appearing in the darkening sky right where it should be.

“Oh. Wow. It was dead nuts at where it was supposed to be,” Fred writes. “Wow. This thing is for real! It’s at about this time that it begins to sink in that a lifelong quest has just been fulfilled. I just crossed another thing off the bucket list!”

Fred spent the next hour gathering images to send in to the IAU’s Minor Planet Center, in the hopes of having the object cataloged so that others could locate and observe it. He didn’t have to wait long; within five minutes the object was listed on the Near-Earth Object Confirmation Page, and dubbed C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes), in honor of its discoverer.

Now that’s just got to feel good.

Comet Bruenjes is an NEO currently about 0.555 AU away from Earth. Its exact size and orbital period isn’t known, and it may even be a returning comet or piece from a larger one… the official report isn’t out yet. It appears to have a fairly inclined orbit relative to the ecliptic, based on the current diagram created by JPL’s Small-Body Database.

Currently plotted orbit of C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes) (NASA/JPL)

The comet’s total magnitude is 16.6, so it is dim and not visible to the naked eye. Fred told Universe Today in an email: “it’s in the constellation Aries, about six degrees north of Jupiter. Just after sunset in the Northern hemisphere it’s high in the southwest, nearly overhead.”

Stay tuned for more updated information on this newly-discovered member of our solar system. And congratulations to Fred Bruenjes, comet-hunter extraordinaire!

Read Fred’s full story on his astronomy site here.

Images © 2012 Manfred Bruenjes. All rights reserved. Used with permission.


First Amateur Image of Another Solar System

Amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen from New Zealand shared an image with Universe Today, and it is perhaps the first image of another solar system taken by an amateur. The image above is Olsen’s image of the protoplanetary disc around Beta Pictoris.

“For the last couple of years I have been wondering if it was possible for amateurs to capture this special target but have never come across any such images,” Olsen wrote in an email. “I must say it feels really special to have actually captured this.”

Olsen said he has been fascinated by professional images of Beta Pictoris since seeing the first one in taken in 1984.

Beta Pictoris and the protoplanetary disc of debris and dust that is orbiting the star is 63.4 light years away from Earth. This is a very young system thought to be only around 12 million years old and astronomers think this is essentially how our own Solar System must have formed some 4.5 billion years ago. The disc is seen edge-on from our perspective and appears in professional images as thin wedges or lines protruding radially from the central star in opposite directions.

“The main difficulty in imaging this system is the overwhelming glare from Beta Pictoris itself which completely drowns out the dust disc that is circling very close to the star,” Olsen said.

Images of the disc taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and from big observatories, are usually made by physically blocking out the glare of Beta Pictoris itself within the optical path.

Olsen found inspiration from a paper he found recently, the 1993 paper ‘Observation of the central part of the beta Pictoris disk with an anti-blooming CCD’ (Lecavelier des etangs, A., Perrin, G., Ferlet, R., Vidal-Madjar, A., Colas, F., et al., 1993, A&A, 274, 877)

“I then realised that it might not be entirely impossible to also record this object with my own equipment,” Olsen said. “So now that Beta Pictoris has risen to a favorable position in this year’s evening sky I decided to have a go at it the other day.”

He followed the technique described in the paper, which basically consists of imaging Beta and then taking another image of a similar reference star under the same conditions. The two images are subtracted from each other to eliminate the stellar glare, and the dust disc should then hopefully reveal itself.

“First I collected 55 images of Beta Pictoris at 30 seconds each,” Olsen said. “The dust disc is most prominent in IR so ideally a better result would be expected with the use of an IR pass filter. Since I only have a traditional IR/UV block filter I just imaged without any filter, to at least get as much IR light through as possible.”

The next step was to capture a similar image of a reference star under the same conditions. Olsen did as the paper suggested and used Alpha Pictoris, a star that is of nearly the same spectral type (A7IV compared to Beta’s A6V) and is also close enough to Beta in the sky so that the change in telescope orientation should not affect the diffraction pattern. However, since the two stars have different magnitudes he needed to calculate how long to expose Alpha for in order to get a similar image which he could subtract from the Beta image.

Some quick math:

The magnitude difference between the stars is 3.86(Beta) – 3.30(Alpha) = 0.56

Due to the logarithmic nature of the magnitude scale we know that a difference of 1 magnitude equals a brightness ratio of 2.512. Therefore 2.512 to the power of the numerical magnitude difference then equals the variation in brightness.

2.512^0.56 = 1.67, so it appears Alpha is 1.67 times brighter than Beta. This means that exposure for Alpha should be 1/1.67 = 0.597x that of Beta. I took the liberty of using 0.6x for simplicity’s sake…

“So I collected 55 images of 18 seconds (30 x 0.6) for Alpha,” Olsen said. “Both sets of images were stacked separately in Registax and I then imported these into Photoshop, layered Alpha in ‘Difference’ mode on top of Beta and flattened the result. This produces a very dark image (which it should!) apart from the different background stars. But after some curves adjustment I was able to see clear signs of the actual dust disc protruding on both sides from the glare of the star. I was very happy to conclude that the position angle with regards to the background stars matched the official images exactly.”

Olsen said he was disappointed with the raw “Difference” image so to produce a more natural looking result, he took the original stacked Beta image and then blended in the central parts from the Difference image that showed the dust disc.

“I decided to also keep the black spot of the central glare from the Difference image since the contrast with the protruding disc seems better this way,” Olsen said.

What resulted is what is thought to be the first amateur image of another solar system.

Olsen is encouraging others amateur astrophotographers to try this, and see if they can do even better.

“I’m sure this can be done much better with a higher quality camera, but at least here it is,” he said. And I’m personally extremely happy and proud of having achieved this. I hope you enjoy the view as much as I did!”

If any other amateur astronomers have attempted to image a disk around another star, we’d love to hear about it and see the results.

Check out the original image on Olsen’s website: