Thursday, December 31, 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Well, as the international year of astronomy IYA2009 wraps up, I hope its been a good one for you all.

This year seems to have gone so quickly and I guess we all look back at this time of year and think about what we did, didn't do, or could have done better.

This year was ground breaking in a number of ways for me, had some unexpected frustrations, but realised the dream of getting AARTScope established. 2010 will no doubt have its own challenges and I wish everyone the best for the new year, the patience to persevere, the intuition and improvization to excell and the wisdom to pick your battles.

I leave you with the following, my final picture for this year:- A very Christmassy Orion. (Its a fun time of I have had a bit of fun with this).


Monday, November 30, 2009

New Zealand has a Space Program....apparently!

One late breaking news item that managed to cut though all the media surrounding the political crisis over the Australian Government's climate change bill, was today's rocket launch in New Zealand.

Apparently New Zealand has a space program!

Launch Image - Credit: Peter Beck CEO Rocket Labs

Rocket Lab a private New Zealand company launched one of its own locally designed and built rockets, into sub-orbital flight with a 22 second burn. The rocket dubbed "Manu Karere" which means "bird messenger" lifted off at 2:28pm local time from Great Mercury Island near the Coramandel's in New Zealand's north island.

Mark Rocket, director of the company, who recently became the first New Zealander to book a space tourist flight on Virgin Atlantic, was eccstatic with the launch which went perfectly to plan.

Perhaps New Zealanders have abandoned their fruitless attempts to whack the Australians in cricket and have set the bar a little higher.

The slim 6 metre long rocket is designed to carry small scientific and commercial payloads, and Rocket Labs is currently reaching out to collaborators and investors for future ventures as part of the self-described "dynamic southern hemisphere space industry".

Of particular interest is the, "almost mandatory" these days, carbon footprint assessment and associated green credentials. The ATEA 2 uses only about 14kg Co2 per launch. Equally impressive is the rapid progression from test firing of the Atea 1 booster on October 1st to the launch on Nov 30, this demonstrates a nimble, small, focused operation.

The maximum payload of the ATEA 2 rocket is 70kg suitable for short duration micro-gravity and atmospheric science experiments. To achieve a maximum altitude of 250Klms the payload optimal mass is 25Kgs. Rocket Lab have developed their own hybrid rocket fuel and solid fuel binder. Hybrid 90A is a polymer-based cold castable elastomer developed in conjunction with their program by Technical Director, award winning scientist and CEO Peter Beck. Peter currently hold 5 patents in the US and Europe.

Peter assures me the Kiwis will be 2-1 up when they belt Australia in the Bledisloe Cup (rugby)!

So where to from here, I for one will be following this with interest. Thanks to Mark Rocket for the images from the Rocket Lab website and Peter Beck for the exclusive launch image.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Carnival of Space #128

Hi, and welcome to this week's Carnival of Space – Edition 128, making a rare stopover in the Southern Hemisphere. Although I am based in Melbourne, Australia, I decided to demonstrate extra-ordinary tolerance and inclusion by actually featuring the historic Sydney Observatory in the banner, which is a bit of a collage today. The Sydney Observatory is at the southern end of the harbour bridge and Luna Park is at the northern end. A great Astronomy/Carnival link. There is a long local history of Melbourne/Sydney jokes and rivalry, so we are putting all that aside today to bring you a truly Australian edition of Carnival of Space.

If you are new here, a “Blog Carnival” is a whistle stop tour of Blogs around a particular community of interest – in this case Astronomy/Space. It features the best and most interesting highlights of this week’s articles from the contributors to the community. The purpose is to share, develop, encourage and network with those of a similar interest. (Its also traditional to blend the themes of Carnival and Space in the banner).

Before we get started, 2009 is the international year of astronomy, and sadly it has gone so quickly and there is only 53 days to go. How have you celebrated? What have you done differently to make the most of “Our Year”? Feel free to complete the following test and score your involvement in this - the international year of astronomy. (If you feel bold enough you could post your score in the comments section of the blog.

I shared my telescope & night sky with children (20 Pts) [ ]
I participated in a cornerstone IYA 2009 project(20 Pts) [ ]
I did a presentation on Astronomy to a group (20 Pts) [ ]
I donated Galileo Scopes to a school/friends/org(20 Pts) [ ]
I went to a star party (20 Pts) [ ]
I logged better than 30 hours on my/a telescope (20 Pts) [ ]
I participated in a research project (20 Pts) [ ]
I reported Astrometric data to IAU/MPC/other (20 Pts) [ ]
I reported Photometric data to AAVSO/other (20 Pts) [ ]
I subscribed to a PodCast/VodCast/RSS/other (20 Pts) [ ]
I wrote an article, blog, podcast or e-learning (20 Pts) [ ]

Ratings >180 – Thought Leader, >140 – Activist, >100 Enthusiast, >60 Participant, <20When’s it on again?
Fear not….. there is still time for you to make it memorable!

So now I’ll get off my soap box…… its Carnival Time!!!! Enjoy! Disclaimer: If there are any real Sheldon's out there, I appologise in advance for my Big Bang Theory jokes.

In the money!
Who has "lifted" the prize money in the various competitions in the race to build, or at least provide proof of concept, for a space ladder? A number of our Bloggers cover this issue off this week with exciting reports from the various competitions. This a very hot topic at the moment and I'll leave our presenters to provide commentary.

Brian Wang at Next Big Future has been a regular on this issue and talks about the Lasermotive team's efforts.Brian also takes a look at another race in Spain to build a Space Hotel.

Cosmiclog also covers off the efforts of the competitors in the Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and comments on the Space Ladder competitions and discusses other NASA initiatives.

Chuck Black from A Curious Guy takes a look at commercial space satellites.

Ken Murphy at Out of the Cradle rounds up over 50 scholarship and competitions opportunities.

Hard Science!
Chris from Weird Warp takes a look at various forms of space travel being researched and proposed.

e-Astronomy pioneer Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy reviews and comments on the first Hubble image after it's recent "makeover". The stunning image of M83 stellar nursery is worth a look.

The Chandra Blog features a bio on Chandra researcher Leisa Townsley. The Chandra Mission also posted details of research on a Neutron Star that has a carbon atmosphere.

Steinn SigurĂ°sson from Dynamics of Cats also follows up the Chandra article and explores the implications with an interesting article - Diamond encrusted dragon's egg, perhaps Dr Who's [BBC] diamond planet Midnight is not so far fetched.

Emma from We are all in the Gutter shares a cool movie on Blazars from NASA's Fermi Gamma ray telescope.

Paul from Centauri-Dreams writes about a paper by Claudio Maccone that analyzes the Sun's
gravitational lens not only in terms of imaging distant planets but as
a huge amplifier of radio signals.

A very relevant current topic is addressed by Cheap Astronomy beginning an epic two part podcast on Greenhouse Earth.

Steve's Astro Corner has some great suggestions for some maintenance tasks on your favorite glassware and eyepieces.

Regular contributor Stuart Atkinson from Cumbrian Sky has a great article about the naming of martian meteorites found by the Opportunity and Spirit rovers....its all a bit of a mash-up. I was also struck by the most amazing job title I have ever heard of - "Payload Uplink Lead for the Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer" I wonder how you fit that on a business card ;-).

Fun Stuff!
So we begin the fun stuff with Beyond Apollo blog by David Portree and a rather interesting article about calculations for the perfect three planet manned fly-by.

Colony Worlds compares some Trekkie Techie with Lunar mission needs.

Ryan Anderson departs from his usual blog at Martian Chronicles to share an article he wrote for a Science writing competition. Ryan becomes Q for a day and investigates "James Bond" like qualities of future Martian Probes. Ryan invites us to vote for his entry if we feel so inclined. [Why, wouldn't that tamper with the statistical validity of the sample voter pool? I have one thing to say - Sheldon.....its halo night!! where was I?]

Robert Pearlman at the Collect Space blog "roadtests" the Space Station CRV emergency Crew return vehicle in a test with some great photos and a fascinating article.

If you're looking for a Lagrange Point to escape the pull on your space and time, Louise Riofrio, from A Babe in the Universe, does an entertainment review on Max Q a Band playing in a cafe across the road from the Johnson Space centre. Louise also explains the significance of the band's name - we love a blend of Art and Science here at AARTScope.

This past week was Halloween, and I can report that an increasing number of Australians now participate in this annual ritual. Tracy from Tiny Mantras has been having some fun with Solar System costumes in Being Jupiter for a week.

On a more serious note.....
The first moving object that comes anywhere near the Hill Sphere in 2012 is going to send the conspiracy whackos looking for Google Ad revenue into a frenzy on their suddenly authoritative conspiracy sites (Someone hold up the sarcasm sign for Sheldon) ;-). Alice from AstroInfo has some great info about how to talk to your friends about 2012. With the release of the recent "action/disaster" movie, it is a good time to have that conversation with your kids and friends.

At Simostronomy Don't miss Mike Simonsen's touching tribute to the passing of legendary AAVSO member - Dick Wend.

Finally returning to the Observatory theme with which I began, my own blog AARTScope features a tour of the worlds most quirky, amazing and bizarre private observatories - the roll on/off roof edition. Some of these have to be seen to be believed.

Thanks for stopping by........look out for the next episode in about a week. For the "back issues" and future info goto Universe Today - Carnival of Space.

Monday, November 2, 2009

My Top Ten Favourite Private Observatories

This week I thought I would take you on a tour of some of the world’s most amazing private observatories.

When I was a little boy lying out in the backyard in a sleeping bag counting meteors and dreaming of being an Astronomer, I often pondered what it would be like to have my own observatory. We used to go on camping trips and a number of times travelled via Siding Springs in the beautiful Warrumbungle Ranges near Coonabarrabran in western New South Wales.

Most conversations with my parents and the school career guidance officer ended with the comments …….”you’re not good enough at Maths and there is only one or two astronomers in the country anyway and its not going to be you”. (This was the 70’s) The advice that I took was: “get a good job in electronics/telecommunications and then you’ll have money for your hobbies”.

Since that time I have often been bemused by the contrast between real astronomers dedicating themselves to a lifetime of study and research at great personal sacrifice versus the amateur astronomers who seem to have a limitless supply of disposable income to pour into their passion.

I think this is one of the reasons why the co-operation between amateur and professional astronomers has been so successful. Professionals sourcing research grants to secure scarce precious time on specialist instruments and self funded amateurs doing the grunt work (long hours waiting for something to happen) , follow-up observations and at times pre-work for critical missions.

Ice In Space the amateur astronomy online community even has a Spectroscopy group now, they are doing some wild stuff. I am going to do a separate blog post on this shortly.

So to the Observatories of our eccentric hobbyists, today’s selection is roll-on/ roll-off roof style of construction (I might do a separate post on Domes):

The Top Ten (My favourites) Private Observatories.

The most amazing thing about private observatories is the innovation, individual style and effort that goes into them, and the locations and beautiful settings in which they are located. Many amateurs have gone to great lengths to document the constructions and happily share their obvious skill, and even in some cases their designs and blueprints. So if you want an observatory with pneumatic chairs, pizza ovens, 7.1 surround sound, play swings or somewhere to also park your car – Take the Tour!!!!

Selection criteria: Location, design innovation, aspect, view during the day time.

1) Asian influence, superb design – Ptolemy’s CafĂ© Observatory

Ptolemy's Cafe Observatory

2) Size does matter – The Ultimate Private Observatory

For pure engineering skill and the audacity of it all, not to mention the electrical, hydraulic, pneumatic systems, oh yes …and the F5 Tornado proof structure with 7.1 Surround Sound system.

3) Duel Function Radio and Optical Observatory – Tennessee Skynet
Bill and Melinda Lord have created a unique operation leveraging both optical and radio astronomy, great to see couples sharing their interests.

4) Stunning design. Observatorio de la Bollonia

5) Duel Purpose – Dorset Astronomy’s Frome Valley Observatory

Frome Valley Observatory

6) L’Osservatore Ponte Di Legno
I love the planter boxes……No#1 in cuteness factor

7) Most Amusing Name – Cloudbait Observatory

Also some amazing projects!

8) His and Hers – Watzke Astronomy. John and Beth each have their own observatory keeping aperture envy within the family.

9) Close to home, ultimate functionality - Saaletal Observatorium

Saaletal Observatory

10) Of course the best observatory is – your own.

The AART – Australian Amateur Research Telescope

Finally a couple of additional noteworthy mentions:

Star Navigator Observatory – The only one with a wood fire Pizza Oven

South Tamworth Observatory (great Photo)

Pleasant Valley Observatory

Well that is quite a selection it was hard to narrow it down to 10 and I’m sure to have missed a few, feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section below and complete the poll which is better: Roll-on/off or Dome.

NB: all photos served from their original websites

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Aussie Round Up


For those of you reading this blog on a Laptop via wireless technology, will be interested to know that you would not have been able to do so if it wasn't for astrophysicists looking for the fingerprints of string theory in the aftermath of the big bang......ah sorry that was an episode of "Big Bang Theory". 1974 Stephen Hawking suggested that exploding mini black holes could possibly be detected by radio astronomers, so the team at CSIRO (Australian Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organization) set about researching this over the ensuing years.

Like all good science if you ask enough questions you can end up in an entirely different place. This week Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd awarded the national science prize to Dr John O'Sullivan.

In 1992 John O'Sullivan's team developed a patent that today is the heart of the wireless protocol that ensures that the signals and channels can be separated so that more than one user can use a wireless link. [Check out the interview from Sky News.]

Sky News Interview

The significance of this event is that the Patent was upheld this week and $200M of "Licence Fees" were collected from some of the biggest technology companies, and will be secured for future use of the CSIRO to fund future research.

O'Sullivan stumbled across the discovery by attempting to remove interference so that multiple frequencies could be monitored at the same time, improving the efficiency of their research.

Well done John, congratulations, to you and all the team at the Australian National Telescope. Looks like we can look forward to further great discoveries from the CSIRO.


The Australian Amateur Astronomers online community "Ice In Space" has just returned from their annual "star party" camping trip. It appears they enjoyed some great weather this year and many great astrophotographs are being processed. This impressive project from one of the founders Mike Salway is quite stunning. Mike is famous/instantly recognizable for blending some terrestrial elements into his photos.

Ice In Space has over 6000 members and has made a strong contribution to Amateur Astronomy, recent contributions from its members include the discovery of Jupiter Impact and the outburst of VX For.

Their first ever publication a stunning coffee table book - 2009 IYA Compendium will be released next week - featuring 80 Stunning photographs and mini bios on the members. I leave you with my modest contribution the Swan Nebula.

Bolide Week
Every since I was a kid I have been fascinated various Meteor showers. Over the years I have often pondered reports of bright bolides in October and these past two years have been no exception. Whilst the Orion meteor shower peaks on October 20/21, there have been some notable recent bolides in early october. The Piscid and Draconid showers occur around this time.

Last year on Oct 7, 2008 TC3, the first ever asteroid detected before it hit the earth, slammed into the Sudan with the flash being detected on carpark security cameras as far away as Egypt. This year on Oct 6 a similar sized object exploded in the upper atmosphere over Indonesia (Australia's nearest neighbor). Nicolas Wethington covered this extensively in Universe Today. It is either an interesting co-incidence or an aspect requiring further research that some of the brightest bolides seem to occur in the early October. Perhaps the most famous the Peekskill meteor seen by an entire football stadium of people.

2008 TC3 October 6th

Indonesia 2009 October 8th

Peekskill 1992 October 9th

Statisticslly over thousands of years there would be one at least one bolide every calendar night. So it remains an interesting aspect worthy of further research whether these Bolides are part of Piscids or Draconids shower or random small solo asteroids.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Variable stars and the discovery process

The weather has been kind this week allowing a return to varibale star observations. This week I will take a look at the discovery process for new variable stars, as this week I had reason to understand and work through it due to detecting what appears to be a new variable star that has not been previously listed.

Discoveries of variable stars are normally a specific targeted activity, from either a target list of suspected variables in a particular constellation, or by star type researching the characteristics of the variables. Teams of astronomers usually collaborate over many observing sessions to gather data and write up their findings in a science paper that is then published in one of the journals. One such paper was published only this week by Alex Golovin, Kirill Sokolovsky, Natalia Virnina, Javier Lopez Santiago - Three new Variable stars in Indus. The purpose of such papers is to provide data, classification information, star temperatures, period of variability, and assist scientists understand the behaviour, age and characteristics of these stars.

In 1844 the german astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander appealed, "I lay these hitherto sorely neglected 30 variable stars most pressingly on the heart of all lovers of the starry heavens" spawning the study of variable stars by professionals and amateurs alike. Over the past 160 years years the list has grown north of 30,000 with another 15000 suspected of being variable. Due to the massive number of variable stars and the limited number of observers, alas many still remain neglected.

Today we know there are two types of variable stars (and I don't mean one of those amusing bumper stickers - those that are and those that aren't). The two types are intrinsic and extrinsic - ie variability within the star and variablily external to the star. The stars then fall into a number of classifications related to the behaviour within these two types.

Observation and studies of variable stars are directed at identifying the characteristics to determine these classifications, and then determine the behaviours of these stars in order to better understand the context of the stars lifecycle.

The Hertzsprung-Russell diagram is the current collective knowlege of stellar lifecycles, individual star types are referenced here but things get more complicated when some of these stars (of different types) orbit around each other and start interacting and exchanging their elements and debris. This can lead to very sudden changes in brightness and evidence of a catalysmic variable. [This is one example of an extrinsic variable. - EDIT Actually whilst that might sound like extrinsic behaviour its still intrinsic as in the case of Dwarf Nova the accretion disk collapses onto the star and then its brightness changes intrinsicly - Thanks Sebastion]

Image courtesy of CSIRO ATF Outreach
Anyway, I am starting to sound as about exciting as a live video broadcast of the visible debris cloud in the LCROSS I'll return to my story.

One other way discoveries are made is when observers are participating in an observering campaign, and whilst processing data they find something and say ..... "hang on what going on over here". Many discoveries in all disciplines of astronomy are made when you find something a little unexpected whilst observing something else. Even amateur astronomers become curious and just have to know why!!!

This week I found myself in such a situation. Using the great photometrica tool (the poster child for "astronomy cloud services" ie photometric analysis as a webservice) I was processing data on V4743 Sgr a Cataclysmic Variable that last went into outburst in 2002. When I had finished, I hit the "what else is varying in this field" button and was presented with a list of about 40 stars to inspect. I knocked out all the stars that had a double star in the annulus, knocked out all those with a SNR less than 100 and bingo I had three left. All had brightness changes that were much larger than the standard deviation of their comparison stars (first point of interest) and demanded closer inspection. One of those had a small asteroid/or hot pixel drifting past through the annulus and across the sky background....AHHH!!! more stuff to check...... (second point to always check for transient artifacts/objects). Back to my top candidate, a Mag 14 Star, I could see a clear straight line variation of about 0.4 magnitude in just 30 minutes of imaging time (third point of interest), I quickly reviewed some other data of the same field and reprocessed all the data in a different software program - Maxim DL, and bingo! (fourth point of the same result).

So like any good AAVSO your mentor and say "What do I do now"?

The reporting of a variable star discovery is an interesting process, one I was about to learn. Whilst an exciting event for the observer and very satisfying, its not one that leads to Hubble time and NASA press conferences. None-the-less it is scientifically interesting.

The International Variable Star Index is the body that administers this process. There is an 11 step process to enter the data required: Position, all known identifiers in the various star catalogs (2MASS & UCAC3 etc), the magnitude, the amount of variability (Max/Min Mag), variable star type, the period of its variablility, a light curve and a phase diagram. The final data point is any published jounals listing research data on your discovery(example as per Golovin, Sokolovsky, Virnina, Santiago mentioned above).

If you make a report to the variable star index all this information is vital, as to have your discovery reported and confirmed it needs to be varifiable by others, and available for peer review.....thus the onus is on the discoverer to present the data that needs to be reviewed. Over the next couple of nights I collected additional data and prepared my submission. As this was the first time I had been through the process, and being very much in the AMATEUR Astronomy camp, I was very nervous about the process. Its always important to follow the process and accept the feedback that comes from those with much more experience than one's self.

I received back a very helpful email that rejected my submission (for now) due to the fact that I didn't have enough data to produce a full phase diagram and I had suggested that it may be a Cephid Variable due to the short period and hadn't considered that it was a bit too blue to be a Cephid and that it was more likely a RR-AB. The VSX person made some very helpful suggestions about what I should do next - get some more data and produce a full phase diagram and re-submit.

As you can see from my light curve there is nowhere near enough data to create a phase diagram, as my observing runs were of short duration.

So nothing to report yet, other than there is a little variable out there throbbing away with a period of a couple of hours and varying by about 0.9M just waiting for my next visit. Once I have the period length I can then re-submit and rally some other observers for follow up. Again, the most important learning has been that the the period is important as others need to know what to look for, so they can plan their observing campaign.

So in the spirit of Argelander's appeal, at 9pm tonight, I will return and ensure my little variable doesn't end up on a list of "hitherto sorely neglected" variable stars.

UPDATE: 16/10
Still chasing data, missed a couple of nights due to bad weather and now my little star is escaping into the western sky. Here is the Phase Plot I referred you can see this is still a bit out and I need a lot more data. At least you can see what I need here, to calculate the period.

Clear Skies!!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Camped by a billabong.....say what?

Usually I leave commentary on latest amazing discoveries to others more qualified than myself. However due to the continued heavy spring rains that have south eastern australian grain farmers dancing for joy, and our rivers flowing again, my own observations have been heavily limited this week and I am forced to digress.

A number of blogs and astronomy sites were following with interest the latest images from Cassini of the "northern lake district" on Titan. (Sounds like a suburb that everyone would move to!) I still pinch myself that the Cassini-Huygens Mission has found the most amazing terrain in the solar system outside our own little blue-green home planet.

One particular article in the Astronomy online magazine caught my eye, it featured one of the photos and showed a hi-res strip of the northern rivers and lake, thought by mission scientists to contain flowing liquid methane.

The Hi-Res view shows clear semi-circular, horseshoe shapes in the upper river areas. Again, whilst I am not qualified to comment formally on this.....I could not help thinking, in fact I commented aloud - "they look like billabongs"!!!!

For those of you in the far flung northern hemisphere, who may not be familiar with the term "Billabong" - you may however remember from the Sydney Olympics and the famous Aussie song - "Waltzing Maltilda.....once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong...etc". A billabong is a body of water that is cut off from the main stream of the river when a water course changes direction during a flooding event and finds a different path of least resistance to the sea, carving a new channel that cuts off the older meandering stream - leaving it as an isolated "pond" often in a horse shoe shape.

In Victoria there is a town called Billabong.....camped by such a body of water. The murray river system contains many hundreds of these billabongs.

Again a closer look shows the very distinct patterns caused in the formation of the Billabong. I was struck by the similarities with the "horseshoe shapes" in the riverland areas on Titan.

It will be fascinating to see as the research unfolds, whether the shapes in the riverland areas of the northern polar area of Titan are forged by similar flows, of flooding and drying riverbeds, in the same fashion as our famous Murray River that borders Victoria and New South Wales.

With the current interest of NASA on planetary space exploration, who knows day we may yet be camped by another Billabong......with quite a view.

Disclaimer: Mission contollers as far as I am aware haven't made any comments on what those shapes are - my thoughts are comparitive observations only.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

When you wish upon a star

Welcome. This week has been characterised by some fairly average weather. Those of you tuning into Australia's premier football event around the world this afternoon will see plenty of our famous Melbourne weather on show.

Weather can have an impact on an observing campaign, so there have been some challenges in obtaining some of the data I have been chasing this week. I am getting great positive feedback on the blog - largely because I am blogging on my observations.

So this week, given the weather, I thought it would be good to talk about observation campaigns. This week I have barely jagged a couple of short sessions on
V4743 SGR and some of the surrounding variables in the same field. V4743 Sgr is also referred to as Nova Sgr 2002c making it an object of some interest, given its nova outburst in 2002. Over 200 observers have contributed to the AAVSOs lightcurve.

So what is it that makes an object "interesting"? Clearly a Nova outburst is something that is interesting, as professional astronomers are quick to follow up with highly accurate spectroscopy. The advantage of having amateurs "on their toes" and participating in regular campaigns is that professional astronomers can't afford to have billion dollar telescopes pointed at stars, waiting for years, for something to happen. (The hubble deep field shot is a noteable exception...but a deliberate experiment to look at nothing to see if something WAS there)

A good example of leveraging the skills of amateur astronomers is my data here on QU Sgr. This is a Mira variable star of little or no interest to anyone.....but who knows one day it may be significant or do something. If that ever happened, what would we have to compare it with? So whilst gathering some data on V4743 with my set up which has a fairly large field of view, it is important to grab a couple of readings on any other Variables in the field, as other observers are unlikely to ever go specifically to QU Sgr to collect data.

There are a plethora of variable stars requiring regular observations and a limited number of observers. Today we have the fantastic use of social networking, blogs, forums and membership of organisations such as AAVSO. In this environment connected communities of dedicated amateurs have organised campaigns based on a prioritised list of "interesting objects".

Rod Stubbing who discovered this months outburst of VX For was working through a carefully targeted list of variables that were "in season" ie at an optimal position in the sky for observing. Rod indicated to me it was his first observing session on VX For for the year. So you never know what you will find, and how many other people who are observing.

So I leave you this week with the completely insignificant Mira Variable QU Sgr that noone else has reported on for over 4000 days.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

VX For Dwarf Nova Outburst .....update#2

The variable Star community is alive with excitement after Rod Stubbing an amateur astromomer from Victoria Australia discovered VX For in outburst for the first time since 1990.

After a 19 year spell the Dwarf Nova has moved into outburst. Importantly Rod appears to have caught it before its previous peak of 12.5 in 1990.

I was able to get some photometery on VX For and reported confirming data on Rod's exciting find to the AAVSO.

Mike Simonsen has written an excellent blog on this star with some of the history and the significance of the event. I imagine professional astronomers will be keen to get some spectroscopy on this interesting star in over the next month.

My observations were just a short run last night as the window is fairly tight from about 11:30Pm local time through to about 4:30am. The co-ordinates also restrict viewing to southern observers: RA 03:26:46.9 Dec -34:26:37.0 so our northern friends will have to leverage any access they can get to southern hemiphere scope......its called teamwork! Also Joe at the Center for Backyard Astrophysics is following the story with interest and rallying the troops!

Anyway it promises to be an exciting time as VX For entertains us for the coming weeks. My first light curve showed it right on the 13.0 magnitude observed the previous night by Rod Stubbing. Amateur Observers can post their results to the AAVSO.

Enjoy! I will post any further updates, you can also follow the light curve here as it develops.

Vx For Dwarf Nova outburst

Great work last night Rod. I jumped on it as soon as it came over the side of the shed and have it in the first image at an average of 12.951 M across the first three images I have downloaded (airmass of 1.5)

I should be able to tighten that up a bit when I process the rest of the run.

Data from my first image....

VX For 12.951 SNR 103

126 12.555 SNR 137
137 13.652 SNR 59

More later....

Firrst three images down:

#SOFTWARE=Photometrica 3.0
VX For,2455090.09733,12.936,0.011,V,NO,ABS,ENSEMBLE,na,137,13.660,1.55703,na,090915,na
VX For,2455090.09994,12.959,0.010,V,NO,ABS,ENSEMBLE,na,137,13.665,1.53358,na,090915,na
VX For,2455090.10256,12.991,0.011,V,NO,ABS,ENSEMBLE,na,137,13.662,1.51102,na,090915,na

Looks like Rod has bagged a beauty!!!!


Sunday, September 13, 2009

HD Video of M17

The array of desktop tools available to the home user today is nothing short of amazing. HD Video editing packages, access to media sharing sites like Youtube and social networks, and a market place of over a billion people.

The notion from the 60's of Governments allocating Radio and TV broadcasting licences seems positively ridiculous, compared to today's media rich world.

Anyway, my little contribution for today - A short HD Video tour of the M17 Nebula, following up my earlier post this week.

Of course one of the little quirks of Newtonian astrographs is they view everything upside down. So for those of you still looking for the Swan....try this way up! However my son said "thats not a swan thats a Dingo"! (if the white bit is the gnarling teeth and the black patch the nose then.....ah....yep....there's a dingo in there too, perhaps even a crocodile!!!! Maybe why this fine emission nebula has more than one name.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Connected Astronomy

I really enjoyed Fraser and Dr Pamela's AstonomyCast Podcast last week about "Next Level Telescopes" [Episode #150]. It was a fantastic roadmap of information, so I thought I would follow up, and build on that, by doing a little tour video of my own setup.

The advantages of remote, connected astronomy are many:

-No setup and tear down time
-No cold night air on the back of the neck
-No travel to dark sites
-Desktop convenience
-Collaboration, community and access to other highly skilled experts

Disadvantages (opportunities for personal growth)are:
-Its highly technical and very complex
-Can be expensive to do it yourself
-Broadband access can be challenging in remote areas
-WARNING - check you telco's broadband download limits on your Internet Plan

Whilst some of these interfaces are customised/proprietry the bulk of the legwork is done by Maxim DL, TheSky, FocusMax and the telescope controller.

Of course most challeneges can be overcome if you are dealing with people who know what they are doing, and you are prepared to be patient. There is nothing better than setting up a run and then relaxing in the leather recliner with the iPhone in the cup holder as a virtual console to monitor the progress of the run. Even better is setting up an image run in the dead of night whilst you are fast asleep, and downloading the images next day.

Here is my latest Astrophotography image: M17 or the Omega Nebula is not as often photographed as some, but the surrounding star field makes it a lovely composition.

This LRGB photo totaling 90 mins of imaging time 960sLum, 1500sRed, 1500sGreen, 1500sBlue binned 1x1 shows what is achievable.

So with the last word (or should that be letter) on connected astronomy..... ;-)......Enjoy!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Variable by Nature

Variable star photometery is a key area where amateur astronomers make a significant contribution to Science.

The American Association of Variable Star Observers AAVSO has a large membership of skilled amateurs, great resources, extensive observation records and a great system for marshalling the variable star observers in the objective of creating light curve "memory" for others to build research upon.

Only this week an alert went out to the membership asking for urgent observations on variable star V2105 OPH. Dr Brian Espey from Trinity College Dublin, is anxiously awaiting a window on the Hubble Space Telescope to perform Ultraviolet Spectroscopy.

CCD cameras gather light based on their ADU count and the Quantum Efficiency of the Camera. In order to do accurate photometery you need to carefully select the durationof your exposures to make sure you don't saturate the star, as this destroys the Signal to noise ratio and distorts the ADU count. I don't have any experience in Spectroscopy but I imagine you would have to be just as careful. That's why if you are fortunate enough to be using the probably don't want any surprises. An appeal to the amateur community therefore becomes essential to help the Scientist prepare for their observation session appropriately.

Variable star observers range from people with good eyesight and a knowledge of the nearby stars (derived from AAVSO's excellent maps and records) through to binocular observers and others with more powerful telescopes, CCD cameras, PEP devices and sophisticated software packages. The process involves determining the Magnitude of a star by comparing its brightness with nearby stars of a known magnitude. Observers then report this magnitude and the data is added to the database for that star.

Dr Espey was able to receive 7 observations with in the first 36 hours by keen amateurs and members of the AAVSO.

Once you gain the basic skills, you can further your skills with increasingy sophisticated tools.

Why do we do it?

Good question, for me the satisfaction of making a measurement and putting it into the database and having someone else on the other side of the world make the same observation and record the same measurement to a high degree of accuracy and precision is amazing and very satisfying. In science it is important to measure accurately, but the ultimate test is having results confirmed by others - ie reproducable data.

Here are some of the recent observations and the tool photometrica that I use to process my results.

The AAVSO report follows a set format (Abreviated below) and contains the measured magnitude and the magnitudes of nearby Check and Comparison stars as well.

TY Sgr,2455049.90881,9.626,0.002,V,NO,ABS,ENSEMBLE,na,CD-24 15162,10.414,1.33521,na,090825

A tool such as Photometrica can help you process and format the data, if you are plotting your own light curves.

So join the AAVSO today, learn some new skills, and do some real science!!!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Comet 217P/Linear

Excited comet watchers have been following with interest the prospects of Comet 217/P - Linear.

Comet hunters have been following it since David Cardenosa from Bootes Observatory in Spain (J05) reported some outbursts on the 22nd.

My Obs from this morning from D90, whilst I was tucked up nicely in bed asleep.....ah the joys of remote astronomy.

217P C2009 08 26.75348 03 49 59.73 -03 11 43.7 14.05R D90
217P C2009 08 26.75433 03 49 59.90 -03 11 45.5 13.78R D90
217P C2009 08 26.75519 03 50 00.16 -03 11 46.0 13.21R D90
217P C2009 08 26.75603 03 50 00.30 -03 11 46.0 13.70R D90

The comet looked a treat at about Mag 10.8 based on nearby catalog stars. It certainly makes a pretty picture passing those two deep sky galaxies.

As you can see its still holding together reasonably well, although does still have a slightly "out of shape" coma.

From the very useful online application Photometrica you can see the 3D shape of the coma.

Closer inspection shows a similar profile to what our Spanish friends observed.

I am still to download all the files, so maybe more later.

Musically reflecting on this, 217P is proving the time honored truth....."breaking up is hard to do."

UPDATE: I have downloaded the rest of the photos and done a 20 x 20 Sec stack.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dark Skies

One of the goals of the International Year of Astronomy is to promote the protection of dark skies and limit light pollution where ever possible.

Well here is my little contribution.

Australia has some of the darkest skies in the world, largely because our need for water and trade as a nation dictates that all our large cities are located near ports, which by definition means they need to be close to the wet the eastern seaboard and the coast around Perth.

Australia as the driest continent on earth has a great expanse of dry inland air and wonderful dark sky sites.

July 15th 2009

Riverland Dingo Telescope Farm at Moorook D90, the home to the AART, has been selected for this explicit reason. This stunning shot from the all sky camera tonight demonstrates dark skies, the beauty of the Milky way and the "Running Emu" famous in Aboriginal astronomy culture being crossed by a satelite.

August 17th 2009

So in this international year of astronomy lets do our best to protect our dark sky sites.

Good night, clear and DARK skies!!!! Enjoy our little pocket of darkness in these all sky camera photos. Energised and want to take action? You too can make a difference and participate in the IYA2009 Dark Skies Cornerstone project.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

FMOs - Fast Moving Asteroids

Things move along at a fairly fast pace in the space time continuim.

Our little blue green planet moves along around the sun and travels even faster with reference to the cosmic background radiation. So next time someone asks you how fast you can run, you can say "almost as fast as Usain Bolt so long as you use the cosmic background radiation as the reference point not the finish line".

Ah I what constitutes fast is an interesting discussion you can have for many hours over a glass of red wine.

From the reference point of earth most Asteroids are found in a number of "belts" between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter and of the roughly half a million discovered currently only 1067 occasionally wander into our neighbourhood. These are classified as PHAs and are defined as Asteroids that have a minimum orbital intersect with earth of <0.05 AU (1AU is the distance from the sun to the earth).

The Minor Planet Centre, International Astronomy Union, Spacewatch and NASA JPL lead the charge in identifying and tracking asteroids, after setting a goal in the 1990s to find 90% of the Asteroids larger than 1Klm within 10 years.

Whilst Astronomers from the LINEAR, LONEOS, NEAT, and the Catalina Sky Survey, do the bulk of the legwork in the northern hemisphere, the Uppsala Telescope at Siding Springs in Western New South Wales, bats well above its weight in covering a good portion of the southern sky.

The Telescopes at Moorook D90 are well postioned to do quick follow up work for the professional Astronomers.

Fast moving asteroids are classed as FMOs, which by virtue of their speed usually mean they are fairly close to earth. Most however are relatively harmless as they are usually very small. The fantastic advances in technique honed over the past two decades, and the better technology now available means that asteroids as small as 4 Metres are regularly detected in the surveys.

On the 14th Aug E12-Siding Springs Survey on the Upsala Telescope detected object 2009 PR1 a 42m near earth object which zipped past earth at 7.9 Lunar distances on the 12 August.

The author captured this shot (above) shortly after it was posted on the MPC Confirmation page.

This Blog is posted as a tribute to all those hard working folks in the Asteroid watch programs around the world.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Double barrell action at Moorook

Well it been a busy week for AARTScope, whilst the weather has not been particularly favourable, the Australian Amateur Research Telescope (AART) & G11 on Global Rent-a-scope was commissioned on the 19th July and has already made a significant contribution.

Global Rent-a-Scope now has two 16inch scopes online at D90 Moorook. Both of these "light cannons" made a significant contribution during the week.

On the 22nd, using G11 (AART) Norm Falla of the UK, not satisfied with England whipping Australia in the cricket, managed to capture Asteroid 2009 OD3, and at time of writing currently has the discovery credit. MPC have not yet issued an MPEC on 2009 OD3.

Then on the 23rd, Kevin Hills using G6 was able to provide confirmation data on Robert McNaught's discovery of asteroid 2009 OB3 as detailed in MPEC-O28.

Its great to see the two new 16inch scopes in action at Global-rent-a-scope performing great science.

So after a busy first week grabbing some nice astrophotos and some great science, I am even more excited about the vision of "Creating the sense of anticipation and discovery that keeps scientists asking questions...".

Astroswanny was interviewed on Astronomy.FM on August 4th.

2009 OD3 hasnow been linked to previous Objects 1994 PZ35 & 2008 GL16. Congrats Norm on a great recovery on the 7th Opposition since 1994.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The eagle has landed!!!!

Well its winter and the Milky Way is shinning starkly against the dark Australian skies. The nocturnal eagle soars high in the eastern sky, M16 The famous Eagle Nebula that is, crosses the meridian around 10:30pm this time of year, placing it perfectly for early evening photography.

Hi Res Version

The Eagle Nebula is a well known member of the Messier family and shot to even greater prominence when the Hubble Space Telescope captured breathtaking images that came to be known as the "Pillars of Creation".

My photo is of course no comparison to the one taken with a 94 inch mirror cell in a "school bus" sitting outside earth's atmosphere, but none the less inspiring.

Monday, July 27, 2009

First Light at G11 - AARTScope

Well here it is. A little later than expected.

Its been a bit cloudy this week, so I have been trying to grab something interesting between the clouds.

This is a very quick LRGB 600sec each, just a color combine in Maxim, and autoscaled JPG output.

Enjoy! Hopefully many more to come.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

iPhone goes to the Moon

Well, its a beautiful crisp night in Melbourne - and by crisp I mean freezing cold, not that motherhood statement currently popular amongst senior management for "Crisp" communications (code for ...."explain it so your boss can understand it!").

Ah....I digress.

On the weekend I spent some time fashioning a Telescope adapter for my new iPhone, just because you can, or it seemed like a good idea at the time. I have to prove to my little 4.5 inch reflector (my first telescope) that its still loved.

So down to the local hardware store to pick up a few bits and pieces I went. I came home with a threaded 1&1/4 inch hose adapter, a rectagular down pipe plastic thingy and some velcro straps....and whacko, 40 minutes later I have an iPhone adapter for my little telescope.

So tonight on a freezing cold, stunning Melbourne evening the full moon came up over the horizon. What a sight it was! No good for Asteroid hunting so a little fun seemed appropriate.

One of the amazing things about the new range of SmartPhone cameras, and in particular, the new iPhone and Flip Mino is the really low F stop. Many of these cameras are as low as F 2.5- F2.7. I suspect this may have something to do with the ability to take photos in smokey nightclubs, but I am not complaining as it does a fine job on the moon.

Friday, July 3, 2009

My Favourites - Top 10 Astrophotographers

The world of Astrophotography is an amazing blend of passion, knowledge, skills, techniques, and at times, expensive toys. An incredible artistic medium that requires many hours of dedication and refinement of skills.

The human eye, and the atmosphere of our earth dictate the visible elements of the vast expanse above us. The amateur astronomer plays with these elements using filters, long duration exposures, advanced processing techniques and a never ending hunt for the darkest skies; in order to create their masterpieces.

The hubble has taught us much about our universe, but also alot about image processing techniques - since it was launched with a camera that initially created out of focus images.

To most people Maximum Entropy De-convolution sounds like pasta night at the halls of residence at your local university's physics department. Who would have thought it was a simple image processing technique in a popular downloadable software package. All this is second nature to the Astrophotographer.

Today I thought it would be good to take a look at 10 of the best amateur astrophotographers.

Disclaimer: this is a somewhat subjective review and I am happy to take comments on anyone I have missed. I don't pretend to have found them all, and I am sure I have probably missed some noteable people who should be on the list. Perhaps leave a comment and we can refine it over time - Anyway these are my current top 10 favourites.

Criteria: I have tried to select my top 10 based on the quality of the photos and techniques as well as the quality and experience of the websites that serve them up.

#1: Ken Crawford

Masterful technique - best website

#2 Wolfgang Promper

Finest Globula ever photographed

#3: Tom Davis

Master of the dark Nebulas

#4: Brad Moore

Image used by NASA as an example of the best of earth based photography

#5: Antonio Fernandez

Brilliant narrow band imaging

#6: John Gleason

Master of HA - Most artistic website

#7: Russell Croman

Exquistely composed Mosaics

#8: Rainer Sparenberg

Best Solar Photography & Terrestrial astro, great website.

#9: Mike Salway

Master of planetary photography/Landscape-astro & service to the amateur community

#10: Mike Sidonio (The world's strongest Astronomer)

This touching tribute won a David Malin Award - fine treatment of rarely photographed Nebula and Galaxies

So there it is, some of the masters, and their unique craft. I'll sign off now and await the "why didn't you pick me" emails - which I am more than happy to receive. Then perhaps we'll review the list over time.

Appologies once again if I have missed someone who should be on there.


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