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« Open Thread for Politics/OffTopic | Main | Overnight Open Thread (4-27-2014) »
April 27, 2014

Spaced-Out Challenge: the Great Bear, a $100 Telescope(!), and Stopping SMOD

[We Politely Request That All Off-Topic or Political Comments Be Directed to the Open Thread down page, Which Will Serve Officially as the Current "Active Conversation" Thread for All Discussions Not Related To This Topic. Enjoy!]


Ursa Major, from Beyer's Uranometria (1603)

Welcome again to the Spaced-Out Challenge! Whether you have a question about equipment, a new astronomical discovery you want to expand on, or just want to kick back and enjoy the cosmos above, come one come all on our weekly astronomical journey.

After taking a week off for Easter, the astronomy thread is back with an extra long edition: the best of twitter and youtube from the night of the lunar eclipse, exciting news about a new moon forming around Saturn, the critical privately-funded B612 mission to protect us from SMOD, a deeper exploration of the most familiar constellation in the Northern sky, and finally, a $100 telescope that delivers. So come with me on our weekly journey overhead.

The Great Bear in the Sky: Ursa Major

Most of you are very familiar with the Big Dipper: seven stars forming a large spoon that rotates about Polaris in the northern sky here in the United States. That asterism though is part of a far larger constellation, one of the biggest in the sky, that, for Westerners and the ancient Greeks and Native Americans, resembles its namesake.

In Greek Myth, Ursa Major is actually the nymph Callisto. I'll give you one guess which Greek god ravaged her and had to hide her in the sky lest his wife ever find her. In Native American myth, Ursa Major and Minor fascinated the five wolf brothers and Coyote, who thought it wise to climb into the skies on arrows to meet these giant animals above. Upon realizing they were bears, they wisely climbed back down.

There are many interesting targets for binoculars and telescopes within Ursa Major, one of which we discussed in the Messier Marathon guide, M101. We're going to focus on three that can be seen in even a small telescope from a suburban setting.

During the Spring, Ursa Major is high overhead, it's Big Dipper blazing and obvious even from very light polluted areas. Here's an overview of the constellation, including the targets of this week's challenge:


The Horse and Rider, Mizar and Alcor

Alcor and Mizar have been known as an optical double for the sharp-sighted for centuries, but it turns out both are actually multiple star systems in their own right. Amateur telescopes can effectively split Mizar into two bright and close components, making for a fine sight in even the smallest telescopes, especially framed with Alcor nearby. The easiest of the three targets in this week's edition, simply aim for the second-to-last star in the handle and take a look:


Sketch by Jeremy Perez

The Owl Nebula (M97)


The Owl as imaged by Robert J. Vanderbei

Hard to see from the suburbs without, the Owl pops clearly into view with an O-III or UHC filter in telescopes as small as 60mm in aperture. While I've never noticed the color in it like I have with the Dumbbell, Blue Snowball, Ring, and Ghost of Jupiter, it's distinctive shape can be teased out rather well with averted vision, and direct vision for owners of scopes larger than 4". A challenge, but rewarding. Look for it first before hunting down the galaxy below. Start at Merak, one of the stars forming the bottom of the bowl of the dipper, and travel a quarter of the way to Phad, with your nebula filter behind the eyepiece to give the Owl extra pop. Drifting slightly "south" and away, you will come across a faint ghostly circular patch. This is the Owl. Amateur Ferenc Lovró made a fantastic sketch of this celestial hooter:




M108 by Hunter Wilson

Due to it's close proximity to the Owl, M108 is often described as "that galaxy near the Owl", which is a real shame as it is an interesting, though faint, target in it's own right. A barred spiral like our Milky Way, we view it nearly edge on, giving the appearance of a dusty cigar. From suburbia in a 70mm telescope, it appears as a wispy cigar with a star-like core. More detail can be ascertained with larger aperture and a dark sky. Activity in it's nucleus suggests that it's supermassive black hole is feasting away, though not at the more spectacular rate we have seen in other Spaced-Out targets, like the elliptical giant M87. To get here, start at the Owl, remove the filter from behind your eyepiece, and move slowly back towards Merak. You will come across a ghostly cigar if the skies permit. Here, a sketch by Kiminori Ikebe shows how it will appear on a good night from suburbia:


A Good Telescope for Under $100?

Alright, we all know that aperture matters, and most of the scopes selling for less than three figures are CVS-style trash. I felt bad when a few folks on twitter set their budget at under $150, because you don't want to recommend a "cheap" scope- "cheap" means crap, and crap means you might snuff out their interest right from the get go. However, one company is selling a very solid scope right now, perfect for beginners, for just $89- Vixen's Space Eye 70:

First and foremost: the optics on this scope are fantastic. It isn't a true 70mm- about 4-5mm of the main objective is blocked- but it easily outperforms any equally-sized scope I've messed with. Cloud bands on Jupiter? Saturn's rings? Craters on the moon? Double stars? Most of the Messier catalogue? With steady rural skies, the last one is doable, the rest very much so from any sky. The only downside with this thing is the mount, which is exactly what a scope this price can expect to have- jittery, extremely lightweight, and makes high mag observing difficult. The slow motion controls were also problematic.

But the price. Holy crap, the price. If you've been kicking around the idea of getting a scope but didn't want to spend too much lest astronomy turns out not to be your thing, you can't beat it. You can always buy a stronger mount or add some weight to the tripod. If you've been looking for a scope for your kids, the damn thing weighs less than ten pounds, and again, it's cheap. OPT is the only company selling this for less than a hundred bucks, and when they're gone, that's it. But Hayneedle/Telescopes.com is also selling it, with free shipping, for $120, still far less than you'd expect to pay for optics as surprising as the Space Eye.
The eyepieces are meh, so for a really nice view for almost no coin of our solar system, snag a few of the cheapest long-eye-relief eyepieces out there while you're shopping (if you do get the eyepieces, the 6mm, 9mm, and 12.5mm are the best).

Best of Twitter Astrophotography

A lot of folks live tweeted during this month's spectacular lunar eclipse. I attended my first "star party" in quite some time down in Orange County, and I was frankly surprised by the size of the crowd in attendance. Then again, who's going to pass up on the chance to see the moon, Mars, Jupiter, and that dolled-up hussy of our solar system, Saturn?

Anyway, on with my personal favorites from the past two weeks. If you snap a pick through your scope, binoculars, or with your DSLR, tweet it at me and it will appear in a future edition:

Lastly, an astrophotographer over at Cloudy Nights created the best time lapse I've seen of the eclipse:

Stopping SMOD

The people of Chelyabinsk were extremely fortunate last year that the meteor detonated when and where it did. A few more seconds, and airburst would have resulted in a catastrophic loss of life. Luck has been on our side against a very legitimate threat we are just now beginning to comprehend. How big is the threat of lethal asteroid impact? Take a gander at the number of airbursts since 2000:

Thankfully, individuals and businesses (including SpaceX and Ball Aerospace) are collaborating in a 100% privately-funded mission to launch and operate a survey mission to help reduce the risk asteroids pose to us:

The B612Foundation's website, including ways to donate, can be found here

A New Moon Around Saturn?


Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Something unusual seems to be happening way out on Saturn's A ring: perhaps the formation of a new moon! An unusual protuberance has been noticed, brighter than the surrounding ring, which scientists suspect is the gravitational effect of a yet-unnoticed object. The object, nicknamed "Peggy", has observers excited, as Science@NASA explains:

Peggy is too small to see in images so far. Scientists estimate it is probably no more than about a half mile in diameter. Saturn's icy moons range in size depending on their proximity to the planet -- the farther from the planet, the larger. And many of Saturn's moons are comprised primarily of ice, as are the particles that form Saturn's rings. Based on these facts, and other indicators, researchers recently proposed that the icy moons formed from ring particles and then moved outward, away from the planet, merging with other moons on the way.

"The theory holds that Saturn long ago had a much more massive ring system capable of giving birth to larger moons," Murray said. "As the moons formed near the edge, they depleted the rings."

It is possible the process of moon formation in Saturn's rings has ended with Peggy, as Saturn's rings now are, in all likelihood, too depleted to make more moons. Because they may not observe this process again, Murray and his colleagues are wringing from the observations all they can learn.

What Else Is Up This Week?

Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn dominate the evening skies this week, at different intervals. Jupiter is blazing high overhead around sunset and has begun it's descent into the West, but will be quickly replaced by a dimming Mars (already visible in the East at sunset) and, a few hours later (around 10pm), the crown jewel of the solar system, Saturn. Venus will dominate the predawn sky, outshining (as it almost always does) everything before sunrise.



The full Beginner's Buyer's Guide, our Comet Guide (featuring additional grab-and-go telescopes), and any other edition you're looking for can be found in the master index of all Spaced-Out Challenge threads here, but of course you can always inquire about binoculars, telescopes, and all the rest in the comments.
As always, if you have astrophotography, product recommendations, or astronomy news you'd like to see on a future Spaced-Out Challenge, email me at theoneandonlyfinn (at) gmail.com, or tweet me @conartcritic.

If you have any more questions about your new optics, feel free to ask below.
Until next time, clear skies to you, and keep looking up!

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