Comet Johnson

Quentin, Mike, Wallace and I saw the comet last night at Wallace’s neighborhood park. Nice dim glow a little east and north of Izar; exactly where the chart showed it to be. Its at Mag 7 and not a naked eye object but we viewed it through Mike’s ETX125, Wallace’s 12X80 binoculars, and Quentin’s new Celestron CPC8. Seeing was a little shaky but good enough to split Izar. Transparency was good and we took in the Sombrero, Cat’s Eye, NGC5866, Beehive, and Jupiter. Several slow meteors and two passes of the ISS! One almost occulted Jupiter and the other was low to the North through the trees. Dew shut us down around 10PM. Really nice – if short – impromptu night.

Earth Day 2017!

Birmingham had a March for Science on Earth Day along with over 600 other cities in the U.S.A.. I set up the Club’s Coranado to give folks a view of the Sun in H-alpha. Lots of interest. Lots of oohs and ahhs. I also had a pair of paper eclipse glasses and they were almost as popular as the scope! Had a lot of great discussions on amateur astronomy and I threw in my thoughts on light pollution. It was Earth day after all.

There was concern that the event would be one big political rant. It was not. There was talk about assuring that science continues to be a priority but not a lot of finger pointing. The press on this event and the others that I read this morning made it look a lot different than what I observed. At least in Birmingham.

The Earth is warming up. Man’s contribution to that and his ability to influence any change may be debatable but the fact that the Earth is warming is not. It is following a pattern that has repeated itself five times over the past 600,000 years that we know about and there is no reason to think this cycle will be any different. It is generally accepted science that the sea levels will rise from one to three feet by the end of this century. Since 40% to 50% of the worlds population lives within 60 miles of the coast this should give us pause… 80 years is not a long time to begin to reconfigure our infrastructure for these changes. We need to be doing something to get ready right now regardless of how popular it is. Facts are facts folks. This is not a political issue – or at least it shouldn’t be.


New Scope and Mount Installed today

Mike, Wallace, Rick, Bob, Scott and I worked at the Club’s Chandler Mountain site today. We installed the new MI250 mount and C14 and worked on the dome getting the motorized controls connected. Also got the demolition done on the old wind breaks. Messier Marathon had to be rescheduled for next week. Thunderstorms and rain for tonight.


















Urban Outreach – Rail Road Park Camp Out Downtown Birmingham

Mike waiting on the sun to go down.

Mike, Charlie, and I were invited to set up an astronomy demonstration at the second annual Rail Road Park Camp Out in Birmingham’s Southside yesterday.

We set up the club’s 20″ Obsession, Mike’s ETX125, Charlie’s Orion GoTo XT14, and my Questar 3.5. The Samford Planetarium was represented and brought their Vixen 85MM refractor and the University’s Questar 3.5.

There was rain earlier that morning but as we began setting up later that afternoon the clouds were thinning and by twilight we had clear skies. Even with the solid Bortle 8 skies the campers were able to see a thin crescent Venus, M42, M93, M3, Jupiter, M44, Castor, and M36. Earlier in the afternoon they was some solar viewing with white light filters but no sunspots showed up.

To cap it off there was a Mag-1.7 Iridium Flare just SE of Procyon a little after 8PM.

Lots of stuff to see regardless of where you are.


Club update and the ETX90RA – It’s been a while…

We’ve got the Blog going again. Thanks, Ed!

There’s been a lot of stuff going on! A C14 has been donated! It and an MI-250 mount are going to replace the 12″Meade LX200 at Chandler and also fully automated Sirius dome and 10″Meade LX200 GPS have been donated! The dome is up and we hope to have  everything operational by the upcoming Messier Marathon on Saturday, March 25th.

But to the important stuff…. I took the ETX90RA out under the stars on Friday night. I must admit that it has taken a more back-up role since I got the Questar but I couldn’t resist it the other night. I even set it up on the original 883 tripod. Lots of fine adjustments for accurate Polar Alignment.

It did not disappoint. Tracking was spot on. M81/M82 duo were a stretch with the full moon but they were there. It was a beautiful still night and Castor split wide open with the 7mm UO Ortho. Two tiny headlights on a dark road centered in perfectly concentric and steady diffraction rings.

This little scope still holds it own. Yes its plastic and it takes a second for the drive to engage depending on how you slew into an object. Yes you need to replace the stock finder. Yes you need to take the base plate off to change the batteries. Lots of stuff to complain about… or you can get over it and learn how to use it. The setting circles are excellent. The optics approach superb. Its not hard to beat the mount but you’ll need to spend a lot more money to get optics  marginally better. All this for something you can still get for less than $200 on the used market. Wow.



Earth is entering a stream of high-speed solar wind, and this is causing G1-class geomagnetic storms on Feb. 16th. This is not the CME we have been waiting for since Valentine’s Day. Instead, the solar wind is flowing from a coronal hole on the sun Visit for photos and more information

August 21, 2017 – Where will you be?

On August 21, 2017, as we all know by now, there will be a Solar eclipse  that will start on the west coast and move across the United States exiting in South Carolina.

There are may sites up on the web right now talking about it but the best planning map I have found yet is Xavier Jubier’s Interactive Google Map!

Planning a run to view the event is no small undertaking.You are going to have issues finding a place to stay along the path of totality. Weather is going to play a big part of you planning as well, We live in the Southeast US – it changes every 15 minutes!

Here are some Tips from Sky and Telescope

1. Take eclipse day off — now!

You may think three years is a bit of a long lead time, and, unless you work for a magazine called Astronomy, it may be. The point I’m making is that August 21, 2017, may turn out to be the most popular vacation-day request in history. If not now, figure out the earliest date that makes sense for you to request August 21 as a vacation day, and mark it on your calendar.

2. Make a weekend out of it

Eclipse day is a Monday. Lots of related activities in locations touched by the Moon’s inner shadow will occur on Saturday and Sunday. Find out what they are, where they’re being held, and which you want to attend, and make a mini-vacation out of the eclipse.

Events like cruises to exotic locations will allow you to experience the full social impact of the eclipse. // All photos: Michael E. Bakich

3. Attend an event

Trust me when I say you’ll enjoy the eclipse more if you hook up with like-minded people. If you don’t see any special goings-on a few months before August 21, call your local astronomy club, planetarium, or science center. Anyone you talk to is sure to know of eclipse activities.

4. Get involved

If you interests include celestial events and public service, consider volunteering with a group putting on an eclipse event. You’ll learn a lot and make some new friends in the process.

5. Watch the weather

Meteorologists study a chaotic system. Nobody now can tell you with absolute certainty the weather a specific location will experience on eclipse day. And don’t get too tied up in the predictions of cloud cover you’ll see for that date. Many don’t distinguish between “few” (one-eighth to two-eighths of the sky covered), “scattered” (three-eighths to four-eighths), or “broken” (five-eighths to seven-eighths) clouds and overcast. You need to dig deeper.

6. Stay flexible on eclipse day

Unless you are certain August 21 will be clear, don’t do anything that would be hard to undo in a short time. For example, let’s say you’re taking a motor home to a certain city. You connect it to power, hook up the sewage hose, extend the awnings, set up chairs, start the grill, and more. But if it’s cloudy six hours, three hours, or even one hour before the eclipse starts, you’re going to want to move to a different location. Think of the time you would have saved if you had waited to set up. Also, the earlier you make your decision to move, the better. I only can imagine what the traffic might be like on eclipse day.

7. Don’t plan anything funky

Totality will be the shortest two and a half minutes of your life. All your attention should be on the Sun. Anything else is a waste. And be considerate of those around you. Please, no music.

8. Pee before things get going

Yes, I could have phrased this more politely, but I wanted you to read it. And, trust me, you’ll thank me for this tip above and beyond any other on this list. Don’t wait until 10 minutes before totality to start searching for a bathroom. Too much is happening then. Make a preemptive strike 45 minutes prior.

Perhaps as much as 30 minutes before totality, someone in your group is likely to have spotted brilliant Venus.

9. Notice it getting cooler?

A point-and-shoot camera that takes movies will let you record the temperature drop. Here’s a suggestion: Point your camera at a digital thermometer and a watch, both of which you previously attached to a white piece of cardboard or foamcore. Start recording video 15 or so minutes before totality and keep shooting until 15 minutes afterward. The results may surprise you.

10. Watch for the Moon’s shadow

If your viewing location is at a high elevation, or even at the top of a good-sized hill, you may see the Moon’s shadow approaching. This sighting isn’t easy because the shadow is moving at more than 1,000 mph (1,600 km/h). Another way to spot the shadow is as it covers thin cirrus clouds if any are above your site. Again, you’ll be surprised how fast the shadow moves.

11. View the 360° sunset

During totality, take just a few seconds to tear your eyes away from the sky and scan the horizon. You’ll see sunset colors all around you because, in effect, those locations are where sunset (or sunrise) are happening.

Mylar eclipse glasses are a safe way to view the Sun at any time.

12. Get a filter in advance

Cardboard “eclipse” glasses with lenses of optical Mylar cost about $2. Such a device — it’s not a toy — will let you safely look directly at the Sun. It filters out most of the light, all of the dangerous infrared (heat) and ultraviolet radiation, which tans our skin. Buy one well in advance, and you can look at the Sun anytime. Sometimes you can see a sunspot or two. That’s cool because to be visible to our eyes, such a spot has to be larger than Earth. Another safe solar filter is a #14 welder’s glass, which also will cost you $2. Wanna look cool at the eclipse? Buy goggles that will hold the welder’s glass. I’ve even seen people wearing whole helmets. Either those or goggles serves one purpose — you won’t need to hold the filter, so you can’t drop it.

13. No filter? You can still watch

Except during totality, we never look at the Sun. But what if you’ve forgotten a filter? You can still watch by making a pinhole camera. It can be as simple as two pieces of paper with a tiny hole in one of them. (Try to make the hole as round as you can, perhaps with a pin or a sharp pencil.) Line up the two pieces with the Sun so the one with the hole is closest to it. The pinhole will produce a tiny image, which you’ll want to have land on the other piece of paper. Moving the two pieces farther apart will enlarge the Sun’s image but will also lessen its brightness. Work out a good compromise.

A #14 welder’s glass is another way to safely observe the Sun anytime.

14. Bring a chair

In all likelihood, you’ll be at your viewing site several hours before the eclipse starts. You don’t really want to stand that whole time, do you?

15. Don’t forget the sunscreen

Most people who go outside during the summer know this. Remember, you’ll be standing around or sitting outside for hours. You may want to bring an umbrella for some welcome shade. And if you see someone who has forgotten sunscreen, please be a peach and share.

16. Take lots of pictures

Before and after totality, be sure to record your viewing site and the people who you shared this great event with.

A Sunspotter solar telescope by Learning Technologies (and sold through a variety of dealers) provides a sharp image of the Sun that many people can view simultaneously.

17. The time will zoom by

In our August 1980 issue, author Norm Sperling contributed a “Forum” in which he tries to convey how quickly totality seems to pass. You can read it here.

18. Bring snacks and drinks

You’re probably going to get hungry waiting for the eclipse to start. Unless you set up next to a convenience store, consider bringing something to eat and drink. And keep in mind that August is warm. A cooler with ice-cold drinks is a great idea.

19. Nobody you meet will have seen totality.

If you’re planning an event or even a family gathering related to the eclipse, consider this: Statistically, 100 percent of the people you encounter — to a high degree of accuracy — will never have experienced darkness at noon. You will be the expert.

A telescope equipped with an approved solar filter will help Sun-watchers get the most from the eclipse.

20. Invite someone with a solar telescope

In the event you’re thinking of hosting a private get-together (ignoring #3 above), make sure someone in attendance brings a telescope with a solar filter. While it’s true that you don’t need a scope to view the eclipse, having one there will generate quite a bit of buzz. And you (or the telescope’s owner) can point out and describe sunspots, irregularities along the Moon’s edge, and more.

21. Experience totality alone

The 2017 eclipse plus the events leading up to it will combine to be a fabulous social affair. Totality itself, however, is a time that you should mentally shed your surroundings and focus solely on the sublime celestial dance above you. You’ll have plenty of time for conversations afterward.

A get-together with family and friends after the eclipse will help you unwind a bit and hear what others experienced during the eclipse.

22. Schedule an after-eclipse party or meal

Once the eclipse winds down, you’ll be on an emotional high for hours, and so will everyone else. I’ve found no better time to get together with family and friends and just chat. Or, if you’re like me, take a secondary position and just listen to others talking about what they’ve just experienced. Fun!

23. Record your memories

Sometime shortly after the eclipse, when the event is still fresh in your mind, take some time to write, voice-record, or make a video of your memories, thoughts, and impressions. A decade from now, such a chronicle will help you relive this fantastic event. Have friends join in, too. Stick a video camera in their faces and capture 30 seconds from each of them. You’ll smile each time you watch it.

Unless you’re an eclipse veteran like Astronomy Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds (who has seen 16 total solar eclipses), consider not photographing the event and just watching.

24. Don’t photograph the eclipse

This tip — specifically directed at first-time eclipse viewers — may sound strange because it’s coming to you from the photo editor of the best-selling astronomy magazine on Earth. But I’ve preached this point to thousands of people who I’ve led to far-flung corners of our planet to stand under the Moon’s shadow. True, few of them have thanked me afterward. But I can tell you of upwards of a hundred people who have told me with trembling voices, “I wish I’d followed your advice. I spent so much time trying to center the image and get the right exposures that I hardly looked at the eclipse at all.” How sad is that? And here’s another point: No picture will capture what your eyes will reveal. Trust me, I’ve seen them all. Only the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent of photographers have ever come close. And — no offense meant — but you, with your point-and-shoot pocket camera or off-the-shelf digital SLR, are not one of them.


I’ll state this again for emphasis. Why, oh why, would you even consider looking down and fiddling with a camera when you could be looking up at all that heavenly glory? This eclipse will — at maximum — last 162 seconds. That’s it, my friends. If your camera isn’t doing what you think it should, you’re going to lose valuable time adjusting it. There will be plenty of pix from imagers who have viewed a dozen of these events. So just watch. Watch your first eclipse with your mouth agape, where your only distraction is occasionally wiping tears of joy from your eyes. You will not be disappointed.


Five Planets in View

Five planets adorn the morning sky this week — the same quintet of “wanderers” (Mercury to Saturn) our ancient ancestors recognized as being different from the background stars. Head outside about 45 minutes before sunrise and you will see the solar system objects spread out across approximately 110°.

Start with Jupiter in the southwestern sky, then pick up Mars nearly due south, Saturn climbing in the southeast, brilliant Venus to its lower left, and lastly Mercury hanging low in the twilight. The view of the five improves over the next week or two as Mercury climbs higher and grows brighter.

Bright and Early

By the time morning twilight starts to paint the sky, both Venus and Saturn appear prominent in the southeast. Venus shines brilliantly at magnitude –4.0 — the brightest point of light in the sky.

Although Venus may be brighter, there’s no denying the charms of neighboring Saturn. The ringed planet shines at magnitude 0.5 and lies 15° to Venus’ upper right. When viewed through a telescope, Saturn shows a 16″-diameter disk surrounded by a stunning ring system that spans 36″ and tilts 26° to our line of sight.

The Red Planet has also now brightened considerably since the start of the New Year, shining at magnitude 0.8. Mars’ rapid motion nearly matches the Sun’s pace, so the world rises only about a half-hour earlier at January’s close than it did on New Year’s Day.

Mars was a telescopic dud during 2015 because its diameter never exceeded 5.5″. That starts to change in January because the planet pulls significantly closer to Earth. By month’s end, it appears 6.8″ across and may start to show some subtle surface markings through larger scopes. Conditions will improve quickly this spring as Mars approaches opposition in May, when it will appear bigger and brighter than at any time since 2005.

Mercury approaches Venus as this week progresses. The innermost planet stands 9° high in the southeast a half-hour before sunrise on the 31st, when you can locate it 7° to Venus’ lower left. It shines at magnitude 0.0 and should show up clearly through binoculars. Of academic interest only, Mercury passes 0.5° north of Pluto (invisible in twilight, of course) on the 30th.

The waning gibbous Moon pokes above the eastern horizon around 9 p.m. (CDT) Wednesday, just a few minutes after Jupiter. The planet remains within a few degrees of the Moon from the time they rise until morning twilight is well underway. Shining at magnitude –2.3, Jupiter stands out even in the presence of our satellite, though it grows more conspicuous as the Moon moves over the next several nights. A telescope reveals the gas giant’s 42″-diameter disk and at least two parallel dark belts in its dynamic atmosphere.

The Moon will then pass above the star Spica on Jan. 30, before approaching Mars on Feb. 1 and Saturn on Feb. 3. It sits above both Venus and Mercury on Feb. 6.

The evening sky also hosts the outer two major planets, Uranus and Neptune, which were too faint for our forebears to see.

(This post originally appeared on

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