All posts by Fred

Almost 60 now! Beautiful wife of 30+ years and two beautiful daughters. One Australian Blue Heeler. Star Gazer since I was big enough to look up. Make a living as an engineer. Driver to the malls and payer of the bills. Unabashed optimist. If in doubt - go Hawaiian, and always keep looking for the pony. Please read Romans 1:20 and ask yourself if all this is really just one big accident....

It’s dark at Millers Ferry.

Which constellations?

We went camping a weekend ago now at the Millers Ferry Corp of Engineers campground near Camden, Alabama. Its located at 32.11583, -87.38972 and its listed as one of the Clear Sky Clock locations. It is a Bortle scale 2! More info on the Bortle scale can be found here, but to summarize: the scale goes from 1 to 9, with a 1 being the bottom of a coal mine and a 9 being downtown New York City. Again, this place is a Bortle scale 2. You have to drive incredible distances to get a marginal improvement on this. And its right here in Alabama! There are no 1’s but I have found three other dark spots so far here in the Southeast that are also 2’s.  One of them is French Camp, MS. This is the location for the Mid South Star Gaze coming up in a few weeks so think about attending if you haven’t already made plans.

The attached photo was taken there with a simple point and shoot camera attached to a tripod. See if you can tell what the constellations are.

I’ll put together a presentation on this for one of our monthly meetings.


Quicquid Nitet Notandum

This is one of those neat things amateurs should know. Comes from the Gold Medal that the Royal Astronomical Society has been giving for a very long time. It means: ” Whatever shines should be observed.” Who knows the significance of Charles Babbage…. He is the namesake of the Babbages line of stores…

The Thirty-Minute Astronomer Observing After Midnight with the ETX 90RA


It was just too clear last night. Moon or no moon, it was time to do some observing. I set the ETX up in the driveway and began to look about. Transparency and seeing were very good. The moon was getting low in the west and it really was a pretty night. M81 and M82 were high enough to take in. M81 a soft glow with a central core slightly brighter and M82 a ghostly streak almost a degree above M81. No I did not see the “cigar band” on M82. I turned to Gamma Leonis (Algieba) in the mane of Leo. This is an easy split and the stars look yellow to me.

M3 was just out of the trees and tried real hard to resolve but with only 90mm to work with it wasn’t going to happen. Iota Cancri had a hint of color without too much FAV.  M41 was all over the eyepiece and M67 was very much there, despite the moon, and about half the size of the Beehive. At this point I got cold and went in! Went out, saw all this, and was back inside in right at 30 minutes. Not bad.


Great Armchair Astronomer Site

Check out Cloudy Nights ( In  Forums/Announcements and News/Celestial Events there is a monthly post by Dave Mitsky titled “Celestial Calendar”. It gives a great summary of upcoming celestial sights. For example, this month he mentions a double Galilean transit of Jupiter’s Ganymede and Io for tomorrow night. He also notes ” The Curtiss Cross, an X-shaped illumination effect located between the lunar craters Parry and Gambart, is predicted to occur at 2:33″ on January 28th. Neat stuff and fun to ramble through while planning what to observe.


Did see a couple of Quadrantids this morning

I’m still trying to recover from Christmas. I woke up this morning around 3AM and couldn’t go back to sleep and since the sky was clear that meant a little star gazing before work. Transparency around 7 or 8. Didn’t check the seeing. With no moon that meant pretty decent suburban skies. 

I checked email first and commented on Ed’s additions to the website. Ed is starting out the year doing another  excellent job. Thanks Ed! ( We didn’t beat him up too bad for being absent at the Christmas party)

I was looking for M102. Yes, I know some folks don’t acknowledge this but I like to use NGC5866, the Spindle Galaxy, as a substitute. There is another Spindle Galaxy in Sextans (Caldwell 53) whick is also visible this time of year so don’t get them confused. 🙂 I set me XT6 up on the front walk and looked northeast between Draco and Bootes for the small mag 5.2 star HIP73909 in Bootes.  This makes for an easy star hop to M102. There is a small faint 3/4 degree triangular asterism just north of this star. M102 is found just east of the northern most star in this asterism. 

After a minute or so I found a faint but definitely-there-with-direct-vision elongated smudge – M102.

Around 3:30 while I was getting oriented I saw two early Quadrantids. One lasted for 10 to 15 degrees and flared twice nice and bright. The second one lasted about half the distance and was much fainter. Both radiants could be traced to an area between Bootes and Draco, right where the old and defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis was located.

Not a bad way to start the day.


Comet Lulin observation report!

I had my ETX 125 set up in the driveway earlier so I could take advantage of the clear (and cold) skies. Its not a particularly steady night. Pickering scale between 4 and 5 – but it is severe clear and transparency is really-good to great. Not a hint of a cloud anywhere. I was passing the time picking out objects from the All Splendours list and the next thing you know its after 1am. The last thing I looked at before I came in was Saturn. Just south of Leo it is absolutely gorgeous. As I came in I remembered that Comet Lulin was passing through Virgo. I tried to catch it a few days ago but waited ( read that “slept”) too late.

The comet is moving fast and after consulting Sky and Telescopes finder chart, I went back outside around 1:30am with my binoculars. Sure enough, there it was, almost due South and just above the house. Comet Lulin is about two degrees west of Zaniah in Virgo (No, I did not try to split Porrima while I was there).

It is clearly visible in binoculars but I was not able to see it naked eye. After viewing it with the ETX 125 and my Orion XT6 and I estimate the size of the coma to be 7′ and using the “out of focus” Bobrovnikoff’s method 🙂 from Sky and Telescope, I estimate the brightness to be in the mag 7.5 range. There was a small bright nucleus and no tail was visible.

The temperature was close to 30 deg. F.

Get outside and check it out!


Cub/Boy Scout Camporee on Feb 21st

Tommy Norton has asked if we can assist in this event by providing a few telescopes for the kids. There are 500+ kids and adults expected so there should be a good crowd. This is the date for our February Chandler Mountain Star party so there could be some conflicts. Please get in touch with me if you can help.

Contact Fred Rains

Outreach Coordinator and Breakfast Chef


On Monday morning, the 29th, it finally cleared up enough to do some observing!

I was up around 4:30 – I’ve got a dog-with-a-broken-leg-story if you want to hear it! – and found that the sky had changed from mostly cloudy to scattered and was improving by the minute. I got the dog settled and moved my six inch Orion XT out to the driveway. I keep this scope set up in the basement and all you have to do is grab it by  its base mounted handle and move  the whole thing wherever you want. I removed the covers, turned on the Rigel Quickfinder – sigh of relief to find out that I did turn it off the last time. Battery was good! – and looked around for something to see.

m51The Big Dipper was nice and high to the North and I decided to take a look at M51 first.  This is an easy star hop from the very last star in the handle of the Big Dipper, Alkaid.  Imagine a line that is perpendicular to, and south of, the last two stars in the handle of the dipper. Move about three degrees along that line – three FOV in my case with a 25mm Sirius Plossl –  until you come to a small triangle made up of 7th+  mag stars. Just on the other side of that triangle is M51.

It was very obvious in the eyepiece as two distinct patches of brightness that almost touched; one about three times the size of the other. The rain had cleared the sky nicely and the transparency was excellent.

m81m82Next I moved to  M81/M82. This is another easy star hop, especially with a reflex finder like the Rigel.  Imagine a line extending from the bottom star  on the handle side of the dipper(Phecda) through the top star away from the dipper’s handle(Dubhe). Extend that line that same distance again and begin to scan north until you find a nice bright fuzzy face-on spiral galaxy. This is M81. Move a little more North and you’ll find a relatively long sliver of brightness that is  M82. You can see where the  now politically incorrect “Cigar Galaxy” moniker came from. With a one degree FOV or greater, you can fit both in the same view.

Even though there is a horrible light dome to the north west of my house, the two objects were still obvious. This is one of the best sights to be seen in the eyepiece.

One hunger sated, I went  back inside around 5:30 to feed the other one a cheese omlette.


Clouds… Lots of clouds…

maxfieldparrish_morning1922Hope everyone had a great Christmas! We certainly did!

The girls are out taking advantage of the after-Christmas festivities at the Malls and I’m sitting here in my favorite chair trying real hard to feel guilty about not going with them. I am not having any success… I guess I could feel guilty about not feeling guilty…. Nah, that’s not working either.  🙂

What I am doing is taking advantage of one of the great aspects of our  hobby: armchair astronomy!

Isn’t it great! Where other folks with other hobby’s depend on wonderful weather – and we prefer it! – amateur astronomers can sit in a comfortable spot and spend hours reading magazines, scouring the internet for articles on their favorite subjects,  using seasonal charts to develop the next observation list, or blogging!  Wonderful.

I was using Starry Night Pro to get a list together for when the clouds finally do go into hiding – its going on four weeks now! – and I noticed Venus is near the most northeastern star in the chevron shaped constellation of Capricorn. The stars name is Deneb Algeidi. Deneb means “tail” and Algeidi means “kid” as in “goat”… as in “sea goat”. I know of one other star named Deneb and when I thought about it, sure enough, it is the “tail” of the swan in Cygnus. I also knew of a star that sounded real close: Denebola, in Leo. Again, this is the last star in that constellation; exactly where the end of the “tail” would be.     I suspect there are more….

I also noticed that Pisces was due South near sundown. This meant that the nemesis of my ETX 90, M74,  was as high as its going to get this season, and would only be getting lower each night until the Messier Marathon. I’m sure there will be a few clear nights in the next few weeks where I can practice finding this. The object is always there in my six inch dob, but I have never seen it in the ETX 90 from an Alabama site.  I did view it with the ETX 90 two years ago from Mt. Leconte Lodge in Tennessee, but that was some 6000 feet higher than where I am now! Amazing what a little altitude will do for a telescope.

I guess what Mike says is true. Roughly paraphrased:  “The sky is always clear. You may have to go one or two miles up to find it; but its always clear.”

Happy New Year, everyone!


ISS Challenge!

I was looking at Heavens Above and checking for Iridium Flares and ISS transitions for tomorrow night – no flares! but there’s a bright one on Sunday night! – and I noticed a new feature on the ISS page where it plotted the ISS path across the surface of the planet. It also showed the straight line distance from your location to the ISS… Hmmm.
If you know this and the size of the ISS, which is about the size of a football field – closer to the size of a futbol field 🙂 , you can calculate the apparent diameter of the ISS in your telescope at Oak Mountain (or anywhere else)! Cutting to the chase, the ISS will be between 20 and 30 arcseconds in our eyepieces as it crosses 200 miles above Springfield Illinois at 18:07 tomorrow night! It will depend on its orientation to us at the time but this is still plenty big to be seen in our scopes. By comparison, Jupiter is a little over 30 arcseconds in diameter right now.

There are two more things going for us that could make a telescopic observation possible: The ISS will be approaching us at an acute angle, its relative speed in the sky will be slow as a result. It should take it almost 3 seconds to cross a 1 deg. fov eyepiece ( speed will be near 0.3 deg/sec.) plenty of time to see details.

The other thing going for us tomorrow night is that it will pass within 1 degree or so of RR Ursae Minoris, a Mag 4.62 star to the NE of the little dippers bowl. HIP number is 73199. I’m going to go to this star, move my fov a little west (decreasing RA, dob folks will actually need to move it to the east)and wait on the ISS to make its pass.

The pass will be low to the north and this will be against us.

It will also give us practice for trying to see the missing tool bag as it comes around about an hour and a half later.
OK. That’s the challenge! Get your widest FOV eyepieces out, but not too wide, and lets see if we can see the outline of the ISS as it passes low to the north of us tomorrow night. Those of us with robo-scopes can actually download the information needed to track the ISS during one of its passes. I haven’t a clue as to how to do this.

There it is! This is something we can try from time to time as the ISS position improves.

See everyone tomorrow night!

Mike, do not make any purchases until after tomorrow night! Leave something for Santa… 🙂