Seaman HS Physics visits Farpoint

Last night, NEKAAL member Gary Hug hosted a dozen Physics students from Seaman High School, presenting the 27-inch Tombaugh telescope and what it can do on a clear, moonless night.

The Tombaugh telescope emerges from its lair

The roof rolled off, telescope fired up, camera cooled, and sky darkened, it was time for Gary to start with some simpler images, including a very short exposure of the Orion Nebula. (The control room is under dim red lights.)

Gary motioning to a new exposure of Orion Nebula

Member Eric Dose took some of the students outside to show the suburban students what a really dark night looks like. Zodiacal light rose from Jupiter on the west horizon up through the Pleiades to directly overhead. In fact, the zodiacal light (light from the below-horizon sun reflected by dust in the solar-system plane) rose to meet the Milky Way, which gave an excellent chance to describe the difference between the earth’s equator, the galactic equator and the ecliptic, which is essentially the solar-system’s equator.

Back inside, Gary and the students hunted extremely faint Near Earth Objects and captured two!–SEB912A (= 2000 EB14), also the NEO K11D09T which was discovered only 8 days ago. Along the way, Gary demonstrated the process of blinking, which is the rapid comparison of two images to discover what’s different between them. In sky exposures taken a few minutes apart, anything moving against a background of motionless stars is very likely to be an asteroid or some other solar-system object. Blinking is done with computer monitors rather than photographic plates and mirrors. But it still involves squinting and  staring…and the occasional startling discovery.

Blinking images of NEOs

A great combination of dark skies and bright students–NEKAAL Education and Outreach exists to get these together.

Asteroid occultation in area, Feb 28-March 1

An asteroid occultation is coming, about midnight local time the evening of Feb. 28. South Topeka and Farpoint Observatory are in the shadow path…

At 12:38 am, early March 1, faint asteroid 7217 Dacke (mag 17) will pass in front of relatively bright star TYC 0827-00565-1 (also known as GSC 827:565; mag 10.3). The blanking out of this star will last only about 2 seconds, but it’s bright enough that you’ll be able to see it and the occultation with large binoculars in darker skies, or a small telescope in almost any skies. Please see this site for detailed info including locator sky maps.

19th-Magnitude Comet

Wanna see a really, really faint object? Check out the tadpole shape, tail extending up and to the right. You’ll need to look at the very center in this image, taken with the 27-inch telescope at NEKAAL’s Farpoint Observatory.

Comet 203P

That’s comet 203P (Korlevich). Now, the “203” means it’s the 203rd comet of its type discovered. The “P” means it’s a periodic comet and will come around again, unless it runs into something, breaks up, etc. And “Korlevich” is the name of the discoverer, or the name of the astronomer who “recovered” it (determined that it is the same as a comet we’d seen before). This comet was discovered in 1999. That’s not very long ago–if you had seen taken this picture 13 years ago and reported that little smudge to the Minor Planet Center, your own name would be forever listed next to “Comet 203: Discoverer”!

Note that this is a negative picture. Which does not mean it goes around complaining. It means that we’ve made the stars look black on a white background, rather than the way it really looks in the sky. Astronomers do this because it’s easier to see things on grainy pictures that way–especially if you’re in the observatory, at 3 in the morning, squinting at this image you just took.

Comet 203P was 350 million miles away when this image was taken, so it’s really faint–in fact on that night it would have to have been about one million times brighter to see it naked-eye. But hey, compared to your eyes, the telescope and camera have four totally unfair advantages:

  1. The telescope and camera collected light over a width of 27 inches–the pupil of your eye is about 0.2 inches. Sounds like a 135-fold advantage, but wait!–it’s a squared relation, making it a 18,000-fold advantage. Unfair.
  2. They stared at the comet for 15 minutes and without forgetting a single photon. Your eye’s persistence of vision is normally a fraction of a second.
  3. The whole picture is only about 1/5 of a degree on each edge. That’s about the same as the length of a grain of rice held at arm’s length. Even the very brightest stars in this picture (the biggest black spots) are much fainter than you could see with just your eyes.
  4. The camera operated at -50°C so that it didn’t get distracted by random infrared light. A neat trick, but we at NEKAAL just do not recommend you try this with your eyes!

Sandlot Observatory update

NEKAAL Member Gary Hug sends this from his Sandlot Observatory:

I recently turned in my 3,000th NEO observation to the MPC. This puts Sandlot Observatory less than 1800 observations behind Farpoint’s total. I hope to surpass Farpoint’s total within the next couple of years..

Every January the Minor Planet Center starts designating the current year’s asteroid discoveries. In the past there has been a very non-official but fun competition to see who gets the year’s very 1st asteroid designation (this year it would be 2011 AA or K11A00A).

Well this year is no different as I missed the first slot, but it was close as I received a designation for the 2nd and 3rd asteroids of the year 2011 AB and 2011 AC.

Maybe next year…