Ho ho hold on ... before you buy that trash scope!
by Zoe Kessler - December 2015
BAS VP Zoë Kessler nerds it up with gifts from around $2-500, including Santa hat accessory dollar-store headlamp with interchangeable white and red lights, and of course the obligatory subscription to SkyNews Magazine – a great gift for amateur astronomers at any stage.

Admit it. Christmas (and other holidays) are around the corner, and youʼre salivating for a scope.

Warning: there are telescopes, and there are what we amateur astronomers refer to as “trash scopes.” Let me save you from an anti-climatic heartache later when you realize what youʼve bought is unusable.

Here are the most important guidelines

1) Do not buy a telescope.

Yup, thatʼs right. If you are a total beginner, try using a good pair of binoculars first to familiarize yourself with the sky, for example a mid-priced pair of Celestron “Cavalry” (12 X 70) binoculars. Approximately $150 at Canadian Tire, and as of this writing, on sale for half-price (around $75). Advantages: light, manageable, rubber-coated. According to BAS President John Hlynialuk, theyʼre great for looking at the Moon or clusters like the Pleiades, or objects like Orionʼs Belt and M31. They also offer “Wonderful views of Milky Way stars. Just lie back and sweep through the heavens! The North America Nebula is best seen through binos! (and so are comets when they get bright enough).” Stick to brand names for binoculars. Check out K-W Telescope and local camera stores. For more information, see SkyNews Magazineʼs many articles on choosing binoculars for stargazing.

2) Focus on eyepieces, stability

Less is more. Cheaper telescopes with tons of eyepieces, gadgets, and gizmos seem to offer value for your money, but the opposite is true. Look for a known name in telescopes (Meade, Celestron, Sky-Watcher to name a few). Your main considerations are: excellent eyepieces and a stable mount. Cheap telescopes are like a cheap drunk: wobbly, unsteady, and unreliable.

3) Buy a used scope

Amateur astronomers often upgrade their equipment. My second scope was bought from a trusted astronomy buddy. Iʼd already used it many times, so I knew exactly what I was getting. When she upgraded, I had first dibs (and a good price) on a scope I already loved.

Are you buying a gift for an astronomer friend? Consider these.

1) Warm, snuggly, hooded jacket

Astronomy knows no season. Wait – thatʼs not entirely true. The cold, crisp nights of fall and winter can offer some of the best stargazing opportunities – with one serious drawback: itʼs (!$#_*&! cold! Show your beloved astronomy nut that you care about them (albeit while simultaneously being baffled by their addiction) and help them survive those dark, frosty evenings under clear skies.

2) Tom Horton's gift card

If your astronomy buddy lives in Canada, chances are theyʼre picking up a hot coffee en route to the observatory. In the astronomy world, “double double” takes on a whole new meaning: double the benefits of helping out on a cold night of observing. A hot drink provides something to warm up your hands, and caffeine to keep you awake while pursuing your passion.

3) Thermal undies

Yes, thereʼs a theme here. Astronomers are hot for their hobby. Not even frigid Canadian winters can cool their passion. Help them to practice safe astronomy!

Also, check out the BAS events calendar to hook up with BAS members. Weʼre always happy to answer all your questions, including tips about buying your first scope or upgrading to a more powerful one. See Coming Events for a detailed list.

Happy shopping and happy stargazing!

Venus envy
by Zoe Kessler - October 2/2015

Sheʼs beautiful. Sheʼs radiant. Sheʼs mysterious. She commands attention and holds it.

Who can avert their gaze from the early morning blaze this month that is the lovely planet, Venus?

I arose early one morning, stepped out on my deck just before dawn and noticed this sparkling beauty in the eastern sky. But something wasnʼt quite right. I hauled my scope out onto the deck and was rewarded with the slender crescent of Venus. Only a year ago, I hadnʼt even realized Venus had phases (I should have known; just like a woman). But there she was, a tiny, glimmering, moon-like crescent, almost too dazzling to behold.

The month of October holds many more beautiful celestial sights. As the weather and the season turns, the sky comes into crisper focus. So don a sweater and – enjoy the dawn!

This monthʼs blog post is targeted at the morningʼs astronomical offerings. If youʼre not a morning person, you should reconsider. Double up on your coffee if need be. Iʼm going to try to convince you why. And if I canʼt do it, surely the gorgeous Venus might seduce you to arise earlier than normal.

This month is the time to do it. Haul your butt out of bed because in October, the expression “rise and shine” reaches a whole new level. You take care of the rise part; the planets Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter will take care of the shine.

And letʼs face it: most of us are crazy about shiiiiiiny things!

Here are some highlights:

On the 16th, Mercury makes a rare appearance low in the eastern sky just before sunrise (6:39 a.m.). This is the highest itʼs going to get, so take advantage of the opportunity to see this shy inner planet.

Three planetary jewels, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter will appear very close together in the east just before sunrise from mid-October to mid-November. The group appears as a trio changing places throughout that time. Mars and Jupiter are close to each other Oct 17&18, Venus and Jupiter Oct 25 and Venus and Mars on Nov 2&3. Note that Venus is the brightest, then Jupiter and the faintest, Mars has a slightly reddish tint.

From October 22 to October 28, you have a final chance for some truly spectacular celestial bling when Venus, Mars, and Jupiter form a rare, three-planet conjunction (grouping). Like a beautiful three-jewel pendant, the three planets will be closest together during that time. The spacing will be tight enough that a 3-degree circle, a bit bigger than your outstretched thumb, will cover them. Look east before the sun comes up around 7 am.

So forget expensive diamonds and rubies and set your alarms to appreciate the most dazzling gems of all – our beguiling planetary neighbours.

For all celestial happenings of note, morning and night, visit our Coming Events page. And donʼt forget to follow us on Twitter.

Are astronomers just big kids?
by Zoe Kessler - September 11/2015

Astronomers are big, scary, intimidating science nerds, right?

The truth is astronomers are really just big kids who still love a good game of peek-a-boo. This September, weʼll be out to enjoy the games as several celestial bodies play peek-a-boo in the sky.

At the beginning of the month, the planet Neptune hid behind the earth, playing peek-a-boo with the Sun. Neptune was said to be at opposition, which is when the sun, the earth, and a planet are all in line. At that time, the planet at opposition (opposite the sun), is at its brightest, largest, and its closest point to the earth.

Just after midnight on Saturday, September 5 (around 12:07 a.m.), Aldebaran (a bright star in the eastern constellation Taurus) hid behind the moon for about a half hour. This is called an occultation, but itʼs nothing spooky. Itʼs just a game of peek-a-boo, remember? When Aldebaran popped back out and into view, it didnʼt need to yell “Surprise!” It was brightly shining in the dark night sky. (read BAS President,John Hlynialukʼs full report on this event here: Aldebaran Occultation).

Upping the peek-a-boo ante will be this yearʼs best lunar eclipse on Sunday, September 27. Come on out to watch the eclipse with local amateur astronomers (aka fellow big kids) at the E.S. Fox Observatory.

For more big-kid astronomy fun in September (including public viewing nights), visit our Coming Events page. And donʼt forget to follow us on Twitter.

Stargazing: Unplugged
by Zoe Kessler - August 2/2015

Is it any coincidence that Claptonʼs 1992 six-grammy-award-winning album Unplugged includedthe hit “Tears in Heaven”? Perhaps Clapton is aware that this monthʼs biggest astronomical hit, the Perseid meteor shower, also harkens back to tears in heaven. Historically, the Perseids have been dubbed “the tears of St. Lawrence,” after a martyred archdeacon of Rome, dating back to August, A.D. 258.

But the Perseid meteor shower will bring not sorrow, but tears of joy: theyʼre one of the most spectacular sights youʼll see in the night sky, perhaps the highlight of the year. Plus, you wonʼt need a private backyard observatory. You wonʼt need a telescope. Or binoculars. You donʼt even need a ticket. All you need is to look up, starting any time in August.

At its peak (August 13), youʼll see about 50 meteors an hour (or more) flash in the moonless night sky, from around midnight to the wee hours of the morning.

If youʼre looking for quality, not quantity, check out nightfall and early evening skies. If youʼre lucky, youʼll see one of astronomyʼs jaw-dropping sights: a rare, colourful earthgrazer meteor – one of the loooooong, slow ones that moves horizontally across the horizon. Earthgrazers are unforgettable, but youʼll have to be vigilant: there may only be one or two an hour before 10 p.m., and then the main event begins. But theyʼre worth the wait: Earthgrazers are the meteors people talk about for the rest of their lives.

So this August, especially around the night of the 13th, find an open, dark sky, grab a blanket or reclining lawnchair, look north, and get ready for a spectacular unplugged evening. And itʼs all for much less than the price of a concert ticket.

Coming up:

While the Perseids are an event to be viewed au naturel, donʼt miss our monthly meeting on August 5 where weʼll learn all about telescope eyepieces (a make-or-break component of your stargazing experience). The meeting (moved forward from July) will be at E.S. Fox Observatory starting at 7 p.m., with webinar presenter Brian Dernesch of KW Telescope. For more details, check out our Coming Events page.

Pluto news
by John Hylnialuk - July 28/2015

The New Horizons spacecraft sailed past Pluto as scheduled and has returned images and data from its close flyby July 14. Several of the tantalizing close approach images are shown below.

The highest resolution, full face, true colour image of Pluto has just been released.

More about this image and full caption is available here.

New Horizon looked back at Pluto after flyby to get a silhouette and discovered an atmospheric haze surrounds the planet.

More about this image and full caption is available here.

Pluto's mountains

A new close-up image of an equatorial region near the base of Pluto’s bright heart-shaped feature shows a mountain range with peaks jutting as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body.The mountains on Pluto likely formed no more than 100 million years ago -- mere youngsters in a 4.56-billion-year-old solar system. This suggests the close-up region, which covers about one percent of Pluto’s surface, may still be geologically active today. “This is one of the youngest surfaces we’ve ever seen in the solar system,” said Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team (GGI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Unlike the icy moons of giant planets, Pluto cannot be heated by gravitational interactions with a much larger planetary body. Some other process must be generating the mountainous landscape.“This may cause us to rethink what powers geological activity on many other icy worlds,” says GGI deputy team leader John Spencer at SwRI.

Pluto's ice fields

In the centre left of Pluto’s vast heart-shaped feature – informally named “Tombaugh Regio” - lies a vast, craterless plain that appears to be no more than 100 million years old, and is possibly still being shaped by geologic processes. This frozen region is north of Pluto’s icy mountains and has been informally named Sputnik Planum (Sputnik Plain), after Earth’s first artificial satellite. The surface appears to be divided into irregularly-shaped segments that are ringed by narrow troughs. Features that appear to be groups of mounds and fields of small pits are also visible. This image was acquired by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers). Features as small as one-half mile (1 kilometer) across are visible. The blocky appearance of some features is due to compression of the image.

More at Universe Today here and from NASA/JPL here.

Let there be light!
by Zoe Kessler - June 28/2015

Did you know that 2015 is the International Year of Light (and Light-Based Technologies)?

Declared in 2013 by the UN General Assembly, this global initiative highlights the importance of light and optical technologies. Have a look at their website here: IYL 2015.

What better way to celebrate locally than with an astronomy webinar hosted by the Bluewater Astronomical Society (BAS) on a make-or-break aspect of telescopes: the eyepiece. A telescope’s eyepiece gathers up the light from the telescopic image and magnifies it so that we can identify what we’re looking at. We’ll learn about the latest developments and have a Q & A at our July 8 monthly meeting, 7 p.m. at the E.S. Fox Observatory.

You can also celebrate Canada Day with an exceptional light display. No, I’m not talking about fireworks, I’m talking about the planetary event of the year! On July 1, the Venus and Jupiter conjunction brings the two brightest planets so close together they’ll look like one huge, luminous object. And – bonus – there will be no danger of anyone blowing up their backyard or setting the kids on fire during this event.

July also brings several opportunities for public stargazing with BAS members (see home page or Coming Events page for event details).

So lighten up, leave your cares behind, and come out and appreciate the twinkle, twinkle of the little stars (and huge planets).

I'm ready for my close-up!
by Zoe Kessler - May 31/2015

Who could forget those immortal words spoken by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film classic Sunset Boulevard, as Norma Desmond, an aging film star?

Imagine my surprise when I found out that much, much older aging stars (like, ten plus billion years old) were also ready for their close-ups and were being photographed by eager, talented astrophotographers all over Grey-Bruce.

As a fledgling astronomer, I had no idea this was even possible. Yet there in the dark fields of the E.S. Fox Observatory, the glow of laptop computers accompanies telescope-mounted cameras with special imaging capabilities. The Bluewater Astronomical Society (BAS) boasts several competent astrophotographers, who are only too glad to show you the ropes.

On June 3, BAS is delighted to welcome guest speaker and astrophotographer Stuart Heggie to its monthly meeting at E.S Fox Observatory (click for map). Heggie is a long-time Grey-Bruce resident with over 20 years’ experience in astrophotography, including giving talks at the Ontario Science Centre (Toronto). He’ll display some of his spectacular astrophotographs and o!er tips on how to take your own.

“The very first thing you should be doing is looking up,” says Heggie. Familiarizing yourself with the sky, both day and night, is the best starting place.

Come out to hear about this intriguing hobby and find out if the Andromeda Galaxy (or Comet Lovejoy, or Saturn, or any of the many stars in the night sky) are ready for a close-up.

“You see? This is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else. Just us. And the cameras. And those wonderful people out there in the dark.” – Norma Desmond

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Norma.

Join us at our June 3 meeting, or come out and be one of those wonderful people out there in the dark at our public viewing night on June 12. We won’t make you a star, but we can show you plenty.

Note: Star observing will occur after the meeting weather-permitting. For details, check out our Coming Events page.

This article also appears in the June issue of MOSAIC (www.greybrucemosaic.ca) now available in many businesses in Grey/Bruce.

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