Amateur Astronomy Under The Big Sky
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  • Upcoming Star Party!

    Star Gazing Montana Style
    May 29, 2009
    9:30 – 12:00PM
    Gallatin Regional Park – West Oak Street

    The Southwest Montana Astronomical Society will be holding a public star party at the Gallatin Regional Park on West Oak Street on Friday, May 29th starting at 9:30PM. This event will last until mid-night, and if the weather is poor then the event will be rescheduled for Saturday, May 30th. The 100 acre Gallatin Regional Park is located 1.2 miles west of 19th street.

  • The GLOBE at Night

    The Southwest Montana Astronomical Society (SMAS) invites you to participate in the annual global sky observation known as GLOBE at Night.  GLOBE at Night brings people outside to observe the constellation Orion from 16-28 March 2009. Participants simply choose a clear night on which stars are visible, take measurements of stars in this portion of the sky using GLOBE’s Magnitude Charts, and enter observations into the GLOBE at Night Web site.  Data about sky quality is collected, from which scientists can begin to explore the concept of light pollution and to research the patterns of light pollution across the globe.

    SMAS will be holding an informational meeting about the 2009 observation week in the Bozeman Public Library large meeting room on Saturday March 21, 2009 at 1:00 p.m.  SMAS members will demonstrate how to find Orion in the night sky, how to use the GLOBE’s magnitude charts and how to log your observations.  With 2009 designated as the “International Year of Astronomy”, SMAS and Globe at Night are trying to get everyone outside and looking up. This is a great way to view a fun constellation and learn more about our night sky.

    March 24th UPDATE:  The local CBS affiliate, KBZK, ran a piece on the GLOBE at Night event on their 5:00 and 10:00 newscast this evening, and a link to the GLOBE at Night website can be found on the KBZK website

  • Bozeman Meets Haleakala

    I have just returned from Maui Hawaii today and wanted to post here about one of my adventures while there.  I had only found out I was going to Hawaii a few weeks before I left. While talking to a friend who had been to Maui a few times, he mentioned that Haleakala (The highest point on Maui) had some observatories on it.  This got me to thinking maybe I could go see one of these observatories in action.  When I Googled “Haleakala Observatories” , however, I couldn’t seem to come up with anything that was open to the public.

    Not to be deterred, I thought I’d get on the phone with a Local who might know something.  So wouldn’t ya know it, there was a Google hit for the “Haleakala Amateur Astronomers” (HAA), and when I looked up the President of the organization Rob Ratkowski, a phone number came up.  So I dialed the number, really only with the intention of getting some local dirt on what was up on top that I could see, and maybe some information about where I could go and observe using my 20X80 binoculars.

    Little did I know how well this could possibly go. Rob was incredibly gracious with his time on the phone telling me about Haleakala and the viewing site which the HAA uses located up in the space observatory campus at top of the mountain.  He asked that we stay in touch so he could help me do some observing when I got to Maui. When I did some research, it turned out to be a full moon on the day I arrived in Maui, February 10th, booooooo. So my flexibility came down to a 1 night go or no-go on Sunday night the 15th,  before my Tuesday departure. Moon rise was at 0030 on that night. 

    As is so rarely the case in these situations, the Star Gazing Gods smiled upon me and provided a clear, although breezy, forecast for Sunday. When I called Rob the day before, he thought it would be a good idea if I stopped by his place on the way up the  mountain and took him along….who was I to argue? Dress warm was Robs warning.

    With my binoculars in tow, I made it to Robs house at 4:30 to head up the volcano.  We drove up, and up, and up, it turns out the road holds the record for being the greatest elevation gain in the shortest distance, 10,000 feet in 38 miles. At the top we arrived at the observatory area which is dominated by a US Airforce facility.  Around the one side and across from the 2 meter Faulkes scope is the site used by the HAA. 

    2 Meter Faulkes Scope

    2 Meter Faulkes Scope

    When we arrived, the people who run the 2 meter Faulkes were there doing some work which allowed us the opportunity to make a quick tour, since some sort of calibration was going on, the area inside the dome was dark, but a few quick pictures were allowed. Although not a huge scope, I was impressed with the scale of the equipment. Heavy duty best describes everything. The Faulkes scope is used for educational purposes. Teachers in the UK can sign up their class for scope time and run the scope remotely from the classroom.
    Then we walked around the site for 15 minutes or so getting views in all directions and snapping some photos.
    Sunset & Venus over Faulkes 2 meter

    Sunset & Venus over Faulkes 2 meter

    Looking east with Mauna Kea in the distance

    Looking east with Mauna Kea in the distance

    Looking west over Airforce Space Surveillance Center

    Looking west over Airforce Space Surveillance Center

    After the tour we set up Robs 9.5 inch scope at the site to get ready for the nights viewing and also got out a 12 inch mead dobsonian to play with as well.  If you go to visit the site, HAA only asks that you bring along a state flag to put on the wall of the kitchen.  So after the scopes were set we tacked a Montana state flag to the wall which I had brought and ate a snack in the main room of the observing site.  HAA has a great set-up using buildings which were  left behind when various scientific programs were either moved or abandoned.  They have a heated building with a kitchen, main room, and bathroom. In neighboring small buildings they have set up cots for overnight stays and have a lot of storage.
    HAA Kitchen with State Flags

    Charlie in the HAA Kitchen with State Flags

    It gets down to 35 degrees or so this time of year at 10,000 feet, even in a tropical paradise, so we bundled up. Winds were forecast to be 15-20 mph with gusts to 30.  The meteorologists in Hawaii must have gone to the same school as those in Montana cause the winds were a gentle 5 mph with 10 mph gusts once in a great while.
    Rob Ratkowski setting up the .24 Meter Scope

    Rob Ratkowski setting up the .24 Meter Scope

    After our snack, it was completely dark outside.  Wow.  This is what a night sky should look like.  Venus was very bright to the point of being an annoyance.  The Zodiacal light was glowing strong in the west, I never imagined it to be so prominent in the sky, it looked like the Milky Way does here in Montana. We looked at Venus first through Robs 9.5 inch scope and it was a great view, just a perfect moon shape hanging there.  Then we looked at the Orion Nebula with the 9.5 & 12 inch, the details were amazing, in the 12 inch with a 50mm eyepiece, it looked 3D.  Andromeda was great to see as well, I was looking for the small satellite galaxy which hangs just below Andromeda itself and was having a tough time, until I realized I had the wide field 50mm eyepiece in….Andromeda was filling the eyepiece brightly from edge to edge, and the satellite was reduced to a small speck of a smudge right at the edge of the disc.  M81, a personal favorite of mine, looked  incredible, far brighter than I have ever seen, it looked great with the 25mm eyepiece.  When Saturn rose, we put the 9.5 on it and again it took on a new life for me.  It was so steady to look at, and in it’s current edge-on aspect, was a neat sight, it just makes you have to smile.  In the scope you could see a bit of banding, and the shadow cast by the very narrow ring was visible as well giving it a real 3d effect. I spent a few hours looking at everything I could think of, the Crab Nebula, Owl Nebula, and a slew of galaxies.  I spent time looking at the southern part of the Milky Way with my binoculars, Eta Carinae and NGC3532 were fun to see.  I have to say, I think I’m going to give up on the Crab Nebula.  Even with the great viewing conditions, it was completely underwhelming, a dim smudge epitomized.

    So at 12:15, after 5 solid hours of viewing, with a moonrise eminent, and me starting to feel the “You’ve seen one dim fuzzy, you’ve seen them all”  attitude creep into my psyche, we decided to wrap up.  The grand finale was seeing the Southern Cross (Crux) rising above the horizon as we drove out of the complex, that was a highlight for me since I hadn’t ever seen it before and have always heard of it.  Another fun thing, Rob told me to open the empty water bottles in my car, then cap them tightly.  As we drove down the mountain, the barometric pressure rise crushed the bottles to half flat.

    Much thanks to Rob for all his generosity and the photo’s he took. The experience is one I certainly will not forget.  My only apprehension is that having seen how terrific viewing conditions make such a huge difference, I may now be jaded against our local conditions.  All told however, this is something I’m willing to live with.