PostHeaderIcon Interview with KOMO Radio – July 2014

Here’s a recording of my interview yesterday with Tom Huytler of KOMO Newsradio. It’s quite short as usual, and it was also quite fun!

Link to download recording. (.mp3 3.2M)

As always I have plenty of respect for the anchors and reporters over at KOMO. Ever since my first interview there with Kathi Goertzen so many years ago, I have never been treated so well or with so much respect as an interviewee as by all the folks at KOMO. Tom, Jane, Rick (and Kathi, when she was around) always give me space to say what I think is important on a topic, and don’t pressure me to give the answer “they” think would be most interesting or incendiary to the audience. I know that sounds like just plain good journalism practice when interviewing folks, but I’ve had other experiences too and you’ve seen other styles of interviewing in this (hopefully declining) age of reality television.

Thanks for listening!

-Alice

PostHeaderIcon Binocular Mount

When you ask most amateur astronomers (or me) which telescope we recommend for beginners, we will all tell you what you don’t want to hear: don’t buy a telescope first. Buy a pair of binoculars, learn the sky, and then buy a telescope. But that isn’t the answer you wanted, so you go buy a telescope anyway. I understand. I’ve been you. So, if you aren’t going to listen to me: here is my advice on what telescope to buy as a first telescope.

If you are going to listen to me (Hooray!), you may have noticed the gaping flaw in my plan: binoculars are very hard to hold steady, almost impossible in fact. At the end of this article** I’ll tell you the story of the 5-year-old Alice and the shaky binoculars. They do make tripod adapters for binoculars, but they require your binoculars to have certain built-in features. I’d rather you just grabbed the closest pair of binocs and started stargazing. The only truly versatile mount I saw costs at least $50.

I don’t have $50 to spend on something that is supposed to be a quick and cheap introduction to assisted stargazing. I also couldn’t find a guide for building such and item, so my husband and I created one.

Instructions for Building a Binocular-to-Tripod Adapter

I have tried to give the simplest instructions here, aimed at using whatever you have on hand and coming out with a clean finished adapter. You can make this as complicated and fancy as you want, or you can hack it together in fifteen minutes with plywood and glue. Use the skills you have.

Materials

  • Binoculars
  • Tripod with quick-release plate *
  • Small piece of scrap wood (larger than the quick-release plate)
  • Medium piece of scrap wood (longer than your binoculars are wide, and narrower than they are deep)
  • Two screws (long enough to go through both pieces of wood, thin enough not to split the wood)
  • Two fasteners (zip-ties, heavy-duty twist-ties, velcro straps, bendable coat hangers – whatever you have around)

Tools

  • Saw (for small cuts on wood and cutting through the screws)
  • Wood file (you could also use this to finish your screws instead of the saw)
  • Drill
  • Pencil (or other way to mark the wood)

Directions

Step 1 – Create a new quick-release plate.

Remove the quick-release plate from your tripod. Cut a piece of the small scrap wood that matches its dimensions as exactly as possible. It is okay if the wood piece is thicker than the quick-release plate, but it cannot be thinner, and the edges must be exactly the same to get a solid lock.

Cut a small piece of scrap wood.

Cut a small piece of scrap wood.

Cut it to the same dimensions as the quick-release plate.

Cut it to the same dimensions as the quick-release plate.

File the angled sides to match the angle of the sides of the quick-release plate. This is where the tripod is going to lock down the plate, so you’ll want to test your angles by inserting the new wooden plate into the tripod head. When it fits neatly and locks firmly into place you’ve done a good enough job.

This is where I had the most trouble. I found that by resting the file flat and holding the wood at the correct angle I was able to file off enough to make my new plate fit.

Hold the wood at the correct angle and drag across the file

Hold the wood at the correct angle and drag across the file

File the edges to match the angle of the edges of the quick-release plate

File the edges to match the angle of the edges of the quick-release plate

Step 2 – Attach to the support for the binoculars

As you can see, I’ve carefully chosen a block of wood that is not as deep as the binoculars so there is room for my nose, and it is wider than the binoculars so I don’t have to be too finicky about exactly where I attach the binocs when I get to that step.

All the finished pieces - ready to combine

All the finished pieces - ready to combine

Now attach the new plate to the wood you’ve chosen as a support for your binoculars. It should be centered both ways.

Drill two pilot holes for your screws – you don’t want to split your wood after all that work you put into the new plate. If you put them towards opposite corners you’ll get a nice solid connection, with no chance of slippage or spinning. We also countersank our screws, which you might want to do because it keeps the bottom of your quick-release plate flush with itself.

Position your screws in opposite corners.

Position your screws in opposite corners.

Dont forget to keep the wide side of the plate AWAY from the wooden support!

Dont forget to keep the wide side of the plate AWAY from the wooden support!

File off the ends  of your screws so they don’t poke up and scratch your binoculars.

Filed-off screws

Filed-off screws

Ta-da! You’re done!

Finished Mount (we are using heavy-duty twist-ties instead of zip ties or velcro)

Finished Mount (we are using heavy-duty twist-ties instead of zip ties or velcro)

Oh wait – you want to know how to USE it now?

Step 3 – Using your finished mount

Pull out your binoculars and point them at something far away. Focus them and get them all nicely-adjusted for your eyes. It is important that you do this first, or you may end up fastening your binoculars in a position that is out-of-alignment for your eyes.

Adjust your binoculars

Adjust your binoculars

Attach the mount to your tripod, and rest the binoculars on the mount. Loop your fasteners around the middle of the binoculars and underneath the mount. Fasten them securely, but not so tightly as to change the careful adjustments you made to focus and align the binoculars.

Loop the fasteners around the middle of the binocs, and under the bottom of the support

Loop the fasteners around the middle of the binocs, and under the bottom of the support

Check – do you feel comfortable tilting the tripod head from side-to-side and up and down with the binocs attached the way they are? If not, you need to fasten them more securely. If so, then take it outside and start looking up!

A finished mount, with binoculars attached!

A finished mount, with binoculars attached!

Notes

*No quick-release plate?

If you have a tripod that does not have a removable quick-release plate, you’ll need to attach a 1/4 by 20 nut in the middle of the support wood instead of creating a wooden quick-release plate. (To get the right size nut, just take your tripod either to your stash of random fasteners or to the hardware store and find one that fits it – though 1/4 by 20 is almost entirely standard). I had a thought about this involving a hexagonal hole exactly the size of the nut and some amazing glue. This to That recommends LePage’s Metal Epoxy. I didn’t go through with this idea, so the execution is left as an exercise to the reader. please let me know if you come up with an easy and functional solution!

**Alice and the Shaky Binoculars

The year was 1986. The month was cold. One night, Mom and Dad bundled 5-year-old Alice and her baby brother, Nils, into the car. Maybe Uncle Ron came too, or maybe he was in a different car. In any case it was clearly a big occasion. Together they drove and drove and drove. The night got darker and darker. Finally, they all pulled over on the side of a steep hill. Alice got out of the car while Mom and Dad got Nils.

Dad got out some binoculars. Mom reminded Alice that we were looking for Halley’s comet. The only thing that really mattered about Halley was that of everyone on the hillside that night, only Alice and Nils would get to see the comet twice.

While Mom turned Nils to face the sky, Dad crouched down to help Alice look through the binoculars. A shiny white object streaked and wobbled through the field of view.

“I see it! I see it!” said Alice, excited.

Once everyone was thoroughly cold, they all got back in the car and drove home – possibly stopping at Shari’s or Denny’s for something warm to drink.

That memory is still with me, which is the most important part of the whole experience. Now I know that wasn’t Halley’s comet I saw in those binoculars, it was a star, or maybe even a streetlight – wobbling past because I couldn’t hold the binoculars still enough. If only we’d had this binocular tripod mount!

At least I know that some of the photons bouncing off Halley’s comet did bounce into my eye, just not enough of them for my brain to register. Oh well, next time. Here I come 2061!

Have fun with your new binocular tripod mount!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Summer Solstice Sunset Watch – 2014

It’s time for the 21st seasonal sunset watch!!

  • When: Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 9:00pm (so come at 8:45pm)
    • Actual sunset is supposed to be at 9:11pm, but we have noticed that the Sun sets about 10 minutes earlier than the USNO says it does, so I’ve moved the time of our sunset watch up so we don’t miss it.
    • The equinox moment is at 3:51am… but we’re watching the sunset not the sunrise because of how the park lines up.
  • Where: Solstice Park – all the way up the hill from the tennis courts (or, if you’re not in Seattle, wherever you have a view of the western horizon!)
  • Who: Everyone welcome, as usual.
Parent and Child at Sunset by Kazuhiko Teramoto

Parent and Child at Sunset by Kazuhiko Teramoto, skyseeker

Come watch the sunset at Solstice Park in West Seattle. We’ll see if the sunset lines up with the placed marker. I’ll be there even if it is cloudy because sometimes the Sun peeks through just as it begins to set, but if it is driving rain or sleet I’m staying home with some hot tea!

If you’re interested – here’s the timing of various celestial events  from Seattle, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department:

Sun and Moon Data for One Day

The following information is provided for Seattle, King County, Washington (longitude W122.3, latitude N47.6):

Saturday
21 June 2014 Pacific Daylight Time

SUN
Begin civil twilight 4:31 a.m.
Sunrise 5:11 a.m.
Sun transit 1:11 p.m.
Sunset 9:11 p.m.
End civil twilight 9:52 p.m.

MOON
Moonset 2:29 p.m. on preceding day
Moonrise 1:48 a.m.
Moon transit 8:38 a.m.
Moonset 3:38 p.m.
Moonrise 2:20 a.m. on following day

Phase of the Moon on 21 June: waning crescent with 29% of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated.

Last quarter Moon on 19 June 2014 at 11:39 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

This event is my part of the NASA’s Solar System Ambassador program, and thanks to West Seattle Blog for publicizing all of them!

Everyone is welcome, see you there!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Which Binoculars Should I Buy? – 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast

Listen here.

How to build a mount here.

Buying Your First Binoculars

Hi, I’m Alice Enevoldsen, coming to you today from Alice’s AstroInfo headquartered in cloudy Seattle, Washington. Today we’re talking about purchasing a first pair of binoculars instead of a first telescope.

The two most common questions asked of those of us who host or teach stargazing are: “Hey! I saw this thing last night, what was it?” and “What should I buy for my daughter/ nephew/ friend/ self as his or her first telescope?”

The second question is an exciting one, because it means we’ve succeeded: you want more! Unfortunately, my answer is disappointing. Like most other amateur astronomers, I will tell you to skip the first telescope and start with binoculars. I have a few back pocket “first scope” recommendations, but they’re more expensive than you really want for an introduction. You really should start with binoculars, because they’ll allow you to learn the sky quickly and cheaply, and know what you want more of.

So here I’m going to help you choose a pair of binoculars, because that’s the part of the conversation we usually end up skipping.

First question: do you currently own a pair of binoculars? If the answer is yes, then those are probably the ones you should start with.

The reason you’re starting with binoculars is because they’re wide-field and easier to move, so you can slowly begin learn the magnified sky. After several hours or a few nights with binoculars and patience you’ll know what things you want to see in more detail, and where they are. This knowledge will help you choose the best telescope for you.

If you answered no to the first question, then you’re looking at buying your first pair of binoculars. Get a general, affordable pair from a brand name you’ve heard before – because that brand name paying attention to the quality of their glass optics. If you want to get into numbers, I recommend a 7×50 or 10×50 pair. This is a little lower magnification than what are usually called “astronomical” binoculars, but you need to start at lower magnification in order to get the wide-field that makes it quicker to learn the basics of the night sky.

The second question is: do your binoculars have a tripod mount socket or adapter? If so, you’re in luck, but none of my binoculars do. Often the tripod mount socket is hidden at the end of the joint between the binocular tubes. Even if your binocs don’t have a socket, get yourself a tripod – any camera store will have one, choose one you like and feel like you can manipulate. One that has a quick-release plate is slightly easier to use.

On my website I have directions for how to build a tripod-adapter for any pair of binoculars, but the gist of it is that you’ll screw a thin board about as long as your binoculars are wide to the tripod or quick-release plate, and then use zip-ties, long twist-ties, string, or duct-tape to secure the binoculars to the board solidly but temporarily. There is just one trick: adjust the binocs for your eyes before attaching them to the board, and be sure not to tighten the zip ties so much that you mess up your adjustment.

Having the binoculars mounted to a tripod will let you see much smaller and dimmer objects, better than the cheapest telescopes out there, and almost as well as other beginner scopes … again usually better. This will also let you share your enthusiasm with your younger friends as well. Elementary schoolers and younger are unlikely to have the arm strength and steadiness needed to do astronomical observing with an unmounted pair of binoculars. Even preschoolers and toddlers can get in the fun when the binocs are mounted on a tripod.

So, if you don’t already have a pair of binoculars, go out and grab yourself some 7x50s or 10x50s and enjoy exploring the sky. This time of year look for Jupiter (its moons which are easily visible through binocs), Saturn (it’s moon Titan is also easy to find), and … let me just choose a random binocular favorite of mine…. h and χ Persei, also known as the Double Cluster over between Perseus and Casseiopeia. It should be visible most times of year in a lot of the Northern Hemisphere. I’m choosing this one because it is the first thing I was really able to find after the Moon and the planets, so there’s a special place in my heart for h and χ.

Once again, I’m Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s AstroInfo. You can find me online at alicesastroinfo.com, no punctuation, on Facebook at facebook.com/FollowAlicesAstroInfo and on Twitter as Alice’s AstroInfo.

Have a wonderful summer and keep your eyes high!

Bye-Bye!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Which Binoculars? – 365 Days of Astronomy

My latest podcast is live over at 365 Days of Astronomy – check it out!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Spring Equinox Sunset Watch – 2014

It’s time for the 20th seasonal sunset watch!! (Wow! That’s 5 years of these things …)

I’m going to try the special-for-preschoolers activities again, and hope the weather cooperates this time. If you’re bringing young’uns, come on over and say hi, we’ll have some special books and materials. If your kid would rather just run around in circles, that’s fine with me too. We’ll probably practice with toilet-paper-tube binoculars, and decorate them as well. The ground will be muddy, and I don’t have a good sized table to work at, so bring rain pants.

Non-preschoolers and adults are more than welcome, as usual. I’ll be available to answer questions about the new planet discoveries by Kepler (yay!), and all the usual bits.

  • When: Thursday, March 20 at 7:12pm (so come at 6:45pm)
    • Actual sunset is supposed to be at 7:22pm, but we have noticed that the Sun sets about 10 minutes earlier than the USNO says it does, so I’ve moved the time of our sunset watch up so we don’t miss it.
    • The equinox moment is at 9:57am… but we’re watching the sunset not the sunrise because of how the park lines up.
  • Where: Solstice Park – all the way up the hill from the tennis courts (or, if you’re not in Seattle, wherever you have a view of the western horizon!)
  • Who: Everyone welcome, as usual.
Parent and Child at Sunset by Kazuhiko Teramoto

Parent and Child at Sunset by Kazuhiko Teramoto, skyseeker

Come watch the spring equinox sunset at Solstice Park in West Seattle on Thursday the 20th. We’ll see if the sunset lines up with the placed marker. I’ll be there even if it is cloudy because sometimes the Sun peeks through just as it begins to set, but if it is driving rain or sleet I’m staying home with some hot tea!

If you’re interested – here’s the timing of various celestial events  from Seattle, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department:

Sun and Moon Data for One Day

The following information is provided for Seattle, King County, Washington (longitude W122.3, latitude N47.6):

Thursday
20 March 2014 Pacific Daylight Time

SUN
Begin civil twilight 6:41 a.m.
Sunrise 7:12 a.m.
Sun transit 1:17 p.m.
Sunset 7:22 p.m.
End civil twilight 7:53 p.m.

MOON
Moonrise 11:00 p.m. on preceding day
Moon transit 4:06 a.m.
Moonset 9:06 a.m.
Moonrise 12:06 a.m. on following day

Phase of the Moon on 20 March: waning gibbous with 83% of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated.

Last quarter Moon on 23 March 2014 at 6:47 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

This event is my part of the NASA’s Solar System Ambassador program, and thanks to West Seattle Blog for publicizing all of them!

Everyone is welcome, see you there!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon More Exoplanets!

My FAKE exoplanet, which I made in NASA's Extreme Planet Makeover Game

My FAKE exoplanet, which I made in NASA’s Extreme Planet Makeover Game

I expect posts announcing confirmations of new exoplanets to become fairly regular over the next few years. We (well, Dr. Jack and his team, and Dr. Jason and his team) confirmed more exoplanets!

The Upshot

Dr. Jack (Lissauer) and Dr. Jason (Rowe) confirmed 715 new planets out of the 4 years of planetary candidate data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission between 2009 and 2013. Our confirmed total is now 1792 1690, according to the Kepler team, though not all discovered by Kepler.

Why is this Important?

Batch Processing via Probabilities

This is a meaningful discovery not simply because that’s 715 more planets that aliens might live on, but also because Jack and his team figured out a way to confirm planets in the Kepler data much faster than anyone else, so far. If you remember when Craig Vetner and Celera scooped the Human Genome Project and quickly produced what was then called the first complete human genome, this is a similar breakthrough (hopefully less controversial!).

Jack & Jason’s team uses probabilities to determine if candidates are actually planets. Read more about it in the press release.

What counts as dead, for a mission?

If you remember last May, you’ll have a vague inkling about some news that the Kepler spacecraft had finally failed. This is somewhat true, but misleading if you remember it like that. The third gyroscope (stabilizer) onboard Kepler failed, making it so it could no longer point accurately enough to continue the extension of the original mission.

Lucky for us, not only had Kepler already finished it’s original mission and a continuation, but we still haven’t finished processing all the data from the original mission. This latest press release is just the beginning of a slew of announcements confirming more and more exoplanets out of that collected data. There are over 3,000 more candidates yet to confirm.

Beyond that, there is a new mission proposed for Kepler, using only the two remaining gyroscopes. This mission is called K2 and hopes to study “planet formation processes, young stars, stellar activity, stellar structure and evolution, and extragalactic science” by examining other parts of the sky that are easier to point at steadily with two reaction wheels.

All in all: it’s not dead yet!

Some Details

Numbers, numbers, numbers!

You know I’m more a fan of comparisons in blog posts, rather than focusing on numerical values, but these ones are neither so large nor so small as to be mind-boggling, they’re just cool:

  • Total Confirmed Exoplanets, as of today: ~1792
    • Confirmed Exoplanets from Kepler: ~1656
    • Confirmed Exoplanets from other sources: ~136
    • All current Exoplanet Candidates from Kepler: 3,845
    • 7286 sources identified by Kepler, including the ones that aren’t planets

Whoops! Some of my numbers are a bit off. Here’s the fix (Thanks Toshi!)

  • Total Confirmed Exoplanets, as of today: ~1690 (depends on exactly which database you use)
    • Confirmed Exoplanets from Kepler: ~961
    • Confirmed Exoplanets from other sources: ~729
    • All current Exoplanet Candidates from Kepler: ~3,845
    • ~7286 sources identified by Kepler, including the ones that aren’t planets (no change)

The source of my error was mostly the database I chose to use and it’s lack of recent updates.

SO, I turned this into “batting averages” for Tom Hutyler since he’s always asking me for stats on my astronomy reports! Kepler currently rests at .227 .132 and can only go up from there, with a top-out possibility at .755 .528. I suspect we’ll have a good mostly-final “batting average” in about two years, based on how much data is left.  I also suspect it will be on the high end, but that’s just a guess… or a friendly wager if you care to take it.

There is a press release out there that says these 715 planets have tripled the number of confirmed exoplanets. I can’t work that out with all the numbers of planets I can find. So don’t say tripled” unless you can back it up. And please comment if you can figure out how 715 more planets triples what we knew of before. Toshi helped! Thanks!

Want More?

If you’re trying to doodle around on the internet for a while more, go play with the Extreme Planet Makeover game from NASA!

Kepler

K2

Where I got my numbers: Exoplanet Archive:1077; Kepler before today: 941; Kepler totals.

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon How Many Times Can One Spacecraft Leave the Solar System? – 365 Days of Astronomy

Head on over to 365 Days of Astronomy to hear my short podcast today about the defintion of the edge of the Solar System.

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Go to West Seattle Blog this week…

My latest post is over at West Seattle Blog! It’s a nice run down of the year.

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Winter Solstice Sunset Watch – 2013

It’s time for the 19th seasonal sunset watch!!

  • When: Saturday, December 21 at 4:05pm (so come at 3:30pm)
    • Actual sunset is supposed to be at 4:20pm, but we have noticed that the Sun sets about 10 minutes earlier than the USNO says it does, so I’ve moved the time of our sunset watch up so we don’t miss it.
    • The equinox moment is at 9:11am… but we’re watching the sunset not the sunrise because of how the park lines up.
  • Where: Solstice Park – all the way up the hill from the tennis courts (or, if you’re not in Seattle, wherever you have a view of the western horizon!)
  • Who: Everyone welcome, as usual.
Parent and Child at Sunset by Kazuhiko Teramoto

Parent and Child at Sunset by Kazuhiko Teramoto, skyseeker

Come watch the winter solstice sunset at Solstice Park in West Seattle on Saturday the 21st. We’ll see if the sunset lines up with the placed marker. I’ll be there even if it is cloudy because sometimes the Sun peeks through just as it begins to set, but if it is driving rain or sleet I’m staying home with some hot tea!

If you’re interested – here’s the timing of various celestial events  from Seattle, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department:

Sun and Moon Data for One Day

The following information is provided for Seattle, King County, Washington (longitude W122.3, latitude N47.6):

Saturday 21 December 2013 Pacific Standard Time

SUN
Begin civil twilight 7:19 a.m.
Sunrise 7:55 a.m.
Sun transit 12:08 p.m.
Sunset 4:20 p.m.
End civil twilight 4:56 p.m.

MOON
Moonrise 7:59 p.m. on preceding day
Moon transit 3:09 a.m.
Moonset 10:09 a.m.
Moonrise 8:59 p.m.
Moonset 10:35 a.m. on following day

Phase of the Moon on 21 December: waning gibbous with 83% of the Moon’s visible disk illuminated.

Last quarter Moon on 25 December 2013 at 5:48 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

This event is my part of the NASA’s Solar System Ambassador program, and thanks to West Seattle Blog for publicizing the last few!

Everyone is welcome, see you there!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Comet ISON from Seattle, after Perihelion (November 28)

Latest Updates on Comet ISON
by Alan MacRobert
“Only a dim “ghost of ISON” survived the comet’s November 28th passage around the Sun. The comet’s head dwindled away as it raced through the Sun’s greatest heat, but a headless streak emerged into spacecraft view out from the other side of the encounter. It’s traveling along the comet’s originally prescribed track but fading steadily, with no sign of cometary activity. Very little or nothing is likely to become visible from Earth.”

From: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/community/skyblog/observingblog/193909261.html which is a good, trustworthy general observing resource

Me again:

So as we come out of the blind period today and tomorrow, we are not going to be able to observe Comet ISON from Seattle unless something unexpected and unprecedented happens. Comets are notably unpredictable, but that unpredictability peaks as they pass the Sun, and then they are usually much more normal and not so erratic in their brightness and tail-length after their closest approach.

So, the “Comet of the Century” is relegated to being “the most-anticipated comet of the decade.” Not to worry, we still have two other visible comets in our night sky: Lovejoy and Encke. There’s also Comet LINEAR, but that one is also for experienced viewers.

Advanced viewers can use the finding charts at Waiting For ISON to find Comet ISON with telescopes: http://waitingforison.wordpress.com/november-2013/Text Block 1

~ A l i c e !

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