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First In-Town Star Party of the Year Was a Blast

On Friday night, 03 January, I was scheduled to both open and close for the first in-town star party of the year. Being early January, the weather had been hazy all day, and though it was cold, it wasn’t arctic, so not bad enough to cancel.

I arrived at Houge Park about 15 minutes before the official start time of 7PM. It was already dark, and as expected, there were scopes already set up. As I parked and got our of my vehicle, a man and his son asked where the star party was going to be held. I pointed him to the row of scopes lined up near the tennis courts, then led the two of them over there and began introducing them to everyone. We had Paul, Richard, Gary and others already set up, pointing at Jupiter or the Pleiades.

Throughout the night, members of the public came and went. Some came with just the family and a healthy curiosity, others came with family and complete with a scope to set up. All told, we saw about seven scopes set up and perhaps 35 individuals stream through. That’s not a bad count, given the conditions and time of year.

One celestial phenomenon that repeatedly caught people’s attention was the fact that Jupiter’s four Galilean moons appeared to be moving quickly. Indeed, there were two that were approaching the gas giant from opposite sides, appearing to be ready to hit the disk at nearly the same time. A quick look at an app on my smartphone, an app called Where is Io, showed that indeed, Io and Ganymede were approaching and both would duck behind the planet’s disk.

Io winked out as expected, and since Ganymede has a longer orbital period, it took a few minutes longer for it to near the limb of the disk. As it neared the disk’s edge we were fascinated with a visual sensation that the moon was pushing into the planet, flattening it out. But as the seconds, then minutes, ticked by, we began to realize that instead of retreating behind Jupiter, the moon was moving in front of it. Either my app was incorrect, or it was simply difficult to tell in the app, with its small image on a small cell phone screen. As the Ganymede’s image pushed further into the disk of Jupiter, several of us observers detected a faint 3-D effect, where the moon stood out from the disk; apparent depth perception. We determined this must have been an artifact of the moon’s shadow being so close to the image of the moon.

Wait a minute, I thought. Didn’t the opposition of Jupiter just recently pass, perhaps in December? I turned to Sky Safari Pro, also installed on my phone, called up Jupiter for the current time, and read through the details. Opposition, it said, was scheduled for February 2015. Hmm, it must be referring to the *next* opposition. I rewound time in the app to August 2013 then looked at Jupiter’s stats once again. Aha! Opposition is predicted to be 5 January 2014, less than 36 hours of our current time! No wonder Ganymede’s shadow was so close to the moon! What we astronomers more typically see is the moon well away from its shadow, so this was certainly an unexpected treat.

Our night at Houge Park in early January again demonstrated that amateur astronomy is not some placid, dare I say, boring pastime.  Rather, it’s unyieldingly dynamic, things are always happenning, and being on the front lines at any given moment allows you to see the universe in action, even from our own little corner of the solar system, galaxy, or universe.  From happy surprises provided by local planets to unexpected releases of massive amounts of energy, local or millions of years ago, getting out under the stars, day or night, is a constantly fulfilling endeavor that never fails to amaze.  This is astronomy.

Image credit: ched cheddles on Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports

Comet ISON brightens up

by Akkana Peck

The big shallow-sky story in November is Comet C/2012 S1 ISON, brightening to naked-eye levels as it approaches its peak next month.

So far, ISON isn’t quite living up to some of the hype we heard earlier in the year. It may be as much as two magnitudes fainter than the early predictions had indicated. But don’t give up hope — ISON could still turn out to be a very nice comet.

It will likely be only around sixth magnitude as November opens — just barely naked-eye visible, if you go to a dark sky site like Coe or Fremont Peak — but will brighten to around second magnitude by later in the month, comparable to the stars in the Big Dipper.

Here’s the bad news (at least, it’s bad for a lot of us) — ISON is still a morning object, and will remain so for nearly its whole pass. At the beginning of November it rises at about 3:30 am, then moves to about 3 am by the second weekend. But by the 16th, it’s later again, not rising until 4 am (sunrise is around 6:50) and by a week after that, it’s so close to the sun that it’ll be tough to spot at all.

As November opens,, the comet will hang between Mars and a slim crescent moon in the dawn sky. It remains there, with the tail (whatever tail it might have by then) sweeping toward Mars, for the rest of the week, though of course the moon will move on. A nice opportunity for early rising photographers!

As the month continues, ISON should brighten steadily, but it will also rise later as it moves sunward. That means it’ll be harder to spot. But it’s worth trying — particularly on November 23 and 24, when ISON will be close not only to Saturn and Mercury, but to another comet, 2P Encke, all four of them fitting in a roughly 6-degree field along with the magnitude 2.8 star Alpha Librae (Zubenelgenubi).

Six degrees isn’t small enough to get them all in a telescope together, but wide-field binoculars should be able to fit them in. ISON should be around second magnitude by that time. (Some sites have predicted that it will be brighter than Venus by this time in November, but don’t count on it.) Encke is a much fainter magnitude 4.8 — it’s reported to have a green glow this year, though whether that will be apparent to a visual observer when it’s this close to the sun is doubtful — and Saturn and Mercury are magnitudes 0.5 and -0.5 respectively.

ISON makes its closest approach to the sun, at about 700,000 miles, on November 28. You won’t be able to see the comet’s head then — but
if it’s grown a long tail, you might be able to see the tail rising before sunrise. I vividly remember a night in 1997 at the SJAA Messier Marathon at Coe — “What’s that glow over there? Is it headlights from a car driving on a road up in the hills?” “No, there’s way too much of it!” and the amazement as we gradually realized we were watching Hale-Bopp rising, forked tail first, over the Diablo range.

But the real ISON show is expected to happen in early December. By the middle of the month the comet should be visible in both morning and evening skies, and it’s anyone’s guess how bright it will be. I’ll cover more details of its December schedule next month, but for now, cross your fingers!

Okay, so you’re sick of hearing about the comet and you don’t want to get up that early anyway. What else is there to look at?

Try Jupiter! The gas giant rises at around 8:30 and is visible for the rest of the evening.

On November 5 there’s a nice multiple shadow transit. It starts during daylight, around 3:30, with Io’s shadow. By sunset (about 5:05), Io’s shadow, just about to exit the disk, has been joined by Europa’s shadow plus Io itself. Europa’s shadow exits the disk around 6:60, just about the time that Europa enters. Then there’s a very similar Io/Europa shadow event on the 12th, starting just before 5pm with Io’s shadow, with Europa’s shadow exiting around 9:20. And there are lots of single shadow transits, as well as single shadow plus single moon events — it’s a busy month for the Galilean moons!

Venus, too, is accessible in the evening sky all month., setting a little before 8 pm, going from roughly half phase at the beginning of the month to slightly crescent by November’s end. Uranus and Neptune transit near nightfall, so you’re best off catching them early in the evening. Pluto sets around 7 pm, so it’s really too low for observing this month.

Mercury, Mars and Saturn are all in the morning sky. On November 25, a couple of days after that nice ISON/Saturn/Mercury/Encke conjunction, Saturn and Mercury have a close conjunction, only about 20 arcminutes apart. That separation is only a little bigger than Saturn’s own disk.

Posted in Articles

One Huge Beginner Class

Last Friday night, 27 Sept 2013, was another session in the regular series of the SJAA Beginner Astronomy Class.  There is usually a free, public star party happening at the same time, right outside during these classes.

During this session, we were given advance notice that two third grade classes, and their families, would be coming to both the class as well as the star party. These classes came from one of the schools that is part of Rocketship Education, a charter school system operating in less affluent areas of San Jose.

rocketship beginner classWe’re not entirely sure if we did the math beforehand or not, but if we were to take the 30 to 40 third graders, then multiply that by, say, a family of four, we would get… well, one HUGE beginner class!  And that’s exactly what showed up: Attendance estimates were up to 160 people of students, younger siblings, older siblings, moms, dads and even a grandma or two. They showed up not in individual automobiles, but a charter bus.  Yes, that’s right not a yellow school bus, but a full size, dual axle charter bus.  These families were here on a mission, a mission to get some exposure to astronomy science. And that’s exactly what we gave them.

Our regular beginner class instructor, Mark Wagner, became unavailable for personal reasons at the last minute.  That left myself and Greg Claytor, another SJAA board member, to cover for him.  Neither Greg nor I have ever led a beginner class before, but there was no way we could let these families down.  We worked together earlier in the day to develop a game plan. What we came up with was a two-fold plan to first cover the basics of looking through a telescope, and second, what was up in the fall night sky.  rocketship beginner classGreg did a great job of explaining how to approach a telescope, which end to look through and how to make sure that people were able to see something through the eyepiece.  I proceeded to hand out a printout of the September Sky, that I downloaded from the Skymaps site.

After the class was finished, the teacher instructed the families on how to proceed to the telescopes, set up outside.  He split them into two groups, the first would go straight over to the scopes, while the other group would hang out at the playground until about 30 or 45 minutes had passed. He was good enough to recognize that over 150 people lining up at only a dozen (or less! We didn’t know what the turnout would be) telescopes would not make for a pleasant experience.

The call for scopes I had put out the night before was a success. I counted at least thirteen scopes and binoculars lined up at ‘telescope row’. Though there were lines during some points that night, they were manageable and everyone seemed to have a great time.  As I had noted in the call out for scopes, there were plenty of oohs and ahhs from people who had never looked through a telescope before.  And that’s what many of these amateur astronomers like to do: We love to share the beautiful views of the night sky and the wondrous objects they contain. That makes it all worth it.

Big thanks go out to those SJAA Members and Friends who heeded the call. Without them, we would not have been able to make this evening a success.

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports, Programs

Expedition – Laguna Mountain

laguna tall tree and view

The following is my report about our visit to Laguna Mountain, in California’s Hernandez Valley, nestled between the coastal and Diablo mountain ranges. Chris Kelly, my friend Tim Berry, a TAC imager named Enrico, and I comprised the entire group that day and night on 07 September 2013.  I knew we would be going to a really remote place. My goal was to experience what it would be like to try it from a one night perspective.

Laguna Mountain, managed by United States’ Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is a long way to go, but you really get a sense of the central part of California from the drive down there, traveling through Hollister, passing by the east entrance to Pinnacles National Park on highway 25 . The location is just about exactly one hundred miles from base camp Houge Park in San Jose. It takes about two hours with no stops (as measured driving back to SJ in the very early morning).

Highway 25 is a leisurely drive, but does get a bit twisty and a little slow in certain areas. It’s well maintained and can be fast in certain stretches.  On your way to Laguna, on Highway 25, well past the Pinnacles, you come down off a hill where the road turns sharply to the right. You see a sign pointing to the left toward Laguna Mountain Access, Coalinga Road.  This road is not as well maintained, so the going is slower. The pavement is rougher, the road crosses several single lane cattle crossing grates, and low areas, dips, where bridges should be (but are not).

laguna mountain entranceAfter about 25 minutes on Coalinga Road, you start to approach BLM land, with the Short Fence Trailhead parking area.  A little while later, while noticeably gaining elevation, you pass by the Sweetwater Trailhead and campground.  A short while after that, you reach your destination, the Laguna Mountain Campground, so you make a right onto the gravel road.  It leads up to the campground and terminates at a small clearing where there is a vault toilet building, an information kiosk, and the gate.

At the camping area of Laguna Mountain, there are five sites, on seemingly fresh crushed gravel; it’s a little dusty.  There are shade structures, about 10 by 12 feet in dimension, on a concrete pad with a metal picnic table bolted, chained to the slab.  Sites are decent sized and space away from each other, providing plenty of privacy.  There is no water, so be sure to bring plenty your own. laguna campsiteThere are no trash cans, so  you have to pack your trash out.  There are fire rings but it’s hot and dry out there, I would hesitate having a campfire.  Site 5 is the best, at the top of the  hill, but it’s technically behind the gate. To use it, you would have to park in the clearing, near the gate/kiosk and haul all your stuff up the hill, about 30-50 meters around the gate, then back up again to the site.  It has good views and is relatively flat, so you could even set up your gear there and observe right at your camp. UPDATE: I’m told that this site is fully available for the asking; contact the local BLM office (links are above in this post) or the SJAA’s Rob Jaworski.

The observing area where we set up that night was up the hill beyond the locked gate.  To get there, we had to drive about a quarter mile past the gate, for which Chris had the combination as he was also in possession of a permit. Driving up that dirt road, the biggest issue is one fairly steep section of road, maybe fifty feet in length, we had to climb with our vehicles. The 4WD vehicles had no problem but the one non-4WD sedan in our group did have problems climbing. locked gate at lagunaA second run at the hill with more momentum and using a different track, with less loose dirt and rock, proved successful.  If the surroundings are wet and muddy, this may be a significant problem as the  grade would be impassable, possibly even to 4×4’s.

At the top of a ridge, we set up right in the middle of the well graded dirt road, at N36 21.678′ W120 49.608′ (link to google map satellite view).    Being in the middle of road, if another vehicle had happened to encounter and want to pass us, it would have been impossible  unless we all broke down our equipment to let them through. Luckily and expectedly, there was no one trying to get to nowhere beyond to the mountain (or returning from it).

South wasn’t perfect, horizon was slightly obscured by the mountaintop, but IIRC, all of Scorpius’ major stars were visible.  To the north was the Hernandez Valley, and you could see the reservoir; the horizon is pretty low, the Big Dipper swung all the way down and you can easily see all the stars in Ursa Major’s famous asterism. To the northwest, there is a distinct light dome coming from either Hollister or Soledad. Most of us argued for the former while Chris suggested it was the latter. Later, looking at maps, it was apparent that Soledad was the most likely candidate, being much closer and more to the west. Another, much smaller light dome was visible closer to due north, which matches pretty well to where Hollister would be.  The hills to the east had a very faint glow coming from behind them, to which I guessed those were probably all the far off towns in the central valley blending together. To the south, there was nothing.  In the valley below us, to the west, there were only two, very faint and very far off lights coming from a ranch house or barn.  You have to stand up tall and look over the brush to see them.  You won’t even be able to point at them with most scopes, especially dobs.  Other than that, locally, there was nothing else, nothing but occasional coyotes yapping in the distance.

This is more of a site report than an observing report, but I’ll make small mentions of what we did up there in the dark.  Chris was all over the place with his C14, as usual. Enrico was imaging and showed us versions of the eagle nebula, which looked best in red, though green looked red, and so did blue. Confused? So was I; I don’t image.  I did manual searching around through the awesome Milky Way, pretending I was an eighteenth century Herschel or Messier, trying to find random things in my XT8.  For some reason, I fixated around Delphinus, and found NCG 6834 pretty easily.  A lot of my time was also just taking in the dark sky naked eye, what a fabulous place we live, our galaxy.  We weren’t disappointed with space pebbles crashing into our perfect-for-us atmosphere, many of which seemed to travel from west to east across the southern sky.  It just so happened we all saw one come straight down to the south, fiery green, smoke trail and all.  We were all using some flavor of Sky Safari all night, a bunch of silhouettes walking around in the dark with dim, red flat panels in our hands. Tim DeBenedictis does a great job of trying to obsolete paper charts, yes he does.

I had obligations the next day, so my buddy Tim and I packed it up and were on the road back to the bay area a little past midnight.  We expected to see lots of wildlife on Coalinga Road, then highway 25, but we were all alone. All we saw, the whole way back, was the fuzzy tail of a scampering mammal, as it was disappearing into the roadside brush.  I won’t mention the small number of nocturns hanging outside the just-closed social establishments of Tres Pinos; they don’t count.

Summary:  This location is good for people looking for dark skies, and imagers, who don’t mind the drive and would be willing to spend the night, driving back the next day.  It’s not well suited in its current form for any sort of organized event.  The location could handle perhaps a dozen observers, perhaps a bit more, scattered throughout the ridge and the campgrounds.  I would certainly list it as a place to go and check out with your gear. The land managers are asking for suggestions for improvements and are trying to draw more visitors to come and use their sites in this area.  If you like remote, this is the place.

sundown at laguna

Posted in Articles, Trip Reports

Celebrate Cambrian with SJAA


Heads up to all volunteers, sun worshipers and outreach/communication specialists!  The San Jose Astronomical Association will again, for the fourth year in a row, bring astronomy and science directly to the people.

On Sunday, 25 August 2013, I and a few volunteers will be at the Camden Community Center in San Jose, not far from SJAA basecamp, Houge Park from 11AM to 4PM.  We will have the SJAA’s 100mm h-alpha scope set up, as well as a few others, including an SCT with a white light filter, and we’ll use those to provide views of the sun to passers by while chatting them up about the SJAA and all things astronomy.

If you would like to participate, please contact Rob Jaworski at rob.jaworski at There are no requirements, no prerequisites, no restrictions.  Just let us know so we can expecct you!

Posted in Anouncements, Blog
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