Back in 2007 astronomers were excited by a comet known as 17P/Holmes. What was so exciting was that the seemingly ordinary visitor from distant parts of the Solar System suddenly put on a great show. In October, the usually dim 17P/Holmes changed from an unremarkable telescopic object to become visible to the unaided eye, appearing as a yellow “star” in constellation Perseus. It was briefly the largest object in the Solar System. The outburst was believed to be similar to one that took place in 1892 making it visible to amateur astronomer Edwin Holmes, credited with its discovery on November 6 of that year. The reason for the sudden brightening or outbursts remains unknown.
I used my little Canon Rebel XT digital camera attached to the vintage Cooley Telescope at Stephens and attempted to capture images of the comet. The effort and the camera were pretty primitive compared with what we can do now but I got some images and they were the best I could manage at the time. Comet 17P/Holmes faded from visibility over the next several weeks. The somewhat odd appearance of the comet — no classic head and tail — is the result of our perspective: looking straight down its tail instead of from the side.
Recently I viewed a television show about comets and the strange behavior of 17P/Holmes was discussed. That program reminded me of the 2007 apparition and to look at my old images. There wasn’t much image data to work with but I reprocessed what I have and produced a new image a bit better than my first try; that image, shot through our old telescope, appears above.
The “P” in the comet’s designation stands for periodic, meaning after a period of time 17P will return to loop, once again, around Sun. In March 2014 (a seven-year period) the loop was made without an outburst. The next close approach to our Sun, perihelion, will take place on February 19, 2021. Will we be treated to another show?
Our October 5 Open Night was the local event of the International Observe the Moon Night — an annual occurrence meant that encourages observation, appreciation, and understanding of our Moon and its connection to planetary science and exploration. Over the course of the night at Stephens Memorial Observatory some 34 enthusiastic and inquisitive visitors attended and were treated to beautiful and unusual views of Earth’s Moon and planet Saturn.
Unusual? The earliest visitors arrived just as the telescope was set to go … with the sky still bright with twilight. The Moon appeared light and against a power-blue sky background instead of the usual darkness of space. Saturn, invisible to the eye in the bright sky, was also viewed through the telescope in surprising detail.
After darkness fell enthusiastic visitors took turns looking at a crater and watching a mountain peak become illuminated at sunrise on the Moon! It was a fine night appreciating a sight too often ignored: the wonder of Luna, our nearest neighbor in space.
FINAL — 8:59 PM: Event canceled due to near-Overcast conditions and nearby rain showers. We will try again in July.
UPDATE – June 23, 4:00 PM: Sky conditions are very changeable but prospects look generally poor for tonight’s scheduled Open Night as clouds dominate and isolated showers roam the region. We will make a final go/no-go decision this evening and announce it here and via Twitter.
Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College will be open for public observing Saturday, June 23, from 9:00 to 11:00 PM. Given good skies, visitors will see wonderful views of the Moon and giant planet Jupiter with moons of its own. Other objects of interest, such as star clusters, will also be sought, using the Observatory’s vintage telescope.
The June event represents a late start to our public outreach season caused by an operational problem with the observatory building constructed in 1939. The problem has been corrected and we hope to present a full season’s schedule of public events.
Cloudy skies at the scheduled starting time cancel the event and in that case, the observatory will not open. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.
The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.
We hosted our September Open Night as scheduled on the 30th with Earth’s Moon as our primary subject. The sky was (for once) completely clear of clouds and full of stars when we opened the dome for the 9:00 start. In all, 19 folks from small children to senior citizens attended and enjoyed spectacular views of our nearest neighbor in space. Two or three individuals attempted smart phone photography of the Moon with varying degrees of success. We also observed the Andromeda Galaxy and the Perseus Double Cluster. The image above was made just before we closed up and has been corrected for the telescope’s optical “flipping” of the image. Camera used was a Canon EOS 7D equipped with a 50mm lens and held to the telescope’s massive eyepiece. We will look at the Moon again October 28 when we celebrate the annual International Observe the Moon Night. See you then?
We hosted a small group of 16 visitors during the July 16 Open Night but enjoyed the event very much; a group of that size is in the not-too-large and not-too-small range that affords easy conversation and sharing of the observatory experience. I the summertime we usually feature Earth’s Moon. Between summer’s late sunsets, and Daylight Saving Time extending twilight by an hour, the Moon reliably shows up even before the sky is dark! Saturday’s experience was no exception.
We viewed the Moon through the Cooley Telescope’s remarkable optics and were rewarded with exciting detail. Moving along as the sky darkened, we turned our attention to Saturn: the planet’s subtle color and distinctive ring system showed good detail, very good at times. We briefly viewed Mars but the Red Planet is rapidly parting company with Earth and has grown small in the telescope’s eyepiece.
Yes, the “star” of the night was Luna and, once the last visitors departed, we made a few images of our nearest neighbor in space to help illustrate why we love sharing the view!
Preparing for this week’s expected heavy rains and wind, I went to the roof of the observatory to clean out the rain gutters and check the downspouts. Chores done and with the dome open, I made another experiment at solar imaging through the big vintage Cooley Telescope. I found I could focus on the Sun (through a safe solar filter) and, with a Canon DSLR camera at the telescope’s prime focus, recorded a few one-shot images at ISO 400 and 1/500 second. The telescope is a 9-inch refractor with a focal length of 3,327mm. The results appear better than last time but show the apparent effect of atmospheric turbulence: that’s my story and I’m sticking with it! A few sunspots were visible and details of Sol’s roiling atmosphere show up. The photographic technique is the simplest we can use; more sophisticated processes are employed these days to achieve best results. Still, proof of concept is a good thing and getting the image focused is a critical step. I think next time we may try a dimmer subject.
Testing out a modified eyepiece adapter today, I had the vintage Cooley Telescope pointed at the Sun. Since everything was set up, I decided to see whether we could capture decent images of our nearest star, near noon on this clear summer day. While the sky was clear, the seeing — quality of the view — was not as good as I’d hoped. Apparently, midday heat was causing the image to “shimmer” in the eyepiece and the photographs reflected that. Examining the pictures on the computer screen, I was disappointed because I saw no details in the several sunspots visible. As I made some photographic adjustments, however, other features came into view: granulation and faculae! The granules, upwelling super-hot cells of solar atmosphere, are easy to see; they give the image above a “grainy” appearance. Faculae are a bit trickier but if you look along the darker right-hand edge of the solar image, you will see some light-colored patches — those patches are faculae! So a bit of disappointment changed to a sunny day surprise.
NOTES: Sunspots in this image are #2387 (L) and #2386 (R). For more information on the Sun’s photosphere and what can be seen there, visit this page at NASA/ Marshall Space Flight Center.
Our Sun is just past the peak of its 11-year activity cycle but has been unusually quiet of late. Many days we have seen few, if any, sunspots marking the star’s face. Over the past few days, however, there has been an uptick in activity including the passage of large sunspot region AR2339 (lower-right in our photo). The sunspot has been the source of major solar flares including one that interfered with radio communications in the Pacific region. This image is a single exposure made using a digital SLR camera held to the eyepiece of the Cooley Telescope at Stephens Memorial Observatory. A white-light filter was used for the protection of equipment and vision. A good article on the current solar cycle can be found here.