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The Moon over Northern California

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Astrophotography from home

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Just playing with my camera from home... this is what you can photograph in the sky from a very light-polluted place (central Melbourne) with a standard DSLR camera and no telescope (but a slightly long exposure):


Click on the image for a larger version. Io and Europa were visible through binoculars, but were lost on the glare of Jupiter on this photo. The dark band across the sky (in the large image) is a result of reflection on the window, as the photo was taken from indoors.

Microsoft virtual telescope to be launched, 27 Feb

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Techcrunch is reporting that Microsoft is expected to launch a "virtual planetarium" application later this month, on 27 February (probably 28 February for those of us in Australia), during this year's TED Conference. Under the name WorldWide Telescope, it is reported to be significantly better than Stellarium, the very useful open source application that transforms your PC in a planetarium.

Still according to Techcrunch, MS will display data from the Hubble Space Telescope and ten other Earth-based observatories, and the user will be able to view the sky in a range of different frequencies.

I will definitely be trying this out, and I'll write a bit more once I've seen the product.

The great comet of 2007

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Comet 2006 P1; photo by Michael KarrerI went out last night to watch the sunset by the shore of Port Phillip Bay (the best place for an unobstructed horizon around here) and to try to see comet 2006 P/1 (McNaught). The picture you see here was not, alas, taken by me, but by a photographer in Austria. There was way too much glare in the sky due to high-altitude haze yesterday, and there were clouds obscuring the horizon as well. It was a long shot, anyway, as the comet was just one degree away from the Sun.

Today would supposedly be a better day for seeing it from here, as it will be several degrees above the horizon at sunset. However, the day is not only cloudy but also seriously smoky, and I don't think anything will be visible at all; even the Sun is barely visible...

Our northern hemisphere colleagues certainly had quite a spectacle in the last few days, with the comet being clearly visible even during the day and being significantly brighter than Venus during the weekend; there are several amazing pictures all over the net, with a nice gallery at Space Weather.

The comet has already started to move away from the Sun and it will lose brightness very quickly; it will probably still be visible to the naked eye for a week or so, and it should be easy to spot from southern hemisphere locations (at least from locations without as much smoke in the air as Melbourne...), although possibly not in the middle of the day without binoculars (and, if you use binoculars, be very, very careful to avoid the Sun; make sure that you are in the shadow of a building and that there is no chance at all of accidentally looking at the Sun). I'll keep an eye on the sky and will try to get pictures, if possible.

For observations over the next few days, from Melbourne, it will be visible before sunrise starting from the 19th towards the south-east; this image shows the position of the comet at 6am, as seen from Melbourne, for the next 30 days. The sun is rising after 6:15am on all those days.

In the evening, it is setting after the Sun starting from last Saturday (the 13th), and will be 10 degrees above the horizon at sunset on Wednesday (17th), a bit to the left of the Sun; that will probably be the best day to see it from here, as it should still be quite bright. The sun sets at 20:43 (summer time) on that day. The weather forecast for Wednesday is talking about a thunderstorm late in the afternoon, though...

It might be interesting to note that this comet was discovered by an Australian astronomer, Robert McNaught, on August 7 last year while working at the Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, NSW.

What's up in 2007

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A great resource for any amateur astronomer (or, in fact, anyone interested in looking at the sky): Universe Today has a freely downloadable book listing interesting sky phenomena for each day of the year.

The book is richly illustrated (which accounts for the large file size, just over 23MB) and filled with historical information and observing information. You can download the book from Universe Today, or you can get a printed copy from


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Last night was this month's meeting of the NAG, about which I wrote here. Differently from the other months, this meeting did not have a theme; it was the "nothing in particular" meeting.

Because of that, we spent most of the time outside, enjoying one of the few clear nights of the last few weeks. Unfortunately, the almost-full moon made sure that the only "interesting" thing to look at was, well, the moon (note to self: looking at the full moon with binoculars after allowing your eyes to adapt to the dark will ruin your night vision for several minutes).

There were a few small telescopes around, plus the ASV's large 20-inch; plus, several people (myself included) had their binoculars at hand. The only visible planet was Jupiter, but it was very low in the sky and it dropped off behind the trees before the 20-inch was set-up (and cooled down). Uranus and Neptune were up as well, but in the same general direction of the moon and, therefore, not visible.

One highlight of the night was seeing the ISS; it showed up low in the southwestern sky and disappeared when it was starting to set in the northeast, after flying almost directly above us and staying clearly visible (as a bright orange dot) for over two minutes. This was quickly followed by a 0-magnitude Iridium flare, followed soon after by a spectacular -3-magnitude one, with an unknown satellite doing approximately the same path of the ISS minutes later. It's definitely getting crowded up there. ( will tell you when the ISS and Iridium flares are visible from your location, and how to find them)

What are Iridium flares?

Satellite flares, in general, are bright flashes of light visible from the ground when the Sun light reflects off satellites flying above. The Iridium phone satellites, in particular, generate very bright flares due to their format; the flashes can go up to magnitude -8, and can be visible in bright daylight if you know where to look at. Flares are very localised events; the "spot" of light created on the ground is some 10km wide, so you need to know your location (latitude/longitude) failry precisely in order to find out about them. Google Maps can help with that.

ISS/Atlantis transit of the Sun

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Thierry Legault, a French photographer, captured a great image of the ISS and Atlantis in front of the Sun as seen from the ground. That was quite an acomplishment, considering that the transit lasted for less than a second.

By the way, I love the picture of his equipment (scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to see it).


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Phil Plait, author of the Bad Astronomy blog, has a great story about an amateur discovering a supernova and how being in a bar can lead to greatness. Worth reading.


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I should probably have written about this earlier, but...

I've started attending the meetings of the New Astronomers Group of the ASV. The intake meeting was at the end of August, and the first regular meeting I attended was two weeks ago, on the 6th. Meeting happen on the first Wednesday of each month.

The NAG is a semi-formal group of "beginners" with the intention of introducing people to astronomy. Each monthly meeting includes a talk about a specific subject, ranging from astronomy theory to very practical, observation-related issues. The intake meeting had a general introduction amateur astronomy and useful tools (such as a planisphere and a red torch), including an introduction to the society's 20-inch telescope, and it is intended only for people joining the group (there's one intake every three months). After joining, you're part of the group for a year, after which you "graduate" out of it and open space for new people.

Regular meetings seem to be attended by around 20 people (although I'm told attendance can vary wildly depending on the subject to be discussed and the weather); this month's meeting (which happened on a cold, rainy night) was on the subject of the life-cycle of stars, discussing the birth and death of stars and everything in between (the main sequence, supernovae, red giants, white and brown dwarves etc.). Pretty interesting, even though I knew most of the material and I had to leave a few minutes early due to tram schedules.

It's a pretty good way of meeting like-minded people and getting to know other members of the society (the meetings are open only to ASV members); people talk about what they're learning and doing, bring their instruments so that people with more experience can teach them to use them, bring interesting material they find on the net and so on. I hope to learn quite a bit from the group. For those who might want more information about the group, go to the ASV website.

Partial lunar eclipse next week

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A partial lunar eclipse will be visible in Australia next week. Eastern Australia will see the moon set while still eclipsed (in Earth's penumbra, but already out of the umbra), while the rest of the country (West Australia, Northern Territory and most of South Australia) will see the full eclipse.

The eclipse (umbra) starts (first contact happens) at 18:05 UTC on the 7th of September, which is 4:05 AEST the next day, peaks at 18:51 UTC (4:51 AEST) and ends at 19:37 UTC (5:37 AEST). The penumbral eclipse extends until 21:00 UTC (7:00 AEST) but the moon will set before that: in Melbourne, it will set at 6:12 (so you won't miss much of it). If you are a very early riser and have a good view of the western horizon, that will be a great way of starting the day.

Recapitulating, the eclipse starts at 4:05am AEST on 08 September (early next Friday morning). Full details can be seen at the Theodore Lunar Observatory website.

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