Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fuzziness: Astronomers' Plight and Delight

The Plight
When I point the robotic telescopes at out into deep, deep space, my hope is always for a sharp, detailed image of the star, or galaxy, or nebula that I am wanting to view. Well, unless I am lucky enough to have access to the Hubble Space Telescope, or to an adaptive optics system, I have little hope that what I eventually see is not a bit fuzzy around the edges. The image on the right is an example. You may click it to enlarge it.

That particular image is of the NGC7331 galaxy which is more commonly know as Caldwell 30. Don't worry about these names, we will explore a little about naming rules and conventions in a later blog posting. This galaxy is approximately 46,000,000 light years from planet Earth. Well good grief, some objects 50 yards from me begin to appear fuzzy, so why worry? Astronomers don't worry they just want to be able to know every little detail about every celestial object in the universe. This constitutes a demand which in turn boosts both the science and technology of astronomy. An example is the series of space telescopes (the Hubble was the first) that are being developed to give astronomers better insight into these celestial wonders. At the same, large, Earth-based telescope systems seek ways to also get sharper images. An important technology that is now in use involves the adaptive optics mentioned above.

The Delight
So how can fuzziness be an astronomer's delight? It is because it serves as the source of continual demands for better technology that allows astronomers to look farther and farther into deep space and observe more details in even the faintest of objects. An example of these technology breakthroughs is the work of an astronomer at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, who learned about the research that DoD had done that related to adaptive optics. To learn more about astronomer Jerry Nelson's brilliant and innovative work, visit this narrative link. To learn even more about the entire adaptive optics technology, visit this link.

Of course, the ultimate delight comes from the improved viewing that these technological advances provide for the astrophysicists and astronomers, and for everyone of us. Many amateur astronomers take advantage of Meade telescopes' "Advanced Coma Free" systems as well as the Ritchey-Chretien designed (LX400 series)telescopes that apply a part of the advanced optics theory in their system designs. Lastly, for those who await the first light of's new 1/2 meter scope, it provides an even greater advance over the Ritchey-Chretien design. To learn more, visit this link.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Heavenly Love Story

Like the mighty warrior Perseus, I am totally infatuated with the lovely Andromeda our neighboring galaxy.

It is believed that this galaxy may have been observed by Persians as early as 905 AD. Charles Messier was the first to catalog it as "Messier 31" in 1764. He was, at the time, unaware of its earlier sightings. Neighborliness, in this case, is a distance of 2.9 million light years between Earth and Andromeda. Just think how far back in time the Persians were looking when they saw Andromeda in the 10th Century AD. Click on the light year link above to learn about both distance and time with respect to the light year measurements. To read more of the discovery history of our galactic neighbor go here.

Andromeda is a massive galaxy, in fact recent research by astrophysicists leads them to believe that the galaxy is five times larger than was originally thought. Andromeda's diameter is also five times that of our own Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy is most visible in the Northern sky at the end of Fall and the beginning of Winter. It is visible to the naked eye on a dark, clear night, but to see its glorious details you need a telescope. As always, you can enjoy that easily by joining up with a host of friendly amateur astronomers at

There is both a great deal of history and science about each of the discoveries astronomers and astrophysicists have made from the Universe, but along with this there is an entrancing set of folklore or mythology attached to many of the stars, nebulae, galaxies and entire constellations in the universe. One of the most famous and endearing is the story of Perseus and Andromeda.

So the story, or mythology goes, Perseus, a brave warrior, was returning, astride Pegasus, after having just slain the dreadful gorgon, Medusa. To prove to powerful Zeus that he was successful, he carried Medusa's head with him. It was during this time that he learned of Andromeda's plight. Because of her mother's (Cassiopeia) impropriety, Andromeda was to be sacrificed to the horrible sea monster, Cetus and was thus chained to the rocks near Cetus's watery den. Perseus knew of Andromeda and her loveliness and asked her father, King Cepheus, if he rescued Andromeda, would Cepheus grant her hand in marriage to Perseus. The king agreed and Perseus set out to save his beloved Andromeda. When Cetus challenged Perseus at the rocks near Andromeda, Perseus removed the Medusa's head from its sack and turned it toward Cetus. Cetus was instantly turned to stone and Andromeda was safe.

Having freed and rescued lovely Andromeda, Perseus reaches out to her and bursts into song. Note: If you have speakers with your computer, you might want to turn them on.

The marriage of Perseus and Andromeda was a gala event attended by all the deities of the mythical heavens. Today, all the parties are in the heavens and very close to each other. When you look up to find Andromeda, very near and guarding her is the Perseus constellation and his in-laws, the constellations Cepheus and Cassiopeia are just around the block. Lastly, the bold and beautiful Pegasus, that magnificent beast Perseus rode on to rescue Andromeda is a nearby constellation as well.

Want to know more about constellations, just go here. Don't forget to visit as well.

"A Rose By Any Other Name..."

Although it does not look all that much like a rose, the Trifid nebula (M20) certainly has rose-like features. Discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, it is located in the constellation of Saggitarius. Although there is some variances in the estimated distance to this nebula, the consensus seems to focus on 5,200 light years from Earth. It can be seen with the use of a good pair of binoculars, but when accessed through a more powerful telescope it will bloom into view like the image here. By-the-way 5200 light years distance equals 30,566,491,688,538,932 Miles. There is a handy conversion calculator you may use, just click here

Now for those of you who have not met him, Charles Messier is a most important contributor to the science of astronomy. Born in France in 1730, Messier took an early interest in astronomy and at 21 went to work with an astronomer in Paris. By 1753 Messier was beginning to make and document his own observations using the observatory where he worked. Although he is noted for discovering and recording the "M" series of nebula, galaxies and star clusters, Messier's chief interest was in discovering and reporting comets. To see a listing of all of Messier's discoveries, visit this link. To read a full biography of Charles Messier, visit this link.

Lastly, if you have a telescope or access to one here are the coordinates for Messier's Trifid nebula: RA: 18h02m22s DEC: -23:02:05. Please note these coordinates are based on observations from the telescopes in the Canary Islands. To visit and find out how you can have access to their powerful observatories go here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Power and Glory

I went visiting the Perseus Cluster the other night to wallow in all that celestial energy. This cluster of galaxies, located 250 million light-years beyond our own planet is one of the largest clusters of galaxies in the universe with over 1000 galaxies within it. At the center of the cluster is the galaxy NGC 1275 (also known as Perseus A). Using my telescope access I took this image and labeled some of the larger and closer galaxies within the cluster. Although you cannot see it NGC1275 has a super-massive black hole that directly affects the galaxy's energy levels and temperatures. Click on the image to enlarge it to see the labels.

Now there is an immense amount of energy within this system and I wanted to get a better idea of how that would look. So I used a software program, DS9, that allows me to use false color to display a more graphic presentation of the power and glory of this system. Here is that picture without the labels, but NGC 1275 is still in the center. You can again click on the image to enlarge it. The color bar at the bottom is based upon color temperature which partially reveals the scope and intensity of the energy in the galaxies in this astrophotograph. It also allows us to see a few more of the distant galaxies within the cluster.