Sunday, August 13, 2017

The missed Perseids.

As is a tradition by now, our local centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada helps out at Aldergrove Park near Abbotsford when the Perseid meteor shower peaks annually on August 12. The park administration sets up a tent for us, and reserves some space nearby for us to set up telescopes. Some of our members, and sometimes invited speakers, give several talks regarding astronomical events (past, present, and future). It's a rain-or-shine occasion. If it rains, telescopes are not set up outside, but may serve as exhibits inside the tent.

The Aldergrove Park administration promotes this event. This is the only time in the year at which overnight camping is allowed in the park. Over a thousand people usually attend.

Well, as the weather gods would have it, it turned cloudy just as the evening approached, and started raining towards 11pm. After the eleven days of wildfire smoke, which covered our area during all the preceding, sunny days, and which was finally cleared out by wind from the south-west, this was a disappointment. None-the-less, we are told by the park administration that about 1500 people showed up. During the evening, several hundred of them came to visit our telescopes and tent.

Since we had hoped for some break in the clouds, we set up about half a dozen telescopes early in the evening. Well, there were no breaks, so we ended up looking at the details of distant trees, and also explained to a number of curious campers how different types of telescopes work, and why they are a primary tool for the exploration of the universe. We packed up our telescopes just before the rain started; the talks in the tent continued. Our activities ended just before midnight; had it been clear, we would have stayed all night for the public to have a look at interesting astronomical objects - the Perseid meteors especially, of course. Well, we hope that next year's Perseid meteor date will have a clear night sky.

After the lengthy period of enforced astronomical inactivity, due to the smoke, to satisfy my wanting to do something about it, and before the event at Aldergrove Park started, I had set up a session to automatically take a picture of Fireworks Galaxy, in which a new supernova recently appeared. This galaxy is the home of ten recent supernovae in the last century; there may have been others of which we are unaware before then. This is an unusual frequency of such events in any given galaxy.

The remotely controlled telescope on which I reserved time to take the image is one of several located on the Canary Islands. These telescopes are dedicated to the use of the astronomy community world-wide. Here is a description in Wikipedia:

I retrieved the Fireworks Galaxy image from this morning and did a bit of processing on it with Photoshop and Pixelmator. Here is the original:

The original image shows almost no trace of the Fireworks Galaxy
(compare to the processed image below)

Processed with Photoshop and Pixelmator

 Cropped, and enlarged.

As usual, click on each image to see a magnified version.

Patrick Wiggins, in Utah, discovered this supernova on May 14, 2017. Some type of stars go "supernova" at the end of their lives, when they have used up most of their internal "fuel". A good description of supernovae is found here:

Even though we did not see the Perseids,  I at least got something astronomical out of yesterday.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Again Astronomy

The nice, warm weather we're having at this time inspired me to take another picture from my very limited view of the sky here at our house. We're located close to Metrotown (lots of light pollution) and our horizon is blocked by high-rise buildings and close-by trees.

The original image of M13 - the fuzzy "star at the middle right.

The cropped and enhanced image of M13

The original fainter image at the top, showing a little fuzzy patch, is a picture of the globular cluster M 13 in the constellation of Hercules. Exposure was 30 seconds, ASA 800. This "source image" was taken with a 200 mm lens coupled to a 2x Barlow lens, making the combination equal to a 400 mm lens. The effective f-ratio was f 8.

The close-up is an enhanced image of M 13. You can see that the source image contains a lot of hidden detail. The camera used is a Canon 60Da, the source image is in "Raw" format, which preserves much of the detail captured in the image. The detail can be extracted with appropriate graphics software (I used Pixelmator and Preview for this purpose). 

Click on the images for a larger view.

We call our galaxy the "Milky Way" because we're inside it and it appears to us as a "stripe" of stars in the sky so numerous and faint that they melt together to look like "spilled milk". The globular clusters surround our otherwise "pancake-shaped" galaxy in a kind of sphere centered on the core of our galaxy. Other galaxies also have globular clusters. Globular clusters are considered to contain some of the oldest stars in our galaxy. There are estimated to be somewhere between hundred thousand and a million or so stars in each globular cluster. You can see a detailed picture in my previous post regarding M53, another "local" globular cluster (

Wikipedia describes them like this: A globular cluster is a spherical collection of stars that orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Globular clusters are very tightly bound by gravity, which gives them their spherical shapes and relatively high stellar densities toward their centers. Most globular clusters in our galaxy show a lack of O and B type stars, an indication of their great age. The globular clusters in the Milky Way are all estimated to be at least 10 billion years old and therefore contain some of the oldest stars in the galaxy. A typical galaxy may contain up to a few hundred globular clusters; our galaxy, the Milky Way, has somewhere between 125 and 200 globular clusters orbiting the galactic center. Most globular clusters are found in the large spherical halo of a galaxy.

My very modest photographic effort gives you a bit of an idea about all this. It's amazing what "every-day" digital cameras can do.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

This is why the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) exists.

Astronomers are constantly looking to get finer detail about the universe, in order to better understand  it's evolution. We are also trying to find "life as we know it" elsewhere, both on  planets and moons in our own solar system, and other planetary (exoplanet) systems. Traces which could be attributed to "life" are very hard to detect, and this effort requires all the details we can possibly gather. 

Optical and radio telescopes, underground particle, cosmic radiation, and gravitational wave detectors, and other ingenious devices constantly collect, and highly trained people analyze these data to come to some more detailed conclusions about the answers to these endeavours.

One of the major steps in acquiring more detailed information occurred when the Hubble Space telescope started collecting data in 1990. So far, it has sent back more than 1.3 million images, according to NASA. I don't think that any telescope on Earth has done so.

Below is an image I acquired via the half-meter remote-controlled telescope on the Canary Islands, and also downloaded a picture of the same globular cluster from the Hubble Space Telescope site.

The telescope is of a size which many amateur astronomers also have in their own, private observatories. The HST is a larger telescope which orbits Earth, its mirror is 2.4 meters across. The difference in the details is obvious. The telescope would show more detail if it were placed in orbit as well but not nearly as much, because of its smaller size. The reason for space-based telescopes is that this does away with all the interference caused by the Earth's atmosphere and man-made light and other pollution.

There are now other types of telescopes in space, most of which are dedicated to collecting data at wavelengths which are blocked from the surface of the Earth (ultraviolet, x-rays, deep infrared, certain radio frequencies, etc.).

All of this so that more details about the universe can be obtained.

M 53 imaged through a remote-controlled telescope

M 53 as seen by the Hubble space telescope, also remote-controlled 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Space is impressive

The Whirlpool galaxy
(click on image to enlarge)
 I took this image through a remote-controlled telescope on the Canary Islands. It can be seen as a small nebulous patch through binoculars.

Charles Messier, an astronomer who was an avid "comet hunter", generated a catalog of astronomical objects which, at the time and using rather smaller telescopes, could be mistaken for comets, because they appeared as faint and nebulous patches, just as comets do when they are far from the sun.

Charles Messier (Wikipedia)

These patches are listed from M1 to M110 in Messier's Catalog, and the Whirlpool galaxy is listed as M51. Messier did not recognize its shape. This spiral galaxy is about 25 million light years distant. The bright patch shown above M51 is what looks like the core of another galaxy (called a Seyfert galaxy), which seems to interact gravitationally with M51. This companion galaxy is listed in the NGC catalog as NGC5195. It was discovered in 1781 by Pierre Mechain and does not appear in Messier's catalog, although some astronomers list the pair as M51A and M51B.

The spiral structure of M51 was discovered in 1845 in Ireland by William Parsons (3rd Earl of Rosse) by means of a then giant 1.8 m reflecting telescope, called the Leviathan of Parsonstown - at the time the largest telescope on Earth. M51 was not recognized as a galaxy, separate from our own galaxy (the Milky Way), until Edwin Hubble (the Hubble Telescope in orbit around Earth is named in his honour) determined the distance of it. This distance puts M51 far outside the Milky Way and makes it a little more than one third as large. That still means that it probably contains about 150 billion stars. Edwin Hubble also determined that the universe is expanding, with far-reaching effects on cosmology and our general understanding of the evolution of the universe.

We know now of billions of galaxies - as numerous as the stars in our Milky Way. The Hubble Space Telescope shows that galaxies appeared very early in the existence of the Universe.

Impressive indeed.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Something Astronomical

Whenever our area experiences something less than a clear sky, it it still possible to take pictures of the deep sky by using a remotely controlled telescope. Here is my effort:

The Lagoon Nebula
(click on the image)

This nebula is a Hydrogen interstellar cloud whose dimensions are about 55 x 20 light years and which is about 4000 light years distant. It contains a star-forming region (the bright area) and can be seen with binoculars. The bright stars to the left are an open star cluster in the foreground. This image was taken through a half-meter remotely controlled telescope, located on the Canary Islands. Once downloaded, the picture can be enhanced by means of freely available graphics programs.

Under dark a dark sky, the nebula is an impressive sight, but you will not see the colours shown in the image. The human eye is not capable of showing colours at faint levels of light. That's why astronomy involves sometimes gigantic telescopes. If a telescope has a larger diameter it will collect more light. That allows subtle details to be detected, particularly if photography is employed. Photographs exposed for sometimes many hours will show colours and details undetectable by eye.

The best direct (i.e human eye) views of these faint objects are obtained under a dark sky, away from all the light-polluted cities.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A fragment from the solar system.

A couple of days ago (May 18) I set up my Canon 60Da camera to take a picture of one of the asteroids which orbit in the area between Mars and Jupiter. This is one of the first asteroids discovered (Vesta - by Heinrich Olbers on March 29, 1807). It is the first asteroid visited by the Dawn space probe and is around 500 km in diameter. You can find some details in Wikipedia,, and other websites.

I set the camera up on our back porch. The lens used was a 135mm Bushnell, which has an old Pentax mount. I have an adapter for the Canon digital camera, which makes the use of my old film camera lenses possible. The setting was at f2.8, ISO 800, exposure time 8 seconds, on an iOptron star tracking mount.

We live in a highly light-polluted area (near Metrotown) so some processing of the image was necessary. None-the-less, it's quite amazing what a digital camera can do under such poor conditions. Click on the top picture to enlarge it.

Asteroids are thought to be remnants of either an unformed planet or one that was broken up by some major collision during the planet-forming phase of our solar system. There are many thousands of such fragments. Some of them (not Vesta) occasionally impact Earth, with major consequences for life (it's happened before). Vesta is one of the largest. It looks tiny in the picture, because it was about 390,000,000 km distant from Earth at the time.

Here's a picture of Vesta taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft:

Sunday, April 30, 2017

April showers

This month has been a month of generally lousy weather but also one of a reunion with longtime friends.

We spent about 10 days on a trip to Europe. The main reason was the planting of an American Oak tree in memory of our almost life-long friend Henry, who died one day before this past Christmas (see "Into the New Year" post). The planting took place in the town in which Henry was born (his family roots are deep and long in the community) in the same location where he played when he was a child. The ceremony was at once dignified, solemn, and funny. Many people of similar histories related anecdotes about Henry - he was never just an ordinary personality.

We have visited this town many times over the years and have gotten to know most of Henry's friends and family there. The memorial dinner in his honour took place at the local historic "pub" which has been in existence for many years in a building that is several hundred years old. Each of us had Henry's favourite drink (rum and coke) to start, and had a typically extended local dinner. It was a great occasion to talk to the people in attendance (there were about sixty and we know just about all of them). This was a typical European "wake".

We stayed with good friends with whom we have stayed several times before. Our host couple's son flew in on a surprise visit, much to everyone's delight. He lives in California (we have visited him and his wife there a couple of times, too). The whole time we were there a dinner party was laid on every evening, and sumptuous European breakfasts were part of every morning. There was also no lack of champagne, wine, and beer.

Therefore, the cold, blustery weather which persisted through all this time did not diminish the good time we had. The only downside relates to the way we travelled. We had booked our flight in the economy section (which should really be called the "sardines" section). On the way there, we had an empty seat in our four-seat row, which made this tolerable; on the way back, the plane was absolutely packed - for a ten-hour flight, that is next to torture.

Always a new experience...

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


This as been a somewhat unusual winter for our neck of the woods. While it has melted away now, snow stuck around for the better part of three months. The usual stretch is usually a few days, then it is replaced by rain. This month, after the melt, we have had only two sunny days so far, and temperatures have been below normal for almost the whole stretch.

You can see that this has put a severe damper (pun intended) on astronomical activities, and, at the moment, it looks as though this weather is going to continue for some time. In some way however, it has played into my personal plans anyway.

I've had, and have one more scheduled medical and dental routine appointments - none of which are debilitating in any particular way - the most unpleasant was the colonoscopy which I underwent a few days ago. This is a required routine check-up for me, in light of the death of our son Derek six years ago after dealing with colorectal cancer for more than four years. The routine itself requires a three hour hospital visit and is done under anaesthesia; you don't feel a thing, this is not the problem.  It is the preliminaries which are the unpleasant part. A day before the procedure you have to swallow some pills and two little bags of a powder which you mix into two litres of water. You cannot have any dairy products, solid food or red liquids, but are supposed to consume copious amounts of water, or bullion, clear soups, Jello, or other clear (non-alcoholic) liquids. By the end of the day, I felt thoroughly water-logged. All this in order to totally clean out your intestines, meaning that you are a constant visitor in the bathroom. There is no food or any liquid allowed on the day of the procedure until after it is done.

Today it's steadily raining again. At this time last year the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. This year, the trees are showing only a trace of pink. Some Spring.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Planetary Perspective

This month has been somewhat unusual for our area so far this year. The snow that started early in December has hung around until just a couple of days ago; there are still a few traces left. Yesterday and today have finally produced clear days. Last night a "cool" assembly of two planets and the Moon was visible in the evening sky (figuratively, and literally - temperature was near zero C at our place), and I took this picture:

Moon, Mars (above the Moon), and Venus - click on the picture to see a larger image.

You'll notice the "earthshine" outlining the part of the Moon which is not illuminated by the Sun. If you were on the Moon on the side which faces the Earth, the sun-lit Earth would have been a couple of days past "full Earth" in the Moon's sky, and would have been very bright. So we see that part of the Moon lit up by the sunlight which shines onto Earth, is partially reflected to the Moon, lights up the darker part of the Moon, and that reflected light is partially re-reflected back to Earth.

Earth passed Mars some months ago, so Mars is trailing, and will soon be on the other side of the Sun from the Earth's point of view, and Venus is moving faster than Earth towards its upcoming pass between the Earth and the Sun.

It's all a matter of perspective...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Into the New Year

Henry and Margarete, a couple who are our long-time friends of ours (they live in San Diego), some time ago invited us to spend New Year's Eve with them. We made the appropriate travel arrangements and looked forward to a sunny time away from the less than pleasant weather here (  - see December 2016 post). But instead of sunshine, we were presented with a rainy week. The weather and temperatures were like what we normally experiencing in winter here at home.

Unfortunately, the anticipated new year's party turned into a more somber affair. Henry died two days before Christmas and the party turned into a celebration of Henry's life. It was a bitter-sweet event, with about 90 people in attendance. We know most of them too, having visited our friends many times over the last 40 years or so. I had taken my wireless microphone kit with me to connect to the sound system in their house which I had modified for this purpose a couple of years ago. This turned out to be very useful for the reminiscences and anecdotes presented by many of his friends, along with singing and listening to some of Henry's favourite songs and music.

This turn of events happened twice to us last year. In April, instead of celebrating the 80th birthday of another close friend (whom I had known for 58 years) we also ended up celebrating his life - he died 3 days before his birthday ( - see April 28, 2016 post). This is not how we had planned to get together with friends last year.

We hope for a more joyful 2017.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It's still autumn...

This year, October and November combined had only a total of six days without rain. Now, December has "time travelled"; we've had, and continue to have, snow dumped on us. To date, there is about a foot of it.

This is the beginning

The next morning

The snow has accumulated: 2:15pm today

Click on the pictures for a larger image.

So it looks like winter - officially not here for a week and a half. Perhaps we'll have a white Christmas - we haven't had one for some years.

Speaking of Christmas: our granddaughters have helped make our traditional pullaa, the Finnish version of bread which has come down from my wife's side of the family. They are now at a stage where they do most of the work involved. So today they did just that. Here are a few of pictures.

To a large degree, the weather has stalled my astronomical activities. The Royal Astronomical Society has even had to postpone its Annual General Meeting; we meet at SFU (which is located at a higher elevation). The weather forecasters have been vacillating wildly, and access to SFU has been sporadic. Fortunately, our older granddaughter managed to get there for her math exam on a day when access was open.

The weather forecast is for more snow down the line; at the moment snow is melting, though. Our downpipes are frozen solid, so water is coming out of some downpipe seams instead. Fortunately, we had no reason to go outside and the baking activities made for a cozy atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Back to normal

Fall has come with a vengeance, we're being "served" one atmospheric low after another. This means a continuously cloudy sky; for someone interested in astronomy, this is disappointing. However, there is nothing new in this. Our part of the world is subject to a lot of rain at this time of year. While the nights are getting rapidly longer, temperatures are still in the low and mid teens. This would make observing or photographing the night sky quite "comfortable" (albeit having to be warmly dressed), the clouds spoil the possibilities. There have been several occasions lately for which planned, and announced public astronomical activities (both by the RASC and SFU) have had to be cancelled. Occasionally, we luck out and have a (sometimes unpredicted) clear day, evening, or night.

Here's a single image of the Milky Way taken from a particular corner in our back yard. It's the only area around our house not exposed to streetlights, or security lights on nearby houses. The Moon was at first quarter and the light pollution from Metrotown makes seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye impossible around here. The image is shown after a quick, basic adjustment in Photoshop. This is a 30 second exposure, using a 135mm lens, set to f3.5, ISO 800, camera: Canon 60Da, mounted on an iOptron Sky Tracker (to compensate for the Earth's rotation). The two black lines are the "shadows" of our clothesline. in the image above, you an begin to see the pinkish areas of hydrogen gas in our Milky way, particularly the outline of the "North America Nebula" to the left of the bright star (named Deneb) near the top centre.

This is the original image as transferred from the camera and shows the light pollution in this city.

Under a dark sky, away from the city, you can take pictures like those made by Alan Dyer, master of night sky photography:

You've got to drive at least a couple of hours to get away from the light-polluted Lower Mainland for views like that.

Perhaps one day our cities will wake up to the fact that we're paying a lot of money for light that never hits the road, but instead lights up the night sky. There also more insidious effects on our own lives, as well as other species. There are a number of solutions to this problem, but there is not much will to do anything about it. Find out more about the effects of light pollution here:

This is our normal.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Summer's end is near

Here it is, September 1, and it seems that summer just started. We've had a number of very nice days, but right now the sky is cloudy and there have been periods of rain - nothing overwhelming, but enough to keep the garden watered. The gardening service we use has done the trimming of the hedges and trees. This is a once-a-year activity; it heralds the arrival of autumn.

My astronomical activities included participation in the Metro Vancouver Parks activities (Perseid meteor shower public night at the Aldergrove Park, Deas Island Island Regional Park, public and RASC activities at SFU's Trottier Observatory, etc.) I also did some solar observing, using my own H-alpha telescope. The sun never looks the same from one day to the next since this type of telescope shows the sun in hydrogen light (it looks red and shows the prominences, flares, sunspots in nice detail).

Perhaps there will be more sunny days as summer recedes.

I'm looking forward to next year's solar eclipse in Oregon. There will be discussions at the next RASC Vancouver council meeting for a member viewing trip to watch the eclipse. I mentioned the eclipse in my previous post.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Catch up

Since my last post in April, we spent almost the entire month of May in California. Before our trip there, my wife and I spent the day of May 3 in memory of our son Derek, who died on that day in 2011. That day will never be a happy one for us.

A couple of days later we took the car to get to San Diego, with a stop along the way to visit a good friend in Chico, California. We also happened to stay a couple of nights at a Hilton-Hotel-affiliated place called Homewood Suites. We found them to be very "user-friendly", with courteous and efficient staff, and breakfast and happy hour included in the very reasonable price of the rooms.

Our San Diego stay was with friends we've known for almost 40 years, and whose house is almost like a second home to us - we've stayed there so often. By chance, we arrived at the time when the host's nephew and a home-town friend (both of whom live in Germany and who are also our friends) were also staying at the house. These two left a couple of days after we arrived, but we had a chance to get up-to-date.

Our host is dealing with some age-related medical issues; we had come to help keep an eye on him during the time that his wife attended a family reunion in Germany. There are always local friends and neighbours dropping in too, so our time there was never boring; we've gotten to know most of these people during the years we have visited there.

On the way back, we stopped for the first night in Fresno, the next in Medford, and spent a couple of hours at Crater Lake, where we had deposited a small part of our son's ashes two years ago, following the wishes he had first expressed in 2007 ( The day was cold (4 degrees C), but sunny. There was still an appreciable amount of snow, and the road around Crater Lake was only partially open.

Here are a couple of pictures:

Crater Lake (taken from the air April 2016)

We dispersed some of Derek's ashes here in June 2014.

We left Crater Lake around noon and drove north on highway 97 to Madras, Oregon. This is one of the places almost exactly on the centre line of the path of the August 2017 total solar eclipse. It will be the first total solar eclipse in North America since 1979. As expected, all the hotels in Madras are already fully booked for the eclipse, but the area around the city is quite flat, so the eclipse path (which is a couple of hundred kilometres wide) is accessible in a wider area. Google "Solar eclipse 2017" and you'll get all kinds of information links.

The solar eclipse pictures I took on February 26, 1979 (in Winnipeg - the "diamond ring" picture was taken by Neil Laffra on Hecla Island in Lake Winnipeg). At the time I had a complete darkroom in our basement where I developed the film and prints, and mounted them as shown. They have been hanging on our wall since then.

We spent our last night in Portland, Oregon, and, after battling the always busy traffic in Seattle, got home at a reasonable hour.

Since then, I have been active with my astronomical endeavours, meetings, and Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Vancouver Centre public events. The most recent was the celebration of Canada Day in Haney (unfortunately, not a sunny day). However, our various telescopes served as exhibits for the several hundred people who stopped by for a look through some of the telescopes and the free informational handouts.

Canada Day with the RASC
(one of the rare instances when no people blocked the view)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Two eventful months

My last post was written about two months ago. In the meantime, I've been busy with various astronomical activities. There have been public nights at Simon Fraser University to which the Vancouver Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada members set up telescopes at SFU's Trottier Observatory to help with the long lineup for the observatory's 0.7m PlaneWave telescope. This event (Starry Nights at SFU - organized by SFU Professor Howard Trottier) attracts hundreds of people.

When asked, the RASC Vancouver also sets up displays at Vancouver's Telus Science World, and telescopes at various schools around the Lower Mainland. The intent is to expose both students and teachers to the wonders of the night sky, and also use solar telescopes to observe the sun during the day. There is always a lot of interest and we are often asked to repeat these events. I enjoy taking part.

A week ago, we flew down to Los Angeles for a few days, to take part in an 80th birthday party for a our good friend Adolf Wegmann, whom I have known for almost 60 years. Unexpectedly,  and to everyone's shock, Adolf died three days before the party - it appears to have been a heart attack. He had organized this get-together to the smallest detail; so his wife Andreia decided to go ahead anyway. Instead of Adolf's birthday, we celebrated his life. He was an accomplished tool and die maker, travelled the world for the packaging company he worked for, operated a gun business for many years and was a true outdoors man; camping was his big joy. I have known his two daughters since they were born. Adolf had many friends around the world and lived a full life. All of us will miss him.