Upon receiving my telescope in 2009, I decided to start keeping a list of astronomical observations. From that, LateNightAstronomy was born. Through this website, I have listed over 125 objects (including the Earth) on pages such as “What I’ve Viewed” and “Nightly News”. While, I will be continuing to list objects and nightly events in this format, I am now beginning to take hand written official observational logs to catalog objects for certification through the Astronomical League.
The First Three Logbooks
To begin the process, I decided to focus on three observing programs the Astronomical League has to offer:
“Messier Observing Program”
This is a wonderful starting point for documenting some of the most impressive 110 objects of the deep sky. I suspect it will take me two to three years to view all of the objects given limitations of seeing from my house and the slow shift of the stars throughout the year.
“Lunar Observing Program”
For nights when the Moon will be blocking out my Messier observing, I’ve decided to start charting the lunar surface. The 100 objects listed in this program are great for people new to astronomy and can be completed with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. I hope to have this program completed within three to four months.
“Comet Observing Program”
With Comet C/2015 V2 Johnson currently in the night sky, I thought it might be a good idea to start an official logbook for comets. Documenting 12 comets for this program will take quite a while, and I expect it to be completed in 4 to 5 years.
To assist me in my official observations, I came across a wonderful logbook created by Matt Wedel over at 10minuteastronomy. I took his design concept for the Messier book and formatted my own books for the lunar and comet observing programs using resources provided by the Astronomical League. After a quick run to Staples, I had some premium printed, coil bound and plastic covered logbooks to begin my journey into the Astronomical Leagues Observing Program.
I love setting up a telescope with the Sun setting and the sky slowly transitioning from day to night. There is something exciting about planning what will be viewed and the anticipation of what is to come.
The night started out with some brief views of the crescent Moon. This is my favorite time to view the lunar surface. The shadows that are cast from the mountains and craters display incredible depth and make the Moon almost appear 3d though the eyepiece. Sadly, anything over half full and its surface becomes boringly flat, turning the Moon into a nuisance that does nothing more than spoil the view of deep sky objects with its light pollution.
Continuing into the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Saturn was visible in the early nighttime sky. Easily, a favorite of mine and Lauren’s, its rings are now tilted to a point that will offer incredible views of the planet for years to come. Pushing the telescope up to 200 times magnification revealed the beautiful angle of its rings as well as the cassini divide that splits the rings themselves.
Holding up my iPhone to the eyepiece, I was able to take some pretty good video of the planet. The cassini divide is too thin to view in the video, but you can easily make out the divide between the rings and planet disc itself.
“Guess who’s back, back again. Big Red’s back, tell a friend!” Eminem-February, 2012
(Referencing the orbital cycle that bring Mars and Earth near each other for incredible views every two years)
Good ole Slim Shady has it right once again. If you are into planetary observing, now is the time to pull out the long johns, put in the hand warmers and take out the scope as Mars returns for some spectacular views over the next couple weeks.
Every two years the orbital gods bring Earth between the Sun and Mars making the two planets closer together. This is known as an opposition. It is at this point every two years that amateur astronomers get their best views of our red headed neighbor. The last opposition of Mars and Earth occurred in early 2010 as I noted during one of my first blog posts on March 19, 2010.
Now, nearly two years later, with a clear night presenting itself just prior to one of our only snow storms of the season thus far, I went out and took a long awaited view of Mars. Using a 6mm eyepiece showing 200X magnification, the polar ice cap popped out as a bright white feature on the northern most tip of the planet. As the atmosphere would occasionally settle down, sharp views occasionally stabilized revealing some fine detailed land features in the extreme Southern hemisphere. This is where patience pays off in astronomy, particularly for planetary observing. One or two seconds of sharpness can provide some of the best memories from an evening out.
I’m hoping for a couple more nights of observing before Mars and Earth quickly begin to move away from each other starting in mid March. As Mars rotates, it shows a different side of itself to Earth every night; land features such as Sytris Major and Terra Meridian will show up as dark defined regions at 200X magnification. If you are interested in planetary observing now is the time to see Mars, it won’t be at this close distance to Earth for another two years and with the Mayan 2012 calendar coming to an end this upcoming December there is definitely no time like the present to observe our closest planetary neighbor.
This image from the iPhone’s SkySafari app shows a zoomed in view of Mars at the time of observing.