Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Galileoscope – Hands-On Learning For All Ages

For many of us, the northern nights are getting longer and our minds and hands need something to keep them occupied. Star parties and public education nights are becoming fewer, but school is back in session and so is the opportunity to teach. In the south, warmer nights are coming up and so is the chance to share your knowledge of the skies and astronomy equipment with friends and family. It's just the right time of year to take a close look at a telescope that really serves a purpose - the Galileoscope.

My first experience with the Galileoscope was during the 2009 "Year Of Astronomy". I purchased one to be used in conjunction with outreach programs that dealt with history. Nothing more. Nothing less. In other words, I struggled to put the thing together, used it once or twice, and pretty much put it back in the box and put it away. I was too "busy" to really pay too much attention to it.

And that was a real shame on my part.

A couple of months ago it came to my attention that the Galileoscope was now readily available. When it first came out, it was a long waiting list - but not anymore. Now these basic replica telescope kits can be purchased by the case and be in your hands within weeks. Just seeing this advertisement was enough to motivate me to go on a search mission in my astronomy "stuff" and re-locate my own. A few boxes here, a couple of shuffles there and next thing you know, there it is. Still assembled and still in perfect condition. Now I didn't need to be afraid of it. If something happened? Hey! It could be replaced.

With the instructions missing from the box, the next step was to find out some very pertinent information - and personal thoughts - that I couldn't find on-line. Time to contact one of the Galilescope's designers, Rick Fienberg. As former Editor in Chief of Sky & Telescope magazine, he's an expert on astronomy education and popularization and is intimately familiar with the amateur-astronomy community, a critical component in the success of the Galileoscope... and a really nice guy, besides. What I needed to know was if it could be repeatedly assembled and disassembled without ruining it. After all, just one blown O-ring brought down a shuttle...

"The Galileoscope is designed to be disassembled and reassembled repeatedly. This feature is essential for a product intended (at least in part) for classroom use -- schools with limited funds are able to buy only a small supply of Galileoscopes and have to use them over and over again rather than let students take them home to keep." said Dr. Fienberg. "We always hoped that the Galileoscope wouldn’t end up as a one-shot, short-term product that would die at the end of IYA2009. We created something that simply didn’t exist before and for which there is a huge education-and-outreach need. The need remains, and the Galileoscope continues to fulfill it."

Feeling the outreach fire beginning to burn again, I carefully laid the scope out on the table and began the process of reverse engineering. Once apart, I walked away for awhile and came back nervous. However, I didn't need to be. All I needed to do was go over the Galileoscope Assembly Instructions and watch the Galileoscope Assembly Video. What I found this time wasn't what I was expecting. My first experience with the scope was hurry up, get it done, get it to a program... and not really use it. This time was different. This time I was really looking at the optics, understanding how to explain how they worked and impressed with the simplicity and quality of the kit as a whole. It made me think... Just as it made the people who designed it think.

"Advice on the design of the telescope came from a variety of people not connected with the project. Optical designers, amateur and professional astronomers, and educational developers all provided input on what makes an effective, yet inexpensive telescope kit. It was critical that the telescope kit be educationally useful as well as astronomically useful. Thus great consideration was given as to how the educational uses of the telescope could be maximized. However, before we embarked on a new telescope design we needed to understand the limitations of previous inexpensive telescopes." explains Fienberg. "The key optical requirements of the Galileoscope centered on usability and image quality. Since price was clearly going to be an issue, we needed a trim, justifiable set of requirements. The key imaging requirement was to be able to to create a “Wow” experience for kids, from nearly any location in the world."

While the Galileoscope team's original "Wow" intentions were meant to be visual - and meant for a younger audience - the real "Wow" happened for me when I realized exactly what I was doing as I put it together. It's more than just assembling a working model. It is a valuable lesson in optics. Of course, many of you are politely yawning behind your hand at this point, knowing this was also one of the original intentions behind the Galileoscope, but ask yourself this... Just how many of you have honestly put together a working eyepiece or examined how crown and flint works? Looking at a diagram of how an eyepiece design functions, or what makes a refractor telescope... well... refract is one thing. Holding a quality lens in your hands is another. It awakens a natural curiosity inside you and sparks a sense of wonder.

"Designs were made using both glass and plastic achromatic objectives. Although each would have worked well, we felt that the conservative manufacturing approach would be to use glass, even though it was considerably more expensive. We felt that we might jeopardize the overall system quality using plastic." says the Galileoscope team. "Because of the low price we were trying to achieve, we often relied on manufacturing practices and standards rather than manufacturing to tolerances. In this case we felt that the very mature refracting telescope industry could be counted on to manufacture a high-quality objective. Our testing of department store telescopes convinced us of this."

As I finished construction again, a lot of points were driven home to me that I had simply missed on the first go round. Thought and care had been given to internal baffling so the scope could be used near a bright light source, such as found in urban settings. Snap-type assembly features were not used so that they would not break after repeated assembly. The focal ratio, eyepiece design and even the inclusion of a barlow were carefully considered. The team even realized the display stand could be doubled as an optical bench where the tube is assembled in two halves, rather than in a nested design. In other words, the Galileoscope might be inexpensive, but it's certainly not cheap.

So how does it perform?

Well, at my age I have enough problem steadying a pair of 10X50 binoculars without assistance, so only the most brief of glimpses can had through using it in "hand-held" mode. Of course, the team had also taken this into account and the assembly comes with a quarter twenty fixture that allows it to be easily connected to any photo/video tripod. However, if you don't have - or can't afford - a tripod, it's an easy problem to solve. Somewhere at some point in time I had run across a clever idea where a person had used a sturdy Galileoscope Cardboard Box Mount as a simple alt-az configuration. Just weigh down the bottom of the box and pass the quarter twenty bolt through the side near the top. Sandwich the bolt on either side with a washer, and place a bolt on the inside to hold it. By loosening and tightening the bolt, you can control the up and down motion, and just turn the box for side to side. Aiming is acquired through a reflex "notch", much like a gun sight.

Simulated views of the Moon, Pleiades and Jupiter as seen through a Galileoscope. Created with Starry Nights and additional images by Rick Fienberg.

Once steadied, the view surpasses that of a "toy" telescope. While the Galileoscope isn't going to perform like a Takahashi refractor, it gives very suitable views of the Moon, does indeed reveal the rings of Saturn and brings the four primary satellites of Jupiter out to play. I found it gave very acceptable images of bright, easy to aim at objects like M8, M44, M6, M7 and - later in the year - the Andromeda Galaxy, the Double Cluster, M42 and M44. With some coaxing and patience, other deep space objects can be found, but aren't particularly impressive at this aperture. Here it's not the quality that's at fault, but image size and limited resolution. Mechanically, the Galileoscope is well crafted for a kit scope. While focusing is a "push - pull" arrangement, I found it easy to find good focus by twisting it slightly similar to using a helical focuser, while moving it in and out. The supplied 20mm eyepiece is also quite sufficient, with enough eye relief at 16mm to be comfortable and the included barlow lens is a lesson in itself!

All in all, the Galileoscope is a great experience. Through partnership programs like Galileo's Classroom and Teaching With Telescopes, the educator can find a wealth of resources just waiting to be used. There's even a Galileoscope Observing Guide! So where do you get the kits for your personal exploration or for your organization? At this point in time, the Galileoscope can be ordered through the Galileoscope Organization or through OPT as the Galileoscope Telescope Kit.

As for me, I can see future programs at the Observatory. On one side of the coin, I envision sharing how a telescope is made and what makes it work with children... On the other side I see an intimate group of adults, each working with their own Galileoscope and learning the principles behind the equipment they use in their hobby. After all, we weren't born with this knowledge spurting out of our ears.

We gotta' learn it some where.

My many thanks to Rick Fienberg of Galileoscope.org for patiently answering my questions and providing images and additional information for this article. When the original IYA project was in full swing, many Galileoscopes were donated to various classrooms around the world and it has been my pleasure to speak with some of those receipients over the months, ship them additional educational materials and watch their interest grow. When you have a moment, please check out Kodali AnilKumar:India: Astronomy Observation, where both students and teachers made great use of the Galileoscope!

Friday, October 21, 2011

GAIA - A Billion Eyes On The Skies

Written By Tammy Plotner

It's name is GAIA and it's the perhaps the most ambitious project which has ever faced the European Space Agency. Scheduled to launch in 2013, this new breed of space telescope will stately progress to Lagrange Point 2, where it will spend the next five years. It's mission? To create the largest and most precise three dimensional chart of our Galaxy by providing unprecedented positional and radial velocity measurements for about one billion stars in our Galaxy and throughout the Local Group.

While this number represents perhaps only 1% of the Milky Way's stellar population, the GAIA mission will be "seeing" far more than just stars. Its astrophysical information data base will work hand-in-hand with on-board multi-color photometry... providing an information set which has the precision necessary to quantify the early formation, and subsequent dynamical, chemical and star formation evolution of the Milky Way Galaxy. As a result of its tracking capabilities, GAIA will also capture information on asteroids, comets, extra-solar planets and even low temperature, low mass objects. Its sensitive equipment will sweep over neighboring galaxies and reach out into space for a half million quasars. GAIA will push the boundaries of general relativity and cosmology to the limits.

What's inside? GAIA will carry twin telescopes complete with two camera arrays incorporating charge coupled devices - each one measuring 45.0mm by 59.0mm and encompassing 1,966 pixels by 4,500 pixels. "The mounting and precise alignment of the 106 CCDs is a key step in the assembly of the flight model focal plane assembly," said Philippe Gare, ESA's GAIA Payload Manager.

The diminutive sensors will be placed in rows across a silicon carbide framework and span an area just slightly under half a square meter. It's a billion little eyes ready to be turned towards the skies...

However, no optical telescope is complete without a mirror assembly and GAIA delivers. It is crafted with a set of 10 mirrors... alll with outstanding physical and optical characteristics. "Since the design process began in 2006, the GAIA team has learned how to produce a set of sintered silicon carbide mirrors which is not only extremely strong and ultra-stable – with about twice the rigidity of steel - but also lightweight and with a high thermal conductivity," said Matthias Erdmann, ESA's GAIA Payload Systems Engineer responsible for optics and ceramics.

"Although these are not the first silicon carbide mirrors that have been made for a space mission, no mirrors as large as the GAIA primary mirror have previously been coated using the CVD process," he added. "The degree of similarity of the mirror pairs is also quite unique. This is particularly important for GAIA , since each telescope must have similar optical capabilities, with diffraction limited viewing and minimal wavefront errors. Their outstanding optical characteristics achieve new standards that will be of great value to the development of future space observatories. As a result of this programme, the European industrial team has been able to master all of the processes required for making state-of-the-art space mirrors, and become the world leader in silicon carbide mirror technology."

But getting GAIA into space hasn't been an overnight process. From initial approval of the project to launch encompasses 13 years - and an additional 7 to 8 to analyze the resulting data. Just consider its downlink - about 5 Mbit/s during its daily passes. While that's comparable to a home broadband system, GAIA isn't doing it from home. It's transmitting from a million and a half kilometers away.

"The raw data that has to be collected is about 100 terabytes, and when all the data are processed in the archive we are talking about up to one petabyte," says Giuseppe Sarri, Esa's Gaia project manager. "For the analysis, a supercomputer will be needed to get out all the numbers."

Yet, Gaia is not the first space mission to chart the heavens. In 1989, ESA also took on Hipparcos - a catalog effort well known even to the amateur community. It produced a primary catalogue of about 118 000 stars, and a secondary catalogue, called Tycho, of over 2 million stars. Even these impressive numbers will pale next to GAIA, whose mirrors will collect thirty times more light and measure a star's position and motion two hundred times more accurately. At the end of its five-year mission, the information will fill over 30,000 CD ROMs - filled with 1000 million celestial objects - and be freely distributed to the astronomical community.

And we'll be waiting...

For Further Reading: GAIA Mission Pages.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wake Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks On October 20...

Written by Tammy Plotner

Do you hate to get up early? Then stay up late, because it's infrequent that both the northern and southern hemispheres have a chance to catch an annual meteor shower. Right now the Earth is heading into the complex Orionid stream, and while the skies won't be perfectly dark, they aren't going to be bad. Where and when do you watch? Follow me...

As the Earth slowly orbits the Sun, it passes into one of the debris streams left by Comet Halley and the material returns as the Orionid meteor shower. While it won't be a "meteor storm", what you can expect to see is one of the most predictable and reliable meteor showers of the year. Even if it's a few days early (or late), take advantage of any clear skies and begin your observations because activity is up.

The Orionids produce an average of 10-20 meteors per hour maximum, and best activity begins before local midnight on October 20th, and reaches its peak as Orion stands high to the south about two hours before local dawn on October 21st. With only partial slice of Moon in the late evening/early morning, this looks to be the year’s last, best meteor shower!

"Every year around this time Earth glides through a cloud of dusty debris from Halley's Comet," explains Bill Cooke of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. "Bits of dust, most no larger than grains of sand, disintegrate in Earth's atmosphere and become shooting stars."

"It's not an intense shower," he says, "but it is a pretty one."

Although Comet Halley has now departed the inner Solar System, its debris trail remains well organized – allowing us to predict when this meteor shower will occur. The Earth first enters the stream at the beginning of October and does not leave until the beginning of November. This makes your chances of “catching a falling star” above average!

"Earth comes close to the orbit of Halley's Comet twice a year, once in May and again in October," explains Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Orionid meteoroids strike Earth's atmosphere traveling 66 km/s or 148,000 mph," he continued. These meteors are very fast, and although faint (average magnitude 3), occasional fireballs do leave persistent trails that shimmer in the upper atmosphere. It's the "Oooooh!" effect!


For best success, get away from city lights. Face south-southeast in the northern hemisphere and almost overhead in the southern – then relax and enjoy the stars of the Winter Milky Way. The radiant is near Betelguese, but may occur from any part of the sky. When the Moon rises, try positioning yourself so a house, tree, or other obstruction helps to reduce the glare. The meteor watching experience is much more comfortable if you include a reclining lawn chair, blanket, and thermos of your favorite beverage. Nothing spoils watching quicker than "meteor neck".

Clouded out? Don’t despair. You don’t always need eyes or perfect weather to keep the watch. Tune an FM radio to the lowest frequency that doesn’t receive a clear signal. An outdoor FM antenna pointed to the zenith increases your chances – but isn’t essential. Simply turn up the static and listen. Those hums, whistles, beeps, bongs, and occasional snatches of signals are distant transmissions being reflected off a meteor’s ion trail!

About the NASA Image - Orionid Meteor Shower: The above image shows brilliant multiple meteor streaks that can all be connected to a single point in the sky just above the belt of Orion, called the "radiant." The Orionids take place in mid-October and the parent comet is Halley. Comet Halley is actually responsible for two known meteor showers: The other is the Eta Aquarids, which are visible every May. Image Credit and Copyright: Tunc Tezel

Friday, October 7, 2011

Observing Alert - Draconid Meteor Shower Could Unleash A Burst Of Activity On October 8!

Written By Tammy Plotner

If you live in the Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East area, then keep watching the clock for 17-18:00 UTC when you may be in the right place at the right time for a burst of activity from the annual Draconid Meteor Shower. There's a possibility you might see up to 1,000 meteors an hour!

As always, meteor showers are unpredictable events - but that doesn't mean you can't be prepared or forewarned. While the gibbous Moon will put a damper on fainter meteor streaks, observers in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. are well situated to catch a strong pocket of activity.

"Meteor showers are as difficult to predict as rain showers. The Draconids have surprised us before, and they may do so again." says Canadian astronomer Paul Wiegert. "I’d encourage anyone outside on the night of October the 8 to look to the northern skies, just in case."

This isn't the first time the Draconid meteor shower has produced a brief storm. In 1933 and 1946 the activity reached an average hourly rate of 10,000. While that's pretty incredible, the same cometary debris trail left quite a show in the years 1952, 1985, and 1998 when it produced hundreds per hour. These remnants of Comet Giacobini-Zinner aren't the most dramatic of all showings - but knowing where the meteoroid stream is located makes such predictions valid.

When and where? In this case, start your observations just as soon as the sky gets dark. Since Draco is a northern constellation, those at high latitudes are move favored (sorry, southern hemisphere), so face toward the north and get comfortable. While the storm prediction will happen during daylight hours for North American observers, don't give up hope! It looks like clear skies for many of us and chances are above average for catching a shooting star.

When opportunity knocks, ya' gotta' be there to open the door...

And don't despair if you don't live in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, or if you get clouded out. You can still watch and listen to meteors enter the atmosphere on Spaceweather radio. Meteors reflect radio signals as they burn up and you can hear this as eerie whistles and pings.

A similar system, still employing the radio reflection method displays meteors coming in on your computer with a cool graph - The Meteorwatch Live View

And follow Universe Today's Adrian West on his Twitter feed, VirtualAstro and on his website MeteorWatch as he'll be providing updates on observed meteor rates in various parts of the world.

For Further Reading: Wiegert’s original announcement via Physorg.com. Meteor Burst photo courtesy of NASA.

Need an Excuse to Gaze at the Moon? International Observe the Moon Night is Coming!

Original Story by Nancy Atkinson

This photo of the Moon was taken on October 2, 2011 in Angera, Lombardy, IT. Credit: Milo.

Most of us space-minded folks don’t need an excuse to gaze upon the brightest object in the night sky – our own Moon. But just in case you need a reason or are hoping to convince some friends or family to take a look with you, there’s a special event coming up that encourages more people to take the time to take a gander at our closest and constant companion in space. Saturday, October 8, 2011 is the second annual International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN). Across the country and around the world, astronomy clubs, museums, observatories, parks, and schools will hold special events to introduce the public to the Moon. There will be telescopes to look through, activities to join, and presentations from experts in lunar science will be streamed to participating event locations.

“There will hundreds of events world-wide that will share the excitement of lunar science and explorations” said Brian Day, from the NASA Lunar Science Institute, who is one of the organizers of the event.

This photo of the Moon was taken on October 4, 2011. Credit: Amar Mainkar.

In a podcast for 365 Days of Astronomy and NLSI, Day said that right now an especially exciting time to engage the public in the Moon. (Listen to the podcast here.) A new generation of robotic probes has brought about a revolution in our understanding of our nearest neighbor in space. Our long-held view of a non-changing and dry Moon is now being replaced with an appreciation for the Moon as a dynamic body with significant deposits of water ice, a fascinating history, and a thin atmosphere that may play a role in a potential lunar water cycle. “It is indeed a New Moon!” Day said.

There’s excitement on the amateur front, as well. “Recent developments in technology have allowed amateur astronomers to image the Moon in detail that previously was only attainable from orbiting spacecraft,” Day said. “The work that they are doing and the imagery they are getting is just fantastic So, this is a great time to appreciate what is happening with the Moon on both the amateur and professional communities.”

The overall goal for InOMN is to engage lunar science and education communities, amateur astronomers, space enthusiasts, and the general public in what has become an annual lunar observation campaign.

“The Moon will be at a favorable phase, and we are going to be able to see some really magnificent features,” Day said, “so it is a good time to show up at an International Observe the Moon Night event and take a look at what is happening in the sky.”

This image of the Moon was taken on Oct. 5, 2011. Credit: Marcopic3000.

For more information and to find an InOMN event near you or to learn how to conduct your own InOMN event, visit http://www.observethemoonnight.org. The website includes information on events around the world, activities and downloadable information to allow you to host your own event, and much more.

The Crab Gets Cooked With Gamma Rays

Written By Tammy Plotner

X-ray: NASA/CXC/ASU/J. Hester et al.; Optical: NASA/HST/ASU/J. Hester et al.; Radio: NRAO/AUI/NSF Image of the Crab Nebula combines visible light (green) and radio waves (red) emitted by the remnants of a cataclysmic supernova explosion in the year 1054. and the x-ray nebula (blue) created inside the optical nebula by a pulsar (the collapsed core of the massive star destroyed in the explosion). The pulsar, which is the size of a small city, was discovered only in 1969. The optical data are from the Hubble Space Telescope, and the radio emission from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the X-ray data from the Chandra Observatory.

It's one of the most famous sights in the night sky... and 957 years ago it was bright enough to be seen during the day. This supernova event was one of the most spectacular of its kind and it still delights, amazes and even surprises astronomers to this day. Think there's nothing new to know about M1? Then think again...