15 April 08

Citizen Science Is My Life

We’re off on a birding trip to Texas in a couple of days, and we’ve been frantically trying to pull things together before then. One of which is getting the Yolo County Breeding Bird Atlas project underway. This will be a five-year project to inventory the birds breeding in Yolo County to a five-kilometer grid cell resolution. Somehow I’ve ended up being the volunteer data manager for the project, the biggest chore of late being producing a set of maps for the grid cells we’re surveying this year (the maps are available at the link above).

On clear evenings I’m still hard at work making variable star observations. I am not very quick at the process yet and seem to manage only two stars or so per session, but I presume I will get more efficient over time. It is fun the morning after to enter the data, since they get posted immediately on the AAVSO website. It’s great to be able to look at a graph of the change of a star’s brightness and see your own observations pooled together with everybody else’s. Here is an example of the light curve graph for the star R Canis Minoris. My own observations are the three points at right on the graph highlighted in a purple box.

Posted by at 06:13 PM in Nature and Place | Link |

27 March 08

Lights Out Earth Hour

On March 29th at 8 PM local time the World Wildlife Fund is inviting everyone to turn off their lights for an hour, an Earth Hour to make a statement about energy use and climate change. What to do then? March 29th also marks the start of the 6th annual National Dark-Sky Week Celebration organized by the International Dark-Sky Association. It’s a great chance to get out and do some stargazing!

Posted by at 06:26 PM in Nature and Place | Link | Comment [1]

25 March 08

Variable Nights

I got clouded out this evening. T Tauri and Z Ursae Majoris will have to wait until another time.

With my Messier survey well under way, I have been getting started at what seems to be my next astronomical adventure. This is being a variable star observer. A variable star is, simply put, a star that varies in brightness over a period of time, whether from minutes to decades. There has been a long tradition of amateur astronomers recording data about the brightnesses of variable star — the largest organization coordinating such activities, the American Association of Variable Star Observers, dates back to 1911.

I did some variable star observing almost 10 years ago, when we were living up the mountain in Santa Barbara, and am now back into it. I enjoy looking at faint fuzzy galaxies under dark skies as much as the next observer, but in the bright skies I live under, the faint fuzzies are either a) invisible or b) dim, washed out, and completely lacking in drama. Variable star observing is quite a different path to take. It’s a lot of fun. First, there are lots of stars to follow, no matter how bright the skies are or how modest your optical equipment is. Second, I love looking at star charts, and estimating things — the standard procedure in making visual observations is to interpolate the brightness of the variable star from precise measurements of the brightness of comparison stars as printed on the star chart. Third, it’s fun to climb the skill ladder as an observer. Finally, there is lots of interesting science to learn about in the process. Even a basic question like “what are the different types of stars” is now of immediate concern.

Tomorrow night is expected to be cloudy again. Dang.

Posted by at 11:32 PM in Astronomy | Link | Comment [5]

11 March 08

Nova In The Morning

Having daylight savings time begin while it is still winter is simply ludicrous. But yesterday I got up earlier, rather than later, at 5 AM PDT because I wanted to have a look at a newly-discovered nova in Cygnus — N Cyg 08. Such a star is not at all impressive to view — it just looks like any other faint 8th magnitude star — but the interesting thing is to follow the time course of their brightness over days and weeks. First you have to find it. This took me a long time — I haven’t seen that bit of the sky in a while and I can use more star-hopping practice (step 1 — orient your chart before you do anything else). I then marvel at how someone managed to recognize among all the hundreds of stars in the eyepiece that this one was new.

It puts one in a nice frame of mind, early morning astronomy.

Posted by at 11:32 PM in Astronomy | Link | Comment [3]

6 March 08

Doritos For Aliens

The UK astronomy and physics communities are undergoing a severe funding crisis, to the amount of a 80 million pound budget shortfall. So some astronomers have come up with a novel means to raise money — advertising to aliens. The first such ad targeted towards the alien market will be promoting Doritos and will be aimed at the star 47 Ursae Majoris which is some 42 light-years off and is known to have at least two planets. The message will be beamed using a 500 MHz radar system located in Svalbard which is normally used to study ionospheric disturbances and auroras. Bridge to the stars, anyone?

Posted by at 10:07 PM in Astronomy | Link | Comment [1]