MVAS Observer 1 Club

Created by Perry Pezzolanella, June 2009
2009 International Year of Astronomy

Welcome to the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society’s Observer’s Club. The purpose of this observing program is to experience the universe we live in and gain an appreciation of how much there is to see. You will make observations and soon realize that a lot of what we take for granted actually plays a role in our lives and defines our place in the Solar System and universe.

Rules: You are to pretend to be living in the era of Galileo Galilei and observe with a power of no more than 25x with a small telescope if the project requires a telescope. If you use binoculars, they should be steadied or mounted to provide stability. Go-to equipment is allowed, but use of the club’s telescope is prohibited. Only small equipment is allowed, which would include inexpensive department store telescopes, just be sure the mount is sturdy. Keep in mind that Galileo and other observers in his time had telescopes that were inferior even to those sold in department stores.

To complete the requirements, select 12 of the 18 projects. Please note that it is possible to complete a majority of the projects using only the most valuable observing tool, the eyes.

You must be a member of the Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society. Be sure to keep track of your projects that you are doing and log the dates and times, the equipment you used, and the magnification (be sure not to exceed 25x!).

Projects for eyes only:

1. Crescent Moon. Using only your eyes, make note of the very young crescent Moon about 2-4 days4 days or less after New Moon along your horizon just after at sunset near the spring or autumn equinox, paying particular attention to the direction that the horns are pointed. Make a simple sketch of the crescent Moon exactly as you see it along with a simple outline of your horizon. Save the sketch and six months later just after sunset near the next equinox around sunset, observe the crescent Moon and sketch it on the same sheet of paper, again paying particular attention to how the horns are oriented. Notice how the orientation of the crescent Moon is different between spring and autumn.

2. Full Moon. Make note of the height of the Full Moon above the horizon around midnight near the summer or winter solstice and plot it on a piece of paper with a crude outline of your horizon as a guide. How many fists high is it above the horizon? Six months later observe the Full Moon again at midnight and plot its position on the same sheet of paper. How many fists high is it? Notice how the height of the Full Moon varies between summer and winter.

3. Moonrise. During a stretch of at least three consecutive clear evenings, make note of what time (local time EST/DST) the full or nearly full Moon rises each evening from your location during March or April. Then do the same thing again during a stretch of nice weather during September or October. Is there a difference as to when the Moon rises each day with the seasons. Summarize your conclusions.

4. Sun. This is a safe project is safe. Make a simple sketch of your western horizon including landmarks such as houses, trees, telephone poles, etc. and plot where the Sun sets around June 21 or December 21 with respect to your landmarks. (Helpful hint: If you are observing in December, plot the Sun near the left edge of your paper. If it is June, plot it on the right edge.) About every month or so, plot and label with the date the position of the setting Sun on the same sheet of paper, with the final plot being close to six months after your first plot. Summarize your conclusions.

5. The Big Dipper. This is a perfect project that only the eyes can behold. The objective is to note the changing position and elevation the altitude of the Big Dipper as the seasons pass. On a sheet of paper, crudely sketch your northern horizon indicating landmarks. Plot the seven stars of the Big Dipper as you see them around the winter and summer solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes using the same sheet of paper at the same time of night. Keep your Big Dipper reasonably small. Label each dipper with the date, season and approximate time. The four sketches of the Big Dipper will clearly reveal that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Which direction does the Big Dipper move, clockwise or counterclockwise?

6. Mars. Use your eyes only, no binoculars please. Start watching Mars move among the stars at least two months before opposition and plot its position on a photocopy or print out of a star chart, or make your own plot of the star field near Mars. Keep plotting the position of Mars on the same star chart through opposition and for at least two months after. Be sure to label each position of Mars with a date. Do you see retrograde motion (backward, westward motion) in your plot? Does it look like a loop or a squashed “S”? Connect the dots and find out.

7. Meteor Showers. The eyes are supreme with for meteor showers. Pick your favorite meteor shower, preferably the one where you will feel most comfortable, and observe for at least three hours, or longer if you like. Using a red flashlight, make a notation of the time you start observing and keep a count of how many you see in 15-minute increments. Once you have wrapped up your observing, see if your every 15-minute meteor measurements show is an increase or decrease in the rate over the time of your observations. A few may be missed while you log your data, but it will not affect the overall trend.

8. Lunar Eclipse. Observe a total lunar eclipse and write a description of what the Moon looks like during mid-totality. Pay special attention to the brightness of the Moon and the colors. Be sure to log the date and time of your observation. A sketch is not mandatory, but you might want to give it a try.

9. Aurora. These are beautiful. If one should erupt, make a rough sketch of the part of the display that impressed you most. Was it a streak, curtain, or arc? Did it flicker, ripple, pulsate? These tend to move and change rapidly if the aurora becomes big and bright, so an accurate sketch is not necessary. Your description counts far more as you will be awed. Remember to log the date and time along with how long the display lasted.

10. Planetary Conjunction. Beauty for the eyes. Check your favorite source to see when a triple conjunction of the planets will occur and be sure to observe it. On a sheet of paper, plot the positions of the three planets as you see them in the sky being sure you label them along with the date and time. If the Moon is near them, usually a crescent, you can consider it a special treat as it adds to the beauty. Be sure to add it to your sketch!

Projects requiring binoculars or small telescopes at lowest power (25x or less please):

11. Pleiades Cluster. Observe and sketch the Pleiades in Taurus along with all the stars within and around it as best as possible. Dim stars may be omitted. You should clearly have a beautiful dipper with a few other smaller, interesting patterns. Pay attention to the colors of the stars and label the color if noted. Do not label white stars.

12. Beehive Cluster. Also known as Praesepe, this cluster is a hazy patch in Cancer, but a small telescope will behold a surprise. Sketch the brighter stars of this cluster and see if you can identify any patterns within the cluster.

13. Half Moon. Around the time of the Half Moon (first or last third quarter Moon), observe and sketch the Moon using nothing more than binoculars or a small telescope. Sketch only what you can see. Can you see any indications of jagged mountains and/or deep craters near the terminator?

14. Venus. Observe the phases by spotting Venus as soon as it appears in the evening or morning sky and keep observing it for several months until it is last visible. Sketch the phase and size as accurately as possible. Be sure to carefully notate the date and time of each sketch.

15. Mars. Observe the albedo features. Begin observing Mars within a few months of opposition and continue to observe well past opposition for as long as possible before it becomes too small. Sketch the planet making note of any darker or brighter features you may see. Can you see any indication of one or both polar ice caps? Do you see any darker areas? If so, try and sketch it carefully.

16. Jupiter. The objective is to observe the varying orbital speeds of the four Galilean Moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Observe and sketch Jupiter and its four moons on every reasonably clear night during a 17-day stretch. The sketch can be crude (Jupiter as a circle and the moons as dots). It is easiest to sketch each successive sighting one beneath the last one in order to see a pattern emerge. Use of magazine charts or computer software is allowed in order to identify the moons, especially Io, which orbits swiftly.

17. Saturn. Observe Saturn the way Galileo did by using either binoculars or a very low power telescope and see if the rings appear like ears. Make a sketch and note if they truly look like ears. Also, notice that Saturn is not a perfect sphere.

18. Neptune. Galileo observed Neptune and logged it, however he did not know it was a planet since it appeared like nothing more than a star. Observe Neptune with a small telescope at low power and sketch what you see. Can you see a disc? Is there any color? Record the date, time and give a brief written description of what you see.

To Receive Your Certificate: MVAS will award a certificate suitable for framing and an award to those who complete 12 of the above activities. Once you have made the necessary observations and sketches, forward copies of them or the originals to the observing coordinator for verification and approval. Originals will be returned. The award will be presented at a monthly meeting. Good luck with your observations as you gain an a deeper understanding of the world around, and above, you!