Archive for October 2006

Hubble: Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat? Service Mission 4 scheduled for May 2008!

October 31, 2006

Hubble in SpaceHubble fans have much to celebrate today. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin today announced his decision to schedule one last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. This will be fifth and final shuttle flight to the HST, which will upgrade the Widefield Planetary Camera, removing WFC2 and installing the more powerful WFC3. It will also install the Cosmic Origins Spectrometer, which will measure and characterize the matter along intergalactic filaments, as well as on the borders of the immense voids in the Universe. New thermal blankets, batteries, and gyroscopes will be installed, and astronauts will attempt to restore power to the Space Telescope Imaging Spectroscope, which failed in 2004 after 7 years on orbit.

Since a shuttle flight to Hubble’s orbit does not leave enough fuel, supplies, and perhaps time available to switch to the International Space Station’s orbit for safe haven, mission planners will have a second shuttle sitting on hot standby on the second shuttle launch pad, should a rescue mission be required.

This final Hubble upgrade, designated STS-125, should enable this Great Observatory to operate through 2013. It also brings the HST up to its most powerful configuration ever, between 10 and 100 times more powerful (depending on the subsystem) than its original state when it was launched in 1990.


Observation Log 10/30/06: Comet SWAN (C2006 M4) #3! Plus my first M13, not at all my first M31

October 30, 2006

Comet SWAN in Hercules

(Image by Starry Night Pro)

I’d read that Comet SWAN would be impossible to see after last weekend, since the Moon is 62% illuminated, shining at -12.7 magnitude, and it culminates at 6:53PM EST, which is prime viewing time for the setting SWAN before it drops toward the murky horizon. Perhaps it was the 75mph wind storms we’ve had for the last 24 hours, but the sky was quite clear of haze tonight, and SWAN was an easy target.

I was also fortunate to stumble upon M13, a globular cluster orbiting outside the plane of the Milky Way, which I’d never actually looked for before, but I knew it would be nearby SWAN. Just for fun, since I was already out with my Canon 10×30 IS binoculars, I also had a peek around Cassiopeia, and of course M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Link- “Fast Freddy’s” Recumbent Tips & Tricks, riding positions

October 29, 2006

“Fast Freddy” Markham is an accomplished ‘bent racer and holds bicycling records. He’s the real deal. So, when I stumbled across his own forum section on Tips and Tricks I figured it was worth a read. It’s a little lean just yet, as it seems he’s just getting started this year. Also, Fast Freddy rides Easy Racers long-wheelbase recumbents, so not everything will apply to riders like me on short-wheelbase ‘bents.

Even so, there’s an excellent thread on his four main recumbent riding positions. He uses a position (#4 in the pictures) which he calls “the recumbent version of getting out of the saddle,” which is useful for short bursts of maximum power. I’d never considered this one, but I’m definitely going to try it. I sure could use a boost on short hills, or quick sprints and accelerations. Thanks, Freddy!

Link- Want a Coronado PST right now? I do. That’s how I found

October 28, 2006

Image of Sun in hydrogen-alpha light Discount Telescopes is also a brick-and-mortar store called “Out Of This World” in Mendocino, CA. I found them via Coronado’s site, and they are an authorized reseller. I was calling every company Coronado listed, in hopes of scoring a PST immediately, or at least before Mercury transits the Sun on November 8.

After an afternoon of hearing “we can order it for you,” and seeing web sites that quoted 7 days to 7 weeks until the scope was in stock, I called the “Out Of World” store (800-228-8252, 10:00AM to 5:30PM Pacific Time) and talked to James. He verified the PST was in stock. Woo hoo! Since I wanted expedited shipping, which was going to require he measure and weigh the box, he promised he’d call back with the shipping charges after he finished with a few customers he was helping in the store. He called back when he said he would.

That conversation was the most fun I had all day–not only was the telescope in stock, but we chatted about the upcoming Mercury transit, getting some practice with the scope before then, our Comet SWAN experiences and how it had flared in the previous day, how beautiful CA and Mendocino is, how great and popular the PST is, how I was going to use this scope to introduce my Dad to Mercury, how James suggested trying different eyepieces, and even more. It was a thoroughly enjoyable, personable and professional buying experience, and James clearly knew his astronomy.

I recommend James and Discount Telescopes very highly. My scope should arrive on Thursday, so you can imagine what I’ll be doing that afternoon! And if you also want to get a PST before the Mercury transit, save yourself a lot of time and just call James.

(Disclosure: None. I have no relationship of any kind with this company or its employees, except as a regular, paying customer.)

Update 2/2/2008- It seems that the store no longer sells telescopes, only binoculars and spotting scopes. I sent an email to inquire; I’ll update again if the news changes.

(solar image in hydrogen-alpha light © Greg Piepol,, used with permission)

Mercury Transit November 8, 2006!

October 28, 2006

The closest star, our Sun, is a fascinating place. In a little over a week, the planet Mercury will transit (that is, pass in front of) the Sun. This happens more often than Venus transiting the Sun, but it’s still a remarkable event to witness.

My Dad has never seen Mercury, and until 2004 had never seen Venus. I’ve sort of made it my mission to make sure he sees some of things you have to see at least once in your life, like Mercury and the Andromeda Galaxy.

In a huge stroke of luck, I found a telescope store that had the Coronado Personal Solar Telescope in stock, and I ordered one. It’ll be here in enough time to play with it, get to know it, and then use it to watch the transit!

A new member of the family is on the way- The Coronado PST (Personal Solar Telescope)

October 28, 2006

The Coronado Personal Solar Telescope As I wrote in another entry, planet Mercury will be transiting the Sun on November 8 viewed from here in the eastern USA. I do have a solar filter for my Celestron 8i, and I used that combination during the Venus Transit in June 2004. I’ve long wanted to be able to observe the sun more routinely, but setting up that whole rig can be tedious, particularly because that configuration will only display sunspots. If there are no sunspots, I get a nice picture of a featureless ball for my efforts.

Visible Sun Features, Image © Greg Piepol, used with permission

Coronado has made their name with very high-grade hydrogen-alpha filters for solar viewing. Pictures in hydrogen-alpha reveal the beautiful texture of the Sun’s surface, as well as sunspots, solar prominences, granules, filaments, and more. Until a few years ago, it was far too expensive for most people to own a hydrogen-alpha filter or telescope, but no more. For $499, at this writing, I’m getting a scope that will give me views like those you see here, weighs about 3 pounds, and fits on top of a standard camera tripod. Oh sure, I could still spend $20,000 and get the latest and greatest Coronado scopes, but… well actually, I couldn’t. At this price, I am thrilled. I plan to leave the scope set up on my tripod, check this current picture of the Sun in hydrogen-alpha light once a day, and be able to be out and observing in under two minutes.

(solar image © Greg Piepol,, used with permission)

Observation Log 10/26/06: Comet SWAN (C2006 M4) again!

October 26, 2006

Comet SWAN has brightened dramatically in the last two days, according to reports at and Dennis Persyk has an impressive page of pictures and a movie of Comet SWAN. Last night I went out, on a whim and without adjusting my eyes to darkness, with only my Canon 10×30 IS binoculars. The sky was challenging–it would have been a fantastic night if it were not for the low, fast-moving clouds, which averaged 70% coverage. Sweeping the comet was almost entirely luck, but I found it within five minutes, and got only two minutes to observe. At first it seemed quite similar to my last observation, but with averted vision it was quite striking. There was a clear, bright nucleus within the coma, and I could barely make out a hint of a vertical tail. I thought I saw two tails for a few moments before the clouds started to obscure the comet. SWAN was even visible though some light cloud cover for 15 seconds or so, then it was blanketed completely by a thick cloud.

I stayed outside for 15 more minutes, and spent a further 15 a bit later, having re-checked my star charts. Though I got several very good looks at the correct part of the sky, I wasn’t able to re-aquire the comet. If I were more confident in my skills I might say it had darkened considerably in that interval, but… I’m not that confident! I did spot a very unusual satellite, which may have been the “COSMOS 482 DESCENT CRAFT” This satellite seemed to blink ~ 7 times in a second, disappear for a few seconds, and repeat. I found its name in Starry Night, but I couldn’t find any other information on the internet. Perhaps it is spinning and tumbling at the same time.

I recommend you get a look at Comet SWAN if you can. Most comets are coming back this way eventually; not SWAN. It’s on an unusual hyperbolic orbit which makes its return extremely unlikely. SWAN will most probably roam interstellar space for eons.