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The Active Sun

The news is, of course, old to those who have been following the Sun’s activity of late: things are getting more exciting. There are more spots, more flares and more CMEs as we approach solar maximum. Solar Cycle 25 is off to a good start, and interestingly, there are websites which post that it will be weaker than 24… while others show that it will be more active. Official news can be found here:

Right now the sunspot counts are higher than the predictions for the cycle. Read into that as you will, as solar physics is still a burgeoning field. The current prediction is for the cycle to reach maximum in mid-2025. With that amateur radio enthusiasts and astronomers will enjoy the changes to the Sun and ionosphere. With the activity, changes to our solar observing practices have been made, so that it can be shared safely with students & adults, and the data collected to send to the AAVSO Solar Group. While all but the 0.7m have solar filters, the results of using a Herschel wedge from Baader along with a 10mm Radian and polarizer on a TV-85 have been amazing. It’s small, light weight, easily transported and will also hold a Nikon D-810 for imaging. Attached are a couple of photos from earlier this week, all taken in gusty wind conditions. Note that if you are intending to get new solar observing gear, the lead times on ordering gear are now long… and solar maximum is coming. Images are below: be sure to click to see full size. The spots are impressive!
Clear skies to all.

White-Light solar image White-Light solar image


10 June Annular Solar Eclipse

From NH this was a partial eclipse, but we had good weather and the opportunity to watch the sunrise with the eclipse already in progress. The choice location was one of many spots along the NH seacoast. We chose North Beach in Hampton which had easy to reach parking and plenty of locations to settle a tripod, telescope and camera.

Brought to the event was a Questar 3.5″ telescope with full aperture solar filter for visual use and a Nikon D810, 500mm telephoto and full aperture solar filter for video and images.

We arrived just after 4:15am EDT: nobody was there! Just us, the stars and the eerie red glow to the northeast. Jupiter and Saturn gave us wonderful pre-sunrise views through the telescope as we waited for the sun to get above the horizon. People started to arrive at about 5:00am. By 5:15am the lot was full. Clouds? Oh yes, there were clouds throughout the entire event, but we still had great chances to see and photograph the event. Here are some to enjoy:


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Our viewing of the 10 June 2021 annular solar eclipse from Hampton, NH.

Jupiter/Saturn Conjunction 21st December 2020

The date has come and gone, but the weather was the trickiest part of the event: we had a large cloudy set of systems across much of the northern portion of the USA, though we had almost exactly 30 minutes of clear skies here in Exeter, NH to see the conjunction in all its glory before the clouds then fog took over the evening.

Arrival at the observatory is something I just do, especially when there is an interesting or important event taking place. The day had been solidly overcast, but I was keeping watch on the NOAA GOES-East: Sector View site to see if any clear regions were headed our way. Sure enough, there was a parting in the clouds, about the width of Massachusetts, headed towards us from the southwest. I set up the camera and the telescope in the dome, pointing them both at the correct location… ready for that clear sky moment! Sure enough, the sky did clear!

Setup next to one of the observatory domes, the wide field view was lovely. With good vision, one could easily separate the two planets, Jupiter the brighter of the two, and Saturn the fainter. Here is a photo taken with Nikon D-810 and a AF-S Nikkor 1:3.5-5.6 28-300mm zoom lens, one of my favorite go-to travel lenses. The system was on a stable tripod and time-delay release was used on the shutter to prevent vibrations. The inset image is the telescopic view of the planet pair.

Moving inside the dome, I had the Takahashi FC-125 refractor setup with a Nikon D-810a at prime focus. This stem is very stable, driven on a Paramount Me and protected from the wind. Here are a couple of images taken through the telescope, one long exposure to see Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons, and another to see some planetary detail. The seeing conditions were atrocious this evening, so no detail was really seen on Jupiter, alas. Saturn’s rings were readily visible, though.

Below is a long exposure image of the scene with all the objects labeled for identification. Those objects labeled “HIP #” are stars that happen to be in the field of view.

Below is an image from within the dome, a view looking along the telescope out the dome aperture where the conjunction was easily seen.  This photo was taken with an iPhone. The insert is the telescope’s view. You can also see the incoming clouds from the southwest which were headed to interfere with our observing plan in the very near future.

Not some 10 minutes later, this is what the observatory site looked like: a foggy mess. Only the first quarter moon was visible through the fog and clouds.


Jupiter and Saturn: This December’s Excitement

A few nights ago we had some clear evening skies. What to do? Grab the camera gear, head out and image the upcoming Jupiter/Saturn conjunction, of course! We took out two tripods and two Nikon D810 cameras, each with different lenses: one a 200-500 Zoom and the other a 28-300mm zoom. We wanted to grab some wide field shots with appropriate backgrounds and some closeup shots to show the planets’ details. Sunset was at 4:11pm local time, so we headed out just about that time, and got things setup after scouting out the area around the observatory. The waxing crescent moon was up, and we could easily make out Jupiter and Saturn headed into the trees by the western horizon. By 5:00pm we were taking photos. Here are some of the better images… ahhh these days of electronic photos, where one can simply delete the bad ones and keep the good ones!  Be sure to click on the images which will bring you to a place were you can see them in higher resolution.

A wide field view of the Moon and planets over the 0.7m telescope dome.

Zooming in a little, the same view as above.

Zoomed in with the 500mm system. This lens has autofocus and vibration reduction, which allows a pretty good view for such a system. The rings are clearly visible.



Telescope buying?! Wonderful!

This can get really complex, and, as you imagined, very expensive.  There is this sudden realization that good scopes are pricey, and the less expensive ones are, well, to be honest, not worth the cash. They end up in closets or basements.  For a first time telescope, especially for kids, I always recommend a really good pair of 8×50 or 10×60 binoculars. These get good use at night, AND during the day… bird, scenic views and the like.  If we are talking seriously into astronomy and telescope are the only choice, then go for the most scope you can afford: one with a quality heavy mount and large aperture.  My close friend Ed Ting has made a wonderful page with a load of buying tips here: Do start there and work through it.  At all costs avoid the department store telescopes. They are a plague in our science with their cheap, shaky mounts and promises of ridiculously high powers 😉

Coupled with a telescope purchase is the inevitable need for some accessories. I’ll list a few here to consider:

  • A wide range of good eyepieces. These get expensive but will last a very long time. I recommend three to start, one for low, medium and high magnification. Magnification can be found by dividing the telescope’s focal length by the focal length of the eyepiece. Typical low power magnifications are on the order of 25-30x.  Medium: 75-150x. High: 200-300x. One rarely uses the high magnification. Honest!
  • A good sky atlas. Good ones can be used for eyes, binoculars and small telescopes like these options: Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas – Jumbo Edition and the Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas.
  • A red-light flashlight. A simple regular flashlight with red cellophane covering is good.
  • Maybe even a subscription to Sky & Telescope Magazine or Astronomy Magazine. These help the newcomer by projecting what good targets will be available in future months.

Stay well and enjoy clear skies!