The Observatory early to mid 2004
by Matt Allard and Philip Steffey

We made many new observations, and also had several equipment improvements in Early to mid 2004. The excellent apparition of Mars in late 2003 was the first of several planetary ones in evening skies that would last to June 2004. Saturn, in Gemini and with its rings at maximum tilt, was followed by Jupiter in Leo and by Venus emerging in the West. From February to April, the last two, brilliant, objects could be seen simultaneously in early evenings, with Sirius, the brightest fixed star (remote Sun), nearly midway between them.

A new model of Orion's "electronic eyepiece"; was acquired by the Observatory and put in use in early 2004. It operates either from AC power or a 9 volt battery and has an electronic "contrast" (sensitivity) control. The latter improvement yielded our first images of Jupiter properly exposed to show the major, dark cloud bands. (Our 2003 images, with the first model camera, were all badly overexposed.)

Stills from an observing session in April are shown following this text. Saturn, however, was not significantly improved. The convenience of operating the new camera from a battery was offset by poorer sensitivity than with AC power, though our use of worn batteries may have contributed. And while the built-in sensitivity control freed us from needing neutral filters, which the Orion cameras aren't threaded to take, the different sensitivities produce different color responses and the lower settings give excessively red images.

Venus was observed only twice and, as expected, was much too bright for imaging with our video equipment and no filters. In April we had an excellent mid-afternoon view of the planet, then a thick crescent. We considered an observing session for the transit of the Sun on June 8, but foliage in the trees along Martin Luther King Blvd. was too high for an event occuring at under 11 degrees altitude in the eastern sky.

During the evening of April 24 we had our best-attended viewing session in eight months: a dozen B-CC faculty or staff members, some with families, and other visitors, in a 3-hour period. The Moon, Saturn and Jupiter were shown with eyepieces and as video images on the computer monitor.

An important addition to the Observatory's computer software was "Flash-It", a screen-capture utility allowing selection of sections of screen images, e.g. a planet from useless, featureless background that previously we had to accept at the cost of hard drive storage space. The captured stills can be automatically transferred to the Scrapbook, an application program such as Photoshop, or a special file.

An enlarged crank for dome opening and closing was installed in the early spring. Made from bicycle frame and axle sections joining the original crank, it provides over twice the turning force and can be fully rotated, or nearly so, from the floor instead of requiring a stepstool. Another addition, to the telescope, was a special right-angle elbow for the 0.6X focal reducer. The system, with a fairly wide-field eyepiece, shows the entire disc of the Sun or Moon, and can provide more than twice the coverage area of these objects by our video cameras than at full focal length.

In mid-July we gave an indoor presentation to a group of 15 teachers from Central Florida grade-schools as far away as Kissimmee, who were participants in NASA's Teach Space program. We showed slides of some of our Sun, Moon and planet video images and argued that solar system objects were the most important astronomical ones that students should learn about. We displayed small refracting and reflecting telescopes and explained their functions and values, then took the group to see the B-CC Observatory but could not show any celestial objects due to cloudiness that had plagued us for weeks. Four weeks later, the first of three hurricanes struck, so there was no hope for observing until autumn.

Early in 2004 the Observatory acquired a Polaris DX-8263SL high-resolution (and sensitivity) color CCD/video camera, which we expect to produce much better planetary images than the Orion cameras, and which should enable useful stellar observations. Jupiter was observed once in June with the new camera and existing VHS imaging equipment, and though low in the West in a somewhat hazy sky yielded strikingly detailed video images. Taping and extracting stills degraded the images (see the last set below), but we have S-video equipment that should largely solve that problem when installed. We hope to do lots of planetary work with this camera during the (normally) favorable 2004-05 observing season, including imagery of Uranus.

The Observatory and the telescope need further improvements. Our "wish list" is headed by rubber matting, or something similar, on the bare steel floor, and blackening of some of the dome's inner, shiny wall surface. A cast and/or machined iron copy of the modified dome crank mentioned earlier will eventually be needed. A large, rotating, pedistal-mounted fan would help equalize air temperature inside the dome, which is always too warm at the end of a sunny day, with the outside temperature. The telescope's diurnal drive has a bad periodic wobble needing elimination by repair, probably of the clutch, or an external damping device, so we can do effective imaging at exposures of several seconds or more. Written 10/16/2004




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