Shallow Thoughts : : astro

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Mon, 14 Aug 2017

A Homemade Solar Finder, for the Eclipse

While I was testing various attempts at motorizing my barn-door mount, trying to get it to track the sun, I had to repeatedly find the sun in my telescope.

In the past, I've generally used the shadow of the telescope combined with the shadow of the finderscope. That works, more or less, but it's not ideal: it doesn't work as well with just a telescope with no finder, which includes both of the scopes I'm planning to take to the eclipse; and it requires fairly level ground under the telescope: it doesn't work if there are bushes or benches in the way of the shadow.

For the eclipse, I don't want to waste any time finding the sun: I want everything as efficient as possible. I decided to make a little solar finderscope. One complication, though: since I don't do solar observing very often, I didn't want to use tape, glue or, worse, drill holes to mount it.

So I wanted something that could be pressed against the telescope and held there with straps or rubber bands, coming off again without leaving a mark. A length of an angled metal from my scrap pile seemed like a good size to be able to align itself against a small telescope tube.

[Constructing a solar sight] Then I needed front and rear sights. For the front sight, I wanted a little circle that could project a bulls-eye shadow onto a paper card attached to the rear sight. I looked at the hardware store for small eye-bolts, but no dice. Apparently they don't come that small.I settled for the second-smallest size of screw eye.

The screw eye, alas, is meant to screw into wood, not metal. So I cut a short strip of wood a reasonable size to nestle into the inside of the angle-iron. (That ripsaw Dave bought last year sure does come in handy sometimes.) I drilled some appropriately sized holes and fastened screw eyes on both ends, adding a couple of rubber grommets as spacers because the screw eyes were a little too long and I didn't want the pointy ends of the screws getting near my telescope tube.

I added some masking tape on the sides of the angle iron so it wouldn't rub off the paint on the telescope tube, then bolted a piece of cardboard cut from an old business card to the rear screw eye.

[Homemade solar sight] Voila! A rubber-band-attached solar sight that took about an hour to make. Notice how the shadow of the front sight exactly fits around the rear sight: you line up the shadow with the rear sight to point the scope. It seems to work pretty well, and it should be adaptable to any telescope I use.

I used a wing nut to attach the rear cardboard: that makes it easy to replace it or remove it. With the cardboard removed, the sight might even work for night-time astronomy viewing. That is, it does work, as long as there's enough ambient light to see the rings. Hmm... maybe I should paint the rings with glow-in-the-dark paint.

[ 15:25 Aug 14, 2017    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 10 Aug 2017

A Barn-Door Mount for the Eclipse

[Curved rod barn-door mount] I've been meaning forever to try making a "barn door" tracking mount. Used mainly for long-exposure wide-field astrophotography, the barn door mount, invented in 1975, is basically two pieces of wood with a hinge. The bottom board mounts on a tripod and is pointed toward the North Star; "opening" the hinge causes the top board to follow the motion of the sky, like an equatorial telescope mount. A threaded rod and a nut control the angle of the "door", and you turn the nut manually every so often. Of course, you can also drive it with a motor.

We're off to view the eclipse in a couple of weeks. Since it's my first total eclipse, my plan is to de-emphasize photography: especially during totality, I want to experience the eclipse, not miss it because my eyes are glued to cameras and timers and other equipment. But I still want to take photos every so often. Constantly adjusting a tripod to keep the sun in frame is another hassle that might keep my attention away from the eclipse. But real equatorial mounts are heavy and a time consuming to set up; since I don't know how crowded the area will be, I wasn't planning to take one. Maybe a barn door would solve that problem.

Perhaps more useful, it would mean that my sun photos would all be rotated approximately the right amount, in case I wanted to make an animation. I've taken photos of lunar and partial solar eclipses, but stringing them together into an animation turned out to be too much hassle because of the need to rotate and position each image.

I've known about barn-door mounts since I was a kid, and I knew the basic theory, but I'd never paid much attention to the details. When I searched the web, it sounded complicated -- it turned out there are many types that require completely different construction techniques.

The best place to start (I found out after wasting a lot of time on other sites) is the Wikipedia article on "Barn door tracker", which gives a wonderfully clear overview, with photos, of the various types. I had originally been planning a simple tangent or isosceles type; but when I read construction articles, it seemed that those seemingly simple types might not be so simple to build: the angle between the threaded rod and the boards is always changing, so you need some kind of a pivot. Designing the pivot looked tricky. Meanwhile, the pages I found on curved-rod mounts all insisted that bending the rod was easy, no trouble at all. I decided to try a curved-rod mount first.

The canonical reference is a 2015 article by Gary Seronik: A Tracking Platform for Astrophotography. But I found three other good construction guides: Optical Ed's "Making a Curve Bolt Barn Door", a Cloudy Nights discussion thread "Motorized Barn Door Mount Kit", and Massapoag Pond Photography's "Barn Door Tracker". I'm not going to reprise all their construction details, so refer to those sites if you try making your own mount.

[Barn-door mount, showing piano hinge] The crucial parts are a "piano hinge", a long hinge that eliminates the need to line up two or more hinges, and the threaded rod. Buying a piano hinge in the right size proved impossible locally, but the folks at Metzger's assured me that piano hinges can be cut, so I bought one longer than I needed and cut it to size. I used a 1/4-20 rod, which meant (per the discussions in the Cloudy Nights discussion linked above) that a 11.43-inch radius from the hinge to the holes the rod passes through would call for the nut to turn at a nice round number of 1 RPM.

I was suspicious of the whole "it's easy to bend the threaded rod ina 11.43-inch circle" theory, but it turned out to be true. Draw the circle you want on a sheet of newspaper, put on some heavy gloves and start bending, frequently comparing your rod to the circle you drew. You can fine-tune the curvature later.

I cut my boards, attached the hinge, measured about 11.4" and drilled a hole for the threaded rod. The hole needed to be a bit bigger than 5/8" to let the curved rod pass through without rubbing. Attach the curved rod to the top wood piece with a couple of nuts and some washers, and then you can fine-tune the rod's curvature, opening and closing the hinge and re-bending the rod a little in any place it rubs.

A 5/8" captive nut on the top piece lets you attach a tripod head which will hold your camera or telescope. A 1/4" captive nut on the bottom piece serves to attach the mount to a tripod -- you need a 1/4", not 3/8": the rig needs to mount on a tripod head, not just the legs, so you can align the hinge to the North Star. (Of course, you could build a wedge or your own set of legs, if you prefer.) The 3/4" plywood I was using turned out to be thicker than the captive nuts, so I had to sand the wood thinner in both places. Maybe using half-inch plywood would have been better.

[Wing nut on barn-door mount] The final piece is the knob/nut you'll turn to make the mount track. I couldn't find a good 1/4" knob for under $15. A lot of people make a wood circle and mount the nut in the center, or use a gear so a motor can drive the mount. I looked around at things like jam-jar lids and the pile of metal gears and sprinkler handles in my welding junkpile, but I didn't see anything that looked quite right, so I decided to try a wing nut just for testing, and worry about the knob later. Turns out a wing nut works wonderfully; there's no particular need for anything else if you're driving your barn-door manually.

Testing time! I can't see Polaris from my deck, and I was too lazy to set up anywhere else, so I used a protractor to set the hinge angle to roughly 36° (my latitude), then pointed it approximately north. I screwed my Pro-Optic 90mm Maksutov (the scope I plan to use for my eclipse photos) onto the ball head and pointed it at the moon as soon as it rose. With a low power eyepiece (20x), turning the wing nut kept the moon more or less centered in the field for the next half-hour, until clouds covered the moon and rain began threatening. I didn't keep track of how many turns I was making, since I knew the weather wasn't going to allow a long session, and right now I'm not targeting long-exposure photography, just an easy way of keeping an object in view.

A good initial test! My web searches, and the discovery of all those different types of barn-door mounts and pivots and flex couplings and other scary terms, had seemed initially daunting. But in the end, building a barn-door mount was just as easy as people say it is, and I finished it in a day.

And what about a motor? I added one a few days later, with a stepper and an Arduino. But that's a separate article.

Tags: ,
[ 19:25 Aug 10, 2017    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 18 Jun 2016

Cave 6" as a Quick-Look Scope

I haven't had a chance to do much astronomy since moving to New Mexico, despite the stunning dark skies. For one thing, those stunning dark skies are often covered with clouds -- New Mexico's dramatic skyscapes can go from clear to windy to cloudy to hail or thunderstorms and back to clear and hot over the course of a few hours. Gorgeous to watch, but distracting for astronomy, and particularly bad if you want to plan ahead and observe on a particular night. The Pajarito Astronomers' monthly star parties are often clouded or rained out, as was the PEEC Nature Center's moon-and-planets star party last week.

That sort of uncertainty means that the best bet is a so-called "quick-look scope": one that sits by the door, ready to be hauled out if the sky is clear and you have the urge. Usually that means some kind of tiny refractor; but it can also mean leaving a heavy mount permanently set up (with a cover to protect it from those thunderstorms) so it's easy to carry out a telescope tube and plunk it on the mount.

I have just that sort of scope sitting in our shed: an old, dusty Cave Astrola 6" Newtonian on an equatorian mount. My father got it for me on my 12th birthday. Where he got the money for such a princely gift -- we didn't have much in those days -- I never knew, but I cherished that telescope, and for years spent most of my nights in the backyard peering through the Los Angeles smog.

Eventually I hooked up with older astronomers (alas, my father had passed away) and cadged rides to star parties out in the Mojave desert. Fortunately for me, parenting standards back then allowed a lot more freedom, and my mother was a good judge of character and let me go. I wonder if there are any parents today who would let their daughter go off to the desert with a bunch of strange men? Even back then, she told me later, some of her friends ribbed her -- "Oh, 'astronomy'. Suuuuuure. They're probably all off doing drugs in the desert." I'm so lucky that my mom trusted me (and her own sense of the guys in the local astronomy club) more than her friends.

The Cave has followed me through quite a few moves, heavy, bulky and old fashioned as it is; even when I had scopes that were bigger, or more portable, I kept it for the sentimental value. But I hadn't actually set it up in years. Last week, I assembled the heavy mount and set it up on a clear spot in the yard. I dusted off the scope, cleaned the primary mirror and collimated everything, replaced the finder which had fallen out somewhere along the way, set it up ... and waited for a break in the clouds.

[Hyginus Rille by Michael Karrer] I'm happy to say that the optics are still excellent. As I write this (to be posted later), I just came in from beautiful views of Hyginus Rille and the Alpine Valley on the moon. On Jupiter the Great Red Spot was just rotating out. Mars, a couple of weeks before opposition, is still behind a cloud (yes, there are plenty of clouds). And now the clouds have covered the moon and Jupiter as well. Meanwhile, while I wait for a clear view of Mars, a bat makes frenetic passes overhead, and something in the junipers next to my observing spot is making rhythmic crunch, crunch, crunch sounds. A rabbit chewing something tough? Or just something rustling in the bushes?

I just went out again, and now the clouds have briefly uncovered Mars. It's the first good look I've had at the Red Planet in years. (Tiny achromatic refractors really don't do justice to tiny, bright objects.) Mars is the most difficult planet to observe: Dave liks to talk about needing to get your "Mars eyes" trained for each Mars opposition, since they only come every two years. But even without my "Mars eyes", I had no trouble seeing the North pole with dark Acidalia enveloping it, and, in the south, the sinuous chain of Sini Sabaeus, Meridiani, Margaritifer, and Mare Erythraeum. (I didn't identify any of these at the time; instead, I dusted off my sketch pad and sketched what I saw, then compared it with XEphem's Mars view afterward.)

I'm liking this new quick-look telescope -- not to mention the childhood memories it brings back.

Tags: ,
[ 08:53 Jun 18, 2016    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 01 Oct 2015

Lunar eclipse animations

[Eclipsed moon rising] The lunar eclipse on Sunday was gorgeous. The moon rose already in eclipse, and was high in the sky by the time totality turned the moon a nice satisfying deep red.

I took my usual slipshod approach to astrophotography. I had my 90mm f/5.6 Maksutov lens set up on the patio with the camera attached, and I made a shot whenever it seemed like things had changed significantly, adjusting the exposure if the review image looked like it might be under- or overexposed, occasionally attempting to refocus. The rest of the time I spent socializing with friends, trading views through other telescopes and binoculars, and enjoying an apple tart a la mode.

So the images I ended up with aren't all they could be -- not as sharply focused as I'd like (I never have figured out a good way of focusing the Rebel on astronomy images) and rather grainy.

Still, I took enough images to be able to put together a couple of animations: one of the lovely moonrise over the mountains, and one of the sequence of the eclipse through totality.

Since the 90mm Mak was on a fixed tripod, the moon drifted through the field and I had to adjust it periodically as it drifted out. So the main trick to making animations was aligning all the moon images. I haven't found an automated way of doing that, alas, but I did come up with some useful GIMP techniques, which I'm in the process of writing up as a tutorial.

Once I got the images all aligned as layers in a GIMP image, I saved them as an animated GIF -- and immediately discovered that the color error you get when converting to an indexed GIF image loses all the beauty of those red colors. Ick!

So instead, I wrote a little Javascript animation function that loads images one by one at fixed intervals. That worked a lot better than the GIF animation, plus it lets me add a Start/Stop button.

You can view the animations (or the source for the javascript animation function) here: Lunar eclipse animations

Tags: , , ,
[ 12:55 Oct 01, 2015    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 24 Oct 2014

Partial solar eclipse, with amazing sunspots

[Partial solar eclipse, with sunspots] We had perfect weather for the partial solar eclipse yesterday. I invited some friends over for an eclipse party -- we set up a couple of scopes with solar filters, put out food and drink and had an enjoyable afternoon.

And what views! The sunspot group right on the center of the sun's disk was the most large and complex I'd ever seen, and there were some much smaller, more subtle spots in the path of the eclipse. Meanwhile, the moon's limb gave us a nice show of mountains and crater rims silhouetted against the sun.

I didn't do much photography, but I did hold the point-and-shoot up to the eyepiece for a few shots about twenty minutes before maximum eclipse, and was quite pleased with the result.

An excellent afternoon. And I made too much blueberry bread and far too many oatmeal cookies ... so I'll have sweet eclipse memories for quite some time.

Tags: , ,
[ 09:15 Oct 24, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 31 Jul 2014

Predicting planetary visibility with PyEphem

Part II: Predicting Conjunctions

After I'd written a basic script to calculate when planets will be visible, the next step was predicting conjunctions, times when two or more planets are close together in the sky.

Finding separation between two objects is easy in PyEphem: it's just one line once you've set up your objects, observer and date.

p1 = ephem.Mars()
p2 = ephem.Jupiter()
observer = ephem.Observer()  # and then set it to your city, etc. ='2014/8/1')

ephem.separation(p1, p2)

So all I have to do is loop over all the visible planets and see when the separation is less than some set minimum, like 4 degrees, right?

Well, not really. That tells me if there's a conjunction between a particular pair of planets, like Mars and Jupiter. But the really interesting events are when you have three or more objects close together in the sky. And events like that often span several days. If there's a conjunction of Mars, Venus, and the moon, I don't want to print something awful like

  Conjunction between Mars and Venus, separation 2.7 degrees.
  Conjunction between the moon and Mars, separation 3.8 degrees.
  Conjunction between Mars and Venus, separation 2.2 degrees.
  Conjunction between Venus and the moon, separation 3.9 degrees.
  Conjunction between the moon and Mars, separation 3.2 degrees.
  Conjunction between Venus and the moon, separation 4.0 degrees.
  Conjunction between the moon and Mars, separation 2.5 degrees.

... and so on, for each day. I'd prefer something like:

Conjunction between Mars, Venus and the moon lasts from Friday through Sunday.
  Mars and Venus are closest on Saturday (2.2 degrees).
  The moon and Mars are closest on Sunday (2.5 degrees).

At first I tried just keeping a list of planets involved in the conjunction. So if I see Mars and Jupiter close together, I'd make a list [mars, jupiter], and then if I see Venus and Mars on the same date, I search through all the current conjunction lists and see if either Venus or Mars is already in a list, and if so, add the other one. But that got out of hand quickly. What if my conjunction list looks like [ [mars, venus], [jupiter, saturn] ] and then I see there's also a conjunction between Mars and Jupiter? Oops -- how do you merge those two lists together?

The solution to taking all these pairs and turning them into a list of groups that are all connected actually lies in graph theory: each conjunction pair, like [mars, venus], is an edge, and the trick is to find all the connected edges. But turning my list of conjunction pairs into a graph so I could use a pre-made graph theory algorithm looked like it was going to be more code -- and a lot harder to read and less maintainable -- than making a bunch of custom Python classes.

I eventually ended up with three classes: ConjunctionPair, for a single conjunction observed between two bodies on a single date; Conjunction, a collection of ConjunctionPairs covering as many bodies and dates as needed; and ConjunctionList, the list of all Conjunctions currently active. That let me write methods to handle merging multiple conjunction events together if they turned out to be connected, as well as a method to summarize the event in a nice, readable way.

So predicting conjunctions ended up being a lot more code than I expected -- but only because of the problem of presenting it neatly to the user. As always, user interface represents the hardest part of coding.

The working script is on github at

Tags: , , ,
[ 19:57 Jul 31, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 23 Jul 2014

Predicting planetary visibility with PyEphem

Part 1: Basic Planetary Visibility

All through the years I was writing the planet observing column for the San Jose Astronomical Association, I was annoyed at the lack of places to go to find out about upcoming events like conjunctions, when two or more planets are close together in the sky. It's easy to find out about conjunctions in the next month, but not so easy to find sites that will tell you several months in advance, like you need if you're writing for a print publication (even a club newsletter).

For some reason I never thought about trying to calculate it myself. I just assumed it would be hard, and wanted a source that could spoon-feed me the predictions.

The best source I know of is the RASC Observer's Handbook, which I faithfully bought every year and checked each month so I could enter that month's events by hand. Except for January and February, when I didn't have the next year's handbook yet by the time my column went to press and I was on my own. I have to confess, I was happy to get away from that aspect of the column when I moved.

In my new town, I've been helping the local nature center with their website. They had some great pages already, like a What's Blooming Now? page that keeps track of which flowers are blooming now and only shows the current ones. I've been helping them extend it by adding features like showing only flowers of a particular color, separating the data into CSV databases so it's easier to add new flowers or butterflies, and so forth. Eventually we hope to build similar databases of birds, reptiles and amphibians.

And recently someone suggested that their astronomy page could use some help. Indeed it could -- it hadn't been updated in about five years. So we got to work looking for a source of upcoming astronomy events we could use as a data source for the page, and we found sources for a few things, like moon phases and eclipses, but not much.

Someone asked about planetary conjunctions, and remembering how I'd always struggled to find that data, especially in months when I didn't have the RASC handbook yet, I got to wondering about calculating it myself. Obviously it's possible to calculate when a planet will be visible, or whether two planets are close to each other in the sky. And I've done some programming with PyEphem before, and found it fairly easy to use. How hard could it be?

Note: this article covers only the basic problem of predicting when a planet will be visible in the evening. A followup article will discuss the harder problem of conjunctions.

Calculating planet visibility with PyEphem

The first step was figuring out when planets were up. That was straightforward. Make a list of the easily visible planets (remember, this is for a nature center, so people using the page aren't expected to have telescopes):

import ephem

planets = [

Then we need an observer with the right latitude, longitude and elevation. Elevation is apparently in meters, though they never bother to mention that in the PyEphem documentation:

observer = ephem.Observer() = "Los Alamos"
observer.lon = '-106.2978' = '35.8911'
observer.elevation = 2286  # meters, though the docs don't actually say

Then we loop over the date range for which we want predictions. For a given date d, we're going to need to know the time of sunset, because we want to know which planets will still be up after nightfall. = d
sunset = observer.previous_setting(sun)

Then we need to loop over planets and figure out which ones are visible. It seems like a reasonable first approach to declare that any planet that's visible after sunset and before midnight is worth mentioning.

Now, PyEphem can tell you directly the rising and setting times of a planet on a given day. But I found it simplified the code if I just checked the planet's altitude at sunset and again at midnight. If either one of them is "high enough", then the planet is visible that night. (Fortunately, here in the mid latitudes we don't have to worry that a planet will rise after sunset and then set again before midnight. If we were closer to the arctic or antarctic circles, that would be a concern in some seasons.)

min_alt = 10. * math.pi / 180.
for planet in planets: = sunset
    if planet.alt > min_alt:
        print, "is already up at sunset"

Easy enough for sunset. But how do we set the date to midnight on that same night? That turns out to be a bit tricky with PyEphem's date class. Here's what I came up with:

    midnight = list(
    midnight[3:6] = [7, 0, 0] =
    if planet.alt > min_alt:
        print, "will rise before midnight"

What's that 7 there? That's Greenwich Mean Time when it's midnight in our time zone. It's hardwired because this is for a web site meant for locals. Obviously, for a more general program, you should get the time zone from the computer and add accordingly, and you should also be smarter about daylight savings time and such. The PyEphem documentation, fortunately, gives you tips on how to deal with time zones. (In practice, though, the rise and set times of planets on a given day doesn't change much with time zone.)

And now you have your predictions of which planets will be visible on a given date. The rest is just a matter of writing it out into your chosen database format.

In the next article, I'll cover planetary and lunar conjunctions -- which were superficially very simple, but turned out to have some tricks that made the programming harder than I expected.

Tags: , , ,
[ 21:32 Jul 23, 2014    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 07 Sep 2013

Daytime Venus-Moon-Saturn conjunction

Tomorrow, Sunday September 8th, is an interesting astronomical event: a nice conjunction of a slim crescent moon and gibbous Venus, with Saturn hanging above and to the left of the pair.

That alone isn't anything unusual, though they'll be a lovely naked-eye sight just after nightfall. But here's the kicker: they'll be quite a bit closest during the daytime, best around 2-3 in the afternoon, Which makes for a fun exercise: can you find the crescent moon during daylight, then use it to guide you to Venus (right above it, about a degree away) and Saturn (about 10 degrees away, down and left)?

They'll be just a little east of due south, and about 40 degrees up. You'll definitely need binoculars to find Saturn, and they might help in finding the other two as well, depending on how bright and how hazy your afternoon sky is. Once you find them, a low powered telescope view should show Venus' phase and Saturn's rings. Venus is gibbous, alas; it would have been fun to see two crescents lined up one above the other.

If you have trouble finding them, wait until 3:30 pm, when they'll be transiting. At that point, you should be able to point due south, sweep your binoculars (or just your eyes) up just short of halfway to the zenith, and the moon should be there.

If you don't get a chance to watch the daylight conjunction, or don't have binoculars or a telescope handy, at least take a naked eye look at the trio at nightfall.

Mars and an early view of Comet ISON

As long as I'm reposting tips from my SJAA Ephemeris Shallow Sky column, there's another interesting thing in the sky this month: Comet C/2012 S1 ISON. Yes, that's the "super comet" that's supposed to become brighter than the moon. No, it won't be bright yet. It's still super wimpy, and worse, it's still in the morning sky, so it's not an easy or convenient target.

On the other hand, through September and October, Mars and Comet ISON will be within a few degrees of each other. So if you're willing to stay up (or get up) for early morning dark-sky observing, and you have a big telescope, this could be a nice view.

The comet won't be very impressive yet -- it's only expected to be 10th magnitude in September -- but such close proximity to Mars makes it easy to find and keep track of. In September, the pair don't rise until about 3:30am, and that won't change much for the next few months. The comet will probably stay below naked eye visibility at least for the next two months, brightening from 11th magnitude in early September to maybe 7th magnitude by Halloween.

As September opens, ISON makes a triangle with Mars and M44, the Beehive cluster. The comet stands about 2 degrees north of the Beehive and about 5 degrees east of Mars. But it closes with Mars as the month progresses: by the end of September you can find the comet about two degrees north of Mars, and by the middle of October they'll be down to only a degree apart (with ISON brightening to about ninth magnitude).

About that Beehive cluster: right now (September 7 through 9), Mars is passing right through the Beehive, like an angry red wasp among the smaller bees. Should be a nice view even if the comet isn't. It's a good binocular or even naked eye view (though great with a telescope, too). So if you find yourself up before dawn, definitely take a look.

[ 19:34 Sep 07, 2013    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]