Middle School Grant

We got the grant! (Sort of)

Just before the end of the school year last spring, I was able to help social studies teacher David Groce (one of my wife’s co-workers) write a PTSA grant application. We were hoping to buy a telescope for the school and the astronomy club that David helped put together. As it turns out, the PTSA isn’t allowed to offer grants to school clubs that would only be active after school hours. However, an anonymous donor decided the telescope was a good idea.

We still don’t know who offered us the money, but the Northwest Guilford Middle School Astronomy Club is now that proud owner of a computerized 6″ Dobsonian telescope.

David and I built it after it was shipped during the last weeks of school. It’s been sitting in the library ever since, but all that changes this week. The weather is expected to cooperate, and now that daylight saving time is over for the year, it will be nice and dark early in the evening. It looks like this Friday night the mighty Dob will see “first light” (astronomer lingo for using a scope for the first time).




The annual Mid-Atlantic Star Party is about my only opportunity to try any long exposure astrophotography.  I’ll dabble in some 30 – 90 second exposures at my home observation spot in the front yard, but not the three to five minute guided shots I’d like to do.

MASP is held for one week every fall near Robbins, NC.  There are sometimes as many as several hundred amateur astronomers there every year.  I’ve been able to attend every year but one since we moved here in 2003. The last couple of years have seen sparce attendance, but I blame the economy for keeping people away.  Or the weather.  2011’s gathering was clouded out all week long.

When the weather and economy cooperate, MASP is a great time.  Robbins is less than an hour away from home, reasonably dark, and close enough to a great mom-and-pop fried chicken place to make it a must every year if possible.

The people there have been great over the years. The range of expertise is remarkable. I’ve met the most casual observers camped right next to hard-core guys doing spectroscopy of all things.  One of my most memorable encounters was with a Marine who had driven up from Camp Lejune with his astro gear.  His passion was photographing transits. He showed us some jaw-dropping images he had taken of the International Space Station passing in front of the sun and the moon (not on the same pass, of course!).  At the time, he said he had never really tried any long exposure photography with his DSLR and was setting up for his first run.  His first exposures of M101 were awesome right out of the gate (even before processing in the computer). I’ve been shooting with a DSLR on my telescopes for years now, and with film cameras before that.  My stuff still pales in comparison to those pics.

You know, it’s kind of like golf.  You hit one really good shot in a dozen, it’s enough to keep you going.  Astrophotography can be as challenging as you want it to be. I’m not looking to get anything published in Sky & Telescope magazine or anything, but I do want to take a few more shots I can be proud of. I just need to improve my ratio.  I’d like to improve to four or five good shots out of a dozen.

I’m going to post a few of my MASP shots from 2008 since that was the last year I had good luck with conditions, equipment and avoiding silly personal mistakes like leaving a crucial USB cord at home.

Here’s to hoping for clear, steady skies in 2012.

M31 3min x 5 exp f/6

M42 3min x 3 exp at f/6

Sculptor Galaxy 3min x 5 exp at f/6

M33 3min x 5 exp at f/6

Amateur Astronomy Outreach

I grew up in an era of fantastic change and wonder. As a child of the ‘60s I remember Werner Von Braun (the quintessential rocket scientist) and Walt Disney on my black and white TV screen telling me that I might grow up to have a career in space. Captain Kirk was making the galaxy safe for democracy (even though he came on the air after my bedtime) and my grandmother was a civilian working for the Air Force ordering liquid oxygen tanks destined for Cape Kennedy and NASA.

Sure enough, before I was 10 years old, guys my dad’s age were walking around on the moon! There was nothing we couldn’t do. We were figuring out how the universe worked, how big it is and how tiny we are. Not just figuring it out, but going there. That sense of wonder never left me.

My parents helped me buy my first telescope when I was in middle school. I bought my first “real” scope not long after I got my first “real” job. There is nothing better after a rotten day than to sit outside for a few hours under a clear, silent sky and look. Just look. It puts absolutely everything into perspective, and I love sharing it.