Thursday, September 21, 2017

Phil's Writing: Current Projects and Activities


I announced that I was starting a new book some time ago. I started it and have done very little about it since. This is not because of total laziness, although I have to admit it has been a factor! The short answer is that my "day job" has kept me very busy with sometimes more than full-time hours plus as much as 3 hours' driving on top. I also do volunteer work proof-reading for the International Meteor Organisation and I'm also an active amateur astronomer. I also have a family who I like to spend time with. To see a list of books I've had published so far, click here.

Updates are listed most recent first. PAGE DOWN to view.

Being an Astronomer

This has been in the pipeline for nearly two years. Although I have added a few words lately, it is still at a very early stage and I have not included any photographs and diagrams, both of which I will eventually need. Despite the slow progress, I consider it will be a great beginner book when finished, even if it is after I retire! The idea is to really get to grips with what being an astronomer is about without re-hashing a load of data that is readily available on the internet or a public library. I am of the honest opinion that there are some excellent beginner books around but most fall into the trap of trying to do too much. Yes, the Big Bang is terribly interesting and important but it won't help you to find Mars in the night sky.

Phil's Scribblings

Not many astronomy writers would admit this BUT ... most astronomy books become out of date very quickly. Amateur astronomy is changing very quickly and all of the time. Many of us are actively trying out new equipment and new ideas. At the time of writing, I was experimenting with leaving a DSLR camera unattended while it takes repeated photos of the sky to capture meteors "on film". Yes, publishers can produce new editions but this is an expensive business. What I have done instead is to provide supplementary material for free on my website. This material is in the form of articles and booklets and can be read alone or can be read with my published works for updated information. Yes, this promotes my books but also makes them more useful for those who have bought and read them. For details, click here.

As an example, DSLR cameras were prohibitively expensive for most amateur astronomers but this is no longer the case. I have written a booklet about using a DSLR on its own and have updated it recently with information about photographing meteors.


Dec 27th Well that's it

I'm starting a new thread for 2018. As 2017 was drawing to a close, writing was on the back burner, as I was busy with Christmas. In many ways, 2017 had been a bad year, worse than the bad 2016 but nowhere near as bad as the truly awful 2004 or the evil 1985. The only silver lining was that I had started writing again. Despite some commercial success in the past, I am now writing for writing's sake, a bit like the pop musician who decided to go serious. "Being an Astronomer" was well on its way but I was expecting a few twists and turns before it was finished. Meanwhile, I was planning to resurrect a couple of old projects and make then into a new one.

Dec 19th Being an Astronomer

Being well into the second draft, I feel I am over half-way. I am adding diagrams and photos, which are both bringing the book to life. I will also include an index and glossary. Of course, life outside of writing goes on, with work, family and Christmas, not to mention the odd astronomy photograph.

Dec 11th

I reached a major milestone today by finishing the first draft of "Being an Astronomer".

Dec 6th

In line with my original idea, I have decided to write a chapter about how to follow on from being a beginner. I've used some ideas from a previous attempt at a beginner book but not kept any content. Really, the amateur astronomy world has changed, especially with astrophotography becoming more affordable.

Dec 2nd

Strange thing this writing. I finished my first draft of the original content and feel in somewhat of a quandary. Even with photos, it will result in a very small book. Now do I leave it as is and just revise it and add the photos or do I add some extra content that might make it not really quite a beginner book anymore?

Nov 30th

I added a new article on the star cluster in Gemini, M35:

Apart from that, I'm doing my normal end of month stuff, so expect the full report, summary and video soon:

Nov 29th

Work and life got a bit busy, so no progress on "Being an Astronomer". I updated my article on the Pleaides: and my one on the Beehive:

Nov 23rd

I made a lot of progress on my Deep Sky chapter on 22nd. I have finished with stars and am now writing about star clusters. I also expanded the introductory section. The size of the book seems rather small but I'm thinking the later sections will end up being large when I move to more intermediate topics.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a writer is when you have more than one idea at the same time. This is one of the reasons why we all have more unfinished, abandoned books than finished ones. On the other hand, not all abandoned projects are wasted. I had started writing beginner books long before I started "Being an Astronomer". The reason I did not get far was because publishers were not interested. Now self-publishing is now a viable option, I started again but found that the amateur astronomical landscape has changed so much that I needed to start again.

With one possible personal future severely restricting the time I have available to write, I need to finish "Being an Astronomer" as far as possible. Having a few minutes to tweak sections and add photos is much easier than having a spare hour or so to complete a book section.

Nov 18th

I have started on my Deep Sky chapter and have written about being able to view and photograph objects from suburbia.

Nov 15th

Work had taken over, so progress had been slow. I had just finished small objects and thought I'd finished the Solar System chapter when I realised that I needed to add a new section on aurorae, rainbows, etc.

Nov 2nd

As work was quiet, I finished the planetary section of "Being an Astronomer". The Sun is next. I must be careful not to over-blow the section as it is the area I know most about.

Nov 1st

Being an Astronomer is progressing steadily. I added the piece about focussing in the Basics chapter and am now writing about Venus, having finished Jupiter and Saturn.

I have written the October summary but cannot upload it yet, as there are problems with my hosting service.

Oct 26th

I was going great guns on my Jupiter section then realised I needed to include some further information in an earlier section! That's writing for you.

Oct 23rd

I have just written the introduction to the planets and am now writing about Jupiter.

Oct 20th

Well, I finished my section on the Moon. It was a bit tricky debunking the "supermoon" myth and explaining libration.

Oct 15th

I am now on the Moon section of the Solar System chapter. It is tricky because I need to give enough information to make the section helpful, without repeating a lot of stuff that is readily available on the internet and in other books I have written.

Oct 7th

First draft of "The Basics" now complete. I felt tempted to start writing an article about choosing a telescope but, yes, it would take ages to do and would just be like every other "expert's" attempt to do the same thing. Well on with the book this week, I guess.

Oct 1st

I was working on my full write-up for September that would end up under an update to my 2017 retrospective. I was finishing processing and was planning to produce my video.

As I was starting a new job, I was expecting slow progress on writing for a while.

Sep 27th

I re-visited my most recent chapter, entitled "The Basics". To be honest something was missing. As I've described above, I did not want to re-hash a lot of information about the constellations that is in the public domain and is free. Yet, on the other hand, I needed to do something to address what was missing. I went back to revise my summary and plan two new sections. I'm going to describe how to use star charts and describe just some of the more interesting constellations. This balances the need to provide enough information without making the book too large and not well focussed.

Unfortunately, yes, the book WILL take longer to complete but, at this stage of my writing, I'd prefer to write a book that really addresses the needs of the audience that they cannot readily address elsewhere.

Well I've done something that most writers tell you NOT to do. I made a few tweaks to a chapter. I felt that there was the question of asterisms that I just did not address. Yes, I also changed a bit of grammar while doing it. Conventional wisdom says you should write it all and THEN tweak it but I find it better to include ideas when I have them before I forget them!

Sep 27th

I finished my proof-reading for the International Meteor Organisation.

Sep 25th

Now just over halfway through proof-reading the latest issue of the IMO newsletter. To be honest, some of it is a bit over my head but there's a load of interesting findings. For example, there are significant variations in annual meteor counts.

Friday, September 1, 2017

September 2017

Sep 29th 2130 GMT

Conditions were not perfect, with the Moon low in the west. I took 78 frames of the Moon at  300mm focal length, 1/4000 second exposure and ISO 400.


I took 22 frames of Melotte 20 at 300mm focal length, 3 seconds exposure and ISO 6400 and stacked the best 20.


I repeated this with the Pleaides (M45).

Sep 29th 1345 GMT

The sky was not completely clear but there was enough light getting through to check the sunspots. I could see three of the four ones on show and did a drawing.

Sep 28th 1340 GMT

The Sun was quiet apart from some sunspots. I took some full disc and close-up shots but lost them while trying to transfer them from the camera to the computer and then it clouded over.
I did a drawing based on the sunspot positions instead.

Sep 27th 1015 GMT

Some sunlight was pushing its way through the cloud. However, a bin scan did not reveal any of the sunspots visible on the Big Bear images.

Sep 23rd 1100 GMT

I checked the Sun in hydrogen alpha light and managed to see a sunspot. Alas, that was all, so I just took some full disc frames and only close-ups of the sunspot region.

Sep 23rd 1050 GMT

I bin scanned the Sun through thin cloud but did not see any sunspots.

Sep 21st 1950 GMT

The sky was dark (-ish?) with little visible cloud. As I was busy, I set a camera to take 3 second exposures to catch meteors around the Lyra region.
The first action was part of a satellite trail near Delphinus. For some unknown reason, other parts of the trail did not stack.

Although I did not catch the whole trail in the stack, I caught part of another trail.

At 21:21:34 GMT, I caught a meteor in south eastern Hercules. To the east is a faint satellite trail.

I caught another satellite trail east of Hercules.

I did not consider that the conditions were good enough to run a big stack on the individual frames, so I did not take any dark frames. OK, so I used Microsoft ICE instead and ended up with a more than passable result.


Sep 21st 1600 GMT

After a rainy morning, it cleared a bit but the Sun was low down. I checked it in hydrogen alpha light but it was featureless. I took just full disc frames.

Sep 19th 2010 GMT

Conditions were quite poor but I set up a camera anyway to track meteors. I set my camera at a focal length of 18mm (well checked this time!), ISO 6400 and 3 seconds exposure. I had trouble starting, as I had accidentally moved the mode selection dial away from manual.
Once started, I had lots of frames dominated by cloud. However, there was a brief period of clear sky lasting barely a minute at 2119 GMT where I captured the zenith.

Sep 19th 0945 GMT

I checked the Sun in hydrogen alpha light with my Coronado PST. The solar disc was bland and featureless and I could not even see the sunspot that had been visible for a few days.

Sep 17th 2105 GMT

I saw a bright meteor about magnitude -2 flash from Hercules to Aquila as I was setting up. This time I tried capturing just JPEG images in order to have more room on the camera. The idea was to capture meteors in the Summer Triangle. I set the focal length to 18mm, ISO 6400 and 3 seconds exposure, with only 2 seconds of interval in between. The forecast was not good but without rain. I expected to need to check each frame individually.
I made a mistake and left the focal length at 50mm, so ended up with somewhere in the Summer Triangle.

At 2117 GMT I caught a single sporadic meteor.

Sep 16th 2310 GMT

There were some odd pockets of clear sky but not enough for serious photography and nowhere large enough to see another meteor. I caught fleeting glimpses of Melotte 20 and the Pleaides (M45) but that was that.

Sep 16th 2302 GMT

I put some rubbish out and checked for clear sky, of which there wasn't much. I was lucky, as I saw a bright magnitude -1 meteor flash east from Pegasus.

Sep 16th 1420 GMT

There was a clear spell, so I checked the Sun in hydrogen alpha light. The solar disc was quiet, apart from the sunspot. I took some full disc and close-up frames.

Sep 16th 2345 GMT

I aimed the camera at Alpha Persei in the hope of snapping Melotte 20. I set the camera at 300mm focal length, 3 seconds exposure and ISO 6400.

Unfortunately, the Melotte 20 shots were out of focus.
At about 0015 GMT, I refocussed and tried the same approach on the Pleiades (M45) before shooting some darks and calling it a night. I stacked 235 images using Microsoft ICE (Deep Sky Stacker did not work). I also saw a bright sporadic meteor of at least magnitude -2 travelling south east from Pegasus.


September 15th 2220 GMT

The day had been rather cloudy but it had cleared nicely and I could see the Milky Way. I aimed a camera at Cygnus and Lyra with my intervalometer. I set the exposure to 30 seconds, even though I could possibly have pushed it up a bit. I used ISO 800 and 18mm focal length. Unfortunately, some areas of the result were not good. For example, I had multiple images of Vega. I created three images from the result of stacking 22 light frames and 24 darks.]
First up was Cygnus.
Then Delphinus.

Finally, Sagitta and the Coathanger.

Sep 15th 1450 GMT

From a scientific point of view, the Sun was very quiet. From an entertainment point of view, I would rather see extensive prominences and filaments. I took some full disc shots and attempted some close-ups of the central region, which turned out to be rather off-beam.


Sep 14th 2120 GMT

One of the advantages of an intervalometer is that you can leave the camera snapping away while doing household chores. Well that’s what I tell my wife and she didn’t want me using all the hot water washing up anyway. It’s very difficult to resist the temptation to check out the sky with a pair of binoculars. As it turned out, the sky wasn’t completely clear. The Usual Suspects were easy enough but the more marginal objects were largely obscured.


To the shouth west, Saturn was low. I could make out a definitely oval shape but not the gap between the rings and planet. I couldn’t see Titan either but, with Saturn being so low down, it would have been a big surprise. A bit further up, I saw the Wild Duck Cluster (M11). Being mid-September, it was past it’s best and didn’t look anything like what it is supposed to. It also took some finding.


I moved east and started with Melotte 20. Although it is better in autumn, I could see the wavy lines of stars that are the brightest in the cluster. I could also see the Perseus Double Cluster and M34. I could see M13 but M92 was very faint and there was no way I could confuse it with a bright comet. I also saw M15 quite clearly but it was nearly due south, so ideally placed. I also spotted the Coathanger. Splitting Albireo was easy enough but what makes it rather special is to see it against the background Milky Way.


It was a nice way to spend part of the evening while my camera was working in the back garden.

Sep 14th 2015 GMT

There was a clear period, so a chance to try something I’d been meaning to do for a while. I set up my intervalometer to take 2.5 minute exposures at 300mm focal length 300mm and ISO 6400. I aimed at the Pole Star and had taken a few dark frames before starting.
My aim was off and everything was over-exposed. Not only that, many pixels were saturated, so I had no way of knowing what was what. The result looked a bit like the Beehive.

Sep 13th 1510 GMT

There was another clear spell, so I did another solar hydrogen alpha shoot. I could see some lighter patches surrounding the sunspot. I took full disc shots and close-ups of the sunspot region.

September 13th 0750 GMT

Contrary to the weather forecast, the sky was clear. As my back was still somewhat sore, I did not take my Mak out and, instead, used my DSLR to capture the Moon and Sun. I started with the Moon at 300mm focal length, ISO 400 and 1/800 second exposure.

The result was too blurry to use.
I took the Sun at 300mm focal length, ISO 100 and 1/4000 second exposure.
Er, same result.
I then did a session with my Coronado PST. The Sun was very quiet, apart from the sunspot, so I took full disc shots and close-ups of the sunspot region, only. The full disc shot showed a plage, as well as the sunspot.

Sep 12th 1350 GMT

I had a slightly longer period of clear sky, so did a full solar hydrogen alpha shoot.


Sep 12th 1035 GMT

 I checked the Sun in hydrogen alpha light with my PST. The disc was quiet but I was able to see the sunspot that I did not see earlier in my binoculars. I tried to take full disc and close-up frames but did not complete the close-ups, as cloud moved in.


Sep 12th 0750 GMT

I bin scanned the Moon, high in the west. It was almost at last quarter and the southern craters showed well as did Oceanus Procellarum and Grimaldi. I also checked the Sun and could not see the small sunspot visible on the professional observatory images.

Sep 11th 1545 GMT

I bin scanned the Sun. The recent excitement was over, as I could not see any sunspots.

Sep 10th 0100 GMT

I went out for a last look before bedtime. There was a lot of cloud around, of various thickness and the Moon was higher in the sky and saturating everything. I looked at the Hyades with my binoculars, which I hoped to target for a deep sky photo or few later in the year, as I'd done quite well with it before. I could only see the main stars, as the Moon was quite close.

Sep 9th 2230 GMT

When the Moon is bright and One cannot do any deep sky or constellation shots, there is only one thing to do. Unfortunately, my back and neck were stiff and a 127 Mak was a bit too heavy, so I just used the camera with a focal length of 300mm, ISO 400 and 1/4000 second exposure. I stacked 78 images and finished off. The result was not too bad.

Sep 9th 2145 GMT

While my camera was snapping away, I had a bin scan. The Moon had risen and the sky surrounding it was getting brighter. I realised that I would soon need to shoot the dark frames for my constellation shots, as it would be too bright around Cygnus and Lyra.

The Moon was a rather nice sight, with Tycho and its rays dominating the moonscape. I could see most of the Pleaides (M45), despite it being low down. I also saw M34, Melotte 20 and the Perseus Double Cluster. I could even see the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) but (unsurprisingly) not the Pinwheel (M33). To the west, I could just about make out the Wild Duck Cluster (M11) but had a decent view of M13. In the conditions, I did not consider it worth trying for anything else.

Sep 9th 2055 GMT

Yes, I discovered that my problem was that my camera lens was set to auto-focus, which is as much use as a dingo’s kidneys for astronomical objects. I reset the camera to point in the general direction of Lyra.
At 2122 GMT, I caught a meteor south west of Lyra.

Cloud moved in soon after I recorded the meteor, so I ended up with 22 light frames and 16 dark frames for Deep Sky Stacker. I caught Lyra with many surrounding constellations, such as Sagitta, Delphinus, Hercules, Vulpecula and Aquila, along with parts of Cygnus.


Sep 9th 0900 GMT

The sky was clear but cloudy skies and showers were forecast for later. I repeated my hydrogen alpha shoot from the day before. Straight afterwards, I snapped the Sun with my DSLR at 300mm focal length, ISO 100 and 1/4000 second exposure.

September 8th 2135 GMT

I aimed my DSLR at the zenith and set it to take 30 second exposures automatically at ISO 800 and 18mm focal length. Unfortunately, this technology is great when it works, as it had been but somehow I managed to take no shots at all, not a sausage, <expletive> all!

Sep 8th 1430 GMT

There was another spell of clear weather and I checked the Sun in hydrogen alpha light. Despite tuning, re-tuning and re-re-tuning the etalon on my PST, I could not find any prominences. There were some faculae surrounding the sunspots. I took some full disc shots and some close-ups of the sunspots.

Sep 8th 1405 GMT

The was a brief spell of late summer sun, following a rainy morning. I did a bin scan. The sunspots had rotated quite considerably and I could only see the larger two.

September 6th 1520 GMT

I bin scanned the Sun through cloud. I saw that the sunspots had rotated and new patterns had emerged.

Sep 6th 0700 GMT

I did a hydrogen alpha shoot of the Sun. It was low but the sunspots were very clear. I took some full disc frames and some close-ups of the sunspots.

Sep 5th 1200 GMT

The Sun broke through the cloud for a few minutes. A binocular scan revealed a lot of activity.

Sep 2nd 2200 GMT

 There was a lot of cloud around but the Moon was just about visible. I used my DSLR at 300mm, ISO 400 and 1/1000 second exposure and took 50 frames.
Unfortunately, I was having computer problems, so processed a single frame.

Sep 2nd 0830 GMT

The sky was nice and clear. I did photo shoots of the Sun with my Mak and DSLR and followed up with my PST for hydrogen alpha light. The sunspot group was becoming more prominent but the Sun was quiet otherwise.

Sept 1st 0945 GMT

I checked the Sun in hydrogen alpha light with my PST. Like the day before, all of the exciting stuff was happening around the sunspots. I even caught a glimpse of a small prominence, the first for ages, although I did not catch it on camera.

September 1st 0745 GMT

I kicked off September with a solar bin scan. I saw three sunspots.