Astrophotography Target: The Andromeda Galaxy

Astrophotography Target: The Andromeda Galaxy

We’re kicking off a fun new monthly series of blog posts here on Wyoming Stargazing. This will be a monthly challenge to hone your astrophotography skills on a different deep-space target each month.

How to Find the Andromeda Galaxy

This month’s astrophotography target is the Andromeda Galaxy. Our nearest galactic neighbor can be found by looking north-northeast toward the constellation of Cassiopeia. At this time of year, after sunset, Cassiopeia is to the east of Polaris, the north star. It makes the distinct shape of an awkward looking ‘3’. Down from Cassiopeia and more eastward is the constellation of Andromeda. Three bright stars will form her bottom leg: Almaak (the foot); Mirach in the middle; and Alpheratz at the waist. From Mirach, you can jump up to her next leg at a fainter star. Then, hop up one more yet fainter star. To the right of the last star will be the Andromeda Galaxy, appearing to the naked eye as a fuzzy blob. If you look back at Cassiopeia, you’ll see the top three stars form an arrow that point directly to the galaxy.

Use whatever means you can to try to catch a shot of it: telescopes; astrophotography trackers; even just a camera on a tripod. When you have something you’re happy with us, share it with us on Twitter or Facebook and we’ll share the entries!

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest galactic neighbor and is 2.2 million light years away. It is bigger than our own Milky Way Galaxy and is often seen with a much smaller "companion" galaxy.

Snow King Observatory Status from Summer 2015

Architecture design by Jakub Galczynski: JakubGalczynski.com

If you’ve ever visited us at one of our free programs, talked with us a bit on a stargazing tour, or even just clicked around this site a little, you know one of our major goals is to bring an observatory and planetarium to Jackson Hole. So how’s that going?

At the moment, there’s really only good news and better news! Our Executive Director, Samuel Singer, met with Max Chapman, the owner of both Snow King and Brooks Lake Lodge (the latter near Togwotee Pass), earlier this year to discuss just that. Chapman loved the idea so much, he worked in an observatory into his Phase II development plan for Snow King just before submitting it to the town and county! The plan was then approved to proceed, and right now, the proposed site is undergoing an impact study on the natural area. The entire study process should potentially last up to the summer of 2018. Assuming it passes, the observatory will shift into the planning phase, possibly taking up to another year. Once that’s complete, the construction will begin on Jackson Hole’s first observatory!

As of the initial planning stages, the proposed size of the mirror for the telescope that will be housed in the observatory will be a full meter wide, nearly double our massive 20" scope! This will allow for substantially better viewing of deep space objects. It will also have some enormous benefits to the community, such as having a completely new option for family activities after dark, while also encouraging scientific literacy and development through hands-on experience with astronomy. Kids growing up here in Jackson Hole are already blessed enough to live in such a rich natural environment, and now they’ll learn just how important the objects in the night sky are as well.

Of course we’ve been asked multiple times when talking about this, "Aren’t Jackson’s skies a little bright for an observatory on top of Snow King?" It is true that they are much brighter than they need to be, and that’s something we’re actually working with Town and County about right now, the developments in that area being enough for a completely separate blog post. Just know that we are making every effort to minimize the lighting in the area and everyone thus far has been very receptive. If you’d like to proactively and voluntarily make your house or business compliant with the new standards we’re hoping to establish, check out our Save Our Night Skies Campaign page for more information. By taking action, you’ll not only be making your property safer while at the same time saving money on energy, you’ll also be helping to restore a more natural night sky above Jackson, encouraging more people to look up after dark. In addition, it will also have a much less disruptive effect on the wildlife of our community.

Our hope is that by the time the observatory opens, we can decrease the amount of light that we’re emitting, which has unnecessarily skyrocketed in recent years. Alternatively though, before the observatory on top of Snow King is scheduled to open, there may be another in the area by then. Since Chapman also owns Brooks Lake Lodge, he’ll be installing one up there as well. This one will be a .7 meter scope (roughly 27 inches) and will be very far away from any light pollution. If you haven’t experienced the night skies up there, you’ll definitely need to make the trip up! The difference is astounding!

In the meantime, keep an eye on this site for any exciting updates and developments. These are exciting times indeed!

Dodging a Catastrophe at Shooting Star

Over the weekend we hosted a stargazing program at the Shooting Star Golf Club at Teton Village. What was expected to be a routine stargazing program for a large group nearly had a disastrous impact on our equipment.

Sam got underway running an indoor program to kickoff the night for the 60 or so people in attendance for stargazing just as I had come back in from putting on the final touches at the viewing area nearby. The indoor program was expected to take roughly 45 minutes or so to get people excited for the night sky as it got dark enough to view deep space objects. The crowd seemed generally receptive to the program, with plenty of Q&A, and after about an hour, we all headed outside to the driving range to see in person much of what they had just learned.

Sam and I both began aligning the two different scopes we had out and soon had people looking at the half-moon up close. By this time however, the temperature was beginning to drop a little too much to be comfortable for some people, despite the blankets we had out. After a quick glimpse of the moon, some chose to end the night there.

For those who stayed, we had a great look at Saturn next, but with the low expected to be in the mid-30s overnight, the night air was quickly approaching its target, which was too much for most people. Though blown away by seeing Saturn, the majority of people had left after seeing it. At this point, Sam and I both got our scopes aligned to the Ring Nebula which fascinated the people that were still out, but not even that was enough to entice people to stay out longer.

As the last people made their way from the driving range, we began our routine of systematically taking down the scopes and gear that was out. Sam began unplugging his scope while I began turning off the iPads that we use to let people browse the night sky digitally when they’re not looking through a scope. We were making our usual slow progress when a very unsettling sound brought our attention to the hole across the path: two sprinklers had just automatically turned on. "Uh-oh" was about all that was muttered before we ran to the most expensive gear out there to begin breaking it down. Even just a quick pass from one sprinkler would be enough to cause significant damage to our most expensive gear. We had no clue where the sprinklers were or how many were expected to go off, all we knew is we needed to get everything safe immediately. I was taking down our 20" scope, our pride and joy, faster than I ever had, knowing we were now engaged in a race against the automatic sprinkler system. There were two Shooting Star staffers with us as well, one helping to move things to safety, another frantically making calls asking why the sprinklers were on.

Of course we weren’t sure if the sprinklers at the driving range would even turn on, but seeing them across the path was enough warning. But then, on the driving range just a few dozen yards away, two sprinklers came on, just out of reach of us. They were coming, and all we knew was that our time was limited. By now I had the 20" mostly broken down and I wheeled it to safety to the path where there was a large dry section. On my way back, a sprinkler began spouting practically right where the 20" was. I immediately became soaked as I scrambled to get things out of the way: iPads; telescope gear; a battery for the scope that was still out on a table. In my own rushed pace I lost track of what the others were doing, but a few minutes later, all of us regrouped and were dripping with water from saving what we could in a safe(r) spot.

Appearing to be out of harm’s way, we evaluated what got wet and what was kept safe, and aside from one telescope battery, the things that got wet were simply chairs, tables, and blankets. Fortunately, our instincts helped us keep everything simply couldn’t get wet safe, and we were back up and running the next night after letting everything dry out in the sun. Earlier in the night Sam had remarked how much earlier it was than he was expecting to finish. That definitely worked in our favor that night.

Wyncote Academy

Wyncote Academy 2Although the clouds didn’t cooperate this week for Stargazing at Stilson, last week we had by far our biggest turnout of over 30 people thanks to a visit from Wyncote Academy from Philadelphia.  The group of high school students were on a tour of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone when they heard about our stargazing programs.  After a little trouble finding the location they arrived and were extremely enthusiastic.  Their lead teacher Howard Schatz said about his students,” their inquisitiveness piqued and their imaginations engaged.  For as you know, Einstein said, ‘The  true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination’.  The combination of inquisitiveness and imagination is the path to the frontier of knowledge.”  For some of these students it was the first time that they had ever seen the rings of Saturn, or the moon of Jupiter, let along galaxies millions of light years away.  Although it was quite dark that night, it was easy to hear their enthusiasm. The word of the night was “bitch’n!” It was so wonderful to have a large group of students who were so enthralled with seeing objects in the night sky.  That’s what I live for!

 

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