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Light Years for Dummies like Me

on Tuesday, 03 January 2017.

An easy to understand method for deep sky distances

Light Years for Dummies like Me

Throughout the year at the Oregon Observatory, the staff is constantly telling our guests that such and such deep sky objects are “x” number of light years away from us.  We go on to explain that a light year is approximately 6 trillion miles, the distance that light will travel in a year at the speed of light (light is the fastest moving thing in the universe – about 186,000 miles per second).  The reason celestial objects beyond our solar system are measured in light years is because they are just so far away.  The closest star system to us, Alpha Centauri, is about 4.4 light years away from us or about 25,863,000,000 miles from our Sun. That’s almost 26 TRILLION miles! These numbers get unwieldy in a hurry!

Robert Burnham Jr., author of a standard astronomy reference book series – Burnham’s Celestial Handbook - figured out a very simple method for sharing the distance of a light year and ultimately distances in our universe in a very familiar scale – namely inches and miles.

Burnham discovered that the number of Astronomical Units (distance from Earth to the Sun) in a light year and the number of inches in a mile are almost exactly the same. Generally, there are 63,000 Astronomical Units in a light year and 63,000 inches in a mile. This wonderful coincidence allows us to interpret the vast distances in the universe into a scale we use almost every day – inches and miles.

For example, the Astronomical Unit between the Earth and the Sun is 93 million miles, in Burnham’s scale, that is equal to one inch. It takes light about 8 minutes to travel that one inch.  The Alpha Centauri system, at 4.4 light years away scaled in this way, is about 4.4 miles away from us. As objects get further and further away, the numbers still get big but not anywhere near as large as they would be in regular miles that are translated from light years.


Based on the above system, some of the objects we frequently view at the Observatory would translate into these numbers - all distances are approximate:

The Sun – 1 inch

Mars - .37 inches (varies)

Jupiter – 4.3 inches (varies)

Saturn – 8 inches (varies)

Arcturus – 37 miles

Albireo – 39 miles

North Star/Polaris – 43.4 miles

Beehive Cluster – 54.7 miles

The Pleiades – 440 miles

M11/Wild Duck Cluster - 554 miles

M42/Great Orion Nebula 1,344 miles

M13/Great Hercules Cluster 24,000 miles

Galaxies are much farther away but Burnham’s scale brings them down to size as long as you remember the one inch Earth to Sun distance

Andromeda – 2 million 500 thousand miles

Whirlpool – 37 million miles

Sombrero – 65 million miles

Deep Sky distances are hard to fathom.  I know in my mind, it’s difficult to even conceive the vast stretches of space between us and other places.  “Star Trek” made it somewhat simple using a warp speed drive but even then, most places they visited were within our Galaxy.  As noted above, Light travels faster than anything else in the universe that we know of. Time to travel through the deep sky miles is another whole article. Hopefully the above makes it a LITTLE easier to understand.

--Larry Cerullo





on Thursday, 29 December 2016.

2017, the Year of the Eclipse


There are always astronomical goodies for us to view in the Night Sky and plenty of fascinating things going on during daylight hours that we can observe on our Sun. This coming year, 2017, however, is special. It is the year of THE ECLIPSE for us in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States.  As you will see and hear in the media, August 21, 2017, at approximately 10:21 AM, our Sun will be totally covered by the moon for as much as a bit over two minutes in our area.  The last total eclipse in this region occurred in 1979 and back then we were in a prime location as the path of totality passed through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. Then, as will happen again next August, people from all over the country and around the world visited our region to view the eclipse of the Sun.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon gets between the Earth and the Sun. It can only occur during a new moon phase when the moon passes directly between the Earth and the Sun.  During this time, the moon’s shadow falls on the earth and the sunlight is blocked out by the moon. The only way to see the totality of the eclipse is to be fairly close to the middle line of the path of the Sun.

In our area the line of totality starts at the coast, just north of Newport. The Sun’s shadow will race eastward in a matter of minutes to nudge the Salem area and then heads across the mountain toward Central Oregon.  At about 10:19 am the Sun’s shadow reaches Warm Springs and Madras with about 2 minutes and a few seconds of totality.  It continues on through Mitchell and Prairie City and the Sun’s shadow leaves Oregon just north of Ontario.  For the longest amount of totality in Oregon, there’s a rest area on I-84 in Huntington, OR. There will be about 2 minutes and nine seconds there.  As the Sun continues its eastward path through other states, periods of totality do increase.  It appears that 2 minutes and about forty seconds is approximately the longest time of totality in the United States in North Carolina.  So, even though Oregon is a few seconds shorter, we are remarkably placed for a good long time of morning darkness and with almost guaranteed good weather.

It’s important to note that some big cities in Oregon such as Eugene, Medford and Portland are NOT in the path of totality. Salem is.  Unfortunately our Oregon Observatory is not in the path, either.  We will, however, be open during that time. The Observatory will be participating in a number of events around the state and we’ll be keeping you posted on this page as well as on the website, our Facebook page and local media.

There are many places across the state of Oregon where the shadow of the sun will touch and many where totality will be experienced.  A good guide to check is the Eclipse2017 site at www.eclipse2017.org/2017/states/OR.htm. I’m sure there are a multitude of other sites available as well.

Before I close two more things:  NEVER, EVER look at the sun directly either during an eclipse or not.  Severe eye damage may be the result.  We have available for sale at the Observatory specially designed “Eclipse Glasses” that are safe and useful as well as a very affordable memento of The Eclipse, 2017.  You can order them directly from us or come by and buy some. Also, if you are coming to Central Oregon during the time the eclipse is occurring, make your reservations NOW.  In many cases motels are already booked.  State Parks are already filling up as well.


The Eclipse of 2017 is an event you really don’t want to miss if at all possible. Make your plans now to join us in this extremely rare event. Stay tuned!    

---Larry Cerullo


on Thursday, 22 December 2016.

Should we be afraid?


This morning, when I opened Facebook, there was an article with a dire warning of a solar storm that could definitely affect our Earth in a big way with loss of communications and GPS.  The original article was dated the 22nd of December and the solar flares were supposed to hit the Earth starting that day. The headline was “Christmas Solar Storm to Batter Earth as Flare Blasts from Massive Hole." When I read the attached link, it was reported that it was a moderate solar storm: “And it’s whipped up a “moderately” strong geomagnetic storm that could last for several days, according to the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”. The article, which appeared in “The Sun” news from the UK, quoted President Obama as being forced to issue a “chilling warning to the nation in preparation for devastating space weather storms EARLIER (emphasis mine) this year.”


Currently in the political environment there has been a maelstrom of comments and stories about FALSE NEWS.  This article, with all the gorgeous solar photos of flares and storms as well as pictures of the wonderful aurora, should be filed under this.  The dangers of violent and massive solar storms certainly should not be underestimated but in this case, it’s definitely much ado about not much and it needlessly has struck fear in the part of the population who don’t know about solar activity or at what level we should be fearful.


For those who don’t know, solar storms are a relatively common phenomenon.  Our closest star, the Sun, is huge – at about 800,000 miles in diameter.  Over a million Earths could fit inside the Sun! The part of the Sun that we see, the visible part, is around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5500 degrees Celsius).  It is estimated by scientists that at the core of the Sun, temperatures could reach 27 million degrees Fahrenheit (15 million C)!  The Sun and these temperatures are all fueled by nuclear reactions. It would take about 100 billion tons of dynamite detonated EVERY SECOND to match the Sun’s energy output! 


There is a great deal of information about the Sun that I can share in forthcoming blog articles but the focus of this one is on Solar Storms.


In short, Solar Storms are created by the Sun’s magnetic activity in its magnetic field.  Generally, the magnetic field is about twice that of Earth’s.  However, sometimes a part of the magnetic field becomes highly concentrated in small areas where it can reach many thousands of times stronger than normal.  According to Space.com, “these kinks and twists in the magnetic field develop because the sun spins more rapidly at the equator than at the higher latitudes and because the inner parts of the sun rotate more quickly than the surface.” The changes are the cause of features on the Sun’s surface that we commonly see as sunspots or eruptions that are called solar flares.  Sometimes, these produce a major storm called a coronal mass ejection. Again, according to Space.com, “Flares are the most violent eruptions in the solar system, while coronal mass ejections are less violent but involve extraordinary amounts of matter — a single ejection can spout roughly 20 billion tons (18 billion metric tons) of matter into space”.


           Solar Flare and Earth comparison               

When we view the sun, we often see solar prominences. They appear to be loops or tongues of fire coming from the surface of the sun.  They are actually loops of ionized gasses, mostly hydrogen, and they make a magnificent focal point when viewing the sun using a hydrogen alpha filter through a telescope. Sometimes those prominences develop into solar flares which can reach many thousands of miles from the surface of the sun. They, in a matter of minutes, can release enormous amounts of energy and eject material out into space. The worst case scenario for us on Earth is a combination of both a solar flare AND a coronal mass ejection AIMED TOWARD THE EARTH. 


Most coronal mass ejections are NOT aimed towards earth and harmlessly blast out into space.  Those that are aimed at the Earth most often can typically take one to three days to arrive and cause some of the magnificent auroras we see.  They also can cause disruptions in communications. The biggest and most violent solar storms can definitely cause major disruptions in our lives including localized power outages; disruption of satellite operations, including GPS and satellite communications; disruption to high-frequency communications; increased radiation to aircrew and passengers in flight, particularly over polar regions; and further disturbances to small-part electronic systems. The biggest event of this sort occurred in 1859 long before lives became electronic dependent as we are today. Measures are being put into effect to reduce the risk by governments throughout the world.


So, as mentioned above, in the majority of cases, Solar Storms are nothing to be concerned about except that some of the bigger ones can bring the beautiful Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, for us to marvel at and appreciate.


Northern Lights over Crater Lake

If you haven’t experienced safe solar viewing of our nearest star, the Sun, do know that we have a very active Solar Viewing program at the Oregon Observatory using telescopes and filters specially designed to view the Sun. We’re open fairly frequently.  Check the schedule here on the website.


--Larry Cerullo 



“The Sun” article:  https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2459656/solar-storm-to-batter-earth-this-christmas-after-flare-shoots-from-massive-hole-in-the-sun/



“Space.com”: http://www.space.com/11506-space-weather-sunspots-solar-flares-coronal-mass-ejections.html


Telescopes, telescopes, telescopes

on Wednesday, 07 December 2016.

A beginner's guide to buying a telescope

Telescopes, telescopes, telescopes

Chances are if you are reading this, you’ve already looked through at least a few telescopes either at the Observatory or through one you already own.

This time of year is the time when folks often consider buying a telescope either for them or as a gift.  They can be hard to resist, especially in the big chain stores or club warehouse stores.  The packaging is incredible, the photos on the boxes are gorgeous and the price can be very appealing.


The first thing we at the Oregon Observatory ask you, no BEG you, is to hold off making an impulse purchase on an astronomical instrument.  Too often those telescopes bought from local big box stores end up being relegated to a closet or a garage after one or two brief and frustrating uses. A lot of the reason this occurs has to do with the marketing the manufacturers use to sell the telescopes and often, those same manufacturers are the ones that supply serious amateurs their instruments - shame on them.


Think about what the telescope will be used for and by whom.  Often, once considered, it makes more sense to buy a decent binocular and a beginner level star chart or binocular book.  Binoculars are quite handy for far more than astronomy and the chances of them being used a lot more than a telescope is very good.  Most experienced amateur astronomers carry a binocular out into the field with them and their scope.  Actually, if you think about it, binoculars are really two small telescopes joined together. They are “refractor” telescopes and are quite handy to own.

There are three basic types of telescopes. I already mentioned the REFRACTOR telescope.  The refractor has a lens at one end and a place to put an eyepiece at the other.  This is the design most folks think of when they think telescope. The NEWTONIAN telescope is usually a tube with a large mirror at one end, a smaller mirror near the top and a place to put an eyepiece near the side at the top of the telescope. The final type of telescope is the CASSEGRAIN telescope which is an instrument that uses multiple mirrors to get the image to the eyepiece.


At our Observatory we use all three types of telescopes in various configurations – this includes our smallest, a four inch refractor, all the way up to our 30 inch Dobsonian and other Newtonians and Cassegrain scopes in between. Virtually every telescope we use is considered amateur but some of them cost many thousands of dollars.  It may surprise you, however, that some of the telescopes we use are rather modestly priced at under $600!


A decent quality telescope can be purchased for about $250 and sometimes for a whole lot less when the manufacturers have them on sale. For many years we have recommended an eight or a ten inch Dobsonian telescope as the perfect beginner’s scope.  They start around $400. For a smaller budget, there is four and a half inch Dobsonian called a StarBlast.  Those run around $210.  They come equipped with a very stable table top mount and have consistently received top notch reviews from some of the best amateurs and reviewers out there. We most often recommend Newtonian scopes (a Dobsonian is a type of Newtonian) because they give you the most bang for the buck.  Any of the above telescopes can keep you busy for a long, long time and they are quality instruments.

Regarding Refractor telescopes, there are a lot of decent telescopes that are affordable but the negative is the mounts they come with.  Usually the mounts are rather unstable and hard to use.  Often, to buy a decent mount the cost is at least as much as the telescope or even more! The one line that is the exception is the Orion StarBlast Refractor telescopes.  They are table top refracting telescopes with a solid mount like the StarBlast above. The StarBlast Refractor is an 80 mm telescope (only a bit over three inches).  Once you get your feet wet with a telescope of choice and decide to get more serious, the sky is the limit with refractors price-wise and likewise with the mount.


The Cassegrain telescopes come in a variety of configurations.  At the Observatory we use a type called Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes (SCT). For our outreach we most often use eight inch SCT’s.  In the observatory we frequently are using a nine and a quarter inch SCT, a ten inch SCT, an eleven inch SCT and a fourteen inch SCT.  SCT’s are considered the “jack of all trade” telescopes and like the refractor can be purchased on a variety of mounts.  Most often, the SCT’s are on mounts that track celestial objects automatically and some have a function that will allow the user to find objects almost effortlessly.  Of course, with automation, price begins to climb and can climb quickly.  One type of Cassegrain telescope can be purchased for about $650.  This is a four inch Maksutov Cassegrain.  SCT’s begin at about $1200 and price climbs from there.


All the telescopes mentioned above can be found on the used market as well and around 25% less expensive than retail pricing. They are generally in very good condition with nothing more than a few beauty mark dings or scratches but caution is advised. Some may not be quite right so have an astronomer friend help you check them out.


For what it’s worth, a decent pair of 8x40 or 10x50 binoculars runs around $50 to $100.00.  They won’t be top shelf but definitely usable. This might be the way to go.


Telescopes are a wonderful tool and can ignite a hobby that will follow you all your life!


Give us a call at 541-598-4406 if you decide you want to buy some optics. Our staff is knowledgeable and more than willing to help you decide what is best for you.  We are a dealer for most of the major brands of optic vendors and can surely steer you in the right direction.

NASA's Hubble Telescope Shows Milky Way is Destined for Head-On Collision

on Wednesday, 30 November 2016.

There really won't be a big bang!

NASA's Hubble Telescope Shows Milky Way is Destined for Head-On Collision

Throughout the year, during most of our public and private programs, we manage to view M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, at the Oregon Observatory.  The staff member manning the telescope viewing our neighboring galaxy explains something like:  “the M31 galaxy or Andromeda galaxy is our closest visible neighboring galaxy. Andromeda is about two and a half million light years away and is approaching our Milky Way at about 250,000 miles per hour.  The two galaxies are due to collide in about 5 billion years.”  Sometimes the staff member may go on and explain more or answer questions about this fact.  The guest makes appropriate astonished remarks and moves on to another object.

The brief discussion with our visitors is actually echoing the barest minimum of a very complex and fascinating phenomenon that is being studied carefully and intensively by astronomers the world over.

NASA’s official online home to the Hubble Space Telescope is called HubbleSite.  Recently, HubbleSite published a detailed description of the pending collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy.  According to the article: “NASA astronomers announced … they can now predict with certainty the next major cosmic event to affect our galaxy, sun, and solar system: the titanic collision of our Milky Way galaxy with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy…The Milky Way is destined to get a major makeover during the encounter, which is predicted to happen four billion years from now.  It is likely the sun will be flung into a new region of our galaxy, but our Earth and solar system are in no danger of being destroyed.”

NASA also produced what is considered an accurate depiction of what the collision event will look like using “painstaking Hubble Space Telescope measurements of the motion of Andromeda.”  Computer simulations of Hubble data show that the collision will begin in about four billion years with an additional two billion years before the two galaxies will totally merge.

“Although the galaxies will plow into each other, stars inside each galaxy are so far apart that they will not collide with other stars during the encounter. However, the stars will be thrown into different orbits around the new galactic center. Simulations show that our solar system will probably be tossed much farther from the galactic core than it is today.”

HubbleSite has produced a video that includes an animated simulation of the collision between the Milky Way and Andromeda. The photos graphically show us what it is likely to look like from the vantage point of earth.

“This illustration sequence depicts the collision of the Milky Way (right) and Andromeda galaxies and shows the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy.”
First Row, Left: Present day.
First Row, Right: In 2 billion years the disk of the approaching Andromeda galaxy is noticeably larger.
Second Row, Left: In 3.75 billion years Andromeda fills the field of view.
Second Row, Right: In 3.85 billion years the sky is ablaze with new star formation.
Third Row, Left: In 3.9 billion years, star formation continues.
Third Row, Right: In 4 billion years Andromeda is tidally stretched and the Milky Way becomes warped.
Fourth Row, Left: In 5.1 billion years the cores of the Milky Way and Andromeda appear as a pair of bright lobes.
Fourth Row, Right: In 7 billion years the merged galaxies form a huge elliptical galaxy, its bright core dominating the nighttime sky.
(Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger)


More information on this and much more Hubble Space Telescope news and photos may be found at the HubbleSite.org.   The animated version of the pictured sequence may be found at this link: http://hubblesite.org/news/2012/20 .