Saturday, 31 December 2011

Thought for the new year.

*** Exactly*** 15 years ago (31 Dec. 1996, in the evening), I took this image of Messier 27 with my glorious 15cm telescope and a old ST7 CCD camera.

Months later, this image revealed to me the presence of a new variable star, marked on the picture. It was my very first astronomical discovery. I've learned from this that every moment can be *the very one* for something good happening.

With this piece of personal history, I wanted to wish you a nice 2012, with the hope that every day/night of the new year will bring to you Joy, Health, Faith and plenty of good things, especially those you really need, but also inspiration for helping to make special the days of those living in less than ideal conditions.

After all, it is not the good the "good" itself, but the use you will do of it.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Things that happen in the sky.

So far, it has been a very unusual Fall here in Italy. Of course, under the point of view of a star observer.

Plenty of clear nights (November, in particular, was good for observing almost every night!), so I tried to look up as much as possible, using my telescopes both for science and fun (and science is also fun, by the way).

As you may remember, I'm usually quite far from my telescopes. I live in Rome, a big city with a very strong light pollution. While I'm very convinced that a lot of astronomy can be done from cities (we will talk about this in a future post), you need a dark site for better investigate the Cosmos. The darker the sky, the better the signal you will collect from faint, distant objects.

As I was raised in a small town about 100km south of Rome (Ceccano, in Central Italy), I decided to build an observatory there; it saw the first light in 1997 and since then I've been doing a lot of astronomical works from there.

The first telescope installed at Bellatrix Observatory in 1997.

As an astrophysicist, I'm particularly interested in asteroids, comets, variable stars and exoplanets: all these topics may require intense and frequent observing sessions and you can have troubles if you have to cover large distances to reach your observing site every time. This is why in 2006 I decided to develop a fully robotic, remotely accessible observing system, the Virtual Telescope.

A new mount arrived im 2006, when the Virtual Telescope adventure started

In five years, the Virtual Telescope evolved quite a lot and today is one of the most advanced remotely controlled astro-facilities on the planet. Now, I can access my telescopes in every moment, in an handful of seconds and this has increased my scientific productivity quite a lot! Having two remote, advanced telescopes I can use both at the same time, covering more targets and needs.

Let me say this clearly: observing the sky while being out there, under the stars, is such a great and memorable experience that a remote system cannot offer in any way. That said, surfing oceans of space and times through a remote telescope has its many benefits and, as strange as as it may sounds, offers its exclusive emotions.

When I start a remote session, the first thing I do - once checked that the sky is clear and it is NOT raining! - is opening the roof of the observatory. It is great to see it sliding away, leaving the telescopes under the sky. Unless I'm starting a last-minute session, triggered by a special astrophysical alert, I usually open the observatory well in advance to the beginning of the night, as soon as the direct sunlight is no longer reaching the instruments. This way, you leave them enough time to reach the thermal equilibrium with the environment, and this is vital for the best performances.

I love to open the roof while looking through the local, remote webcam inside the observatory. While the roof moves, you can see the sky showing and you can see what is up in that moment. And these last nights it was a particularly rewarding experience.

On the evening of 6 Dec., while opening the observatory at dusk, I recognized that something beautiful was happening in the sky: my webcam spotted the Moon and Jupiter having a nice conjunction. Here it is the scene I saw:

The 17" Planewave telescope with the Moon and Jupiter meeting over it.

This "preview" was enough to push me to check the skyscape again, a bit later, when the night was almost started:
As in the previous image, now the night was fully arrived.

Of course, these are not rare events, but they are still beautiful to see.

On the next nights, the Moon moved East, "leaving" Jupiter and I captured an image both on Dec. 7 and 8:

The Telescope, the Moon and Jupiter imaged again on Dec. 7, 2011

The Moon says goodbye to Jupiter on 8 Dec. 2011
 So, the sky is always ready to amaze you. All you need is to look up, from time to time. Soon, you will find yourself attracted by those vaste territories and maybe you will discover a strong interest for astronomy and the beuty of the heaven. If so, welcome aboard!

Friday, 2 December 2011

To the Moon and beyond

Last night it was another clear one, without any cloud, after many similar ones in a row. Quite unusual being late this Fall, typically a rainy season here in Italy.

Before leaving the office, I decided to "remotely" open my observatory to have a quick look at the sky. "Remotely", I said. It may sounds quite strange to people, but my observatory is about 100km away from the Planetarium of Rome, where I work. So, I use to access it via the Internet: I can open the roof of the observatory (of course, once I've looked that the sky is clear!), then I start all the instruments. In few minutes, I can start surfing the skies.

While there were some haze and humidity, I decided to start both the robotic telescopes available there: one for imaging the Moon and one for picking up a galaxy a few tens of millions of light years away, NGC 891.

The Moon was wonderful, as the atmosphere was really steady: plenty of fine details were visibile, with some amazing craters, including Teophilus, Catharina and Cyrillus. You can enjoy a postcard from the Moon here, captured with the 14" telescope hosted as part of the Virtual Telescope:

Full res image available here

I wanted to do a full disk mosaic, covering the whole surface of the satellite, but while I was arranging this the seeing started getting worse. But I'm still happy with this single shot. Hope you liked to have a look, too!

While the Moon was moving west, the distant galaxy I selected for the night, NGC 891, was still rising in the eastern sky, though already high above the horizon. As you can easily imagine, event a little Moon, with its light, can be an "enemy" against those really faint and distant objects. Add that there was some haze around and you understand I had to wait for the Moon to almost set. Then I started a sequence on NGC 891, which is a wonderful edge-on spiral galaxy, located at about 30 millions of light years from your chair. For this images, I used the 17" unit part of my equipment

The galaxy showed very well and after 18 different long exposures (300 seconds each) I decided to merge those data with a previous set of images I had from a previous session for the same galaxy. A total exposure time of 3 hours made possible to get this final shot:

Full res image and more details available here

I was very happy with this final image and was completely lost counting the many subtle, small galaxies scattered around the "big one". Please, check the full res image available here also to see the many details across the dust band which makes this galaxy a brilliant example of edge-on spiral galaxy.

During the session, I managed to share the raw images in real-time thanks to the Virtual Telescope's web tv and many friends from all around the globe could have a look with me.

Now it is cloudy here in Italy, I will take some good sleep, but I've already planned the next step... so stay tuned!