Tag Archives: Matt Dahl

Catch the Mercury transit May 9

One of the rarest of predictable astronomical events will happen May 9 when we on Earth will be able to see Mercury move across the face of the Sun. Mercury transits happen about 13 times per century. The last one was in 2006 and the next is relatively soon, in November of 2019. After that there won’t be another until 2032.

By contrast, transits of Venus occur in pairs eight years apart separated by more than a century. There were Venus tranists in 2004 and 2012, and there won’t be another until December of 2117.

NASA illustration.

NASA illustration of the 2006 Mercury transit.

Julie Lutz, an emeritus research professor of astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the Mercury transit will be mostly spectacle, as there isn’t much science to be done.

“We’ve learned about all we can from previous transits of Mercury,” Lutz said. “Early on it was a matter of using the transit timings and things like that to confirm things about the orbit of Mercury, get it more and more accurately, try and deduce the size of the planet, things like that.”

During the transit Mercury will appear as a small, black dot crossing the face of the Sun. Lutz pointed out that watching for such occurrences at other stars is precisely how astronomers are detecting exoplanets.

“We can detect Earths now,” Lutz said. “The Kepler mission has changed the whole picture of planet distributions.” She added that if there is a planet the size of Mercury, which has a diameter of just over 3,000 miles, in orbit around a distant star, we couldn’t spot it in transit. We detect exoplanets by watching for slight reductions in brightness as the planets block some of the light as they transit. Our current instruments just aren’t sensitive enough to see the small change that would be caused by an exo-Mercury.

Mercury will even be a little tough to spot from Earth. While we could see the Venus transit just by looking at the Sun through eclipse glasses, that won’t work with Mercury.

“Mercury is smaller than Venus and further from the Earth, so the apparent size of the planet from our point of view is going to be smaller, so it will be harder to see,” Lutz said.

You’re going to need some magnification, according to Stephanie Anderson, co-owner of Cloud Break Optics in Ballard.

“In order to see Mercury well, you’re going to have to get to 20 to 30 power,” Anderson said. Binoculars with solar filters won’t be quite enough, as these typically have somewhere between eight and 10 power. Binoculars could be used to set up a projection of the Sun’s image on a screen or sheet of paper. Otherwise, Cloud Break’s Matt Dahl said almost any telescope would do the trick.

“You need a front aperture mask of some sort to minimize the light through it. Don’t ever use a telescope to look at the Sun without proper filtration,” Dahl warned. “If you want to see all of the other effects that are going on the Sun, the prominences and granularity all that kind of stuff, a specific solar telescope would be ideal.”

If you don’t have a telescope or a friend who has one, Anderson said they could set you up with a simple refracting telescope or a tabletop reflector for around $100. The aperture mask and solar filter will run $50 to $75, so for less than $200 you’d be ready to roll.

“Then you can use that cool thing to see the (solar) eclipse when it comes up next year in August, and then you can also use it to view the night sky,” Anderson said. “It’s good for more than just viewing the Mercury transit.”

Both Dahl and Anderson are accomplished astrophotographers, and Dahl said shooting the Mercury transit will be relatively easy. He said the Sun is a bright enough object that you wouldn’t really even need a tracking mount. Just hook up your DSLR or a webcam to your telescope. Anderson added that it might even be simpler than that.

“Just use your smartphone to snap a picture right through the eyepiece,” she said. “You might have the technology in your pocket already.”

It can be tough to get a good frame with a smartphone and a telescope, but Anderson said you’ll have time to experiment.

“The event will last for quite a while, so you’ll have some time to mess around with it,” she said.

The full Mercury transit will be visible east of the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska. It will already be in progress when the Sun rises at 5:40 a.m. on May 9 in Seattle, and it will end at about 11:40 a.m. Pacific time. Dahl and Anderson are considering setting up viewing at Magnuson Park, and Seattle Astronomy may be down at Anchor Park at the far north end of Alki Beach Park if the weather is good. If it looks like it will be a cloudy day, we all might hit the road in search of clearer weather, because transits are cool.

“The thing that excites me the most about them is that you get to see the pieces of the solar system moving together,” Anderson said. “You get to see that the Sun has planets going around it. It’s really an amazing thing to see with your own eyes.”

“It gives you a really humbling size reference when you contrast the size of the Sun to the size of the tiny little dot,” of a transiting planet, Dahl said. “The Venus transit four years ago was awe-inspiring for me that way.”

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Local photographer published in S&T

A local astrophotographer has received a nice bit of global recognition for his excellent work. A photo of the Rosette Nebula by Matt Dahl, a co-owner of Cloud Break Optics in Seattle, has been published in the reader gallery section of the March 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. Dahl has submitted a number of photos to the magazine in the past, but this is the first time one has made it into print.

Rosette Nebula

Matt Dahl’s photo of the Rosette Nebula is included in the reader gallery section of the March 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

“It’s really neat, and a lot of people have seen it, which is cool,” he said. “It’s good exposure.”

Dahl created the photo from more than 13 hours of exposures collected over two nights about a year ago.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of time in the cold, and even more time in the warmth post-processing,” he said. “It requires a lot of time to get the detail that you want.”

“It’s definitely a process but it’s nice when it pays off,” Dahl added.

Interestingly enough, the gallery includes two shots of the Rosette, making for a nice comparison of the different results photographers can get depending on the filters they use and other techniques.

Photos, or just looking?

Dahl enjoys visual observing as well as astrophotography.

“One of the things I really like about imaging is that I have a goal and I get a product at the end,” he said. “I like the visual aspect, I like to be able to look at stuff. But there’s this whole process I go through. It’s somewhat cathartic, despite the fact that it takes a long time to do it. I really enjoy, and I find very relaxing, just sitting with my scope—or having my scope running, and sleeping!”

Dahl feels that amateur astronomers are making images that rival what professional observatories were turning out two decades ago, and they’re doing it with cameras that can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.

“The technology, both in its advancement but also in its affordability to the amateur, has been impressive,” he noted. “It’s nice to have this available as a means for enjoying the hobby.”

The March issue of Sky & Telescope is on the newsstands now. You can see some of Dahl’s other images on his Flickr page.

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Top five Seattle Astronomy stories of 2015

Happy New Year from Seattle Astronomy! We celebrate the last day of 2015 by looking back on our top five stories of the year, in chronological order.

AAS meets in Seattle

Tegmark

MIT physicist Max Tegmark speaks at the American Astronomical Society meeting Jan. 7 in Seattle.

The American Astronomical Society held its 225th meeting in Seattle in January. The AAS has been on a cycle of holding its winter meeting in town every four years, though there was talk in January of breaking that up and holding a summer meeting here so that visiting astronomers could enjoy our good weather.

The meeting included a wide variety of presentations. Among the ones we covered on Seattle Astronomy:

Astronomy on Tap Seattle

aotlogoThe organizers of Astronomy on Tap have correctly concluded that astronomy is even better with beer. A group of astronomers in New York City created Astronomy on Tap there in early 2013, and a Seattle chapter got to work beginning in March of this year. Led by a group of astronomy graduate students from the University of Washington, they’ve hosted free gatherings at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard every month since. The concept is simple: meet at a bar, have brief and informal presentations about the latest in astronomy, leave plenty of time for Q&A, and have trivia contests and prizes. It’s been so popular that Bad Jimmy’s even named a beer in honor of AoT; their new Scotch Ale is “The Big Sipper.”

AoT is a lot of fun and creates monthly topics for those who blog about astronomy. Follow our calendar, or follow AoT Seattle on Facebook or Twitter to keep in the know.

Cloud Break Optics

Cloud Break OpticsIt’s been a long time since there was an astronomy store run by and for amateur astronomers in Seattle. The drought ended in July when local astronomers Matt Dahl and Stephanie Anderson opened Cloud Break Optics in Ballard. Dahl and Anderson are experienced observers and astrophotographers with plenty of experience to share and a hands-on buying experience to offer. They sell on-line, too, but why not stop by and make some new friends and share in their expert advice?

Fiftieth anniversary of the UW Department of Astronomy

bigbangThis year was a big one for anniversaries: we celebrated 25 years of the Hubble Space Telescope, 50 years since the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, and 100 years since Einstein published his theory of relativity. It turns out the biggest bash of all locally was the 50th anniversary of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington.

The milestone was marked by a series of public events, kicked off by a lecture by renowned physicist Jim Peebles, who talked about what it was like to be on the front lines of figuring out the cosmic microwave background. The Big Bang and Beyond lecture series covered a lot of ground, and featured a guest lecture by alum and NPR commentator Adam Frank. The Origins: Life and the Universe astrobio concert married art and science in an engaging and beautiful way. If you missed the show a CD and DVD are available. We can’t wait to see what the next 50 years bring!

Apollo F-1 engines come to Seattle

Bezos injector

Bezos talks about the workings of the F-1 injector plate. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos went on a quixotic quest to find the Rocketdyne F-1 engines that launched Apollo to the Moon. He found some on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and fished them out in 2013. Last month the historic engines arrived in Seattle, donated to the Museum of Flight.

Bezos was on hand to talk about the recovery mission and unveil the engine parts. A few of the components will be on display at the museum through next Monday, Jan. 4. After that they’ll be in the museum archives until late 2016 or early 2017, when a new, permanent exhibit about the engines and Apollo will be installed.

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Gifts for the astronomy enthusiast on your list

Many Seattle Astronomy readers seem to be looking for gifts to give to the astro-enthusiasts on their lists this time of year, and often ask us for advice. We have some!

It doesn’t change much from year to year. Check our posts Gifts for the astronomy enthusiast from last year, Picking a gift for the astronomy buff from 2013, and Choosing a gift telescope from 2012. Too busy to scrape around in the past? A few quick tips:

Visit the Seattle Astronomy Store. It’s packed with our favorite gear, books we’ve read from authors we’ve interviewed, cameras, gadgets, and accessories.

Trying to pick a first telescope for someone? The book The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide (Firefly Books, 2008) by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer is a great reference, offers fantastic advice about what to consider when choosing a telescope, and makes a great gift in and of itself. It helped me get started, lo those many years ago, and I still use it often. This is the best gift for anyone who is interested in amateur astronomy, but who may not have much idea about how to get started in the hobby.

More books

It’s great to be able to read about astronomy in an area in which rain and clouds are the norm about 11 months of the year. While our store has a big selection, there are a number of good choices that are new in the last year or so, and whose authors have made presentations here in town.

What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter (Columbia University Press, 2014) by Jeffrey Bennett is a wonderfully approachable primer on a topic that many people find mind bending, perhaps just because it never gets explained so well. Pick this one up and your gift recipient will be explaining the fabric of spacetime to one and all. Bennett did an interview with us in March and spoke at the April meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. He’s been touring the country in support of the book in observance of the 100th anniversary of the Theory of Relativity.

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (Ecco, 2015). Harvard astrophysicist Lisa Randall did a talk at Town Hall Seattle in November. Her idea about how dark matter may have done in the large reptiles 65 million years ago is an interesting and relatively simple one. Her research for the next few years will be focused on trying to find evidence that her notion is valid, and that a type of particle of dark matter that reacts to “dark light” may be behind mass extinctions.

Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Author George Musser also talked at Town Hall in November and took a shot at explaining quantum entanglement. He noted that we’re starting to see the hazy outlines of an answer to questions about the how particles in different locations appear to act on each other, but adds that there are still scientists who don’t really believe that non-locality is a real thing.

After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology) and John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Both Palgrave Macmillan, 2015 and 2010, respectively). Space historian John Logsdon did two speeches in Seattle this year, one at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society back in January, and the other in June at the Museum of Flight. He insterestingly described the race to the Moon as a one-sided one that we almost lost anyway. A perfect couple of volumes for those interested in the history of space exploration.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light by Paul Bogard. This isn’t a new book, but we absolutely love it for its beautiful writing as well as its important message. Bogard spoke in Seattle two years ago and we’ve been raving about the book ever since.

Emily Lackdawalla of the Planetary Society did a post last year with suggestions for astronomy books for children, and Bennett has also done a number of acclaimed books for children, with links included at the end of our post based on our interview with him.

New experts in town

Cloud Break OpticsIf you’re looking for gear there are new experts in town to help you out. Cloud Break Optics opened earlier this year in Ballard, and it’s the first astronomy shop in town ages that is owned and operated by and for amateur astronomers. Stephanie Anderson and Matt Dahl are the proprietors, they know their stuff, and are more than happy to share. They take online orders, but why not drop by, meet some new friends, see all of those telescopes and eyepieces and gadgets in person, and buy from your local small business.

Cameras

We are decidedly not astrophotographers, but our friend The Soggy Astronomer is, and he wrote an article earlier this year about good camera choices for this aspect of the hobby. Our post gives a brief summary, and his top picks are included in our store.

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Astronomy store Cloud Break Optics opens in Ballard

For the first time that anyone can remember there is a retail shop run by and for amateur astronomers selling telescopes and astronomy gear in the City of Seattle. Cloud Break Optics opened quietly in Ballard a couple of weeks ago and is gearing up for a grand opening celebration later this month.

Cloud Break Optics

Matt Dahl and Stephanie Anderson with one of their light buckets in front of their telescope shop, Cloud Break Optics, in Ballard. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Cloud Break Optics is owned and operated by Stephanie Anderson and Matt Dahl, longtime friends and Colorado transplants who got their start in the business working at a telescope store in the Denver area. They ended up in Seattle because of astronomy, education, and love.

Both have some impressive credentials. Anderson, who got interested in space after reading an Isaac Asimov book as a kid, majored in math and physics and taught at Metropolitan State University and the University of Colorado Denver. She was working as a guide on a solar eclipse tour in 2009 when she met her future husband, a Seattle resident.

“Our first date was three weeks in China and Tibet,” Anderson said. They started up a long-distance relationship between Denver and Seattle but, one December when Anderson’s adjunct contract at Metropolitan ran out, she didn’t renew and moved to Seattle.

Dahl received his first telescope for Christmas when he was 17, and was hooked after one look at the Moon. Later Anderson sold him his first larger telescope. He started college as a music major, but eventually switched to physics.

“Basically it’s been all downhill from there,” he joked. Dahl did research on extrasolar planets and, after college, got a job at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder and worked on the Kepler mission. In 2012 his wife was admitted to a master’s program at Bastyr University in Kenmore, and they moved to Seattle. It was a bit easier having a friend, Anderson, already in town.

An astronomy hiatus

Dahl and Anderson gave up on astronomy for a while after moving to Seattle; after all, we have our reputation as a cloudy and rainy place. But a trip to the Rocky Mountain Star Stare last summer reignited their interest. They went to the Table Mountain Star Party as well last year, and some old ideas resurfaced.

“Throughout our friendship we’d always kicked around this idea of owning a telescope store,” Dahl said. Late last summer, they decided to do it. Anderson explained there were two main factors that led to their leap.

“One was the realization that you really don’t actually have to go that far in the wintertime in order to have a nice, clear sky,” she said. They figured out local weather patterns and learned that things were better in Eastern Washington. “We realized we really weren’t traveling further than we were in Colorado to get a good, dark sky.”

The second was a practical matter that sprung from their renewed interest in observing.

“We really didn’t have a place we could go locally,” Anderson said, to make a quick pick-up of a key piece of gear they needed for an observing session. “We thought there would be a niche to fill.”

Experience counts

A big part of that niche is their personal knowledge and experience, according to Dahl.

“We each have hauled many a telescope from one location to another, and observed with different types of telescopes, imaged with different types of telescopes,” Dahl said. “We have a slew of knowledge in our back pockets. A lot of astronomy is getting that jump start from somebody who had done it before.”

“If your first observing experience is a pleasant one because you know how to operate your telescope and you have an instrument that will show you what you think it will show you, you are far more likely to stay in the hobby,” he added.

Anderson noted that sometimes the personal touch is the only way to go.

“A German equatorial mount is very confusing to someone who has never seen one before,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to learn on your own. You need someone to show you and explain what the theory is behind it.”

File Aug 02, 3 58 42 PM

The author shot this photo of the Sun using an iPhone attachment to a solar scope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The hands-on approach is important. As we talked about their plans for the shop we discussed astrophotography and the challenges I’ve had getting good photos with my smartphone. We soon had a solar telescope set up in the Cloud Break Optics parking lot and I was taking pics with the help of a nifty phone attachment. You get a better sense for the various telescopes and gear when you can actually see them, touch them, and use them. You just can’t get that experience online.

The challenges of a brick-and-mortar store

Anderson and Dahl recognize that a huge chunk of the sales of astronomy gear these days happens online, and so they are doing Internet sales and shipping globally.

“We have to compete in that market,” Dahl explained. “At the same time we wanted to provide a customer service experience” for people local to the Seattle area.

“We want them to come into the shop, talk to us, give them the advice and the expertise and the knowledge that we have,” he said. “At the same time we can provide as much of that as possible on our website.”

You can follow Cloud Break Optics on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Drop by the shop at 2821 NW Market Street in Ballard, and watch for news of their upcoming grand opening celebration. They’ll be at Table Mountain again next week, this time with their vendor hats on. We expect they’ll work in a little observing as well.

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