Monday, December 22, 2008

The Star of Bethlehem

I begin this blog entry with Bible scripture concerning the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew.


Chapter 2
1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
2. "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him."
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared;
8 and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him."
9 When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy;
11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.


The Star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Jesus Christ and then guided the wise men to find Him. The origin of Bethlehem's Star has long been the topic of discussion to scientists, astronomers, theologians and curious folks like us ever since the event occurred.

I watched a Science Channel special on the origin of the Bethlehem Star tonight and will share some of their conclusions.

First off, I must say that the show was very respectful to the birth of Jesus. Unlike the atheistic dribble that the National Geographic channel puts out in their religious programs, this show never casts doubt on the existence of Jesus or his birth. Thank you Science Channel for respecting our right to 'believe'. Anyhow, on to the origin of the Star of Bethlehem.

There are several theories regarding the origin of the Star that announced Jesus birth, so in no particular order here are the four most prominent:

Theory 1: A Comet

Some experts believe the Bethlehem Star to be a comet traveling through the solar system. Could be, but for certain it is not Halley's Comet or other 'known' ice balls. It could have been a comet that only passed through the solar system one time, and having fulfilled its purpose (announcing Jesus birth) may never be seen again.

Theory 2: An Alignment of Planets

Astronomers have calculated the placement of the planets for the past several thousand years. Some believe the Bethlehem Star to be a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that occurred near the time Jesus was born. An alignment of the two gas-giant planets would be spectacular, may be visible for several months and could catch the eye of Magi (wise men).

Theory 3: Dancing Moons & Planets

Another scientist believed it was Jupiter playing hide and seek with the Moon and going through a retrograde (backward) orbit where it would appear to stand still for several weeks. Naaaa! I didn't buy that one either.

Besides, if the wise men went from Persia (modern day Iran) to Bethlehem every time a planet did a dance in the sky, they would earn a lot of 'frequent camel miles'. The planets routinely perform retrograde orbits and play peek-a-boo with the Moon. Nothing noteworthy for announcing the birth of the Savior of all mankind.

The Star of Bethlehem had to be much more special to catch the eye of wise men from the East.

Theory 4: An Exploding Star (Nova)

One British scientist believes the Star of Bethlehem was a Nova. Hmmm! Now that is quite possible. Only one problem: "Which one of the quadruple billions of stars could it be ?

A strong candidate is Nova 60 1927 Aql. So where in the cosmos is this star, and why suspect it over all others ?

Nova 60 1927 Aql is a binary star (two stars locked in orbit around one another) located in the constellation Aquila. The star went nova (exploded) in 1927.

One reason stars in binary systems go Nova is because they syphon 'matter' off the other star in the binary (An example of a binary star system is pictured below). In these binary systems, a red or yellow star is locked in orbit with a white dwarf. The white dwarf gets has a veracious appetite and draws matter from the red or yellow star. When the white dwarf reaches critical mass (cannot hold any more matter) it explodes to shed the extra matter. Stars can go nova several times in their lives before going super-nova where they have one giant, final explosion.

Nova explosions can occur every 10, 100, 1000 or more years. When stars go nova, the visible light from the explosion can be seen for days, weeks or months before fizzling out.

The reason Nova 60 1927 Aql is a good candidate is because it is a known nova and it is located in a part of the sky that would be located in the Eastern sky about the time Jesus was born. It would also be located directly overhead when the wise men would have arrived in Bethlehem to worship the King of Kings.

One Final Theory:

Then again, the Star of Bethlehem could have been a special sign from God that science will never explain. Besides, the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a matter of faith and not of science.

Following is a picture of the Northern Cross I took in Spring 2008. This region of the sky includes the constellation Aquila. Nova 60 1927 would be located just left of center of the picture.

Merry Christmas



Monday, December 8, 2008

Conjunction Junction

If you noticed two bright stars near the moon on the evening of December 1st, what you saw was a conjunction of the the crescent-Moon and planets Venus (the brighter object) and Jupiter.

The alignment of the two planets (from Earth's perspective) will not occur again until 2015.

In case you missed it here is a picture I took of the event from northern-Virginia.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Finally! A Clear Night

If you live in Northern Virginia and are sick of the cloudiness, I apologize. It was all my fault. How dare I buy a new telescope and hope for clear skies to actually enjoy the darn thing.

A couple nights ago the clouds parted, so I high-tailed it outside to do some star-gazing. I squeezed in a couple hours of observing time before the clouds rolled in.

Here are some pictures from my outing.

M34 (Open Cluster )is located in the constellation Perseus. M34 is 1,400 light years from Earth and contains around 100 stars.

M39 (Open Cluster) is located in the constellation Cygnus. The object is an estimated 800 Light Years from Earth.

M42 (The Great Orion Nebula) is the brightest diffuse nebula visible from Earth. Located on the sword of the constellation Orion, M42 is a favorite target for amateur and professional astronomers alike.

-For the amateur, M42 can make even the cheapest telescope look good.

-For the professional, M42 is one of the most active star-forming regions in the night sky.

@@ Weather permitting I will photograph the entire Orion Nebula some evening and post a special blog featuring M42's many treasures.

M45 (The Pleiades) is a prominent Fall and Winter open cluster that is located in the constellation Taurus. M45 is also called the "Seven Sisters" named for the seven hot blue-stars that dominate the cluster.

M31 (Andromeda Galaxy) is a favorite target of mine. Visible from early Fall to late Winter, this galaxy is a popular target of astronomers, because it is easy to find and is visible in even cheap, department store telescopes. Within proximity of M31 are M110 (looks like a bright-fuzzy star just left of M31) and M32 (faint galaxy to the lower-right of M31). You will see me include many pictures of M31 in my postings.

Hope you enjoy the images as much as I did taking them.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Second Glance

First Light with my new telescope was great, but not ideal because of haze and humidity in the air, along with light from a Hunters Moon. I had a chance to go out again the night of October 19th. I took additional pictures of M31/M110, M32, M33, and the Double Cluster (NGC869 & NGC884). They turned out much better without all the light pollution. Here are the pictures.

This picture of M31 (galaxy at left), M110 (appears as a star in M31's star cloud) and M32 (smaller galaxy to the right of M31) is untouched and unmodified. I should get better shots as I learn to track better, because I will be able to take longer exposures.

M33, The Pinwheel Galaxy actually showed up in the frame, which even surprized me. There is a lot of light pollution in my neighborhood, so it is almost impossible to see faint objects when viewing from my front yard. I eneded up shooting this picture in the dark, and was surprised when M33 appeared in the frame.

This 1.5 minute exposure of NGC869 (half of the Double Cluster) reveals many more stars than my original picture taken 10/11/08. (See my previous posting)

This 1.5 minute exposure of NGC884 (other half of the Double Cluster) reveals many more stars than my original picture taken 10/11/08. (See my previous posting)

All in all it was a successful evening under the stars. I will post more as time permits. I hope to catch Jupiter and Venus later in the week.

Enjoying Clear Skies!


P.S. - I have to pick a new name, because my wife said StarPilot sounds corny. Actually, she said it sounded 'gay'. I am taking suggestions.

Jim a.k.a. (soon to be formerly) StarPilot


Sunday, October 12, 2008

First Light with the Orion (Celestron) 9.25" SCT

First Light with the Orion 9.25" Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope (made by Celestron) actually occured a week ago at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club - Star Gaze 2008.

That night, I did not take any astro pictures, but instead enjoyed looking at deep space and solar system objects with my new telescope tube.

The views were beyond my expectations, and better than anything I have owned before.

First Light was on Jupiter as twilight gave way to night. The atmospheric bands were clearly visible, but alaas the Great Red Spot was on the other side of the planet. Other objects that I viewed were M8&M20, M16, M17, M31, M32, NGC869&NGC884 (Double Cluster), M11 and of course, the Moon.

The most spectacular sight was M11 (The Wild Duck Cluster). I had a Baader Hyperion 17mm eyepiece attached at the time, and many attendees could not believe the clarity of the stars, and even saw deep into the clusters center. They felt like they were walking in space.

On Saturday, Octover 11th I finally had a chance to test the Orion 9.25" SCT's astrophotography abilities. I was dealing with a near-full Moon and haze in the sky, along with some dew on the corrector lens, so the pictures aren't the greatest. Also, I only took 30-second shots, which do not bring out faint deep-space objects.

Below, are a few shots that I took. (Click on the pictures for a larger image)

This has to be the most crisp Moon picture I have ever taken.

NGC869 is one of two star clusters visible in what is called the Double Cluster. This was a 30-second shot. An exposure of 1 - 2 minutes would reveal several more faint stars.

NGC884 is the other star cluster visible in the Double Cluster.

The last picture is of one of my favorite space objects: The Andromeda Galaxy. This galaxy is our closest neighbor and is made up of three galaxies. The bright main galaxy, M31 is at-left, M110, a small galaxy is a faint object 1inch to the left of M31. M32 is a small galaxy on the right-side of the picture. A longer exposure on a moonless night will reveal much more detail on all three galaxies. The hazy granular texture on M31 is caused by dew forming on the corrector lens.

As time permits, I will take additional pictures with my old and new telescope and add them to this Blog.

Clear Skies!



Friday, September 19, 2008

Milky Way Galaxy

Northern Virginia is not the best place to view the Milky Way Galaxy, but if you get 20-30 miles west of the city lights, you will be amazed at how much of the Milky Way you can see with the naked eye.

The following three pictures were taken at Crockett Park in Fauquier County, VA on a clear, moonless night on August 31st, 2008.

Picture: Milky Way 1 (Taken looking at the Southern horizon to about 25 degrees skyward)

Picture: Milky Way 2 (Taken looking midway between the Southern horizon and straight overhead)

Picture: Milky Way 3 (Picture taken looking straight overhead)

My primary goal that night was astrophotography, but I'll admit the exposure time on some astro photos ran much longer than I intended, because I was lost in daydreams, or in this case, nightdreams looking at the Milky Way.

For the record, the Milky Way Galaxy contains between 200-400 billion stars and is home to our solar system.

Our star 'Sol' (The Sun) is classified a G2 star, meaning it has a surface temperature of 5740 Kelvin (that's hot). Sol is one of 10 Million G2 stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Our solar system is not located in the center of the Milky Way, but rather on the edge of a small spiral band called the Orion Arm. You can equate that to the galactic center of the galaxy being downtown, and our solar system being in the distant suburbs.

The following picture is an artists conception of what the scientific community believes the Milky Way Galaxy looks like. Of course we cannot know for sure, because we live inside and cannot see an external view.

Recent estimates put the Milky Way at 100,000 light years (ly) in diameter and 1,000 ly thick, which means it would take a human 100,000 years traveling at the speed of light to traverse the galaxy from end to end. NOT GONNA HAPPEN!

With current technology, we can travel at a scant 20,000 Miles per Hour. To travel at the speed of light we would have to travel at 186,000 Miles per Second. Even at that speed it would take 1,333 human lifetimes to travel the galaxy end to end. Guess we're stuck with artists pictures of the Milky Way.

The spiral band seen in my pictures is the Orion Arm. The brightest star cloud in picture "Milky Way 1" points toward the galactic center of the galaxy. The Orion Arm blocks us from seeing glactic center with optical telescopes, however scientists have a better idea what the Milky Way looks like by measuring radio waves. Google 'Milky Way' to find a lot of great on our home galaxy.

We are very blessed to be located where we are in the Milky Way, because:

- If we were closer to the galactic center of the Milky Way we likely wouldn't exist because of massive doses of radiation preventing life (as we know it) from thriving. Too, the glare from the glactic center would keep us from seeing anything else in the universe.

- Since we are on the outer edge of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way we have an unobstructed view of many parts of the universe. Had we been located farther inside the Orion Arm, space dust and millions of bright stars would have impeded our view of the universe.

Hope you enjoyed my quick drive-by tour of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Clear Skies

Star Pilot


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Summertime ...

Ok... Sing this 1950's song along with me ...

Summertime, Summertime, Summertime, Summertime
Summertime ... Summertime ... Bah Boom Boom Boom

I know it has been a while since I have blogged, but the last place you are going to catch me during the summer is in front of the computer. After work I am usually enjoying the outdoors, whether doing yard work, sitting on the deck or peering though my telescope.

I will update my blog after Labor Day weekend. Until then, I will be playing ball with my Granddaughter, chillin' in the pool with my Grandson and hangin' with my peeps ... uh Geese in this case.

Enjoy your summer.


P.S. - If I get a chance I will try and add some pictures and content to my Messier Catalog Blog.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Just Because ...

I haven't had the opportunity to do any viewing in quite some time because of cloud cover and good ole' Northern Virginia summer haze and humidity (smog).

Soooooo ... here is a photo I took of a half-moon on the night of June 24th (actually taken at 2AM on June 25th) at the end of a 4-hour astrophotography session.

News Flash ...Check out my newest Blog, titled the Messier Catalog Blog. It features pictures I have taken of all 110 Messier Deep Space Objects. My oldest daughter Jacki created a very cool looking graphics header for the Blog.

The link to the new Blog is:

Hoping for clear, non-hazy skies.



Monday, June 30, 2008

The Light Spectrum

Sometimes things just don't work out.

In my case, months of uncooperative weather has limited the number of times I have been able to use my telescope.

Soooooooo, when the stars are blocked an amateur astronomer has to make the best of it and think in terms of glass-half-full.

Tonite it was cloudy and rainy, but we did have a great rainbow provided by our star "Sol' (Picture).

Eventually, there will be Clear Skies!



Thursday, June 26, 2008

Blinded By The Light

The Milky Way Galaxy as viewed from 'light polluted' northern Virginia.

The Milky Way Galaxy viewed from Utah.

I took the first picture in my front yard in northern Virginia. The second picture was taken by an amateur astronomer in Utah. Sadly, light pollution is washing out the wonders in the heavens that we could be seeing.

Light pollution is a big problem in any populated area. Our area used to be known as rural, but the constant spread of population from Washington, D.C. has turned Warrenton into just another suburb.

In order to see sights like the second picture, I would have to move to a very rural location. Seems to me that during an energy crisis like the one we are currently in, one way to conserve a significant amount of fuel would be to tone down the lights to a reasonable level.

Following is a link to the international dark sky organization, a group that is trying to reclaim the night sky. They are not like the fanatical environmentalists who are telling us to live in caves, but are a practical organization that is trying to urge communities to tone the lights down to reasonable levels.

Also check out the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club 'Light Pollution' page to find out what that group is doing to reclaim the night sky.

Hoping for Clear and Dark Skies



Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Greetings From Jupiter!

Since getting into the backyard astronomy hobby, I have been trying to get a descent picture of Jupiter.

This time of year one has to be dedicated to the task, becuase the big 'Gas Giant' does not rise in Virginia until 12:30AM.

I had nothing better to do one night, so I stayed up for "Jupiter Rise". It was worth the wait. A new moon and low humidity were factors in allowing me to get my best glimpse of Jupiter ever in my telescope.

Viewing an object is one challenge, but getting a good picture is another.

The first two pictures show a close-up of Jupiter to include Red, Orange and White lines. Unfortunately, the Great Red Spot is not visible this time of year.

The third picture shows Jupiter and four of the planets 50+ moons.

I took the pictures using the AFocal photography method. I focused Jupiter in my telescope using a 5mm eyepiece, then took the picture of the image in the eyepiece using my Nikon D80 & 50mm lens on a separate tripod.

Next stop: "Saturn"



Thursday, June 5, 2008

International Space Station Passage - June 5th, 2008

The International Space Station (ISS) passed over the Washington D.C. area at 2200-2202 EDT on June 5th. Shown above is the picture I took.

The ISS travelled left-to-right . The bright star 'at Left' is Polaris (North Star) and the bright star 'at Right' is Vega in the constellation Lyra.

My camera was configured as follows:

Camera: Nikon D80
Mount: Tripod
Lens: 18-55mm @18mm (F/3.5)
Sensitivity: ISO-800
Exposure: 75 Seconds

I shared the experience with my Mom in Cleveland, OH by calling her prior to the passage, and she was able to see it from that location as well. She was thrilled.

Until Next Time!

Star Pilot


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kitchen Pass + Nature Pass = New Pictures!

Observation Log for May 12th, 2008

My 'Young Bride' gave me a Kitchen Pass on an evening when the sky was clear after 1 month of cloudy nights. Consequently, I was able to view and photograph some celestial objects.

Viewing conditions weren't the greatest. There was an abundance of moisture in the air that reflected light from a half-Moon. As a result, most deep space objects were washed out with light, but who am I to complain. At least it was clear.

Here are a few of the pictures that turned out:

M57 (The Ring Nebula) is at lower left and Beta Lyra (Sheliak) is at upper right. M57 is a planetary nebula (gas remnants of a star that went super nova). Beta Lyrae (Sheliak) is a group of eclipsing binary stars that ar locked in one anothers gravitational fields.

Mizar & Alcor Binary Stars:
The Double Star in the Big Dipper portion of Ursa Major is actually multiple binary stars.
The star at upper-center is actually a binary pair named Mizar A (magnitude 2.2) and Mizar B (magnitude 4). Mizar B is not visible in this picture. The star at lower-center is Alcor (magnitude 4). The star at right-of-center is Sidus Ludoviciana (magnitude 8). I will try and split the Mizar binaries in a future viewing session.

M3 Globular Cluster in the constellation Canes Venatici.

M13 Globular Cluster in the constellation Hercules.

M5 Globular Cluster in the constellation Serpens Caput.

M12 globular Cluster in the constellation Ophiuchus.

M10 Globular Cluster in the constellation Ophiuchus.

Meteorites @@@@@@

@ The Mars Phoenix probe landed successfully on the Martian surface on Sunday, May 25th, 2008. Link:

@@ COOL DOWNLOAD - Microsoft has launched an interactive planetarium website. If you don't have a telescope, use this website to explore the heavens. Very, very cool!

@@@ Good News! In June, when the ISS can be next viewed in the D.C. area, one of the NBC4 meteorologists may use my ISS photo (See my previous Blog) as an example of what local viewers can see when the ISS passes overhead.

Praying for Clear Skies!



Thursday, May 22, 2008

International Space Station Passage - May 22nd, 2008

The International Space Station (ISS) passed over our local area tonight (05/22/2008), and for once it was NOT cloudy. Above is the picture I took at 21:32 EDT as the ISS passed through the Big Dipper portion of Ursa Major. I used a tripod so there is some star trailing.

It was beautiful seeing the ISS pass from South to North along the meridian.

Here are the camera settings I used to compose the picture:

Mount: Tripod
Camera: Nikon D80
Lens: 50mm F/1.8 @ F/3.5
ISO Sensitivity: 400
Exposure: 40 Seconds
Time: 21:32 EDT

Three of four stars in the 'Cup' of the Big Dipper and two stars in the 'Handle' are visible.


Star Pilot


Monday, April 14, 2008

"Night Under the Stars" (April 12th, 2008)

Moon near Half-phase

Leo Triplet Galaxies M65, M66 and NGC3628

M3 Globular Star Cluster

M13 Globular Star Cluster

M37 Star Cluster

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy

M81 and M82 Galaxies

I attended my first Norther Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) event on Saturday, April 12th. It was a public viewing event at Crocket Park in Fauquier County, Va . At these events, astronomy club members set up telescopes for the public to view celestial objects . It is a good way to get more people involved in astronomy.

When I arrived at 8PM the temperature was 75F with no wind. By 10:30PM the wind became gusty (15-20MPH with higher gusts) and the temperature dropped to 48F. Glad I brought my 'Hoodie', because I needed it.

I had a chance to give public viewers a tour of the night sky by guiding my telescope at: Saturn, The Great Orion Nebula (M42), Galaxies M81 & M82 (in Ursa Major),
Globular Star Clusters ( M3 and M13) and Open Star Cluster M36, M37, M38 and M45 (The Pleiades).

By 11PM most public viewers departed, so I took the opportunity to do some astrophotography. Viewing and photography conditions were not the best, but this being the first cloudless night in weeks, I was not going to complain.

The posted pictures are not the best quality, because the wind was blowing my telescope around, and moisture in the upper atmosphere reflected a lot of light from an exceptionally bright Half-Moon.

Quote of the Day:
Astronomy's much more fun when you're not an astronomer!