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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Observing Log - Star Date: 8/30/2010 - Monday Night

10:40PM - 12:15AM (Tuesday, 8/31/2010), IDT
Temperature: Comfortable, becoming cool as dew began falling
Transparency: Excellent
Seeing: 8 out of 10

We were back at the Alpaca Farm parking lot, surprised to see clouds in the sky as we began to set up. Clouds on the horizon were heavyish, moving quickly from north to south. Winds were moderate out of the NW. This was the first night I felt uncomfortably cool in shorts and short-sleeves as the night progressed. Fortunately, after about 45 minutes all clouds cleared and we were greeted by an immaculate desert sky. The 70% illuminated waning moon of Elul had just begun to rise above the hills of the hidden valley where the Alpaca Farm lies nestled. Although low and gibbous, it's light was enough to block any promise of deep sky viewing. So we turned our scope, an 80mm William Optics Megrez II on a Takahashi Porta Mount to Jupiter and later the Moon.

Jupiter was excellent with the North Equatorial Band easily visible with some divisions. The South Equatorial Band has all but disappeared, but many other bands were visible in blue-gray colors up and down the planet. The darkening and banding of the North and South Polar Zones was readily visible. The best magnification we used was around 125x-150x. I tried out my relatively new University Optics orthoscopic eyepieces and was very pleased with their performance. If you don't insist on seeing their full field of view, which you don't really need for planetary viewing anyway, the eye relief is more than adequate. And since they don't suffer from field black out, it is quite easy to pull one's head way back and enjoy the excellent quality central views of these eyepieces. The surrounding sky is also quite dark, due to their excellent contrast. These may become my new favorite planetary eyepieces. Below is a photo by Brazilian amateur Rafael Defavari with a 90mm WO Megrez refractor which is pretty much the view we had through my slightly smaller scope.

Jupiter by Rafael Defavari, Brazil

Although I was getting somewhat tired, we decided to try the moon, which had since risen much higher in the sky. The waning, gibbous illumination was perfect for the crater Plato and its surroundings, including the Alpine Valley, and dramatic Mount Piton. This unattributed photo is pretty much what Plato looked like last night, except our views were much sharper.

Unattributed photo of the walled plain Plato, with Piton prominent at 6:00.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Our Photo of the Venus-Mars-Saturn Triangle is #1 in Sky and Telescope's Gallery!

We are very proud to announce that our photo of this summer's Venus-Mars-Saturn triangle, best seen in early August, was chosen as the top photo for Sky and Telescopes's user gallery!

See it here.


Observing Log - Star Date: 8/25/2010 - Weds. - The Full Moon of Elul

We took to the desert near the Alpaca Farm tonight to observe the full moon and Jupiter. I had also wanted to see how much damage the light of the ful moon would do the dark skies around Mitzpe Ramon.

We were not disappointed.

The full moon was so bright that we could easily see details on the ground all the way to the horizon and to the rim of the hills that surround the hidden valley where the Alpaca Farm is located. It reminded me why the Indians never attacked the fort in the old Westerns on nights of the full moon. Every move could be easily seen.

The full moon's bright light also did a job on the starry sky. Only the brightest stars were visible, the Milky Way completely obliterated by the light of the moon. We shall have to give up deep sky observing during these full moon nights in the desert.

I brought my William Optics Megrez 80mm telescope for its first trial in the desert. I really love the Megrez line of telescopes from WO. The optics are excellent and the mechanics are far beyond what anyone might hope for in a telescope in this price range. The telescope did not disappoint us. Of course, during the full moon, what is most observable are the ray systems of the bright craters like Tycho, and we could trace them almost all the way across the lunar surface. 

Next we pointed the telescope at Jupiter. After progressively raising the magnification to about 125x we could see great detail in the equatorial belts, with the north belt being much more prominent, as well as the North and South polar zones which were heavily banded. The biggest treat of the night was spotting the shadow of Jupiter's moon Io as it transited the planet. These shadows are always astonishingly dark, completely black, and as sharp as a pin prick. As we observed over the course of an hour we could easily see the shadow move slowly across the disc of the planet, some 365 million miles distant. So far, yet seemingly so near in our telescope.

As we were beginning to wind up, we were joined by three of the guard dogs from the Alpaca Farm, who mercifully decided our astronomical activities were no threat to their charges, so they left us alone to go about our business.

The desert at night around Mitzpe Ramon is cool with a breeze usually blowing. The seeing here is extraordinary, with objects scarcely moving at all under high power in the telescope. It is excellent for high magnification, detailed views of the planets. We shall be adding them to our observing program.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Week

The lensing galaxy cluster Abell 1689 in the constellation Virgo. Purple overlay shows hypothesized dark matter required to create the lensing effects observed.

Abell 1689, lensing galaxy cluster in Virgo, 2.2 billion light years distant. Hubble Space Telescope. (Click for full-size image.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What We Offer


The Night Sky - Nature’s own Planetarium

Welcome to nature’s planetarium, the night sky of Mitzpe Ramon. Let us take you on a guided tour of the heaven as you have never seen it before. From the dark skies here we will show you how to find the constellations, identify bright stars and experience  the sky’s wonders with our telescopes. See the star clouds of the Milky Way, observe planets and discover celestial marvels. Ages 10 and up.

Custom tours available upon special request for individuals or groups. Call or send email for details.

What:   Guided tours of the night sky from the clearest, darkest skies in Israel
When:   Every night, except Friday and Holidays
Where: The dark skies around Mitzpe Ramon
Time: One hour after sunset, two after Shabbat
Reservations: Call 052-544-9789 for reservations
Web site:
Who: Ira Machefsky, 40+ years of astronomy experience

New Promotional Flyer

Thanks to everyone who provided feedback. This is the now final version of the flyer:

Click for full-size image.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Please Comment on our New Promotional Flyer

I have developed a new flyer for Astronomy Israel that I would like to post around town to promote our sky tours. Before I do so, any comments would be appreciated. Thanks.

Astronomy Israel promotional flyer

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Venus, Mars and Saturn Above Mitzpe Ramon

Venus, Mars and Saturn have been putting on quite a show in the July and August skies, the three planets dancing around each other with closest approach occurring on the night of August 8, the three then fitting within a 5 degree circle.

You don't need fancy astronomical equipment to capture the beauty of this spectacle to look back on or share with your friends. I took the photos below from various places in Mitzpe Ramon using a simple pocket digital camera and tripod. Almost everyone has a digital camera these days, and if you are interested in astronomy a good tripod is a must, sooner or later, whether for sky photos or small telescopes or a binocular.

There is lots of advice for buying telescopes on line, but not much for tripods. Without giving it a review, I will just state that the little-known Tiltall Tripod, which used to carry the Leica imprint, is the best small tripod I have ever used, bar none. It is simple, very strong, light weight and fool proof. Just get it. You won't be sorry. And it's just $99. You could spend $500+ and not get a better one.

The most important feature for a pocket digital camera for night sky photography is a manual setting for focus, aperture, and length of exposure. Lacking this, you can frequently make do by setting the auto-exposure to underexpose by at least two stops. The night sky easily fools auto-exposure systems into over-exposing the scene, since the auto-exposure algorithm wants to make a very dark scene as bright as day. Some pocket digital cameras have a "scene mode" that includes a "Night Sky" choice, but I find that even this tends to over expose the sky and stars. With no manual focus you will have to focus on some object in the distance and then recompose to properly frame the scene. I find this to be the biggest draw back for pocket digital cameras that don't have manual focus.

I use the Leica D-Lux 4, but this is exactly the same camera as the more affordably priced Panasonic DMC-LX3, both of which I highly recommend as affordable, very capable pocket digital cameras for night sky photography.

Short exposures at ISO settings of 400 and a length of time of under 60 seconds work well. This time interval is short enough so that the stars do not trail badly, but still makes stars and nebulae bright enough to see, I use Google's free Picasa photo editing software to put the final touches on my photos, including labels if so desired. It's free and very easy to use.

My first photo for the Venus-Mars-Saturn apparition was taken on August 5 at 7:52 PM in the field across the street from the Cafeneto. Here the three planets appear as an isosceles triangle, with Saturn at tthe apex.

ISO 200, f5, 20 sec. Zaniah and Zavijava are stars in the 
constellation Virgo. Spica is the brightest star in Virgo.

Three nights later on August 8, when the planets were closest together, they form a 
right angle, Venus having moved beneath Saturn, and the distance between Mars 
and Saturn having somewhat widened. This photo was taken in front of the Machtesh
Ramon Visitor Center, with the town of Mitzpe Ramon, including its iconic water 
tower, below.

ISO 200, f2.8, 13 sec.

One night later, on August 9, I moved to the dark skies of the high desert near the 
Alpaca Farm, to capture this view of the planets at 8:33 PM. Now the three planets 
form almost an isosceles triangle, with the apex, Venus, at the bottom.

ISO 200, f5, 15 sec.

Tonight, August 10, the three planets formed an almost perfect isosceles triangle.
The photo below was also taken in the high desert by the Alpaca Farm, just a
5 minute drive outside of Mitzpeh Ramon. The Alpaca Farm sits in a hidden valley
behind Mitzpe Ramon, whose sodium vapor lights' glow can still be seen from
here, along with some random lights from the farm. Despite this, I can easily see
5th magnitude stars from the Alpaca Farm, and the Milky Way is a splendid cartwheel
over head and down into Sagittarius and Scorpio.

ISO 400, f2.5, 15 sec.

Above we see the beautiful hills of the high desert around Mitzpe Ramon during late dusk,
around 8:30 PM. The celestial trio will continue putting on its show throughout August.
Go outside and watch, and see what you can capture with your digital camera and tripod.
On the night of August 12 you will also be able to see the Perseids meteor shower,
the best and most reliable of the year. We are in for some real celestial treats this week.

Mitzpe Ramon is a beautiful place for doing astronomy.

Joint us, won't you?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Celestial Trio of Planets Puts on Spectacular Show

Venus has been putting on a magnificent display this spring and summer as the bright, shinning beacon of the Evening Star, visible in the west at dusk and just after sunset. It has been one of the brightest objects in the evening sky at magnitude -4.5. During the first and second week of August it will be joined by a close, visual conjunction of two additional planets, Mars and Saturn.

This trio of Venus, Mars and Saturn will be visible together in the west just after dusk in the evening sky throughout the first two weeks of August. On the night of August 7th, the three bright planets will be visible closest together within a 5 degree circle, basically half the length of a fist outstretched at arm's length against the evening sky. This close visual conjunction of the three planets is rarely seen and will form a beautiful sight in the darkening western sky after sunset. It will be fascinating to watch the planets change position relative to each other and the surrounding stars as the month of August progresses.

Venus, Mars and Saturn will be visible just after sunset in the west within a 5 degree circle on the night of August 7, bracketed by the bright stars Zavijava and Zaniah in the constellation Virgo. (Courtesy Starry Night Software.)

On the night of August 12 the trio will be joined by the slivery, new, crescent Moon, adding another beauty mark to the lovely scene in the west. This is the night of the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, so this combination will serve as an early treat to the splendors of the meteor shower to come later that night. Depending on how hazy your horizon is, you may need binoculars to see the three planets, as Mars, especially, will be much dimmer that Venus and Saturn. 

See if you can tell the very subtle differences in color among the three planets. Venus will be pure white, while Mars should be slightly ruddy and Saturn slightly dusky yellow. These colors are very subtle and difficult to see, typically taking a great deal of practice to discern. Although we use regular color names to describe colors of celestial objects, typically to the naked eye these colors are very subtle shades when compared to their more obvious daylight counterparts. Still it is good observational training to look for these color differences. They will considerably enhance your enjoyment of the night sky.

The night sky of Mitzpe Ramon is typically dark and clear, so if you are coming down to view the Perseids meteor shower, you will have this additional splendor to enjoy while waiting for full darkness to bring out the best in the Perseids.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Sunrise/Sunset and Moonrise/Moonset Times for Mitzpe Ramon, Israel; August 2010

August 2010
Mitzpe Ramon, Israel

Twi: 5:32am
Sunrise: 5:58am
Sunset: 7:36pm
Twi: 8:03pm
Moonrise: 10:47pm
Moonset: 11:28am

Twi: 5:33am
Sunrise: 5:59am
Sunset: 7:36pm
Twi: 8:02pm
Moonrise: 11:21pm
Moonset: 12:24pm

Twi: 5:33am
Sunrise: 5:59am
Sunset: 7:35pm
Twi: 8:01pm
Moonrise: none
Moonset: 1:23pm
Last Qtr: 6:59am

Twi: 5:34am
Sunrise: 6:00am
Sunset: 7:34pm
Twi: 8:00pm
Moonrise: 12:01am
Moonset: 2:23pm

Twi: 5:35am
Sunrise: 6:01am
Sunset: 7:33pm
Twi: 7:59pm
Moonrise: 12:47am
Moonset: 3:24pm

Twi: 5:35am
Sunrise: 6:01am
Sunset: 7:32pm
Twi: 7:58pm
Moonrise: 1:41am
Moonset: 4:23pm

Twi: 5:36am
Sunrise: 6:02am
Sunset: 7:32pm
Twi: 7:57pm
Moonrise: 2:43am
Moonset: 5:18pm

Twi: 5:37am
Sunrise: 6:03am
Sunset: 7:31pm
Twi: 7:56pm
Moonrise: 3:50am
Moonset: 6:09pm

Twi: 5:37am
Sunrise: 6:03am
Sunset: 7:30pm
Twi: 7:56pm
Moonrise: 5:01am
Moonset: 6:54pm

Twi: 5:38am
Sunrise: 6:04am
Sunset: 7:29pm
Twi: 7:55pm
Moonrise: 6:13am
Moonset: 7:35pm
New Moon: 5:09am

Twi: 5:39am
Sunrise: 6:04am
Sunset: 7:28pm
Twi: 7:54pm
Moonrise: 7:24am
Moonset: 8:13pm

Twi: 5:40am
Sunrise: 6:05am
Sunset: 7:27pm
Twi: 7:53pm
Moonrise: 8:34am
Moonset: 8:50pm

Twi: 5:40am
Sunrise: 6:06am
Sunset: 7:26pm
Twi: 7:52pm
Moonrise: 9:42am
Moonset: 9:26pm

Twi: 5:41am
Sunrise: 6:06am
Sunset: 7:25pm
Twi: 7:51pm
Moonrise: 10:49am
Moonset: 10:04pm

Twi: 5:42am
Sunrise: 6:07am
Sunset: 7:24pm
Twi: 7:49pm
Moonrise: 11:55am
Moonset: 10:45pm

Twi: 5:42am
Sunrise: 6:08am
Sunset: 7:23pm
Twi: 7:48pm
Moonrise: 1:00pm
Moonset: 11:30pm
First Qtr: 8:15pm

Twi: 5:43am
Sunrise: 6:08am
Sunset: 7:22pm
Twi: 7:47pm
Moonrise: 2:02pm
Moonset: none

Twi: 5:44am
Sunrise: 6:09am
Sunset: 7:21pm
Twi: 7:46pm
Moonrise: 2:59pm
Moonset: 12:18am

Twi: 5:44am
Sunrise: 6:09am
Sunset: 7:20pm
Twi: 7:45pm
Moonrise: 3:51pm
Moonset: 1:11am

Twi: 5:45am
Sunrise: 6:10am
Sunset: 7:19pm
Twi: 7:44pm
Moonrise: 4:37pm
Moonset: 2:07am

Twi: 5:45am
Sunrise: 6:11am
Sunset: 7:18pm
Twi: 7:43pm
Moonrise: 5:17pm
Moonset: 3:03am

Twi: 5:46am
Sunrise: 6:11am
Sunset: 7:17pm
Twi: 7:42pm
Moonrise: 5:53pm
Moonset: 4:00am

Twi: 5:47am
Sunrise: 6:12am
Sunset: 7:16pm
Twi: 7:41pm
Moonrise: 6:25pm
Moonset: 4:55am

Twi: 5:47am
Sunrise: 6:12am
Sunset: 7:15pm
Twi: 7:39pm
Moonrise: 6:54pm
Moonset: 5:49am
Full Moon: 7:05pm

Twi: 5:48am
Sunrise: 6:13am
Sunset: 7:13pm
Twi: 7:38pm
Moonrise: 7:22pm
Moonset: 6:43am

Twi: 5:49am
Sunrise: 6:14am
Sunset: 7:12pm
Twi: 7:37pm
Moonrise: 7:50pm
Moonset: 7:35am

Twi: 5:49am
Sunrise: 6:14am
Sunset: 7:11pm
Twi: 7:36pm
Moonrise: 8:19pm
Moonset: 8:28am

Twi: 5:50am
Sunrise: 6:15am
Sunset: 7:10pm
Twi: 7:35pm
Moonrise: 8:49pm
Moonset: 9:22am

Twi: 5:51am
Sunrise: 6:15am
Sunset: 7:09pm
Twi: 7:33pm
Moonrise: 9:22pm
Moonset: 10:17am

Twi: 5:51am
Sunrise: 6:16am
Sunset: 7:08pm
Twi: 7:32pm
Moonrise: 9:59pm
Moonset: 11:14am

Twi: 5:52am
Sunrise: 6:16am
Sunset: 7:06pm
Twi: 7:31pm
Moonrise: 10:42pm
Moonset: 12:13pm

Daylight Saving/Summer Time is in effect for the entire month.

Moon Phases Calendar for August

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Great Year for the Perseids Meteor Shower

This is a great year to view the Perseids Meteor Shower from Mitzpe Ramon, which has the darkest and clearest skies in Israel. The new moon will have set early in the evening, and so its light will not interfere with viewing. This is the best and most reliable meteor shower of the year, with rates of about 1 meteor per minute expected during the peak of the shower. The peak for this year is predicted to be on the morning of August 13, between 3:30 AM and 6:30 AM Israel Daylight Time. The shower can be seen from anywhere, but only the brightest members of the shower can be seen from light polluted cities. To see anything near the maximum number one must retreat to a very dark sky, such as we enjoy here in Mitzpe Ramon.

Location of the Radiant of the Perseids Meteor Shower

Every meteor shower is known by the name of the constellation the "shooting stars" appear to come from, or radiate from, hence the term "radiant". If you draw an imaginary line back from each meteor trail they all converge on the above location in the constellation Perseus, hence the name Perseids. Of course, the meteors do not actually come from that constellation. This is just an optical effect we see here on earth. The meteors come from the remains of Comet Swift-Tuttle, and what we see as a meteor shower is the effect of the intersection of the earth's orbit with orbit of the debris that remains from that comet.

As the constellation, together with the radiant, rise higher in the sky as the night progresses, more meteors will be seen. This together with the density of cometary debris, which is impossible to predict, in the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle determine the actual peak of the shower and the total meteors seen. From the chart below, we see that there were actually three peaks in 2009, with the main peak appearing around 7:00 UT on the morning of August 13.

Because of its strength and reliability, the Perseids are well seen a couple of days before and after the peak. But for the biggest bang for your observing hours, the night of August 12 and morning of August 13 are the best times. Take a lawn chair, camp pad, or sleeping bag out to a clear, dark site, lay down and watch as the sky fills with shooting stars. The naked eye is the best instrument for enjoying a meteor shower. Because of its dark, clear skies, a few thousand people usually show up in Mitzpe Ramon for the show. See you there!

In 2009 the Perseid shower displayed three separate, strong peaks during its most active 36 hours (shown in Universal Time), as revealed in this plot based on 8,158 Perseid sightings reported by 144 observers worldwide.
Geert Barentsen / IMO


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