PostHeaderIcon Binocular Mount

When you ask most amateur astronomers (or me) which telescope we recommend for beginners, we will all tell you what you don’t want to hear: don’t buy a telescope first. Buy a pair of binoculars, learn the sky, and then buy a telescope. But that isn’t the answer you wanted, so you go buy a telescope anyway. I understand. I’ve been you. So, if you aren’t going to listen to me: here is my advice on what telescope to buy as a first telescope.

If you are going to listen to me (Hooray!), you may have noticed the gaping flaw in my plan: binoculars are very hard to hold steady, almost impossible in fact. At the end of this article** I’ll tell you the story of the 5-year-old Alice and the shaky binoculars. They do make tripod adapters for binoculars, but they require your binoculars to have certain built-in features. I’d rather you just grabbed the closest pair of binocs and started stargazing. The only truly versatile mount I saw costs at least $50.

I don’t have $50 to spend on something that is supposed to be a quick and cheap introduction to assisted stargazing. I also couldn’t find a guide for building such and item, so my husband and I created one.

Instructions for Building a Binocular-to-Tripod Adapter

I have tried to give the simplest instructions here, aimed at using whatever you have on hand and coming out with a clean finished adapter. You can make this as complicated and fancy as you want, or you can hack it together in fifteen minutes with plywood and glue. Use the skills you have.

Materials

  • Binoculars
  • Tripod with quick-release plate *
  • Small piece of scrap wood (larger than the quick-release plate)
  • Medium piece of scrap wood (longer than your binoculars are wide, and narrower than they are deep)
  • Two screws (long enough to go through both pieces of wood, thin enough not to split the wood)
  • Two fasteners (zip-ties, heavy-duty twist-ties, velcro straps, bendable coat hangers – whatever you have around)

Tools

  • Saw (for small cuts on wood and cutting through the screws)
  • Wood file (you could also use this to finish your screws instead of the saw)
  • Drill
  • Pencil (or other way to mark the wood)

Directions

Step 1 – Create a new quick-release plate.

Remove the quick-release plate from your tripod. Cut a piece of the small scrap wood that matches its dimensions as exactly as possible. It is okay if the wood piece is thicker than the quick-release plate, but it cannot be thinner, and the edges must be exactly the same to get a solid lock.

Cut a small piece of scrap wood.

Cut a small piece of scrap wood.

Cut it to the same dimensions as the quick-release plate.

Cut it to the same dimensions as the quick-release plate.

File the angled sides to match the angle of the sides of the quick-release plate. This is where the tripod is going to lock down the plate, so you’ll want to test your angles by inserting the new wooden plate into the tripod head. When it fits neatly and locks firmly into place you’ve done a good enough job.

This is where I had the most trouble. I found that by resting the file flat and holding the wood at the correct angle I was able to file off enough to make my new plate fit.

Hold the wood at the correct angle and drag across the file

Hold the wood at the correct angle and drag across the file

File the edges to match the angle of the edges of the quick-release plate

File the edges to match the angle of the edges of the quick-release plate

Step 2 – Attach to the support for the binoculars

As you can see, I’ve carefully chosen a block of wood that is not as deep as the binoculars so there is room for my nose, and it is wider than the binoculars so I don’t have to be too finicky about exactly where I attach the binocs when I get to that step.

All the finished pieces - ready to combine

All the finished pieces - ready to combine

Now attach the new plate to the wood you’ve chosen as a support for your binoculars. It should be centered both ways.

Drill two pilot holes for your screws – you don’t want to split your wood after all that work you put into the new plate. If you put them towards opposite corners you’ll get a nice solid connection, with no chance of slippage or spinning. We also countersank our screws, which you might want to do because it keeps the bottom of your quick-release plate flush with itself.

Position your screws in opposite corners.

Position your screws in opposite corners.

Dont forget to keep the wide side of the plate AWAY from the wooden support!

Dont forget to keep the wide side of the plate AWAY from the wooden support!

File off the ends  of your screws so they don’t poke up and scratch your binoculars.

Filed-off screws

Filed-off screws

Ta-da! You’re done!

Finished Mount (we are using heavy-duty twist-ties instead of zip ties or velcro)

Finished Mount (we are using heavy-duty twist-ties instead of zip ties or velcro)

Oh wait – you want to know how to USE it now?

Step 3 – Using your finished mount

Pull out your binoculars and point them at something far away. Focus them and get them all nicely-adjusted for your eyes. It is important that you do this first, or you may end up fastening your binoculars in a position that is out-of-alignment for your eyes.

Adjust your binoculars

Adjust your binoculars

Attach the mount to your tripod, and rest the binoculars on the mount. Loop your fasteners around the middle of the binoculars and underneath the mount. Fasten them securely, but not so tightly as to change the careful adjustments you made to focus and align the binoculars.

Loop the fasteners around the middle of the binocs, and under the bottom of the support

Loop the fasteners around the middle of the binocs, and under the bottom of the support

Check – do you feel comfortable tilting the tripod head from side-to-side and up and down with the binocs attached the way they are? If not, you need to fasten them more securely. If so, then take it outside and start looking up!

A finished mount, with binoculars attached!

A finished mount, with binoculars attached!

Notes

*No quick-release plate?

If you have a tripod that does not have a removable quick-release plate, you’ll need to attach a 1/4 by 20 nut in the middle of the support wood instead of creating a wooden quick-release plate. (To get the right size nut, just take your tripod either to your stash of random fasteners or to the hardware store and find one that fits it – though 1/4 by 20 is almost entirely standard). I had a thought about this involving a hexagonal hole exactly the size of the nut and some amazing glue. This to That recommends LePage’s Metal Epoxy. I didn’t go through with this idea, so the execution is left as an exercise to the reader. please let me know if you come up with an easy and functional solution!

**Alice and the Shaky Binoculars

The year was 1986. The month was cold. One night, Mom and Dad bundled 5-year-old Alice and her baby brother, Nils, into the car. Maybe Uncle Ron came too, or maybe he was in a different car. In any case it was clearly a big occasion. Together they drove and drove and drove. The night got darker and darker. Finally, they all pulled over on the side of a steep hill. Alice got out of the car while Mom and Dad got Nils.

Dad got out some binoculars. Mom reminded Alice that we were looking for Halley’s comet. The only thing that really mattered about Halley was that of everyone on the hillside that night, only Alice and Nils would get to see the comet twice.

While Mom turned Nils to face the sky, Dad crouched down to help Alice look through the binoculars. A shiny white object streaked and wobbled through the field of view.

“I see it! I see it!” said Alice, excited.

Once everyone was thoroughly cold, they all got back in the car and drove home – possibly stopping at Shari’s or Denny’s for something warm to drink.

That memory is still with me, which is the most important part of the whole experience. Now I know that wasn’t Halley’s comet I saw in those binoculars, it was a star, or maybe even a streetlight – wobbling past because I couldn’t hold the binoculars still enough. If only we’d had this binocular tripod mount!

At least I know that some of the photons bouncing off Halley’s comet did bounce into my eye, just not enough of them for my brain to register. Oh well, next time. Here I come 2061!

Have fun with your new binocular tripod mount!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon MESSENGER’s 3rd Flyby of Mercury

NASA’s MESSENGER just did its third flyby of Mercury on September 29th, 2009. It will enter orbit in March of 2011. Here are a few discoveries, with some personal notes and thoughts.

Bright Spot

Credit: NASA's MESSENGER

Credit: NASA's MESSENGER

Interestingly, this bright spot has been seen and photographed only three times – twice by MESSENGER, and the first time from the ground. That ground image was by Ron Dantowitz, one of my coworkers from the Museum of Science! He used the Mt. Wilson Observatory to collect an incredible image.
The light parts are probably kicked-up material from the basin in the middle. Due to the shape and color, the basin may or may not be volcanic in nature. They’re still studying.

Double-Ring Crater

Credit: NASA’s MESSENGER

Credit: NASA’s MESSENGER

Ahh, beautiful. Double-ring craters are an indication of a high-force impact – usually a very massive meteorite. There is a “ripple effect” in the rock – like dropping a pebble in a pond – except you’re dropping a rock on a planet. Sometimes you even get a “splash-back” which forms a peak in the middle of the crater.
The rock of the surface of the planet is made molten by the force of the impact, and resolidifies – freezing the ripples in place. You don’t want to be nearby when this happens.

Crater Ejecta and Secondary Impact Chains

Credit: NASA’s MESSENGER

Credit: NASA’s MESSENGER

How do you get a string of craters in a very straight line? No … stop. Consider for a moment. You know what? I’m not going to tell you to the end of the post in order to FORCE you to think about it.

Paw Print!

Credit: NASA’s MESSENGER

Credit: NASA’s MESSENGER

I couldn’t not include it – it is just too cute!
Now – how did this happen?
You know, for all of the great ideas you just had, this set of craters is coincidence (like the smiley-face crater on Mars). Pretty cute though, right?

Crater Ejecta and Secondary Impact Chains – Continued

Okay, I hope you came up with some creative answers. Often they are caused by a “splash” kicked up when a meteorite forms a crater (in this case called a primary crater), and some of the material tossed up is big enough that when it comes back down it makes a secondary crater.

Now, instead of just one rock being kicked up and away from the primary impact, several are. They all fly off in the exact same direction (away) and when they come down each one makes a secondary crater – and they all occur in a line.

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Equinox Event

Tomorrow (Tuesday, September 22) is the Fall Equinox here in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m planning to head over to Solstice Park in West Seattle (7400 Fauntleroy Way SW) to watch the Sun set over the Equinox marker at 7:06pm.

If you’d like to join me, please do – and your whole family is welcome too. If it is clear I’ll bring my new Galileoscope and we’ll see if we can’t find a few neat sky objects after it begins to get dark. If it isn’t clear, I’m still going to the park, but I won’t be bringing my telescopes.

Consider it your “science fix” while Pacific Science Center’s exhibits are closed this week – but don’t forget, we open again on Saturday all clean and shiny!

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon September-October Sky 2009

September-October 2009 Starmap

(With an activity! If you complete it, you should send me a photo of yours, I’d love to see them!)

Notable Sky Objects

HEY ALICE! I SAW …

In every season’s sky there seems to be an object that is spectacular enough that people come up to me saying “Hey Alice, last night I saw…” I guess it is a little rude of me, so I apologize, but I can usually interrupt the sentence at this point and tell them what it was – which makes me seem almost psychic. Well sorry, but it isn’t magic, its pattern recognition. After three people have asked me about the same object, I naturally assume the next few will be asking about the same thing. I love supporting people’s excitement about the sky, and I love it that you come to me to ask what you saw – so keep it up, but just in case you want to make a guess for yourself first (or impress your friends), this season’s “Hey Alice!” object is the spectacular and bright Jupiter.

JUPITER

Jupiter will be highly visible most of the night in September and October. It will be rising in the Southeast, near the constellation Capricorn. If you pull out some binoculars and steady yourself against something, you should be able to pick out the moons of Jupiter, just like Galileo did.

MERCURY and SATURN

Mercury and Saturn are too near the Sun from our point of view to be easily visible. You might catch a glimpse of Saturn in the early morning in very late October near the eastern horizon.

MARS and VENUS

In early September: Mars is rising about 1am in Gemini, and Venus is rising around 4am in Cancer.
In late October: Mars is rising a little after midnight in Cancer. Venus will not be visible.

EVENTS

September 30 MESSENGER makes its third flyby of Mercury, and soon after that there will probably be some awesome new photos of this tiny, hot, rocky planet.

October – Don’t miss The Halloween Show in the Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center. We’ll be bringing back the newly spookified version of the historical astronomical connections to our modern candy-riffic holiday. It will be weekends at 2:30 – you can get tickets at our ticketbooths or online.

CARNIVALS OF SPACE

I’ve missed a few, but you shouldn’t. Check out #112, #113, #114, #115, #116, #117, #118, #119, and #120!

New Constellations

A recent survey of attendees of the Willard Smith Planetarium suggested that visitors would like to hear even more about current science and new discoveries. I still want to tie that back to the constellations we’re viewing whenever possible, so in this bi-monthly Sky Update I have attempted to share a piece of current science that can be associated with each constellation. I haven’t succeeded, I only found time to put in 3 things but they’re pretty cool, and I’ll keep building on this.

PISCES – The Fish

SCIENCE: M74 is one of the most beautiful face-on spiral galaxies I have ever seen.

M74 by Hubble

M74 by Hubble

MYTH: We often use the loop at the end of Pisces as the wings of Pegasus. Technically, these stars are in Pisces – but it sure helps to see Pegasus as a winged horse.

Returning Constellations

AQUILA – The Eagle

CURRENT: NASA’s new moon lander will be called Altair – after the brightest star in Aquila. Neat that it is a star in the constellation of the Eagle, when the first lander that landed on the Moon was also called the Eagle.

ANDROMEDA – The Princess

PERSEUS – Perseus

PEGASUS – The Flying Horse

CURRENT: On September 9th (2009) Hubble released four new images taken after the last servicing mission. They are breathtakingly beautiful as usual – but the one of Stephan’s Quintet was taken while Hubble was pointed at the constellation Pegasus. This is a great opportunities to talk about types of galaxies, interacting galaxies, or the size of the universe.

Stephan's Quintet by Hubble

Stephan's Quintet by Hubble

CAPRICORNUS – The Sea Goat

DELPHINUS – The Dolphin

LYRA – The Lyre

CYGNUS – The Swan

CURRENT: NASA’s Kepler mission (looking for Earth-like planets around other stars) is pointed at Cygnus, and will stay pointed between Cygnus and Lyra for the duration of its mission.

BOÖTES – The Herdsman

HERCULES – Hercules

CORONA BOREALIS – The Northern Crown

CEPHEUS – King Cepheus

DRACO – The Dragon

URSA MAJOR – The Great Bear

URSA MINOR – The Little Bear

CASSIOPEIA – The Queen

“Tiny” Guys

Going for the Gold? Here’re this month’s itty-bittys.

ARIES – The Ram

AQUARIUS – The Water Bearer (not that small, but not on our map)

PISCES AUSTRINUS – The Southern Fish

MICROSCOPIUM – The Microscope

SERPENS – The Serpent

SCUTUM – The Shield

VULPECULA – The Fox

SAGGITA – The Arrow

EQUULEUS – The Horse

CAMELOPARDALIS– The Giraffe

LACERTA – The Lizard

TRIANGULUM – The Triangle

LYNX – The Lynx

Wondering where I’ve been? Yeah, sorry about that. There was this grant, this major project, and this conference. I’ve gotten sick of seeing apologies for not posting all over the internet though, they remind me too much of the permanent “Under Construction” labels and animated gifs that were so prevalent on the web in the 90s. They aren’t usually interesting, I want to hear what the bloggers I follow really have to say, not that they’re sorry for not posting. So, I am actually sorry, and I hope I haven’t lost too many of you with such a long break, but I’ve hidden that apology down here at the bottom so you aren’t subjected to it if you don’t want to read it. :) Clear skies to you – or at least clear internet skies if you live somewhere with 200 days a year of cloudcover …

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Quick Updates: Kepler, Saturn, Perseids, Jupiter

Perseids:

The Perseids peak tonight after midnight. They’re dust- and sand-sized debris left in our path from comet Swift-Tuttle. The air compressing in front of each meteor generates enough heat that the debris burns up and we see a streak of light.

Kepler:

The Kepler mission (looking for Earth-like planets around other stars) has just proved it definitely can detect planets, with more detail and precision than other methods. Kepler observed the planet HAT-P-7, which orbits its star once every 2.2 days, and was able to detect the atmosphere of the planet, and measure the daytime temperature at 4310 degrees F. Ouch.

Saturn:

Saturn’s rings are edge-on from our point of view, which happens every 15 years when Saturn reaches its equinox. According to JPL that day was yesterday, August 11, though the rings will stay mostly edge-on for a while yet.

Jupiter:

I’m quite late off the mark on this one, but something crashed into Jupiter not too long ago. On July 19th an amateur astronomy (Anthony Wesley) found this extra dark spot on Jupiter, and later professional astronomers followed up on his observations with Hubble. With Hubble they can watch as the debris plume evolves, and make better estimates about the size of the impacting object (several hundred meters across).

There is a standing hypothesis that Jupiter, being large, helps clean up the debris in the solar system. It attracts more asteroids and comets, leaving the inner solar system clearer and thus making impacts on Earth less likely.

Want More?

Meteors
Saturn Images

Where’d I Get My Info?

Kepler
Saturn
Jupiter

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Some Links

Life comes in waves – busy waves, and waves when you have lots of time to blog. You get one guess which wave I’m in now.

Meanwhile, I will leave you with some good links.

1. There is another Alice! Not only that, there is another Alice involved in informal astronomy education. Not only THAT, there is another Alice in the Pacific Northwest who is highly involved in informal astro ed. So, if you’re looking for Alice’s Astronomy a Go Go … you’re in the wrong place, you’re at Alice’s AstroInfo. But you should definitely head over there and check out her podcasts, she’s got some neat stuff.

2. Carnival of Space #112: Out of the Cradle celebrates the Moon Landing

3. Carnival of Space #113: Dynamics of Cats hosts one all about extraterrestrial impacts

4. Carnival of Space #114: Ultra Cheap, from Cheap Astronomy

And don’t miss Kepler’s announcement of their proof of concept: http://kepler.nasa.gov/press/earlyresults.html

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Carnival of Space

21st Century Waves has this week’s Carnival of Space – #111!  It is a celebration of the anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch! Woo!

Also, for celebrating the Moon landing, We Choose the Moon might be cool.

PostHeaderIcon A Puzzle and Two Carnivals

Sunday mornings I enjoy playing the NPR’s puzzler with my family. I thought you might enjoy a puzzle/mindgame too.

It was late one December, and I was out for a walk with my family. The full moon was rising. It was rising almost due Northeast. Why?

This puzzle helped me solidify my understanding of the celestial sphere, so if you already completely understand the celestial sphere it might not be much of a puzzle – but if you’re still learning about it, figuring out this puzzle could be a turning point for you.

I’ll leave moderated comments on for this post: if you leave the answer I won’t approve the comment, but I’ll e-mail you a reply. You are welcome to leave further questions in the comments as well, but hints will only come to you via e-mail, I will not post more hints here.

Also, there are two Carnivals of Space for you to check out:

109, hosted by Discovery Space

110, hosted by Kentucky Space

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon July-August Sky, 2009

July-August 2009 Starmap

Notable Sky Objects

JUPITER

Jupiter will be highly visible late at night, rising not long after sunset in July, and high overhead all night long through the end of August. It will be rising in the Southeast, near the constellation Capricorn.

MERCURY and SATURN

Technically they’ll be in the sky, but they aren’t up for long after sunset, so it will probably be too light to see them this month.

MARS and VENUS

Look towards the constellation Taurus to see Venus rising just after Mars around 3 in the morning in July. In late August, Mars will be rising around midnight in the constellation Gemini, and Venus will still be rising around 2 or 3am in the constellation of Cancer.

EVENTS

July 23- August 22 (peak August 12) – Perseid Meteor Shower, best viewed after midnight.
August 14 – Jupiter at opposition (the Mars Hoax e-mail says Mars will be at opposition in August – it won’t, but you will be able to see Jupiter at opposition instead!)

New Constellations

AQUILA – The Eagle

SCIENCE: Altair is the BEST star in the whole sky.
MYTH: Tanabata: there are versions of this myth all over Asia, all slightly different, but all telling the same basic story. This is one of the Japanese versions. Kengyuu (Altair) is a cowherder boy and he is in love with Orihime (Vega) the weaver princess. They are so in love that they forget to do their chores, and the Emperor decides to punish them. He places them in the sky on opposite sides of Amanogawa, the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) so they cannot meet. The magpies take pity on them, and one day out of the year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (August 26th, 2009), they build a bridge over the Milky Way so the lovers can be together. Unfortunately, if it is raining or cloudy, the magpies are not able to build the bridge.

ANDROMEDA – The Princess

SCIENCE: M31- The Andromeda Galaxy is visible to the naked eye, and better through a telescope.
MYTH: Saudi Arabians called Andromeda “the sea lion”. To the Phoenicians, the whole part of the sky where Andromeda is seen as a threshing floor, and the constellation is a grain thresher working

PERSEUS – Perseus

SCIENCE: The Perseid Meteor shower appears to radiate out of the constellation Perseus. The point meteors all appear to originate is called the “radiant.”
MYTH: For the ancient Chinese, the right side of the constellation Perseus is the Mausoleum. The star just inside the right-hand curl is Jishi – the Heap of Corpses.

PEGASUS – The Flying Horse

SCIENCE: The star at the tip of the horse’s head is called Enif, which means “nose.”
MYTH: The two northernmost stars in the Great Square of Pegasus (α And, and γ Peg: the star attached to Andromeda, and the star next to it that is part of the horse’s back) are the “Encampment” in Chinese mythology. There are three pairs of stars scattered near this asterism which are Ligong or “Resting Places” for the Emperor.

CAPRICORNUS – The Sea Goat

SCIENCE: Jupiter is right beside Capricornus this month.
MYTH: Part of Capricornus along with parts of Pisces and Aquarius make the “Line of Ramparts” in ancient Chinese mythology – a line of fortresses built by the celestial army. Since I can’t read Chinese, I can’t tell you exactly which stars these are, but check the Chinese Starmap.

“Tiny” Guys

Going for the Gold? Here’re this month’s itty-bittys.
CANES VENATICI – The Hunting Dogs
COMA BERENICES – Berenice’s Hair
SERPENS – The Serpent
LIBRA – The Scales
SCUTUM – The Shield
VULPECULA – The Fox
SAGGITA – The Arrow
EQUULEUS – The Horse
LACERTA – The Lizard
TRIANGULUM – The Triangle
LEO MINOR – The Small Lion (Between the Big Dipper and Leo)
CAMELOPARDALIS– The Giraffe
LYNX – The Lynx

Returning Constellations

DELPHINUS – The Dolphin
LYRA – The Lyre
CYGNUS – The Swan
SCORPIUS – The Scorpion
BOÖTES – The Herdsman
HERCULES – Hercules
CORONA BOREALIS – The Northern Crown
CEPHEUS – King Cepheus
DRACO – The Dragon
URSA MAJOR – The Great Bear
URSA MINOR – The Little Bear
CASSIOPEIA – The Queen

Where’d I Get My Info?

My memory, and Zeta Strickland
CHAN Ki-hung, Chinese Ancient Starmap, 2007

~ A l i c e !

PostHeaderIcon Two Carnivals (107 and 108)

The Solstice Edition of the Carnival of Space (#108) is up at Starts With a Bang, and I’m the first linked article. Wow!

And don’t miss Edition #107 over at Innumerable Worlds.

~ A l i c e !

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