Jupiter-Saturn conjunction view

December 22, 2020

I had a nice view of the Great Conjunction of 2020 last night with Saturn, its largest moon Titan, Jupiter, three Galilean moons (there was a star near Europa that I initially mistook for a moon), all visible in a low power eyepiece.

My Meade LX-90’s AutoStar hand controller is in for repair so unfortunately I had to position the scope manually. With no fine controls or tracking, that was awkward but doable. Imaging, not so doable. There will be plenty from others though.

I expected the two planets to appear a little closer on the sky, but in hindsight, should not have.

I’ll be out again the next couple of nights for another look since, as per my last post, the two planets will still be quite close for the next few nights.

Jupiter & Saturn wide field, Dec 19 2020

December 19, 2020

Two days before the Great Conjunction of 2020 (on Dec 21) in which Jupiter and Saturn will appear at their closest in the sky in nearly four centuries, I took a wide field image of the pair low in the west on Dec 19 at around 9:50pm ACDT (click to enlarge).

Of the two brightest objects near the centre, Jupiter is at left and Saturn at right.

The planets are separated by around 16.5 minutes of arc or 0.275 degrees or a little more than half of the angular size of the full Moon. At the same time on Monday, Jupiter and Saturn will be separated by less than 6.5 minutes of arc or not much more than a tenth of a degree. On Dec 22 and 23 they will still be quite close, at almost 7.5 and 10 minutes of arc respectively.

Jupiter and Galilean moons plus Saturn with Canon 1100D, 100mm focal length, f2.0, ISO 800, 1 second exposure

The following screenshot from Sky Safari pro (iOS) helps with identification. Most of the moons, except for Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are not visible in the wide field image.

Sky Safari Pro screenshot

A cropped portion of the image (click to enlarge) shows the Galilean moons a little more clearly, including Io as a slight bump at lower left of Jupiter. Titan is barely visible at the lower left of Saturn. The resolution is not high enough to see Saturn’s rings or any detail on Jupiter.

Cropped portion of wide field image

I’m hoping that at least one or two nights early next week, the local weather will cooperate for more viewing of the conjunction.

Dad’s old Mac and DSLR photometry

September 29, 2020
Photo by Junior Teixeira on Pexels.com

After upgrading my MacBook to macOS Catalina, WINE stopped working, because 32-bit applications were no longer permitted to run. I had been using WINE to run the Windows IRIS program for image processing and DSLR photometry as part of my minimalist approach.

After my father died in January this year, his older MacBook was passed on to me. It still has Yosemite as the OS, so WINE & IRIS work fine on it!

Given all the times we spent talking about astronomy, the special time we shared watching the 2001 Leonids under a dark country sky, and the “help desk” support I tried to give him over the phone, I know that dad would approve of my use of his old computer in this way.

Certainly better than having it sit idle.

Thanks dad.

Photo by David Besh on Pexels.com

Vegan Vignette: B12 Though…

September 21, 2020

When I first went vegan, I was concerned that I may not be getting enough vitamin B12, the only nutrient that cannot be obtained from consuming plants. It was one of the topics I wrote about in But is it Healthy?

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

B12 can taken as a supplement (e.g. tablet, mouth spray) or by eating foods fortified with the vitamin, such as plant-based milks (e.g. some soy milks) or other foods (e.g. some brands of vegan meat substitutes).

I currently use B12 fortified soy milk daily as my regular source. I have recently switched to Oat Milk and none of the brands I have found are fortified with B12, therefore I am taking a daily sublingual 1000 mcg supplement.

Although only required in very small amounts, B12 deficiencies can lead to anaemia and nervous system damage.

I have annual blood tests that have shown my levels of this and other required nutrients to be well within the normal range.

There’s good information online about B12. You can read more in What every vegan should know about B12 or Zeuschner et al, (2013), Vitamin B12 and vegetarian diets, The Medical Journal of Australia.

See also Dr Michael Gregor’s nutritionfact.org videos on B12.

The Church and The Vaccine

September 19, 2020

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private … is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Spoiler alert: I am not sympathetic to religion as a source of ethics here.

In mid-2020, concern was expressed by archbishops of Sydney Catholic, Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches regarding the use of cell lines in vaccine development that originated with a human female embryo that was aborted in 1973.

Free speech is important, but given that vaccine development is hard and that many (perhaps 95%) vaccines fail in the late stages of human trials, it really matters whether this is a reasonable ethical concern.

Granted, the conversation has been more nuanced than media headlines have often suggested, as can be noted by listening to the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report podcast.

But to what extent does this nuance translate to “the flock”?

We would do well to recall that the flock has in the past been told that the use of condoms was a sin. The Catholic Church’s stance may have moderated a little on this matter, but just think of the calamity that this one, misguided teaching has unleashed, especially upon African adherents to the faith, when AIDS was still a death sentence, compounded by poverty and unchecked population growth.

For this alone, the Catholic Church should be universally reviled, once again having proven its irrelevance to modern life and at the same time, how dangerous it still can be.

We should also remember that a mere few hundred years ago, it was much much more dangerous, when we were collectively more dim-witted and willing to cede more power to it.

That must never again be allowed to happen.

Rejecting a perfectly good vaccine candidate is a kick in the guts for the work being done by the Oxford University team and others worldwide.

Suppose it is the most effective vaccine, or less likely but not impossible, the only one that works?

If it appears that I have unduly focussed on the Catholic Church, that’s only because it makes such an easy target. Other denominations do not have a squeaky clean history either.

It’s important to understand that all ways of knowing are not equal, especially in this context.

Science and reason, not faith, are required when thinking about the fitness of a vaccine and its development process.

None of this is to say that ethical concerns don’t matter here. Of course they do. But ethics must be based upon well-thought out principles and a focus upon consequences, not ill-conceived, brittle rules, and certainly never by thinking that tradition dictates truth.

A comment by Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty in this ABC News article sums it up for me:

If [Archbishop Fisher] finds that objectionable it’s his perfect right to say so and it’s our perfect right to take absolutely no notice of him.

source: ABC News

And, it’s not as if there are no other concerns…

For example, what about animal testing in vaccine development, including for COVID-19?

As someone who thinks that no-one, human or non-human, should be used as a means to an end, it would be an understatement to say that I am ambivalent about testing vaccine candidates on animals.

But, I’ve written about such dilemmas elsewhere; there is a spectrum of concern here…

I still wear boots with suede strips that I owned before going vegan. Suede is soft skin torn from the underside of some poor dead animal. I can’t help that animal now, but every time I wear those boots, I am reminded of my error…

…and, not wishing to add insult to injury, I choose not to discard them while they are still useful, perhaps somewhat akin to the way some of our ancestors are thought to have paid their respects to the animals they killed and consumed. Needless to say, my clothing purchasing decisions now incorporate vegan principles.

In a similar way, perhaps the religious objectors to the use of a decades-old cell line could chill out, just a little, and take a similar approach.

The cell line from the embryo that was aborted 47 years ago has led to great good (an unintentional means to an end), for which we should be thankful. It is unlikely to have suffered in any meaningful way.

If only the same could be said for the animals we routinely kill en masse, because we are collectively failing to tip the balance towards a plant-based diet.

Update on Victorian Bird Flu

August 29, 2020
Source: ABC News

Further to my last post, on Aug 29 this ABC report said that:

Tens of thousands of chickens and an untold number of emus will be euthanased as Victoria battles multiple bird flu outbreaks.

As of this week, infected birds – including emus, turkeys and chickens – have been found in six poultry farms. Agriculture Victoria says three different strains of the virus have been detected, meaning that the outbreaks are not all connected.

Source: ABC News

The report goes on to say that 300,000 layer hens had already been “destroyed” and that another 40,000 will be “culled” soon. The company in question will lose one third of its flock. The financial losses are expected to be around $18 to $23 million in the 2020/2021 financial year.

I find it distasteful that the talk is always of economics and poor-bugger-me from the companies as opposed to the tragic loss of animal life, so casually disregarded and disposed of.

I mentioned the two free range chicken farm outbreaks and another on a turkey farm in my last post. This latest ABC News report says around 4,000 of the turkeys were culled, and that due to another outbreak (a different strain) on a farm with 8,000 emus, part of that farm would have to be “depopulated“.

The euphemisms are flying thick and fast…

In my last post I worried about this: If these events continue or even increase in frequency, I can’t help but wonder whether there will be calls to dismantle free range.

Well, the ABC report ends with this:

Especially with more flocks in free range setups outdoors — it’s a recipe for disaster.

If we keep letting [the farmed animals] out during this high risk time, it’ll keep spreading.

The only way is to lock up every bird.

Source: ABC News

#EndSpeciesism

Bird Flu in Victoria

August 19, 2020
source: ABC News

Victorians are going through a rough time with COVID-19 right now, moreso than anywhere else in Australia. You only have to watch the news for a short time on any given day.

Less well reported is the fact that in late July and early August 2020, around two weeks before I wrote this, two free range egg farms at Lethbridge Victoria, tested positive for bird flu, in particular, the highly pathogenic H7N7 strain of avian influenza.

The first farm was quarantined, hens were “destroyed”, and a buffer zone was established.

An ABC News article reported that this was was only the eighth outbreak of a highly pathogenic bird flu strain on an Australian poultry farm since 1976.

It also pointed out that 3 of these outbreaks have occurred in the last 8 years…

While H7N7 only rarely affects humans, those coming into direct contact with affected animals or their secretions, along with their close contacts, are at risk. At least for us, the effects are mild. Not so for the birds who contract it.

A veterinary epidemiology academic at Charles Sturt University, was quoted in the new report as saying:

Free-range production poses a higher risk because it is more likely that the virus can be introduced from wild waterfowl to domestic poultry in these types of properties when compared to conventional indoor poultry raising.

(Marta Hernandez-Jover)

The CDC currently lists H7N7 as a moderate pandemic risk.

The Australian Government’s National Pest & Disease Outbreaks website documented the H7N7 outbreak, and then a few days later, on August 10, reported a low pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza on a turkey farm, also at Lethbridge… Soon thereafter, a second turkey farm, this time in Victoria’s East Gippsland, also tested positive to H5N2.

But there are worse avian flu strains, some of which do have a serious impact upon the health of humans (e.g. H7N9), and it’s a dynamic scenario. There’s mutation, especially in the presence of large populations of animals, where evolutionary experiments can play out over short timescales…

If these events continue or even increase in frequency, I can’t help but wonder whether there will be calls to dismantle free range, in favour of barn laid or worse, a regress to caged systems; neither, a good outcome for the animals, but I can imagine it being “declared” necessary by authorities.

But this either/or of free range vs barn, would be to set up a false dichotomy.

To protect humans from the Russian Roulette of zoonotic pandemic disease risk that we are currently subjecting ourselves to, while at the same time, not subjecting untold numbers of birds to a life that is nasty, brutish and short (as Hobbes might say), there is another option…

This also applies to all the other intensive animal factory farming scenarios in which zoonotic diseases can mutate and thrive.

Nova Ret 2020 Update #2

July 24, 2020

As of July 24 2020, there are more than 100 Nova Ret 2020 observations, most visual, with a handful of CCD submissions. Mine (visual) are shown in purple.

Most observers are from Brazil (10), then Bolivia and Australia (5 each), with one from Italy and South Africa.

The southerly declination of the target and comparison stars in Reticulum (almost -55o degrees) makes northern hemisphere observations difficult.

A linear fit shows an overall decline of around 0.17 magnitudes per day, but there’s a lot of spread in the data and novae are unpredictable.

Nova Ret 2020 Update

July 18, 2020

The sky was largely cloudy at 5:45 this morning but a short-lived clear patch permitted a quick observation. The nova’s magnitude was between the 4.6 and 5.0 comparison stars in Reticulum (X25537DR chart), so around magnitude 4.8.

The AAVSO alert notice was issued a couple of days ago.

In my last post, I included a Stellarium screenshot of the field around the nova and Reticulum. Here’s a couple more for better context:

An hour later, I took another quick shot of the dawn NE sky showing the Moon, Venus and cloud (0.6 sec, ISO 200, f 2.0, unprocessed):

Nova in Reticulum!

July 17, 2020

Rob McNaught at Siding Spring, Coonabarabran, NSW found a magnitude 5.3 object in the constellation Reticulum on July 15 2020.

MGAB-V207’s pre-brightening magnitude was 15.8 (Johnson V). Just before I wrote this, it was designated N Ret 2020 in VSX and the AAVSO International Database.

I observed the nova at around 5:30am this morning (July 17) in 7×50 binoculars. My estimate, based upon 4.95 and 5.45 visual magnitude comparison stars, was 5.2.

It may have been brighter but that was my best estimate, given the seeing quality at the time, and a lack of coffee. Having said that, I’m confident that it was reasonable.

At the time of my submission to AAVSO this morning, there were 6 observations, including mine. Andrew Pearce in WA submitted his second observation (brighter) soon after mine.

This is the first bright nova since 2018! So I’m a little bit excited.

To get familiar with the field, I started with Stellarium:

and this AAVSO finder chart, which needs to be rotated by about 45 degrees anti-clockwise to match the Stellarium view:

In general, the sky was lovely this morning. After estimating the nova’s brightness, when the dawn became evident, I took this quick shot of a conjunction of the crescent Moon, Venus, and Aldebaran (alpha Tauri) low in the NE sky (1/5 sec, ISO 200, f 2.0, unprocessed) with our recently pruned walnut tree (thanks Karen!) visible at upper right:

Between the nova, satellites passing through my binocular field while observing it and the stars of Reticulum, a stray meteor, the Luna-Venus-Aldebaran conjunction, Orion rising in the east, and the general beauty of the sky, it was an uplifting start to the day.

I was again reminded that there is a hidden sky, waiting for all to see.

Variable stars and novae in particular, always reinforce to me the dynamic, constantly changing universe of which we are a small part. In what often feels like a dystopian world, especially in 2020, I find it oddly comforting that the Universe just keeps doing its thing, irrespective of us. Astronomy is a great way to get some perspective.