This webpage contains updates to the observing program described in my book “Gauging the Solar System”, available at
New in 2018;
My first project for 2018 actually started in 2017. I followed the variable star Mira as it went through a maximum. Compared with the variable stars I have tracked earlier, Mira is indeed a wonder. Its period is about eleven months instead of a few days, and it can change brightness by up to six magnitudes – a factor of about 250. Unfortunately, in my local sky it is still not naked-eye visible even at its brightest, so I resorted to taking star-field photographs and estimating the brightness of Mira by comparison with other stars in the field. I believe I could estimate the brightness to within half a magnitude.
The first photograph was taken on November 19th 2017. In the center is a pattern of three stars, and, if you look very carefully, there is a fourth star making up a slightly skew square. This is Mira, and I estimated it to be at ninth magnitude.
The second photograph was taken on December 26th, about five weeks later, and Mira was at its peak, close to magnitude 3. To a naked-eye observer in a dark sky, Mira would have appeared from nowhere. No wonder it was called miraculous.
At this point things went a bit wrong. Based on previous cycles, Mira should have begun to fade after a few days. Instead it kept quite close to its maximum brightness for all of January and February, and most of March. Eventually I lost it in the evening twilight. Here is my graph of its magnitude.
New in 2017:
In August I took a trip to Glendo, Wyoming, with a Sky and Telescope tour, to see the August 21st total eclipse of the Sun, which was awesome. I took the opportunity to add to my collection of pinhole images and at the same time recognize that my astronomy club, the West Jersey Astronomical Society, WAS, was celebrating its 50th year. Here are 47 pinhole images of the partially eclipsed Sun!
One of my biggest projects for 2017 was to follow Venus through its retrograde motion as it went in through inferior conjunction, in front of the Sun and out again. I have described this on the Venus page.
On another front, I have modified my attitude about sextants! In my book I explained that I have been using a Davis Mark 3 sextant for almost thirty years. Because of its limitations I could measure latitudes only with a 2′ uncertainty, and this limited my calculation of the radius of the Earth to plus or minus 6%. Actually, I am still happy with that as a result in itself. My problem is that in the later parts of the book I made quite a lot of use of this value, and that 6% looked less and less acceptable. I have now upgraded to a Davis Mark 25 sextant and that looks much more powerful. I need to spend some time using it before I try to take final values, but I am hoping to cut down the uncertainties by a factor of ten. Davis are at www.davis.com
My first attempts with the new sextant are described on the “Earth and Sun” page.
New in 2016:
2016 was a great year for following the superior planets. I measured complete or partial plots of the retrograde motion for Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. For Mars especially the measurements covered a greater fraction of the orbit than I have previously recorded, and that showed up the limitations of my analysis program. I also completed a half plot for Uranus. It was a challenge because from my home the whole region of the sky that it was moving through looked completely blank to the naked eye. It usually took a few tries to get a photograph with Uranus near the center. The new results are described on the the pages for each planet.
I also substantially extended my photographic measurements of Mercury, and there are improved values for most of its parameters, and a completely new value for its diameter, on the Mercury page.
Finally, there is an improved value for the draconic month on the Moon page.