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Letters.

Astro Video: Anyone Can Do It!

Last summer, with persistent prompting from my 9-year-old daughter, I joined the ranks of amateur astronomy. The August 1998 Sky & Telescope was my first astronomy literature, and the article "Sharper Images Through Video" captured my imagination. I soon purchased my first telescope and a video camera to attach to it.

Many thanks to Ron Dantowitz for sharing accurate and detailed information about "video-astrophotography." The picture above is my very first attempt at astronomical photography of any kind. Aside from the size and make of my telescope (a 3.5-inch), I followed the technique in the August article exactly and am elated with the results.

I would, however, like to mention a couple of lessons learned. First, if you use a small telescope, its balance must be fully adjustable to cope with the camera weight. Second, the camera needs manual contrast and brightness controls. Unfortunately, the first camera I purchased is completely automatic. Although it works well for the Moon, imaging the planets is impossible - the camera washes out the frame with noise as it attempts to brighten the night sky.

Thank you, Sky & Telescope, for introducing my daughter and me to a fantastic new hobby.

Vern Westervelt 36940 Eldridge Dr. Sandy, OR 97005 bigvern@jps.net

Now or Never

I was elated with the news of a major victory for dark skies around the MMT observatory in Arizona (April issue, page 26). Congratulations to all the professional and amateur astronomers who fought off a zoning change that would have allowed a major real-estate development near Mount Hopkins.

Much as we established national parks to protect them from exploitation and development, so should we establish dark-sky zones in regions around such places as Kitt Peak and Mount Hopkins to make them permanently off-limits to commercial development.

With the increasing pressure of population growth, everything natural that is not actively preserved will eventually be destroyed. The Mount Hopkins episode was surely just the first skirmish in a developers' war of attrition against America's great observatories. Only serious preemptive measures will save the beauty and magic of the natural night sky even in these very special places.

Louis R. Arana 1803 N. Winona Blvd., #3 Los Angeles, CA 90027

The Night the Comet Stood Still

Following an adventurous night with my homemade 8-inch f/8 reflector and Cookbook CCD camera, I can report that Comet LINEAR (C/1998 M5) did indeed stand still in Earth's rotating sky on the night of March 14-15, as predicted by Roger Sinnott (April issue, page 111).

I found the comet shortly after dusk as a faint glow at about 10th magnitude. I spent the next four hours trying to guess where it was going and how much of my CCD frame it would traverse; the camera's field is only 13 by 10 arcminutes in size. A little after midnight I decided all was well. I set the camera-control software to take 45- second exposures every 135 seconds - with the telescope's drive turned off! - and went to bed.

To my great satisfaction, an early morning preview showed a fine series of images all through the rest of the night. The image on page 14 is a processed composite of 123 frames. The strange V-shaped path of the comet matches the prediction. The bright spot at the head of the V resulted from the comet's motion with respect to the landscape coming to a dead halt for nearly two hours despite the turning of the Earth. The north celestial pole is just below the bottom of the frame.

Thank you for predicting this once-in-a-lifetime event!

Joe Garlitz 1155 Hartford La. Elgin, OR 97827 jgarlitz@orednet.org

Noah's Flood and the Origin of the Zodiac

Many scientific periodicals have praised a recent book by William B. F. Ryan and Walter C. Pitman titled Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History (Simon & Schuster, 1999). The authors call attention to a striking discovery: rising global sea levels following the last ice age caused the Mediterranean to overflow through what is now the Bosporus strait in a flood that created much of the modern Black Sea, previously a lake. This catastrophic event, the authors contend, played a pivotal role in the spread of early farming into Europe and much of Asia. Memory of it, they say, was handed down in stories that reached historical times as the legend of Noah's flood.

Judging from indisputable geological evidence, the event in question took place about 5600 B.C.

Sky & Telescope readers may remember my October 1995 article on the origins of the constellations of the zodiac. I claimed that the first generation of four zodiacal constellations seems to date from about 5600 B.C. This result was found with absolutely no connection to geology, being based on the astronomical phenomenon of precession of the equinoxes.

This astonishing coincidence of dates raises a question: were these events connected? I think it is very likely. I contended that the first quartet of zodiacal constellations were created to improve the solar calendar. Unlike hunters and gatherers who maintained traditional, archaic lunar calendars, the first agriculturists needed a proper solar calendar to time the annual planting of crops. For this they had to pay close attention to the stars.

Some years ago I discussed my concept with I. M. Diakonoff, an outstanding world authority on ancient history at St. Petersburg University in Russia. He pointed out to me that the period around 5600 B.C. was a special point in Near East prehistory - a very important stage of the Neolithic Revolution, with a sudden rise of agriculture and urban cultures. And so it came as no surprise that an interest in improving the solar calendar should appear at that time.

The recent book by Ryan and Pitman adds support to these considerations and the astronomical dating of the first zodiacal constellations.

Alexander A. Gurshtein Mesa State College 1818 N. 20th St. Grand Junction, CO 81501 agurshtein@hotmail.com
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Publication:Sky & Telescope
Date:Aug 1, 1999
Words:1000
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