horsehead and flame nebulae

visual observing sessions
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"The Imperative of Night" narrative
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Welcome to!

offering local "hands-on" observing
(visual and imaging) sessions and instruction
viewing and imaging from Rabbit Valley Observatory
a dark sky location on the mesa just west of Taos, NM


Hands-On Visual Observing

At Rabbit Valley Observatory, you can choose a visual observation program that is as simple or complex as you desire. One example of a program we did several years ago at a local Bed and Breakfast can be accessed through this text link.

Visual observation can start with a review of the constellations and bright stars and planets visible. We can (and should before any observing session begins) refer to a plethora of printed reference materials (to the dismay of his wife, Mr. Greiner actually collects old-school printed planisphere star charts and star atlases -- even celestial globes -- of all vintages!) as well as sophisticated online atlases and observing aids.

vintage star charts
Spherical Concepts celestial globe
A lifelong collection of vintage (print) star charts and object catalogues -- honestly just a sampling! (please forgive the upside-down seminal Atlas Coeli 1950.0 reference text on far left)
Fabulous Spherical Concepts Starship Earth II celestial globe, 30 inches in diameter -- no longer available!
(from Spherical Concepts -- "Starship Earth II will help you explore the universe that surrounds us – from the many constellations in our heavens, to the movements of the Earth, Sun, and stars, the secrets of navigation, and much more. A beautiful work of art, as well as a superb learning/teaching tool, the Starship Earth II is a three-dimensional star atlas for the unaided eye.")

One such available online "atlas" (usually now called planetarium programs) is TheSky -- I had an opportunity to review (essentially personally learn the basics because I didn't get it!) of this program with the very patient co-founder/inventor, Mr. Thomas Bisque of SoftwareBisque in Colorado -- that's him and brilliant brother and co-founder Steven Bisque at an astronomy trade show.

TheSky is now considered the finest planetarium, telescope and camera control and remote observing program(s) in the world. The brothers Bisque essentially invented remote computer-driven astronomical observing. Most professional observatories use their software package. SoftwareBisque also makes the best commercially-available mount in the world.

Also, TheSky has always been cross-platform and now is a leader in the iPad astronomical app category as well -- this is appreciated by Mac enthusiasts such as myself! Example screen shots below.

TheSky mythological figure
TheSky star chart
TheSky Orion Nebula
TheSky's constellation display with beautifully-rendered mythological figures
TheSky's typical constellation star chart display with labels -- note use of the green laser pointer -- we use one, too, both for visual and telescopic pointing
TheSky's magnified interpretation of the Orion Nebula -- compare with my image
TheSky star chart
A typical TheSkyX (most recent desktop version) screen shot including landscape terrain and various labels (all customizable)

Another commonly used and equally excellent planetarium program available at RVO is Starry Night. Both of these can be useful for object location and identification, among many other uses.

A wonderful star-charting program, available on-line at NO CHARGE, is the magnificent Cartes du Ciel, linked from this text and/or by clicking the images below. These screen shots demonstrate several examples of its feature-filled and accurate sky depictions, especially deep sky objects under various magnifications as shown below. This is the star-charting program I now most commonly use.

Cartes du Ciel chart
Cartes du Ciel Rosette chart

Every month publications like Sky and Telescope Magazine and Astronomy Magazine publish reference star charts. Further, they offer online tips for visual and photographic observation with a plethora of different types of equipment. I would strongly suggest referencing their websites and subscribing as well.

Relatively new among astronomical applications is a group know as "astronomical observation planning" software. Many are cross-platform, and similar to TheSky are also available for mobile devices. We use AstroPlanner at RVO. With such programs you can plan your observing session by setting basic parameters in the program. It will show you the location, apparent size of a desired observational object and has an immense data base linkage capability for descriptive analysis of objects of all types.

AstroPlanner object list
AstroPlanner observation notes
AstroPlanner field of view
AstroPlanner observation notes tab
AstroPlanner field of view tab

The last step in planning an observation session would be to choose the right date. Weather certainly is an issue, as is darkness -- usually determined by a combination of observing location, time-of-night (duh!) and the moon's phase. This sort of determination also has a lot to do with what you would like to observe. If the moon is an object you'd like to observe or photograph, smaller, partial phases offer the best opportunity, as the moon exhibits a line (or "terminator") between the lit and non-lit portions. Craters and other details are far more prominent along the terminator. If planets are your thing, the moon's phase isn't significant one way or the other. If deep-sky nebulae, galaxies and clusters interest you, it's best to observe with little or no moon. The below charts and corresponding links will explain more concerning these important considerations.

Taos Dark Sky Chart



OK, so enough with the planning. What do objects that, once found with the telescope by using the above tools, look like? I'll include below some photographic examples of "typical" observable objects and their apparent visual appearance. Click on the images to link back to their original publication and detailed descriptions. Also please understand that magnification, field of view and type of object -- as well as dark, clear skies of course -- have a significant effect on the appearance of an object.


Jupiter from Kitt Peak, AZ -- although it will appear a bit smaller visually, I would expect you to see the complex belting, red spot and surface features and at least 4 moons of the planet (1 visible here).
Saturn from Kitt Peak, AZ -- although it will appear a bit smaller visually, I would expect you to see the belting on the planet, the rings (of course!) and the dark Cassini's division between the large inner and outer ring system -- also, you should see 1 moon, the giant Titan, the largest planetary satellite by far in our solar system. Titan has the gravitational pull to hold an atmosphere and sports "lakes" of frozen methane. [Editor's note -- if you have never seen Saturn through a telescope, it ought to be on your "bucket list!" Many astronomer-types (me included) began a lifetime journey after their first mind-blowing view of this celestial gift -- no photograph (certainly also including mine, above) does it justice!]
open star cluster NGC2158
globular star cluster M15
galaxy NGC7331
Open star cluster NGC2158 from Kitt Peak -- these are easy objects -- we should see them quite a bit better than this photo shows. Globular star cluster M15 from Kitt Peak -- we should see such object-types with far better detail than this, depending on seeing conditions. Visual observations of such globular clusters are always awesome! Spiral galaxy NGC7331 from Kitt Peak -- such objects can be difficult visually -- usually they appear as bright, fuzzy blobs, but with effort sometimes the spiral arms DO appear.
Planetary nebula M1
M42 Orion Nebula
Planetary nebula M1 from Kitt Peak -- this detail in this photograph is more than you will see visually, but you WILL be able to pick out such planetary nebulae and their shape -- they are usually quite small. M42 Orion Nebula -- taken from RVO (my original finalized image) and really a rather typical visual view. Oddly, the nebula appears green to the human eye, but the visual green and photographic red coloring is certainly unmistakable -- rare in deep-sky visual observing. Also, the Trapezium 4-star system in the center of the nebula is visually stunning -- here it is overexposed in the bright center section of the nebula.


So, in conclusion, please consider signing up for a visual observing session at Rabbit Valley Observatory. Just e-mail me and we'll talk about your visual observing goals and ambitions. Mostly, you and I will be awe-struck by the beautiful dark skies and we will have fun!


visual observing sessions
imaging sessions
image post-processing
"The Imperative of Night" narrative
contact us


(all content copyright 2015/2016 Willis Greiner Photography, all rights reserved)