Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
#MeToo for Christians
Comet 46P/Wirtanen
M42 (Orion Nebula)
M45 (Pleiades)
M78 and absence of McNeil's Nebula
M78 and absence of McNeil's Nebula
NGC 253
Many more...

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Comet 46P/Wirtanen

The brightest comet in several years is currently in the evening sky just west of southern Orion. See this map if you want to look for it. It will be brightest December 16, but the moon will then be high in the sky, so it's probably better to look for it as soon as you can. It's faintly visible to the unaided eye in a dark country sky; in town, I need binoculars to see it.

The following two pictures are each a stack of twenty 1-minute exposures through an AT65EDQ 6.5-cm f/6.5 refractor. The stack is aligned on the comet, which is moving, so the stars are faint, blurry streaks. You can see that the comet is developing a short tail, which points to the upper left (northeast).



I haven't tried to calibrate the scale of these pictures, but the comet covers about the same area of sky as the full moon. It is of course much larger and farther away. Like all comets, it consists of a rocky or icy core and a large shroud of gas released by the core as the sun warms it.

Galaxy NGC 253


On the evening of December 4 (December 5 UT), I also grabbed this image of the galaxy NGC 253 in the constellation Sculptor, which was rather low in the sky. I need to come back and photograph it with my 8-inch. Notice the amount of detail that the 6.5-cm (2.6-inch) telescope captured. Like several recent pictures, this is a stack of twenty 1-minute exposures with an AT65EDQ and Nikon D5300.

The nebula that still isn't there


This is a picture of the field of the nebula M78, very similar to the one I took on December 2 (December 3 UT; scroll down for it). You can see other nebulae, especially a bright one to the upper left, but also some wisps to the lower right of M78. What you can't see is McNeil's Variable Nebula, which has faded from view. It should be just to the right of the double star that is to the lower right of M78. Other wisps are visible that are comparable to the normal brightness of McNeil's, but McNeil's itself isn't there.



The Pleiades, a prominent star cluster in Taurus easily visible to the naked eye, are embedded in interstellar dust, which aligns in long streaks because of the stars' magnetic fields. This is one of my best pictures of the Pleiades ever. Stack of twenty 1-minute exposures, AT65EDQ 6.5-cm f/6.5 refractor, Nikon D5300 at ISO 200, AVX mount, PEC, no guiding corrections.

Apart from being a beautiful and astrophysically interesting picture, this is also confirmation that the AT65EDQ is free of internal reflections. That means it is suitable for photographing faint objects near bright stars, and also total solar eclipses, which involve faint corona and bright corona in the same picture.


Orion Nebula in HDR


Unlike the astrophotos below, this one is just a pretty picture. The Orion Nebula is one of the easiest celestial objects to photograph well, and I've photographed it many times. This one is a stack of twenty 1-minute exposures through an AT65EDQ 6.5-cm f/6.5 refractor and a Nikon D5300 at ISO 200. Taking advantage of the camera's large dynamic range, I used the HDR processing tool in PixInsight to preserve detail in areas that would otherwise have been overexposed.

Heavy-handed HDR is overused in astrophotography, and I was hesitant to use it. But PixInsight's tool is not heavy-handed, and in this case it brought out genuine detail in the image.

M77 with no supernova

Now for some real astronomy — some pictures that reveal recent changes in distant parts of the universe.



The first picture shows the galaxy M77 (bright and round), the edge-on galaxy NGC 1055, and the star Delta Ceti. The second is an enlarged and brightened area of the same picture, showing that the supernova recently reported in M77 is not there — it must be fainter than 17th or 18th magnitude now. The stars visible superimposed on the galaxy in this picture are the ones that have been there a long time; they are in the foreground.

Stack of twenty 1-minute exposures, AT65EDQ 6.5-cm f/6.5 refractor, Nikon D5300 at ISO 200.

M78 still without McNeil's Nebula


M78 is a reflection nebula illuminated by stars in Orion. To the upper left of it is a similar, smaller object, NGC 2017, and to the lower right, some fainter wisps.

What I want you to notice in this wide-field view is not only the two bright blobs, but also the relative lack of stars all through the middle of the picture, compared to the periphery. That nebula is big and is mostly a dark nebula, a cloud of gas and dust that hides distant stars. A few stars embedded in it illuminate their neighborhoods, and that gives us M78 and NGC 2017.

Now zoom in on the nebulae:


That's actually a portion of the same picture, enlarged and brightened. Crucially, McNeil's variable nebula is not there. It's a wisp that should be just to the right of the double star toward the lower right. The star that illuminates it has apparently faded.

Stack of twenty-one 1-minute exposures (yes, twenty-one; one was a test, but all were good, so I used them) with an AT65EDQ 6.5-cm f/6.5 refractor and Nikon D5300 at ISO 200.


Baby, it's contentious outside...

The latest thing we're supposed to be divided about is the song "Baby, it's cold outside."

People on both sides are arguing more forcefully than the subject deserves. This isn't the clearest thing in the world, nor the most important.

Added confusion comes from the word "ban" in some headlines. All I've really heard is that some radio stations have stopped playing it. Can't a privately owned radio station stop playing anything it wants to stop playing? If they hadn't said they were responding to complaints (requests), nobody would even have noticed.

I know the song originated in the 1940s as a skit about a married couple trying to decide whether it's time to go home from a party. And that it was in a movie. These things give it an official innocent interpretation.

All the early performances, and some recent ones, include a good bit of humor. The funniest is a new one that uses video trickery to show Trump and Clinton performing it during their debate.

But to modern ears, at least some performances of the song sound remarkably like a seduction or date rape situation, and people find it creepy. I know I did, the first time I heard it, long before the #MeToo movement.

It has had a surge of popularity in the past few years, and I'm sure most of the people making it popular today don't know the history. That, too, is creepy. Maybe they like it for the same reason I don't like it.

I am not sure the innocent interpretation was the only one even back in the 1940s. I can't start a new career researching the song, but I wonder if there was a double interpretation possible from the beginning (and taken, initially, as humorous).

In any case, let's not start using this song as a litmus test for whether people are "liberal" or "conservative." Don't tell me I've been infected by "the extremes of the #MeToo movement" or "neo-Victorian progressive prudery" if the song makes me uneasy. I don't like the song, and no amount of political stigma will make me like it.

But on the other hand, if someone likes the song, that doesn't mean they wholeheartedly endorse "rape culture" either. It's a song, and it has been interpreted and performed more than one way.

If "#MeToo" puts you off, please scroll down and keep reading.



#MeToo and Christian Values

I recently had a conversation with an unfortunate fellow Christian who didn't know what the #MeToo hashtag meant, and thought it was some kind of left-wing fad — maybe a feminist demand for power, maybe a matter of "political correctness."

No, no, no.

The #MeToo movement is a long-overdue uprising against behavior that we Christians have always known was wrong. For example:

(1) Man takes woman out on date, and forces her to have sexual intercourse with him, or tries to.

(2) Man takes woman out on date, and gives her a spiked drink or drugs in order to take advantage of her sexually, or tries to.

(3) Man works with woman in office, and grabs, hugs, or kisses her when they are alone together, against her wishes (she has shown no interest in him).

(4) Man in management position expects sexual favors from female subordinates or rewards them with job advancement.

And so on. The #MeToo hashtag means, "Somebody has done or tried to do something like that to me."

Its purpose is to raise awareness that these incidents are not rare and need to be opposed systematically. Because they happen in secret, it's easy for the victims to imagine that they are much less common than they really are. And perpetrators often intimidate people into not speaking up. We must be careful not to cooperate with the intimidation.

We're not talking about misconstrued friendly gestures or momentary verbal blunders. We're talking about things that are deliberate, offensive, and wrong.

I know that if you scour the world, you can find examples of people saying unreasonable things with a #MeToo hashtag. But that doesn't invalidate the basic concept. I also know that most of the #MeToo movement are not Christians and not 100% in line with our beliefs about morality, nor 100% consistent with each other. But on the major points they have raised concern about, they are doing the right thing, and we should support them.

The notion that #MeToo is something untrustworthy and left-wing reminds me of the bad old days (I can remember them!) when people tried to tell me Christians were supposed to be against racial equality because it was left-wing or socialistic.

Sadly, you can get some naive Christians to oppose anything by branding it "liberal." I do not think God is in favor of that kind of shoddy thinking.

See also this link.


George H. W. Bush, 1924-2018

We mourn the passing of the President who gave us the phrases "kinder, gentler nation," "compassionate conservatism," and "a thousand points of light."

There has never been a perfect President, and I'm sure some things could be said in criticism of this one. But it's remarkable how he contrasts with the style in which conservatism is practiced and advocated today.

Major computer museum coming to Atlanta


Atlanta is getting a major computer museum. On Friday I was privileged to get a preview of The Computer Museum of America, which is being built in Roswell Town Center Mall near Atlanta. The founder has been collecting computer artifacts in a big way for a long time — not just old home computers and the like — I found myself standing a room full of Cray supercomputers!

The plan is to make this a gathering place for computer enthusiasts around Atlanta, with rentable meeting spaces, a snack bar, and other attractions besides just the museum exhibits.

I wish them success — if carried out as planned, this will be the biggest computer museum in the world.

Short notes

Territorial expansion of Sharonland: When they were little, Cathy and Sharon used to pretend that their bedrooms where principalities called Cathyland and Sharonland. Now that Cathy has been married and out of the house for several years, her old room is being repurposed so Sharon can have a two-room set. It's being painted today. Given that it's an expansion of Sharonland, I wonder if there should also be a flag-raising ceremony or something.

In re John Chau: Whatever you think of John Chau's tragically failed attempt to evangelize the Sentinel Islanders, you should know that initial press reports were false in several particulars. He was not untrained or unsponsored. If you're still following the incident, you owe it to yourself to look at currently available information. The dust hasn't finished settling.

Busy time: Between my thriving consulting business, the territorial expansion of Sharonland, and other things, I've been too busy to write Notebook entries for several days. But now I'm back. Look for societal commentary and also astronomical photographs in the next few days.

If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months .