Planetary Society 2019 Shoemaker NEO Grant awarded to Squirrel Valley Observatory

Squirrel Valley Observatory was recently chosen as one of 6 recipients of the Planetary Societies 2019 Shoemaker NEO grant. The grant money will go to expand the automation capabilities of the observatory as we continue our near earth asteroid observations and tracking program. Grant money was also awarded to 5 other observers representing 4 countries.

The Planetary Society 2019 Shoemaker NEO Grant award

SVO Major Equipment Upgrade Funded!

Support for small observatory research is difficult to come by. Luckily there are companies out there who realize the value of individuals efforts and of small observatory scientific research.

Celestron is one of those companies. They recognize that many customers not only use their optical instruments for visual or imaging work, but also as tools for scientific research. In 2016 Squirrel Valley Observatory W34 became one of those users as we began a modest near-earth asteroid program. Since that time our scope for this work has been a Celestron EdgeHD 8 inch which has performed beyond our expectations for a scope of that size, having collected data on over 1,400 asteroids, with more than 460 of those being unique near-earth objects (NEO’s); and more importantly having provided confirmation observations in support of the large sky surveys discoveries, for 130 new NEO’s to date.

Celestron recently recognized the value of our near earth astreroid confirmation/tracking program, and has chosen to support Squirrel Valley Observatory with a major equipment upgrade. I am proud to announce that Celestron, a world leader in optical telescope technology has funded a Celestron Edge HD 14-inch telescope for use at Squirrel Valley Observatory. Their gracious and much appreciated contribution will allow us to not only continue our near-earth asteroid program, but excel beyond the capabilities of our current 8-inch scope.
As additional accessories for the system transition arrive in the coming weeks, the new 14″ will be modified and outfitted with a hyperstar system, which will not only reduce the focal length but also increase our field of view.

A secondary supporter of our program’s success is Hollywood General Machining otherwise known as Losmandy Astronomical, manufacturer of the legendary Losmandy mounts. By providing us with a price point that meets our budget Losmandy will also play a key part in the current upgrade and continuation of our NEO program. Our existing G11 mount has performed well but will not meet the heavier load demands of the modified Celestron EdgeHD 14. We expect the newly designed heavier duty G11GT will meet those demands.

Without the support of these valued vendors, it would be a real struggle for our near earth asteroid studies to progress beyond our current capabilities here at Squirrel Valley Observatory.
These legendary companies in the astronomical community are reminding us once again that science and research are not limited to academia. Science belongs to all who ask… ” what and why?”

We do continue to seek funding for camera and software upgrades.

Pictures of the transition will be posted in the coming weeks.

Thank you Celestron!
Thank you Losmandy!

Squirrel Valley Observatory W34
Randy Flynn
Columbus, NC

The good, the bad, the ugly…

What a year it has been. While some planned upgrades have not progressed as planned, there has been no shortage of determination to move forward, and that we did. Dedication is sometimes it’s own reward, especially if you can accept losing a great deal of sleep. There is also great satisfaction in producing maximum results with minimum tools.

The good….

After turning the observatories full attention to near-earth object astrometry, we doubled our 2018 MPEC output of discovery confirmation objects from that of 2017. W34 was credited with confirmation assistance for 35 new NEO’s in 2017 and 68 new objects in 2018, for a total of 103 new NEO’s confirmed from the NEOCP page. This was our proudest achievement. Since the start of NEO operations, W34 has submitted data for 412 unique new and known NEO’s. If all minor planets observations, including main belt asteroids are totaled, we have submitted data for over 1,300 unique asteroids since July of 2016. Not bad for a facility of this size and equipment, and in this location. We definitely squeezed the maximum out of what we have to work with. While the southeastern US is not a hot bed of observatory activity for minor planet study, when it came to NEO confirmation and follow up, W34 was second in productivity only to Cordell–Lorenz Observatory 850 in Sewanee TN, if you look at MPEC discovery data confirmation submissions in the southeast U.S.
We ended the year ranked at 122 on the all time list of discovery confirmations stations (from 570 designated stations). Not bad for 2 years of activity from the humidity capital of the U.S.

The Bad…
Upgrades did not go as planned due to anticipated funding that did not come through. While this was a big disappointment, it wasn’t totally unexpected. We also did not venture back to any astrophotography, but this was due to 100% of our efforts being concentrated on NEO studies, and the inclement weather conditions that persisted did not help matters.

The Ugly…
The weather in the foothills of western North Carolina was horrible in 2018. Humidity, as usual was through the roof with rain being the word of the year. Rainfall amounts were the highest since records have been kept here.

After some brief down time for maintenance, 2019 will see Squirrel Valley Observatory W34 resume the collection of astrometric data in support of near-earth object confirmations and follow up. Maybe some astrophotography this year as well. We plan to continue exploring funding options that will allow for equipment upgrades which would increase our near-earth asteroid detection capabilities and data output in the future.

Clear skies and dark nights!

Fall 2017 progress update

The past year has been incredibly busy but very productive especially on the astrometry front. SVO has now submitted observations to the Minor Planet Center for over 700 unique minor planets, including hazardous asteroids, various near earth objects, main, distant, inner belt asteroids, as well as dwarf planets and comets. Astrometry is the primary research being conducted now at the observatory with data being sent to the minor planet center on nearly a daily basis. An exciting component to this research has been the observatories ability to directly assist larger major sky survey observatories like F51-Pan-STARRS 1, Haleakala, T08–ATLAS-MLO, Mauna Loa, T05-ATLAS-HKO, Haleakala, 703–Catalina Sky Survey Arizona, G96 Mt. Lemmon Survey Arizona, 691 – Steward Observatory, Kitt Peak-Spacewatch (as well as others), by providing confirmation data on their discoveries, which in turn allows W34 to share confirmation credit. To date SVO W34 has assisted in the confirmation discovery of 44 minor planets with the majority of these being near earth objects and some being classified as potentially hazardous. I am also grateful for the past years collaboration with David Rankin over at V03 Big Waters observatory. His assistance and guidance has been invaluable and I hope that some of my efforts did indeed contribute to his discoveries.

Asteroid 2017 TG2

Aside from astrometry research there has also been some limited time for other areas of interest. The observatory was able for the first time to generate a light curve for one of the larger exoplanets, Kepler 14b. Over a 4 hour period, a dip in the parent star’s light was recorded as it’s massive orbiting planet passed in front of the star. This was more of a test of the equipment’s ability than any generated research, but being able to record the activity of a distant exoplanets orbit is something that would have been far out of reach of small instruments like this only 10 – 20 years ago. It is a testament to the advancements in technology. 

There was also some time for deep sky astrophotography with the newest camera, the ASI 1600mm. Almost all imaging is done in LRGB channels now with some narrowband imaging also being included. Samples of this years imaging sessions can be found in the gallery and on the Imaging Projects page.






Work around the observatory continues, with some more trees being removed this past year. There is still much left to do on this front. The need for equipment upgrades is a constant concern. A bigger scope would of course allow me to track fainter objects and contribute even more data for additional objects. Currently under the best conditions and with lots of image stacking, I can sometimes get to magnitude 20.6, but this is a rarity and not dependable. 20.2-20.3 is fairly common on the best of nights.  Many of the objects that are in need of study fall below 21st magnitude. My trusty G11 mount is soon due an upgrade as well.

A look ahead to the coming year will hopefully see continued support of the Minor Planet Center’s astrometry program with a more concentrated effort on the confirmation of new NEO’s (near earth objects). Various other projects are in the early stages of planning, (some dependent upon equipment upgrades) and naturally deep sky astrophotography will also continue.

Clear skies!


Progress update…

It’s been a while since the last update on all the activities at the observatory. I will try not to get so far behind next time, but it has been a very busy couple of months. The best place to start would be an update on the asteroid survey in support of the Minor Planet Center. As of today SVO has observed, tracked and submitted data on 226 individual asteroids. Many of those being non threatening main belt types. However more recently, attention has been turned towards hazardous near earth asteroids and providing confirmation of pending new discoveries. The projects tab on this page will allow the viewing of an online spreadsheet for all observations and their MPC listings.

Of recent importance was the submission of data that helped confirm three previously unknown asteroids. Two of these were Apollo type near earth objects, 2017 BN92 and 2017BQ6 which has been identified as a potentially hazardous asteroid. SVO W34 along with V03 Big Water was also directly responsible for the recovery of the main belt asteroid 2071 CR4 which had been seen previously by the big sky surveys but lacked the sufficient data to tie down its orbit. SVO W34 and V03 Big Water filled in the blanks.

Between asteroid tracking, I have started to test the ASI1600mm cameras imaging capabilities. It is promising but the learning curve is a little different than that of a normal ccd camera . I did manage a fairly nice image of M1, the crab nebula. I hope that it will start to shine when I mount it to the 5 inch refractor.M1NBRGBCombination1curvesforhistono color calcrop2400

The software testing for the Swedish Meteor Network continues. Progress is being made and I expect the all sky camera to provide first images soon. There have been bumps in the road, the current one is an apparently dead raspberry pi unit that will either be replaced or repaired. I have required the assistance of a local Linux expert to help push things through on my end.

On the outreach front, the after school outreach program for Polk Central Elementary School will be starting soon. SVO is also pushing for funding of purchasing safe solar eclipse glasses for every student and faculty member of PCES. Hopefully we will know something soon on that front.

SVO has also been in contact with the Polk County Beautification Committee about the importance of non evasive night lighting and the detrimental effects of “blue light”.

And lastly an interview with myself about Squirrel Valley Observatory and it’s primary functions was recently published in a local magazine,”Life in Our Foothills” It can be viewed online here….

 Clear skies!

Minor planet milestone…

A little over two months ago, SVO received an observatory code from the Minor Planet Center. highlightmpc-code

On November 18th, we surpassed a small milestone…. 100 minor planets observed, measured and submitted to the Minor Planet Center. Included in that count were about a dozen asteroids classified as hazardous, numerous mars crossers, several comets and many main belt asteroids. A working list (excel spreadsheet) of these observations can be found in the projects section of this web page. It’s been a hectic pace for one person, but it has been a good learning experience. I think this hard work validates the reasoning for acquiring a new imaging camera that will go deeper… and in fact a ZWO ASI 1600 and filter wheel are due to be delivered soon. I’ve been limited to just a bit over 18th magnitude with often questionable result using a DSLR. The need to go beyond magnitude 21 in order to make greater data contributions is warranted and the 1600 should allow for this. It should also provide for some improved astrophotography.

In other news, it looks like a testing collaboration with the Swedish Meteor Network will begin after the first of the year. SVO will be testing the Swedish teams software design that will hopefully allow ZWO cameras to contribute data to meteor tracking networks. Currently specialized video cameras fill this need.  Off the shelf easy to find cameras like those of ZWO could allow for increased participation in the tracking and data collection of incoming meteors.

Also on the horizon is the opportunity for more outreach events. But more on that later.

SVO receives MPC observatory code…W34

After a year of setup and some setbacks, Squirrel Valley Observatory has entered into the initial phase of research, in particular minor planet astrometry. The observatory has been granted an observatory code (W34) from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC), operating from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge Massachusetts. SVO submitted 138 single point observations of 8 minor planets (asteroids) over a period of 20 days. Only 4 observations fell outside of the required 1 arc second of accuracy. This fulfilled the requirement of demonstrating the ability to produce “good”, properly formatted astrometic data consistently.
Squirrel Valley Observatory W34’s designation and continuing contribution of data will be published in the Minor Planet Circulars each month.
Below is a single sample of the astrometric data taken of the asteroid “03353 Jarvis” on the night of August 31st.
Asteroid astrometry is a branch of astronomy that involves precise measurements of the positions and movements of asteroids, also comets and near earth objects (NEO). This is accomplished by imaging the target, comparing the data to known data from the MPC, then submitting the measurements which can then
be used to refine orbit predictions or in some case lead to the discovery of new minor planets.
“The Minor Planet Center, or MPC, is the single worldwide location for receipt and distribution of positional measurements of minor planets, comets and
outer irregular natural satellites of the major planets. The MPC is responsible for the identification, designation and orbit computation for all of these
objects. This involves maintaining the master files of observations and orbits, keeping track of the discoverer of each object, and announcing discoveries
to the rest of the world via electronic circulars and an extensive website. The MPC operates at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, under the
auspices of Division F of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).”

SGP imaging integration and Minor Planet Astrometry

Despite the hazy cloudy summer nights that have prevailed, some imaging and operating refinements have been made at the observatory. The inclusion of Sequence Generator Pro automated imaging software has been a real bugger to setup. Things always seem simple on the surface, but the integration with the different systems, like the autofocuser and autoguider have been frustrating at times. It appears that things are starting to click though, just a few more tweaks to make. It’s very satisfying to input several targets for the night into the software and then see the telescope slew to each one, plate solve, center, autofocus, start the guider and then start imaging. Then it moves to the next target and begins the process again, all on its own.

Last months construction of my first prototype all sky camera wrapped up as well. Plans are already being formulated for a second generation improved version that would utilize raspberry pi. The observatory is collaborating with the Swedish Meteor Network project, the CAMS Meteor project the Deep Sky Sentinel project and the Croatian Meteor Network on ways to extract useful data from ZWO cameras so that it that can be imported into the proper format for meteor data research.

Another project that I am very excited about is the observatories contribution of data to the MPC, Minor Planet Center. Astrometry data for four of the six asteroids observed by SVO during the month of August was recently submitted to the MPC in anticipation of acquiring an observatory code. The guys at The Northolt Branch Observatory located in West London have given me some very valuable support and information in this endeavor. I can’t thank Guy and Daniel enough.
Below is a sample of the data for the asteroid 06458 Nouda.


And finally, below are two comparison images of the globular cluster M13, the Hercules cluster. Both images were taken with the SVO main imaging scope approximately a year apart. The newest image shows the difference that a quality mount, the addition of an autoguider and autofocuser can make.
M13 comparision1516resize

Prepping for the Perseid meteor shower and Intro to Astrometry

The weather for viewing or imaging in western North Carolina has been horrendous this summer. With so much down time, I have been busy with plans for when the skies do decide to clear, which I am starting to think may just be Autumn. One project has been to develop a weatherproof climate controlled enclosure for an all sky camera. The all sky camera is actually my ZWO ASI224mc planetary imager which doubles as an excellent all sky camera. The plan is to have it ready in time to capture the peak of the Perseid meteor shower this month. All dependent on weather of course.

Other projects have been the continued integration of the image acquisition software, mainly the auto-focus module. With no clear skies to be had, it has been impossible to set up. And lastly on the couple of mediocre nights that we have had, I tried my luck at imaging for astrometry. The bright asteroid Pallas, was a good target to cut my teeth on.



Future plans for astrometry imaging are to next image Pluto and Eros. But again, just waiting on the skies to clear.