Category Archives: Astronomy

Twelve Hours

I stumbled on a large can of worms a little over twelve hours ago and have spent the day, shuffling fairly large data files into order to figure out how many worms, how big, how wiggly, and training them to tap dance.

Another hour or so to go but the clock’s ticking and I haven’t posted today, so have a picture from a couple weeks ago when I was set up to catch a comet from my front yard.

Back to the tap dancing worms! It’s so hard to get them into those teeny, tiny, little tuxedos and top hats!

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ISS Pass – August 02

I mainly wanted to take tonight’s picture because I’ve been trying to experiment with the focusing on this new lens that’s been giving me fits. There’s progress, this is MUCH better than what I got the other night. (Which I didn’t share with you because, you know, it sucked.)

The stars are still trailing because the Earth is moving over the course of these twenty-nine images and two minutes and forty-two seconds. Haven’t figured out a way to stop that, and probably wouldn’t do it if I could because, you know, destruction of civilization and all human life. (Although there are days…)

But the focus is much better and everything’s pretty sharp. I’ve got passes over the next few nights so I’ll keep playing with it to see if I can get it better.

You’ll see the Big Dipper up there, so Comet NEOWISE is up there somwhere, probably to the left of the ISS track and about halfway to the top of the tree on a line between the top of the tree and the far right star in the “bowl” of the Dipper. But I doubt it can be seen, again with the full Moon rising in the east and a fair amount of smoke and haze still in the air.

(Image: Star Walk)

Speaking of that smoke, in this image of the ISS track you can see how red the ISS looks down near the horizon versus how it looks overhead. That’s caused by the path of the light traveling through a lot more air down there, plus the smoke, so just the Sun and Moon will look orange or red as their rising or setting, so will the ISS.

What you won’t see tonight that you might have seen last night is the Dragon spacecraft – it landed in the water off of Pensacola, Florida this afternoon. The entry, descent, and landing were just about perfect, and Bob and Doug are back home with their families tonight, while a few hundred pounds of critical science results and samples are on their way back to their Earth-bound research labs, and the Dragon spacecraft is headed back to Kennedy Space Center where it will be examined in great detail (this was a test flight, after all) and then refurbished for use on the Crew-2 flight to ISS next year.



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Hidden Dragon

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft undocked from the ISS this afternoon and is on it’s way to splashdown off of Florida early tomorrow afternoon. Sometimes when the Shuttle would be coming or going from the ISS it was fairly easy to see it during a good ISS pass since it was fairly large and reflected a lot of light. The Dragon and Soyuz spacecraft are considerably smaller than Shuttle was, but if you have a good pass and they’re near the ISS, you might see them trailing along or leading, depending on their orbit.

There was a so-so ISS pass over SoCal tonight – low on the horizon, so we were seeing it through a lot of atmosphere at best, and our atmosphere is a bit hazy at the moment. While we don’t have any storms or clouds, we have plenty of smoke to go around. The fire near us from yesterday is out, but there are a handful of others around and one HUGE one that broke out this afternoon (way out in Riverside County), so the seeing is marginal.

Plus, there’s this monstrously huge source of “natural” light pollution up there tonight:

The moon is only a couple of days from full, and with that bright moonlight bouncing off of all of that smoke and haze, it’s ugly for star gazing. On the other hand, to the right of the moon is Jupiter and its moons, and to the left is Saturn and its rings, so even with binoculars it was nice to see detail in those objects.

But I did not see the Dragon. I saw the ISS and looked carefully, but couldn’t spot the Dragon. (I also looked to see if I could still spot the comet with binoculars, but struck out there also.)

While I had my Hidden Dragon, I did not see any Crouching Tiger. Which is just as well, because, you know, TIGER! The last thing I needed today was to be eaten and killed, or killed and eaten. (The order doesn’t matter to me, both are very bad.)

What I was constantly accompanied by during my astrophotographical quests of the evening were these guys:

These two finally got tired of running away every time I came out, especially since I wasn’t going to go under that honkin’ huge street light there, so they just decided to stay. There were another three or four who were just running wind sprints across the street and into the bushes every time I came out. More power to them.

Good luck coming home tomorrow, Doug and Bob! Go Dragon!


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The Comet From The Back Yard

I think I said two nights ago that I was probably done trying to take pictures of Comet NEOWISE F3 since it was starting to fade significantly (it still is) and being a low-contrast object that has its light spread out across the tail and comet head, it was difficult to photograph well from my front yard given all of the street lights and lights from the neighbors’ houses (which are still on).

I was wrong.

The key is that the obvious finally clicked for me tonight and I realized that I was still thinking like the comet was way down near the horizon and I had to see it from the front yard just before it set. But it’s now moved way up by the bowl of the Big Dipper, so maybe I could see it from my back yard? Where the house and trees that would have blocked seeing the comet when it was near the horizon now will block the light from all of the streetlights and neighbors’ porches. Maybe?

Yes, indeedy, that works like a charm. With one little non-insurmountable problem.

It’s lovely and all, but it causes its own share of light pollution. Tonight was tolerable but in a week it will be full and freakishly bright, while the comet will continue to fade, so that will become problematic. But a problem for another night.

A 20-second exposure at 70mm shows where it is. It’s definitely dimmer by a lot, but the green color is still evident.

But without the street lights in view, I can go to a 30-second exposure and bring out more detail and color. The stars are no longer pinpoints, “trailing” as the Earth moves. The next step would be to mount the camera on my telescope’s equitorial mount so that it spins the camera “backward” at exactly the same rate as the Earth rotates “forward” – maybe I can try that later.

Zooming in to 300mm, a 4-second exposure keeps the trailing to a minimum and the green color really pops, but you don’t see much of the tail.

Zoomed in part way at 114mm, a 25-second exposure starts to bring out the tail.

Finally, zooming in to 300mm and taking a 30 second exposure, the comet’s head is trailed but really shows it’s green color, while the tail is smeared due to trailing, but has more detail showing.

Finally, because I remembered an old trick used by earlier astronomers when searching for comets and asteroids on photographic plates, I inverted the image from black to white and I enhanced the contrast in Photoshop. Now that tail is really obvious!

Not bad for haven called it quits 48 hours ago!

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The Comet Closest

Tonight’s the night that Comet NEOWISE F3 is closest to Earth. This is not to say that it’s actually really close at all (approximately 64,300,000 miles), but it is the closest it will come as it heads back out to the dim, cold, empty regions of the solar system.

But first, before it gets dark, the monthly cycle has rolled around and the three-day-old crescent moon is back in our skies.

As always, the crescent Moon is a high dynamic range object. The illuminated crescent is quite bright, to to capture it you need a short exposure (1/25 second), but doing so makes it hard to see the palm trees that it was sharing that spot of sky with – perhaps if you have a good, high contrast monitor you can see their faint silhouettes.

Shoot a two-second exposure and the darkened face of the moon starts to come out due to Earthshine, sunlight reflected off of the Earth, onto the Moon, and then back to us. You can also start to see the brighter stars, as well as the aforementioned palm tree silhouettes. But the illuminated portion of the Moon is completely overexposed.

Finally, if you wait until about 21:45 and shoot a 15-second exposure, you’ll catch the comet with a distinct green color showing around the head, but not as much tail visible in the hazy, light-polluted skies of Los Angeles.

That’s the big difference in location – you’ll notice in all of the really fantastic comet photos taken from dark sky locations, the sky is almost jet black and a ton of detail can be seen in the tail, including the ion tail which is split off from the dust tail. Here in the big city, a long exposure just starts to turn everything grey.

So while I’ll still be going out and watching the comet, I don’t anticipate too many more photos, if any, unless something dramatic happens. “Dramatic” could include getting my telescope cleaned and repaired, getting the chance to drive for a few hours to get off to a dark sky location, or both.

The odds of either or both happening are…astronomical!

But the comet is still visible easily with binoculars, even from a city with all of its lights, and in a dark sky it’s still (barely) a naked eye object, so if you haven’t seen it yet, take your shot!

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The Comet Continues

I was pretty sure for a while that I wouldn’t be seeing the comet tonight. I’ve at least gone out and looked at it for a few minutes every night for more than a week now, but near sunset it was looking marginal.

Pretty – I like clouds and sunsets – but marginal for comet watching.

It’s okay if I didn’t see the comet again tonight. Sometimes we can all use a night apart.

With the comet getting higher in the sky by 3° or more per day, I knew that it would be up for a longer time after full dark every night, so missing it tonight wouldn’t be the end of the world by any means.

I was ready to write it off, not even bother to look later when it got dark.

Yeah. RIGHT!

By 22:00 it was completely dark, almost two hours after sunset, and the skies were again totally cloudless. The comet was even higher than it had been when I was taking pictures at 21:00 to 21:20 the other night. It’s nice and high, actually above that big pine tree across the street and above those power lines. It’s still remarkably easy to see, given that comets normally fade fairly quickly. This one is hanging on.

It’s barely visible to the naked eye still here in the light-polluted Los Angeles metro area, but still an easy target with the binoculars. It took me a minute or two, but only because I didn’t realize how high it was now. I was scanning the horizon given the hour, but it was up above those wires!

If you’ve got binoculars of any kind, don’t give up if you haven’t seen it yet or it’s been cloudy. You’ve probably got at least a week more, maybe two.

Happy Hunting!

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Cosmic Double Header In One Picture

So, as I thought, or as I expected thanks to the sky maps, tonight I got to see the ISS sail right past Comet NEOWISE!

Click on that beauty and look for the comet near the bottom, the Big Dipper way above it, the ISS passing between them, and one of the ever present commercial jets out of LAX headed toward Asia!

Did you get them all?

The comet’s a little blurry, as are the stars, since they’re stacked from a series of about ten images, each ten seconds long, and nothing’s standing still in that time, so… blur!

What was the camera with the big lens doing while all of this was going on?

The usual – taking pictures of the comet after it got dark. I missed catching the ISS & comet together in this smaller field of view. I guessed wrong and had the camera a bit low, ISS passed just over the top, out of sight for this lens.

But I shot ten second images for over 45 minutes, so there might be a good time-lapse video to come. But not tonight. I’m exhausted. It’s been a tough week.

But sometimes, even at the end of a long, tough week, you get the camera position correct enough to get lucky enough so you get to see the comet an extra five minutes as it slips down perfectly in between those branches on that tree.

I’ll take what I can get!

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Cosmic Double Header In Reverse

As we had last night, there was a bright, glorious ISS pass to go along with better and better views of Comet NEOWISE. But orbital mechanics being what they are and out of my control, tonight we’re doing them in reverse order. First we have the gorgeous ISS pass, and then it gets dark enough to view the comet.

The ISS pass was wonderful to watch, but difficult to photograph because it started at 20:30 and it’s still too bright at that point to do what I did yesterday. Yesterday’s images were five seconds long because it was dark. Similar images today would have been nothing but white from border to border, completely overexposed. The camera wanted to do 1/4 second exposures at the most, but I’m the PIC (Photographer in Command, in this case) so I set it for 1 second exposures and hoped for the best.

The results were marginal looking to where the ISS was rising in the west, but pushing the contrast in Photoshop at least allowed the station’s path to be seen, coming out of the glare of twilight toward the upper left corner. At least I’m getting a lot better on planning where to point the camera!

Headed over the horizon to the northeast the sky was darker, so there wasn’t as much tweaking necessary in Photoshop. You can also see where one of the big jets out of LAX was headed off to Asia at one point during the sequence. That bright star visible right next to the ISS path about half way is Vega, a very bright star, just starting to be visible as night falls.

I had to wait another half hour for it to get dark enough to see the comet. Again tonight it’s higher than it was yesterday, staying up longer while it gets darker, and easier to see. Again I’m emphasize if you’re looking – BINOCULARS! It looks fantastic.

This is a fifteen second view…

…and this is a twenty second image toward the end of the evening, shifting around the yard to try to dodge those trees blocking my view. These were both taken with the telephoto lens at 75mm.

Seeing if I could zoom in (better close ups of the comet) and take longer images (gather more light, but it’s a balancing act because the Earth’s moving and the image will smear if you’re not tracking) I tried to see what happened and got this at 300mm zoom and a ten second exposure:

It’s a little smeared and disappearing down behind that tree, but if you blow it up to full sized you can see how the comet’s tail is spread and curved. No chance with this rig, this low, and this light polluted to see the blue ion tail.

But that wasn’t my main goal for the night. From the time that the comet started to be really visible in the twilight (21:08) until it went behind that tree (21:25) I had cameras set up to take one photo after another, fifteen second exposures. Then I used that trick I learned in Photoshop…

This is the “regular” lens with a taller image, so that you can see the Big Dipper at the top. The comet is at the bottom, between those trees, heading down and to the right. I love this little video, the really clear, easily recognizable constellation spinning at the top, and how some of the stars in the Big Dipper “blink” as they go behind the power lines.

But I said I had cameras set up – plural. The big lens was also running!

Watch how it gets darker as time goes by and the stars in the constellation Lynx (below the Big Dipper) start to come out and the comet’s tail just gets brighter and more prominent as twilight fades!

This is easily my best work yet. I didn’t know how it would turn out, and there’s plenty of room for improvement still, but I’m very excited with how this turned out.

I’m posting the full-sized videos above. (I hope – it’s really late.) They’re also on my YouTube channel, but at reduced resolution.

And what happens after you’re done with that? Well, the first video is made up of forty-seven images, but that’s from a series of fifty images. I didn’t know exactly when the comet disappeared behind the tree. And that forty-eighth image?

The comet can just barely, almost, maybe be seen behind that tree – but the helicopter that came by missed its opportunity to photobomb my work!

But tomorrow’s photobombing, if I can pull it off, could be on a par with tonight’s results.

Stand by and happy hunting!

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Cosmic Double Header

Getting better… The comet’s a little higher… I’m doing fewer stupid things with the camera…

Sunset was at 20:05 so I again started hunting at about 20:35. That seems to be a bit of a waste of time because the comet is just too low contrast to be seen with that much twilight still lighting up the sky. Even with three different apps telling me exactly where it is, I didn’t spot it (right where it’s supposed to be, between these two trees) until just before 21:00. And while I was able to spot it with binoculars at that point, it wasn’t visible to the naked eye. Best efforts with the camera is marginal, to be generous.

But I hope these pictures will give you an idea of what you’ll see if you go hunting. (Get binoculars!!)

Five minutes later it was better.

And better. Starting to zoom in with the big telephoto.

And better. This was about 21:08 and the head of the comet was just barely beginning to be visible to the naked eye, but mainly because I knew exactly where to look and I knew what (or what not) to expect.

About 21:10, this is what a long, long exposure on the regular lens looked like. It was actually getting pretty dark and most of the ground lighting in this scene is from the street lights, but you can see that down near the horizon it was still bright. Click on the picture to blow it up – you can see the comet in that circle, but it’s a fuzzy dot and a smudge to the naked eye.

But now, just as the comet’s going down behind those trees, it’s finally dark enough so that with the bigger lens, you can start doing 3 second, 10 second, 30 second exposures without getting nothing but white. And when you do that…

Six second exposure. My best shot yet!

Then it was down behind the trees and I was scrambling, because about three minutes later…


There was a fantastic ISS pass – there will be more for the rest of the week, pretty much no matter where you are, so check out or the NASA site or any number of other places to see where and when for your location. On this map I’ve vandalized enhanced it by drawing in the location on the horizon that NEOWISE was at.

Rising from behind the neighbor’s tree, headed toward the Big Dipper which is right outside the upper right of this frame. (At the bottom you can see a jet out over the Pacific on course into LAX [the red & green lights] and another satellite, probably in a polar orbit going north to south.)

Did I mention the Big Dipper? Here it is, hanging down, with the ISS going from left to right through the handle. Ten minutes earlier we MIGHT have gotten the frame set up to catch the comet next to that tree at the bottom, but close only counts in horse shoes, hand grenades, and tactical nuclear weapons.

Finally watched the ISS headed from the Big Dipper, past the North Star, and down over the horizon to the northeast.

That was a pretty good night. And there are great ISS passes every night for the next week. Including one at about 21:23 on Friday night that should be going right next to the comet.



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Comet NEOWISE F3 Recovered

I finally found Comet NEOWISE F3 in the evening sky after three nights of failure!

Impressive, eh?

Well, don’t feel bad if you can’t see it, it’s pretty tough to see. Just a low contrast smudge, low down in the haze and coastal fog coming in from the coast, and almost wiped out by the light of the lingering dusk only an hour after sunset, still well into twilight.

Blow it up, click on it – see it right there, just barely above that middle tree?

Yep, that’s all it was from LA tonight.

There are some fantastic pictures coming out of more Northern climes – Vancouver, Chicago, England, Northern Europe, all have been producing spectacular images. That’s because there it’s not by the horizon, it’s overhead. And it’s not just after sunset, it’s up late at night when it’s dark. That in turn means that they can do exposures that are 30, 60, 120 seconds long or even longer. I could barely do 1/3 of a second before the whole frame went white with overexposure.

It looked a little better in binoculars, but not as good as it did four & five days ago in the morning sky.

Every night it’s about 3° higher at the same time, so in a week it will be up by the Big Dipper over two hours after sunset. I’ll still have to deal with the LA light pollution and haze, and the comet is getting dimmer by the day as it pulls away from the Sun, but I may get better results.

Speaking of other pictures out there, there’s one that’s getting a ton of exposure, showing a range of extremely bright rainbow colors and a ton of twirly, spiral detail in the tail.

It’s fake. (I won’t even bother to show the image or give it any additional exposure – believe me, you’ll know it if you see it.)

It might have started with an actual photo of the comet, but from there it’s had so much processing and colorizing and effects added that it’s barely even an art piece, let alone an actual representation of what the comet really looks like.

If the best scientists in the world with the best telescopes in the world are producing something that’s white, smooth, maybe with a blue ion tail (that’s an actual thing and real) but an 18-year-old kid with a 200mm lens produces an image that’s too good to be true… Yeah, do the math. It’s pretty, but it’s also 100% bogus.

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