Category Archives: Astronomy

Rising Full Moon – March

It was orange, and about 99% full, and bright, and orange, and right there outside the back window and over the hill and the San Fernando Valley.

The iPhone algorithm wants to make the whole scene bright, so it’s a long exposure and horribly overexposes the moon. The good news is that it saves some of the color.

The “good camera” (Canon Rebel XT DSLR with a 75-300 mm Tamron telephoto lens) set at 75mm does the same thing, but I can override that, manually focus, and so on. I just wish that I had had the time to grab and set up a tripod, but it was a complete spur of the moment opportunity.

But the really good part about digital cameras instead of film is that photons are dirt cheap, so if you shoot enough hundreds of photos in the five minutes you have, statistical fluctuations say that you’ll get one that’s decent. And that’s what I got – one.

I’m going to call that a win.

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ISS Pass – March 18th

Tonight’s pass was fairly low to the horizon and not that bright (low = lots of atmosphere to look through = dimmer), but the winds had died down and while it was cool (52°F), the crescent moon was up there, so let’s give it a try! Practice, practice, practice!

Not bad! Low, almost due west, climbing at a shallow angle up and to the right, where it doesn’t even get high enough to get above that huge pine tree across the street.

Image from Heavens-Above.com

As the prophecy foretold!

Shift a little to the right as the ISS clears the big pine tree, only to watch it fade into orbital night just before it gets to the Italian cypress trees. The airplane track starting just above the cypress trees and heading north (bottom center)? That’s Fedex #1839 from San Diego to Oakland, at 36,000 feet.

But wait – there’s more!

The faint line coming from center upper right to center lower left? That caught my eye just as the ISS was fading. It’s going due north to due south, so it’s got to be some sort of polar satellite. Possibly a weather satellite, or a spy satellite. Possibly ours, possibly theirs. No clue.

But I shot a much longer string of photos, continuing after the polar satellite had faded into darkness. Merging all of them you can get a great view of how stars near Polaris, the North Star, the pole star (at the lower left) don’t appear to move at all in a time lapse photograph like this (they’re dots) while stars much further away from the pole (on the right) will trail into little arcs as the Earth turns beneath them.

Still can’t find Polaris? Here’s your handy-dandy tutorial, learned lo these many decades ago on some Boy Scout camping trip. Find the Big Dipper (outlined in magenta), it’s easy, a big, bright constellation. On the far end of the dipper portion are the two “pointer” stars. Follow the direction they point (green line) about five times the distance between the two pointers, and you’ll se the one semi-decently bright star in the area – that’s Polaris!

Now go back and blow up that first picture up above. Polaris here is to the upper right of the top of the telephone pole. Again, a dot, not an arc. Now look at the stars on the far left side. See how much they appear to have moved in the two minutes of time covered by this series of pictures?

Flat Earth my ass!

(Should be another great pass tomorrow night, much higher, much brighter!)

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ISS Pass – March 17th

As of 18:00 there were a few scattered high clouds and I thought it would be a great night to watch a fantastic ISS pass.

Image from Heavens-Above.com app

At 19:45 I went out – and it was about 90% clouded over. Thin clouds, so I could see the moon and the brighter stars in Orion, Sirius, but that was about it. I figured I wouldn’t see much at all, but what the heck, give it a try, right?

DAMN! I love this new lens. It is a razor sharp light bucket. With the naked eye through those thin clouds I could see about four, maybe five of those stars…

The green blobby thing in the lower left is that damn street light – I would pay good money to be able to switch it off for about twenty minutes.

And that white & red & green streak coming from the bottom, straight to the top? Alaska Airlines #1495, out of LAX to Spokane.

Then the ISS was overhead…

The clouds were much thicker overhead, not nearly as many stars poking through as it headed off to the north (lower left).

Stupid trees. A quick shift of the tripod, and off the ISS went, fading into the orbital night just before it went behind the roof.

If you’re in Los Angeles, there are passes every evening through the 21st, with the best one on Friday night, the 19th at 19:56. (Can’t make this shit up… Some of you will understand. The rest of you – take my word for it.)

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A Simple Experiment

I was doing a lap around the backyard in the dark (my watch had bitched at me about sitting too long, and it was correct) and I was looking up at Orion and Sirius and Aldebaran. It was clear, the moon isn’t up yet, they were gorgeous – as always. I thought about going in and getting my tripod and good camera and setting things up, but I’ve got deadlines to meet and I needed to get back inside…

Could I use my iPhone, handheld, no tripod, no other apps? Of course not! It’s just an iPhone 8, and while I hear that the iPhone 12 can do really well with low-light astrophotography (and the Pixel 5 is supposed to be amazing?) and the iPhone 13 is going to be even better, a phone that’s coming up on four years old couldn’t ever… Could it?

That’s an assumption.

How hard would it be to test?

It turns out that answer is, “Yes – and no, but mostly no.” The biggest problem is getting it the camera to focus, it doesn’t have anything solid to grab ahold of. But if you can lock the focus, you can get something that at least shows Sirius (middle right), the four “feet and shoulder” stars of Orion as well as the “belt” stars, Aldebaran on the right, and Procyon near the top. That’s something like six of the dozen brightest stars in the Northern Hemisphere (one of the reasons the winter sky is so easy to find your way around, and so spectacular looking) so it’s cool that they DO register, but like the dancing bear, it’s not that they do it well, but that they do it at all that’s impressive.

Once the focus is locked you can try to manually fiddle with the exposure and brightness, but that seems to mainly cause a lot of noise as the image sensor gets overloaded.

At least that picture brings out the orange color of Betelgeuse (top left star in Orion, still hasn’t gone supernova…) where the first picture didn’t show any of the colors.

So, that answers that. Perhaps before they fade into the spring sky I can get a night where I’m not getting my ass kicked by deadlines and I’ll bring out the good gear to play with.

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February Full Moon

After being busier than God for weeks, tonight was the night to try our my new telescope toy, a CMOS digital camera. It’s basically a big, fat, eyepiece-like thing that goes where the eyepiece normally goes and kicks out a signal to a laptop or other computer.

I regret to inform everyone (especially myself) that there’s going to be a learning curve.

I was sort of hoping that with a full moon, which in a telescope is REALLY FREAKIN’ ***BRIGHT***, would be an easy starting point. Well, yes and no. I was able to get an image on the computer screen, but it was dim. I could see enough to focus and recorded several minutes of data, but where I was expecting something ***BRIGHT*** I got something that was kinda sorta maybe visible. Ish…

So I’m doing something wrong. I’ll have to start digging – there’s not much in the way of a manual or instructions, for either the hardware or the data collection software that comes with it. (It’s freeware, but there’s a “Pro” version for $20-$30. It could be that it’s “pro” because it works?) Even with the default software there are all sorts of options. As for help and guidance, I hear there’s this thing called a “google…”

In the meantime, through the telescope with plain old eyepieces, the full moon was spectacular. If blurry a bit – we’re having a Santa Ana wind event again (we’ve been having them about five days a week for months it seems) and with all of that air moving around the “seeing” was marginal.

But  when all else fails, whip out your cell phone and just hold it up to the lens!

The iPhone really isn’t designed for this and it freaks out with the HUGE brightness differences.

There’s some detail here, but not even close to what it looked like to the eye. I’ll have to keep working to find a way to record and share that.

Meanwhile, one (dark) picture of the setup (another lighting situation the iPhone isn’t designed for) actually shows the image on the screen better than it shows on the screen to the naked eye.

This should be interesting. Stand by.

 

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Mars Delivers

In case you somehow missed it, here’s what it looks like to land on Mars:

And as if that wasn’t enough, for the first time ever we could hear what the wind sounded like on another planet:

And while that’s the icing on the cake for the clever critters who sent Perseverance, she’s also getting to work, raising her mastcam and antennae, sending panoramas back home so that the scientists can start to see what they want to look at and the drivers can figure out how to safely get there:

It was indeed a day of wonders. Welcome to Mars. Again.

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Incoming From Mars

This afternoon JPL started uploading raw images from Perseverance onto their website here. (There are similar links with literally tens of thousands of raw images on related JPL website pages for Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity, Insight, Pathfinder…)

There’s also news from a few folks on the inside at JPL that tomorrow’s news conference will be something else indeed:

The image shown there was one of four of the very first images released last Friday. Word on the street (well, tweets from folks who would know) is that tomorrow’s images are going to be legendary. You’ll see them sooner or later even if you don’t watch the press conference live, but why not be there to see it live if you can?

11:00 PT, 14:00 ET, on NASA-TV, YouTube, and probably a number of other places.

Time for the world to change again, this time for the better.

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New Wheels On Mars

It was a good day to land an SUV-sized, two-ton, nuclear-powered robot on Mars. I was properly dressed for the occasion.

These are “EDL socks,” displaying Entry-Descent-Landing, otherwise known as the “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

They’re available from sciencesocks.co – they’re also very comfy.

There’s also an image of the launch from Earth on the back, but I forgot to take a picture of that.

The hat I got from JPL years ago. I actually had to miss the landing live due to a long Zoom call that came up at the last minute (okay, I had it on one monitor with the sound off) and during the call I was referred to as “the guy wearing the baseball cap.” It’s so much more than a baseball cap…

Perseverance is down safe and has started sending back pictures and data. The truly annoying hints from a number of folks at JPL tonight (via Twitter) indicate that they have some truly SPECTACULAR images to share coming up. Keep your eyes open for a press conference in the next day or two.

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ISS Sailing Upwind

On Wednesday night, two nights ago, there was a pretty nice ISS pass scheduled. On the one hand, it was the last good one for a while. On the other hand, it was partially cloudy with a storm moving in and WINDY AS HELL!!! By which I mean that when setting up I twice had to grab the tripod to keep it from going over, and it was set firmly on level ground, not on a slope or with any other issue. And it’s not a cheap, flimsy tripod either.

I wasn’t at all sure that I would even see the ISS at all and I wasn’t having fun out in the wind. But I just (finally!) got some really great results in capturing the ISS, so I wanted to see if I could duplicate them. So, what the heck? Try it! What have I got to lose, right? Disc space and memory are dirt cheap, it’s not like I was shooting on film. So, holding down the tripod with one hand, triggering the remote with the other, hoping that the wind and my holding down the camera wasn’t jiggling everything too much, I set out to see if I got lucky.

Blow that sucker up to full sized to see it in all its glory. ISS is coming from the lower left (you can see it just starting to clear the horizon, actually in the bare branches of the tree across the street) toward the upper right through the cross of Cygnus. If you look at it full-sized you can also tell which way is north by comparing the start trails (almost five minutes long) on the left and on the right. North is to the right – the star trails there are much shorter since they’re near the pole.

Swinging around to the north, we see the ISS fading toward the horizon and fading to black in the very last frame. And speaking of star trails (there’s only about a minute’s worth in this picture) that bright star right near the start of the ISS trail is Polaris, the north star. It’s not trailing at all, because as the Earth spins it appears to stand still in the sky. But all of the stars around it will trail, some that way, some this, all in a circle around Polaris.

Another thing I noticed:

In this individual frame the ISS is crystal clear, as is the roof on the house across the street, and the telephone pole on the left. The image is in focus. But those tall palm trees in the lower center? Nope, they were whipping all over the place during this five-second exposure and they’re blurry as hell.

Ditto for this single frame looking north. Telephone pole and our roof in good, sharp focus. The cedar trees were having and E-ticket night with those winds.

I guess that I’m glad I gave it shot!

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ISS Pass – January 17th

This came out SOOOOOO GREAT!!

Okay, following the near heart attack from today’s Chiefs playoff game (if you don’t know or care, our MVP All-Star got injured, we won anyway but it was close) and “everything else,” I noticed that there was a nice ISS pass tonight. And it was clear and a million. Time to play with the wide-angle lens.

(Image from Heavens-Above.com)

Rise in the southwest, well after sunset, nice and high and bright, right past the shoulder of Orion, fade to yellow-orange-red-dark as the ISS goes into night right next to Castor and Pollux in Gemini.

So, first of all, the wide-angle lens. Unlike the telephoto lens (70-300 mm) and the replacement normal lens (I got it a couple years ago when the 15+ year old original lens started to break down – 18-55mm zoom just like the ones that normally ship with the Canon DSLRs) this one has a great reputation for astrophotography since it has a very well calibrated hard stop to focus at infinity. If you need the back story, look back through the astrophotos here for the past year where I’ve whined and bitched about how the focus for astrophotography on the other two lenses can be a crap shoot. It’s been very frustrating.

I used the telephoto for all of the Great Conjunction photos and I’m at least at a truce with it where I can make it work. But that “normal” lens? What a pain. It was time to try out this wide-angle lens.

Oh. My. God. I might just be in love.

Here’s one 5-second exposure from the sequence. The ISS is that streak departing the frame at the upper left after having entered right by the telephone pole in the lower right. The bright white light in the middle right is the moon. Just below the center right of the picture is the idiot streetlight, along with all of the lens flares coming up from it. And just above the light is a streak from a jet coming out of LAX.

But blow it up – click on the image to see it full sized. See how all of those stars are perfectly in focus pinpoints??!!! Just off the left edge, partially in the tree is Orion. You can even see that the middle star in the “sword” is a nebula, not a star. Just above and to the right of the ISS streak is the “V” of Taurus, and above and to the right of that is the Pleiades cluster. (I can also see the next thing I need to work on to improve the image even more, but I’ll leave the details for later. Let’s just say that I’ve never had a series of images so good that that particular flaw was visible, but now that I do I’m pretty sure I know how to get rid of it…)

I am very pleased!

Then I put 39 consecutive 5-second images together using StarStax…

BLOW IT UP AND SEE IT IN ALL OF ITS GLORY!!

There’s the ISS coming from the lower right to the upper left, and that outbound LAX jet coming from bottom to top. The moon and stars are all trailing since they got picked up on every single image over the course of three minutes and fifteen seconds and the planet was rotating. But LOOK AT HOW SHARP THOSE STAR TRAILS ARE!!

So, this is something I like a lot. At the same time, it points toward the next steps.

First, fix that little issue with the nature of digital cameras, fairly easy, and I’m pretty sure I can do it in Photoshop. I’ve seen the tutorial, I just have to find it again.

Secondly, mount the camera on the telescope now that I have it working again also. Not to use the telescope as a honkin’ huge telephoto lens, not at all what’s needed for this application. I need that wide-angle view! But mount the camera on the telescope and then have the equatorial mount compensate for the Earth’s motion while I’m taking the 3+ minutes of images, so all of those star images line up. The last time I did that and had it working I was using my Olympus OM-1 camera and shooting on slide film.

This might be the end of some of the frustration and the start of some fun!

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