Category Archives: Astronomy

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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The Moon’s Back!

Well, actually it’s front, since that’s the only side we see from here…

Tired and stupid Dad jokes! Because I’m a tired and stupid dad! (Why does “tired and stupid” sound correct but “stupid and tired” doesn’t?)

And ZOOM! It’s not just for tired and stupid working from home meetings any more! The Moon’s that tiny little crescent near the horizon? So, ZOOM!

It’s amazing, it’s back here (more or less, for various values of “here”) every four weeks! And it’s much more fun to see here in the evening than it is to get up pre-dawn and see it curved the other way about six days earlier. (Or twenty-two days later.) Pre-dawn astronomy is only for particularly special events, like comets, or eclipses, or once-in-a-lifetime alien mothership visitations!

 

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It Was A Marvelous Night…

…for…

And yes, I did.

The Moon was a day or so past full last Wednesday and there was a high layer of clouds covering the sky. Through that cloud layer the bright moon cast a moonbow, a bit of which I was able to catch in this image. To the eye it was almost a full circle around the moon, but not the 22° halo that you get through a high layer of ice clouds. This was much smaller and had much more color to it. Different phenomenon.

Better for dancing.

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Adios, 2020

Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split ‘ya!

But with the Great Conjunction gone and the new year on the doorstep, it’s time to try to capture a moment, before the lights come down next week and while Orion and the full Moon are where I need them to be.

Be safe tonight – we’ll see you in 2021 for a better year.

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The Great Conjunction – December 30th

I had none of this planned. It’s simply worked out that way. I don’t know if it’s a sign. It might be. Probably not. I’m not sure I believe in signs. I’m not sure I don’t.

Getting pretty low, moving faster now. Any earlier and it’s too light. Any later and they’re down in those trees.

One last look before we move on and see what 2021 has to offer. Io and Europa are in the upper left but so close to Jupiter that you can’t really spot them. A bit of haze in our atmosphere tonight and the resolution disappears. Callisto and Ganymede in the lower right, with Saturn a billion miles further away.

(Image from Sky & Telescope JupiterMoons app)

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The Great Conjunction – December 29th

Lower, brighter, separating…

…but, damn! I am loving how these look now that I’m smarter about using my equipment!

Click it, zoom in on those moons!

(Image from Sky & Telescope JupiterMoons app)

Got all four of them! Nice and sharp for this gear.

Remember, if you’ve got clear skies you can see Jupiter and Saturn in the evening twilight for another week, maybe ten days. Go, look!

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The Great Conjunction – December 27th

The powers that be at the National Weather Service and on all of the local television stations said that it would be completely cloudy today, and starting to rain by 21:00 tonight.

As Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”

It was clear and a million just after sunset. They’re still saying the rain’s coming, but it wasn’t anywhere in sight tonight, so it was time to get the camera back out.

As you can see, they’re each getting lower toward the horizon every night as they both move to pass behind the Sun from our viewpoint. Saturn (dimmer) is now below Jupiter (brighter) and you’ll need to hustle out after sunset to see them before they set.

(Reminder – click on the image to see it full sized.) Up close you can see all four Galilean moons on Jupiter, even though it might look like just three. Ganymede is on the upper left, Callisto further out on the bottom right, and Io and Europa almost next to each other between Jupiter and Callisto.

These are some of the best pictures I’ve taken with this lens and camera, nice and sharp, so you can actually see that Ganymede and Callisto are pinpoints, while the Io-Europa pair is extended along the orbital plane. There’s not quite enough resolution to separate them, but you can see where they’re different than the two separated moons.

I’m very pleased with the quality of these images. Tonight’s imaging sees the first benefits of two major improvements that I discovered while actually reading the camera manuals yesterday. (Yeah, I’ve had the one camera since Christmas 2005… The fact that I can be an idiot is not breaking news.)

First of all, I always thought that when I was in full Manual mode for astrophotography that the lens would be wide open, that is, at its widest aperture. WRONG! It seems that it’s set at whatever it was last set at, which may or may not be wide open. But there’s a way (not a particularly easy or intuitive one) to manually set the aperture after you’ve manually set the exposure time. I found that most of the conjunction pictures that I’ve been taking for the last month have been at f5.6, where the lens can be opened up to f4.0.

For the non-photographers, that means that I can get the same light and brightness and exposure with a 1/2 second shot as I had been getting with a 1 second shot. That in turn means that I can have less trailing as the planet moves and jiggling as the tripod might move. This is all good.

Secondly, I found that there’s a way (again, not a particularly easy or intuitive one) to lock the mirror up before taking a picture. Normally in a DSLR camera there’s a diagonal mirror between the lens and the sensor. The diagonal mirror is how you see through the eyepiece as you’re setting up and focusing your picture. When you push the button to take the picture, in one motion that mirror snaps up out of the way, the shutter releases for a fraction of a second to take the picture, and the mirror snaps back down into place.

In “normal” photography, the shaking of the camera by this mirror movement is infinitesimal and insignificant. When doing astrophotography, it can make a huge difference, vibrating the camera and smearing out the detail in the very delicate and faint image. Not good. But now, instead of simply pushing the button, I’ve discovered how to activate the mode where pushing the button locks the mirror up out of the way and then a second push of the button releases the shutter and takes the picture, after which the mirror locks back down.

It was a bit disconcerting at first – the manual really doesn’t say how this works and I didn’t see any mention of needing to push the button twice, so at first I was convinced that I had done something to break the camera, which would have really pissed me off, but which would have been totally on-brand for 2020. But fiddling with a bit I realized what was going on and got into the rhythm of clicking the button, waiting a second for the vibrations to die down, and then clicking a second time to take the picture.

Maybe it was just dumb luck – but maybe not. Something is responsible for a very noticeable difference in tonight’s pictures versus the rest of them that I’ve been taking this month. We’ll see if the results are consistently better as I take more pictures over the next few weeks.

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The Great Conjunction – December 25th

Merry Christmas, y’all!

I hope that everyone had a safe, fun, perhaps even wonderful day. I know that many of us wanted more than just about anything to be with family and friends today, but chose instead to stay home and be safe. Thank you for that, not just for everyone else who might have been kept safe by that decision, but because YOU might have been kept safe by that decision. It sucks, but next year will be better. We’re already making our plans and if you’re safe now, you’ll be around and healthy to make your plans for Christmas 2021.

It was pretty much clear and a million here all day, right up until about sunset. Even then, about 2/3 of the sky was clear, but to the west…

Very pretty, but if you’re familiar with the pictures from the last several weeks, right in between those two sets of wires and right above that biggest tree – and right behind those clouds! – is where Jupiter and Saturn are.

The clouds were moving, coming from the west in bands. Sometimes Jupiter, being very bright, would pop through.

But even if you could see Jupiter, Saturn was tough. It doesn’t take much of a cloud layer to wipe it out. So I tried to be patient, wait out their imminent setting, and shoot through the thinner clouds between the heavier cloud bands.

Patience paid off, sort of. Not excellent, but given the conditions, acceptable. You can see that Saturn is now below Jupiter, closer to the Sun, after starting a couple weeks ago up above it.

The haze and high clouds made it tough to see Jupiter’s moons. That halo around Jupiter is from the clouds, and it wipes out what should be a clear view of all four Galilean moons. (Click to see full-sized image.)

(Image from Sky & Telescope’s JupiterMoons app.)

Ganymede? Check. Europa? (Um, maybe, not really?) Io? (Maybe just barely outside of Jupiter’s glow?) Callisto? Check. Okay, two of the four for sure.

Were they there to be seen? Yes, most certainly. I had pulled the telescope out as well and I could clearly see all four moons. The human eye is GREAT in high dynamic range situations and finding detail.

Here as well, the moons are wiped out by the haze in trying to take a picture with my iPhone through the telescope lens. But look how far apart they are compared to four days ago at conjunction! Tonight was probably the last night that they’ll be visible together through my medium magnification eyepiece. (This picture and the next one are flipped top to bottom so they match the views seen above – Jupiter on top, Saturn on the bottom.)

Shoot enough pictures fast enough and you might get lucky – this was the best for tonight. Saturn’s definitely elongated, almost sorta-ish able to see the rings (which were clearly visible through the eyepiece to the naked eye) and through the haze, you can also almost sorta-ish see three of Jupiter’s moons.

Remember, another week to two weeks or more to see these gems in the sunset sky. They’re moving apart, but they’re still beautiful.

If you don’t have clouds.

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The Great Conjunction – December 22nd & The Clouds Return

We had a good run! What was it, eight days in a row of clear and a million-ish? Including yesterday, the actual day of the conjunction?

But by this afternoon, it looked iffy.

By this evening, it looked doubtful.

And by forty-five minutes after sunset, when I normally start shooting?

There were a couple of minutes when I could just barely spot Jupiter through the clouds using binoculars, but I never saw Saturn at all, and I never saw Jupiter with the naked eye. The clouds were just too thick, and getting worse.

Now it looks like we might get clouds and even some rain (which we desperately need!) over the next few days. We’ll see.

In the meantime, y’all can keep your eyes peeled for clear skies in your neighborhood. Just after sunset – look to the southwest – better with binoculars – going to be around until mid-January, slowly pulling apart but still beautiful.

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The Great Conjunction – December 21st

Merry Solstice, y’all! And a Happy Yule to everyone!

Today was the day, Jupiter and Saturn closer than the width of the full Moon. About 1/10th of the width of the full Moon, to be exact. Hasn’t been visible from Earth like this for something like 800 years, won’t be visible again for another 60 years.

To the naked eye, once it got dark you could separate the two, but they were definitely a “double planet.”

View with the 70mm setting on the 70-300mm zoom lens. (Remember, click on the images to see them full sized.)

Zoomed in a bit, which I took as much because there was a plane there as for anything else. (Yes, I’m easily amused.)

As soon with a 300mm zoom lens. You can compare this with pictures taken and posted here over the past couple of weeks. Three of Jupiter’s Galilean moons visible – Europa is very near Jupiter on the lower right, Io is very close on the upper left, Callisto is further out on the upper left. Technically Ganymede is also visible since it was passing in front of the planetary disk of Jupiter, but you might have trouble seeing it with the Hubble Space Telescope, let alone using my 300mm off-brand telephoto lens.

I did not take any still photos through the eyepiece of my 8″ Newtonian telescope using my iPhone. Instead I had an idea late this afternoon when I was seeing so many friends across the country saying they were clouded out and couldn’t see a thing. My telescope was set up, but instead of using my phone to take pictures, I used my phone to have a 40+ minute Facebook Live session!

The question wasn’t whether or not it was a stupid idea – the question was whether or not it was stupid enough!

I’ve uploaded the whole thing, warts and all, no editing. There were times when I was taking pictures with the DSLR and you get to listen to me blather on with nothing more to look at than the back of the camera and the neighbors’ dark yards. There was a time when someone from down the street wandered by and I offered them a look, so I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in “the show.” You’ll hear me answering questions that came up on the chat and talking to old high school friends, family members, and friends from work.

It’s sort of a hot mess. (That’s why God invented the fast forward and rewind buttons!) I haven’t looked at it yet, just lived it live, but I had a tremendous amount of fun doing it.

The video that came from me holding the phone camera up to the eyepiece – meh quality, at best.

Saturn is elongated, you can see the Galilean moons, but that’s about it. Go check out the saved broadcasts from Griffith Observatory, Lowell Observatory, and others for the good stuff.

The Moon looked nice as I was shutting down after Jupiter and Saturn were setting. But the image quality could be much better with the right equipment. (New life goals…)

Remember, this was not a one-day thing or something that’s over. As much as the two planets have been coming slowly together for the past several weeks, they’ll slowly drift apart over the next several weeks. They’re also both moving toward the point where they go on the other side of the Sun from our viewpoint, so by mid-January they’ll be gone, reappearing in the morning sky in mid to late February. But that leaves three weeks for you to go out and see it yourself with your own eyes (and your own binoculars) when you get a clear evening.

Finally, there were a lot of really good photographers with really good equipment posting their photos today. Hundreds and thousands of them. Like these:

Let these planets a billion kilometers away be the sparks in the night that inspire and sustain you on this shortest day of the year, but also the longest night of the year.

“We love the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

It’s not just words. The days get longer, and we still have the winter upon us to get through, but the cycles will continue and the warmth and light will return.

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