Category Archives: Astronomy

ISS Pass & A Bonus

The weather’s better, there’s a nice, high, bright, ISS pass… Let’s see if I can avoid screwing this up two nights in a row, shall we?

(Image –

It was sweet, especially with a little contrast cleanup in Photoshop.

There was a bright, almost full moon rising, so I kept the exposures shorter, just 2.3 seconds each.

Then I tried to shift to another location to catch the rest of the pass as the ISS swung overhead and headed back toward the southeast where the moon was rising. The rabbits covering the lawn didn’t appreciate it and tried to trip me going down the hill.

I finally made it and got set up to see it fade into night as it got down near the moon (that honkin’ bright thing at the lower left edge).

As I pulled the tripod and started heading home (I had moved a couple houses down the hill to clear the street lights and trees) I noticed another satellite straight overhead. I quickly put the tripod back down and started shooting again.

It was MUCH dimmer than the ISS – this is a single frame and you can see it in the center top, heading down and slightly to the left.

Why not a combined file like with the ISS? When I tried to combine these images in StarStaX the satellite trail vanishes. It’s too dim and therefore too thin and each segment gets overwritten by the other layers where it’s dark.

But… I learned a new trick and I’m not afraid to use it three days in a row.

In a GIF format, you can see the unknown satellite moving down toward the horizon, before it too goes into darkness.

The fact that it went into darkness at about the same distance to the east of us means that it was probably at a similar height to the ISS. If it were higher, it would have stayed in sunlight longer – lower and it would have gone dark sooner. Beyond that, I have no idea what it was.

Keep looking up. You never know what you might see!

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Filed under Astronomy, Paul, Photography, Space, Video


So much frustration right now. *waves vaguely at everything*

There are little things that make me think that the gremlins are just rubbing it in.

For example…

I’ve mentioned that I had to get a new “normal” lens for my Canon Rebel XT. The original lens is flaky, at the wide end of the zoom it won’t trigger, just locks up the camera mechanism. The new lens I got is much more new and faster and wonderful, but might be too new and wonderful for the old camera body. It auto-focuses like a dream, but for manual focus like I use all the time in astrophotography it’s just been a nightmare.

I thought that I had figured it out, right up until I didn’t.

One trick from when I had “figured it out” was to go out a few minutes early and take a test picture which I could review on the spot in the camera. And I got this. Recognize the Big Dipper? Maybe? Kinda? Yeah, if you say so…

Ten frantic minutes trying my new “trick” over and over and over – same results. Finally it’s time for the ISS and Dragon to rise, so set up one more time and take my chances.

It looked amazing. I’ve got that memory.

Do you see that streak in the bigger, right-hand oval? That’s the ISS. See that dimmer streak in the smaller, left-hand oval? That’s the Dragon spacecraft.

It’s more obvious in a blink comparison with the images before and after this one. (New thought, stand by – can I do that in Photoshop?)

(thirty minutes later)

YES! I can. (Remember this for a minute, I’ll be back to this in a minute.)

Here’s a three frame animation with a long pause on the third frame so you can see the looping action. Dragon shows up just to the right of the telephone pole in the middle frame.

Frustrated by this failure on Saturday night, on Sunday I sat down with the camera to figure out just WTAF is going on with this new, fancy, somewhat expensive lens that should be perfect but instead makes me want to scream.

And I figured it out.

Short version – the lens is sort of “fly by wire” in that the focusing ring doesn’t move the lens elements, so it doesn’t have a mechanical hard stop when focusing in or out. Instead the lens simply detects motion on the focusing ring and makes the mechanical adjustments to move the lens elements based on that input. BUT, and here’s the key, since this is being run off of the camera battery, in order to avoid draining the battery at an extreme rate (apparently) it shuts itself off after about five seconds. If you don’t know this (I didn’t) you can spin that focusing ring until the heat death of the universe and it’s not going to change a thing. If you do know this (I do now!) you can flick the power off and then right back on to “wake up” the lens, focus away, and then wait for it to “go back to sleep” after about five seconds.

So I was proud of my stubborn ass self. I had figured it out! REALLY really this time! Now to test it!

There was a pretty good ISS pass on Sunday! And it was cloudy.

So try it on Monday, an even better pass! And it was cloudy.

A great pass tonight! And…

Completely socked in.

As I said, the gremlins are just screwing with me because they can at this point.

Which was my original point when I started writing this an hour ago. But then my brain said, “Wait, that looks better in a blink comparison type of GIF, can I make one of those?” And I didn’t have a clue but I tried and asked the question and fought through some so-so tutorials and finally got close enough to just figure it out on my own before I fiddled with it a bit to make it better and when all was said and done, not only did I have a tiny little thing that I created myself and shared with all of you, but that made the existential angst-ish blanket of frustration lift just a little bit.

And that helped.

It also helped that this popped up on my news alerts about five minutes ago:

Change is possible. That’s one absolutely evil, ignorant, guanopsychotic, complete waste of protoplasm down, a few hundred more to go.

It won’t be tomorrow. It won’t be completely done in November or January. It’s going to take the rest of our lives, and maybe our children’s lives and grandchildren’s lives.

But we’ll get there.

One at a time.


Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Politics, Space

Planetary Bodies Moving On

This will be the last night that I can fit all of these objects into the 70mm “wide” angle view on the 70-300 telephoto lens.

Venus (way down in the lower right) will only be visible for a few more nights before reappearing in a couple of weeks in the morning sky.

The moon moves quite a bit from night to night, so tomorrow it will be high out of this view at sunset.

Only tiny, faint-ish Mercury, visible just to the right of the top of the cedar tree at the center of the frame, will be more or less in the same position for the next few nights, before it follows Venus toward the morning sky.

A short exposure shows the moon for the crescent it is, easily visible now, a delight to see hanging in the evening sky. Blow up the picture to see craters and details along the terminator.

A longer exposure will show how the dark part of the moon is partially visible in reflected earthshine. This has always been one of my favorite, simple things to see in the night sky.

Farewell, y’all. Without a doubt your travels and Newton’s laws of motion will bring you back together again some day soon.


Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

Mercury & Venus & New Moon

Let’s up the difficulty level tonight thanks to celestial mechanics!

The last three nights I’ve been posting pictures of Venus (bright, but fading) and Mercury (dim-ish, never easy to see) as they move close to each other in the evening twilight. I’ve mentioned how it’s a race and a balancing act, trying to wait until it’s dark enough so that dim Mercury isn’t washed out in the sunset sky, while also looking and finding them early enough so they haven’t set.

Tonight the 34-hour-old new moon is moving into the picture, below Venus. Which means that it will be setting before the two planets. In addition, I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a 34-hour-old new moon. At that point it’s close to the sun, it’s only illuminated on a razor thin line of a crescent, and as a result it’s very dim, even harder to spot in some ways than Mercury.

So, earlier, brighter sky, dimmer object, closer to the horizon – NO SWEAT! Let’s do this!

For reference, last night’s pictures were taken between 20:41 and 20:50. Sunset both nights was about 19:55. But that’s probably too late to see the moon. So this picture was taken at 20:33. Venus is visible. With the naked eye, I could not see the moon or Mercury. But I shot a quick series of pictures anyway, cautious that the moon might be already disappearing.

Then I grabbed the binoculars. Holy guacamole, Batman! Mercury’s there, a bit more distant from Venus than yesterday, higher. But the moon? Stunning. A hair-thin crescent floating just above the trees. Now that you know where to look, can you see them in this first picture? (Click on it to blow it up full sized.)

20:34, and I can just start to see both Mercury and the moon with the naked eye.

20:35 – I’ve zoomed in on the moon. Oh, and by the way, Eid Mubarak!

20:36 – getting a touch darker, contrast getting better. Now knowing where the moon is it’s easy to spot. Mercury still dim and hard to spot – it’s right about on the vertical center line of the picture, just above the level of the top of the cedar tree on the left. See it?

20:37 – the slightly larger picture. For the record, I was using the Canon Rebel XT camera with a Tamron 70-300mm zoom lens. This picture was taken at a 100mm focal length. Pictures #1, #2, and #4 were at about 130mm, and #3 (the closeup of the crescent moon) was at 300mm. Each of these pictures is the best of a bracketing set starting at about 1/2500 second and going through about 1/4 second. In this twilight, the short exposures are really dark, the long exposures are totally washed out and bright, but in between lies the promised land. There are about 12-14 pictures in each set and it takes about sixty seconds to shoot it and set up for the next set.

20:38 – will all of this fit into the frame in landscape mode? Yes, it will! Again, Mercury just higher than the top of the cedar tree, Venus about to disappear behind that big pine tree on the right, and the moon about to disappear behind those trees at the bottom.

20:39 – the best picture of the night! About to start losing objects behind trees, but it’s finally dark enough to see them all! We’re winners!

20:40 – remember when I said that last night’s range of 20:41 to 20:40 probably wouldn’t work? Good planning! Say goodnight to the moon! Ditto for Venus, Mercury, and the mosquitoes! (I don’t know what’s up with the mosquitoes. We rarely have a problem with them, but they’re out in force this year. My hands are covered with bites from the last two nights!)



Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

Mercury & Venus

Mercury’s climbing (slowly-ish).

In mid-twilight (20:40 after sunset at 19:55) Venus stands out, but Mercury is just becoming visible.

It’s passed Venus now, higher and to the left.

If you want a simple demonstration of the planets moving, just show someone matching pictures from the last three nights.

Ten minutes later, it’s easier to spot Mercury. But again, it’s a race between night and the horizon. It’s just not that far away from the Sun, and never will be from our viewpoint.

Venus, on the other hand, is diving toward the morning sky like a bat out of hell. Given the surface conditions on Venus, “hell” is a perfectly good description.

But for that couple of minutes they’re still high enough to be above the trees and hills, but it’s just barely dark enough to let them shine through.

Wait a day. It will change again.

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Venus & Mercury

Venus is tracking back toward the sun and sinking a little bit every night in the evening sky. Mercury is rising a bit each night toward its greatest elongation, the furthest it gets from the sun, which isn’t far.

Last night they were a dozen or so degrees apart. About 20:20 or so I started looking. Venus is easy to spot a couple times a year, Mercury is much more elusive. But this is an excellent opportunity using Venus as a guide.


Tonight it was closer to 20:30 when I was able to spot Mercury with the naked eye. It had moved closer and a bit to the left of Venus since last night. I could see it easily in binoculars.

As it got darker we were in a race. It was easier to see as it got dark, but the pair of planets were also setting.

This is probably one of the best opportunities that I’ve ever had to spot Mercury. It will continue to drift upward in the evening sky until June 4th, when it be 20° away from the Sun, after which it will rapidly follow Venus toward the morning sky on the other side of the Sun.

If you want to see the two planets together, go take a peek over the next couple of nights. By tomorrow Mercury will appear level or above Venus, but that’s due to how fast Venus is moving toward the Sun.

EXTRA CREDIT – Saturday and Sunday you’ll start to see a very thin crescent moon popping into the picture!


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Practice Makes…Better

Forget about that “perfect” fantasy. But practice does make things better.

My ISS photos (before last night) have recently sucked. You haven’t seen them because they’ve all be blurry and out of focus. This is because the original lens on my Canon Digital Rebel was something like nine years old, had taken literally tens of thousands of pictures on three continents, and started to finally act glitchy. I got a replacement which is new and fancy – and wants to do EVERYTHING for me instead of giving me override capabilities and control. In particular, it wouldn’t let me set the focus easily and then in the dark, when doing astrophotography, it wouldn’t focus on it’s own worth beans.

Out in broad daylight in auto focus mode? It’s a miracle, incredibly fast, some image stabilization built in, really sweet. In the dark when I simply want to set it to ∞ and leave it alone? Meh. But I’ve been working on it and finally started to get some good results last night.

Tonight’s ISS pass was much lower and dimmer than last night.

(Image from

Not worth the bother? Maybe I’ll just go watch it and not try to take pictures. (I can still do that, you know!) But then I realized that we might get clouds moving in for the next couple of nights when there are slightly better passes, so it might be now or wait a few weeks. I went with “now.”

I really like the results. I’m going to give you the 7.1MB and 9.7MB files (because I like you!) instead of compressing them down to under 2MB. Click on them to look at or download the full-sized images – it’s worth it.

As you can see, much dimmer than last night. But looking at the original images (this is a composite of ten 15-second exposures) you can actually see it rising from right behind Castle Peak. Very nice! And with all of the trees and rooftops lit up by street lights and yard lights and other house lights on the hilltops off in the distance, I really like the colors and framing. I like this picture a lot.

Coming around the right side of that big pine tree on the left (the first picture shows ISS disappearing behind it from my viewpoint about fifteen seconds earlier) I was able to track ISS all the way until it disappeared on the right behind our cedar trees. Most importantly, the focus is great, so I may have (“Don’t get cocky, kid!”) figured that part out.

The other really neat thing about this second image, which I take for granted but which many folks wouldn’t, is how it shows the stars spinning around the Polaris, the North Star. If you haven’t ever seen or noticed it before, blow this image up to full size and then look at the stars on the left and right. They’re all trails, little curved arcs, since the camera was fixed and the planet it was fixed to was spinning. The further you are from the pole, the longer the trails. Look at the first picture to see this demonstrated as well.

But in this picture, there are curved arcs on the left, right, top, and bottom. But near the center, those arcs get shorter and shorter and there’s one star that’s a dot with no trailing at all. You’ve found Polaris! It’s the star that’s at the “end” of the “handle” of the Little Dipper.

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