Category Archives: Astronomy

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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The Great Conjunction – December 20th

About thirteen hours to go… The actual instant when it’s the closest will be during the day tomorrow on the US West Coast. By the time it gets dark here we’ll be about eight hours past. Not to worry – it won’t be enough of a difference for you to notice if I didn’t tell you. As for tonight, it was clear and a million in SoCal.

(As always, click on the image to see it full sized!)

At the 70mm setting on the 70-300mm zoom lens, you can just see a bit of separation still. And a plane going by above it, trailing a red streak in this 1/8 second exposure.

Up close at 300mm zoom, there are moons of both Jupiter and Saturn, as well as a background star that happens to be in the right spot to look like a 5th moon of Jupiter.

(Image from Sky & Telescope’s Jupiter’s Moons app)

Here’s what we’re supposed to be seeing…

…and here’s the center of that second image of mine, blown up to full sized and labeled.

What about through the telescope?

Oh! My! God!! I truly wish I had the equipment to show you how fantastic and amazing it looked. In addition to what I can show here below with my last minute, half assed, gee, let’s see if this might work efforts, in the eyepiece it was razor sharp, crystal clear, with horizontal bands being visible on Jupiter, the rings separated from the planet on Saturn, and Saturn’s second largest moon, Rhea, clearly visible as well as Titan.

So I started playing around with the iPhone camera settings… What did I have to lose?

(Late note – I realize from comments I’ve gotten on Facebook that I haven’t explained yet that the views below, seen through the telescope, are flipped bottom-to-top. THEY ARE! In the images above, which were taken with a camera, bright Jupiter is on the bottom and dimmer Saturn is on the top. In the images below, it’s the other way around. That’s because the optics and mirrors in a Newtonian telescope flip the image – no time to get into it here, Google it if you need, but just remember to see if it’s an image from my telescope or from my camera to orient yourself to how you might see it yourself.)

With a slightly longer exposure you can see the Galilean moons and Saturn is definitely elongated.

But if you go for a shorter exposure and don’t worry about the moons, the rings and planetary disk on Saturn start to come out!

Somewhere in the middle, you get a little bit of both. This is a real tease, making me want to get better at these and get the gear to do it right.

Finally, what happens if I try to use the iPhone video through the telescope’s eyepiece? Why, then you get something like this, which was taken when the planets were getting closer to the horizon and down in the thick air. That means it jumps around a bit and goes in and out of focus, but that also means that there are moments in the 8-second video when you can see things clearly.

Tomorrow night is the moment of conjunction – but of course, that doesn’t end this event. It just means that after weeks of slowly coming together they’ll pass that instant when they’re the closest and then start moving slowly apart. They’ll be visible in the evening sky until about January 10th or so, at which point they’ll be too close to the Sun to be seen. Saturn goes behind the Sun on January 23rd, Jupiter on January 28th, before they both re-emerge in late February in the pre-dawn sky.

Clear skies, happy viewing, I hope all of you get to take a look tomorrow (or in the days following) to see this magnificent sight!

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The Great Conjunction – December 19th

Two days to go. Saturday, a chance to get some work done and bring out the big guns.

There’s tonight’s moon, for starters. Getting brighter every night!

With the wide angle lens, which gives you a good idea of what you would see with the naked eye, the six-day old moon is still heading east every day, with the two planets getting almost too close to separate with the naked eye. That’s them just to the right of the telephone pole, under the wires. (As with all of these photos, click on the image to see the full-sized image.)

Zooming in a bit we can see that they’ve now VERY close together. Compare these pictures to those from the past couple of weeks that I’ve posted here.

Zoomed all the way in with the 300mm telephoto lens, a one-second exposure shows Saturn above, Jupiter below, with what looks like three of the Galilean moons heading away from Jupiter at the eleven-o’clock position, but is actually four.

(Image from Sky & Telescope’s “Jupiter’s Moons” app)

The three dots we see, from the outside in, are Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa & Io being too close to each other to separate with this equipment.

What happens when we take a longer exposure? Well, we know that the “pinpoints” will start to turn into “trails” because the planet we’re on is spinning. But we’ll also collect a bit more light and detect things that are more dim…

Blow this 3.2-second exposure up. There’s Jupiter and it’s moons, Saturn… and a very faint dot/trail just to the left of Saturn. I do believe that’s Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons!

So, what about these “big guns?” It was time this afternoon to do some serious cleaning on the big telescope, which has been sitting out on the back porch being neglected for a couple of years. How did that work out?

Gobsmacked. Mind blown. Amazing!

At both low and medium power, the two planets fit into the field of view easily. (They cover a much smaller field of view than the full moon, which just fits into the low power lens’ field of view.) The four Galilean moons are easily separated and visible, even Io and Europa which were so close together at that time. There are bands visible in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Saturn’s rings are clearly separated from the disk of the planet, and Titan is clearly visible. Probably also visible was Rhea, Saturn’s second largest moon.

They’re each just gorgeous to see in live through the telescope all by themselves. To see them both together in the same field of view, along with their moons, it’s almost like some kind of special effects production.

I still have to find the camera attachments and gear that will let me connect my Canon DSLRs directly to the telescope, so I couldn’t try to use those cameras to capture and share the scene. But… I’ve noticed other folks posting pictures they’ve taken just by holding their cell phone cameras up to the telescope lens. Would something that simple work?

It turns out the answer is a “definite maybe.” Since I was expecting absolutely no success, the fact that I got anything at all is better than that. While it still wasn’t full dark, there was a definite vignette effect with the iPhone camera sensor picking up only light from the circular eyepiece opening, so it’s like looking through a peephole.

Oh, and since we’re looking through a Newtonian telescope, the direction up & down is flipped. Saturn’s on the bottom now, and Jupiter’s moons (HEY, we can see the separation between Io & Europa!) extend downward.

The other thing I noticed as it got darker was that, with luck, on the more in-focus images, you can see some elongation of Saturn from the rings. And there to the upper left in this image – Titan.

You will see lots of fantastic pictures from folks with amazing astrophotography setups, big apertures, great camera gear, the whole system finely tuned. Revel in those photos, let yourself go with all of the “oohs” and “aaahs.” I will be right there with you.

And you can (and SHOULD!) go out over the next few nights to see the two planets with your naked eye. Even just as two bright planets become one really bright “double planet” and then separate again, it’s a once in a lifetime spectacle that you can see by yourself. Take the opportunity while you can, it won’t be around for over sixty years again. (I’m looking forward to the repeat, but I’ll be 125 years old by then, so I might not be lugging around as much photography gear.)

If you have a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens on a camera, use that as well. It’s all good.

Clear skies!

 

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The Great Conjunction – December 18th

The seeing was good, practice is helping with the eternal focusing issues, and it’s really late so here are some pictures! They’re good, so I’m going to give you the full resolution versions – click on them to see them full sized.

When the focus is good on the wide-angle lens, it’s wonderful. There are some lens flares from the street light just off to the left, but you can see how the Moon is now up and to the left of Jupiter and Saturn, while they’re getting closer to the horizon. Don’t worry, they’ll still be easy to see for the next couple of weeks, but don’t dawdle after sunset!

The Moon is looking fine.

The Moon being there and bright helps to focus accurately and then move over to the stars of the show. Full sized you can easily see all four Galilean moons around Jupiter – Io at the lower right, outward from the planet at the upper left are Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto way out there. On Twitter, there’s a simple bot that posts the current positions every three hours.

 

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The Great Conjunction – December 17th

A clear night, a bit of wind but not bad. Compared to my friends in New England who are digging out from three or more feet of snow, it was balmy!

The moon has moved on, as is its wont. That whole celestial mechanics thing. It was lovely in the fading light.

As things got dark and the planets moved toward the horizon, you can see how close they’re getting. Four nights to go!

Click on it to see it full sized! Saturn is the dimmer one above, Jupiter the brighter one below, along with some of the Galilean moons. It looks like Callisto a ways away from Jupiter at the eleven o’clock position, with Ganymede close to the planet at four o’clock and Europa further away. Very, very close to Jupiter, lost in the glare inside of Ganymede is Io.

Closer tomorrow. This weekend for the closest approach I’ll have to make time to clean up the scope and get it out.

Clear skies!

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The Great Conjunction – December 15th

Better results tonight – if you’re on the West Coast, go look *NOW* and you can probably still see it. (Assuming your skies aren’t cloudy, of course…) Look to the southwest!

Gorgeous! Jupiter (brighter) on the bottom, Saturn on the top.

Zoomed in (300 mm telephoto lens on a Canon Rebel XT) you can clearly see a couple of the moons on Jupiter.

Go look! Or if it’s too late tonight for you or it’s cloudy where you are, look tomorrow! Or Thursday!

Closest approach will be next Monday, December 21st!

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The Great Conjunction – December 14th

The good news is that it was crystal clear tonight.

The bad news is that I need to get out a little earlier, before Jupiter and Saturn get down into the trees. They’re moving toward the west, heading for the morning sky not too long after the conjunction, which means they’re setting earlier than they did a month or two ago, or even a week or two ago. So they were sort of “down among ’em.”

The worse news was that it was again windy as hell, which means that any kind of a long exposure with the telephoto lens extended out had the camera bouncing around like it was on a roller coaster.

Yeah, don’t think NASA’s going to be asking to use that photo any time soon.

But if you’re dedicated and persistent (as opposed to stubborn and pig-headed – it’s a very fine line) you might get one decent photo at maximum magnification.

It’s a short one, so this photo didn’t collect as many photons as the ones on Thursday, but you can see that they’re getting closer.

Tomorrow we try again…

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