Category Archives: Space

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.


Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space, Video

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!


Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space, Video

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!



Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

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 16th

Better pictures tonight! Plus a three-day old crescent moon. Also a few clouds about, but not enough to obscure the view, just add a bit of pink after I waited for them to drift out of the the way.

Keep drifting…

Drift faster! (But that is pretty…)

Better! Now we just need to wait for it to get a bit darker.

This might be one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken. Crescent moon is way overexposed but that shows the dark, night time surface of the moon illuminated by Earthshine (sunlight reflected off of the Earth, off the Moon, then back to us), with Jupiter and Saturn visible above, including a couple of Jupiter’s moons.

Exposed for the crescent moon, still with the planets approaching conjunction above.

Still had some clouds drifting past as the planet rotated around and moved the horizon up toward our celestial display. Plus, as always looking to the west from our front yard, power lines.

Zoomed in all the way on the two planets. This is at 300mm zoom on the “big” lens – the scale is the same as the similar pictures from last Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday. If you compare them, you can see how the planets are getting closer by the day. See, Galileo was right, they DO move!

Zoomed back out as far as this lens goes, here come those trees and the horizon.

I know many of you have cloudy skies these days and I hope that you get some clearing and a chance to see the conjunction in the next few days. The forecast here is pretty good right now, so I’m looking forward to seeing this once in a lifetime event and sharing it with y’all!


Filed under Photography, Space

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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Cloudy Sunday

Again, no good view of the Great Conjunction from our part of the planet tonight.

The clouds were thin enough a couple of times to see Jupiter through, and I was pretty sure I could see Saturn at one point, but conditions were far from ideal for astronomy.

Tonight’s the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, which by all accounts from those reporting in from across the world and country is doing pretty well, several bright meteors per hour, even from light polluted cities. I may stick my head out before I go to bed. But I’ll have to remember to be back in by midnight. Not a Cinderella problem, but a much more practical issue with the lawn sprinklers coming on promptly at midnight.

I’m cold enough – cold and wet sounds like a good way to get sick. Sorry, there’s enough of that going around without going out and doing something stupid.

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The Great Conjunction – December 10th

The planets move about the sky in their orbits, like clockwork, and sometimes they come near each other from our viewpoint. This is called a conjunction.

We’ve had conjunctions before, they’re not that uncommon at all. Jupiter and Venus get close pretty regularly. The Moon literally “runs over” planets from time to time (this is referred to as an occultation) and gets close to something (often Venus) pretty much every month.

You’ve probably heard news reports, possibly some rabid ones, about the “Christmas star” coming up in eleven days. The simple fact is that it’s just another conjunction, where Jupiter and Saturn will be in conjunction, close together from our viewpoint in the solar system. What makes this one special is that both planets are reasonably bright, and for this particular conjunction they’re going to be REALLY close together.

It should look gorgeous.

You don’t need a telescope. You don’t even need binoculars, although even a simple pair will show you some of the larger and brighter moons of both Saturn and Jupiter. You just need your naked eye and a clear sunset sky. Go out right after sunset, look to the southwest.

Jupiter will be very bright, white, and Saturn will be just a bit to the upper left of it, slightly dimmer, with a slight yellowish tinge if you’ve got a clear, dark sky.

If you’ve got binoculars or a big telephoto lens, zoom in a bit. Depending on timing, you may see four small dots in a line near Jupiter, and maybe one small dot near Saturn. Those would be moons.

Blow this (so-so quality) picture up and you’ll see two small dots at about the four o’clock position on Jupiter, and maybe one very near Saturn at about the seven o’clock position.

Over the next eleven days the two planets will appear to get closer and closer. They’ll be just a small fraction of this distance apart.

Tomorrow night I’ll try to get a better tripod setup so there’s not so much vibration, and I’ll try to get better pictures. I hope you’ll be out trying to see it as well.

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Congrats Yet Again, SpaceX!

I ranted and raved enthusiastically here when SpaceX first landed a Falcon 9 first stage booster on a barge, something I thought was insane to even try when I first heard of it, and I’m a space cadet with a science & engineering background. Obviously I needed to be thinking bigger, since not only did they prove it can be done, they now do it regularly and almost routinely. (Another launch scheduled for Saturday afternoon, a SiriusXM satellite.) They’ve now had 68 successful booster recoveries and one booster has been launched 7 times already.

But they’re going to retire the Falcon 9 sooner rather than later because they’re building Starship, a two stage monstrosity that will be bigger than NASA’s old Saturn V rocket. The first stage (Super Heavy) will fly back and land like the Falcon 9 does and the second (Starship) will go to orbit, the ISS, the moon, Mars, beyond (literally) and then re-enter the atmosphere like a cross between the Space Shuttle and a space capsule, landing upright like the Falcon 9 first stage does. To be used again, and again, and again…

Yeah. Right.

Today they had the first really big test flight of a full-size, early design of the Starship. SN8 is the 8th Starship test vehicle to be built, and it was scheduled to take off, fly to about 44,000 feet, cut off its engines, flip over onto its belly to coast and glide and slow down, switch fuel tanks, at the last second (and I didn’t realize just how much “last second” meant “LAST FREAKIN’ SECOND” until I saw them do it) relight the engines and flip back up to an upright position, and land gently upright. Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, gave it no better than a 1 in 3 chance of success. Most everyone at SpaceX would have been perfectly happy if it had lifted off and gotten to 44,000 feet before blowing up or spinning out of control. That would have been wonderful for a first test flight.

It. Was. Amazing!

(video from SpaceX – it’s a long video since there was a scrub and a re-set in there, so go to the 1:47:53 mark for the launch if it doesn’t go there automatically)

Take off with no explosion! βœ…

Throttle back one engine, then a second one, to keep the loads on the vehicle in range βœ… (Those of us not on the inside at SpaceX didn’t know it was supposed to happen so it looked like a problem, but it was going just as planned.)

Reach 44,000 feet, shut down the engines, flip over onto our belly without going out of control. βœ… βœ… βœ…

Maintain perfect control gliding back down toward not just the planet, but the precise point on the planet where the landing pad is! βœ…

Perform that engine restart and flip back up to vertical thing! βœ… (They’re calling that maneuver the “Crazy Elon.” If you’ve watched “Hunt For Red October,” you’ll know why.)

Get vertical, get down right onto the landing pad, land upright… βœ… βœ… βœ…

…way, way to freaking fast and end in a gigantic explosion βŒβŒβŒπŸš€πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ˜₯

It was a test flight with minimal expectations and maximum hopes. We got much closer to the maximum than the minimum. And that’s how we get that much closer to doing it all next time. They’re already building SN9 through SN15, as well as the first Super Heavy, SH1.

I may yet get the chance to get this creaky, flabby butt of mine off the planet.

Finally, if you want to know just how insane that final “Crazy Elon” move is and just how “last minute” that flip is, watch this video that SpaceX released late tonight from a camera very near the landing pad, looking straight up at the incoming SN8.


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