Thursday, August 13, 2015

It's a-rainin' me...teors

Hey, it's been a long time (again). I feel like I've forgotten more than I ever knew about astronomy over the nearly 2 year blog hiatus but it's never too late to get back in the saddle.

Dew, no bueno
Last night was the peak of this year's Perseid meteor shower. I packed up my photo gear, my daughter packed up the bedding and snacks she requires, and we headed out to Mingo Observatory for a late night. The media likes to drum up excitement for the Perseids in particular by saying, "This shower is predicted to be very active!" This, of course, means nothing. Still, the main reason most of us go out and sit all night is the possibility of the ever elusive "meteor storm". I always assume this phenomenon occurs as soon as I call it a night, get in bed, and close my eyes. This is why you stay out until it's 3am and your camera lens has fogged over.
Car lights, also no bueno
The sky was clear and the moon had set in early evening, it was a perfect night. We arrived to quite the crowd out at the observatory. There had to have been 300 people there at one point. I was glad to see a large crowd out to stargaze but that also means there are cars (with giant bright lights blazing) and flashlights all over the place. This naturally makes photography, and even seeing the stars, difficult to say the least. Remember folks, when you're out observing, limit all white light (use red light if needed) and when arriving or leaving after dark use only your parking lights (trust me, you can see just fine, go slow).  It takes approx 45 minutes to fully adjust your eyes to the dark (you can see surprisingly well enough) but it only takes seconds to ruin that adjustment.

Enough lecturing, here's some shots. I captured very few meteors and some unfortunately were caught during a taillight parade. I did play around with some full Milky-Way panoramic stitches, you can definitely see the light pollution problem we face in SW PA.
This one happened just as my exposure stopped and cut it short.
Check out the green tail on it though!

This was prety cool but the car lights interfered a bit.

Starting to fog over the lens but nabbed this one.
You can see the Pleiades and even the Double Cluster (M103)

Pretty little guy in the Summer Triangle.
This was straight up.
Bonus points: find the "coat-hanger" asterism (Brocchi's cluster)

Milky-Way towards Sagittarius
Galactic center, lots of stuff going on in there

Milky-way up and over from South to North (upside down)
Thanks for all the light Pittsburgh.
11 frames stitched
Bonus points: find the Andromeda Galaxy

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Psychedelic Beaver Moon

Tonight's full Moon goes by many names (as all the full Moons do) but it's more commonly called the Beaver Moon.  I was vegging out watching The (original) Karate Kid with my daughter, who sings right along to all the terrible 80's jams, when a friend called me to tell me about the crazy sky action.  I went out to see high altitude cirrus clouds creating a gorgeous 22 degree halo around the full Moon.  This effect is caused by ice crystals in the thin clouds refracting the moonlight (more info here).  Sometimes you'll see it as just a thin ring around the moon in the clear sky but when the clouds are a bit thicker the colors really pop.  It was pretty dramatic tonight.
Clouds: 122mm, 0.3 sec, f9, ISO100
Moon: 1/25 sec...

86mm, 0.4 sec, f9, ISO100
Moon:  1/25 sec...

ISON hunting

The alarm woke me up at 4am this morning and I drove to my favorite eastern horizon to attempt a shot of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1).  I was technically successful but my barn door tracking mount was being ornery so unfortunately I ended up with only a single worthwhile shot.  I would have liked to get closer to a hundred shots to process into a sharp noise-free image.  There was only an hour between the near full Moon setting and sunrise so that adds some pressure as well.

It wasn't too cold, I was serenaded by coyotes as I watched the Moon set and the ISS fly over, then the Sun rose beautifully not too long after so at least it was enjoyable just being outside.

Comet ISON can be currently located near Spica in Virgo, this morning it was approx 5 degrees above (about the width of three fingers at arms length).  It is expected to brighten in the coming weeks and if it survives it's trip past the Sun on 11/28/13 it will likely be visible through December, possibly spectacularly!

300mm, 40sec, f8, ISO1000

I also got a nice view of Mercury close to sunrise on the lower left, Spica is the bright higher star to the right.
34mm, 8.9sec, f10, ISO100

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Flaming Horsehead

On Sunday night (11/3/13) I dragged a couple friends with me to Mingo Creek Park Observatory for what I figured would be some minor astrophotography and binocular viewing.  We arrived to find the director of the observatory and another AAAP member doing research on Variable Stars using the large reflector telescope.  Not expecting to do any "big scope" observing we were thrilled when they warmly welcomed us into the facility and showed us several deep sky and planetary objects.  We viewed the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the Orion Nebula (M42), Jupiter, and Uranus (which I had never observed).

When they closed up we went outside and under the moonless and cloudless sky we used the new and improved barn door sky tracking mount to shoot a wide field of Orion.  I wanted to show some of the nebulosity in the constellation, specifically Barnard's Loop or the entire Orion Molecular Cloud Complex but had very poor luck.  I'll try again when the constellation is higher, away from the horizon and light pollution.  I was tickled to see the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) coming out in the wide shots and decided to target that next.  It's the fuzzy thing located just next to the bottom belt star in the photo.  Even the Rosette Nebula showed itself slightly on the lower left, that'll be a target soon as well.
180sec, f6.3, ISO800

Orion with prominent nebula locations

Just shooting with my un-modified Nikon D90, I was not expecting to be able to image the Flame Nebula very well and was even more amazed when the Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) began to emerge in my processed shots. This image could definitely (and will) be improved upon with more stacked images but I'm very excited to show this off.
21 images stacked in DeepSkyStacker
f6.3, 60sec, ISO1600

And just a fun shot with my (wife's) car and some light painting.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunrise Eclipse

A partial "hybrid" solar eclipse was in progress at sunrise today.  I woke up spontaneously early enough to drive around and find a good eastern horizon.  I was concerned about the low cloud bank but once the Sun finally broke over it the eclipse was still in effect.  Not as spectacular as the pictures you will see later from eclipse chasers that traveled all the way to Africa for the full show but this is the best eclipse Southeastern PA saw.  You can plainly see active sunspot regions 1882,1884, 1885, and 1889 on the right side of the solar disk in the photo.
1/160sec, f16, ISO100 with variable circular neutral density filter.

I even caught this Canada Goose flying through this shot, if only it was sharper!

Monday, October 21, 2013


On Friday night (10/18/13) at approx 7:50pm EST, the outer blurry edge of Earth's shadow briefly (and very slightly) darkened the lower limb (visible edge) of the Moon.  I tried to explain to folks that this is probably not an event worthy of excitement unless you are an uber-astro nerd but there seemed to be a lot of disappointed outcry out there afterward.

To explain, this was a Partial Penumbral Eclipse.  A Total Penumbral Eclipse would only dim the entire surface of the Moon because only the fuzzy outer edge of the Earth's shadow (the penumbra) is blocking the Sun.   You don't get that eerie dark red appearance that a total lunar eclipse gives.

So this Partial Penumbral Eclipse was so slight that only folks that stare at the Moon on a regular basis could even notice and only cameras and telescopes would really be able to see a noticeable difference from the normal full Moon.

Here's a photo I took during the peak eclipse coverage.  This is a stacked image of 105 frames, processed in RegiStax6.  Notice the light shadow on the lower right limb? Yup, that would be the full extent of the action.

Definitely mark your calendars for the next FULL lunar eclipse on April 15, 2014.
105 frames, 1/80 sec, f8, ISO100

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Barn Door Bliss

It's been quite a while folks.
I've moved to a great (although bright) city just south of Pittsburgh and have settled into full time dad/homemaker, which is kind of awesome honestly.  I've made tons of great new friends one of whom is a super tech savvy dude who has taken hours of his own time to help my engineering challenged self tune up my near fatally flawed home built Barn Door sky tracking mount. (More info here: Gary Seronik Tracking Mount).  His own blog is here: OnShoulders, so take some time to brows the videos about 3D printers, remote controlled airplanes and helicopters, among many other DIY techie goodness.

First some pictures of the homemade beauty then I'll explain a bit.

We (well, really HE) had to modify the circuitry a tad.  There's now two potentiometers and an attached multimeter.  The two potentiometers (which are beautifully encased with knobs and box 3D printed in my friend's basement) give very fine control over the voltage going to the motor, which is displayed on the multimeter.  As long as we keep the 3V motor running guessed it, 3V it will rotate the large gear at (nearly enough) 1 RPM, which in turn moves the platform in sync with the sky.  We may have a few kinks but I think it is working as well as my construction will allow.  We are thinking of other options for our own design taking from the newer line of tracking mounts (See iOptron SkyTracker).

So, basically, you line up the hinge with Polaris (I use a green out for planes), then point the camera at an object, set your intervalometer to take continuous shots, engage the gears, and sit back and enjoy the sky for a few hours letting the mount do the work.

Here's a couple shots from 10/8/13.  Remember, these were taken under very light polluted skies, more definition will improve when we take her to a darker sky site such as nearby Mingo Creek Park.  The star bursts in the Pleiades image are due to my low quality 300mm lens, you work with what you have. I'll try a wider f-stop next time to see if it improves.
Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
230 frames stacked in DeepSkyStacker
300mm, f8, 34sec ISO800

Pleiades (M45)
105 frames stacked in DeepSkyStacker
300mm, f8, 34sec ISO800

Hopefully it won't be so long before you hear from me again.  Looking forward to seeing Orion again (at a resonable hour).