Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Beaver Moon

Well, it's been a while, folks.  I've been observing and learning all the while but the photography has suffered.  Struggles with focusing and failing hardware have made it a challenge.  My little D90 is nearing (or already surpassed) it's average lifespan.  Blah blah, excuses excuses.

Tonight (11/28/12) is a rare treat as Jupiter is snuggling up close to the full "Beaver" Moon.  Jupiter is nearing opposition on 12/3 where it will be at it's closest position to the Earth for almost a decade.  The Great Red Spot will be swinging into view during that time as well.  So it's a great time to grab any telephoto lens, binoculars, or scope and check it out.

I stepped out to check  the sky this evening and with luck the clouds were breaking up.  They stayed partly cloudy for about 15 min.  Just enough time to snap of these shots before my lens fogged up completley.  Always prep your gear for temperature.  In winter, I recommend placing your camera bag somewhere equal (or near) to the outside temperature, like a shed, sunporch, or garage for a few hours before heading out.  If not your glass is going to fog bueno. When returning home, it's just as important (if not more so) to slowly bring your gear back up to room temp and placing it in a sealed bag to reduce condensation while doing so.

Enjoy my impromptu robe-wearing driveway astrophotography:

f9, 1sec, ISO400

f8, 3sec, ISO320

f8, 1sec, ISO320

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Dark skies of eastern New Mexico

On 7/22/12, the family and I drove from Pennsylvania to Arizona to visit my father and family.  It was a long stretch from St. Louis to Albuquerque but a couple hours before we hit the hotel we drove under some amazingly dark skies.  With much whining and gnashing of teeth from the back seat I pulled off at a random exit on I40 (marked Las Vegas) and into a field.  Stepping out of the car, there was a collective WOW from the wife and kids as they looked up and saw the brightest Milky Way they have ever seen arching from horizon to horizon as I dug my tripod out from under coolers and suitcases.

Unfortunately, it was very warm that night causing an INSANE amount of  nasty green noise in this 30 second exposure at ISO3200.  Needless to say MAJOR noise reduction work was needed in post processing to salvage this shot.  A car was nice enough to light the foreground for me and there was a thunderstorm in the distant horizon.  I could have spent hours out there but we were pressed for time, I'm just glad the boss let me stop at all.

In my normal observing location in northwest Pennsylvania, the "Teapot" of Sagittarius is fairly low on the horizon and the curve of Scorpius' tail dips below.  In the southern states both constellations are much higher meaning the bright center of our own galaxy is riding high in the southern sky giving a more spectacular view.
30s f4.5 @ ISO3200

rough constellation guides

pre noise reduction

Friday, July 13, 2012

Touring Sagittarius

Tuesday, June 10 was an exceptionally clear night.  Unfortunately, we had only 1.5 hours of true darkness before the last quarter moon crashed the party at around 12:30am.  We did a bit of visual observing since Randy adjusted the Meade RCX400's focus from "oooh, that's cool"  to "Holy Crap!" sharp.

Then we strapped my D90 with the business end of the William Optics Gran Turismo 81mm f9 telescope attached to the top of the RCX and got to work.  These images could have used quite a few more frames to stack but with the moonrise in 1 hour, time was of the essence.  I'd like to try again closer to the new moon.

Touring around the busy galactic center.  First we hit the Omega or Swan Nebula (M17) which, as you can see, is a nifty shaped star forming H II region located in the densely populated constellation Sagittarius.  I flipped this image 180 degrees to better show the "swan" shape

8, 1min frames stacked with DeepSkyStacker

The nearby Lagoon Nebula (M8),  also found in Sagittarius is a gorgeous emission nebula churning out stars like a champ.
6, 1min frames stacked with DeepSkyStacker

Just above Sagittarius in the constellation Serpens lies the Eagle Nebula.  The Pillars of Creation create that tiny silhouette of an eagle soaring upward clutching a fish.  An interesting fact (I just learned) is that the pillars have likely been destroyed by a supernova that could have been seen from Earth 1000-2000 years ago.  The light is just now reaching us from approx 6000 light years (35,271,752,239,101,650 miles!!!) away.
The mind-boggling size and distance of cosmic objects means that most of the things we see are drastically changed or completely gone at the same moment we are viewing them.

4, 1min frames stacked with DeepSkyStacker

This is the epic Sagittarius Star Cloud, a massive star field of many different kinds of stars giving it the many different colors.  This cloud is home to some of the oldest stars known.
1 min single exp

Monday, July 2, 2012

Milky WOW

Friday, June 29:

With a 10 day old moon setting at 2AM, I decided to head to the observatory, if only to visit with friends and relax a bit.  The sky was mostly overcast, even showing us a 22 deg Moon ring at one point.  As the Moon made it's final plummet around 1:30am the clouds parted and revealed a beautiful sky that was sooo worth staying up for.  We waited patiently for the clear sky to darken after Moonset and opened the roof.  We hopped around Cygnus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Lyra, and (of course) Sagittarius.  Notable views of Wild Duck (M11), Dumbell Nebula (M27), Ring Nebula (M57), Double Cluster, and the the gorgeous Andromeda Galaxy.  Unfortunately, it was too late and bright to do any astrophotography with the scope.

The stars started to dance in the eyepieces after about an hour of viewing as we were pushing 3:30am so we called it a night.  Before I packed up the gear I took a 180 degree Panorama of the milkyway from horizon to horizon.

10 frames @ 18mm 30sec f3.5 ISO1600

Here's a single frame I took of the Milky Way flowing through the Summer Triangle, which is made up of the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair.  There's lots of great stuff in there but look hard in this frame to find Brocchi's cluster, aka: the "Coathanger Cluster.

18mm 30sec f3.5 ISO2000

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

I Bode you Good Night!

I've had these shots sitting neglected on my hard drive for nearly a month, don't know how they slipped my mind.  It was May 17th, and it was a fantastic night of brilliantly clear dark skies, many scopes, and good company out at the Observatory at Bisbee Hill.  Tonight looks like another one of those nights and I'm trying my best to not run out the door as I'm sure a good crew is out there right now (I have to drive to Philadelphia in the morning or I definitely would be out there!)  Hopefully the skies will hold this weekend.

This is a couple really long exposures showing the astronomers (and the stars) in action.
one 15 min exposure

and 30 min

Then I strapped my camera to the big scope and pointed it at a spectacular pair located in Ursa Major.  M81 and M82 also known as Bode's Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy are quite a dynamic duo.  M81 is a very large face on spiral galaxy and M82 is a unique starburst galaxy that is churning out stars on a massive scale being helped along by tidal forces from it's large neighbor M81.  There's a small galaxy on the lower left called NGC 3077, it's is also an irregular galaxy likely being acted upon by it's larger neighbor as well.

11 frames @  2min, f6, 81mm, ISO1600 , merged in DeepSkyStacker

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Holey Sun Batman!

Somebody made quite an sacrifice to Ra because he was out in all his glory this evening for the Venus Transit at Presque Isle State Park.  After days of rain and cloud cover it cleared right in time for us to observe this twice in a lifetime event.  My head is throbbing from squinting behind viewfinders and lenses for hours but it was a now or never, I'm currently nursing it with a glass of wine (probably a bad idea but the Tequila has run dry).

The photography was difficult to say the least.  I used a variable neutral density filter to block most of the light from the sun.  I should have sprung for a BAADER filter (google it) but alas they were either sold out or over-budget.  I did my best to get a good focus with my 300mm, set my intervalometer to 1 min intervals, and set the camera to 1/100sec @ f14.  I then mingled with the shockingly huge crowd only to return to the camera and recenter the sun in the frame.

Here's a few of the shots I quickly browsed and edited from 300+ images.
Second Contact "black drop effect"

199 frame time-lapse.  Not nearly as impressive as some other amateur video's I've seen but it's mine.
The dim moving smudges are from the large cottonwood seeds floating in the air.  I love the atmospheric ripples as sunset nears at the end.

Re-edited the time lapse. I either need better video editing software or better skills but I'm satisfied with this last version.  If anyone knows any software that will perfectly align multiple frames for time lapse videos, do tell.

And I nabbed a green flash as the the sun sank! 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lightning and light pollution

On Friday 5/25/12 our area was hit with some very severe weather but it was supposed to clear quickly afterward.  So, not willing to waste a day off, I decided to head out to the observatory to wait out the storm.  With the 360 degree view at a nice elevation it is perfect storm watching site as well.  The storm was in full swing when I arrived but it wasn't on top of us yet.  I quickly set up the tripod and using my shutter release to  keep the shutter going at 30 sec exposures, it was dark so no need to worry about over exposure.

Lightning is one of the most impressive and surprisingly one of the easiest things to photograph if you don't over think it.  Don't waste your time trying to snap as it happens, you'll only frustrate yourself.  If you have a nighttime storm just set up a tripod and shoot continuously at 30 sec with a wide aperture, pour some wine and get comfy (and safe).  For a daytime storm close the aperture and use shorter exposure times.   Just make sure to grab your gear when the rain hits if you don't have a rain cover (link is the super cheap one I use).

As the night went on the storm moved south and the stars were visible above the thunderheads. Saturn and Spica are the most prominent objects above the clouds. All these shots were taken between 11pm and 1am.

Here's best shots out of 200 or so:

This is the shot I was waiting for!

Bright stars on the left are Saturn (upper) and Spica (lower)

When the sky finally cleared it was such low transparency and seeing was so poor that we didn't even bother opening the observatory roof.

With summertime nearing, the Milky Way has been rising in time for some interesting photo ops.  I've been trying to get a shot of the Milky Way arching over this particular dirt road or weeks and after 3 different tries I have something finally worth showing.   Last night (5/27/12) I returned to this site located near the very rural Spartansburg, PA.  While very rural you can still see the dramatic effects of light pollution.  I'm anxiously awaiting the airing of the documentary The City Dark on PBS on July 5.  I strongly urge you to watch and in the meantime, if you must have glaring property lights get some motion detectors or sky friendly fixtures and bulbs.  Reconnect with the stars, there's a whole Universe out there.  People need to realize we're part of something much bigger.

180 degrees, from Cassiopeia to Scorpius

Sunday, May 20, 2012


As I'm watching all the breathtaking "Ring of Fire" shots roll in across the interwebs, I can't help but get a little jealous.  There's some great shots out there, go check Google.

This was the maximum eclipse here in NW Pennsylvania before it headed further west.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Supermoon, Sun rings, and Sunspots...Oh my!

I have had zero time to sit down and put some words with some pictures here (I actually don't really have the time right now) but things are getting backed up so I must play some catch up here.

Lets start with last week's so-called "Supermoon!".  Not to burst anyone's bubble but it was just another full moon.  However, the full moon is always a beautiful sight so anything that gets regular folks interested in looking up at the night sky, histerical claims or not,  I'm all for it!  So, no massive earthquakes or tidal waves, just a perigee moon slightly bigger than normal.  I went out and shot it with my little future astrophysicist.

240mm, f10, 1/10, ISO100
 This one was fun.  "oooh, so the right, no left... good,now up, little more...leeetle more, ooh perfect!  Now look at me...and freeze"  She's very patient sometimes.
135mm, f4.2, 1/25, ISO1250

On May 12th (My mother's birthday) there was an interesting show in the daytime sky.  A 22 degree halo or a "neat rainbow ring around the Sun" that lasted hours into the afternoon.  This allowed for some interesting distractions from my yard work.

This first one is a shot I took advantage of and framed for my Mother's day present.
18mm, f10, 1/400, ISO100

It's a good idea to block the full midday Sun from your eye as well as your camera's sensor.
18mm, f10,1/400, ISO100
As I was pointing my camera at the Sun I thought about the upcoming Venus transit (June 5th) and how I still haven't totally worked out how I'm going to shoot it (luckily it occurs at sunset so the full onslaught of solar rays won't be so harsh).  I ran inside to see what I could dig out.  I grabbed my ND400 filter and decided to go for it. 

To gain some perspective on this region, our entire world easily fits inside that darker area in the middle of AR 1476, with room to spare.
ND400, 300mm, f14, 1/4000, ISO100 
 This hand held shot above clearly shows the large current active sunspot region 1476 along with other active regions.  This set up should definitely give me good results for shooting the Venus transit.  I'm planning on shooting from Presque Isle (Erie, PA) weather permitting (please permit!!).   This will occur again in 2117, so you can wait if you want...I don't plan on seeing that one.

The skies are clearing and this week looks very astronomically promising.  Sagittarius is rising earlier and earlier as summer nears so I plan on trying a Milky Way rise time lapse in the near future.  And of course I'll be posting the rapidly approaching Venus transit.  Stay tuned.

Clear skies!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

You can put lipstick on an Sbig...

Last night, Jim, Randy and I decided it was high time to break out the SBIG ST2000XCM and get some real photography going.  We spent a good hour or more precision aligning and tweaking the scope.  Mostly I stood in the way watching and at best was a pair of sharp eyes to sight guide stars for alignment while the guys twisted various knobs and timed star movements.

Then, hungrily rubbing our hands together, we hunkered down for the next 4+ hours in front of the computer screen searching for guide stars and refocusing and searching for guide stars and refocusing and...  Now I know this sounds like the epitome of tedium but when spiked coffee and a bit of tequila are involved it becomes an all out astrogeek party.  It really was a blast and we learned a few things even if we don't have photos, the next clear night we'll definitely have something to show.  I believe the biggest problem we had was the sky, seeing was below average making good astrophotography near impossible even if we had all the kinks worked out.

While all this was going on I had my camera aimed at the observatory (with Polaris directly above) for 245, 1 min exposures the entire time.  Hours of star (and astronomer) movement were captured and turned into this timelapse video.

All the frames combined using Startrails for this photo.
245 frames @ 59sec f4 ISO500

And at around 2am as I was about to head home the inner Milky Way made it's grand appearance with the summer triangle riding high in the east.  The observatory is on the left.
Good things to come as summer is truly on it's way.

10 vertical frames @ 18mm 44sec f3.5 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mooning Venus and the ISS

After more than a week of clouds and few days of snow (yes, you heard right).  The skies unexpectedly cleared last night [4/24/12].  What a beauty of an evening.  I immediately grabbed my gear (camera bag, tripod, and binoculars) and ran out onto the patio to set up.
31mm,0.5sec f10 ISO100
Every evening I have this unavoidable compulsion to see how early I can spot Venus, usually before sunset. I spied and even photographed it at 3pm in February this year, that was wild.  Last night it was hard to miss shimmering there in the west near the thin waxing crescent Moon.  In my binoculars I was able to make out the tiny crescent of our inner solar system sister.  (I hope you guys are clicking the links I post, they aren't spam)

For the following picture I set up my camera in BULB, f5.6 and ISO250, plugged in my intervalometer set to 10 sec every 3 min for 20 exposures and mashed the start button.  As the camera fired away I was on my back on my patio table exploring Cancer, hitting Beehive cluster, M44 and M67.
20 exp, 28mm 10sec f5.6 ISO250
I loaded all 20 frames in PS, leaving the first frame alone I tediously erased all the other stars in all the other frames.  Then one by one I changed each layer's blending properties to "lighten" and  only the light from the Moon and Venus popped through. Tada!

Tonight [4/25/12] while I was in the middle of writing this post the ISS made a nice pass next to Venus and then Mars.  It's been cloudy all evening bus it cleared enough just in time.  I set up to shoot it rise in the west then as soon as it left the frame I whipped my camera over to Mars (the bright orangeish "star" in the second shot) and managed to catch it pass there too, unfortunately I think I was focused on the tree.  Check out the little "moon dog" on the right side of the first shot. 
22mm 117 sec f4.5 ISO400

35mm 56sec f5 ISO400

It's fantastic to see the sky again after so many soggy days.  Can't wait to get back out and observe with the group.   

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Last chance at Orion

[Thursday, April 12]
Tonight was my last opportunity to shoot Orion until winter.  It's on the heels of the sun in the southwestern sky in the early evening and is completely out of sight before midnight this time of year.
Arguably, the most recognizable northern hemispheric constellation holds one of the most active star forming regions nearby in our own the Milky Way.  The Orion Nebula (aka: Great Nebula in Orion, M42, NGC 1976) is actually the middle "star" in Orion's scabbard.  If you grab some binoculars and look at Orion's scabbard, the three closer stars lined up almost perpendicularly below the three wider belt stars, you'll see that those three little stars are actually multiple stars in three little open clusters. If you look long enough at (and around; averted vision really makes it pop) the middle group you will see wispy clouds shaped like wings wrapping around the little stars in the center.  Those little stars in the center are a cluster of very young stars called the Trapezium.  The wispy clouds are gas an dust in the process of condensing into stars.  Read an interesting recent post by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer on the Orion Nebula.

Here she is, this may just be my favorite photo I have ever taken.  I've been trying to shoot Orion for a long time but without a tracking mount it was extremely frustrating. With my camera piggyback mounted on a Meade RCX 400 it's a breeze. Thanks to the Observatory at Bisbee Hill guys for use of the equipment.
15 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 40sec f6 ISO1000 

I also pointed the scope at a couple prominent galaxies near the tail of Ursa Major or the handle of the Big Dipper and snapped away.  This is the Whirlpool Galaxy (aka: M51a, NGC 5194) located just under the last star of the dipper's handle (picture the dipper right side up, like a spoon lying on a table).  As you can see, it appears to be a large spiral devouring a smaller galaxy (M51b or NGC 5195) but the smaller galaxy is actually passing behind the Whirlpool, merely gravitationally tugging on it.  This galactic encounter sparks massive star formation in the Whirlpool Galaxy, the pinkish/purplish hues are nebulous regions.

11 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 2min f6 ISO2000

This is the gorgeous spiral galaxy M101 (NGC 5457) also near the end of the Big Dipper's handle.  Find it by looking at the last two handle stars and make an equilateral triangle pointing up (again, think of the dipper as horizontal), at the top of the triangle you'll find M101. There's three other galaxies visible in this image as well.  At 10 o'clock from M101 is NGC 5477 and straight to the left edge of the frame from there is a tiny edge-on galaxy NGC 9071.  The Fuzzy blob at the bottom is NGC 5474.
12 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 2min f6 ISO2000

Another Ursa Major treat, Comet Garrad was visible (it's the green thingy), it was fantastic night!

Friday night was a bit hazy and observing was kind of a flop but this was our beautiful horizon.  Nice lineup of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Venus, Pleiades, and Perseus' leg.