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).

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dance Planets Dance!

The Dance of the Planets is underway and the skies have been more or less cooperating, for a change.  Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury are snuggling right up to each other and following the Sun down in the western sky.  On May 31st they will line up vertically, equally apart, before continuing their slow separation. Fingers crossed for clear skies.

Here's last nights show. Venus is lowest, top left is Jupiter, right is Mercury.
50mm, f8, 1sec, ISO100

This telephoto image shows the Galilean Moons, from left to right: Callisto, Ganymede, Europa, and Io.
300mm, f7.1, 1.6sec, ISO200

Tonight was less clear but I perservered.  Jupiter had swooped  in closer to make a tighter, nearly equilateral triangle.
50mm, f5.3, 5sec, ISO100

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cloudy with a chance of fireballs

The Clear Sky Charts said the skies would be clear for at least a couple hours on Friday night....They lied.
So what are three astrophotographers to do but play with light and a little bit of fire.  These shots may be reproduced when the skies are clear, it would be awesome to have the Milky Way in the sky.

The first is just the three of us spinning flashlights for a 2 min exposure.  The last shots are of me spinning a whisk packed with steel wool on fire.  Don't worry, the field was very dewy and I was wearing a hat.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Age of Aquarids

Last weekend had beautiful clear skies and was pretty close to the peak of the Eta-Aquarid meteor shower so I spend the night at the Observatory at Bisbee Hill.  My astro-buddy Jim had a spanking new Canon 60D he was chomping at the bit to try out on the scope.  After resolving a bit of alignment as well as PC issues we decided to shoot a couple galaxies I've been wanting to hit.  These three images were processed with out darks subtracted because Randy wasn't there to remind us (it's all your fault, Randy).  I may reprocess them with darks later to see if it can improve anything.

We started with the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), that's always a favorite lying in the constellation Canes Venatici (Bo├Âtes' hunting dogs).  This shot is 29 frames stacked and processed with Deep Sky Stacker then touched up a tad in Photoshop.  The focus could be admittedly better but not bad for the virgin astrophoto on the new DSLR.

We then moved on to the Black Eye Galaxy (M64).  Quite an interesting little (or unfathomably huge depending on your perspective) gem lying in the constellation Coma Berenices. This image is 29 stacked frames.


Coma Berenices is apparently a satellite superhighway because we captured 4 of them traveling through our tiny window on the sky.  Kinda nifty.

The Sunflower Galaxy(M63) is another found in Canes Venatici.  It was pretty bleh in the individual images, I almost didn't bother processing them but after stacking it really popped (I guess that's the point though, isn't it?).

While we were shooting with the scope I had my camera shooting a time lapse of the Eta-Aquarid meteors. The radiant is in the constellation Aquarius and specifically the star Eta-Aquarii, "Eta" being the 7th brightest star of the constellation.  Aquarius was set to rise in the east around 2:30 so I decided a "Milky Way rise" time lapse was in order.  I set up my camera with a wide lens and intervalometer set at 45 sec and started shooting around 11:30pm until my battery died at 4:05am.  I hoped I could make it until the Moon rose over the treeline but apparently I need to invest in a battery grip to double my power.  I captured at least three meteors towards the end of the night.  The local farm kids were having quite a party in the woods at the bottom of the video.  At one point they decided it would be fun to drive a truck up to the observatory, but when we gave them the international sign for cut the lights (or maybe they thought we were threatening to cut their throats?) they quickly returned to their bonfire.  This is my best time lapse to date, definitely something to improve on, I've got much more to learn.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Stellar Nursery Next Door

Friday [3/29/13] was a gorgeous clear night, finally.  We started looking for PanSTARRS while waiting for astronomical dusk, found it well below Andromeda and not terribly spectacular.  We're planning on shooting it when it snuggles up to the Andromeda Galaxy 2 degrees apart this Thursday [4/4/13]. Fingers crossed for clear skies!  Once the Sun dropped sufficiently low we spent the few pre-Moon dark hours aimed at the Orion Nebula since it will be disappearing soon with the oncoming summer sky.  With my Nikon D90 attached to the William Optics Telescope mounted to the top of the Meade RCX for tracking we shot 45 second exposures for over a hour.

It's amazing, what looks like a single point of light in the most recognizable star formation of the Northern Hemisphere is actually a unfathomably massive star forming region.  Churning out stars and proto solar systems just down the street from us in our own Milky Way.

 Here she is in all her glory...well at least all the glory I could capture, there's so much going on there.
29 frames stacked in DeepSkyStacker
Williams Optics 81mm, f6, 45 sec, ISO2000 

Better than the previous Orion Nebula image? ...I like to think so.

Friday, March 22, 2013


The promising "year of comets" kicked off early this month with comet PanSTARRS finally visible in the northern hemisphere.  It has been either completely overcast or just cloudy at the western horizon every evening until the sky beautifully cleared on 14th.  I had a wicked cold brewing but I forced myself get out to go stand in a field in the freezing cold waiting for a glimpse since I knew it could be the last good view (and boy, was I was right!).  The Sun set at 7:26pm and after scanning and scanning with the binocs I nearly gave up when I finally spotted it much later than I expected, around 8:25pm (good thing I'm so stubborn!).  It was only barely naked eye visible for a very brief time around 8:30pm but you kinda really needed to already know exactly where to look.  Of course, a few seconds at ISO1000 made it really pop.  Here's the two worthy images.

3/14/13 8:30pm
300mm, f5.6, 1sec, ISO1000
Moon and comet PanSTARRS
3/14/13 8:38pm
29mm, f5.6, 10sec, ISO640

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Polaris Vortex

Winter observing...not for pansies.

Last night was the most gorgeous sky we've seen in a long time.  A high, bright, and long ISS pass started the evening on the right foot but eventually it was just too cold to keep frost off the optics...and our fingers. Good thing we had good company, good food, and good beer so it wasn't a total bust.

While we stayed warm inside, I set up the camera for consecutive 1 min exposures at 18mm, f4, ISO1000 and left it out in the cold for 75 min.  I'm perpetually unprepared and forgot a frost shield so I wasn't comfortable with my gear out there much longer than that.  I used Startrails to create the final image as well as the "comet" images used in the progessive trail video.

I think my next investment will have to be a super wide angle lens so I can get more sky and foreground without feeling like I have to be in portrait orientation.
Make sure you view the vidoes in full screen and HD or they look awful.

Sunset on the trees

This was the scenery I drove through on my way home this morning.

...and I made my first GIF!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Conjunction Junction

Tonight is the closest Moon and Jupiter conjunction until 2026. The Moon and Jupiter are only approx 1 degree apart, about the width of a finger on your outstretched hand. The visible Galilean Moons from left to right are Ganymede, Io, and Callisto (the three that line up on the same plane nearest Jupiter). Europa is on the left side but is lost in the glare of Jupiter. 

Somehow, I drove through one of the worst blizzards I've ever experienced and when I got home the sky was perfectly clear!   This is a composite of two exposures to reclaim the detail in the Moon.

Moon - f6.3 1/320sec ISO640    Jupiter - f6.3 1 sec ISO 640