- 2016 Astro Journal -
September 03, 2016:
The geomagnetic index has been jumping around over this Labor Day weekend. On an index scale from 0 to 9, we usually need a 6 or 7 before aurora start to become visible from here in Upstate New York. With the index now indicating brief jumps into the 6 and 7 range the best bet is to just set up a camera and let it crank away automatically and hope to capture something flickering along the horizon. The image/video here show aurora that were probably not visible, or hardly visible, to the naked eye. I don't know as I was asleep on the sofa while the camera clicked away. Yes, lazy astronomy is sometimes the best approach. In addition to the faint aurora display, about a ba-zillion aircraft can be seen shooting through the video. I'm guessing that a lot of flights from the west coast are nearing arrival in Boston or NYC around this time of night, especially with it being a holiday weekend.
August 27, 2016:
By day, our humble home is "Planet Alicia" with flower beds, humming birds, bumble bees, herb and vegetable gardens, green lawns and a comfortable porch for relaxing cafe-style summer lunches and dinners. However by night, as our home and yard drift into darkness, the nearby is replaced by the unbelievably distant and, on a clear evening, the entire universe emerges overhead. This is "Planet Karl", a planet from which to gaze upon fellow planetary denizens of our solar system, as well as more distant stars, nebulae and galaxies. It amazes me to think that from these two very small planets a nearly endless variety of natural wonders are available to explore and enjoy, more than a lifetime's worth for sure. It seems that hardly a few days ever go by without one of us saying, "Hey, look at this! Have you ever seen anything like that before?" Sometimes it's a strangely iridescent bug, or a bizarre fungus growing on a corn stalk, or a 500 million year old sea creature fossil found on a garden stone. Your backyard may be bigger or smaller than ours, or you may think you don't have a yard at all, still it is my humble opinion that there is a universe to explore from anyone's planet. To discover it just takes a little time to look around with a bit of curiosity and wonder.
August 19, 2016:
This morning the Sun rose through a thick layer of fog rising from the valley below. This created a natural filter revealing the solar disc. However, there are no sun-spots visible in this image due to the fact that the sun is headed toward solar minimum, the time during the Sun's 11 cycle when it has the fewest sun-spots. The 11 year cycle, recognized in 1843 by Samuel Schwabe, was at its most recent maximum in early 2014 and the number of sun-spots has been declining ever since. The Sun subtends about 0.5o of sky which is about the same as the Moon's angular size. This is very noticeable at times when you can look directly at the Sun such as through dense morning fog. (Of course, every responsible astronomy website must say, NEVER look at a bright Sun directly or you will burn out your eyeballs and be forced to wear an ugly T-shirt for the rest of your life that says "I looked at the Sun! What was I thinking?") The fact that the Sun and Moon are about the same angular size is why solar eclipses are possible, one of which will be cutting a path across the USA on August 21, 2017.
August 12, 2016:
The Perseid Meteor Shower peaked last night during the early morning hours. Expectations were that it would be an exceptional year with meteor rates predicted to be about 200 per hour. Here in Upstate NY, clouds were in the forecast for much of the night so I set up a camera in our garage loft looking southeast out of a window, taking continuous 30 second exposures, and hoped for the best. With the camera being under roof, dew settling on the lens was less of a concern, but shooting through an open window limited the amount of sky that could be photographed. Despite these limitations the camera cranked away for about 6 hours taking over 700 frames with the best one shown here. Meteors are notoriously difficult to photograph. The main problem is that they're very brief in duration. The image here is a 30 second exposure during which a meteor, lasting about one second or less, zipped through the field of view. The meteor is streaking through the constellation Eridanus, the River, with some stars in the constellation Orion just rising in the east on the left side of the image. Clicking on the image, and then placing the mouse cursor over it, will highlight a few features.
July 28, 2016:
Summer nights are short here in the Northeast. For complete darkness you have to wait until about 11:00pm and then the first hints of sunrise occur around 4:00am. That's only 5 hours of total darkness. But if it's a clear night it's well worth the effort to stay up since the Milky Way is at its very best during this time of year. For the astro-photography minded, the thick of the Milky Way contains some of the best imaging targets for a small telescope. In the constellation Sagittarius, M08 the Lagoon Nebula and the smaller M20 the Trifid Nebula, form a striking pair as they reside only about 1.5 degrees from each other. The image shown here was taken with a Canon 60Da DSLR through a 200mm lens with main telescope, the 120mm SkyWatcher refractor, working as the guide-scope. The image is a stack of 5 one minute exposures at ISO 1600 with 5 dark frames and 5 flat frames all thrown into a software program called Deep Sky Stacker (DSS) that combines/adjusts everything into a final image. Contrast/Curves/Levels/Saturation were then adjusted in Paint Shop Pro. I still have a lot of work to do to make better images. The flat frames I took did not seem to do a very good job balancing the images brightness distribution so I'll need to read up a bit more on that and try again. But there are a few other post-processing tricks that can help with that so I'm still quite happy with the picture. :)
UPDATE August 14, 2016:
Finally got around to processing an image of M16 the Eagle Nebula, and M17 the Swan (or Omega) Nebula, taken the same night as the M08 and M20 image above. The tracking was not quite as good on this image but overall it came out okay. M16 and M17 are almost 2.5 degrees apart which means the FOV (Field of View) using the new 200mm lens is about 4o by 5.75o or about 7o across the diagonal of the frame. I'm really looking forward to taking images of M31 with this lens later in the year. M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, spans 4o so it should fit nicely in the FOV. Other targets for a wide field lens include the area near the center of the constellation of Orion such as M42 and the Horse Head Nebula.
July 05, 2016:
The heart of our Milky Way galaxy fills the southern sky during these warm summer nights. This part of the sky is a busy place with many nebulae, star clusters and galactic dust clouds on center stage. If you can find the Teapot asterism, which is a group of stars that are part of the constellation Sagittarius, the steam rising from the Teapot's spout is light from the vast star clouds residing between us and all the way to the center of the galaxy. Many notable Messier objects can be found near the Teapot. Clicking on the image to the left and then placing the mouse cursor over the image, will highlight several of these. This Milky Way image is basically a 15 second photo with the camera mounted on a simple tripod with the ISO cranked up to 3200. Contrast and color saturation were adjust using Paint Shop Pro 9. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to grasp the enormity of this cosmic star-scape. On a clear night, from a dark location, ponder this question: How large would this galactic center have to be to fill the southern sky from the unfathomable distance of 30,000 light years? That's 180,000,000,000,000,000 miles. It is mind-boggling beyond mind-boggling to say the least, and even more so when you realize that our entire galaxy is virtually an unnoticeable blip-of-light on the scale of the universe. Yet, there it is for us to take in on a clear night as we can stand on the surface of a speck of dust we call Earth.
June 24, 2016:
Darkness certainly takes its time falling during these days and weeks around the summer solstice, but the planets currently visible in the southern sky are bright enough to be found even with twilight just starting to get serious about pushing daylight out of the way. Early twilight is actually a pretty good time to try and image planets since thermal turbulence in the atmosphere, which increases as nightfall sets in, has not yet started stirring up the air in a big way. With calm conditions prevailing, aiming the telescope at Saturn seemed like a good idea. It's quite low in the sky, less than 30o above the horizon. The picture shown here was taken using a 4.7 inch, 7.5f SkyWatcher refractor and a 3x Barlow to capture a 3000 frame avi movie with a ZWO-ASI120MC camera. Registax 6.0 was then used to process the movie stacking the best 10% of the movie frames into a single image. Paint Shop Pro 9.0 was then used to sharpen and saturate the colors a bit.
UPDATE September 04, 2016: A surprisingly calm evening descended upon our quiet part of Upstate NY, with Saturn still visible in a twilight sky to the southwest. It's already a few months past Saturn's opposition but considering the ringed planets is roughly a billion miles away, give or take a few million miles is just pocket change in the big picture. So I set up the telescope with the AS120MC planetary camera, a 3x Barlow lens and started taking movies. These movies can then be processed by a software program called Registax, which aligns and stacks the best video frames into a single image. Although this program does a fantastic job it still depends highly on the quality of the input images. This means that there is no substitute for calm, clear air, known in astronomy circles as "Good Seeing."
May 19-20, 2016:
With the darkness of night washed out by a nearly full Moon the best targets out there for telescopic imaging are the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets shine brightly enough to be easily seen through the lunar illuminated sky. At this time of year these planets are located in less than overhead locations from our vantage point here in Upstate New York, so there's a lot of atmosphere, and therefore a lot of turbulence, to look through. But despite the obstacle of imaging through all that tumultuous air I'm still amazed at the view through a small telescope of these fellow solar system inhabitants. The image shown here is a comparison of the three planets using the same optics for each image. Taken within about a half hour of each other, Jupiter's size is apparent especially when you realize that it is currently over 9.5 times farther away from Earth than Mars. Saturn is at almost 17.5 times farther away than Mars but required slowing the camera exposure down to collect more light from the noticeably fainter planet. The dark spot on Jupiter's surface is the silhouette of Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon, as it transits in front of the giant planet.
May 18, 2016:
The ancient volcanic region on Mars known as Syrtis Major was front and center last evening. Here on Earth, imaging of the red planet was done between patches of high clouds that were drifting in from the west. The air was pretty calm but Mars is not rising very high, reaching an elevation of only 25 degrees above the horizon about an hour after mid-night, as seen from here in New York. This means that the light from Mars must travel through a lot of atmosphere before reaching the camera sensor. The alignment of the Sun, Earth and Mars, called opposition, occurs on May 22nd with the closest approach of Mars to Earth happening on May 30th. The next opposition of Mars in July 2018 will be one of the best in many years with Mars coming within 36.2 million miles of earth (47.3 for this opposition) and reaching an angular size of 24.1" (18.4" this time) *. Saturn currently appears in the sky not far from Mars and is always a welcome sight and a great "Show Stopper" planet to see through a small telescope.
* Note: 24.1 seconds of arc equals about .0067 degrees which means Mars will still be a small object in the sky, roughly 1/100th the angular size of a full moon. Why mention this? Well, usually around the time of a significant Mars opposition, email scams start circulating stating a very exaggerated appearance of Mars, i.e. "As big as a full Moon!" Just so you know, Mars will never look much different than it usually does, even during the best of oppositions.
May 09, 2016:
Spent the whole day watching and photographing the Transit of Mercury (TOM) which occurs when the innermost planet Mercury lines up directly between the
Earth and Sun, making it visible as a small black dot moving across the Sun's bright disk.
It was interesting when Mercury first appeared making a small dent in the edge of solar disk and then glided totally in
front of the Sun making the outline of the whole planet visible.
But after about 3 hours into the 7.5 hour event I started to have the feeling that transits are somewhat the astronomical version of watching grass grow.
Snacks, lunch and some preliminary image processing helped pass the time.
That said, it was interesting to make the comparison between the size of the Sun and the solar system's smallest planet.
(a title Mercury acquired after Pluto was demoted)
The Sun is Freaking Huge!!!
Kind of makes you understand what astronomers are up against when they try to detect planets around other stars as they look for a
slight reduction in a star's brightness due a planet's transit, just like Mercury did today.
Also, imagining such transits just a few hundred years ago when the true nature of the solar system was not really understood,
adds a little perspective to the event.
They must have had a kind of magical quality to them back then as the few individuals who knew about them watched as their theories
and tenuous calculations proved true right before their eyes.
Anyway, the next transit of Mercury occurs November 11th, 2019.
Will I watch it again?
Maybe, but right now, hmm ... no joke, I have to mow the lawn.
Here's a link to one minute movie of the transit taken at about the mid-point through a white-light solar filter, as seen from our backyard in Greene, NY: Transit Movie.
The hazy dark patch above the disk of Mercury is a group of sunspots known as Active Region AR2542.
Update: I was looking through my TOM photos and found a nice picture of how one might continuously observe a 7.5 hour event that is somewhat slow moving in nature? Well, a turkey and cheese sandwich, Cool Ranch Doritos and a Shiner Bock were a welcome lunchtime treat. During the early hours of the transit I also worked on a computer enclosure box to help make the computer screen visible in the bright sunlight.
May 01, 2016:
Our recent trip to Southern California included a drive up to famous Mount Palomar Observatory.
We started our drive at sea-level from the Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort and wound our way eastward through orange
and lemon groves, up the hairpin, S-turn Palomar road (S6) arriving atop Mount Palomar at about 5500 feet elevation
(our Nissan Versa rental did one hell-of-a-job negotiating the windy road).
The visitor center is very nicely done with many interesting displays including factoids and history about the observatory.
The 1000 ton dome is impressive from a distance and even more so as you approach the main entrance.
A few flights of stairs leads to the visitor gallery where it is possible to view the 200 inch Hale telescope.
It was great to see the historic telescope albeit through a Plexiglas enclosed area that could have used a little more thought.
Fluorescent lights from within the visitor's enclosure reflected back from the Plexiglas making a decent photograph of the Hale telescope all but impossible.
Some well-meaning displays and a technician's metal staircase parked in front of the gallery area, also blocked some of the view.
Still, as mentioned in the visitor's center, this is a working telescope and has been in operation every clear night since the late 1940's.
In hindsight I might have tried to schedule a guided tour to get a better view of the telescope, but since we were only in Carlsbad for a week, and with the weather/road conditions to Palomar advertised as unpredictable, we just winged it.
All in all, travelling 3000 miles and making a once in a lifetime visit, was worth it and I would recommended it to anyone who, like me (62), loves astronomy and grew up with Mount Palomar's Hale telescope being the world's greatest for a generation.
April 15, 2016:
A string of absolutely beautiful days has descended upon Upstate New York providing some
opportunities for astrophotography. First, on April 14th, the local weather forecaster
Howard Manges on WBNG Action News, informed his audience that the International Space Station
would be sailing over the Southern Tier at about 8:45pm. So I set up a camera to capture the
event and sure enough, right around 8:45, the ISS came over the hilltop to our Northwest and
passed just above the north star as it headed east, finally disappearing into Earth's
shadow about 20 degrees above the ESE horizon. I sent the image into WBNG and they were kind
enough to feature it in their "YouNews" segment at the end of the weather forecast. Fun to watch.
Thanks guys! The image is a composite of several 15 second exposures spaced with 2 second pauses
(an old habit of mine left over from when early digital cameras needed time to write the image
file to memory). Since the ISS is traveling about 5 miles per second, each segment represents
75 miles of distance travelled by the ISS. Yes, it's really humming along!
Next up, on April 15th the moon was one day past a quarter moon which means the famous lunar
feature named "Rupes Recta" or "The Straight Wall" was in prime position to image. When the
lunar phase is about 8 days old, the Straight Wall casts a shadow making it very noticeable,
but only for about a day or so. Sunlight on the lunar surface quickly illuminates the shaded
area next to this fault-line rendering it nearly invisible.
That same night, the moons of Jupiter Io and Europa made successive transits of the giant planet.
The relatively calm air associated with the good weather reduced the atmospheric turbulence enough
to take fairly good pictures of the events. At about 11:00pm I ran out of gas and called it a night.
The brightening/waxing moon prevents deep sky objects from being imaged but we never complain about
sunshine and good weather here in New York. So let the sun and moon shine away on these beautiful
March 26, 2016:
A clear evening and waning gibbous moon provided a few hours of dark starry skies after sunset here in Upstate NY.
Seemed like a nice night for taking some images destined for star trail processing.
Achim Schaller's StarTrails software (http://www.startrails.de/) was used to combine about two hours worth of images into this single picture.
Meantime, back in the observatory, I spent time imaging the giant planet Jupiter which is climbing high into the evening sky
as we come up on nearly 3 weeks since opposition, when the Sun, Earth and Jupiter, (in that order) are in alignment.
To help pass the time I had downloaded several episodes of StarTalk Radio, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium.
Always an interesting and entertaining show. (http://www.startalkradio.net/)
March 11, 2016:
Imaging train: 120mm Skywatcher + 2 inch extender + 2x Powermate + 2x barlow + 1.5 inch extender + ZWO ASI120MC
March 10, 2016:
Exo-Planet Musing (or Amusing?):
Trying to imagine what planets might look like if they were located in more densely populated areas of our galaxy,
I used an image I took of the Milky Way in the direction of M16, modified it a bit,
added a couple of makeshift planets and a few bright-ish nearby stars for the planets to call home.
The result, ... hmm? Can it be called art? Well, that's what I'm saying it is until somebody calls me out as a cheap graphics hacker.
I wonder though, if in our search for exo-planets, if we had sent out a dozen or so minimalist probes to nearby sun-like stars,
fitted with little more than a camera
and a big antenna to send back images, powered by RTG driven Ion engines that worked continuously to get the probes to a quarter or
a third of the speed of light, would we be seeing real images similar to this one by now?
At a third the speed of light there's several stars that would be within 25-30 years of travelling and then another 4-8 years for images to return at the speed of light. So, in 40 to 50 years could we have images from nearby stars systems?
Would the probes even be able to survive such a journey?
What would happen if they collided with even a molecule of interstellar gas at those speeds?
Time to get out the physics books and do a little math.
But first I'm going to finish my morning coffee, ... very, very slowly....
January 06, 2016:
January in the Northeast has already had a mix of very mild and very cold days.
On January 5th and 6th, cold but calm air settled in over the Southern Tier of New York and provided some awesome skies for stargazing.
Temperatures dropped to around 0oF (-18oC) overnight.
Imaging in cold weather takes some preparation.
I start by letting my camera equipment cool down in the garage in a freezer bag for several hours.
I also open up the observatory to let it cool down to ambient temperatures.
My attire is multi layered topped off with thermal coveralls, a knit hat, and hand-warmers going in each glove and boot.
Even with these preparations it can be tough to remain in the cold for more for a few hours.
Equipment sometimes has difficulty as well.
LCD displays begin to fail.
Power and control cables become inflexible and troublesome to manage.
Observatory hatches freeze in position and need extra help to open or close.
Even with all those obstacles sometimes human error can trump them all, such as in the grainy image shown here of M1, the Crab Nebula.
i.e. I forgot to set the camera ISO back to 1600 from the 6400 used for focusing and drift aligning.
Still, being under the stars, on a clear night, fussing with telescopes ... well, that's just fun!
Here's another image taken the same night of the "Grand Design" spiral galaxy M74.
NOAA Space Weather
Central New York