Karl's Astro-Journal

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- 2014 Astro Journal -


December 26, 2014: Amateur astronomers are a pretty easy group to do Xmas shopping for. They usually have a ready list of astro-gizmos they'd be happy to receive over the holidays. On my list this year was a ZWO ASI120MC camera for solar system imaging and, as if by magic, it appeared under our Xmas tree. (Strange how my wife knew it was the exact camera I was hoping for.) More magic occurred the day after Xmas when clear skies moved in over Upstate New York for the first time in about 4 weeks, bringing an opportunity to try out the new camera on a six day old moon. The photo to the left was taken using the ASI120MC to produce an ~800 frame .avi movie which was then processed using Registax. Later that night Jupiter made an appearance, rising in the eastern sky just ahead of some clouds rolling in. But the air was quite turbulent and the resulting image was fuzzy. Anyway, a Happy 2015 to everyone and may the New Year bring plenty of clear skies for us all!

M74 Before and After Software Processing

November 25, 2014: M74 is a galaxy whose classic spiral shape has earned it the title of "Grand Design Spiral Galaxy". Located about 30 million light years away in the constellation Pisces, M74 is a challenging galaxy to image with a 120m f7.5 refractor at prime focus and a DSLR camera. At an angular size of only 10.5 arc minutes (compared to 178 arc minutes for M31, the Andromeda Galaxy) fine details of M74 are much harder to image especially on a night with turbulent upper air conditions like last night. Much of the magic of producing astronomy images is in the software processing that occurs after taking the initial pictures. Deep Sky Stacker is a freeware program that aligns and stacks several images into an enhanced average image. Commericially available software for photo processing like Photoshop or Paint-Shop-Pro can then be used to stretch the image contrast and colors. The picture here shows the difference software can make in extracting features from the original image as it came from the camera.

M33, The Trianulum Galaxy
November 12, 2014: Not far from M31, i.e. the Andromeda Galaxy (as if anything in space can be referred to as "not far"), is M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. M33, also nicknamed the Pinwheel Galaxy, is fainter and more diffuse than M31. M33 may be the most distant object visible to the naked eye at nearly 3 million light years from earth. It takes a really, and I mean REALLY, clear night with excellent seeing to pick out the faint hazy patch that is M33, using nothing but very dark-adapted eyeballs. I have only seen it once for sure from here in New York. Last night was very clear but there was significant upper air turbulence as observed by the stars jumping around in the telescope eye-piece at high magnification. But even given that I will make the claim that, by using averted vision, I was able to see the faint-fuzzy from our dark Chenango County skies. The image shown here, an average of four images of 5 minutes exposure each, was taken with the 120mm Sky-Watcher refractor and Canon 60Da DSLR at 1600 ISO. Post processing was done in Paint Shop Pro 9. Guiding was done manually in RA only with a 60mm guidescope, 2x barlow, 12mm crosshair eyepiece and some very faint guide stars.

M31, The Andromeda Galaxy
November 10, 2014: Here's another image of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, this time taken through my 120mm Sky-Watcher refractor. At f7.5 the Sky-watcher's Field of View (FOV) is only a little more than 2 degrees diagonally. M31 almost fits in the frame, but not quite. This image was made by stacking four prime focus exposures of 5 minutes each at ISO 1600 with a Canon 60Da DLSR. Only dark frames were subtracted for this image. The next improvement will be to include Flat Field images into the process. Flat Field images will help reduce the vignetting produced by the optics and camera sensor.

M31, The Andromeda Galaxy
September 26, 2014: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, was the first deep sky object I tried to photograph upon purchasing a used 80mm f11 refractor in 1987. Of course, f11 was way too slow for such a large object like M31 which spans nearly 3 degrees of sky. Using film back then, my B&W image just showed a fuzzy nucleus of the galaxy. The image here is my latest attempt and even though its light-years better than those early pictures there's still a lot of work to be done. This image was taken with a Canon 60Da DSLR and Sigma 200mm lens which were mounted piggy-back on a 120mm refractor that served as the guide-scope. Four images of 5 minute exposures were stacked to produce this picture.

Hayden Planetarium Sphere
August 29, 2014: On a recent trip to New York City, Alicia and I stopped by the Hayden Planetarium to view the "Dark Universe" show. All I can say is WOW!!! I've always enjoyed planetariums but this was my first trip to the Hayden Planetarium and the show just knocked our socks off. I highly recommend it to any astronomy enthusiast visiting NYC. The special effects were amazing. The picture here shows a section of the planetarium sphere, as well as some models of planets. Here's another view. If the planetarium sphere were to represent the size of the Sun, the planets are shown to that same scale.

August 18, 2014:

M16, The Eagle Nebula
The July 24th image below shows a wide-field view of M17, the Swan Nebula, and M16, the Eagle Nebula. The image shown here takes a closer look at M16 which is an open star cluster surrounded by a red cloud of hydrogen gas. Using a 120mm telescope at prime focus and a Canon 60Da DSLR to capture four, 5 minute exposures, I manually made slight tracking adjustments while looking through a small guide-scope. (I'm paying my dues before buying a guide-scope/camera/software package that will do this automatically) Image post processing was done using Deep Sky Stacker and Paint Shop Pro software. Taking an image like this is great fun considering that from my backyard, using a tiny telescope, a consumer camera and some software, I can produce fairly detailed images of objects that astronomers 100 years ago didn't even know existed, and that perhaps rival images of professional astronomers from just a few decades ago using the world's largest telescopes.

August 10, 2014:

Perseid Meteors, Not!
The Perseid Meteor Shower happens every year around August 12/13 and I was hoping to catch a few early, bright, earth-grazing Perseid meteors on the evening of Aug 10th since the forecast here in Upstate NY indicated rain and clouds during the peak of the shower. But searching through the startrail photo I could not even find a faint one. (Although, near the north star at about 7:30, an Iridium/Iridium-like flare made a brief appearance, unless that was a Perseid headed directly at me!) I've included a couple photos of the set up for this image which uses a 24 inch (~600mm) security mirror as a makeshift fisheye lens for a DSLR, and post-processing using Achim Schaller's Star Trails Program. Bright "Super-Moon" moonlight, clouds and dew settling on the mirror, all found their way into the photo but hey, it was something fun to try.

Set Up Photos: Set up #1,   Set up #2

July 24, 2014:

Above the Tea Pot
Above the Tea Pot, an asterism in the constellation Sagittarius, is an area of sky dense with stars, dust and bright nebulae. M16 the "Eagle" nebula and M17 the "Swan" are centered in this image with the rich star fields and dark dust clouds of the Milky Way as backdrop. In the direction of Sagittarius, and nearby constellation Scorpius, is the center of our Milky Way galaxy. A dim earth orbiting satellite entered the upper right corner of the image just a few seconds before the end of the exposure. This picture is a single 4 minute image with a single dark frame subtracted. Paint Shop Pro 9 was used for luminance, color and contrast enhancements.

July 06, 2014:

M8, the Lagoon Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius, is a star forming region of interstellar gas that lies in the direction of the Milky Way's galactic center. From Upstate New York M8 rises only 23 degrees above the horizon requiring a pretty clear summer night to image the nebula. Trivia: Nearby M20, the Trifid Nebula, was used in the original Star Trek episode "The Alternative Factor" to depict a "tear" between our universe and a parallel antimatter universe, and we all know what happens when matter and antimatter meet. (not good at all!!!) The tear created dire consequences but, spoiler alert (albeit, a 47 year old spoiler alert) ... the crew of the Starship Enterprise saved the universe ... yet again.

July 02, 2014:

A favorite galaxy of mine, M109 resides in the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) and is at a distance of about 84 million light years. At magnitude 10.6 it's also near the limit of what my 120mm telescope can see comfortably. This 4 minute exposure shows the grainy-speckled-background produced by the Canon 60Da DLSR on a very-warm summer night. Astronomy cameras like to be cold and cameras built specifically for astronomy have built in cooling systems that chill the camera's CCD to very cold temperatures to reduce "noise" as much as possible. DSLR's do not have a cooling system but are easy to use and come in handy for other types of daytime and nighttime photography. I will be imaging M109 again in cooler autumn air later this year and hopefully get a better image.

April 28, 2014:

Southern Cross from Costa Rica
My sister Heide, during a January/February trip to Costa Rica, was wondering if the Southern Cross was visible from her location along the Pacific coast. A quick check using Stellarium (a really great "freeware" stellar cartography program) indicated that the Southern Cross, or Crux, was indeed visible in the early morning hours. The next concern, besides having to get up at 3:30am while on vacation, was if her point and shoot camera could manage the task of capturing stars that were fairly close to the horizon. Fortuitiously, the camera had a night setting that enabled a 15 second exposure, long enough to record the iconic southern constellation. A little help from Paint Shop Pro 9 enhanced the brightness and contrast of the stars.

April 15, 2014:

Star Trails and Faint Aurora
Last night's Lunar Eclipse was a cloud-out from here in Greene, NY. (and tax-day besides, a double whammy.) I did not stay up the whole night but glanced out the window several times to assess the sky conditions. The only indication that an eclipse was underway was around 3:30am, when the full-moon-backlit-overcast was noticaeably darker than earlier in the night. I did see one photo of the eclipse posted on SpaceWeather.com from Elmira, NY where a diligent observer took advantage of a lucky break in the clouds. Without any eclipse photos to process, I decided to try a newly downloaded piece of software that can create "star-trail" images from a series of digital photos. In film days, star trails were fun and easy photos to take. Just point the camera at the stars and leave the shutter open for a good long time. Digital photos are usually much shorter in duration to prevent the accumulation of digital "noise" in the image. But Achim Shaller's Star Trails Program does a very good job stitching together multiple images into a star-trail photo much like those made in the good old days using film.

April 03, 2014:

Mars is approaching opposition these early days of April and today, a beautiful spring day in Upstate New York carried over into a clear night with a Pickering Seeing Scale of about 5, i.e. "Fair", or as astronomers in New York call it, "Rare and Excellently-Fantastic Seeing". Shortly after midnight Mars was positioned nicely in the southern sky at an elevation of about 40 degrees. The image shown here was made from a 1900 frame .avi movie. I fussed a bit with the Canon A710is white balance settings, hoping to bring out as much contrast a possible, but only a few surface features are visible. Also, it appears that I managed to image Mars when the most noticeable Martian feature, Syrtis Major, was nowhere to be found. A few wispy cloud patches can be seen, one of which is on the eastern limb and possibly over the giant extinct volcano Olympus Mons. The northern polar ice cap is also visible.

Update April 17th: Mars_17Apr2014 Better seeing allowed for imaging of more surface details. Acidalia Planitia is the dark area just below the northern polar cap and the several dark features along the southern hemisphere include Nereidum Montes and Arabia Terra.

Update April 24th: Mars_24Apr2014 The dark area Syrtis Major stands out in the southern hemisphere of this early evening image. Hellas Planitia, with the lowest elevation on Mars, is the cloud filled basin just below Syrtis Major.

Update May 17th: Mars_17May2014 Mars at opposition was a completely round disk, like a European Football (i.e. soccer ball). But now, several weeks after opposition, Mars has taken on a slight gibbous appearance, like an Aussie Rules football. Mars never has extreme phases like Venus but as Earth scoots around the Sun faster than Mars, at times we can see a thin slice of the night side of the red planet which tends to make it look a bit egg-like in shape.

February 21, 2014:

Horsehead and Flame Nebulae
The faint silhouette Horsehead Nebula resides just north of the brighter and more famous M42, Orion Nebula. The iconic horsehead shape is actually an interstellar dust cloud that blocks a section of red light from the background cloud of glowing hydrogen. But red is good, especially as a target to try out a recently acquired Canon 60Da DSLR. This camera is the same as Canon 60D except that it has has a filter that allows more than the usual amount of red hydrogen light through to the camera's CMOS sensor. Thus, it is marketed as "Astronomy-Friendly". To the right of the Horsehead Nebula is the Flame Nebula, another vast expanse of dust and glowing gases. Better tracking would help this image. Sadly, my Vixen GPD2 mount has yet to provide smooth tracking, even with very good polar alignment. Most of the images I've taken using this mount have star streaks, star skips, or stars with tails. Yet, every few images, it tracks perfectly. Since the mount is long past its warranty I'll be dismantling it to see if there is a discernable problem that can be fixed. In the meantime, I'll be using my nearly 30 year old Vixen Super Polaris mount which, after all these years, still tracks nicely and was the reason I purchased the GPD2. Live and learn.

February 15, 2014:

Snowy Dome
Gray, gray and more gray. Welcome to Upstate NYs lake-effect winter weather. (I once took a picture of my wife x-country skiing near our house and, upon changing the image to greyscale, you could not tell the difference) Yes, winter is cranking along, with the evidence being a foot thick layer of packed snow covering our local landscape. The observatory is also wearing its winter coat, waiting for a little sun and warmth to free up the dome. Real sun and warmth may be a few months away but the late February forecast is calling for a few breaks in winter's icy armor. Hopefully, the observatory will see first light and be up and running by April when Mars is at opposition. In the meantime, we'll keep the snow-blower handy, the woodstove burning, and dream of warm, clear skies.

February 07, 2014:

Jupiter was at opposition early in January and I had been hoping to image the giant planet at that time. But clouds and cold have been the weather story for the past several weeks. This evening provided a break in the clouds even though temperatures are still around 8oF (-14oC). The image here was created from a 1051 frame avi movie, acquired using eyepiece projection (2x Barlow and 7.4mm plossöl) into a Canon A710is attached to a 120mm Sky-Watcher refractor. Registax was used to align and stack the images. Contrast and color were adjusted in Paint Shop Pro 9.

January 03, 2014:

Moon and Venus
  In the western sky, Venus is in a thin crescent phase and getting very low to the horizon. At the same time, almost as a reminder to "go look at Venus", the moon is also in a thin crescent phase about 30 degrees higher in the evening sky. The phases of Venus are themselves a reminder of a significant historical event. In 1610, Galileo was the first to telescopically observe the phases of Earth's sister planet and it was this observation, along with observing that Jupiter had its own orbiting moons, that conclusively displaced the geocentric (Earth centered) model of our solar system with the correct heliocentric (Sun centered) model. In any case, this early 2014 celestial show is a great way to ring in the New Year. The picture shown here was taken through a west facing window of our house, largely because the new year is also beginning with a blast of very cold air which sent evening temperatures below zero Fahrenheit. (i.e. too cold for me to venture outside.)



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