NASA is Back in the Game – A New Era in Space Exploration

Today was a historic day for American spaceflight.  After more than forty years America finally has a launch vehicle to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit.  It’s not as if we’ve wasted our time hanging out in LEO since 1972, we’ve learned some truly amazing things about space as an environment since then.  After the Apollo program ended we built Skylab where humans had their first extended stays in space and began the study of the effect of micro gravity on the human body, animals, and plants.  Skylab led to Mir, the Russian space station, we sent up the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, performed many incredible experiments with the space shuttle, built the International Space Station and much more up until now.  Now we have turned the page on all that we’ve accomplished since Gene Cernan climbed back into the LEM a final time in 1972.  We’re not leaving all those accomplishments behind, we’re simply moving forward, and upward.

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit:  CNN)

Space Launch System (SLS) test flight of the unmanned Orion capsule (Credit: CNN)

Today was the first test flight of the Orion Crew Module (OCM) on board a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  The whole unit together comprises the Space Launch System (SLS).  Today’s test flight was unmanned so instead of astronauts the OCM was packed with sensors to monitor the performance of the capsule’s performance during every second of the 4 hour flight.  The SLS looks very similar to the Apollo-era Saturn V rockets.  While not quite as tall it is certainly more powerful than the rockets that carried Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969.  SLS features three separate booster engines compared to the Saturn V’s three engines in one block.  The goal is more usable fuel to go deeper into space.

No human has left low-Earth orbit in over forty years but today’s test flight took us one step closer to that achievement.  The OCM was blasted 3,600 miles above Earth’s surface.  For reference the Hubble telescope which was at the upper limit of the space shuttle’s range orbits at 347 miles.  At an altitude of 3,600 miles you could see most of the Earth out the window.  The photo below was taken from the OCM and is probably very familiar if you’re old enough to remember the days of the Apollo missions when we first left the Earth behind.  Now four decades removed from those heady days an entire generation has grown up without seeing these kind of images shown on the news.  It’s my hope that as the SLS-Orion program moves forward the American public will rediscover a love for space exploration that its parents and grandparents had which made our country great.

An image we haven't seen live for over 40 years.  (Credit NASA)

An image we haven’t seen live for over 40 years. (Credit NASA)

The seeds of success have been sown by hard work, determination, and talent from all the people who have thus far worked on the SLS-Orion program.  Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13 wrote in his book Lost Moon, “I look up at the moon and wonder when we’ll be going back and who that will be?”  We’ve yet to answer that question but right now we can at least say, “Soon.”

What is an Equinox?

Today is the long-awaited spring, or vernal, equinox for folks in the northern hemisphere.  If you’re one of the 99.9% of people who are sick of winter then this is fantastic news.  In the Mid-Atlantic we’ve had one hell of a winter!  For three months it was just snowstorm after snowstorm and lots, I mean lots, of cloudy skies.  We also had the polar vortex swing by twice dropping temperatures into the single digits with sub-zero wind chills.  I think it’s fair to say that I am not alone in saying “Sayonara winter!”

The beginning of spring is officially today at 16:57 UTC or 12:57 EDT.  Why the exact time?  Well that’s because the changing of the seasons on Earth is indicated by the tilt of our planet.  As you might know the Earth orbits the Sun in a slightly elongated oval-shaped orbit.  Somewhat counter-intuitively it is not our position in our orbit that changes the seasons.  Did you know that Earth’s closest point to the sun actually occurs in early January?  Likewise Earth is furthest from the sun in the summer time.  It is actually how the Earth is angled with respect to the orbital plane that determines what season it is.  As the Earth orbits around the Sun it also spins causing day and night to come and go.  This rotation occurs around the Earth’s axis which is tilted about 23 degrees.  Throughout each year the Earth “wobbles” as it goes around the sun thanks to the inclination of the Earth’s axis.  When the Earth is tilted a certain way in respect to the Sun we call it an equinox.

The tilting of the Earth's axis throughout the year causing the seasons to change.

The tilting of the Earth’s axis throughout the year causing the seasons to change.

Equinox is a Latin term that means “equal night”.  During an equinox day and night are approximately the same length.  When an equinox occurs the plane of the Earth’s equator crosses the center of the Sun so that the Earth is neither tilted away or towards the Sun, causing an equal amount of sunlight to shine on both the southern and northern hemispheres.  As you can see from the incredible video below the day/night line (called a terminator) moves throughout the year if seen from space.  During an equinox the terminator is completely vertical.  In the case of the spring equinox the northern hemisphere has been angled away from the Sun for several months and thus has been receiving less direct sunlight and shorter days.  After the winter solstice during which the northern hemisphere experiences its shortest day the Earth begins to angle itself to point the northern hemisphere back towards the Sun resulting in longer days and more direct sunlight…summer!

This video is really hypnotizing.  What you’re seeing here is quite fantastic.  The video was taken using images from NASA’s Meteosat satellite.  Meteosat is a geosynchronous satellite which means it orbits around the Earth at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation so it always sees the same part of the planet.  As a result the planet never seems to move throughout the year.  In this video courtesy of Astronomy Picture of the Day and NASA, you see an entire Earth year in just twelve seconds!  You notice that the Earth’s terminator swings back and forth.  That is the seasons progressing as the Earth tilts on its axis.  The video begins on an autumnal equinox in September 2010 then the terminator swings over to the right giving the southern hemisphere lots of direct sunlight.  It reaches the solstice then swings back the other way towards the spring equinox when the terminator runs from north pole to south pole before swinging to the left and giving the northern hemisphere more light.  The video ends on the September equinox 2011 completing a full orbit around the Sun and an entire year for the people of Earth.

Because of our busy lives we tend to forget how dependent we are on the celestial mechanics of the solar system for life.  We owe our very existence to the fact that everything in the solar system, indeed the galaxy, moves in predictable orbits.  Thankfully for Earth our solar system is stable but that is not the case elsewhere in the galaxy.  In alien solar systems that we’ve only recently discovered there are planets that are drifting away from their stars and getting colder.  There are also planets that are being drawn inexorably towards their stars to eventually be consumed by them.  Other planets cross orbits too close to one another and are knocked off their orbits never to return to their home solar system.

We are lucky that our solar system has time to work out its kinks before life began on Earth.  If the solar system did not have orbital stability there’s a good chance life might not have arose here.  So be thankful we live on such a marvelous planet in a marvelous solar system!  On this spring equinox 2014 take a moment to think about the science that is behind the changing of the seasons and if the weather is clear tonight (fingers crossed!) go outside and take a look at the night sky and think that everything you see up there obeys the same laws that govern the seasons here on Earth.

The Loss of a Legend

I don’t usually do two posts in one day but there are just some things that must be shared and written about.  Today the astronomy community lost a true legend.  John Dobson, who invented the Alt-Az telescope mount that bears his name, passed away today at the age of 98.

Mr. Dobson leaves behind a long legacy of astronomy outreach dating back to 1967.  He co-founded the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, which exists to popularize amateur astronomy on the streets.  Dobson was dedicated to outreach and sharing his love for astronomy with as many people as possible.  Among his other exploits are amateur telescope making, public speaking, and he has published a book on telescope making.  His influence has literally been felt around the world as his Dobsonian mount revolutionized amateur astronomy.  The Dobsonian mount presented amateurs with a simple, yet elegant design for a telescope that was also low-cost.  His mount allowed for telescopes of all sizes to be inexpensively mounted and maneuvered with one hand.  Although I never met him, Mr. Dobson certainly had a big impact on my life.  My first telescope was a Dobsonian mounted scope.  It made my entry into the hobby buttery smooth and enjoyable.

It’s sad to think of a loss this massive but the best way to move forward is to raise a glass and say “Thanks!”  He will be missed in the astronomy community but he has left us with invaluable contributions.  I can only hope that we can continue the work he began almost 50 years ago and bring the love of astronomy to even more people.


John Dobson, 1915-2014












New Horizons for Solar System Exploration: To Pluto and Beyond

To quote the late sci-fi author Douglas Adams, “Space is big, really big.  You just wouldn’t believe how hugely, vastly, mindbogglingly big space is.  You might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts to space.”  It takes a really long time to traverse the vast distance of even interplanetary space from Earth to Mars.  The recently deceased comet ISON spent the better part of a year travelling between Jupiter to the Sun before its demise in the Sun’s inferno.  Jupiter is roughly 778,000 kilometers from the Sun and Saturn is nearly twice that far away at 1.4 billion kilometers away.  Twice the distance from the Sun to Saturn is Uranus sitting a whopping 2.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  Even further still is icy Neptune, so far away it’s existence was predicted before it was directly observed sits an incredible 4.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  At this point in the solar system the Sun is nothing more than a small point of light almost appearing as just another background star in the Milky Way.  But the orbit of Neptune is just the seashore of the cosmic ocean that is our solar system.  Far beyond the orbit of Neptune lies a huge area known as the Kuiper Belt which is home to an unknown number of tiny icy worlds.  The most well-known of the Kuiper Belt objects (KBO) is the dwarf planet Pluto.  Until 2006 Pluto was recognized as the ninth planet in the solar system but was downgraded to dwarf planet when astronomers began discovering objects in its neighborhood that were both larger and smaller.  Pluto lies a mindbogglingly 5.8 billion kilometers from the Sun.  Together with its large moon Charon, Pluto marks the beginning of unexplored territory in our solar system.  No human spacecraft has ever visited Pluto.  Much of Pluto’s characteristics are unknown to us.  The same goes for all of the KBO’s in Pluto’s neighborhood.

Artists conception of New Horizons probe at Pluto

Artists conception of New Horizons probe at Pluto

NASA is on the verge of changing that.  The New Horizons spacecraft which was launched in January 2006 is just a year away from the beginning of its mission at Pluto.  New Horizons is travelling at about 1 million miles per day as it speeds into uncharted waters so to speak.  Currently approaching the orbit of Neptune, New Horizons is approximately 4 billion kilometers from the Sun.  The probe will arrive at its closest approach of Pluto on July 14, 2015 but the science will begin well before that in January 2015.  New Horizons is equipped with many instruments to help scientists analyze Pluto.  One such instrument is the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) which is essentially a long focal length telescope with a CCD imager to take high resolution images of the Plutonian surface beginning in January 2015.

An Historic Mission

Pluto is part of a vast unexplored trans-Neptune region of the solar system called the Kuiper Belt.  The inhabitants of the Kuiper Belt are thought to be the leftovers of planetary formation when rocky and icy bodies were being flung around the solar system.  These icy worlds didn’t quite form into full-fledged planets but they are worlds nonetheless.  Only five human spacecraft have ever traveled in this cold void before.  New Horizons is the first spacecraft to be sent to directly study a new body since the Voyager probes thirty years ago.  For my generation (milllennials) this is akin to the Apollo 11 moon landing in its scientific value.  I can’t think of any mission that is more important to the understanding of our solar system than New Horizons.

The unknown face of Pluto taken by Hubble.

The unknown face of Pluto taken by Hubble.

The Science

New Horizons will provide scientists with a smorgasbord of priceless data about Pluto and the KBO’s nearby.  Besides LORRI New Horizons is equipped with an ultraviolet spectrometer (ALICE) which will be used to analyze Pluto’s atmosphere, an optical/infrared instrument (RALPH) that will be used to create maps of the surfaces of Pluto and Charon, a particle detection instrument (PEPSSI) used to detect molecules escaping from the atmosphere, a particle instrument (SWAP) to measure the solar wind at Pluto, a radio instrument (REX) to observe the atmosphere and a student created instrument to collect dust particles that have traveled from the inner solar system.  The only thing we know about the surface of Pluto is from Hubble which provide a low resolution map that can only resolve surface features that are hundreds of kilometers in size.

One of the more interesting observations New Horizons will make is the study of Pluto’s atmosphere.  Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined to the ecliptic, the plane all the planets orbit in, and is highly eccentric (oval shaped).  This means that Pluto’s distance from the Sun varies greatly depending on where it is in its orbit.  The vast distance change is thought to cause molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere to condensate and sublimate and be lost to space.  The ALICE, PEPSSI, and REX instruments on New Horizons will measure the constitution of Pluto’s atmosphere and the rate at which it is being lost to space.

Beyond Pluto

Once New Horizons has completed its mission objectives for Pluto and Charon it will move on to studying some nearby KBO’s if any are in the vicinity.  So little is known about the Kuiper Belt and its citizens so any information on these icy worlds is practically invaluable.  The mission is slated to end in 2026 but if the spacecraft is still operational NASA has targeted the edge of the solar system just like with the Voyagers 1 and 2 missions.  Hopefully New Horizons will be able to reach the heliopause (the region where the solar wind from the Sun begins to interact with interstellar particles) and map this boundary point.  With the data from Voyager still inconclusive it is necessary to continue to explore this strange region of space.  The spacecraft is predicted to be inoperable by 2038 signally the end of its lifetime.  By then New Horizons will have contributed a massive volume of science and radically changed the way we view our solar system’s outer reaches.  Who knows what we’ll see when it finally reached Pluto next July?  Besides the data New Horizons provides, the probe is fulfilling our human curiosity and our desire to explore.  Space is the last frontier and there sure is a lot out there!

Geyser Erupts on Europa: Jovian Moon May Have Ice Geysers

Big news came from the Hubble Space Telescope today.  Observations from the famous telescope made in ultraviolet light show a large plume of hydrogen and oxygen spewing from, Jupiter’s moon, Europa’s south polar region.  Europa is one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, known as the Galilean Moons, after their discoverer Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.  The plume is guessed to be water gushing from cracks in the ice that covers the entire surface of Europa.  This is the first observation of geysers on Europa although it has been suspected for some time now.  


Image of Europa with actual Hubble data superimposed on top to show where the plume was observed. Photo by NASA, ESA, and L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany)

Europa is roughly the same size our our moon and is covered with ice.  This has been known for centuries since Galileo discovered the moon in 1610.  Europa is easily visible in binoculars and small telescopes and is extremely bright.  It was correctly guessed that Europa was covered in a layer of ice because it reflects a very high amount of sunlight.  Ice is one of the most reflective materials, about 70% of sunlight is reflected back off the surface.  The spacecraft we have sent to Jupiter such as Voyagers 1 and 2 and the Galileo probe confirmed the existence of an icy surface.  

The surface of Europa is interesting because it doesn’t contain any craters or any marks of impacts like the vast majority of moons in the solar system.  That means that Europa is constantly re-making its surface.  The same way glaciers and tectonic plates reform the surface of Earth, giant cracks along the surface of Europa indicate that the surface is geologically active.  Where there is surface tectonics there should be geological events such as volcanoes or geysers.  That’s what Hubble confirmed today.

The observations from Hubble showed a massive plume of water gushing from the moon’s south polar region.  The plume extends approximately 200 km (125 miles) into space.  Europa has no atmosphere and much less gravity than Earth so the vapor is able to spew well beyond the surface of Europa.  The water from the geyser was blasted from beneath the icy surface at a whopping 700 kilometers per hour (1,500 mph).  That’s three times faster than a commercial jet!  Two questions remain to be answered:  How do we know the geyser is shooting out water and where does that water come from?

A Veritable Waterworld

The existence of water on Europa has actually been known for a long time.  To know how this works we have to know a little bit about Europa’s orbital properties.  Europa orbits Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet.  Jupiter’s gravity is so intense that it actually effects the insides of its closest moons.  Europa’s orbit is slightly elliptical, meaning that it isn’t a perfect circle, an ellipse or oval-shaped orbit.  Most celestial bodies have slightly elliptical orbits but Europa’s is more pronounced.  When Europa is closer to Jupiter the massive gravity of the planet literally squeezes the moon and stretches the rocky core.  This pressure and friction creates heat under the icy surface and has created a subsurface ocean on Europa.  It is guessed that Europa actually contains more water than Earth as Europa’s ocean is global, there are no landmasses.  NASA and the European Space Agency hope to eventually send a probe to Europa to explore this massive subsurface ocean because where water exists the possibility of life also exists.


Artists conception of a cutaway of Europa showing the icy surface, subsurface ocean, and metallic core. Photo by NASA / JPL

The Giant Plume

We’ve answered where the water comes from, but how are scientists sure it is indeed water that was spewed from the surface and how does such a tiny moon have geysers that powerful?  Hubble doesn’t just do visible light observations.  The telescope is also equipped with a camera that can image in ultraviolet light.  The actual images taken by Hubble don’t show what we think of as a geyser like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.  What Hubble observed was actually individual hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the plume.  Since Europa has no atmosphere the hydrogen and oxygen atoms were in space.  Jupiter, like Earth, generates an magnetic field in its solid metal core.  When the water from the geyser interacts with the electrons from Jupiter the water separates into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms which glow in ultraviolet light.  That’s the best possible explanation for why Hubble observed these two individual atoms.

But where did the geyser come from?  Well as we saw earlier about Europa’s elliptical orbit, the moon is closer at some points and further away at others.  As Europa moves closer to Jupiter it is squeezed and crunched by Jupiter’s immense gravity.  Then as Europa moves further away from Jupiter cracks in the ice open up and allow the subsurface water to rise up and spew out.  As it so happens, Hubble recorded these observations while Europa was moving away from Jupiter so it makes sense that the cracks in the icy surface were opened up.

Teeming With Life?

The prospect of life swimming in Europa’s ocean has long been intriguing.  The discovery of geysers on Europa make the question even more worth exploring.  As we see from geysers on Earth, a lot of power in needed to blast material out from under the surface.  On Earth this comes from heat and pressure that builds up beneath cracks in the Earth’s crust.  When the heat and pressure becomes too great water and gases burst forth in a steaming awesome display of geological activity.  

One of the theories of how life began involves water and heat in the prehistoric oceans of Earth.  Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor mix heat and amino acids to create the first organic materials.  To this day life thrives around hydrothermal vents despite the extremely alien conditions.  We know there is heat in Europa’s oceans due to the gravitational heating of the core from Jupiter and there’s water which is a universal solvent.  Could the mixing of amino acids, water, and heat have occurred on Europa as well?  The prospect is certainly intriguing and worthy of further exploration.  Curiosity is one of humanity’s definite traits so hopefully in a decade or two we will have a spacecraft on its way to Europa to explore the subsurface ocean and attempt to find evidence of life.  Imagine fish (or something totally alien) swimming around on the moon of a distant planet!  How that would change our views of life and its frequency throughout our galaxy! 

Some Astrophotography for Your Long Wait

It’s crazy how easy it is to get distracted from writing.  All it takes is one day to go by without writing, then you go a week without writing.  A week turns int two weeks, which becomes a month.  Before you know it you haven’t posted anything on your blog since August!  I’ve done many things worthy of writing about since August including trying my hand at astrophotography for the first time, attended to two star parties, almost been killed by someone spotlighting deer while observing in southern Maryland, and failed to observe comet ISON several times before its unfortunate demise on Thanksgiving.  There has also been loads of astronomy news since my last post as well.

I’m mad at myself for slacking off so much over the last five plus months but I’m back and better than before!  To make up for the absence of posts since the summer I will share with you all the (best) astrophotos I managed to take during the summer.  Back in July I borrowed 80mm refractor telescope and an German equatorial mount from my astronomy club to assist with a star party I was planning on hosting for my friends.  The star party never worked out due to weather and other factors but I got to try my hand at proper astrophotography for the first time.  I had absolutely no prior experience using an EQ mount so this was all very new to me.  The key part of deep sky photography is aligning the mount with the celestial north pole, or CNP.  Since long exposures are needed to collect the light from faint deep sky objects, what you’re imaging moves across the sky while your camera’s shutter is open.  To compensate for the Earth’s rotation and keep the stars “still” in your telescope the mount you’re using has to be aligned with the celestial north pole, or the Earth’s polar axis.  For people in the northern hemisphere the CNP is about 3/4 of a degree away from the star Polaris in Ursa Minor.  That’s why Polaris is known as the North Star, or the Pole Star.  Everything else in the sky appears to rotate clockwise around Polaris.

I was never good at polar aligning the mount so that severely limited what I was able to image.  I was stuck with exposures of 30-40 seconds.  Nevertheless, that’s still good enough for a couple familiar objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula, and the Dumbbell Nebula.  I had assistance from the Reddit community of astrophotographers.  Their collective knowledge and wisdom was invaluable in my novice attempts to photography things many light years away.

The first object I imaged was the Andromeda Galaxy.  Known by astronomers as Messier 31, on Charles Messier’s famous list of faux comets.  M31 is best known as the Milky Way’s twin galaxy.  The galaxy has roughly the same mass as the Milky Way but is 2.5 million light years away.  Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and is so bright it can be seen with the naked eye from darker skies.  A small telescope reveals a giant bright and elongated fuzzy patch.  Larger telescopes under dark skies may even reveal dust lanes on the north side of the galaxy.  I chose M31 as my first target because of its brightness which would require shorter exposures.

Once the mount as telescope was set up and the mount polar aligned (as best I could do) I attached my camera to the focuser and began shooting away.  The image below is a stack of 30 :40 images.  I used Deep Sky Stacker to combine the images and Photoshop to process it.  I did a poor job of framing the image so the bottom part of the galaxy is cut off.  I hope to revisit M31 later on and do a better job.  There are actually three different galaxies visible in the image!  The obvious one is M31 but fuzzy oval located top left of M31 is another galaxy called M110 and at bottom right is M32.  Both are elliptical galaxies, meaning they have no spiral structure, and are satellite galaxies of M31.  They are both gravitationally bound to M31 and are, like M31, part of the Local Group of galaxies.  These three galaxies are all next-door neighbors to the Milky Way.

Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy

Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy

The next object I imaged was M27, known as the Dumbbell Nebula.  The Dumbbell Nebula is what astronomers call a planetary nebula.  They actually have nothing to do with planets despite their name.  A planetary nebula is what happens to massive stars right before they die.  As the star ages it begins to shed its layers of gas as the nuclear fission in its core slows down.  Our own sun will eventually do this as it begins the final stage of its life.  M27 is the most well-known and studied planetary nebulae because of its brightness and close distance to Earth.  For this target I used the same exposure settings, 30×40 sec and stacked in DSS.

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula imaged from Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula imaged from Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania

One final image I’ll share is perhaps my favorite, for two reasons.  One because of its aesthetic beauty and because of its difficulty to process in Photoshop.  You’ll no doubt recognize the Great Orion Nebula.  This giant cloud of gas and dust is where stars are formed.  In fact, the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged many newborn stars within the nebula over the past twenty years.  Known as Messier 42, the Orion Nebula is visible to the naked eye even in light polluted skies.  The nebula is located in the sword of Orion that hangs from the Hunter’s belt.  The nebula itself appears as the middle star is the sword but closer inspection with binoculars reveals something more than a star, but a bright greyish glow which is actually the nebula.

M42 is probably the most well-known deep sky object.

M42 is probably the most well-known deep sky object.

Just like as in the M31 image, there are actually three separate nebulae present in this image.  The largest, and brightest is M42, an emissions nebula and its intricate knots of gas and dust in brilliant colors.  Next to it is M43, also an emission nebula like M42.  Emission nebula are named as such because they emit their own light from ionized gas that glows in an array of colors.  The third nebula is the one in the upper left of the image.  It is called NGC 1977, or the “Running Man Nebula.”  NGC 1977 is what is called a reflection nebula, meaning the gas and dust doesn’t emit any light of its own, but rather reflects the light of stars inside or around the nebula.  See if you can notice the running man pattern.

All these images were taken with a Nikon D3100 with a SkyWatcher ED80 refractor mounted on an Orion SkyView Pro EQ mount.  The mount and scope were borrowed from the Harford County Astronomical Society (HCAS).  My thanks to the club!  Check out their website at

That’s it for now.  I hope to be able to share more deep sky objects in the future.  Until then clear skies and keep looking up!


The Darker Side of Light

After a few months of inactivity I’ve developed an idea that will keep me busy blogging.  It’s been cloudy for so much of the summer so I haven’t been able to do much observing.  My attention, therefore, has turned to other activities related to astronomy that I can pursue when the weather is not ideal for observing.  If you’ve read any of my previous articles on this site you’ve probably read about light pollution.  Maybe you’ve heard of it elsewhere or perhaps you’ve never even considered the possibility of light being a pollutant.  While electric lighting is a marvel of the industrial age and a wonderful aide to modern life it also, like many good things, has a darker side.

From the beginning of life on Earth approximately 4 billion years ago all of Earth’s creature, including humans, have lived in an unending cycle of light and dark.  Bright sun-drenched days give way to the darkness of night and the majesty of a star-strewn sky with its backbone the Milky Way arching across from horizon to horizon.  Life has evolved according to that cycle and it has flourished.  It wasn’t until just over 100 years ago that we began introducing large quantities of artificial light into the environment.  This artificial light disrupts the light-dark cycle (also known as the circadian clock) that life has depended on for billions of years.  It has endangered species like insects, turtle, hundreds of species of birds, and all manner of nocturnal creatures.  Artificial light is also a known contributor to many human diseases such as obesity, insomnia, diabetes, and hormonal cancers.  Besides the biological effects of artificial light, it is also a massive waste of energy.  Every year in the United States alone, poorly designed or over-used light that shines up into the sky wastes $2.2 billion!

Last, but certainly not least, artificial light has destroyed the night sky that humans have loved for thousands of years.  When the lights from un-shielded fixtures shine up into the sky the light scatters when it hits particles in the air.  The result is called skyglow.  You can clearly see the effects of skyglow when you look towards a city or town at night from a distance.  The yellow, orange, or pink glow in the sky is the sum of all the light from all the street lights, parking lot lights, stadium lights, residential lights, etc…and their light scattered in the air.  The dome of light obliterates all but the brightest stars and the Milky Way is a thing of the past.  Depending on the size of the city, skyglow is noticeable from as far as 100 miles away as a dome on the horizon.

Light pollution has severe negative consequences on my pursuit of my hobby of astronomy as I have to drive considerably far from my home to view under dark enough skies.  I currently drive 33 miles from my home in north Baltimore to reach my observing site in Fawn Grove, PA and even there the effects of light pollution are quite pronounced and the Milky Way is barely visible on clear, moonless nights.  To reach a location almost totally unaffected by light pollution I’d have to drive five hours north to Cherry Springs State Park near Coudersport, PA.

What I’ve decided to do over the next couple months (or however long it takes) is to compile a photo essay of sorts that chronicles the effects of light pollution throughout the Maryland and Pennsylvania area.  My goal is to photograph constellations, horizons, skylines, and light fixtures everywhere to make known to my readers the harmful effects light pollution has on the night sky and astronomy.  I will visit many locations throughout Maryland from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, to a swamp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, to rural York County, PA,  an international dark sky park, and many places in between.  I hope that this project will open some eyes and convince people of the reality of light pollution and the truth that it is something that we CAN fix.

In the United States today, eight out of ten people will never see the Milky Way in their lifetime because of light pollution.  It doesn’t have to be that way though.  Through public education and teamwork with local governments we can reverse the harmful effects of light pollution and preserve the night sky and its splendor for future generations.

Great Weekend of Astrophotography

Memorial Day weekend was very productive for me.  A couple weeks ago I purchased my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D3100 and I’ve been itching to start photographing the night sky.  My first big target was the planetary alignment of Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury over the weekend which did not disappoint.  I was able to shoot the planets on both Saturday and Sunday nights under perfectly clear skies.  This was a relatively easy target for my first foray into the world of astrophotography.

On Saturday night I took my camera and tripod up to my dark sky site in Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania.  I arrived around 8:30 just as the sun was setting.  While darkness was gathering I set up the camera and punched in the initial settings and waited for Jupiter to appear.  Venus was already brilliant approximately ten degrees above the horizon by 8:45.  Jupiter appeared minutes later, followed by Mercury visible to the naked eye around 9:00.  I played with the aperture and shutter speed until I captured an image I really liked.  I ended up with a focal ratio of f/8 and a 1.6 second exposure at ISO 100.  The final result once I played with it in Photoshop was very nice, as far as my inexperienced self is concerned.  That’s Venus at the bottom of the triangle, Jupiter at upper left, and tiny Mercury at upper right.

The final result from Saturday's images

The final result from Saturday’s images

This was just practice for Sunday of course.  Sunday’s alignment was the one that captured everyone’s attention.  The almost equilateral triangle of planets is something you won’t easily forget if you saw it for yourself.  If you missed it you’re in luck because photographers all over the world captured the stunning alignment.  I’m relatively happy with how mine came out.  The only drawback is that the planets are slightly out of focus.  I should have been paying closer attention to that.  However, them being out of focus kind of allowed more color to come out, especially in Mercury.  I worked with the same camera settings as Saturday night.  After some adjustments in Photoshop this was my final result.

I took one in landscape

I took one in landscape

And one in portrait

And one in portrait

After the planetary imaging session I was feeling lucky so I tried my hand at some wide-angle constellation shots.  I turned the camera towards Ursa Major and took 200×10″ frames and went to stack them in Deep Sky Stacker only to find that my images were out of focus and DSS couldn’t recognize any stars.  Not so lucky I guess.  I was determined to get it right so I went back outside around 11:30 and decided to shoot the constellation Lyra and it’s bright star Vega.  This time I took 200×1.6″ frames at f/4, ISO 3200 and went in to stack them in DSS.  The result was much, much better.  About 2 hours later I had a decent image with which to work with.  I gave it several editing passes in Photoshop before I produced an image I was happy with.  Not only are all five of Lyra’s main stars visible, the double star Epsilon Lyrae showed up which really made me proud.  This is my first constellation shot so I guess it’s the small things that bring me joy.

The final result of my Lyra shot.  Quite satisfied with it.

The final result of my Lyra shot. Quite satisfied with it.

Overall, it was a very productive weekend.  I learned a lot about how important it is to really nail the focus before shooting anything.  Trial and error is how you improve in this hobby.  I’m hoping to get a few more practice shots under my belt before taking the camera up to Cherry Springs State Park in a week and a half to shoot under a real dark sky.  As I produce more images I will post them here so I hope you stick around and if you have any suggestions or critiques to help improve my technique I’d gladly appreciate it.



First Attempt at Planetary Imaging

I think it’s a safe assumption to say that whenever anyone gets into astronomy their greatest desire is to be able to take pictures of what they observe.  The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly true of astrophotography.  There is certainly a great joy in observing the universe with your own eyes at the eyepiece and that should unequivocally be any amateur’s first love.  Given the mass-availability of photography equipment and astro-imaging software and techniques it is no surprise that astrophotography has risen to such popularity in the 21st century.  All someone has to do is watch a couple of tutorial videos on YouTube and you have a pretty good sense of what equipment and software you need and it’s easy to practice the techniques employed by more experienced photographers.

I’ve decided to jump on the astrophotography train myself.  Mind you, I don’t own a fancy equatorial mount for my telescope or even a DSLR camera for that matter so I have to try a slightly different method to get images.  By far the best and easiest way to do astrophotography with a Dobsonian mounted telescope is with a webcam.  This method is really only useful for planets, the moon, and sun given that images of deep-sky objects requires long exposures that would produce star trails if not tracked.  However, it was extremely rewarding producing my first planetary image.

I’m not going to go into detail on how I captured my images because that would just be an incredibly long post.  Instead, I just want to share the equipment and software I used to give you a sense of how easy (and inexpensive) it is.

My telescope is an Orion XT10i Dobsonian which already provides very nice planetary images in the eyepiece.  Images are always sharp and bright when in focus.  For this experiment I purchased a Microsoft HD Lifecam from my nearby Staples office supply store.  I went with the Lifecam because it has a body that is perfectly designed to fit inside any 1.25″ focuser tube.  The Lifecam can also shoot 1280×720 720video at 30 fps (after some tinkering) which is something special for a webcam.  I followed the instructions provided by Gary Honis, who is the authority on all things webcam photography related, on his website, found here.  I didn’t use the 1.25″ barrel extenders like he did, rather I used a film canister.  The film canister seems to work just fine and it fits snugly into the focuser.

To capture the video I downloaded a piece of software called AMCap which is freeware video capture.  It’s available for a free download but a donation is asked for, but not required.  Also, a jpeg video codec is needed to capture the raw video in .avi format.  Any jpeg codec you can find will probably work but Gary recommends a particular one on his software tests page.  Finally, I used Registax 6 to stack the images from the raw .avi video and touched it up a bit in Photoshop CS6 an voila!  a nice, crisp, clean image of Saturn.

This method is very easy to do for anyone without a tracking mount and what’s best is that it only cost me $35 plus shipping and handling.  If you have a Dobsonian telescope this method is definitely for you.

Here's a screen shot from the Lifecam's raw avi.  Not much detail is apparent and it's quite blurry

Here’s a screen shot from the Lifecam’s raw avi. Not much detail is apparent and it’s quite blurry

Here's the final result after Registax and Photoshop.  Notice the cloud bands and slight detail in the Cassini Division

Here’s the final result after Registax and Photoshop. Notice the cloud bands and slight detail in the Cassini Division




Our Fragile Island Home – Earth Day 2013

I’ve always been a conservationist and an eco-minded person since my days in Boy Scouts.  We learned that nature is should be respected and cared for and as much as possible we should live in harmony with our surroundings.  However, when you’re able to see pictures of the Earth from space your whole perspective changes.  I’m sure most people are familiar with the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968.  “Earthrise” gave a whole new perspective of our home planet and gave realization to the fact that our planet is just a fragile little island floating in an unimaginably huge universe.  Imagine being in the position of Anders or any of the Apollo astronauts as they saw the Earth rise over the lunar surface and realized that everything they’ve ever experienced, everyone they’ve ever known, all their prior life was 250,000 miles away on that small blue rock.

Apollo 8 "Earthrise" photo taken December 24, 1968

Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo taken December 24, 1968

Few people have had the privilege to see the Earth from space, whether from low orbit or during a lunar mission but we’ve been able to vicariously experience it through the photos and films they’ve brought back that  have left us stunned.  One such striking video was recently compiled by NASA’s MESSENGER probe as it left the Earth on its way to Mercury.  The probe had a camera pointed back towards the Earth as it left it behind and the stitched together frames produced in image of stunning beauty and inspiration.  As the Earth slowly fades away into the blackness of space we realize our true place in the universe.  We are but minnows swimming in a vast, vast ocean.  

Even with the potential of planetary travel and colonization in the distant future we must still place immeasurable value on our home planet.  The Earth has been so good to us for millions of years and will continue to do such if we take proper care of it.  As a whole, the human race is awakening from a slumber of environmental torment.  From the mid-to-late 1800’s and the dawn of industrialism we have polluted the planet to a sickening degree.  We’ve deforested much of the rain forests and polluted the water we drink and the air we breathe.  For over a century we were largely oblivious to the damage we were doing to our fragile environment.  But now we’re waking up to the consequences of our actions.  It is not too late to reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet because she is a resilient creature.  But that should not give us a license to continue to damage her and squander the beauty and riches of our island home.

Even if we travel to hundreds of planets in the future we may never find one quite like Earth (if we find any like it at all).  We were placed here on Earth by divine decree and it is that same decree that should guide our actions going forward to restore and protect our pale blue dot, our fragile island home because it’s all we have.


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