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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 http://www.harfordastro.org.

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.

2012 Black Forest Star Party

Some weekends are good, some are bad.  Some weekends are memorable, some are forgettable.  This past weekend was definitely one that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.  My dad and I attended the Black Forest Star Party at Cherry Springs State Park this past weekend and it was incredible!  Living my entire life under the heavily light polluted skies of the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area has severely limited my ability to get to a dark sky, and when I say dark I really mean just dark enough that a trace amount of the Milky Way is visible directly overhead.  I have to drive about 30 miles from my home in the suburbs in northeastern Baltimore County to reach my dark sky site where I do my observing and even then, there are still significant light pollution domes on the horizon that can extend up to 10 or 15°.  It’s not very inspiring to see Sagittarius and the galactic core sink into a haze of bright blue and grey during your observing session but it’s the best I’ve got around home.

Cherry Springs, on the other hand, is simply magnificent!  It is located in the middle of a massive state forest in Potter County, PA.  There is literally nothing in any direction for at least 20 miles.  There is hardly any light pollution evident and only towards the north that extends but a few degrees above the horizon.  The starlight is crystal clear with the altitude close to 2,5oo feet and less atmospheric turbulence.  Then there’s the Milky Way!  The central spiral containing the galactic core extends in milky white beauty up from the horizon in the south-southwest after sunset all the way across to Cassiopeia and almost down to Perseus and Auriga.  I’ve never in my life seen a sky so beautiful before!  It’s truly amazing that for thousands of years of human history that sight was an every night occurrence and now in the last 150 years we’ve almost completely lost it!  It really makes me much more appreciative of the work the International Dark Sky Association does to preserve the night sky and it makes me more proud to support their mission as well.

As for the Black Forest Star Party itself, it was a great time.  My dad and I arrived late Friday afternoon and hundreds of other amateur astronomers were already there set up with their telescopes and cars and in some cases, RVs and clam shell observatories.  The astronomy field was absolutely packed as you can see from the photos I took.  This was my first star party so I expected to get a case of telescope envy and sure enough, I did!  The first scope that caught my attention was a 25″ Obsession dob…freaking sweet!  We began setting up the tent under increasing cloud cover and by the time we had gotten everything set up the rain started.  At that point we were totally bummed that the night was a complete wash out so we got in the tent and did some reading before going to bed around 9pm.  I was woken by my dad at around 10:30 to him whispering “Come out and look at the sky!”  I mumbled back to him, “The clouds are gone?” and I poked my head out of the tent entrance and…WOW!  Our tent was facing southwest and looking directly at the Sagittarius-Scorpius border with the Milky Way exactly perpendicular to the horizon.  If my jaw could have dropped, it would have fallen straight to the ground.  “Alright, let’s get the scope out” were my next words and we spent the next 2 – 2 1/2 hours observing the pristine skyscape.  We viewed many of the Messier objects visible in Sagittarius and Lyra, along with M31, the Andromeda galaxy which was an absolutely stunning view!  The Veil Nebula was an amazing sight as well, even without a filter.  We also observed the Dumbbell and Ring nebulae.  Many globular clusters were great views also in the 35mm Panoptic.  We finished the night with M45, the Pleiades and Jupiter in my 6mm Radian but the seeing was pretty bad.  We both went to bed feeling extremely satisfied with the night even though it started off so terribly with clouds and rain.

Saturday morning was freezing cold.  We cooked eggs and pancakes for breakfast and at noon headed off to the first of the lectures on magnetars and pulsars.  The second session was pretty interesting.  The Penn State team competing for the Google Lunar X Prize team leader talked about the competition and the search for life in the solar system.  Lunch followed, then I planned out what we were going to look at that night (I decided to go with a bit of a Messier Marathon, M2-34).  At 5pm was the keynote speaker, Dr. Heidi Hammel, the Executive Vice President of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and interdisciplinary scientist working on the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor.  Dr. Hammel was speaking about JWST and all of its capabilities as NASA’s next great observatory.  I very much enjoyed her lecture and I’m all the more excited for JWST’s launch in 2018.  The raffle for the door prizes was next but we can skip that part because I didn’t win anything 😦

All that was left was to have dinner and get prepared for another glorious night of observing, and it was going to be glorious because the clouds that ruled the day had cleared out completely by the end of the raffle.  The first stars, Vega, Deneb, and Altair began to appear to form the Summer Triangle near the zenith about 20 minutes after sunset, followed by an ever-brightening Milky Way. We did our mini Messier marathon which included objects such as the Lagoon Nebula (which my dad spotted with our binoculars), M13, the Hercules globular cluster, Andromeda again, the Wild Duck cluster, and much more.  Again, we ended the night by observing Jupiter which was much higher in the sky than Friday night and the view through the Radian was spectacular!  The amount of detail on the cloud bands blew me away and we got to watch Io transit Jupiter for a little while before we decided it was too cold and we were too tired to go on any further.  All in all, I’d have to say that both nights were absolutely inspiring!

Guy next to us (left) showing off his homemade “Ferrari” scope to Dr. Michael Paul, leader of Penn State’s Google Lunar X Prize

The other awesome part about the weekend was getting to see all the different (and expensive) telescopes other people brought.  I mentioned the 25″ Obsession that was near us, but by far the coolest one was right next to us.  The guy two spots over had the most amazing telescope of them all.  It was a homemade truss tube dobsonian scope made from machined aluminum.  He had fabricated and cut all the aluminum parts from the base, to the pivoting cradle, to the truss tubes, and the secondary mirror ring and painted them red.  To top it off he had a Ferrari name plate on the base because his son is a huge Ferrari fan.  That little addition was absolutely fricking sweet!  He also had a partial light shroud with the Ferrari logo on it.  By his estimate, he had spent roughly 200 hours designing and building his scope and had just finished it the week before the star party!  The quality of the design and all the parts seemed incredible for a homemade scope.  My only regret from the weekend is that I didn’t get more pictures of it or a chance to observe with it as he left Saturday evening.  The only picture I got of the scope was of him showing it off to Dr. Michael Paul, the Penn State X Prize team leader (who seemed really impressed by it).

I’m extremely glad I got to go to the Black Forest Star Party this year and I will definitely go again next year, hopefully before then as well.  If you’re reading this and you’ve never been, get your rear end up there before it gets too freezing cold!  Even if you don’t have a telescope or binoculars you can spend an entire night just staring at the beauty of a truly dark sky.  Cherry Springs State Park is dedicated astronomy park and is specially outfitted for the study of astronomy both professionally and for amateurs.  It is also only the second International Dark Sky Park in the entire world and is given a gold rating which is the highest level of quality of sky.  The upkeep and improvement of Cherry Springs’ astronomy program is funded by the Dark Sky Fund.  If you’ve enjoyed the benefits of CSSP in the past please consider donating to the fund to keep the park one of the best in the world.

I would highly recommend CSSP and the BFSP to anybody interested in astronomy.  Whatever your experience is, this is the place for you to be!  The Black Forest Star Party will go down as one of the coolest and most memorable night of my life so far and I can’t wait to go back!  For more pictures of the weekend (including some sub-par images of the sky) visit my album on Imgur.com.

Tour de Universe

 

If you’ve ever heard someone tell you that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on all the Earth’s oceans you were probably shocked and potentially skeptical.  However, according to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s most recent mapping of the universe you’ve likely vastly under-estimated the universe!  The results of the recently updated Sloan Digital Sky Survey III (SDSS III) have mapped 200 million galaxies using data that stretches back all the way to 2001.  Now think about that for a moment.  200 million galaxies, each of them averaging around 200 million stars which is considered normal for a barred spiral galaxy such as our own.  There are some truly titanic galaxies out there, irregular in shape, that can host up to 10 trillion stars!  Let’s just use the average number for this illustration.  So just in the small patch of sky in SDSS III, which covers about 8.5% of the entire universe, there are 200 million galaxies containing 200 million stars each.  In our small patch of universe there are roughly 4 x10^18, or 4,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.  That’s 4 quintillian stars just in a small 8.5% patch of sky!  Estimates of the number of stars in the entire universe range up to 10 sextillion to 1 septillion!

If you’re like me, that’s probably far too large of a number for my brain to do anything with.  Don’t worry, the folks over at SDSS have been kind enough to produce a video of a journey through the universe.  This video give you a sense for how truly massive and complex the universe is.  As Douglass Adams put it, “Space is big.  You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the drug store, but that’s just peanuts to space.”  Despite its overwhelming hugeness, the universe has a definite order to it.  All objects in the universe are governed by gravity which is the attractive force that exists between two objects that when balanced by motion creates orbits.  All objects in the universe orbit something.  The moon orbits Earth.  The Earth orbits the sun.  The sun orbits the galactic center.  Gravity binds multiple galaxies together to create local groups.  Several local groups are gravitationally bound to create superclusters.  The universe is full of clusters and superclusters of galaxies.  The entire universe can be seen as an almost infinitely large road map of galaxies.  Galaxies and clusters of galaxies are attracted to each other to form strings, or “highways” and all these strings of galaxies connect with each other.

All my talking is probably not giving you a very clear image of what I’m trying to communicate.  I don’t think words can adequately express the magnitude of size and wonder of the universe so just watch this video that I mentioned earlier.  If you’re in the spaceship traversing the universe in the video you’re travelling faster than the speed of light and every point of light is an entire galaxy!  At this speed you could travel across the Milky Way in about a couple milliseconds!  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the awesome object we call, The Universe!

 

Portrait of the Galaxy

I stumbled across this REALLY cool picture on Friday and I want to make sure as many people see it as possible because it’s so cool!  A group of UK astronomers just recently compiling ten years worth of data and observations from two different telescopes to form a panoramic view of the Milk Way.  The panoramic is shot in the infrared wavelength which allows us to see past the dust that clouds much of the galaxy to reveal the detail of billions of stars!  If you want to be amazed for several hours check out the interactive version that lets you zoom in and out!

The Milky Way edge-on in infrared Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV

The data used to create this stunning portrait used two telescopes and ten years worth of observations.  The UK Infrafed Telescope compiled the data for the right side and the Vista telescope in Chile gathered the data for the left side and the galactic center.  You can use the interactive version to find many deep sky objects like globular and open clusters as well as nebulae.  The dark patches represent areas for which data has not yet been collected.  You can read the original BBC article at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17539315.  Here’s to many happy hours of intrigue!

 

 

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