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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.

 

 

2012 In Review

Twenty-twelve was a fascinating year for myself, astronomy, and science.  There were many scientific milestones reached and important events during the last twelve months, most notably, the we survived the bedlam that was the Mayan apocalypse.  I thought I’d take some time to compile the best moments from 2012 in astronomy and space science and look ahead to 2013 hi-lighting the known astronomical events coming up.

First on the list is the impressive conjunction of Venus and Jupiter from March 15th.  On the date famous for the murder of Julius Caesar we were treated to two Roman gods forming a conspiracy of their own in the sky.  Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the solar system respectively, passed extremely close to each other (from Earth’s perspective), just 3 degrees apart.

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France.  Credit:  Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus and Jupiter conjunction on 3/15/12 seen from France. Credit: Laurent Lavender TWAN

Venus-Jupiter conjunctions are fairly common, occurring roughly every two years.  The next conjunction will be on May 28, 2013 and will be even more eye-catching when the two planets pass just one degree from one another.  Even more spectacular will be the conjunction in 2014 when the two pass only one-fourth of a degree from each other!  To put that in perspective, the width of the full moon is about one-half a degree in apparent size, so the 2014 conjunction will place the planets half a moon width apart!  I hate to build you up for these two conjunctions though, because neither will be visible from the Northern hemisphere.  If you can wait 53 years, until 2065, you’ll get to see the best of all planetary conjunctions:  a transit, when Venus passes in front of Jupiter in its orbit.  I may be alive but I’ll be quite an old man by then.

The next highlight from 2012 is something, if you saw it, you’ll likely never forget…the transit of Venus.  While my own luck observing the transit was less than optimal, I did get to view it briefly and it was amazing.  On June 5th, 2012 Venus transited, or passed in front of the sun appearing as a small black disk silhouetted against the fiery inferno of the sun.  There were some truly remarkable pictures of the transit taken by professionals and amateurs alike.  What made this event so special was the rarity of it and its historical and scientific significance in past centuries.  A transit of Venus takes place in pairs every 121 years then 105 years to form a cycle of 243 years.  Venus crosses in front of the sun once a year in its orbit but it’s only during these cycle years that it can actually be seen from Earth due to the two planets orbits being slightly inclined.

Venus transits have been historically significant to the world of science for centuries.  The first transit to be observed with a telescope was in 1639.  British scientist Jeremiah Horrocks used the transit that year to make a much more accurate calculation of the Earth’s distance from the sun using angles of parallax and geometry.  The 1769 transit was led to the discovery of an atmosphere on Venus.  Legendary explorer Captain James Cook observed the transit that same year in Tahiti at the still named “Point of Venus”.

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light  Credit:  NASA SDO

2012 Venus Transit in extreme ultraviolet light Credit: NASA SDO

The next event on the list is the occultation of the moon and Jupiter on July 15th, 2012.  Only observers in Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa were able to view this majestic event but the images produced from it were spectacular.

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit:  AstroZ1 on Flickr

Series of images from the Jupiter-Moon occultation from Lebanon Credit: AstroZ1 on Flickr

The next event on my list is the one that I was looking forward to the most.  Curiosity.  I had been eagerly anticipating Curiosity’s landing on Mars for over a year and on August 5th it finally happened.  Due mostly to the unprecedented entry, landing, and descent plan Curiosity was intriguing from the word Go!  The sky crane and powered descent was daring and risky but it proved a massive success for NASA.  Not to mention the fact that Curiosity is the most scientifically advanced planetary rover yet.  The rover is practically a fully functioning mobile chemistry laboratory.  Within days of its landing Curiosity sent back some of the most stunning and detailed images of the Martian surface we’ve ever seen.

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity  Credit:  NASA/JPL

Panorama of rocky Martian landscape from Curiosity Credit: NASA/JPL

The final two events on my list of memorable astronomical events of 2012 both happened in the month of December.  First off is the mighty Geminid meteor shower of three weeks ago.  The peak of the shower combined with a new moon allowed for some excellent viewing.  The expected rate was all the way up to 120 per hour!  I went out for about one hour between 10:30 and 11:30 under moderately light polluted skies and was able to count 55 meteors.  I was quite impressed with the shower which included several fireball meteors with long, smokey trails.

Splendid Geminid fireball  Credit:  Patrick Cullis

Splendid Geminid fireball Credit: Patrick Cullis

I suppose the last event can’t really be confined to the month of December 2012.  It actually spans over a length of several years but it came to a conclusion just a couple days ago.  Of course I’m talking about the apocalypse!  You might have called it Judgment Day, the Rapture, or simply the winter solstice, but there was an inordinate amount of hype surrounding the long-dreaded end of the Maya calendar.  This event in particular is in reference to the way people with degrees in physics, astronomy, geology, cosmology, ontology, biology, paleontology, gynecology, urology, you name it, refuted the claims of doomsday made by people who are less intelligent.  Two people/organizations come to mind when I think of leading the fight against stupidity:  NASA and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Turns out people were actually believing the convoluted claims of doomsday 2012 and the world was indeed in danger…from stupidity.  So hats off to you NDT and NASA for saving the world!

Earth's next great hero:  Neil deGrasse Tyson

Earth’s next great hero: Neil deGrasse Tyson

So that wraps up my 2012 rewind.  This past year has truly been remarkable for astronomy and science.  2013 promises to be just as exciting.  Stay tuned over the next day or two as I’ll preview the two excellent comets coming up in the next year.

Brace Yourself, The Venus Transit is Coming!

Yes that’s right!  A little over 24 hours remain until the most spectacular astronomical event of the year!  However, make sure you check the weather forecast for your area before venturing out to watch the transit.  The entire east coast and much of the southeast of the USA could be blanketed by showers and overcast skies most of the day tomorrow.  If you’ve been building up your excitement for the past several months like I have, start to release that excitement because there is a strong possibility that as much as 75 percent of the country won’t be able to see the transit due to bad weather.  Even though the transit is over 24 hours away, as I watch the grey clouds roll in I’m beginning to get that deflating feeling like I had a Venus-sized balloon of excitement for the transit and now someone is rapidly letting all the air out of that balloon.

Rain or shine I’m going to be watching the weather minute by minute to find out what’s going on.  Don’t abandon your plans quite yet.  You really never know with the weather.  There may be a break in the clouds long enough to watch the ingress of the planet.  Regardless, I tested my homemade solar filter yesterday morning and I must say that it works to perfection!  I opted to make one myself instead of buying an expensive one from a vendor.  I used the visual density Baader Solar film from Astro-Physics and constructed a housing for it.

 

DIY solar filter success

The resulting image was spectacular!  Even though it was hard to get a full image of the sun on my phone’s camera I could still see it perfectly through the 25mm eyepiece.  I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the aperture is now offset and a lot smaller than the normal aperture.  A great deal of detail could be seen on the sun such as sunspots 1497, 1496, 1493, and 1494, as well as a strange black smudge near the center of the disk which I’m not sure about.  The resulting image is much dimmer than the sun funnel technique and I think provides much better contrast on the surface for defining sunspots.  Regardless of whether I can view the transit, I’m very pleased with my filter and hope to get lots of use out of it.  Heck, I only used a small bit of the Baader film so I can make more if I want!

Partial image of the sun’s disk

My fingers are crossed for good weather and if you’re planning on viewing the transit best of luck to you as well!  Clear skies!

Stunning Planet Week

Credit: NASA

The sky is always stunning to look at no matter what day it is, but this week promises some pretty cool activity for stargazers.  The emphasis this week is on the solar system.  To begin with, the pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the west has been stunning for several days now and is approaching the two planets are approaching their closest distance.  Tonight (Monday) they will be 3.1° apart (roughly two finger widths at arm’s length, your clenched fist is about 10°).  The two planets will be just 3.0° apart on Tuesday night as Venus and Jupiter begin to switch orientations.  This conjunction promises a stellar view for binocular viewers and some telescope viewers at lower power.

Next up is Saturn which rises just before 10pm (EDT).  Always a stunning sight no matter what time of year, but Saturn’s rings are tilted just about at the optimal angle for viewing from Earth.  Over the next couple months the rings will start to flatten out until they will be seen edge-on.  Also, Saturn, the moon, and the star Spica will dazzle in the sky around midnight tonight and Tuesday.

Mars is currently trekking its way through the constellation Leo this month.  Each day it is getting closer to Regulus, the brightest star in Leo and the foot of the lion.  Mars is just past its closest distance from Earth and is quite a pleasing sight in a larger telescope at its highest point from 11pm to 1am.

Since the moon is rising late this week we have another chance to view comet Garradd as it zooms through the inner solar system.  Garradd is still at magnitude 6.0-7.0 so you likely still need to drive away from the city lights a bit to see it with a telescope.  The comet is currently hanging out near the bowl of Ursa Minor and λ Draconis on Friday night.

The Great Venus Transit

It’s a rather dreary, depressing day in Baltimore.  A dense fog hung in the air as I was making my way to work this morning and that was rather fitting for the mood the entire city was in.  After another heartbreaking Ravens loss in the playoffs, my energy  was sapped and definitely did not have the motivation to write something on this page today.  But then I saw the front page of space.com.  The headline was about the super rare Venus solar transit that is set to take place this summer.  As a budding astronomer I was obviously intrigued by this event.  My dad and I are exploring the possibility of building a telescope together and Mother Nature just put a deadline on our as of yet un-started project, June 5th, 2012.  That is the day when our closest planetary neighbor will make a rare transit across the face of the sun that is visible from Earth.  This will be one celestial show you do not want to miss seeing as the next Venus solar transit won’t be until 2117!  Surely nobody alive today will be able to see the next one.  Although the “Great Venus Transit” will be visible to the naked eye it is definitely not recommended that you attempt to do so…you’ll go blind!  The best way to go will be to outfit your telescope or binoculars with white light solar filters to protect your eyes and any photographic equipment you may be using.

But as it stands now I currently have no telescope to view said transit.  So we must begin with all haste!  Since this is my first attempt at telescope making and mirror grinding and all that fun stuff I’m gonna go with purchasing a mirror kit.  I haven’t purchased anything yet but here are some helpful website I’ve used to gather information:

  • telescopemaking.org  Covers many of the basics of how telescopes function and the various kinds of telescopes; basic instructions for mirror grinding and telescope assembly
  • Mel Bartel’s Amateur Telescope Making  Focuses primarily on mirror making and all its intricacies
  • scopemaking.net  Pretty good site with detailed instructions for all phases of scope making

I’m planning on constructing an 8″ reflector that’s not too big that you can’t transport it anywhere.  I will post updates as progress is made along with pictures, and advice and problems I run into.  Wish me luck!  Also best of luck to you as well if you’re considering building your own scope!

I leave you wish a pic of the last Venus solar transit from 2004.  The planet appears as just a dark spot on the sun’s surface but when seen through a telescope the planetary disc becomes apparent.

"Great Venus Transit" of 2004 Courtesy of Space.com

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