A Late Night Out

June 7/8, 2018: Those Summer Nights
Summer is not a favorable season for amateur astronomy. The nights are short, dew sneaks up on you and the insects are annoying. On this night, the skies were clear, the dew point was reasonable and the insects were not biting, at least not that bad. With the moon not rising until 2:45 AM, it was a wonderful opportunity to work through some deep-sky objects on my Messier List.

10:45 PM to Midnight
After allowing the telescope to cool for an hour, the evening began with M13-Hercules, a favorite of mine since my first observations of it in 2010. It is one of the most impressive views in the night sky and a treat to show off to family and friends. What starts off as a dense blurry core is peeled away to reveal finer levels of detail at medium and high magnifications, where thousands of stars become visible. Objects such as this truly reveal to me the glory of God’s creation. My success rate at finding and being impressed by other globulars tonight was hit and miss. While the small but impressive M92 was easy to find, the dimmer M107 was nowhere to be seen due to light pollution near the horizon. Most of the other globular clusters early this evening were of little detail, including M19, M80 and M9.

Midnight to 12:15 AM
Lauren came out to take a look at Hercules and Saturn. While she was impressed by the fine detail of Hercules, her favorite sight is always Saturn. She has a better eye for fine detail on the planets than myself and easily picked up the Cassini division and a dim cloud band across the middle of the planet.

1:00 AM to 1:30 AM
The hunt for globular and open clusters continued after a brief hiatus. M22 was a surprisingly impressive globular cluster with fine detail in its core showing up at 96x and 200x magnification. Hopping over just a couple degrees was the smaller and less defined M28. Switching to an open cluster, M25 was just a stone’s throw away from Saturn with a pretty collection of stars shown at lower magnifications. While M54 was difficult to find due to light pollution near the horizon, M70 was impossible. What awaited next was the most pleasant surprise of the evening, M11–The Wild Duck Cluster was a beautifully dense and sharply detailed open cluster. It could easily be mistaken for a globular cluster because of the density of the core. At 96x and 200x magnification, it revealed some fine details including one star shining brightly in the upper center of the core.

1:30 AM to 2:00 AM
Shifting gears to some things a bit closer home, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were on display throughout most of this evening. Atmospheric conditions were ideal with fairly cool temperatures and no wind. Of the three, Jupiter in particular was stunning in it’s sharpness and clarity with three of its moons Io, Ganymede and Callisto in a tight triangular formation. I Hooked my iPhone up to the telescope and took some videos of the planets.

Here is some of the video I shot that is posted on my YouTube Channel.

The 1080p 60 FPS footage was sent to Registax 6 to enhance the sharpness. Then the color and contrast were enhanced in Adobe Premiere Elements 6 to create the following image of Saturn at 1200x magnification.

3:15 AM to 4:00 AM
With that, the night was done–or so I thought! Having brought in all of my equipment, I realized I was just three Messier objects shy of hitting the halfway point. I looked at the clock and decided to lug everything back out for three more objects. The final three Messier objects began with M73, an open cluster with a simplistic four star pattern. It took a while to verify its location, with observations at higher magnifications revealing more of the stars in its formation. One wonders why an object like this was included in the Messier list to begin with. Second to last was M15, a small yet surprisingly bright globular cluster with an impressive core which revealed some structural details at higher magnifications. The night officially ended with the anticlimactic M2, revealing itself only as a small blurry globular cluster with some minor fine detail at 200x magnification.

4:00 AM to 4:15 AM
Before going in, a few more attempts were made to capture Mars on video, since it had moved up from the horizon into better atmospheric conditions. As I was packing up, my Apple Watch showed that the Moon had recently risen. Walking around my property, I found a spot that showed it just peaking above the horizon. Seeing the Moon at this early morning hour was a perspective that I have seen few times before. Seeing the Moon at this hour with the waning crescent portion of it visible gave me a new perspective on a familiar sight.

4:45 AM to 11:00 AM
Sleep…

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Year One of the Messier List

A year after beginning the Astronomical League’s Messier Observing Program,  I have completed half of the list. With 55 objects down and 55 to go, it has been a wonderful year of deep-sky observations. I anticipate the second half to go a bit slower than the first. Two factors will contribute to this. The first is light pollution from my primary observing location. I have run into difficulty finding galaxies and globular clusters that are dimmer than +9.00 magnitude. The second is my wife and I expecting our first child in July. Between light pollution and a little one, it will definitely take me longer to complete the second half of this list.

Objects Observed:

M1, M2, M3, M5, M9, M10, M11, M12, M13, M14, M15, M19, M22, M25, M28, M31, M32, M34, M35, M36, M37, M38, M39, M40, M41, M42, M43, M44, M45, M46, M47, M48, M50, M51, M52, M53, M54, M56, M57, M63, M64, M67, M73, M76, M77, M78, M79, M80, M81, M82, M92, M93, M94, M103, M110

Favorite Objects:

  • M11-Wild Duck Cluster
  • M13-Hercules Cluster
  • M31-Andromeda Galaxy
  • M37-Open Cluster
  • M42-Orion Nebula
  • M45-Pleiades
  • M57-Ring Nebula
  • M67-Open cluster
  • M76-Little Dumbbell Nebula
  • M81-Bode’s Nebulae
  • M82-Bode’s Nebula

A Big Dent in the Messier List

GQ’s 2018 Man of the Year

An Unexpected Late Night:
Being a teacher has its benefits. Snow days are definitely one of them. The call came in around 6:00 pm; school would be closed on Friday. I jumped up and ran out my telescope to cool down for an evening of observing. While that was occurring, I loaded up SkySafari 6 to plan out what Messier targets I would hunt down on this crystal clear and moonless night. What followed was a wonderful, if a bit cold, late night.

Early Evening: 6:00 pm to 6:30 pm
After setting up the telescope, I took the DSLR to get some images of the waxing crescent moon about to set near the horizon. Messing around with the settings, I attempted to capture the “Old Moon in the New Moon’s Cradle”, or the Earth’s shine reflecting off the dark surface of the Moon.

Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms
Earthshine off of the Crescent Moon

A Frustrating Start to the Night: 8:00 pm to 8:30 pm
The first three targets of the night were M74, M33 and M77. Of those three, I was only able to view M77, due to light pollution and the low surface brightness of M33 and M74. I will have to find a darker sky location to view them in the future.

Later in the Night: 11:00 pm to 12:00 amimg_4094-e1516568784442.png
Heading back out, I was met with temperatures in the low 30’s and a crystal clear evening. The telescope had fully cooled and there was little to no wind. I began by focusing on some open clusters in the Constellation Auriga that were a bit difficult to find. At first, I mistook M36 for M38. Silly Me! Once I sorted them out, M36 had interesting star formations that shoot out in straight lines. Moving down to M37, I witnessed a nice dense star cluster that was best viewed through my low power 2 in. eyepiece. The Starflish Cluster, M38 was an interesting site and clearly gets its name from its star pattern. Jumping over to M1, the Crab Nebula is always a disappointment to me, appearing as a dim blob in space. M35 was nothing of distinction but was easy to find from the Crab Nebula, and I caught a glimpse of the small globular M79 before loosing it to the treeline and more heavy light pollution. After this, I took a few shots of the Auriga Constellation to see if my DSLR could pick of any of the star clusters I had just viewed and went inside to warm up.

Early Morning: 1:00 am to 2:30 am
After an hour of warming my feet, it was back outside for another hour of observing. While inside, I decided to focus my attention on some old favorites to end the night. Back outside, I first viewed M44, the Beehive Cluster, which has some beautiful triangle patterns. I was very impressed by M67. It appeared to be layered in terms of its detail, with the brightest stars coming to the forefront at lower magnification and a somewhat cloudy layer of dimmer stars showing up at higher magnifications. M48 wasn’t much in terms of detail but was easy to find. Finally, I ended the night of with two old favorites, M81 and M82. I remember the first time I viewed these several years ago. The way in which they float in space together with their odd pairing of shapes and high surface brightness is a wonderful view. With that, I had tracked down 12 more Messier objects with 75 left to go.

One Last Thing:
As I was packing up, I set up the DSLR for my first attempt at a long exposure shot of Polaris. My hope was to show star trails emanating from it. After making sure I was on the right star and setting focus, I set the camera to 55mm, f/5.6, ISO 100 and put the exposure to bulb. After starting the shot, I came back out about 15 minutes later and ending up with the following image:

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Following some post processing the next day in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional 4, I ended up with this final image:

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Getting Started in Astrophotography

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Astrophotography can seem like an overwhelming addition to amateur astronomy. Over the past several weeks I have attempted to photograph the night sky and will show you what has worked best for me using some entry level equipment and a little bit of research.

Step 1: Buying a Camera and Lens

While I didn’t buy the Canon Rebel SL2 specifically for astrophotography, virtually all new DSLR cameras will provide wonderful results for entry to intermediate level users. The 24 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor provides more than the necessary minimum for nighttime imaging. It’s standard kit zoom lens featuring an 18-55mm focal length is a nice starter lens and offers fairly sharp fields of view.

Step 2: Adjusting Camera Settings

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Be sure to turn your camera dial to Manual Mode. This will give you complete control throughout the entire process. I’ve also configured a menu tab aptly named “Astronomy” which allows me to easily change some of the most important settings involving shooting the nighttime sky.

  • Image Quality-Raw and Large jpeg
  • Picture Style-Neutral
  • White Balance-Daylight (5200K)
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction- On
  • High ISO Speed Noise Reduction-Standard
  • Drive Mode-2 Seconds

Step 3: Mounting the Camera to the Tripod
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The cheapest and easiest way to get into astrophotography involves using a tripod and your DSLR. After connecting the SL2 to the tripod, I chose Orion’s Nebula as my target. Before moving on, I had to determine the proper focal length, focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Step 4: Setting up and taking the Shot

  • Focal Length and Focus:
    How zoomed in do you want your image? This is what the focal length controls. I wanted a zoomed in image of Orion’s Nebula, so I chose to set my lens at it’s maximum 55mm focal length. To focus, make sure that your lens is switched to manual focus and use the digital magnifying feature to show a 10x image of the constellation in the live viewing screen. Slowly turn the focus ring until you get the sharpest stars possible.
  • Aperture:
    How much light is going through your lens and into your sensor? This is what the aperture controls. The best possible aperture for my zoom lens set at 55mm is f/5.6.  This is not a strong point of my kit lens. I hope to upgrade this to a fixed 50mm f/1.8 in the near future.
  • Shutter Speed:
    How long do you want your camera’s shutter open to allow light onto your sensor? This is what the shutter speed controls. I was looking for as long a time as possible to bring out detail in Orion’s Nebula, without creating star trails. There are a lot of ways to determine how long the shutter can stay open without creating star trails. The website LonelySpeck has an excellent calculator for determining this setting. For my camera’s sensor and zoom lens set at 55mm, 4 seconds was the longest length of time I could afford.
  • ISO:
    How sensitive do you want your camera to be when the shutter is open and light is hitting the sensor? This is what the ISO controls. Increasing it will brighten your image, but also increase digital noise. Finding a balance between sensitivity and image quality will vary depending on your camera’s sensor. For my Canon SL2 shooting Orion’s Nebula a setting of ISO 3200 gave me the best results.

Step 5: Post Processing

  • How much detail can you bring out of your image? This is what imaging software controls. Canon’s Digital Photo Professional 4 is free software provided by Canon if you buy their products. It is excellent for editing RAW images, which contain much more image information than jpeg files. There are a variety of paid and free choices from Adobe Photoshop to Raw Therapee. The learning curve on these can be pretty steep, but I have found DPP4 to be fairly user friendly and powerful. The most useful settings for me so far have been contrast, shadow, highlight, color tone and color saturation.

The Final Result:
Orion Nebula: 12/27/17
Canon SL2, 55mm, f/5.6, 4 Seconds, ISO 3200
Enhanced and Cropped with Digital Photo Professional 4

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There have been several sources that have provided me with a lot of the information presented in this article. “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” has been my constant companion as I have expanded my interest in amateur astronomy. That book, along with the websites ImprovePhotography, Astropix and LonelySpeck have given me tremendous assistance in my early efforts at understanding astrophotography. Hopefully, this article helped you as well. Please leave a comment with any questions or suggestions you may have.

Witnessing Totality: The Great American Solar Eclipse

Departure: Roanoke, Va
August 20, 2017
9:30 PM

The journey began with the arrival of my friend, Cody, who was joining me on this pilgrimage to totality. We left my house and hopped on interstate 81, where we were greeted by a car from New Jersey flipping off a car driving slowly in the passing lane. The number of out of state and out of country plates heading south on 81 was a reminder of how popular and unique this event was.

IMG_2302Arrival: Madisonville, TN
August 21, 2017
2:35 AM

We chose Madisonville due first and foremost to its central location for totality and its low population and relative distance from the nearest interstate. Our hope was that these combinations would make it a little less cramped and easier to get out of than other surrounding areas. Our hotel was my nice and still fairly new Mazda 3 Hatchback parked at a Walmart. Other than a group of teenagers waking us around four in the morning, we slept alright considering it was a car parked at a Walmart.

As night turned to day, we awoke and drove to a Hardee’s for a nice breakfast with the locals. Driving through the cute downtown of Madinsonville, a sign said that the local library would be throwing an observing event. After parking at the library, Cody and I walked through downtown and enjoyed some coffee at a small shop.

By this time, a good number of people had started to arrive in Madisonville. Our chosen spot at the library ended up connecting us with some interesting couples, two of which had witnessed totality on separate occasions and one who had brought a solar telescope for observing the event prior to and after totality.

Start of Partial Eclipse:
1:04:16 PM

IMG_2327As the time approached, we began to look up at the sun wearing our ISO rated solar glasses, and right on schedule, a sliver of the Moon was visible blocking the extreme upper right corner of the Sun. This gradually grew as the minutes passed. Before long, a third and then half of the Sun was blocked, giving it the appearance of a crescent Moon. The sky very gradually grew darker, particularly at 20 minutes out from totality. The shadows of our bodies and hands were different, almost appearing soft and out of focus. 10 minutes or so out from totality, the birds began to chirp, and at 5 minutes out, crickets began to sing. The temperature appeared to be cooler, but it was mainly due to less radiant Sun hitting our skin. The surrounding environment became very similar in appearance to about 30 to 45 minutes after sunset or if a strong storm with cloud cover was overhead. The Sun now appeared as a slight pencil line in the sky. It then disappeared from the view of my solar glasses.

Totality:
2:32:54 PM to 2:35:32 PM

IMG_2347As soon as the Sun disappeared from view, I looked down at my apple watch and the time was exactly 2:32:54 PM. Hearing people cheering, I removed my glasses, looked up and where the Sun had been saw the disc of the Moon completely blocking out the Sun. There was a soft glow coming out from it’s sides and what appeared to be the corona spanning out much farther than I had anticipated. I started my stop watch a few seconds late so I could time when the totality would end. Looking around, there was an eerie 360 degree glow on the horizon appearing as though a sunset was occurring all around us. Venus and Regulus were the most visible stars to appear in the sky, with Venus off to the right and Regulus barely visible just off to the left of the Moon. The time passed quickly, and I looked down at my watch realizing we were coming up on the end of totality. I put on my glasses anticipating the Sun returning and at that time heard someone shout out “The Diamond!” I pulled down my glasses looked up briefly and saw a beautifully bright arc of light appear in the extreme upper right hand corner of the Moon’s disc. It appeared as though God had turned a bright floodlight on in that corner of the Moon. I was startled by this, not quite sure if it was safe for me to see and quickly brought up my glasses and began to see the sliver of the crescent Sun return!

The Voyage Home:
2:45 PM to 10:30 PM
It was an incredible event to experience, and the trip home was not as busy as we had feared with traffic. Next time, though, I think I’ll try to book a hotel instead of a Walmart.