Video Review: SkySafari 6 Plus

A review of the newest version of my favorite Astronomy App.


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:


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


Getting Started in Astrophotography


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


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

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


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.


Astrophotography Coming to Late Night Astronomy

With my wife and I purchasing our first DSLR camera from Canon, I am taking my first steps into DSLR astrophotography. A new page has been added to the website where I will post my attempts at tripod long exposure astrophotography and eventually imaging through my telescope of the Moon and Planets.

Canon EOS Rebel SL2



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.

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.


Book Review: Apollo 8

On Christmas Eve of 2010, my wife Lauren and I had been engaged for a little under an hour when she presented me with the book “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13”. As I scanned through it, I came across a signature on the authors page that I did not expect.

Jim Lovell Autograph

Jim Lovell is my favorite astronaut–yes, I have a favorite astronaut. A veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, known most famously for Apollo 13. The co-author of that book was a man by the name of Jeffrey Klugger who is a senior writer for Time Magazine. While browsing a few weeks ago, I noticed that he had a new book out detailing the voyage of another mission involving Jim Lovell, Apollo 8, man’s first trip to the Moon.

Apollo 8 Cover

The story begins with Frank Borman being notified that his training for an earth orbital flight on Apollo 9 was being altered to a lunar orbital flight that would take place during Apollo 8. I had come across Frank Borman’s name and missions in other Apollo books such as Andrew Chaikin’s “A Man on the Moon”, but I had little knowledge of the backstory or personality of this veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs. He along with Jim Lovell and Bill Anders are each introduced through details of their career and family life leading up to Apollo 8.

I was presently surprised with how much time the book spent on supporting events and individuals leading up to Apollo 8. The history of the National Advisory Committee of Aeronautics and its transformation into NASA takes up a good portion of the early book. Back stories for NASA officials such as Chris Kraft, Deke Slayton and Gene Kranz are delved into more than I expected.  The first half of the book is a nice, all be it brief, history lesson on the formation of NACA/NASA and the successes and difficulties of the Mercury and Gemini missions that preceded Apollo.

Apollo 8 Insert

With the tragic fire of Apollo 1, that cost the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, Kruger turns his attention to the story of Apollo and the almost insurmountable task of redesigning the capsule and putting a man on the moon before the decade was out. From this point on, the story moves at a nice pace and quickly moves to the decision to launch Apollo 8 as a lunar orbiting mission. I was inspired by the tenacity and boldness of this decision. Today, I feel the bold moves in space are being made in the private sector, with the Space X’s of the world. Apollo 8 is a nice reminder of how daring NASA was in the 60’s and 70’s with it’s lunar program.

Apollo 8 Launch Pad
Apollo 8 being moved out to the launch pad.

With the first successful launch of a Saturn V Rocket carrying a crew, a feat in an of itself, Apollo 8 was off to the Moon. By all intents and purposes it was a by the book mission. There were no major mishaps, system crashes or critical failures on their six day mission. This does not mean that the story is any less interesting. Going to the Moon is never a forgone conclusion, particularly for the first time. It took a tremendous amount of planning, testing and training to make this mission a success. Once the Lunar Orbit Insertion burn was completed, the Apollo craft fell into a stable lunar orbit. The crew became the first humans to see the far-side of the Moon with their own eyes. What they would witness next would become one of the most powerful photographs ever taken.

Earth Rise
Earth Rise: Photo by Bill Anders

Later into the mission, Frank Borman looked out the window of his Apollo 8 capsule and was amazed by what he saw:

“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!”

While Frank Borman took the first black and white image of this event, it was Bill Anders, who was in charge of the mission’s photography, who snagged the color photo posted above that would go on to become one of the most acclaimed and viewed pictures in the world. On Christmas Eve of 1968, Apollo 8 took some time from their busy schedule to host a live televised broadcast. They were given little direction from NASA regarding what to do so they each went around and discussed what had impressed them the most about the Moon that they had been orbiting for the past several hours. The broadcast would end however with a touching message as each of the astronauts proceeded to read from the book of Genesis.

Excerpts from the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Message:
Bill Anders:
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth….”

Jim Lovell:
“…And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day…”

Frank Borman:
“…And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

It is easy to underestimate the importance of Apollo 8, knowing the outcome of the space race and the successful landing of Apollo 11 that would follow. But, for those who were living through these events during the tumultuous year of 1968, the Christmas voyage of Apollo 8 surely stands out as a historic milestone that inspired and captivated a world desperately in need of a reminder of how precious our planet is. Jeffrey Kluger’s book “Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon” brings this event to life in an enjoyable and accessible way.


The LEGO NASA Apollo Saturn V Rocket Review

Surprisingly, I was never into LEGO growing up. My interest peaked however, when I came across an article describing a fan designed Apollo Saturn V Rocket. The website LEGO Ideas allows fans to design and submit their own builds. Valérie Roche and Felix Stiessen submitted a proposal for the Saturn V Rocket back in August of 2014. After nearly three years and a process which included 10,000 people voting for the project and LEGO officially reviewing it, their work is now an official LEGO product.

Upon its release on June 1st, the Saturn V instantly sold out. I gave little hope of getting one this summer until I randomly went to one evening and they happened to have restocked a few. After quickly putting in my order the status returned to sold out and has remained that way at all major retail stores as of mid July.

Having completed the build, while watching the documentary “When We Left The Earth”, I came away incredibly impressed with the care and accuracy put into this set. The details are precise, the colors are accurate and the three main stages are all represented along with the service, lunar and command modules. It even includes three perfectly scaled astronaut figures. At 1,969 pieces (see what they did there) and 1:110 scale (1 meter tall) the finished result is an impressive sight that can be displayed either vertically or horizontally on the provided stands. Regardless of your interest in LEGO, this is a wonderful collectors item for those interested in the Apollo Era.


First Stage (S-IC)

Second Stage (S-II)

Third Stage (S-IVB)

Lunar, Service and Command Modules


The Completed Saturn V Rocket