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.

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Canon EOS Rebel SL2

 

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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.

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 Amazon.com 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 amazon.com 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.

 Unboxing

First Stage (S-IC)

Second Stage (S-II)

Third Stage (S-IVB)

Lunar, Service and Command Modules

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The Completed Saturn V Rocket

A New Beginning in Observing

Upon receiving my telescope in 2009, I decided to start keeping a list of astronomical observations. From that, LateNightAstronomy was born. Through this website, I have listed over 125 objects (including the Earth) on pages such as “What I’ve Viewed” and “Nightly News”. While, I will be continuing to list objects and nightly events in this format, I am now beginning to take hand written official observational logs to catalog objects for certification through the Astronomical League.

Logbooks
The First Three Logbooks

To begin the process, I decided to focus on three observing programs the Astronomical League has to offer:

“Messier Observing Program”
This is a wonderful starting point for documenting some of the most impressive 110 objects of the deep sky. I suspect it will take me two to three years to view all of the objects given limitations of seeing from my house and the slow shift of the stars throughout the year.

“Lunar Observing Program”
For nights when the Moon will be blocking out my Messier observing, I’ve decided to start charting the lunar surface. The 100 objects listed in this program are great for people new to astronomy and can be completed with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. I hope to have this program completed within three to four months.

“Comet Observing Program”
With Comet C/2015 V2 Johnson currently in the night sky, I thought it might be a good idea to start an official logbook for comets. Documenting 12 comets for this program will take quite a while, and I expect it to be completed in 4 to 5 years.

“The Logbooks”
To assist me in my official observations, I came across a wonderful logbook created by Matt Wedel over at 10minuteastronomy. I took his design concept for the Messier book and formatted my own books for the lunar and comet observing programs using resources provided by the Astronomical League. After a quick run to Staples, I had some premium printed, coil bound and plastic covered logbooks to begin my journey into the Astronomical Leagues Observing Program.

iPhone Telescope Adapter

If you are looking for a basic starting point in astrophotography, a smartphone eyepiece adapter may be a good option. These adapters along with a dobsonian or other non-tracking telescope can provide nice video and images of the Moon and Planets.

I’ve found that it is best to connect the adapter to the eyepiece near a light source before putting the eyepiece into the telescope. This allowed me to adjust the iPhone directly over the eyepiece at the right distance and angle to capture the light.

Most of these adapters can be found on Amazon for around 20 dollars. If you are interested in making some early steps into astrophotography, I would encourage you to check out this line of products.

An Evening of Astrophotography

This past Sunday, February 26, 2017, a fellow member of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society, Bert Herald, invited me over for some observing. Bert has recently purchased an impressive Celestron Cassegrain telescope and tracking mount to do astrophotography.

He has just recently moved from afocal imagining, using an iPhone, to the big leagues of DSLR astrophotograpy. The evening started with a complicated and sometimes frustrating polar/5 star alignment which gave me a greater appreciation for the complexity of these advanced telescopes. After some initial difficulties with alignment, later in the evening Bert was able to get some nice exposures of NGC 1983, the Running Man Nebula. He described overcoming some difficulties with the tracking system for this observing session and the process of capturing the nebula:

Tracking continued to suffer even after a second round of alignment! But it was good enough to capture a set of 5 30 sec exposures. I stacked them and briefly edited…

The result of his efforts is an impressive image of NGC 1983, particularly for someone new to advanced astrophotography.

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Bert Herald: Running Man Nebula, February 26, 2017