Imaging The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

People image the night sky for various reasons. My two main goals are to share a small part of my experiences with those who may have an interest in amateur astronomy while also showing people the glory of God by way of His most magnificent interstellar creations.

Few objects check off both of those boxes as well as M13, the Hercules Globular Cluster. This “cloudy” cluster of hundreds of thousands of stars is one of the best shows our galaxy has to offer. Through a telescope, it appears as a dense core with fine pin point stars becoming more apparent as your eye moves slightly away from the core. What I did not expect from this imaging session was how prominent the colors of M13 would be. It’s core shows a gorgeous mix of white, amber and blue stars that appear from our perspective to fuse together from it’s gravitational lock.

Hercules 100% Cropped
The Hercules Globular Cluster

For more technical details on how this picture was captured, stacked and processed, please check out the Astrophotography page.

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Imaging M81 and M82: The Cosmic Pair

Having just gotten into astrophotography, I am beyond pleased to show the results of my latest imaging session of M81 and M82. These two galaxies have been a favorite of mine since I first observed them roughly 10 years ago. At a distance from Earth of 11.8 million light years, the beautiful spiral arms of M81 span about 90,000 light years with the galaxy containing roughly 250 billion stars. But, my favorite out of these two is M82, the Cigar Galaxy. Nearly 18 million light years away, it’s complex core reveals sharp divides and interesting colors that are the result of rapid star formation. Galaxies such as these truly reveal the glory of God and his hand in creating the universe.

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For more technical details on how these pictures were captured, stacked and processed, please check out the Astrophotography page.

Two Birds With One Stone: Imaging and Observing the Early Summer Sky

Clear summer nights with low humidity are a hard thing to come by. With the forecast looking good, I jumped at the chance to “stretch the legs” of the SkyGuider Pro and do some observing of the Messier List.

Less than a month into using the SkyGuider Pro, I couldn’t be more pleased with it’s performance and quick set up. Yet again, I trained it on M81 and M82. This time bumping the exposure up to 2 minutes and taking the ISO down to 800. Results from over 1 hour of exposure time will be posted in the Astrophotography page.

Tonight's Targets
Tonight’s Targets

With the SkyGuider Pro and DSLR tracking and imaging, it approached midnight and several Messier objects began to rise in the Southern sky. As the DSLR shutter open and closed, I brought out my dobsonian telescope and quickly found M4, which was a fairly bright globular cluster that revealed some fine detail. Next up were my two favorites of the evening, M6, the Butterly Cluster and M7, Ptolemy’s Cluster. Of the two, I was most impressed by the simplicity and elegance of the Butterfly Cluster. From there it was a race to see how many faint Globular Cluster’s could be viewed before the DSLR was done shooting light and dark frames. After moving the telescope to see above the tree line, M69 and M70 were my final targets of the night. Both of the these were very faint and if not for clear and steady skies with low humidity, wouldn’t normally be visible from my house that low on the horizon. 

Failed attempts at the Trifid Nebula, Sagittarius Star Cloud, the Eagle Nebula and M55 show that I will have to travel to the Blue Ridge Parkway for these this Summer. Some enjoyable views of Jupiter, including the Great Red Spot, Saturn and the Ring Nebula made for nice breaks between the hunt for faint Messier objects. With observing done, I moved back over to the SkyGuider Pro and took the Bias and Flat frames for post processing before packing up and heading inside for some rest around 2:30 am. I don’t know how many night’s like this I’ll get this summer and am glad I put the clear skies to good use.

As for the Messier List…5 Down…7 to go!
Observing List

 

First Light with the iOptron SkyGuider Pro

After months of research, I have purchased my first tracking mount for astrophotography. Many websites, forums and youtube channels led me to the iOptron SkyGuider Pro as an entry into this new aspect of astronomy. I plan on writing and filming a full review in the coming weeks but until then my initial impression after a few nights of use is that this mount is easy to use, very portable and solid in it’s performance.

Below is the end result of my first processed image using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.  The Owl Nebula with it’s “eyes” looking out and M108 float in the void of space surrounded by hundreds of stars. Given the size and faintness of these two objects, I was really pleased with the results of my first imaging session.
(Check out the “Astrophotography” tab for more details on this image)

Merak, M108 and the Owl 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 ended up with the following image:

IMG_0896

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

IMG_08965

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.

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.

stacked-running-man
Bert Herald: Running Man Nebula, February 26, 2017