Jupiter Stacked


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

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:


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.

Bert Herald: Running Man Nebula, February 26, 2017

Late Night Astronomy’s Editorial Board: Presidential Endorsement

In the 76 year history of Late Night Astronomy, the editorial board has never made an endorsement in a presidential election. That ends tonight. After two debates and over a year of campaigning, it is obvious that only one candidate has the judgment, temperament and stamina to be President of the United States. Through these criteria and after great deliberation, we are throwing our support behind “Giant Meteor 2016”.

Image result for giant meteor 2016 poll

Only “Giant Meteor 2016” has the ability to wipe out the national debt and take America back to the glory days of our early republic. While some in the mainstream media will attack “Giant Meteor 2016” for bringing instant death to millions and a slow death to tens of millions more, we simply find these results preferable to a Trump or Clinton presidency.

In fact, a recent poll found that 13 percent of Americans prefer “Giant Meteor 2016” when given the option.

Image result for giant meteor 2016 poll

If you’re tired of politics as usual and want something that will truly shake up the system, we urge you to vote for “Giant Meteor 2016” this November. Our children’s future depends on it!