Exploring the Summer Sky

The summer months can be a tricky time for observing. The nights are short, the weather is erratic and dew starts to build up on the telescope as soon as the serious observing begins. Nights that are clear, calm and cool are rare to come by and should be taken advantage of. I did just that on the night of July 10-11 from 10:45 pm to 1:30 am.

Starting with the Solar System
Mars:
Viewing conditions were difficult, looking through the turbulent summer atmosphere, views of Mars were less impressive at high magnifications. Also, Mars continues to move farther from us, having made its closest approach to Earth on May 30, 2016 at a distance of 47 million miles, making surface detail harder to make out each night.

Saturn:
One of the highlights of the night, as usual, came from Saturn. With the Cassini Division in full view, this planet always tends to be more forgiving of rough atmospheric conditions, particularly compared to Mars and Jupiter. I was able to try out my new iPhone adapter with the telescope and after some initial alignment difficulties over the eyepiece was able to get a short video.

After being processed through Registax 6 and Adobe Premiere Elements, this image was the final product.

Saturn, 7-10-16

Into Deep Space
The main targets of the evening were Deep Sky Objects. I’ve been chipping away at the Messier List for about six years. These 110 objects are considered some of the best to view and most are attainable with affordable binoculars and telescopes if you are in an area with low light pollution.

Globular Clusters:
Of all the views from this night, the globular clusters were the most difficult to find and disappointing to see. These dense collection of stars were partially drowned out by light pollution and the Moon that had yet to fully set. M80 and M92 were two new ones that I was able to mark off my list. M13 was an impressive show, even with the viewing conditions working against it. The Hercules Cluster is one of the most impressive globular clusters in the sky. I find it hard to focus the object correctly because of how dense the star field is. Various levels of focus almost seem to bring out new layers of detail.

Open Clusters:
M18 (2)These collections of stars always impress me with their elegance and simplicity. Not nearly as dense and “fuzzy” as globular clusters, open clusters can be difficult to find but rewarding to discover. Take M18 for example, to verify that I had the correct collection of stars, I had to consult my star chart (Sky Safari 4 Plus on my iPhone) that I was in the correct region of the sky.  I did this by counting stars and comparing patterns between what was in my eyepiece and what the chart on my app showed. M23, M26 and NGC 6633 rounded out the list of open clusters viewed.

Supernova Remnants:
One of my favorite sights of the summer sky are the five to eight thousand year old supernova remnants of the Eastern and Western Veil Nebula. I wasn’t sure if NGC 6960 and NGC 6995 would show up from my viewing site, but sure enough with the help of an O-III filter they did. The scale of these two objects is an impressive sight and their ghostly outlines are fitting for the remnants of a dead star.

One last Planet
Neptune:
By around 1:30 am, I started to get tired but noticed that there was one planet which had just moved high enough for me to view. Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, making it one of the more difficult ones to spot, excluding dwarf planets, sorry Pluto. At 400x magnification, I could make out a faint circular disc with a blueish gray tint. Not bad for something 2.8 Billion Miles away.

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Bringing Detail to Jupiter and the Moon

In 2015, I detailed my “Small Steps into Astrophotography”. Since then, I have done little with imaging and processing. That is, until this week. I’ve returned to the complicated, yet rewarding, world of astrophotography. To start, I focused on two great targets for beginners, Jupiter and the Moon. Jupiter, which is near opposition, is as big as it will get in the night sky and the Moon is always a good choice for learning the basics of imaging.

Capturing Video
I began by holding my iPhone 6 over the eyepiece and captured about ten seconds of video for Jupiter and the Moon. The 1080p resolution of the iPhone does a good job at capturing the fine detail on these objects.

PreProcessing
Once the videos were captured, I had to find a program that could take my iPhone footage and convert it to a format that my photostacking software could work with. I chose to go with PIPP, Planetary Imaging PreProcessor.

Registax 6
Even though I’ve had some previous experience with Registax 6, I couldn’t remember much about it and had to look up some tutorials that explain the basics of the program. Through this Registax 6 Tutorial, I followed the steps outlined and turned my videos of the Moon and Jupiter into stacked images that brought out fine surface detail.

Jupiter, about halfway through the Registax 6 process.PhotoStacked Image, Pre Wavelets

Premiere Elements
To finish up with some additional adjustments to the lighting, sharpness and color hue, I used Adobe Premiere Elements to make some final enhancements.

The Final Results
Jupiter and two of it’s moons, Ganymede and Io.Jupiter, Registax, 3-16-16

The Moon, featuring Montes Apenninus.Montes Apeninus, Registax 3-16-16

Mars is Back!

File:Mars Earth Comparison.png

Mars is back, and I have a hard time believing how much time has passed. It was in February of 2012 that I last wrote about “The Return of Big Red”. Since that time, much has changed on Earth and a hovering sky crane lowered “Curiosity” onto Mars’ surface, continuing NASA’s legacy of remarkable planetary research and exploration. I was almost caught off guard by this years Mars opposition with Earth. If not for a student telling me about his recent observations during our monthly “Air and Space Club” meeting at school, I would have probably missed the best views Mars over the next two years.

Thankfully, this was not the case and last night I went out, with my wife in tow, to view “Big Red” for the first time since June 19th, 2012. After adjusting the telescope to avoid trees obstructing our view, the 6mm Zhumell Planetary Eyepiece was put in and at 200x magnification Mars did not disappoint. Even though it is still about three weeks away from it’s closest pass to Earth, land features such as Syrtis Major and the Polar Ice Cap were visible. Attempting to use the Orange #21 color filter did not yield any further detail. As is normally the case, simply waiting for those moments of sharp views when the atmosphere settles down, brought the best moments of the night.

File:Marsorbitsolarsystem.gifAs Mars and Earth continue their Solar System Dance, catching up with each other every two years, be sure to head out and take a look by the middle of April before we again start to slowly move away from each other. If you happen to miss this one, fear not, because come 2016 and 2018, Mars will be even more impressive in size and detail through a telescope because of how odd it’s orbit coincides with our own.

Some Lunar Views and Spotting Saturn’s Cassini Divide

I love setting up a telescope with the Sun setting and the sky slowly transitioning from day to night. There is something exciting about planning what will be viewed and the anticipation of what is to come.

The night started out with some brief views of the crescent Moon. This is my favorite time to view the lunar surface. The shadows that are cast from the mountains and craters display incredible depth and make the Moon almost appear 3d though the eyepiece. Sadly, anything over half full and its surface becomes boringly flat, turning the Moon into a nuisance that does nothing more than spoil the view of deep sky objects with its light pollution.

Continuing into the evening, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Saturn was visible in the early nighttime sky. Easily, a favorite of mine and Lauren’s, its rings are now tilted to a point that will offer incredible views of the planet for years to come. Pushing the telescope up to 200 times magnification revealed the beautiful angle of its rings as well as the cassini divide that splits the rings themselves.

Holding up my iPhone to the eyepiece, I was able to take some pretty good video of the planet. The cassini divide is too thin to view in the video, but you can easily make out the divide between the rings and planet disc itself.

Starlog: May 25th & 26th, 2012

Live Updates: The Transit of Venus

6:04-Venus has just begun to touch the farthest edge of the Sun.

6:10-You can just barely make out the half of Venus that is over the upper right corner.

6:22-Venus is now completely covering its little part of the Sun as it continues to sail across its surface.

6:27-Clouds and some rain have come into the area. Hopefully it will clear, but either way we got to see the transit and it won’t happen again for 105 years!

The Return of Big Red

“Guess who’s back, back again. Big Red’s back, tell a friend!”
Eminem-February, 2012

(Referencing the orbital cycle that bring Mars and Earth near each other for incredible views every two years)

Good ole Slim Shady has it right once again. If you are into planetary observing, now is the time to pull out the long johns, put in the hand warmers and take out the scope as Mars returns for some spectacular views over the next couple weeks.

Every two years the orbital gods bring Earth between the Sun and Mars making the two planets closer together. This is known as an opposition. It is at this point every two years that amateur astronomers get their best views of our red headed neighbor. The last opposition of Mars and Earth occurred in early 2010 as I noted during one of my first blog posts on March 19, 2010.

Now, nearly two years later, with a clear night presenting itself  just prior to one of our only snow storms of the season thus far, I went out and took a long awaited view of Mars.  Using a 6mm eyepiece showing 200X magnification, the polar ice cap popped out as a bright white feature on the northern most tip of the planet. As the atmosphere would occasionally settle down, sharp views occasionally stabilized revealing some fine detailed land features in the extreme Southern hemisphere. This is where patience pays off in astronomy, particularly for planetary observing. One or two seconds of sharpness can provide some of the best memories from an evening out.

I’m hoping for a couple more nights of observing before Mars and Earth quickly begin to move away from each other starting in mid March. As Mars rotates, it shows a different side of itself to Earth every night; land features such as Sytris Major and Terra Meridian will show up as dark defined regions at 200X magnification. If you are interested in planetary observing now is the time to see Mars, it won’t be at this close distance to Earth for another two years and with the Mayan 2012 calendar coming to an end this upcoming December there is definitely no time like the present to observe our closest planetary neighbor.

This image from the iPhone’s SkySafari app shows a zoomed in view of Mars at the time of observing.

Star Log: February 18th, 2012

The Summer of Clouds

With the fall air turning ever so colder, I thought it would be a good time do an overview of how my “summer of astronomy” went. Being a teacher, I was looking forward to June, July and August to provide me with some late night observation opportunities. While, there were some nice and clear nights throughout those 3 months, I was surprised at how cloudy it was during most evenings and nights. Even though there were not as many opportunities to go out this summer as I had hoped, there was one object in particular that I was very excited to observe, and the summer months did allow me some great views of it.

Saturn is probably my favorite object to view, so using the new 6mm Zhumell eyepiece at 200x magnification on it over the summer was quite a treat. As opposed to last year, where Saturn’s rings were head on with Earth providing a less than spectacular showing, this year they appeared much more tilted from our perspective as part of Saturn’s 29 year orbit around the Sun. This will continue to provide memorable views and glimpses of the famous Casini divide over the next 10 years. As was pointed out in my review of the Zhumell 6mm Planetary Eyepiece, the views provided from it were sharp and detailed from edge to edge providing the best sights of Saturn I have seen to date from my telescope.

While the Summer of 2011 was a bit of a disappointment overall, there were still several times when I was able to take out the telescope for some good viewings. This just goes to show that it is always a good idea to take advantage of the clear nights you are given, because you never know when another one will come along again.