Adapting a Flashlight for Astronomy

Night vision is key to astronomy. On moonless nights when galaxies, nebulae or globular clusters are at the top of your observing list, properly adapted eyes can be as important as the aperture of the telescope for spotting a “faint fuzzy”. The June and July editions of Sky & Telescope each have articles detailing how to adapt a flashlight for astronomy. Inspired by these articles, I decided it was time to put together my own red flashlight. Since red light is more forgiving to the eye when it is dark-adapted, this is the preferred way to light up an area while still keeping most of your night vision. While red flashlights can be found from companies such as Celestron and Orion for fifteen to thirty dollars, I didn’t care much for their designs and decided to build my own.

Step 1:
After a trip to Target and Advanced Auto Parts,
I had an LED Flashlight and Red Tail Light Repair Tape.IMG_8936

Step 2:
Cutting out a small piece of the red tape, I placed it over the light.
IMG_8937

Step 3:
Using a pair of scissors and a sharp knife from “Cutlery Corner”, I trimmed the tape and carefully cut it down to size, only covering the lens.
IMG_8954

After using the flashlight to set up and organize equipment, I realized the beam was a bit more pink than red, so I added another layer of tape which turned it into more of a solid red beam. While the brightness, at 37 lumens, is slightly more than is recommended, I’m not too concerned about it because I already am contesting with neighborhood light pollution which will hurt my night vision long before this red flashlight will. For only about fifteen dollars, I now have a stylish LED red flashlight that will hopefully keep my night vision a little more intact on those nights of deep sky observing.

A Visit to the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society

On Monday, April 18th I attended a meeting of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society in downtown Roanoke. It is often suggested in astronomy books and online forums that a great way to get more involved in the hobby is to attend and join a local astronomy club. After several years of delay, I decided to do just that.

Upon entering the meeting, I was greeted by Dan Chrisman, the RVAS President, along with several other members. To start off the meeting, they introduced me as a new visitor and began with people discussing any recent observations . The man sitting next to me talked about tracking the ISS over its past few flybys. I jumped in, mentioning how I was able to observe the ISS recently, as well, and had been doing some views of Jupiter. The meeting then shifted to a nice overview of upcoming sky events for May with Frank Baratta going through a Stellarium type program highlighting great targets for the month. The main discussion of the night was presented by Dan, who walked the group through an upcoming May 8th transit of the Sun and Mercury. To set up the main idea of what a transit is, Dan got the help of a few members to create an in-room model of the Sun, Mercury and Earth. The math of how these events are predictable is fascinating, and Dan did a nice job of making it practical to understand.

I had a nice time at my first meeting of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society. I plan on becoming a member at the next meeting, which will be a nice step forward in becoming more involved in the astronomical community. Regardless of where you live, there is probably a similar society set up with like-minded hobby enthusiasts. The best part about these groups is that they have members that match all levels of experience. Whether you consider yourself a beginner, intermediate or experienced amateur astronomer, there will be someone with your level of experience attending these meetings. So, even if you are new to the hobby and don’t have a set of binoculars or a telescope, stop by the next meeting of the RVAS or your local astronomy club to meet some nice people who are interested in expanding interest in the hobby.

For more information on the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society,
please visit their website: www.rvasclub.org

Exploring the Early Spring Sky

Returning to Deep-sky objects
Even though Roanoke County has a decent amount of light pollution, probably a 4 or 5 on the Bortle Scale, there are still a great deal of Galaxies, Star Clusters and Nebula visible in the night sky. These DSOs (Deep-sky objects), provide challenging yet rewarding targets for most amateur astronomers. With the assistance of Skysafari 4’s “Tonight’s Best” guide and the Intelliscope Computer Object Locator of the XT8i, the location of some of these more difficult to find highlights of the early spring sky came into view.

March 29, 2016: Highlights
Beginning in the Western portion of the sky, M38, the Starfish Cluster, was visible around 9:05 PM. While observing M38, a satellite passed through the field of view. These kinds of events are pretty common seeing as how many objects are in orbit. To the upper right of the Starfish Cluster, NGC 1907 barely registered as a slight blur at low magnification using averted vision. Moving over to the South West, the Rosette Nebula continues to refuse to reveal itself, but the open cluster that makes up the heart of it, NGC 2244, was a nice sight. Shifting down towards the neighborhood of Orion’s Nebula brought Sigma Orionis, the highlight of the night, around 9:30 PM. What appeared to be a triple star system revealed a 4th star at 200x magnification. In actuality, it is a quintuple star system, but the 5th star is difficult to pick up with amateur equipment. Attempts at viewing the Crab Nebula came up as disappointing as usual, it was barely visible in the Western sky around 10:25 PM. Finishing out the night was the always impressive pair of galaxies known as Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82. At magnitudes +8.39 and +6.90, they never disappoint as distinctive galaxies even if they are around 12 million light years from earth.

FullSizeRender
ISS Passing Near NGC 2395

March 30, 2016: ISS Fly Over
From 8:53 PM to 9:03 PM the International Space Station sailed over Roanoke, Virginia from SW to NE. In an attempt to view it, SkySafari 4 was used to see if the station would appear near any objects during it’s 5 minute pass. This would allow the Computer Object Locator to know where the telescope needed to be pointed before the ISS reached this object, so there could be a quick view of it flying through the eyepiece. Thankfully, at 8:57:51 it would cross near NGC 2395. Right at that time and location, with Lauren looking through the eyepiece and myself looking through the finder scope, we viewed the ISS through the telescope. Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour and being viewed at 48x magnification, the station only appeared in the eyepiece for a second, but the details were impressive. As detailed before from a previous viewing in 2010, the solar panels and cabin compartments of the Space Station were visible. The only difference noticed was that the panels appeared more tilted than on the previous sighting of station back. After the initial contact at NGC 2395, the stations was tracked for another minute or two, on and off, providing additional views as it raced across the sky.

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

Book Review: “A Man on the Moon”

This past summer, while reading Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” a sudden thought came to me:

“I’d really like to read a book on the Apollo program.”

Maybe it was the patriotism, heroism and difficulty Washington experienced throughout his life that spurred these thoughts towards Apollo. Or, maybe I just think a lot about space. Either way, I was sure that when I finished the Washington biography, it would be on to the moon for my next read. A quick search of amazon.com revealed that there is no shortage of biographies and autobiographies detailing specific missions from the Apollo Era. Having read Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kruger’s “Lost Moon,” I was more interested in a single volume telling of the lunar landing saga from the tragedy of Apollo 1 to the triumphant conclusion of Apollo 17. It soon became clear that to satisfy this goal, Andrew Chaikin’s “A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts” was going to be my best bet.

Apollo 8 Earthrise
“Earth Rise”, Apollo 8

Chaikin begins with the launchpad fire of Apollo 1, giving detailed and graphic descriptions of this horrific accident that took the lives of three astronauts and nearly ended the Apollo program. The inner workings of NASA quickly become apparent early on in the book, from the selection process for the Astronauts to how Deke Slayton chose who would fly each mission. As Apollo 7, 8, 9 and 10 took significant steps towards the first moon landing, Chaikin displays the emotional impact that these missions and others took on the families of the astronauts. With, Apollo 11, 12, 13 and 14 the challenge from John F. Kennedy was met, exploration began to expand, NASA showed its true excellence through a “successful failure,” and the first American in space returned to flight. The most knowledge I gained came from the descriptions of the geologic training and exploration that occurred during the missions of Apollo 15, 16 and 17. The astronauts of these missions, became lunar geologist almost as much as they were pilots. While the scientific terms were sometimes beyond my understanding, the detail that Chaikin provides in this section shows the immense scientific discovery that occurred on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11

Alan Shepard, after being grounded for so many years due to an ear disorder, finally made it to the moon, looked up at the Earth and began to cry. Edgar Mitchell secretly attempted an ESP experiment with psychics on Earth as he headed towards the moon at over 25,000 mph. Buzz Aldrin, took communion on the moon after he and Neil Armstrong landed the Eagle at The Sea of Tranquility. These stories are the greatest strengths of the book and often come from the access Chaikin was granted for interviews with 23 of the 24 astronauts who traveled to the moon. Their insightful recollections and sometimes emotional reveals provide the heart to what could otherwise be a rote retelling of process and checklists akin to an Apollo flight plan.

The book ends with a look at the various impact this journey had on the astronauts who undertook it. Neil Armstrong largely receded from public life following his “small steps,” becoming a college professor. Buzz Aldrin, under the pressure and stress of the public eye, fell into manic depression and suffered from alcoholism. Gene Cernan, through his exuberant personality, did public speaking tours around the world telling of his experiences on the lunar surface. The impact of the Apollo program on these men is best displayed by an insightful quote from Al Bean. Bean, who became an artist after leaving NASA, said “I think that everyone who went to the moon came back more like they already were.”

“I’ve been there. Chaikin took me back.”

Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, wrote these words in praise of Andrew Chaikin. While reading through the challenges and triumphs of Apollo, I felt like I was right there with him.

Small Steps into Astrophotography

Since the invention of the telescope in the 17th Century, an astronomer’s limit of what can be viewed through the eyepiece has always come down to the sensitivity of the eye peering through the lens.  With the invention of photography in the early 19th century and the digital revolution of the late 20th century, the limits of what can now be viewed depend much more on the image sensors, exposure times and tracking systems being used by the observer. As far as we have come in amateur astronomy and digital photography, astrophotography continues to be a complex and expensive extension of this hobby.

Thankfully, the technology to begin experimenting with this process has become embedded in devices used on a regular basis. Late in 2014, I bought the iPhone 6, which among many of its improvements, boasted of an enhanced camera. To test this and try out my hand at astrophotography, I took a couple shots of some of the night sky’s most well known targets.

Orion Nebula
Orion's Nebula
Starting with Orion Nebula, I had little expectation for success. As I slowly adjusted the iPhone 6 over the eyepiece, the image came into auto focus, and I was surprised to see the brightest parts of the nebula appearing on the screen. I snapped a handful of images and video, with the one shown above being the most impressive in terms of the gray cloud-like detail of the nebula and sharpness of the Trapezium Star Cluster, located at its center. To my eye, the Orion Nebula appears as a soft bluish-green cloud, but to achieve that through a camera, a longer exposure would be needed.

Pleiades Star Cluster
Pleiades
Moving the scope over to one of my favorite star clusters, the Pleiades Star Cluster revealed the most prominent of the Seven Sisters in sharp detail.

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons
Jupiter
Jupiter along with its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto proved to be a difficult set of objects to accurately capture together. The aperture was a difficult thing to adjust while holding the camera lens over the eyepiece. While it is nice to be able to see the four major moons of Jupiter in this image, collecting enough light to capture them, leads to an over exposure of Jupiter itself. While the major cloud belts are perfectly viewable through the eyepiece, they are washed out in the image.

Astrophotography has been one of those things that I have dabbled in from time to time, but never taken seriously due to a lack of proper equipment. These examples, however, show that with a bit of patience and a smart phone, you can begin to explore the world of astrophotography.

Comet Lovejoy: On a Cold Winter’s Night

Nights like these were made for amateur astronomers. A cool 27 degree night with little wind and no moon awaited. Preparing for the session has always been half the fun. Creating a mental list of what is going to be out and putting on some coffee as various layers of clothing are added to try and eke out as much precious time as possible before the cold finally wins out and ends the night. Tonight, there were few things on the list after a sunset viewing of Venus and Mercury less than 1 degree apart. The main event was a comet recently discovered in August of 2014 dropping by the neighborhood, which goes by the name Lovejoy C/2014 Q2.

The hunt for Lovejoy began with Skysafari+ on the iPhone 6. Located on this night, near the constellation Taurus and in between stars Nu Tauri and Xi Tauri; Lovejoy shined at a magnitude +4.9 and was visible to the naked eye even from the orange/yellow light polluted sky of Southwest Virginia. Starting out with the 2 in. Q70 38mm, Lovejoy popped into life at 32x magnification revealing a diffused cloud with a slightly greenish/gray color along with a surprisingly noticeable nucleus. While others have been able to make out its tail, I was not able to do so, most likely due to light pollution. From 32x to 200x magnification, Lovejoy continued to impress with the best views being in the 48x to 96x range.

This comet was much more impressive than previous ones viewed, including Lulin in February of 2009 and Panstarrs in June 2014. If you have a telescope or set of binoculars, January will continue to be a good time for observing. But don’t worry if you miss out, most estimates have Lovejoy returning in about 8,000 years.