Waxing Gibbous Moon, July 2018

July 24th, 2018, 9:15 p.m. local time

A nearly Full Moon was on clear display tonight, lighting up a pleasantly mild July evening.  Saturn was close, just below the Moon, but I opted not to try to bring them into the same picture.  Worth noting is that four planets were visible in the night sky at this time: Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, and Mars, though Mars had just peeked over the horizon and was far out of my viewing range.


Relative Planets

Evenings of July 6th through July 8th, 2018

The weather was amazing this weekend, especially for early July.  Clear skies, no humidity, and bugs only became a problem on the final night.

On Friday evening I took another set of Jupiter pictures.  These are not shown, as the following day’s images were far superior.

After Friday’s Jupiter session, I kept the telescope out after midnight, so technically on Saturday, to image Saturn for the first time this year.  As always, I have to wait for the planets to clear trees to the Southeast.  Since Saturn is now a few weeks past opposition, I get a clear few of the planet shortly after midnight.

For Saturn, I checked my written log for the settings I used last year (ISO 3200 and 100 exposure).  These, according to my log, gave me my best results.  But thinking I could do better based on my recent Jupiter work, I decided to try ISOs at 1600 and 800 and exposures of 60 and 30, respectively.  Lower ISO means less noise.  The results were not too bad, but I think the 3200/100 settings are still the best, and will try those next time.

On Saturday night, I took what I think may be my best Jupiter yet.  The finder focus on my first attempt was near perfect, if not perfect.  Look at the cloud band detail!  I only wish the Great Red Spot was facing us more at the time.  You can also see Io next to the GRS.

Then on Sunday I dragged my big telescope to my front lawn to capture Venus setting in the West.  This is the first time I did that.  The results were much better than I expected.  You cannot get much from Venus beyond its general shape.

What is neat about lining all three images side-by-side is that they were taken with the same telescope and same equipment setup, so you get a great sense of their relative sizes as seen from Earth.  Venus is noticeably smaller even though it is the closest to Earth and approximately the same size as Earth.  Right now, Venus is just over 90 million miles (145 million km) away.  Jupiter is about 450 million miles (724 million km) past, and Saturn is 840 million miles (1350 million km) from us.

What I should have done was take an image of a star, to show its relative size as well.  Next time!

Equipment used this weekend:

  • 254mm homemade Dobsonian
  • Canon EOS at prime focus
  • TeleVue x5 Barlow
  • Neodymium filter

Humid Jupiter, June 2018

Jupiter via a 254mm Dobsonian, prime focus, TeleVue x5 barlow, Neodymium filter.

June 29th, 2018, 9:45 p.m. local time

I ignored the “excessive humidity warning” tonight and imaged Jupiter.  The sky was just too clear and this was a Friday night.  I am glad I did, because though the humidity was stifling, the bugs were very few.  Apparently insects don’t like humidity either.

This is my first good image of Jupiter in 2018.  The focus was near-perfect and about as good as I am going to get with my non-imagining imaging equipment.  Referencing my note log from last year and the few bad attempts this year, I got the camera settings just right.  I also did post-processing in PaintShop Pro to smooth out and clean up the image.

As added bonuses, Europa and Io made it into the picture.  The Great Red Spot is also visible.  Even if I don’t get another decent Jupiter for the rest of the year, I will at least have this one to look back on.

The Only Way to Salvage Star Wars Episode IX and Beyond

“It is the only way.” – Darth Vadar in The Empire Strikes Back

It’s Summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, a time of vacations and general relaxation.  It’s also a time for miserable stargazing weather.  So here is something offbeat, albeit a little ranty, still involving stars, but more fully, Star Wars.

I grew up with Star Wars.  I saw every movie at release in either a drive-in or theater.

But enough about me.  Let’s fast forward to 2015 and The Force Awakens.  I wasn’t thrilled with it but did not dislike it either.  Faint praise.  It was definitely better than Episodes I and II, though well behind my favorites.

At the risk of resounding cries heard within the now seven-month old fan echo chamber, The Last Jedi was a complete disaster.  I won’t enumerate all the problems, as other have written and made videos explaining in detail everything wrong with this sorry excuse for a film, a film sadly intended to be the next episodic installment of a beloved saga.  Yet amazingly, many of the grating and confounding problems could be excused if only the single core issue had been addressed properly: the Luke Skywalker of Jedi is a completely different character from the original trilogy.  There is no way you can convince me the fan that young Luke, who believed redemption was possible for the evilest man in the galaxy, his father, would end up as an old grumpy psychotic whose first inclination was to murder his own nephew in cold blood because he, a Jedi Master, had a Dark Side premonition about him.  Suspension of disbelief is one thing in fantasy, but re-writing characters to the point there is no consistency with any core characteristics is a fracture in imagination that cannot be easily repaired, if at all.

Let me give one example for comparison.  Hopefully you are familiar with The Lord of the Rings in either book or film format.  Suppose that halfway through the second book, The Two Towers, Frodo decided that he needed to murder Samwise to save his own skin.  Frodo came to Sam as he slept, looked at him with wide, obsessed eyes, pulled out Sting and set it to his friend’s throat, only to back off at the very last second.  Sam then awoke to see what his master was doing.

Would you believe this was the same Frodo introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring?  How would your perception of Frodo change for the remainder of the novel?  Would you still believe he was the standard bearer of hobbit lineage and the hero successor to his uncle Bilbo, if he was now revealed as a betrayer of his closest friend, let alone a potential murderer?  Is this really the hobbit Gandalf was so fond of?  Would you even care if he accomplished his mission into Mordor?

Of course, it is ludicrous to think of Frodo in this way.  This also holds true for the fake Luke Skywalker, with the only difference being that Lucasfilm actually put this concept to screen, and now we’re stuck with it, along with those who argue it was no big deal, because after all, it is now canon.

Jedi ruined the Star Wars experience for me, at least in terms of future expectations.  I have zero expectations for Episode IX.  I don’t care about the characters or what happens next to the First Order and Resistance, or whatever the Resistance will now be called (the Rebellion Reborn, as fake Luke said?).  Reasonable and modest buildups in expectations from Force were entirely cast away or destroyed in Jedi.  Finn’s backstory, Snope’s backstory, Rey’s backstory, why Luke was in hiding, all of these were recklessly cast aside just as fake Luke tossed that iconic lightsaber over his shoulder and off the cliff.

(As a side note, I have to wonder why it is so difficult to write a continuation of Star Wars that is faithful to prior material while also breaking new ground.  Force was criticized for copying parts of the original trilogy too much, and Jedi went polar opposite by blowing up many past story elements as well as threads started in Force.)

What do we have now, after two movies of this sequel trilogy?

  • No development whatsoever in explaining Finn’s stormtrooper roots, which were cleverly introduced in Force
  • A main villain, who arguably had the best mystery and buildup of expectations for any of the new characters, was “lol’ed” killed off barely midway through the second movie for no good reason beyond the new writer not wanting to deal with him anymore
  • A main hero who still fails at nothing she attempts, is better than everyone at everything, without even a hint as to why. In fact, her development went in the opposite direction with the proclamation that her parents were nobodies, hence she was too, making her several-day old Jedi Knight mastery even more bizarre.

A defender of Jedi’s story is forced to assume that everything, at least the big questions around Rey, Finn, and Kylo, are wrapped up in the trilogy’s final movie.  That’s a big presumption to take seriously.  It means that the mysteries of Force which were subverted almost completely in Jedi are going to be tied together so that everything makes sense.  Sorry, but that’s just not happening.

I care nothing of the story now or the characters.  What reason did the film writer give me, or any 40+ year fan of Star Wars, for caring about what comes next?  How can any of us relate to a main character that never fails, and when we have no reason to believe after two movies that she will ever fail?

Kylo Ren murdered his father, spared his mother, and turned out to be nothing but a hissy fit of rampant child emotion.  What level of fan investment am I supposed to have at this stage to wonder and care if he will ever be redeemed?

The First Order and Resistance are nearly playing out the same script of Empire vs. Rebellion, but with far less competence on both sides.  Why do I need to see a knock-off and inferior version of the original story?

The consistency of the story and main characters is ruined.  There is no way for the events from Episode VII to be resolved reasonably or logically in Episode IX.

There is one option on the table for bandaging this train wreck, and I use this analogy deliberately.  You can make small amends, but the damage is lasting, because the fix itself is innately ridiculous.

So how do you walk back such horrific story shredding?

Dream sequence.

Yeah, it was all just a dream.  Episodes VII and VIII were mostly a sequence of dreams and, because this is Star Wars, Force premonitions.  Some of it was grounded reality, some wishful hoping, some glimpses into the potential future.

Episode IX begins on a planet not seen before, where we immediately join our main character, Rey, as she wakes from a long and vivid dream.  She is a Padawan trainee at Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy.  She is also the least of Luke’s students, with weak powers in the Force, unconfident in her abilities, to the point that most of the other Padawans wonder why she is even there.

But Luke saw potential in her once during a visit to and chance encounter on Jakku.  Despite a meager connection to the Force, Luke felt something else he had not seen before in a Force sensitive.  An orphan of junk traders, Rey gladly accepted Luke’s invitation to be trained as a Jedi.

Ben Solo is also one of Luke’s students.  He too is an orphan, with both of his parents Leia and Han having past (this nicely addresses Fisher’s death and Ford’s earlier departure).  Ben is one of Luke’s strongest students.  He is very aware of his heritage, which makes him overconfident and gives him an inflated sense of destiny, but he is still a good young man, yet bearing an uncanny resemblance in character to a young Anakin Skywalker, his grandfather.

Rey had heard stories of these types of Force premonitions before, and immediately seeks out Master Skywalker to tell him everything and seek his guidance.  Through the conversation, Luke is amazed at the clarity of her narrative, combining actual events with apparent glimpses into the future.  This is the first time Luke hears of a possible Sith Lord named Snoke.  But more worrisome for Luke is the fate of his nephew Ben in Rey’s dream.

The New Republic, still young, is growing and largely at peace at this time.  The remnants of the old Empire are scattered and nearly vanquished.

While Rey and Luke are talking, an orbital military strike descends from the sky, catching everyone off guard.  Luke recognizes the ships as likely Imperials, but Rey says in shock, “Oh no, it’s the First Order!”

Luke quickly understands there is much importance in Rey’s dream.  What ensues is an overmatched battle between the First Order and Luke and his students, the only people on the planet.  Though most of his students are killed, through Luke’s leadership a few survive and escape from the planet, including Rey, Ben, and the droids R2-D2 and BB-8, Rey’s only companion from when she lived on Jakku.

The remainder of the story will be about Luke and the New Republic realizing they are now at war with this new foe, which is relentlessly pushing into Republic territory against their off-guard defenses.  While the Republic tries to hold ground, Luke realizes through Rey that there is a far greater danger that he and his small band of Jedi trainee’s must handle: finding the location of Starkiller Base!  In this real timeline, Starkiller Base is still under construction, and it will be up to Luke, his Jedi, and eventually the Republic as well to stop it before it comes online.  An under construction Starkiller Base in the third movie of the sequel trilogy would be a neat relation to the second Death Star still under construction in the third movie of the original trilogy.

Throughout the story, Luke and Rey leverage the premonitions from Rey’s dream to guide them in their actions.  Most likely we will learn that the dream was instilled by Snoke himself.  But through the experience and ensuing journey, Rey gains confidence and grows stronger, playing a key role in the final conflict.

If anything, there would undoubtedly be a strong mentor-apprentice relationship forged between Luke and Rey as the story unfolded, a relationship that ranged from non-existent to poorly comedic in Jedi.

The rest of the story could be worked out in a variety of ways, addressing Finn’s story as well as other key aspects, like giving Snoke an apprentice, who likely led the initial invasion of the Jedi Academy.

Will Ben turn into Kylo Ren?  Who knows!  We will let the real writers decide.

My guess is this alternate reality would be too violent for Disney, but to me it would put the wars back into Star Wars, give us back the real Luke, and offer a semblance of believability for Rey.

Moon Reunites with Venus on Hot Summer Night, June 2018

Click to see the full image.

June 16th, 2018, 9:05 p.m. local time

We’re about a month from the last rendezvous of the Moon and Venus.  I wasn’t planning to get the camera and tripod set up tonight due to the excessive heat.  But after the Sun set, I went outside, thought the humidity was somewhat bearable, and decided to give it a try.  I was not outside too long, though, as the bugs were ridiculous.

Fortunately I had my image set from last month to use as reference for the camera’s settings.  This made tonight’s session easy and quick, as was necessary, as explained above.

Curious Location to See the Moon

Sears Tower and Moon, via smartphone.

June 7th, 2018,11:30 a.m. local time

I don’t always photograph the Moon in broad daylight.  But when I do, I try to include a former world’s tallest building, for perspective.

First Jupiter of 2018

Jupiter via a 127mm Mak-Cass, 14.5mm eyepiece, x2 Barlow, Neodymium filter, and smartphone.

June 4th, 2018, 9:30 p.m. local time

Most of my recent astro-imaging has been through my 254mm Dobsonian.  Its main advantage, within my arsenal of equipment, is its mirror size, allowing for the most light gathered.  Its primary disadvantage is lack of automatic tracking.

So for a change of pace, I took out my 125mm Mak-Cass last night, which is able to locate and track objects in the sky.  It is not perfect, but it gets you to where you’re going, or looking, and stays on the target far longer than the manual Dobsonian can.  Whereas I refer to my Dobsonian as a “light cannon,” the Mak-Cass with its proportionately longer focal length relative to the size of its primary mirror is more akin to a sniper rifle, for pinpoint accuracy on very small patches of the sky.

The current positions and timing of our planets offer an opportunity to see both Jupiter and Venus in the sky shortly after Dusk, with the former in the Southeast and latter descending in the West.  I will have a separate post for Venus later.

Jupiter came out surprisingly well.  The biggest challenge was adjusting the smartphone mount on the eyepiece.  It was very difficult to center the camera lens just right.  I think this was in part due to the eyepiece used – a 14.5mm planetary viewer, which is not designed to hold a smartphone mount well.  It is great for simply looking with your eye, but not for attaching cameras.

My only regret on this image is that it is slightly out of focus.  I tried to minimize the impact with post-processing.  I was pressed for time and forgot to do a few refocuses as I normally would.

Leo the Lion and Coma Berenices, May 2018

Click to see the full-sized image.

Since I started taking wide-field pictures of the sky last year, the constellation Leo has been my most-photographed target.  Being high overhead in my area during its prime viewing season, its resulting images suffer the least from the harsh light pollution closer to the horizon.  It is also an easy constellation to trace once you identify the anchor stars of Regulus and Denebola.

This image was produced in DeepSkyStacker from about 25 25-sec exposures, f/2.8 and ISO 200.  I have settle on these settings based on my earlier pictures this year of Orion, Gemini, and Auriga.  Further post-processing attempted to accentuate the bright stars.

Above Leo and to the left you can see Coma Berenices.  It sort of blends in with the other fainter stars directly above Leo.  This was in part a trade-off by me – I wanted to show as many stars as possible, at the loss of Coma Berenices blending too much into that fainter star field.

Next on my ongoing astro-imaging tour, I hope, is Jupiter.  I took one set of pictures a few weeks ago, but they turned out badly.  The skies were clear this weekend but the humidity was stifling.  Fortunately, there is plenty of time to see and image Jupiter in 2018, and I am still easily on pace based on prior years and how Jupiter repositions year-to-year.  In 2016 I started photographing Jupiter in early April; in 2017, I started in early May.  So 2018’s “window” is a few weeks away.

Moon and Venus Together, May 2018

Click to see the full image.

May 18th, 2018, 9:05 p.m. local time

The Moon and Venus were side-by-side again last night in the Western sky.  The surrounding clouds offered a nice opportunity for a larger framing of the evening view.

If you look closely above and to the left of the Moon, you can see stars.  They were not visible to me at the time I took this picture.  The brightest one on the left is the star Alhena in the constellation Gemini.  And in fact, the very faint stars, which you will only be able to see if you click on the full image, are all part of the bottom of Gemini.  Castor and Pollux, at the top of Gemini, were visible at this time, but out of the image frame.  I am guessing that next month, these two plus the Moon will make for another nice viewing, weather permitting.

Finally, note that the glow around the Moon and to a smaller degree Venus are not exposure issues.  Those coma-like appearances were plainly seen due to the cloud cover.