Staying Up Way Too Late for a Cool Trio

March 15th, 2017, 1:10 a.m. local time

The configuration of the cosmos waits for no one.  By midnight, I knew I had to stay up a tad longer to see the Moon in proximity to both Jupiter and Spica.  Despite the unseasonal cold chill, it was a rewarding experience thanks to a mostly clear early morning.

Obviously, the Moon is glaring bright.  I set my exposure to 1/6000 to get this:

Previously, when the Moon was smaller, I got away with 1/3000.  But even 1/3000 was a bit too bright, so when the Moon is near full, I will have to speed up the shutter to reveal surface detail.

I cannot wait to return to all the fun of imagining Jupiter – cloud bands and Great Red Spot and Galilean moons all!  Just have to be patient a little while longer.  For now, I will remember this cool moment, and be glad I captured it.

A Winter Storm, Too Much Daylight, and a Return

Click to enlarge.

March 14th, 2017, 4:50 p.m. local time

It was over a Mercury orbit ago when I last saw snow on the ground.  We just got several inches overnight, albeit it has already melted to the point of inconsequence.  I am more than happy to wait a bunch more Mercurial orbits before seeing snow again.

I snapped the above photo while leaving work today.  This was the western edge of the winter storm that hit the area over the past day, now rolling eastward off Lake Michigan to clobber folks in the mid-Atlantic.

And speaking of daylight pictures, it sure seemed awfully bright for the late afternoon.  I doubt that clock-changing ritual had anything to do with it.  But regardless, for a stargazer, it’s a little depressing knowing that the night is inching slowly away from the comfortable early evening hours.

Finally, as I write this, I am pleased to report that my sky is clear for the time being.  More importantly, I see the Moon and Jupiter (yes!) ascending into the night through my dormant tree border to the East.  In another hour or so I’ll have a clear view to take some pictures.  Can I stay awake?  Tune in tomorrow to see if I have any goodies to show!

Moon through Smartphone: Compensating for Clouds

March 11th, 2017, 10:30 p.m. local time

Over the weekend, in a familiar tale, clouds rolled in.  However, these were not enough Saturday night to suppress the might of our nearly-full Moon.  Above, taken with my smartphone on basic Auto mode, you see the disc both punching through and illuminating the cloud canvas.

As mentioned days before, I learned you can set your smartphone to capture the Moon’s surface details.  On a clear pre-dusk sky I had great success with ISO 200 and 1/3000 shutter speed.  With clouds, however, the equation changes a bit, so I scaled the shutter all the way up to 1/50 to get this (cropped, as the surroundings are all black):

While not as clear as before, obviously due to the clouds, you can still see a good amount of surface detail!

Extreme Planet Hunters, Episode II: Uranus and Torcularis Septentrionalis

Click for full size.

Uranus is below Mars in this picture. Can you find it? Click to enlarge and zoom in!

Last weekend I went on an extreme hunt (from the safety of my driveway) to find the normally-shy seventh planet, Uranus.  Using a technique and image reference from Scott Levine at Scott’s Sky Watch, I apparently was able to capture Uranus with just my smartphone and a 10-second exposure.  Scott was then kind enough to do some additional digging to corroborate that what I identified was very likely Uranus.

As part of Scott’s investigation, he looked up the sky in Stellarium for the day and time I look my picture.  Here is the image he noted:

Scott highlighted with orange circles two stars I did not have in my original zoomed and cropped image, because I cut the image off after Mars.  First, that unnamed star is to the left and slightly higher than Uranus.  And the much brighter star to the left of Mars goes by the rad name Torcularis Septentrionalis.

Torcularis Septentrionalis.  When I was a kid, never in my most far-flung dreams did I imagine I would be blogging in 2017 about a star named Torcularis Septentrionalis.  Who knows about this star other than professional astronomers and die-hard stargazers?  A quick Internet search reveals little about it, other than a few basic facts such as its magnitude (+4.27) and that the name is Latin for, “The Northern Press,” though nobody knows why one of our ancestors named it such.  Perhaps, someday, I will write a novel about mankind’s first journey to the Torcularis Septentrionalis system, and all the incredible treasures and hidden mysteries waiting billions of years for us to find them.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to our solar system and the hunt for Uranus…

So I returned to my source image (very top above) to check if I captured these two stars.  Sure enough, it looks like I did.  Here is a left-wise re-crop where you can see the two noted stars:

Click to see the full-size image.

Again, all of these identified objects are very faint from my Samsung Galaxy S7’s meager 10-second exposure.  But I now do feel confident that I found Uranus thanks to the nearly half-dozen reference points.

This episode has stoked my interest for photographing the night sky sans telescope.  Maybe soon I will get myself a decent DSLR camera and start taking wide-field views of the great dome above.  Just think of all the other stars like Torcularis Septentrionalis out there waiting to be found!

More Perspective on Capturing the Moon’s Detail with a Smartphone

Click to see the full-sized original image.

When I blogged a couple days ago about how you can photograph the Moon’s surface with just your smartphone, I did not lend any perspective as to what the native images looked like.  I cropped the small sections with the Moon in each.

The following day and at approximately the same time (in daylight), the sky was still clear.  So I took another round of pictures.  The image above was again taken with my phone’s Pro mode at ISO 200 and 1/3000 shutter.  Click on this image to pull up the complete and untouched 4032×3024 image file.  In this one, the Moon is just a bit larger than it was the prior day, and you can still see the surface’s detail.

The point of this is to show you how that little dot of a satellite can reveal so much detail with just a few camera setting tweaks.

A Very Brief History of Astronomy

As told by Neil deGrasse Tyson in his co-authored book, Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour:

“For thousands of years, all we could do was measure the brightness of a star, its position in the sky, and maybe note its color.  This was classical astronomy.  It became modern astrophysics when we started obtaining spectra, because spectra allowed us to understand chemical composition, and our accurate interpretation of spectra came from quantum mechanics.

“We had no understanding of spectra until quantum mechanics was developed.  Planck introduced his constant in 1900, and in 1913 Bohr made his model of the hydrogen atom, with electrons in orbitals based on quantum mechanics, which explained the Balmer series.

“Modern astrophysics really didn’t get under way until after that, in the 1920s.  Think about how recent this is.  The oldest people alive today were born when astrophysics was starting.  For thousands of years, we were essentially clueless about stars, yet in one human lifetime we have come to know them well.

“In 1926, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is bigger than anybody had thought, because he revealed that galaxies live far beyond the stars of our own Milky Way.  And in 1929, he discovered that the universe is expanding.  These leaps of understanding happened in the lifetime of people alive today.  Extraordinary.

“I often ask myself, what revolutions await us in the next several decades?  What cosmic discoveries will you witness that you can tell your descendants about?”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Moon: So Far and Yet So Near

Auto Mode from Samsung Galaxy S7 (no telescope)

March 7th, 2017, 6:00 p.m. local time

I made a little discovery a few days ago, documented here, that I can capture the Moon’s surface details with nothing but my smartphone, a Samsung Galaxy S7.  Tonight, with the sky clear, still blue, but on the verge of dusk, I took a few more pictures of the Moon (and my, has it grown since its run-in over the weekend with Aldebaran!).

The above picture was taken as a straight “Auto” mode image.  Obviously, it captures the still-blue sky and and the overexposed Moon, but at least you can see its shape.

Below, I switched my phone to “Pro” mode with the captioned settings:

Pro Mode from Samsung Galaxy S7 (no telescope) with ISO 200 and 1/3000 exposure

Holy cow!  That’d be them there Moon we be seein’!

I am amazed how much detail was captured.  This started me thinking…what if I tried photographing the Moon in the same way I do the planets?  With the planets, I use my phone to take videos, and then post-process those videos in PIPP, AutoStakkert, and Registax to create composite images.  If I, say, mounted my phone on a tripod, pointed it at the Moon with no optical aid (i.e. telescope), and started video taping, what type of results would I end up with?

That may seem silly, since you can of course get superior images of the Moon with even the smallest of telescopes and a basic camera.  But I would do this…in the name of astrophotography science.  I am really curious what the final product would be!

I am not sure when or if I will have a chance do do this, but I will keep it on the back burner, as they say, until the time is right.

Tonight, the Wind Won

March 6th, 2017, 11:50 p.m. local time

This evening was, and still is, all about the wind.  It’s blowing very fiercely, more so than I remember for a while.  Thick clouds warn of heavy rain later tonight (early morning).  Needless to say, no stargazing was possible.  However, Tuesday and Wednesday’s forecasts look clear, if colder, so I hope to get outside at least for a little bit with my binoculars, if nothing else.

Hope you have clear skies, wherever you may be!

Fighting the Losing Fight

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

March 5th, 2017, 7:30 p.m. local time

High above, as the clouds rolled in tonight, the Moon tried to hold on with its building brightness.  For a while, it shone as the only object in the sky.  But by an hour later, the limits of the Moon’s current powers were reached, the night swamped by dark clouds, the telltale sign that no stargazing will happen this evening.

If you zoom in on this image, you can see that I captured a bit of surface maria.  Incredible for just a smartphone.