Celestial Swampland

Picture of the constellations Gemini and Auriga, along with the planet Mercury. Trust me! Click for full-sized image.

July 31st, 2019, 07:01 a.m. local time

There is a saying, at least here in America, that if you believe a far-fetched notion/idea/something, then I have some prime swampland in Florida to sell you.

Today’s picture via my iPhone was taken with not a cloud in the sky, perfect for celestial viewing.  You can catch a glimpse of the Sun’s radiance behind the depot roof (I was waiting for the next train).  Framed in the center is the constellation Gemini with its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux.  Mercury is there as well, near the bottom.  Above Gemini you’ll find Auriga, which contains several impressive deep sky objects.  And it may be difficult to tell, but you can also see a bit of the constellation Taurus in the upper right and the top of Orion near the lower bottom.

And as an added bonus, the young Moon and Venus are present as well, though they hug close to the Sun right now.

For your benefit, I masked via a curves layer most of the Sun’s glare, which hopefully has allowed you to admire all these astronomical wonders.  Wait, still can’t see them?  Check again in six months and it should be fine.

Saturn at Opposition, July 2019

Saturn on the evening of Monday, July 8th, 2019, through my 254mm Dobsonian telescope.

Last week I mentioned that I had one other planet to show from my telescope work on the evening of July 8th.  It was about as perfect of a night for early July in Summer, so I kept my camera and telescope out for hours.  I first photographed the Moon, followed by Jupiter.  About an hour later, I took pictures of the other visible planet that night, Saturn.

Saturn was at opposition.  As I had not filmed Saturn since last year, I was very worried that the results would not be good.  It is harder than Jupiter to manually track with my Dobsonian telescope, because it is dimmer.

The above image was stacked from the final two videos I took (17 videos in total).  With these final two, I lowered the video exposure to 60.

For the first 18 videos, I let in more light with exposure 30.  They were good as well, but not as good, I thought, as the image produced from exposure 60.  Now normally, I stack only three videos at a time.  But I decided to try stacking all the good videos (i.e. good focus), of which there were nine.  Below is the result, after some final post-processing touchups (as I did with the image above as well).

Saturn at opposition, July 2019. This is a composite of my nine best videos at exposure 30.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: Canon EOS Rebel SL1
  • Barlow: TeleVue Powermate x5 1.25″
  • Filter: Baader Neodymium 1.25″
  • Canon T ring and adapter
  • Relevant camera settings:
    • ISO 1600
    • Exposure: 30 & 60
    • Set 1: Two 24-29 second videos at exposure 60
    • Set 2: Composite of nine 24-29 second videos at exposure 30; refocused after three videos at a time
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PIPP
    • Autostakkert
    • Registax 6
    • PaintShop Pro 2018 for final minor touchups

Moon Day – Humanity’s Common Historical Site

50 years past safely qualifies as history in human time.  The Apollo Moon landings were important for many reasons, yet one overlooked is that they created the most common historical testament in the world.  For no matter where you are, no matter how far or little you travel, you can always look up, at least a few times each year, to where the six lunar touchdowns happened.

Think of it in this context: ever since July 20th, 1969, every single picture of the Moon taken from Earth has included the areas where American men walked on the lunar surface.  The evidence is microscopically invisible, sometimes in light and sometimes in shadow, but the Apollo landing sites are nonetheless within every image.

Since I started this blog, I have pointed my own feeble cameras towards the Apollo sites many times, yet hardly mention them explicitly.  Today, I look back at some of my favorite lunar images, all of which include the Apollo areas, of course.

On March 5th, 2017, the Moon struggled to be seen through the encroaching clouds.

March 15th, 2017. Not too bad for a smartphone.

May 7th, 2017. This remains my favorite Moon image, even though it is a composite with Jupiter and its moons. It shows the relative sizes of all six objects as seen from Earth.

August 22nd, 2017. The silhouette of the Moon as it passed in front of the Sun.

September 17th, 2017. A unique perspective of the Moon through the plastic cap of my Dobsonian telescope.

October 11th, 2017. Daytime Moon.

November, 2017. Composite of the Moon on four nights from the same location.

December 7th, 2017. Rising Moon still facing the East horizon.

January 31st, 2018. Partial lunar eclipse.

April 19th, 2018. Crescent Moon.

May 17th, 2018. Moon and Venus at sunset.

June 7th, 2018. The Moon (center-right) seen during the day in Chicago.

September 30th, 2018. Happenstance capture of geese flying past the Moon.

January 20th, 2019, Full lunar eclipse.

A Day for the Moon

The Moon as seen in the early evening of Thursday, July 11th, 2019.

Farther than it seems
World above marks our limits
Touched by Man six times

Philosophical Anathema

The constellation Gemini.

The danger within this post is that you may surmise me to be a cold, logical rationalist.

I don’t believe I am anything of the sort, but that may be for you to decide.

When you look up into the sky on a clear evening, what do you see?  If you cannot see anything, that may be the first problem.  Perhaps you need your glasses on, or cleaned, but more likely, your vision of the Heavens is obscured by an inordinate amount of light pollution.

(Time for a “gotcha” moment…this post is not about light pollution!  But I encourage you to read all about it here.)

Hopefully you see stars.  More hopefully, you see a lot of stars.  They are amazing.  And through most of Man’s history, they were a great mystery, surpassed only by the mystery of mortality.

Along with the stars, closer to our own solar system you may see the Moon, as well as the bright planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. If you peer deeper, you might see nebulae within the Milky Way Galaxy.  Those in the darkest nights will also see the arms of the galaxy itself.

When you look upon all the delights above, what do you think?  What do you feel?

The night sky is remarkable, stirring thoughts of wonder and possibilities, invoking the imagination and likely, if you gaze long enough, forcing you to ask questions about your place in the universe.

You would not be alone in your reactions.  Many around the world are touched by the same impressions.  Undoubtedly, this cadence has endured for millennia, before recorded time.

On one level, looking into the Heavens is a deeply personal experience, especially when you are alone, at night, with only the scant sounds of nature interrupting your privacy along with the occasional gust of wind.

On another level, it can be overwhelming, to see all that there is above, way beyond Earth, indeed for all these wonders to exist irrespective of your own life.

Aren’t we all connected?  Are we not of this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, this universe?  Shouldn’t that connection have larger meaning?

The human mind struggles with these questions.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to contemplate how so much, in fact effectively all, of the universe has existed for billions of years in the absence of you, and will continue on long after your life on Earth has ended, after the Earth itself is gone, the Sun expired, to the true end times when the galaxies produce no more light and the only matter left to decay are protons.  These are disturbing realizations, when you put your mind to the philosophical task.

The Sun will continue to shine and burn regardless of whether we or Earth, or any of the other nearby planets, continue to exist.  Jupiter and Saturn remain on their perpetual courses with little-to-no influence from the inner planets.  And the Milky Way Galaxy, of which our Sun is one star among billions, shall remain and continue on long after our Sun burnt its last hydrogen fuel.

Where do we humans fit into the universe’s grand scheme?

Our need to admire and wonder about the cosmos must always endure.  What has changed in recent history, though, is our ability to understand all this within the general blanket field of astronomy.

We can now explain the motion of objects within our solar system and the forces that interconnect them.  We can discover and predict the birth and death of stars, galaxies, and the universe itself.  There is still much to learn and understand, but the progress made within the last century, when considered against the entire span of human history, is astounding.

What we see in the sky is defined by astronomy.  This wasn’t always understood, and in times past, without the tools provided by astronomy, the explanations of the sky defaulted to a more personable or societal level, upon the notion that the positions of cosmological objects heralded blessings and omens (relative to your side of a quarrel), and may even have had some direct message to individuals.  This latter method is astrology.

When I talk to people about my interest in astronomy, they sometimes mistake it as astrology.  But astronomy and astrology are diametrically opposed in their purposes and aims.  I don’t believe in astrology, at all.

I should emphasize before proceeding that I won’t dismiss entirely that it could be possible humanity’s fate and your individual destiny are strongly connected to the movement of the universe.  Anything is possible.  It just seems, based on everything I understand as true, to be extremely implausible.  And it should also be noted that this has nothing to do with faith in Divinity, for that is a different realm of philosophy and humanity altogether.  Yet I believe that our quest to understand the universe is one and the same with our need to understand God, but we’ll save that, perhaps, as a discussion for another time.

What does it mean that Jupiter is currently between Antares and Saturn, with the Sun in Gemini, and you were born when the Sun was in front of Taurus?  Absolutely nothing.  Nothing multiplied by anything is still nothing.  So it doesn’t matter when the Moon is full, or a planet is at opposition, or even if a star goes supernova.  The fallacy of astrology is that all of these events mean something, either to people at large or to you specifically.

Celestial events have been used as markers of convenience throughout history.  Halley’s Comet appeared in the Spring of 1066, and the Battle of Hasting happened in October of the same year.  It was a blessing for the victors and an omen for the losers.  You could look at the appearance of a comet, or a meteor or an eclipse, and interpret them in any way, shape, or form that will easily fit into the narrative of contemporary events.

As for the Zodiac, it’s a useful reference tool for exploring the night sky, to know, for example, that Aquarius and Capricornus sit next to each other.  But it is an extreme disservice to yourself believing there is meaning written in the stars for you because of that positioning.

Do all “Leos” share something in common?  Maybe, and it could be the commonality of birthdays to certain seasons of the year.  Everyone who celebrates their birthdays in hot Summers may have developed a perspective apart from those who have birthdays in the dead of Winter.  And because of the seasonal flip across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a Leo in one hemisphere will have the opposite seasonal experience to one born in the other.  And then you have to take into account minor regional shifts that could nudge perspective and experience every so slightly.

These are not the workings of Fate illuminating points of light in the sky, but a component of the aggregate geographical and cultural forces acting upon all of us, both as groups and individually.

The Zodiac was once made up of twelve constellations, which all conveniently lie on the Sun’s elliptic path in Earth’s sky.  And they were divided roughly according to twelve months per annum.

But through thousands of years, the expansion of the galaxy has caused the stars to shift.  If the classic constellations were assigned originally by their star positions, then there are now thirteen constellations in the Zodiac path, because stars in the constellation Ophiuchus have shifted into the elliptic.  Yes, constellations are not Zodiac “signs” and this is only within the Western interpretation, but the twelve signs have this origin.  Ten thousand years from now, the stars will have moved so much that our current understanding of the constellations, and those part of the Sun’s elliptic, will mean little due to their positional changes as seen from Earth.

The mysteries of the universe are vast.  The mysteries of the soul are even more.  But the orbit of Jupiter is simply the orbit of Jupiter.

There are other places to find guidance for your life, or to understand the ebb and flow of nations and societies and cultures.  Those sources are not in the sky but much closer to the ground.

I love looking up.  I am the beneficiary of the toil that created the means to understand the cosmos as we do today.  You are as well.  Civilization is about building upon that which came before, while reaping benefits within our own lifetimes.  The best service I can give to the progress of astronomy is to appreciate our sky within the context of the understanding already provided, to wonder how much more we’ll be able to achieve thanks to that chain of skill and knowledge and exploration.  This realization binds my own Fate to the Heavens far more than astrology ever could.

Gradually Increasing Moon

Click for full-sized image.

July 8th, 2019, 21:45 p.m. local time

Well, the Moon isn’t really increasing in size, just the visible side.  Following up on my post from early last week, on the following night I snapped the Moon again (as well as a few other objects), this time providing a larger crescent approaching its Quarter phase.  Each night, as the Moon approaches Full, you can see a little more.  The crescent of July 8th is slightly fatter than the crescent of July 7th.

The night was incredibly comfortable for July.  Here in the Norther Hemisphere, it is Summer, and we are now within our hottest stretch of the year, which I will roughly mark as late June through August, sometimes inching into early September.

The sky was very clear.  If there were any downside to the evening, it was that the Moon shone bright, even as a crescent, which blocked most of the South sky from deep sky observing (as much as is meagerly possible in my light pollution-infested locale).

July 8th was a special evening.  I captured this Moon, as well as Jupiter as I wrote about previously.  One more planet from that night remains to be shown.

Saturn Shower Thought

Saturn, from my backyard on September 15, 2018, post-processed on July 13, 2019.

I’ll suppose that most people’s shower thoughts concern their worries of family, or finances, or their job, or some things thereabouts.  For me, I’ll be more apt to wonder if I aggregated enough videos in post-processing.

And that is precisely what happened in the past day.  Recently, I have been catching up on my backlog of astrophotography imaging, dating back nearly a year.  In particular, I am finally getting to work on the Mars images I took from July through September of last year, at and shortly after the planet’s close opposition.

But buried among those raw Mars images was one set I completely forgot about – a session for Saturn in mid-September, 2018.  My goal that night was Mars specifically, and as an after-thought, since it was Friday night and my telescope was already set up, I decided to take videos of the ringed planet as well.

If I recall, I was displeased with the Mars images as I began to post-process them later in the evening and into Saturday morning.  Likely, I had planned to get back to them later, but never did, at least while Saturn was still on that side of the Sun.

Fast forward 10 months, and thanks to my journal, I discovered the videos, and how I arranged the sets, and the camera’s settings.  I’ve been having good luck with Registax wavelets, so I worked them, and was very please with the results.

Yet I also was programmatically stacking Saturn three videos at a time.  Why?  Because I usually have Jupiter on the brain when it comes to this subject, and Jupiter necessitates the three-video rule, as all of my videos are a max of 30 seconds.  Jupiter rotates incredibly fast, so fast that you really can’t stack a video sequence past about 90 seconds.

But Saturn is different because it rotates much slower.

And this is where my shower thought arrived tonight.  Why was I stacking only three videos at a time?  I could go past three, certainly, at least doubling the number.  The results were already good.  So I found my two best sets by way of focus, and stacked those six videos.  The results are shown in this post.

I am very please with the result.  It rivals my best prior attempts.  And this exercise was also a reminder and lesson that astrophotography can be a convoluted practice, with no right answer, and sometimes needing a shower’s inspiration to make progress.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: Canon EOS Rebel SL1
  • Barlow: TeleVue Powermate x5 1.25″
  • Filter: Baader Neodymium 1.25″
  • Canon T ring and adapter
  • Relevant camera settings:
    • ISO 1600
    • Exposure: 60
    • Created four sets of three videos 24-29 seconds each, used the first six videos for this post’s image
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PIPP
    • Autostakkert
    • Registax 6
    • PaintShop Pro for final minor touchups

The Importance of Taking Notes

Jupiter on the evening of Monday, July 8th, 2019, through my 254mm Dobsonian telescope.

I began taking copious notes when I entered high school.  I recall, in particular, my history class from that first year.  The several-hundred page spiral notebook filled up, week after week as I listened to the instructor recall the highlights of Western Civilization, from the early formations of Rome up to the monarchies and rise of the nation states in the 19th century.  It became almost a little game for me, to see how much of each lecture I could transcribe, even though much of that information wouldn’t find its ways onto the quizzes and exams.  I felt like the keeper of a sacred knowledge in accordance from the one who professed it.  A sort of happenstance holy book emerged that I couldn’t easily discard at the end of the school year, unlike the largely unfilled notebooks from my other classes.

Notetaking garnered even more importance when I entered college, as I attempted to keep all of the calculus, physics, differential equations, and engineering concepts straight in my head.  These produced, sometimes, even larger sets of writings in the form of official homework assignments.  Using up spiral notebooks and loose-leaf paper was the norm back then, and I still remember how my wrist and hand would ache.

Now in 20+ year hindsight of my humble and narrow career, I see that notetaking was necessary at times, but not at others.  It was certainly more relevant in my early days, fresh out of college.  That was still the pre-Outlook era, and email seemed more an offbeat frill than the mundane requirement it is today.  My work notes and scribbles are far from timeless.  Most spoil quickly and are no longer useful even after just a few months.

When I took up my astronomy hobby in earnest nearly a half decade ago, I held an enthusiasm for keeping logs of my activities.  Particularly, I recorded in detail my photography sessions in the hopes of learning from prior attempts.  My little journal book has been invaluable when I restart taking pictures of the Moon and planets.  What exposure and ISO worked best last year for Jupiter?  Without my journal, I may have given up as it would have become too onerous a task to rebuild and reimagine how to take these photographs at seasonal and annual intervals.

My astrophotography journal came in very handy this week as I put my telescope and camera and lenses back into full service.  Today’s highlight from those evening sessions in Jupiter.  I timed the above picture knowing that the Great Red Spot was visible for several hours on Monday night.

Comparing this to several of my prior Jupiter images, notably from 2018, I am very please with the results.  Always keep in mind, until further notice, that my telescopes are not intended for imaging and my camera is not designed for astrophotography.  It is a hassle to manually nudge my Dobsonian just enough every 30 seconds without completely losing bearing on my current target, but it’s still fun and the results are usually decent enough to share.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: Canon EOS Rebel SL1
  • Barlow: TeleVue Powermate x5 1.25″
  • Filter: Baader Neodymium 1.25″
  • Canon T ring and adapter
  • Relevant camera settings:
    • ISO 1600
    • Exposure: 125
    • Created five sets of three videos 24-29 seconds each, refocusing after each set
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PIPP
    • Autostakkert
    • Registax 6
    • PaintShop Pro for final minor touchups

Fanciful and Available Reasons I Haven’t Posted Recently

Moon on the evening of Sunday, July 7th, 2019, from my Canon EOS. f/5.6, 1/60 exposure, ISO 100. Post-processed in PaintShop Pro.

(1) I was aboard the last of NASA’s deep space probes.  In a freak mishap, I was blown out of my trajectory into an orbit that returned me to Earth months later.

(2) Was waiting impatiently for Jupiter and Saturn to reach opposition.

(3) Read The Lord of the Rings for the fourth time.

(4) Was afflicted with writer’s block, stifling all my authorship attempts, from this blog to my novel’s draft.

(5) I periodically suffer acute grief relapses concerning the death of Star Wars at the hands of The Last Jedi.

(6) Irrespective of blogging, I kept a diligent watch on the sky, checking for the Moon, day and night, and tracking stars and constellations as best as I could through all the light pollution muck.

(7) Went on sabbatical to once again try to wrap my head around what happened to Babylon 4.

(8) A combination of long stretches of lousy weather along with hectic work activities and involved home projects left little time for astrophotography.

(9) <insert overused Star Trek time travel plot device here>

(10) I have been working diligently to post-process my 2018 Mars images.