Saturn in July 2017

July 16th, 2017, 11:10 p.m. local time

All the recent rain and generally miserable humid summer weather almost made me forget that there was a brief pocket of pleasant evening clearness just this past Sunday.  It was a great opportunity to move my 10″ Dobsonian to my back deck for taking in the evening’s astronomical wonders.

I started with imaging Saturn, my primary objective.  I had great difficulty locating Saturn that night and it was almost 20 minutes before I locked on.  Keep in mind this is all a manual process.  My homemade Dobsonian is a Newtonian reflector on a simple alt-az swivel mount.  Even by turning my exposures all the way up, I still had problems finding it.  The lesson here is that it may be next to impossible to attempt imagining of Uranus in a few months with my meager equipment.

Returning to the present though with Saturn, I think this may be my best yet.  When I image the planets, I always take a few sets of videos with different refocusing.  It is really, really hard to get the exact focus right, and the digital camera’s view screen can only get you approximately there, hence the need to take a few sets so that hopefully at least one of them is good.

This night, I took two sets, and it was the first group of videos that allowed me to create the above image.  I also used my Neodymium filter, which I prefer for Saturn as it brings out a nice color contrast among planet’s cloud bands and ring levels.

After my Saturn session was complete, I put a 17mm eyepiece on the scope just to look around on that clear no-Moon night.  Of note was the Hercules Globular Cluster (Messier 13) which I saw clearer than I ever had.  Wow!  I could make out many bright stars in the foreground of the cluster.  I don’t have the proper equipment to image it, but I hope to have the skills to properly draw it by next year.

Also of note was that I am starting to see Cassiopeia earlier and earlier in the Northeast.  It’s the great pointer to the Andromeda Galaxy.  My view to the East is mostly blocked, so I have to wait some before the galaxy is visible via telescope and binoculars from my backyard, but it is comforting to know my favorite gray smudge will be back soon!

A Blazing Full Moon with Saturn

July 9th, 2017, 12:15 a.m. local time

This moon was full – very full.  And it was very bright.  The sky and everything were lit like alternative dawn imagined on an alien world, not by our Sun but from an unknown foreign star.  The Moon hiding behind a patch of clouds helped to illustrate this effect.

In the photo, you can also see Saturn off to the right.  The summer weather has stopped me from getting my telescope out more to both look at and image the planet, but I hope to get a least a few good sessions in through the month of July.

On a side note, my stargazing has been jagged for the past two weeks.  I packed it all in during the July 4th weekend while all the bombs were going off, for fear of a stray firework hitting either me or my telescope.  But I have also been studying the sky, to understand which constellations and stars are out this time of year.  My favorite, Scorpius, looms over the South horizon.  I have mapped out Bootes, which falls into the category of constellations not obvious to find unless you star hop and have a moderately dark sky.  Hercules and Ophiuchus are this type as well found in the Northern Hemisphere during the Summer.

What I am really looking forward to is the “return” of the Andromeda Galaxy.    We are nearly at that time of year again where I will be able to see it peeking over my East treeline if I stay out well past midnight.  According to my log I started viewing it last year mid-to-late July.

Jupiter Animations 2017

First, a bit of housekeeping.  I have not been posting a lot this month, but that does not mean I have not been stargazing.  On the contrary, the amazing weather my area has had for the last few weeks led me to take advantage of it as much as I can.  For example, this week I did a triple feature with my telescope: first imaged Jupiter, then did some DSO searching, and finished with Saturn imaging.  All under a clear new Moon sky.  When I do take pictures, I try to push them to my Twitter account, just because it’s the faster way to post them.

And speaking of housekeeping, this post is a much delayed matter I finally got around too.  On May 31st I took a good sample set of Jupiter images to attempt an animated GIF.  I shot five video sets all about 15 minutes apart.  The above is Jupiter alone.  As you can tell, I do not have an equatorial mount, so Jupiter was in process of still ascending into the night sky at the time I took the videos.

While the planet came out pretty well, unfortunately this was a terrible time to include the Galilean moons.  The only one that was reasonable close was Io.  And bad for Io, it was at the edge of its orbit perpendicular to Earth, so over the course of that hour, it appears to have hardly moved.  See for yourself:

Obviously this second animated GIF is overexposed in order to show Io.  Given that I do not have an equatorial mount, I doubt I will be attempting this animation exercise next Jupiter season, preferring to focus on observing, still photography, and sketching.  If anything, I now know the approximate radius of Io’s orbit through the telescope.  Still, I am glad I attempted this exercise as it is one more achievement to cross off my astronomy to-do list.

First Saturn of 2017

June 19th, 2017, 12:45 a.m. local time

It was a hasty session under non-ideal conditions, and I was very tired, but I wanted to try capturing Saturn with my 10″ Dobsonian and DSLR camera.  I have the Jupiter settings down fairly pat, so now it is time to start honing in on taking good pictures of the sixth planet.

A few factors became obvious when I started.  First, since Saturn is much lower towards the horizon, I am going to have to use my counterweights (a bunch of “C” clamps) to keep the Dobsonian from falling over with the camera attached.  For last night, I just held the tube up manually.  I only got about 1,100 shaky frames across back-to-back videos.

Next, it will be a challenge to get the ISO and exposures right, since Saturn is fainter than Jupiter.  With Jupiter, I could achieve focus by setting the camera’s option to overexposure and then focusing in on Jupiter’s moons.  Titan seems too faint for this focusing method to work.

Last, it is going to be a bit uncomfortable over the next month trying to photograph in Summer conditions.  I have come to love the Winter for stargazing – no bugs and you can just layer up.

Forecasted viewing is pretty bad for the rest of the week.  The only good news is that Saturn is still appearing a bit too late in the evening, as I must wait until after midnight to view it due to the tall Southeast obstructions in my way.  Hoefully things will look up in a few weeks.

Hunting the International Space Station

ISS on June 7th, 2017

During this past week I made an effort to track and photograph the International Space Station.  First, on the night of June 5th, I waited for it with my binoculars at the scheduled time for my location.  It did appear in my sky at the appointed time, going from NNW to E.  It was bright and of course moved quickly.  The binoculars did not reveal any additional details that I could not already see with my eyes alone (in other words, nothing).

Now trusting the Interweb’s timekeeping for the ISS and having a general idea of where to look for it relative to coordinates, two nights later I set up my camera on tripod to take what pictures I could.  Because the ISS is so fast, I had to leave my alt-azimuth tripod knobs loose.  This was not too big a deal, as I was able to typically get three to four pictures with my IR remote before the station moved out of view.

In reading NASA’s recommended camera setup for photographing the ISS, I immediately knew my long 300mm lens was about half their suggestion.  They essentially say you need a nice long telegraphic lens.  Still, I was undeterred.  Of the images I took in those brief three minutes, the above I consider the best.  This is a highly magnified section of the original, taken at f/8, 1/1000 seconds, and ISO 3200.

On Sunday night yesterday, I attempted more pictures during the ISS’s even longer four-minute flyby.  But all of these were either blurry or at a bad angle, as all I got were blobs.

To see something really interesting about the ISS, I recommend checking out Jim R’s cool capture of the ISS transiting the Sun.

A Bird, a Plane, a UFO?

Click for full scale.

June 6th, 2017, 8:04 p.m. local time

I caught a bunch of interesting shots of the Moon tonight, along with a few other objects in the sky.  See the tweet below for a good capture of a plane below the Moon.

A short while after the “good” plane, I caught something else, this time much higher.  In the image above you can see a spec in quadrant 1.  Now usually I am shrinking/compressing images for the blog, but this time I am blowing one up.  Here is an expanded view of that dot:

This is likely a plane’s fuselage.  But it just seemed awfully high in the sky for a commercial plane.  What do you think it is?  Satellite?  Aliens?

Constellations II: Leo the Lion

Click to enlarge and discover many stars!

Five weeks.  That is how long I had to wait from my first session photographing Leo the Lion to my second.  That is how long I had to wait for a mostly clear night, but even then, in the early evening of May 29th, I just finished my shots in time before large clouds rumbled in.

Five weeks prior, on April 22nd, the skies were much clearer and Leo was still directly overhead.  But as that was more of a test-shoot, compiling light, dark, and bias frames with my Canon EOS DSLR camera, I wanted to get a second set to see if there was any noticeable difference in the final imagining.  In particular, I wanted to shorten the focal length from f/22 to f/14, about mid-range.

I don’t think the focal setting change made much of a difference, but at least I did learn a few more things about the stacking software, DeepSkyStacker.  For example, the stacking “Intersection Mode” works wonders if you have to move the camera a bit and to ignore the stray wisps of clouds.  I know now for future reference that the sky does not have to be perfectly clear, just clear enough.  I can also take as many light/picture frames as I want, so long as I keep the object approximately centered.  DSS figures out the rest!

The one aspect of this technique I wish I could improve is to highlight better the apparent magnitudes.  Regulus is the brightest stars in my picture, but you cannot tell.  I don’t want to faux edit the image just to make the brighter magnitude stars bigger, but I do want to research possible PSP techniques to highlight the bigger stars.

I am also amazed at how accurate the picture is.  Compare the above image with this star chart and you can mentally plot the smaller stars.  Pretty cool!

Moon, May 29th

Shot with Canon EOS Rebel SL1, f5.6, ISO 200, 1/200 sec, 300mm focal length.

May 29th, 2017, 9:40 p.m. local time

Keeping notes on your past work is a good thing.  When I saw the Moon above, I knew it would make a good picture through my DSLR.  But then I thought, “which camera settings are needed tonight?”  Fortunately I keep a log from my past images, so I know at least approximately what the settings should be.

Using the manual settings from prior shots in April of a much fuller Moon, I knew what to try for this crescent Moon.  My only concern was that since these settings were for a fuller/brighter Moon that I would have to increase the exposure.  But I think it turned out fine, reaffirming my camera’s “Moon settings” with its longer lens.

And here is a tip for checking camera settings on an image.  Most newer cameras should store these settings as part of the image file’s metadata.  I don’t know about Mac OS, but in Windows if you right-click on the image, choose Properties, and click the Details tab, you should see the camera’s settings somewhere there from when you took the picture.  Note that this might not work for videos, only still pictures, but may vary by camera.

Daylight Moon with Venus

May 22nd, 2017, 9:20 p.m. local time

Normally I complain about my blocked view of the East sky, due to all my trees and neighbors’ houses in the way.  But sometimes the setup has its benefits.  Today this barrier sufficiently shielded the Sun so that I could find the late stage Waning Moon.

And I thought I was only shooting the Moon, but after reviewing the wider images I noticed that Venus was also picked up!  It may be hard to see, but look above and to the right of the Moon.  The planet was not visible to the eye alone, but was still available with the right camera exposure.

Here is a different, closer view, focused on the Moon:

This last picture, a wide view, approximates what this Moon phase actually looks like when the Sun is out:

Looking ahead, the weather forecast is miserable through the Memorial Day weekend.  Rain and clouds.  This morning it is very bright with no clouds, but as always seems the case, thunderstorms are predicted an hour after sunset.