Binocular Relaxation

April 30th, 2018, 10:45 p.m. local time

I will say this for cloudy weekdays – at least I don’t have to make up excuses for not taking my telescope and camera out on a “school night.”  Last night though presented another mostly clear sky and this time with beautiful warm spring temperatures.  It was too tempting to not go outside to do something, anything

Not wanting to take all of the equipment out, I settled for the second easiest path – using my binoculars (the easiest is no equipment at all).  It was the perfect night for it anyway, just to look up at many different, interesting parts of the sky.  So in the warm air with a cool gusting breeze, here is what I observed.

Spring Triangle

My initial objective was prompted by Scott Levine’s referencing of the “Spring Triangle” formed by Spica, Arcturus, and Regulus.  I wanted to see how far apart all three stars were to gauge if they could be photographed together.  The Spring Triangle is quite a bit larger than the already large Summer Triangle of Deneb, Vega, and Altair.  There may be a small chance of capturing all three in the very widest view my camera and lens can reach.  I hope to try soon.

Since I had my binoculars with me, I decided for fun to note the color of each of these three spring stars.

  • Arcturus – orange
  • Spica – blue
  • Regulus – mostly white with maybe a little blue

Did I get the colors right?  Searching for information on each star, I learned that:

  • Arcturus is a red giant
  • Spica is a type of binary star dominated by a blue giant
  • Regulus is a multi-star system that appears to be dominated by a white-blue star

So with the exception of calling Arcturus orange, I guessed correctly on each of them.

Moon

At this time last night the Moon had just cleared my tree tops, allowing me to take images through my telescope.  See yesterday’s post.  Tonight, it was still shrouded by many bare tree branches.  It was visible, but even through binoculars it was a difficult to focus on any of the Moon’s surface detail.

Jupiter

Jupiter keeps coming, very slowly, up and up each night.  It still clears my trees too late every evening to get the telescope out just yet (on a school night).  But I could still see it through the trees.  Tonight it was ahead of the Moon almost as much as it was trailing the Moon the prior night.

Through the binoculars I noticed a faint dot just ahead of the planet on its elliptic path.  Could that be one of its moons?  Searching later for the exact position of the moons at that time showed this:

So I was seeing either Ganymede or Callisto, both of which were far to Jupiter’s right at the time.  If I had known about this positioning while viewing them, I would have tried to pay much closer attention to see both moons even through the trees.

Coma Berenices

I admit I have become a bit infatuated with this asterism.  It is too faint in my light polluted skies to see unaided, but pops our as a gem of stars through binoculars.  If there is a single example of when binoculars view is superior over any telescope view, it is with Coma Berenices.

Sometimes called the tail of Leo, first find Leo above, and then it is not too difficult to scan Eastward until you locate this amazing batch of stars.

Gemini

My favorite friends of Orion and Taurus are all but gone into the West this viewing season, and Gemini follows close behind.  I used my binoculars to trace out the upper bodies of Castor and Pollux, a task that is harder than it sounds through a magnified view.

Mizar and Alcor

I don’t know why but I always enjoy spotting the pairing of stars Mizar and Alcor in Ursa Major.  It may be because it was the first “double” I observed when I resumed my astronomy hobby several years ago.  It’s also a fun one to show onlookers and guests who have never seen a double star magnified before.

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Clear Sky, Bright Moon

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April 29th, 2018, 10:45 p.m. local time

My sky was remarkably clear all weekend.  Blue skies at day and clean skies all night.  Just one problem, though – the Moon was approaching Full and washed much of the sky out.  So I settled for looking at the Moon, mostly.  Jupiter was trailing behind the Moon on Sunday evening, but unfortunately I would have had to wait another 90+ minutes before it cleared my trees, and I could not stay up past midnight.

I took the above picture using my Dobsonian and smartphone.  I have mentioned before that the Full Moon is the least interesting of all of the Moon’s phases.  There are no crater shadows, no crescents or odd-shaped ovals.  No new thin outlines in early evening or old thin outlines at dawn.  Looking at the Full Moon is like staring at a moderately bright light bulb.

It is still fun to look at.  The brightness is a marvel, whether it is by the Moon illuminating your night surroundings or (my favorite) by you observing the light reflections off of cloud cover.

Just Moon

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April 19th, 2018, 08:35 p.m. local time

On Monday we had the wonderful pairing of the Moon and Venus.  They were framed perfectly side-by-side in the early evening Western sky.  Yesterday brought snow, which meant clouds and nothing to see.  But all the snow melted by afternoon today and the sky cleared once again.  The Moon is now significant higher than Venus after Sunset, and fuller.  So I took my digital camera and tripod outside to take the above picture.

It is significantly harder to manually focus on the Moon when it is a waxing crescent like this.  That is because there is less surface area to gauge than, by comparison, the Full Moon.

Nearly Missed This Gem – Moon and Venus after Sunset

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April 17th, 2018, 08:20 p.m. local time

I saw the notice that the Moon and Venus were going to be close to each other tonight.  I didn’t think it would be very visible.  I was very wrong.  About 45 minutes after Sunset these two sparkled cleanly in my West sky.  Despite the unseasonably cold chill (the reason I have not posted anything for several weeks), I set up my camera to take this photograph.

Speaking of our Solar System, Jupiter is on its way.  I happened to be outside this morning at 2:30, and our largest planet was shining so bright I almost forgot what it was!  Opposition is now less than a month away and I am looking forward to dragging my telescopes out to see it very soon again up close.

March 2018’s Second Full Moon

ISO 100, f/16, 1/125 sec, 300mm focal length

March 31st, 2018, 09:35 p.m. local time

It’s Springtime, which means temperatures are…dropping like the middle of Winter?  Yes, it’s true.  Forecasts call for lows back into the teens (Fahrenheit) by Easter Friday.  Stargazing visibility has been poor to pointless over the last week or so.

But on this final day and final night of March, the skies cleared while the wind howled.  The beaming Moon, contrasted to the blurry haze of last night’s, was too tempting a target not to get my camera and tripod out.  I stayed outside only for a few minutes, as the wind made it feel like January 31st all over again.

Tonight’s image came with a new experiment for me – color correction.  I followed the steps in this good video to find the image’s mid-gray, using PaintShop Pro.  I then did some minor sharpening, contrast, and brightness adjustments.

In other news, we are almost a month out now from Jupiter’s 2018 opposition.  The planet’s nighttime schedule is just about at the point where I can start looking at it again via telescope and taking pictures, on nights when I can stay up past midnight, and the weather cooperates.  Hoping this upcoming cold snap is brief and I can start getting outside again on clear nights.


Edit: After re-examining the above Moon picture the following morning, it seemed a bit too dark to me.  Here is the same picture but with the brightness and contrast notched up, just a bit.  Also, if you are using the WordPress default blog viewer, I recommend clicking on these pictures directly, as that viewer seems to be distorting/compressing the images, at least on my PC.

The Moon and Venus and New Horizons in Post-Processing

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March 21st, 2018, 7:25 p.m. local time

Tonight I took advantage of clear (but very cold) skies to photograph the young Moon’s crescent along with Venus (sorry Mercury fans, he was conspicuously absent).  After Sunset these two objects were very far apart, stretching the limit of my wide-field lens.  There was a lot of empty space/sky between them.

This emptiness gave me an idea to try a new type of post-processing, which is today’s image.  I “enhanced” Venus, attempted to add some depth to the sky, and did a small amount of cleanup around the trees.

The result pushes the bounds of true astrophotography and into the realm of something else.  I am still debating my thoughts on this experiment and whether I would want to pursue it in future imaging.

I am already post-processing my star fields to accentuate the brightest stars.  Those pictures are no longer true photography either.  Even my Moon and planetary images are not faithful representations of what the camera sees, but are my attempts to gleam from the camera’s eye stacked or other compounded image data to make something we can recognize and appreciate.

I have found that sitting on an image, revisiting it after a time away, helps me to more objectively judge the end picture.  I will do so here, coming back to it in a week or so, to re-evaluate it again then.

Constellations IX: Not Just Auriga

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March 11th, 2018, 09:10 p.m. local time

Over the past month I devoted photography sessions to Orion and surrounding constellations like Taurus, Lepus, and Canis Minor.  Last week I focused on Gemini.  On Sunday I turned my attention a bit past all of those towards Auriga.  This is one of my favorite places in the sky, particularly because of the star clusters M36, M37, and M38, which all look fantastic through my 10″ Dobsonian.  But this night was not about high magnification as I once again set up my digital camera on tripod for more wide field imaging.

For Gemini I used f/2.8 and ISO 400 with 25-second exposures.  For Auriga I slid the ISO down to 200 while keeping the other settings the same.  Lowering ISO helps to reduce noise and improve colors, at the potential loss of detail.  I am pleased with the results as a good balance between accentuating the bright stars as well as including an adequate canvas of the faint background stars.  In post-processing, this time I prioritized trying to bring out the colors in a neutral sense without over-representing any one RBG band.

Auriga is in an interesting part of the sky for another reason, as the boundary between the surrounding star activity of the likes of Orion, Taurus, and Gemini and a fairly bland section of the sky occupied by the lesser known constellations of Lynx and Camelopardalis.  There are no noteworthy stars nor high-profile deep sky objects in that vicinity, until you hit the areas marked by Polaris, Ursa Major, and stretching over to Leo.

My attempt to center Auriga emphasizes this point, as the picture is a bit lopsided with all the cool stuff at the center, bottom, and left with a relative void in the upper right.

So what else is in the photo besides Auriga?  Taurus, Orion, and Gemini are all peeking in.  And then there is a near-full cameo by Perseus, which I outlined below.  And you can even see, at the very bottom, that demon star whose brightness allegedly fluctuates but I have not fully confirmed yet.

Click to see the full image.

This photography session did not increase my constellation total, which still stands at 30:

  • Ursa Minor
  • Draco
  • Leo the Lion
  • Aquila
  • Sagitta
  • Delphinus
  • Velpecula
  • Lyra
  • Cygnus
  • Taurus
  • Perseus
  • Camelopardalis
  • Auriga
  • Cassiopeia
  • Cepheus
  • Scorpius
  • Ophiuchus
  • Virgo
  • Cancer
  • Leo Minor
  • Lynx
  • Ursa Major
  • Pegasus
  • Andromeda
  • Orion
  • Canis Minor
  • Lepus
  • Monoceros
  • Eridanus
  • Gemini

References:

More Venus, More Mercury

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March 11th, 2018, 7:15 p.m. local time

With an excellent view towards the Western horizon on Sunday night, Venus and Mercury were easy to see about 30 minutes after sunset.  Both planets continue to rise, though Venus is moving at a much slower pace, and Mercury will start to fall again soon.  March continues to be an opportune month to see all three planets of our inner Solar System from one setting.

This image was taken with my Canon EOS on tripod with Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 lens.  I took many pictures in the span of about 10 minutes, adjusting both the ISO and exposure settings.  The above image, I feel, came out the best in terms of lighting and highlighting the relative brightness of each planet (Venus is far brighter than Mercury).  The settings used were ISO 200, f/2.8, 50mm focal length, and 1/4 second exposure.

Constellations VIII: Gemini

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March 3rd, 2018, 08:45 p.m. local time

Shortly after I took long exposure images of Orion on Saturday night, I repointed my camera further up, above Orion and towards the East.  This is where Gemini resided, high overhead.  The same camera settings were used as for Orion.  Additionally, I used essentially the same post-processing techniques that I have experimented with on Orion these past few days.  Whenever I redid Orion, I subsequently tried the same on my Gemini raw image.

The thing about Gemini is that there is no obvious outline to the constellation.  In my skies, the main stars Pollux and Caster are easily visible, but that is about it.  And even if I could see more stars, I would have a hard time tracing this constellation without a high familiarity of its shape.  I decided that tracing the constellation on the image would be helpful in this case.

Besides the feature Gemini you can also see all of Canis Minor with its bright star Procyon.  Orion’s upper arm is seen below Gemini, with the eastern edge of Taurus just visible (the blue star at the very right edge of the photo is Zeta Tauri).  At the bottom of the image are a few stars from the unicorn, Monoceros.

Every dot you see in this image really is a star.  It has been fun for me to compare my images with detailed star charts to trace out these sometimes unnamed stars.  It proves to me that they are not just camera background noise but genuinely specks representing stars and star systems in our Milky Way Galaxy.  This shows the power of a decent lens and inexpensive digital camera being able to punch through the canvas of light pollution to reveal the truths above.

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 30:

  • Ursa Minor
  • Draco
  • Leo the Lion
  • Aquila
  • Sagitta
  • Delphinus
  • Velpecula
  • Lyra
  • Cygnus
  • Taurus
  • Perseus
  • Camelopardalis
  • Auriga
  • Cassiopeia
  • Cepheus
  • Scorpius
  • Ophiuchus
  • Virgo
  • Cancer
  • Leo Minor
  • Lynx
  • Ursa Major
  • Pegasus
  • Andromeda
  • Orion
  • Canis Minor
  • Lepus
  • Monoceros
  • Eridanus
  • Gemini

References: