Constellations III: Of the Summer Triangle

Click to see the full-sized hi-res image!

A few days after I searched for Pluto, I chose to forgo my telescopes for one clear evening and play with my digital camera.  The Summer Triangle is straight up in the evening sky right now for several hours after sunset.  As Jack Horkheimer used to say, “Keep looking up.”  This time, take his advice literally and you will see the magnificent asterism defined by the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega.

This image was taken in a similar fashion to my prior wide-field constellation pictures, like Leo, where I took dozens of light, dark, and bias frames and then created a composite in DeepSkyStacker.  For this new image, though, I went a step further.  I have been searching for a way to accentuate the stars based on their brightness, short of manually blowing them up.  I believe I have uncovered a technique to get the desired effect.  You can easily make out the three main stars along with other stars/patterns in descending order from their apparent magnitudes.

I must admit that I was mildly shocked at how many stars are shown.  Are those really stars, or image noise?  As the images were taken straight up, to the darkest part of the sky, it seemed plausible.  Also, the Milky Way runs right through the Summer Triangle.  You cannot see the Milky Way in my picture, as I don’t think it is possible to capture in my light-polluted area without longer exposures and an equatorial mount.

In checking as many detailed online star charts as seemed reasonable, I do believe those dots are all stars!

Remember that an asterism is a pattern of stars, versus a constellation, which is a generally accepted “official” pattern.  The Summer Triangle is an asterism (a triangle, duh) but it has several constellations in and around it.  How many constellations can you see and name in this picture?

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Alternative Moon Perception

The Moon…as you have never seen it before!

This is the exciting finale to a trilogy of posts about my August 30th Moon adventures.  The first showed the Waxing Gibbous Moon from that night.  The second explored several of the Moon’s craters.  And now here is the story of what came next.

As I finished up my astrophotography for the evening, I detached both the camera and eyepiece setup from my Dobonsian’s focuser.  I had, just moment before, been taking my last pictures, so the Moon was still in the telescope’s field of view.  With the focuser empty, I noticed the very bright light emanating through, like a flashlight.  This was, obviously, the Moon’s light still reflecting from the primary mirror, off the secondary, and through the focuser hole.

I have observed this “flashlight” before, but usually considered it for only a moment as I would be in the process of packing up my equipment for the night.  But on this pleasant evening for the 30th day of August, I decided to play with the light a little.  I put my hand in front of the focuser and could see the blurry image of the Moon upon it.  Moving my hand around allowed me to focus the Moon, directly on my hand.

I thought this was the end of the exercise.  But when I put the dusk plug back onto the focuser, Moonlight was still shining, this time through the translucent plastic.  It is a very simple cap, and if you are unfamiliar with these telescope dust plugs, they look like this.

Adjusting the focuser allowed me to bring the Moon into focus, right on the cover of the dust plug.  It was a strange sight.  It reminded me of the small view screens that attached to some home film projectors in the 1970s.

The Moon, but not the Moon.  Quickly I detached my smartphone from its mount and took several pictures of the phenomenon.  The above is one of those images with only minor post-processing.  The diagonal streaks across the Moon are the grains of the dust plug’s surface.

I got a lot of value out of that Moon observing session.  Right now, the Moon is waning and nearing the next New Moon.  Unfortunately my weather forecast is cloudy through the weekend; I want to get back out there and find Pluto one more time this year.

Discovering the Moon’s Craters

Section of the Moon on August 30th, 2017.

When I photographed the Moon on August 30th, I felt now was a good time to start examining it at a closer level.  Having only attempted crude drawings of craters previously, I wanted to see how high I could push the magnification of my Dobsonian reflector.  So I replaced the 17mm Plossl eyepiece used for the full disc image with a 7.5mm and Barlow lens to see what I could get.

(I should note here that I was using my smartphone for pictures, hence the afocal method of putting the camera directly to the eyepiece.)

With that telescope, this eyepiece setup magnifies about 333 times!  Although well within the theoretical maximum for a 254mm aperture, it does present challenges with the atmosphere and, closer to home, vibrations when attempting to get a steady photograph.  Many of my attempts came out motion blurry.

The situation presented itself as the ideal opportunity to study the Moon map that came with one of my equipment orders last year.  This particular section of the Moon is near its Southern pole.  At first, I had no idea what I was looking at, as the map and my image appear a tad different due to shadows.  Plus, there are a lot of craters, too many to count!

To pinpoint these specific craters and determine their names, I performed a modified approach to star hopping, but of course for the Moon.  Checking the map, I first leveraged the easy large Mare in the North, then from there simply hopped from large crater to large crater, until I arrived at the location of my picture.

In learning these names and locations, I was humbled to realize how little I know about the Moon.  I have taken lots of pictures for over a year but have never studied the surface.  How does the saying go…I hear but I do not listen?  Surely this is the equivalent for sight.

My embarrassment started when I had no idea the famous Tycho crater is sitting right there in my picture.  It has that internal shadow with a center protrusion.  Below Tycho, the largest crater shown is Clavius, a name I know I have heard before.  It has several smaller craters within.  Maginus and Moretus are also visible.

Here is the same picture, this time with the craters labeled:

This exercise has kindled a desire for me to learn more about the Moon and truly see it in all its amazing detail.  I now know and have seen four craters.  Hundreds more are out there waiting!

Better Than a Quarter Moon

Click for the hi-res image.

August 30th, 2017, 8:59 p.m. local time

Me: “Wow, such an amazing Moon tonight!  I should get my telescope or at least digital camera to take some pictures.”

Me Too: “Well, since you did only a smartphone capture last night, let’s drag the big telescope out for this one.  Even I have to admit this is too good of a Moon to waste.”

Me: “Great!”

Me Too: “Ok.  Just make sure you produce something fantastic worth both our time.”

Two Sides of the Quarter Moon

August 29th, 2017, 7:10 p.m. local time

Me: “Wow, that’s a great looking Quarter Moon tonight!  I should get my telescope or at least digital camera to take some pictures.”

Me Too: “You’re pretty tired.  Are you sure you want to lug all that equipment outside?  Plus, it’s a work night.”

Me: “How about a compromise: I’ll go get my smartphone and snap a few images?  That will take hardly any time at all.”

Me Too: “Ok, deal, but you’re cooking dinner tonight.”

Easy Target

In case you have not heard, the Moon passed in front of the Sun yesterday.  In the grand scheme of astrophotography, this was a sub par event.  The Sun is very near and big and bright, so it doesn’t pose much of a challenge to photograph.  The biggest hurdle for me yesterday was dealing with mostly cloudy skies.  This made positioning of my telescopes very hard, as the normal method for aligning to the Sun is by leveraging the telescope’s shadow.  Fortunately, I had a wide-field refractor nearby which made the task a bit simpler over the narrow view from my 127mm Mak-Cass.  Once the refractor was aligned, troublesome as that was through dense clouds, it gave me cues for aligning the imaging scope.

And no, I did not miss the eclipse by fiddling with my equipment.  As alluded to above, imaging the Sun is kind of boring, even with clouds, so it was not hard to do a few things at once.

Here are the image highlights, in order and taken from a ~88% max coverage location.  Click on each image to enlarge.

This was was taken in Pro mode of my camera. Rest were in Auto mode.

The Backwards Moon

August 13th, 2017, 04:15 a.m. local time

Farmers and early risers will disagree, but I think of the Moon’s waning phases as backwards.  I have been use all my life to seeing the waxing Moon in the evenings.

Attempting to view meteors on Sunday gave me a rare opportunity to photograph a healthy looking backwards Moon at its midpoint sky travel that day.  As I had already prepared my digital camera and tripod for meteor hunting, it was not much effort to first attach a longer lens for the Moon.  Today’s picture is from Sunday morning with only minor touch-ups performed in PaintShop Pro.

Of course, this monthly cycle has special significant as this particular Moon phase gradually creeps Eastward every day to rendezvous with the Sun for the North America solar eclipse on Monday, August 21st.

Meteor Hunting, 2017 Edition

No meteors, but how many constellations do you see?

August 13th, 2017, 04:30 a.m. local time

In what is becoming an annual event for me, this morning I got up at 4 a.m. to check out what I could of the Perseid Meteor Shower.  Though the sky was mostly clear lest a few stray clouds, the waning Moon’s brightness was the only unfortunate circumstance compared to last year’s.  Within about an hour I saw two meteors, a long one to the West and a short one close to the Perseid radiant point, very roughly between the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus.

And speaking of constellations, I did set up my digital camera and took a bunch of long exposures in hopes of capturing a meteor digitally.  Unfortunately this did not pan out, but I did get some interesting and surprising wide-field views of an August early morning sky.

The above image is not stacked, just a 30-second exposure at ISO 3200 pointed at the Perseid Meteor Shower’s radiant point.  I can clearly see Cassiopeia and Perseus, as expected, but then I was surprised at all the other goodies in the photo.

The Pleiades was the first unexpected capture.  I thought my favorite little star cluster was too far East to be in-range of my picture, but there it is, sitting in the very corner.

(Yes, the Pleiades are not a constellation.  They are actually part of Taurus.)

Next I saw the bright stars of Auriga.  At first, I thought one of these was Venus, but upon consulting my sky map app, Venus was much closer to the horizon at this time, hence below my picture.

The extremely faint constellation Camelopardalis is also here.  Since this one isn’t exactly the hot topic of dinner conversations and cocktail parties, I drew it out for you and your friends’ reference, so you can indeed have something to gossip about at that next party.

Part of Cepheus is also visible.

The very last noteworthy object I discovered is Polaris.  So counting Ursa Minor, that’s seven constellations in one picture!  Below is the same picture with all these interesting sky objects called out.  I recommend clicking the image to enlarge it.

Click to enlarge.