Constellations IX: Not Just Auriga

Click to see the full image.

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:

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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:

Re-Imagining Orion

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March 3rd, 2018, 08:20 p.m. local time

After I took my first true pictures of Orion early last week, while I was pleased with the results, I felt the images were still lacking, particularly in background star detail.  On Saturday, I took to shooting Orion again, with my same new lens.  This time, I bumped the focal stop all the way down to f/2.8 and the ISO to 400.  I then stacked 30 25-second images in DeepSkyStacker.  For the next several days, I played around with the resulting image mightily in PaintShop Pro.  Subtracting light pollution, adjusting levels and curves, experimenting with colors, and trying to accentuate the brightest stars.

I have realized within the last 48 hours that there are infinite routes to take when editing astrophotography in post processing, particularly wide field views.  Imagination and artistry combined.  I feel this image provides more detail than my last Orion.  Likely, I will continue to experiment.

Constellations VII: Orion and Taurus

Closeup of Orion.

February 26th, 2018, 08:15 p.m. local time

Finally, for one night, the weather was great (likely above 45 degrees F), no wind, and an amazingly clear sky.  This is the best time of year for stargazing where I am, when the weather permits, because there are neither bugs nor humidity to combat.  If this had not been a school night, I would have pulled out my big telescope, waited the 45 minutes for it to cool down, and then observed the sky for as long as I could.

The only damper was the Moon, days away from Full, lighting up everything.

Waxing Moon notwithstanding, these conditions were perfect for tripoding my camera and trying out my new wide-field lens.  I upgraded over the stock lens of my DSLR camera last month and have have been eager to use it.  This night’s session was mostly a test of the new lens.

Here is the full image:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Orion with Taurus was the perfect target.  What most impressed me about this image, which is a single post-processed shot, are the colors.  The oranges of the giants Betelgeuse and Aldebaran, the blues of the young stars in the Pleiades.  They all pop out vibrantly.

This is a 20-second exposure and remarkably only ISO 100.  I think there is room for bringing out even more details if I bump up the ISO more and play with the focal length, set at f/2.8 for this image.  It’s worth noting here that I did try image stacking at ISO 1600 with a much higher focal length, but the end results seemed dull compared to this single shot image.  I have work to do to figure out how to take advantage of my new lens in conjunction with image stacking.

Other constellations are visible as well.  In the extreme upper left is the star Procyon and its constellation Canis Minor.  To the left of Orion, very faint, is Monoceros.  Below Orion you can see the top of Lepus, and next to that is the end tip of Eridanus.  I admit that I never thought about Lepus (a hare), Monoceros (a unicorn), and Eridanus (a river) until now.  They are simply too faint and not in any recognizable shape to take special notice of.  Still, there they are, pretty much as they were when the ancients named them.

Gemini is also barely visible at the top, but let’s save mention of the twins for when I can get a better view, when the glaring Moon is not sitting right on top of Castor and Pollux

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 29:

  • 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

References:

Constellations VI: Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, and the Quest for the Andromeda Galaxy

Click to see the full-sized image.

I was motivated this weekend to try to find the asteroid 3200 Phaethon.  But after reviewing its location, I realized it would be tough to see from my vantage point.  Saturday night brought in a clear sky with calm weather, so I decided on another venture – more wide-field astrophotography!

My primary target was Pegasus, but I knew I could also capture nearby Andromeda as well as Cassiopeia.  I took about 40 15-second exposures with my digital camera, followed by the customary 15-ish dark and bias frames, put them all into DeepSkyStacker, post-processed them in PaintShopPro, and the above image is the result.

There are a lot of starts in this picture, taken by pointing my tripoded camera above and a bit to the West around 8:15pm local time.  In case you cannot see the constellations, here is the same image with the major shapes traced:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Also highlighted is the area of the Andromeda Galaxy.  In my very light-polluted neighborhood, none of the galaxy is visible unaided, but I can see its center with my binoculars and telescope.  In this picture, the center is visible as a very small spec.  Keep in mind this picture was taken with my widest-possible lens setup, so details would be scarce regardless.

In Andromeda, the main guide star is Mirach.  In my above images, I don’t have this star labeled, but it is the closest star that is part of the orange connection lines to the final “a” in the word Andromeda.  Stellarium shows Mirach in relation to galaxy M31 as:

Mirach in relation to the Andromeda Galaxy.

For comparison to my actual results, here is that section of my image zoomed in.  You can see Mirach, the Andromeda Galaxy, and all the main surrounding stars as they match up to Stellarium’s database:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Next, I would like to try the same long-exposure exercise through my telescope, pointed at the Andromeda Galaxy, to determine if I can capture any detail beyond the galaxy’s center!

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 24:

  • 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

References:

Constellations V: Leo the Lion (Remastered)

Click to see the full-sized image.

Ever since I developed a new technique to accentuate stars in pictures, I have wanted to go back to my original wide-field views and…refresh them with this process.  Today I bring you an updated Leo the Lion.

Whereas my original Leo cropped just the constellation itself, here we have the full, original post-processed image.  In this picture, taken when Leo was “falling” into the West about an hour after Sunset, the brightest star Regulus is in the center middle.  This should provide you with the necessary guide hint to see and trace all of Leo.

Also in this wider image are other constellations or parts of them:

  • The head of Virgo begins to appear on the left.
  • Several stars of Cancer are near the lower-right corner.
  • All of Leo Minor is present at the top.
  • Part of Lynx is clearly visible in the upper right.
  • You can see the paws of Ursa Major making their cameo near the top.

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 22:

  • 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

References:

Constellations IV: Scorpius Rising

Click for larger image.

From my vault of unpublished astrophotography, today I bring you a rendition from earlier this year of the constellation Scorpius.  I had been meaning to process this one for a while.  Days turned into weeks which turned into months.  An eclipse got in the way somewhere along the journey.  So here we are, mid-October, discussing a constellation normally thought of in the Summer.

I recall that it was still very early evening when I took the photographs which comprise this stacked image.  As you can see, my view was a tad narrow, but you can easily make out the side of Scorpius anchored by Antares.  To the top-left are two moderately bright stars, part of the constellation Ophiuchus.  If you imagine a horizontal line from the bottom of those stars in Ophiuchus to the top stars in Scorpius, then you are envisioning the Sun’s elliptic path in the sky.

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?

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.