Perseid Meteor Captured on iPhone with NightCap

Taken with NightCap. Meteor mode, 5.06 second exposure, 1/1s shutter speed.

August 12th, 2020, 04:20 a.m. local time

Meteors!  They are today’s topic.  I got up very early this morning and saw six of them, likely from the Perseid Meteor Shower.  Although the sky was clear, that pesky Moon was still shining bright at 4am, even in its Waning Crescent phase.  Fortunately, my large tree to the East blocked its direct light.

Aside from visual observation, I also set up my iPhone on a tripod and ran the NightCap app in Meteor Mode.  It continually took several-second exposure images indefinitely.  I let it run from for about 40 minutes, until around 5am when the sky started to visibly lighten.

The image above was the most spectacular, captured very early in the session.  The other images mostly caught “space junk,” i.e. random satellites.  I didn’t see this specific meteor as, early on, I was more busy watching my phone and remote-control watch to ensure everything was in working order.


Where in the sky was this image taken?  Unless you’re familiar with the constellations, it will be hard to guess.  I had the phone on tripod pointed almost straight up.  Interestingly, I noticed while viewing this image in a dark room, you can see a dark aura emanating from the center top; that is the sky’s Zenith, and you can get a sense for how bad my light pollution is even around 4am.

Thanks to Roger Powell’s recent post on identifying photographic objects, I discovered nova.astrometry.net, which can identify the place in the sky your image was taken.  It’s very neat.  I uploaded my meteor image and it identified the constellations captured.  I will call this the meteor of Pegasus-Equuleus of August the 12th, 2020:

Facing West, pointed towards Zenith.

ISS Under the Dipper

Click for full-sized image.

July 16th, 2020, 10:04 p.m. local time

Tonight I took many pictures of comet Neowise.  I will get to processing and posting them either later today or over the weekend.  In the meantime, here was a quick observation of the International Space Station flying over later in the evening.  It went from West to Northwest and disappearing in the North.  It passed just below The Big Dipper, i.e. the well-known asterism of Ursa Major.

Not the best of images (quickly taken with iPhone), and I used PaintShop Pro to accentuate the stars and space station a bit.

In hindsight, this may have been a nice long-exposure NightCap image.  But the problem is the continual aircraft coming in the from west to land at O’Hare.  It would likely have made for a confusing mess of streaks.

Hunting for Galaxy M61

I am under no illusion that seeing galaxies is possible from my location on Earth.  Around 30 miles outside of Chicago is still one of the worst locations for light pollution anywhere.  While I can see the core of the Andromeda Galaxy from my backyard, through binoculars, it appears like a fuzzy star, shown here.  But Andromeda is very close to our Milky Way and on a collusion course with it.  So excluding M31, no other galaxy should be possible to view unaided.

Nonetheless, I was inspired by Roger Powell’s excellent imaging of M61 and particularly his finding of a supernova back in May.  At the least, I thought, I may be able to find the approximate location of M61 and supernova SN 2020 jfo, to say that I “saw” it, if only the black void of area within my telescope’s eyepiece.

As are all of his posted pictures, Roger’s image of M61 is impressive, made possible by very long exposures driven by equitorial tracking to compensate for the Earth’s rotation.  Long exposures of deep sky objects allow the scarce photons from galaxies, millions of light years away, to collect on the camera’s sensor and accumulate, allowing galaxies to take shape in ways impossible by unaided telescope viewing.

So how does one go about finding this galaxy, M61?  Where is it in the sky?  From our perspective on Earth, it resides in the constellation Virgo and near Leo.  On mid June evenings it was up in my Southwest sky.  Here is the location of M61 in my sky (N 41 / W 88) at about 11 p.m. local time a few weeks ago.

Click to see full-sized image.

(As with all images in this particular post, I highly recommend clicking each to see the full picture.  Otherwise, you will be missing details and perspective referenced in the narrative.)

Virgo is a relatively dim constellation in my sky, outside of the star Spica and a few others.  Leo can easily be found by its edge stars of Denebola near Virgo and famous Regulus on the opposite end.  There are a few faint but visible stars between them.  These can be used as “guide stars” to approximate the location of where to point your telescope.

Here is a closer view of that area of space (M61 is denoted by the square brackets):

Click to see full-sized image.

This picture, from Stellarium, makes it almost too easy to find the location, since there are so many much fainter stars that can act as guides.  But what do I really see through my area’s light pollution?  Compensating for pollution, Stellarium provides a view closer to reality:

Click for full-sized image.

This truly is what I have to work with, even on the best of nights and when there is no Moon, like there was for most of mid June.  With so little information in the sky, how can you even hope to get close to an “invisible” object?  Enter imaginary lines and basic geometry.

Click for full-sized image.

M61 lies almost on a straight line between Denebola and another faint but visible star in Virgo, named Porrima.  Looking at the sky, I roughly approximated that M61 was about a third of the distance from Porrima to Denebola.  Further, I noticed, in Stellarium, that Porrima and another visible star form an isosceles triangle with M61.  So assuming these two factors – the straight line and that triangle and where they should intersect – I had a very good idea of the general area where I should point my telescope at!

But even by doing these rough estimates, how would I know if my guess was right?  Fortunately, Stellarium allows you to simulate telescopes, eyepieces, and lenses, so you can get a view at the computer extremely close to what you should actually see.

Click for full-sized image.

We get to see what should be our “telescope” view.  Obviously, we won’t see the galaxy as shown; the little graphic is just a marker.  But what we should be able to make out are most of the surrounding stars.  Keep in mind that this image/simulation compensates for the vertical and horizontal image flipping inherent of Newtonian reflector telescopes (essentially, the image appears upside down).

All of these stars are still relatively dim.  However, I noticed there is one “bright” star near M61 that could be used as a guide in my telescope’s mounted viewfinder.  It is just below the area of M61 and named c.Vir.

Click for full-sized image.

So using my telescope’s viewfinder (which is effectively a mini telescope in its own right), I could easily find c.Vir.  And fortunately, given my eyepiece (Q70), c.Vir and M61 could fit within the same view, as shown here by Stellarium:

Click for full-sized image.

Notice that there are three stars very close to c.Vir, two above (actually below, given the telescope’s mirror flip), and one below (actually above).  They form a unique pattern that should be easy to identify.

On June 7th I made my first attempt to locate M61.  I used the drawing application Procreate on my iPad, along with an Apple Pencil.  Sometimes I feel like an Apple commercial (I have mentioned the benefits of my iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch for astronomy previously), but it really is an excellent setup, able to replace traditional pencil and paper.  I need to practice my drawing and using Procreate, but still I was amazed how easy it was to start sketching with little preparation.  Here is the first sketch I took with Procreate, on June 7th:

Click for full-sized sketch.

I used a red background with white pencil, since red light is best to keep your night vision.  Afterward, I replaced, via PaintShop Pro, the red with black to make it easier to see here.  I will only show the black edits of subsequent sketches.  And in subsequent sketches, I replaced the above red with an even darker red, which helped my night vision even more.

Click for full-sized sketch.

Unfortunately, that first night I considered a failure, as I was unable to align my very crude star patterns with anything in the vicinity of M61.  It was after this first night that I went back and truly studied Stellarium, found c.Vir, and memorized the star formations around M61.

My next viewing attempt came on June 14th.  This time, knowing a little more about what I should look for, I drew this sketch:

Click for full-sized sketch.

Aha!  Now we are getting somewhere.  This at least looks somewhat like the simulations in Stellarium.  You must see the full image to identify the fainter stars, particularly near the bottom.

At this stage, I feel it important to note that I was not “cheating” at the telescope.  My PC desktop was inside my house, and I did not reference it while drawing at the telescope.  I had planned to find c.Vir and then star hop “down” (actually up) to find the stars near M61.  The results of that night, about 20 minutes of viewing, are in the above sketch.

In post-analysis I found this image interesting on two fronts.  c.Vir is easily identifiable.  This allowed for an easy star hop down (again, actually up) to M61’s neighborhood.  Zooming into my own sketch, I am fairly confident in identifying the location of M61:

Click for full-sized sketch.

Also identified here is my guess at the location of galaxy NGC 4301.  I referred back to Roger’s M61 image, cross-referenced with Stellarium, to estimate this location within my sketch.  I thought this important as it helps to give perspective in size from my sketches and his picture that started my trek.  Note how many stars Roger captured within this small space!  I assume many of those visible are of the 12+ magnitude range.

The sad news is that, based on my guesses, I saw nothing of M61 directly on June 14th.  But this was not unexpected.  Still, I wanted to give the hunt one last try.  In preparation, I noted the two “anchor” stars (my term) closest to M61, that would allow me to hopefully focus that area with the help of my 2x Barlow lens.  From Stellarium:

Click for full-sized image.

The brighter, HIP 60224, is magnitude 8.15.  The unnamed star below it has a magnitude of 10.35.

On June 15th, I looked at this area of space with the same telescope setup as the prior night, but this time using the Barlow lens to double the magnification.

Click for full-sized sketch.

In this sketch, HIP60224 is the brightest dot, and the unnamed 10.35 star is below it on an angle to the right.  These two, I saw very easily.  What was not easy were the three other stars drawn to their right and above.  I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it was to see these.  I had to use my peripheral vision and stare at the area several times over.  Vibrations in the telescope and atmospheric distortions were obvious.  These stars were clearly at the limits of both my equipment and my own visual abilities, within my light polluted sky.

In hindsight, I think those three stars are too far to the left of M61 to be near the galaxy’s core or even possibly the supernova.  Thus my exploration for M61, at least in 2020, has come to an end.  The supernova is now too faint and should disappear soon.

As a side trek, since I already had my Barlow and virtual sketchpad available, I decided to look one last time at c.Vir.  Interestingly, I clearly saw a third star next to the earlier pair of two:

Click for full-sized sketch.

The top star of the original two-pair is listed as magnitude 10.05.  I assume this third star is at least magnitude 12, maybe higher.  It was fainter than the other two, though that doesn’t quite come through in the sketch.

Although I did not find M61 or the supernova, it was a lot of fun trying.  And hopefully, I started to learn techniques that will help me to find and sketch other deep sky objects.

For those that made it to the end of this post, thank you very much for reading all the way through!

Early Morning Glimpse of Saturn and Jupiter

Objects in the early morning sky. Left to right: Saturn, Jupiter, part of the constellation Sagittarius.

June 16th, 2020, 03:22 a.m. local time

I happened to be up early mid-morning and decided to check on Jupiter and Saturn.  I knew from my observations last week that they should have been almost due South, and my direct observation confirmed this.  The above picture was hastily taken with my phone.  Interestingly, this is the stock iPhone camera app, versus NightCap.  Normally, NightCap gives better ad hoc photos of the sky, in my experience, but this time, NightCap’s TIFFs were too dark.

Jupiter is the big bright object near center.  Slightly above and to Jupiter’s left (from our vantage) is Saturn.  You can also see sloping towards the right some of the brighter stars in the constellation Sagittarius.

This picture also emphasizes how bad my location’s light pollution is.  That glow towards horizon is not the Zodiac lights, but the overabundance of artificial illumination even after 3 a.m.

Edit: Zooming into the image, I noticed a star was captured above and slightly left of Saturn.  According to Stellarium, that is the (double) star Dahib, brightest star in the constellation Capricornus.

Morning Moon and Orion, Accentuated Stars

Click to see full-sized image.

September 23rd, 2019, 06:00 a.m. local time

Early mornings on early Fall days.  These are great because they offer pre-dawn viewing of Orion high in the Southern Sky, here in the Northern Hemisphere.  This morning, the Moon was close by, so I quickly took the above picture with NightCap on my iPhone.

Besides the Moon and Orion, you also can see Aldebaran in the top right.  To the bottom left is another star, which I think may be Procyon of Canis Minor.  Sirius hung just below Orion and out of the picture, as it was behind trees.

I performed minor touchups to this image to “push out” the key stars, to make them more visible, so that you can see their position relative to the Moon.  I did this by increasing the Soft Focus in PaintShop Pro to just the selected star areas, several times over.  Generally, I don’t like to touch up images like this, but I felt it at least added a little perspective with the Moon nearby.

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.

Leo the Lion and Coma Berenices, May 2018

Click to see the full-sized image.

Since I started taking wide-field pictures of the sky last year, the constellation Leo has been my most-photographed target.  Being high overhead in my area during its prime viewing season, its resulting images suffer the least from the harsh light pollution closer to the horizon.  It is also an easy constellation to trace once you identify the anchor stars of Regulus and Denebola.

This image was produced in DeepSkyStacker from about 25 25-sec exposures, f/2.8 and ISO 200.  I have settle on these settings based on my earlier pictures this year of Orion, Gemini, and Auriga.  Further post-processing attempted to accentuate the bright stars.

Above Leo and to the left you can see Coma Berenices.  It sort of blends in with the other fainter stars directly above Leo.  This was in part a trade-off by me – I wanted to show as many stars as possible, at the loss of Coma Berenices blending too much into that fainter star field.


Next on my ongoing astro-imaging tour, I hope, is Jupiter.  I took one set of pictures a few weeks ago, but they turned out badly.  The skies were clear this weekend but the humidity was stifling.  Fortunately, there is plenty of time to see and image Jupiter in 2018, and I am still easily on pace based on prior years and how Jupiter repositions year-to-year.  In 2016 I started photographing Jupiter in early April; in 2017, I started in early May.  So 2018’s “window” is a few weeks away.

Constellations X: Spring Triangle Fever

Click to see the full image.

May 4th, 2018, 09:50 p.m. local time

For the record, I have had amazingly clear skies ever since late last week.  Each night I have tried to take advantage of these viewing opportunities, especially since the aging Moon has been rising well past midnight.  On Friday night, the first adventure I undertook was the photographing of the Spring Triangle – Arcturus, Regulus, and Spica.

I was not sure if I could capture this asterism in one picture.  The Spring Triangle is much larger than the Summer Triangle.  But I was successful.  It is worth noting that normally, I crop my raw images to focus on whatever the subject of the picture is.  For the Spring Triangle, you are seeing the complete and full dimensions of the source image.  This required the widest setting of my widest lens.  It is a very large patch of sky.

This is not a stacked image.  I went with only 25-second images and different ISOs.  The picture above was at ISO 200.  It was post-processed to remove light pollution and accentuate stars.

So aside from the technical details, what exactly are you looking at?  You can see all of Leo to the right.  Find Regulus and you should be able to trace Leo.  With Arcturus and Spica you can see parts of the constellations Bootes and Virgo, respectively.  In the top middle you see the packed stars of Coma Berenices.

This photography session increased my constellation total to 32.  Bootes, at least partially, is seen.  Also, correcting my previous records, I should have acknowledged earlier that Coma Berenices is a recognized modern constellation.  It was an ancient asterism, originally considered to be part Leo, being the lion’s great and magnificent tail.

  • 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
  • Bootes
  • Coma Berenices

References:

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: