Waiting for Winter to Reopen the Sky

Ice-covered Lake Michigan this winter.

I wish there was more to say and show from the past few weeks, but the weather has not been cooperating.  Cloud-blanketed days and nights intermingled with furious snow bashings have created a mid-Winter with little time for anything beyond work and shoveling.  But I keep my back deck snow-free in hopes that a prolonged break will come one evening and I can get either a telescope or camera out for at least a brief time.

There are a few matters to report.  First, we are now in prime time viewing season for Orion.  From the northern hemisphere, it’s high in the South around 8 to 9 o’clock.  I very much want to take a wide-field view of this constellation, especially since I recently bought a better wide-field lens that I am eager to try out.  I did catch a brief glimpse of Orion last night through a break in the clouds, but certainly not predictable or long enough to warrant getting equipment set up to photograph.

Over the weekend, in between my snow removal shifts, I was up very late, around 1:30am, and noticed to the East that Jupiter was already visible through my trees.  This is great news as it means opposition is rapidly approaching, and in another one-to-two months it will be available for observation and photography at reasonable evening hours once again.

Finally, all the snow in my area made we wonder if my neighbor’s buried outdoor lights would lessen the area’s light pollution for the time being.  With a small break in clouds last night, I did look up for a few minutes, but did not notice any difference.  My guess is that any mitigation of pollution due to covered lights is offset by the highly reflective white snow cover.

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The Orion Nebula via Smartphone

The Orion Nebula, M42

January 25th, 2018, 8:30 p.m. local time

The skies were very clear last night and the temperature in the mid-30s (F), with no wind.  It was a great opportunity to take my 10″ Dob outside for the first time this year.

There were many targets in the sky, but as it was a school night, I decided to focus (no pun intended) on the Orion Nebula.  I first observed it for a while with only my 2″ 32mm eyepiece.  It still looks as I recall from the prior season of observation.  Worth noting was the presence of the Quarter Moon, so the skies were nowhere near ideal for deep sky observations.

I then proceeded to attach my phone via mount to the eyepiece.  Understand that my attempts at photographing any deep sky object, such as M42, accentuate the limits of my astrophotography equipment.  I do not have an equatorial mount, so I cannot take the needed exposures for truly rich images.  One image I took at a four-second exposure brought out the nebula’s shape in surprising clarify, but the long star trails make the image unusable.  I settled for a few ~0.3 second exposures, lightly edited afterward in PaintShop Pro.

The Brightness of Algol, Part I

Click to see the full-sized image. Afocal image taken from a 254mm reflector.

“I will definitely be looking out for Algol and will try to take pictures.”
Me on September 12th, 2017

The star Algol, in the constellation Perseus, is known as an eclipsing binary star.  As explained at Scott’s Sky Watch:

“Algol’s brightness changes as we see it here on Earth. It’s not because its inherent brightness itself is changing, but because another star is passing in front of it, blocking out some if its light, just like the Moon did to the Sun last month, but much farther away. From its 90 light years, we can see it as only one star. Algol was the first star of this type to be discovered, so this type is sometimes called an Algol Binary. We here are fortunate to be able to see this.”

I had been hoping to take pictures over the course of days to see if changes in its brightness could be detected.  I was only able to image the star on one night so far, several weeks ago on December 19th.  I did log the telescope, lens, and camera settings, so that I can try to reproduce the imaging event at a later date.  The above image, from December 19th, is unaltered except for an increase in color vibrancy that can be applied easily to the next image.

There is still some time this season to capture Algol again.  I just need both the Winter weather and skies to cooperate together on a single night.

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:

Just Stargazing

My activity over the past several weeks has been slim to none with regards to astronomy and astrophotography.  The main culprit has been the weather, with a heinous amount of cloud cover week over week.  The few clear nights were unfortunately around the past Full Moon, making deep sky observations almost impossible.

Still, I have been checking out the stars when I can.  In the weeks leading up to the Fall time change, it was sufficiently dark in the mornings to see stars.  Notable was bright Sirius shining through even somewhat dense cloud cover.  It was wonderful to see Orion again in the West in the hour before dawn.  And now after the recent time change, I can see Orion rising around midnight above my trees blocking my East view.

Another notable in the sky is the Great Square of Pegasus.  It’s now in its prime viewing season in the mid-evenings.  And with Pegasus follows its neighboring constellation to the North, Andromeda.  And with Andromeda comes…the Andromeda Galaxy!  It’s just a faint blur for me through both binoculars and telescopes, but I hope this winter to try imaging it in several ways, to see if I can pick up any detail beyond its bright center.

Scanning further North, I also want to mention about imaging the star Algol in Perseus.  This was brought up in Scott’s Sky Watch all the way back in September.  About month ago, I did spend time locating Algol.  Now, weather permitting, I hope to take a few pictures of it on different days, and see if its color changes.

Lastly, a note on the topic of light pollution: while I did write down what I consider the core matters, I have not blogged about it much in many months.  I only want to mention that I have not forgotten about it, and in fact it is very much on my mind.  It may be months or even years before I revisit it again here, but I’m going to talk about it when the time is right.

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?

My Hunt for Pluto, Part II: The False Star

Figure 2.1: My sketch of the area surrounding Pluto on September 14th, 2017.

“I really want to try to find Pluto again one more time this season…If I do get a chance, I will post a follow-up next month.” – Me, August 29th

With the Moon safely out of the way and a clear sky opportunity available, last week I resumed my quest to find Pluto.  Much of this post relies on information from my first attempt last month, and so I will be referring to that post frequently.

Recall that I leveraged the easily recognized “teapot” asterism in the constellation Sagittarius to star hop over to the approximate location of Pluto.  The main anchor star in the area of Pluto, both last month and now, is Albaldah.  Albaldah and a few nearby neighbors are the last stars I can see unaided.  So targeting Albaldah with my telescope was the first order of business.

The journey past Albaldah was guided with the help of both the Stellarium app on my tablet as well as my prior post.  I should note here that the “app” version of Stellarium is far less detailed than the PC version when investigating such faint objects in small spaces.  Further, based on my two observation sessions, I now believe there is an error in the PC Stellarium map, which I will explain in a moment.

Using the same 2″ Q70 eyepiece as last month, I quickly found HIP 94372, the 6.35 magnitude “mini-anchor” star near Pluto visible only with my telescope.  From HIP 94372 I located the 8th-magnitude star pattern I nicknamed k-lambda, assuring that I was in the correct vicinity.

At this point I was aggressively looking at the images from my prior blog post, the Stellarium app, and my telescope eyepiece.  I decided early on that it would be best to switch to a higher magnification than the 2″ eyepiece allowed, so I changed to my 1.25″ 14.5mm Planetary.  This eyepiece illuminated a much clearer view around HIP 94372.

Then I began sketching, referring to Stellarium only to assure that I was still in the location I wanted to be and drawing at the correct perspective size.  In my drawing above (Figure 2.1) it is difficult to see which stars are faint and which were really faint to the point that averted vision was necessary to see them.  The three stars I labeled as #1, #2, and #3 were the brightest, forming a triangle.  The three arcs were the approximate boundaries of the eyepiece.

With my sketch partially done, I had to make an assumption – that the small star close to HIP 94372, identified only by the Stellarium PC version, does not exist.  This probably threw me off last month, at least a bit, in determining if I truly had seen Pluto.  It is listed at magnitude 9.10, which should be easily visible, especially at the higher magnification I was now using with the 14.5mm eyepiece.  A 9.10 star should only be slightly dimmer than k-lambda, as well as the three stars forming the main triangle in my sketch.  And the few stars I drew around HIP 94372 are extremely faint, well past magnitude 9.  So either this star does not exist or its magnitude is incorrect in Stellarium.

Figure 2.2: Is this star really there?

Returning to the Pluto hunt, I knew it should be located within the three-star triangle I sketched.  In the figure below from Stellarium, I edited out the false star, as well as flipped the image to correspond to what I drew at the telescope that night.  Pluto is represented as a very, very tiny dot:

Figure 2.3: Pluto and surrounding stars as shown by Stellarium for September14th, 2017.

Remember, again, that most of these stars are very faint.  To help gauge where Pluto might be, I imaged a micro asterism forming a dipper or serpent, which starts at the star HIP 94338:

Figure 2.4: Identifying the serpent and “bright” stars.

I could see this dipper easily at the telescope so long as I knew where HIP 94372 was.  I also knew, then, that Pluto had to be just below (actually above, but the telescope reverses the image) this dipper and between HIP 94372 and HIP 94338.

Did I actually find Pluto?  I identified, at the telescope, three possible candidates, all hard to see without averting my eye a bit.  That night while still at the telescope, I drew an arrow pointing to the one I thought was most likely.  The other two candidates were to the right, the nearest dots above and below the one pointed to by my upward sketched “likely Pluto” arrow (see Figure 2.5).

Here is my sketch again, this time with the serpent/dipper lined, the three bright stars circled in orange, and the dot most likely to be Pluto, as determined afterward by comparing to both versions of Stellarium (iPad and PC):

Figure 2.5: My sketch with the most likely candidate for Pluto circled in yellow.

The best way I can confirm/reconfirm which dot was Pluto would be to sketch the area around HIP 94372 once Pluto has moved significantly.  Unfortunately by next month (after the next Full Moon passes), Sagittarius and Pluto may be too low in the sky for me to draw again, mostly due to the impacts of light pollution as they near the horizon.  And so, true final confirmation may have to wait a good seven to nine months, as the Earth and Pluto revolve around the Sun, beckoning the dwarf planet back into our East sky by late Spring 2018.