Constellations II: Leo the Lion

Click to enlarge and discover many stars!

Five weeks.  That is how long I had to wait from my first session photographing Leo the Lion to my second.  That is how long I had to wait for a mostly clear night, but even then, in the early evening of May 29th, I just finished my shots in time before large clouds rumbled in.

Five weeks prior, on April 22nd, the skies were much clearer and Leo was still directly overhead.  But as that was more of a test-shoot, compiling light, dark, and bias frames with my Canon EOS DSLR camera, I wanted to get a second set to see if there was any noticeable difference in the final imagining.  In particular, I wanted to shorten the focal length from f/22 to f/14, about mid-range.

I don’t think the focal setting change made much of a difference, but at least I did learn a few more things about the stacking software, DeepSkyStacker.  For example, the stacking “Intersection Mode” works wonders if you have to move the camera a bit and to ignore the stray wisps of clouds.  I know now for future reference that the sky does not have to be perfectly clear, just clear enough.  I can also take as many light/picture frames as I want, so long as I keep the object approximately centered.  DSS figures out the rest!

The one aspect of this technique I wish I could improve is to highlight better the apparent magnitudes.  Regulus is the brightest stars in my picture, but you cannot tell.  I don’t want to faux edit the image just to make the brighter magnitude stars bigger, but I do want to research possible PSP techniques to highlight the bigger stars.

I am also amazed at how accurate the picture is.  Compare the above image with this star chart and you can mentally plot the smaller stars.  Pretty cool!

Constellations I: Testing Ursa Minor, Snagging Draco

Do you see Polaris, Ursa Minor, and Draco?
Click to enlarge to full size.

On Monday, the same night I photographed Jupiter and Io, I also set up my tripod and new digital camera.  I want to start taking wide-field pictures of the night sky.

As a test subject, I pointed at the Little Dipper.  On the digital camera, everything has to be set to manual.  The longest setup time was in getting the focus just right.  For this, I used the brightest “star” available, Jupiter.

I took 17 images at ISO 3200, 18mm, and 10 second exposures.  I then took eleven dark frames – same camera settings but with the lens cap on.  This is to ascertain camera noise.  Finally I took 14 bias frames.  These are dark as well – lens cap on – but very fast shots.  In reading up on this, it’s possible I did not need bias frames, but I used them anyway.

I put all these images into DeepSkyStacker, and the above is what I got.  This is not a very interesting part of the sky, and my light pollution does not help.  In Ursa Minor I can see Polaris and the two bright end stars, but the middle ones are more difficult.  Something like Draco I cannot see at all.  So it is remarkable what the camera can pull out!

I am pleased with the amount of stars I captured.  Can you see Polaris and Ursa Minor?  I also got all of Draco in this picture, which surprised me.  Do you see it?

If you are having trouble (like so many of my co-workers did), please see this cheat image I created.  I purposefully am not showing the image directly in the blog post, to give you time to first study the raw picture before looking at the “answers.”

Enjoying a Winter View of the Summer Triangle

March 15th, 2017, 6:20 a.m. local time

A lot of stargazing stuff happened on or around the Ides of March, and I am still getting caught up.

For a few mornings this week there was a predawn unexpected treat: the Summer Triangle!  I like that it is pretty much visible all year long, provided you are willing to stargaze at any time of the night.  Fortunately the current sightings align with the start of my daily routine.  Perfectly framed towards the East by my big maple tree were the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.

Here are is the same picture with each star’s name attached:

This picture was taken with just my smartphone.  Nothing special about the settings as I only wanted to frame the triangle correctly.

I should also note that this is not a light pollution-tainted image.  The Sun was nearly ready to pop over the horizon, so only the brightest stars and Jupiter were visible throughout the sky.

Which Deep Sky Objects are Good to View Right Now?

m37-02

Last week, when viewing conditions where still great and just before I got a bad cold, I was perusing the skies with my big (10-inch Dob) telescope.  It had been a while since I was outside with the heavy equipment just browsing for new stuff above.  So after taking a good look at all things Orion and the Pleiades, I used my Sky Map app to see if any DSOs might be worth viewing.

Since they were around Zenith (and still are) at my best night viewing time, I decided to look for three open clusters, Messier objects M36, M37, and M38.  They are in the constellation Auriga, above Orion and Taurus.  All three clusters are nice, but I found M37 in particular to be amazing.  Even from my light-polluted suburban skies I could see dozens of concentrated stars, if not more.  It had been a while since I had an awe-inspiring find, and this was finally it.  I am hoping, if weather conditions improve this coming weekend, to try sketching M37.

We are in the middle of Winter and looking towards Spring.  Are there any deep sky objects you enjoy viewing at this time of year?

The Dog, The Hunter, and The Bull

orion-sirius-aldebaran-01

Click to enlarge.

February 21st, 2017, 9:00 p.m. local time

While out late in my driveway, I could see the constellation Orion high in the Southwest sky.  What an imposing and wonderful sight!  People young and old(er) are amazed whenever I point it out.  And while I would love to take credit for this incredible cosmological discovery, Orion has been around for a rather long time, and it’s a shame most people will never pause to look up at it.

Given their framing in my sky this night, it occurred to me that Orion’s Belt, those magnificent three stars in the middle, offer the perfect gauge to find two other stars of neighboring constellations.  Although forming not quite a straight line through the belt, the stars Sirius and Aldebaran are on opposite and effectively equidistant sides.  Sirius, the eye of Canis Major and brightest star in the sky, is easy to find, though for me in the U.S.A. it is always somewhat low in the South sky.

On the opposite side from Sirius is Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the Bull.  Aldebaran is the faintest of the five stars here in question, and there are no obvious markers (or asterisms) in its immediate vicinity (Sirius has no obvious patterns either, but it is so bright you cannot miss it).

Putting it all together makes for the cool ancient story of Canis Major chasing after Orion the Hunter while he attacks Taurus the Bull.  They are a fantastic sight on these Winter evenings, guaranteed to be better than anything on TV tonight.

Lighting Up the Bull

taurus-20170214

February 14th, 2017, 8:40 p.m. local time

For all the griping I’ve written here about light pollution, I have to admit that the wonders of the night sky are still aplenty for me, and sometimes offer wonderful surprises.

As I was scanning Orion both through my telescope and via unaided observing, I noticed something I had not before.  Around Aldebaran, the brightest star of Taurus, were a whole bunch of dim stars.  Usually I ignore Taurus, since its sole visible representative, Aldebaran, does not offer much, beyond gauging its relative spacing with everything else in that area of sky.  But tonight, being clear and with no Moon and my eyes properly adjusted, I could see a number of stars in proximity, just to the West of Aldebaran.

This event made me realize that you should not take any part of the night sky for granted!  I will try to do a better job studying my sky’s “empty” spaces.

Finally Found The Little Dipper

little-dipper-01

Earlier this week I wrote about my problems finding The Little Dipper (a.k.a. Ursa Minor, The Little Bear).  The past few nights have offered good views of the sky, so I went outside and, sure enough, I finally managed to “size” The Little Dipper properly.  Polaris is easy to find.  In hindsight, my main issue was that I always thought this constellation was much smaller than it really is (being “little”).  But by using the asterism The Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major) as a guide, it became fairly obvious where the two end stars Kochab and Pherkad were.  They are easily visible to me without an optical aid.

So in between Polaris and the Kochab/Pherkad set are the other four points of The Little Dipper.  They are much fainter and I could not obviously see them at early night with a big Moon, though I suspect I saw at least one.  I will wait for a dark (no Moon) night with my eyes properly adjusted to seek the rest of this constellation.  The great news is, from my location in the U.S.A, The Little Dipper is visible all year, every day, clouds permitting.

Mighty Orion and Surrounding Stars

orion-20170208

February 8th, 2017, 6:30 p.m. local time

It was far too cold tonight to take the telescopes out, especially on a work night.  But with the sky very clear, I did what I could to capture Orion.

Here is a log of everything I think is in this picture:

  • Betelgeuse
  • Rigel
  • Orion’s Belt
  • The Orion Nebula
  • Bellatrix
  • Saiph
  • Sirius
  • Aldebaran
  • Alhena
  • Alnath, I hope, at the top left

My Vexations in Finding The Little Dipper

little-dipper-01

One of my most obvious “misses” in observing the sky this past year has been The Little Dipper, a.k.a. Ursa Minor.  Whenever I say to myself I will focus on it on clear nights, I get distracted by some other, more interesting part of sky.

Why is The Little Dipper so hard to find?  I think it’s a combination of factors:

  • Since most of its stars are well above 2 magnitude, the excessive light polution in my area masks most of it
  • Difficult to judge its size relative to The Big Dipper, which is very bright
  • Finding Polaris is an easy nightly win that usually does not go much further
  • Generally boring part of the sky, party due to light pollution – Zenith and towards South are far more interesting (think Orion and planets)

I frequently spot Polaris, which at least is a good start.  My difficulty starts in that the rest of that area of sky appears blank, especially right after nightfall.

Reviewing the constellation and the brightness of each star, I now have a strategy to find it:

  1. Wait for a clear sky with no or little Moon
  2. Wait until the sky is sufficiently dark for the evening
  3. Locate Polaris, which is always easy
  4. Next, and here is the key, is to determine the approximate location of The Little Dipper’s next brightest star, Kochab.  It is supposed to be only slightly less bright than Polaris.  My guess, now that I think about it, is that I simply miss or ignore Kochab.

Since Polaris and The Little Dipper are effectively at the center of our cosmic wheel, it should just be a matter of gauging which position on the “clock” Kochab is to Polaris.  And for added perspective, I need to study the relative size differences of the two dippers, and use it as a marker as well in finding Kochab.  In hindsight, I think one of my bad assumptions is that Ursa Minor is far smaller than it really is.

So once I have Polaris coupled with Kochab, I can use either my telescopes of binoculars to trace out the rest of the constellation.  We’ll see how this strategy works on my next clear, dark night!