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.

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!

Sketching the Stars – M3 Globular Cluster

Click for full-sized drawing.

June 16th, 2020, 11:25 p.m. local time

Here is what I hope will be the return of an observation technique I have not done for a while – sketching.  I am actually doing my most recent sketching posts in reverse.  Over the past week, I was hunting for the galaxy M61, and have a small set of sketches that will be part of a larger post.  But for now, last night I decided to have some fun and tried to observe and draw a star cluster for the first time.

My goal was to capture what I truly saw at the telescope.  Yes, the cluster in question here, M3, really does look like just a gray smudge amongst a few dots of sparse stars.  The smudge is actually the core of about a half million stars.  All in all, I think that using a virtual charcoal pencil made a pretty accurate representation of what the cluster did look like to me, under very good viewing conditions for my location.

Using my 254mm (10-inch) Dobsonian, my best 2″ eyepiece along with a 2-times magnification Barlow lens, this was probably the best wide-field view of M3 that I can get.  I could likely use my 1.25″ eyepieces, but finding this star cluster by star hopping would be extremely difficult with such a narrow view.  While M3 is obvious when you find it in a telescope, there are no close guide stars.  The closest bright star is Arcturus in the constellation Boötes.  However, with my recent practice of trying to locate M61 (see future post), it wasn’t too hard to approximate the location between Boötes and Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), which is incredibly large and bright even in my light polluted skies.

How “large” is this star cluster?  It is difficult to give an approximation because not all of the cluster is fully visible here.  But for reference, it is officially listed at 18 arcminutes.  The Moon is about 30 arcminutes.  If I looked at the Full Moon with this eyepiece/lens setup, it would fill up a good portion of the view, but not entirely and with noticeable space to spare.

Using Stellarium, I looked up the surrounding stars and all their magnitudes.  Remember that lower numbers are brighter.  M3 was definitely the brightest object, magnitude 6.20, although the light was spread across the cluster, not concentrated to a single star.  The next brightest star was to the right, named HIP 66890, at magnitude 8.40.

(Interestingly, Stellarium lists HIP 66890 as a double star.  I may have to check it out again to see if I can gleam the second star.)

To the left of M3 are dimmer stars in the 10+ magnitude range.  I have pointed out all of the key stars and M3 below:

Click for full-sized drawing.

I used Procreate on my iPad to draw this sketch, with a dark red background as the canvass and white pencil.  I then removed all red afterward in PaintShop Pro, to give the black background you see here.  I will discuss this setup and usage in more detail in upcoming post on M61.

The Orion Nebula via DSLR Camera

The Orion Nebula, M42, plus surrounding stars. Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:40 p.m. local time

On Sunday night, in addition to imaging Venus, the Pleiades, and the Moon, I also pointed the camera towards the Orion Nebula.  This was mostly an experiment, as I had never imaged M42 without the aid of a telescope.

As this time of year, the Orion Constellation is falling into the West after Dusk.  So the nebula, along with the surrounding stars that make up Orion’s sword, are at an angle towards your right.  This is in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, I assume the configuration is “upside down” and would be angled towards your left.

I took a number of images of the nebula, playing around with the exposure and ISO settings.  The image included with this post is the best in my opinion, with only some minor post-processing touchups in an attempt to remove background noise.

I would like to do long-exposure stacking of deep sky objects again, but my “new” DSLR camera only outputs raw images in a format (CR3) that my software programs cannot handle.  The old standard was CR2.  I haven’t checked recently if any programs like DeepSkyStacker now support CR3, but I should.

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 2 sec exposure
  • ISO 3200
  • 260mm lens length
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Sorrows of Light

Click for full-sized image.

October 29th, 2018, 6:00 a.m. local time

A melancholy view of the early predawn sky brooded over the parking lot.  Two demon eyes joined a larger hoard spreading their sickly orange blight to mask the remarkable luminescence above.

Most unfortunate is that the blinding unshielded lamps and dearth star field were exactly all that could be seen through the glare.

On a small screen, you should be able to see Sirius, brightest star in all our skies, to the left.  The full-sized image will reveal the constellation Orion in the middle, and in the upper right is the famous star of Taurus, Aldebaran.

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:

Constellations VIII: Gemini

Click to see the full image.

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: