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.

Saturn in July 2017

July 16th, 2017, 11:10 p.m. local time

All the recent rain and generally miserable humid summer weather almost made me forget that there was a brief pocket of pleasant evening clearness just this past Sunday.  It was a great opportunity to move my 10″ Dobsonian to my back deck for taking in the evening’s astronomical wonders.

I started with imaging Saturn, my primary objective.  I had great difficulty locating Saturn that night and it was almost 20 minutes before I locked on.  Keep in mind this is all a manual process.  My homemade Dobsonian is a Newtonian reflector on a simple alt-az swivel mount.  Even by turning my exposures all the way up, I still had problems finding it.  The lesson here is that it may be next to impossible to attempt imagining of Uranus in a few months with my meager equipment.

Returning to the present though with Saturn, I think this may be my best yet.  When I image the planets, I always take a few sets of videos with different refocusing.  It is really, really hard to get the exact focus right, and the digital camera’s view screen can only get you approximately there, hence the need to take a few sets so that hopefully at least one of them is good.

This night, I took two sets, and it was the first group of videos that allowed me to create the above image.  I also used my Neodymium filter, which I prefer for Saturn as it brings out a nice color contrast among planet’s cloud bands and ring levels.

After my Saturn session was complete, I put a 17mm eyepiece on the scope just to look around on that clear no-Moon night.  Of note was the Hercules Globular Cluster (Messier 13) which I saw clearer than I ever had.  Wow!  I could make out many bright stars in the foreground of the cluster.  I don’t have the proper equipment to image it, but I hope to have the skills to properly draw it by next year.

Also of note was that I am starting to see Cassiopeia earlier and earlier in the Northeast.  It’s the great pointer to the Andromeda Galaxy.  My view to the East is mostly blocked, so I have to wait some before the galaxy is visible via telescope and binoculars from my backyard, but it is comforting to know my favorite gray smudge will be back soon!

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?


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


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


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


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.