Vernal Equinox Moon, Spring 2021, via iPhone

Click for full-sized image.

March 20th, 08:57 p.m. local time

Happy belated Vernal Equinox for all of you in the Northern Hemisphere.  The start of Spring means that I am done with excuses for not getting my telescopes outside again.  I contemplated taking the Dobsonian into the yard over the past few weeks, but the still very bitter evening chill was always enough for me to shrink back into my warm hole in the ground.

Looking at my records, I can’t believe the last time I took the big scope out was five months ago, on October 13th for the Mars opposition.  But in my defense, it was a particularly brutal late Fall and all of Winter in a variety of ways, from personal to meteorological.  Now I hope to spend at least time on the weekends with my scopes, camera equipment, or both.

My primary target for the evening was the Moon, still in Crescent Phase.  Partially notable were two visible stars visible through the 2″ eyepiece, both extremely close to the Moon’s shadow side.  I captured them in this raw stock iPhone image:

Stellarium confirmed their existence and position at the time observed:

Click for full-sized image (screenshot from Stellarium).

As listed in Stellarium, the bright, closer star is known as 121 Tau / HIP 26248 with magnitude 5.35.  The second dimmer star, in the top right of each image, is HIP 26201, magnitude 6.80.  “Tau” is of course for Taurus.  They reside between the bull’s horn tips, stars named Tianguan and Elnath.

With warmer weather approaching, I should have more opportunities to observe and capture the Spring sky.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: iPhone XS
  • Smartphone camera mount for telescope eyepieces
  • Barlow: None
  • Filter: None
  • Eyepeice: Q70 32mm, 2″
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PaintShop Pro for minor touch-ups, cropping

Light in Winter’s Deep

Click for full-sized image.

February 13th, 2021, 6:08 p.m. local time

Approximate Temperature: 6 degrees Fahrenheit / -14 Celsius

I recall one lecture in my Materials Science class in college, the professor said, in his British accent, “Ice is a wonderful building material.  It’s only problem is that it turns to slush when the temperate reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit!”

This statement from nearly 30 years ago popped into my head as I was clearing my driveway from the latest fluffy blanketing.  The temperature, yet again, was in free fall towards 0 (F) with no intention of stopping there overnight.  At least there was no wind.  Yes, you could likely build wonderful creations with just ice if you were guaranteed to never have to worry about melt.  Maybe this will be a paradigm for the Moon?

As I was pushing my snow blower down its next lane to plough, I looked up and realized the sky was clear.  And in the West was the early Crescent Moon.  Our weather has been do cold and cloudy and snowy these past three+ weeks, I lost track of the Moon’s cycle!  But there it was.  As I had my phone in my pocket, I of course just had to attempt a few pictures.  I got off a few shots with the stock iPhone camera and a few with Night before, in less than a minute, my exposed figures started to go numb.  Phone back in my pocket, and the ploughing continued.

Despite the crudity of this image, it partially captured the evening’s Earthshine.

On my return trip up the lane, I looked up again and saw Rigel.  Orion!  I forgot about Orion!  It’s still there.  And this is unfortunately its prime viewing season.  I am really hoping the weather in March is above freezing and I can spend some time looking again at my favorite constellation.

New Year’s Resolution; Year TBD

Winter morning from January 14th, 2021. Click for full-sized image.

Hello, readers.  Feels like it’s been a while, but it has only been a tad over a month.  After the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, I have done no astronomy activities beyond a few glimpses of Orion when the weather permitted.  This is truly the dead of Winter.

The current season as well as the state of political affairs have offered a lot of time for thinking.  One of many questions I have pondered is what to do when (if) everything ever returns to normal?  It’s a good question that sparks regret.  For to ask the question of what you should do in the future is to, perhaps, insinuate what you should have done when you had the chance.

If there ever is a a true normal again (a real normal, not a fake “new normal”), I would like to plan my vacation time around travelling to dark sites across the United States.  It’s been a long time since I was in such locations, even fractionally of what would consider to have a dark sky.  Most such places are further out west.  It will make for interesting road trips, to pack up my telescope and camera equipment, and see what I can find.

So here is hoping to better days ahead.  I will try to keep my innate optimism up as much as possible.  But I will admit, in the dead of this Winter, it’s been tough.  20 years ago, I felt there would come a day when the travel we took for granted would no longer be possible without government sanction.  That day is here, or soon should be.  Once upon a time, beyond your reasonable (real reasonable, not politically reasonable) obligations to your family, property, and work, there was nothing stopping you from getting in your car, driving in whatever direction you’d like, for as long as you wished, then turning around when you wanted to go home.  In the near future, such a reckless disregard for planning, permits, and authorization could lead you into trouble, if the current trajectory does not change.

My greater worry is that what we take for granted today in regards to prosperity, opportunity, and decision privileges will be supplanted by the bureaucratic procedures of the emerging sudo-state.  It has gained great power during the pandemic.  If history is a guide, it will not give up that power by benevolent volition.

We shall see how the course of events unfold.  I would like to start visiting dark sites this year, but if not this year, I will hope for 2022.  If the pandemic continues, or is supplanted by a new crisis, I will plan for 2023, and continue planning and dreaming of those possibilities for the remainder of my days.  For regardless of how bleak things may look at any given point, always know that the trajectory of history is never a straight line.

Something Remarkable out of the Unremarkable

From left to right: Saturn, Ganymede, Io, Jupiter, Callisto, Europa.  Click for full-sized image.

December 22nd, 2020, 5:10 p.m. local time

We begin today with a weather recap.

So this past night provided an opportunity to see the two gas giants side-by-side.  I used my small Mak-Cass 254mm telescope, which I had not used, I think, at all this year except possibly for one solar viewing.

This was a somewhat rushed setup, knowing I wouldn’t have a lot of time, and not knowing if I could get both Jupiter and Saturn in the same telescopic view.  The telescope’s final position was pointed well under 15 degrees.  I used the telescope’s stock 23mm eyepiece, with no magnification.  I was delighted to see both planets, along with all four of the Galilean moons, visible in the same field.

Anticipating a good sighting, I had already attached my iPhone to my eyepiece mount.  The best result is above showing the full eyepiece view.  Here are the objects zoomed in:

Click for full-sized image.

…and here is Saturn zoomed in even more, with some minor image corrections in PaintShop Pro:

For a quick iPhone image at the telescope, this view of Saturn turned out incredibly well.

Sunday’s view of the conjunction wasn’t terribly interesting, but this last one was different.  Seeing both planets side-by-side on this cold and clear evening, and together through the telescope, definitely ranks up with the other notable astronomical observations in 2020.

Unremarkable Great Conjunction

Click for full-sized image.

December 20th, 2020, 5:00 p.m. local time

Assuming no more cosmological events of note for 2020, I found the “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn to be not all that great.

I have been anticipating this time for over a year, thinking about it last September when I first took this image of Jupiter and Saturn coming together.  In hindsight, I am not sure exactly what I expected from a planetary alignment that is both predictable and happening purely by chance right now.

Weather may have played a role in my disappointment, as there was a slight overcast and haze.  I had difficulty focusing my digital camera on tripod, even when targeting the nearby crescent Moon, due to the hazy dusk conditions.  And I knew from past experiences that the view from my telescopes would have been too blurry to be worth the effort in near-freezing conditions (since the planets were so low in the sky).

But I did capture the two planets unremarkably, as you can see in the corresponding image.  You probably will have to expand the image to see faint Saturn.

Perhaps in the year when I saw a comet, took my best Mars image, and captured a meteor, this conjunction was destined to be anti-climatic.

Yet if I can take one figurative observation from last night, it is this: after seeing the two planets together, it’s not hard to imagine how such an alignment, embellished by background stars or other phenomena, could have been interpreted as a divine sign by the ancients.

The Most Hits

Quiet times, at least on some fronts.  I haven’t taken my telescopes or related equipment out at all over these last several months.  But the pending conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter may spur me to action, cold weather permitting.

So this may be a time of opportunity to discuss earlier shelved commentaries.  One I have been meaning to address for a while is the usage of pinterest.  I have experimented in leveraging other social media outlets for this blog before, mostly twitter, but I found its value limited.

My latest experiment was with pinterest, a site that seems more geared to sharing fashions and recipes.  Still, its format appeared suited to photography, so I decided to leverage it whenever I posted my astronomy images.

I never expected much traffic, and still do not, on pinterest.  Some of the images have a few hundred “impressions,” most less.  But one surprisingly has had thousands of impressions:

Click to see pinterest site.

This was a Moon composite I shared a year ago.  It’s nice, but I don’t understand why this one image, or all of my posted images, has received such a disproportionate number of impressions.  I guess I neither appreciate nor grasp marketing in this realm, to know what is going to catch the eye of the random pinterest viewer.

Part of the answer is that astrophotography is an extreme niche.  If you would like to share your own experiences with astronomical social media, I would be interested in hearing them.

Mars Opposition Eve

October 12th, 2020, 11:10 p.m. local time

Preparation, prior session notes, favorable whether, and a little luck all contributed to what I believe is my best Mars capture yet.

Knowing the forecast for the following evening was suspect at best, I decided to try photographing Mars.  It had been cloudy and raining in the afternoon, but almost miraculously cleared by 6 p.m.  The only true issue was the dampness in the air, and I was worried this would impact overall image quality, due to moisture on the primary mirror.  The sky was clear and, importantly, the wind was non-existent.

I leveraged my Mars imaging experience from the weekend, and chose, based on that session and my notes from Mars’s last opposition, to use ISO 800 and exposure 1/200.  Late into my session videos, as I was continually refocusing after sets of three to four videos each, I accidentally changed the exposure for one set to 1/160.  This set, combined with great focus, yielded the best of the lot.  All but one set was very good, but this, I think, turned out excellent.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: Canon EOS Rebel SL3
  • Barlow: TeleVue Powermate x5 1.25″
  • Filter: Baader Neodymium 1.25″
  • Canon T ring and adapter
  • Relevant camera settings:
    • ISO 800
    • Exposure: 160
    • HD video at 60fps
    • Created from three videos of about 25s each, best 25-35% of frames
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PIPP
    • Autostakkert
    • Registax 6
    • PaintShop Pro for minor touch-ups

Still-Early Fall Bicycling

Click for full-sized image.

October 11th, 2020, ~9:30 a.m. local time

Weather has been steadily cooling but still very pleasant, pleasant enough to continuing biking on my local trails.  I’ve continued bicycling through the Summer and into the Fall, and thought these would be good point-in-time shots.  As you can see, many of the trees are still green.  This will likely change rapidly even over the next week.  Normally by early November, most trees will have lost their leaves or be in their advanced stages of Fall color.

Click for full-sized image.

On the astronomy front, tomorrow is Mars opposition 2020.  The forecast is cruel right now, with clouds scheduled to roll in early evening Tuesday.  As I write this on Monday, the skies are overcast with rain in the afternoon, followed by clearing early evening.  I may try to sneak in opposition eve viewing and photos late tonight.

First Look at Mars in 2020

October 6th, 2020, 11:50 p.m. local time

Consider this a trial run for Mars’s opposition next week.  I had not imaged everyone’s favorite red planet since its last opposition ~18 months ago.  Fortunately, everything still seemed in order, including the planet itself.  Telescope, camera, and all supporting equipment worked as intended.  I used my documented ISO and exposure settings from 2018.  Judging from the result, they worked well, and should be sufficient for Mars over the next week or so.

Mars is extraordinarily difficult to focus, at least from my Dobsonian.  For comparison, Jupiter is relatively easy, as all I need to do is crank up the ISO and exposure, then fine focus until I have sharp dots for the smallest of the Galilean moons.  Saturn doesn’t have this benefit, though its unique shape, with the gaps between the rings and planet, offer a serviceable guide.

There are no guideposts when focusing on the Martian disc, which is either near circular or oval.  Its two moons are far too small to be picked up by a backyard telescope.  So my focus on Mars is always going to be about as “best guess” as guesses go.  It’s also why I continually refocus and take at least three to four separate sets of videos.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: Canon EOS Rebel SL3
  • Barlow: TeleVue Powermate x5 1.25″
  • Filter: Baader Neodymium 1.25″
  • Canon T ring and adapter
  • Relevant camera settings:
    • ISO 800
    • Exposure: 200
    • HD video at 60fps
    • Created from three videos of about 25s each, best 25-35% of frames
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PIPP
    • Autostakkert
    • Registax 6
    • PaintShop Pro for minor touch-ups