Still-Early Fall Bicycling

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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.

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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.

Bike Paths, Pandemic Traffic, Chipmunks and Squirrels

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August 16th, 2020, 9:30 a.m. local time

Haven’t done any real night sky viewing since the meteor shower last week.  The weather has been very pleasant and I’ve been exploring my local bike paths.  They are not too terribly exciting visually, but the paths make for relaxing treks through the Forest Preserves in the morning, before the August heat kicks in later in the day.

I biked four times this past week.  There was a very noticeable uptick today in path traffic, a combination of the nice weather and being a Sunday.  At times, it almost felt like a morning rush hour commute, with so many walkers, joggers, dogs, and cyclists to navigate around.  And it’s worth noting, vehicle traffic seems unabated by the pandemic, even more so on weekends.  Not sure where everyone goes.  Maybe business as usual?

Missing today on the paths that I saw many of mid-week: chipmunks.  I’m guessing they don’t like humans, and stay further in the forest when the paths are more heavily traveled.  Their larger cousins, squirrels, are always around, and for the most part, have a far better sense of when to get off the road.  Chipmunks are very fast by comparison, and just dart.  I almost ran over a few.  They don’t seem to know how to get out of the way.

When I lived in the city, there were squirrels everywhere, but no chipmunks.  I get the impression chipmunks need dense plant growth, so when urban development hits an area, they retreat to the forest.  Squirrels, however, can climb and burrow into buildings of any height, probably why they continue to thrive in cities.

Below is a typical Midwest marsh, as seen this morning.

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Pictures taken with my iPhone and briefly post-processed in PaintShop Pro.

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, 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.

Fifth Night of the Comet: End of the Tail

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July 22nd, 2020, 9:54 p.m. local time

This one was from almost a week ago now.  Comet C/2020 F3 had risen sufficiently high enough that I was able to photograph it from the relative darkness of my backyard.  If you follow The Big Dipper’s middle part of the handle straight down, you can barely see Neowise above two stars near the bottom.  This picture was taken with my iPhone and NightCap, on a tripod.

It was, sadly, the last night I was able to clearly see the tail.  As I watched it through my binoculars, I felt a sense of loss, that soon, this comet would never be seen by me or anyone else again for thousands of years, unless a means to travel the Solar System is developed before it arrives again.  To give perspective, assume very roughly that the last time this comet was in Earth’s vicinity was around 4000 B.C.  Any semblance of civilization was in Sumeria.  The great Egyptian kingdoms were still about a millennium away.  Writing had yet to be developed.  The chronology of The Bible had barely begun.  Perhaps the Sumerians or tribes of the settled world saw Neowise and took it as a great sign from their gods.

When the comet returns, millennia from now, I wonder how the inhabitants of Earth will see it.

Midday Bicycle Break

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July 23rd, 2020, 10:52 a.m. local time

With great weather and being off from work, I went for a bicycle ride.  Took a few pictures along the way.  These photos are more down-to-Earth than my normal postings, but they are still nice, I think.  A small break from the comet and stars and planets.

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Fourth Night of the Comet: Fun with NightCap

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July 19th, 2020, 9:58 p.m. local time

The evening following my previous comet sighting was one of stifling air and binoculars that would instantaneously fog up.  I tried an observation only since the sky had some patches of openness towards the Northwest.  In the end, it was just too difficult to locate even stars.

The next night, however, was far nicer.  Since I had already photographed the comet by digital camera and directly at the telescope, I decided to try simply with my iPhone and NightCap (and a tripod).  It is a very easy setup, and you effectively let the NightCap app do all the work.  The above picture was taken in “stars” mode, and post-processed in PaintShop Pro.  The Big Dipper centers the image, with comet Neowise near the bottom center.

You can see a rainbow-ish lens flare in the upper left.  That was likely from the streetlight down the block.

Third Night of Neowise: The Comet Made for a Dob

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July 17th, 2020, 9:48 p.m. local time

With the humidity climbing in very hot air, I still attempted a third night of viewing  everyone’s newest favorite comet.  This time, I dragged my Dobsonian into my front yard, which I rarely do.  But I also rarely point my astronomical equipment towards the North.  Call it a special occasion worth the extra effort and sweat.

Of all the views I have seen myself so far of Neowise, the simple view from the Dob has been my favorite.  It was a tad difficult to locate manually, even guided by binoculars, due to how low it was to the Northwest horizon.  I rarely point the Dob so low as well.  It requires weight adjustments to prevent the tube from tipping forward, and this night was no exception.

In this image, I particularly enjoy observing the tail and being able to see how far back it flares from the comet.

For those interested, the two stars close to the comet appear to be HIP 42761/SAO 42503 (lower) and HIP 42773/SAO 42503 (upper).  HIP 42761’s magnitude is 9.25 and HIP 42773’s is 7.85.  My image appears to corroborate this, as the higher star is slightly brighter.  Thanks to Stellarium, both the web and desktop versions, for helping me to identify these stars.

Summary of my equipment, settings, and software used:

  • Telescope: Dobsonian reflector 254mm / 10″ (homemade)
  • Camera: iPhone XS
  • Q70 32mm eyepiece
  • No Barlow
  • No filter
  • NightCap app
  • Relevant camera settings (afocal):
    • ISO 1600
    • Exposure: 1 sec
    • f/1.8
    • Focal length 4mm
    • Smartphone telescope mounting bracket
  • Software for post-processing:
    • PaintShop Pro for minor touch-ups and contrast adjustment

Saturn, Jupiter, and Moon, Early June Morning, 2020

Objects in our Solar System. Top row, left to right: Saturn, Jupiter, Moon. Bottom, Earth.

June 8th, 2020, 02:30 a.m. local time

We* here at Aperture Astronomy will do whatever it takes** to bring you some of the most fascinating images of our Solar System and beyond.  If staying up until 2:30 a.m. is necessary, we’ll* do it!

This early morning view of two planets and the Moon was simply too good to miss, so yes, I stayed up to at least see it when the Moon had risen high in the South.  Jupiter and then Saturn followed.  Frankly it was pretty cool, and I can’t wait for what views will top this one in the ensuing months.

If I believed in astrology, I would probably think this planetary configuration was the harbinger of a great sign or omen.  Fortunately, my only reaction was to enjoy the view, and to run back inside to get my phone and capture what I could of the scene.

The image is heavily edited, taken from a source iPhone NightCap TIF.  I tried my best to compensate for the Moon’s brightness, the area’s light pollution, and keeping especially Saturn visible.  The end result is a somewhat blurry mess, but hopefully the framing gives proportion as to what the sky looked like.  And this does give a proper perspective of the light pollution in my area, from the front lights to the general blandness of the sky (though the Moon was largely a contributing factor).

On a related note, on the previous night, around 9:05 p.m. local time, I spotted Mercury for the first time this year.  The sky was about as clear as it could be.  With Dusk still settling, I used Pollux and Castor as the easy guide stars to look down, with my binoculars, to find Mercury.  Once found this way, I was able to make the planet out, barely, with the naked eye.  Through the binoculars I also spotted, still in Dusk, a faint star to the right of Mercury, which according to Stellarium was likely the 3.05 magnitude Mebsuta.

Three planets spotted within six hours.  My planet viewing season has begun!

* I
** Restrictions and conditions apply

More Moon, June 2020

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June 1st, 2020, 10:00 p.m. local time

Continuing my recent series of evening backyard excursions targeting the Moon, I brought the big telescope out again for a look at the larger Gibbous phase, now just a few days away from Full.  The sky was clear and bright, illuminated from the Moon’s reflection.  It made observing anything around the Moon difficult, especially in my light polluted skies.

The only post-processing note is that I tried to get the overall sharpness, contrast, and brightness as close to the image from two nights ago as possible.  I like that prior image better.  Frankly, the Moon gets less interesting as it approaches Full, as the shadows creep behind the Moon and away from the Sun, revealing less crater shadows.

Image settings for reference:

  • 254mm Dobsonian
  • f/1.8
  • 1/1011 sec exposure
  • ISO 24
  • Exposure bias: 0
  • Focal length: 4mm
  • 14.5mm eyepiece (1.25″)
  • No eyepiece filter
  • iPhone XS with NightCap app on eyepiece mount