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.

Final Look at Jupiter in 2020

October 6th, 2020, 8:20 p.m. local time

As the title implies, this was likely my final closeup attempt of Jupiter for the year.  The planet is noticeably smaller than it was at opposition three months ago.  It is also now lower in the sky, making it more difficult for me to photograph.

But I will continue to observe Jupiter, as it remains close to Saturn as they move towards their December conjunction.

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: 40
    • 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

Friday Night with Jupiter and Saturn

Jupiter with its moons (left to right) Callisto, Io, Ganymede, Europa.

July 24th, 2020, 11:00 p.m. local time

Continuing the series of images from this past Friday night were shots taken of Jupiter and Saturn.  Jupiter, above, is shown with its four largest moons.  The image quality is not great, as my objective was to accentuate the moons and their relative positions and brightnesses.  Note that I did some creative editing to bring out the moons, particularly by overlaying a duplicate image, brightening the lower, then masking the moon slots on the top layer.

Here is a closeup of Jupiter, slightly more polished:

And of course following Jupiter right now is Saturn.  I only had to wait about 15 minutes for it to clear the treeline from where I was:

All images taken with my Dobsonian telescope and same setups as recent prior nights.  Only main difference here was using ISO 800 instead of my normal 1600.  Perhaps because the planets are still close to their oppositions, they seemed to turn out slightly better than the sets at 1600.

Jupiter at Opposition, and Another Planet

July 13th, 2020, 11:50 p.m. local time

My night of the comet also happened to be Jupiter’s 2020 opposition day.  Fortunately, the skies were clear from Dusk to past midnight, so I was able to take in both Neowise by binoculars and then later some planetary imaging at the telescope.

This was the first time since last year that I attempted to photograph Jupiter, and the first time since around March that I attempted a closeup of any planet (that was for Venus).  Fortunately, as I have done for years now, I had all of my notes available from last year on how to best use my camera’s settings.

Given that I had not performed this setup for almost a year, I am pleased with the result.  The above image was actually my first focus attempt of the night, and it came out pretty well, I think.

July 14th, 2020, 12:20 a.m. local time

Oh, and there happened to be another planet in the vicinity of Jupiter, so I decided to take some pictures of it as well:

A comet and two planets, not too bad for one night.  I was very fortunate having a crystal-clear sky.  Unfortunately, as I sit here finishing this post, I look out my window towards the unstable clouds, and at the forecast, showing clouds and rain for the next week.  At least the plants need the water.  Still, I will stay on alert, particularly for opportunity to see the comet again.

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 1600
    • Exposure: 60 (Jupiter), 30 (Saturn)
    • 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

Early Morning Glimpse of Saturn and Jupiter

Objects in the early morning sky. Left to right: Saturn, Jupiter, part of the constellation Sagittarius.

June 16th, 2020, 03:22 a.m. local time

I happened to be up early mid-morning and decided to check on Jupiter and Saturn.  I knew from my observations last week that they should have been almost due South, and my direct observation confirmed this.  The above picture was hastily taken with my phone.  Interestingly, this is the stock iPhone camera app, versus NightCap.  Normally, NightCap gives better ad hoc photos of the sky, in my experience, but this time, NightCap’s TIFFs were too dark.

Jupiter is the big bright object near center.  Slightly above and to Jupiter’s left (from our vantage) is Saturn.  You can also see sloping towards the right some of the brighter stars in the constellation Sagittarius.

This picture also emphasizes how bad my location’s light pollution is.  That glow towards horizon is not the Zodiac lights, but the overabundance of artificial illumination even after 3 a.m.

Edit: Zooming into the image, I noticed a star was captured above and slightly left of Saturn.  According to Stellarium, that is the (double) star Dahib, brightest star in the constellation Capricornus.

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

The Shape of Things to Come – Jupiter and Saturn

Saturn (left) and Jupiter (right). Click to see full-sized image.

September 24th, 2019, 07:50 p.m. local time

This is a very exciting post, at least for me.  It’s the first time on my blog that I have a picture of Jupiter and Saturn together!

I had to do some travelling today, and as I disembarked from a late train, I looked to the South to see a clear (albeit light polluted) sky an hour past Sunset.  I knew immediately what I wanted to find: our Solar System’s fifth and sixth planets!

I haven’t been tracking either for the last few weeks, so I was worried Jupiter was already too far towards the horizon by now.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find it still firmly in the Southwest.  And with Saturn almost due South, I grabbed my phone from its sturdy belt pouch, and began taking pictures of the night sky.

We’re going to be talking about Jupiter and Saturn as they approach each other (as seen from Earth) over the next year.  For now, though, I will only note that Saturn is currently residing by the constellation Sagittarius (again, as seen from Earth).  Scott’s Sky Watch! recently posted a nice drawing showing essentially the above image (minus the Moon, which is now a Waning Crescent rising after midnight).  Plus, it shows the outline of Sagittarius.  Go check it out!

For the sake of the explicit, here is the picture again, with the planets labeled:

Click to see full-sized image.

Imaging Jupiter – How Many Frames to Stack?

This post is a bit delayed as I went back and forth on how to frame it (no pun intended), and which topics specifically to cover, because I would like to start showing more of how I create my final planetary images.

My initial thought was to do a grand all-in-one post on the entire process in detail from start to finish.  But I ultimately decided that would be a bore to read.  Instead, I decided to go with explaining specific units of the process in shorter and hopefully concise explanations.

Today I will focus stacking frames.  Planetary (as well as deep sky) imaging requires stacking multiple picture frames, either actual still images or the frames from a video.  Because all of these objects are extremely far away, no one single picture can capture enough light to make a full picture.  The targets are too small and the number of photons impacted onto any imaging sensor is minuscule.  But…if enough single frames are combined in the right way, you can get a semblance recognition of a planet, a star, a nebula, or even another galaxy.

For comparisons, here on Earth, when you shoot a picture, of any type, there are more than enough photons to fill that picture no matter the mode of imaging.  Your target is very close to you, measured in feet (meters) or miles (kilometers), it doesn’t matter; deficiency of photons is never going to be a problem..  The same holds true essentially for the Moon as well, on a cosmological scale.  In the grand scheme of the Universe, our moon is a stone’s throw from us, ridiculously close, reflecting many photons from a few hundred thousand miles/kilometers away.  With the right magnification (a telescope) you can take easy pictures of the Moon with any camera.

On August 23rd I set up my Dobonsian telescope to look at and photograph Jupiter.  With a clear sky, I used my normal telescope and camera configuration:

  • 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

The computer program post-processing sequence goes PIPP -> Autostakkert -> Registax.  Selection of the frames to stack is in the application Autostakkert.

Outside at night, I tried several different ISO and exposure combos.  After reviewing all of them, I decided that ISO 1600 and exposure 1/60 seconds was the best that night.

In Autostakkert, you can choose a set number of frames to stack, or a percentage.  I always go with a percentage:

You may ask, how does Autostakkert know which frames are best?  You have to choose a reference frame, i.e. pick which one you think is the best approximation to what the actual image should be.  This is very much art and not science.  Here is an example of a completely raw Autostakkert frame for inspection:

Obviously, a lot of picture data is missing from the above image.  But it does represent a single source video frame taken from my camera at the telescope.

Once I decided that ISO 1600 and exp 1/60 was the best, I went back to Autostakkert and re-ran the process with different stack percentages.  I used 15, 30, 40, 60, and 85 percents.

Here are the finished (non-touched-up) images from Registax:

Best 15 percent of frames.

Best 30 percent of frames.

Best 40 percent of frames.

Best 60 percent of frames.

Best 85 percent of frames.

Typically, for three ~25 second videos, I get about 4500 frames of video.  So, for example, the best 30% would be a stacking of 1,350 frames.

My observations on the different percentage stacks are:

  • At 15%, the image looks bit grainy, since it is probably still missing some image data to fill the grains in with.
  • 30% and 40% are the best, and I have a difficult time deciding which is better.  But in the end I decided that 30% looked slightly more clear.
  • 60% and 85% are a tad blurry, and that is due to Jupiter’s fast rotation starting to manifest itself.  A “best” frame could be at the beginning of the 3-image set or it could be at the very end of the 90 seconds, or anywhere in between.  But it’s safe to assume the distribution is roughly normal across the 90 seconds.

So once I had my best ISO, exposure, and percentage of frames stacked, I did some minor post-process editing in PaintShop Pro to (hopefully) sharpen the final picture and (hopefully) reduce noise:

Jupiter on August 23rd, 2019