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

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

Lazy Late Summer

Taken on an Illinois trail August 18th, 2020.

Greetings.  It’s been a while since I posted, so wanted to do a “check in” post.  I haven’t done much astronomy over the past month, for various reasons which could be considered excuses, but I won’t call them that.  I could itemize the various new light pollution issues in my area that have grated me, but the reality is I already lived in a one of worst polluted spots on Earth.  The residual haze from the western United States forest fires notwithstanding, I hope to get back to sky viewing soon, and certainly in time for the approaching Mars opposition.

The true limiting factor over the past month was some sort of injury to my wrist.  Around the time I took the above picture in August, I did something to my dominant left wrist and I couldn’t put even simple strains on it, let alone try lifting my Dobsonian to take it outside.  And so I restricted my activities to only those necessary.  Fortunately within the last week it seems to be back to normal, though I continue to remain careful and will give it another week-ish before I lift the big telescope again.

Part of me believes this is the “downer” time, after the mid-Summer Jupiter and Saturn oppositions plus the bonus of the Neowise comet.  But things are looking up, as they always do in time.

Early Riser, Moon and Mars, June 2020

Click for full-sized image.

August 9th, 2020, 4:35 a.m. local time

For the past couple of days, I have gotten up very early, either at or before Dawn.  The first case was for a terrestrial matter.  But for the second, today, it was for the view of the Moon and Mars.

This was the closest I’ve seen a planet to the Moon in the few years of this blog.  They seemed much closer than the image infers, when you factor in their placement in the huge, expansive dome of the sky.

I had toyed with the idea of pulling out the big telescope for a closeup of Mars, but I’m glad I deferred, as this Waning Gibbous phase was still very bright.

I am going to try for more early morning observations.  The world is far more…peaceful at 4am.  Light pollution is noticeably less.  I have noticed an uptick in both noise and light pollution within these past few months after Dusk, likely due to commercial venues being largely unavailable, so people are congregating more in the residential areas instead of going out, and more and more it seems lately as the lockdowns continue in their dysfunctional and disjoint forms.  At least in America, we’ve lost a lesson from our Prohibition era, that you can’t eliminate activity, only drive it out of sanctioned sight, either elsewhere or underground.

And what may be pertinent soon, meteor showers are normally at their best before dawn, since that is the time of day your section of the world is turning into the Earth’s orbital path.

This picture was difficult to frame.  Normally, I use a default of 4×6 inches.  But given the placement of the two objects in relation to each other, that frame didn’t feel right.  Finally I decided that a simple square looked best.

The image is a composite, based off of the Moon, with tiny Mars overlayed from a higher exposure and ISO.

Image settings (Moon):

  • Canon EOS SL3
  • f/5.6
  • 1/250 sec exposure
  • ISO 100
  • Exposure bias: 0
  • Focal length: 300mm
  • Minor editing and composite with Mars done in PaintShop Pro

Forgotten Mars

Little red light always in the night sky
Shines at opposition, despite your size
Rivaling Venus, Moon when you trek by
Lest we forget as you fade before rise

Passed so close to Earth in twenty-eighteen
I watched you for months, awaiting to see
What would reveal upon your radiant sheen
Snapped many pictures of you in my glee

Yet as the months went by your brightness passed
Glowing dimmer into the sea of stars
And lo, ashamed my interest waned fast
Forgot my pictures of you, jewel Mars

Today, I make amends and recollect
Enjoy these views, delayed by my neglect

What I am really waiting for over the next year…

It’s coming!  Must be patient though.  Mars dazzles in its opposition window, rivaling Venus and brighter than Jupiter.  And it will be ridiculously close to Earth in 2018, around 35 million miles away.  To have an opportunity to view a planet so near…well let’s just say it will be more spectacular than any eclipse!

Mars in 2016.

Extreme Planet Hunter: Mercury and Mars!

Click to enlarge.  Can you find Mercury and Mars?

“The continuing tale of my search for the first planet will be revealed in my next blog post.”

Me, March 29th, 2017

Noted by few and anticipated by none, today I keep my promise.

March 28th, 2017, 8:00 p.m. local time

The most extraordinary part of this Mercury hunt was appreciating how high above the horizon the planet can reach.  When I have searched for Mercury before, I always assumed that it had to be really, really close to the horizon, to the point I would be lucky in the best of circumstances to catch a fleeting glimpse through an opening between two nearby houses.  When I saw Mercury for the first time last week, it was indeed just that low, only reinforcing my suspicion.

But I have now learned how high Mercury can truly be.  In the photo above, taken with my Samsung Galaxy S7, you can see the little bright spec just over my neighbor’s rooftop across the street.  That’s pretty high off the horizon still, all things considered.  It made me realize that I have probably been looking in the wrong spots for Mercury since last summer!

Last night was a weird and unanticipated break in the Midwest’s perpetual rain.  But as you can see, the clouds rolled back in pretty fast, and about thirty minutes after this picture the sky was mostly filled with clouds again.

Using my binoculars, I also found Mars.  Though I look a lot of pictures, with the cloud cover it was difficult to get both Mercury and Mars at the same time.  The above picture did succeed.  In you cannot see Mars, here are both planets highlighted:

Click to enlarge.

Perhaps because I knew this was a super brief moment to get Mars, I did not hold my phone steady enough, so the image is slightly blurred.  Here is another picture with Mercury only, proving how bright it was:

Click to enlarge and see a bright Mercury!

And so ends my observation log for at least the next several days – the clouds dominate right now.  But I do feel fortunate to have had this bonus look at a “high” Mercury.

Extreme Planet Hunters, Episode II: Uranus and Torcularis Septentrionalis

Click for full size.

Uranus is below Mars in this picture. Can you find it? Click to enlarge and zoom in!

Last weekend I went on an extreme hunt (from the safety of my driveway) to find the normally-shy seventh planet, Uranus.  Using a technique and image reference from Scott Levine at Scott’s Sky Watch, I apparently was able to capture Uranus with just my smartphone and a 10-second exposure.  Scott was then kind enough to do some additional digging to corroborate that what I identified was very likely Uranus.

As part of Scott’s investigation, he looked up the sky in Stellarium for the day and time I look my picture.  Here is the image he noted:

Scott highlighted with orange circles two stars I did not have in my original zoomed and cropped image, because I cut the image off after Mars.  First, that unnamed star is to the left and slightly higher than Uranus.  And the much brighter star to the left of Mars goes by the rad name Torcularis Septentrionalis.

Torcularis Septentrionalis.  When I was a kid, never in my most far-flung dreams did I imagine I would be blogging in 2017 about a star named Torcularis Septentrionalis.  Who knows about this star other than professional astronomers and die-hard stargazers?  A quick Internet search reveals little about it, other than a few basic facts such as its magnitude (+4.27) and that the name is Latin for, “The Northern Press,” though nobody knows why one of our ancestors named it such.  Perhaps, someday, I will write a novel about mankind’s first journey to the Torcularis Septentrionalis system, and all the incredible treasures and hidden mysteries waiting billions of years for us to find them.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to our solar system and the hunt for Uranus…

So I returned to my source image (very top above) to check if I captured these two stars.  Sure enough, it looks like I did.  Here is a left-wise re-crop where you can see the two noted stars:

Click to see the full-size image.

Again, all of these identified objects are very faint from my Samsung Galaxy S7’s meager 10-second exposure.  But I now do feel confident that I found Uranus thanks to the nearly half-dozen reference points.

This episode has stoked my interest for photographing the night sky sans telescope.  Maybe soon I will get myself a decent DSLR camera and start taking wide-field views of the great dome above.  Just think of all the other stars like Torcularis Septentrionalis out there waiting to be found!

Extreme Planet Hunters: Uranus Edition

Click for full size.

Click for full size.

My astronomy activity last night wasn’t intended to be about Aldebaran disappearing behind the Moon, as I flat out forgot about it.  Instead, earlier that evening I wanted to try out the technique written about at Scott’s Sky Watch to capture Uranus with a camera.  It was only after I was done searching for Uranus that I happened to notice the headline about Aldebaran on the side of my blog.

Scott took a remarkable picture, using Mars and Venus as a guide to find the obscure Uranus.  I wanted to try to duplicate what he did.  I don’t have a “real” camera though, only my smartphone, but the Samsung Galaxy S7’s is still pretty decent.  Following Scott’s explanation, I set my ISO to 400 and exposure to 10 seconds (the max the stock camera app will go).

The first image on this post is typical of the many I took about 45 minutes after sunset.  All of them seemed overly bright, but I could see “hidden” stars throughout.  Still, I feel the image qualities were sub-par.  One obvious explanation is the excessive light pollution in my front yard from every neighbor keeping their porch lights on.  Another may simply be the inferiority of my camera.  And in hindsight, I should have been storing the raw native images and not JPEGs.

(Trust me that in the top image, the “UFO” is nothing to worry about.  I live near a busy airport.  That bright dot was only in this one image out of the dozens I took, but it was the best image I have to show what I think I found.)

If you click the top image, you will get the full size image so you can scan and zoom in yourself.  Initially, I was very disappointed because I saw absolutely nothing where Uranus should have been.  Last night I chalked this up as a loss, and instead decided to blog about my cool success with Aldebaran.

But this Sunday afternoon I re-read Scott’s Uranus post, and in particular I studied his image.  Note that Scott’s image was taken a couple days prior to mine.  I hope he doesn’t mind, but I copied his Uranus discovery image to demonstrate what I noticed:


I added in the orange arrows.  I took notice of those three stars.  Now, here is a closeup of my image above:


Click for full size.

Wow, I thought, I have the same three stars!  Obviously, my image is much worse than Scott’s, but nonetheless the star pattern is definitely the same.  And by following that pattern towards Mars, I do believe that I captured an ever-so-small chuck of photons from our solar system’s seventh planet.

Here is the same image with the shadowing, contrast, and brightness altered to try to accentuate the three stars and Uranus:


Click for full size.

So do you think I caught Uranus, or am I just imagining it?