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 nova.astrometry.net, 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.

When Franklin Almost Met Netwon

Mr. Benjamin Franklin and Sir Isaac Newton

Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans.  I usually don’t write about holidays, unless I can find some mild hook into the content of this blog.  My only other attempt was when I wrote about the possibility of the Star of Bethlehem being a supernova.  Consider this post then the second in an obscure series.

There are a few foundational works I wish every American would read.  One of those is the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  He was, in my view, the true “proto-American.”  From his curious nature, to how he rose and excelled at his careers, his advice to others, to his views on government and public service, his suspicions of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, to his perspective of the world at large, Franklin was of course a core contributor to America’s independence philosophy.  If you struggle with what is means to be an American today, reading Benjamin Franklin’s account of his life is a wonderful starting point.

My favorite part of his autobiography has nothing to do with America or any of the latter events of the late 18th century (and spoiler, he never really talks about 1776 directly; his narrative is like a prequel of events long before the American Revolution).  It is just one brief comment, where Franklin mentions his interest and hope as a young man to meet Isaac Netwon, while Franklin was in England:

My pamphlet by some means falling into the hands of one Lyons, a surgeon, author of a book entitled ‘The Infallibility of Human Judgment,’ it occasioned an acquaintance between us. He took great notice of me, called on me often to converse on those subjects, carried me to the Horns, a pale alehouse in ——— Lane, Cheapside, and introduced me to Dr. Mandeville, author of the ‘Fable of the Bees,’ who had a club there, of which he was the soul, being a most facetious, entertaining companion. Lyons, too, introduced me to Dr. Pemberton, at Batson’s Coffee-house, who promis’d to give me an opportunity, some time or other, of seeing Sir Isaac Newton, of which I was extreamely desirous; but this never happened.

As an American interested in science and the historical contexts of both, it would have been very cool for the young Franklin to have met the old Newton in the 1720s.  Even though this was over a half century before America’s independence and Franklin’s rise to prominence, it nonetheless would have been an unlikely crossing of two legendary men, both slightly out of their own times.

It’s also fun evidence how this one small note from Franklin affirmed Netwon’s importance and notoriety even while he still lived.

Plane and Moon

Click for larger image.

May 31st, 2020, 6:37 p.m. local time

Here is another “by chance” image.  I was outside early evening to photograph the rising Moon with my Canon EOS, to get a daytime shot.  I was using my phone as the remote shutter, so I wasn’t paying full attention while I stepped away to snap images.  Normally during that time, I try to stand as still as I can, to minimize ground vibration.

It was only afterwards that I found this one image of a very high flying plane.  If you zoom in, you an see quite a bit of detail, including an underside red light and the color of the top fin (I don’t know what the technical terms are).

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 1/500 sec exposure
  • ISO 100
  • 300mm lens
  • Minor image touch-ups in PaintShop Pro

The Orion Nebula via DSLR Camera

The Orion Nebula, M42, plus surrounding stars. Click for full-sized image.

April 5th, 2020, 8:40 p.m. local time

On Sunday night, in addition to imaging Venus, the Pleiades, and the Moon, I also pointed the camera towards the Orion Nebula.  This was mostly an experiment, as I had never imaged M42 without the aid of a telescope.

As this time of year, the Orion Constellation is falling into the West after Dusk.  So the nebula, along with the surrounding stars that make up Orion’s sword, are at an angle towards your right.  This is in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, I assume the configuration is “upside down” and would be angled towards your left.

I took a number of images of the nebula, playing around with the exposure and ISO settings.  The image included with this post is the best in my opinion, with only some minor post-processing touchups in an attempt to remove background noise.

I would like to do long-exposure stacking of deep sky objects again, but my “new” DSLR camera only outputs raw images in a format (CR3) that my software programs cannot handle.  The old standard was CR2.  I haven’t checked recently if any programs like DeepSkyStacker now support CR3, but I should.

Image settings for reference:

  • f/5.6
  • 2 sec exposure
  • ISO 3200
  • 260mm lens length
  • Minor post-processing in PaintShop Pro

Astropolitics and the “Lost Focus” of The Hubble Space Telescope

 

Our personal worldviews are shaped early in life, and can be solidified in education.  While an undergraduate studying computer engineering 24 years ago, I read a book that molded my own perspective on science, scientists, and politics.  It created a philosophical foundation in me that remains today.

As part of my needed “humanities” credits, I took a class called Politics of Science.  An assignment was to find, read, and report on a book that discussed some topic concerning politics in science.  Perusing my local library, I found The Hubble Wars by Eric Chaisson.  Hubble was still a hot topic in 1996, and with my lifelong interest in astronomy, it seemed like an easy fit for the school assignment.

The most profound lesson I took from reading the book?  Scientists are human.  They can be mad, jealous, even threaten others to defend their territory.  This never occurred to me, even though I was nearing the end of an engineering program, which was effectively all calculus and physics and C++, aside from the humanities classes, of course.  Learning equations and the names of those who discovered them were “book smarts”.  Up to that point in my life, I never really thought about science as a profession, how it generally operates as an internal structure, and how it, and specifically individual scientists, interacts with the world at large.

The Hubble Wars helped shape my worldview.  One of my philosophical pillars is that when politics and science mix, it all becomes politics, and politics is driven by money. Like how astrology is anathema to astronomy, politics in an ideal world would stay as far away from science as possible.  But politics is that necessary evil which can enable scientific advancement, even though the actual political intentions are never altruistic. This is the lens that I see everything through when politicians invoke science to justify their political agendas.  I question everything, and never assume what is presented at face value.  I wish more people would do the same, but the opposite seems to be the norm.

There isn’t much available online that I can see by way of discussion and rebuttal to this book.  The topic might as well be ancient history here in 2020.  Still, it is not hard to imagine that Dr. Chaisson’s account of events was not well-received, and indeed perhaps career inhibiting with regards to NASA and related agencies.  The book is still available for purchase on Amazon, and the scant reviews make reference to this, but no sources are cited.  Neither Dr. Chaisson‘s Wikipedia page nor Harvard profile mention his Hubble account.

Below is the report I wrote on The Hubble Wars in 1996.  It is largely intact outside a variety of minor edits that present-day me did to clean up past-me’s writing, plus a small edit to clarify which President Bush is being referenced, though that is implied by the date of the report.


Hubble Space Telescope Project’s Lack Of Focus

May 9th, 1996

The Space Telescope Project was an initiative started by NASA approximately 20 years ago. The origins of the project may be traced back to 1974, when the National Academy of Sciences recommended the creation of the Space Telescope Science Institute. Simply, the project’s goal was to put a telescope in orbit around the Earth.

There is one primary reason for having a telescope in space: the atmosphere. From thousands of years ago through Galileo’s time and up to the late 1980’s, astronomers had been confined by the layers of gases surrounding the Earth. Further, the atmosphere does not allow ultraviolet light from the universe to reach the ground. Ultraviolet light is crucial to understanding many objects in the Cosmos. In fact, Eric Chaisson, author of The Hubble Wars and member of the Space Telescope Science Institute in the 1980’s and early 90’s, claims there have been only two major advances in telescope astronomy. The first was Galileo’s initial discoveries, and the second was the Hubble telescope.1 With the Hubble Space Telescope, the barrier of the atmosphere has been broken. Astronomers are able to observe the universe with more clarity than ever before.

Aside from the scientific importance of the Space Telescope Project, the political story surrounding Hubble has had a significant impact on large-scale scientific projects in the United States. The first prominent aspect of the Space Telescope Project (also known as the Hubble Project) is its size. Throughout the 20 years of the project, it has employed tens of thousands of workers, had numerous organizations, committees, contractors, and government intervention. All of this has been headed by a weakly-managed and disorganized NASA. The result was many people with many personalities and many agendas, and not much coordination or management, which ultimately hurt the project when it ran into trouble.2

Perhaps not surprisingly, the federal bureaucrats responsible for managing Hubble seemed unconcerned. NASA officials stressed to the workers being part of the “Hubble team”, not realizing that the agency’s version of total quality management damps innovation while promoting mediocrity.3 NASA’s inability to effectively manage the HST Project often made problems worse, while creating disasters with the media.

In the most general scheme of the Hubble Project, three agencies are involved: the Goddard Institute, and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and NASA. The Goddard Institute is the center for Hubble‘s engineers, as well as the location of Hubble Control. The Space Telescope Science Institute, located on the campus of John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is responsible for scheduling Hubble‘s activities. The high-level management belongs to NASA, which also controls the Hubble Project’s funding and media relations.

In terms of scientific advice to government, this report considers the Space Telescope Science Institute’s advice to NASA. However, the advice given to government by the Hubble Project as a whole shall be examined first. Why should the government fund such a project? First, there is the previously mentioned reason about scientific research above our atmosphere, but are there any benefits besides this? Clearly, the Hubble Project will not give society a better toaster, or create a new washing machine. Instead, it shall repay the American public with something far more valuable: a renewed interest in science.

Our society is prevalently illiterate of science. To use astronomy as an example, a government-sponsored survey found that nearly one-third of the U.S. adult population thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and an additional 28 percentage do not know it takes a year for our planet to revolve around the Sun.4 While there are many such ‘eye-opening’ statistics like this, they do not help to solve the problem.

Eric Chaisson was the head of the Science Institute’s educational-outreach programs in 1990, when Hubble was launched by Shuttle Discovery. Their target group was, and still is, precollege students. Hopefully, by sharing the rewards of Hubble with students, many will become interested in science, and even enter careers in science or engineering. Obviously, these rewards would be far greater than any single commercial project alone. Shortly before launch of Hubble, a U.S. Senator asked Chaisson what will be the benefits of the Hubble Project, and he gave this fore-mentioned answer. She, and many others, came to believe in this reasoning for the support of Hubble.

To turn this report from the benefits of Hubble, it is important to understand why Chaisson’s book is entitled “The Hubble Wars”. In summary, the relations between NASA and the Science Institute were in a state of chaos in the months following the deployment of Hubble. Before the late-April launch of Hubble in 1990, NASA had over-hyped the Space Telescope Project by claiming things that the telescope could never do. For example, at one NASA press conference they stated that Hubble would be able to see 10 times farther into the universe than from the ground.5 This is false, writes Chaisson, since Hubble cannot see much farther than conventional telescopes. Hubble‘s power lies in its superior resolution and sharpness of images.

In the weeks and months following the launch, the Space Telescope ran into one setback after another. Its initial commissioning period, which was supposed to last only a few weeks, was dragging on into months. From spacecraft jitters to entry into ‘safemode’ (where the spacecraft essentially shuts itself down to some degree), the problems and frustration of Hubble‘s operators steadily grew. This primarily meant the engineers at Goddard, who had to continually uplink software patches to fix problems. NASA didn’t help much with its media relations either. They would always say the telescope was fine, or that they were experiencing only minor problems.6

During this period, the Science Institute continually advised NASA to be truthful about the problems of Hubble. If NASA had been honest with the press by stating that projects of Hubble‘s size were bound to have difficulties during their commissioning period, then perhaps the media would have been more forgiving.7 However, this advice went ignored by NASA. The press knew that NASA was either not being truthful or didn’t know the full situation themselves.

It is interesting to note why the Science Institute did not talk to the press directly. This is because NASA wanted all media relations to go through them. To note one item in particular, whenever an image from Hubble was released to the public, NASA wanted only their logo on it, despite the contributions of Goddard, the Science Institute, and even the European Space Agency, which built several major components of the Space Telescope.8 These actions never faired well with the other agencies.

Tensions came to a climax when NASA had to tell the world that Hubble’s primary mirror was suffering from a spherical aberration, the worst type of optimal defect. The problem was discovered by one of the ESA scientists who specialized in optical physics. From the first pictures taken by Hubble, he calculated that the primary was not the correct shape by 2 microns, or one one-ten-thousandth of an inch. While that does not seem like a large defect, such an error is almost unthinkable in the world the high-precision optics. It would like be making a door that is an inch too wide.

How was such an error overlooked? Quite simply, nobody ever checked the mirror’s dimensions. It was built in 1981 by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, and remained in an air-tight room for several years before assembly. Through lack of management, it was assumed that the mirror must be the correct size.9

When NASA finally conveyed the news, public opinion of the project worsened considerably. Hubble became the subject of political cartoons, and jokes on late-night television. At this time it was mid-summer, and there was worry that Congress would terminate the project when they reconvened in September. Something had to be done in order to save Hubble.

Chaisson realized that Congress may decide to ‘pull the plug’, and so he wrote a rather stern email letter to everyone at Goddard, the Science Institute, and officials at NASA, pleading that someone take charge of the project. Despite Hubble‘s aberration, many productive pictures could still be taken by Space Telescope with the aid of computer image-cleaning. On this fact, Chaisson recommended that the Early Release Object program (ERO) be reinstated immediately. ERO was meant to have Hubble take several pictures which would be released to the public to show the benefits of the telescope. However, this project was terminated before launch due to the objections of many professional astronomers who didn’t want ‘their’ photos to be seen by ‘street people’.10 Basically, the Universe had been divided by professional astronomers for viewing with Hubble. Each astronomer would have exclusive rights to their pictures for one year, after which they would become public domain. However, given the desperate situation, ERO had to be revived.

A few high-ranking officials took Chaisson’s letter seriously, and ERO was reinstated. Essentially, during August and September of 1990, the Science Institute ignored NASA’s directives and took control of Hubble themselves. They were able to take many pictures which proved that Hubble was not ‘broken’. While several disgruntled astronomers publicly denounced the EROs as a publicity stunt11, the imaging campaign did to some extent restore public support for Hubble, as President (H.W.) Bush showed off a stunning picture of Saturn at the White House. More important, the project was not terminated by Congress in the fall.

Today, several years after the December 1993 Hubble repair mission, public opinion has almost completely reversed. Hubble is now fulfilling its original expectations by unlocking many secrets of the Universe. You can hardly see an astronomy magazine which doesn’t talk about Hubble or show its findings.12 However, the Hubble Project’s downside is that Congress has been much more skeptical about funding large science projects. Projects such as the Mars Exploration and U.S. Space Station (not the international station) have been cancelled13, and non-space related projects such as the Superconducting SuperCollider can trace their termination, at least in part, to Hubble. Despite these setbacks, Hubble is alive and well, and should continue to yield many more fascinating discoveries for well over a decade.


1 “The Hubble Wars”, p25

2 IBID, p30

3 IBID

4 IBID, p31

5 IBID, p352

6 IBID, p116

7 IBID, p169

8 At one point, NASA mailed Chaisson their 12-page booklet containing the official NASA regulations for display of their logo!

9 IBID, p186

10 IBID, p200

11 IBID, p268

12 For an example, see the May 1996 edition on Sky and Telescope.

13 IBID, p350

Bibliography

  1. Chaisson, Eric J. “The Hubble Wars”, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1994
  2. Sky & Telescope Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, MA, May 1996

Sun in April, 2020

Click for full-sized image.

April 2nd, 2020, 12:50 p.m. local time

It has been a while since I looked at the Sun through a telescope.  This mildly-warm Spring day with few clouds seemed like the perfect opportunity to see what the fireball in the sky was up to.

This was a somewhat rush job, as technically I needed to get back to my job.  But all in all in turned out ok, I think.  I could see two extremely small sunspots together in the upper quadrant.  If you look at the full-sized image, you may be able to find them as a small black smudge.

Equipment Used:

  • 254mm Mak-Cass telescope
  • 23mm eyepiece
  • Orange eyepiece filter
  • Solar filter for telescope lens
  • iPhone XS
  • Smartphone telescope eyepiece adapter
  • Nightcap app on iPhone with settings:
    • f/1.8
    • 1/300 s exposure
    • ISO 24
    • 4 mm focal length

The Stark Contrast of Old and New Bulbs – Light Pollution

I have tried to swear off further posts on light pollution, feeling my prior writings suffice for the time being.  However, this week I walked into an empirical example that I simply could not ignore.

While getting off the train one night, I was on a section of platform that had recently been renovated.  It had received a new walking surface, and the lamp light bulbs had been replaced with newer LEDs.  Within a few paces of one of these lamps with the new bulb was a lamp with an older bulb, closer to the parking lot.  I assumed this was a sodium bulb, or at least it exhibited the characteristics of the old sodiums.

I was able to take a picture of both lamps from the same location, posted here above.  On the left is the old sodium (-like) bulb, and on the right is the new LED bulb.  From my vantage point that evening I quickly observed differences in experiences from being under the light of both.

First, both lights were overall too bright, and they were unshielded.  You can see how the lamp design does very little to restrict the light towards its intended targets.  While the light mostly heads towards the ground, it disperses in all directions, including up.  There are probably at least a hundred of these lights throughout the train station area.

Aside from these issues, all else being equal, here is what I observed, first on the sodium/older bulb:

  • Had a softer glow.  I could look in the direction of the bulb and not feel irritated.
  • Does a far better job of bathing and immersing its surroundings in light.  The entire area around the lamp definitely looked “lit up”.
  • For night, it was relatively easy to make out all the objects around the lamp.
  • The color of the lamp distorts the natural color of the surroundings.

For the new LED bulb:

  • Projected a very harsh brightness.  Cannot comfortably look in the direction of the bulb for very long.
  • The ground around the lamp looked very dark compared to the area around the sodium bulb.  I could definitely see everything but I also felt like my eyes were straining to see the area.
  • The color was more neutral/white than the sodium, but this was offset by the weaker luminous feel.
  • In my peripheral vision, the bulb was distracting.  I’ve noticed this while driving, too.

Any energy savings of these newer LED bulbs are offset and nullified by their degraded functionality.  They seem to be very good at pinpoint brightness but are unable to luminate their surroundings effectively.  On top of that, they are grating on the eyes.

Ultimately, any bulbs (except blues) should be fine for nighttime function so long as they are properly shielded.  I have seen and walked under “dark sky” lights and they are fine for their intended purpose.  These accompanied with motion sensors and smart electronics would go a very long way towards helping reduce light pollution.

Thirty Theses on Light Pollution, 2020 Edition


I have scarcely written about light pollution since my first edition of this list two years ago.  That’s in part because the original theses covered everything I wish to say on the topic, for now.  This update is very minor in form, with just a few small changes throughout.

Light pollution unfortunately continues unabated, with the threat of ever newer and bizarrer ways concocted to ruin our common view of Space.

There is no obvious or quick solution.  I hope this list helps to frame the matter for you, and perhaps will assist you in discussing the topic with others.

(I) Light Pollution is pollution.

(II) Light Pollution is possibly the least-understood and least-recognized form of pollution.

(III) Most people do not know what Light Pollution is.

(IV) Light Pollution distorts the Earth’s natural night sky.

(V) Light Pollution’s distortion on the Earth’s night sky, by extension, distorts the Earth’s natural environments.

(VI) Science continues to accumulate evidence of the environmental impacts of Light Pollution.

(VII) The scientific evidence to-date is insufficient to awaken the general population to the existence of Light Pollution and its impact on Earth’s environments.

(VIII) Light Pollution is a recent phenomenon in human history.

(IX) Light Pollution is artificial.

(X) Moonlight is not Light Pollution, but part of the Earth’s natural environment that evolved over billions of years.

(XI) Humans and most non-nocturnal animals have difficulty sleeping under artificial light, preferring the dark of night.

(XII) Light Pollution directly inhibits terrestrial stargazing and other astronomical pursuits.

(XIII) Light Pollution lessens children’s curiosity about the night sky, stunting their desire to learn and imagine.

(XIV) Light Pollution severs our visual conduit of the cosmos from Earth.

(XV) The intended direction of nearly all artificial night lighting is down.

(XVI) Most artificial light illuminates in all directions (down, up, sides).

(XVII) Artificial light that illuminates outside of its intended range wastes energy.

(XVIII) Artificial light that illuminates outside of its intended range may be an encroachment onto surrounding lands and properties.

(XIX) Light Pollution is caused by artificial illumination of the night sky.

(XX) Light Pollution will never be eliminated completely from civilized locations, but it can be greatly mitigated.

(XXI) Light Pollution can be reduced with no impact to quality of life and security.

(XXII) Light Pollution can be significantly reduced by shielding all outdoor lighting to focus illumination on the intended ground target.

(XXIII) Shielded lights make nighttime visibility easier by reducing harsh bulb glare.

(XXIV) Light Pollution can be significantly reduced through the use of timers and motion sensors.

(XXV) All commercial and home decorative lighting should point downward with bulbs or diodes shielded on their sides.

(XXVI) Most Light Pollution comes from street lights.

(XXVII) Newer LED lights contribute far more to Light Pollution than the older, traditional sodium streetlamps.  This is because newer LED diodes blast light across almost the entire visible light spectrum, whereas the older sodium lamps emitted light at a very narrow yellow band within the visible spectrum.

(XXVIII) Newer LED lights are OK for outdoors but should be low-intensity, shielded, and ideally triggered by motion sensors.

(XXIX) Blue light is the worst light for outdoors because the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs blue spectrum light the easiest.  Think of the daytime blue sky!

(XXX) Images from space of the Earth’s ground illuminated at night were once evidence of progress, but now should be viewed as evidence of our collective ignorance about Light Pollution and not understanding how to lessen its impacts on the Earth’s environments.

Morning Moon and Orion, Accentuated Stars

Click to see full-sized image.

September 23rd, 2019, 06:00 a.m. local time

Early mornings on early Fall days.  These are great because they offer pre-dawn viewing of Orion high in the Southern Sky, here in the Northern Hemisphere.  This morning, the Moon was close by, so I quickly took the above picture with NightCap on my iPhone.

Besides the Moon and Orion, you also can see Aldebaran in the top right.  To the bottom left is another star, which I think may be Procyon of Canis Minor.  Sirius hung just below Orion and out of the picture, as it was behind trees.

I performed minor touchups to this image to “push out” the key stars, to make them more visible, so that you can see their position relative to the Moon.  I did this by increasing the Soft Focus in PaintShop Pro to just the selected star areas, several times over.  Generally, I don’t like to touch up images like this, but I felt it at least added a little perspective with the Moon nearby.