Celestial Swampland

Picture of the constellations Gemini and Auriga, along with the planet Mercury. Trust me! Click for full-sized image.

July 31st, 2019, 07:01 a.m. local time

There is a saying, at least here in America, that if you believe a far-fetched notion/idea/something, then I have some prime swampland in Florida to sell you.

Today’s picture via my iPhone was taken with not a cloud in the sky, perfect for celestial viewing.  You can catch a glimpse of the Sun’s radiance behind the depot roof (I was waiting for the next train).  Framed in the center is the constellation Gemini with its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux.  Mercury is there as well, near the bottom.  Above Gemini you’ll find Auriga, which contains several impressive deep sky objects.  And it may be difficult to tell, but you can also see a bit of the constellation Taurus in the upper right and the top of Orion near the lower bottom.

And as an added bonus, the young Moon and Venus are present as well, though they hug close to the Sun right now.

For your benefit, I masked via a curves layer most of the Sun’s glare, which hopefully has allowed you to admire all these astronomical wonders.  Wait, still can’t see them?  Check again in six months and it should be fine.

Philosophical Anathema

The constellation Gemini.

The danger within this post is that you may surmise me to be a cold, logical rationalist.

I don’t believe I am anything of the sort, but that may be for you to decide.

When you look up into the sky on a clear evening, what do you see?  If you cannot see anything, that may be the first problem.  Perhaps you need your glasses on, or cleaned, but more likely, your vision of the Heavens is obscured by an inordinate amount of light pollution.

(Time for a “gotcha” moment…this post is not about light pollution!  But I encourage you to read all about it here.)

Hopefully you see stars.  More hopefully, you see a lot of stars.  They are amazing.  And through most of Man’s history, they were a great mystery, surpassed only by the mystery of mortality.

Along with the stars, closer to our own solar system you may see the Moon, as well as the bright planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. If you peer deeper, you might see nebulae within the Milky Way Galaxy.  Those in the darkest nights will also see the arms of the galaxy itself.

When you look upon all the delights above, what do you think?  What do you feel?

The night sky is remarkable, stirring thoughts of wonder and possibilities, invoking the imagination and likely, if you gaze long enough, forcing you to ask questions about your place in the universe.

You would not be alone in your reactions.  Many around the world are touched by the same impressions.  Undoubtedly, this cadence has endured for millennia, before recorded time.

On one level, looking into the Heavens is a deeply personal experience, especially when you are alone, at night, with only the scant sounds of nature interrupting your privacy along with the occasional gust of wind.

On another level, it can be overwhelming, to see all that there is above, way beyond Earth, indeed for all these wonders to exist irrespective of your own life.

Aren’t we all connected?  Are we not of this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, this universe?  Shouldn’t that connection have larger meaning?

The human mind struggles with these questions.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to contemplate how so much, in fact effectively all, of the universe has existed for billions of years in the absence of you, and will continue on long after your life on Earth has ended, after the Earth itself is gone, the Sun expired, to the true end times when the galaxies produce no more light and the only matter left to decay are protons.  These are disturbing realizations, when you put your mind to the philosophical task.

The Sun will continue to shine and burn regardless of whether we or Earth, or any of the other nearby planets, continue to exist.  Jupiter and Saturn remain on their perpetual courses with little-to-no influence from the inner planets.  And the Milky Way Galaxy, of which our Sun is one star among billions, shall remain and continue on long after our Sun burnt its last hydrogen fuel.

Where do we humans fit into the universe’s grand scheme?

Our need to admire and wonder about the cosmos must always endure.  What has changed in recent history, though, is our ability to understand all this within the general blanket field of astronomy.

We can now explain the motion of objects within our solar system and the forces that interconnect them.  We can discover and predict the birth and death of stars, galaxies, and the universe itself.  There is still much to learn and understand, but the progress made within the last century, when considered against the entire span of human history, is astounding.

What we see in the sky is defined by astronomy.  This wasn’t always understood, and in times past, without the tools provided by astronomy, the explanations of the sky defaulted to a more personable or societal level, upon the notion that the positions of cosmological objects heralded blessings and omens (relative to your side of a quarrel), and may even have had some direct message to individuals.  This latter method is astrology.

When I talk to people about my interest in astronomy, they sometimes mistake it as astrology.  But astronomy and astrology are diametrically opposed in their purposes and aims.  I don’t believe in astrology, at all.

I should emphasize before proceeding that I won’t dismiss entirely that it could be possible humanity’s fate and your individual destiny are strongly connected to the movement of the universe.  Anything is possible.  It just seems, based on everything I understand as true, to be extremely implausible.  And it should also be noted that this has nothing to do with faith in Divinity, for that is a different realm of philosophy and humanity altogether.  Yet I believe that our quest to understand the universe is one and the same with our need to understand God, but we’ll save that, perhaps, as a discussion for another time.

What does it mean that Jupiter is currently between Antares and Saturn, with the Sun in Gemini, and you were born when the Sun was in front of Taurus?  Absolutely nothing.  Nothing multiplied by anything is still nothing.  So it doesn’t matter when the Moon is full, or a planet is at opposition, or even if a star goes supernova.  The fallacy of astrology is that all of these events mean something, either to people at large or to you specifically.

Celestial events have been used as markers of convenience throughout history.  Halley’s Comet appeared in the Spring of 1066, and the Battle of Hasting happened in October of the same year.  It was a blessing for the victors and an omen for the losers.  You could look at the appearance of a comet, or a meteor or an eclipse, and interpret them in any way, shape, or form that will easily fit into the narrative of contemporary events.

As for the Zodiac, it’s a useful reference tool for exploring the night sky, to know, for example, that Aquarius and Capricornus sit next to each other.  But it is an extreme disservice to yourself believing there is meaning written in the stars for you because of that positioning.

Do all “Leos” share something in common?  Maybe, and it could be the commonality of birthdays to certain seasons of the year.  Everyone who celebrates their birthdays in hot Summers may have developed a perspective apart from those who have birthdays in the dead of Winter.  And because of the seasonal flip across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a Leo in one hemisphere will have the opposite seasonal experience to one born in the other.  And then you have to take into account minor regional shifts that could nudge perspective and experience every so slightly.

These are not the workings of Fate illuminating points of light in the sky, but a component of the aggregate geographical and cultural forces acting upon all of us, both as groups and individually.

The Zodiac was once made up of twelve constellations, which all conveniently lie on the Sun’s elliptic path in Earth’s sky.  And they were divided roughly according to twelve months per annum.

But through thousands of years, the expansion of the galaxy has caused the stars to shift.  If the classic constellations were assigned originally by their star positions, then there are now thirteen constellations in the Zodiac path, because stars in the constellation Ophiuchus have shifted into the elliptic.  Yes, constellations are not Zodiac “signs” and this is only within the Western interpretation, but the twelve signs have this origin.  Ten thousand years from now, the stars will have moved so much that our current understanding of the constellations, and those part of the Sun’s elliptic, will mean little due to their positional changes as seen from Earth.

The mysteries of the universe are vast.  The mysteries of the soul are even more.  But the orbit of Jupiter is simply the orbit of Jupiter.

There are other places to find guidance for your life, or to understand the ebb and flow of nations and societies and cultures.  Those sources are not in the sky but much closer to the ground.

I love looking up.  I am the beneficiary of the toil that created the means to understand the cosmos as we do today.  You are as well.  Civilization is about building upon that which came before, while reaping benefits within our own lifetimes.  The best service I can give to the progress of astronomy is to appreciate our sky within the context of the understanding already provided, to wonder how much more we’ll be able to achieve thanks to that chain of skill and knowledge and exploration.  This realization binds my own Fate to the Heavens far more than astrology ever could.

Weather Reports from the 2019 Lunar Eclipse

Click for full-sized image.

January 20th, 2019, 08:00 p.m. local time

Cold.  It was really, really cold.

It was near zero (Fahrenheit).  Fortunately there wasn’t much wind.

And there happened to be a total lunar eclipse here in North America yesterday.  The weather has been terrible for a long time, the reason why I have not posted for so long, but remarkably we had a window where the sky was totally clear, at the price of sub-frigid temperatures.  Of this I was glad, for I can wear as many layers of clothing as I like, but I can’t do much to poke a hole through the clouds.

I learned some lessons from last year’s partial lunar eclipse.  Chief among those was that the telescope in these temperatures is more hassle than it’s worth when it comes to the Moon.  My digital camera on tripod was more than sufficient for these conditions, at a slight loss of detail in the final images.  I used my longest stock lens.

Like last year’s partial, the Moon began to form an “unnatural” crescent, and yet unlike last year’s there then formed a reddish hue as it reached totality.  The Moon was never fully unlit from where I was, as there was always a sliver of bright sunlight as the very edge.

From the first set of pictures I took of the Full Moon around 7:30 p.m. Central Time:

Click for full-sized image.

After 8:50 pm. the shadow formed:

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Click for full-sized image.

After totality, the shadow rescinded from the West (looking above):

Click for full-sized image.

All in all, a great experience, I just wish it had been a little warmer.

Even though I have not posted here the past few months, I have been looking towards the sky as much as I could, either via naked eye observation or with my binoculars.  I look forward to the warmer months ahead; Jupiter’s return to the evening sky is a mere few months away!  Also, I STILL have to get to post-processing my Mars opposition photos.  Hopefully before Spring!

Old Moon Gloomy Morning

Click for full-sized image.

October 4th, 2018, 06:25 a.m. local time

It may have been a depressing view for some, with an early Fall chill, high winds, and fast-moving cloud cover.  But I knew the very Waning Moon was out there, somewhere through all that muck above.  And sure enough, in fits and spurts the sliver of the old Moon would pierce the early morning clouds for brief moments.  Today’s picture is a capture of one of those windows as I looked East from my backyard.

Goose Moon

Click for full-sized image.

September 29th, 2018, 09:30 a.m. local time

I would like to say that today’s image was made possible from careful planning and thoughtful execution.  That I studied the migratory paths of North American geese, cross-referenced with this month’s Lunar phases, and examined meteorological reports to calculate the precise time and location.  But the truth is that I simply got lucky.  I was taking a bunch of pictures yesterday morning with camera on tripod and my shutter remote, snapping images when I noticed one of them had a dark streak across it.  I mildly panicked, thinking something smudged the lens!

Taken at 1/500th of a second, and it captures the bird details pretty well, I think.  The Moon isn’t too bad either.

Post-Full Moon Morning

Click for full-sized image.

September 26th, 2018, 07:10 a.m. local time

With the Moon over a day past its latest Full phase, it is easily visible in the West in the hour after Sunrise.  Today offered a clear sky and obvious view as it set towards the horizon.

Relative Planets

Evenings of July 6th through July 8th, 2018

The weather was amazing this weekend, especially for early July.  Clear skies, no humidity, and bugs only became a problem on the final night.

On Friday evening I took another set of Jupiter pictures.  These are not shown, as the following day’s images were far superior.

After Friday’s Jupiter session, I kept the telescope out after midnight, so technically on Saturday, to image Saturn for the first time this year.  As always, I have to wait for the planets to clear trees to the Southeast.  Since Saturn is now a few weeks past opposition, I get a clear few of the planet shortly after midnight.

For Saturn, I checked my written log for the settings I used last year (ISO 3200 and 100 exposure).  These, according to my log, gave me my best results.  But thinking I could do better based on my recent Jupiter work, I decided to try ISOs at 1600 and 800 and exposures of 60 and 30, respectively.  Lower ISO means less noise.  The results were not too bad, but I think the 3200/100 settings are still the best, and will try those next time.

On Saturday night, I took what I think may be my best Jupiter yet.  The finder focus on my first attempt was near perfect, if not perfect.  Look at the cloud band detail!  I only wish the Great Red Spot was facing us more at the time.  You can also see Io next to the GRS.

Then on Sunday I dragged my big telescope to my front lawn to capture Venus setting in the West.  This is the first time I did that.  The results were much better than I expected.  You cannot get much from Venus beyond its general shape.

What is neat about lining all three images side-by-side is that they were taken with the same telescope and same equipment setup, so you get a great sense of their relative sizes as seen from Earth.  Venus is noticeably smaller even though it is the closest to Earth and approximately the same size as Earth.  Right now, Venus is just over 90 million miles (145 million km) away.  Jupiter is about 450 million miles (724 million km) past, and Saturn is 840 million miles (1350 million km) from us.

What I should have done was take an image of a star, to show its relative size as well.  Next time!

Equipment used this weekend:

  • 254mm homemade Dobsonian
  • Canon EOS at prime focus
  • TeleVue x5 Barlow
  • Neodymium filter

Humid Jupiter, June 2018

Jupiter via a 254mm Dobsonian, prime focus, TeleVue x5 barlow, Neodymium filter.

June 29th, 2018, 9:45 p.m. local time

I ignored the “excessive humidity warning” tonight and imaged Jupiter.  The sky was just too clear and this was a Friday night.  I am glad I did, because though the humidity was stifling, the bugs were very few.  Apparently insects don’t like humidity either.

This is my first good image of Jupiter in 2018.  The focus was near-perfect and about as good as I am going to get with my non-imagining imaging equipment.  Referencing my note log from last year and the few bad attempts this year, I got the camera settings just right.  I also did post-processing in PaintShop Pro to smooth out and clean up the image.

As added bonuses, Europa and Io made it into the picture.  The Great Red Spot is also visible.  Even if I don’t get another decent Jupiter for the rest of the year, I will at least have this one to look back on.

First Jupiter of 2018

Jupiter via a 127mm Mak-Cass, 14.5mm eyepiece, x2 Barlow, Neodymium filter, and smartphone.

June 4th, 2018, 9:30 p.m. local time

Most of my recent astro-imaging has been through my 254mm Dobsonian.  Its main advantage, within my arsenal of equipment, is its mirror size, allowing for the most light gathered.  Its primary disadvantage is lack of automatic tracking.

So for a change of pace, I took out my 125mm Mak-Cass last night, which is able to locate and track objects in the sky.  It is not perfect, but it gets you to where you’re going, or looking, and stays on the target far longer than the manual Dobsonian can.  Whereas I refer to my Dobsonian as a “light cannon,” the Mak-Cass with its proportionately longer focal length relative to the size of its primary mirror is more akin to a sniper rifle, for pinpoint accuracy on very small patches of the sky.

The current positions and timing of our planets offer an opportunity to see both Jupiter and Venus in the sky shortly after Dusk, with the former in the Southeast and latter descending in the West.  I will have a separate post for Venus later.

Jupiter came out surprisingly well.  The biggest challenge was adjusting the smartphone mount on the eyepiece.  It was very difficult to center the camera lens just right.  I think this was in part due to the eyepiece used – a 14.5mm planetary viewer, which is not designed to hold a smartphone mount well.  It is great for simply looking with your eye, but not for attaching cameras.

My only regret on this image is that it is slightly out of focus.  I tried to minimize the impact with post-processing.  I was pressed for time and forgot to do a few refocuses as I normally would.