Light in Winter’s Deep

Click for full-sized image.

February 13th, 2021, 6:08 p.m. local time

Approximate Temperature: 6 degrees Fahrenheit / -14 Celsius

I recall one lecture in my Materials Science class in college, the professor said, in his British accent, “Ice is a wonderful building material.  It’s only problem is that it turns to slush when the temperate reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit!”

This statement from nearly 30 years ago popped into my head as I was clearing my driveway from the latest fluffy blanketing.  The temperature, yet again, was in free fall towards 0 (F) with no intention of stopping there overnight.  At least there was no wind.  Yes, you could likely build wonderful creations with just ice if you were guaranteed to never have to worry about melt.  Maybe this will be a paradigm for the Moon?

As I was pushing my snow blower down its next lane to plough, I looked up and realized the sky was clear.  And in the West was the early Crescent Moon.  Our weather has been do cold and cloudy and snowy these past three+ weeks, I lost track of the Moon’s cycle!  But there it was.  As I had my phone in my pocket, I of course just had to attempt a few pictures.  I got off a few shots with the stock iPhone camera and a few with Night before, in less than a minute, my exposed figures started to go numb.  Phone back in my pocket, and the ploughing continued.

Despite the crudity of this image, it partially captured the evening’s Earthshine.

On my return trip up the lane, I looked up again and saw Rigel.  Orion!  I forgot about Orion!  It’s still there.  And this is unfortunately its prime viewing season.  I am really hoping the weather in March is above freezing and I can spend some time looking again at my favorite constellation.

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.

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

Still Looking at Saturn

October 6th, 2020, 9:09 p.m. local time

Shortly after my Jupiter imaging on the 6th, I easily turned my attention to Saturn.  A splattering of clouds arrived though, so after my first image set, I took a break (knowing the forecast was clear skies all night).  Thirty minutes later and I was back at the telescope.

The four sets I took of Saturn were not as good as many of my prior sessions, but one set was serviceable enough to post.  Like Jupiter, Saturn is now smaller through the telescope than it was mid-Summer.  But you can still make out the major cloud bands and inner and outer rings.  My favorite part of these Saturn images is always the planet’s shadow on the back of the rings.  For whatever reason, I enjoy that that immense shadow is made from the same Sun that makes all of our terrestrial shadows on Earth.

As with Jupiter, I now rely heavily on my paper log book for all my prior ISO and exposure settings.  Flipping the pages back a few months, sometimes years, helps immensely and saves time at the telescope, so I can focus primarily on, well, focus.

If you have been following along and/or know what’s up in the sky right now, you can guess the subject of my next post. 🙂

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: 30
    • 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

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

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.

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