Waiting for Winter to Reopen the Sky

Ice-covered Lake Michigan this winter.

I wish there was more to say and show from the past few weeks, but the weather has not been cooperating.  Cloud-blanketed days and nights intermingled with furious snow bashings have created a mid-Winter with little time for anything beyond work and shoveling.  But I keep my back deck snow-free in hopes that a prolonged break will come one evening and I can get either a telescope or camera out for at least a brief time.

There are a few matters to report.  First, we are now in prime time viewing season for Orion.  From the northern hemisphere, it’s high in the South around 8 to 9 o’clock.  I very much want to take a wide-field view of this constellation, especially since I recently bought a better wide-field lens that I am eager to try out.  I did catch a brief glimpse of Orion last night through a break in the clouds, but certainly not predictable or long enough to warrant getting equipment set up to photograph.

Over the weekend, in between my snow removal shifts, I was up very late, around 1:30am, and noticed to the East that Jupiter was already visible through my trees.  This is great news as it means opposition is rapidly approaching, and in another one-to-two months it will be available for observation and photography at reasonable evening hours once again.

Finally, all the snow in my area made we wonder if my neighbor’s buried outdoor lights would lessen the area’s light pollution for the time being.  With a small break in clouds last night, I did look up for a few minutes, but did not notice any difference.  My guess is that any mitigation of pollution due to covered lights is offset by the highly reflective white snow cover.

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The Brightness of Algol, Part I

Click to see the full-sized image. Afocal image taken from a 254mm reflector.

“I will definitely be looking out for Algol and will try to take pictures.”
Me on September 12th, 2017

The star Algol, in the constellation Perseus, is known as an eclipsing binary star.  As explained at Scott’s Sky Watch:

“Algol’s brightness changes as we see it here on Earth. It’s not because its inherent brightness itself is changing, but because another star is passing in front of it, blocking out some if its light, just like the Moon did to the Sun last month, but much farther away. From its 90 light years, we can see it as only one star. Algol was the first star of this type to be discovered, so this type is sometimes called an Algol Binary. We here are fortunate to be able to see this.”

I had been hoping to take pictures over the course of days to see if changes in its brightness could be detected.  I was only able to image the star on one night so far, several weeks ago on December 19th.  I did log the telescope, lens, and camera settings, so that I can try to reproduce the imaging event at a later date.  The above image, from December 19th, is unaltered except for an increase in color vibrancy that can be applied easily to the next image.

There is still some time this season to capture Algol again.  I just need both the Winter weather and skies to cooperate together on a single night.

Constellations VI: Pegasus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, and the Quest for the Andromeda Galaxy

Click to see the full-sized image.

I was motivated this weekend to try to find the asteroid 3200 Phaethon.  But after reviewing its location, I realized it would be tough to see from my vantage point.  Saturday night brought in a clear sky with calm weather, so I decided on another venture – more wide-field astrophotography!

My primary target was Pegasus, but I knew I could also capture nearby Andromeda as well as Cassiopeia.  I took about 40 15-second exposures with my digital camera, followed by the customary 15-ish dark and bias frames, put them all into DeepSkyStacker, post-processed them in PaintShopPro, and the above image is the result.

There are a lot of starts in this picture, taken by pointing my tripoded camera above and a bit to the West around 8:15pm local time.  In case you cannot see the constellations, here is the same image with the major shapes traced:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Also highlighted is the area of the Andromeda Galaxy.  In my very light-polluted neighborhood, none of the galaxy is visible unaided, but I can see its center with my binoculars and telescope.  In this picture, the center is visible as a very small spec.  Keep in mind this picture was taken with my widest-possible lens setup, so details would be scarce regardless.

In Andromeda, the main guide star is Mirach.  In my above images, I don’t have this star labeled, but it is the closest star that is part of the orange connection lines to the final “a” in the word Andromeda.  Stellarium shows Mirach in relation to galaxy M31 as:

Mirach in relation to the Andromeda Galaxy.

For comparison to my actual results, here is that section of my image zoomed in.  You can see Mirach, the Andromeda Galaxy, and all the main surrounding stars as they match up to Stellarium’s database:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Next, I would like to try the same long-exposure exercise through my telescope, pointed at the Andromeda Galaxy, to determine if I can capture any detail beyond the galaxy’s center!

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 24:

  • Ursa Minor
  • Draco
  • Leo the Lion
  • Aquila
  • Sagitta
  • Delphinus
  • Velpecula
  • Lyra
  • Cygnus
  • Taurus
  • Perseus
  • Camelopardalis
  • Auriga
  • Cassiopeia
  • Cepheus
  • Scorpius
  • Ophiuchus
  • Virgo
  • Cancer
  • Leo Minor
  • Lynx
  • Ursa Major
  • Pegasus
  • Andromeda

References:

Constellations V: Leo the Lion (Remastered)

Click to see the full-sized image.

Ever since I developed a new technique to accentuate stars in pictures, I have wanted to go back to my original wide-field views and…refresh them with this process.  Today I bring you an updated Leo the Lion.

Whereas my original Leo cropped just the constellation itself, here we have the full, original post-processed image.  In this picture, taken when Leo was “falling” into the West about an hour after Sunset, the brightest star Regulus is in the center middle.  This should provide you with the necessary guide hint to see and trace all of Leo.

Also in this wider image are other constellations or parts of them:

  • The head of Virgo begins to appear on the left.
  • Several stars of Cancer are near the lower-right corner.
  • All of Leo Minor is present at the top.
  • Part of Lynx is clearly visible in the upper right.
  • You can see the paws of Ursa Major making their cameo near the top.

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 22:

  • Ursa Minor
  • Draco
  • Leo the Lion
  • Aquila
  • Sagitta
  • Delphinus
  • Velpecula
  • Lyra
  • Cygnus
  • Taurus
  • Perseus
  • Camelopardalis
  • Auriga
  • Cassiopeia
  • Cepheus
  • Scorpius
  • Ophiuchus
  • Virgo
  • Cancer
  • Leo Minor
  • Lynx
  • Ursa Major

References:

Dreaming of Another World

When I was in high school, the foreign language teachers would say that dreaming in a language other than your native one was the sign you had grasped it.

What can be said about dreaming of life in another star system?

Last night I had a very vivid dream about traveling to and then starting to live on a planet outside of our Solar System.  I usually don’t ponder such things, but as it is still very fresh in my memory and the topic so relevant to this blog, it seems as good of a dream sequence as any to document.

This was the type of dream from which you leave and feel it as your reality, if only for a moment.  As I awakened in the pre-dawn hour to the sounds of high winds beckoning in an arctic blast, I believed for an instant of my life that I was still on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system.

What caused this type of dream, and why now?  I have not done a lot of stargazing recently.  I did have my homemade Dobsonian out on Friday evening to look at the Moon.  And I had been taking quick pictures of the Moon throughout the week, but none of these activities are what I would consider in-depth astronomy.

It began with my landing on the planet.  I noted to myself the journey from Earth and the ship taken.  The journey was long, but not years long, so the means of travel was by some advanced, as-yet undiscovered technology.  Only a handful of people were fellow passengers.  Everyone had a very tight and cramped seat for the initial liftoff, but then we had the liberty of modest quarters for the duration of the voyage in deep space.

I was not there permanently, but was visiting the planet, like on a very extended vacation.  I remember thinking how amazing it was to be on another planet, in a different star system, even though I was clearly not the first to be here.  We had landed and departed the spaceship and were now in a hanger.

I really wanted to go outside and look up at the sky, to see the galaxy from this different vantage point.  I was hoping I could see some familiar star patterns, thinking that I should be able to recognize familiar constellations if I gazed in the direction towards home, towards Earth.  This is because I would be seeing Earth’s angle to the galaxy from that side, just a few light years farther away.

Getting outside was difficult, for a reason I cannot explain.  It was dusk.  When I finally got outside and into an open clearing, I observed animals I had never seen before along with horses native to Earth.  Looking into the distance, I saw a mountain range bathed in a golden light, a reflection of this planet’s star as it was setting below its horizon.  Heavy purple clouds hung shallow over the mountains’ peaks.

There were clouds throughout the sky and still too early to see stars.  I looked in another direction and saw the markings of a budding civilization.  There was a town, along with a developed highway, and the clear signs of a manufacturing industry already present.  My last thoughts were focused on how that very alien sky would soon be tainted by the tragedy of the forthcoming light pollution onto this colony of Earth.

Just Stargazing

My activity over the past several weeks has been slim to none with regards to astronomy and astrophotography.  The main culprit has been the weather, with a heinous amount of cloud cover week over week.  The few clear nights were unfortunately around the past Full Moon, making deep sky observations almost impossible.

Still, I have been checking out the stars when I can.  In the weeks leading up to the Fall time change, it was sufficiently dark in the mornings to see stars.  Notable was bright Sirius shining through even somewhat dense cloud cover.  It was wonderful to see Orion again in the West in the hour before dawn.  And now after the recent time change, I can see Orion rising around midnight above my trees blocking my East view.

Another notable in the sky is the Great Square of Pegasus.  It’s now in its prime viewing season in the mid-evenings.  And with Pegasus follows its neighboring constellation to the North, Andromeda.  And with Andromeda comes…the Andromeda Galaxy!  It’s just a faint blur for me through both binoculars and telescopes, but I hope this winter to try imaging it in several ways, to see if I can pick up any detail beyond its bright center.

Scanning further North, I also want to mention about imaging the star Algol in Perseus.  This was brought up in Scott’s Sky Watch all the way back in September.  About month ago, I did spend time locating Algol.  Now, weather permitting, I hope to take a few pictures of it on different days, and see if its color changes.

Lastly, a note on the topic of light pollution: while I did write down what I consider the core matters, I have not blogged about it much in many months.  I only want to mention that I have not forgotten about it, and in fact it is very much on my mind.  It may be months or even years before I revisit it again here, but I’m going to talk about it when the time is right.

Constellations IV: Scorpius Rising

Click for larger image.

From my vault of unpublished astrophotography, today I bring you a rendition from earlier this year of the constellation Scorpius.  I had been meaning to process this one for a while.  Days turned into weeks which turned into months.  An eclipse got in the way somewhere along the journey.  So here we are, mid-October, discussing a constellation normally thought of in the Summer.

I recall that it was still very early evening when I took the photographs which comprise this stacked image.  As you can see, my view was a tad narrow, but you can easily make out the side of Scorpius anchored by Antares.  To the top-left are two moderately bright stars, part of the constellation Ophiuchus.  If you imagine a horizontal line from the bottom of those stars in Ophiuchus to the top stars in Scorpius, then you are envisioning the Sun’s elliptic path in the sky.

Constellations III: Of the Summer Triangle

Click to see the full-sized hi-res image!

A few days after I searched for Pluto, I chose to forgo my telescopes for one clear evening and play with my digital camera.  The Summer Triangle is straight up in the evening sky right now for several hours after sunset.  As Jack Horkheimer used to say, “Keep looking up.”  This time, take his advice literally and you will see the magnificent asterism defined by the stars Altair, Deneb, and Vega.

This image was taken in a similar fashion to my prior wide-field constellation pictures, like Leo, where I took dozens of light, dark, and bias frames and then created a composite in DeepSkyStacker.  For this new image, though, I went a step further.  I have been searching for a way to accentuate the stars based on their brightness, short of manually blowing them up.  I believe I have uncovered a technique to get the desired effect.  You can easily make out the three main stars along with other stars/patterns in descending order from their apparent magnitudes.

I must admit that I was mildly shocked at how many stars are shown.  Are those really stars, or image noise?  As the images were taken straight up, to the darkest part of the sky, it seemed plausible.  Also, the Milky Way runs right through the Summer Triangle.  You cannot see the Milky Way in my picture, as I don’t think it is possible to capture in my light-polluted area without longer exposures and an equatorial mount.

In checking as many detailed online star charts as seemed reasonable, I do believe those dots are all stars!

Remember that an asterism is a pattern of stars, versus a constellation, which is a generally accepted “official” pattern.  The Summer Triangle is an asterism (a triangle, duh) but it has several constellations in and around it.  How many constellations can you see and name in this picture?

Constellations II: Leo the Lion

Click to enlarge and discover many stars!

Five weeks.  That is how long I had to wait from my first session photographing Leo the Lion to my second.  That is how long I had to wait for a mostly clear night, but even then, in the early evening of May 29th, I just finished my shots in time before large clouds rumbled in.

Five weeks prior, on April 22nd, the skies were much clearer and Leo was still directly overhead.  But as that was more of a test-shoot, compiling light, dark, and bias frames with my Canon EOS DSLR camera, I wanted to get a second set to see if there was any noticeable difference in the final imagining.  In particular, I wanted to shorten the focal length from f/22 to f/14, about mid-range.

I don’t think the focal setting change made much of a difference, but at least I did learn a few more things about the stacking software, DeepSkyStacker.  For example, the stacking “Intersection Mode” works wonders if you have to move the camera a bit and to ignore the stray wisps of clouds.  I know now for future reference that the sky does not have to be perfectly clear, just clear enough.  I can also take as many light/picture frames as I want, so long as I keep the object approximately centered.  DSS figures out the rest!

The one aspect of this technique I wish I could improve is to highlight better the apparent magnitudes.  Regulus is the brightest stars in my picture, but you cannot tell.  I don’t want to faux edit the image just to make the brighter magnitude stars bigger, but I do want to research possible PSP techniques to highlight the bigger stars.

I am also amazed at how accurate the picture is.  Compare the above image with this star chart and you can mentally plot the smaller stars.  Pretty cool!