Constellations IX: Not Just Auriga

Click to see the full image.

March 11th, 2018, 09:10 p.m. local time

Over the past month I devoted photography sessions to Orion and surrounding constellations like Taurus, Lepus, and Canis Minor.  Last week I focused on Gemini.  On Sunday I turned my attention a bit past all of those towards Auriga.  This is one of my favorite places in the sky, particularly because of the star clusters M36, M37, and M38, which all look fantastic through my 10″ Dobsonian.  But this night was not about high magnification as I once again set up my digital camera on tripod for more wide field imaging.

For Gemini I used f/2.8 and ISO 400 with 25-second exposures.  For Auriga I slid the ISO down to 200 while keeping the other settings the same.  Lowering ISO helps to reduce noise and improve colors, at the potential loss of detail.  I am pleased with the results as a good balance between accentuating the bright stars as well as including an adequate canvas of the faint background stars.  In post-processing, this time I prioritized trying to bring out the colors in a neutral sense without over-representing any one RBG band.

Auriga is in an interesting part of the sky for another reason, as the boundary between the surrounding star activity of the likes of Orion, Taurus, and Gemini and a fairly bland section of the sky occupied by the lesser known constellations of Lynx and Camelopardalis.  There are no noteworthy stars nor high-profile deep sky objects in that vicinity, until you hit the areas marked by Polaris, Ursa Major, and stretching over to Leo.

My attempt to center Auriga emphasizes this point, as the picture is a bit lopsided with all the cool stuff at the center, bottom, and left with a relative void in the upper right.

So what else is in the photo besides Auriga?  Taurus, Orion, and Gemini are all peeking in.  And then there is a near-full cameo by Perseus, which I outlined below.  And you can even see, at the very bottom, that demon star whose brightness allegedly fluctuates but I have not fully confirmed yet.

Click to see the full image.

This photography session did not increase my constellation total, which still stands at 30:

  • 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
  • Orion
  • Canis Minor
  • Lepus
  • Monoceros
  • Eridanus
  • Gemini

References:

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Constellations VIII: Gemini

Click to see the full image.

March 3rd, 2018, 08:45 p.m. local time

Shortly after I took long exposure images of Orion on Saturday night, I repointed my camera further up, above Orion and towards the East.  This is where Gemini resided, high overhead.  The same camera settings were used as for Orion.  Additionally, I used essentially the same post-processing techniques that I have experimented with on Orion these past few days.  Whenever I redid Orion, I subsequently tried the same on my Gemini raw image.

The thing about Gemini is that there is no obvious outline to the constellation.  In my skies, the main stars Pollux and Caster are easily visible, but that is about it.  And even if I could see more stars, I would have a hard time tracing this constellation without a high familiarity of its shape.  I decided that tracing the constellation on the image would be helpful in this case.

Besides the feature Gemini you can also see all of Canis Minor with its bright star Procyon.  Orion’s upper arm is seen below Gemini, with the eastern edge of Taurus just visible (the blue star at the very right edge of the photo is Zeta Tauri).  At the bottom of the image are a few stars from the unicorn, Monoceros.

Every dot you see in this image really is a star.  It has been fun for me to compare my images with detailed star charts to trace out these sometimes unnamed stars.  It proves to me that they are not just camera background noise but genuinely specks representing stars and star systems in our Milky Way Galaxy.  This shows the power of a decent lens and inexpensive digital camera being able to punch through the canvas of light pollution to reveal the truths above.

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 30:

  • 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
  • Orion
  • Canis Minor
  • Lepus
  • Monoceros
  • Eridanus
  • Gemini

References:

Re-Imagining Orion

Click to see the full image.

March 3rd, 2018, 08:20 p.m. local time

After I took my first true pictures of Orion early last week, while I was pleased with the results, I felt the images were still lacking, particularly in background star detail.  On Saturday, I took to shooting Orion again, with my same new lens.  This time, I bumped the focal stop all the way down to f/2.8 and the ISO to 400.  I then stacked 30 25-second images in DeepSkyStacker.  For the next several days, I played around with the resulting image mightily in PaintShop Pro.  Subtracting light pollution, adjusting levels and curves, experimenting with colors, and trying to accentuate the brightest stars.

I have realized within the last 48 hours that there are infinite routes to take when editing astrophotography in post processing, particularly wide field views.  Imagination and artistry combined.  I feel this image provides more detail than my last Orion.  Likely, I will continue to experiment.

Constellations VII: Orion and Taurus

Closeup of Orion.

February 26th, 2018, 08:15 p.m. local time

Finally, for one night, the weather was great (likely above 45 degrees F), no wind, and an amazingly clear sky.  This is the best time of year for stargazing where I am, when the weather permits, because there are neither bugs nor humidity to combat.  If this had not been a school night, I would have pulled out my big telescope, waited the 45 minutes for it to cool down, and then observed the sky for as long as I could.

The only damper was the Moon, days away from Full, lighting up everything.

Waxing Moon notwithstanding, these conditions were perfect for tripoding my camera and trying out my new wide-field lens.  I upgraded over the stock lens of my DSLR camera last month and have have been eager to use it.  This night’s session was mostly a test of the new lens.

Here is the full image:

Click to see the full-sized image.

Orion with Taurus was the perfect target.  What most impressed me about this image, which is a single post-processed shot, are the colors.  The oranges of the giants Betelgeuse and Aldebaran, the blues of the young stars in the Pleiades.  They all pop out vibrantly.

This is a 20-second exposure and remarkably only ISO 100.  I think there is room for bringing out even more details if I bump up the ISO more and play with the focal length, set at f/2.8 for this image.  It’s worth noting here that I did try image stacking at ISO 1600 with a much higher focal length, but the end results seemed dull compared to this single shot image.  I have work to do to figure out how to take advantage of my new lens in conjunction with image stacking.

Other constellations are visible as well.  In the extreme upper left is the star Procyon and its constellation Canis Minor.  To the left of Orion, very faint, is Monoceros.  Below Orion you can see the top of Lepus, and next to that is the end tip of Eridanus.  I admit that I never thought about Lepus (a hare), Monoceros (a unicorn), and Eridanus (a river) until now.  They are simply too faint and not in any recognizable shape to take special notice of.  Still, there they are, pretty much as they were when the ancients named them.

Gemini is also barely visible at the top, but let’s save mention of the twins for when I can get a better view, when the glaring Moon is not sitting right on top of Castor and Pollux

Since I started taking wide-field views of the sky, I put my tally of snagged constellations at 29:

  • 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
  • Orion
  • Canis Minor
  • Lepus
  • Monoceros
  • Eridanus

References:

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.

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.