Early Sunset, July 2020

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July 5th, 2020, 7:33 p.m. local time

The picture may fool a bit, as this scene of a descending Sun overshadowed by incoming Western clouds gives no indication of how hot the day was, even within hour prior to Sunset.  The sunbeams and their highlights within the clouds are almost good enough for an oil painting.

Taken with my iPhone with minor edits in PaintShop Pro.

Sun in April, 2020

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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

Merry Winter Solstice

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December 21st, 2019, 02:50 p.m. local time

I always say, don’t point your camera at the Sun.  But I figured if you’re going to do it, might as well be done on the shortest daylight day of the year.

Solar Reflections

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October 1st, 2019, 06:55 a.m. local time

Welcome to October.  This morning showcased interesting cloud formations highlighted by reflections from the rising Sun.  Taken with NightCap on my iPhone, post-processed in PaintShop Pro.

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.

Don’t Try This at Home

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November 15th, 2018, 4:20 p.m. local time

Today’s picture is something I would normally not recommend doing, taking a picture directly of the Sun.  It has a chance to damage your camera’s optics.  But as I should be refreshing my smartphone very soon, I decided that the risk was justified if only this once.

Possibly the worst characteristic of our Sun is that it is so bright.  At a magnitude of 26+, it drowns out visibility of everything in the Cosmos, with exceptions of our Moon and sometimes Venus.  This is the unfortunate reason why stars and constellations are seasonal.  Orion would not be a “Winter” constellation if Rigel and Betelgeuse didn’t have to contend with the brightness of the nearest star to Earth.  I’d give up a lot to be able to observe Orion on a Summer afternoon in the middle of July, though I doubt much of the rest of our planet would concur.

Easy Target

In case you have not heard, the Moon passed in front of the Sun yesterday.  In the grand scheme of astrophotography, this was a sub par event.  The Sun is very near and big and bright, so it doesn’t pose much of a challenge to photograph.  The biggest hurdle for me yesterday was dealing with mostly cloudy skies.  This made positioning of my telescopes very hard, as the normal method for aligning to the Sun is by leveraging the telescope’s shadow.  Fortunately, I had a wide-field refractor nearby which made the task a bit simpler over the narrow view from my 127mm Mak-Cass.  Once the refractor was aligned, troublesome as that was through dense clouds, it gave me cues for aligning the imaging scope.

And no, I did not miss the eclipse by fiddling with my equipment.  As alluded to above, imaging the Sun is kind of boring, even with clouds, so it was not hard to do a few things at once.

Here are the image highlights, in order and taken from a ~88% max coverage location.  Click on each image to enlarge.

This was was taken in Pro mode of my camera. Rest were in Auto mode.

I Do Not Fear Missing the Solar Eclipse

The great solar eclipse of North America has gotten a lot of publicity recently, and rightly so.  It is a script written for movies, a stark event to be witnessed by large areas of a large country.  Everyone from the professional astrophysicist to the completely uninitiated layman will appreciate it.

There is just one small hitch though – the weather.  Cloud cover may potentially block some or all of the eclipse.  This is not unusual for an astronomical affair, with the main casualty here being the lost opportunity due to the infrequency of this particular one’s chance.  The last solar eclipse in North America was over ninety years ago.  The next will be in seven.  After that, likely none of us today will be alive for the solar eclipse of 2099.

Last year, in May 2016, was the latest transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun.  This too is a rare event, though with a frequency of about once every 13 years.  While location on Earth is important, there is still a decent chance you can witness a Mercury transit over the course of 30-40 years.

I was in a prime location for the Mercury transit and had a full seven hours to observe it.  Unfortunately, the clouds that day were like a mockery from the gods, with the densest cover short of a severe thunderstorm.  My days of preparation and planning with telescope and solar filter and camera were fruitless.

Now being days away from the August 21st eclipse, I watch the weather forecasts for Monday like a hawk.  Currently they foretell party cloudy, muggy, with a chance of a thunderstorm, but with an uncomfortable encroachment of rain first in the evening and now late afternoon.  In my area, the eclipse will be at its peak around 13:20 and over by 14:45.

Will I be disappointed if the weather does not cooperate?  Absolutely.  Fortunately, there are a few mitigating perspectives.

First as a practical matter, cloud cover does not necessarily mean the eclipse will not be observable.  The Sun is very powerful and can pierce a variety of cloud formations.  I have taken pictures of star and planets through cloud cover when they were invisible to the eye alone, and have imaged the Sun through clouds as well.  Clouds can actually provide an artistic effect through a solar filter when imaging.

The second is a much longer perspective.  I hope those unfamiliar with astronomy take this as an opportunity to begin their own personal explorations of the cosmos.  A solar eclipse it just one event, but there is so much more to see, so much more to wonder at!  Every clear night offers something spectacular if you know how to observe the sky.

The Moon, the planets, meteors, nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, binary stars, constellations.  Conjunctions, oppositions, Jovian moon transits.  They are all there, if not all the time then at least for long durations annually, every night for the taking.

This will also be a useful opportunity to push the cause of light pollution.  Though the wonders of the cosmos are out there, too much of our planet is plagued by the sickly orange sky glow that ranks with any other pollution source.  Few people know about it, as it is not easy to realize, but artificial lighting at night distorts ecosystems.  If you don’t believe me, try sleeping with your bedroom light on, every night.

So even if the weather forces me to miss the eclipse, I know it will not be the end-all, because of all the amazing things in the sky and all the other astronomical events, including eclipses, to come.  The clouds cannot win every time!

Starlight and Einstein and Solar Eclipses

Much talk is in the media these recent days about the upcoming North America solar eclipse.  Anyone following the world of astronomy for the past year at least has been aware of it, but suddenly the mass population is waking up to the pending reality of the event too.  Their focus is on traffic jams and hotel rooms and possibly defective solar glasses.

Having prepared for August 21st months ago, I am now waiting just like most of you, and watching the weather forecasts with an interest usually not provided to the television personalities.  I will not be using glasses, in part because I enjoy doing things differently than most.  So while millions will gaze up with open mouths at the Moon and Sun with their 3D-esque eyewear, I will be leveraging my telescopes along with simple cardboard holdouts to measure the event.

This waiting time is a good time to reflect on the eclipse and what it means beyond the covering of the Sun.  The eclipse will bring darkness and with darkness comes stars.  I am in the 88% coverage range and have no idea what it will look like, though I assume at least bright Venus towards the West will be visible.

Those in the path of totality will have a special treat as the sky should go dark to the point stars appear.  It was this phenomena that helped prove Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity true, or at least as a superior theory to explain the universe over Isaac Newton’s gravitational theories.  If you want to read the details of how it was done, do an Internet search for the 1919 solar eclipse to find many articles.  Here is one from space.com that summarizes it nicely.

I am neither astrophysicist nor physicist, just a backyard astronomer.  But I feel I know enough to explain the 1919 solar eclipse experiment in the simplest terms.  Consider first a typical clear evening on the planet Earth, with stars shining and the Sun well out of the way on the other side of the globe.

Figure 1 (not to scale)

With no large cosmological objects in the way, starlight in aggregate gets to Earth mostly on a straight line.  Whether Einstein was correct or not was not crucial for this part.  There is a path of light from a star to here, and we can assume a straight line for this path.

Now consider what happens during a solar eclipse.  The Sun (and Moon) have gotten into the path of some of that starlight, but for other stars their light will skirt past the Sun and still reach Earth.  Einstein asked, “will the gravity of our massive Sun alter course of light from those stars?”  His theories said yes, and the 1919 eclipse was used to prove him and his theories correct.

Figure 2 (not to scale)

Figure 2 shows a few things happening.  First, the Moon is between the Sun and Earth, hence blocking the Sun’s light.  The Sun of course is enormous in size compared to the Earth and Moon, but the Moon’s proximity to us and the Sun’s distance make them approximately the same apparent size in the sky.  If one were to make an argument that the ancient gods set up the universe so that their sizes looked the same, you would probably have difficultly coming up with a sound rebuttal for why this is so, beyond coincidence.

Next, the Sun blocks some, a very small amount, of starlight that is directly behind it.  I suppose you could say that the Earth, Moon, Sun, and any stars hidden behind the Sun will be in conjunction on August 21st.

Lastly, there is starlight with paths that will approach the Sun.  As proven in 1919, the Sun’s gravity will effects this starlight as it travels past the Sun, altering the starlight’s course.  This is happening all the time in the daylight, but we cannot observe it due to that -27 magnitude star close by.

When the masses of millions look at Monday’s eclipse, few will be thinking about Einstein.  But some yearning, bright individuals will.  Perhaps the next Einstein will be among them, awaiting the inspiration to change our fundamental understanding of the cosmos once again.