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.

Where Have All the Sunspots Gone?

May 7th, 2017, 11:40 a.m. local time

On this pleasant, bright blue morning, I took my 127mm telescope’s solar filter out of hibernation to get some views of the Sun.  If you have been following news reporting over the last couple years, you know that the Sun’s activity has been very low.  There are hardly any sunspots.  My observations and photos prove out this current state.

I scanned the Sun for a good 10 minutes with my eye and found two sunspots.  Just two!  And barely visible both.  The larger one is near the 10 o’clock position and the second is very tiny around the center’s top.  Here is the same above image with those sunspots circled:

Realizing this compressed image makes it difficult to see the middle sunspot, here is a closeup you can click on for a better look at the areas in question:

Click to enlarge.

If you can see any more sunspots, then I applaud your observation skills.

Thanking the Planets for Scientific Advancement

If it were not for the planets, where would civilization be today?  For one, I doubt I would have this computer, and the electricity to power it.  The people of this alternative 21st century would be waiting at least several hundred years more for those amenities.

The classical planets of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the exceptions in the sky.  (And did you just notice that there are seven of them?  Think of the days of the week.)  There are clouds too, but for our ancestors those were easy to explain as both the chores and whims of the gods.  The stars are fixed, as far as the unaided can see.  But those crazy planets break the rules, making the geocentric universe difficult to explain.

(Uranus was out there too, but likely went unnoticed until Sir William Herschel came along as nothing but an insignificant, dim star, moving too slowly for anyone to appreciate.)

The Sun and Moon are fairly easy as well.  Though they wobble in the sky throughout the year, nothing is perfect, right?  The point being their motions are very easy to predict, day after day, month after month, and year after year.

Then there are the visible planets, the real planets of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  If not for these, there may never have been any questioning of the order of our solar system, or our place in it.  Scientific advancements took off, in the context of the arc of history, once people accepted that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  For if we did not have these planetary exceptions in the sky, would there ever have been the intellectual curiosity to question?

The planets, unlike the “fixed” stars, offer these problems to explaining the geocentric model (i.e. Earth being at the center of the universe):

  • There is a difference in behaviors between the two inner planets and the three outer planets.  Whereas Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn at least appear follow the elliptic path of the Sun, Venus and Mercury are constantly zigging and zagging in proximity to the Sun.  Mercury quickly bounces from dusk to dawn.  Venus sometimes climbs really high in the sky, yet also falls back into Mercury-like behavior.
  • The planets speed up and slow down.
  • Sometimes, the planets start moving in the opposite direction of everything else (retrograde motion).
  • Mars is a very curious case by itself, since at times it will shine as brightly as Venus and at others be dimmer than Saturn.

Copernicus was the first to publish the notion that the planets revolve around the Sun.  Later, Kepler devised his laws of planetary motion, which explain all of the conditions listed above.  Still later, Newton came long, basing his general laws of gravity and motion on Kepler’s earlier work (and Kepler’s laws turned out to be a special case of Newton’s general gravitational laws).  Newton’s work in this and related areas was the genesis of our modern scientific knowledge.

If there were no planets, there would have been no questioning of the Earth’s status relative to the Sun.  If that questioning never happened, we would have never had a true reference as to our place in the universe, making fundamental questions on physics difficult to comprehend.  I don’t doubt that eventually we would have come around to figuring these things out, only that it would have taken far longer if not for the guidance of the planets.

So here’s to you, Mercury, for your quickness.

Here’s to you, Venus, for your brightness.

Here’s to you, Sun, for keeping the lights on when we need them.

Here’s to you, Moon, for all of your cool phases.

Here’s to you, Mars, for being the most famous red beacon in the sky.

Here’s to you, Jupiter, for your steadfastness.

And here’s to you, Saturn, for the delight you reveal through our telescopes.

Finding Mercury

March 21st, 2017, 7:40 p.m. local time

Venus has been center stage in our solar system for the past several months, but in a symbolic bow-out, she has left the sky stage while her neighbors rise for their chance to shine this Spring.

Tuesday’s forecast said clouds and more clouds, so I was rather shocked when I left work to see a clear blue sky.  Even more alarming was that, during my train ride home, I saw absolutely no clouds to any horizon but the South.  This is usual, as some disturbance always seems to be lurking out West.

I knew that if this clear sky held, I would have a genuine chance to see both the descending, faint Venus and ascending Mercury.  And more to my surprise, as I got home and sunset approached, still no clouds were anywhere near the Sun.

Would this finally be the night I see Mercury?

I had been searching for Mercury on and off for seven months.  It is very difficult due to (1) too much cloud cover across the horizons and (2) few unobstructed horizon views in my neighborhood.

Last August, I thought I found Mercury, but after studying the star charts for those particular times, I concluded that what I saw was the ascending Venus.

First, I will note that Venus was sadly lost and I never found it Tuesday night.  Even though I scanned the horizon for Venus with my binoculars shortly after official sunset, I could not see any trace.  I believe that Venus had shifted North just enough to obscure my view behind houses.

As for Mercury, I was more hopeful.  Sunset was at 7:03 p.m. and I started scanning the skies about 20 minute later.  At first, I found absolutely nothing, which was a little disappointing given the super clear sky.  But as I scanned and scanned my Western sky, I gradually shifted my view up, and up, until I found a very familiar object…Mars!  It was not yet visible to the naked eye but clear through binoculars.  This was a great help, since I had studied my sunset star chart earlier and had taken note of Mercury’s relative position to the much-higher Mars.

I could still see nothing for about 10 minutes longer, though I now knew approximately where Mercury should be.  After 7:30 I was getting depressed, with no sighting yet and my telescope and camera at the ready.

And then around 7:35 p.m. it just happened.  Mercury popped out!  I had no doubt it was Mercury, though I was worried since it was so low already.  I guessed I had less than 20 minutes to take action before it was lost behind distant trees.  First, I threw off the x2 Barlow attached on my telescope, since I knew I would not have time to fiddle finding a zoomed image.  I also removed my polarizing filter.  I wanted to get as clear a view as possible.

So with my 127mm Mak-Cass and just my 10mm Plossl eyepiece, I pinpointed Mercury through my telescope.  It was a bright little dot.  I then put my polarizing filter back on.  I took both still images and video with my smartphone.

Unfortunately the video yielded very poor results, as Mercury was both too small without the Barlow and too low on the horizon to get a clear image.  It reminded me of my experience last year with Neptune, when those videos were bad as well but I still managed a passable photo or two, just to show evidence that I had found the eighth planet.

The top image is a good still shot of Mercury.  And this below shot was the very first one I took, with no filters on the eyepiece:

Clouds are in the forecast through Monday, but I will hope that sometime next week provides one more chance to see Mercury again.

Finding the Daytime Moon

March 19th, 2017, 8:40 a.m. local time

Do you see it?  It’s pretty well hidden, especially with the glazing cloud cover.

That speck towards the bottom and to the right of center was the Waning Quarter Moon this morning.  But it was more than just morning; it was several hours after the Sun had risen.  This image gives a rough approximation of what it’s like to find a Waning Moon phase from a mid-morning to as late as around noon.

I have previously imaged this phase through my telescope, and what is seen are diminishing details.  There is a battle in the sky between the Sun’s light reflected off the Moon and that same light source directly penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere.  Guess which light stream has the upper hand?

Here is the non-resized image of the Moon:

This is far more difficult to photograph with a smartphone’s camera than any nighttime phase.  Over night, it’s easy – just slide your exposure setting down.  But during the full day, the challenge now includes scaling back the total allowed light via the ISO setting.  Previously, I used ISO 200.  But for this particular shot I used ISO 50 and exposure 1/6000.

This practically concludes my Moon-through-smartphone exercises.  I am hoping that when the Moon’s next cycle comes around, it will be a bit warmer outside and I can try another method of Moon capture – sketching.

Early Daytime Moon through Smartphone


Morning Moon in “Auto” mode.

March 15th, 2017, 7:10 a.m. local time

Though I had stayed up late Wednesday for a high-sky view of the Moon, Jupiter, and Spica, several hours later during my work commute the Moon was still visible in the West.  It was a neat site, with the Sun hovering over the East horizon and the Moon in the West, both making a panoramic frame of the entire morning sky.

After photographing several nights of the pre-Full Moon, now I am interested in the waning daytime phases.  So to start, the above image was taken with my smartphone’s camera’s Auto mode.  The washed-out Moon is not very interesting in the morning’s pale blue sky.  I slid the exposure way down to 1/6000 to capture the Moon’s surface details:

Morning Moon in “Pro” mode, ISO 200 and 1/6000.

Notice that, even at the ridiculous 1/6000, the sky still shines blue!

The next, and perhaps last, challenge in this sequence is to see what the midday Moon looks like via a smartphone.  I hope to photograph the Waning Quarter Moon in a few days.