Thursday, June 4, 2015

Beep Beep!!

Wow...I avoided going 4 months between posts by two days!  I really need to prioritize posting more frequently but between an amazing job that has me working nearly every day between March 15 and May 30, spending my few free days with the family, and trying to learn to play guitar in between...well, the blog has just fallen off my radar.

I am working today so will keep this short and sweet.  This morning, I awoke to the noisy fellow below making a racket as s/he used our backyard as his (her?) personal hunting grounds and dining facility.  A quick search online and I learned that there is no easy way to identify the gender of the Greater Roadrunner from looks alone.  This particular noise monger is likely a juvenile, given the gray color of his facial skin.  When the roadrunner matures its facial skin becomes colored red and blue.  In any event, despite the cacophony, this young bird (in the cuckoo family) was obviously happy and satiated (shout out to the memory of the fence lizard) and did not at all mind me coming within about 10 feet for a picture.  He did not, however, agree to a selfie with me.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

Comet C/2104 Q2 Lovejoy has been putting on quite a show for observers in the northern hemisphere for the last month, and as the moon begins to wane there are again a few hours after sunset to observe this beautiful comet.  I had not taken a good look at Lovejoy since the last new moon weekend when I was camping with friends in Portal, AZ and the comet was very near the Pleiades in Taurus.  Tonight it was very near the bright star Almach in the constellation Andromeda and made for a very pretty sight in both binoculars and in my TEC 140mm refractor.

I recently acquired my first full frame DSLR, a Canon 6D, and below is a 120 second exposure of the comet at ISO 800 taken through the telescope.  I had to stretch the image a bit to bring out the tail, but it was visible with averted vision in the eyepiece.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

16 Candles

This was an exciting week on the home front, as Thursday marked Ian's 16th birthday!  The years are definitely flowing by quickly and I am thankful that we have so many great memories, from what feels like such a short period of time.  Over the past 16 years, we have been very fortunate to be able to take trips nearly every year.  Just thinking of the trips we have taken, we have visited: Arizona, the Navajo Nation, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (and the San Juan Islands), Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Virginia, Washington DC and well as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and St. Kitts...I am sure I am missing some.  I can't imagine where our adventures together over the next 16 years will take us, but I am looking forward to them tremendously.

Just a couple pictures from one of the celebrations we have had this week are below (hey, when you are 16 you get to celebrate a few times!)...with the disclaimer that I just purchased a new camera and I do not have a flash...and as I did not prepare to take the pictures they are also handheld which is a challenge in low light.

Now, if someone could help me figure out, how I have a 16 year old son, when I am only 29 years old myself...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Solar flashback and why I am not an astrophotographer

One reason I am not a serious astrophotographer: Patience.

I enjoy taking some casual images of bright targets such as the Sun, moon, or a planet but I rely heavily on being able to process these images in a quick and efficient fashion.  I do not have the motivation or desire to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of varied software packages to create astronomical images of the highest quality.  Many call my approach to obtaining a nice image "lucky imaging."  At left is a single shot of the Sun taken back on October 23rd when we had the largest sunspot in 24 years near the center of the Solar disc.  On the same day I made a video (AVI) recording of the Sun using my ASI120MC astronomical video camera in the hopes of stacking multiple frames to achieve a sharp, high resolution image.  Below is the AVI file as captured.

This is where the story takes a long break.  Back in the fall I broke down (and nearly went broke...emotionally and economically...) and purchased a new laptop.  I had a very nice 5 year old laptop that was still humming along quite well, yet technology has improved dramatically and doing a lot more work on the go I wanted something a bit lighter than the old 5+ pound beast.  I did my research, moved through periods of analysis-paralysis, wavered on what features I was looking for, and ended up with a Samsung Ativ Book 9 plus.  It is a very nice laptop and I only have two issues that remain.  One is Windows 8.1 which I can't do anything about, and the other is that the display has a resolution of  3200 x 1800 pixels, in a 13-inch class screen.  While this produces stunningly sharp images and can be useful in processing photos, it is somewhat of an annoyance in that several software programs do not always display properly and one can end up with text that is so small as to render it unreadable even with reading (magnifiers) glasses!  There are work arounds and settings that can be tweaked and for the most part things can be set effectively.

Two specific examples that are driving me nuts are Registax 6 and Adobe Camera Raw, both of which I use in the image processing I do.  Registax is used to align and stack multiple frames from AVI recordings (of say the Sun) and is just not displaying properly or working properly on the new laptop.  I have been fighting it since the fall and as a result have not been able to process a single AVI file.  I have known this day was coming but I finally decided to try another program and this morning downloaded and made a first attempt using a freeware program called Autostakkert2!  It seems to work fine, but does not contain the wavelet sharpening tools that Registax does.  Fortunately that functionality of Registax is still usable.  I Also will try a program called Avistack to see which I like better.

Adobe is particularly frustrating in that I was able to get Photoshop to display in a small but reasonable fashion, yet when opening a raw file the window does not display at the proper settings. See the image below and compare the text (not the title bar, but the controls) in the raw window to the application window in the background.

In any event, back to the AVI file I captured back on October 23rd.  Using Autostakkert2! this morning, I did stack and align the best 50% of the frames (out of about 1000) and then use the wavelet filters in Registax to create an image.  While not perfect, you can immediately see it is sharper than the single shot at the top of the post.  I think I can do better as I learn to use AutoStakkert2! (or Avistack) but at least I am back in business with AVI files.  Jupiter season is here, we have a bright comet in the sky, and stacking images is a must to capture these sights!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year and Anniversaries!

My Lost Pleiad
2015 is here and with it comes the 5th anniversary of this blog.  I began on January 1st, 2010 (inspired by my friend Dean Ketelesen) with two posts, including this one detailing the inspiration and story of the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  While 2014 saw the least amount of blogging, I do hope to bear down and do more writing this year-  Life certainly has no shortage of material for the blog.

In addition to the blog anniversary, it is also our 19th wedding anniversary!  I am reaching that point in life where despite how long 19 years seems looking forward, it feels like an instant looking in retrospect.  Hairs are graying, my dear son is about to turn 16 and there is an increasing realization that every moment matters.  I look at my lovely and wife and (increasingly GQ) son and know that I am amazingly fortunate.

In addition to being the first day of 2015, I believe that in all my years in Tucson, Arizona this is the first time I recall snow on New Years day!  Yes, you read that right, we awoke to a dusting of snow this morning.  True to most snowfalls in Tucson, it only takes 2-3 hours of sunshine to erase all traces of this beautiful event, but nonetheless it was an awesome anniversary and New Year's present.

Cosmo, our dog (he had that name when we adopted him 11 years ago), let me know at sunrise that it was time for him to go play in the snow.  He has seen snow before, traveling with me to Mount Lemmon and something about it gets him riled up to play like a puppy.  He also let me know that I do not give him enough attention on the blog, so without further ado, here he is enjoying himself in the white stuff.

Finally, here is a picture I had taken a few weeks back from the 7 Cataracts Vista on the Catalina Highway.  It is looking over Thimble Peak towards sunset and just to the left of Thimble Peak you can just make out the dome of the  Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory on the most distant ridge.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Star Adventurer testing night 2

After my first successful night using the Star Adventurer mount (detailed here), I wanted to do a more thorough job of learning the ins and outs of the mount and seeing if I could truly take some long exposure images.  The first thing I did was to check during the day to see if the polar alignment scope was calibrated to the mount itself.  This is done simply by placing a distant object on the cross-hairs of the polar scope and then rotating the mount in right ascension.  If the object drifts off the cross-hairs then the polar scope is not centered precisely in the mount housing.  To my delight, the polar scope appeared nearly perfectly calibrated!  There may have been a very slight drift, yet it was so small I felt that I would not be able to make a meaningful improvement using the set-screw adjustments, and in fact I was not totally sure that I was not causing the apparent drift simply by having to move the mount manually.  Yet, sometimes I can obsess (the only enemy of good is better!), so to test this I turned the mount on and set it for 12x sidereal rate and let it track for about 10 minutes.  This would represent 180 degrees of rotation if I let it go for an hour, so in 10 minutes I had about 18 degrees of rotation and there was no appreciable drift.  This is certainly longer than any exposure I see myself doing in the near term as 18 degrees of apparent motion equates to 72 minutes of real time!

As you can see in the image above at left, I set the mount up in my driveway as I wanted to be able to do some visual observing while the camera was running some tests, and in particular I wanted to observe Comet Lovejoy which was very low in south and not visible from within my observatory until much later in the evening.  The downside of this location is that in addition to the moonlight that was pervading everything, I am looking out over our neighborhood (lots of ground level lighting) and there is periodic traffic that comes down the street- hence, one car during an exposure means I need to repeat the test!

Historically, when I have done a rough polar alignment I have started by pointing about a half degree from Polaris towards the 'bright' star Kochab, as this is approximately the location of the north celestial pole.  I wanted to do a fairly precise alignment (short of drifting) and grabbed my phone to look up the location of the pole for the current doing so I wondered if there was an application for my Android that might tell me and sure enough I found a great little application called "Polar Finder" which uses GPS for my time and location and then with the reticle of my choosing shows me where Polaris should be placed in the polar alignment scope.  At right is a generic screenshot from the application which shows a basic reticle (there are patterns for most well known polar scope makers) and Polaris as a green dot.

I know, get to the point, right?  Well, after polar aligning things I set up the Canon with my 14mm Rokinon f/2.8 and started taking exposures.  I did discover that in messing around as much as I was, I had the lens very slightly out of focus.  I'll post them below, but keep in mind that I was only checking to see if stars were trailing and not trying to make pretty pictures...Don't make any assumptions about the sky brightness as I did utilize Photoshop to darken the sky background as the moonlight was wickedly bright, and for most (not all) of the images I also set the ISO to 100 to reduce the sensitivity of the sensor in attempt to not get images that looked like daylight.  Below are the images with the duration in the captions, but the bottom line is that for DSLR long exposure photography, the mount delivers.

60 second test
120 second test

240 second test
360 second test

Finally, as I mentioned, I was doing some visual observing while the camera was doing its thing and lastly I looked at the moon through my TEC 140.  I couldn't resist sticking the camera in there and snapping a shot before heading in. The image below is a single shot, taken at ISO 800 for 1/1000 of a second.  Note that this was done on a non-tracking, alt-az mount!  Enjoy!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Star Adveturer! And Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2)!

Nearly New Years and I am finally writing another blog post!  Shortly after the eclipse which was the subject of my last post, Tucson hosted the 3rd annual Arizona Science and Astronomy Expo (ASAE).  You can read a report on this annual show on the blog of my friend Dean Ketelsen.  At the show I ran into another friend, Kevin Legore, who works for Sky-Watcher USA and Kevin showed me a new product that they were carrying called the "Star Adventurer," which is essentially a mini-equatorial mount and wedge designed for use on a photo tripod and with a DSLR.  Kevin noted that they would not be able to ship until the end of November so as soon as I got home from the show I went on their webpage and ordered a Star Adventurer knowing I had about a month to save the money.

I have enjoyed taking wide-field images of the milky way with my camera and have even made a few attempts at time-lapse photography such as from the Grand Canyon this summer.  Naturally, I have been limited to exposures in the range of 20-25 seconds before stars would start to trail.  This is less of an issue from my home due to light pollution, however, from Mount Lemmon or other dark sites such as Portal I would enjoy taking longer exposures.  One common way to track stars and take long exposures is to piggy back one's camera on a telescope, however, that has two disadvantages for me.  One is that it requires far more set up and gear than a simple camera tripod, and two, it means that I can not observe an astronomical target through the telescope if my priority is framing a milky way image.

Right on cue at the end of November, I received an email indicating that my credit card was being charged and that the Star Adventurer was being sent on its way.  Due to busy work schedules, poor weather, and a home renovation project (now complete) I was not able (or motivated) to test the Star Adventurer until last night.  It is not my intention to write a thorough review of the mount, nor could I after only one night of use.  Just like any other piece of equipment it takes some time and practice to learn the finer points of alignment and use.  As you will see below the Star Adventurer works as advertised.  Running on 4 AA batteries (it can also be powered by USB) it tracks the apparent motion of the sky at one of several user-selected speeds.  I only used the stellar setting in my attempts last night.  In addition, I did not calibrate the included polar scope to the mount (meaning it could be slightly misaligned), and I only performed a rough polar alignment placing Polaris about where it ought to be in the scopes reticle.  My main objective was simply to see if the unit worked as I was a fairly early adopter.  Good enough for government work anyway!

My first target, as it should be this time of year, was the constellation of Orion.  The camera attaches to the Star Adventurer with a user supplied ball-head and the first lesson I learned was that everything needs to be tightened down securely!  Not just to prevent a major disaster, but also to prevent the camera from slowly slipping/rotating during the exposure.  Once I had everything snug, I took the picture below with a 14mm f/2.8 Rokinon manual lens at ISO 800 for 30 seconds. Click to enlarge (and ignore the lens flare at lower left from a neighbors security light!).

As the sensor was exposing, I remembered that Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) was moving up through Lepus and toward Orion.  I grabbed my binoculars, found the comet easily and noted its location.  I then zoomed in on the image I had just taken and BAM! there was the comet! Below is the same image and you will see at lower right that Comet Lovejoy is labelled.

I then decided to see how the Star Adventurer would handle a heavier load and installed my Canon 70-200 f/4 zoom in place of the smaller Rokinon to image the comet.  Below is am image of the comet.

Recent images of this comet have shown that its tail has been having a very interesting past few weeks, separating from the comet with a new tail growing in place of the previous- this article from Universe Today explain matters.  I took another exposure with the ISO too high (3200) to see if I could detect any tail structure...sure enough I thought I could see hints of one, so I inverted the image, stretched things a little and sure enough, you can see a thin tail stretching to the NE in the image!

Finally, as long as I had the the heavy lens out I centered the Orion Nebula and took a 30 second image of that region, and below is the result.

All in all, pretty impressive results for night one, and remember that all the above are single shots, no stacking of images.  Taking images with heavy lenses will likely require the optional counterweight kit that Sky-Watcher sells as it did seem that the mount would struggle at certain orientations.  Also, while I stuck to 30 second exposures last night just to make sure the mount worked (I have it on some authority I ordered the first one in the US!), a more critical polar alignment is needed for me to take long exposures.