Friday, January 15, 2016

More proof I am not an astrophotographer

I think I need to make a T-shirt that says "I am not an astrophotographer" mostly to poke fun at myself.  I have no desire to devote time to either data acquisition (hours per image) or learning the processing skills to create beautiful images of space (hundreds of hours learning, several hours for each image).  Yet, for some reason, every few months I go through a phase where I stick a camera into a telescope and take some pictures to try and capture something pretty.

I stretch the contrast, try and clean up the noise a little, and assuming I did a decent job with focus call it a day.  Then, I proceed to look at my pictures and realizing that I have the potential to do better I say to myself "Self, you need to learn how to this properly."  I start to play around with photoshop, read about various techniques online and quickly retreat from the notion that I will be furthering my skills in astrophotography.  Time goes by and soon it is "rinse and repeat."  I suspect the truth is that I like taking pictures through a telescope, but am not going to devote myself to it.  The lesson of course is to be satisfied with the process and results and not compare them to the many fantastic images taken by my friends and others on the internet.

Without further ado, more proof that I am not an astrophotographer.  Three more pictures from my recent time on Mount Lemmon (see the previous post).  Again, all of these images were taken with my Canon 6D through a 100mm Sky Watcher Esprit triplet refractor, and all are single exposures.

M31, M32, M110 - The Andromeda Galaxy and companions

M45 - The Pleiades

M42 - The Orion Nebula and NGC 1977 the Running Man Nebula (at top)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A shadow grows in the east

A shout out to Lady Galadriel for the reference in my post title.  Tuesday night I was up at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter (where I am the Director) assisting some folks with a filming project and took the image below at sunset. Watching the shadow of Mount Lemmon move across the San Pedro River Valley as the sun sets and then observing the shadow rise into the atmosphere is one of my favorite phenomenon to witness.  Not only are the views singularly beautiful and serene from the summit, but with a clear atmosphere the Belt of Venus is remarkably vivid.   The picture below was taken with my Canon 6d and 24-105mm lens at the 105mm setting.  It is a handheld shot with an exposure of 1/60 of a second, ISO 200, f/5.6

It seems that throughout the year as the azimuth of the the sunset varies, the apparent shape of the mountains shadow changes slightly due to the perspective from which it is illuminated.  I have noticed these subtle changes before, yet on Tuesday night the shadow seemed markedly pointed and picturesque.  Other times during the year the shadow seems to be more rounded.  For fun I may try and take pictures from this same spot throughout the year and see how much the shadow varies or if it is all my imagination.  (Perhaps I am attributing too much to perspective and not enough to atmospheric conditions).  One final note about this image-  If you enlarge it, you can see the LBT on Mount Graham approximately 60 miles to the East.  It is the white spot on the ridge, just above the snowy area on the right side of Mount Lemmon's shadow.

I spent a few hours observing through the Phillips 24" telescope with the guys I was helping out.  Riding atop the Phillips Telescope is a Sky Watcher 100ed f/5.5 triplet refractor that provides very nice wide-field views to our guests.  I am certainly no astrophotographer, but thought it would be fun to try and take a picture through the telescope.  Below is a single 30 second shot (ISO 6400) of the double cluster (NGC 884 and 869) taken through the telescope.  Be sure to enlarge it to its full size.

Overall it was a beautiful (and cold!!) night on the mountain, one that reignited my passion for observing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The annual (almost) winter solstcie sunset trip

Several years ago my friend Dean Ketelsen carefully scouted the Catalina Highway to identify a location from which he could take a picture of the Sun setting behind Kitt Peak National Observatory, some 60 miles distant.  Dean maintains an excellent blog and I highly recommend visiting-  In addition to being a knowledgeable amateur astronomer, his professional career has led him to work at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, where among other projects they fabricate the largest telescope mirrors in the world.  His blog often features work from the lab, such as this post yesterday.

Each year Dean organizes a trip up to the spot on the Catalina Highway to observe and take pictures of the Sun as it sets behind Kitt Peak- and it does this very near the winter solstice.  Approximately 3 days before solstice the alignment is favorable, and again 3 days following the solstice just as the Sun is again trekking northward in our sky.  I have done this trip a few times in the past and you can read about these adventures on my blog from 2013 (my favorite images), 2012, and I even attempted a time-lapse in 2013.

This year I headed up with Dean and a few others on Thursday, December 17th and set up with my TEC 140 triplet refractor, Solar Prism (i.e. Herschel Wedge) Canon 6D DSLR.  I focused on the Sun in advance and had the mount tracking as the Sun moved towards the Horizon.  I had planned to try another time-lapse but unfortunately I forgot to turn off the tracking on the mount until halfway through sunset- so instead of seeing the sunset, the time-lapse would have shown Kitt Peak rising. First, a single shot of the Sun taken just after set-up with addition of a 1.6x Barlow lens (a converter).

Below is a single shot from the moment when all the structures atop Kitt Peak were illuminated by the Sun.  Note the green rim on the upper limb of the Sun caused by refraction of the sunlight through the Earth's atmosphere.

As always, click the above images to enlarge them and finally, Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Occultation of Venus

Yesterday, observers in North America were treated to a rare celestial alignment as the waning crescent moon passed in front of Venus.  At approximately 9:23 AM Venus was covered by the illuminated edge of the moon as it (the moon) slowly trekked eastward across our sky.  I had my eye on the sky all morning in anticipation of this event and did not think I would get to see it as the sky had a thick covering of cirrus even before sunrise.

If I have learned one thing in my life as an amateur astronomer, it is much better to attempt to make a trip or an observation in the face of uncertain weather,than to throw in the towel in advance.  It is weather after all- it is unpredictable.  Countless times I have awoken during the night to make an observation that others skipped because it was overcast when they went to bed...and certainly I have driven 16 hours to a star party and been clouded out for 4 nights! (Texas Star Party).

In this spirit, I loaded up my binoculars, camera, lens, extender and tripod into a backpack and took them to work with me...At 8:30 AM I looked outside and the sky was a mess in the area where the moon would be.  So much so that I went back inside and nearly forgot about the occultation.  At 9:15 I remembered it was about to happen and grabbed my equipment and ran outside.  Sure enough, the haze had thinned just to the point where I could barely see the moon! It was difficult to focus and I was in a terrible hurry to catch Venus before it disappeared, yet I managed to get the image below.  It is nothing to write home about, but considering the effort I went to observe this occultation, I figured it deserved a post!

My friend and comrade in astronomy Dean Ketelsen has a very nice post on his blog with better images of the occulation.  In addition, Dale Cupp (also a friend and a volunteer who works with me) took the amazing image below through his 11-inch telescope.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trident Missile Test from Portal, AZ!

This past weekend I spent in Portal, AZ for what was again a spectacular 4 nights of observing with great friends.  The skies are wickedly dark, and when the atmosphere cooperates, some among us can see stars around magnitude 7.2 - 7.3 at zenith!  Over the years the El Paso light dome has grown slightly to where it can be seen faintly rising about 5 degrees above the southeastern horizon.  It does not impact observing in any fashion, yet it is a stark reminder that even in the proverbial middle of nowhere, our dark skies are a diminishing resource.

The two images of the milky way seen here are each a 30 second shot- taken with my Canon 6d and a Rokinon 14mm wide angle lens.  (At left, you can see my very sexy TEC 140 posing with the Milky Way.)  The picture below was taken with the camera tracking the stars on my Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount.

As pretty much everyone has heard, there was a Trident Missile (ICBM) test conducted off the coast of Huntington Beach, CA on Saturday night.  While this is approximately 525 miles northwest of Portal, AZ, the test lit up the sky to the point where the milky way was nearly invisible!  The expanding cloud of vapor from the test rose at least 40 degrees into the sky and appeared to be rather layered.  As we later learned, the layers were caused by the separating stages of the rocket as it rose into the upper atmosphere.  Anyway, after watching this military muscle flexing freak show for a few moments, it occurred to me that I should take a picture of I ran and grabbed my camera and quickly tried to capture it before the missile itself disappeared behind the Chiricauhua mountains just to our west.  Below is an image that represents what we saw, and given how quickly I was trying to get the camera on tripod and working, came out better than I deserved!  I got several more, but this one has a little of everything from the stars to the layers of vapor to the missile itself.  Be sure to click to enlarge it (and this is reduced in size for the blog...thanks Google!)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lunar Eclipse

By now, there have been many images of the Total Lunar Eclipse this past Sunday circulating around the internet.  I was leading a public eclipse observing group of about 75 folks so taking pictures was not my primary objective for the evening...yet, I did try and capture some between talking about the eclipse, debunking the "blood moon" nonsense, and generally just enjoying the warm fall evening.

Two images below, one of the partial phase prior to totality, and one image from near totality.  These were taken with my Canon 6D and a 70-200mm f/4 set to 200mm with a 1.4 extender.  There was a slight breeze and I wish I had more time to play with the camera as I would have set the ISO a bit higher in order to capture images a bit faster (resulting in sharper images).   As things were, the images near totality was a 2 second exposure.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hawkish behavior

No, this is not a post about politics or the Presidential campaigning shenanigans that we are already suffering on a daily basis here in the U.S.A.  Rather, it is a post to share some pictures of juvenile Red-Tailed hawks that I took yesterday on the summit of Mount Lemmon at Steward Observatory's field station.  I had spent the better part of the day on the mountain working as we had a group of students from Catalina Foothills School District visiting us at the UA Sky School (you can see pictures here).  Following the students departure there was a group of three hawks that were playing near the summit.

The hawks often circle overhead, floating on the laminar airflow that rises over the western summit ridge line and flows to the east.  Sometimes they can 'surf' the air current and appear nearly motionless overhead for 10-20 seconds, or longer.  (It is this same laminar airflow that is a factor in our frequently excellent astronomical seeing conditions).  Below is an image of one of these hawks 'surfing' taken with my Canon 6d and a 70-200 mm lens at the 200 mm setting.  The exposure was 1/1600 of second at ISO 100, with an aperture of f/4.5.  Click on it for the full size image.

The picture below shows two of the hawks playing- the one on the left had landed in the tree and was then dive bombed by the one on the right.  I took the image a fraction of a second too late as I was hoping to get the hawk on the left still in the tree looking at the incoming hawk.  Both of these pictures are crops from the center of the original image but have not been reduced in size. (EDIT: Apparently, however, Blogger does compress them...)