Astrophotography [Blog Posts]

Orion Astroview 6: Equipment Spotlight [Moving Prime Focus]

I moved prime focus without cutting the OTA (Optical Tube Assembly) on my Orion Astroview 6 telescope. Huh? How? No way? The first thing I did when the Canon EOS XTi DSLR camera arrived…put it on my 6 inch reflector telescope. I quickly discovered that focusing on stars, and DSO (Deep Sky Objects) was impossible.

Orion Astroview 6 – About The Scope

Orion Astroview 6 telescope
Orion Astroview 6 Telescope

This telescope has a 150 mm aperture and a 750 mm focal length. This gives it a fast f/5 focal ratio. It’s great for viewing planetary and bright DSO. You can image with a smartphone most of the objects in the night sky using eyepiece projection, and with a webcam or DSLR camera, planetary objects. It comes with two counter weights (7.5 lbs and 4 lbs). All together it weighs 37 lbs. The OTA is 27 inches long. I’ve added a motor to the mount in order to track the objects I’m viewing. In addition, the Orion website clearly omits DSO in the “Best For Imaging” category. You know me, I love a challenge.


Orion Astroview 6 – Prime Focus & Moving It

Newtonian Prime Focus Diagram
Newtonian Telescope view of Prime Focus

The Orion Astroview 6 is a Newtonian or Reflector telescope. In a telescope like this, prime focus is the point where the light converges in the viewer. The image here shows where prime focus rests depending on the location of the primary mirror. If you follow the arrows which represent light, you see the light reflects off the primary mirror on the right. It is then reflected off the secondary mirror into the viewing tube. Viewing with your eye through an eyepiece works great on my telescope. That’s what it is designed to do. The focuser is simply moving prime focus up and down so your eye can focus on the object.

With a DSLR camera, it is more difficult because prime focus is too low in the view tube. The focuser cannot bring prime focus close enough to the camera. In the image above, it shows two locations for prime focus. These lower one is the designed location for observation. The upper is the modified location that is good for DSLR astrophotography. There are several ways to get a DSLR camera to work with the Orion Astroview 6 telescope. Everything you read on the internet or see on YouTube state that the modification is permanent. Meaning you have to drill holes in the OTA or cut off the back end of the OTA. These are good options for those with money to throw away. Here’s how I moved prime focus.

Orion Astroview 6 – The Primary Mirror

Orion Astroview 6 Mirror Assembly
Mirror Assembly

As we say in engineering, you can’t fix what you cant see. So I took the telescope apart. Shown here is the mirror assembly in its compnent parts. Shown next to the mirror are 3 rubber clamps which hold the mirror onto the frame on the right. I focused on these three for my modification. You know I like to 3D print parts for this hobby. My measurements, and some trial and error, revealed the prime focus needed to move about 20 mm. My design moves it about 30 mm, to give the focuser room to adjust for temperature changes.

Orion Astroview 6 – Mirror Extension

Orion Astroview Mirror Extension
Orion Astroview Mirror Extension

Let me introduce the Orion Astroview Mirror Extension. If you have access to a 3D printer, you can click the link and print 3 for yourself. What I like about this is that I reused the screws already in the telescope. It holds the mirror far enough in the OTA to achieve prive focus with my DSLR camera. I can also return the telescope to original condition for resale or a night of viewing. The base of it matches the original rubber clamps and the screws hold them tight to the mirror frame. The best part is that this is non-destructive to your telescope!

Orion Astroview 6 – DSLR Photo Results

Object: Orion Nebula & Running Man Nebula
Telescope: Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Canon EOS XTi
Frames: 49 @ 30″ (about 25 minutes total exposure)
Post Processing:
– Deep Sky Stacker
– StarTools
– Gimp
Orion Nebula 2019

Orion Nebula 2019
Telescope: Meade ETX-125
Camera: Canon EOS XTi

With the Meade ETX-125, the field of view is small and only the Orion Nebula fits in the picture and barely. The increased field of view with the Orion Astroview 6 allows me to include the Running Man Nebula. the Mead is has a focal ratio of f/12 vs the Orion Astroview 6 focal ration of f/5. This means faster light gathering capability and more vibrant colors in the resulting photo. I’ve not seen an extension like this anywhere, so I hope you like and use on your own telescope.

Owning the Orion Astroview 6 telescope does not mean only viewing anymore. You can take great pictures of deep sky objects and view the Moon and planets when ever you like. You will get good at collimating your telescope and I recommend cloth mirror protection whenever you change back and forth. Enjoy this and clear skies.

Bahtinov Mask: Equipment Spotlight [Focus]

There are numerous objects in the night sky. Using a telescope brings them into view but how do you bring them into focus. The simple answer is turn the knob on the focuser until it looks clear to you. I thought this to be effective with astrophotography, until I learned that focused for my eye was not the same as focused for my Google Pixel. That’s when I turned to the Bahtinov Mask.

Bahtinov Mask: What is it?

3D Printed Bahtinov Masks
Blue: Meade ETX-125
Black: Orion Astroview 6

As you have already gathered a Bahtinov Mask is used to focus a telescope. Invented in 2005, by Russian astrophotographer Pavel Bahtinov, it consists of 3 patterned sections. The pattern is designed to create a diffraction spike to the viewer. Although the pattern makes the spikes, the mask takes advantage of the aperture stop in the optical system to create the view. The two shown here are 3D printed from two different materials. One is softer than the other, but these can be found on many 3D printer sites. However it is your choice to have online companies print for you or print yourself at home. Your local library may also have a printer you can use for a small fee.

Bahtinov Mask: How to Use

Bahtinov Mask on Scope
3D Printed Bahtinov Mask on Scope

My telescope and camera are set up, and now it is time to focus. It is important to focus my scope before doing a drift polar alignment. I will explain polar alignment is a future post. I place the Bahtinov Mask on the front of the telescope. Next I point the telescope at a bright star. Actually, any relatively bright star will do. Once complete I proceed to the step of adjusting. I can then do this next step with the eyepiece, but once the camera is installed, the focus is different. So I begin by opening APT (Astrophotography Tool) on my laptop or Camera FV-5 on my Google Pixel. Using this app I begin taking pictures of the star with the camera. What I see on the screen, I use to adjust the telescope focuser. Now complete, I remove the mask and begin to polar align the telescope.

Bahtinov Mask: Photo Results Explained

Focus Example
Focus Example

Shown above are pictures taken with the Bahtinov Mask installed. It is the same star with different focus. Out of focus are the left and right. Conversely, the center is focused. The pattern on the Bahtinov Mask create the 3 lines or spikes crossing the star. My goal is to adjust the focuser knob to move the center spike equal distant between the other two. This is the achieved focus. Simple enough. Try it and let me know your results.

Bahtinov Mask: Conclusion

Bahtinov Masks 2
3D printed Bahtinov Masks

The Bahtinov Mask is a great tool to achieve optimum or perfect focus. APT and other software can assist in achieving perfect focus for your photos. Although they are inexpensive, 3D printing them can save more. They expertly help focus on planets, Nebula and start clusters. Unfortunately there is no benefit to use with the Moon and Sun. In fact, using on the Sun is dangerous. So however you acquire one, take your next great photo using the Bahtinov Mask. Enjoy and clear skies.

Canon EOS XTi: Equipment Spotlight [DSLR Camera]

Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi

The Canon EOs XTi joins my astrophotography family. I started using my Google Pixel Really Blue to photograph night sky objects. I’ve captured the Orion Nebula, Sun, stars, planets, star clusters and the Andromeda Galaxy with my smartphone. The smartphone can capture, with the same quality, most night sky objects. Deep Sky Objects present a challenge for the smartphone. I acquired a used Canon EOS XTi DSLR Camera. It was donated by Chuck Marshall of Chuck’s Camera Plus in Hampton, VA. It is gently used and has a damaged card reader.

Canon EOS XTi Specs

Crop Sensor vs Full Frame

I don’t yet know enough about this comparison to speak to it. At minimum I know the crop sensor removes the edges from your field of view increasing focal length. Full Frame gives you everything which has its place in your astrophotography tool bag. More on this in future posts.

Light Sensitivity

The details of this camera can be found on the Canon website. So let’s discuss the inportant ones related to astrophotography. Light sensitivity allows you to adjust for the brightness of the planned target. Having this flexability is needed with the different objects night sky. The Horsehead Nebula for example is very dim in comparison to the Orion Nebula which you can see with the naked eye. The Canon EOS XTi has an ISO range of 100-1600. Bright objects like the Moon or Sun need low ISO to capture clearly. This model requires a filter to reduce the light intensity and/or very fast shutter speed to compensate. The Google Pixel is capable of ISO less than 50 with a max of 10000. Certainly the Canon EOS XTi, released in 2006, will be used for specific photos since it can’t compete with the smartphone.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed with the Canon EOS XTi is maxed at 1/4000 sec. Compared to my Google Pixel at 1/8000 sec, the smartphone wins. On the opposite end where DSO objects live, the camera slows shutter speed to a minimum of 30 sec. The Google Pixel, 0.6 sec. And the winner goes to the Canon.

Canon EOS XTi Capability

Orion Nebula 2019
Orion Nebula 2019
Telescope: Meade ETX-125
Camera: Canon EOS XTi
Orion Nebula November 2017
Orion Nebula November 2017 Telescope: Orion Astroview 6 Camera: Google Pixel

Yes there are many differences to point out between pictures. You can see the difference between the crop sensor (Canon) vs full frame (Google Pixel). The difference between a 30 sec shutter time and a 0.6 sec shutter time. The Google Pixel has elongated stars because polar alighment is difficult in my yard. I have to drift align for polar alignment and that works best with a long shutter opening time. Of course the pictures show how much post processing improvement I’ve gained since 2017.

Canon EOS XTi Conclusion

Super Blood Wolf Moon 2019
Telescope: Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Google Pixel

The Canon EOS XTi currently works with my Meade ETX-125 Telescope. The scope has a smaller field of view so getting all of an object in the frame is a challenge. I’ll explain why it cannot work with the Orion Astroview 6 telescope in another post. The Canon camera will perform great with DSO and I’ll keep the Google Pixel dedicated to solar system objects. I’ve learned enough in the short period to help my neighbor sucesssfully capture photos of the Super Blood Wolf Moon. He too uses a Canon product and the results match the picture here. My own experience aside, I’ve not seen anyone else sucessfully capture a detailed DSO photo with a smartphone that rivals a DSLR camera. Get one and clear skies!

2019 Total Lunar Eclipse [Astrophotography]

Progression from start to totality

Total Lunar Eclipse

The total lunar eclipse was beautiful! I took more than 500 pictures of this event to create this photo. The 2019 total lunar eclipse wowed and amazed. My social media feeds were inundated with photos from the amateur photographer to professional photographer. I’m somewhere in between, although I did have an opportunity to help my neighbor acquire several photos with his camera.

Total Lunar Eclipse Photo Explained

The total lunar eclipse starts with the full moon (bottom left) and is called the Wolf Moon. Wolf because all full moons in January are wolf moons. The full moon is called super when closest to Earth. The next pictures are showing the shadow of the Earth as it crosses the surface of the Moon. The final two pictures show the distinctive red color that comes from bent light passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. The red color also gives this event the final word to it’s title of Super Wolf Blood Moon.

The time from start to totality (point where eclipse is total), was about 1 hour 45 minutes. This photo contains single unedited shots combined in a mosaic. It was a long night and I assisted my neighbor with is photo taking experience. So expect to see more post processed photos in the coming days.

Total Lunar Eclipse How To

I posted a few of my unedited photos and the question “What did you use?” came up several times. I used my Orion Astroview 6 inch reflector telescope and my Google Pixel smartphone. With this setup, polar alignment doesn’t have to be perfect. The short shutter time of 0.6 seconds means I have to take a lot of pictures to get a longer exposure. Since my target was the moon, longer exposure photos were not needed.

Total Lunar Eclipse: Super Wolf Blood Moon

For my neighbor he used a Canon camera on a tripod with at 500 mm lense. He and I both set our cameras to ISO 800. He bumped up his shutter open time to 1 sec and achieved great photos at totality.

Hopefully you enjoyed this post. Let me know in the comments.

Smartphone Astrophotography Challenges [Obstacles]

What Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacles?

I’ve been “Missing In Action” with my smartphone astrophgraphy for many months now. Let me tell you why. First was the Android P or Android Pie update to my Google Pixel. Then the almost constant rainy or cloudy weather. And finally my love of basketball season. If you’re a purist, you’ve most likely clicked away, and that’s ok. Smartphone Astrophotography is not for the serious astrophotographer with expensive telescopes and mounts.

Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 1

Google Pixel Really Blue

The first item to discuss is the software update. With all phones, there are monthly security updates and yearly major updates for your phone. The yearly ones bring new features to your phone and also make your phone eat through it’s battery life. This is what happend when Android Pie was installed on my Google Pixel. Immediately, the phone heated up to unbearable levels, and my battery life dropped from 18 hours to 4 hours.

Apple, Samsung, LG, etc are not immune to this. They happen in varying degrees. Anyone who uses one for smartphone astrophotography are at risk to experiencing the battery life of their phone decrease. Also the heat can damage other functions on the phone as well.

In my case I decided to call Google to help rectify the situation. The first attempt was met with Google putting me on hold, then hanging up after 20 minutes of waiting. I made the second attempt while on a 3 hour long drive home. Google had me wait 1.5 hours then transferred me for another 30 minute wait. Once in conversation with tech support, they requested to call me the next day at 2 pm because of the background noise in my car. I never received the call.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I’m not going for a third attempt. Clearly the only language Google responds to is money. The support for the new Pixel 2 XL and Pixel 3 and high. Since I have the new phones, I purchased a small battery pack which I will use this to keep the Google Pixel alive while capturing video or other photos.

Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 2

Weather!

Partly Cloudy Sky

Oh one word wasn’t enough. Well a little bit more about my area of the world. It likes to rain often. I can be weeks before a clear day hits the forecast.

I recommend cleaning lenses, learning astrophotography through YouTube, improving your post processing skill in Gimp or Photoshop, collimating your reflector telescope or 3D printing accessories for your hobby. I’ve done all of this to include rediting old photos with new techniques I’ve learned.

The other option is to take a trip to an area with clear skies to enjoy the view. Great options are star parties. AmSky.com maintains a calendar of events the world over. These are mostly large events, so keep a look out for any local events in your area.

Smartphone Astrophotography Obstacle 3

Life is what we’re living and nothing is given. Enjoy family and friends just as much as you do your smartphone astrophotography hobby. I enjoy my job being on the leading edge of technology. I also enjoy coaching my girls and their middle school/high school basketball team.

These are perfect options for when the sky and/or equipment isn’t cooperating. Some of these are first priorities and may not be considered an obstacle. Unless there is something off. In any case finding a balance between life and your hobby can be challenging.

Conclusion

Ok the third obstacle is a stretch. I needed a little bit of filler here. The focus for all the smartphone astrophotography obstacles is creatively using it as an opportunity. I acquired a Canon XTi camera for instance and spent they gloomy days learning how to use it with my telescopes. I learned a lot about why it doesn’t work with one of my scopes and works well with the other. There are many opportunities to keep your hobby going, enjoy them.

Dark Sky Astrophotography [Smokey Mountain Getaway]

August is a busy month for my family, and we took a weekend to visit the Smokey Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Wow what a great opportunity to do dark sky astrophotography with my Google Pixel.  I was so excited I didn’t know what to do with myself.  The visit was also the same weekend of the Perseids meteor shower peak.

Dark Sky Astrophotography

Mikly Way Photo
Telescope: None
Camera: Google Pixel

In the category of “don’t let this happen to you,” I completely forgot every technique I learned previous to this night.  My sky glow filter never made it out of the case, I left my red flashlight at home and the barlow stayed in the case as well. For you this is the reality of astrophotography, not every night goes according to plan.  I normally just take video of the planets, but this night I ended with a few shots of the Milky Way.  Here the theme of “I forgot what to do” continues.  I made no exposure adjustments to the Google Pixel camera.  I took the photo freehand (no tripod).  Yet, the photo, after post processing, is surprising.  You can see Mars and Saturn and the faint glow of the Milky Way.  Helpful tip: If you can’t see it, turn up the brightness on your screen.  Needless to say my first Dark Sky Astrophotography session was almost a complete bust.

It Was Fun Regardless

Dark Sky Astrophotography Setup
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

When I arrived at the top of the mountain, my two guests J10 and J12 (shorthand for 2 of my 3 kids) quickly began to complain.  I was too cold and too many people were said in chorus.  I picked a spot and set up my Meade EXT-125 telescope.  The night began with showing numerous guests Venus, Juipter, Saturn and Mars.  It was a beautiful sight, the sky was clear and the number of stars visible numbered in the thousands.  If you have never been to a dark sky location, plan a get away and go.  Not only is dark sky astrophotography better there, but the views are priceless.  I live very close to several large cities and the light pollution is hiding all the beauty.

Never Stop Learning

A few meteors cross the sky spectacularly then I’m requested to help another work her Nikon DSLR camera.  Cool I thought, this would be interesting.  So I proceeded to discuss long exposure photography tips I learned online (of which I’m not an expert).

Smokey Mountain Planets Photo
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

Hopefully, the results were good.  In addition to the Milky Way photo, I captured the four planets shown in the picture above.  Again none were taken with a filter or Barlow lens.  I guess I lost myself once I saw the clarity of these planets in my scope.  Venus was first and is in a quarter phase.  Then Jupiter put on a show as always.  The visitors kept asking me to view Jupiter more than any other of the four.  Once Saturn appeared, I lost most of my guests and began to capture the video I would later edit.  Finally Mars came into view and I completed my night with complaints again from my two guests.

My Dark Sky Astrophotography Results

I combined my edits into one photo because the planets are small in the photos.  The detail in all of them are better than what I get at home.  You can see some of the dark regions of Mars and the definition in the cloud bands on Jupiter are supurb.  Dark sky astrophotography is my ultimate target condition.  Although my results cannot rival many others, they will soon.  Thanks for your feedback on my experience and clear skies!

Telescope Buying Guide [5 Step Infographic]

Telescope Buying Guide

Buying a telescope is much like buying a car.  Asking a car owner “What car should I buy?” will lead to a multitude of answers.  This can be confusing and even deter you from making the purchase.  My first post discusses my personal experience with the “What telescope shall I buy?” question.  Below is my infographic telescope buying guide to help you with this process.

 

How to Buy A Telescope by Kevin Francis

Telescope Buying Guide
5 inch Cassigrain

Smartphone Astrophotography: In 6 Steps [Infographic]

Smartphone Astrophotography
Solar Prom

Interested in creating photos like this using smartphone astrophotography?  This list has six of my overall steps.  Including those I’ve used to create this photo of Saturn and are easy for you to adopt.  Try this and let me know your results.  Clear and dark skies!

 

Smartphone Astrophotography Infographic

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Astronomy and Politics Disagree – Opinion [Science]

It’s a typical Saturday afternoon at the Abbitt Observatory.  The patrons and amateur astronomers are enthusiastic and the discussion is fun bordering on intense.  A joyful moment in the life of all involved, including the amateur astronomers. At the same time, the President’s Twitter account is making headlines.  The kind of headlines that news organizations will both praise and loathe throughout the day.  Something to do with immigration, a wall, North Korea, Russia, election tampering, etc.  In other words, there’s something missing leading to a world where astronomy and politics disagree.

During a presentation at the Virginia Living Museum, it usually delves into the relative size or distances of objects in the known Universe.  This is normal and complete with props to illustrate the subject matter.  While on the political side, we see prideful, overbearing leaders bickering over the most trivial of topics.

Astronomy and Politics: Stars & Planets Size Comparison
Stars & Planets Size Comparison

Relative Size & Distance

When walking, driving, boating or flying, our perception is that the Earth is a very big planet.  It takes a lot of time to travel distances of rivers, canyons, plains and oceans.  Astronomers have done the math and put together the on the left picture begins to show how small Earth is in comparison to objects in the Milky Way Galaxy.  In the top left, the Earth is the largest of the rocky/icy objects in the Solar System.  Then when compared to the remaining planets, Earth begins to pale in comparison.  We don’t stop there, take a look at the Solar System as compared to the Sun.  It dwarfs even Jupiter.  Well while we’re at it let’s compare our Sun with other stars in the galaxy.  Yep, the bottom right quickly dwarfs our Sun when compared to other stars in the galaxy and the Earth is not visible.

Link to Politics

Astronomy and Politics: Springer (c) 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists
Springer
(c) 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists

What does politics have to do with this site?  If you’re of voting age, it’s your right and duty to vote.  Your vote determines who will support the initiatives of NASA, ESA, and others throughout the world.  Their work is an important part of moving the human race into the next century and beyond.  Look at what politics has done to improving our future.  The United States of America is the only, I repeat, only country not in the Paris Climate Accord.  Yet Astrophysicists continues to confirm rising global temperatures, year over year.

Concerns

Politics has a country guided by a man who wants a “Space Force” to in his words “Dominate Space.”  When political leaders speak of domination, they talk of “my weapons are better than yours.”  The Outer Space Treaty, which the United States entered into on October 10, 1967 explicitly bars states from placing weapons of mass destruction in Earth orbit, installing them on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationing them in space.  It limits the use of the Moon an dother celestial bodies to peaceful purposes.  It does however allow conventional weapons in space.  Everyone has conventional weapons and therefore no one dominates Space with them.

Astronomy and Politics

Carl Sagan said, during a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994 in reference to the picture Voyager 1 took of the Earth from about 6 billion miles away,

Astronomy and Politics - PIA00452: Solar System Portrait
PIA00452: Solar System Portrait – Earth as ‘Pale Blue Dot’, photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

Carl states that astronomy is humbling.  This is astronomy and politics.  Astronomers are constantly humbled by what is seen and learned.  Newer examples are the Hubble Deep Field photo and Cassini’s photo of Earth through Saturn’s rings. When I take in what is happening around us all over the world, there is a significant lack of humility in politics.  To bring about the change we seek, we need to be the change.  Look within yourself first before peering outwards.  When you look out, you’ll then be able to hire leaders who will meet your needs and the needs of the planet through humility, love and joy.

This is how astronomy and politics disagree, do you agree?

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Mars: The Red Planet on Display in Summer 2018 [Dust Storm]

Mars July 2018
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel
Photographer: Kevin Francis

During the last star party at The Virginia Living Museum, I laid eyes on Mars for the first time this year.  It rose above the horizon to become the fitting end to the night’s event.  Venus started the activities and Mars finished it.  Bright and unmistakably red, we all focused our telescopes on the red planet and made the same comment, “It looks cloudy.”  Currently Mars is experiencing a planet wide dust storm.  The Opportunity rover is hopefully going to survive to continue its record breaking exploration of Mars.

Barely visible on the north pole is the ice cap.  The southern ice cap is hidden from my view here.  At the time the planet was low in the sky, so seeing wasn’t great.  This is the best of the photos I captured that night.

Critiques of the photo

ISO too high.  Because it’s so birght, lowering the ISO and taking longer video should improve the picuture quality and detail.  This is the initial issue I can see.  Leave me a message with your thoughts on how I can improve.

Mars in Opposition

Mars is in opposition on July 27, 2018.  Based on the weather reports I will be under cloudy skies.  If you’re under clear skies, think about me.  Hopefully the weather man is wrong, very wrong.

Any planet in opposition is simply when the Earth is directly between the planet and the Sun.  Mars is also at it’s closest point to Earth on July 31, 2018.  That’s about 36 million miles between planets. Both of these events means it will be putting on a great show now through August 2018.  It will be bright and dominate the sky. Get your binoculars, telescopes and cameras ready.  Take lots of pictures, make lots of memories and do it with family and friends.  Clear skies!