UVA, Norfolk State & Me [Fan Mountain Observatory]

I live in Hampton Roads so I know of the local HBCUs (Hampton University & Norfolk State University). I’m also a graduate of the University of Virginia (Go Hoos!). So when Tom invited me to visit the Fan Mountain Observatory, just oustide the grounds of UVA, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s only open to the publice twice a year. With the door open, I walked in. And yes, Norfolk State owns one of the telescopes.

The Trip to UVA

Arrival in Charlottesville, VA
Arrival in Charlottesville, VA

Fresh off seeing my UVA Cavaliers win the NCAA Mens Basketball Championship, I couldn’t wait to visit grounds. In fact I packed all my UVA gear and prepared to buy more. Ok so I was wearing most of it, but who cares, I am going back to Charlottesville, VA. I picked up Tom just as the rain hit and loaded the car with his telescope and imaging gear. It was an easy drive to UVA. I told Tom we’re going to have to stop at the Corner and go to Mincers because I’ve got to shop. Of course we were not alone. Mincers was packed and it was loaded with all the Championship stuff an Alumn and Fan could ever want. With purchases complete, we checked into the hotel and planned the next steps to the Fan Mountain Observatory opening.

Fan Mountain Ticket April 2019
Fan Mountain Ticket April 2019

The Observatory at Fan Mountain

Fan Mountain Comples: 31 in Tinsley Reflector Telescope
Fan Mountain Comples: 31 in Tinsley Reflector Telescope

The road to the top is narrow. Traffic was only allowed up between 7 pm and 9 pm. After that it’s one way down the mountain. Driving, my 4 wheel drive SUV, made the ascent easy. Fifteen minutes later we arrived and began immediately taking pictures. The UVA team set up specific times to tour the 30 inch and 40 inch telescopes. They explained the benefits of using the infra-red light spectrum to view night sky objects. They also detailed how each telescope works and their history at UVA.

Fan Mountain Observatory Complex
Fan Mountain Observatory Complex: 40 inch telescopes.

It was interesting to note that the students are focused on the non visible light wavelengths. So for me as a backyard astrophotographer, it sparked a lot of questions that the students enjoyed answering. The 31 inch scope does not have motors on the ascension and declination axes. Because it’s manual, it is not used often. The 40 inch (1 meter) is a massive telescope. It sits on an isolated 2 story concrete pier and barely fits under the dome. If the weather cooperated, I’m sure that would have given us a great view.

The RRRT from Norfolk State

RRRT Dome at Fan Mountain
RRRT Dome at Fan Mountain

The RRRT or Rabit Response Robotic Telescope is fully automated. The scope is owned by Norfolk State University and maintained by the UVA team. It is one sweet telescope. Tom and I were given a private tour of the facility by Dr. Edward M. Murphy, Professor of Astronomy. It is connected to Skynet. Yes Terminator fans, Skynet does exist! Skynet is a product of the University of North Carolina (UNC). To begin with, this particular Skynet makes sense. It’s a network of telescopes that look at the sky. With Skynet, a automated telescope like the RRRT can be remotely given a specific target to photograph. Subsequently, 13 telescopes are connected to Skynet and the system knows which telescope is available based on weather stations at each location. Dr. Murphy offered me an account to use the RRRT and of course I accepted. When I get the photo I’ll show you.

24 Inch RRRT at Fan Mountain
24 Inch RRRT (Rapid Response Robotic Telescope) at Fan Mountain

The RRRT is a Ritchey-Chretien telescope. Separating itself from other types of telescopes, this type contains two mirrors. The primary is concave and the secondary convex. The primary mirror is 24 inches in diameter. Therefore it can gather significant amounts of light. It has a large CCD camera. The camera is an SBIG STX-16803 with a 4096×4096 pixel sensor. Also, it sports a set of Johnson/Cousins UBVRI filters. I’ve requested the RRRT to photograph Messier 51 or the Whirlpool Galaxy. My patience will be tested since Virginia weather has been on the cloudy and rainy side for months.

Fun Trip For All

Incidentally, using this telescope does not mean I’m done with my scopes. However, it simply means I’ve got a professional scope on the team. I am grateful to both Tom (for the invite) and Dr. Murphy (for the invite to SkyNet). Thank you for being you. Clear skies!

Thomas Epps & Dr. Edward Murphy
Thomas Epps & Dr. Edward Murphy in front of the RRRT at Fan Mountain

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.

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

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?

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!

Beautiful Solar Prominence [Flares]

Telescope: Cornado P.S.T
Camera: Google Pixel
Filter: Hydrogen Alpha

Solar Prominence

The Sun, our closest star, is also a complex and active part of the solar system.  On Sunday July 8, 2018 we witnessed sizable activity in the form of a large solar prominence extending from the surface captured in the picture.

In our region of space, the Sun is responsible for filling it with highly energetic particles that interact with everything from planet’s magnetic fields, to your skin, to the beautiful Aurora at the poles, etc.  A solar prominence is one mechanism the Sun has to release these high energy particles.  The others are Solar Flares, CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) and more.

A solar prominence can range in size.  They can grow very small to greater than the diameter of Jupiter.  In addition they can disconnect from their origin point and land on the Sun’s surface hundreds of miles away.

Heliophysics

Heliophysics is the study of the Sun.  See NASA on their website.  This study is complimented by space weather professionals.  Moreover they study the Sun to protect our technology.  Our technology is sensitive to the Sun’s influence.  In 1989, the Quebec black out was caused by a CME.  The high energy particles from the Sun, induced currents in the power lines which overloaded transformers and well destroyed them.  Knowing  when they occur, give us a few hours to prepare.  Governments and companies can shut down their satellites and prepare powergrids for the surge in energy.  This saves billions.

The Sun’s Beauty

In light of this power, the Sun is so dynamic that it can be viewed for hours, days, and weeks of enjoyment.  Equally important, always view the Sun safely by using a telescope specific for viewing.  Enjoy and clear skies!