Astrophotography [Blog Posts]

Beehive Cluster: I Don’t See Anything There [Magnitude]

Light Pollution

In light polluted areas, seeing fuzzy star clusters is nearly impossible to the naked eye.  Therefore, when I attended a Star Party at the Virginia Living Museum, I wasn’t ready for the result.  Ok full disclosure, it was my first Star Party.  The lyrics from Arrested Development’s Tennessee come to mind, “the date was going great and my soul was at ease until a group…”  Ah yes a group started bugging out and it was amazing.  I was given the task to point my telescope at the Beehive Cluster, aka M44.  The Beehive Cluster is an open star cluster.  Everyone who looked at the cluster was amazed, be that as it may the stars in the cluster were invisible.  Comments like “There’s nothing there” or “I see nothing in that part of the sky” or “That’s amazing!” were thrown out like bags of peanuts at a Nationals game.

Light Polluted View
From my backyard

A Little Science

So, your question is “how does this happen?”  Here’s an example from my backyard.  Yes, however, I had to do this again for effect.  Just take a look at the sky between the trees.  It’s dark blue and almost devoid of stars.  The sky is “bright” because of the lights around Hampton Roads Virginia. Let me get a bit scientific here.  A telescope can pierce through this light pollution and expose the stars that are there.  It does this by focusing the light to a single focal point.  Under magnification, the user to focus on this small point.  The larger the aperture the more stars you can see.  This great engineering marvel is what delivers the impactful punch we saw that night.

Here’s the final edited picture:

Beehive Cluster, M44
Beehive Cluster, M44
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

How I Captured the Beehive Cluster

Yes, you guessed it, I used the Meade EXT-125 telescope and Google Pixel to capture the photo.  The camera has to be set to ISO 800 or higher to let in enough light to see the stars and minimize the amount of noise in the photo.  This setting also depends on the seeing conditions at the time. There are about 1000 stars in the Beehive Cluster and is young at around 600 million years old.  Perched around 577 light years away it’s a perfect target for amateur telescopes.  Although, there are many more experienced, astronomers that will tell you that Messier found more impressive star clusters and the crowd favorite is M13, the Great Globular cluster.  Do this with your neighbors and friends and wait for it…wait for it…yep there it is.  Tell me about your experience.

 

Equipment Spotlight: Google Pixel Really Blue [Color]

The pictures are improving, my editing skills are improving, and the results are joyful, but in case you haven’t noticed yet, my camera of choice is my Google Pixel Really Blue Phone.  I use this everyday for, well, phone calls, texts and email.  So as you can see it earned character in scratches and cracks as a result.  Yes if you’re wondering, I do also have an iPhone.  It’s a work phone that I don’t have too many positive things to say and the world has already compared the two phones with nauseating persistence.

Google Pixel Really Blue
Google Pixel Really Blue

Why Google Pixel

You’re reading this to understand why it’s my camera of choice at this stage in my young astrophotography career.  It’s simple, I love a challenge, and I don’t see many people using this phone for this purpose.  In addition, all over Twitter and Facebook I see the work of Samsung and Apple phones proudly displayed.

More importantly, I get that Google limits the Pixel shutter opening time to 0.6 seconds max.  You can’t get great shots with that short an opening time.  This coupled with, light pollution, is a significant difference between seeing more nebulosity in a nebula or just a bright star.  Again, I take photos from my yard in Hampton Roads Virginia, so light pollution is a problem.

Dark Sky Map
Dark Sky Map

Smartphone Details

All smartphones have one thing in common, the stock camera app leaves out all the bells and whistles needed to capture a decent astrophotography photo.  Therefore an app like Camera FV-5 is downloaded and the user becomes hooked.  This app is nice.  You can adjust ISO, Shutter Speed, and even use it as an intervalometer.  Great for most smartphones except the Pixel.  Yep, Google limits the shutter speed in the hardware not the software like everyone else.  I have a fix for that, but that’ll be in my next post.

Reflection Astrophotography & Google Pixel

Let’s discuss this awesome camera on the Pixel that everyone raved about.  I too am raving about it.  The system they’ve implemented takes a number of pictures and stacks them for you.

Camera Glare
Telescope: Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Google Pixel

If you’re not aware of stacking pictures, I’ll discuss in another post.  Anyway their camera produces great low light photos and most other types of photos are great, except photos through my telescope.  Taking a picture of the reflection leads to, well, reflections. Here is the result.

At the bottom center are two purple smudges.  They are coming from the camera sensor on the Pixel.  It turns out the pixel uses reflected light to measure the light conditions.  Needless to say it reflects off the telescope eyepiece and becomes part of the picture noise.  It’s also very difficult to eliminate from the picture.

Orion Nebula
Orion Nebula
Telescope: Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Google Pixel

Yet after some trial and error I was able to eliminate this defect from the pictures and achieve results like this Orion Nebula photo.  The choice of camera is yours and of course there are many options to choose.  Just at there is with software to edit your photos.  Even with the Google Pixel, and any other camera for that matter, you have to edit the photos to get the desired result. I enjoy the results of my efforts and will share more in additional posts on how you can improve your smartphone astrophotography.  Keep trying new things and clear skies to you!

I’ve Got a Telescope or Two

“What kind of telescope should I buy?”  If you’re like me and you meet any number of novice astronomers, this is a question you hear a lot.  My answer is the one that allows you to see clearly.  Why else does one buy a telescope.  In order to feed the developing passion, the user has to be able to clearly see an object.  Typically the Moon is the first target and most telescopes can clearly show crater and mountain definition.

Growing up I had a Bushnell Banner Astro Telescope.  Having spent many night looking with the naked eye, this was a major upgrade.  I remember the first time I saw the moon up close.  I was amazed by the detail I couldn’t see with the naked eye.  I was also dissapointed by the inability to see Jupiter or Saturn (besides the rings) with any clarity.

This just fueled my passion even more.  Fast forward to summer 2017 and I ordered my 20 year gift from the company website.  Yep I ordered a Bushnell Voyager Skytour Telescope and all it did was drive me to buy a bigger telescope, an Orion Astroview 6 Reflector.  You can see both of them here.

The difference between the two is the aperture and focul length.  The aperture of Bushnell is 70 mm vs the 150 mm of the Astroview.  The additional 80 mm meant I’m now seeing deep sky objects like the Andromeda Galaxy.  The Bushnell was also light so slightly windy nights kept the objects moving in the scope.  No fun.

The focal length of the Bushnell is 800 mm vs the 900 mm of the Astroview.  This gave me more clarity on the moon and I could see Saturn quite well.

The lesson learned…a multitude of factors matter in choosing a telescope.  For simple night viewing, the Bushnell is great, light and portable.  I wanted to take photos so I needed a steady scope and chose the Orion Astroview 6.  It’s not as portable, but I was able to get pictures like this of the Moon that is virtually impossible with the Bushnell.  The larger aperture provided greater light gathering capability and the greater focal length added improved detail.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have the largest aperture telescope you can buy.  Small aperture scopes have one great advantage over their larger cousins and that’s size.  My Astroview 6 is more than 30 lbs to carry before anything else is included.  Smaller aperture scopes with huge focal length will give you great detail in the cloud bands of Jupiter and will weigh less than 20 lbs.

Imagine wanting to take a short 30 mile drive to a great spot for viewing and because of the size of your telescope you have to walk several times between your car and viewing spot just to set up.  It also takes a long time to set up your large scope.  By the time your set, Venus has dropped below the horizon and the clouds start rolling in.  Who wants that?

This led me to my next purchase, the Meade EXT-125 (shown below).  It has a 125 mm aperture and 1900 mm focal length.  It’s compact and I carry it in a clear storage bin from Home Depot.  It was removed from it’s original mount and fitted with a dovetail bar.  This works great on my Astroview mount.

5 inch Reflector

With the Meade I took this photo of Jupiter in Opposition, May 2018.  Look at the detail in the clouds and red spot.

This scope is my go to scope for planetary and solar viewing.  It has a smaller field of view vs. the Astroview 6.  Since the Astroview 6 has the larger field of view, I’ve made it my go to for deep sky objects.

Just in case you’re wondering a currently use a 1st Generation Google Pixel for all my photos.  I’ll explain more in my next post how I get them with this phone.

So in order to determine your first telescope join your local association and attend a start party or two.  Experience what they have and use that to determine what will meet your needs as your start your observing journey.  Good luck and Clear Skies!