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!

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!

Saturn: Photographing the Cassini Division 2018 Update [Rings]

Light travels about 2 hours from the Sun to Saturn to your telescope.   We can spend about that much time searching for the perfect picture of planet and rings.  Because the rings, saturn is most astronomers fan favorite.

About Saturn & The Cassini Division

My Astrophotography quest with Saturn is to photograph clearly the Cassini Division.  It is one of the most identifiable targets in the rings.  Simply because photographing the rings, have been challenged by light pollution, poor seeing, etc.  The Cassini Division is a major separation in the rings of Saturn that spans 3000 miles or 4800 kilometers.  And it is named after, French discoverer Jean D. Cassini.  The division is created by Saturn Moon, Mimas.  In addition it is located between the A and B rings.  By the way, Star Wars Fans, Mimas is often referred to as the Death Star Moon.  Look it up it’s true.

The Challenge

For me this is one of the more interesting features of the ring system.  Although the ring system is extensive, I’ve had little success photographing it clearly.  I do most of my astrophotography from my yard.  Therefore getting a dark sky and very little lights is difficult.  My neighbors have their lights on most of the night and I live on a cul-de-sac with a lamp post in the middle.  Saturn rises above my neighbors house around 10:30 pm and then has to pass several tall pine trees in order to be clearly visible.  Once past most of these factors, I’m still determining the best settings for the Pixel.

Saturn: Cassini Division
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

The Latest Result

Take at look at this detail.  As always I can do better and therefore achieving dark, clear skies away from the city is my goal.  I took a number of video on this night and this was the best of the group.  Saturn never looked better for me.  It’s a 3D globe with cloud bands visible.  The rings reflect the shadow and the division clearly.  More importantly the result is cool.

Also important, there’s still some noise in the picture, and as I get more experienced with derotation, I will therefore create better results.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. Clear skies!

Derotation in Astrophotography [Field Rotation]

Derotation in Astrophotography is Amazing

I learned something new this weekend.  I learned about a technique in astrophotography called Derotation.  I’m amazed at what a little imagination and scientific skill can accomplish.  Grischa Hahn, had the bright idea to reduce motion blur in photos of the planets.  Especially those with days slightly greater than 9 Earth hours.  Derotation in Astrophotography is a powerful technique and is brilliant.  Derotation is built into his software called WinJupos, is an algorithm which does the following:

  1.  takes the frames of a group of images or video and flattens them out into a cylindrical shape.
  2.  Compares those cylinders to one another and matches them up
  3.  takes each aligned cylinder and recreates the image of the planet.

Is it really 3 easy steps, no and when you add a database of planetary positions, this becomes an indispensable tool in Astrophotography.

 

Jupiter no Derotation
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel
Jupiter with Derotation
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel

Here’s a photo on the left of Jupiter I processed without derotation.  I was happy to see the GRS (Great Red Spot) but could not bring out the detail beyond what you see here.

On the right is the derotated picture and the details are much sharper.  I was also able to brighten the photo in the process.

I’ve tasked myself to derotate many of my previous photos of Saturn and Jupiter.  So far with little success.  I’m learning that I need to improve my video capture techniques.  So look out for more of my work in the near future.

Mercury: My Astrophotography First Attempt [The Planet]

First Mercury Picture
Planet: Mercury
Telescope: Meade EXT-125
Camera: Google Pixel
Filter: Orion Skyglow Filter

This summer night was meant to be a warm evening capturing Jupiter, Venus & Saturn.  Mercury just happened to appear near the horizon and I thought I should give it a shot.

Just after sunset, the horizon is still very bright.  The Sun had to set further before the planet made it’s appearance.  Mercury is not going to hang out with you for very long.   So as long as it is up, you’ve got to be prepared or like me, move quickly to capture.

About Mercury

While Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, its surface temperature swings from -280 F (-170 C) to 800 F (430 C).  It is also the smallest planet in the solar system and it’s year is about 88 Earth days.  If the name sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s named after the Roman god Mercury.  Our exploration of Mercury includes a flyby from Mariner 10 and orbital exploration from the Messenger spacecraft.  In typical fashion, Messenger was disposed of by crashing down onto the planet after exhausting it’s fuel.

Shape & Color

The inner planets are visibly similar to the Moon.  Because of where they located in the solar system, they have phases.  In this picture it has a gibbous shape.  Throughout the year it

will look full or crescent.  You can put together a single shot with Mercury in the many different phases.  It’s also very orange or sometimes pink.  This is because of it’s location in the sky when you see it.  It’s very low and you’re looking through the largest amount of air possible.  The atmosphere bends the light more at the horizon so it exhibits a simlar color as the sun during sunset.

My Photo

I like it!  It’s going to be a rare capture for me, but this is good for a first attempt.  Share with me your Mercury experience in the comments below.

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!