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!

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

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.

Moon: Take Photos & Find Many Colors [Brown or Grey]

Super Moon 2017
Super Moon 2017
Telescope: Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Google Pixel
Filter: Orion Moon Filter

You don’t have to be an astrophotographer to have a photo of the Moon in your collection.  The Moon appears, markedly, in all of the photos in with the same steely gray color.  It is very common even in NASA photos.  Just search Google and you’ll see photos like this one.

Moon Characteristics

The relatively flat plains, called Mare,  and are dark gray.  Don’t forget the craters. Similarly they have varying brightness of, you guessed it, gray.  On the contrary, there are the very bright areas which look white.  From the first time man has laid eyes on the Moon it has looked this way.

Why So Many Shades

What is causing the Moon to have so many shades of gray?  We see color based on the color of light the objects’ molecules reflect.  In this case, we see the colors of elements like oxygen, silicon, aluminium, magnesium, iron and calcium.  Specifically, the Moon reflects 12% of light from the Sun.  Consequently, that still makes the Moon a very bright night sky object.  And when full, it is enough to overpower the light from other objects in the night sky.  Since light from the Sun is white, you can expect the true color of the Moon to be hidden.

SkyGlow Imaging Filter
SkyGlow Imaging Filter

True Color

So what if I told you the Moon other colors.  You’d mostly likely say nope, you’re wrong, or even no way.  Alternatively, hidden in the light are browns, reds, blues and others.  Scrolling through Twitter, I noticed a detailed true color photo of the Moon and my fascination with the Moon hit a new high.  This one is the best I’ve seen and it took 32,000 photos to create.  You can see it here.  I began to YouTube videos to learn how this photo and other like it were produced.

Frustration to Innovation

After reaching my highest level of frustration with light pollution in my area, I invested in a SkyGlow filter.  Then poof, the story hidden in the light was revealed.  A light pollution filter is a must for astrophotography when you live in a light polluted area.  They are specifically designed to filter the glow of street lights.

Moon Filter vs. SkyGlow Filter
Moon Filter vs. SkyGlow Filter

Now using this tool and GIMP (photo editing software), I was able to do a photo comparison.  The difference is astounding.  On the left is my initial attempt to find the true color.  On the right is the result using the SkyGlow Filter.  Yep, striking difference.  After I learned how to edit the right picture, I went back to duplicate on the data from the left.  No go.  I was not able to get the true color to reveal from this data.  Conclusion, too much light pollution.  Here’s a link to a good tutorial.

Photo Quality

My next step is to improve the quality of the picture.  I think it’s a bit too grainy.  I took many, many more pictures only to discover that true color is elusive for me.  Needless to say, failure only creates a drive to keep trying for success.  Don’t stop trying.

True color Moon, June 29, 2018.
True color Moon, June 29, 2018.

Elusive no more.  I did get a better picture.  I took 10 photos with my trusted Google Pixel and stacked them twice.  One time in black and white and the other in color.  I used the black and white for the detail.  Combined both to get this result.  It’s pretty good, but it can and will get better.  This hobby is fun.  Please comment below with your experiences and clear skies.

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.

 

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!