Comparing M13 Photos [Messier 13]

M13 or the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules is an astronomy favorite. It is 145 light years in diameter and contains approximately 300,000 stars. I’ve recently focused two telescopes on the region of our galaxy. Of course one is the RRRT (Rapid Response Robotic Telescope) located at Fan Mountain in Charlottesville, VA and the other is my modified Orion Astroview 6 telescope. Let’s begin with the professional telescope.

Up Close & Personal

M13_Great_Globular_Cluster_RRRT_5_16_19
M13: Great Globular Cluster
May 16, 2019
Telescope: RRRT (Fan Mountain)
Camera: SBIG STX-16803
Exposure: Visible (Mono): 40 @ 2 min
Total – 1 Hour 20 minutes exposure

With more than 1 hour of data collected, it looks impressive. The detail in this M13 photo is what garnered a more than 1.0k up votes on Reddit (Go Hoos!) in less than 24 hours. When I chose to attempt this photo, I decided to not incorporate color. My mistake, bruh! It would have made it that much more appealing. In my young post processing career, I wanted to do M13 justice.

By justice, I mean showing off the capability of the camera and telescope and exposing the great many parts of this globular cluster. Pay close attention to the stars in the center of the cluster. It’s not a large blurr. Zoom in and you can count them. Ok some of them.

Finally a lot about this photo was simple. I can run the telescope from my recliner hundreds of miles away. The calibration frames are automatically done and applied to the photos before I receive them. What more could you want from an image taking session?

Familiar Surroundings

M13_NGC6207_6_14_19
Messier 13
Telescope: Modified Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Canon EOS T3i
Exposure: Sky Glow Filter: 16 @ 2 min
Calibration: 30 Flats, 30 Bias, 9 Dark
Total – 32 minutes 20 seconds exposure

At home it’s different. I have to plan my imaging session early in the day and begin execution of that plan just before sunset. Capturing M13 was no different. Having chosen the telescope, the timing for capturing the photo was the terrible. There was an 85% Waxing Gibbous Moon out. In addition, my closest neighbor left their lights on with brand new bulbs. I was so bright out, my shadow had shadows.

M13_NGC6207_6_14_19_crop
Messier 13
Telescope: Modified Orion Astroview 6
Camera: Canon EOS T3i
Exposure: Sky Glow Filter: 16 @ 2 min
Calibration: 30 flats, 30 bias, 9 dark
Total – 32 minutes 20 seconds exposure

Change to the plans, I cleaned off my Orion Moon and Skyglow Light Pollution Filter and began capturing 2 minute sub frames. The result was actually better than expected. The light pollution filter allowed enough light from the stars to enter the camera. While the center is a blob of light, the detail is excellent with the outer stars. This one also has the natural color which shows the vast quantity of blue stars in the cluster. I also cropped the photo to explore the detail.

The post processing was more complicated and took more than 1 day to complete. The reward I believe is a comparable photo to the RRRT. Certainly a bit less detail, but just as stunning visually. What do you think?

Thank you for your time and comments are always welcome. Clear skies!

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

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?

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!