Shadowchasing: My Eclipse Story

Journal, Photography, Science Tech

composite

As my great uncle eloquently reminded me, “The best laid plans of mice and men, Oft times goes astray”. No, my eclipse trip was not an utter disappointment, it was merely… dramatic. But let me back up a bit.

Anderson, SC, August 21st – 8:00AM: I get up and eat breakfast, and glance out the widow gives me good news: the skies are blue in all directions.

I had waited for this event for a long time. I have been an avid stargazer and astronomer for several years, and few events are as greatly anticipated as a solar eclipse. A long time had passed since the last one; for many people, this was the first accessible  total solar eclipse in their lifetime. I am among this group.

Of course, one of the challenges I faced was how to get equipment to the path of totality. Mailing was simply out of the question due to cost and mail carriers’ (ahem) reputation handling delicate components. For the same reason, I wanted to avoid checking any equipment on a plane. This left me the challenge of making all my equipment carry-on friendly.

Anderson, SC, August 21st – 10:00AM: I arrive onsite at my observing location at my gracious and hospitable cousins’ house. We arrived there in South Carolina the day before. I had unloaded my equipment and assembled it at the house, and then had left to spend the night at my great aunt and uncle’s apartment 10 minutes away.

Since all my telescopes were 1). large and heavy and also 2). had too much focal length, I decided against these. For those unfamiliar with the term, too much focal length means too much magnification. I wanted the entire disk of the sun to fit in the field of view of my astronomy camera. Therefore, I set about finding a suitable optic to fill the need. After some experimentation with software, I determined that a 300mm focal length would work well. Not long thereafter, I bought from ebay an old, manual Nikon lens, a Nikkor 300mm F/4.5 ED IF AIS. Perfect. It was lightweight, had the right focal length, and decent optics.

For mounting, I had at my disposal my EQ-3 (Orion AstroView) equatorial mount. While the mount head was good, and more than adequate for the load I was asking of it with the 300mm Nikkor, the tripod was a no-go. It was too long, and also quite flimsy in it’s extruded aluminum and plastic construction. Solution: I fabricated some small tripod legs from a 2×4 board. Very solid, small, and portable. The only piece missing from the mounting was a way for it to track automatically, leading to the purchase of the Right Ascension motor for the mount. Excellent: a small, sturdy, tracking mount.

IMG_1164

Portable Eclipse Rig. Have equipment, will travel.

Anderson, SC, August 21st- 11:00AM: I gather all my equipment outside, aligning my mount with north as best as I can. The temperature is really rising, setting us up for a very hot southern day. To shield my computer, I use a cardboard box so I could see the screen, as well as keep the computer from overheating. Again, for those who may be unfamiliar, I use my computer to control my astronomy camera. This little camera has no buttons, no viewfinder, or external controls: it is merely a sensor with circuitry, which has to be controlled by a computer with software. It will output raw video for later processing.  Some puffy clouds floated lazily across the sky, but I’m fine with that. As long as they remain sparse and keep moving.

So I had the equipment that would fill the need. I also brought all my DSLR equipment- D600 body, with 14mm F/2.8, 28mm F/1.8, 50mm F/1.4, and 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 lenses. I stuffed all my equipment into a carry-on bag and a camera bag, ready for the airport. There were only a few final obstacles between me and my destination: Airport security, and making sure my bags made it on the plane without them being selected for checked baggage due to full flights. Airport security was no problem (50+ pounds of glass and metal, no one blinks an eye…). Needless to say, everything made it safely.

Anderson, SC, August 21st- 1:08PM: First contact! Everyone celebrates the small bite out of the sun that we know to be the moon. After a few minutes of observing, we settle down for a while, eating lunch and cooling off in the shade. I keep an eye on my computer, which occasionally suffers through software glitches.

DSC_9230

2:00PM: Electric excitement builds in all of us as we approach the culmination of the event. We still have a little while to totality, but the temperature continues to drop noticeably. The sky begins to change- the hue didn’t exactly change, I think it is better described as merely having less luminance. However, a large cloud bank looms in the western hemisphere of the sky, and I begin to fear that it is moving eastward.

DSC_9245.jpg

Waiting for Totality. The sky’s luminance is beginning to decrease at this point

2:33PM: -Minutes to totality- The clouds obscure, and then reveal, the sun in a tense cycle. The western hemisphere of the sky is completely blocked. I desperately try to capture what I can as the sun goes behind clouds, and the landscape continues to darken.

DSC_9246.jpg

Minutes to Totality. Note that only half the sky is covered…

2:38PM: “Totality!” my friend shouts, and all the surroundings become dark. The temperature plummets. We, however, can see nothing: inopportune clouds blanket half the sky, including the now begun eclipse. Cicadas chirp, as if it were late evening. In desperation, I sit by my equipment, and take in the surroundings; Jupiter and stars are visible in the clear hemisphere. We continue to wait.

“There it is!” someone cried. I look up, and the clouds parted to show us the firey spectacle. I grab my binoculars and soak in the black orb and luminous corona. I point out to my family and friends the bright pink prominences on the limb. I hand the binoculars to my friends and desperately try to capture the scene; however, in the moment I made the wrong adjustments and ended up recording nothing.

2:40PM: I realize my mistake, but too late! Totality is ending, and I capture as many frames as I can. For everyone’s safety, I remind them that all safety filters must be worn again at this point. I feel, simultaneously, joy and defeat. I am happy that I got to see anything, but I regret not capturing it well. I came away with a little over 500 frames as totality ended (video clip above). For the next hour, clouds completely block the sun, after which they give way to a sunny afternoon and the last few stages of the eclipse.

14_40_27_g4_ap1shpnbesttry

A Cloudy Totality. Image is a stack of frames from the video

Traffic greatly lengthened our journey back to Alabama, but I did not mind that much. I had great fun and made many memories on that trip. I now look forward to 2024, when another solar eclipse will visit the United States. Until then, the wait and the planning begin again. My family, too, now eagerly awaits the enticing shadow of the moon. The drama will begin again, and more memories will be made. If you missed totality on this one, don’t miss it again in seven years. Nowhere else in our solar system has God seen fit to provide a planet with a moon that spans the same angular diameter as our star, as seen from the planet. Go see it! You will have your own Eclipse Story to tell.

 

Advertisements

Jupiter Transits, March 14 2016

Photography, Science Tech

Jupiter Multi-transit Event March 14 2016Left to right: 22:42, 23:03, 23:28 CDT (-5 UTC). Io and Europa, with accompanying shadows.

Hey everyone, I know it’s been a long time since I posted anything. But here’s a post about last night, which seems worth sharing. I was blessed with a very nice and enjoyable night.

I began last night at a leisurely pace. I had noted that it was going to be a nice night as the evening progressed, but even so I must admit that I was less than enthusiastic about going out. Even to me, someone who loves astronomy, the thought of the upcoming day and the lack of sleep prevent me from going out all the times I’d like to. But I continued putting up my equipment. I decided to just put an eyepiece in and enjoy a simpler night.

I glanced at the moon for a good bit, and noted that the atmosphere seemed quite still. It was a comfortable night- warm, perhaps, for a March night but pleasantly so. It cooled off later to the point that I put a jacket on. Biting bugs aren’t quite out yet, so I wasn’t plagued by bloodthirsty, whining drones of chomping insect jaws. I swung the C9.25 over to a star and inspected the intrafocal and extrafocal images for collimation. I noted for the first time in a long time what I assumed was a heat plume, which comes off of a warm secondary baffle in the telescope. The atmosphere, on the Pickering scale, was probably about a 5 (this is a scale of atmospheric turbulence on a scale of ten, by looking at the airy disk and diffraction rings of a star). The air’s transparency could have been better, but I was okay with that because I wasn’t interested in searching out faint objects. After deciding that my collimation was satisfactory, I moved on to Jupiter in the eastern sky.

Immediately upon putting my eye up to the eyepiece (I was at a magnification of 235x), I noted that a lot was going on. I at once saw two shadows and one moon on the disk of the planet. I didn’t immediately see the second moon, but I new it had to be there because of the position of it’s shadow. The entire transit was very near the disk’s limb. I wasn’t sure if the transit had just begun or was just about to end. After watching it for a while, I concluded that it had begun and was rotation across Jupiter’s disk. I immediately decided that this was worth getting my camera out for.

A good bit later, after making the necessary adjustments needed to use my camera, I was again on Jupiter, capturing the transits of Io, Europa, and their shadows. As I have said, I was blessed with a very enjoyable night. There were a couple equipment problems, but nothing major. After the initial setup and I began capturing files, I relaxed a little bit and was able to look around. It’s very peaceful, out there in a field by yourself under the stars. It gives me opportunity to praise God who made them. My wonder for creation is turned into love for the Creator.

By the time my laptop battery was about to die, I had capture 33 gigabytes of data. Today I was able to process all of that and turn it into some images. I ended up with 14 frames, which I was able to turn into a time-lapse animation. Each one came from a 10% stack from a 10,000 frame video. I also made a collage of 3 frames spaced about 20 minutes apart, which you see above.

And here is the time lapse.

Saturn Success!

Photography, Science Tech

Saturn

Hey everyone! Unfavorable weather and busy schedule continued to dominate spring this year, so much so that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t get a chance to photograph Saturn this season. A few good nights came up however, and I am most happy that I was able to give Saturn a shot.  There are a couple details that I’d like to point out  (north is up): Obviously, the rings are the main attraction on this planet. The large gap in Saturn’s rings is called the Cassini Division, and where the rings pass in front of the disk of the planet, you can actually see through the division to the surface of the planet. On the globe itself, notice the “belts”, zones, and variation in colors. The belts, similar to Jupiter, are formed by fast jetstream winds. One interesting detail is Saturn’s strange north pole hexagon. Saturn’s NPH can be resolved with a little difficulty by astrophotographers here on earth. In my photograph, the hexagon is the green patch at the north pole– if I look at it just right, I like to convince myself that I can see the hexagonal shape.

Saturn can be a challenge to photograph. Being small, it needs a lot of magnification (or focal length). For perspective, normal daytime photographers consider a 600mm or 800mm lens a lot of focal length. This photograph was taken at a focal length of 5,875mm, nearly 6 meters! The focal ratio was F/25. As you can imagine, this is one of the reasons astrophotography is so challenging.

Astrophotos Amid the Rainy Season, March and April

Photography, Science Tech
Nocturnal Cows

Nocturnal Cows

Several nights have yielded some nice results for me over the past month even though spring brings a lot of clouds and rain around here. I enjoy the nights I’m able to get out, even if some of them are plagued with equipment quirks. Jupiter is steadily  receding, growing smaller and setting earlier every night, so Jupiter season is starting coming to a close. But it’s not quite over yet! I’m still shooting. The nice part is that it crosses the meridian at a convent time, and is still large enough to enjoy nice detail. So, here’s what I think is my best Jupiter to date, with the Great Red Spot. Taken on March 30.

Jupiter 2015-03-30

But there’s more! Jupiter rotates quite quickly: about once every 10 hours. You can actually watch it rotate over the course of hours. And with such quick rotation, we can do some cool things. I took two photographs, within about 10 minutes apart. Jupiter rotated a little bit, but noticeably, within that time. Since the two photographs have a slightly shifted perspective, I can put them side by side and create a 3-D stereo pair. If you’re familiar with stereo pairs, give this one a try! You should get a neat globe effect.

Stereo Pair

Some lunar shots, also from the 30th:

Moretus
Tycho

Gassendi

Copernicus

Plato

Sinus Iridum

And finally, here’s another Jupiter. This one has some interesting features- it has a lunar shadow in transit. To Jupiter’s right, you see one of Jupiter’s moons: Io. On the face of Jupiter, you see the shadow that is cast by the moon.

Jupiter Io Shadow Transit

Fun With the ASI 120mc!

Photography, Science Tech

Jupiter 2015-02-11

Hey y’all, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve done with my new ASI120mc camera! You’ve already seen a photo from it; the ISS lunar transit which I shared in my last post was taken with it. However, I’m going to share some “less exciting” photos. Most of them are of the moon. Why is that? The moon is large and bright, and thus is a good starting target to practice with. Also, the terribly turbulent atmosphere has ruined most of my planetary attempts on Jupiter by squashing the finer details, while the moon always has large details that will show up. The one time I did get good conditions, I got an image I was pleased with- that’s the photo you see at the top. But, be sure to check out my other photos by clicking the thumbnails below!

Crater Aristillus (Feb 27)

Crater Tycho (Feb 27)

Vallis Alpes (lunar Alpine Vally)(Feb 27)

Crater Eratosthenes (Feb 27)

Mons Pico (Feb 27)

Crater Copernicus High Contrast Crater Rays mosaic (March 8)

Crater Endymion mosaic (March 8)

Mare Crisium mosaic (March 8)

ISS Lunar Tranist

Journal, Photography, Science Tech

ISS Transit

Hello everyone!

Determination and careful planning will sometimes pay off.

I’m sure just about everyone knows what the International Space Station is. The huge satellite is even quite visible from earth. Shining like a bright star, it glides silently overhead. You can see it, if you know when and where to look. Every once in a while, it’s trajectory takes it right in front of the moon… visible from certain minute strips of earth’s surface. Usually, you must be willing to move around a bit to see one.

That is what I did. Using the fantastic online calculator calsky.com, I noted that a lunar transit was going to occur within 20 miles of my house on February 7th. A quick glance at an extended forecast proved promising weather. Such an opportunity! I immediately applied myself to the challenges. A location on the transit centerline must be found. Not only that, I had to find a place where I could safely setup for the 1:30 AM transit. I chose a place with a large, empty parking lot.

Night before the transit: I and my dad (I want to thank my dad for coming along, being there and helping… thanks Dad!) caught snatches of sleep as we waited for our agreed time of departure. All my equipment was safely and carefully stowed in the car. I mentally went over and over a checklist, thinking of every possible thing I would need. OTA, check. Mount and accessories, check. Battery box, check. Printouts of time, lunar locations, etc. Check. Laptop and hard drive, check. New ASI120mc astronomy camera, check. We drove away, right on time. I set up at our location, and was pleased that I had forgotten nothing!

7 kilometer-wide line of visibility. 56 arc-second angular diameter satellite. 0.087 by 0.117 degree camera telescopic field-of-view. A 0.67 second long transit.

The minutes ticked down to the transit. I checked, double checked, triple checked my lunar location to the predicted path. Seconds flew by in a hurry, counting down to the transit at 1:30:39.51 AM. I checked the focus again. Then I glanced at the computer’s clock. 1:29! I frantically started the capture. The time that seemed to fly seconds before now slowed itself to a dragging crawl. A full eternity of 30 seconds elapsed while my dad and I stared intently at the screen of my computer. The clock hit 1:30. I stood up from my hunched position with a sinking feeling and a sigh. “We missed it,” I remarked aloud. I had prepared myself beforehand for this. I knew there was a huge probability that something would go wrong, and that I wouldn’t get it. I stopped the capture, and immediately went to the capture folder.

I opened the video. Neither my dad or I saw anything during the capture, but we both wanted to see it. 1, 2, 3, seconds in, and just wavering lunar craters. 4 seconds… 5… 6… 7… “There it is!” I said when an unmistakable black blot flicked across the frames. Against all the odds, I had captured the ISS on 3 frames.

Processing all the data to get this image was also quite a challenge, but I won’t bore y’all with it. Enjoy the photo.

Comet Lovejoy

Journal, Photography, Science Tech
Sunset

Sunset

I’ve been looking forward to Comet Lovejoy. To a stargazing enthusiast, reading reports of a great comet while under cloudy skies is like hearing of buried gold beneath a rock… but lacking a shovel. Anyways, January 17 found a beautifully clear Alabamian winter’s day giving way to a vibrant evening. Venus and Mercury quickly followed the sun beneath the trees (above), giving a lovely background to the orange horizon that rose up and faded quickly into deep, majestic blue. Soon after the sun set, I set my sights further into the solar system; Lovejoy was begging to be photographed. My Nikkor 50mm lens framed the comet and it’s long, slender tail quite well.

Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy (C2014 Q2) made quite a show! Having just jumped into cometary astrophotography, I’m pretty satisfied with my results. It made a pretty scene with M45, the Pleiades, just beneath it. Another first for me was using Deep Sky Stacker to stack a series of exposures. This is hard with cometary astrophotography, because not only is the sky moving due to the earth’s rotation, but the comet is moving relative to the background stars as it shoots through the solar system to swing around the sun.

Comet Lovejoy

 

New Equipment… the Losmandy GM-8

Science Tech
GM-8

GM-8, after a (wet and dewy) night’s observing

The urge to have new or different equipment is very often hard to resist; everyone has had the “grass is greener” feeling at one point or another about something. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a gear junkie.  I like to read about, try, and fiddle with gadgets. I will also admit that equipment will sometimes give me a headache trying to deal with it, or that I’ll modify, change, and attempt to improve things beyond help. But for me, at least some of the time, part of the fun in photography and astronomy is all the cool stuff I get to play with.

So, with that in mind… enter my new telescope mount, the Losmandy GM-8.

My previous mount was the Celestron CGEM. It was a pretty good mount; it was large, heavy, could carry a respectable payload and had excellent computer GoTo alignment that sent that payload to any object in the sky with outstanding accuracy. It wasn’t perfect, of course. One issue I didn’t like and was unable to adjust out was “slop” or play in the Right Ascension axis. I sold my CGEM to fund the GM-8, which I bought used.

The GM-8 is a swell little mount, as I found out last night. Comparing it to the CGEM is a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, though. First of all, the one I bought doesn’t have computer GoTo. That’s ok, I actually wanted that because I like to find things on my own. The GM-8 is also rated to have less payload than the CGEM. The CGEM is said by Celestron to be able to carry 40lb, compared to the 30lb spec for the GM-8, which puts it in the same class as the AVX/HEQ5 mounts. However, the C9.25 rides just fine on it.

My first thought as I unpacked it from the box was about it’s size: it was obvious at first glance that it belonged in a lighter weight class. To me it seemed almost small, as I was accustomed to the large, bulky head of the CGEM. I have read complaints about the tripod for the GM-8; however, upon setting it up, I got the impression that it was a nice, well made tripod. When the legs are retracted it sits very low to the ground. Extending them brings it up to a nice hight for SCTs. I really like the large, easy to use knobs on it. I found them easier to use than the lock levers on the CGEM tripod. The wiring for the motors is external, instead of internal like the CGEM, but I found that it posed no problems. The counterweight shaft is very large and very adequate. The two 7 lb. counterweights are small, and unfortunately both of them together at the end of the shaft were not enough to counterweight the C9.25, leaving me to jury-rig a temporary weight in addition. Last night I took it out for testing. I really enjoyed the fact that I could move the mount without having to touch the clutches, and that it resumed tracking as soon as you stopped. As far as I could tell it performed very well. It needed careful balancing; I assume this is because it is a smaller, lighter payload mount. It carried the C9.25 fairly well. It tracked very well, and I can’t wait to use it for lunar/planetary astrophotography.