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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Clouded Out for Geminids 2014, Some Consolation Prizes

After two successful Geminid captures (particularly last year) I guess the weather wasn't in my favor this year. I made an attempt at photographing the Geminids meteor shower on December 11, 2014 at 9:11pm. It was a completely clear evening and sunset, and started with a clear sky - but I think the warm air during the day led to a blanket of clouds after sunset even though the forecast actually looked very promising!

As with any failed meteor attempt, you always walk away with some consolation prizes in the form of star trails or even a couple neat sky pics. Here's what I managed - no meteors but a nice view of my favorite constellation Perseus over my neighbor's unfinished house:

perseus constellation over house
Canon T5i single frame f/4, 18mm, 15 sec, ISO 800

perseus constellation over house with clouds
Canon T5i single frame f/4, 18mm, 15 sec, ISO 800 about 20 minutes later...

cloudy star trails over house
92 images stacked in StarStaX

night sky photo edited snapseed
Photos above adjusted in the app Snapseed using the 'Automatic' filter, it does some quick work!

I made the images into a timelapse video: 152 individual frames taken with Canon T5i, each at f/4, 18mm, ISO 800, 15 sec; Timelapse in Sony Vegas with 0.07s still image duration each.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Successful Launch of Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Test Flight

After a short delay, the first test flight of the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle successfully launched at 7:05am ET this morning! Woohoo! The impressive Delta IV Heavy rocket looks oddly flat and intimidating because the engines are all arranged in a row and not in a triangle - it's like a wall or row of silos 236 ft tall shooting up into the sky.

Orion has been a long time coming, here is a photo of the Orion training mockup from my trip to the Johnson Space Center exactly two years ago in December 2012:

orion crew vehicle training mockup
My 2012 photo of the Orion training mockup at the Johnson Space Center

If you didn't see the launch live, here is the video on YouTube:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Capture Meteor Photos with iPhone: What You'll Need

For the upcoming Geminid meteor shower, I'm planning to put out as many cameras as I can to increase my chances of catching a handful of big bright meteors! This includes my iPhone with the updated version of NightCap Pro, which has been shown to be capable of catching meteors with nothing but your phone!

Using NightCap for meteors photos with your iPhone, select Night Mode , and Long Exposure (aka Star Trail) to create a long exposure photo waiting to capture meteors that fly by. 

iphone meteor photo
Shooting star captured on iPhone using NightCap - Photo from

Here's my plan:

I'm going to attach my iPhone to a tripod using the Glif tripod mount. I'm still using the iPhone 5 until I upgrade in January, so I have the iPhone 5 version, but I see they have a new universal adapter for just about any phone.

iphone tripod for meteor photos
iPhone 5 with Glif tripod adapter

If you want to go super cheap, you can also make a tripod adapter out of a binder clip - but this will wobble in the wind so it's not really the best solution. 

A big concern is battery life while taking a long exposure photo in the cold. You're going to want to plug your phone in to keep it charged. The combination of camera apps and freezing air really drains it fast. If you absolutely don't have access to a power source, you can try something I learned a while ago which is to give your iPhone a little winter coat made out of a plastic bag - it helps keep your phone protected from the freezing wind for a little while but it's not the ideal solution.

extend iphone battery cold
iPhone wearing a plastic bag winter jacket with a hole cut for the camera to peek through
Get everything set up and then leave it alone. As long as you have it plugged in, the phone shouldn't die in the cold and you should end up with a nice star trail photo dotted with meteors.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Watch 2014 Geminids Meteor Shower Peak December 13-14

The Geminids meteor shower is my favorite of the year, and the one I've had the most consistent luck observing and even photographing! I really can't say enough about this great meteor shower, it was my first one since taking up skywatching as a more intentional hobby.

It's a fun memory because on both nights I photographed the meteor shower I went to midnight showings of The Hobbit. In 2012 we saw meteors through the car windshield while driving to the theater, there were so many of them! In 2013 I got back from the theater in the middle of the night and set up my camera on the balcony to shoot away - I was exhausted from seeing a double feature and let the camera do the observing for me. 

how to watch 2014 geminids
Canon Powershot - My best Geminid meteor photo from 2012
how to watch 2014 geminids
Canon Rebel XT - My best Geminid meteor photo from 2013

Here are a few lessons I learned in the past 2 years trying to observe and photograph the Geminids meteor shower:

1. Keep looking in the same spot with a view of the most sky possible in the general direction of the apparent radiant. I used to think you had to look at the exact radiant point - the spot the meteors appear to be coming from. But you actually see much longer trails a little further away from that point. Just look where you have a comfortable view of the most sky possible.

2. Use a high enough ISO to capture the quick faint meteors. I started using ISO 400 and saw a bunch visually but didn't catch anything on the camera. Now I use ISO 800 in 15 second exposures. Find a high ISO that isn't too noisy.

3. Stop moving the camera! This is just random chance, and a natural tendency to want to point the camera to where you saw meteors in the past. Well lightning doesn't strike the same place twice, does it? (Actually, it does, but that's not the point). So keep your camera in one spot and let the meteors come to you - just keep your fingers crossed.

4. You might still see meteors even if the moon is out, and even if you have light pollution. A lot of astrophotography sites will complain about the horrid moonlight ruining the show - but don't let that discourage you. You're not looking for professional photos, so go out and give it a try, or just go take a look. You never know what you'll see!

5. You can still see meteors even on the non-peak nights. In fact, you can see Geminids from around December 4 to December 17. So, if your forecast looks miserable on the actual peak night, have a go a little early or late. I actually got my best photo the day before the peak last year.

6. What camera settings? From suburban skies, I like 18mm (as wide as possible), f/4.0 (as open as possible), ISO 800-1600, then adjust the time to avoid washing out the sky, for me that's about 15 seconds each.

7. Without meteors, star trails are a consolation prize! If you've snapped hundreds of frames with no meteors, you have a nice batch for star trails - a beautiful consolation prize after a long cold night!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Massive Improvement in M42 with Orion EQ-1 Motor Driven Mount

I've been making incremental improvements over the past 2 years, but this was my first time imaging the Orion Nebula (M42) with my motor driven equatorial mount. I did a quick alignment (still trying to figure that out) but was able to get up to about 13 second exposures without star trails. Here is the resulting image:

orion nebula m42 with canon t5i 300mm
Canon T5i on EQ1 mount stacked in DSS, 159 subs, 28 darks, 25 bias, 20 flats, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 300mm, 13 sec, total exposure time about 27 minutes
I did most of my curves in DSS, even though I hear doing curves in Photoshop is a lot better. I just can't get it, but I keep trying. I used Photoshop for a bit of contrast and saturation. I was so pleased with the original color that remained even after stacking in DSS.

improvement in orion m42 photography
It feels amazing to look back on my improvement over the years - I remember being excited about each of these images at one point and now they seem so basic!

I have a lot to learn in processing, but I did make some major progress using flats at my EQ mount for the first time on Orion. Yes that's right! Flat frames! I found this article by BudgetAstro to be the most helpful, because I didn't realize the goal of flat frames is to get the histogram in the middle - unlike dark frames where you just slap the lens cap on and use the exact same settings. I tried using flats before but just used the same settings like dark frames and massively over-exposed my flats, which is pretty pointless because then no gradient or vignette remains.

flat frames
Me taking flat frames in my family room, trying to get the histogram just barely to the left of center. Adjusted exposure time and kept f-number, focus, and ISO the same as my light frames.

flat frames
Tried to get the screen as close to the lens as possible, and moved it around slightly while snapping frames to try to get even lighting
I had massive hot spots in the center of my deep sky images last time, and with the flats this time I didn't have that issue with vignettes. Not saying I had a perfectly gradient-free field, but it was way better than a right gray hot spot.

More gray November skies in the forecast, maybe I'll get some more time to practice my Photoshop curves - but either way I'm extremely proud of my big leap forward in M42!
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