Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Cassini's Grand Finale Teaser Trailer Gave Me Chills

artist concept surface of saturn
Illustration from the Cassini Grand Finale trailer. I legit teared up a little at the end. 

After 20 years in space, Cassini deserves this cinema quality teaser trailer for its upcoming 'Grand Finale' death dive into the gas giant (oops, spoiler alert). Cassini is one of my favorite missions, especially because of the quality and abundance of images that are being sent back. I didn't really get into space or the night sky until after Cassini was well on it's way to the outer solar system, so I can't really remember a time when we didn't have Cassini images.

Illustration from the Cassini Grand Finale trailer
Illustration from the Cassini Grand Finale trailer

The images in the video are obviously computer generated, but they are easily recognizable and they feel very familiar because they are based on actual Cassini photos, so they are at least science-adjacent and seemingly real-ish. In fact, some of the images have direct connections to actual famous Cassini photos from the Hall of Fame.

Let's watch! Go HD and full screen!



As you can see, the trailer gives sort of a highlight tour of some famous Cassini moments. But the illustrations from these moments aren't completely fabricated, they're all based on available photos that you can see online. Check out the illustrations from the trailers vs. some actual Cassini photos...

saturn backlit artist vs actual
Illustration from the trailer vs. the actual backlit Saturn photo composite

enceladus illustration vs actual
Illustration from the trailer vs. a now rather famous photo titled Encroaching Shadow from July 28, 2014

saturn illustration vs actual
Illustration from the trailer vs. Saturn approaching northern summer in this Hall of Fame photo

haze of titan
Illustration from the trailer vs. an actual photo of Titan with it's iconic "smoggy, golden murk"

If you're wondering, here is my best photo of Saturn that I took with my iPhone through my Meade refractor telescope. I recorded a short video through the eyepiece and stacked it in Registax to clean up the image.

my best image of saturn

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Uncle Richard, Antarctica, and the Natural History Museum

I've been doing some online detective work this morning trying to see if any of the meteorites in the gem collection at the Natural History Museum in Washington DC were from my late uncle Richard's trip to Antarctica. I've been to the national gem collection in the Natural History Museum a few times (it's one of my favorite stops in DC).

I remember after my uncle Richard died, his expedition to Antarctica came up again and again in stories - and I knew he was really into meteorites, I saw his personal collection proudly displayed on the mantle in his study. I started to wonder if any of the meteorites in the national collection were from the same location he went to, or could even be from his expedition.

The next time I found myself in the museum, I took photos of meteorites labeled "Antarctica" so that I could go back and look them up later. There were quite a few! It turns out the stark climate, high contrast of ice to rock, and the flow of ice depositing meteorites up against rocky outcrops all make it the perfect location to find literally more meteorites than could be collected accurately, and that they would leave "hundreds" for future expeditions rather than hastily grabbing them without good records.

So here are my questions and how I found the answers:
  1. What expedition was my uncle Richard on in Antarctica?
  2. Which meteorites in the photos include dates that overlap with when my uncle was there?
  3. Can the specimen be tied to a his specific field season and location?
I found uncle Richard's field season easily enough with a good Google search, which led me to an excerpt from the book Meteorites, Ice, and Antarctica: A Personal Account by William A. Cassidy:

List of 1982-1983 ANSMET field season participants includes my uncle Richard

My next puzzle is the date on the museum placard, which simply says 1982, so does that mean the 1981-1982 field season or the 1982-1983 field season? I found a clue searching for "Pecora Escarpment 82506" the actual name of meteorite, and found a report that said the first time the Pecora Escarpment was searched for meteorites was the 1982-1983 season, meaning PCA 82506 couldn't have been found in the 1981-1982 season.

My photo of "PCA 82506" from the collection at the Natural History Museum in Washington DC

Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Project (AMLAMP). Antarctic Meteorite Location Map Series Explanatory Text and User's Guide to AMLAMP Data. Edited by J. Schutt, B. Fessler and W. A. Cassidy. LPI Technical Report 93-07, published by Lunar and Planetary Institute, 3303 NASA Road 1, Houston, TX 77058, 1993, p.145
The next and extremely helpful source I came across is a lengthy document that talks all about the 1982-1983 expedition and mentions the PCA 82506 meteorite over and over again. A rock of some note I suspect, as over a dozen publications refer back to it.

Field and Laboratory Investigations of Meteorites from Victoria Land and the Thiel Mountains Region, Antarctica, 1982-1983 and 1983-1984 DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.5479/si.00810274.28.1 
Finally, in an excerpt from the book 35 Seasons of U.S. Antarctic Meteorites (1976-2010): A Pictorial Guide To The Collection I found the actual date for the collection of PCA 82506 listed as December 28, 1982 placing it firmly in the 1982-1983 field season that included uncle Richard.

pca 82506 in book
Righter, K., Corrigan, C., McCoy, T., & Harvey, R. (Eds.). (2014). 35 seasons of US Antarctic meteorites (1976-2010): a pictorial guide to the collection. John Wiley & Sons.

Isn't the internet amazing?!? I was able to find all this from my home computer, linking my late uncle to Antarctica, and to my casual visit to the museum.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Best of Year 5: My Highlight Gallery from 2016

What an incredible hobby! After 5 years of learning first-hand just how painstaking it can be to get decent images of the night sky with novice equipment, I haven't given up. These are my best / favorite / most memorable photos of the year.

Last year I predicted that I had just about reached the upper limit of what I could do with my current setup, but this year I stuck it out and saved money by continuing to click away. I also tried out my first rental from BorrowLenses, and I finally picked out my next step dream scope and mount. Deciding is the first step toward buying after all!

Last year is hard to top with its two lunar eclipses, comets, and clear November nights. But, looking back, a few images definitely rise to the top and stand out as my favorites worth mentioning again in this yearly wrap up.

moon prime focus
If I had to summarize this year, I'd say it is the year of prime focus. I got some decent practice with my camera at prime focus, especially on the moon. This comparison is one of my favorites from the year, and quite possibly my best (highest resolution) moon photo to date. 

whirlpool galaxy
This images takes me back to my fuzzy gray blob days. I rented a lens during a time of the year when not many targets were within reach. It was my first image of the Whirlpool Galaxy and the fact that it's recognizable makes me smile. I gave it my best shot using the full treatment of techniques available to me. 

backyard milky way
This might not seem like much, but it's the Milky Way visible from my own back patio. The fact that I can see it at all from my own backyard is amazing. Facing south (toward the downtown) I would have thought it was impossible. Not the best image, but a great memory of the realization and excitement. 

winter hexagon composite
This composite was an extremely fun image to make. Using one of my favorite techniques from previous years, I took photos of all of the Winter Hexagon stars out of focus on purpose to spread the light out over a larger area on the image sensor in an attempt to get a true color representation of the light. I arranged them in their hexagon pattern, and kept the exposure settings constant to show true variation in color and brightness. 

milky way
Probably my best ever image of the Milky Way showing some color this time from a dark location in north central Indiana. I remember this night vividly, it was extremely humid and the lens kept fogging up in less than a minute. I had to wipe it off, focus and shoot quickly. Considering the atmosphere and the heat, not a bad image. Still learning. 

hunter's moon
The Hunter's Moon, nothing too special about this image, but one of my favorites of the year just because it captured the mood and the feel of the full(ish) moon hovering over the rooftops like a bright beacon. 

solar prime focus
Solar observing at prime focus, totally cool. I modified my solar filter to fit over my telescope and I think the results are actually a tiny bit better than just using the DSLR lens. A lot more work though! Once again, the year of prime focus. 

moon progress photos
Another one of my favorite comparisons of the year. This image reminded me of the excitement I felt the first time I stacked moon photos in Registax. It's like night and day (pun). It's these kinds of images that make me giddy. Just a simple trick, and the effect is dramatic. I never get tired of seeing these before and afters. 

orion nebula
I didn't do a lot of deep sky observing this year, but I took some time to work on my favorite target, the Orion Nebula. Adding subs to my stack from last time, I didn't see a whole lot of improvement. I'm probably rusty from hardly ever taking the time to give deep sky objects the full treatment. Still, pretty amazed what I can do with just a DSLR and basic zoom lens

flame nebula
Finally, one of the most unexpected surprises of the year was my first photo of the Flame Nebula and my long awaited first glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula. From my own backyard! Mind blown. I know it's just a blob, but this is one of my favorite iconic deep sky targets, and the fact that I can see it at all is just unreal. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

First Glimpse of Flame Nebula, Adding Data to Orion (M42) and Running Man

My favorite astro image I've created so far would have to be my 2014 image of the Orion Nebula that was lightyears ahead of my previous attempts thanks to my motorized EQ-1 mount and a little practice. I don't do a lot of deep sky images, but when I do I try to go all out and get the best image I can with the gear that I have. That image from 2014 was only 159 subs at 13 sec each for a total exposure time under 30 minutes. This year, I wanted to take another shot at Orion and add some frames to my stack to see if I could get an even better image. I was able to double my frames before the camera frosted up, but the end result isn't all that different.

orion nebula image process
Progression of image processing, (1) single frame, (2) stacked processed photo, and (3) slightly blown out contrast and structure with Instagram edits

I started by doing some reading about polar alignment, and started second-guessing my procedures for trying to get aligned. I've been assuming the division in the concrete patio followed a north-south line because I assume my house faces north - but that may not be precise enough. I got my compass app out (I don't have a 'real' compass) and tried to see where true north is exactly. With the app, it's a little sticky and doesn't exactly scream precision. Nevertheless, it was enough of a difference to convince me that the concrete line shouldn't be my guide.

orion nebula 300mm
Final product, Canon T5i on EQ-1 motorized mount, 300mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 13 sec, combining 159 subs from 2014 session with 159 subs from last night 20161228, 20 darks, 20 bias, 10 flats + previous darks, bias, and flats, total exposure time less than 1 hour.

I took out a yard stick and a washable marker and traced a line for north. Then I moved the phone around and the compass moved slightly (ugh). So I traced this new line as well. I took the average of the two and considered it my true north. From the pictures you can tell it's slightly off from the concrete line. The concrete line is about 5ยบ off from compass north.

iphone compass and yard stick

iphone compass and yard stick

marking north on concrete

After taking the light frames, I took some calibration frames. I even took flat frames, which is the photography equivalent of eating your vegetables. I still get a kick out of how dorky the camera looks starring at a blank white screen. A few years ago I would never associate these kinds of steps with better night sky photos - I figured they were all straight out of the camera with mystical amazing gear.

flat frames with laptop screen
Using a computer screen with PowerPoint on a blank slide to create a light panel for flat frames

When I get the images out of DeepSkyStacker (DSS) they look something like this (below), and this is actually after I do some basic curve adjustments in DSS and then transport the image over to Photoshop to continue cleaning it up.

mosaic deep sky stack
Orion nebula stack straight out of DSS before going into Photoshop
So all in all it was an okay night to add some frames to my Orion stack, but I think I need to get over the hour mark (and ideally to 3 hours of exposure) to really see the difference in clarity. It's still grainy and still faint.

Speaking of faint, while I was getting my camera set up I was messing around to see what I could see and how long I could get my exposure without star trails. My EQ-1 motor is inconsistent but every now and then you get something cool. I was able to get about a 25 sec exposure of the Flame Nebula and saw it in my camera for the first time ever. I reduced my exposure down to 15 sec to take a quick stack (knowing my real target for the night was M42). I took 13 frames, 10 were usable, and ended up with something like this after stacking only subs no calibration frames.

flame nebula
Stack of 10 frames each at ISO 1600, 300mm, f/5.6, 15 sec
Curse you gray hot spot in the center! I stacked the images again using my calibration frames from the Orion stack, even though they don't quite match up. I came out with an orange grainy blob, but to my surprise and delight you can barely make out the Horsehead Nebula as well. Unless my eyes are just playing a trick on me.


If you use an HDR effect, my favorite happens to be Instagram's 'structure' edit feature, I know it makes it way too grainy and resizes the image, but I haven't figured out how to replicate it in Photoshop, and if you squint your eyes it really helps bring the Horsehead Nebula out. Proof! Not exactly a glamor shot, but you can tell there is a structure there. Can you see it?

horsehead nebula
Instagram HDR 'structure' edits exported to Photoshop to add dashed stroke path
I think I'm even more excited about the Flame Nebula first sighting than I am about messing with M42 again.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

New Gear: DigitalMate 500mm/1000mm f/8 Manual Telephoto Lens

DigitalMate 500mm telephoto lens
DigitalMate 500mm telephoto lens for Canon, 2x converter (1000mm), f/8 manual telephoto lens

I got this DigitalMate 500mm (1000mm with 2x converter) f/8 manual telephoto lens for Christmas and I'm keen to try out the impressive 1000mm reach on some night sky objects. With an aperture range of f/8 to f/32, this is going to be extremely useful for lunar, planetary, and solar observing. It could be useful for double and triple stars as well, but maybe not so great for faint deep sky objects. I can't wait to try it out at night to see how it compares to my Meade 285 refractor, not just in focal length but also the quality of the glass to hopefully cut down on chromatic aberration.

Be careful with your terminology, it would be a photography faux pas to call this a 'zoom' lens because the focal length is fixed. It's either 500mm or 1000mm with the converter, but nothing in between.



Here is a closer look and some 'unboxing' type photos showing off my new toy, including some close ups of the important features, and down below are my first test shots.

huge lens on camera

The lens is so long that it comes with a bracket to mount the lens itself on a tripod to counter balance the weight of the camera body. Although the lens is quite long and heavier than other lenses, with the 2x converter, the length is off balance and I haven't found a way to slide the ring up any further - I only manage to twist it about.

lens collar thumb screw
Close up of the thumb screw and collar attachment for the main shaft of the lens
On the top of the lens, you see what looks like focal length zoom adjustments, but remember this is a fixed focal length, so these settings are the manual focus notches showing the distance your subject should be at to be in focus.

manual focus settings
Manual focus and manual f/number controls
My kit came with a t-ring, this connects the regular Canon EF lens threads to the shaft of the lens with a narrower thread. It's a simple go-between so the lens makers can make different size t-rings to fit the same lens on different cameras without re-designing the lens itself. A t-ring is also how I attach my DSLR to my telescope.

Let's take a look at that 2x converter. It looks like an eyepiece at first, but it's threaded to screw on between the lens and the t-ring. I think these things are sometimes called extenders because they literally extend the length of the lens tube and then angle it through another lens before it gets to the camera sensor (just like an eye piece).

2x converter
2x converter contains a small lens sorta like an eyepiece

camera body and converter
Camera body and 2x converter
Ok, so let's test it out. First of all, when I finally got the thing on a tripod it was difficult to aim and focus. I felt like I was wielding a water canon or some kind of turret gun, and reaching to near the end of the lens to manually focus was a little clunky. For the sake of the test shots, I made it work and did my best to focus - but in the future, I think this is the kind of thing that needs to go on a mount and not just a tripod.

1000mm lens distant target
Target (below) circled in red in this iPhone photo for comparison

500mm vs. 1000mm lens
500mm vs. 1000mm telephoto lens

However, the 2x converter certainly does the trick, and the extra reach of the 1000mm focal length is impressive. Adding the converter completely changes the exposure, so I haven't figured out the 1:1 settings just yet. Do you recognize the top of the grain elevator from my moon set or sunset photos? It's one of my favorite backyard targets because it's actually a ways off across the street from the housing division but just visible between the roofline.

Here's the DigitalMate 500mm with 2x converter on my EQ-1 mount - it's a little more stable. I was making a go at Venus in the early night sky. It certainly feels more like a telescope than a lens!

digitalmate on eq-1 mount

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