Sunday, March 31, 2013

Comet PanSTARRS within 2° of the Andromeda Galaxy this week

I take most of my photos from my apartment courtyard, and since my view to the west is obstructed by the building, I thought I'd already said goodbye to Andromeda for the season. The same goes for C/2011 L4 PanSTARRS, which is fading while rising higher into the NW sky just after sunset. With an obstructed view, PanSTARRS calls for a special trip. And since I've already photographed it twice, I felt content to let it slip out of sight.

Using Stellarium to plan my views of PanSTARRS below Andromeda


That is, until I learned about a sort-of conjunction of the comet with the Andromeda Galaxy (within 2°) over the next week - especially from April 2-3. This event is definitely worth a special trip, and I'm excited to have another go at Andromeda, especially if I can catch it in the same frame as a comet! (See my previous attempt at Andromeda)


Grid lines in Stellarium show that the two objects will be separated by a few degrees relatively low in the NW sky

It's also nice to know that PanSTARRS should be near Andromeda for a few days in a row, which will increase my chances of getting good weather. Although, as of right now, it looks like the weather should cooperate on both Tuesday and Wednesday nights (knock on wood). 

Double clusters between Cassiopeia and Perseus are my backup targets

My backup plan is to shoot a double cluster a little higher in the sky. I'm a little worried Andromeda will be too low to the horizon to get a good shot, or that it won't be dark enough by 9:00pm. If I'm going to make a 30 minute drive out to darker skies, I want to have plenty of targets.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two hour star trails before and after color correction

I took these 210 images at ISO 800 for 15 sec each using my point and shoot camera with the shutter taped down. I'm so sick of light pollution, but I'm also sick of jacking up the contrast to make my photos look cool - so I couldn't decide which one to post.

star trails in ohio
Color-corrected and contrast adjusted version
star trails in ohio
Original stacked image with yellowish light pollution at ISO 800
Which one is more "real," the one that looks more like a red brick building and night sky, or the one that was untouched out of the camera (after stacking of course).

What's with the checkerboard JPG compression in this post? Below is a PNG version to compare. Ugh, it's always something!


This two hour stack is long enough to illustrate that Polaris, the North Star, is not at the actual celestial pole. The curved trail shows that it is very close to the pole (within 1º), but if the star were perfectly aligned with the pole it wouldn't make a trail at all! 

Green dot added to show approximate location of true celestial north pole

Friday, March 29, 2013

Point and shoot moon with Canon Powershot A3100 IS

For a challenge, I tried to take a series of moon photos with my point and shoot Canon A3100 IS to stack in Registax. Let's just say it didn't quite work out like I planned. First of all, there is no way to manually change the shutter speed to faster than 1 second - so I had to shoot with a flash (and tape over it to not freak out my neighbors at night) to trick the camera into 1/60s shots. Even when at ISO 80 and -2 exposure the full moon was too bright. 

Behind some thin clouds, I was able to get some contrast detail on the moon, but I'm guessing the clouds messed with the focus because it's still kinda blobby. 

I also got several confused comments from my apartment neighbors as to what I was doing with such a tiny camera on a huge tripod. I felt like a major creep. 

point and shoot with flash covered
Covering the flash to get my camera to fire 1/60s without bothering the neighbors

canon powershot moon photo
This would have been my best moon photo 9 months ago, but now it's very meh...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Waxing Moon Composite

Here is a composite image of some of my best moon photos. As it turns out, most of my moon photos happen to be during the waxing phases. In fact, I only had one waning moon photo and it was a slim crescent. I'll have to take some waning photos after tonight's full moon to complete my set!

waxing moon composite
Waxing moon from bottom right to top left

The phase changes look a little backward because the moon light moves across the face of the moon from right to left - so the shadow wouldn't actually move from left to right as shown in my composite. Start in the bottom right and move toward the full moon in the top left.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tried to sign my name with moonlight

Using my iPhone and Slow Shutter Cam () app (light trail mode) I attempted to sign my name with moonlight. Ok, reflected sunlight, but it sounds much more whimsical to say moonlight.

It's rather tricky because it's like trying to sign your name by moving the paper and not the pen. Can you make out the name "Eric" in this blob?

Yep, I'm getting pretty bored of these overcast skies and freak snow storms in Spring. I didn't feel like taking blurry moon photos through a blanket of haze, but I'm keeping an eye out for an ice halo.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

72% Full moon from March 21, 2013

A break in the clouds means a chance for a quick moon stack before heading to Chicago for the weekend. Forecast calls for even more overcast skies and maybe even some snow. What a way to start Spring!

72% full moon
Alignment points in Registax (yellow) and the path of the moon over 35 frames (green)

72% full moon
72% full moon final product. I like the lunar belly button!
If you look close on my final stacked image, there's a little halo artifact from the stacking process. I'm not sure what the problem is, but I'm guessing it has something to do with a large gap between some of the frames. Not a big deal for a quick stack like this, I'm not looking for perfection, plus it's still a lot cleaner than the single frame.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

What's in my astronomy app folder?

Here's a peak into my astronomy / astrophotography app folder on my iPhone 5.

Do these look familiar? What apps do you use?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tonight's quarter moon stacked in Registax

March 19, 2013, the quarter moon (waxing gibbous) is 54% illuminated and 250,924 miles from Earth. I took 31 images of the moon, each at ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/250 sec. Using Registax, I stacked them to reduce noise and bring out more detail. Here is the final result:

quarter moon with 300mm lens

moon before and after registax


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Make instant, thorough, and free star charts out of your own images with Astrometry.net

I noticed what looked like an automated commenter on Flickr posting information about what deep sky and stellar objects were located in wide field images. The poster was Astrometry.net, and the tool/service helps tag your images with stars and objects of interest for FREE.

You can create an account and upload your own images to discover what objects you may have inadvertently photographed (or which ones would be there if they weren't so dim).

After creating some of my own star charts, I find this service to be incredibly fun, but realized that it takes away a lot of the work and opportunity to learn about locating the objects for myself.

I also noticed that the wider the field of view, the more nauseatingly thorough the output. Check out my photos below with annotations from Astrometry.net. Some are very helpful and others are simply overwhelming!

diy star charts

astrometry star chart

astrometry star chart


Saturday, March 16, 2013

C/2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS) low on the horizon, March 14, 2013

You gotta take advantage of every clear night you get! Even though I had just gotten some much cooler shots of PanSTARRS with the moon the night before, I saw the weather clearing up and headed to the hill on Forrest Creason Golf Course in time to see the comet setting over the BGSU campus.

I was hoping for a cooler image of the Bowling Green skyline, but the commet was setting a little north of 270º (due West) and ended up over the roof of the Perry Field House.

c/2011 L4 panstarrs
4 images stacked, each 5 sec, ISO 400, 300mm, f/5.6
Over the next few weeks the comet will fade, while at the same time staying visible in the sky longer after sunset - so it's sort of a trade off. Hopefully I'll get a couple more chances to photograph it higher in the sky with a brighter tail.

Star trails over Wood County Regional Airport

I saw tons of planes landing around 9:00pm, but by the time I changed to a wider lens most of the traffic had died down. I'm really pleased with the reflections on the water and the circling plane trails, but I was really hoping for a much crazier scene. Now that I know most of the traffic dies around 9:00pm I can plan ahead.

star trails with airplane lights
105 subs stacked, each 13 sec, f/4.5, ISO 800, 18mm, contrast adjusted in PS

Friday, March 15, 2013

Straighten the Horizon in Photoshop

How do you quickly and easily straighten the horizon in Photoshop? I can't believe I didn't know this until just this week! Using the Measurement tool (under the eye-dropper) draw a line along where the horizon SHOULD be, then click Straighten.

straighten the horizon in photoshop
I'm a big fan of less reading. This should about do it!

That's all! Photoshop automatically rotates and crops your image so you don't have blank space along the edges. I seriously had no idea this tool even existed until now, and it's my new favorite thing!

I tested it out on this image of comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) from March 13, 2013. The comet was only about 10º from the crescent moon. In this photo, a plane happened to fly right over the moon during my 5 second exposure, making it a little more interesting. It's a neat picture, but the horizon wasn't quite straight. This new trick solves it instantly!

comet panstarrs with moon and plane
Plane over a crescent moon with comet Pan-STARRS below

Night posing with the sky and a 10 second timer

I've always wanted to do some nighttime sky poses with me busting some antics against a beautiful "backlit canopy with holes punched in it" (Incubus). But since nobody wants to come stargazing with me, and my shutter lock was tied up making star trails, I had to use the 10 second timer on my point and shoot.

night photo sitting on a bench

Here's me deep in thought looking at the stars, or maybe watching planes land at the Wood County Regional Airport, or just being deep and reflective in general. This is obviously just a dramatic pose. In reality, I had the camera propped up on a rock and had to bolt over to the bench just in time to fake a relaxing posture for the photo. Still fun though!

rio jesus pose with stars in sky

I tried to get my buddy Orion in the shot with me on this one, but it's hard without a tripod and only 10 seconds to clamber up the hill. When I got up there I had about 1 second to strike a pose, and the first thing that came to mind is that huge Jesus statue overlooking Rio - so here's my Rio Jesus pose!

self portrait with moon at night

Here's my not-so-successful attempt at holding the moon up over my head. I think something like this is going to require a second photographer to pull off. Oh well, you get the idea!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Comet Pan-STARRS with the Crescent Moon, March 13, 2013

It's been rainy, snowy, and overcast since early last week - so I knew when the forecast called for "partially cloudy" skies I would take the chance to try to spot comet Pan-STARRS through the clouds.

sky facing west at sunset
My view looking West after sunset, crescent moon barely visible

canon rebel xt with 300mm lens
My setup, Canon Rebel XT with 300mm f/5.6 lens

canon rebel xt with 300mm lens
Bored and freezing, waiting for the comet to appear

comet panstarrs
Zoom/crop, a close up of the comet through the haze just above the horizon
300mm, f/5.6, ISO 1600, 3.2 sec, 8:49pm ET

I've been following the story for weeks; jealously looking at photos from the Southern Hemisphere and the southern United States, waiting for my turn. Earlier today, the skies were a blank gray. It even started snowing around lunch time. When I saw a patch of blue sky, I started obsessing over the hourly forecast hoping to get a chance to photograph the comet for myself.

comet panstarrs march 13
Had to go vertical to get the moon and comet both in frame, super cool!
95mm, f/4.5, ISO 800, 5 sec, 8:46pm ET

I got to Slippery Elm Trail around 7:30pm (sunset was 7:39pm ET). I got to see a cool sunset, and started setting up my camera. I ended up waiting around for 20 min or so before I could even see the crescent moon clearly. 30 minutes later I knew I should be getting close, but I didn't see any comet.

Watching the comet dip behind clouds in the fairly bright twilight sky
300mm, f/5.6, ISO 400, 4 sec, 8:32pm ET

I started clicking around looking for the comet with 1.5s exposures. I finally caught a glimpse of it in my LCD screen and I knew I had it! I followed it over the next 30 min or so until I could get a shot of the comet and horizon in the same frame. I stayed out for about an hour and a half total. It was freezing being out in the middle of a field with no protection from the wind, but it was worth it!

Target practice on the crescent moon, also useful as a focus aid

moon with earthshine
Earthshine with some clouds. I never get tired of earthshine!
75mm, ISO 200, f/4.5, 0.4 sec, 8:13pm ET

comet panstarrs above the horizon march 13
The photo I've been waiting for! Pan-STARRS low with the horizon in frame
300mm, f/5.6, ISO 1600, 3.2 sec, 8:49pm ET

After 90 minutes in the cold, I made a mad dash for my car. If I didn't have hand warmers in my gloves and shoes, I don't know what I would have done. Next winter I'll have to invest in some thicker gloves and some boots - this photography stuff is rough!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Star trails behind power lines

I realized early on that the best subjects for star trail photos are ones that don't move. Things like buildings, mountains, and trees without leaves. These power lines make a neat target (since I'm a little short on mountains here in NW Ohio).

215 subs, each at ISO 400, 15 sec, 6.2mm, f/2.7, original color

Friday, March 8, 2013

Crescent Moonrise in Conjunction with Dabih (Beta Capricorni)

I was taking my dog out at 5:50am this morning and noticed a slim crescent moon rising over the apartment buildings next door. What luck! Another example of how owning a dog is good news for skywatching because it gets you outside every couple hours or so.

I didn't notice it at fist, but the moon was right next to a star in the twilight sky (more apparent in the longer exposures). I looked it up using Stellarium, and it appears to be Beta Capricorni, traditionally known as Dabih "the butcher." (Every time I say that I think of Dobby the house elf).

I shot a variety of exposures, and stacked the moon twice in Registax. Here are my best shots with acquisition details:

2 sec, ISO 200, f/4.5, 75mm, 6:02am facing SE
21 subs stacked in Registax, each ISO 200, 1/250 sec, 300mm, f/5.6
21 subs stacked in Registax, each ISO 200, 1 sec, 300mm, f/5.6

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Planning my Pan-STARRS vigil in Stellarium

The comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) has been putting on quite a show in the Southern Hemisphere, and tomorrow it is supposed to peak above the horizon immediately after sunset here in the North. If I spot it, it will be my first comet since 1997! If I photograph it.... ditto...

Following the instructions in this helpful video, I was able to add PANSTARRS to my favorite planetarium software Stellarium. Blog posts and articles that provide viewing tips are helpful (like this one) but I like the customization of looking at the altitude and direction at any given time based on my exact location.

My favorite diagram so far comes from Sky and Telescope, very helpful!

Fellow northerners have been looking for the comet for the past few days. With no reported sightings so far, I'm hoping tomorrow I will catch my first glimpse of the icy fuzz ball. According to Stellarium, it will appear very very low along the horizon just after sunset.

On March 7 the comet will be just 3º above the horizon 20 minutes after sunset

Although 3º isn't much to work with, I was able to photograph the conjunction of Mars and Mercury at about 3º above the horizon, so I'm going to give it a try and see what happens!

Estimating 10º altitude using a closed fist. Notice the altitude of Mars and Mercury between the towers in the photo.

On March 12 the comet will appear next to a 1.5% crescent moon! So cool!
As the comet climbs over the next few weeks, it will also get dimmer - so it's sort of a trade off. Because we just recently had a 10 day streak of overcast skies, I can't take any chances waiting around for the 12th. With work and traveling this weekend, I have to head out to get some photos at every opportunity!

Update: It was overcast this evening. Curses!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Asteroid hunting: Ceres and Vesta

If someone had told me a year ago that I'd be able to see asteroids from my apartment building with an 8 megapixel camera, I would have said "you're crazy!" Currently at magnitude 7.54 and 7.25 respectively, Ceres and Vesta were my best chances for bagging some big rocks near the limit of my camera's (and sky conditions') capacity.

The dwarf planet Ceres is the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt. At nearly 600 miles in diameter, it is the would-be planet that never came to exist thanks to a disruptive gravity tug from Jupiter. Ceres alone comprises nearly 1/3 of the mass of the asteroid belt. 

Vesta, the second largest asteroid, is typically the brightest asteroid. Vesta is over 300 miles in diamater and makes up about 9% of the mass of the asteroid belt. Vesta was recently visited by NASA's Dawn spacecraft

Stack of 46 subs, each at 75mm, ISO 1600, f/4.5, 4 sec (cropped)
Stack of 43 subs, each at 75mm, ISO 1600, f/4.5, 4 sec (cropped)
The asteroids are barely visible, but after some tedious work lining up charts in Stellarium and Star Walk, I'm confient that these dots are asteroids and not dim stars. This is also my first sighting of open cluster M35, so I can check that one off my list!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Point and shoot star trails March 3, 2013

I've been trying to find some more interesting settings for my star trails while staying in the apartment complex. This time I found a little spot to hide my camera so I could leave it out while I ran errands. Then when I came back to stack it, I found this little gem!

236 images stacked in StarStaX, each ISO 400, 15 sec, 6.2mm, f/2.7
At first I thought a small wave of clouds would ruin the stack, but it actually added an interesting contrast with the sky (they're a nice orange yellow thanks to light pollution from the town below). Slight color corrections in Photoshop to change the temperature from yellowish to blueish.

What light pollution? View facing North from Bowling Green, Ohio

Facing North at 9:38pm on February 17, 2013 in Bowling Green, Ohio (about 20 miles south of Toledo). This is overlooking the pond on the Forrest Creason Golf Course just south of the Wood County Regional Airport.

The sky is completely washed out up to about 15º above the horizon, and still shows serious signs of sky glow up to about 40º above the horizon.

ISO 1600, f/4.5, 18mm, 15 sec, color adjustment and noise reduction in Photoshop

Friday, March 1, 2013

How to Spot SpaceX Dragon CRS-2 (SpX-2) Flyover

A couple sites are providing overhead tracking information about SpaceX Dragon CRS-2, which includes information for possible sightings. I'm still not sure if it will be visible or not, but it's worth a shot as the capsule flies away from the sunset on the evening of March 2, 2013.

spacex dragon crs-2 flyover predictions
Screenshot from n2yo.com on March 1, 2013 at 8:20pm EST

Both n2yo.com and NASA Skywatch have sighting information for the SpaceX Dragon CRS-2 capsule. I found n2yo.com to be a little more helpful (and optimistic) about my sighting chances.

A glitch with the thruster pods made it unlikely that the capsule would reach the ISS on the planned date of March 2 (source). With engineers currently planning a new rendezvous orbit, you may only get one chance to see the capsule before berthing. At this point it looks like the capsule will dock some time on Sunday, March 3, 2013 (See original Mission Timeline)

The sites will update as minor changes to the orbit are made, but so far it looks like you may only get one chance to see the capsule before docking to the station (unless there are more delays prior to March 3).

spacex dragon crs-2 flyover predictions
Screenshot from n2yo.com, tentative Dragon CRS-2 sighting predictions. I crossed out March 11 because the capsule will presumably have docked well before then.

spacex dragon crs-2 flyover predictions
Screenshot from n2yo.com, tentative Dragon CRS-2 sighting predictions for March 2, 2013.


In Bowling Green, Ohio, it looks like I might have one slim chance to spot it tomorrow. However, since sunset at my location isn't until 6:26pm and the flyover goes from 6:25pm-6:29pm, I doubt I will see anything at all (not to mention the clouds!). Oh well, it's still sorta cool knowing when it will be flying overhead, even if it is classified as a "barely visible" pass.

My regular go-to satellite tracking site, Heavens-Above, doesn't have Dragon listed at the time of this post. Major bummer!
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