Friday, December 28, 2012

A little too slow for the lunar halo

I was taking Katie out to pee last night at 3:15am and saw my first lunar halo (at least the first since I started paying any real attention to the night sky). A lunar halo is an optical phenomenon in which hexagonal ice crystals form a 22° halo of light around the moon. The halo was very bright and obvious while I was out, but I didn't have my camera on me!!

Since the effect is atmospheric rather than astronomic, a few minutes makes a big difference. By the time I got my tripod out the icy clouds had all but moved on. I got this photo that shows a small arc around the right side - all that remained of the faint halo.

faint lunar halo
Faint lunar halo, a little too late!
This was a 10 second exposure. I don't think I needed to go that long because I've seen some great shots at ISO 200, 2.5 sec exposure time. Next time I'll know, and I'll be ready!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Santa is back on the Star Walk app!

This app is already worth it's weight in gold - I use it to browse the sky on cloudy nights, plan photos and events in advance, and the fun extras like meteor showers and asteroids are definitely an exciting new challenge for my budding photography hobby.

This time of year, the app doubles as a Santa tracker. He's moving a lot slower than last year, making it much easier to get a screen shot near the conjunction of Vesta, Jupiter and Aldebaran (a great reminder that this area is on my list for night sky photography once the bright moon moves on).

If parents are looking for a Santa Tracker app, I think Star Walk () is a great buy. Rather than just some junky app that you delete on December 26, why not invest in an app you can use all year! What a great way to get kids interested in science and the night sky!

Santa tracker on Star Walk app
Screen shot from Star Walk app for iPhone

Monday, December 17, 2012

CHDK now available for Canon PowerShot A3100

Previously, I posted that there is no CHDK firmware hack for the Canon PowerShot A3100IS. However, thanks to a comment on my post, I checked out the site's recent news and saw that there is now a firmware version as of yesterday that works on the A3100 and A3100IS.

CHDK now available for Canon PowerShot A3100
Screenshot from

If you're not familiar with CHDK (join the club) it appears to be a way to unlock features on Canon point-and-shoot cameras to do things like increase the max exposure time, add features like ISO bracketing, and even a motion sensor mode fast enough to capture lightning photos.

CHDK now available for Canon PowerShot A3100

The firmware loads onto your camera's memory card, so there is no permanent change to your device. It sounds fairly safe, and I plan to try it out when I get some free time to really read it over.

Read more about CHDK for the A3100

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lessons learned from the Geminid meteor shower

The 2012 Geminid shower was the first meteor shower I attempted to photograph. It was an eye-opening experience, simultaneously frustrating and fun.

Over a 3 night period, I shot 672 images of the night sky using both my Canon Powershot and Canon Rebel XT. After hours of recording, all I have to show for it is some star trail images, and one measly photo of a real Geminid meteor:

geminid meteor iso 800 with point and shoot
Geminid meteor faint even at ISO 800

The first two nights I was shooting with ISO 400, which in hindsight looks like it was just too low to pick up the fast and faint meteors. Although I saw dozens with the naked eye, they just weren't registering on the cameras. 

Looking back, I also moved my cameras around too much. I originally thought to get the best shots I would have to aim toward the origin of meteors in the Gemini constellation, but now I know that meteors appear anywhere in the sky and actually have longer trails further from the radiant point. I should have framed a good shot with the roof line of the apartment complex and just let the meteors come to me.

Hopefully next time I'll be better prepared to capture the meteors - and hopefully by then I'll have a shutter remote lock for the Canon Rebel XT so I don't have to tape the button down!

star trails with aircraft iso 800
No shortage of stars and aircraft, just no meteors...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Second Geminids attempt, what am I doing wrong?

Last night I left the point and shoot out to try to capture a Geminid two days before the peak. Well I didn't catch anything. Last night, I saw plenty of meteor streaks in the sky, so I again put the point and shoot out on the ground - but this time I set up the Canon Rebel XT with a wide angle lens to try to catch some meteors with a cleaner sensor.

I saw several streak through the field of view, but when I downloaded the photos I didn't see anything! What gives? I'm guessing I didn't have the ISO high enough to catch the very quick and faint meteors. Tonight, the peak Geminid night, I'm going to give it another go with a higher ISO. I guess I'll have to accept a little noise in order to capture the little buggers on film ("film").

night sky over ohio
Full disclosure: I adjusted the color a bit in Photoshop
star trails
No meteors here...
star trails
None here either...
extra long star trails
No meteors, but my largest stack to date: 260 images, 15 sec ea., ISO 400

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Early morning 12-12-12, no sign of Geminids just yet!

The Geminid meteor shower is supposed to produce 50-120 meteors per hour over the next few days, peaking at around 2:00am on Friday, December 14. Well, I didn't feel like waiting because we had a crystal clear sky last night, so I left my point-and-shoot out overnight to see if I could catch any early Geminids.

No such luck. I found a site that says the Geminids was producing around 24 meteors per hour last night (via Astroguyz), unfortunately none visible to my tiny camera. Let's hope the clear skies hold for another couple nights so I can try again.

235 stacked images of Gemini, ISO 400 for 15 sec each
235 stacked images of Gemini, ISO 400 for 15 sec each
meteor camera
My sophisticated meteor camera set-up

Geminids should appear to originate from Castor (StarWalk app)
Geminids should appear to originate from Castor (StarWalk app)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I won a day with Olympic gymnast Jonathan Horton, and spent it at the Johnson Space Center!

During the Olympics, I entered a Facebook contest through TD Ameritrade for a chance to win a day with gymnast Jonathan Horton. I've been a fan of Jon's since 2008 when I saw his positive and supportive attitude cheering for team mates in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now, in 2012, he was the clear leader of a young team - and again one of my favorites to watch.

In October, I got an e-mail from a representative at Don Jagoda Associates informing me that I was a potential winner of the Win a Day with Olympic Gymnast Jonathan Horton contest. Potential winner? I had to clear a background check and complete some tax forms in order to be announced as the official winner. At first I thought it was a very elaborate and specific scam, but I got the forms notarized, completed the tax form, and waited a month to find out if I was, in fact, the grand prize winner.

A month later I received notification that I indeed was the grand prize winner of the sweepstakes!

Long story short, I got an itinerary saying that I would be having two meals with Jonathan Horton, along with a chance to tour his gym. The last detail on my itinerary almost knocked me out of my seat, I was going to tour Space Center Houston with my Olympic hero! Worlds were colliding as one of my favorite sports stars would be associated with one of my favorite hobbies (learning about space exploration). Awesomeness overload!

At dinner, Jon mentioned that he took an astronomy class while he was in school at Oklahoma. He said he gets blown away thinking about the universe, and the size of a nebula trillions of miles away. Later, on the tour of the space center, he was particularly impressed by the F-1 engine. We were both impressed that humans were smart enough to figure this all out, and to physically build something capable of taking humans into space. Jon also told me that his 2008 Olympic teammate, Justin Spring, is the son of a shuttle astronaut ("Woody" Spring flew on Atlantis for STS-16-B).

The overnight trip was definitely something I will never forget, and I'm grateful that I was able to share this experience with someone that I respect so much!

Below is a brief picture scrapbook of my trip:

gymnast jonathan horton johnson space center NASA
Chris, me, Jon, and his wife Haley on the Johnson Space Center tram tour
gymnast jonathan horton johnson space center NASA
Chris and I in front of the touristy fake shuttle

mission control johnson space center
Shuttle mission control, obviously a quiet place lately

space suit
A real space suit for training! Awesome!

gymnast jonathan horton johnson space center NASA
Better get a lot of practice in that Soyuz capsule

space x hatch door
A mockup of the SpaceX hatch

orion capsule mockup
A mockup of the new Orion capsule that will one day bring people to space

gymnast jonathan horton johnson space center NASA
My favorite part of the tour, a real F-1 engine (19 feet tall)

f-1 rocket engine
F-1 engine on the Saturn V rocket

gymnast jonathan horton johnson space center NASA
Jon was impressed, these things push 1.5 million pounds each

saturn v rocket
A real Saturn V rocket that was ready to launch but was cut for budget reasons

gymnast jonathan horton johnson space center NASA
A green screen tourist photo of our group!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jupiter and the Moon, super bright conjunction 11-28-2012

According to Astro Bob, Jupiter is at opposition making it the biggest and brightest it will be for the year. I've been watching Jupiter rise in the evening while taking my puppy out to pee, and it's been fun watching Jupiter slowly pull away from the moon each night.

I tried my hand at capturing a close up of the Jupiter-Moon conjunction, but the moon was so darn bright, the best I was able to managed looked like a big white dot next to a little white dot.

To solve this, I did my first bit of astrophotography hocus pocus (e.g. Photoshop) to take back to back exposures of the pair at two different settings so that each could be appropriately exposed. Then in Photoshop I lined them up to the exact position and cropped the best of each into the same photo.

Here is the finished product:

Photoshop composite moon jupiter conjunction
Photoshop composite of multiple exposures

I tried to get Jupiter's moons in the photo as well, but the nearly full moon blew my chances. The bright halo of light makes the photo pretty cool in its own interesting way, but ruined my ability to crop out the black background for a composite. Zoomify the picture to see the tiny moons caught in the bright moonlight.

Single exposure jupiter moon conjunction
Single exposure showing Jupiter's moons

Monday, December 3, 2012

Eppur si muove! Jupiter's moons 3 weeks apart

Jupiter's moons 3 weeks apart
Following in Galileo's footsteps with these observations of Jupiter's moons about 3 weeks apart. Not all things orbit the Earth!

Various duration full moon exposures at ISO 200

full moon photography exposure chart
Click to zoomify my moon exposure chart!
I created this sample platter of moon images from the full moon on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 10:27pm when the moon was 99.8% illuminated. You should probably try this exercise with your own equipment to find a sweet spot combination of ISO and exposure time. I think my sweet spot is right around 1/1000 sec exposure and ISO 200 keeps the noise down. Nice.

full moon iso 200
Full moon, 300mm zoom lens, 100% crop, ISO 200, 1/1000 sec

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Last night's banana moon

One of the benefits of having a new puppy is that I am forced to go outside for 5-10 minutes every hour and a half. Yes it's a lot of work, but the silver lining is that I've never been more familiar with the night sky than I have these past 2 weeks.

A few days ago, as the new moon began to reveal a small crescent of light, I didn't get a photo and have regretted it since. Last night the moon was a solid crescent banana shape, which isn't as mystical as the hair-thin crescent moon - but still good target practice for my camera.

banana moon
ISO 400 (I think), 1/1000sec, handheld
I took this picture after getting home from the gym, and I was worried about moving the camera too much - but the moon was about to slip behind the apartment roofline so I decided to go for it without a tripod. At 1/1000sec exposure, the motion blur is minimal. I would have liked to try some different exposure settings to capture the earthshine on the dark side, but longer exposures would have required a tripod or an extremely steady hand. Maybe next time!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Star trails over Bowling Green on a cold November night

After my excitement over the Orion Nebula and Jupiter in my last post, it's good to get back to some fun star circles - except it was freezing outside tonight! Where Jupiter is a quick pic, I forgot how boring it can be making star trails (especially when it is 28 degrees out).

star trails with canon rebel xt
98 stacked images, 25 sec each, ISO 200

This was my first stacked star trail image on the Canon Rebel XT. Since there was no moon to auto-focus on, I tried focusing on the apartments about 200 yards away. It seemed to work, plus focus isn't as critical with trail pics anyway. Notice how the trails aren't as dotted with the Canon Rebel XT! That's because the camera doesn't have to process for 10 seconds between each photo. Woo!

light pollution and orion
Beautiful light pollution (an oxymoron?)

This was one of my test images before I taped the shutter button down. I think it's pretty cool! It's almost like an inverted Northern Lights. Parking lot light pollution never looked so magical.

star trails over bowling green ohio
Rather messy, stacked right over myself in the foreground

self portrait with orion
Self portrait frame from previous stack

portrait of my camera
Photo of the Rebel XT from the PowerShot

photo looking up below tripod at stars
Looking up below the tripod

Friday, November 9, 2012

Orion Nebula, Jupiter's moons, and the Pleiades on an early Winter morning

At around 5:00am ET on November 6, 2012 I was taking my new puppy out to piddle. When I looked up, I saw a brilliant clear sky with Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades just over the roof of my apartment complex. It was about 30 degrees out, but I figured since I was up I'd jump on the opportunity. I went back inside to get my Canon with 300mm lens to take my first night sky photos since September.

My biggest problem the last time I tried using the Canon was the inability to focus on the stars. Through trial and error, I know it's possible to get the focus right after shooting a picture, viewing it and zooming to see the result. Luckily, I had a 25% moon that allowed me to auto-focus at a good distance, so these steps were not required.

I snapped a few pictures at a lower ISO and longer exposure time, and noticed since the zoom was so tight, the stars would form trails much sooner than in a wider frame. I cranked the ISO up to 1600 and reduced the shutter time to just 3.2 seconds. This gave me almost round stars (rather than lines) and a clearer view of the nebula clouds.

orion nebula with canon Canon Digital Rebel XT 300mm
Orion Nebula, ISO 1600, 3.2 sec, 300mm

orion nebula taurus and pleiades with Canon PowerShot A3100IS
Orion Nebula, Jupiter, and the Pleiades, ISO 400, 10 sec

Pleiades with Canon Digital Rebel XT 300mm
Pleiades, ISO 1600, 3.2 sec, 300mm

Jupiter with Canon Digital Rebel XT 300mm
Jupiter and 3 moons, ISO 1600, 3.2 sec, 300mm
orion nebula instagram
Crop of the Orion Nebula with HDR and filter on Instagram

Sunday, September 23, 2012

International Observe the Moon Night

A Facebook post from motivated me to run outside and snap some pics of the moon for International Observe the Moon Night. Here are regular and enhanced versions of the moon through my Canon Rebel XT with 300mm lens. The zoomed photo was sharpened in Filterstorm () and Instagram Lo-fi filter creates a false image of the dark side of the moon.

The moon is 231,200 miles away and 52% illuminated.

international observe the moon night
Edited in Filterstorm and Instagram to bring out detail and create a false "dark side"
international observe the moon night
1/800, ISO 400

international observe the moon night
1/200, ISO 100

Sunday, September 16, 2012

BGSU Planetarium schedule for Fall 2012

The theme of this semester's planetarium schedule is "Moon Fest 2012" and I'm very excited about the lineup over the next few months!

bgsu planetarium schedule

I'm particularly intrigued by the shows "Is This the End of the World?" and "Bad Astronomy" because of their presumed promotion of skepticism!

Amazing sunset over McDonald's parking lot gets better with Instagram HDR filter

amazing sunset photo on iphone with instagram
HDR filter with Instagram

You never know where you'll be when nature presents an amazing spectacle like this sunset over a McDonald's parking lot in Indiana. I'm so glad the iPhone camera is decent enough to capture these moments when I don't have a camera on hand. The photo above was cropped and filtered with the Instagram HDR setting. Below is the original with slightly less impressive but still fully awesome colors.

amazing sunset photo on iphone with instagram
Original photo from iPhone camera

Friday, September 7, 2012

Iridium flare photo on iPhone

I haven't done an exhaustive search, but I can't recall ever seeing another iridium flare photo taken with an iPhone. I've seen quite a few long exposures of ISS passes, but this might be the first iridium flare photo captured directly on an iPhone camera.

I used Slow Shutter Cam () in Light Trail mode with light sensitivity to 1 and exposure time on 'bulb.' This -8 magnitude flare from Iridium 68 was visible at 5:58 am over Bowling Green, OH. I woke up at 5:50am, threw on some flip flops, and ran outside in time to see it. I propped my iPhone up against the rear window of my car to try to stabilize it.

I hadn't anticipated the bright moon would be so close to the satellite in the sky. I must say, for a -8 magnitude flare, I was a little underwhelmed. The waning gibbous was only about 3 fists at arm's length away from the flare (ballpark 30 deg or so) - so I guess I'm lucky to have seen it at all.

There is another -8 magnitude flare predicted for Saturday night over Bowling Green at 8:15pm, 47 deg altitude to the North.

iridium flare photo taken with iphone
100% crop from original photo. Iridium 68 on 9-7-12
In this zoomed in crop of the original photo, you can see the bright middle of the flare as it starts to fade out moving from top to bottom. Normally, iridium flares fade in and fade out over a period of about 30 seconds, producing long streaks on time exposed frames. However, because of the proximity to the moon, and the low light sensitivity on the iPhone camera, it's all over in a flash (har har).

iridium flare photo taken with iphone
Original photo on iPhone
Iridium 68 passing over Bowling Green Ohio
Satellite Tracker app shows proximity to the moon
mantis on a window
Bonus! I also saw this guy on the window on my way inside
This was also my first time seeing an iridium flare in person! Definitely worth waking up a little early for. Alright, it's Friday, back to bed!