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