Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Having some fun with the Alien Sky app for iPhone

Here are a couple examples of the fun effects you can add with Alien Sky () for iPhone. I've found that a little goes a long way! The filters, I think, are underrated and usually take a back seat to the planet and galaxy images you can add into the scene. However, the filters themselves are quite nice and create interesting moods with a variety of colors.

I hate astro-fake-tography, but as long as there is full disclosure apps like these can be fun to play with (and day dream about being able to capture images like these out in the field). So, again, these images have simulated star fields!

alien sky app example
Added stars and a color filter

alien sky app example
Added stars, the Milky Way, and a cropped image on the camera LCD

example image alien sky app
Added a Sun lens flare and high contrast filter

example image alien sky app
Added stars and a color filter

Monday, February 25, 2013

It's the Great Pumpkin! A big orange moon rises February 25, 2013

A clear sky overhead and distant hazy clouds on the horizon made perfect conditions for a spectacular orange moonrise just after sunset this evening. I tried stacking my fuzzy orange moon in Registax, but there's no helping the amount of distortion from the hazy horizon. Better to enjoy the beautiful color and not worry about the noisy details.

camera at sunset

big orange moonrise
I was waiting for the moon to rise next to the giant red light until I realized THAT was the moon!

big orange moonrise
Watching the moon rise in real time, it only took a few minutes to clear the treeline

big orange full moon
A wonderful orange jewel. The cell tower provides a bit of scale.

big orange full moon
Better than I had hoped for!

big orange full moon
A mysterious line in the sky, well above the trees. At first I thought it was a piece of grass until a power-walking couple mentioned it as well. Very small jet contrail? Hmmm.

big orange full moon
1/80 sec, ISO 200, 300mm, f/5.6

First time using Registax, tinkering with the 99% full Snow Moon

It never occurred to me to stack images of the moon, I guess because it's already so bright I figured what's the point. However, stacking isn't about making objects brighter, it's about reducing noise. In most cases, this is useful for when you want to brighten an image without losing detail to noise. The stacking = brighter fallacy is difficult to shake, but I'm glad I can now see the benefits of stacking bright objects!

20 subs each at ISO 200, 1/1600s, f/5.6, 300mm

Here are the results of my first time using Registax (free software) to clean up my moon. Using a Canon Rebel XT (only 8 megapixels) I figured my moons would be destined to have a little grit on them even with a 300mm lens. Boy was I wrong! I am still blown away by how clear my image turned out with very little tinkering.

It's a little sad, however, knowing that all my previous moon photos COULD have been so much better had I learned this technique sooner.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

BGSU Planetarium schedule for Spring 2013

BGSU planetarium flyer Spring 2013 schedule
Click to enlarge
The Bowling Green State University planetarium program for Spring 2013 includes a handful of one-night engagements and a full program of throw-backs to the 80's. The planetarium is a little retro in a cool way, definitely never crowded but never completely empty. Some of these shows are older than the college students who attend!

Show descriptions from the BGSU Planetarium Teachers Guide:

PLANET QUEST (Grades 5 and up): The appearance of the planets in our sky, how the ancient Greeks thought all planets revolved around the earth, and an imaginary journey to each planet using space art and photography. (public show, 1986) (43 minutes, 358 slides, BG).

IT’S ABOUT TIME (Grades 5 and up): The tale of astronomy's greatest effect on our everyday lives: keeping time. Our clocks and calendars record all the cycles of the sk y, such as the rising and setting of the sun and stars, the phases of the moon, the passage of the seasons, and more. The program shows all of these celestial cycles and tells the story of how many early cultures based their calendars on them, thereby cre ating hours, days, weeks, months, years, and all the other ways we keep time today. Suitable for use with history or geography as well as astronomy or general science units. (public show, 1987) (47 minutes, 488 slides, BG).

JOURNEY TO EARTH (Grades 5 and up): A unique journey from the Milky Way to the universe at large and back to the earth to discover the place of the earth and humans in the universe. The hierarchy of structure (planets, stars, gala xies, clusters of galaxies) and vast distance scales of the universe are built up, and the creation in other stars of the elements comprising humans is revealed. One of our best programs. (public show, 1988) (38 minutes, 345 slides, BG).

STAR TRACKS (Grades 3 and up): A guided tour of the winter sky and a just - for - fun "space journey" combining space music and motions of the starfield. (public show, 1985) (48 minutes, 28 slides, BG).

I PAINT THE SKY (Grades 3 and up): A guide to the beautiful colors in the sky: blue daytimes, red sunsets, vibrant rainbows, shimmering auroras, icy halos, and more. (public show, 1989) (34 minutes, 476 slides, BG).

SKY STONES (Grades 4 and up): An interpretive trip to Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Maya, and several native American sites, all part of the legacy of ancient skywatchers who recorded the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and stars in their great stone monuments. (public show, 1991) (45 minutes, 462 slides, BG).

THE UNIVERSE OF DR. EINSTEIN (Grades 5 and up): A biography of Albert Einstein and a conversational approach to explain his revolutionary concepts of the Universe. (public show, 1986) (41 minutes, 258 slides).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

From Procyon to Pleiades: 100º of sky with 18mm lens

orion and surrounding night sky objects with labels
15 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600, 18mm, adjusted for contrast

I like to label my photos as a way to teach myself what to look for in the night sky. This particular chunk of sky contains plenty to keep me busy! From Procyon (Alpha Canis Minoris) to the Pleiades (M45), this wide field photo covers about 100º of sky - which is about 10 horizontal fists, or 5 wide open hands held at arm's length.

Not all of the objects are visible in this photo, but I added their positions to help me learn them. The dim ones, like the Flame Nebula, will require stacked exposures or a telescope.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Self portrait under the Big Dipper on the one hill in town

The hill on the Forrest Creason Golf Course at Bowling Green State University is the highest point for miles, so it's an excellent target for staging some dramatic star photos (except for the amount of light pollution by the university, highway, and gas stations).

star trails in ohio

Last night was a frigid 17°F with partially cloudy skies. Even with hand warmers inside my gloves, I only had the stamina to stand out in a windy field for 20 minutes or so. Tonight the temperature jumped up to 47°F with overcast skies (of course).

person on hill under stars
Self portrait under the Big Dipper, can you see me?
on the hill under the big dipper

Friday, February 15, 2013

Holy Toledo! Amazing videos of Russian meteor explosion

Russian fireball
Screenshot from the video below by fed potapow

I woke up at 3:00am ET to take my dog out to pee and I decided to hop online real quick. To my amazement I saw news of a fireball (meteor) over Chelyabinsk, Russia at 9:26am local time. Thanks to an abundance of dashboard cams, there are some great videos of the moment the meteor enters the atmosphere!

[Video removed by user]

Apparently the large flash is an explosion that occurred around 32,000 feet - which resulted in a large BOOM heard moments later that shook windows and set off car alarms. (Turn your volume down for this video!!). If this video is real, it's super creepy and impressive! It sounds like Hollywood special effects!

I'm sure this story is going to be all over the Internet, especially with the hype over Asteroid 2012 DA14. Google even released a doodle animation about the asteroid, which now seems even more relevant with this huge meteor story!

Screenshot of Google Doodle animation for Asteroid 2012 DA14
Screenshot of Google Doodle animation for Asteroid 2012 DA14

Hopefully these dramatic videos, along with the close asteroid approach, will bring enough media attention to increase funding for asteroid detection and defense programs. It's a good reminder that these things are out there, and there isn't much we can do (at this point).

Update: Discovery News has a great synopsis of the story so far. Apparently there are 400-500 injuries reported, mostly from broken glass and concussions. Yikes!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Beehive Cluster (M44) comparing 1.3 and 1.6 second exposures

After realizing I accidentally photographed the Beehive Cluster earlier this winter, I tried for an honest attempt on February 12, 2013. I tried two different exposure durations to see if I could tell the difference between 1.3 seconds and 1.6 seconds in terms of the length of star trails.

24 subs, f/5.6, 300mm, 1.3 sec each stacked in DSS

According to the 500 rule, I shouldn't be able to see noticeable trails at 500 ÷ 1.6 (Canon image sensor crop factor) ÷ 300 (for 300mm focal length) = 1.042 seconds

According to the 600 rule, this time would be 1.25 seconds

There's a lot more to it than that (and much better resources than mine) to help you figure it out. I'm also limited by a smaller f/5.6 compared to other f/2.8 lenses, so I went with 1.6 vs. 1.3 sec to see if I could even tell the difference.

Beehive Cluster (M44) comparing 1.3 and 1.6 second exposures

Turns out you can definitely tell a difference, and looking back I probably should have been around 1 sec rather than 1.3 or 1.6 sec.

I'm glad I at least got to experiment with this photo because for some reason my light .CR2 files wouldn't load into DSS, so I was stuck with my JPG's and couldn't even use my dark or bias frames even though they would load fine. I think it's because I was messing with them in Photoshop before stacking them, and that might have done something to the files - not really sure. I just know that next time it'll be straight from the camera to DSS and no mucking around!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Earthshine on the crescent moon

I've been wanting to take a photo of earthshine for a long time, and tonight was my first chance! Earthshine is light from the sun reflecting off the Earth to light up the part of the moon not lit directly by the sun. Sun > Earth > Moon > Earth > Camera.

earthshine taken with canon rebel xt 300mm

"Earthshine can be best seen during the crescent phases (the 1-5 day period before or after a New Moon). During this time the sun is mostly behind the moon from our perspective and bathing the Earth in a lot of direct light that is reflected onto the shadowed parts of the moon." (Source)

It stands to reason that other conditions can increase the amount of earthshine on the moon, such as snow cover, reflective clouds, or maybe even the Atlantic Ocean. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Orion's Belt is a busy neighborhood

orion's belt 130mm lens
Orion's Belt and sword (including M42)

This image of Orion's Belt is made up of 129 subs, 25 darks, and 25 bias frames stacked in Deep Sky Stacker (DSS). Each frame was taken at 130mm, f/4.5, 2 sec, ISO 1600 with a Canon Rebel XT on fixed tripod.

Orion's Belt and Sword labeled in Photoshop

As you can see, the three stars that make up the sword are actually a whole mess of stars and nebulous gas clouds that only appear to be 3-4 individual stars to the naked eye in moderate viewing conditions.

Update 3/18/2013: I uploaded this image to and it was able to tag a LOT more objects in my field of view! Wow, what a cool service!

My same image automatically annotated with

Sunday, February 10, 2013

My first look at M41, the open cluster in Canis Major

Located about 4º directly below Sirius, the open cluster in Canis Major (M41) is easy to find through a camera lens or with the naked eye. Last night was my first time spotting the cluster, and I used my finger held at arms length to measure 1º increments below Sirius until I located the faint glob of stars.

Through a 300mm lens, I was able to see about a dozen or so dim stars. I shot a stack of photos to see if I would find any more stars hidden behind the noise. After a relatively short stacking session using DSS, here is what I came up with:

Open star cluster in canis major M41
89 subs, 17 darks, 21 bias, 300mm, 1.6 sec, f/5.6, ISO 1600

Stacking brought out most of the 100 or so stars that make up this cluster. Two articles I read mentioned curving rows of stars with a bright red star in the center.
"Many visual observers speak of seeing curved lines of stars in M41. Although they seem inconspicuous on photographs, the curves stand out strongly in my 10-inch [reflecting telescope], and the bright red star near the center of the cluster is prominent." (Source
"...look for a bright reddish star right in M41's heart. This star is surrounded by lots of fainter ones that seem to be arranged in curving rows, a peculiar feature noted also in many other open clusters." (Source)
Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I do sort of see curving lines of stars surrounding a bright central star. Here is an overlay I made in Photoshop to illustrate one possible interpretation of the lines. Do you see them? Do you see different lines?

Curving lines of stars in open cluster M41
M41 with curving lines of stars outlined in Photoshop

Found an accidental Beehive Cluster (M44) photo

I was looking through my old Geminid meteor shower posts and saw a fuzzy blob in the sky. I looked it up, and turns out it's a Messier object (M44) known as the Beehive Cluster. Who knew! Aside from the ones I've already photographed, I'm still unfamiliar with the location of Messier objects in the sky. Since I don't have a scope, I only have access to the brightest deep sky objects.

The Beehive Cluster is down and to the left of Gemini, which makes it fairly easy to find (that is, if you know to look for it in the first place). This makes a total of five Messier objects that I've photographed so far. I suppose I should start a checklist!

I'm making a note to revisit M44 on the next clear night. Last night I spent some time on the open cluster in Canis Major (M41) that I'm still processing. That will take my new total up to six!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Star trails with and without hyper-saturated color blowout

I haven't yet learned to be subtle with my color corrections. Rather than scaling back and trying again, I thought I'd post this before and after color blowout set. I wonder if I didn't say anything, if people would just assume I live in a world of hyper saturated colors. AMAZING! Is it? Well it's certainly fun to pretend. 

star trails before color manipulation
108 frames stacked in Star StaX, 30 sec each, ISO 800

star trails after color manipulation
Increased saturation, adjusted colors to remove red hue

Super long star trails with iPhone camera

long star trails with iphone camera
Long star trails taken with iPhone, stacked on a computer

These are the longest star trails I've taken using my iPhone 5 as a night sky camera. 300 images taken with Night Cap app for iPhone (), stacked using StarStaX software. Each 1 sec, ISO 3200, 15 sec apart.

There are ways to stack the layers using native apps, but it's too painful to talk about. With 300 frames, a good piece of stacking software is a must - even if it's an iPhoneography faux pas.

My baggy technique kept the phone from getting too cold, and when I ended my session the battery was only at 66%. I could have gone a lot further, but I have to work in the morning.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Conjunction of Mars and Mercury, February 8, 2013

Conjunction of Mars and Mercury, February 8, 2013
Conjunction of Mercury (top) and Mars

I've been planning ahead for this conjunction of Mars and Mercury for a few days now, and I'm super excited that the clouds dispersed just in time for me to stop the pair hovering over a radio tower. I think this is my first time observing the planet Mercury, which is an added bonus!

mars mercury conjunction canon rebel xt
The conjunction just after sunset in Bowling Green, Ohio

Mercury is the brighter of the two (magnitude -0.89) and slightly above Mars (magnitude 1.38). Mercury was visible when the sky was still very blue/yellow, and Mars wasn't visible with the naked eye until the sky became a little more rusty red. 

mercury mars conjunction february
The clouds and radio tower add a dramatic setting

It's been cloudy all day, but the tail end of winter storm Nemo began to clear up just as the sun was setting. I grabbed my tripod and camera and began to scan the skies looking for a dot of light to poke through the clouds. I found the pair hovering above a radio tower and took as many photos as I could before they got too low in the sky. Not a big window of opportunity, but it looks like luck was on my side. The dispersing clouds and towers in the foreground add a dramatic industrial feel to the setting.

Scouting skywatching locations in Northwest Ohio

It's a good idea to check out your skywatching location in the daytime before attempting to set up gear, drive unfamiliar roads, and avoid falling into a ditch at night. Today I attempted to find 3 locations with clear views of the western horizon for the upcoming (and currently happening) Mars / Mercury conjunction.

1. Slippery Elm Trail

2. County Road M at Co Rd 3

3. County Road K at Co Rd 8

I'm going to try the Slippery Elm site for the conjunction because it's the closest. The other locations were super windy and super out there, so I might hit them up when it gets a little warmer out.

View Skywatching in a larger map

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

DIY iPhone Thermal Jacket: I like the way you work it (no diggity) I got to bag it up

Blue skies all day and then thick cloud cover as soon as I got off work. Typical. I saw a break in the clouds so I wanted to run out and try some quick iPhone star trails using the Night Cap app.

iphone tripod in bag to stay warm

The session didn't turn out so hot, but at least my camera didn't get too cold! I put a freezer bag over my iPhone on the tripod, cut a hole in the top corner for the camera to peak through, and taped the bag in place next to the camera lens.

iphone star trails
A little cloudy, but at least my lines are straight thanks to the tripod mount

I started shooting back to back 1 sec photos at ISO 3200, and after 20 min or so my battery had only dropped 2% (better than the 45% drop in 5 minutes last week). It's slightly warmer tonight (20ºF instead of 10ºF) but I attribute the improved battery performance to my little baggie windbreaker.

iphone tripod in bag to stay warm

An added bonus, when I brought my phone back inside, condensation formed on the outside of the bag instead of on my phone directly! Neato!

Look for Moon, Mercury, Mars conjunction on February 11, 2013

Moon, Mercury, Mars conjunction just after sunset (Image: Stellarium)

A very thin (3.4% illuminated) crescent moon joins Mercury and Mars just after sunset on the evening of February 11, 2013. If the weather cooperates, make sure you have a clear view to the West as close to the horizon as possible. At sunset (6:02pm in Toledo), the moon will only be 20º above the horizon, and only about 14º altitude when the pair of planets becomes visible.

Mercury and Mars will actually be much closer together (< 1º apart) on the evening of February 8, 2013, but will not be joined by the moon. On this night, Mercury will also be a brighter -0.89 magnitude compared to -0.72 on February 11.

Mercury and Mars <1º apart after sunset (Image: Stellarium)

If the sky cooperates, I'm planning to set up a camera at the Slippery Elm Trail in Bowling Green. The open fields should give me clear views to the West, and the trail is open an hour after sunset (that's all I'll need).

Slippery Elm Trail from this past summer

Monday, February 4, 2013

Reprocessed M42 with larger dust cloud

After watching a couple stellar video tutorials by Anna Morris, I decided to put some of her techniques to work on my M42 stack from last month.

Here is my reprocessed image, with emphasis on bringing more of the dust clouds forward.

m42 reprocessed orion nebula photoshop

And here is the same image with an insert comparing my previous processing attempt to this one. I'd say there's some improvement!

m42 photoshop

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Nothing Beats an Astronaut: How the AXE Apollo Sweepstakes Benefits Mankind

Nothing Beats an Astronaut: AXE Apollo Sweepstakes
Nothing Beats an Astronaut: AXE Apollo Sweepstakes commercial

Nothing Beats an Astronaut, these are the words that appear on the screen after each AXE Apollo Sweepstakes commercial. Not only is AXE offering one lucky winner a trip to space on the XCOR Lynx sub-orbital space vehicle, but the mass exposure of the commercials has generated buzz about private spaceflight and boldly proclaims the social status of astronauts above all other professions.

XCOR Lynx sub-orbital space vehicle
XCOR Lynx sub-orbital space vehicle (
The sweepstakes itself (which runs 1/9/13 at 6:00:00 a.m. PT through 2/3/13 at 11:59:59 p.m. PT) offers a chance to travel to sub-orbital space aboard the XCOR Lynx. Tickets aboard the Lynx run $95,000 but it looks like AXE got a deal because the approximate retail value of the prize is $86,000 (including a $25,000 check to offset taxes).

The bargain could have something to do with the fact that the Lynx is "now under development" and "will undergo a flight test program beginning in 2013" ( So AXE is banking on the fact that the Lynx will be completed in time for contest winners. The official rules include a deadline of December 31, 2020 - after which the winner will receive the approximate retail value of the prize rather than a trip to sub-orbital space.

The sweepstakes was officially opened with an announcement by Buzz Aldrin, and although the rules only mention one grand prize winner, other sites have mentioned that as many as 22 people could be joining the AXE Apollo Space Academy.

Will the Winner Really Become an Astronaut?
"The criteria for determining who has achieved human spaceflight vary" (Wikipedia). The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) defines spaceflight as any flight over 100 kilometers (328,084 feet), and in the United States the threshold is only 80 kilometers (262,467 feet). The FAA is developing a special classification for Commercial Astronauts (so far, 2 commercial astronaut wings have been awarded).

According to XCOR's website, the Lynx Mark I will have a maximum altitude of 200,000 feet. So it sounds like pilots and passengers on this version of the vehicle will not achieve astronaut status. However, the Lynx Mark II is designed to reach 328,000 feet, making pilots and passengers true Commercial Astronauts.

How does this sweepstakes benefit mankind?
  • Draws attention and awareness to private space flight.
  • Funds the private space industry and development of the Lynx by purchasing (at least one) advance ticket.
  • Gets millions of viewers to picture themselves traveling to space.
  • Boldly claims that "Nothing Beats an Astronaut" boosting astronaut social status and career desirability.
  • Boosts the astronaut coolness factor, and also depicts an astronaut trumping the sexiness of firefighters and lifeguards.
  • Markets the history of the Apollo program through repetition of the name.
  • Makes space travel seem more accessible to the average person.
  • Encourages the timely development of the Lynx space vehicle by listing a prize deadline in the official sweepstakes rules.

How does this sweepstakes hurt mankind?
  • Excludes women from their marketing through the phrase "Leave a man. Come back a hero."
  • Excludes women by depicting astronauts as men, and marketing to men only.
  • Excludes women by depicting them as the damsel in distress.
  • Excludes minorities by only depicting white actors as astronauts.

It's good to see space travel promoted on what is arguably the most mainstream of mainstream television programs ever (the Super Bowl). Although the commercials are extremely misogynistic, they do a hell of a job inspiring the idea that astronauts are awesome and that private space flight is just around the corner. On the other hand, I can't think of a better way to alienate women than to exclude them completely from the boys club. I hope a women wins the sweepstakes, wouldn't that just show them!

Update 2/8/2013: It looks like there is another way into space with AXE announcing a social media popularity campaign in which the two profiles with the most votes will attend Space Camp. There, they will be joined by 8 more people selected at a later date - and 1 out of those 10 at Space Camp will be randomly selected to join the Super Bowl Sweepstakes winner in space.

I've also been looking around the AXE site some more and noticed they have some pretty funny and very macho looking wallpapers. Yeah I guess science is fun, but dude, the chicks bro!

AXE Apollo astronaut wallpaper
AXE Apollo astronaut wallpaper

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Macro lens snowflakes with Canon PowerShot A3100 IS

Snowflakes on the arm of my winter coat taken with Canon PowerShot A3100 IS. Most of the flakes were sticking together into larger clumps as they fell. These split apart when they hit my sleeve, but not without some damage. They each have 6 delicate arms, but some of the finer details appear to have broken off during their landing.

close up snow flakes with canon powershot
1/400 sec, f/2.7, ISO 1600, 6.2 mm focal length