Saturday, April 26, 2014

Crescent Moon and Venus Rising at Dawn April 26, 2014

The 9% crescent moon rose alongside Venus this morning a little after 5:00am. The pair were about 8° apart, making it sort of a conjunction, not spectacular, but something interesting to look at on the weekend! Yes, waking up at 5am to take the dog out, seeing that the moon will rise in 5 minutes, and staying up to photograph it and then blog about it are my ideas of fun on the weekend.

Single frame at f/6.3, 2 sec, ISO 800, 85mm white balance in Photoshop

crescent moon over roof
Single frame at f/7.1, 1.3 sec, ISO 1600, 300mm white balance in Photoshop

crescent moon over roof
Single frame at f/6.3, 1.3 sec, ISO 800, 300mm

crescent moon over roof
Single frame at f/5.6, 1 sec, ISO 1600, 300mm original color

crescent moon over roof
Single frame at f/5.6, 1 sec, ISO 1600, 300mm white balance in Photoshop

crescent moon with branches
Single frame at f/9, 1.3 sec, ISO 800, 300mm, contrast in Photoshop

Single frame at f/9, 1.3 sec, ISO 800, 75mm original color
It was a major pain in the butt shooting toward oncoming traffic, and toward so many lights from my apartment complex and the warehouse across the street. The warehouse just recently added even more lights to their parking lot that sits empty all night.

Learning Depth of Field: Star Trails with a Lego Astronaut

My goal was to have my Lego astronaut standing in the foreground with swirling star trails behind him. However, with the huge distance between the Lego man and the stars, and the short distance between the Lego man and the camera, I just couldn't get both at crisp focus at the same time. In other words, I couldn't get a deep enough depth of field to have both the stars and Lego man in focus. I tried increasing the f-number (decreasing the aperture) but I still couldn't quite get it.

Lego astronaut figure
My "ideal" composition was nowhere close to getting both the stars and Lego man in focus at the same time. This shot at f/16, 25 sec, ISO 3200, 34mm
star trails with lego figure
I settled on this composition as a compromise, the Lego astronaut isn't in sharp focus, but if you know what you're looking at it's passable. This shot at f/10, 25 sec, ISO 1600, 18mm
lego moon man star trails
The final image, 186 frames stacked in StarStaX software

Ursa Minor Over My Apartment

There are some great views to the south this month, but turning my attention north, I got a nice shot of Ursa Minor with my apartment building. This will be a nice memento when I move into my new house and put the apartment life permanently in my rear view mirror!

ursa minor with DSLR
Single frame at f/4.5, 10 sec, ISO 800, 18mm
stars over roofline
Same image as above without labels

View to the South: Corvus, Virgo, Mars, and Saturn

There are some great views to the southern sky this month, with Mars blazing near Spica, and Saturn hanging out in Libra. I also got a chance to see one of my favorite smaller constellations, Corvus the crow - also known as Spica's Spanker because it resembles a type of sail called a spanker, and because two of its stars form excellent pointers for Spica.

corvus point to spica
Single frame at f/4.5, 10 sec, ISO 800, 18mm
corvus the crow spica's spanker
Same image as above without labels
Next, I wanted to see if I could fit Saturn, Mars, Corvus, and Arcturus all in the same frame. At 18mm, my calculated field of view is about 64° horizontal and 45° vertical. Currently, Arcturus is about 38° from Saturn, Saturn is about 41° from Corvus, and Corvus is about 48° from Arcturus in a big triangle. It looks like it should fit, and it does!

virgo constellation DSLR
Single frame at f/4, 13 sec, ISO 400, 18mm - Gaussian blur light pollution layer subtracted in Photoshop
corvus virgo mars and saturn
Same image as above with fewer labels

Friday, April 25, 2014

Comparing Various Low Light Camera Apps for iPhone

I don't know why anyone would want to take photos at night with an iPhone (kidding of course). As soon as a new camera is created, there are people who will push it to the limits and try to get it to do things it was never designed to do. That's part of the fun for low light and night photography with iPhone.

This is far from a thorough review of the various apps, and each app might have other conditions that would make it better or worse in different situations. Nevertheless, here are a few examples.

NightCap Pro without noise reduction
NightCap Pro without noise reduction
NightCap Pro with noise reduction
NightCap Pro with noise reduction
AvgNiteCam with 16 frames
AvgNiteCam with 16 frames
Night Modes app
Night Modes app
Default iPhone camera app
Canon T5i DSLR at f/8, 8 sec, ISO 1600, 18mm

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bottle of Wine and Wine Glass with Night Sky and Stars in Background

What a relaxing night over the weekend! I took these photos of a bottle of wine with a wine glass and the night sky full of stars (and the planet Jupiter) in the background. I'm so glad Spring is here, and warm summer nights are not far away!

Ok, you got me, I used a super descriptive headline for the blog post in case people are looking for a photo of a wine bottle with stars in the background.

Bottle of Wine and Wine Glass with Night Sky and Stars
f/8, 8 sec, ISO 1600, 18mm

wine bottle and wine glass in front of stars background
f/4, 4 sec, ISO 1600, 18mm

night wine glass and bottle with stars
f/4, 4 sec, ISO 800, 18mm

How about I top off this pseudo-product-astrophotography photo set with a CamelBak star trail portrait! I got tired of the same old balcony railing so at least these objects in the foreground make it a little more interesting.

camelbak bottle with star trails
Stack of 673 images each at 15 sec, f/11, ISO 1600, 22mm

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mars, Moon, Spica Conjunction July 5, 2014

On July 5, 2014, the night of my sister's birthday, and my friend Ryan's wedding, the Moon will be within half a degree of the planet Mars, and the pair will both be about 3 degrees from the 15th brightest star Spica. It should be a bright and interesting summer night conjunction!

The position you see here is based on my location in Indiana. In South America the moon will actually move in front of Mars. This is known as an occultation, e.g. the moon will "occult" Mars.

Every time I poke around in Stellarium I find new and interesting events. I suppose I could have just looked at the 101 Astronomical Events for 2014, but stumbling upon conjunctions is fun too.

July 5 2014 mars moon spica conjunction
Screen capture from Stellarium software

Ceres and Vesta Super Close Conjunction Flyby July 2014

Update: I was photographing Ceres and Vesta last night (5/18/2014) and noticed that Stellarium was a little off in their position. Heavens Above seems to be right on the money! Looking ahead, it looks like the Ceres/Vesta closest approach will occur around July 4-6.

ceres and vesta july 2014
Screenshot from Heavens Above showing Ceres and Vesta close conjunction

In July 2014, the 2nd largest asteroid Vesta will buzz past the 1st largest asteroid (dwarf planet) Ceres in a super close conjunction flyby. Check out these animated star chart diagrams that show the position of Ceres and Vesta during the conjunction. How close will they be? From our perspective about 2' or 3' (arcminutes) separation on the night of July 13. Don't miss the chance to observe and photograph this extreme asteroid mashup in Virgo.

Both objects should be visible in binoculars, with a small telescope, or with a nice zoom lens and DSLR camera. Vesta will be brighter at +6.4 and Ceres dimmer at +7.7 magnitude.

Here is an animation I made using screenshots from Stellarium to show the position of Vesta relative to Ceres over a period of 38 days.

animation star chart for ceres vesta conjunction
Vesta and Ceres July 2014 Conjunction - Animation of 38 screenshots from Stellarium

animation star chart for ceres vesta conjunction
Vesta and Ceres July 2014 Conjunction - Animation of 38 screenshots from Stellarium
To locate the pair of asteroids, look to Virgo and use the conveniently positioned Mars and Spica as pointers! How handy is that!

spica and mars point to ceres and vesta
Spica and Mars point to Ceres and Vesta

Jupiter at Prime Focus with Canon T5i on Meade 285

I wish I could show you what I saw with my eye (said every photographer ever). I observed Jupiter through my Meade 285 refractor (60mm, 2.4") last night. I was able to visually make out two red stripes on the face of a pale yellow orange dot. At something like 35 arcseconds in diameter, this might not be the ideal time to observe Jupiter - but it's still larger than Mars at only 15 arcseconds in diameter.

Because my camera takes 1080p video, the single frames are actually much higher resolution. I was able to see a faint dark cloud band in a single frame (not as good as with my eye through the eyepiece). My 6mm eyepiece focuses the light further away from the eyepiece, which is great for people who wear glasses so they don't have to press their glasses up against the eyepiece. However, this makes it harder to hold an iPhone over the eyepiece because you have to hover in mid-air rather than resting the phone on the eyepiece.

DSLR attached to refractor telescope
Canon T5i attached to my small telescope with T-ring and .965" to T-thread adapter

DSLR attached to telescope
Looking at Jupiter down the barrel

Jupiter single frame
Single frame (not stacked from video), one dark cloud band visible

astronomy fuzzy blob
Stacked from 1080p video at prime focus (just a blob)

Jupiter and moons from DSLR
Single frame at ISO 6400 compared to Stellarium screenshot

Friday, April 18, 2014

Goodbye April Snow, Meade 285 Refractor Ready for the Weekend

This ol' workhorse is the only telescope I've got, and I'm putting it to work this weekend. We should have two days of clear skies (jinx), and no snow. No snow!!! It snowed the day of the recent lunar eclipse here in Indiana.What a bummer!

meade 285
Meade 285

april snow in indiana
Snow in Indiana the morning of April 15, 2014

Testing NightCap Pro for iPhone with In-App Star Trails

iphone star trails with nightcap
Single exposure with NightCap Pro app for iPhone, stars, Jupiter, plenty of air traffic, and light pollution
NightCap Pro, an upgrade to the popular NightCap low light iPhone camera app, was released on Thursday. This app includes several of the features that already set the original NightCap apart from other low light camera apps - such as the option to choose file formats (JPEG, HQ JPEG, and TIFF), the ability to automatically take infinite back-to-back photos of various exposure durations, and an ISO boost maxing out the iPhone at ISO 3200 (more ISO firepower than I had in my DSLR until this past Christmas).

More info and tips available at or in the App Store. It's so nice to know that someone else out there is thinking about astronomy and astrophotography with an iPhone. In fact, Chris from Interealtime Software emailed me and showed me a great star trail photo he took with the NightCap Pro app.

The only down side is the lack of volume shutter release, but Chris says that feature is coming down the road. For now, a simple timer does the trick. Get a steady tripod and some dark skies, and you'll be surprised what you can make with your iPhone! Move away from the city to avoid that green glow (grrrrr), and if you take star photos with your iPhone I wanna see them! Share your blog links in the comments (no spam please).

nightcap pro featuresnightcap pro features

Monday, April 14, 2014

Lunar Eclipse Monday Night, April 14-15, First of Four This Year and Next

If you're lucky enough to see the total lunar eclipse from North America tonight (total eclipse begins at 3:00am ET), look near the moon for the bright star Spica, and the red planet Mars. If you're getting rain - and maybe even some snow - don't be too upset. This lunar eclipse is the first of 4 coming in a relatively short period of time. The next lunar eclipse is in October 2014.

lunar eclipse and mars
The moon and Spica within 9° of the red planet Mars - screenshot from Stellarium

Check out the NASA eclipse website with information about the next 3 lunar eclipses coming up soon! Be careful with the dates as well, like tonight the date of the eclipse is the 15th which means the early morning of the 15th and not tomorrow night. Here is a list of the next lunar eclipses in 2014 and 2015:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

View of Chicago and Indianapolis from the Space Station at Night

What do Chicago and Indianapolis look like at night from the International Space Station? These images are from The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, which provides images to the public for free. Searching through thousands of images, it can sometimes be difficult to orient yourself and try to figure out just what you're looking at. Luckily, Lake Michigan and Chicago are pretty easy to spot, and Indianapolis is nearby.

Visit the site and search through the archives for yourself. There are plenty of interesting and breathtaking photos hidden away. 

Chicago and Indianapolis from space at night
Chicago and Indianapolis from space at night - ISS030-E-106115
Chicago and Indianapolis from space at night
Chicago and Indianapolis from space at night
Chicago and Indianapolis from space at night - ISS030-E-230479
Chicago and Indianapolis from space at night

Leo Triplet and M96 Group with Canon T5i on Fixed Tripod

The April observing list includes a lot of Messier Objects I haven't before dared to image with my Canon T5i on a fixed tripod, including galaxies in Leo that I assumed were far too faint to capture. These objects, comprising the Leo Triplet and the M96 Group (or the Leo I Group), include M95, M96, M105, NGC 3384, M65, M66, and NGC 3628.

Quite a hefty lineup! But how would my DSLR on a fixed tripod at 300mm be able to pick up these faint tiny galaxies in the magnitude +10 range? I used ISO 3200 and 6400 in some cases, and stacked a ton of dark and bias frames to try to tease out the fuzzy blobs from the background noise. I stacked the images in Deep Sky Stacker and tweaked them a bit in Photoshop. Here are the results:

First up is the Leo Triplet with M65, M66, NGC 3628. With the help of I found NGC 3593 hiding down near the bottom of the image. This group was easy to find with the help of Chertan (Theta Leonis) as an anchor star. Once I had it in frame, I knew the trio was in frame as well - although I really couldn't see these faint galaxies in my viewfinder. They didn't emerge until I got the frames into my computer. 

Canon T5i M65, M66, NGC 3628
2min 40sec total exposure time, stack of 124 subs, 60 dark, 46 bias at ISO 6400, 300mm, f/5.6, 1.3 sec

Next up, another trio (or quatro) in Leo, this is the M96 Group comprised of (you guessed it) M96, M95, M105, and NGC 3384.  Not pictured, the much fainter NGC 3389 is just to the left of M105. With no great anchor star, this bunch was more difficult to find, but not terrible. I re-used the dark and bias frames from my Beehive Cluster stack at ISO 3200 on this one.

Canon T5i M96, M95, M105, and NGC 3384
3min 39sec total exposure, stack of 169 subs, 85 darks, 78 bias at ISO 3200, 300mm, f/5.6, 1.3 sec
Not only do these two triplets complete my April observing list (need 6 items to complete) in one night, but they also add 5 new objects to my Messier Object checklist, bringing my Messier total up to 54 out of 110!