Friday, October 31, 2014

Gift Guide Ideas for Astronomy & Astrophotography Holiday Shopping

It's time to start thinking about that perfect gift for yourself, your friend, or your family member who loves astronomy, astrophotography, science, or stargazing. Of course that next equipment upgrade is probably at the top of their list, but it's also probably pretty expensive. If you're worried about spending too much, or getting them the wrong thing, consider something more universally useful or novel and interesting. I spent hours hand-picking these items from around the Internet! I hope you get inspired to pick out an amazing gift!

retro space posters
Retro style space posters
Retro looking space posters inspired by vintage travel ads are a cool trend. There are some really good ones on right now. But if you're looking for a bargain, NASA has some exoplanet posters that are FREE to the public. The high resolution images are free to re-use and re-print, so you can make your own copies and get them framed.

Astronomy and natural history inspired artwork by Elise Mahan
We've all seen amazing Hubble photos of the cosmos, but original artwork inspired by night scenes and the night sky add a new perspective. Elise Mahan has a store on Etsy, and her work is also available in large wall decals on Amazon.
Celestron Power Tank - Two 12V output cigarette lighter ports Built-in flashlight with red filter cap
Stargazing out in the middle of nowhere? You'll need power for your laptop, motorized mount, dew heater, and cell phone charger. These power tanks come in a variety of sizes.
LED headlamp with option for red light
I use my LED headlamp ALL THE TIME! It's a great gift for stargazers or anyone who takes photos at night. It doesn't have to be super bright - in fact, I prefer the 'camping' or 'running' kind and not the super expensive industrial headlamps. As long as it has an option for a red light setting, it will work for setting up equipment, looking at star charts, or just not tripping over your stuff.

Night sky playing cards with constellations
These night sky playing cards with constellations are just for fun, and cheap enough for a stocking stuffer. It's a great gift that says "I know you like astronomy, but you've got to be kidding me I can't afford that new apochromatic refractor you've been eyeing!"

Orion Constellation Necklace with Working Compass
This small compass necklace is a fun gift idea! Similar to the artwork or playing cards, it's not something your astronomy buff will use out in the field - but it's a great way to say "hey, I know you love astronomy."
Constellation coffee mug - constellations appear when hot
Astronomy and astrophotography is literally fueled by coffee. LITERALLY. Ok not literally. But this novelty mug is an inexpensive fun gift for a co-worker, friend, or family member. Also, check out this Orion constellation mug on Etsy.

Space Pen - writes upside down, in zero gravity, and from -30°F to 250°F
One of my favorite anecdotes is that Americans spent thousands of dollars trying to solve the problem of ball-point pens not working correctly in micro-gravity. They developed this pen with a sealed pressurized ink cartridge after extensive research and testing, while the Russians opted for a pencil and went on with their business.

Brass Tabletop Armillary Nautical Sphere
I love the look of vintage astronomical and navigation devices. This table-top armillary is a nice decor item that definitely has that cool historic look to it and a nice finish. There is also a more-hand-made-looking one on Etsy, but it's a little more expensive.

Wind-up gravity defying fridge rover
Ok, how cool is this!? It's a wind up toy that roves vertically across your fridge. It's a perfect gift for anyone who likes the Mars rovers, space, science, or neat little toys. It's not exactly HOURS of fun, but it's perfect as a little thoughtful gift.

astronomy gift idea
Portable heated folding chair - battery powered heated seat
I was shocked that there aren't more options for this product. I found one called Chaheati and one called The Seat Heater. Both seem to have trouble keeping these heated folding chairs in stock! This item is perfect for watching meteor showers or just stargazing in general. A lot of people forget that stargazing is an outdoor nature hobby - and requires a lot of the same gear you would take hunting or fishing. Throw in some hand warmers while you're at it!

astronomy gift guide
Heavy duty winter gloves, such as Outdoor Research Arete Gloves
After trying two different department store solutions, it's time to upgrade to real heavy-duty outdoor winter gloves. I've gotten to scary levels of cold while trying to photograph things in the middle of the night. I think investing in a 'real' pair of winter gloves is worth the extra cost.

astronomy gift idea
Orion 5693 SteadyPix Universal Smartphone Telescope Photo Adapter
If you're tired of messing around with a home-made telescope adapter mount, this is a great universal option. iPhone astrophotography is here to stay, and this model of telescope adapter mount has been around for a while with some pretty good reviews.

astronomy gift idea
180 Fish Eye Lens + Wide Angle + Micro Lens Kit for iPhone
This clip on lens kit for iPhone is great, I use it myself. I used it to take a wide-angle shot of the space station fly-over using my iPhone. It also includes a macro lens for super close-up magnification detail shots.
astronomy gift idea
Glif iPhone Tripod Mount
I got this item for myself a couple years ago and I've used it constantly! I seriously use this all the time. It's so simple and elegant - it does exactly what it's supposed to do and does it discretely with an attractive form. Note: Make sure you know what series of iPhone you need it for, the new iPhone 6 has curved sides.
astronomy gift idea
Toolbox with removable top tray
I don't know why it took me so long to get a toolbox for all my trinkets and camera gadgets - I got it last year for Christmas and it's probably my second favorite gift that I got (second only to my new camera). It's super handy and is something that your friend or relative might not even realize they need!

astronomy gift idea
36"x18" 2015 Moon Calendar Poster with Eclipses
This gorgeous 2015 moon calendar shows lunar events, including lunar eclipses. Made by Ashland Astronomy Studio, this great wall poster is a useful and attractive guide to the phases of the moon and other lunar events, like perigee and apogee.

astronomy gift idea
LEGO Space Center
Nobody out-grows LEGO sets, especially these great space sets from the LEGO City collection. Buy the whole space center, or just a tiny astronaut set. I love my LEGO astronaut! I keep him in my astrophotography toolbox.

astronomy gift idea
Glow in the dark star stickers
A great nostalgic gift for the kid-at-heart, or perfect for getting your kids excited about space. Everyone should have glow in the dark star stickers on their ceiling at some point!

astronomy gift idea
Lowepro Camera Bag
Camera bags have come a long way in recent years. You don't have to settle for the old camera bag when you can have this new super slick Lowepro bag.

astronomy gift idea
Eyefi Mobi wireless transfer SD card to iPhone and other devices
Don't wait until you get home to tweet your lunar eclipse photos, or share your other amazing images straight to your phone from the SD card. Sometimes you need to take lots of photos and process them on the computer, but sometimes you want to get that quick shot public as soon as possible - and when there's just no time to waste, you can wirelessly connect your phone to your SD card and access the photos immediately.

astronomy gift idea
Chelyabinsk LL5 Chondrite Meteorites at
I had an chance to see a piece of the Chelyabinsk meteorite recently, and clearly remember seeing the videos for the first time from this famous explosion over Russia. Now is your chance to own a piece of this amazing event. The smaller ones are only around $100, much cheaper than I would have guessed considering how famous this event was. There are also tons of other meteorites for sale (literally) and some very inexpensive (as little as $1.50).

astrophotography gift idea Gift Certificate
At a loss of what to give to your photography-addicted friend or loved one? Why not give the pleasure of using some of the best camera gear in the business? This service lets your friend or family member try out the best equipment by borrowing it and sending it back. Some of these lenses are thousands of dollars, but can be rented for a week or two without breaking the bank - just enough time to decide if they like it before buying, or using it for a specific event like an eclipse.

astrophotography gift idea
External hard drive
If you know someone who's into astrophotography, let me give you a great gift suggestion. Astrophotographers are always running out of storage space for their image files. We have to take a LOT of photos to create timelapse videos, deep sky mosaics, and calibration files. Did you know the price of 1 TB of storage has come down a lot in the past few years?

Universal camera phone tripod mount
As much as I like the Glif mount I mention above, I did find when I upgraded phones that I was limited because it was only meant for a specific model of iPhone. This Vastar universal smartphone tripod mount takes care of that. It lets you mount your phone either vertical or horizontal on a standard tripod head.

Things to keep in mind: Stargazing is an outdoor nature hobby, and while most of the actual observing or photography gear is highly technical (and highly expensive), a lot of items related to camping gear could also come in handy. Things like hand warmers, boots, flashlights, even a new sleeping bag.

Storage space and computer processing are also premium gifts for astrophotography. If your loved one is going off to the badlands in the middle of the night, send him or her with a high capacity memory card, or multiple memory cards. Think about batteries, portable hard drives, or even an iPad with cellular built in to get maps and star charts in the field.

So there you have it, those are my recommendations. Do you have any ideas that I missed? Feel free to add some suggestions in the comments below! If you thought this post was helpful, please share it with your friends and followers. I made this handy Pinterest-friendly image.

astronomy gift ideas

Point and Shoot Star Trails Edited in Snapseed

It's been a while since I did star trails using my point and shoot camera. Here is a stack of 234 frames the other night. I put my camera down on a rock in the corner of my backyard looking back at the house. I straightened the photo and edited it in Snapseed to give it a dramatic HDR effect which helps to remove some of the 'glow' from the house and bring your attention to the sky.

star trails with hdr effect
234 frames with Canon Powershot A3100IS, each at ISO 800, 6.2mm, f/2.7, 15 sec, stacked in StarStaX, edited in Snapseed
canon powershot star trails
Same photo as above, stacked in StarStaX but not yet edited

Friday, October 24, 2014

That time I got to see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak for free at UIndy

A free lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson was announced to be held at the University of Indianapolis, and was open to the public! I went online the moment tickets became available and jumped all over it! I got 2 free tickets and planned to take my less than enthusiastic partner :)

neil degrasse tyson program

When we got to the campus at UIndy, we drove around the athletic fields and couldn't find where to go. Then we saw a sign with an arrow that said "campus event" and assumed it had to be the only big campus event that night. Big was an understatement, when we pulled up in front of the basketball arena, Nicoson Hall, we saw a line down the street. It was a general seating event, and tons of people showed up to get good seats. We were an hour and a half early and still had thousands of people in front of us. 

line for neil degrasse tyson

line for neil degrasse tyson

Residents in on-campus housing were poking their heads out of their residence halls in shock, some asked what the heck was going on. On a campus of 5000 students, the additional 4000 attendants was clearly shocking. Cell phone reception was lousy as the masses flooded the small community. 

neil degrasse tyson uindy

We got inside and were handed gorgeous programs for the lecture, it was so nice to read about the lecture series and I was really impressed that such a small campus was able to book Dr. Tyson. Apparently they had been working on this event for more than a year. The sunken octagon arena had permanent bleachers around the perimeter, and folding chairs down front. We were in the bleachers opposite the stage, and I felt sorry for the people trying to watch from the side or even behind the stage. 

neil degrasse tyson lecture university of indianapolis

The lecture was fun, but nothing really "new" that I hadn't already read about on or photographed myself. I think the real draw is the chance to see a science celebrity and to celebrate astronomy publicly. I came away with some new factoids, and it was fun to hear about events in the news from an expert with a charismatic and humorous delivery. This is starting to sound like a review, which it's not intended to be. I'll just say if you are already an astronomy buff and plan to see him speak in a lecture marketed to the average Joe, to expect fun commentary on very topical astronomy related news and not expect a science lecture. 

The event went over by 20 before we left, and we didn't even stay for the Q&A - it's really more than a lecture it's like a night with Neil Tyson. Lots of fun, fun people watching, and great to see enthusiasm for science right here in Indy! The UIndy campus was also AMAZING, I had no idea. There is this little canal park in the middle with bald cypress and river birch surrounding a big oval green space. I loved it!

My Slimmest Crescent Moon at 2% Illumination

This is my slimmest moon yet, at just 2.1% illuminated. I saw it while pulling out of my driveway on the way to work, and I put the car in park to run back inside and grab my camera. Photos are from the morning of October 22, 2014 at 7:22am. My previous slimmest moon was in February at 3% illuminated. I guess technically an eclipse is about the "newest" a moon can possibly be, but the slimmest crescent is still a fun achievement to track. 

very slim crescent moon
Single frame Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1 sec
very slim crescent moon
Single frame with Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/10 sec

very slim crescent moon
Single frame with Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/3 sec

very slim crescent moon
Single frame with Canon T5i, ISO 100, 120mm, f/5.6, 1.3 sec

October 23 Partial Solar Eclipse from Indiana and AR12192

We had clear skies all day and then got clouded out right before sunset. I had my camera set up in my office with a west-facing window, and planned to snap some pics before a 7:00pm meeting. I got a few through the clouds, and a chance to spot the huge sunspot (active region) AR12192, which is now the biggest since November 1990.

October 23 Partial Solar Eclipse
Single frame with Canon T5i, 6:06pm, ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1 sec, exposure adjust in Lightroom

October 23 Partial Solar Eclipse
Single frame with Canon T5i, 5:58pm, ISO 200, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/20 sec

October 23 Partial Solar Eclipse
Single frame with Canon T5i, 6:06pm, ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1 sec

October 23 Partial Solar Eclipse
Single frame with Canon T5i, 5:58pm, ISO 1600, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/25 sec

October 23 Partial Solar Eclipse
Single frame with Canon T5i, 5:59pm, ISO 200, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/15 sec
sunspot AR12192 october 23
Single frame with Canon T5i, 5:08pm, ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/25 sec

indiana sky october 23
Sky conditions during the solar eclipse... what the heck!

sun photo canon t5i
Shooting the sun from my office

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Huge Sunspot October 21, 2014

sunspot 300mm canon
Single frame with Canon T5i, 300mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/30 sec
I tried stacking my sunspots again and I was actually more pleased with the clarity of single frames rather than the stacking result. I did some developing in Lightroom, which included turning down the contrast (brings out the lighter area around the sunspot) and turning down the shadow (similar to decreasing contrast) and turning up the clarity (just a bit). Next I brought the brightness down a little bit and was pretty pleased.

This is a gigantic sunspot! I can't wait to see if it is still in view during the partial solar eclipse on Thursday. I'm bringing my camera with solar filter to work with me on Thursday, and I'm also hoping to get a shot with some foreground - which I'm learning uses much different settings compared to the shots through the filter. Check out my home made DSLR solar filter shoutout on Universe Today!

sunspot october 21
Single frame with Canon T5i, 300mm, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/30 sec

Sunday, October 19, 2014

DSLR Solar Observing Test and Sunspots October 19, 2014

Using my home made solar filter attachment for my DSLR, I did my first solar observing test today. I couldn't have asked for anything more for a first try! How exciting! Not only do I have a ballpark set of numbers camera settings to use on the partial eclipse, but I was able to observe and identify sunspots for the first time ever!

canon T5i sun photo
Canon T5i, stack of 15 frames each at ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/15 sec

sunspots DSLR 300mm
Same as above with sunspot active regions labeled. 2192 recently produced a large solar flare (link).
So this solar observing test also prompted me to learn a little more about sunspot naming or labeling. It turns out, "There is no naming or numbering system for sunspots. There is a system for numbering active regions, however. An active region can contain one or more spots. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) numbers active regions consecutively as they are observed on the Sun" (source).

During this test, the sky wasn't totally clear - but I was still able to observe sunspots. Can't wait to try it again when the sky is perfectly blue.

observing conditions
Sky conditions during my solar observing test
I looked up the sunspot active regions on the SOHO website and easily compared it to my photos. Here is a side by side version. I had to rotate my sun to match the orientation of the SDO image.

sunspots and active regions
Comparing my photo to the SDO image at the same time, you can clearly see the two large active regions, and faintly make out the two tiny ones in between. They are more apparent if I crank the contrast but it ruins the look of the image. 

I learned a lot about taking photos in the daytime. It was really difficult trying to focus on the sun, but I used the live view method of zooming in and manually adjusting while looking at the large LCD screen. The reflection on the screen was so bad, I had to cover myself and the back of the camera with a jacket in order to see it clearly. I felt like one of those old-timey photographers with the hood over the back of the camera.

taking photos of the sun
Whatever gets the job done!

Also, in case you were wondering what the photos look like straight out of the camera, here is an untouched shot prior to stacking and cropping. It still has a pleasing orange color because I'm using black polymer instead of Mylar. To compare, I think the telescopes had Mylar filters for the transit of Venus event that I photographed with my iPhone through the eyepiece.

sunspots DSLR at 300mm
Single frame straight from Canon T5i, ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/15 sec

home made solar filter or DSLR
Here's another look at my home made solar filter, it looks pretty good in the daylight