The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

The Crescent Moon, Mars and Mercury

Mercury is starting to climb up in the western sky for a pretty good appearance and tonight the crescent Moon joined Mars in the vicinity. I managed to get a few shots. I expected Mercury to be difficult to see low in the sky, but it was much easier to find than the higher Mars. In these shots, Mars is to the the right and just below the Moon. Mercury is below Mars and just a little to the right. There are a couple of planes drifting through this part of the sky so don’t be fooled by them!

 

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April 20, 2015 Posted by | Astrophotography, Mars, Mercury, Moon, Pretty Pictures | Leave a comment

More On Comet Lovejoy

I went out again last night (Saturday, December 27th) and did some more with Comet Lovejoy. I was out a little later so the Moon was very low and even set while I was observing. The comet was again an easy naked eye object and very nice through 8×42 binoculars. I set up my trusty Canon 60D and iOptron Skytracker to take some more photos.

I took a bunch of 30 second exposures…hope to go back and stack them. Anyway, I just want to post this one since a plane flew right by the comet during one of them and I thought that was kind of fun.

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Here is a longer 120 second exposure that brings out the tail. The small globular cluster M79 is to the upper right of the comet.

IMG_6899Finally, I put the 35mm lens on my camera and did a 30 second exposure so you can see where the comet is in the bigger picture.

IMG_6925I went out tonight just outside my townhome (not to Saguaro National Park). The Moon is brighter and I have more light pollution here. I was not able to pic out the comet naked eye from here but it was easy in binoculars. Comets are notoriously fickle but it is forecast to brighten in the couple of weeks and I hope it gets to naked eye visibility from here. It is also climbing higher in the sky which should help, especially for those farther north (it tops out around 30 degrees above the horizon in Tucson right now, take one degree off that for every degree farther north you are!)

For better and for worse, I travel a lot the next couple of weeks and am trying to figure out how much equipment I can take with me to keep track of this comet on my trip!

 

 

December 29, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet Lovejoy | 2 Comments

Here Comes Another Comet Lovejoy

Terry Lovejoy has done it again…another comet he discovered is becoming a nice object. This one is Comet Lovejoy 2014 Q2. He discovered it back in August and it has been a southern sky object but as it approaches Earth, it is moving into the northern sky. I finally got it tonight after fighting weather and my own busy schedule.

I went out to one of my usual spots at the end of Speedway in Tucson. This is the Douglas Spring Trailhead at Saguaro National Park East. It is about a 10 minute drive from where I live so it is reasonable dark to the southeast. Comet Lovejoy was faintly visible to the naked eye and easy in 10×42 binoculars. I took some pics but accidentally had my camera set in JPEG mode rather than raw (STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!) I will try again tomorrow night after the late improv show…Moon should be low enough then that it won’t be a big deal and the comet should still be far enough east that it won’t get lost in Tucson’s lights. Anyway, here is my pic from tonight.

IMG_6834This comet will be around for a few weeks…see it now or wait until after the full Moon in January when the skies will be darker. You might see it naked eye!

 

December 27, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet Lovejoy | | Leave a comment

Venus and Neptune

I love taking pretty astro photos as much as the next person. However, I also enjoy taking shots that may not be as visually appealing but that show an interesting phenomena.

One such opportunity arose as the planets Venus and Neptune had a close conjunction on April 12th. At closest approach, they were only 40 arc minutes (2/3 of a degree) apart. They would have been a little farther apart by the time they rose in Tucson that morning, but still pretty close. Unfortunately, the morning of the 12th was cloud so I had to wait for the clouds to break. This morning (the 13th) was nice and clear when my alarm went off. According to Stellarium, they would be about 1 degree, 32 arc minutes apart when I went out this morning.

Again, I fired up the trusty Canon 60D with the 75-300mm zoom lens at 300mm. I didn’t bother with the Skytracker as I figured I should be able to get the pair with a fairly short exposure. I took quite a few shots, but my favorite ended up being a 2 second exposure at ISO5000 (which showed the mountains faintly in the foreground). I put an arrow to help you find Neptune.

Venus-Neptune

 

The star immediately above Neptune is HIP111398 and the two brighter stars to the right are sigma Aquarius (top) and 58 Aquarius (bottom) for those trying to get oriented in the sky.

Although they appear close together in the sky, they are far apart. Venus is a mere 78 million miles away and Neptune is 2.85 billion miles away! Light takes about 7 minutes to reach us from Venus but about 4 hours and 12 minutes to arrive from Neptune! Neptune’s diameter is about twice that of Venus, but is appears dim since it is so far away and receives much less sunlight than Venus.

If you have similar equipment to mine, you can go out and try to get your own photograph of a nearby planet and a distant planet in the same shot for the next few days.

April 13, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Neptune, Venus | , | 1 Comment

A Night On Kitt Peak

Last night I was fortunate enough to accompany a U of Arizona student on a trip up Kitt Peak. He was trying to observe an exoplanet transit with the 0.9 meter telescope (he got data…has to analyze it to see if he saw the planet). We also took some pretty pictures (again, pending analysis) with the telescope.

Fortunately, there were times I could sneak outside with my camera and take some pics. The Moon was waxing gibbous so it’s light would dominate until it set. Fortunately, there are still interesting things you can photograph. Mars was at opposition last night so I took a couple of pictures of Mars and Spica as they rose over the domes.

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As twilight ended, I setup  for a shot I have wanted to do for a long time. I walked down to the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. This famous telescope looks like the number 7 on its side. It is polar aligned which means that the tunnel points straight toward the north star (less than half the tunnel is above ground…it’s really a cool scope!) I set up my camera at the base of the telescope where the tunnel went underground and set my intervalometer to take a whole bunch of 30 second exposures which I then stacked to produce the star trails shown below. The one star at the tip of the telescope that stays still is the North Star.

McMath-Pierce Star TrailsI then went back to the 0.9 meter scope and setup  for a star trails shot pointing toward the 4 meter telescope. Some clouds started rolling in and I stopped after a while thinking my photo wouldn’t come out. I processed it anyway and the moving clouds created an interesting image. Maybe I should have kept taking more images to make the trails longer!

Star Trails over 4 meter clouds

Did some visual observing for a while and then after the Moon set, went for some images of the Milky Way rising.

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Great night, but got very little sleep…say, that sounds like a good idea.

 

 

 

 

April 10, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Pretty Pictures | | 4 Comments

The Zodiacal Light and Some Other Things

Last night I was at a star party in very rural Arizona where it is very dark. I didn’t have a lot of time for photography, but I had to get the Zodiacal Light after sunset.

Zodiacal LightThat nice vertical pillar of white is the Zodiacal Light. The Zodiacal Light is caused by sunlight reflecting off of dust in the plane of our solar system. Since this dust is in the plane of our solar system, it shows up along the ecliptic (or Zodiac). The ecliptic is almost vertical with respect to the horizon at sunset for people in the northern hemisphere at this time of year so the light really stands out.

But there are some other interesting things in this image. The Pleaides stand out near the top and above the pole on the right you can see the faint smudge that is the Andromeda Galaxy. In the middle of the image about 2/3 of the way up is a small streak. I checked for satellites in the area and there now no bright passes (or Iridium flares) so this is probably a meteor. At the bottom you can see a curved line. That is clearly a jet (I sat it naked eye as well) probably training at the Yuma Proving Grounds.

I was just going to post this on flickr (which I did) and wasn’t planning on a blog entry until I did a little closer inspection and started realizing all the other stuff that I captured.

February 27, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Zodiacal Light | | Leave a comment

Two Morning Comets

The comets from last fall have been fading, but they are not gone. Last week, two of them had a fairly close encounter in the morning sky. On February 6th, Comets Lovejoy and Linear (X1) were just two degrees apart. Unfortunately, cloudy mornings ruled in Tucson for a while before and after that.

I finally got my break Sunday morning. Looking outside at 4:30am, it was clear so I grabbed my camera and headed to my dark site. The comets were fainter, but easily visible in my pics.

IMG_0169-2Comet Lovejoy is the upper blue blob and LINEAR is the blue fuzzy patch near the bottom center of the screen. At the very left of the frame is the open cluster NGC6633. I used my Canon 60D with 75-300mm zoom lens at 300mm, f/5.6, 120sec exposure at ISO5000 on an iOptron Skytracker. In other words, my usual setup.

These comets are still visible but moving farther apart. Universe today has a nice article on how to find them if you want to check them out.

February 12, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet Lovejoy, Comets | , | Leave a comment

The Crescent Moon and Uranus

I like taking unusual pictures sometimes. They aren’t always the most spectacular shots, but they show off unusual conjunctions that may happen fairly often but are rarely photographed.

Tonight’s shot that falls into that category is the Moon and Uranus. I didn’t think I was going to get a chance at this on as it was raining in the early part of the evening. By chance I happened to be outside around 9pm and it had cleared so I grabbed the camera and went for it. The following shot was taken with my Canon60D, EF 75-300mm lens at 220mm and f/5.6, 0.5 second exposure at ISO3200. I fired up Stellarium to verify which of the fainter objects was Uranus and put a little line pointing to it (and it took forever since my computer with Lightroom and Photoshop had a hard drive crash and I am currently waiting for replacement parts I had to use alternate photo processing programs…don’t worry…a good backup exists!)

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In October, we will have a totally eclipsed Moon very close to the planet Uranus. I look forward to capturing this pair at that time, clouds willing!

 

February 4, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Moon, Uranus | | Leave a comment

Supernova in M82

I have been busy and not had as much time to do any astrophotography recently. Fortunately, I had some good luck and timing yesterday.

Wednesday morning, I woke up to news of a supernova in M82. Fortunately, I saw this before I went to work. I was scheduled to work with some students at Tohono O’odham Commuity College in Sells last night and thought I might get a chance to try to catch the supernova from there. The college site is nice and dark so it was worth a shot throwing my equipment in the car. Fortune also smiled with clear skies when I got out there.

I was using my Canon 60D, EF 75-300mm zoom lens and iOptron Skytracker, my usual setup. Although there are people with larger, better setups out there that will no doubt take more spectacular pics, I can at least purse the record for the person who imaged the supernova with the smallest setup!

I took some pics of M82 and the nearby galaxy M81 a few weeks ago before the supernova. Here is one of those pics. I took this one on Christmas Eve and believe I used my 250mm lens so the scale is a little different.

11543164176_f1aedfb94c_oOkay, now here is the one from last night. The two lines point to the new little point of light that is the supernova (I did not crop the pics the same and they were taken with slightly different lenses so the scale is different). Click the images for larger versions.

12103271733_0d5c3c8542_oHopefully you can see the new little dot of light. It’s position matches up with the position of the supernova.

This supernova is interesting for many reasons. First, M82 is undergoing a rapid burst of star formation due to a recent pass by the nearby galaxy M81 (also seen in the pic). Increased rates of star formation lead to higher rates of supernova. Second, M82 is a relatively nearby galaxy (only 12 million light years away or so) which means we can study it in greater detail than more distant supernova.

Finally, this is a type 1a supernova. Type 1a supernova form when a white dwarf star sucks matter off a nearby companion star. White dwarfs have a maximum mass about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun. If you add more matter than that, you get a huge explosion which destroys the star. This white dwarf suffered that fate leading to the supernova we are now observing.

Since type 1a supernova always happen when the mass hits 1.4 times that of our Sun, they are always about the same brightness. If you know the brightness of an object, you can figure out its distance. Type 1a supernova are very bright and can be seen in distant galaxies and are very important for astronomers to determine the distance to other galaxies. The more we can study nearby ones, the better we understand them and the better we can measure the distances to other galaxies. Therefore, astronomers are training lots of scopes on this supernova right now!

Oh, I got so excited about the pics, I should mention that we saw it visually as well. We were using a 6″ Celestron Nexstar SE and could see a little bright spot in the galaxy right where the supernova is. I am always nervous showing objects like this to people as you sometimes get the disappointed “Is that it?” reaction. The students last night, however, were happy to be able to see it and I didn’t have to deal with that common reaction. So I can tell you it is visible with a 6″ or larger scope…wouldn’t surprise me if people spot it with even smaller scopes.

This supernova looks like it was discovered before peak brightness. It will probably get brighter for another week or two before starting to fade. How much brighter is an open question and hard to predict. We don’t know how long it took after the explosion for us to discover the supernova (several pre-discovery images have already turned up) and there may be intervening dust that dims the supernova. Worst case scenario, it will not get worse for a week or two. Best case scenario, it brightens another couple of magnitudes.

My sympathies to the northerners who have to brave the cold to see it…I was out in just a sweatshirt last night!

January 23, 2014 Posted by | Astrophotography, Galaxies, Supernova | , | 1 Comment

Saguaro Star Trails

Just a quick star trails shot I did last night…well, if you can call 43 minutes quick. This is 103 exposures of 25 seconds each put together with StarStax to create this image from Saguaro National Park east in Tucson. I used my Canon 60D and Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens at 11mm and f/2.8. I wanted the saguaros in the foreground. I didn’t center on polaris since the farther west I pointed, the more the lights of Tucson interfered. Hope you like it.

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December 27, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Star Trails | , | Leave a comment