The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

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

Comet Lovejoy and the Hercules Cluster

I got behind posting here, but last Sunday morning I went out to get Comet Lovejoy as it was passing a little over 5 degrees from the Hercules Globular cluster, also known as M13. It would have been better Saturday morning, but I got back from a trip late Friday night and getting up early Saturday just didn’t happen.

The problem Sunday morning was the Moon. The Moon was approaching full and lit up the sky when I got to Saguaro National Park east. I couldn’t see Lovejoy with the naked eye, but found it with binoculars. I took a few pics while waiting for the Moon to set. Once the Moon set, there was a very brief window before morning twilight started brightening the sky. Fortunately, I was ready to make the most of the 20 minutes or so I had.

Here is Comet Lovejoy in the lower right of the image and the fuzzy blob of M13 in the upper left.


Next I zoomed in for a closer view of Lovejoy.


Lovejoy still has a very nice tail. I could see the comet as a fuzzy blob naked eye once the Moon set, but it is not quite as bright as it was a couple of weeks ago.  Finally, as the sky began to gradually brighten, I found a nice saguaro and did a much wider shot with the comet.


The Moon is entering the morning sky and will make Comet Lovejoy much less impressive, but it should still be in reach of binoculars. The comet if forecast to slowly fade to a magnitude of about 6.0 by the end of the month when the Moon will finally get out of the way. You would need really dark skies to catch it with the naked eye although it should still be all right in binoculars. Due to the Moon, I probably won’t try for it again for a couple of weeks. However, I hope to use some of the slower time around the holidays next week to try some photography in the evening!

December 17, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet Lovejoy, Comets | , | Leave a comment

Lovejoy Rising

I have posted lots of pics of Comet Lovejoy and managed to get up early enough this morning and brave the chilly Tucson (below freezing…don’t judge northerners!) temps to take some shots.

Saguaro National Park east is about a 10 minute drive from where I live. I wanted some pics with some nice foreground objects so I hiked into the park a little bit to get to the first batch of big saguaros. I got several wide shots with a 35mm lens. I used a feature on my Skytracker that will track at only half the rate the stars move across the sky. I did this to split the difference between the land and sky, keeping both of them reasonably in focus with minimal blurring during the 20-30 second exposures I was using.

IMG_2753 IMG_2748 IMG_2747

Of course I felt the need to put on the longer (250mm) zoom lens and try a two minute shot of the comet. The tail is developing nicely and covers several degrees of the sky.


Comet Lovejoy was visible to the naked eye and it is definitely brighter than M13, probably a little brighter than 5th magnitude. Easy and nice binocular target, naked eye under dark skies. For finder chart, Heavens Above is a good place. Just set it to the time you want to observe.

I should note that Lovejoy is moving farther into the northern sky. For much of the continental U.S., it can be seen after sunset and before sunrise, although it is much higher in the sky and easier to see before sunrise. The farther north you are, the easier it is to see after sunset (although Mike Weasner got it after sunset from Oracle, just north of Tucson a few nights ago so anything Tucson or north is fair game for sure!)

I am enjoying this comet, but could the next one please be a good evening object?

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet Lovejoy, Comets | | 3 Comments

More ISON: Lovejoy meets the Beehive

I managed to get up early again and image a couple of comets. ISON is rapidly getting lower in the sky. It is still not too bad, but you can tell it is on the move, much lower than last time I got out (last Saturday). It is not visibly impressive, but still easy to photograph (although the Zodiacal Light interferes more due to the lower elevation). Here is a pic from this morning.


Turning my attention to Comet Lovejoy, it is much higher in the sky and much more impressive. Lovejoy does not have the tail but it is much brighter and very easy to see. As a bonus, it is in the same binocular field as the Beehive star cluster right now and probably will be for another couple of days. I highly recommend getting out and tracking this one down.


More updates will be posted as I manage to drag myself out of bed in the mornings!

November 6, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet ISON, Comet Lovejoy, Comets | , | 1 Comment

More Comet ISON and Comet Lovejoy Pics

The Moon is out of the way so I set out to Saguaro National Park East this morning to capture some more comet pics. When I got there, I found I had some company as another local amateur astronomer was taking comet pics. He has a C-8 and a DSLR (didn’t catch the model) set up so he had a bit fancier setup than mine.

Again, these are all taken with a Canon 60D and a EF-s 55-250mmm zoom lens on an iOptron SkyTracker, no telescope involved.

First is a full frame shot of Comet ISON.


Next, I cropped this shot to focus more on the comet.


Next I switched to Comet Lovejoy, higher in the sky. The sky was starting to get a little bright giving a blue tint (I don’t try to correct it all the way…I kind of like it)


I also got a wider shot of Comet Lovejoy that shows the Beehive Cluster in the upper left of the shot.


I will keep posting pics as I get them. I won’t be able to get up that early every day, but hopefully a couple of times a week at least so I can chart their progress, especially ISON as it dives toward its close encounter with the Sun later this month.

November 2, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comet ISON, Comet Lovejoy, Comets | , | Leave a comment

One of the Other Comets: Lovejoy

Comet ISON seems to be getting all the love right now, but this morning I went for Comet Lovejoy. This is C/2013 R1 Lovejoy (not to be confused with the one he discovered in 2011 or the other two comets Lovejoy also discovered) and discovered back in September of this year. It is currently high in the morning sky a couple hours before dawn not far from the bright star Procyon.

I went out this morning and got the following shot with my Canon 60D, EF-s 55-250mm zoom lens at 55mm and f/4, ISO5000 and 30 seconds on an iOptron SkyTracker. Procyon is the bright star at the right and the faint fuzzy comet is on the far left of this image.

IMG_1294So although ISON is getting all the hype, don’t forget there are some other pleasing sites out there. Universe today just had an article on the four morning comets currently visible. These will provide some rich morning observing…if I can keep dragging myself out of bed that early!

For more on Comet Lovejoy, check out the Universe Today primer.

October 31, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comets | | Leave a comment

My First Comet ISON Pic!

I finally managed to drag myself out of bed early this morning and try to photograph Comet ISON. I tried Sunday morning from my place in Tucson, but the light pollution was too much. This morning I drove out east to get away from the city lights.

My usual place is at the the end of Speedway and technically part of Saguaro National Park. When I got there, the parking lot was blocked off with barricades due to the government shutdown. Fortunately, there was plenty of room at the side of the road to set up…I figured I shouldn’t get arrested as long as I don’t cross the barricades.

Comet ISON is conveniently situated near Mars and the bright star Regulus in the constellation of Leo. I knew that if I got Regulus and Mars in my frame, I should have ISON as well. It’s nice to have bright, easy to find guide stars. I set up my Canon 60D on my iOptron SkyTracker and tried a variety of exposures and settings. Here is the one I have done the most work with so far.


Bright blue Regulus is on the right, orange Mars in the middle, and the faint Comet ISON to the upper left. I know others have gotten better pics, but they have all used telescopes…now I have just shown ISON is in the reach of a digital SLR!

ISON is still fairly faint, but is coming closer to the Sun and will continue to brighten. How bright is a good question, but naked eye visibility seems a safe bet within the next month. ISON passes closest to the Sun on November 28th…less than a million miles from its surface! If ISON survives this close pass, it could be very bright in early December as the gases sublimate and it forms a very long tail. Of course that is a big if.

There has been speculation it could be “as bright as the Moon” and visible during the day. Let’s put the kabash on this…IF it gets that bright, ISON will be VERY close to the Sun in the sky and hence very difficult, even dangerous to try and spot. I wouldn’t even recommend trying unless you really know what you are doing.

The Zodiacal light was easily visible as well, but I didn’t get a good pic of it. Before leaving, I turned my camera to the Orion Nebula, set the shutter for 30 seconds and let it rip. I think the resulting picture was well worth the extra minute.


Again I am pleasantly surprised at how much you can do with an off the shelf camera and setup and fairly modest skills (I am working on the skills…need to learn more Lightroom and Photoshop!)

The next few days are a good time to try for ISON as it is still close to Mars. I may try again this week before the Moon starts moving into the morning sky. Keep an eye on ISON…I can’t wait to see how it looks at its best!

October 15, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comets | , | 2 Comments

The Planets Line Up, Comet PANSTARRS and a Globular Cluster

I was doing a telescope training session for students last night, but of course I took along my camera. I got several photos of the planets and stayed after they left photographing a few other objects.

First, I have been posting a lot about the ongoing planet conjunction. All the planets are now starting to spread out more each night and I thought it might be a nice time to look at where all the planets are in our solar system so I created a little view of the planets (out to Jupiter) in their orbits using Stellarium. Click if you want a bigger version.


First find Earth (it’s labeled). Mercury is the innermost planet and I couldn’t get it to print the label, but you can see its orbit and find Mercury to the slightly to the right of the Sun. Now find Venus and Jupiter. You might notice you can almost draw a straight line through all four of these objects (not quite, but very close!) This line shows that if you are standing on Earth and look in that direction,you will see Mercury, Venus and Jupiter very close together in the sky which is exactly what has been going on the last couple of weeks. You also will notice this line passes pretty close to the Sun…therefore, we see them close to the Sun in the sky, in this case, after sunset (if they appeared on the other side of the Sun, we would see them in the morning…Mars is about to move into the morning sky).

Now think about the motions. From this perspective, the planets will orbit counterclockwise around the Sun.Planets closer to the Sun move faster and planets farther from the Sun move slower. Therefore, Mercury and Venus are catching up to Earth. As they orbit, the line you have to draw from Earth to Mercury or Venus will get farther away from the Sun so they will appear higher in the sky…until they really start catching up to Earth as they prepare to pass between the Earth and the Sun…then they will appear lower in the sky. This will happen pretty quick for Mercury. On June 13th, it will be as far away from the Sun as it gets this time and turn around and start getting lower in the sky each night (and pass Venus again on the way down as Venus keeps going up!)

Remember Earth moves around the Sun faster than Jupiter so in the not too distant future, Jupiter will appear directly behind the Sun from Earth’s perspective. Therefore, Jupiter is getting lower in the sky each evening and will soon disappear behind the Sun. After that, Jupiter will reappear in the morning sky.

So now that you know a little bit about why the planets have been doing this dance, let’s get to the latest pics from last night. They planets appeared almost in a straight line. Mercury is at the top,Venus is in the middle and Jupiter at the bottom.


By the time the students left, it was totally dark so I went for Comet PANSTARRS again. I have the tracking mount and decided to push the exposure further this time. I got a little trailing (not a perfect alignment) but was still pretty pleased with the pics I got showing its nice long anti-tail. I honestly have no idea whey more people aren’t trying to photograph this…I know there are more skilled people out there with better equipment than I have…if I can do something this nice, they should be cranking out some jaw dropping stuff.


Finally, I turned my sights toward something a little different. There is a globular cluster (M4) very close to the bright star Antares. A globular cluster is a gravitationally bound collection of 100,000 stars or so. M4 is one of the closer globular clusters at about 7,200 light years away. Globs (as the are affectionately known) consist of very old stars and this cluster is over 12 billion years old. Since it is so closer to Antares and close to Earth, I thought it might make a good target to photograph.

378101_10152844297420104_1691406866_nAntrares is the bright orange-ish star near the center with the cluster to the upper right of Antares. Not bad for a first try. Antrares is one of the brightest stars in the sky and is a red giant, hence the color. You also see a lot of background stars. Antares is in Scorpius, one constellation over from the center of our galaxy in Saggitarius so you get a higher density of background stars the closer you get to the plane of our galaxy.

I only have two more nights to get potential photos here before I head up to Alaska for a couple of weeks where it will never get dark!

May 30, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comets, Conjunctions, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus | Leave a comment

PANSTARRS Continues to Put on a Show

Earlier this year, Comet PANSTARRS put on a pleasing show in the western sky after sunset in March becoming a naked eye object for a while. For most people, it has faded from view

However, it is surprisingly still visible. I read a nice article on Universe Today about Comet PANSTARRS having a nice anti-tail. Comets tails usually point away from the Sun but they can form anti-tails which point toward the Sun. Right now, Comet PANSTARRS has an anti-tail that has been reported to be up to six degrees long. Based on its current brightness estimates I thought, hey, I bet I can photograph that.

Another nice feature is that right now Earth is passing through the orbital plane of Comet PANSTARRS. We are now viewing the tail edge on which makes it very thin and brighter than it would otherwise be.

Now I have gotten a new toy recently which I knew would play an important role in this attempt. I wanted to zoom in to get a better view, but when you zoom in your exposure time is limited to a few seconds before you get star trailing (with the 250mm lens I wanted to use, trailing shows up in about 3-4 seconds). This means you need something to let your camera track stars so you can take longer exposures without trailing. Fortunately, I just got an iOptron Sky Tracker. I had practices putting it together during the day, but last night was my frist try under the stars.

When I got to one of my usual places at the Douglas Spring Trailhead at Saguaro National Park East, I was greeted by a news truck that was getting ready to do a live feed for the Fox 11 news at 9 on vandalism of saguaros. They had some lights on I had to dodge but the reporter and techie were nice enough. So I set up my camera, did a crude polar alignement (I am sure I will get better with practice, but I got it good enough for what I was doing last night) and started shooting. I was pleased to quickly find the comet near Polaris and quickly got pics where it was showing up with a nice long anti-tail as advertised.

IMG_6878The nucleus is slightly above and right of the center with the long tail not quite vertical in this image (going from roughly 1 o’clock to 7 o’clock). This is a 30 second exposure on a Canon 60D with a Canon 55-250mm zoom lens at 250mm and f/5.6.

I was just able to see the comet in 8×42 binoculars, although the tail didn’t show up that well. If it’s clear tonight, I might bring out the big guns (20×80 binoculars) and see what it looks like.

And of course I am happy to see that the Sky Tracker handled my camera fine and was relatively easy to set up and get a reasonable alignment.

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comets, Observing | , , | Leave a comment

Comet PanSTARRS and the Andromeda Galaxy

Comet PanSTARRS is fading, but it is not gone yet. In fact it is better placed for northern hemisphere observers. It appears higher in the sky and is visible longer after sunset so you can see it in a darker sky. In fact, the farther north you are the better…Tucson is a little farther south than the best seats.

And this week PanSTARRS is passing near the Andromeda Galaxy. The closest approach is Thursday, but I went out to see them tonight. They are low in the sky and I had to wait for it to get dark. There was a pretty narrow window of opportunity…I had to wait for it to get dark enough to see them but then they were low in the sky and about to set.

But see them I did! I drove out to Saguaro National Park West. I did this so I wouldn’t have to try and spot them through the city lights…basically put Tucson behind me. They were not too difficult in 8×42 binoculars. Both were visible in the same field of view. And I got a few pics of them. Pics were also difficult…if the exposure was too long, the sky was overexposed. Too short of an exposure and they wouldn’t show up at all.

In this first picture, the trail made by the plane points to a small fuzzy blob. That fuzzy blob is PanSTARRS. Now look almost directly above the comet for another fuzzy blob. That fuzzy blob is the Andromeda Galaxy.


That picture is cropped. Here is a wider shot of the same image.


Finally, one more with the comet just about to set over the mountain. Oddly enough, this time the plane trail points toward the Andromeda Galaxy!


The next few nights you can watch PanSTARRS pass by the Andromeda Galaxy. You will probably need a pair of binoculars to see them. Make sure you have a clear western horizon…preferably without city lights to your west.

April 3, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Comets | , | 3 Comments