The Half-Astrophysicist Blog

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.



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

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!)


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

Venus and the Moon

Venus just had its greatest separation from the Sun a few days ago. Hence it stays up a long time after sunset. However, since the ecliptic makes a very shallow angle with respect to the horizon, it is relatively low in the southwest after sunset.

Last night, it was joined by the crescent Moon.

IMG_1728Tonight the Moon will makes it closest approach to Venus for this month so it will definitely be worth checking out.

Another challenge is to see Venus during the day. I blogged about this before (and have posted pics of Venus and the Moon during the day). One of the important things when searching for Venus during the day is to avoid looking at the Sun. Remember I said Venus is about as far from the Sun as it gets? Well, that makes this a very good time to try. I still recommend standing where the Sun is behind a building but you can see the crescent Moon. Find the Moon and look nearby for Venus. The chart below shows for about 1:30pm today in Tucson.

Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 10.41.53 AM

And of course you can take pics! I have seen people capture Venus during the day with point and shoot cameras so you don’t need fancy equipemnet!

November 6, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Moon, Venus | , | Leave a comment

Mercury and Spica

I went for a tougher shot tonight: Mercury and Spica. These two objects had a fairly close encounter tonight. The first problem is that they were both very close to the horizon. The second problem is that I went to photograph sunset and forgot to take my binoculars making them very hard to find. I never did find them naked eye.

But right before Spica was about to disappear behind the mountain, I got them! Mercury is the brighter one on top and Spica is the dimmer one below and slightly to the left of Mercury (click to view the larger version of the pic if needed)


While I am at it, here is a gallery of a few of tonight’s sunset pics. No mock mirages tonight, but I love the way the Sun sets around that mountain peak.

September 25, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Atmospheric Physics, Conjunctions, Mercury, Sunset | , | Leave a comment

The Moon, Saturn and Venus

Monday was cloudy here so I missed the very close conjunction of the Moon andVenus. Tuesday was cloudy most of the day but I got a gap in the clouds right after sunset and was treated to the Moon next to Saturn. Venus was below and to the right of  Saturn. Here are a couple of quick pics from last night.

One thing I enjoy about these pics is the way the clouds are illuminated. Notice the clouds near the Moon have a different color due to the nearby Moon illuminating them. The other clouds are illuminated by the last light of the setting Sun and (unfortunately) the lights of Tucson.


This second shot is slightly wider. Below Venus and right next to the tree you can see the bright star Spica.

1239861_10153194126030104_1804357986_nTonight the Moon will be higher in the sky and the Moon, Saturn and Venus will lie roughly along the same large, sweeping arc.

September 10, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Saturn, Venus | , , | Leave a comment

Venus and Vesta?

Earlier today, David Dickinson posted on twitter that there was a conjunction of Venus and the asteroid Vesta tonight. They would pass about 0.4 degrees from one another. However, separation between them changes very quickly…I looked it up and by the time it got dark in Tucson, they would be about two degrees apart. I thought, hey, I should try photographing that. Last year I successfully photographed Venus and Uranus. Vesta, however, is fainter and I would be fighting twilight so I knew it would be a tough shot. But I have bought a better camera since last year, a better tripod, and an iOptron Sky Tracker so I can take longer exposures as well.

I had to move a bit from my usual spot to dodge a bright streetlight and then ended up with a couple of power lines in the field of view. And then there is the weather! I had very little time to take pics before Venus dropped into the clouds. I got a few shots. After getting home, I tinkered with the photos in Lightroom a bit. I tried to bring out the fainter objects so the colors may be a little wonky. I then fired up Stellarium and set it to the right time and place and tried to match up the stars in Stellarium with my image to see if I could track down Vesta. First, the Stellarium image.


So now my image. I have labeled a few of the prominent stars and what I THINK MIGHT be Vesta. Look for a small object right above the “t” in Vesta (click to embiggen).


So, does anyone want to confirm I got it or put the kabash on this one?

While looking at Stellarium, I noticed that Ceres is not too far above Venus and they are moving toward a conjunction in the not too distant Ceres will pass 4.8 degrees from Ceres on July 2nd…not quite as close, but I should have a shot at that one and hope for good weather that night!

June 25, 2013 Posted by | Asteroids, Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Venus, Vesta | , , | Leave a comment

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

A Helicopter at Sunset and the Triple Conjunction

Just a couple of quick pics. Tonight at sunset, a helicopter flew near the top limb of the Sun. A little luck and a little alertness allowed me to snap an interesting photo.

8863110130_c2fa4e55cd_oNote the little bright spot by the helicopter. I believe this is a small mirage of the Sun caused by sunlight that is refracted by the hot exhaust fromt he helicopter (the mirage sure looks like it is right in the exhaust plume!)

For the planet conjunction, I decided to find some nice saguaros for the foreground tonight.

8862487881_9944afb03e_oMercury is noticeably higher. Tonight will be the closest approach between Jupiter and Venus. Jupiter will get lower each night as Venus continues to slowly rise each night. Fun to watch the constantly changing positions.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Jupiter, Mercury, Sunset, Venus | , | Leave a comment

The Triple Planet Conjunction of May 2013

I have been posting some pics on facebook, twitter and google+ the last week of the current triple planet conjunction in the evening sky. Last night the three planets made their closes approach to each other. Mercury, Venus and Jupiter were all easily visible to the naked eye and this is a great time to be watching them. You can clearly see the movement from night to night as their relative positions change.  Here are some pics from Tucson last night.

First a close up of the trio.


Next some wide shots of the three. There were low clouds on the western horizon so I got to watch the three play hide and seek amongst the clouds.IMG_6829 IMG_6837 IMG_6843 IMG_6848

Although the night of closest approach is past, they will still be visible together after sunset and worth looking at for several more days as they continue to move away from each other. Jupiter will be lower each night while Mercury speeds higher and above Venus each night. Eventually Mercury will turn around and pass Venus as Mercury dives back toward the Sun and Venus continues to get higher in the sky (by this time, Jupiter will probably be too low to see easily).

Enjoy this one…we only get these triple conjunctions every few years.

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Conjunctions, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Observing, Solar System | | Leave a comment

The Moon Joins the Mercury-Mars Party

Although closest approach between Mercury and Mars was Friday night, the show is still going on and the Moon is joining the party. But before I get to that, sunset was particularly nice tonight. There were several nice flashes starting with green and even including blue and purple. Interestingly enough, last year on almost exactly this same date, I got wonderful pics of multicolored flashes as well. Wondering if there is something about this mountain that makes it particularly conducive to producing this phenomena. Click to see larger versions and look close for the colors.





After sunset, I was actually more interested in seeing the crescent Moon tonight. I knew it could be a challenge since new Moon occurred earlier today (12:22am MST) so the Moon would be less than 19 hours pas new. I finally spotted the Moon at about 6:43pm putting the Moon 18 hours and 21 minutes past new. At this time less than 1% of the Moon was illuminated.I probably could have found it a few minutes earlier, but I was looking a little too far south for it…I found it a little farther north than I was expecting (that will teach me to look up its azimuth before I go observing!) Here is a close up of the very young crescent Moon with a plane flying by.


As I said, Mercury and Mars are still fairly close together so I turned my attention to them. My real goal was to see if I could get Mercury, Mars and the crescent Moon. The Moon was rapidly setting at that time and I barely got it. Mercury is the brighter one toward the top and Mars is slightly beneath it. I got a plane in this one as well. The Moon is lower in the sky and its light is passing through more atmosphere so it doesn’t show up as well. Look to the lower right of the bright plane, just above the horizon. You have to look very close.


Tomorrow night the Moon will be much higher in the sky and easier to see. The Moon will be above and to the right of Mercury and about 3.8% illuminated, much easier to see. Mars will be the toughest of the three to pick out against the twilight sky, so have patience but don’t wait too long or they will set behind the western horizon before you see them!

February 11, 2013 Posted by | Astrophotography, Atmospheric Physics, Conjunctions, Green Flash, Mars, Mercury, Moon, Sunset | , , , , | Leave a comment