I recently took some time to scan a couple of film negatives I shot of the March 7, 1970 total solar eclipse. I’d traveled to Virginia Beach, Va. on a student grant to witness the eclipse and write about it. I shot the images on Kodak Tri-X Pan film, using a cheap 400mm f/6.3 lens which I still own. I have no camera or exposure information; I think the camera was a Pentax SLR when they used screw-in lens mounts! Unfortunately, these negatives were poorly handled by a newspaper that published the item — etched fingerprints revealed in the scans — and poorly stored by me over the ensuing years leaving scratches and allowing those finger oils to do their dirty work. Given all that, I’m glad the negatives survived at all! The first shot here was made during either the beginning or end of totality. The second photo shows the “diamond ring” effect as the sun peeks past the dark lunar limb. The remaining crud in the corona is the result of the aforementioned etched fingerprints, and would require excessive, damaging digital editing to remove. Reviewing newspaper clippings and Sky & Telescope Magazine photos from the 1970 event, I’m actually impressed at how well my humble efforts compare!
I was happy to have discovered, in addition to the poorly-handled film, the full set of negatives I shot that day. It will be good to have them on hand as we prepare for the total solar eclipse which will sweep across the continental United States on April 8, 2024.
Taking advantage of a couple of strings of clear nights, I set up my telescope — now more usable than ever — and did a bit of imaging. I’m pleased to report that the telescope is more usable than ever thanks primarily to two things:
- Automatic GPS time/date/location via a GPS module
- PoleMaster — a device and software that makes polar alignment easier and more accurate than I’ve ever managed before.
I made some efforts at photographing Mars during its 2020 opposition — close approach — and managed “okay” pictures. That is to say, the resulting images were the best I’ve ever done but still short of what I’d like. I’m still working on technique and technologies and this may be the best I could manage given the relatively short 1,800mm focal length of my scope!
Around the same time I turned the telescope to try imaging bright star cluster Messier 2. There was a slight but noticeable improvement there over what I’d managed before.
In early November I set up the scope at night, using the polar alignment system, so that I would be ready for solar photography the next day. Of course I observed other objects that night but then I noticed Orion rising through the bare trees. I stayed up much later than I’d planned but when Orion’s Sword came into the clear I captured what turned out to be the very best images that I have ever made of the Orion Nebula! The brilliant Trapezium star cluster at the heart of the nebula got overexposed but I was thrilled how much of the area’s nebular cloud showed.
I’m also very pleased with my efforts to image the Sun where a huge sunspot group (Active Region 2781) had appeared. The results were very good, using my telescope with Canon EOS 6D Mark 2 camera body attached for full-disk images. To protect camera (and eyesight) I used an AstroZap brand full-aperture white light film filter. Then I switched over to the little ASI178MC planetary camera; its smaller sensor providing a much-magnified effect. While not the best I’ve seen, I’m pretty pleased with this batch of solar images.
So, even under our light-polluted skies, I’m able to manage some decent astrophotography. I’m sure that with time, practice, and clear winter skies I’ll get many more amazing views.
When we have a few expected clear nights strung together, I try and get out with telescope and/or camera to enjoy the night sky — such as it is in modern towns. And so it was that Thursday I set up the “new” Sky-Watcher mount with the intention of practicing polar and stellar alignment.
In order for a computerized equatorial telescope to aim at the celestial targets one seeks, it must be sitting level, it needs to know: where it is (latitude and longitude), what time it is — down to the second, the location of a couple of bright stars, and have its axis of rotation perfectly aligned with Polaris — the North Star — actually a specific point in space near Polaris! If you get all of those right, computerized mounts are great; you simply tap into a control device what you want to view, tap another button to tell it to “go-to” the target, and bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, motors whir, the telescope moves, and in a few moments you’re enjoying wonders of the universe. If you get everything right. If you don’t get everything right, it’s frustration and mosquitoes in the dark.
So Thursday night I managed to get the polar alignment better, probably, than I have ever before. I was using a telescope control app that seemed to occasionally get the location wrong and that’s a big deal. Eventually I was able to get the telescope to approximately locate objects and got decent views of Jupiter and Saturn before calling it quits — there was a lot of struggle involved. I put the weather cover over the scope and headed in.
Friday night was cloudy. I needed the rest anyway.
Saturday night saw hazy skies, glowing from ground-based light pollution but with cloudy nights ahead, I uncovered the telescope — already polar-aligned — and was particularly meticulous about date and time entry using the hand controller instead of the phone app. After a bit of trouble finding alignment stars in the soupy sky, I enjoyed seeing the message saying setup “COMPLETED.”
From then on, the system worked “as advertised.” So I keyed in Jupiter, and Saturn, followed by a number of other objects. Photography wasn’t the primary objective — conquering proper setup was — but with the telescope balanced for use with a camera, what the heck! I was glad I had the camera at the ready because many of the objects I wanted to view were not visible by eye in the milky sky. Time after time the scope pointed at the objects of interest. Wonderful! It’s been years since I had a go-to telescope work as well as this.
The field of view allowed the Perseus Double Cluster to be recorded in one camera frame. I was using my Canon EOS 6D Mark 2 DSLR mounted at the telescope’s prime focus — it’s essentially using the telescope as an 1,800mm telephoto lens.
One of my favorites, Messier 82, showed faintly in an image (also not shown here) and was invisible to the eye on account of light pollution. The pairing of M81 and M82 is one of my favorite galactic sights though a telescope; I’m going to need better skies or a different location to see them again!
My photos, though certainly not spectacular, revealed more galaxies than I’d yet seen in my lifetime. Barnard’s Galaxy (not pictured here) was revealed by the camera. I shot a photo of the star Mirfak because I thought it would be pretty with diffraction spikes. When I viewed the image on my computer, several small streaks with central bulges showed up — distant galaxies in the background!
A first viewing and new fascination of mine is the Saturn Nebula: a planetary nebula around 5,200 light-years distant, which resembles planet Saturn in shape only. It’s a beautifully complex cloud of star-stuff that photographs in vivid color. Its image via DSLR is disappointingly small and required much cropping to see in any detail. I was delighted to capture a bit of its complexity and I’ll be visiting the object repeatedly for viewing and photographic challenge.
I also captured my best image, to date, of globular cluster Messier 2 — a beautiful ball of stars 55,000 light-years away. Capturing the brightest stars is easy but the cluster, one of the larger globular clusters known, is composed of around 150,000 stars. The cluster looks like a pretty fuzz ball by eye, photographs reveal some of those thousands of stars, and the best images look like diamond dust.
Flashes were lighting the sky to the south and east and clouds were beginning to flow in. A distant thunderstorm was drifting in my general direction. I called it a night at about 12:30 a.m., and tore down the entire setup stowing it in case of stormy weather.
It was a very good night, this further adventure in astronomy, giving me hope I’ve finally worked out the kinks and can more fully enjoy the experience.
All right, I know this is a weak and maybe ugly image of a beautiful gem of the night sky but to me it represents great promise. This was a target-of-opportunity imaging attempt I made after shooting comet photos. I keyed in M101 (for object no. 101 in the famous Messier Catalog) on the telescope’s control pad and with loud whirring the telescope swung up and to the north. Peering through the eyepiece at stars in a light-polluted sky, I manually moved the telescope … was that a little cloud in space, or a floater in my eye? Back again, yeah! That’s what a galaxy looks like through a small telescope: a little, dimly-glowing cloud. I shot a test image and sure enough, there’s something there. I shot a series of images, a series of “darks” — covering the telescope and recording the electronic noise of the camera’s image sensor — and called it quits for the night. So, after processing I got what you see above. I know I need to boost the camera’s ISO (sensitivity) and maybe the exposure time for each image. The image shown here is, however, the best photo I’ve ever made of an object outside of the Milky Way — the spiral arms show, star clouds and all. I know now I can do this and I hope the next attempt will actually be beautiful for others to see!
The Pinwheel Galaxy is a face-on spiral galaxy 21 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 27, 1781. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinwheel_Galaxy
I purchased a modest dedicated astronomical camera (ZWO-ASI178MC) recently, mostly for eventual autoguiding of my telescope during long-exposure imaging. The ZWO is described as a “planetary camera” so I thought why not? With Jupiter and Saturn near opposition and in good viewing position, let’s get first light tests using those beauties?
July 4 – 5 was the night of the very weak penumbral lunar eclipse and everything was set up in my yard for that. I had also made significant progress getting the new computerized telescope mount functional. Using SkyWatcher’s Wi-Fi module and my iPhone, helped immensely, providing precise GPS location and time information to the mount. Finder scope alignment helped, too!
So after finishing with the Full Moon and removing the DSLR camera from the telescope, I installed the little ZWO.
The camera worked well and I was quickly able to record images of Jupiter and Saturn. As a bonus, Jupiter’s Great Red Spot happened to be on the Earth-facing side of the planet. As for Saturn, I could see the image swimming on the computer screen so I didn’t expect much and didn’t get much. You can tell it’s Saturn and even begin to see some atmospheric banding.
I still have much to learn about operating the camera control software and post-processing. As crude as the resulting images are, for first efforts the results are encouraging.
I suppose one cannot return to something one hasn’t left. Still, with weather settling down and sunset coming earlier I’ve been looking to further explore the night sky.
We live in a small city with big light pollution. The light dome over our area has grown steadily over the past decade and from our backyard most northern stars lower than Polaris are completely obliterated by artificial light. To the south, the view is probably similar to “suburban” light pollution levels. Which is to say, bad but not impossible.
Lately I’ve been using my new telescope in imaging experiments. This week, unlike earlier recent efforts, I was able to get the telescope mount aligned well which allowed its computer to find dim objects in our bright sky. I was able to visually observe Jupiter (with Great Red Spot front and center), Saturn, the M15 star cluster, the Perseus Double Cluster, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, and the Andromeda Galaxy.
Attaching one of my DSLRs to the new Cassegrain reflector, I shot images of several of the larger deep sky objects. Vibration and tracking were issues, as was achieving camera focus. Working around those challenges as best I could, I made multiple images of the Ring Nebula (M57) and one of the clusters in the Perseus Double (NGC869).
Looking at the camera’s built-in LCD panel that night, I was astonished… I could see color in the Ring Nebula! Visual observers, using smallish telescopes, usually see no color in the Ring; film and electronic sensors readily collect enough photons to register color. Still, a very happy surprise to me! So I shot a series of prime focus images of the nebula. The Perseus Double was also visually attractive so I shot that as well. About 10 seconds for each of those. Efforts at shooting M15 failed: the telescope didn’t track well enough to produce round stars in the exposure time set — possibly too long an exposure.
Astrophotography of deep space objects can be extremely technical. The learning curve on an excellent product like PixInsight is more like a cliff than a curve. I searched and found a software that is excellent for me at my relative beginner level — Starry Sky Stacker (SSS). The SSS has the important basics for good astrophotography, and has an easy-to-learn image processing process with little frustration. So, to get started producing and learning, I used SSS to align, stack, and integrate the images for both NGC869 and M57 with results pleasing to me.
Over the coming weeks and longer, I’ll be assembling more equipment and skills and with luck, by spring, will be producing decent space pictures beyond the Sun and Moon.
I was messing around with my recent soft-focused “antique” image of Moon’s Crater Tyco when I discovered a Photoshop sharpening feature I’d never used. I reprocessed the image using that setting and got a “better” result: sharper appearance of the crater itself but with more grain. I think I like this new one better than the one I originally posted. Here they both are: Reprocessed Above / Original Below.
After months of searching and work (a story unto itself) we located and purchased an older ranch-style house on a large lot in Medina, Ohio. We had been living in the house for one week and I decided it was high time I take a look at the night sky! The weather was clear and cold Friday night — about 40 degrees when I ventured outdoors — so I had a look around.
The house is situated one mile from the old town square of this small city on a street lit by two orange, low-pressure sodium lights. A big-box shopping district is located about two miles north of the house with a neighboring city beyond. There’s plenty of light pollution and, to the unaided eye, the clear night sky is gray. I could make out the brightest stars of some constellations, however, and easily spotted the Pleiades star cluster rising in the east. I believe I also made out a wisp of Milky Way, as well! I set up my camera on its tripod and did some test shots to assess the photographic sky.
As you can see by the photos here, the camera easily detects stars we can’t visually pull out of the urban nighttime glow. As expected, more stars can be seen overhead — through less atmosphere and less illumination — than near the horizons. While this isn’t a very good spot for astronomy, it’s not impossible. And while the nighttime conditions may not support stargazing, they do offer some artistic potential.
In any event, you work with what you’ve got!
Our Solar System doesn’t care about your local weather. When something rare and interesting like today’s transit of Mercury across the solar disk takes place, it happens and there are no “rain checks.” And so it was this morning when the day dawned clear to partly-cloudy allowing us to glimpse the beginning of Mercury’s trek only to have the show stopped by rapidly encroaching clouds progressing to solid overcast!
At the predicted hour Mercury appeared as a tiny dot, silhouetted in the lower left-hand quadrant of the Sun’s bright disk. Using special protective filters, observers on the ground watched as the small dot slowly moved inward from Sol’s limb. Here in Northern Ohio, transit watchers were treated to the beginning of the show. Much of the nation missed out entirely, cloud cover already in place at dawn!
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft, is unaffected by Earth’s pesky atmospherics and its technology produces some very dramatic images. One of my favorites shows Mercury about to cross between the satellite (us) and the Sun’s glowing photosphere; the planet has the active solar atmosphere as backdrop. Planet Mercury is 3,030 miles in diameter, not much bigger than Earth’s Moon, and looked every bit as tiny as it is compared with our nearest star!
Today’s transit of Mercury took place over several hours. For us in Northern Ohio, the transit began at about 7:12 AM Eastern Daylight Time with the Sun barely up. Midpoint of Mercury’s passage was at 10:57 AM, and the transit ended at 2:42 PM. Because of the orbital inclinations of the inner planets, the alignment needed to produce a transit of Mercury happens only about 13 times per century making even a glimpse of the event something special. After today’s, the next transits of Mercury will take place in November 2019, November 2032, and November 2049.
At least we won’t have to wait for so long as we must for the next transit of Venus — that happens in December 2117.