Clear skies have been rare this winter so when a cloudless sky presented itself this night, I had try a little sky shooting. The air was still and that was a very good thing … it was +19F degrees out there. I wanted to try out the new fisheye lens a bit more, even under our heavily light-polluted suburban skies. To my eye, I could make out the brighter stars and planet Jupiter; the celestial objects floated on a field of gray, due to the aforementioned light pollution. To my surprise and delight an eight-second camera exposure revealed numerous stars though, unsurprisingly, missing the clouds of the Milky Way. The photo above is my favorite among the few shot tonight. I’m excited to take that camera and lens to the country and darker skies and see what may be seen from there!
Curious about how the Geminid meteor shower was going, I stepped outdoors at around 10:00 last night. In the five to 10 minutes I stood in the cold air, I spotted three bright meteors and that’s under our light-polluted suburban skies! Reports were coming in from other areas of North America remarking on the quality of this year’s crop of meteors. And so, despite my fatigue, I set out with camera and tripod for points farther away from city lights. A dark parking spot along a road in Hinckley looked mighty good: there was no ambient light and I was south of a layer of thin, city-lit clouds. Not long after I’d set up, a car drove up, its lights bothering me. The car pulled into a nearby parking spot and the driver started a conversation. I thought it might be a policeman about to tell me to move along or a not-so-nice person out to pester me or worse! Turns out it was another would-be meteor watcher/photographer seeking darkness and a bit of reassuring companionship. This was good. So there we stood, out in the cold, quiet darkness comparing notes and experiences, snapping shutters, spotting a meteor here and another there. Now and again a sound was heard coming from the woods — deer? Occasionally commotion came from the direction of the lake — ducks and geese. Not creepy if you aren’t alone. Photographic efforts continued. Thing is, if your camera doesn’t happen to be aimed at the spot where a meteor zips by, you’re not going to get a picture of it … no matter how bright it was. I saw a Geminid cover half the sky, in the portion of the sky opposite where my camera was aimed. My companion and I suffered the same frustrations … aimed at the wrong space of sky at the wrong time to record bright streaks. So after maybe an hour, with cold feet and 117 photo exposures done, I said goodnight and we headed in our separate directions. I had seen more “falling stars” than I’ve seen in a good long time. Although I got no meteor images it was a beautiful night. From the southern horizon, up, was the brilliant star Sirius, then the grand constellation Orion, and up from there was planet Jupiter floating just above the Hyades star cluster. Above them all (though not in the photo I am displaying here) was the lovely Pleiades star cluster. Those pesky thin clouds, illuminated by street lights, formed patterns in the sky even where they did not completely cover it. That was my little midnight meteor-chasing adventure.
A few nights ago I did a bit of fixed-tripod astrophotography to attempt to capture the conjunction of Venus and the Pleiades. I had to work pretty hard to salvage the conjunction photo but wasn’t all that pleased with the results. Since I had a decent clock-drive sitting mostly unused, I decided to mate my camera to that and see what I could get. Not a pioneering venture, to be sure, but I’ve actually never piggybacked a camera to a telescope before! A quick trip to the local Ace Hardware store produced the stainless steel quarter-inch screw and a pair of rubber automotive washers I’d need to mate the telephoto lens tripod mount to the telescope’s dove-tail mounting bar. Shortly after dark on this clear but full Moon-lit night, I toted the Orion SkyView Pro tripod and mount out to the sidewalk. After a rough alignment with Polaris, I attached the camera rig to the mount and did 10 exposures: about five each of Orion’s sword and the Pleiades star cluster — both in the twilight western sky. I’ll definitely need to use the DSLR’s advanced feature that allows its view finder mirror to flip up before beginning exposure — several shots were ruined by vibration. Focus was a bit more of an issue than I expected. Tracking? Well, I expected it to not be perfect but it appeared good enough for exposures of up to 15 seconds. Given all that, I’ll share my results here. I know they’re not very good but I also know that, using this same camera gear with better mount and alignment, I’ll be getting some very nice images of the stars in the not-too-distant future!
Unexpected business led me to visit the observatory Tuesday night. Since I was there and the sky was nicely clear, I decided to open the dome and do a little observing.
Orion is low in the west these nights and the great nebula (M42) was actually only visible through the bare limbs of the neighbor's trees. The view was splendid, however, and at low magnification the cloudy expanse took on a fan shape. The stars of the Trapezium were clearly displayed, nestled in the gauze.
Using star Sirius to set R.A. and my notebook computer's The Sky software to find the coordinates, I was able to use the telescope's ancient dials to locate the "twin" star clusters M46 and M47 — not visible to the unaided eye this night. Declination settings are not visible on the old scope so I had to do some fishing. Still, it was gratifying to be able to get in the right neighborhood using the telescope's century-old devices. The clusters were more attractive through binoculars –a fuzzy path glowing path across the view– than through the telescope though, at low magnification, M46 filled the eyepiece with diamond-dust stars.
Turning the telescope further east as the Moon was rising, I located Saturn. The ring system is still close to edge-on and opposition took place only a few days earlier (March 22). Through the fist-sized, low-magnification eyepiece the planet was crisp and bright. Faintly visible in the field of view were tiny glowing dots — some of the Ring World's family of moons. It was a lovely sight. I had my camera with me so tried a few afocal (hand-held, lens-to-eyepiece) shots. I got a fairly good image (seen here, cropped to imitate an eyepiece view) that depicts the ring plane's angle and even hints at the rings' shadow on the planetary body. Of course, the moons don't show at all being much too dim compared with Saturn.
I closed up at about 10 PM with the Full Worm Moon rising and drowning out the light-songs of everything nearby. It was a good night of unexpected astronomy.