Goodness! I didn’t realize I hadn’t posted here since February!! I’ve mostly been making short-form posts to Twitter and Instagram and neglecting this blog. So here we are in July and I’ll make a couple/few quick image posts with captions. These photos are from July 23 and 24 when local wildlife, here in the neighborhood of a small city, paid us extra-close visits.
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
Friday night, July 24, 2020, offered possibly the last best chance for me to see and photograph Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). The comet was nearing its closest approach to Earth but was speeding away from our Sun as it headed toward the outer Solar System — it was closer to us but dimming!
I met up with other astro-folk and photographers at a Medina County park. This time, having made photos capturing the scenic beauty of the comet in the night sky, I traveled with telescope and computerized mount. I wanted to see what “close-up” detail I might capture in the comet’s nucleus and tail.
The old Meade-branded mount fired up and, to my surprise, I quickly achieved good alignment using a compass and “eyeballing”. The recently-discovered comet wasn’t in the computer-controller’s database so I selected a spot as near the comet as I could and manually moved the telescope for aim. Through binoculars I was readily able to spy the comet, though it was noticeably dimmer than a week earlier. A companion and I both were sure we caught a naked-eye glimpse of the object through averted vision. It certainly did not reflect in the park’s lake waters.
So I shot a number of image series, experimented with various ISO settings, and shot a few images in “portrait” orientation in case I might record long cometary tails. That’s not what I got.
The camera recorded/rendered C/2020 F3 with a vivid green nucleus with a diffuse, reddish tail. Through the telescope I could see the greenish tint so I knew that was real and to be expected in the images. These close-up images are not what I expected but, I think, not bad; they serve as a farewell to a comet that brought a good deal of excitement to the amateur astronomical community in general and to me in particular.
Comet madness continued Friday night, July 17, as the region was finally blessed with clear skies. I ventured to a county park which extends after-hours access to my astronomy club, set up my gear, and waited for darkness and the emergence of Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). Twilight seemed to take forever to fade but finally I spotted the comet, and at a decent elevation above the horizon.
I shot many images, experimenting with stacking, using my 400mm telephoto, etc. but the shot I was hoping for and that I finally got was the comet above a glowing horizon, reflecting in the still waters of the park’s lake. Attempts at depicting the expansive and complex tails of the comet gave largely unsatisfying results; in part because our clear night sky wasn’t quite clear, or dark, enough to allow best imaging of the delicate details.
When the comet finally faded in the west, I made a number of shots of the beautiful night sky itself. We rarely see the Milky Way these days. I grew up in a small town and, at that time, I could step out into the back yard, look up, and see the beautiful star trails of our home galaxy. It was a pleasure to see the Milky Way and get a half-way decent photo of it. I’ve included a labeled copy of the image below, in case you’re interested.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was, for us in North America, a predawn object requiring exceptional dedication for observing. See a previous post. In the second week of July, the comet had moved enough in its orbit to become visible in the evening sky — from late twilight to about 11 p.m. Unfortunately, cloudy nights have been the rule lately so opportunities have been few.
On Wednesday night, July 15, the sky forecast was a bit shaky but it turned out the sky cleared enough to allow C/2020 F3 to be seen. I raced off to an observing site some 25 minutes away from home, popular with sunset watchers and, occasionally, comet spotters. Arriving at the site I found the place mobbed, the parking lot nearly full, by scores of would-be comet viewers. Unfortunately, the comet was pretty much at the low end of naked-eye visibility. Light pollution reduced contrast between comet and background sky to make the object nearly invisible. It’s likely most of those in attendance never saw the comet.
Binoculars quickly revealed “NEOWISE,” and a reference exposure I made of the area I expected to find the comet showed I was on target. I shot a number of photos but had problems with focus using the 400mm telephoto; I’m not happy with my “closeups.” As with my predawn photo experience, I found a wider view was much more interesting anyway and that’s what I’ve posted here.
Entitled “Purity and Pollution,” this picture (a single exposure of 8 seconds) shows a pristine wonder of the night sky floating serenely amongst the stars, clouds glowing brightly below illuminated by artificial light pollution. If we were only more careful with our artificial light, we’d save gobs of energy and gain back our starry skies as a bonus!
C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) will be gracing our skies for the next week or so and I hope to have more than one opportunity to record the event before it is gone. The next apparition of this comet is expected in about 6,800 years.
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.
The night of July 5, 2020 brought Earth’s Moon, and planets Jupiter and Saturn together in the night sky in what is known as a conjunction. The bodies
didn’t appear all that close together, but because Jupiter is at opposition — its nearest orbital position to Earth — it was particularly bright. Much dimmer Saturn was off at an angle from the Moon forming a sort of triangle, if one drew lines between them. Humans love to connect the dots. At any rate, I went out to the countryside to photograph the gathering, first to a favorite storm viewing site. I shot an assortment of images, watching the motion of a few clouds around the Moon and planets. The clouds, I thought, added to the scene. From my first stop, I headed farther west hoping to capture an imagined scene with Moon and planets reflected in the waters of a small lake. By the time I arrived at the second stop, what I thought would be my prime location, slow-moving clouds had rolled. I stayed on location for quite some time, listening to bullfrogs and shooing mosquitoes, while watching the clouds. After some time I called it quits, packed up the gear, and headed home. I am, however, very pleased with the “consolation prize” seen above.
C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) presented special challenges for observing and imaging as it showed up very low to the horizon rising ahead of Sun — not much more than 10º before morning twilight wiped it out. July’s weather around the apparition grudgingly cooperated with relatively clear night skies tarnished by atmospheric haze and bright Moon to light it.
Not having any clear views of the eastern horizon from home or nearby parks, at 3:00 AM, July 9 I set out for the Lake Erie shoreline. It took me about an hour to reach the deserted park where I unloaded my gear from the car and made the brief hike down to a convenient fishing pier. With dark lake waters quietly lapping the base of the pier, I surveyed the barely visible gray horizon. The mood was quiet and a bit spooky. But I had a mission.
I saw no trace of the comet and only a few stars overhead. I’d cut my sleep short, made a long journey to get there, so I set up my equipment and hoped for the best. Using a star chart, I estimated (guessed) the location of my target. I set the camera for an test exposure and, at 4:18 AM, tripped the shutter.
At first I thought I’d missed it but, holy smokes! There it was! Faint but in the frame!
The position of the comet, close to the Sun and beginning its retreat, meant it would not be long before morning twilight would drown out the delicate view. So I shot image after image, groups of images to “stack,” and waited for my preferred and ideal view: the comet glowing over the lake with the colors of early dawn.
I switched from 400mm telephoto to 105mm maximum as twilight began to appear and brighten. Eventually I was able to record the scene I had imagined (top of this page). Not long after, dawn’s early light grew brighter than the comet and it was gone.
I never did see Comet C/2020 F3 with unaided eye. I viewed it several times through my binoculars but especially enjoyed the experience of seeking and capturing images.
The comet returns as an evening/dusk object in about a week. I’m sure I’ll be out after it then, too!
As viewed from Northern Ohio this was not a spectacular cometary apparition, but then how many comets do we see in one lifetime?