The sky at night, away from the lights of city or town, is a beautiful, fascinating place. There is so much to see: the Moon and stars; constellations and the Milky Way; bright planets and meteors; maybe even a comet or the Northern Lights. And it changes from hour to hour, night to night, and season to season.
Unfortunately, sharing all this with groups — especially with children — is difficult. Bright lights, clouds, bugs, cold or heat, and the obvious fact that it all takes place at night (mostly after bedtime); all of these make it hard to plan for some time under the stars.
Seeing Stars is a service that aims to make exploration of the night sky easy and fun for schools, libraries, and other groups who are interested in What’s Up There.
Explore each of the pages of the site to find out more about Seeing Stars, or just to see more photos of objects in the nighttime sky, and, especially on this page, other photos I want to share. All were taken by me, Paul Kinzer, with modest amateur equipment, and most will show a larger version if you click on them! I’m glad to answer email questions at firstname.lastname@example.org .
November 7, 2014
Here are some recent images. The first was taken On October 23, the day of the recent partial solar eclipse. I used my Point Grey Research Chameleon astro video camera to take four 30 second videos (using the program Firecapture to get the videos) of parts of the sun (only part of the disk would fit in the view of my scope). I then used software (Autostakkert!2) to combine the video frames into single images, and then stitched the four images together in Photoshop Elements 6. You can see some processing artifacts where the different pieces of the image join.
The huge sunspot region near the center of the sun’s disk was called AR 2192 (AR stands for Active Region). It was about the size of the planet Jupiter at the time. As usual, click on the image a time or two to get to the largest display.
Later on that day, the moon slid across the face of the sun, covering part of it. I had hoped to use the same set-up I used to take the image above to get sharp images of the eclipse. Unfortunately, thin clouds rolled in just as the eclipse started (and I mean just as it started), and the varying brightness made using a video camera to take still images unworkable. The clouds stayed throughout the eclipse, and got worse as time went on. This was very disappointing, since I had driven for several hours and hundreds of miles to get to a place with a forecast for clear skies.
Still, I was able to use my DSLR to get some decent images through the thin clouds. The DSLR cannot take images as sharp as those made with the video camera because the DSLR takes a single image, and at this magnification, the roiling atmosphere affects sharpness.
Here’s a shot taken right near the peak of the eclipse, when the moon covered the largest portion of the sun, and the edge of the moon just skirted the edge of AR2192. I was using a Canon T1i DSLR, attached to my William Optics FLT98 triplet refractor, which has a 98mm aperture, a focal length of 618mm, and an f-ratio of 6.3.
And here are a couple of images of Jupiter, again caught with an astro video camera; this time my ZWO Optical ASI120MC. I took these at about 5:00 am CDT on November 1st. The camera was inserted into a 2x Barlow lens for the first, wide field image, and a 5x Barlow for the second, closer shot; and then used in my biggest scope, a 10-inch f/4.7 reflector that I built myself (though I didn’t make the mirrors). The ZWO camera is capable of taking many more frames per second than the camera used to image the sun because its field of view for these shots was much smaller, so it could record more quickly. The individual tiles in the sun image were made from a few hundred video frames taken over 30 seconds. Each of the Jupiter images was made from over 9000 frames taken over two minutes.
The four ‘Galilean’ moons are all visible in the wide field image. Because they are much dimmer that their parent planet, I brightened them up using Photoshop Elements. They are, from left to right, Callisto, Io, Ganymede, and on the far right, Europa. I only know this from looking up their positions that night online. You can also see the Great Red Spot on Jupiter’s face in both images, as well as a moon shadow. But the moon shadow is cast by Callisto, on the far left, not Ganymede, right next to Jupiter. The little dark spot you can just make out on tiny Ganymede is actually real: the center of the moon is a bit darker than the outer edges, and I was able to capture that through my 10-inch reflector.
Others are taking much better planetary images, but these are some of the best I’ve managed, so I’m pleased. The skies around here are not usually very steady; or, as astronomers say, the ‘seeing’ is usually bad: Stars twinkle, and highly magnified views roil and boil in the eyepiece and through the camera lens. I’m amazed what the processing software can do to bring out the sharpness sometimes fleetingly visible.
October 14, 2014
I was unable to take any images of the recent Lunar eclipse, but realized that I had not posted any from the last eclipse, back in April. So here’s a shot from then, with the bright star Spica in the lower right corner.
We will have two more chances to see lunar eclipses in the next year or so; again in April and October, of next year. But please don’t call them ‘blood moons’. That’s just a confusing marketing gimmick, and not even accurately descriptive. They’re much more like pumpkin moons, especially in October! (But call them what they are: Lunar Eclipses; the moon being shadowed by the Earth.)
September 16, 2014
I took this image last night. It’s actually a combination of about a dozen images of the same spot in the sky, combined with ‘dark frames’ and ‘bias frames’ to get rid of digital noise and other artifacts. It’s a photo of the planetary nebula M27.
August 5, 2014:
Here’s a shot of the same part of the sky as the image from July 10th, but in the new one, I captured a very bright meteor It’s a single shot, taken when I was still testing focus and aperture, so it’s not as sharp and clear as the July image.
July 10, 2014:
Here’s one of my latest astrophotos, taken from a dark site in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. It shows the area around the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy, in the constellation Sagittarius.
April 3, 2013:
I went out tonight to take images of Comet PanSTARRS (officially designated C/2011 L4). It’s been in the news, and visible in the sky, for weeks now. For the past few — and next few — nights, it’s especially attractive because it’s passing in front of the Andromeda Galaxy (also known as M31). I had a hard time finding the two objects in the sky because first, they are large but dim; and second, they were already near the horizon, ready to set, by the time the sky got truly dark after sunset. But I managed to get ten images with my Canon T1i (500D) DSLR. Each image was 30 seconds at ISO 800. I had hoped to take more, at longer exposure times, but these were all I got before a hill got in the way.
I also took ten ‘dark images’, with the lens cap on, of the same length and ISO setting, right after I finished the ‘light images’. I then went home and loaded all of these on my computer and used a freeware program called DeepSkyStacker to process them. I’m not very experienced with it, and there’s a huge learning curve to get over to use it really well, but combining the images works to get rid of the noise inherent in long exposures on DSLRs. The result looks very much like what I saw through my binoculars. I converted it to black and white because the background color in the original is the orangy-pink of light pollution, which I’d rather not preserve.
I used a great Nikon lens on my camera (with an adapter): the 180mm f/2.8 ED. I had hoped to take more, at longer exposure times, but these were all I got before a hill got in the way.Lenses are not at their sharpest wide open, so astrophptpgraphers often stop them down a bit. A trick I read about said to do something else instead: screw a reducing ring, usually used for filters, on the front of the lens, taking it from 72mm to 55mm. This acts as a lens aperture, closing it down to about f/3.5. Apparently, the internal lens diaphragm, located at the back, acts to make stars round, but bloated. This trick really worked! Stars were very sharp.
March 31, 2013: Some Film Astrophotos Revisited
I went to the film astrophotography page at the Cloudynights website tonight, because I hadn’t been there in a while. Film is different from digital photography, and maybe nowhere more than for astronomy imaging. I won’t go into the details here, because I’m an expert in neither, and it would take a whole book to explain, anyway. In my own book, I do spend a bit of time on astrophotography, and since I wrote the book in 2006-7, and it came out in 2008, most of what I wrote had to do with film (though I deliberately kept it basic enough that the information would be useful for digital, too). DSLRs had not yet become the commonly owned cameras they are now. I took all the photos in the book, including the cover, and all but one were taken on film.
But all the photos in the book, except for those on the cover, were printed in black and white. So I’m going to put a few of them here, in color, and with the scans re-processed. I’ve become better at processing digital images, since I’ve owned DSLRs for several years now, and digital scans of film get processed in the same way.
I may add more of these as I re-process more of the scans!
My son and I went on a trip to central Nebraska March 12-14 (2013) to try to get a good look at comet panSTARRS. We chose the location, more than 500 miles from home, because it was the closest that had a forecast for possible clear skies. It also is the one place that you can visit for the spring staging of sandhill cranes. Half a million of them stop for a few weeks along a 50 mile stretch of the Platte River, to rest and fatten up before heading on to their nesting grounds, which can be as far away as Alaska, and even Siberia. It was a great trip, and I wanted to share a couple of photos.
Here’s a photo of the telescope I just finished building today (November 18, 2012), a 6-inch, f/10 (focal length 1500 mm) refractor with a lens made by Jaegers. They are no longer in business, but they made great lenses. I can’t wait for clear skies to actually test it.
Here’s a photo taken on June 5th, 2012, at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. This was the day that the planet Venus transited (crossed) the face of the sun; something it won’t do again until the year 2117: