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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 winapaul@centurytel.net .

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September 1, 2017

I got back a few days ago from a more-than-three-week trip to see the August 21st total eclipse of the sun. I wrote an email to friends and family, and thought I’d post it here for posterity, and for anyone that might be interested.

August 28, 2o17

Hi Everyone!

We were gone for more than three weeks, so this will hardly be a complete description of our adventure, even though this has turned into a very long email, but Bjorn (my sixteen-year-old son, for anyone who might not know him) and I had a fantastic eclipse trip.

We left on August 3rd, and headed west, stopping at many places along the way out to Oregon, including these National Parks: Badlands, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Glacier. Smoke was very bad in some places, especially the Grand Tetons. I had hoped to do some large format (5×7) film photography, but that didn’t work out before the eclipse. Still, we saw lots of wildlife, went to some great museums and visitor centers, stayed in some beautiful campgrounds – sleeping in either our tent or on the platform bed we built in the back of our minivan – and had an overall great time.

In Oregon, several days ahead of time, we scouted out a place to view the eclipse from. I could write pages about everything I’d read ahead of time, and all we went through. There were ‘gloom and doom’ predictions of overcrowding, price gouging, traffic jams, and other dire stuff. And we did experience some negatives, but nothing very terrible.

We arrived for scouting in central Oregon (where the climatic conditions predicted the best chance of clear skies along the eclipse path in late August) on Wednesday, the 16th, and stopped at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) office. We had decided that staying on land somewhere off the highway would be the best thing for us to do, and there is a huge amount of BLM land out there. We wanted to know the rules (how far from the road, trails, waterways, should we be; waste disposal; etc.), but also wanted some local advice on good prospects with wide views.

It turned out that they were waiting for us. They had set up tables outside their offices, and were joined by US Forest Service Rangers, whose offices are right next door. They were all very helpful, and gave us very detailed directions to several spots – and free maps! (We both love maps. If you do, too, you can look at the map below to see the red dot [where we stayed for the eclipse], and the blue dot [where I had thought we might, but keep reading to find out why we didn’t]. For scale, Madras is about 20 miles from Prineville.)

So Bjorn and I got back in our minivan, and headed east along US Highway 26, to check out the spots that I had researched weeks ago online. Or we tried to.

On our way through Prineville, we had seen one of those roadside digital signs, flashing the message ‘EVENT AHEAD…16 MILES…EVENT AHEAD…16 MILES…’ I had asked the rangers about this, and they had told me there was a festival of some kind, taking place in the mountains. They had not seemed very concerned, so neither were we. But six or seven miles out of town – far before we’d gone 16 miles – traffic came to a standstill. We moved one car length in fifteen minutes. I started to freak out a bit (okay, more than a bit). How could this be happening five days before eclipse day?!? I finally turned off the car, got out, and went to talk to the driver of the car behind me. He said, ‘Yes, this is the line for early arrivals to the festival.’ (He was about 23, and sounded French). ‘We were told to expect to wait in line for from two to six hours to get in.’ I told him that I just wanted to use the main east-west highway across this part of Oregon to look for a place to camp in the desert. He said, ‘Oh my, that would be difficult for you. I think it would be best for you to turn around and find another way.’ He was very polite, so I didn’t tell him, there is no other way!

I did turn around, and went back to the rangers to tell them what was happening. They had no idea, and were grateful for the information (they looked very unhappy, and a couple of them walked away, as though they were going to do something about it, or at least tell others who needed to know). Another showed me on a map just where the festival was taking place. 16 miles was just the distance to the turnoff from the highway. The festival itself was still several more miles along another, not very good, road. She also told us that people had paid $400 to attend the five-day event, and that the $400 did not include food or drink. The organizers had a permit to allow, and were expecting (so they said) 34,000 people! In all my research ahead of time, I had not heard about this. I knew there were lots of folks expected in Madras, the nearest town of any size to the centerline of the eclipse in this part of the state (they were renting out 20×20 foot spaces in a park for $40 a day). We found out later that there was more than one festival in the area, and that the one that blocked us actually had 110,000 people show up!! I hope this was not actually true; we just heard from a man working at a gas station miles away, days afterwards.

Bjorn and I decided that our original spot was right out. We talked to a Forest Service ranger about the Crooked River National Grassland as an option The Forest Service oversees National Grasslands). He gave us several spots to look over, and we did. Some of the gravel roads and dirt ‘two-tracks’ were really bad, and I feared for our trusty minivan. We saw that there was lots of space, and figured we’d find one easily, if we came back on Saturday. So we headed toward a few days along the Oregon coast.

It turns out we could have come back on Sunday. We found a great spot without even looking very hard, and had no close neighbors. A few people stopped by after we had set up, and said they might be back to join us, but no one did. We could see several mountains to the west: Mounts Hood (60 miles away) and Jefferson (30 miles), and the Sisters (40?) It was beautiful (see the attached photos).

I’m glad we did come back on Saturday, though, because it gave us all of Saturday afternoon and evening to get our camp set up: tent, cots, ‘outhouse’ (an old milk crate with part of its bottom cut out, turned upside down behind a small juniper tree), table, chairs, and all the astro-stuff (For anyone who cares: my Losmandy G-11 mount; the 4-inch f/6.3 William Optics apochromatic refractor; the 3-inch f/15 Edmunds achromatic refractor, both with filters on them to block most of the sun’s light during the partial parts of the eclipse; the Canon T1i DSLR, and our laptop, with the eclipse-image capture scripting program SETnC [Solar Eclipse Timer and Camera controller] installed. We also had two different ‘finders’, one a small, low-powered telescope, with a filter on it, and the other one made by me out of a Pringle’s can, with a pinhole in the bottom. And we also had filters on one of our pairs of binoculars.) We then had all of Sunday to check and test that everything was set up and working properly.

I had only found out about SETnC and other, similar programs, a few weeks before leaving on the trip. The name is a good one, since it allows you to get everything set up ahead of time, so that you don’t need to even look at your camera while the eclipse is going on, and can just enjoy seeing it. I had bought Canon’s latest model consumer DSLR for the trip, but, unfortunately, it is so new, that SETnC would not work with it, even though I was in touch with its creator in Switzerland. He was very kind, and generous with his time, but without a T7i (my camera) in his hands, he could not solve the issues it had running with SETnC. Still, my old camera, a T1i that I have given to Bjorn just before the trip, worked just great with it.

Both Saturday and Sunday were perfect days at our campsite, with almost no clouds, and only very thin smoke. But when I stuck my head out of the tent on Monday morning, just as the sun was rising, I saw it through a brown haze. Rats! And as it came up, we could barely see Mount Hood in the distance, and the top of Mount Jefferson was invisible through a white, impenetrable layer. I had read that the top of the mountain would go black seconds before totality reached us near Madras (Bjorn thought that was wrong; and figured that it would be close to exactly a minute [he turned out to be spot on]). Then, we would be able to watch the moon’s shadow race toward us at over 2,000 miles per hour. Now, it looked like we’d miss at least part of that. But we could still see the snow-covered flanks of the mountain below the smoke, and as the sun rose higher, we could also see that there was a hole in the smoke around it, and that it looked as though the sun would be right in the center of that hole at eclipse time. And it was!

SETnC was running on the laptop, and just before the partial phase of the eclipse started – when the moon first bites into the edge of the sun – it made the camera, attached to the 4-inch telescope, snap a couple of images at different settings. In order for the program to work, it needed to have our exact location on the earth – latitude, longitude, and elevation above sea level – entered into it. This is easy enough to do if you have a smart phone with a signal, but we had neither (a smart phone nor a signal). Instead, Bjorn used one of the very detailed maps given to us by the rangers, a ruler, and geometry, to measure all these things. He needed the ruler because the map did not have longitude nor latitude marked in very fine detail, so he had to figure out how many seconds of arc there were per millimeter, and then plot our location. He used our knowledge of the elevation of Madras (also on the map), visible some exact number of miles away and below us, to determine our elevation, using simple geometry and his eyes. Our resulting images show that he was very close to exact in his measurements.

SETnC took photos nine minutes apart during the partial phases (that was the longest it allows between them; we weren’t really interested in taking lots of these, and wanted to save storage space on the camera’s card), and then bunches during totality. It took 48 altogether, before, during, and after totality. It was especially active around the beginning (contact point 2, or C2) and end (C3) of totality, since this is when special things happen. It snapped  as many as it could. The limiting factor – again, for those who care – is the time it takes for the camera and laptop to communicate. I’ve attached some quickly processed, low-resolution samples that I thought folks might like. Another image shows Bjorn looking into the box which contained our laptop. It’s a free way to be able to see the screen in full sunlight. In the same photo, you can see Mount Hood in the distance, and all of our astro gear set up for imaging the eclipse. But this was taken on Sunday.

On Monday, we had our eyes on the sky, not our cameras or laptop. As the partial eclipse approached totality, we both noticed a definite change in the light, especially after about the 85% phase. We talked about it at the time; how it seemed dim, like at dusk; but unlike at dusk, colors were not different (Bjorn later said it felt like he was on a sound stage, where a Western was being filmed). The temperature went down by, we figure, at least ten to fifteen degrees. We saw the predicted shadow climb down the mountain, and I noticed the huge circle of darkness come towards us, visible from the horizon to the zenith, and then saw that the circle grew around us, so that, once totality arrived, the circle nearly filled the sky, except for the horizon all around. During totality, I made sure to remember to look around, and to say out loud what I was seeing. (I had read that it’s easy to just look at the hole where the sun used to be.) We saw Venus bright in the sky. We saw stars, and Bjorn even noticed what constellations they were in. We saw that Mount Hood, outside the path of totality, looked like it was at sunset. When totality reached us, we learned that we did have neighbors, because we heard them cheer, several hundred yards away. And we heard a coyote howl! I was disappointed to notice that the view of the edge of the blackened sun was not clear through my left eye, so I closed it and used my right eye, which saw things much better. My left eye is very dominant, so I’m glad I thought to do this. Neither of us thought to pick up the binoculars to look through them at totality. But that’s okay. I had thought of taking a few images with my camera handheld, but didn’t think of that, either. Who cares? I did seem to notice a bit of red on the right side of the sun, and images taken with SETnC told me later that I was not imagining it. Though we both spent time looking all around, we were both looking at the sun just as totality ended, and saw the ‘diamond ring’ effect (where the first point of light from the sun shines through a gap on the surface of the moon) before looking away. It was all so cool. And too short.

As the partial phase ended about an hour later, Bjorn had a good idea. He was looking at the sun through our 3-inch refractor, and said he’d say ‘Done!’ when it looked to his eye like the eclipse had ended. He wanted me to watch the countdown on the laptop, which was ticking away to the tenth of a second on the SETnC window. He did not know how close it was to being finished and didn’t want me to say, but he said ‘Done!’ less than a second before the computer showed zero. That says something about the quality of our scope (which is high), Bjorn’s eye, and his calculating of our position.

We’d been away from civilization for a couple of days now, and were in need – or, at least, want – of ice and a few other things. So a few hours after the eclipse ended, I made a trip into Madras. But it was useless. The main highway north to Portland and south to anywhere in California is the town’s main street, and it was locked up. I parked nearby, and found a gas station, but they were out of ice (though not of gas, as some others were). I went back to camp, where we decided to stay another night.

We left late the next morning, hoping to get to Crater Lake National Park that day, and to Redwoods NP the next. But we decided to give up on that plan. First, there were fires near both parks, and the smoke was bad. But, more important, people don’t know how to drive (in my not-so-humble opinion)! The two-lane road was still very packed, but moving, until you came to a section with a passing lane. Where the passing lanes ended, requiring people to merge together again, some would not allow others in, and traffic just stopped. We took hours to go less than twenty miles, and finally turned around, covered the same ground in minutes, and headed east across an empty part of Oregon. We spent the night in Winnemucca, Nevada, and headed toward Colorado the next day. The skies, for the last few days of our trip, were finally smoke-free, or close, and in Rocky Mountain NP, I was able to take some large format photos. We got back late on Sunday night.  

This was a great trip! I’ve been waiting for this since I was a little kid, and today I turned 57. Happy birthday to me!

                     The map showing where we set up our eclipse camp (red dot), and where we didn’t (blue dot).

 

Bjorn, looking at the laptop screen as we set up on Sunday, August 20th. [EDIT: Looking back through my photos, this was actually taken on Monday,, the 21st, but before the eclipse began.]

 

Our camp, near sunset on Sunday, with Mount Jefferson in the background.

 

Heavy smoke on Eclipse Day.

 

A pall over our camp (and my first time ever using the word ‘pall’ as the most apt word available).

 

The top of Mount Jefferson is gone.

 

But wait, there’s a hole, and the smoke is much thinner!

 

The moon has bitten the sun, and we were lucky to have some sunspots so near ‘solar minimum’ (look it up). The line of sunspots was helpful in another way, too: They are parallel to the sun’s equator/perpendicular to its poles, and so allowed me to orient our camera so that the moon passes across the frame from left to right in images, and, more important, more of the corona — which is typically wider at the equator — could be captured on the rectangular sensor.

Near totality. This is about how covered the sun got back home in Galesville, Wisconsin. It was nice having a sunspot group coming around the limb of the sun to frame a shot like this.

 

Baily’s beads: the last rays of the sun passing through low spots between the mountains on the moon.

 

The solar corona (crown), taken at 1/15th of a second.

 

This time, less than a second later, the exposure was 1/8th of a second.

 

The center of totality, at 1/4000th of a second.

 

Prominences (not ‘flares’, they’re a different solar phenomenon. That’s right: look it up!) These were most visible right before the end of totality, as seen here.

 

Mount Jefferson, near sunset on the 21st. I thought of Mount Doom.

 

A day later, we were finally out of the smoke, for the first time since our second day, nearly three weeks before. This was taken at the California Trail Interpretive Center, along I-80 in Nevada.

 

A pika, above treeline in Rocky Mountain National Park. I include this just because I like the photo, taken near the end of our trip.

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June 2, 2017

We put a new battery into the observatory a couple of days ago. It’s a different technology from the typical solar-charged lead-acid batteries most people use. This is a 100 amp-hour nickel-iron (NiFe) battery. We had already tried another of the same type, but it has never worked properly, so the dealer sent us another — free of charge! — made by a different company. It’s all hooked up to our solar panels, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed and wait to see how well it takes and holds a charge.

They are supposed to be more robust than lead-acid batteries; able to stand deeper discharges, more discharges, and more extreme temperatures. This is why we bought it. They also do not contain lead, another plus.

Here’s a photo of the battery itself, after my wife, Wina, and I set it up. There are ten 1.2v cells. It’s sitting on a steel rack that my son, Bjorn, and I built. The rack holds it off the ground, and holds it level with adjustable feet.

Bjorn and I also built a box to go over the battery, mostly to protect the battery from curious visitors, and curious visitors from the battery. The holes in the top allow the battery to vent hydrogen. The slot in the front of the box allows us to check the water/electrolyte levels in the battery.

Finally, here’s a photo with the lid closed, and held down by bunjee cords. We built a much more fancy and elaborate box for our first battery, but decided not to this time: it isn’t necessary, and we have no use for the old one now that we know that that battery will not work. The old box cannot be re-used because this battery is larger. We also like the new design because the box can be easily removed to give us access to the entire battery (it’s very light and there is no bottom; you can simply lift the box off). The old box was heavy and completely enclosed. This one used thinner, cheaper plywood, screwed to 2×2 framing. It’s got a couple of coats of polyurethane on it to protect it from the dew we often get in the summer.

Bjorn and I had fun designing and building the rack and box, the two of which took just two days to complete. We had sort of an idea of what we wanted, but didn’t decide just what to do until we were in the hardware store and figured out what materials to use, and just how to use them, based on what was available in the store.

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March 2, 2017

It’s been over a year since I’ve updated this page, but it’s not because I’ve been inactive; quite the opposite! The observatory is up and running, though I’ll probably never say it’s complete. Here are some interior shots, showing the two main scopes on their pedestals, and some other finishing work. Remember to click on the images for larger views!

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This is the completed 14-inch reflector, which I made over the course of the past several years. It’s got a wonderful Moonlite focuser with motor control. I’m very happy with the mirror, too!

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The reflector rides on this Losmandy Gm-100 equatorial mount. The mount is rated to hold a load of 75 pounds, and I built the telescope with that in mind. And, look: there’s one 50 pound, and two 22 pound counterweights balancing the scope, so I was pretty much spot on. The mount carries the load without any trouble at all.
By the way, the polar finder scope seen rising from the back of the mount is not original. It’s a modification mde by the previous owner. It works quite well.

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This is the Meade 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (SCT), donated by the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society (LCAAS). Its aperture of 12 inches (the diameter of its main mirror) determines how bright and sharp objects will appear. So it’s  little ‘smaller’ than the reflector. But the design of the SCT means its focal length of about 3000 mm is almost twice that of the reflector’s 1600mm. What that means is that, if I were to use the same eyepiece in each of the scopes, the view through the SCT would make objects look about twice as big.
The Meade scope sits on our Orion Atlas ‘go-to’ equatorial mount. It has a computer in it that allows us to have the scope move electronically form one object in the sky to another. The reflector’s Losmandy mount is much more old-school. while it will electronically track an object as the earth spins once we aim it properly, we have to find the objects ourselves. But doing so requires, literally, just the push or pull of a hand. The clutches in the mount will hold the scope steadily on one tiny spot in the sky, but still allow us to manually push from one spot to another.

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This is the 6-inch f/10 refractor I built several years ago. We keep it in a case in the corner of the observatory so that we can set it up outside on the Losmandy G-11 mount seen in the photo. The two main scopes are secured to concrete piers, which are separated by half an inch or so of air space from the wooden floor (window screen has been put into the air gaps to keep critters out). That means people moving about will not make the scopes shake. The views through the refractor would be pretty bouncy if we used it inside.

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This is a 3-inch, f/15 refractor that I made using a lens that came in a box of assorted astro-stuff. One of the founding members of my astronomy club (the LCAAS) passed away, and his astro-gear came to me. This looked like a high-quality lens, and after asking the experts at the Cloudynights.com Classics forum, it looked to be a 1960s 0r 70s Edmund objective. I thought it would be a fitting addition to the observatory to build a scope around it, so I did. The views — especially of the sun (through a proper filter over the objective lens), moon, and planets — are fantastic. This sized scope was very popular for decades in the amateur astronomy community, and it’s still a great size now as well, but no one, as far as I know, markets an f/15 refractor.
By the way, it rides on a no-name equatorial mount that came with a very poorly-made reflector around the beginning of this century. I bought the mount for a very low price, and it works fine. The scope it originally came with did not, and it’s long gone (the seller had never seen it). I added the motor drive, so that it will track objects in the wheeling sky.

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Here’s a closet my son and I added, giving us a place to put things out of the way of our feet in the dark night. We painted the entire inside of the observatory white so that we could see a bit under the dark sky. On moonless nights, it’s dark enough inside the observatory that it’s hard to tell what color the walls are.

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My son designed and built six of these LED boxes, as well as the controller that allows us too make them dim or bright. They’ve been great, especially for public outreach events, so that folks unfamiliar with the observatory can see in the dark without tripping.

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He also chose the outlet hardware we ended up using for our 12-volt system. These are locking plugs, typically used for sound equipment. We also used outdoor electrical conduit throughout the observatory since it can get very humid here in the summer. That’s another reason we chose to paint the entire interior of the building: to protect the untreated wood (the floor is made of treated plywood).

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Finally, here are a couple of shots that attempt to show the whole interior. This one is looking south toward the door. You can see that the SCT is quite close to the rafters with the roof closed. Also visible is our 12-volt, 100 Amp-Hour, Nickel-Iron battery (in the wooden box near the soda bottles). We’ve had trouble with it, and are still trying to get it to fully charge.

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Finally (for now) a shot looking mostly north. The closed closet doors are visible, as well our lighting system. the white lights are 9-watt LEDs that we use only during the day or at night when we are cleaning up. With the white walls, two of them are quite bright enough, though we have four. The blue boxes holding the red LEDs can be seen on their pivoting 2x4s. We put them up that way so that they can shine indirectly on the white walls, to spare our eyes and spread the light out.

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February 2, 2016

I’ve been working for the past couple of years to build a public observatory with both my school district and my astronomy club, the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society (LCAAS). It’s a roll-off roof observatory, and ours has two piers inside, for placement of two different telescopes. It’s nearing completion, so I thought I’d post some photos. As always, click on an image to see a larger view. Some might need more than one click to see the biggest version.

An outside view, showing the roof rolled off, onto its rails.

An outside view, showing the roof rolled off, onto its rails.

An inside view, looking south.

An inside view, looking south. This is before any work was done on the power. My son is strategically placed behind the door.

An inside view, looking north.

An inside view, looking north.

Today, just as a big winter storm hit, we finished the installation of the solar panels.

Today, just as a big winter storm hit, we finished the installation of the solar panels.

An inner view, showing the cable from the solar panels entering on the right, and the power controls on the left.

An inner view, showing the cable from the solar panels entering on the right, and the power controls on the left.

A close-up of the power controls. On the top right is the charge controller. Next to it is the switch for the lighting (not yet installed). Below them is the breaker box, and on the bottom is the box housing three 12v voltage regulators. One for the wall outlets, and one for each pier outlet.

A close-up of the power controls. On the top right is the charge controller. Next to it is the switch for the lighting (not yet installed). Below them is the breaker box, and on the bottom is the box housing three 12v voltage regulators. One for the wall outlets, and one for each pier outlet.

And finally, our mount for the south pier, a Losmandy GM-100 equatorial mount. Folks familiar with these will notice that it's been modified with a curved slot and bolt to add stability to polar latitude adjustment. Also visible are outlets next to the pier, and on the wall behind the mount.

And finally, our mount for the south pier, a Losmandy GM-100 equatorial mount. Folks familiar with these will notice that it’s been modified with a curved slot and bolt to add stability to polar latitude adjustment. That work and the large aluminum pier adapter plate are courtesy of two members of the LCAAS. Also visible are outlets next to the pier, and on the wall behind the mount. We’ll clean up our mess later!

September 28, 2015

Here’s an image I took of last night’s Total lunar eclipse. This one seemed much darker than the last one I was able to photograph (scroll down), in April, 2015. I needed to leave my shutter open much longer to get a similarly lit photo this time, even though I used a similar scope and the same camera.

Here’s the technical information: This one was taken with an apochromatic refractor with a 98mm aperture and a focal length of 618mm (for a focal ratio of f/6.3), using a Canon T1i camera. The ISO setting was 100, and the exposure 6 seconds. It was mounted on an unguided but motorized equatorial mount. Remember to click through for the largest and sharpest version.

This is a cropped image, and much lower in resolution than the original.

This is a cropped image, and much lower in resolution than the original.

August 23rd, 2015

My son and I just got back from a trip to various spots in and near the Black Hills of South Dakota. On the 23rd of august, I set up my Canon T1i on a tripod near the amphitheater at the campground in Devil’s Tower National Monument. I took many images, but liked this one the best. The lens I used was my Tamron 17-50 f/2.8, set at 17mm, and f/2.8 at ISO 200. This is a single 30 second shot. The Tower and sky are being lit by the moon, which was just past the first quarter. There were climbers on the Tower, and by  this shot, they were descending. The streak is the headlamp of one of the climbers, and the length of the streak shows how far she or he dropped in 30 seconds. Yikes!

The Native American name for this amazing tower is The Bear's Lodge. 'Devil's Tower' is a mis-translation they'd like corrected.

The Native American name for this amazing tower is The Bear’s Lodge. ‘Devil’s Tower’ is a mis-translation they’d like corrected. Click to enlarge.

Here’s another view of the image, showing the constellations that can be seen in it:

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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.

solar mosaic

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.

barowed 1 peak

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.

11-1-14 wide field jupiter

1a

The four ‘Galilean’ moons are all visible in the wide field image. Because they are much dimmer than 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.)

Total Eclipse and Spica 2 Larger

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.

Picture saved with settings embedded.

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.

Picture saved with settings embedded.

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.

Lots can be seen here: globular and open clusters, reflection, dark, and emission nebulae, stars of varying color, and the center of our own galaxy.

Lots can be seen here: globular and open clusters, reflection, dark, and emission nebulae, stars of varying color, and the center of our own galaxy.

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.

PanSTARRS and M31 (click to enlarge).

PanSTARRS and M31 (click to enlarge).

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 astrophotographers 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.

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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.

Star trails: just support the camera on a sturdy tripod, and open the shutter. This time, I left it open for more than an hour. This is, in one way, the 'oldest' photo in the book. It was taken on modern medium format film (Fuji Provia 400, I believe), but the camera was a 60+ year old 4x5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic press camera. The varying colors that the stars show on the film is amazing. I didn't change them in any way except to up the saturation a bit. (Click all the way to the largest image to see the detail.)

Star trails: just support the camera on a sturdy tripod, and open the shutter. This time, I left it open for more than an hour. This is, in one way, the ‘oldest’ photo in the book. It was taken on modern medium format film (Fuji Provia 400, I believe), but the camera was a 60+ year old 4×5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic press camera. The varying colors that the stars show on the film is amazing. I didn’t change them in any way except to up the saturation a bit. (Click all the way to the largest image to see the detail.)

The star trails shot was on a slide that is 56 x 83 mm (it's called 6x9 cm). This image of a total lunar eclipse is on 35mm film (24 x 36 mm). You can see the edges of the slide at the edge of the scanned image. A crop of this image appears on the back cover of Stargazing Basics.

The star trails shot was on a slide that is 56 x 83 mm (it’s called 6×9 cm). This image of a total lunar eclipse is on 35mm film (24 x 36 mm). You can see the edges of the slide at the edge of the scanned image. Notice the stars: a bright one at about the 4:30 position (on a clock), and a very dim one very near the moon at about 10:00.  In an image of a normal full moon, those stars would be too dim to show up. A crop of this image appears on the back cover of my book, Stargazing Basics.

This is an image of Comet 17/P Holmes, in early November, 2007. The brightest orange star is Mirfak, in the constellation Perseus.

This is an image of Comet 17P/Holmes, in early November, 2007. The brightest orange star is Mirfak, in the constellation Perseus.

I may add more of these as I re-process more of the scans!

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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.

Comet panSTARRS next to the very thin crescent moon on March 12, 2013. (Make sure to click through to the largest version.)

Comet panSTARRS next to the very thin crescent moon on March 12, 2013. (Make sure to click through to the largest version.)

Three Sandhill Cranes. They often travel in family groups. This could be parents with last year's youngster.

Three Sandhill Cranes. They often travel in family groups. This could be parents with last year’s youngster.

Cranes feeding near a pond.

Cranes feeding near a pond.

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.

I’ve gotten a new mount to hold it: the Losmandy G-11!

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:

Transit (click to enlarge, and then click again for the full size)

The Constellation Orion the Hunter, with Several Nebulae (click to enlarge)

M42, The Great Nebula in Orion (click to enlarge)

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