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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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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

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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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