Saturday, April 22, 2017

It's Lyrid Time!

As I type this posting, my camera is working away outside, hopefully imaging magnificent shooting stars associated with the Lyrid Meteor Shower.

The predicted peak is early morning on April 22.  There is the possibility of seeing (in my case, imaging) 12-15 an hour.  I'll be happy with one...and extremely happy if the clouds hold off until after I bring my imaging gear inside.

When I first checked the sky at about 9:30 p.m., Friday evening, there was a thick cover of clouds over my area.  I assumed my imaging time would be non-existent.  However, another check of the sky around 11:30 p.m. provided my eyes with a sky full of stars and very good conditions.

But the conditions were nothing like the quality of the sky early in the morning on April 21.  From my backyard in town, I normally see three stars in Ursa Minor.  One of the stars, of course, is Polaris. The other two form the far end of the bowl of the dipper.  Friday morning I could see all the stars of the Little Dipper.  So I setup my camera.

At approximately 2:03 a.m., while I was inside enjoying the warmth, a meteor gracefully displayed its end which was fully captured on my camera.  You can't miss the meteor in the image below.

Oddly enough, the meteor shown above is the only meteor I was able to capture Friday morning.  My camera clicked its way through around 535 images.  In all, I captured the passage of two aircraft, seven satellite transits and one meteor.

The image was taken with a Canon EOS 60D with a Tolkina 12-28 mm Wide Angle zoom attached and set to approximately 14mm.  Shooting data was ISO 1600, 15-second exposure and an aperture of f/4.  The image was saved in JPG format.

Earlier that morning, I stepped outside to make sure everything was still working strong and as I turned towards my entry door, my eye was drawn to a sporadic meteor entering the atmosphere just south of Jupiter.  I followed that meteors trail as it moved northward until it disappeared about 15 degrees above the northern horizon.  The meteor was slow and a very pleasing yellowish gold in color.  It didn't leave a train, but at times, small bits seemed to fall off and instantly burn up.

It was only the second Earth-grazing meteor I have seen.  It traveled across a good three quarters of the sky before disappearing and was visible for a good five seconds.

I initially thought the meteor might have been captured on the upper part of one of my images, but that wasn't to be.  However, I do like the one meteor I did capture.

Hopefully my camera is working well and the Lyrid shower is providing me a good show.  I'll know in a couple of hours.

Monday, April 17, 2017

An Open Cluster Stack

Those who know about my enjoyment of astronomy, also know I enjoy meteor photography.  I set my camera gear up for all showers, including minor ones, to get that perfect meteor.  I have yet to capture that “Great Nighttime Meteor,” but I keep shooting and trying for that one shot.

A while back, I purchased a Tolkina wide-angle zoom mainly to use for meteor photography.  However, I also use it for wide area shooting of the night sky. 

Recently, I used it (combined with my Canon EOS 60D) to shoot a dozen images of Melotte 111, or Collinder 256.  To many, the naked eye open cluster is called the Coma Berenices Cluster.  The cluster is located below the bend in handle of the Big Dipper and about three times the distance the top of the bowl covers…if that makes sense.

Saturday evening proved to be one of the few clear nights I have experienced here lately, so I took the recently acquired Celestron SkyMaster 15x70 binoculars outside and pointed towards the cluster.  From what I have read, the cluster covers about 7.5 degrees in the sky.  Unfortunately, the SkyMaster binoculars have a field of view of 4.5 degrees.  Wanting to see the entire cluster in one swell swoop, I decided it was time to break out the Canon.

At the time I decided to photograph the cluster, it had moved to directly overhead and getting my tripod to point straight up takes a lot of leg adjusting and balance checking to get things working together.  The problem is my tripod is designed mostly for video work and not well suited for working straight up.  Once I found the balance point, I took a couple of test shots, saw that the cluster was most likely in the view and after setting the lens to 14mm, shot a dozen 10-second exposures.

Since I have yet to have good luck stacking images, I wanted to practice with these photos using DeepSkyStacker.  I have other stacking programs, but they are the ones I have used in the past with non-impressive results.  For the most part, it is the alignment of the images which have been the problem in the past.

After transferring the images to my computer, I started DSS on the working computer and opened the User’s Manual for DSS on the laptop for reference.  I really didn’t need to read much to figure out how to use DSS.  It is rather straight forward if the person doesn’t plan to do a lot of manipulation of the images prior to and during the stacking process.  I just wanted to see a good stack with stars aligned well.

And that is what I got.  The image below is the results.  My only concern is in the stacking process, a lot of the stars visible in the original images are not in the final product.  I should probably read the manual.

The cluster is located in the lower left area of the image about a quarter of the way from the left edge.  It is a small grouping of stars in the image, but through the binoculars, it is spectacular, even if I cannot see the entire cluster.

One other note of interest to no one in particular…today I began receiving items I ordered which I plan to use during the “Great American Eclipse” on Aug. 21.  Soon as the days clear here in the Pacific Northwest, I will accustom myself to their usage.

My next trip to the stars will most likely be early morning on April 22.  You guessed it…the Lyrid Meteor Shower.  Although the shower officially began April 16, and will end on April 25, the peak of the shower is predicted to be around 3 a.m. April 22.  My camera is ready to go if the weather cooperates.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Practice Makes Perfect...

Yes…it sounds like it is a bit early, but everyone knows the old saying…practice makes perfect.  And I would like to be as close to perfect as possible on Aug. 21 when the moon will sweep in front of the sun.

I am somewhat lucky, as I live on the southern edge of the zone of totality, but I won’t experience the eclipse where I live.  I hope to be about 30 miles north of here very close to the centerline.  And I do hope to get a series of good eclipse photos.

I have never photographed a total eclipse, so what I do on the day of the eclipse will be a first for me.  However, I will soon have everything I need to make those photos become a reality and will then start practicing what I need to do.  I do wish I had a second Canon body, as that would make everything a lot easier…maybe I will be able to borrow one between now and then.

I plan to use the following equipment in search of the ultimate total solar eclipse photograph.

1 – An ETX-80 Observer 
2 -- Helios Solar Glass Filter of 108 mm size 
3 – A Revolution Imager connected to a monitor, or a MallinCam SkyRaider AG1.2c Imager-Guider attached to a laptop
4 – Canon EOS 60D 
5 – A Tolkina AT-X 12-28 PRO DX wide angle zoom
6 – A Thousand Oaks Optical 77 mm threaded white light solarlite filter for the lens 

Since I will need to remove the solar filter during totality to image the corona, I will need an easy way to remove the filter without disturbing where the camera is pointed.  Rather than spend a few moments unscrewing the filter, I have obtained a set of 77 mm Xume lens and filter holders.  I will “lift” the filter off the lens, shoot the totality phase, then reattach the filter to the lens and continue shooting the final partial phases.

Should I be able to obtain a second Canon body, I will have my Canon EF 100-400mm II on that body and using a Tiffen variable neutral density filter, photograph the corona during totality.  Hopefully, I will be able to “stack” the images to get better detail in the corona.

Now you must be thinking, “What does he need to practice?”  I’ll tell ya…

As I said earlier, I have never photographed a total eclipse.  My main concerns are setting my equipment up to provide the best images possible.  The final part of that will depend on where I setup for the eclipse itself.  Since I plan to image the entire eclipse, I do need to know what the best focal length of the wide angle lens will be.  That needs to be determined ahead of time and then used at the shooting site.

The next part I need to practice is the combination of the ETX-80 and the camera to attach to the telescope.  Both will allow “live” view of what the scope is seeing, but which camera – the Revolution Imager (RI) being a video camera adapted for astronomical use and the MallinCam being a 1.2 megapixel CMOS camera – will provide the best image.

A test with the MallinCam several weeks ago on the daylight moon (see previous post) revealed something I wasn’t counting on…a small field of view.  The sun would also fit in the field of view, but it would need to be carefully monitored to maintain the view.  I have yet to use the RI, so I do not know what will be its field of view.  However, I do have a .5 focal reducer.  With it, I should be able to increase the field of view.  But the reducer does need to be tested on both cameras to see which works best.

And finally, the last thing I want to do at the viewing site is to be figuring out how to use the camera I chose.  Once my solar filter for the ETX-80 arrives, I will be practicing on the sun.  Hopefully there will be some sunspots to image.

I think I have covered most of what I will be doing before the “Great American Eclipse” occurs.  As I mentioned in the beginning, I live on the southern edge of totality, in Redmond, Oregon.  The best place to view the eclipse in central Oregon is Madras which is about 30 miles north.  However, predictions are for thousands upon thousands of eclipse fans to arrive in the area of Madras.  Since I somewhat know the area, I will be searching for a decent spot where my friends and I can view the event with the fewest number of people to interfere with our enjoyment and most importantly, our equipment.

Besides, I am not a big fan of crowds. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Daylight Moon and Camera Test

On Sunday, April 2, 2017, I decided I would "play" with a recently acquired camera in daylight.  I wanted to see what I was doing...good or bad.

The camera is a MallinCam SkyRaider AG1.2c (you can find info on it here).  The scope I selected (not that I have that many scopes) was the Meade ETX-80.  I considered using the ETX-125, but laziness made the decision for me...the -80 was in a better position to remove from the storage room.

Since it was a rather nice day with very few clouds in the sky and an almost quarter moon hanging at about 11 o'clock in the east, I decided to practice on it.

After doing a simple solar system alignment of the scope and inputting the moon on the GOTO, I centered the moon in the view of the 26 mm Super Plossl and made sure I had good focus in the eyepiece.  I observed for a short period through several of my eyepieces (all Plossls if you are wondering) and decided I would attempt eyepiece projection and see if I could obtain an image using that system with my Canon EOS 60D.

After striping down all the "not-really-needed" heavy objects on the camera, I slipped the 17 mm eyepiece into the adapter.  The 26 mm was a bit long and protruded into the camera's mirror area and I didn't want to take the chance of damaging the camera, so I used the lowest power eyepiece I had which didn't cause me alarm...which turned out to be the 17 mm.

Sliding the outfit into the eyepiece holder after making sure the moon was still centered in the view, I turned on Live View and attempted to obtain focus.  It never happened.  I'm not sure why I couldn't obtain focus.  As a matter of fact, I saw nothing on the camera's LCD which indicated any light source.  So I removed the Canon camera setup and decided to try the MallinCam SkyRaider.

After starting the laptop (actually, it was a netbook which came with the camera) and making sure the MallinCam software saw the camera, I switched to live view and there was the moon on the screen of the netbook.  However, it was out of focus.  I attempted to get good focus, but found a problem with a daylight test...the sun washed out the netbook screen and I could only tell when the moon was way out of focus.

Since the object of the adventure was to test the camera (and learn how to use it), I began recording what was being shown on the LCD.  Since I couldn't see to focus well, I decided to slowing move focus up and down the scale, stopping for a few seconds after making a slight adjustment in the hopes of getting at least one decent image.  After about one minute of recording, I shut everything down and took everything inside.

Anxious to see what the video looked like, I found where it was saved and doubled clicked it to begin play.  I got a box stating Windows didn't know how to open the file.  I checked to see what type of video file I had created and noticed it was a .ser file.  What in the world is a .ser file I said to no one.

I now know what a .ser file is and after checking the net, found a number of utilities to help process the files, and most importantly, view the files outside of the camera software.

One thing I noticed immediately, was the view of the moon as seen by the camera appeared much larger than it did through the eyepiece alone.  Centering whatever I plan to image will need to be very well done.  Although the moon was poorly centered in most of the frames, I still found a few which were decent enough to show here.  

After picking the best one, I did a bit of sharpening with Faststone's Image Viewer, then converted it to grayscale.  I also cropped it from 1280 x 960 to 900 x 900.

I have a lot to learn about astrophotography, but I like the way this image came out.  By the way, the reason I converted the image to grayscale was because I did not like the color of the sky.  It was a strange blue-green color and I couldn't figure out how to make it more closely match the color of the daytime I went with grayscale.