Looking Forward – And Up – For 2017!

There are a lot of exciting things happening in 2017. Many are covered in detail on large astronomy web sites like Sea and Sky: http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-2017.html

Here are just a few highlights to consider.

11 February 2017 – Lunar Eclipse

Following on from the full moon earlier on the same day, the moon will pass into the edge of the Earth’s shadow for a “penumbral lunar eclipse.” We should be in a great position to see the moon darkening in Ontario.  Here’s a link to a NASA PDF on the event: https://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/LEplot/LEplot2001/LE2017Feb11N.pdf

1 April 2017 – Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation

The tiny planet Mercury will be visible in the evening sky in early spring; on 1 April it reaches its greatest eastern elongation, and will be visible in the evening sky at sunset.

7 April 2017 – Jupiter at Opposition

On 7 April the Earth will pass directly between Jupiter and the sun. The planet will be very bright in the night sky, rising at sunset. Even a small telescope should reveal the four Galilean moons of our solar system’s largest planet.

15 June 2017 – Saturn at Opposition

In mid-June Saturn and its magnificent rings will be as bright as possible this year. Like Jupiter in April, at opposition the Earth lies directly between Saturn and the sun. Rising at sunset, the planet will appear as a fully-illuminated disk through a modest telescope, nestled within its amazing rings.


Saturn will be worth watching in 2017 on another front. The Cassini mission is drawing to a close. Throughout the year, NASA mission controllers are swinging the wonderful car-sized spacecraft through Saturn’s rings for the first time, willing to take risks at the tail end of the voyage. Launched 20 years ago (1997), Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been performing nearly flawlessly ever since. Later in 2017 the mission will be brought to an end and the spacecraft will be plunged into Saturn itself, a fiery demise to ensure that the environments of Titan and the other moons of Saturn are not contaminated. The feature image on this post is an artist’s rendering of Cassini and its attached Huygens probe undergoing the orbital insertion maneuver over Saturn in 2004 (Public Domain image; source NASA: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA03883).

21 August 2017 – The Great Eclipse

Perhaps one of the big events in 2017 will be the “Great Eclipse” – a total solar eclipse that will cross the continental United States from west to east coasts. On Monday 21 August 2017 the moon will pass directly between the Earth and the Sun, casting a vast circular shadow and giving millions of people a chance to see a true natural spectacle. Totality will pass through states like Kentucky and Tennessee, but from Ontario we will still see a great partial eclipse in the afternoon. Here’s NASA’s posting for eclipse information: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2017Aug21T.GIF

13 November 2017 – Close Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter

Just before sunrise Venus and Jupiter will be very close to each other in the sky – just 0.3 degrees apart, or less than the diameter of the full moon.

I hope you can get out and enjoy these and other exciting sky events in 2017! As we get closer to each I will post additional information on viewing – and when possible taking pictures of – these events.


Probing Deep Space from an Urban Apartment Balcony

Living in a large urban centre in a small apartment just one level off of the ground has its challenges for astronomy. First of all, I don’t have a garage or other place I can conveniently store my equipment; many astronomers I know have a space set up in a garage or shed where they can keep their gear at close to outdoor temperature all year. No such luck here. Second, my “at home” viewing area is a concrete balcony that is, I suppose, about 6 square meters at the most. It projects out to the west, which means I do see some nice sunsets, but my particular view is also pretty much obscured by trees, houses, and in my case part of the Niagara Escarpment. I also have the balcony of the apartment above mine right above mine, which means I can’t put a telescope on the balcony and see the zenith – straight up.

It’s also taken my a while to work out the geometry of the building. From the farthest out I can put a telescope on my balcony, Polaris just peeks over the top of the building, in the direction of a flood light that shines down on our parking area, which means that it’s virtually impossible to get a good polar alignment optically.

Not exactly a dark sky area.

Still, the urge to observe and photograph is strong, and a few things are amenable to urban star watchers even under less than ideal circumstances. The first thing is the moon. While nothing will move clouds out of the way, even in the most light-polluted areas the moon is still a great view. on a clear night Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Venus are all observable from cities too. They are so bright in comparison to stars and deep sky objects like galaxies and nebulae that there’s enough contrast to see them pretty well. Even the Galilean moons of Jupiter are pretty reliable from urban vantage.

My particular balcony’s situation means that in late winter evening views bring the Constellation Orion into view. Right now, Jupiter isn’t far off of Orion, and once a month the moon makes an appearance in the area, too. I was pretty happy, therefore, to see a clear evening on Sunday 17 March 2013 – and all three swung into view.

DSC_8698 cr1 adj 800px

The Constellation Orion and the moon presented a lovely view from my apartment in Hamilton on 17 March 2013.

The sky around Orion is particularly rich in interesting objects, and it’s one of my favourite parts of the sky. As soon as I could get a clear view of the area from Orion to the Pleiades, just to the east of Orion and past the moon, I set up a camera and took some overall photos with a wide-angle lens. The brightest individual objects in the sky were the moon and Jupiter, very near by. These two bright objects were great to capture with a telephoto lens.

The moon and Jupiter passed within three degrees of each other on the evening of 17 March 2013. Photographed with a Nikon D800 full-frame dSLR on a Sigma 150-500 mm telephoto lens at 500 mm. ISO 1250, 1/1000 sec exposure, f/5.3

The moon and Jupiter passed within three degrees of each other on the evening of 17 March 2013. The view with a 500 mm telephoto lens and camera on a tripod.

After a few photos of the overall scene I concentrated on the moon for a bit. Actually, this is a bit of a literary slight-of-hand, because I’d been preparing to use a telescope for a little while on the 17th, and had set up my big EQ6Pro telescope mount ahead of time. I settled on an approximate alignment to Polaris as “close enough for apartment work” and then mounted my old 80 mm f/15 refracting telescope on the mount. With a focal length of 1,500 mm this long white telescope gives nice views of the moon. I took a few shots at 1/100 of a second, ISO 400.

The moon, photographed on 17 March 2013 from an apartment balcony in Hamilton, Ontario, with an 80 mm f/15 refracting telescope and Nikon D800 camera.

The moon, photographed on 17 March 2013 from an apartment balcony in Hamilton, Ontario, with an 80 mm f/15 refracting telescope and Nikon D800 camera.

The view of the moon was nice on the 17th. The terminator was passing through the Sea of Tranquility, meaning that the landing site of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was likely just experiencing sunrise. Crater Theophilus, one of my favourites, was nicely illuminated. The image above is the whole image, reduced in resolution. Below is a section centred near Theophilus cropped but not reduced in resolution. The Apollo 11 landing site was approximately in the middle of this view left to right, and just below the top edge of the frame.

A portion of the photo of the moon above, taken on 17 March 2013, unreduced in resolution.

A portion of the photo of the moon above, taken on 17 March 2013, unreduced in resolution. Crater Theophilus is near the middle of this view, with a four-peaked mountain in its centre, just caught by the morning rays of the sun.

Once I had my fill of the moon I decided to go after a deep sky prize for the first time: the Great Nebula in Orion, or M42. This is an amazing region of space, about 1000 light-years away, where new stars are being born in huge clouds of gas and dust. We can see this nebula (Latin for cloud) with our own eyes on a clear night. It’s the middle “star” in the “sword” hanging down from Orion’s belt. It’s even visible on the wide-angle photo at the beginning of this post, looking like a star.

The EQ6Pro mount I was using is equipped with a digital inventor of many objects in the sky. I simply entered “M42” in the keypad and the mount took over, pointing the telescope right at the nebula! I took a few photos right away. My biggest challenge was focusing the telescope. I was not able to see any stars at all through the camera viewfinder. I took a series of exposures, adjusting focus between each one. I was really happy to see something of the nebula, though. The photo below was among the better of the group, taken with the Nikon D800 at ISO 6400, 15 second exposure.

My first photo of th Great Nebula in Orion - M42. Lots of room for improvement.

My first photo of th Great Nebula in Orion – M42. The good news? Lots of room for improvement.

One of the cardinal rules in using a telescope, especially for photography, is that it’s best if the telescope itself is at the same temperature as the air. When I started my March 17 observing I set out a larger telescope, a Sky-Watcher 200 mm f/5 Newtonian reflector (focal length 1000 mm, designed for imaging), on the balcony to cool down. By the time I was ready to try something more challenging than the moon, it was ready. I set this larger scope onto the mount and re-aligned it. What a difference! The larger diameter of this telescope – 200 mm compared to 80 mm for the refractor – gathers a lot more light. With the camera on live-view I was immediately able to see the four central stars in the nebula, known as the Trapezium, and focus the telescope on them. After experimenting with exposures I settled on ISO 640 and 30 seconds, and was quietly pleased with the results. This is just a first stab at a “deep sky object” for me, but it looks promising, especially for those times to come when I will be able to align the mount a little better (eliminating the slight streaking of the stars into trails visible here), and get out of areas of intense light pollution (which improves contrast and detail in astrophotography).

The Great Nebula in Orion photographed with a 200mm Newtonian Telescope, 17 Marhc 2013.

The Great Nebula in Orion photographed with a 200mm Newtonian Telescope, 17 March 2013, from an apartment balcony in Hamilton, Ontario.

The relative sizes of the images I’ve presented here are a little misleading. The nebula is about a degree across in the sky, compared to half a degree for the moon. Much less detail came through on M42 because the moon is so much brighter that it shone through the sky glow of urban light pollution, and because among other things it required a much shorter exposure. Also, the 80 mm refractor has a focal length of 1500 mm, while the much beefier-looking Newtonian is just 1000 mm. Like camera lenses, this means that the refractor actually magnifies things more than the Newtonian does, and I used the refractor for the images of the moon. It’s also worth noting that having the moon so close to Orion on the 17th made photography of the nebula even harder. Its bright light spills all over the sky, and even into the telescope, reducing usable contrast on the nebula.

Copyright © David Allan Galbraith 2013

Clear Winter Nights Can End Fast

It’s been a long winter so far for me. Few opportunities to observe or photograph the night sky. Tonight – 17th February 2013 – it seemed that there was a shot at, well, some shots. It’s been clear all afternoon and evening. The moon is sitting spectacularly between Jupiter and the Pleiades, and Orion is just a few degrees to the west of that amazing sight – should be beautiful to see and lend itself to great shots for both camera and telescope. I’ve had my 80mm f/15 refractor on the balcony all afternoon on the EQ-4, and even got some nice shots of the sun this afternoon with it. Now it’s all cooled down and is at ambient temperature (important for telescopes), I’m wrapped up like a well-wrapped wrapper, and I’m all set for some lovely winter balcony-based astronomy.

And of course the clouds start to roll in from the north at 9:05 pm, just as the moon and stars of interest are swinging low enough in the horizon to work for me from the balcony. Not quite in position for the telescope. Whimper. I took a couple of quick hand-held shots for exposure. By the time I had a camera on a tripod the clouds were everywhere.

The moon and Orion - and Jupiter. See the posting for the details...

The moon and Orion – and Jupiter

Well, make lemonade, eh? Here’s one of the hand-held shots – still interesting – the moon is the brightest object, and you can see the bright cluster of stars just to the right – the Pleiades – peeking through the clouds. Jupiter is the bright object to the left and up from the moon. Due left of it is a bright yellow star, Aldebaran. The constellation Orion – the Hunter – lies off to the left. Another hour and a half until these things start to set behind the trees and Escarpment near by… maybe the clouds will part again at some point.

When the Apollo missions were heading to the moon the first mission priority, once the crew was safely down on the lunar surface and outside, was to collect a little bit of rock – the “contingency sample.” This was placed into a pocket, and if for some reason they had to leave in a hurry, well, they took something back with them. I guess this shot was my “contingency sample” for the evening.

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons from a Sidewalk

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons, 7:28 PM EDT, 2 January 2013as seen from 40 McKay Road, Dundas, Ontario, CanadaLeft to right: HD27742 (star), Ganymede,Europa, Io, Jupiter, HD27639 (star), Callisto. Best image of moons and of Jupiter combined.

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons photographed 7:28 PM EDT, 2 January 2013 from a sidewalk in Dundas, Ontario. Left to right: Ganymede, Europa, Io, Jupiter, HD27639 (a reddish star), and Callisto. This is a montage of the best frame of the moons and the best frame of Jupiter, shot at different exposures because of the great difference in brightness between the two. Details follow below.

In my post on 1 January I described “first light” through an old 80mm f/15 refractor telescope: the first pictures I thought were fairly good after repairs, which happened to be of the photosphere of the sun. Although the nights this winter have been disappointingly cloudy in southern Ontario so far, on the evening of 2 January 2013 we had a cold, occasionally clear night. Between some of the clouds I was able to set up the 80 mm again and get some nice views of Jupiter and the Galilean moons, and also take some photos. This time I went out to the sidewalk in front of my place, with two of the legs of my tripod in the snow.

The results were very encouraging given the circumstances. Two major cloud bands on Jupiter were clearly visible, as were the four Galilean moons. With my Nikon D5100 body shooting at ISO 1250 at prime focus, I exposed for the moons at 1/8th of a second, and for Jupiter at 1/125th, taking multiple frames of each.

After getting inside and warming up, and following a little adjustment for contrast, brightness and sharpness, I was able to over-lay the best image of Jupiter onto its overexposed self on the best image of the moons. The result is the montage above.

There are much more sophisticated ways of taking images of Jupiter, the moon, and the other planets these days, even with a simple telescope such as I used. It was nice to see at least a recognizable image of the disk of Jupiter with the approach I used for this one. The D5100 is a nice dSLR for this kind of application because the LCD screen on the back swivels around. It was possible to get a pretty good view of the Jovian system using live view on the camera.

Chart of Jupiter and the Galilean Moons

The expected arrangement of Jupiter and the four Galilean Moons at 6:30 PM EST 2 January 2013 as portrayed by the free planetarium software Cartes du Ciel.

I had confirmed the positions of the moons, and also the small reddish star HD27639, with the free planetarium software Cartes du Ciel, before heading out, and so had a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of positions. What made the experience really nice tonight was that I was joined on the sidewalk by some of my neighbours, who were very excited by a peek at old Jove. They enjoyed looking both with an eyepiece on the ‘scope and also on the camera live view screen.

Sharing these experiences, even as simple as this one was, is very rewarding. Many local astronomy clubs offer “sidewalk astronomy” experiences, too.  If you have a telescope and know how to find a few things in the sky, get out and share it with your neighbours, friends and family. If you don’t have a telescope and would like to find out more, seek out local clubs and see what they have to offer.

As a memento I made a print of the photo for my neighbours… they don’t have a computer, so email wasn’t an option. That’s OK – when Galileo was looking at the same scene four hundred years ago this month, he didn’t have email either.

© 2012, David Allan Galbraith

My Favourite Amateur Astronomy News from 2012: September’s Impact on Jupiter

There were some great astronomy news stories in 2012, but one really stands out for me as a demonstration of why amateur astronomy can still be “more” than a hobby. Dedicated amateur astronomers can make real contributions to science.

Early on the morning of September 10, Mr. Dan Peterson was observing the planet Jupiter with a 12″ telescope in Texas, and saw a bright flash on one side of the planet. The flash lasted perhaps 1.5 to 2 seconds, and was reported to be very bright. Mr. Peterson posted his observation on an astronomy web forum (http://www.cloudynights.com/ubbthreads/showflat.php/Cat/0/Number/5413921/Main/5413225). A few hours later another amateur, Mr. George Hall, posted a photograph of the flash, confirming the earlier report (http://georgeastro.weebly.com/uploads/1/3/3/4/13344093/jupiterimpact.jpg).

This event – likely the impact of a small, previously unknown comet – into the Solar System’s largest planet – would not have been observed at all unless amateurs had seen it, as was the case. With the large number of planets and other interesting objects in our Solar System (especially comets and asteroids), the professional scientific community and the incredible instrumentation provided by earth-based and space-based telescopes can’t monitor everything all the time. There are no spacecraft in the vicinity of Jupiter, and even if there had been, observing an unpredictable event that lasted 2 seconds would be down to sheer luck even if there was a spacecraft near-by.

Even the world-wide network of amateur astronomers can’t catch everything that happens, of course, but the chances are that transient events will be picked up by an amateur first. This isn’t a new situation. The Association of Planetary and Lunar Observers (yes, they use the acronym A.L.P.O. – http://www.alpo-astronomy.org/) has been organizing, recording, and helping people to share observations on the planets, comets, asteroids, and just about everything else in the solar system, for decades. With 14 different “observing sections” covering everything from meteors to remote planets, A.L.P.O. is a great example of people contributing to new knowledge – true citizen scientists. A.L.P.O. even publishes its own journal, in production since the 1940s. Membership is open to anyone interested, whether or not you are making regular observations. They are international and welcome all interests.

There are several ways in which amateurs are contributing to astronomy around the world right now. In addition to observations of Solar System events and the discovery of comets, some are making detailed measurements of the brightness of individual stars over time, called stellar photometry. Many stars are variable, changing their brightness over time for several different reasons. For example, the American Association of Variable Star Observers (http://www.aavso.org/) links up and supports people making observations of stars that are changing brightness because of their intrinsic physics, or even because of orbiting companion stars (occulting binaries).

What’s more, even in today’s light-polluted urban environments, like Southern Ontario, amateur observing programs like these can continue. The moon and the planets out to Saturn, at least, are so bright that useful observations can be made even with the ubiquitous background glow in the sky reducing the contrast of what we can see. Getting involved in a meaningful way in these programs is also not dependent on having large, expensive telescopes. There are observing sections in A.L.P.O. for people observing the sky with nothing more sophisticated than a pair of binoculars, or just their eyes. Knowledge of the sky, patience, and making careful, organized notes are the most important tools any astronomer – amateur or not – brings to the science.

© 2012, David Allan Galbraith