Spotting Pluto From Down Here

As NASA’s New Horizons speeds through the Pluto system this July, it’s tempting to take a look into the sky from earth and think of what’s unfolding billions of kilometers away. The question is, where can you turn your gaze from earth and at least be pointing in the approximate direction?

Pluto is so far from earth that it does not change its position in the sky very quickly. At the present time (writing on 13 July 2015), Pluto is in the general area of the constellation Sagittarius. It’s not far from a famous asterism, the Teapot, that lies just off of the main band of the Milky Way.

Pluto highest altaz cropped labelled

The attached image was created by making a screen capture from Stellarium, set for the location of Hamilton, Ontaro, Canada, at the time when Pluto is highest above the horizon on the day following the close encounter on the 14th of July. This turns out to be at about 1 PM DST on the morning of Tuesday 15 July 2015. At that moment Pluto will be about due south and 25 degrees above the horizon.

From Hamilton, Ontario, on the day of the close encounter, Pluto will be rising at about 8 PM and will set the next day (the 15th) at about 5 AM. It’s extremely faint, of course. It will be extincted to a magnitude of about 14.5 on the 15th at its highest elevation.

The weather forecast for the 14th for the Hamilton area is for cloud and rain. In order to try to get a memento image, I have programmed one of the Sierra Stars Observatory Network telescopes to try to photograph the dwarf planet.

Some Coming Attractions: two comets and a dwarf planet

It’s been a while since I put a post together. I thought some of the space exploration highlights to come were worth a note, so here are a few I’m watching develop.

In August of 2014 we’ll be treated to something pretty exciting: a spacecraft is due to go into orbit around a comet. The European Space Agency’s “Rosetta” probe has already done amazing things flying past two asteroids. In August it will be lined up to be captured by the feeble gravity of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. After several weeks of distance observations, the probe will release a little lander named Philae that should touch down on the comet in November.

This October there will be a real “nail-biter” in orbit over Mars. A comet discovered last year by an observatory in Australia, called C/2013 A1 Siding Spring, will come no where near the earth. However, on 1 October it will swing past Mars – very close to Mars, in fact. Mars is, of course, being closely observed by all sorts of spacecraft. NASA currently has two orbiters in action around the Red Planet, and another is on the way. Comets have been described as “dirty snowballs” and this one is expected to be shedding little chunks of rocky dust as it swings past Mars, exposing the spacecraft from earth to a concentrated rain of debris travelling multiple miles per second.  Spacecraft controllers have been working hard to keep their charges safe – but it’s uncharted territory.

In a year’s time, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will make the first close-up recognizance of Pluto. Whether or not you like to think of Pluto as a small planet or a very large Kuiper Belt Object, it’s fascinating territory and the last major body within the “inner” Solar System to have that we’ve never seen close up.

Stars On (Or From) A Plane

At breakfast at a B&B in Arizona on the 1st of June, 2013, conversation ran to the use of airborne telescopes. NASA has long used astronomical telescopes mounted on aircraft. Most recently, SOPHIA (the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) has been flying about in a converted 747. SOPHIA boasts a 2.5 meter reflecting telescope, and flies high enough that infrared astronomy becomes possible.

In the days preceding this chat, during my recent trip through Arizona with astronomy on my mind, a nice alignment of three planets had taken place. Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter have all been grouped more or less in a line visible just after sunset. I went out several times during my trip to see this lovely sight and get a few photos. On the way home from Arizona to Ontario, I happened to be in a west-facing seat on a jet between Detroit, Michigan, and Toronto, Ontario, flying between 9:50 PM and 11 o’clock or so on the evening of 1 June 2013. I was thrilled to see some of the planets still above the western horizon during this flight. Jupiter had just set, but I managed to get photos of Mercury and Venus, and even picked up some of the surrounding stars in Gemini and Aquila, too. My mind flashed back to the breakfast conversation of the day before.

Here’s one of  several photos I took from the plane on the evening, processed slightly for contrast and brightness to try to emphasize the stars and planets. Please click on each image to see them somewhat enlarged. The planets and stars will be easier to spot:

Stars visible from a jet liner

The stars are a little hard to see on this reduced copy one of a series of photos taken on the evening of 1 June 2013.  The view is from a Canadair Regional Jet looking out the left side of the plane. The middle of the view is a little north of west. The vertical fin is a winglet that decreases wing-tip turbulence and increases efficiency. Photographed with a Nikon D800, f/3.8, 1/13th second exposure, ISO “maxed”, at 29mm focal length on manual focus.

Once I had my feet on the ground, I processed the image a little to facilitate spotting stars, and then used the free planetarium proram Stellarium to see what was where at the time, place, and altitude I took the photos. Here’s a labelled version of the same photo:

Stars visible from a jet liner, labelled

Venus, Mercury and an assortment of stars were visible – and photographable – from a regional jet flying between Detroit and Toronto on the evening of 2 June 2013. I confirmed identities of the stars and two planets visible at this time, from this direction and altitude, using Stellarium, a wonderful free planetarium program. Venus is about 12 degrees north of due west in this image. Jupiter would have set a little while before this, roughly under the trailing edge of the wing. Please click on this image to see a larger version.

In these versions of the photo, Venus is hard to spot, and even the stars are not nearly as obvious as they are on the original, much larger image. I cropped out a section of the original image file, and adjusted the contrast and brightness to show Venus a bit better. Hereès the edited image, which is not reduced in resolution at all from the original D800 photo. The colors have also not been modified, but appear more intense because of the changes to brightness and contrast.

Colourful close-up of Mercury and Venus as seen from a plane

Mercury (top) and Venus (bottom) from the same frame as above. Might make a great wall-hanging!

My photos from a jet liner don’t compete of course with real airborne astronomy. However, its reassuring to know that the night sky sometimes can be there fore you even when you don’t quite expect it. Even at 10,000 meters.

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

On the Trail of Stars in Arizona

Arizona’s motto is the Canyon State – which is great. Canyons are cool. It’s also an astronomer’s dream. They sky is clear much of the year, and many areas are at a high elevation, too. Several prominent observatories are located in Arizona.

In May 2013 I took a week’s vacation in Arizona, with seeking out some astronomy opportunities high in mind. I will describe some of my other trip events in other posts. In this note, I thought I’d pass along results of my first couple of nights taking photos of the night sky near the wonderful Bed & Breakfast I stayed in, Down By The River. The B&B is in Cochise County, south and east of Tuscon, and as it’s in a rural area the sky is lovely there. The hosts, Mike and Angie, provided me with an amazing stay in their lovely inn. Highly recommended!

Here are a few of my early results.

A Couple of Individual Exposures

Scorpio rising over the BBQ

Scorpio rising over the BBQ. At the back of the Down By The River B&B, south of St. David, AZ.

On the evening of 29 May, 2013 three planets were in close alignment at sunset:

A planetary alignment at sunset 29 May 2013

Mercury (top), Venus, and Jupiter together just after sunset on the evening of 29 May 2013. South of St. David, AZ.

A Stacked Star Trail Image

I love making star trail images. On the night of 29 May I was able to capture a fairly good series of 52 exposures, 30 seconds each, with the camera pointed just east of north:

Stacked image 29 May 2013

A 27 minute star stack image taken from south of St. David, Arizona, on the evening of 29 May 2013. A total of 52 individual images, each 30 seconds long, were stacked together using StarStaX, a free program. Taken with a Nikon D800 and 24-120 mm lens at 24 mm, ISO 1000, f/3.5. I was having a little trouble getting the internal timer on the camera to work, so this series was taken by hand with a cable release. This copy is reduced down in size by about 90% in both directions. See below for a cropped portion at the original resolution.

The area around Polaris itself. Note that the centre of rotation is not right on the north star - the pole is a little less than one degree to one side of it.

The area around Polaris itself. Note that the centre of rotation is not right on the north star – the pole is a little less than one degree to one side of it. This section of the image above is cropped down to 800 pixels wide, showing the detail on the original image.


“Red, White, and Blue.” A little playing around with colours, brightness, and contrast on the image above. Sort of the Time Tunnel meets Van Gough.

I’ll post more as I’m able to catch up with things!

Copyright © 2013 David Allan Galbraith

Where To Go From Here?

While I’ve been interested in astronomy for over forty years, it’s only in the past year and a bit that I’ve returned to that interest in any sort of “serious” way as an amateur. I’ve been poking around at various telescope shops, getting to know some other amateurs in my area, and taking a lot of nightscape photos. I’ve even started taking a few photos of the moon and Jupiter with the equipment I have. Now what?

The sky is a big place. A simple calculation gives you an idea of just HOW big it is – and I’m not talking about how deep it is in time/distance. Consider first the moon. The moon is pretty big. It has a surface area about the same size as the continent of Africa, although we only can see about half of it from Earth of course. With the existing small telescopes I have I can make out features perhaps 5 km across if the lighting is right. The surface of the moon is about 38,000,000 km^2 (km^2 means “kilometer-squared or square kilometers) so if I can see half of it (in total) that’s about 19,000,000 km^2. A crater 5 km across has a surface area of about 19.6 km^s – so that little crater is just about 1/100,000 of the visible face of the moon. The whole visible surface is a lot of territory (or lunatory) to consider. Of course, it might be better to consider the visible disk of the moon, not the near hemisphere for a comparison like this. A disk with the radius of the moon would have a surface area of about 9,500,000 km^2, so the ratio would be about 50,000 craters-worth of area to explore. Still a lot! A purist would try this with angles but the answer would be the same as the disk area sketch.

The thing is, the moon is actually SMALL compared to the visible celestial sphere. Our eyes are drawn to the moon at night, but the reality is that it’s only about a half a degree across. The whole celestial sphere, encompassing 360°, has an area of approximately 41,253 °^2 (according to a Wikipedia entry on the angular area of the celestial sphere). The moon’s disk as an angle is about 0.2 °^2 – so it would take 206,000 moons to fill up the visible area of the sky! (The sun as virtually the same angular diameter as the moon – that’s why we can have such stunning total solar eclipses – so the same thing holds. The sun, so dominant in our sky, covers only about 1/200,000 of the visible celestial sphere. From the surface of the earth only about half of the celestial sphere is visible as the sky, and the sun is about 1/100,000 of it).

The moon photographed from Hamilton, Ontario, on 2012 12 19 2125 EDT with an 80mm refractor and Nikon D5100 at prime focus.

The moon photographed from Hamilton, Ontario, on 2012 12 19 2125 EDT with an 80mm refractor and Nikon D5100 at prime focus. Relatively simple equipment can take nice photos – but if you are interested in going further, what’s the next step?

The sky, then, has room for 200,000 moon-faces, and my little telescopes can show me details 1/100,000 of the moon’s surface. It’s overwhelming – and full of rich detail. From massive galaxies to wispy nebulas and sparkling star clusters, space beyond our little solar system is one of the richest treasures in nature. How luck we are that we can actually see it! If our solar system was within a more complex part of space we might not have as good a view as we do. Then again, it’s a fair bet that the more “interesting” places in space are far more risky too. Our fair wee planet has had less than five billion years of life so far, and only a few major boo-boos (like the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs – Ooops!).

So, back to the point of this ramble. As a (re)budding amateur astronomer, where do I start? I’m faced with this question because I’m looking seriously at upgrading some of my equipment, and different telescopes do different things. Do I make use of my existing optics and improve my ability to point and shoot, with a better mount and camera? Do I invest in a better optical tube (the actual “telescope” part)?

To some degree a telescope is a telescope. There are some basic characteristics everyone needs to consider when they are thinking about this kind of thing. One of the most important is portability. Like a lot of people, I live in a small apartment; I don’t have a garage or basement for storing large pieces of kit, and I don’t have my own space for a shed or observatory. So, compact and rugged is good. I’m also watching my budget (gulp). And, of paramount importance to me, I want to embark on something of a path in learning astronomy, not just grabbing at big telescopes because they’re cool! (and they are cool, and I’m a telescope geek).

I’m thinking I’ll start in the neighborhood this year, seeing what I can see – and photographing what I can photograph close to home in the “planetary” range – the sun, moon, and planets. This narrows things a bit, and is also a good choice for an urban dweller. Despite light pollution in cities, our own solar system is still quite observable from our sidewalks and parks because the objects are so bright. The existing ‘scopes I have – an old 80 mm refractor and a 130 mm “starter” Newtonian reflector – will do for now. What I need to do is to consider in the short term is what’s under the telescope and what’s attached to it.

Telescope mounts are important and perhaps underappreciated parts of the whole “system.” A heavy, capable mount makes viewing anything much easier. A lightweight mount only has the advantage of light weight. Small mounts shake. If you adjust a small telescope on a light mount it can take five or ten seconds or more for the resulting vibration in the camera to dampen out. So, I’ll be paying attention to mounts.

Cameras are at the other end of the process. There are some things I can do with my dSLR cameras, but the best images today are actually being taken with cameras that are much simpler than a dSLR but are designed to be used with a telescope – and a computer. Derived essentially from webcams, most cameras that work brilliantly for planetary photography by amateurs have small-seeming sensors – often less than a megapixel. They are also specialized in two other ways. They often have a built-in cooler, to help control internal camera noise – and they are often monochrome. Yes, black and white. You can do a lot in black and white, and you can get colour images by taking a series of monochrome images through coloured filters. The image files (often actually captured as short video segments in AVI format) are then processed with some ingenious computer software to create stunning, sharp images. So, I’ll also be looking at a small, specialized camera designed for planetary imaging. By starting with a camera and a sturdier mount, I can get going and will consider upgrading the optics a little later.

I’m also sure that there will be lots of opportunities to peek out past our solar system in the coming year. I’m going to be making visits to observatories, star parties, and other events to soak in more of deep space – and of course to be able to make reports here at Pine River Observatory! And I’ll be spending time under the night sky doing wide-field photography and just wandering around the stallar back-yard with binoculars and a good star guide. There are many lifetimes of space out there to enjoy.

© 2012, David Allan Galbraith