Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Great Conjunction of 2020

This was something that I was looking forward to all of last year.  The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21st, 2020, of course.

In the early part of the year, somewhere in my Internet travels on the astronomy sites, I read that Jupiter and Saturn were going to get really close to each other.  I confirmed it for myself using SkySafari.  I dialed in the date and took a look.  This is what SkySafari showed me!


The rectangle in this screen capture represents the field of view of my Cat, with the 0.63 focal reducer, and the ZWO ASI294MC imager.  How exciting!  Jupiter and Saturn in the same field of view with a bunch of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons in the mix!

Three things came to mind, though.  The planets would be really low on the horizon shortly after sunset.  This meant that there would be a lot of atmospheric murk through which to peer.  And Jupiter is really bright while Saturn, not so much.  Would I be able to see Saturn with the imager's gain turned down to avoid overexposing Jupiter?  Would I be able to capture any of the moons with the imager?

I made a note to be sure to not forget to take a peek at these planets as the conjunction approached.  It turns out that the note was not necessary... Everyone, even normal people, became excited to see the conjunction, aka, "The Christmas Star."  Reminders were everywhere.

At the beginning of December, you could see the conjunction happening in slow motion.  Each night, Jupiter and Saturn creeped closer and closer in the evening sky.

I captured this image on December 5th with my smartphone, a Google Pixel 5.


Saturn is above and just to the left of Jupiter. In this gorgeous image, it is clear that the trees are going to pose a problem.  On the 21st, I'll need to set up the Cat at the far edge of the driveway for optimum tree avoidance...

On the 21st, the day of the closest coupling of the two planets, it rained.  Of course.  Not just a simple rain... It was a day of torrential downpours.  That really sums up the entire astronomy session experience for 2020,  doesn't it?  Rain and clouds on critical event days.

On the 22nd, however,  we could actually see the sky again.  The separation of the planets didn't increase much from their closest approach.

Before dusk, I had all of the equipment out and waited for darkness.  Aligning the Cat was amusing.  I used an educated guess for true north and since there were no alignment stars, I used the moon for a point of reference for CPWI's sky model.  I needed a good alignment so that the Cat would track and the planets would stay in the field of view.

 At 526 pm, I framed Jupiter and Saturn in the imager's field of view.  I captured hundreds of gigabytes of data and this is the resultant image. (Click to make bigger.)



You can see bands of Jupiter's clouds and Saturn's rings.  Also dimly visible are the Galilean  moons, from left to right, Europa, Callisto, Io, and Ganymede.

Planets, when viewed through the eyepiece, are always beautiful.  This view was especially gorgeous.  I'm really happy to have been able to capture it with the imager.



 





Sunday, November 8, 2020

Farewell, Mars! See Ya, Next Time Around!

This opposition of Mars was actually more challenging than that of 2016. 

It's always about the clouds, isn't it? With the last opposition, Mars had a global dust storm that made it really hard for us poor Earthbound astronomers to see any of its surface features. The entire planet was coated in a dust cloud. 

This time, though, no dust storm. It was Earth's water vapor clouds and upper level winds that made observing Mars difficult. At least for me from my Central Virginia, Bortle 4/5, backyard observing spot. 

Last night was different, however. It was to be a clear dark sky with above average seeing. Mars was to be at the meridian by 2230. I could easily have all of the equipment outside and a couple of cups of coffee consumed by then. 

 But what could I expect to see? The online Mars Mapper had the answer.



I put my planetary imager, the ZWO ASI224MC, on my Cat and captured 5 minutes of video to a .ser file and processed the thousand of frames with AutoStakkert3.  I kept only the best 20 percent of the frames for the resultant image. 

Mars, 11/08/2020, at 0300 UTC
 
I think there is a really good match between the model and my image.

We are a few weeks past Mars' opposition.  It is interesting to me to see how much smaller Mars appears in the sky since my last image of it.

Here is what I captured on 10/22/2020 using the same equipment and settings.

Mars, 10/22/2020, at 0403 UTC

Fun fact:  The bright spot in the lower right of this image is Olympus Mons, which is a very large shield volcano.  It has a height of over 21 km (13.6 miles).

Deep Space Bonus Image

Well, it's not Mars, it's an image that I captured while waiting for Mars to reach the meridian.  It's a deep space object known as NGC 40.  It's pretty and I like it.

NGC 40  (Click to make it bigger)

It is also known as the "Bow-Tie Nebula" and is composed of a hot gas around a dying star.

More deep space objects to come as I turn my focus away from planetary objects and start to enjoy Winter deep space sky!





 



Sunday, October 4, 2020

Mars or Bust

Clear sky last night.

Predicting seeing?  Just average.  Well, that is much better than not being able to see the sky at all, I suppose. Shoo, clouds!

When I pointed the Cat at Mars, I saw the typical, for average seeing, slightly boiling in atmospheric shimmering, face of Mars.  Bright red.  Brighter than Jupiter, now that it is at opposition.

Features were visible, when viewing through the eyepiece.

I put my planetary imager, the ZWO ASI224MC, on the Cat and captured tens of gigabytes of data, hoping to have some success via "lucky imaging."

Here is the resulting image:

Hello, Mars, God of War

Yep. The image captured some surface features on Mars' face, but what are they? To answer that, I like to get a frame of reference by comparing my images with other sources.

Recently, I stumbled across a, new to me, tool that provides a model of what one should expect to see when observing Mars.  I decided to use last night's observing session to test it.

It is a web app provided by the British Astronomical Association and with last night's date and time, it provided this:

The face of Mars, 10/03/2020, at 2306 EST

I think the model and my image line up pretty well with each other!

Now that Mars is at opposition, I'll be keeping a keen eye on the "seeing" forecasts.  It has been months since we've had good or excellent seeing.  We are overdue, aren't we?





Sunday, September 27, 2020

A Window to Mars

Yet another week of clouds and rain.

As I usually do each morning, I checked the astronomy forecast at Astropheric.  It has been pretty tough to find a clear night with steady seeing that lines up my schedule, but I'm always hopeful.

Yesterday, Astropheric presented me with this forecast:

A Window of Above Average Seeing!

It didn't look like much, but Astopheric was forecasting a brief amount of time when the sky would be clear and the seeing above average. 

I went outside at 2030 (EST) and took a look at the sky.  Humidity was really high, but the sky looked promising.  I brought out the CAT, leveled it, and attached the imager and waited.

The humidity was high, equipment was wet, and fog was threatening.

I'm glad I persevered.

This is the Mars image for the night.

Hello Mars!
It was captured at 2309 (EST) using my planetary imager, a ZWO ASI224MC, attached to my Celestron CPC-1100.

Fog started to roll in shortly afterwards and everything was drenched... Except for the corrector plate on the CAT.  The dew strip and shield did their job.  This session was a really good test.

Bonus Image

While waiting for Mars to rise high enough to get out of turbulence of the lower sky, I played with the imager while focused on Jupiter.

Ganymede was nearby, so it was captured, as well.

Hello Jupiter and Ganymede!

It was a fairly success astronomy session, even though the viewing window was so narrow!




 

 


Monday, July 27, 2020

Super Powers? I'm Waiting.

When Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was a morning object, I managed to observe it by taking a trek down the road and peering around the neighbor's monster magnolia trees.

It was naked eye visible, without averted vision, and was beautiful through binoculars.

I kept an eye on its progress through several mornings, and even captured a nice image of it with my Google Pixel 3XL Android phone.

Comet NEOWISE
Click here to see my blog entry!

So, now that Comet NEOWISE is an evening object, what does that mean to me?

Super powers!

Monday, July 20, 2020

Mars, 2020 Opposition T-Minus 86 Days and Counting

Can you believe it?

The Mars opposition in 2020 is just 86 days away!  It seems like we had a Mars opposition just a little over two years ago, doesn't it?

I took advantage of the nice seeing conditions this morning and spent some time focused on Mars.

What did I expect to see?

The Virtual Planet Atlas, free software for planetary observation and study, has a really nice model of Mars.  One look at its graphics will tell you everything.

For Mars this morning, the model predicted this:

Mars, via the Virtual Planet Atlas

And this is what I captured:

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Best Camera

The best camera is the camera that you have with you when you need to take a photo.

In my case, this morning, my camera was my phone, a Google Pixel 3XL.

Most mornings of this week, I've been strolling up the road a couple of hundred feet to see around the monster magnolia trees in the neighbor's yard.  These trees obscure the northeastern part of the horizon where comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) has made an apparition.

Through binoculars, the comet is gorgeous.  Without binoculars, it is a naked eye comet, but tough to see.  Until this morning, that is.  This morning, the comet hung low in the sky and was very obvious without needing to find it with binoculars first.

So, after reveling in the appearance of NEOWISE and basking in its brightness, I pulled the phone out of my pocket and tried my hand at impromptu astrophotography. 

Yes, there a billion better photos of the comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), but this one is mine.😎


The image is cropped, a bit, to remove the neighbor's house and some of the dark, featureless ground, but is otherwise unedited.  The comet is in the lower left of the image.

Not bad for an image made with a phone, eh?

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This was something that I was looking forward to all of last year.  The conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21st, 2020, of course....

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