Astrophotography Target: The Andromeda Galaxy

Astrophotography Target: The Andromeda Galaxy

We’re kicking off a fun new monthly series of blog posts here on Wyoming Stargazing. This will be a monthly challenge to hone your astrophotography skills on a different deep-space target each month.

How to Find the Andromeda Galaxy

This month’s astrophotography target is the Andromeda Galaxy. Our nearest galactic neighbor can be found by looking north-northeast toward the constellation of Cassiopeia. At this time of year, after sunset, Cassiopeia is to the east of Polaris, the north star. It makes the distinct shape of an awkward looking ‘3’. Down from Cassiopeia and more eastward is the constellation of Andromeda. Three bright stars will form her bottom leg: Almaak (the foot); Mirach in the middle; and Alpheratz at the waist. From Mirach, you can jump up to her next leg at a fainter star. Then, hop up one more yet fainter star. To the right of the last star will be the Andromeda Galaxy, appearing to the naked eye as a fuzzy blob. If you look back at Cassiopeia, you’ll see the top three stars form an arrow that point directly to the galaxy.

Use whatever means you can to try to catch a shot of it: telescopes; astrophotography trackers; even just a camera on a tripod. When you have something you’re happy with us, share it with us on Twitter or Facebook and we’ll share the entries!

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest galactic neighbor and is 2.2 million light years away. It is bigger than our own Milky Way Galaxy and is often seen with a much smaller "companion" galaxy.

Another Blood Moon This Month

When will it happen?

September 27th at approximately 8pm will mark the fourth and final blood moon in a series of a four across a quick, two-year span. The three previous occurred on April 15 2014, October 8 2014, and April 4, 2015.

Lunar Eclipse Diagram

Geometry of a Lunar Eclipse” by Sagredo – Own work, images of Earth and Moon derived from NASA images. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

What is a lunar eclipse and why is the Moon going to turn red?

As you probably know, the Earth orbits around the Sun, and the Moon orbits around the Earth. You might already know that when the Moon is full it is positioned on the opposite side of the Earth with respect to the Sun (as seen in the image to the right). Even though that alignment happens every month, we don’t get a lunar eclipse every month. That is because the plane of the orbit of the Moon is tilted by about 5 degrees to the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun.  However, when the Moon is in its full phase and it lines up with the orbital plane of the Earth, the Moon passes into the small, cone-shaped shadow (umbra) cast by the Earth from the light of the Sun. That’s a lunar eclipse. As the shadow of the Earth creeps across the Moon the Moon begins to darken. Then, as the Moon is fully eclipsed it turns red. That happens because the red light from the Sun is able to pass through the atmosphere of the Earth whereas the other colors of light from the Sun are scattered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

During totality, the moon is passing through the umbra at a whopping one kilometer per second. That’s 2,300 mph! And still, totality of the eclipse can last up to 107 minutes.

Will Wyoming Stargazing Have a Program Anywhere?

Yes, we’ll be set up with our telescopes on the lawn next to the Center for the Arts at 8pm on September 27th.

Is the World Really Going to End?

Some of you may have noticed that thanks to the unique nature of the astronomical event, some alarmist groups (possibly desperate for attention) are claiming that this will mark the end of the world. Despite their best claims and whatever arguments they have managed to make viral on social media, the world is, in fact, quite safe from any destruction from this event.

Snow King Observatory Status from Summer 2015

Architecture design by Jakub Galczynski: JakubGalczynski.com

If you’ve ever visited us at one of our free programs, talked with us a bit on a stargazing tour, or even just clicked around this site a little, you know one of our major goals is to bring an observatory and planetarium to Jackson Hole. So how’s that going?

At the moment, there’s really only good news and better news! Our Executive Director, Samuel Singer, met with Max Chapman, the owner of both Snow King and Brooks Lake Lodge (the latter near Togwotee Pass), earlier this year to discuss just that. Chapman loved the idea so much, he worked in an observatory into his Phase II development plan for Snow King just before submitting it to the town and county! The plan was then approved to proceed, and right now, the proposed site is undergoing an impact study on the natural area. The entire study process should potentially last up to the summer of 2018. Assuming it passes, the observatory will shift into the planning phase, possibly taking up to another year. Once that’s complete, the construction will begin on Jackson Hole’s first observatory!

As of the initial planning stages, the proposed size of the mirror for the telescope that will be housed in the observatory will be a full meter wide, nearly double our massive 20" scope! This will allow for substantially better viewing of deep space objects. It will also have some enormous benefits to the community, such as having a completely new option for family activities after dark, while also encouraging scientific literacy and development through hands-on experience with astronomy. Kids growing up here in Jackson Hole are already blessed enough to live in such a rich natural environment, and now they’ll learn just how important the objects in the night sky are as well.

Of course we’ve been asked multiple times when talking about this, "Aren’t Jackson’s skies a little bright for an observatory on top of Snow King?" It is true that they are much brighter than they need to be, and that’s something we’re actually working with Town and County about right now, the developments in that area being enough for a completely separate blog post. Just know that we are making every effort to minimize the lighting in the area and everyone thus far has been very receptive. If you’d like to proactively and voluntarily make your house or business compliant with the new standards we’re hoping to establish, check out our Save Our Night Skies Campaign page for more information. By taking action, you’ll not only be making your property safer while at the same time saving money on energy, you’ll also be helping to restore a more natural night sky above Jackson, encouraging more people to look up after dark. In addition, it will also have a much less disruptive effect on the wildlife of our community.

Our hope is that by the time the observatory opens, we can decrease the amount of light that we’re emitting, which has unnecessarily skyrocketed in recent years. Alternatively though, before the observatory on top of Snow King is scheduled to open, there may be another in the area by then. Since Chapman also owns Brooks Lake Lodge, he’ll be installing one up there as well. This one will be a .7 meter scope (roughly 27 inches) and will be very far away from any light pollution. If you haven’t experienced the night skies up there, you’ll definitely need to make the trip up! The difference is astounding!

In the meantime, keep an eye on this site for any exciting updates and developments. These are exciting times indeed!

Orion and Comet Lovejoy by Mike Cavaroc Gets APOD

I recently took this photo of Orion and Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 in the night sky and shortly thereafter, was awarded Astronomy Photo Of the Day (APOD) run by NASA! Out of millions of photos submitted from around the world, this one was chosen and published relatively quickly, I’m assuming due to its timeliness. See the original post here: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150114.html

I took the image on the first clear night we had had in Jackson Hole in weeks. I was trying to get a close-up shot of the comet when I noticed its proximity to Orion. I zoomed out and noticed that the composition made it look like Orion was shooting Comet Lovejoy from his bow (his more widely-accepted shield had been put down temporarily for the sake of this photo). I began capturing many more images to stack together to create this image.

Visible in the image are nearly all of Orion’s wonders, including the Orion Nebula, Barnard’s Loop, the Horsehead Nebula, the Flame Nebula, and even the Rosette Nebula to the left, part of the Monoceros constellation.

Interested in learning how to capture an image like this? Read Pixpa.com’s A Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography article to find out how!

How to Find Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy

If you’re looking for a New Year’s miracle in astronomy, Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) is about the closest thing to it. Discovered back in August, the comet was never supposed to achieve naked-eye visibility, but it already has! It will continue to brighten when it’s expected to peak some time around January 7th where it will be near Rigel and the Orion constellation. As of this writing, it’s currently on its way out of Lepus and heading higher and higher into the night sky.

Sky And Telescope Lovejoy Map

Moonlight will distract from getting a perfectly clear viewing through early January as we reach a full moon on January 4th, but the moon will start setting later and later after that, making the second week in January ideal for watching the comet. Don’t get too discouraged now though! With a pair of binoculars aimed in the right direction, the comet can be easily found and viewed, and since it’s growing in brightness, it will get even easier to spot with the naked eye.

The comet was named after Terry Lovejoy from Australia who has found several comets in recent years. It was 4,000 dimmer than it is now when he first discovered it and its rotation around our sun takes roughly 11,500 years! Due to the planets’ effects on the comet, it’s expected to return in roughly 8,000 years.

Check out the great printable map from Sky & Telescope on the right to see exactly where to look. For more detail and information on the comet, you can also read their article on Comet Lovejoy.

A Wyoming Stargazing Tour Time-Lapse

Ever wondered what a Wyoming Stargazing tour would look like as a time-lapse? I used to also. Then I made the video below.

Back in September, the media went buzzing with the prospect of northern lights and how they were going to wow the socks off of the lower 48! They never showed up though. Not even the newsletter we sent out that day could coax the auroras down south (we tried). Hoping for a time-lapse of stargazing below the northern lights, I set my gear up and captured a time-lapse that night regardless. Early in the video, there is a faint pink glow on the northern horizon, but it fades fairly quickly. Toward the end, the landscape becomes lit up as the moon rises in the east. Throughout the video, you can see us making good use of our laser pointers as the occasional car drives by, also lighting up the landscape from the east.

The time-lapse on its own seemed like it needed some noise in the background, so I threw together a little track to go with it.

Astrophotography on a Budget

Astrophotography can seem like a daunting hobby to jump into. Indeed, there are definitely learning curves to overcome, but if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing, our astronomers are always happy to help you along in your goal to capture some deep sky objects with your camera. To help you get started, I’ve written up a simple guide to help you get going!

The Camera (of course!)

Naturally, the first thing you’ll need is a camera to photograph the night sky with. Though many options exist, we’re going to stick to the more budget-minded route since that’s where most people will be coming from. The most accessible option would be to get a DSLR camera, such as a Canon Rebel. Under normal, daylight circumstances, both Canon and Nikon reign supreme in the field of photography. With deep space photography, however, Canon has embraced the market much more noticeably than their competitors. This is primarily because Canon sells a modified version of their 60D camera called the 60Da. What’s the difference? (Besides the ‘a’?) Every camera comes with a filter that covers the sensor that makes the sensor more sensitive to visible light. The 60Da comes with a modified filter that is able to "see" more light than the standard filter (or your eyes), specifically Hydrogen-alpha particles. Hydrogen-alpha particles are important to astrophotography because they make up a significant amount of matter in many deep space objects. If you already own a camera in the Canon line, you can have that custom modified to have that filter replace the standard filter since the process is relatively simple and routine (though very tedious). Keep in mind though that this will void any warranty on the camera.

For my own astrophotography, I bought a used Canon Rebel T4i and sent it off to Hap Griffin to have him do the modification. He’s done hundreds of modifications and only charges a small fee added onto the cost of the filter. Given what’s involved with the modification, I found it well worth the price.

Of course this could be enough to get you started with some wide shots of the Milky Way Galaxy, for example, but to really zoom in and get some deep space objects, you’ll need a way of moving your camera with the stars. You’ll discover soon enough that the stars move much quicker than you think, and getting a crisp shot zoomed in on an object simply won’t work with your camera fixed on a tripod.

To remedy this, three solutions are available to allow your camera to actually pan with the stars, giving you the opportunity to take as many shots as you need of any visible object in the night sky.

Vixen Polarie

Vixen Polarie

For those with a limited budget, the Vixen Polarie is a great option that will mount on top of a tripod. Your camera then attaches to the device which keeps it turning against Earth’s rotation so your camera stays fixed on the stars.

A couple of key specifications to keep in mind: it will only allow up to seven pounds of weight, so mounting heavier lenses probably won’t be a good idea for this particular unit. The Vixen Polarie will shine however, with lighter, prime lenses.

The battery life is also an important item to keep in mind. At near room temperature, the Vixen Polarie will last for roughly four hours on two AA batteries. On colder nights, that time will drop of course, not leaving you too much time to capture fainter objects.

For more information about the Vixen Polarie, visit their website here.

iOptron Skytracker

iOptron Skytracker

For those willing to spend just a bit more than the Vixen Polarie, the iOptron Skytracker is well worth the extra money. The setup and operation is roughly the same as the Polarie, mounting onto a tripod, but the iOptron Skytracker supports 7.7 pounds and will also last for 24 hours at near room temperature on four AA batteries. Again, that time will drop in colder weather, but in that category, the Skytracker beats the other two options listed here.

This is the unit that I use and have been very pleased with the overall functionality and usability of it.

For more information on the iOptron Skytracker, visit their website here.

AstroTrac

AstroTrac TT320X-AG

The AstroTrac retails for about twice the price of the other two options, but is solidly built, lightweight, and combined with the wedge (sold separately), can support the heaviest of lenses for reaching deeper into space, supporting up to a whopping 33 pounds. Its battery life on eight AA batteries is 10 hours, which isn’t too bad, but you’ll definitely want to look into rechargeable batteries for this device. For the price, its features and functionality are unrivaled. Polar alignment is also significantly easier than both the Polarie and Skytracker, something that can easily take a few nights to really understand.

For more information on the AstroTrac, visit their website here.

Polar Alignment

Each device will have to be polar aligned, that is, aligned with the north star, Polaris. This is to ensure accurate panning and rotating. This step can be a learning curve in itself, and each device handles it slightly differently. The AstroTrac handles the alignment the simplest and smoothest, while the Polarie and Skytracker are a bit more cumbersome, but can still get the job done well enough once the quirks of each system are learned (ie, tightening knobs causing the alignment to shift slightly). In order to successfully align each device, a polar scope or similar tool will be required to hook onto the unit, and each will have instructions on how to correctly align the unit.

Why Prime Lenses

Many people instinctively want to get their best telephoto lens and zoom all the way into an object. After hours and hours of exposures, what they’ll find is that there’s a slight inconsistency found throughout all their photos, ruining the entire night of work. The reason is that as the temperatures begin dropping over night, the temperature changes will cause the lens itself to "creep" slightly throughout the night, changing both the focus and zoom. To avoid this, most people recommend using a prime lens, meaning, the lens itself is only one fixed focal length. A few popular examples are 50mm, 105mm, and 400mm. One trick I’ve found to avoiding this is to also use Canon’s 100-400mm L lens, which is one of the few on the market that can be "locked" to a certain zoom anywhere in its range. This has so far proved to be an effective workaround to the "creeping" which affects other telephoto lenses.

Image Capture and Post-Processing

Deep Sky Stacker

To capture your image, you won’t be taking a single exposure. There would be too much noise to be cleaned up and if your polar alignment is only slightly off, you’ll see trails from all your objects. Instead, the system that works for most people is to take a series of individual shots and "stack" together in a program such as Deep Sky Stacker (discussed below). That way, if a jet or satellite happens to fly through your image, you haven’t lost hours of work.

I’ve often simply set my camera to 30 seconds, which is what most cameras will max out at before going to Bulb exposure where you can specify a longer length. How many exposures you capture is entirely up to you. You can get a nice image with 20 shots, for example, but the more you capture the more information can be brought out in the stacking process. Some people will even capture objects for multiple nights in a row throughout each night. This will give you the most detail and bring out the faintest objects.

Think you’re done once you’ve gotten a bunch of shots? Not quite. This is just one of many learning curves. To counter the noise that will built up in your stacked images, you’ll need a series of what are called Dark Frames. This can be 15 or so images with the camera settings set exactly as your other exposures, but with the lens cap on. In simple terms, this will simply let the post-processing software know what’s noise, and what’s supposed to be in the final image.

As mentioned, Deep Sky Stacker is the preferred image stacker for most amateur and even professional astronomers, and it’s free! There’s a vast amount of features and options, many of which you’ll never click on, but it’s best to give the Frequently Asked Questions a quick overview before jumping right in.

Conclusion

In astrophotography, the word, budget, can be a very relative term. All the gear and techniques listed here though, are the least expensive ways to get in on the fun. If you have any questions, feel free to leave some in the comments, or come out to a free stargazing event where we’ll be happy to answer a couple of questions. If you’d like a more personalized experience, we’re also available to do private astrophotography sessions with you as well.

Friday Astronomy Presentation

Come and find out why Jackson should build a public observatory!

University of Wyoming Astronomer and Director of the Jelm Mountain Observatory, Dr. Chip Kobulnicky, will present a program entitled:

“Wyoming’s Skies: A Gateway to Life, the Universe, and Everything”.

In this pictorial presentation, Dr.Chip Kobulnicky will describe how backyard enthusiasts
can contribute to modern astronomy research while bringing the excitement of real science to any hometown or school. Arguably the oldest of the sciences, astronomy is humanity’s quest to understand what exists in the universe, how it works, and how the universe affects life here on Earth. Remarkably, astronomy is also the most accessible of the sciences, especially here in Wyoming.

This presentation is part of the monthly Jackson Hole Astronomy Club meeting. Coffee and light refreshments will be served. The event is free and open to the public. No need to RSVP.

Reclaiming the Night: Preserving the Dark Skies of Jackson Hole

As a board member of Wyoming Stargazing, one of my biggest concerns is making sure our skies are dark enough to continue to run events and programs geared toward a dark night sky. With little success getting through to our local politicians, I went toward another route to drum up support from the community, creating this film. The short film, at just over 12 minutes, discusses the issue of light pollution, how it negatively affects Jackson Hole and beyond, the vast amount of wasted energy spent on it, and how Jackson Hole can benefit exponentially from embracing the night skies, a high priority in the Comprehensive Plan.

The reduction of light pollution is a movement gaining enormous momentum around the world and Jackson has the potential to receive tremendous economic gain by encouraging both residential and commercial areas to begin turning out the lights. If you like this video, or even just the idea of bringing the Milky Way back over the town of Jackson, please contact our local politicians and demand that they use lighting more responsibly.

Thank you for your support!

The film itself was begun this past spring and editing and interviews continued into the summer where the editing process began to build a core story later into the summer. I shot many examples and stills that weren’t able to be used, but was able to find exactly what I needed as the summer began to wind down to create the message I wanted to construct. The final tweaks were made this past weekend, just a couple of days before leaving for the southwest to create the next part of the Reclaiming the Night series. "Antelope Dreaming," the poem at the end, was written and read by Lyn Dalebout.

Total lunar eclipse tonight!

Well, late tonight or early tomorrow morning. Penumbra starts at 2:15 am tonight, totality begins at 4:25 am and ends at 5:25 am, and dawn will break before the moon is fully out of the earth’s shadow next morning!

This is the second “blood moon” of the four happening this year and next, approximately one occurring every six months. So if you miss this one, just catch the next one in the spring!

The moon really will turn red during totality, as seen from the above photos from last spring’s lunar eclipse. The reason is that Earth’s apparent size is so much bigger than the sun from the perspective of the moon, but our atmosphere refracts the sun’s light to the moon so that it appears like the moon is seeing every sunset on Earth at the same time! And we see that reflected sunset light here.

For those of you in and around Jackson, if you can, GO CAMPING TONIGHT ON SHADOW MOUNTAIN!!! The angle of the setting, blood-red moon from there will be such that it will appear over the saddle between the Grand and Middle Tetons.

Wyoming Stargazing will be at WILDScience this weekend!

Are you excited for Jackson Hole’s first ever science festival at the Center for the Arts, Oct. 3-5? Wyoming Stargazing will be there!

On Friday at 10 am, after the welcome presentation in the auditorium, Sam Singer will lead a round table activity on Kinesthetic Astronomy, where kids will learn about the phases of the moon by putting on T-shirts and pretending to be the sun, moon and Earth.

On Saturday at 1 pm, Sam Singer will give a presentation on general astronomy called “Extraordinary Wyoming Skies” aimed at families.

We should also be around all weekend with our solar telescopes to watch the sun in the middle of the day, and of course at Stilson parking lot on Friday night to watch the stars as we do every clear Friday night!

There’s so much to choose from! Or just come join us for all of it! Look for us in the Black Zone for Astronomy and don’t forget to check out the other awesome speakers and events going on that weekend. Science!!

Astro365

Wyoming Stargazing LogoWyoming Stargazing is about to launch a new blog series that you are going to love! If you’re into astronomy and you like the Facebook page “I F#@%ing Love Science”, then you are going to love Astro365.  Imagine Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac meets the McDonald Observatory’s Star Date. That’s Astro365!  Everyday for the entire calendar year Wyoming Stargazing is going to tell you about an extraordinary event in the history of space and/or astronomy which occurred on that day. We’ll also give you the latest updates on what NASA is up to.  Stay tuned for the first installment of Astro365 later this month!

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