Amazing Video: Watch SpaceX’s Dragon in Flight, as Seen From the Ground

Always on the lookout for interesting events in the skies, astrophotographer Thierry Legault has captured an incredible video of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule traveling through space just 20 minutes after it launched from Kennedy Space Center on June 3, 2017. “You can see the Dragon, the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, and solar panel […]

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Explody Eta Aquarid Meteor Caught in the Act

An Eta Aquarid meteor captured on video by astrophotographer Justin Ng shows an amazing explodingred meteor and what is known as a persistent train — what remains of a meteor fireball in the upper atmosphere as winds twist and swirl the expanding debris. The meteor pierced through the clouds and the vaporized “remains” of the […]

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Incredible Images of Mars from Earth

Mars as seen from Earth on June 13, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

What did you do during your summer this year? Award-winning astrophotographer Damian Peach spent much of his 2016 summer capturing incredibly clear images of Mars during opposition, when the Red Planet was closest to Earth. Peach has now compiled a wonderful “rotating planet” movie of images taken between June 4th – 18th, 2016, showing amazing detail of the planet.

At its closest point this year, Mars was about 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) from Earth.

Peach’s astrophotography truly sets “a new standard” as one commenter said, and Peach just won another prize in the “Planets, Comets & Asteroids” division of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016, awarded at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England last night.

Peach has said this summer held “excellent seeing,” both from his home in the UK and from a photography trip to Barbados. He even captured a fleeting localized dust storm on Mars during mid-June over Mare Erythraeum, one of the prominent dark areas on the planet that were once thought to be seas. In the image below of the dust storm, Peach also pointed out the “linear cloud streak in the southern hemisphere – clearly those Martian flying saucer pilots have been having fun!”

See more of Peach’s excellent astrophotography work at his website , or on Twitter. See a larger version of the lead image here.

Mars is still visible in the night sky, but if you missed seeing this planet at its brightest in 2016, the next time Mars will be at opposition will be in 2018, with close approach on July 31, 2018.

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Astrophotography: Stacking the Moon

Moonstack

Looking for something different to try in the realm of astrophotography? It’s amazing what can be done these days with the help of a little free software. DSLR cameras have gone through several generations now, and it’s often worth sitting down and exploring a new camera’s program menu just to see what intriguing settings are available.

Recently, astrophotographer Trevor Mahlmann brought the fascinating method of image stacking to our attention. Stacking allows you to simply place several sequential frames of an object such as the Moon in one image. Trevor’s recent June Full Moon rising was even featured on the prestigious Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) website. 

As with much of astrophotography, image stacking allows us to see something unique in nature and the universe that would otherwise be invisible. Trevor describes the technique in detail on his website. Key to the method is the use of an intervalometer, which will simply allow you to shoot a series of programmed shots in succession. Some camera have these built-in, while for others, it requires a separate micro/mini USB tethered device. An intervalometer is also handy for taking automated exposures during meteor showers and time-lapses.

The motion of the Earth and the Moon becomes readily apparent in long sequence stacks.

Your framing will also depend on what kind of Moon stack you are shooting, moonrise or moonset. At different points during the year, the Moon will rise, pass and set in different locations along the horizon.” Says Trevor.

The free program StarStaX is also crucial to the process. Another nifty App that Trevor turned us on to in the course of research is the Photographer’s Ephemeris. This shows the rising and setting azimuth for the Sun and Moon for a given location, overlaid on Google Maps. This is extremely handy if you are, say, trying to capture a moonrise shot with a recognizable landmark in the frame. We could have used this for plotting our capture of the partially eclipsed Sun behind the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building back in 2013.

Trevor Mahlmann says on his image stacking tutorial:

The whole capture will take about 30 minutes to an hour, possibly longer if you use a shorter focal length, like 50mm or 35mm (cropped). You might check your local hourly weather forecast and take a peak at what might be coming, as it might be dark and you won’t see approaching clouds, showers or storms.” As the lunar cycle progresses, Trevor notes that “Your shutter speed and ISO values… will go down as the lunar month progresses towards Full Moon, and go back up as the month progresses towards New Moon again.”

The image stacking concept can be extended beyond the Moon as well. How about stacking successive frames of planetary images, especially during an occultation by the Moon? Or stacking successive filtered images of the Sun as it moves through the sky? Stacking is also handy on satellite shots, such as during iridium flares and passes of the International Space Station, especially at twilight and times of high contrast, when a shot demands short exposures.

What do you see in these stacked frames? Beyond just pretty pictures, stacking teases out some real effects that would otherwise remain unnoticed. One is the apparent motion of the Moon, due mostly to the rotation of the Earth. The Moon covers its own Full diameter (30′ or half a degree) about once every two minutes, and moves one degree eastward due to its own motion around the Earth every two hours. Color change is also apparent, as the Moon rises out of the thick murk of the atmosphere close to the horizon. This effect is also apparent and striking during stacked sequences taken during total lunar eclipses. Another interesting project would be to compare image stacks of the rising Moon near perigee versus apogee. The next favorable occultation of a planet by the Moon for North America under dark skies is Mars on February 18th, 2020.

And you’ll have a chance to try out this technique during next week’s Full Buck Moon coming right up on Tuesday, July 19th.

We also asked Trevor what’s next and what his thoughts are on pushing this technique a bit further.

I am thinking of trying an all-sky moonrise to moonset photo, not sure how I would do it with the changing moon brightness, but am pondering ideas on how I would do it. I think I could get about 80% of one since even on a Full Moon, the Sun and Moon rise opposite each other and I would want to try and get color of moonrise/set on both sides. I would also need a perfectly clear night from sunset to sunrise.”

The Moon’s no longer the limit when it comes to astrophotography and image stacking.

Check out Trevor Mahlmann’s astrophotography blog.

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Astrophotography Book Review: Treasures of the Universe

Treasures of the Universe by André van der Hoeven

What is a treasure? A pirate’s hoard of gold coins safely locked up in a chest would certainly fit. But would you say that something is a treasure when it’s freely available to anyone who wants to take the time? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it. Yet you may change your mind once you take in André van der Hoeven’s book “Treasures of the Universe – Amateur and Professional Visions of the Cosmos”. Within it are striking images that display the natural wealth and beauty that constantly surrounds us and that no chest could ever lock up.

Astrophotography at its core is quite simple; at night, take a camera outside, point the lens up and snap the shutter release. Anyone can do it. However, putting reason to what one captures in the lens is quite a different story. And to add further complexity, consider combining your captured image with someone else’s who’s taken a picture while on another continent or while in space. Last, after taking thousands of images, identify those with artistic as well as scientific merit.

Yes, this is a more complete way of considering astrophotography. And many people are partaking in it. So here’s a book that’s selling its version of night sky images. For anyone who enjoys the night skies, there’s a lot to like. The contents are divided into four groups; galaxies, clusters, nebulae and our solar system. Most images from beyond our solar system are well known, whether of entries in the Messier catalogue or the New General Catalogue (NGC). A few are of farther afield, such as from the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field.

The image presentation is often on a double page spread and has complementary text adjoining. The text provides the scientific merit usually by identifying how the subject of the image fits into the scheme of things, such as the supernova SN2011fe in the Galactic Wheel. The text also provides the photographic particulars, such as that of the Andromeda galaxy that resulted from the compilation of 11 000 separate snapshots. The selection of images makes for a fairly well known set and won’t lead to surprises. Given this, van der Hoeven’s book is a comfortable, complete treatise of his astrophotography.

Now views of space are everywhere on the Internet and other publications so you’re probably wondering “What’s this book bring to the table?” so to speak. After all, a lot of its images come from other government sources like the Hubble space telescope. That’s data free for anyone to peruse. And, the subject of the images, the universe, remains in place for anyone else to capture if they so desire. Both of these are true, but what isn’t obvious is the time and effort to create the images as well as the talent to engender a sense of artistry. Can you imagine the time to compile 11,000 pictures into one? Or spending over 27 night-time hours to collect data for one image? That’s the sort of time and effort involved.

Measuring artistry is another skill altogether and one of which I lay no great claim. Yet, looking at the composition of the spread of the Wizard Nebula warmly shrouded by a complex hydrogen cloud makes me pause. Yes, I know I’m looking at the result of the random arrangement of matter and energy. But there’s something just so darn compelling about the shapes and textures that makes me wonder. And I realize my wonder comes from the skill of the author in composing the shape. I’m impressed.  This doesn’t mean that the author has claimed any predominance. Rather, throughout the book he provides encouragement and incitements for bigger and better. Whether it calls for astrophotography from the next-generation telescopes or for beginner astrophotographers to develop their skill, it pushes for more and better imagery. Yes, this book is more than just pretty pictures. It’s also instructive and telling. Another unusual aspect is that the book was funded through a Kickstarter.

As with a few other marvelous books with vistas of the universe, this book’s pages are in in a wide format (almost landscape size). The pages have matte-black background with clear white font text. The text for each image is usually clear, except for some with underlying images of light colours. These are few. For the selection of images, I find ones of galaxies and nebulae most rewarding. Finding shapes and patterns from clusters is more challenging.

And, after seeing the depth and expanse of the universe, I find the images from our solar system almost ordinary, though I know I shouldn’t. I like the section at the book’s end that describes the image details including the telescope, the camera and the exposures for various filters. Perhaps I can use these to dabble at my own artistry. I also appreciate the credits that list all the data sources and perhaps the people who processed the data, though these aren’t always obvious. I don’t like that the book had to eventually come to an end. I could have kept looking at many more pages.

Treasures are a measure of worth. For those who like gold, a pirate’s chest may be the ultimate high. For those who are drawn to the night, to the limitlessness of space, then the jewels of the night sky are the only ones worth viewing. For you who like the night, let André van der Hoeven’s book “Treasures of the Universe – Amateur and Professional Visions of the Cosmos” spirit you away to a viewing pleasure. With it in your hands you will hold more than any pirate’s chest could ever contain.

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First Lunar Eclipse Ever Photographed with a Transit of the ISS

To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has ever photographed a transit of the International Space Station of the Moon DURING a lunar eclipse. And guess who did it? Not surprisingly, it was the legendary astrophotographer Thierry Legault. Usually, Thierry will travel up to thousands of miles to capture unique events like this, […]

Adventures With Starblinker

Observational astronomy is a study in patience. Since the introduction of the telescope over four centuries ago, steely-eyed observers have watched the skies for star-like or fuzzy points of light that appear to move. Astronomers of yore discovered asteroids, comets and even the occasional planet this way. Today, swiftly moving satellites have joined the fray. […]

Thierry Legault Meets His Own Challenge: Image an ISS Transit of a Solar Prominence

When you’re Thierry Legault and you want to challenge yourself, the bar is set pretty high. “This is a challenge I imagined some time ago,” Legault told Universe Today via email, “but I needed all the right conditions.” The challenge? Capture a transit of the International Space Station of not just the Sun — which […]