Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

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Misusing a fast reflactor: moon-gazing with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition

February 1, 2017

bresser-ar102s-comet-set-up-for-moongazing

I was going to hold off before I posted anything on the performance of the Bresser Messier AR102S Comet Edition (which I swear I am going to start calling something else, just as soon as I think of a good nickname). That’s because I haven’t had a chance to try it out under the conditions where it is likely to do well. This is an optically fast scope, optimized for low-power, widefield scanning, ideally under dark skies where those faint stars can really pop. A great time and place to test-drive this scope would have been last Saturday night at the Salton Sea, right after the new moon, when Terry Nakazono and I stayed up observing almost to dawn, (expect that observing report in the not-too-distant future).

Unfortunately, the scope arrived Sunday afternoon, a day late for our Salton trip. Mount Baldy is covered in ice and snow, and I haven’t had time on these school nights to get up there anyway, much less to get to anyplace farther away. And the skies down here in Claremont have been crappy this week. Never clouded out, but never truly clear either – there has been a thin, high-altitude haze that is really good at both obscuring dim stuff and reflecting light pollution. So the only objects that have looked good are the bright, small things – the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and double stars. In other words, exactly the things that the AR102S Comet Edition is not specialized for.

So I don’t feel like I can give the scope a fair review yet, because all I’ve been able to do with it are the things it’s not built for. It’s like taking a Lamborghini Huracán on a Moab jeep trail – it’s not going to work out well, in ways that are completely predictable, and you’re not going to learn very much by doing it.

But when has that ever stopped me? I may not be able to review the scope, but I can still play around with it.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-raw

Here’s a raw shot of the moon, taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4500 shooting afocally (and handheld) through the supplied 20mm 70-degree eyepiece.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-processed

Same shot tweaked with Unsharp Mask and Curves in GIMP.

crescent-moon-2017-01-31-greyscale

And then converted to black and white.

I didn’t learn much. Yes, there is chromatic aberration. In other news, water is wet and the Pope is Catholic. On the plus side, the Trapezium in Orion is split into four members at 23x. Haven’t tried it on the Double Double or any other double stars, really.

On the to-do list are (1) to get this scope out someplace dark and clear and really put it through its paces, at a variety of magnifications – and using a variety of eyepiece designs – on a variety of targets, (2) to do some actual testing on close double stars and doubles with significant magnitude differences, and (3) to experiment with sub-aperture masks to knock down the CA on bright stuff. “Why not just use a smaller or better-corrected scope?” you may wonder. Well, this is sold as a travel kit, and if by using a sub-aperture mask I can make it into a passable solar system scope, I’ve just made it a better all-rounder when and if I take it on the road.

Given the waxing moon and the continuing lousy forecast for the coming week, I’ll probably have to tackle that to-do list in reverse order. Stay tuned.

earthshine-2017-01-31

Parting shot. I got this Earthshine pic by doing a half-second exposure with the Coolpix. It’s not nearly as good as the one in the banner at the top of the page. I need to try again next cycle when the moon is younger.

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Observing Reports: two perfect imperfect nights at the Salton Sea

November 23, 2015

Apex 127 ready for stars 2015-11-14

The Saturday before last, November 14, I was at the Salton Sea with Terry Nakazono.

Terry Nakazono with Meade Polaris 114 2015-11-14

Terry was rolling with a new scope – a Meade Polaris 114. It’s an f/8.8 reflector – the 1000mm focal length makes it a bit longer than the 900mm, f/7.9 Orion XT4.5 (which London has). UPDATE Nov. 29: Terry writes, “It’s a standard 900mm FL, not 1000mm. A lot of the retailer ads have it wrong and says its 1000mm. I myself was intrigued when I first read about it, but later found out from looking at the PDF manual and those who bought it is that it is an F/7.9 of 900mm focal length.” So it’s not longer than London’s XT4.5, it’s essentially the same OTA.

This Meade is a pretty amazing deal. A lot of small intro reflectors have a short dovetail bar bolted to the side of the tube (like my old scope Shorty Fats), but this one has real tube rings and an EQ-2 mount. The three MA (Modified Achromat) eyepieces it comes with are nothing to write home about, but the focal lengths of 26mm, 9mm, and 6.3mm are at least useful and non-overlapping when doubled with the included Barlow. Terry shared a few views with me and I can confirm that it serves up a sharp, contrasty image, as you’d expect for a scope of this focal ratio. It would be a good deal at the list price of $170, but Amazon has it for $135 as of this writing, and according to Terry it can be found for even less if you look around.

Matt aligning finder on Apex 127

I brought the Apex 127/SV50 combo – I’m sighting on the moon here, to align the finder with the scope – and the C80ED.

Matt digiscoping moon

Here I am digiscoping the moon with the C80ED. I used the Apex 127 for tracking down some planetary nebulae and double stars, and the C80ED for photography and just messing around. It’s a crazy fun little scope. Unfortunately, none of my moon shots worked out this time.

The forecast called for clear skies most of the night, but clouds between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM. We got set up before the sun set at 4:45, and pushed through until 10:40. Then it got too hazy to observe, so Terry and I sat and jawed about scopes, atlases, and observing projects until the sky cleared a bit at midnight. We got in about half an hour more before the sky clouded over completely about 12:40. We talked a bit more then turned in.

Jupiter and moons 0530 PST 2015-11-15

I got up at 4:00 AM to catch the morning planets – Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. I cannot get the iPhone to take a fast enough picture to capture any detail on Jupiter – it always comes out as a blank circle of light (with some glare from the iPhone, not the scope). But the moons show up nicely. I really need to get a better camera control app.

Clouds at dawn 2015-11-15

I was clouded out again at 5:15, and Terry and I sat up until 5:45 watching the approaching dawn. Then it started sprinkling! Weather Underground, the Clear Sky Chart, and my other weather app all missed that. We packed up quickly and drove out at 6:30. A hearty breakfast at the Coco’s in Indio put a cap on the expedition. Although the skies were less than perfect, we had a good time catching up, and we did see some nice things.

Waxing gibbous moon 2015-11-22

Back Again

As luck would have it, I was back at the sea just eight nights later. London and I hadn’t been to the Salton Sea since last November, and he has all this week off from school, so we went last night. He took his XT4.5, and I took my C80ED. The waxing gibbous moon was only three days short of full, so the skyglow was pretty bad. But the seeing was excellent, easily 8 or 9 out of 10. I could split the four main stars of Orion’s Trapezium wide open at 25x, and fleetingly at 19x with the 32mm Plossl.

I could have held that split more easily with a better low-power eyepiece. I had not noticed it before last night, but my trusty Orion Sirius 32mm Plossl, my go-to widefield and finder eyepiece for many years, has some astigmatism. Not a lot – it was only noticeable immediately after switching from my 24mm ES 68. I tried both eyepieces with and without eyeglasses to confirm that the aberration was in the Plossl and not elsewhere in the optical train, my eyeballs included (I tried both). Another case of getting spoiled by premium eyepieces. It’s fine, though – since the 24mm ES 68 gives the same field of view, I only pull out the 32mm Plossl when I want to drop the magnification even lower, or when I’m doing outreach.

Sigma Orionis sketch 2015-11-22

I spent a lot of time cruising the central part of Orion at 120x with the 5mm Meade MWA, which is now my preferred high-power eyepiece. Just three weeks ago I saw and sketched the multiple star Sigma Orionis for the first time. It’s funny – I’d been observing Orion regularly for eight years before that and I’d never seen it, but now I stop there every night I have a scope out. Even London’s little 60mm Meade refractor split the six main components wide open. But last night I saw a faint, seventh member that I’d previously missed.

I turned in relatively early, around midnight, figuring that I’d get up after the moon set and do a quick morning Messier hunt. And the sky was truly phenomenal after moonset. I was waking up about once an hour and having a quick look around, and it was a spectacularly clear, dark night. But the flesh was weak, and I overslept, only dragging myself out of my sleeping bag at 5:00. By that time the first glimmerings of dawn were lighting the eastern horizon, so I skipped the Messiers and went to Jupiter.

IMG_6362

That planet above the scope is Venus, not Jupiter.

The view was jaw-dropping. The seeing was rock solid and I was able to Barlow the 5mm MWA up to 240x without the image breaking down. At that magnification I could detect at least three delicate brown belts north of the North Equatorial Belt, and the Galilean moons were little spheres, not just points of light. I tried taking some pictures but didn’t get any better results than I had the last time out, so I put the camera away and just stared. I must have spent 45 minutes just watching Jupiter drift across the field of view, mostly at 240x.

Last night I was definitely in aesthetic observing mode. I spent a little over two and a half hours at the eyepiece, entirely on four objects – the moon, Orion nebula and Trapezium, Sigma Orionis, and Jupiter. I had half-formed plans to look at other things, but I kept getting seduced into long sessions of fully immersed stargazing. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

IMG_6369

So, neither night had perfect observing conditions. It was hazy the first night, and the moon was out during the convenient observing hours last night. But I had a great time both nights, saw some cool things, learned a little more about my gear, and enjoyed the good company of Terry and London. Couldn’t really ask for more.

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Sunday night on Mount Baldy

November 3, 2015

Moon through trees 2015-11-01

Sunday night I went up Mount Baldy for a solo session. I was rolling with the C80ED, which has become my default grab-n-go rig.

One of my goals was to test a couple of new eyepieces. Several astro retailers had a big sale on Meade wide-angle eyepieces last month. I was torn between the 20mm and the 5mm Series 5000 Mega-Wide 100-degree EPs (man, is that a mouthful or what?). The 20mm would have been a great low-power, widefield scanner, which is something I’ve gotten progressively more interested in this fall. But for a long time I had been without an EP shorter than my 6mm Expanse, which is not without its problems, so I sprung for the 5mm instead.

In the meantime, thanks to this thread on Cloudy Nights I had become aware of the VITE eyepieces. These odd little birds come in only 3 focal lengths (at least so far): 23mm, 10mm, and 4mm. They are three-element EPs with one aspheric plastic element and plastic bodies. They’re about $17 apiece on Amazon, or $9 apiece on eBay. I ventured my nine bucks and got the 4mm from eBay, thinking it would make an interesting comparison with the 5mm Meade 100-degree. I had done a quick comparo late Saturday night from my driveway on the moon and the Orion Nebula – more about that in a bit.

Sunday evening on mount Baldy I cruised through the highlights in Lyra, Cygnus, and Sagitta. I did a quick, rough sketch in my notebook of the open cluster NGC 6823. It has a curl of stars wrapping up around it like a fiddlehead fern.

NGC 6823 sketch

After that a couple of high school kids and their little brother drove up nearby, and I spent about an hour showing them around the sky – the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the Double Cluster, Pleiades, Andromeda galaxy, Polaris, M15, 61 Cygni (aka Piazzi’s Flying Star), and finally the Messier open clusters in Auriga – M37, M36, and M38.

The kids left about 10:30. Since I was in the area I had a look at M1, and then cruised down to Orion. The constellation was slowly crawling over the ridgeline to the east, so I started visiting the bright stars, and in some cases splitting them. First up was Meissa, which was elongated at 68x and cleanly split at 120x in the 5mm MWA and 150x in the 4mm VITE.

Mintaka was an easy wide split at only 25x. Seeing was not good, but Eta Orionis appeared to be elongated east-west at 120x and 150x. The view in the VITE was kind of a mess, so I spent a few minutes just cruising around Orion’s belt and sword with the 5mm MWA. Alnitak and its dim companion were widely split. I turned south to Sigma Orionis. I’ll have to check my notes, but I don’t believe I’d ever split this star before. It’s pretty great, with a group of three fairly bright stars and a second group of three much dimmer ones. I backed down to 68x and all six stars were still nicely split, and frankly looked a bit sharper, although that might have been down to bad seeing.

Sigma Orionis sketch

So, here are my thoughts and observations on the 6mm Expanse, 5mm MWA, and 4mm VITE. These don’t count as an actual review, as I didn’t have equivalent focal lengths to compare, and I’ve only spent a couple of nights with the two newer eyepieces, observing only a handful of objects. Still, I tried them on a variety of things – the moon, globular and open clusters, the Orion Nebula, double stars – and the strengths and weaknesses were consistent. All of these observations are with the C80ED, so the chromatic aberration (CA) with certain EPs is particularly interesting.

6mm Expanse – Has a small but noticeable amount of CA on bright stars. Eye placement is a bit tricky – I get some kidney-bean and full-aperture blackouts until I get my eye placed just so. Comfortable enough once I get my eye in the zone, though. Halos on some bright objects.

5mm MWA – Sharp from edge to edge. No detectable CA, but the edge of the field does look blue until I get my eye centered. No detectable field curvature. Eye relief is pretty tight – when I move in close enough to see the entire field, my eyelashes brush the lens about half the time (I do have long lashes, but still). I have to move my head around to focus on objects in different parts of the field. Very immersive – I feel like I could climb through the eye lens and into space. The rubber eyecup is annoyingly loose – it frequently comes off with the dust cap.

4mm VITE – Can’t focus the whole field at once. Center of the field is sharp enough, but objects start getting blurry halfway to the edge of the field and are entirely defocused at the edges. ‘Sweet spot’ is pretty small. Considerable CA – makes an ED refractor perform like a short fast achromat! Strong internal reflections from bright objects on the edge of the field, or just out of the field. Almost impossible to focus on the lunar terminator if it’s centered – a big bright glow from the lit side of the moon fills the center of the field. Eye relief is tight – eyelashes scrape most of the time.

Verdict – The 5mm MWA is a keeper. The eye relief is short but tolerable, and totally worth it for the huge, flat, well-corrected field. As for the VITE, I’m glad I didn’t spend more than $9. I’ve read that these perform better in longer focal ratio instruments, but at f/7.5, the C80ED isn’t exactly fast. So how long does the light cone have to be for the VITE to perform well – f/10? f/15? At those focal ratios, it would take an exceptionally still night for a 4mm EP to be useful. I will try the thing in my Mak and probably in my C102 but I am not expecting much. People on CN seem pretty happy with the 23mm, so maybe there’s some variation within the line.

Back to the observing report. By midnight I was tired and my feet were cold. I had just resolved to pack up and head home when I saw that the hillside behind me was lit up by moonlight. The moon was coming up behind the ridgeline to the east. It had been a long time since I’d had a chance to shoot the moon rising behind trees, so I quickly set up the camera adapter and got to work. My best still shot is at the top of this post. And here’s a video:

I went for the sideways aspect ratio this time, but I didn’t quite get the camera square on to the view. Guess I’ll just have to try again next month.

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Digiscoping with the GoSky universal cell phone adapter

October 30, 2015

Bird on a stick - 50x

As I mentioned in the moon video post, I recently got a GoSky universal cell phone/eyepiece adapter. So far I’ve tested it on some birds during the daytime, and on the moon after dark. Here’s a Northern mockingbird at 50x, about 125 feet away.

C80ED set up for digiscoping

I did most of the digiscoping with my C80ED and a 12mm Plossl (50x). I tried other eyepieces but for my purposes the 12mm Plossl delivered the best balance of magnification, true field, and image brightness.

C80ED digiscoping business end

If you haven’t seen one of these cell phone adapters, it has a diamond-shaped, padded clamp that screws down around the eyepiece, and another padded clamp to hold the phone. The bracket for the phone can slide up and down and rotate relative to the eyepiece clamp, so you can get the phone’s camera centered over the exit pupil of the eyepiece. As you can see here, the phone bracket is wide enough to hold an iPhone 5 with a heavy Otterbox case. I prefer to leave the case on while shooting – it’s rubber, so I can crank down the adapter bracket and make sure the phone is truly secure. Plus, it’s one less thing to do during setup and teardown.

iPhone earbuds remote shutter release

You may be wondering why I have earbuds hooked up to the phone. It’s because of a very nice feature with the iPhone 5 and 6 (don’t know about other iPhone models or other brands of smartphones) – the volume buttons work as shutter release buttons, which is often handier than trying to press the button on the screen, AND this functionality extends to plug-in volume buttons like those on the earbud cords. So you can plug in your came-with Apple earbuds and use the volume control there as a remote shutter release for hands-free, no-shake photography.

Fanned tail feathers - 50x

That mockingbird again, fluffing its tail feathers.

Waning gibbous moon 2015-10-28

Here’s one of the moon. The seeing was punk last night so I know the system was not performing anywhere near its limits. I’ve done far better holding the phone by hand on nights with better seeing, but only by dumb luck, taking loads of pictures, and throwing away all but the best. Using the adapter I get much more consistent results, even if the seeing makes them all consistently lousy on a given night.

The biggest problem with this setup so far is that the lens of the iPhone camera is bit fish-eyed and that introduces some kind spherical distortion (I believe it is positive or pincushion distortion – feel free to educate me in the comments) in the image. It’s not so bad in this cropped picture:

European Starling x4 - 50x

But check out the diverging power lines – which are parallel in real life – in the unmodified original:

European Starling x4 - raw shot

These are European starlings at 50x, again with the 12mm Plossl, from about 250 feet.

I did lots of back-and-forthing between camera and the various eyepieces to confirm that the distortion was in the camera and not in the telescope or eyepieces. It’s a fairly minor annoyance for me – I’m not expecting world-class results out of my smartphone camera. Just something to be aware of.

European Starling - 100x

I tried going up to 100x with the 6mm Expanse on this starling. It caused a lot of vignetting – even in this severely cropped photo, you can see that the corners are dark. I’ve had this problem with using too much magnification with handheld afocal photography as well. I think that as magnification goes up and the exit pupil goes down, it’s progressively harder to fully illuminate the camera’s CCD.

This may seem like a lot of caveats and complaints – distortion, vignetting, etc. – but they’re all problems that come along with doing afocal photography with a phone. The adapter itself is dandy. It holds the phone and eyepiece securely and without stressing either one or leaving a mark, it’s easy to put on or remove, and it adjusts easily. I wish now I’d gotten one a lot sooner. There are lots of interchangeable brands on these things – if you want the GoSky verison, it’s here.

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Sinus Iridium

September 24, 2015

Sinus Iridum in Apex 127 2015-09-23

Taken at 7:43 PM PDT last night, from the top of the parking garage in downtown Claremont, using a handheld iPhone 5c shooting afocally through an Orion Apex 127 Mak and a 12.5mm Plossl eyepiece.

In other news, no, I’m not dead. Just been busy with teaching. But I have some exciting astronomy news coming up later this fall (finally revealed here!), and in the meantime, I’m looking forward to the total lunar eclipse this coming Sunday evening, September 27.

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Observing Report: Total lunar eclipse on April 4, 2015

April 5, 2015

April 2015 lunar eclipse composite

I stayed up late Friday night to catch the beginning of the lunar eclipse early Saturday morning. The penumbral eclipse started at 3:16 AM local time, and it was still going on when the sun rose. The umbral or ‘total’ eclipse was very brief, just five minutes between 4:58 and 5:03. Just like last October, I got London up to see it. He was kind enough to loan me his 60mm Meade refractor for the event, and he used his XT4.5. The little Meade refractor made photography easier by cutting down the light level without sacrificing contrast. I took all of these photos with my iPhone 5C shooting through a Celestron 8-24mm zoom eyepiece. As usual, I processed and composited the photos in GIMP.

Full moon 2015-04-03

I’m particularly happy with this shot of the full moon. I really need to do a composite image with all of my best full moon shots. One of these days.

Previous lunar eclipse reports:

Previous full moons:

 

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PVAA outreach at Oakmont Elementary School

March 26, 2015

Oakmont astronomy outreach - London with telescopes

Our local club, the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, had a public outreach at London’s elementary school this evening. London brought his 60mm Meade refractor, and I brought my C80ED.

Jeff Schroder and his 11-inch refractor

Our little scopes were quite literally overshadowed by Jeff Schroder’s 11-inch refractor, which is mounted to the top of his car. Jeff built this scope by hand, even ground the lenses himself. It’s entirely fitting that he’s the outreach coordinator for the PVAA – not only does he have the coolest scope, he was one of the founding members of the club back in the day.

First quarter moon - C80ED and iPhone 5 - 2015-03-26

Jeff also had a 10-inch Dob along, and Ron Hoekwater brought his Skywatcher 10-inch collapsible Dob. We showed people the moon, Jupiter, Venus, and the Orion Nebula. I got this moon shot with my iPhone with much less futzing around than usual. I don’t really understand how that happened, but I’m not complaining.