My First Wide Field Astrophotos

After the encounter with the Pretty Good Comet of 2020, F3 NEOWISE, and not getting any good pictures of it, I got it in my head to get DSLR camera so I could do wide field astrophotography. That means wide shots of the sky that look sort of like what you see with your eyes, not a closeup through a telescope. The idea wouldn’t go away, even though the comet did. So I set out to find something used and useable that I could afford, something that would be good for a beginner and with enough capacity to grow with me for a while. After a few weeks of research and shopping online, I found a Nikon D3100 body in great condition for what seemed to be a reasonable price. After a misfire, I found an AF-S 18-55mm DX f/3.5-5.4 zoom lens, also in great shape, to go with it, and again for not too much money. So off we go.

My Photographer Cred

My dad used to do a lot of photography as a hobby. He even had his own darkroom, developing his own film and printing his own pictures in black and white. My brother was something of a photographer, too, having got in pretty early on the digital revolution with a Canon Rebel, which my daughter now has. While I’ve never owned an SLR before, being around a couple good photographers gave me a general conceptual knowledge of how they work. Plus, I have used plenty of point-and-shoots and have developed a pretty good eye, I’d like to think. Still, actually using a DSLR, and for a specialized brand of night photography, presents a pretty steep learning curve.

Not Gonna Do It

For one thing, on my first attempt, I found that my camera is finicky and stubborn in low light conditions. Even having figured how to set the aperture wide and the shutter speed long in manual mode, I couldn’t convince the D3100 to actually take a picture it was sure would be bad. This led to a great deal of frustration on my part, causing me to question whether I had made a terrible mistake. I managed not to rage quit and instead resigned myself to discover through further study how to be smarter than my camera. Reading the owner’s manual seemed a good first step, but before too long I got bored and did an interweb search for my problem.

It turns out the “AF” in the AF-S lens stands for “auto-focus,” which the D3100 takes very seriously. This line of cameras performs auto-focusing with motors in the lens rather than in the camera itself as the lens and camera discuss the shot you are trying to take. Consequently, there is a switch on the side of the lens to go between automatic focus and manual focus. When in auto mode, the camera tries to give the lens all the information it can in order to get a sharp focus. If the camera can’t see well enough to know if the shot will be in focus, it won’t flip the shutter. Putting the lens in manual focus mode solves this problem. The camera still boldly announces that the shot is too dark, but assured by the now-manual lens saying, “I got this,” it allows the picture to go ahead, even though you clearly don’t know what you are doing, in its not so humble opinion. Thanks, internet photography forums! You saved me from having to slog through the boring owner’s manual!

And so it was that, having switched to manual focus, I accidentally took a 20 second exposure of the inside of my lens cap. At first I was confused, because, as noted, the camera was still declaring the shot to be invalid. But having heard the shutter flip, I realized I had broken the code. Actually, taking a “dark frame” is an important part of astrophotograph processing, as it reveals any hot pixels and biases and stuff that the camera and lens may have that can then be subtracted from the final product, or so I’m told. I’m nowhere near ready for that level of postproduction yet. Nevertheless, that first unintentional black picture was the start of something wonderful. I hurried outside with my camera and tripod, found a mostly clear sky (not sure how this was allowed, but I’ll take it), and started taking long, dark pictures of the night sky at 1:00 in the morning.

The Pictures

You can see the whole collection except the dark frame >here< (plus all of what you just read), and I’ll put a few in here directly below. I’m pretty pleased with how they came out straight from the camera. Obviously there is so much more that can be done that I intend to learn, but for the first run, this is pretty cool.


Most of these shots are 25 seconds long, with a couple at 20 seconds. If you zoom in you can tell there is just a bit of a trail on the 25 second stars, but not so much that you notice it much when zoomed out. As expected, the 20 second exposures have less of that effect, but they are significantly darker. I suppose about 20-25% darker. The 20-25 second figure is a product of what is called the “500 rule” that I read about on a number of websites. Divide 500 by the lens focal length to get the max shutter speed without trailing. For certain types of digital sensors, such as the one in the D3100, you have to adjust for the architecture by using 1.5 x the lens focal length. So I was shooting at 18mm zoom, times 1.5 is 27, and 500 / 27 = 18.5. So I was really going too long at 25 seconds by that calculus. Some folks I read recommended more like 8 seconds, take lots of images, and stack them in processing. That’s a lot of work for a beginner. The other option is to get a tracking mount of some sort that would essentially remove the limit altogether. By following the stars as the earth turns under them, you never get any trails. Well, we may get there eventually, but for now I’ll play with the math.

Observing from Home – Mercury Transit – 11 November 2019

On Monday, November 11, 2019, the planet Mercury lined up in such a way that it crossed the face of the sun from our vantage point on Earth. Because of the eccentricities and inclinations of the planets’ orbits, this is something that happens from time to time, like a lunar or solar eclipse. The last Mercury transit, as it is called happened in 2016, and the next will be in 2032. As it happened, this time our house was in a prime location to observe the event, and it was my day off. So I made some plans to have a look.

If you ever have opportunity to look at the sun, DON’T!! At least not if you don’t have the right equipment. Here’s a link to an article at Sky & Telescope with the right way to do it. If you follow the steps in the article, then it is a pretty cool thing to be able to do. Just be careful, or you or someone with you could go blind. You have been warned.

First viewing – Binoculars

Fortunately, I have the right equipment. I started out with my 10×50 binoculars equipped with solar filters that I had made for them before the 2017 solar eclipse. The sky was mostly clear but with patchy, high-level clouds, so not ideal, but a lot better than I expected. The transit started at about 7:30 a.m. EST, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I was going to be able to see anything yet, due to clouds, trees, and breakfast. I mean, it was my day off, and I don’t like getting up that early. By 8:15 I finally had enough coffee to begin executing my aforementioned plan. As you can probably tell, I’m not a really good planner, so when I say “I made plans to observe” what I mean is “I decided that I might give it a try and had a few options in mind about how to do so.” Any way, I went out in the front yard, which faces east and also a mess of trees, and found a spot on the front steps, actually, that had a clear line of sight to the sun. I got my binoculars fitted with their filters. Looking freehand was pretty much a No-Go. I had some hints that there was something there, but it was nothing I would swear to. So I got my camera tripod and attached the binocs, and that made all the difference.

I was surprised at how very small the planet Mercury appeared to be against the face of the sun. VERY small! Just a pinprick at about 8 o’clock and in from the edge maybe 1/6 to 1/4 the sun’s diameter. It’s no wonder I couldn’t make it out freehand. The streaky clouds often obscured it altogether. I tried taking some pictures with my phone, but that didn’t work well at all. The clouds were increasing, the sun was heading behind a tree, and I had seen the thing, so I felt pretty good, and went in, thinking I might be done. Then again, I might not.

Typical fall sky making it a little tough on solar astronomers, but I still had a good observing experience of the transit.

Second Viewing – Reflector

The sky cleared a bit, and the day warmed a bit, so I decided to break out a telescope. I thought about trying to quickly build a filter for my 8″ Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, and this is where being a real planner would have been useful, but there just wasn’t time on the spot to get a workable and safe solution. The other choices I had were that I have full aperture filters for my 60mm Meade ETX Maksutov-Cassegrain and my 5″ Orion SpaceProbe reflector. The 60mm is motorized for tracking, but it’s only slightly bigger than my binoculars. The 5″ is significantly larger but was at the time unmounted. I have two manual equatorial mounts that would work, one that came with the 5″ that is pretty wobbly, and one that came with my 8″ reflector that is more stable but sticky in its movement. I opted for the functional but wobbly 5″ reflector set up.

Wide angle view of the sun with Mercury left of center. North is down, west is left.

About 11:45 a.m. EST, I set up on the pool deck, which worked out well with an unobstructed view of the sun. Clouds were intermittent and didn’t hinder the viewing as much as they had through the binoculars. I was able to watch the second half of the transit. Using a phone adapter by Gosky or GoSky, I was able to take pictures and video of the event with my Samsung Galaxy J3. This was a mixed blessing as I have documentation of my observing and pictures and video I can share with you, but it’s a different experience viewing directly through the eyepiece as compared to viewing through the camera. I took turns between the two. I did enough direct visual to say I saw it, but I felt especially unsatisfied and satisfied for having video-recorded the 3rd and 4th contacts, that is the end of the transit, which was about 1:05 p.m. EST.

I used 20mm Super-Plössl, 10mm Plössl, and 8.8mm Wide Angle eyepieces with and without a 2x Barlow lens. This provided magnification of 45x, 90x, 102x, 180x, and 204x. Mostly I kept to the midrange 90-102x. The planet was much more obvious than in the binoculars and clearly a disk and not just a dot. Using the zoom on the phone camera means that I have no idea what magnification I actually had for any of the pictures. Because I changed the camera zoom many times, it has been very difficult to try to compare or stack the images, as they are at different magnification with different parallax error and different color balance. Because a Newtonian reflector gives a mirror image both left-right and top-bottom, Mercury appeared to be backing out the way I had seen it coming in through the binoculars, but it did in fact travel from SE to NW all the way.

I’m glad I got the chance to observe this transit directly. The last transit of Venus a couple years ago got completely clouded out. As I mentioned, the next Mercury transit will be in 2032. I wonder what sort of tech we will have to observe that event. I hope we’ll still be around to see it.

Here’s a link to my collection of photos for the event at Google Photos.

Observing from Home – 11 August 2019


  • 11 August 2019 – 22:00 (8/11) – 00:30 (8/12) EDT
  • mild – 60º-65º F; humidity 80-85%
  • Moon +11 days ~90% illumination
  • still; clear at first, but increasing clouds toward midnight
  • seeing – 6 or 7/10 – pretty good
  • transparency – inconsequential, as I was hunting orbs


  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces
    • 32 mm
    • 15 mm
    • 9 mm
    • 6 mm
  • 2x Barlow
  • Filters
    • Moon, blue, green, yellow


  • Moon
  • Jupiter
  • Saturn


A pleasant Sunday night. I pondered long about going out, because, much as I love the NexStar 8, it is a pain to drag it down to the pool deck. I finally discerned that my 3 targets – Jupiter, Moon, and Saturn – would be visible from the deck, so I set up in the northwest corner there. The problems were shakiness (really need to reinforce the deck at some point) and the TV aerial, which turned out to be right in the path of the moon and Saturn. The moon was just a few degrees W of Saturn, both sitting just above the Teapot of Sagittarius. Jupiter was 15º or so to the west just above Antares in Scorpius/Ophiuchus.


Southern region of the Moon. North is up. Just inside the terminator on the right (West) from bottom to top you can see Schiller, Gassendi, and Kepler, mentioned in the writeup.

I started with the Moon, using 32 mm = 62.5 X with moon filter and variations with 15 mm, 9 mm, and 2x Barlow. I don’t know the moon that well, so didn’t do much more than identify several craters. In the SW quadrant; Schiller, , a long, squashed crater; Gassendi was just east of the terminator – large with prominent central peak; small Flamsteed; up to Encke and Kepler, just on the terminator. On into the NW, Prinz on the terminator, and I think it was breaking dawn on Aristarchus, which sounds like a new age album. Saw Bianchini and Sharp just outside Sinus Iridum. After that I made my way to Mare Tranquillitatis to see if I could find the Apollo 11 astronaut craters: three small craters in a row just north of the landing site and named Aldrin, Collins, and Armstrong. Turns out they are quite small. While theoretically in reach of my scope, I had two problems (at least): 1) I had neglected to add my dew shield and was starting to fog over, and 2) the aforementioned TV aerial was now sitting across the heart of the moon, so that I wasn’t getting good resolution, even at 222 X. [An article in July 2019 Sky&Telescope suggests a 6″ scope can make them out at 250 X with steady seeing.]


Moved on to Jupiter, sitting low in the SW. Tried pushing the magnification to 333 X, and it was just a bit too much. 222 X wasn’t quite enough, but I didn’t think to use the 15 mm + 2X for 266 X, which might have been Goldilocks. Oh well. The GRS (Great Red Spot) was just past transit, very well placed, but so small! It was fairly obvious but just a tight, dark knot (nought? not.) in the SEB (Southern Equatorial Band), which itself was quite light. The NEB (Northern…) was dark and thick, and some “barges” were visible. The equatorial zone remains heavily shaded, darker than the temperate zones. One northern temperate band was visible. The GRS rotated about 2/3 to the limb while I observed, or so it seems to me as I write this. I tried a variety of color filters, including blue, green, and yellow. The blue highlighted the bands and GRS the best, as one would expect. Green and yellow both gave interesting interpretations but were ultimately not that helpful. Of the Galilean moons, I had just missed Io disappearing in eclipse as it turns out, and also just missed Ganymede emerging from eclipse at the other end of my observations. Oh well. Meanwhile, Europa was about 4 Jupiter diameters from the planet to the west. Callisto was about four Europa-Jupiter distances further to the west. I made a sketch at the eyepiece that shows the distances more or less. The GRS in the sketch is bigger than it appeared.

Moon, redux

Went back to the Moon for a bit after it cleared the tower, as it were. Took another stab at the Apollo 11 craters, but no. Poked around the southern highlands for a bit. I’ve always had a soft spot for Clavius, so I looked there for a bit. Noticed a few clouds moving in and wanted to get some Saturn time in, so moved there.


Even with deteriorating conditions, Saturn looked pretty good. Again, pushing the mag, it was just a bit much at 333 X, so ended up with the 266 X combo I hadn’t thought of earlier. The rings are tilted so that the other edges are about lined up with the edge of the disk. It’s just a bit past opposition (okay, a month past), so there is just a little bit of shadow on the rings right at the pole, or that’s what I’ve gathered. Any way, the rings kind of squish at that point. Not much color tonight, just a yellowish tint. Darker in the N temperate to polar region with a slightly dark band at the bottom. Very 3-D. Cassini Gap easily visible.


I took several handheld pictures and videos with my phone at the eyepiece for all three targets. Moon was best, of course, then Saturn. Jupiter was washed out. Clouds were moving in, and I was tired, so I washed out, too.

Best shot of the Moon for the night. North is right and West is down.
Best of Jupiter for the night, which is not that great. North is upper left, West is to the lower left. More or less.
Saturn. Not as impressive as seeing it live. You sort of see the dips where the rings and the disk limb cross, right? North is right.

You can see the full series of pictures I took at my Google Pictures album, >here<.

Observing from Home – 1 July 2019 – The rest of the story

In my last entry I included my first serious attempts at astrophotography with three pictures of Jupiter. Here, then, are my notes from that night’s observing in general.


  • 1 July 2019 – 22:00- 00:30
  • warm – 70’s; high humidity – 80%!
  • new moon, essentially
  • still, no wind
  • some streaky clouds, increasing through the night
  • seeing – 6/10
  • transparency – good enough


  • Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager IV
  • 2x Barlow
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm – 62.5x / 125x
    • 15 mm – 133x / 266x
    • 9 mm – 222x / 444x — too much for tonight!
  • Filters:
    • blue, red, purple, yellow, sky glow


  • Jupiter
  • Saturn
  • M4
  • M8
  • M20
  • M17
  • M22
  • M27
  • NGC 6995


Writing this several days after the fact, so we’ll see how bad my memory is. Of course you won’t know unless I tell you! A good bit of time was spent on the new attempt at technology and astrophotography, which ultimately proved successful, but it took a while. The interface between camera and computer is a bit dodgy at first. No image coming through, even though the cam had power. This may have been an interface issue or that the object in view wasn’t centered enough or large enough or focused enough to produce an image. I eventually added the 2x Barlow, doubling the image size and found Jupiter on the monitor in the preview window of the settings screen. In the actual preview window, though, the image was tiled into 4 images that were raked with horizontal lines. Unplugging and restarting the camera seemed to do the trick, and after only half an hour fiddling, I took my first .mov of Jupiter. It was grainy as hell, but I could sort of see that the GRS (Great Red Spot) was on the limb. Over the next 45 minutes or so I took 8 movies of 50-75 seconds each. I tried one of M4, the globular cluster in Scorpius, but that was just dark frames. This camera is not sensitive enough for faint deep sky objects. It barely noticed Jupiter! Any way, I’ve been processing the movies into pictures with some success. They are grainy, and I have much to learn about processing, but they aren’t bad for a first effort. I thought about recording Saturn, too, but I decided to keep it simple on the first try. I also hoped to see several objects by eye on a rare clear night. So I put the tech away and switched to visual.



I stuck with Jupiter for a good while. It is just past opposition, so it is a great time to observe it. It isn’t very high, sitting on the north side of Scorpius, a few degrees north of M19, about 28º above the horizon according to an app. It’s super bright at -2.6 magnitude. At 62.5x (32 mm) I could see 2 stripes on the disk, on moon to the W (Io), and three to the E. Mostly viewed with the 15 mm and 2x for 266x. It was a pretty stable view. Could make out the GRS easily. The NEB (north equatorial belt) was thick and rusty colored. The SEB was thinner and darker to the … W? of the GRS (toward the direction of rotation). The equatorial zone was orangy and the higher latitudes were lighter. Could occasionally make out another stripe or hints of one above the NEB. I think. Maybe I’m applying that back from my pictures, though.

I tried a couple filters – blue, purple, red, yellow. The purple was a complete washout, making for a big pink blob, and red wasn’t much better. Yellow was okay. Blue was by far the most helpful. That’s when I saw hints of other bands and hints of detail downstream from GRS. This sketch doesn’t look like much, but I watched for a long time with great enjoyment and fascination.

M4 Globular Cluster

I had swung over to M4 before as I mentioned, but went back for more visual. For as big as it is, it’s a challenge. Not to find it but to see it. The surface brightness is pretty low, and I often strain to keep looking at it. Maybe I should have dropped the magnification. I had a hard time making out any detail at all. Just a mess of stars on the verge of vision so as to make my eyes twitch.

M8 Lagoon Nebula

Moved on to several Sagittarius favorites. M8 Lagoon Nebula was beautiful as usual. Not as stand-outish is M42, but up there. Wisps of nebulosity with an X across the center and a swarm of small stars on the east side. At some point in the night I added my sky glow filter – I think much later and then I returned here, I forget – and it really helped bring M8 out from the background.

M20 Triffid Nebula

M20 is hard to compare to M8. Not fair, really. It’s a beautiful thing but so small vs. M8. I think I didn’t use the filter on M20, and it suffered for it. About 1/4 the size of M8 or less. Hints of more complexity maybe and hit of the central star. Should have used higher magnification and the filter. Next time.

M17 Swan Nebula

M17 is always fun to observe. Mostly looked like a checkmark, more than the full swan this night. Not as sharp a line on the swan’t “water line” as often appears.

M22 Globular Cluster

Just a quick look at M22. Enough to say I saw it. I think I was starting to get tired already. Sorry.


Not sure of where it fits in the order now, but somewhere in here I went to Saturn. At fairly low power about 4 moons visible. (… Not sure what power I was using now that I think of it. I really need to start writing this stuff down as I do it.) At 266x it was a little rough but some detail. Still very low in the sky, about 20º above the horizon, so not great detail. Plus, it’s just about at opposition, so almost no shadows. Could generally make out the Cassini Gap, some shading on the planet disk. Rings are crossing in front of the disk. A dark band and gray cap on the top of the disk, but not much color.

M27 Dumbbell Nebula

Turning to the north, Cygnus had risen over the house to about 45º. I slewed to M27, a planetary nebula. It is large enough and bright enough that I wonder if it might appear in the SSSSIV camera. Round, but uneven, brighter on the “sides” than on the “top” and “bottom,” and brighter on one side than the other. It seems to shift as you look at it, though. I used 266x pretty much across the board on everything… I think, and I think I used the sky glow filter? Or maybe I came back to it after I added the filter? Maybe that, because I seem to remember adding the filter on the last target of the evening.

NGC 6995 Veil Nebula

I went to the Crescent Nebula, which isn’t really where I meant to go, which is fine, because I couldn’t see it any way. I chose it from the list of named objects on my paddle control for the C8. What I meant to look at and eventually got to was NGC 6995, the Veil Nebula. It turned out to be the Eastern Veil. This is a pretty bright ribbon of cloud in a long, flowing arc. There are two relatively bright stars nearby and not one bright one in the midst, the signature of the Western Veil. It has a few kinks and bulbs, as it were, and is quite an interesting object. Regrettably, I was definitely getting tired and didn’t give it the attention it deserves. It definitely benefitted from the sky glow filter.

I revisited a few previous targets, but as I said, I was getting tired. Plus more clouds were moving in. Plus the dew was getting heavy. In fact, I noticed as I was packing up that the scope’s corrector plate was starting to dew over. On the whole, a good night.

Observing from Home – 1 July 2019 – Pics or Didn’t Happen.

I haven’t written up my notes on this session yet, but I started trying some astrophotography, and that’s been taking some time and attention. It has taken almost a year to get the right combination of learning, confidence, and clear skies, but I finally got out with the astro camera I won at the Green Bank Star Quest 2018. It’s an Orion StarShoot Solar System Color Imager IV, and it doesn’t work with OS X above 10.10. So I had to partition my hard drive and reinstalled 10.8.5. Even so, it is a glitchy proposition. Nevertheless, I succeeded in taking a series of videos of Jupiter on 1 July and have been processing them into stacked photos with an old program called Lynkeos. It’s pretty easy to follow the steps. What is difficult is learning how to fiddle with the settings to maximize the results in the photo. I’m getting there.

So herewith are the three photos I have produced so far. They are stacks of about 350 images each, +/- 100. The images are from video taken between 22:30 and 23:18 EDT. I used the Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ SCT with a 2x Barlow lens. I did the stacking and initial processing in Lynkeos, as I mentioned, and finished the processing in GIMP. The first is larger because I processed it on my lappie while the other two were done on the desktop and the resolution settings were different. Haven’t really tracked down the exact cause.

Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 22:30 EDT, CT WV
Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 22:35 EDT, CT WV
Jupiter, 1 July 2019, 23:18 EDT, CT WV

So there. Now I’m an astrophotographer.

Description of the whole observing session to follow in a separate post.

Observing from Home – June 3, 2019


  • 23:15-01:15
  • cool – low 50s F, maybe into the 40s
  • still, no wind
  • no clouds
  • no moon (+1 day)
  • humidity 75-80%
  • seeing: poor – 2/10
  • transparency: good


  • Celestron NexStar Evolution 8″ SCT
  • Eyepieces:
    • 32 mm = 62.5 X
    • 15 mm = 133 X
    • 9 mm = 222 X
    • 8.8 mm = 227 X
    • 2 X Barlow


  • Jupiter
  • M104 Sombrero Galaxy
  • M58
  • M60
  • M59
  • M51
  • Saturn
  • a wee satellite going past M104
  • a wee satellite going past M51 (don’t think it was the same one)
  • a flaring satellite drifting through Ursa Minor
  • a fireball, due south, just above the trees



I’ve really been wanting to see Jupiter lately as the GRS is “flaking” and doing weird stuff and shrinking. It’s been months since we’ve had decent night weather when I was free, but tonight was good. Well, clear. The seeing was crap. Any way, I debated going out at all because it’s a pain to take the scope down to the pool, and the deck is full of plants for the garden. I hit on the idea of setting up in the front yard. At 11 p.m. this would give me about an hour on Jupiter before it hit a tree, so to speak. Lots of trees in the front yard. So, that’s what I did!

Quick sketch of Jupiter, ex post facto

Did I mention the seeing was lousy? I could watch the waves of atmosphere rolling over the face of Jupiter. So it was mostly fuzzy and indistinct, even though I was well below the useful minimum magnification for planetary detail. I started at 62.5 X (32mm) and could identify 3 moons (Io was occulted, and I had just missed its disappearance) and the NEB and the SEB. As I’ve seen in pictures lately, the equatorial zone is relatively dark with a tan color. I have to admit I still get confused about image orientation. I think, from pictures, that S was up, but it should have been corrected by the diagonal. But when I pushed the scope toward the N, north was at the bottom. It doesn’t help that I had turned the diagonal to about 4:00 so I could sit and observe. I think that changes the orientation. Well, let’s say S is up. In watching for about an hour with increasing magnification (133, 227, 266, 444) I could see the NEB was thicker and darker, and I thought I could see some gray blocks along the SEB. The polar regions were quite washed out. The GRS was on the flip side, I think. It may have been just on this side about to roll over, but I couldn’t make it out if it was.

I did manage a few pictures holding my phone up to the eyepiece at 133 X and 444 X. Higher power was better for those.

I processed a bunch of pics into this one image using GIMP and Preview. Not very high tech, but it is my first attempt at planetary image processing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do it right.

Flaring Satellite

While I was looking at Jupiter I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I thought maybe someone turned on a light in the house and it caught in my glasses. Then a few moments later, there was another flash. I looked away from the eyepiece. I was facing north. A third flash, and I found it just to the right of the “handle” of the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor. As I watched, this object, which I surmised to be a tumbling satellite, flared at least a dozen times as it moved from NW to NE until it went behind some trees. The flares varied in intensity from … I’m going to guess magnitude 1 to -4 or more! (The smaller the number the brighter the object, and each magnitude is a factor of about 2.5). That brightest flare got me to exclaim, “Holy moley!” out loud. It was just a few seconds between flares, and the difference in brightness wasn’t uniform, which is why I think it was tumbling rather than just rotating. Any way, this was very cool. I also noticed how clear the sky was, as I could see all the stars in the Little Dipper.

M104 – The Sombrero Galaxy

Quick sketch of M104 ex post facto.
That’s a star on the left, not just a random dot.

Once Jupiter got into the tree, I went looking for galaxies. My observing spot was not ideal, as I’d be looking just over the house, which can produce heat issues, with some lights on in the bedrooms, but it turned out okay. I used 62.5 X and 133 X mostly. M104 is a longtime favorite and was still just visible from my position. It never appears very large or much at all like the pictures, but I like it anyhow. Sitting next to a 6.5 magnitude star (going by the Pocket Sky Atlas), it was more radiant than I remember seeing it before. Still best seen with averted vision, there is a bright core – really quite bright tonight – surrounded by nebulosity, but it did appear to have rays of light shining to the … I don’t know.. South? I’m not sure how to explain this. Perhaps a defect in my eyes or optics, although nothing else gave this effect over the night’s observations. Maybe it’s just a really, really bright core, seen on a really clear night. Having spent a long time on fuzzy Jupiter, you might think I’d spend more time on this beauty, but I kind of said, “Oh, that’s pretty,” and moved on. Having added a sketch in my notes, I thought that I had drawn something like it before. Looked through my previous journal entries and sure enough, on 1 May 2013 I have a very similar sketch. The rays aren’t as pronounced, but they are implied (or at least inferred). That was with the Meade ETX90, so more than doubling the aperture perhaps makes a difference.

Virgo Cluster Galaxies

I moved on to a couple of the Virgo Cluster galaxies, starting with M58, because that’s one of the numbers I remember being there. Here my weaknesses as an observer really start to show up. First, I was not prepared. I didn’t have a plan for what I was going to look at and had done no research. This is greatly enabled by having a GOTO scope. Second, I have no patience. (This is an obvious lie, as I just spent an hour looking at fuzz ball Jupiter, but what I mean is….) I don’t take time to soak in the details of what I’m looking at. Well, often that is the case. Third, I don’t know the basics of observing, like image orientation in the eyepiece, angular size of objects and how to estimate them, visual magnitudes of objects and how to estimate them, stuff like that. None of this means I can’t enjoy my observing. It just would be more… insightful if I knew what I was doing, and I’d feel more confident. Any way….

M58 is a fairly large, diffuse, fuzzy object. I didn’t notice any bright core, but I didn’t really study it very long. I would say it appeared larger than M104 and not nearly as distinct. There was a star nearby both of them, though.

I followed an urge to move on to M60, which I knew to be close at hand, although it turns out to be in the opposite direction from what I thought. Hard to tell with the GOTO, which jumps away and slews back slowly rather than just gliding a few arcminutes over. M60 has much the same appearance as M58 – big, fuzzy patch with no noticeable core. I scanned around the area a bit, thinking I’d find M58, and I did find another galaxy, but the neighbor star was missing. Upon review, I think this was M59, another elliptical galaxy that lies between M60 and M58. I hadn’t even brought my sky atlas outside, so I had no idea what the layout was. Rather than going to get it, I abandoned Virgo until another night. This was also partly informed by it getting late and cold, but I wasn’t quite done yet.

(I later found my journal entry for 11 March 2019, the last time I was out with the scope, with a similar entry for M58-59-60. Maybe someday if I do it often enough, I’ll learn and remember.)

M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy

Ex post facto sketch of M51. There’s a star in the upper right, and another in the disk of the galaxy. This second was actually not as bright as the first, although it looks the other way around.

I thought I’d end on a high note, literally and figuratively, turning my scope upward to another favorite, M51, the Whirlpool, the large face-on spiral galaxy and its companion. This was the best I’ve seen it since Mayhill, NM, in the 25″ Dobsonian in 2010. Two fairly large, bright, distinct objects of comparable size at first. As I’m writing two days hence, I forget exactly what eyepiece I was using, but I think I started with the 32mm and pressed to the 15mm for 133X. Any way, as I looked, the larger spiral, which was fairly vague, began to reveal itself. It remained pretty ephemeral, but it seemed to show indications of its structure. The whole was quite beautiful. I kept getting glimpses of a star in the bounds of the spiral playing peekaboo with me. Definitely the best object of the night. Again, though, the orientation has me baffled, to the point that, upon reflection, it is possible I have sketched the reverse of what I was actually seeing. It may be that the larger spiral galaxy should be on the right and the companion to the left.

What is reality?

Saturn, Sort Of, and Out

By this time, Saturn had risen high enough to be seen. So I took a look. It suffered from the same poor seeing and thick atmosphere as Jupiter. No detail at all – no color, no shadows, no Cassini Division in the rings, no nuthin’. I should have left well enough alone and quit on M51.

The night had grown cold, and I with it, so I packed up. Not a bad night on the lawn.

Sabbatical 2018: The Movie

Here’s a video summary of my sabbatical travels touring U.S. astronomical observatories. It is entirely inadequate to capture the depth and richness of the experience, but it will give you a taste with some pretty pictures and peppy music (from

The review presentation

I presented this with a review of the whole experience, or bits and pieces of the whole experience, for the congregation after worship on Sunday, December 9, 2018. We also video recorded that presentation, including this. It’s under an hour long, and you can see that here:

A Sabbatical Map

Here is a map of my sabbatical journeys. It includes the trip to Green Bank, the New England swing, and the Grand Tour in chunks. The paths are approximate, especially on the Grand Tour, as they are here driving routes, and I took the train. Also, I didn’t put the exact addresses of the places I stayed. But you’ll get the idea. I think if you click on the box in the top left of the map header you’ll get the legend. Then if you want, you can turn off the driving routes, which will make it easier to see the places I visited. There are several light blue pins marking places I thought I might get to but ended up not going. This time. I worked out a rough estimate that I traveled over 8000 miles in a little over two months.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience, for the opportunity to travel to see these amazing astronomical instruments, and for the people who made it possible, namely my congregation at Catoctin Presbyterian Church, my family, and my wife Molly. I am grateful to the church for the financial means to go and for the spiritual support to send me. I am grateful to Molly for her encouragement and for her taking over many of the duties I left as I went. I am grateful to God for the privilege of this journey and for these beloved people in my life.

As my sabbatical is drawing to an end I plan still to keep writing about my experiences. I’m still processing the whole thing, what happened, what didn’t happen, what I learned and didn’t learn, what it all means. So stay tuned.


Observing from Home – October 1, 2018

I let three good, warm, clear nights slip by me this weekend. Each night right around sundown, the clouds made a strong appearance, so I occupied myself with other trivial endeavors rather than haul out the astro gear. Later in the evening, each evening, as I took a look outside I found the skies to be clear and inviting, but it was too late to set up. There was also a lot of moon on a couple of those nights, but still. So having missed three good chances to get out under the sky, I was determined for last night. Consequently, I was convinced the clouds would close in. That’s the usual pattern. But I lucked out or was given grace, depending on your theology, and the sky remained clear.

I set up the Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8″ on the pool patio. It’s the first time I’ve had it out since Green Bank in July, so it took some work remembering how to get it all put together right and to attach a few doodads that had been taken off for travel. I got it set up as the stars were coming out, so I was able to get it aligned. Then I got the call in for supper (we eat late around here), so I parked it and went to eat. I got back out at about 8:35, and the sky was still clear! Amazing! Also, it was warm enough that a long sleeve shirt was all I needed for my whole time out. That and my Palomar beanie.

What I saw:


My primary targets were the planets, especially Mars. I spent a good bit of time bouncing back and forth between Mars, half way up the SE sky, and Saturn getting low in the SSW. More on them in a minute. From there, a quick circuit of the summer glories near Sagittarius, then on to the ice giants, Neptune and Uranus. After that, Andromeda seemed the logical next target. Then, I employed the “Sky Tour” feature of my telescope, letting it suggest nearby goodies. This was cool, because otherwise I might never have seen a couple of these, and I didn’t have a plan, either. I finished the night with three favorite targets around the Summer Triangle, which was still about half way up in the western sky. As I started packing up the gear, a very bright, green fireball crossed the sky in the SW, lasting a couple seconds! Great way to end the night! I was out from 8:30 – 11:45 p.m. EDT.


Weather: Warm! in the upper 60s, maybe over 70. Humid. No wind to speak of. No moon until after midnight (@20 days old).

Seeing: 4/10 – pretty wobbly, based on [magnification/in. aperture]

Transparency: 5/10 – high humidity, maybe a thin layer of cloud even



I’ve been waiting to see Mars all summer. As it was heading for its nearest approach in July, it was blanketed by a global dust storm that obscured any surface markings. I did get a chance to see it at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ, in August, and the dust was starting to settle. Some markings were present to the patient observer at that point. As for this night, the seeing was pretty poor and the transparency didn’t help, but I managed to push the magnification to 222x with the 9mm Plossl eyepiece. That’s well below the minimum to resolve much (312x for 8″ aperture), but I was able to discern some surface markings in the better moments. According to Sky&Telescope (S&T), the disk was 16″ (arcseconds). There was a band of darkness along the northern hemisphere, and it seemed to double back on itself about halfway along the equator. What was more striking was that the disk was only 89% illuminated (according to S&T) and showed as a gibbous section, like the moon a couple days after full. That doesn’t happen very often with the outer planets, but there it was. There was a slight hint of the southern polar ice cap, but I wouldn’t say I really saw it.

I tried a few different filters with varying results. Red definitely made the dark area stand out more, but it overwhelmed anything else. The yellow filter did almost as much to increase the surface contrast without being as overbearing. Blue should have helped bring out the polar cap, but it seemed just to wash everything out. Just not good enough conditions for much detail.


I went back and forth several times between Mars and Saturn for comparison and because Saturn was heading for the trees, but I wanted to see if there was any movement on the surface features of Mars. Any way, Saturn looked a great as the conditions would allow, which is to say, “meh.” Saturn’s disk was about the same size as Mars, but that’s not counting the rings. Using the same 222x magnification as on Mars, I couldn’t really make out the Cassini division in the rings, as the outer ring appeared unusually dark. I attribute this to the poor transparency. With patience, I could see some shadow on the rings near the eastern limb in the rear and some darkening around the north pole. The disk is covering much but not all of the rings. Usually I can make out some color differences on the disk, but there wasn’t much to be seen this night.

The red and blue filters didn’t do much for Saturn other than make the outer ring almost completely invisible. The yellow filter helped with the contrast a little bit, making the shadow effects more noticeable but not much more.

I’ve seen Saturn this summer in my scope, the Yerkes 40″ Clark refractor, the Lowell 24″ Clark refractor, and the Griffith Zeiss 12″ refractor. This night ranked somewhere in the lower half, although my scope at Green Bank ranked near the top. Conditions make a huge impact, regardless of how awesome the equipment. Of course, my 8″ is 80 years newer than the newest of the rest in the list.


The Trifid forgot to show up for work tonight. It’s fairly faint to start with and the poor transparency made it essentially invisible. I know I was on it because of the two stars that sit in its midst.


The Lagoon is always a pleasure with its large open cluster and broad nebulosity. I’ve noticed that the Nexstar doesn’t pick up the nebulosity as much as my Newts, and again, with the poor transparency, only the brightest areas were clearly visible. I admit I didn’t study the view for very long, as I had other things in mind. I think a nebula filter might be a worthwhile investment, though.


The great Sagittarius globular cluster is a real showpiece. It stands up to a good bit of magnification. At 222x the stars were resolving in a layer across the surface, although the underlying multitude were less forthcoming. The cluster filled most of the field of view with dozens of brighter stars in that top layer. The whole this is sort of tick-shaped, but apart from that, it’s a beauty.


I’ve been tracking Neptune for about 10 years. By tracking, I mean I try to find it every year or two when it’s in a favorable place. Well, now is the season. Back in 2008 it was near the point of Capricornus and easily visible in binoculars. It has made its way into easter Aquarius, between Lambda and Phi, and I had a hard time knowing which object was the planet. Part of the problem is my tracking was off a bit because of parking the scope during dinner, but Neptune is also really small (S&T: 2.4″) and faint now. I finally found it, I think. At 333x magnification it showed itself to be a slightly nonstellar disk, just barely. I’ll have to go back and try it again.


Same thing with Uranus. That is, I’ve been following it for as long as Neptune, and it’s harder to find than it was when I started. It has traveled from under the Circlet of Pisces to just east of o Piscium moving into Aries. Uranus is an easier find than Neptune, being 3.7″ (S&T). It was clearly nonstellar and a very small disk at 333x. I might even have seen a little bit of color? A hint of blue maybe? Maybe.

M31, 32, 110

The Great Andromeda Galaxy is always a treat. Enormous and bright, it extends past the field of view in my 40mm e.p. at 50x, so it’s over a degree (twice a full moon). The conditions cut it down some, but it’s still huge. The western edge has a dark dust lane running along it, so it’s more defined than the eastern. (I think I have my directions right). There is a bright, small core surrounded by this extended “nebulosity” that is a 100 million suns. Other than the hard edge I didn’t notice much structure.

M32 is an elliptical galaxy just off the side of the M31. It’s tiny by comparison, but still pretty good size as visible galaxies go. It has a bright core surrounded by an oval of rich haze. It didn’t appear to be over or in M31 but pretty close.

M110 is another elliptical galaxy to the NW of M31. It appears larger than M32 but looks similar with bright core and surrounding oval. It’s edges don’t look as well defined as M32. It is very impressive as compared with other Messier galaxies, just small compared to M31.


The Triangulum or Pinwheel Galaxy is a large, face-on spiral, but tonight it looked like a large, faint fuzz. I’ve found it easily in binoculars many nights and occasionally seen it naked eye (maybe?), but the conditions were not favorable this time, and it didn’t have much to offer. Hey, we all have off days.

Eta Cassiopeiae

This was the first of the items suggested by my telescope’s computer that I looked at. It’s a double star with two yellow white stars, one significantly brighter than the other. I haven’t done much with double stars, but this was pretty to look at.


Scope called this the Triangle Cluster, I think. It’s an open cluster with several brighter stars that make up an isosceles or maybe right triangle with fainter stars laced back and forth across it. I’m not a huge fan of open clusters, but this one is pretty interesting.


This is allegedly a face-on spiral galaxy. I’ll believe it when I see it. It wasn’t a good night for galaxies, or at least for the faint ones. I can’t swear that I even identified this. There was a ghost in the field of view, just kind of a faint slash, that moved with the field, so I guess that was it.


Another of those open clusters I don’t care much for, except I spent a long time on this one. If I were going to name it, I’d call it the Atlas Cluster. I imagined a bulky figure standing with arms stretching out and up (toward NW I think), legs locked, and a globe on its back. It started with two close stars that serve as eyes and three down the middle for abs. Strands running up and out in curves that define the limbs. It’s a sizable cluster with a couple dozen brighter components shaping the titan character and dimmer stars surrounding for the globe and environment. I enjoyed it!

Double Cluster

This pair of open clusters leaning against each other between Cassiopeia and Perseus are beautiful in binoculars. You need a pretty wide field of view to take it all in. Even with the 40mm e.p. I could only fit about one and a half of them at a time. Dozens and dozens of stars, mostly bright white or blue with one or two red ones toward the middle of the two.

Kite Cluster

Described as a diamond of stars with a string of five or more for a tail. I think I saw it, now that I’ve seen pictures of it, but it didn’t look like a kite to me.


This planetary nebula (poorly named, having nothing to do with planets other than sort of looking like one) is fairly compact, maybe 15″? and appears kind of pine tree shaped, so it’s doubly badly named as Little Dumbbell. Maybe with better conditions and/or more patience it looks like the Dumbbell. I think I saw mostly the core. It varied in consistency from top to bottom, being kind of patchy. It sits next to one or two field stars to the west.

Gamma Andromeda (Almaach)

This is a beautiful double star out on the tip of Andromeda with the two stars varying in magnitude and color. The brighter partner is several orders of magnitude brighter than the fainter companion. The brighter is a golden yellow tone, while the partner is a bright blue. Very pleasing pairing.


The Dumbbell (planetary) Nebula appears vastly larger than the Little Dumbbell! A large round object with mottled appearance, M27 filled about half the field of view at 222x.  It’s an easy target and impressive to look at. Imagine, that’s what our sun may look like in 5 billion years.


Unless it looks like this. The Ring and the Dumbbell are both remnants of sun-like stars. It’s thought that they appear at 90-degrees rotation to us, so that we are looking at the side of M27 and down the throat of M57. The Ring is farther away and appears smaller. Nevertheless, at 222x it was clearly a ring of nebulosity. I didn’t see anything in the middle, although sometimes material or a star can be seen.

Epsilon Lyrae

The Double Double is a pair of binary stars that orbit each other. With binocs you can split the one star into two, and at 222x the two split into pairs. The two pairs run perpendicular to each other, so that one pair appears up and down while the other appears side to side. Very cool, and a good end point for the night.


While I was starting to tear down, a bright green light lit up the sky, casting reflections from the telescope tripod legs and shadows on the ground. I looked up to see the end of the fireball, a very bright meteor. It was bright green. A remnant tail about a degree wide and 15 degrees long stretched from the endpoint up the sky. It seems to have run a track that appeared almost straight up and down, maybe from Delphinus down past Altair through Aquila, ending about 15 degrees above the horizon. The tail faded out quickly.

In the end…

Although the conditions weren’t ideal, it was still a very fruitful night out under the sky, which always does my heart and soul good. So glory to God who set all things in their courses and gave some of us eyes to see and souls to thrill at the beauty of it all.

Picture this…. Observatories 1, 2, 3, and 4

I’ve been collecting pictures of my sabbatical travels, only a few of which have appeared here so far. I’m putting them on flickr. I think flickr is kind of out of favor, but I’ve got a terabyte of free space, so I’m going to use it. If you want to see my pics, you’ll have to use it, too.

[Update: I ended up putting all my photos on Google, so I’ve added those as secondary links in the descriptions. So you can see them at either Big G or flickr, or both.]

So here are the links for my travels so far. I still have to write up a few of these visits, and I’m about to embark on the Grand Tour, so expect more posts and more pics soon.

Green Bank Observatory

The Green Bank Observatory, Green Bank, WV, is a premiere radio astronomy site and a great place for a star party. Their largest instrument, featured here, is the enormous GBT, or more formally the Robert Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world.

Hopkins Observatory

The Hopkins Observatory at Williams College, Williamstown, MA, is the oldest extent and continuous observatory in the United States, with 180 years under its belt. It has been moved on campus twice and hosts a small museum, a planetarium, and Alvan Clark’s first professional telescope, a 7″ refractor.

Princeton Theological Seminary

PTS is not an observatory, but it is my alma mater, and it’s one of my retreat stops. I didn’t spend as long as I had hoped there this trip, but I guess I spent long enough. Pics include my old hall, Miller Chapel, and the very spot where I met my wife, among others.

Holmdel Horn Antenna

The Holmdel Horn is a national historical landmark in Holmdel, NJ, but you have work to find it. It is on the campus of the Nokia lab on Holmdel Road, across the parking lot, up a hill, around the bend, and in the maintenance yard. It is important for being the instrument that found the first evidence of the Big Bang, namely the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Allegheny Observatory

The Allegheny Observatory is on my list primarily because it’s near my hometown, making it easy to also visit my dad and my daughter. It is, however, a pretty cool site with two impressive refracting telescopes. The smaller, the 13″ Fitz-Clark, was built by Fitz, later damaged, and then refigured by Alvan Clark near the height of his career, and we got to look at Jupiter through it. The big scope is called the Thaw (for its benefactor), a 30″ refractor, about 48 feet in length built by Brasheer Optics.

Coming up next…

This weekend I’ll travel by train to Racine, WI, to the Siena Retreat Center for a week, followed by a visit to the Yerkes Observatory, an important historical and scientific facility that is scheduled to close in October. Here’s hoping they find new patrons. After that, it looks like LIGO in Louisiana, then Arizona, southern Cal, back to Arizona, and New Mexico. That should wrap up by mid-September.