Category Archives: Colorado Plateau

Bridges in the dark

Salt Lake City | Torrey, February 2017

Last August I received a call from my 83 year old mother. “Your father wants to speak with you,” she told me. It is like that with Dad and me, not a lot of direct communication.  I told Mom I would come over the next day after dinner. When the time came I was surprised to see my wife, Kirsten, grab her purse and head for the door with me. My father has a reputation for being difficult and there are rarely volunteers to join me in seeing him. Dad is in his mid-eighties and as his oldest offspring I am to be the executor of his will. I thought he might want to talk about some details or arrangements, but when we all sat down around the table together, including Kirsten and Mom, he asked me if I wanted his observatory. I thought he was asking if I coveted his belongings, which I surely do not. But in my own advancing years I may have gained adequate wisdom so that when Kirsten kicked me under the table I ceased my objections and turned to see her silently mouth, eyebrows raised, “This is an honor.”

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Dad at his Alpenglow Observatory in Salt Lake City, August 2016

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Black Eye Galaxy (M64)

Black Eye Galaxy (M64)

Black Eye Galaxy (M64)

I am able to get close enough to the heavens to take photos of deep sky objects from my driveway on the Colorado Plateau because I am standing on the shoulders of giants. This subtle jewel of a galaxy first picked up it’s nick name in February 1787 when William Herschel wrote in his observing notes, “A very remarkable object, mE. [much elongated], about 12′ long, 4′ or 5′ broad, contains one lucid spot like a star with a small black arch under it, so that it gives one the idea of what is called a black eye, arising from fighting.” Continue reading

The Whale and the Hockey Stick

“Star gazing is 50 percent vision and 50 percent imagination,” says my favorite astronomer, Chet Raymo. And maybe another 50 percent knowledge. The more you know, the more you can see. On a clear dark night in Salt Lake City, or Chicago, or Boston you can maybe see 50 stars, probably more like 25. The sky is washed out by light pollution and it is the sky most of us see if ever we look up. But we evolved under the stars of pollution free skies and on a clear dark night high on the Colorado Plateau there are still thousands of stars visible. Here the light of the Milky Way can be enough to cast a shadow. All the same, the stars we can see are a tiny fraction of the 100 billion in the galaxy. On nights like these the scene above seems to reach down to shake my sleeping natural soul awake and beg my mind to look up and see, to stand and see with imagination.

Whale and Hocky Stick (Crowbar) Galaxies, Torrey 3-9-2016

Whale and Hockey Stick galaxies, Torrey 3-9-2016

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Horsehead Nebula, Torrey 2/17/2015

Horsehead Nebula, Torrey, February 17, 2015

Horsehead Nebula, Torrey, February 17, 2015

The Horsehead Nebula is part of the vast Orion Nebula complex. Just below the first star in Orion’s belt the head itself is actually a dust cloud obscuring the bright red nebula behind it. This dark molecular cloud is about 1500 light years away.

It was pretty much a perfect night for viewing in Torrey. 35 degrees and wind mostly calm. Later there seemed to be some high thin clouds but for most of the time I was out the sky was black, the Milky Way was prominent, the stars were so bright that even with no moon I could see my shadow, and Orion ruled. It was the kind of night where there are so many stars it is hard to pick out the constellations. 35 degrees is not quite cold enough that I wear insulated pants, but I do have on thick hiking boots, a puffy down parka I bought in maybe 1976 with the hood up over a ski hat, a headlamp set to red light, and finger-less fishing gloves. I still get a little chilly.

I usually set up to the east of my home in Torrey in the driveway in order to stay out of the prevailing westerly winds. The house is 2 stories high there and is an effective wind break but also gets in the way of viewing. I didn’t quite have 2 hours left to shoot after I set up before the belt wheeled behind the roof.

Horesehead map
The Horsehead image is a one hour and 45 minute exposure made up of 21 five minute subs. I used 8 flat and dark frames and forgot to get the bias shots.

  • Lens: Celestron Orange Tube C8 Schmidt-Cassegrain, 8″ diameter, focal length 80.0″ (2032mm),  f/10
    • With f/6.3 reducer
  • Mount: Losmandy G11
  • Autoguider: Orion Starshoot
  • Guide-scope:  ShortTube 80mm f/5.0 refractor telescope
  • Camera: Gary-Honis full-spectrum modified Canon T1i (500D)
  • White Balance: Daylight
  • Mode: Raw
  • ISO: 1600
  • Location: Torrey, UT
  • Date: 2/17/2015
  • Time: 8pm-10pm
  • Guiding software: BackyardEOS, PHD Guiding
  • Calibration:  Deep Sky Stacker
  • Processing:  Photoshop CS5, Star Spikes Pro 3

Rosette Nebula

Rosette Nebula, Torrey, 2/16/2015

Rosette Nebula, Torrey, 2/16/2015

This is my first deep sky object capture in a while and the first after modifying my camera to accept more red in the Ha wavelength. This cosmic rose is about 5,000 light years away near Orion in Monoceros. The red is nebula matter (hydrogen?) that is heated up by the hot stars in the center of the Rosette which formed from the same matter. I love the feedback loop here, sort of like we mortals becoming conscious. The stars form from the cosmic matter and then shine back on it, making it beautiful. The stardust that is we humans becomes conscious and looks out on the heavens, becoming the cosmos aware of itself, and is beautiful.

I tried to get this picture Sunday night but got blanked out by a strange, stuck cloud. A rare failure in the forecast by the amazing Mr. A. Danko at ClearDarkSky.com.  As part of the weird weather we are having (very weird, exactly as predicted by the global warming models), the jet stream is distorted and was blasting down with much turbulence in the upper atmosphere out of due north and created a standing lenticular cloud exactly in the way of where I needed to observe.  Monday night was much better although it did not clear up until after dusk. Good of it. In fact, Monday night was great, clear and calm, but a surprisingly cold 24 degrees. For the first time the laptop PC I was using to run the exposures quit on me at the end of the session, apparently from cold, and would not start back up. I took it inside for half an hour, fired it up, and was able to go back out and get the rest of the compensating sub frames (darks, flats and bias).

This exposure is what the hobbyists call “first light.” I recently sent my Canon Rebel T1i off to Gary Honis for his full spectrum modification which replaces the internal stock infrared filter with a special clear glass filter. Many nebula have a red wavelength called hydrogen-alpha that is filtered out by the stock camera filter. I chose the Rosette as my first object to gather some of that red I was missing. In fact, in an attempt years ago to acquire the Rosette with my stock Canon 10D, I either missed the thing altogether, something that is entirely possible, or all the red was filtered out.

I shot through the guide-scope and guided with the normal telescope, the reverse of what is normal. The guide-scope is a relatively simple and inexpensive telescope that is not meant for astrophotography. The stars are much fatter and distorted than they would be and the little blue circles around the stars are from the various color wavelengths not converging all in the same place. Still, as long as you aren’t experienced at such efforts, the end result is purty.

This exposure is 2 hours and 32 minutes comprised of 4 minute subs and using 8 each of darks, flats and bias frames.

Rosette chart

  • Lens: ShortTube 80mm f/5.0 refractor telescope
  • Mount: Losmandy G11
  • Autoguider: Orion Starshoot
  • Guide-scope:  Celestron Orange Tube C8 Schmidt-Cassegrain, 8″ diameter, focal length 80.0″ (2032mm),  f10
    • With f6.3 reducer
  • Camera: Gary-Honis full-spectrum modified Canon T1i (500D)
  • White Balance: Daylight
  • Mode: Raw
  • ISO: 1600
  • Location: Torrey, UT
  • Date: 2/16/2015
  • Time: 8pm-11pm
  • Guiding: BackyardEOS software
  • Calibration:  Deep Sky Stacker
  • Processing:  Photoshop CS5

Light on the Colorado Plateau

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Kirsten in Capitol Reef NP

My wife, Kirsten Allen, and I are fortunate to live, at least part time, in Torrey, Utah in the north central part of the Colorado Plateau. Here there are both the beautiful landscape and very dark, light pollution free skies.  On the “Astrophotos” tab above you can see the deep sky object photos I have gathered taking advantage of these high, dry, dark sky conditions. I also plan to add photos I have taken during the day (mostly) of the inspiring landscape on the Plateau. I have a small start on the “Landscape” tab above.