Category Archives: Star Stories

East Veil Nebula

I switched the observatory camera from the original CCD SBIG ST-10XME to my modified CMOS Canon 500D/T1i. Replacing the observatory camera was more work, of course, than envisioned. The Canon sensor is set back compared to the SBIG’s and there was not enough range for the TEC-140 telescope to get focused. Jeff Dickerman, the super helpful president at Optec, made me a new adapter to go with another receiver that shortened the camera train enough to get easily into focus. I then rediscovered (I had forgotten but found my own online forum entry!) that CCDAutoPIlot had to turn off the feature on TheSkyX that would record both RAW and FITS files and records only the FITS files. It turns out the DeepSkyStacker can work with FITS and convert the RAW files that create them in color. But I had over time come up with a dark library in RAW frames for the Canon so I could temperature match with the light frames. I don’t have such with FITS files. But if I want to use the observatory automation of CCDAutoPilot, which I do, I will need a new FITS library at a range of temperatures to do it right.

Then I had trouble with setting exposure with CCDAutoPilot on the Canon images. I’m telling a lot of technical info here, but it took a lot of wrestling directly with complex technology to get through all the unforeseen obstacles. The Canon CMOS sensor uses a 2X2 Bayer matrix to record color. Two cells of the matrix are green, the other two are red and blue each. CCD’s, like my SBIG camera,have individual sensors not organized in a matrix. In something to do with the CMOS Bayer matrix, CCDAutoPilot only sees one cell as exposed, and it was saturated, while the other three were only about one-fifth exposed. It averages them in a meaningless way and it seems hit or miss if CCDAutoPilot can get the exposure close enough to get flats. Sometimes it gives up, sometime it settles on something. Focusing is tough too, as is plate solving. CCDAutoPilot did not have a solution as you can see on their forum here, but John Smith, the creator of the software, encouraged me to investigate on my own further. You are getting in pretty deep when the software designer basically gives up and says good luck.

Weirdly, after all that, I did come up with the image below.

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Trifid Nebula, Star Factory

The Trifid Nebula is one of the most popular objects to be viewed and photographed by amateurs like me, but if you are in mid North America you have to be quick, it isn’t up for long. In mid-August it doesn’t get fully dark where my observatory is in Torrey, Utah until 10 PM. At that time the nebula is due south, right at the meridian, and at its highest point in the sky for the night at a low 26 degrees altitude (90 degrees is straight up). Boulder Mountain is south of Torrey and it is as dark as it gets in that direction, so it is a good place and time to photograph the object. But by 1 AM the Trifid is getting below 20 degrees altitude, getting close to the mountain and running into too much atmospheric interference near the horizon. The trick is to get some moonless, cloudless nights at these few critical hours. Mid-August worked out this year.

Deep-sky object, Trifid Nebula
Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius, HαRGB, August 2020
Sky plot
Just above the “teapot,” the field radius of the attached image = 0.5 degrees

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IC 4601 in Scorpius

I’m working on weaning myself as much as practical from social media. I have previously written how the largest corporations today, primarily all internet related, are dangerously sucking all the oxygen out of the economy. I don’t want to be a part of that travesty if I can help it.

I have been posting my astrophotos on Facebook where I get by far the most response. But I want to lay lower playing that game. I have ad blockers and add-ins that keep me from being tracked, but I want to spend less and less actual time there. I also use DuckDuckGo to search instead of Google, have dropped my Amazon Prime, and the only Apple product I use is an old iPad to stream Spotify. It’s a start.

As part of that start I want to post my astrophotos here instead of Facebook. I may not get as much attention. I hope to be grown up enough to be fine with that.

Here is one of my latest images. You can click on it to go to my astrophoto gallery on this same website to see a larger version and to find brief technical information about how it was acquired.

Backyard observatory deep space object photo

IC 4601 in Scorpius, June and July 2020

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Evolving Culture at Winter Solstice

On the longest night of the year, under a full super-moon, a ritual evolves in a small Utah town.

Bluff, Utah, December 21, 2018

A full super-moon rose as complete dark enveloped a crowd gathered in the December cold around campfires and torches to celebrate the longest night of the year with art, culture, and sculptural pyrotechnics.

For those like me who are not motivated by the Christian religious myth of Christmas, Winter Solstice is the natural time to celebrate the turn of the seasons. A ritual is called for and one is evolving in rural Bluff, Utah, with all the resulting tensions that come with change and growth.

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Torrey House Press publisher, Kirsten Johanna Allen, in search of words from the land. 12/21/2018 in Bluff, Utah

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The Zen of stuck

I recently sent this letter to my daughter, Kristen, of adventures and unexpected lessons from the observatory.

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Mounting the beast (Celestron C-14)

Hi Bug!

I had an experience this week that is sticking with me as a terrific little metaphor. I am the student. The thing has cast a spell. I am pondering how to take in the message.

Last Friday Kirsten [my wife] went to NYC to the annual Torrey House distributor conference and to see her dad and sister. While she was gone I scooted down to Torrey to see if I could install one of my dad’s telescopes in the observatory, one that I had not used before. It is his most powerful scope and it is a big beast. I didn’t know if I would even be able to lift it up to the mount, slightly over my head, into its dovetail fitting. I could have used help, but Torrey is far away and I have already imposed on a willing neighbor there too much. I put on some old work gloves. I hefted the thing up, got the dovetail started, but then it jammed. Before my muscles gave out I set the scope back down and waited a while. The gloves left incongruous dust prints on the pristine instrument. Throughout the day I tried 7 more times and went to bed that night thinking I should lift weights more. I thought about it and the next morning tried a new angle. On the second try I finally got it. I sat down to marvel at myself while I gave the mount the command to move to its home position. As it did so I laughed as I realized I had put the beast on upside down.

But that was not the full lesson. Continue reading

Hair in the air

I wonder if she had bangs. The constellation Coma Bernices is named in honor of Berenices II of Egypt, who was the queen of Ptolemy III (246 – 221 BC). The queen vowed to sacrifice her acclaimed amber tresses in the temple of Aphrodite at Zephyrium following the king’s safe return from battle. After her golden locks mysteriously disappeared from the temple, the court astronomer Conon apparently made peace by convincing the royal couple that the lost sacrifice had been transformed by the gods and made into an eternal constellation. Perhaps kings then, like president trumps today, required constant creative handling. Trump might think it handy to have a blowdryer galaxy all his own for his special headdress.

M100 & NGC 4312 Galaxies

M100 & NGC 4312, Torrey 5/27/2017

M100 and NGC 4312 are members of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies in constellation Coma Berenices, 50 million light years from earth. M100, also known as the Blowdryer Galaxy, is the upper galaxy seen face on, NGC 4312 is a spiral galaxy seen edge on. There are several other small dwarf galaxies also in the image. Continue reading

Moving Dad’s observatory

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Alpenglow Observatory  in Salt Lake

In 1984 my father erected a full blown observatory in his backyard on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake City. He was in his early fifties then and my sister, who was only 14, helped him erect it. He named it the Alpenglow Observatory, created a website to catalog his deep sky photos, and worked on constantly improving it. I think of the project as his magnum opus. This month he asked me if I would like to move his masterpiece to Torrey. Continue reading

Fireworks galaxy (NGC 6946)

 

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Fireworks galaxy, NGC 6946, in the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus. Torrey, 6/4/2016 (revised color)

It is new moon early June and the nights are dark but short. Summer solstice is only two weeks off and it does not get dark enough for observing until 10:40 PM. It will start getting light again in just five and half hours. Dark enough for observing is known as astronomical twilight and technically starts when the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon or almost two hours after sunset. Before astronomical twilight comes nautical twilight, defined by the old mariners as when the horizon at sea is still barely discernible. Continue reading

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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