Category Archives: Star Stories

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.


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.


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


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)



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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Heart and Soul

My friend and Torrey House author Brooke Williams has been thinking about awe lately. He is intrigued by how we seem to disappear in the wonder of the wild moment. He thinks that in a moment of awe we shift “our focus from our individual selves to the great and potentially powerful collective.”  Brooke is intrigued by what psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, Dachel Kelmet, in his book, Born to Be Good, calls the “pro-social” behavior that is often the result of experiencing awe. Brooke and I have been comparing notes about consciousness and our awareness of beauty, connection and self-awareness of our awareness, what Brooke calls “Homo sapiens sapiens” (they who know they know), for quite a while. You can see his blog on awe here.

I tell Brooke I have a growing sense that consciousness is probably an element in the Cosmos, something like time and space are. It is consciousness in quantum mechanics that “collapses the probability wave function” and brings a mere thought into material being. I am not the only one who supposes that consciousness is the elemental source. If it is, when we are in the most beautiful and wild places our whole evolved being is called to greater attention. Our realization of something beautiful is telling us we are looking at truth and AWE is the feeling of the connection to that universal consciousness, the source of all being. I think about this often and wonder. Starry nights like we had lately are a good thinking and experiencing catalyst.

Heart and Soul nebulae in Cassiopeia

Heart and Soul nebulae in Cassiopeia

And just in case I need a hint from above, there it is . Two fantastic nebulae about 7500 light years away in Cassiopeia are called the Heart and the Soul. Here is my cropped capture of a two by two mosaic. The conditions on the first night out were exquisite. It was cool, utterly clear, moonless and calm. It felt like I should be able to reach up and manipulate the constellations or scoop of a handful of stars to pocket and give to my kids. Kristen would think that was a cool wedding present. The second night had high clouds, not all that thin, but the photons made it to my telescope anyway.

These nebula are emission nebula where the red areas are glowing gas with dark dust bands interspersed. The gas glows from the radiation of the clusters of hot stars in the nebulae centers. In fact, in the center of the Heart nebula are, according to Wikipedia, two stars locked in orbit, accounting for the unique shape of the Nebula. The stars are doomed to fuse together and explode into a supernova in 700 million years. According to researchers, this discovery, reported in Nature in February 2015, was the first confirmation that giant white dwarf binaries exist, and the first record of a system with such a fate.

I posted more on the technical aspects of this capture, including the full un-cropped mosaic, on my astrobin site here.

Lagoon and Trifid nebulas with a new telescope

It is a cloudy night in July on the Colorado Plateau as it has been for most of the 10 days and nights I have been in Torrey. Yesterday it rained 1.3 inches, an impressive amount in a place that averages under ten inches per year.  The clouds make for a good time to post the object I acquired last month around the time of the new moon.

SV80ST set up with ring mounts holding the guide scope and guide camera on top. Telrad star finder on far side.

SV80ST set up with ring mounts holding the guide scope and guide camera on top. Telrad star finder on far side.

As I posted earlier, this past March Kirsten and I drove to California to meet with our new author Sasha Paulsen in Napa. On the way back I pulled over in Auburn to grab a cup of coffee and casually mentioned over lattes that there was a small telescope manufacturer in town called Stellarvue. Kirsten whipped out her smart phone, looked them up, called the owner Vic Maris and told him we would be over shortly. What is a guy to do but to buy a new telescope?  The Stellarvue SV80ST-25SV is a refracter scope (my (Dad’s) C8 is a reflector) with an 80 mm front aperture and a 480 mm focal length making it an f-6 speed.  The fully multi-coated 3 element objective lens are why it is called a triplet. The three lenses and the coatings make it apochromatic, thus APO, and low light dispersion. In some of my recent captures I used my 80mm guide scope as the camera lens and the C8 as the guide scope. I was getting bloated stars with noticeable blue halos. See my Rosette Nebula for an example. It made for a pretty but sloppy picture by current amateur standards. I liked the wide field to fit the larger nebulae and star groups into the frame but was getting tired of the compromised results.  The Stellarvue seriously cleans all that up.

We ordered the telescope, a field flattener and some mounting hardware and headed for Salt Lake. A week or two later one of Vic’s techs called me to say the telescope was done and ready to ship and that it had come out with nearly perfect scores on their bench test. So much more cool than ordering a China made scope from Amazon.

Lagoon and Trifid Nebula in Sag, six hour exposure, June 18-19. 2015

Lagoon and Trifid Nebula in Sag, six hour exposure, June 18-19. 2015

The first night out with the new scope I tried to find the Elephant Trunk nebula (IC1396) but it was not an object I could see with the finder scope and I couldn’t even tell on the first photographs if I was getting it. I think I did, but it was very vague and I decided to go for something easy, a nebula viewable with the naked eye on a dark night, the Lagoon nebula and its neighbor nebula to the north, the Trifid. The nebulae are both in the constellation Sagittarius a bit above the teapot’s spout. Both are thought to be four to six thousand light years away. The Lagoon and the lower red part of the Trifid are both star forming regions. The Trifid, the upper nebula in this image, is a combination of an open cluster, an emission nebula — the red portion like the Lagoon — and a reflection nebula, the blue portion. An emission nebula is caused by ionized gasses that emit light and a reflection nebula are clouds of interstellar dust reflecting the light of the bright, young, nearby stars.

I captured this image over two nights for a total of six hours of exposure. I am a little disappointed what little difference the second night’s three hours added to the first night’s. But I remain happily dismayed by the power of the free software I use to stack the separate frames all together in one image. In this case the the software not only has to combine all the sub-frames but also has to line up the slightly different framing of the images from the first night to the second. No problem.

Sky plot from Astrobin.

Sky plot from Astrobin.

I borrowed the star chart on the left from another free website called You can see the first nights capture posted on Astrobin here. The amazing magic of that site is that it takes the posted image, identifies where it is located on a star chart and names the objects contained in the image.


The six hour exposure is made up of the first night of 60 three minute sub-frames with an ISO of 1600 and the second night of 90 two minute sub-frames at 800 ISO. The table below again borrowed from Astrobin (first night data only):

Astrobin technical cardOn the same night I experimented with a new very wide angle 14mm lens (generous wife again) to capture a Milky Way panorama over the house. That post next time.

Thanks for looking.

M104, Sombrero Galaxy

M104, Sombrero Galaxy 4/20/2015.

M104, Sombrero Galaxy 4/20/2015.

I was inspired to shoot this object with about twice the usual exposure by Scott Rosen of Astronomers Do It In the You can see his award winning image of the same object here.  Scott primarily uses the same Celestron C8 Schmidt–Cassegrain reflector telescope that I use and he seems to be well known in the amateur astro-photography world. So much for excuses. He has the same general equipment but also obviously possesses some processing skills and software I don’t have. But one other factor I noticed is that he gets in a lot of exposure time, usually two to four times as much as I have been getting. On this shot I got about six hours and tried for nine but, as Joni Mitchell might say, clouds got in the way.

I realized another technology step to make shooting life a little easier. Rather than traipsing back out during the shoot to see if all the tech goodies are properly functioning I started using TeamViewer on an iPad to stay on the couch and check on the PC running the show out in the driveway. Better to prolong a nap until shooting is completed.

The Sombrero Galaxy is a spiral galaxy with an unusual central bulge and a prominent dark dust lane, thus the sombrero moniker, and is known to have a super massive black hole at its center. The light that reached my little camera sensor is about 28 million years old. M104 is located in the constellation Virgo.

Stellarium chart

My M104 Sombrero image is a six hour and three minute exposure made up of 121 three minute subs. I used 20 flat, dark and bias frames.
• 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: 4/18-20/2015
• Guiding software: BackyardEOS, PHD Guiding
• Calibration: Deep Sky Stacker
• Processing: Photoshop CS5, Picasa