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.
I added four new shots to my astrophoto gallery this week. Continue reading
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
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I borrowed the star chart on the left from another free website called Astrobin.com. 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):
Thanks for looking.
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.