Setup for the Geminids

With the Geminids peaking tonight and a clear sky after two nights of snow, I charged the camera battery and got a quick setup going to take some pictures of the sky.  As for any nigh sky photo, both lens stabilizer and auto-focus is set to OFF and focused manually at infinity. Then found a corner of the yard shielded from stray lights and planted the tripod, roughly aiming the camera 70deg up and pointing east (the constellation Gemini was rising at 10pm).

However at -15C outside, the old battery wouldn’t last very long.  I left it running for about 30 minutes, taking 20 seconds exposure at ISO 800 with a 17mm F4 lens.  The camera is now thawing (covered with frost after bringing it indoors) and will wait until tomorrow before checking the pictures out.

Setup for the 2017 Geminids

Setup for the 2017 Geminids

In the brief moments that I was outside I caught a 2-3 meteors and one really bright one (easily visual magnitude -4). So even living in the city, the Geminids are visible and accessible to all.  With my feet deep in snow I wasn’t dressed well enough to hang around in the cold wind to watch the show for long. So I hope the camera managed to capture a few.

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Watching the Geminids

It’s that time of  the year again: the Geminid meteor shower. It is visible almost all the month of December, however the best and peak viewing, with up to 120 meteors an hour, is between December 12 and 15.  It should be a good year because we are heading towards a new Moon on December 18th, so no bright moon to ruin the show.

This meteor shower is called the Geminid because the radiant (apparent direction of travel in the sky) of the meteors is centered on the constellation Gemini.  However the source of the debris is not a comet like most other meteor showers, but an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon. The asteroid and orbit were discovered in 1983 and is too good of a match with the Geminids to be anything other than the source of the debris. However its makeup is closer to asteroid belt material, so it may very well be a 5km chunk from a larger asteroid, with all the associated debris.

To watch the Geminids, the best time is past midnight as the constellation will rise east around 10pm.  The higher it is in the sky the better. The Geminids do regularly create fireballs: bright displays that can exhibit colour and even leave a smokey trail, so observation even in light polluted city sky is possible.

Here are some tips for the observation:

  1. Dress to be warm.  You’ll be sitting still in the cold night. Nothing will get you indoors faster than the shivering knowing that warmth is only a few feet away.
  2. Lay down or recline in a chair.  Standing and looking straight up is very uncomfortable and quite the strain on the neck.
  3. Give yourself a good 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness  If you give up after 2-3 minutes, your eyes are still adapting to night vision and will miss the fainter meteors.
  4. Find a spot away from sources of lights.  Of course heading out of the city is best, but if you can’t, just find a spot in your backyard without the glare of street lights and neighbors’ porch lights. That also means no electronic screens to ruin your night vision.

You can also setup a camera on a tripod to see if you capture some of the meteors. Grab a short focal length, remove auto-focus and go for a 10-20 second exposure setting.

Clear skies!

This Weekend: 4 Planets in Plain Sight

If you are able to get out of bed early before sunrise and the sky is clear, you can catch a view of our three closest planets, and if you include Earth that makes 4.  Mercury was at the greatest elongation on September 12th (furthest from the Sun when viewed from Earth) which makes it a good time to spot without the glare of the Sun.  But it happens that Mars and Venus are also on that same side of the Sun, making a chanced planetary alignment.

The sky map below [click for larger] shows the position of Mercury, Mars and Venus for the morning of the 16 to the 19 of September.  Bright star Regulus and our Moon are also there to make this a worth-while event, especially on Monday the 18th.

September_AlignmentMars and Mercury will be closest on the 16th, while the 18th will probably be the most photogenic as the Moon will be a thin crescent in the middle of this alignment.

Solar Eclipse – Post Processing

With the eclipse behind us, and all the gear put away it’s time to transfer and process the images to create something memorable.  I decided to make a mosaic with some of the photos of the eclipse, as well as the visible sun spots. Click on the image below for a high-resolution version.

August 21, 2017 Solar Eclipse

August 21, 2017 Solar Eclipse

The weather cooperated and I had the right gear to get some decent photos. Before the start of the eclipse, the sun presented two observable active sun spot regions: 2671 and 2672. This helped in achieving a proper focus and gave something to observe prior to the start of the eclipse.

Sunspot Region 2671 (right) and 2672 (left)

Sunspot Region 2671 (right) and 2672 (left)

As I had installed and aligned my Vixen equatorial mount the night before, once I had proper focus with the camera, it was child’s play to start an automatic sequence of images every 60 seconds. Hence for the entire solar eclipse, it was hands-off and automated. I could simply glance once in a while at the screen or grab one of the hand-held solar viewers to look up.

58% Cover from the Montreal, Canada Location.

58% Cover from the Montreal, Canada Location.

While the effect was nowhere near that of those in the path of totality, the light level and heat did drop at the peak of the eclipse. The brightness was lower, not like when there are high altitude clouds as the shadows were still sharp and well-defined. And the sun’s rays did feel cooler, a welcomed relief from standing under the sun for the last hour.

In the end, it was a fun experience, especially with the kids. And with over 150 images taken I decided to compile them into two formats. A time-lapse video and a mosaic as seen above.

The video was actually the quickest thing done. With Microsoft Movie Maker, it takes the Canon CR2 RAW files directly and stitches them together into a video. It actually took me longer to find a suitable soundtrack to the clip.

With that experience under my belt, I’m looking forward to April 8th 2024 total solar eclipse that will pass close to home.

Telescope: Skywatcher 80ED with Thousand Oaks R-G solar film
Camera: Canon Rebel XTi (450D)
Setting: 1/1000s at ISO 100

Getting Prepared for the Eclipse

With the time approaching, I installed the telescope such that it can get up to temperature under the sun. I used an old cardboard box as a sun shield around the laptop for better viewing. I still have a good hour before it starts, so might as well have lunch and then set-up the camera.

SW80ED on Vixen GP mount.

SW80ED on Vixen GP mount.

Thin high altitude clouds and high humidity will muddy the view a bit, but other than that looking good.

For the Montreal area the maximum coverage will be 58%.

Polar Align the Night Before the Eclipse

The telescope mount is aligned and ready for tomorrow. While you may think that you’ll have plenty of time to setup your telescope gear in the morning before the solar eclipse starts. If you are using an equatorial mount, you need to polar align the night before.

Polar alignment in the daytime is possible, however it’s much easier to set-up the night before with the help of Polaris. No rain in the forecast tonight and the sky was clear enough to align the mount.

Don’t forget to charge your camera and check that you have enough storage space for the images. And lucky for us, there are sun spots which will help get the focus right. Not always obvious when all you see is a bright disk over a dark background.

Bummed About Missing Totality? Plan for April 8th 2024

The August 2017 solar eclipse will be special, I’m sure the media coverage has repeated it often enough.  While there is a solar eclipse about every year, it often happens over open ocean or remote places.  The fact that the August 2017 event will sweep across all of the continental United States, where millions will be able to simply look up by heading outdoors, many with easy access to digital cameras and social media to share is what makes it special.

However, if you’re bummed that you won’t be able to witness the total solar eclipse because you’re not in the right spot, fear not!  It will happen again… in 7 years.

Mark April 8th 2024 in your digital calendar.  On the map below, the red line will be the best view, the center of the Moon’s shadow. However any spot between the blue lines will get a total solar eclipse. A different group of States will be the lucky ones this time around. And while the folks in Toronto and Ottawa just falls outside, a short drive will easily get you to a better viewing location.

April 8th, 2024 Eclipse Path

April 8th, 2024 Eclipse Path

So don’t throw away those solar safety glasses you will need them again in 2024. Besides, you can use them every day to track sun spots!