Blue Moon Lunar Eclipse

The second Full Moon in a month is generally called a Blue Moon. And yes the old saying “once in a Blue Moon” is in reference to this rare event.  Well… if you consider every 2 to 3 years rare. However this one will be extra special because it won’t be blue at all!  It’ll be blood-red because we’ll have a lunar eclipse on our hands!


September 27th 2015 Lunar Eclipse

The lunar eclipse will be visible from most of North America, but people out West will be better placed to see it.  In the East, the we’ll only get a partial eclipse as the moon sets in the early morning on Wednesday the January 31st around 6:48am EST.

If you do plan to photograph a lunar eclipse, a tripod is strongly advised, and if you are using a telescope, an equatorial mount is required. The above photo is a single frame at 2.5 second exposure and ISO400 with a Skywatcher 80ED. Yes those are a few stars popping into view during the eclipse.





Coming this March – Reentry of Chinese Space Station

Its inevitable, what goes up must come down. On average there is one large piece of equipment that re-enters our atmosphere every week. Some are controlled and planned decommissioning of satellites after their useful life. They are purposely commanded for re-entry and burn-up in the atmosphere to avoid adding debris to our already crowded space orbits or worse, cause a collision with another satellite creating an enormous field of debris. Other objects that re-enter are left to fall on their own such as discarded rocket bodies and old satellite that ceased to operate long ago or malfunctioned and can no longer be controlled.

Tiangong-1 : First Chinese space station launched in 2011

Tiangong-1 : First Chinese space station launched in 2011

This coming March the 8,500kg (18,700lbs) Tiangong-1 Chinese space station is coming back to Earth. Launched in September 2011 and used for two manned missions, it suffered a malfunction and the Chinese have not been in control of it since 2016. The space station has been in a decaying orbit ever since, and now below the 300km altitude  where Earth’s atmosphere is causing the space station to slow down due to aerodynamic drag it will soon make its re-entry.

Delta 2 rocket fuel tank surviving re-entry near Georgetown, TX, on 22 January 1997

Delta 2 rocket fuel tank surviving re-entry near Georgetown, TX, on 22 January 1997

Now there is no need to panic. Most of Earth is ocean, and we’ll probably not see anything let alone have a piece of it land in a city. However as this is a fairly large body, there is a good chance  not all pieces will burn up and some may make it to the surface.

This isn’t the first time a space station makes a re-entry.  The American Skylab at 77 tons re-entered in 1979, and Russian Mir (120 tons) made its re-entry in 2001.
For the Mir re-entry, Taco Bell even got it onto the re-entry buzz by anchoring a large

Taco Bell target for Mir re-entry (2001)
Taco Bell target for Mir re-entry (2001)

target off the Australian coast along the planned re-entry track, and should Mir crash into it there would be free tacos for all Americans. The fast food chain even took out an insurance policy just in case it would happen.

In early January 2018, Tiangong-1 is orbiting at an altitude of around 270-290km (to put that into perspective, ISS is at a 400km orbit) and in a 45 deg orbit, hence the re-entry will be within those latitudes.  The green area in the map below is where Tiangong-1 could make a re-entry, and also marks where the re-entry could be observed.

Tiangong-1 ground coverage -

Tiangong-1 ground coverage –

It’s still too early to determine the time and location of potentially crash site, as Earth’s atmosphere is influenced by space weather and swells based on our Sun’s moods, which alters the drag force on the space station.  However various space centers and organizations will continue to track the space station the coming weeks to improve the prediction.

You can follow everything at for up to date information and predictions.

What could the re-entry look like?  Below is a video shot by NASA of the Japanese Hayabusa spacecraft during a controlled re-entry on June 13, 2010

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.

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%.