Large Asteroid to Pass Near Earth

On April 19th a considerable sized asteroid will pass about 4.6 lunar distances (1.8 million km) from Earth.  While there is no chance of it impacting our planet, this 650m asteroid was only discovered three years ago, and it will be the closest encounter of a large asteroid since asteroid Toutatis in September 2004. The next predicted fly-by of a large asteroid is 2027 with 800m wide 1990 AN10.

The expected magnitude could reach up to 11 during the close approach, hence a decent sized scope will be required, and due to the rapid movement may be hard to locate and track.

Sky chart for asteroid 2014 JO25 covering April 18th to 20th 2017

And as a bonus, comet PanSTARRS (C/2015 ER61) will also make its closest approach to Earth on the 19th, but 10 times farther away as the asteroid.  I should be visible with small telescopes or binoculars in the constellation Aquarius in the dawn sky.

Source: NASA/JPL

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak

Periodic comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak is currently a magnitude 8 object for telescopes and unlike many other current bright comets like C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS) and C/2017 E4 (Lovejoy) it is visible for a good portion of the night while the other two are only visible in the morning twilight for those like me in the northern hemisphere.

On April 13th comet 41P was in the constellation Drago, which is where I managed to photograph it.

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak (13-Apr-2017) - Benoit Guertin

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak (13-Apr-2017) – Benoit Guertin

Not much of a tail on this comet, and I’ve checked other photos taken with larger scopes and the result is also just a coma around the nucleus.

Because it is passing near Earth, its movement in the sky is quite noticeable frame-to-frame in the captured images. For the registration and stacking with comets, this is done by alignment on the comet and not the stars, hence the star trails in the above image. I performed another stacking, this time using the stars to align, and the comet’s movement becomes obvious. The displacement measures 2.6 arc-minutes in the 41 minutes that elapsed between first to last exposure.

UPDATE: Created a short video showing the comet’s movement

Distance traveled by the comet in 41 minutes

Distance traveled by the comet in 41 minutes

My setup was less than ideal, as the constellation was only visible from the front of my house.  Yes that is a lovely street-light shining right across the street.  Luckily the telescope was pointing a little to the right, and a rolled piece of cardboard help act as an dew-shield extension to block the glare.  But on the good side I had a nice solid concrete surface and got a very good polar alignment with 1 minutes exposures giving me nice round stars.  Hmmm, might explore this setup a little more often…

Setup in the garage to image comet in constellation Drago

Setup in the garage to image comet in constellation Drago

Telescope: SW80ED
Camera: Canon XTi (450D)
Exposure: 32 x 60sec ISO 800
DeepSkyStacker, IRIS, GIMP

Other comets of interest for 2017

Jupiter and Three Moons

Started processing some of the images taken on April 8th, the only evening with a clear night. I spend a good hour in the near freezing air to capture Jupiter with various settings. The one below was taken with a 2X barlow and a simple webcam. This is a mosaic of two frames as not all moons fit into the rather narrow 640×480 CCD sensor. Unfortunately the fourth moon, Callisto, is just out of the frame to the right.

Jupiter - 2017 opposition - SW80ED and 2x barlow

Jupiter – 2017 opposition – SW80ED and 2x barlow

Telescope: Skywatcher 80ED with 2x barlow lens
Sensor: Philips Vesta webcam with IR-UR cut filter
Processing: Registax and GIMP

Took 40 seconds of video at 20 images/sec which produced a 351MB AVI file. The video is then analysed, registered and stacked with Registax.  Color saturation and light levels where then adjusted in GIMP.

I also took many more video with a 3x barlow, but getting the focus right was a challenge. And I’m afraid the end result is just a “bigger” Jupiter, no additional details. I will need a few nights to process those and see which one turned out well. I will also try using the drizzle algorithm on the image above to see if I can get a larger and better image.

This Weekend – Best Time to See Jupiter

This weekend is the best time to see Jupiter of all 2017, because the planet is at opposition, meaning it is exactly opposite to the Sun and the Earth-Jupiter separation is also at its closest.

The photo below was taken during the September 2010 event and I happened to fall upon a fantastic low turbulence window in the atmosphere. Look closely and you’ll see the shadow of one of those moons on the Jupiter’s surface.

Jupiter_17sep2010

Jupiter – Benoit Guertin

Photos of Jupiter with the moons are a little tricky. Capturing the smaller moons require more exposure or gain, but at the risk of over-exposing the planet and turning Jupiter with those wonderful cloud bands into nothing more than a white sphere. It is always better to take a series of images or videos with different settings and review them at a later time on the computer.  Some information on planetary imaging and processing is provided in my blog on imaging with a webcam.

Planetary imaging is all about controlling turbulence.  Air turbulence whether within the optics, telescope, near the ground or high atmosphere will give you a blurry view. Hence some simple tips are:

  1. Allow your equipment to cool down a few minutes such that the equipment temperature can stabilize and match the outdoors.
  2. Past midnight is better as this allows time for the ground to cool especially after a sunny afternoon, reducing convective currents.
  3. Wait until Jupiter is high in the sky, that way there is less atmosphere between you and Jupiter. By looking straight up, you will be looking through a smaller “air column”.

A good time will be on April 10th when the Moon will next to Jupiter.  See the sky chart below showing the southern part of the sky at 10pm EDT.  The planet will track west as the night advances.

April 10th 2017 Sky Chart

April 10th 2017 Sky Chart

 

Lower Orion Constellation

Just when you think you have a good “recipe” to process astronomy images taken with your gear, things don’t quite work out and you end up spending three evenings trying different settings, techniques and steps because you know there’s a better image waiting to be teased out.

M72 and Lower Orion Constellation

M72 and Lower Orion Constellation – Benoit Guertin

The image above (click for a full frame) is as much as I can stretch out from the lower half  of the Orion constellation and nebula with a 20 seconds ISO 800 exposure on 85mm F5.6 Canon lens from my light polluted backyard.

Below is the sky chart of the same area showing the famous Orion Nebula (blue and red box) and the Orion belt with the three bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka.  What is unfortunate is there are lots of interesting deep space nebula structures that glow in the hydrogen-alpha spectral lines of near infra-red, but all photographic cameras have IR filters to cut on the sensor those out.  That is why many modify the cameras to remove the filter, or get dedicated astro-imaging cameras.

Sky Chart - Lower Orion with nebula and open star clusters

Sky Chart – Lower Orion with nebula and open star clusters

Now, back to the main topic of trying to process this wide field image.  I had various issues with getting the background sky uniform, other times the color just disappeared and I was left with essentially a grey nebula; the distinctive red and greenish hue from the hydrogen and oxygen molecules was gone.  And there was the constant hassle of removing noise from the image as I was stretching it a fair bit.  I also had to be careful as I was using different software tools, and each don’t read/write the image files the same way.  And some formats would cause bad re-sampling or clipping, killing the dynamic range.

Below is a single 20 seconds exposure at ISO 800.  The Orion nebula (M72) is just barely visible over the light pollution.

orion_2017-02-27_original

Original image – high light position for 20 seconds exposure

The sky-flog (light pollution) is already half way into the light levels.  Yes, there are also utility lines in the frame.  As these will slightly “move” with every shot as as the equatorial mount tracked I figured I could make them numerically disappear.  More on that later…

Light levels of a 20 second exposure due to light pollution

Light levels of a 20 second exposure due to “sky fog”

The longer you expose, the more light enters the camera and fainter details can be captured.  However when the background level is already causing a peak mid-way, longer exposures won’t give you fainter details; it will simply give you a brighter light-polluted background.  So I needed to go with quantity of exposures to ideally reach at least 30 minutes of exposure time. Therefore programmed for 100 exposures.

Once the 100 exposures completed, I finished with dark, flat and offset frames to help with the processing.  So what were the final steps to reach the above final result?   As mentioned above, I used three different software tools, each for a specific set of tasks: DSS for registration and stacking, IRIS for color calibration and gradient removal and finally GIMP for levels and noise removal.

  1. Load the light, dark, flats and offset images in Deep Sky Stacker (DSS).
  2. Perform registration and stacking.  To get rid of the utility lines as well as any satellite or airplane tracks, the Median Kappa-Sigma method to stack yields the best results.  Essentially anything that falls out of the norm gets replaced with the norm.  So aircraft navigation lights which show up only on one frame of 100 gets replaced with the average of all the other frames.  That also meant the utility lines, which moved at every frame due to the mount tracking, would vanish in the final result.
  3. As my plan is to use IRIS to calibrate colors, where I can select a specific star for the calibration, I set the no background or RGB color calibration for DSS.
  4. The resulting file from DSS is saved in 16-bit TIF format (by default DSS saves in 32-bit, but that can’t be opened by IRIS).  I didn’t play around with the levels or curves in DSS.  That will be dealt later, a bit in IRIS, but mostly in GIMP.
  5. I use IRIS to perform background sky calibration to black by selecting the darkest part of the image and using the “black” command.  This will offset each RGB channel to read ZERO for the portion of the sky I selected.  The reason for this is the next steps work best when a black is truly ZERO.  While IRIS works in 16-bit, it’s actually -32,768 to + 32,768 for each RGB channel.  If your “black” has an intensity of -3404, the color calibration and scaling won’t be good.
  6. The next step requires you to find a yellow Sun-like star to perform color calibration.  As a white piece of paper under direct sunlight is “white”, finding a star with similar spectral color is best.  Sky chart software can help you with that (Carte du Ciel or C2A is what I use).  Once located and selected the “white” command will scale the RGB channels accordingly.
  7. The final step is to remove the remaining sky gradient, so that the background can be uniform.  Below is the image before using the sky gradient removal tool in IRIS.
  8. Image before removal of sky gradient in IRIS

    Image before removal of sky gradient in IRIS

  9. Once the sky gradient is removed, the tasks in IRIS is complete, save the file in BMP format (will be 16-bit)  for the next software: GIMP
  10. The first step in GIMP is to adjust light curves and levels.  This is done before any of the filers or layer techniques is performed.
  11. Then I played around with the saturation and Gaussian blur for noise reduction.  As you don’t always want the transformations to take place on the entire image, using layers is a must.
  12. For the final image above, I created two duplicate layers, where I could play with color saturation, blurring (to remove the background noise) and levels until I got the desired end result.  Masks are very helpful in selecting what portion of the image should be transparent to the other layers.  An example is I wanted a strong blur to blend away the digital image processing noise, but don’t want a final blurry night sky.

EXOPLANET SERIES – TRAPPIST-1

On Wednesday NASA made headlines by announcing that researchers had detected seven exoplanets orbiting a dim dwarf star.  These exoplanets are determined, based on measurements, to be approximately Earth-sized solid planets and three happen to fall in the “Goldilocks Zone” where water could exist in liquid form; not too hot, not too cold.  Lots of people started speculating that in a few years we’ll find out if one of those planets harbors life.  However that is just plain crazy-talk.  The importance of this discover is that complex exoplanet systems do exist; the Solar System is not an exception, and that life is also not an exception.

The TRAPPIST-1 system

The TRAPPIST-1 system contains a total of seven planets, all around the size of Earth. Three of them — TRAPPIST-1e, f and g — dwell in their star’s so-called “habitable zone.” [NASA/JPL]

0.60m Ritchey-Chrétien Reflector [TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South / ESO]

0.60m Ritchey-Chrétien Reflector [TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South / ESO]

The TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope–South made the discovery back in May 2016 of three exoplanets around the small star.  But it was with the help of larger telescopes and the space-based Spitzer telescope that the count increased to seven and their orbits could be confirmed.  What I find interesting is the initial discover was done by a relatively “small” 0.60m telescope.  OK not your typical backyard astronomy gear, but scale that down by 1/3 and you have equivalent optics for about $3000.  Add a mount and CCD and for $10,000 you could probably have your very own exoplanet hunter!

Back to the crazy-talk of finding life in this exoplanet system… Anyone who has studied the history and formation of the Solar System knows that there have been a series of unlikely events that have led to where we are today.  Starting with the Sun, probably a 3rd generation star, where heavy elements like Calcium and Iron necessary for life as we know it were produced by previous stars and supernovas that used to exist in this spot of the galaxy we now occupy.  All elements beyond Hydrogen are produced by stars, either through fusion or when they dramatically explode as supernovas.  The atoms making up the air, the trees, the oceans, ourselves were not created in our Solar System during its formation.  The Sun is currently only generating Helium and Lithium out of Hydrogen through the wonders of fusion.  All the heavier atoms within us were created by previous stars that no longer exist.  Hence for solid Earth-like exoplanets to exists there needs to have been one to two previous generation of stars in the region.

An alien race observing our Solar System would surely first spot Jupiter.  One could almost say that it characterizes our home in this part of the galaxy.  With its strong gravity this gas giant plays the vital role of neighborhood vacuum cleaner.  It is either mopping up or launching away asteroids and comets that would otherwise impact Earth, bringing relative calm to the inner Solar System.  If Earth was constantly bombarded by solar objects, there is no way that life could suitably evolve from slimy unicellular organisms.  It took 3 billion years for multi-cellular organisms to show up once life appeared on Earth.  If cataclysmic comet and asteroid impacts are a frequent occurrences, then there is little chance that complex organisms would come to be.

Looking at another element, TRAPPIST-1 is described as an ultra-cool dwarf star just shy of 40 light years from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  If we forget that it’s a fraction of our Sun’s size and brightness (hence heat generation), it is relatively young at 1 billion years old.  So while there may be three planets that could be habitable, life may not have even begun yet.  Our own Sun is 4.3 billion years old, and the animals we see around us have only been around for the last 14-16 million years.  So what could be in a 1 billion year old planetary system? Assuming all the ingredients are there for life to exist, you probably only have bacterial soup.

Now, my article was getting long, and I wanted to cover many more subjects, too many for a single article.  Hence I’ve decided to break them out into the EXOPLANET SERIES and will publish them over time.

 

Fast Moving Comet Before Sunrise

If you are able to get out of bed early and the sky is clear, equipped with binoculars you should be able to catch a fast-moving comet as it swings by Earth at about 32 lunar distances over the next few days.  The best time is just prior to sunrise as the comet will be higher in the sky in the East.  Use Jupiter as well as bright stars Vega and Arcturus to get your bearings.  With each day the comet will rise earlier and will appear higher in the sky as the chart below shows; comet position at 5am for the next week.  However it will diminish in brightness as it moves away from Earth on after February 11th.

Comet 45P over the next few days starting Feb 10th.

Comet 45P over the next few days starting Feb 10th.

This isn’t the closest a recording of a comet passing near Earth, but it does make it to the 8th spot since modern observation and have been keeping track of near Earth objects (1950).  Back in August 15 2011, it happen to pass even closer, only 23 lunar distances, making it also the 5th closest comet approach.

With a storm system moving up the eastern edge US and Canada, my chances of getting any clear morning sky is pretty slim…

Downloadable PDF Sky Chart: 45p_feb2017_chart