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

Tomorrow Evening: Moon, Mars and Venus

Great photo opportunity tomorrow evening, January 31st, with a thin crescent Moon in a close formation with Mars and Venus.  As the sky darkens simply look between South-West and West and you won’t miss them.  However don’t wait too late, by 9pm they will have disappeared below the horizon.

Early Evening Sky (7pm) - Look WSW for this close formation

Early Evening Sky (7pm) – Look WSW for this close formation

The Moon will be a thin crescent.  Here it is as photographed of the Moon tonight at 5:40pm just a little less than 3 days old.

Crescent Moon - 30-JAN-2017 (5:40pm)

Crescent Moon – 30-JAN-2017 (5:40pm)

No high-resolution photo for this one.  Took it quickly through an open window simply by hand-holding the telescope, and using Venus to quickly find focus through the camera view-finder.

Skywatcher 80ED
Canon XTi (1/50s at ISO400)
Registax6 to align, stack and wavelet on the best 3 frames (out of a dozen)

2017 Product – Meade EclipseView

With the total solar eclipse scheduled for August 21st, expect to see new lines of products catering to the novice observer wanting to get up close with the event.  Meade has recently announced the EclipseView product line for April 2017 which includes a binocular, a small refractor and three small reflector telescopes specifically for those wanting to experience the eclipse but with a limited budget and beginner experience.

Meade EclipseView [Meade]

Meade EclipseView [Meade]

The product line offers the following models, all equipped with removable white-light solar filter required to view the sun at all times.

  • 10×50 Binoculars
  • 60mm f/13.3 Refractor (includes 12.5 and 4mm eyepieces and 2x barlow) with an AZ mount
  • 76mm f/9 Reflector  (includes 26 and 6.3mm eyepieces and 2x barlow) with an AZ mount.
  • 82mm f/3.7 Reflector (includes 26 and 9mm eyepieces and 2x barlow) in a compact table-top mount
  • 114mm f3.95 Reflector  (includes 26 and 9mm eyepieces and 2x barlow) in a compact table-top mount

Of the bunch, only the 114mm has the better parabolic mirror, the others opting instead for the simpler spherical mirror.  Therefore the 114mm will provide a sharper view edge to edge, especially a high magnification.

These aren’t new telescopes from Meade, but existing models from their Infinity, Polaris and LightBridge Mini Series kitted for solar observation.  While Meade advertises that these telescopes can also be used at night to view the Moon, planets and the stars, you’ll want to get a red-dot view finder to replace the existing solar pin-hole finder.

Of course you can also add the appropriate solar filter to any telescope, no need to limit yourself to the above gear.



Processing RAW Cassini Spacecraft Images

Did you know that you can get access to the latest RAW images from the Cassini spacecraft directly from the NASA and JPL website?  Not only will you have first look at some stunning images of Saturn, the rings and the Moons like this one below from January 16th.  Click the image below for more information from NASA/JPL on that specific photo.

Daphnis making waves - Cassini spacecraft Jan. 16, 2017 - JPL/NASA

Daphnis making waves – Cassini spacecraft Jan. 16, 2017 – JPL/NASA

But you can also download raw images to try your luck at processing.  For this exercise I selected these series of pictures of the strangely perfect hexagonal-shaped storm on Saturn’s north pole.

Downloaded raw image set

Downloaded raw image set

These are images taken with different filters by the wide field camera, and I noted in an Excel file some information on each image, most importantly which filter was used.  Both the narrow and wide CCD on Cassini operate with two filter wheels, hence each image will always list two filters.  For those surprised at the rather “small” 1 mega-pixel camera, keep in mind the spacecraft was launched nearly 20 years ago, and development started in the 1980s.

There is a very detailed document on how to use, calibrate and process the images found at the following link.  But for what I wanted (quick processing) I only needed to find out which filters were the closest to an RGB setup.

Cassini ISS Broadband Filters

Cassini ISS Broadband Filters

Luckily this is well documented, and found them with the BL1, RED and GRN filters.

The image below is a quick addition of those 3 respective images assigned to red, green and blue channels.  The resulting image would be somewhat near the real colours, but I did not take any time to calibrate, hence they are probably a little off…

Saturn with normal RGB assignment (close to real colours)
Saturn with normal RGB assignment (close to real colours)

I also decided to try something that would provide a little more contrast and dive a little into the atmosphere and went with a IR-Red-Blue for RGB assignment by using a one of the narrow-band filters.

Cassini ISS Narrow Band Filters

Cassini ISS Narrow Band Filters

Saturn with IR, Red and Blue for RGB assignment

Saturn with IR, Red and Blue for RGB assignment

Both images above have not be calibrated, stretch or adjusted other than combine the raw images from Cassini.

The NASA/JPL site even has a section for amateurs to submit their photos and host a gallery to see what others have done.

Cassini NASA/JPL site
Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) Data User Guide

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova

It wasn’t easy but on Friday the weather cooperated and I was able to capture a glimpse of comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova.  That’s if you consider -10°C outside temperature to set-up a telescope and operate a laptop cooperation from Mother Nature.

In my previous post I gave myself a 2-day challenge to capture this comet as it was essentially the last few days at a decent magnitude 7 brightness before becoming non-observable as it swings around the sun over the coming weeks.  And when it returns to the northern latitude sky in mid-to-late February it will be dimer at magnitude 10.  In the image below, I labeled some of the brighter stars with their visual magnitude as reported by the Tycho-2 catalog.

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova – around magnitude 7 on January 6th, 2017

I had a very small window of about 30 minutes to make any observation and photograph it.  The challenge started with setting up without polar alignment; the sky was still too bright to locate Polaris,  and instead relied on the position of Venus to align the mount.  As it was still twilight, I was limited to short exposures to keep the histogram on the left half on the camera and to make out a star from the background sky.  I actually started at ISO 400 with only 1 second exposure while adjusting the focus around Theta Cap (magnitude 4).  And as the minutes ticked by I was able to slowly increase my exposure as the twilight darkness permitted.  With neighboring trees, and rooftops coming into view I had to grab as many frames as possible. In the end I got 14 images with 6 seconds exposure at ISO 800 before calling it quits.

With such short exposures no chance of capturing any comet tail, but the green halo is unmistakable comet.

I hope to capture a few more comets this year.

Skywatcher 80ED
Canon XTi (450D)
14 x 6sec (ISO 800)
Registered and stacked with DeepSkyStacker.  Post-processing with GIMP.

Challenge for the next 2 days: Comet

My challenge for the next two days (Clear Sky Chart is predicting clear skies) is to observe and capture comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova.  It should be relatively easy to locate by hopping from Venus then down the bright stars of Capricorn starting with Delta, Gamma, Iota and ending with Theta.  Then half a degree to the left of Theta Cap is magnitude 6 star HD201057.  Comet 45P at magnitude 7 should be just next to that star.

The challenge will be its position low near the horizon, I may have obstructions before it sets.  And the twilight may not be dark enough for a magnitude 7 object.  The viewing time window will be quite small…wait for darkness and it will fall out of view.

Location of comet for January 5th 5:30pm EST

Location of comet for January 5th 5:30pm EST

No need for telescope, it’s also a binocular object.

45P is the 45th periodic comet (Halley being the 1st identified periodic comet) with a 5.3 year period.  Its orbit swings from just past Jupiter to in between Mercury and Venus.

2017 Event : Total Solar Eclipse for North America

Every given year there are between two and five solar eclipses, this upcoming one for August 21st will be special.  The last total solar eclipse for North America goes back to 2008.  As Earth is largely covered by water, many of the eclipses are over the ocean where the number of viewers are limited.  But this one will pass over millions of people, all with access to equipment and social media to share their experience.  Hence this one has lots of people planning and getting ready.  The eclipse is most impressive when you’re located in the path of totality; where the Moon completely blocks out the Sun.  Hence if you are able to travel to such a location along its path, it will be worth it.  I also suggest finding a local astronomy group or association as they will most-likely have telescopes and other special observing gear out for everyone to use.

August 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.

The total solar eclipse will only be viewed in the narrow path crossing the middle of the USA. North and south of that will get a partial eclipse. The green vertical lines indicate the time of maximum eclipse. Courtesy Michael Zeiler,

Observing the solar eclipse requires protective eye-wear and solar filters for any observing or photographic equipment.  For my telescope it’s a film solar filter, now branded SolarLite by Thousand Oaks Optical.  These can be purchased already mounted in an aluminium cell or in sheets for your own custom application.

Thousand Oaks Optical R-G Solar Filter

Thousand Oaks Optical R-G Solar Filter

The American Astronomical Society has created a web site just for the event with plenty of information on safe observation and suppliers of necessary optical filters.

Stay tuned…