There’s been lots of attention over Mars this past week. I can’t really blame all the media coverage, the Mars 2020 Perseverance EDL to the Martian surface was really cool and a great feat for NASA. I enjoyed watching it live on the NASA YouTube feed. But this weekend let’s turn our attention to the Snow Moon; the only full moon in February.
The full moon will occur at 3:17am Saturday, so tomorrow evening will be the best time to catch it. There’s nothing particularly special about this full moon, not a Blue Moon (second Full Moon in the month) or “Super Moon”. The name Snow Moon comes from the Farmer’s Almanac as February is normally the month that receives the most snow in North America.
The great thing about full moons is that you don’t need to stay up all night and wait outside in the frigid cold to see it. At this time of year, in the Northern hemisphere, the Moon is visible for more that 12 hours a day.
If you’re tempted to photograph the Snow Moon, leave the mobile phone behind, it’ll just give poor results and you’ll end up frustrated with frozen fingers. Instead just enjoy the view, paying close attention to the various dark “seas” spanning the lunar surface.
If you do try taking a picture, grab a DSLR or compact camera with manual mode. Set the ISO around 200 and the focus to manual. Your shutter speed should be high, around 1/800s; a full moon is surprisingly bright. You’re get better results by slightly under-exposing your shot. If you have a tripod, use it, else try to steady yourself on something (railing, chair, car roof, etc..) Subtle movement can easily ruin the details in you photos.
Looking back, the “Great comet of 2020″ C/2020 F3 NEOWISE was a fantastic sight and well worth the 3am alarm to snap some photos back in July. But comet images are notoriously difficult to work with. Should I also add that in older times, comets were often seen as a bad omen, the bearer of bad news? Cough, cough COVID-19 cough…
Anyways, back to astronomy… There are essentially two types of photo registration (alignment) software out there: 1) Deep Sky which uses pin-point stars to perform alignment; 2) Lunar/Planetary uses the large “disk” of a planet or Moon to align based on surface details.
I turned to standard photo-editing software for a manual alignment and stacking. This is essentially opening one “base” image and then adding a 2nd image as a new layer. I change that 2nd layer to be overlaid as a “Difference” and manually align this 2nd layer to match the base layer. Once that is done I change the layer mode to Addition, and then hide this 2nd layer. Repeat the steps for a 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc. layers until you’ve added all your images. Always aligning with the “base” image to ensure no drift.
If you simply add all those layers up, you will get one very bright image because you are adding pixel intensities. You can do that and then work with the Levels and Curves to bring it back down, or if like me, working with GIMP, then use the Py-Astro plug-ins to do the merging and intensity scaling in a single step with a Merge all layers. Py-Astro can be downloaded here. I haven’t explored all that the plugins have to offer, that will hopefully be in another blog.
Stacking 11 individual frames results in an improvement over a single RAW image (image below). With the stacked image, I’m able to work with the intensities to darken the sky while keeping the comet tail bright.
However the sky gradient is pretty bad, due to the camera lens and because at 4am the sun is starting to shine on the horizon. So off to IRIS to correct the background gradient. From GIMP I save the files as a 16BIT FIT that I can use in IRIS. For steps on how to do this, see my blog about how to remove the sky gradient.
After a quick spin in IRIS, I’m back in GIMP for final color and intensity adjustments, I boosted the BLUE layer and adjusted the dark levels for a darker sky.
At one point in time we’ve heard the saying that we are all made of star dust. Therefore, our home , the Milky Way, filled with 250 billion stars should be rather dusty. Right? Well it is, and one famous dust lane that we often see even has a name: The Great Rift.
Say that you are out camping this summer, and you spot the MilkyWay as you are amazed how many stars you can see when away from the city. You remember you have your camera and decide to setup for some long exposure shots to capture all this beauty (lets go for 20 seconds at ISO 3200 17mm F4.0) pointing to the constellation Cygnus. A bit of processing and you should get something like this.
Not bad! Lots of stars… a brighter band where the Milky Way arm of the galaxy is located and some darker spots at various places. Those darker areas are gigantic dusk clouds between Earth and the arms of our spiral galaxy that obscure the background stars. If only there was a way to remove all those stars, you could better see these dark areas.
And there is a way to remove stars! It’s called StarNet++, takes a load of CPU power and works like magic to remove stars from photos. Abracadabra!
Behold! The Great Rift! Well actually just a portion of it. With the camera setup I get at most a 70deg field of view of the sky. Nevertheless, the finer details of these “dark nebula” can be appreciated.
Stripping the stars from an photo does have some advantages: it allows the manipulation of the background “glow” and dusk lanes without concern to what happens to the foreground stars. The resulting image (a blend of both the starless and original image) had improved definition of the Milky Way, higher contrast and softer stars that improve the visual appeal.
While there are plenty of stars above us, what defines a nice Milky Way shots is the delicate dance of light and darkness between the billions of stars and the obscuring dust clouds.
13 x 20 sec (4min 20sec integration time)
17mm F4.0 ISO3200
Deep Sky Stacker
IRIS for background gradient removal and color adjustment
GIMP for final processing
When observing a comet, what we see is the outer coma; the dust and vapor outgassing from the nucleus as it gets heated from the Sun.
So I decided to take one of my photos taken with my Skywatcher 80ED telescope (600mm focal length) and see if I could process the image to spot where the nucleus is located.
This can be achieved by using the MODULO command in IRIS and viewing the result in false color. The results are better if you do a logarithmic stretch of the image before the MODULO command. It took some trial-and-error to get the right parameters, but the end results isn’t so bad.
For the fun of it I tried to see if I could calculate the size of the comet nucleus using the image. At the most narrow the nucleus on the photo spans 5 pixels. Based on a previous plate-solve result I know that my setup (Canon 80D and Skywatcher 80ED telescope) results in scale of 1.278 pixels per arc-second. Then I used Stellarium to get the Earth-coment distance on July 23rd (103.278 M km)
When I plugged in all the numbers I get a comet nucleus size of approximately 2000 km, which to me seamed a little on the BIG size.
Sure enough a little research revealed that measurements made by Hubble points to a 4.8 km ball of ice. So yeah, I’m quite far from that… but it was fun to give it a try.
I live in a heavily light polluted city, therefore unless it’s bright, I won’t see it. But boy was I ever happy with the outcome of this comet! In my books C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) falls in the “Great Comet” category, and it’s by far the most photographed comet in history because it was visible for so long to folks on both sides of the globe.
My last encounter with a bright comet was in 2007 with periodic 17P/Holmes when it brightened by a factor half a million in 42 hours with this spectacular outburst to become visible to the naked eye. It was the largest outburst ever observed with the corona becoming temporarily the biggest visible object in the solar system. Even bigger than the Sun!.
So when the community was feverishly sharing pictures of the “NEOWISE” I had to try my luck; I wasn’t about to miss out on this chance of a lifetime.
I have to say that my first attempt was a complete failure. Reading up when it was the best time to try to photograph this comet most indicated one hour before sunrise was the right time. So I checked on Google Maps where I could setup for an un-obstructed view of the eastern horizon (my house was no good) and in the early morning with my gear ready at 4am I set off. To my disappointment and the “get-back-to-bed-you-idiot” voice in me, it didn’t work out. By the time I got to the spot and had the camera ready, the sky was already too bright. No comet in sight, and try as I might with the DSRL, nothing.
Two evenings later and another cloudless overnight sky I decided to try again, but this time I would make it happen by setting the alarm one hour earlier: 3am. That is all that it took! I was able to set-up before the sky could brighten, and then CLICK! I had this great comet recorded on my Canon SD memory card.
I didn’t need any specialized gear. All it took was a DSLR, a lens set to manual focus, a tripod and 5 seconds of exposure and there was the comet. I snapped a bunch of frames at different settings and then headed back home to catch the last hour of sleep before starting another day of work. Lying in bed I felt like I had accomplished something important.
As the comet swung around our Sun and flipped from a dawn to a dusk object I decided I should try to photograph it once again, but this time with the Skywatcher 80ED telescope. At that point, the comet was dimming so every day that passed would be more difficult. It was only visible in the North-West horizon at sunset, which meant setting up in the front the the house, fully exposed to street lights. Not ideal, but I had nothing to loose trying.
I used our tree in the front yard to act as a screen and was able to locate and photograph this great comet. Polar alignment wasn’t easy, and when I had the comet finally centered and focused with the camera, overhead power lines were in the field of view. I decided to wait out 30 minutes and let the sky rotate to the lines out of the view. Besides, it will get darker anyways which should help which the photo. But I also realized that my “window” of opportunity was small before houses would start obscuring the view as the comet would dip to a lower angle with the horizon.
I’m sure in the years to come people will debate if this was a “Great Comet”, but it my books it’s definitely one to remember. It cemented with me the concept that comets are chucks of “dirty ice” that swing around the sun. Flipping from a dawn to dusk observable object after a pass around the Sun is a great demonstration of the elliptical nature of objects moving in our solar system.
Now waiting for the next one…
Back in March, the astronomy crowd was buzzing about a possible”naked-eye” comet expected in late May 2020. Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) was first detected at the tail end of December as a very dim magnitude 19.6 object and by mid-March it had brighten to an easy telescope target magnitude of 8. Those not familiar with the magnitude scale, going from 19.6 to 8 is not a doubling in brightness, but around a 4000 times increase!
That dramatic increase in brightness help fuel the hype for the Great Comet of 2020, and there were two other factors that got people excited:
- It would be visible at dusk from the Norther Hemisphere, hence within easy viewing to much of the world population.
- It was following a similar orbital path as the “Great Comet of 1843“, suggesting that it was from the same original body and could potentially provide the same viewing spectacle. That 1843 comet was visible in daytime!
Well all that went south when the comet’s breakup was observed in late March after peaking momentarily at magnitude 7. It began to dim, along with any hopes of a Great Comet repeat. Below is a graph showing the the original (grey line) and revised (red) comet brightness forecast (dots being observed measurements) on this chart created by Seiichi Yoshida (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Comet C/2019 Y4 is expected to make its closest approach to the sun on May 31st, however most experts believe it will disappear (disintegrate) before that date. Seeing that I had a small window of opportunity to capture the comet I decided to try my luck last Saturday evening.
Below is an extremely processed (and ugly) image that I got by combining 25 photos (15 seconds each at ISO 3200) using my Skywatcher 80ED scope. The photo just about makes out the distinctive blue-green hue and elongated shape of a comet. It is around magnitude 10, very diffuse and about 147 million km away from us the day this photo was taken.
I pushed the image processing so hard that I was able to pick up faint magnitude 13 galaxies!
On to the next comet!
Telescope: Skywatcher 80ED
Camera: Canon 80D
Image: 25 x 15sec at ISO3200 (6 minutes)
The photo above is of a 10-day old Moon taken a few days ago. After the darker “seas” of old lava flow, one particularly bright crater in the southern hemisphere stands out, especially with the rays that appear to emanate from it. That is Tycho, a 85km wide and 5km deep crater and one of the more “recent” ones if you consider 109 million years the not-to-distant past. The Moon is 4.5 billion years old after all… having formed just 60 million years after the solar system. On the Moon, “fresh” material have a higher albedo and hence appear brighter, whiter.
The bright rays surrounding Tycho are made of material ejected (up to 1500km away) from the impact of a 8-10km wide body. In time these rays will disappear as the Moon continues to be bombarded by micro meteorites, which stirs the material on the surface. The rays are more present on the eastern side, as would be expected from a oblique impact.
Tycho is names after the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.
The Surveyor 7 space craft landed about 25km north of the crater on January 10, 1968.
Ever wondered how mosaic space photos were done before the invention of powerful software algorithm to stitch them together? Take a look at the series of Surveyor 7 mosaic photos. Someone had to painfully print each photo and lay them on a grid in a specific pattern matching optical field and geometry.
A few days prior to the holiday break there was news of Betelgeuse dimming to an all-time low, potentially signaling the start of the process that will transform this star into a Supernova. What? Wait a minute… A star in our own galaxy exploding? But that hasn’t been observed since 1604!
There are plenty of novas at any point in time, they just happen to be in galaxies far away (cue Star Wars intro). During those few days or weeks of otherworldly explosions these stars become the brightest object in their host galaxies.
So if we can see them when they are millions of light years away, what would an exploding star just 700 light years away, like Betelgeuse, look like?
Well if we base ourselves on SN1604 it will be visible to the naked in eye for three weeks, including during daytime. SN1604 was 20,000 light years away, while Betelgeuse is at a fraction of that, so most experts anticipates that it would be as bright as a full Moon.
Now before we go crazy anticipating when Betelgeuse, a red super-giant, will explode, let me present some information to put everything in perspective.
Betelgeuse is a red super-giant of class M1-2 in the constellation Orion, 2nd in brightness just after Rigel. Betelgeuse is one of the largest start we can see when glancing up at the night sky. If Betelgeuse was our Sun, it would engulfed all planets up to Jupiter. Stars of that size aren’t like the nice Smith Ball of fire we imagine our Sun to be. They are more like a loose ball of foam, constantly bubbling and bloating from the incredible heat created in the inner core. If you are starting to think unstable, you are partly right.
Betelgeuse is also a well documented variable star, meaning it periodically varies in brightness.
So while it is at an all-time low compared to its known ~425 day cycle, it also has a ~5.9 year cycle, and this episode just happens to be a combination of both lows. So no need to panic… for now.
Betelgeuse will one day end as a type II supernovae, probably not for another 100,000 years. Until then we can all glance up during these cold winter nights at how easily the Orion constellation can be spotted and enjoyed. The three bright stars marking the belt and the hour-glass figure is easy to find. Take a few moments to look at Betelgeuse as on a galactic scale it will be gone tomorrow.