Archive for 2009
Today marks the end of the International Year of Astronomy a ‘global effort initiated to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day – and night-time sky’. It is coincidental that I purchased my first telescope at celestron.com on December 27th, 2008 without knowing anything about the IYA project or the 400 year anniversary of Galileo’s discovery. Looking back at that time compared to now, I feel I was naive, ignorant and lost in regard to my place in the Universe and while I am still naive, ignorant and lost in the face of the Universe I am light years away from where I was then.
At this time last year I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of my first telescope. I didn’t know anything. I had never seen the craters of the moon up close, was never amazed by the rings of Saturn, and had never gazed upon Orion’s nebula. I knew what tracking was, but I didn’t understand how it worked, the concept of polar alignment was completely foreign and I thought GOTO would do exactly that all the time with no effort. I had never owned a DSLR camera and did not know what an auto-guider was. I knew I could hook up my telescope and camera to my computer but I didn’t know why I would want to. At that time I could only identify one or two constellations and that’s about it. Until July 6th, 2009 I had never even thought about meteor observing and I didn’t even understand the difference between meteors and meteorites. Sometimes people ask me why I got into astronomy. There are a lot of reasons, but the catalyst for buying my first telescope and wanting to start astrophotography was an emoticon in the sky created by Jupiter, Venus and the crescent moon — a sad face on December 1st, 2008.
I remember setting up the telescope in the solarium and gazing out the window at Orion’s nebula for the first time. I was totally amazed by the way it looked and so proud of myself that I had located it manually with no tracking or GOTO navigation. I started taking pictures about a month later and things got a lot more complicated, difficult and rewarding. When you are visually observing and not photographing you really can’t see very much when it comes to deep space objects like galaxies and faint nebula. The human eye can only process light for a millisecond while the camera gathers light for minutes or hours. As a result you can see a lot more stuff in an astrophoto than you can in the eye piece of a telescope. I was so excited by the first pictures of galaxies I was able to take. To image light millions of years old from objects that are light years wide and millions of light years away is simply mind blowing.
By March I had the rest of my year planned out. I was going to build an observatory and focus the rest of the years efforts on imaging galaxies and nebula. That was the plan until July when I accidentally took a picture of a bolide meteor while imaging the Andromeda Galaxy. That meteor changed a lot for me and set me on a new course. Instead of looking up at the sky for enormous objects light years away I was going to start looking down for tiny little objects 50 miles from my house. I spent the rest of the year tracking the meteor and searching for its remains. I really felt that the Universe was telling me to look for these meteorites for a reason and I thought that reason was to find some space rocks. At the end of the year looking back and having found no meteorites I am still very happy I had the experience. I have learned and grown in ways I would have never expected and I have a new respect for the Universe and my place in it. Who would have thought a sad face in the sky would have brought so much happiness and a year of astronomy like this.
Here’s a picture of M51 the Whirlpool Galaxy. This picture is the result of 18×5 minute frames – a total exposure time of 90 minutes. I used deep sky stacker to stack the sub frames and remove hot pixels and process the flat fields.
Here are two sporadic meteors I captured during the Ursids Meteor Shower. These are not Ursid meteors because they to do radiate from the right place in the sky, therefore they are called sporadic meteors. Below is a zoom crop of the first one.
Below is the full image. Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) is clearly in view. This seemed like a good place to photograph based on the location of the radiant.
After taking 1000+ pictures near the Ursids radiant I gave up and decided to try my luck on the western horizon above the observatory. I’m glad I did because I caught this picture.
I think this is a meteor but it looks a little bit like an iridium flare. Iridium flares are bright bursts of light caused by the reflection off of a specific type of satellite. Iridium flares have a distinct look that is similar to this image. I checked the calsky.com website for satellites and it did not look like any satellites were in this part of the sky at this time, so I’m not sure if this is a meteor or a flare. Here is a zoom crop of the image that shows a bit more detail:
The Ursid’s Meteor Shower peaked on Dec 22, 2009. I set my camera up and pointed it near the radiant and shot continuously for several hours on a couple of different nights. While I caught two sporadic meteors during the sessions, the picture below was the only official Ursid that I captured. I spent some time tracing the meteor back to the radiant and I’m 99% sure this is an Ursid meteor. Here’s the zoom crop of the image. (Its long but faint, you should be able to see it at the top of the image if you click the picture below.)
Here is the full image and an annotated version of the full image.
Finally, here is the image roughly plotted in a star chart. By drawing a line along the meteor and back to the radiant, we see the meteor originates at the Ursid’s radiant making it an Ursid meteor.
If its not too cloudy tonight, I think I will setup my cameras and see if I can catch Santa’s sleigh streaking across the sky.
Update 12/24/2009: I got some feedback on this picture and its looking like its a satellite trail and not a meteor. For its length if it were a meteor there would have to be more shape to it. Thanks Chris!
I also got some suggestions to check calsky.com & heavens-above.com websites as they offer satellite tracking databases that can be used to identify satellites. I checked calsky.com for the exact time from my latitude and longitude and found an entry that was almost at the same exact location as my picture:
Mag= 4.9m Persei
az: 302.2° WNW h: 72.9° dist: 1547.2km
ra: 2:54.3 de: +46:54
Here is the first picture of the horse head nebula I’ve taken that is decent enough to post. This object is one of the first things I wanted to image when I started astrophotography. About a year after starting I am just now getting good enough to catch a mediocre picture of it. This image would have looked a lot nicer if I had taken better flats. It seems the stacking process dimmed the red color and also distorted the nebula a bit by adding lines/noise to the image. Despite its problems, I’m still pretty happy with it considering its the first success for the horse head. This picture represents 10×5 minute exposures stacked with flats and darks in DSS.
Here is a picture of the Triangulum Galaxy aka Messier 33, a spiral galaxy three million light years away. This picture is 20×5 minute sub-frames stacked with flats in Deep Sky Stacker.
Here’s a nice meteor picture. Almost makes up for the one yesterday.
I almost cried when I saw this picture on my camera’s LCD a few minutes after it was taken. I was inside while the camera was running and came out to check it. What you see in the top right corner is the tail of a very big fireball. Just this tail is 10x brighter and bigger than every other meteor photo i’ve taken during the last two showers (geminids and leonids). This would have been amazing if I was only two inches further west. DARN!!!!!
A friend sent me this rage guy cartoon. Yes Derek, that’s exactly how I felt. Thanks.
The title of this post should be pronounced with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent like ‘Its not a tumor’ from Kindergarten cop.
I was aimlessly wondering cornfields and pastures near the high mass area of the newly plotted fall line when I happened across a strange crater looking hole in the ground. The hole is approximately 6 feet long by 5 feet wide and 16 inches deep.
My immediate thought was – meteorites don’t make craters, at least not very often (less than 1% of the time) so I was very skeptical right from the get go, but still intrigued. I checked the hole with my metal detector and got some beeps (this doesn’t mean much as I get beeps all over the ground in PA). I stuck some magnets in the mud and they came up with some small magnetic particles (probably magnetite).
It was near the end of the day and I couldn’t find the farmer to talk to him about it, so I decided I would come back another day to follow up.
While I was back home I checked my custom satellite map from July 5th. My thinking was if the hole was visible in the satellite photo it would definitely not be a crater. About 10% of my satellite image was obstructed by cloud cover and wouldn’t you know, this location was under the clouds and not visible. Darn. I turned to Bing Maps next as they have an awesome bird’s eye view feature that shows great detail from a low altitude. There was no hole in the bing image, but I also have no idea when the image was taken. It could be 3-5 years old.
I emailed my satellite contact and asked him what other dates he had maps for prior to July 5th one. He had one from April 2008, so I got that. I checked that map and there was no hole visible in the satellite photo. The hole is 6X5 feet wide so it would have been big enough to show up in the satellite image. It is also located in the middle of a green pasture and it is brown, so it would stick out pretty easily (rocks smaller than the hole show up in the satellite photos, so I know the hole would too).
Here’s the satellite photo from April 2008 15 months before the fall (no visible crater):
I went back up to the site a week later and talked to the farmer. He said he agreed it was a strange hole and he just happened to notice it one day. I asked him when and he said
“I think this past summer, but I’m not really sure it could have been spring.”
I asked him what he thought could have caused it and he said he initially thought it was a sink hole. I asked him if he had ever seen a sink hole like that before or any other holes on his land like it and he said no. I have been on over 100 fields in this area and I’ve seen dozens of holes in the ground, usually from animals like foxes, rabbits, mice and ground hogs, but I’ve never seen a hole like this.
There happened to be an ‘English’ (what Amish people call non Amish people) construction worker named Kyle there on the farm. He drove by the field in a dump truck towing two bobcats while I was running my metal detector and stopped to ask what I was looking for. I told him a meteorite and he started asking a lot of questions. I explained how I had happened across this hole and thought it was odd, but maybe that it was just a sink hole. He said
“I repair sink holes for a living and that doesn’t look like a typical sink hole. Usually they do not hold standing water [because the water seeps through under the ground which causes the sink hole to begin with].” He also said “They [sink holes] usually don’t form on the side of hills. Also the grass would still be in the hole if it was in fact a sink hole. ”
Kyle offered to dig up the hole with his back hoe if I was interested. I told him I would do some research and let him know.
Here are a few more pics:
I’m not saying that this is a crater, I’m just saying this is a really weird hole, in a suspicious location that appeared very close to the time frame of a meteor fall. if you were wondering around the high mass meteorite fall area and happened across a hole like this what would you do?
UPDATE 2009/12/16: I sent this post out to the meteorite hunting and meteor expert community and the conventional wisdom and prevailing theory is this hole was caused by animals. Possibly deer that dug a hole at this spot because the farmer left a salt block here, and then the cows made it bigger, or simply a small hole that started and then got bigger due to erosion and the cows walking on it. Due to the size & shape of the hole and its proximity to the trail left by the cow, this seems totally plausible. The only follow up I have is to ask the farmer if he left a salt block at this location at one time or another. Regardless of what he says, this hole most likely was caused by animals. I feel like Dori from finding nemo… “just keep hunting, just keep hunting…”
Sunday night was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower and there was no moon, which had many people saying this would be the best meteor shower of the year. Unfortunately in Maryland there was heavy cloud cover. This didn’t stop me from staying up all night and trying to catch something. I was watching the skies from inside and around 4 AM noticed a few breaks in the coverage. I setup my camera on the tripod and programmed a series of 2 minute exposures and photographed continuously until dawn. I was able to catch one faint meteor through the clouds.
The above picture is a zoom crop. Here is the full image:
Friday night, December 11th 2009 was amazing. There were zero clouds, no moon and lots of meteors and other weird stuff in the sky. You couldn’t have asked for a better night and it will probably be the best of the year as far as viewing conditions and activity go. I had been looking forward to this new moon week since the beginning of the month. Unfortunately based on weather reports it looked like Friday would be the only clear night for the Geminid meteor shower so I planned to put in a full evening.
Earlier in the week I bought a new camera (so I can run two at the same time), a new f/1.6 camera lens and a few new accessories. The plan is to have one camera on the scope photographing DSOs (deep space objects), while the other camera is setup on the tripod trying to get meteors. Everything worked out perfectly, except for a few technical problems that resulted in some bad images. On the scope, I had left my camera ISO on 400, I ended up shooting from 6 PM till 4:30 AM in a low ISO so all of my pics came out pretty dark (darn).
On the tripod, I caught several meteors, but I was still working things out with the new camera and lens and my pics were slightly out of focus (darn again). I always chalk up mistakes like this as good learning experiences, but I’m a little disappointed today after reviewing the pics because they could have been a lot better and I squandered the best viewing night I will have in a few months. Mistakes aside, I shot continuously for 8-10 hours (about 800 pictures) and was able to catch at least 6 meteors, 2 very strange moving objects (maybe satellite flares) and one really weird variable star. I’ll post updates later about the satellite flares and variable stars after I’ve had a chance to research them some. For now here are the best meteor pictures of the night.
Here’s the full picture for the zoom image at the top of this post:
Here’s a long faint one that stretches across Orion. I tagged the meteor so you can see it easily.
Here’s a zoom of a short small one,
and the full picture the zoom came from. Note the difference between the way plane trails and meteors look.
Here’s a zoom crop of a sporadic one I think, interesting alignment with the constellation Orion. It should have been going left to right to be considered a Geminid I believe.
and the full picture of that one.
Here’s another one I found from Thursday night’s session. It is pretty faint, but smack in the middle of the shot.
I wish I had one more night with this meteor shower, so I could fix some of the tech glitches that impaired these pics, but the mostly cloudy clouds have already rolled in for tonight and its supposed to rain tomorrow. Oh well, there’s always next year.
Here’s a Geminid meteor picture I took right before the clouds rolled in December 9th, 2009. I haven’t plotted it in a star map yet, but I’m pretty sure the radiant is Gemini. After looking at the weather reports I’m afraid we will miss the peak of the shower here in Maryland due to rain and clouds so I was happy to have a break in the weather tonight and even happier to get lucky and catch another meteor.
Here’s a zoomed crop of the meteor. This was a 2 minute exposure at ISO 800 using a Canon 40D camera.
Here’s the full picture. This was one of the last frames before the clouds came and blocked out the stars.
The star in the center of the picture is Capella. The Pleiades is in the lower right.
Here’s a photo of Messier 103 an open cluster in the constellation Cassiopeia. This image is comprised of approximately 20×2 minute exposures stacked with flats and darks using Deep Sky Stacker.
A couple of weeks ago I was outside taking a break with a couple of work buddies. We noticed a very strange cloud in the sky that started below the horizon and went up at a very steep angle. It was too close to the horizon to be a plane contrail and much too steep. I joked that it was probably a meteor trail because it reminded me of the Sikhote meteor painting. My friend Matt took some pictures with his cell phone and emailed them to me. I had forgotten about it until a couple of weeks later when I read that the Space Shuttle had just landed after completing the mission STS-129. I thought, maybe that weird cloud was the contrail from the Space Shuttle. I checked that dates for the mission launch and sure enough the Space Shuttle took off at 2:28 EST on November 16th, 2009. Matt took the pictures a few minutes after 3:00 PM EST on November 16th. The cloud was east of our position. I’m 99% sure this strange contrail was left by the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
We had our first snow of the season. It snowed all day and then everything cleared up for a nice evening. I setup the camera on the tripod and shot the skies over my observatory for a few hours hoping to get a meteor. I saw two that streaked the sky right behind the observatory as my camera was shooting, but they were too faint to get picked up. The 3/4 moon and all of the reflective snow don’t make nice conditions for meteor viewing.