The Night Sky

Just got back from a couple of chilly hours on Cefn Bryn, where I had originally gone to take some photos of the trails of light left by cars as they driver across the North Gower road. But when I parked up, the night sky was so magnificently clear that I abandoned the plan and set about taking some photos of the stars instead. I used long exposures of up to 10 minutes at a time and played around with the settings on the camera and came away with a set of photos I was very happy with.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way, a concentration of stars as we look through the plane of our own galaxy.

The Night Sky

The glow from Swansea's street lighting silhouettes a car on Cefn Bryn. Jupiter is the bright light on the right.

Star Trails

Star trails centred on Polaris, with the glow from Llanelli lighting up the horizon.

Jupiter Again, Again

We’ve had a couple of clear nights recently so I decided to get the telescope out again and have a look at Jupiter. It was very clear and on two nights in a row I was able to use quite a high magnification to see a lot of detail on the planet’s surface. The four Galilean moons were clearly visible and on the fist night, one of them, was silhouetted against Jupiter’s disc as it passed between the planet and me.

On the second night, I got the CCD camera out and plugged it on to the laptop. I spent about an hour recording video and this time I was even able to record two of the four moons visible. In the photo, you can see Europa on top and Io beneath it.

Jupiter with Io and Europa

Jupiter with Europa and Io

In my previous post about Jupiter, I said you could see the red spot on the planet’s surface in the photo. I was mistaken and that blemish seems to be something to do with the images I took. In this photo, you can clearly see a darker blob in the lower cloud band but I’m still not 100% sure it’s the spot.

The spot is a storm that has been blowing for at least 200 years and should be visible from earth based telescopes. It’s a massive storm – 25,000km by 15,000km but it varies over time.

It revolves around the planet once every 12 days, so I may have been unlucky when observing. I shall keep trying.

Jupiter Again

I’ve just spent about half an hour staring into the night sky through the telescope at Jupiter. It’s the brightest object in the sky at the moment, almost due East and well above the rooftops. Clearly visible in a line and coinciding with Jupiter’s equator were the moons Calisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede. I could even see the two prominent bands of cloud either side of Jupiter’s equator. No red spot, though. It was around the other side of the planet tonight.

The haze and air quality prevented me from seeing more detail and higher magnification, and it was very windy so the telescope was moving about quite a bit. But I am still captivated by this planet, possibly more so than I was with Saturn when that was visible.

Just thought I’d share that with you.

 

 

Jupiter

Last night, as I was going to bed, I spotted Jupiter from my bedroom window. The weather has been poor recently and clear skies have been rare so I decided to get the telescope out to have a look. The viewing was really good; I was surprised at how clear the planet was despite the haze that had been around all day. I could clearly see the two main cloud bands either side of the equator, and the four Gallilean moons, Ganymeade, Io, Callista and Europa.

Jupiter

Jupiter

There was no sign of cloud in the sky, so I decided to have a go at imaging the planet too. I’ve only just started trying to photograph the planets through the telescope and it’s not a simple process. Recording the image is only the first step. There’s a lot of processing involved because the image is captured as a series of video frames – this helps to eliminate the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. Each frame is then aligned and stacked to form the final image.

There are a lot of parameters in the software and I’m still coming to grips with them. Nevertheless, I’ve added my first attempt here . One detail on the picture that I didn’t see through the eyepiece is the red spot, although it appears as a faint dark blue blob at about 9 o’clock in this image. I’m not sure what caused the blue tinge. I suspect it’s something to do with the atmospherics as it appeared like this on the screen as I was capturing it.

Jupiter is between 400 and 576 million miles from Earth. My image doesn’t compare with the published photos in magazines or on the net, but I’m pleased with it as a first stab.

 

 

Holiday 1

Yesterday was the first day of out holiday. The A Team and me set off from home early to avoid the inevitable bank holiday traffic. Inevitably, though, we encountered it just before the second Severn crossing. Luckily, everyone was trying to get in to Wales as we were leaving. Should I read something in to that?

We headed down to Bristol docks to see the SS Great Britain. What a sight. It’s a huge ship and as visitors we were allowed to descend below the waterline on the outside.

It’s in dry dock, so that bit is easy even for a sinker like me. The scale was instantly apparent from this viewpoint. The smooth lines were gorgeous. The frequent rust holes were quite scary. But it had sat on the sea floor at the Falkland Islands for a long time, so rust was inevitable. The keel was the only bit of the wood frame still visible.

The single propeller was huge. The rudder was correspondingly massive but it was mounted on a system that enabled it to move relatively easily thanks to a clever bit of design by Mr Brunel.

It was so atmospheric that I could have almost been back in the mid 19th Century. I was particularly taken with the cabins. They were so tiny and the bunks were so narrow.

(I know because I lay in one and even my slight shoulder width was jammed in by the sides of the bunk).

I expected bigger and better in 1st class.

We went for a boat trip around Bristol dock and then headed off in the car to Crowcombe and our holiday cottage.

When we walked in to Flora’s Barn, it was like coming home. Everything was as we remembered it – almost as we had left it, except for the new carpet. Even the hens were happy to we had returned and they ran towards us to say hello. Or maybe they wanted feeding.

We didn’t get up to much once we’d got settled in. After food and faffing, it was dark and time for bed. But I’d taken a quick glimpse outside and the dark, clear sky was too much to resist. I spent the next 45 minutes taking long exposure photos and just gazing up at the milky way.Light pollution doesn’t make it easy back home.

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Above us, the stars

Last night was the first truly clear night for a long time. And we were still in the middle of the Perseid meteor shower. So I took the opportunity and went out to look. I set the camera up to record a series of 30 second exposures with an interval of a couple of seconds. At first the sky was still quite light but as the night went on, it got darker and more and more stars became visible.

I love looking up at the night sly and wondering. I was rewarded last night with several aircraft flying high, a satellite passing over head and one spectacular meteor. It was relatively slow and burned a gorgeous deep orange colour. Near the end of it’s passing, it split into three and two pieces trailed behind the larger leading piece. The camera failed to record it. I thin it was pointing in slightly the wrong direction, Typical.

My back garden by moonlight

Roses in the Moonlight

The moon was nearly full and as it rose at the front of the house, the garden became bathed in its gentle white light. Moonlight has a different, ethereal quality and I took some long exposure photos of the roses against the night sky. Eventually, the moon started to drown out any faint objects in the sky.

Clouds at night

Night Clouds

 

 

It was a work night so I couldn’t stay up as long as I would have liked and the bright moon gave me the excuse I needed to get some sleep.

 

 

I was pleased that I’d seen one meteor, though. It made it all worthwhile.

 

Astronomy

When I was a kid, I was interested in all things to do with space. In particular, I loved looking up at the night sky and seeing the stars. I would get books out of my local library to find out what these things were. A large part of what i read I couldn’t understand but by persevering and reading everything, I taught myself about astronomy and the universe.  I ran out of books at the library, so I started getting the same ones out again and again.

My dad bought me a pair of binoculars for a birthday present – we had read that as a beginner, binoculars were better than a telescope for general viewing, and they were much cheaper than telescopes at the time (it was the late 70’s). I would spend ages gazing at the night sky, looking at the nebula in Orion’s belt and the Pleiades cluster, the double star Mizar and the moon. I even used them to project images of the sun onto card to look at sunspots.

Then, Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos was broadcast, I think in the early 80’s, and I was hooked. He made it all more accessible. Around the same time, a neighbour allowed me to use his telescope to look at Venus. I remember seeing this tiny disc resembling the moon, in that it showed a phase, move across the field of view. I had to keep adjusting the telescope to keep it visible for more than a minute. It was fascinating.

Things moved on, I got into photography and while I often looked up into the sky and wondered about the sheer scale of it all, I never really did more than look. I took photos of the moon in various phases and the occasional long exposure of the night sky to show star trails. While I was in college, I spent evenings after the pub staring at the sky looking for meteors and satellites with friends. But no serious astronomy.

Two years ago, I was in a position to buy a decent telescope. I’d been thinking about it for a while and I took my hard earned cash to a local telescope dealer (no, realer, there was one) and ended up the proud owner of a shiny new 5” reflector. Of course, as is the way, the skies were cloudy for the first few nights but suddenly, on the first clear night, I was able to set it up and look again at the sights I’d seen as a child.

Orion’s belt showed a faint but discernable glow (hence the term nebula) as opposed to the blob of light my binoculars revealed. I could now see that Mizar was a double double – that is a double star system revolving around another double star system.

There were far more stars in the Pleiades than I’d ever seen and I started to see more things that my binoculars couldn’t show. The Beehive Cluster – an open grouping of stars held together by mutual gravity.

Faint and fuzzy smudges that are actually galaxies thousands of light years away.

Mars, the red planet and out closest neighbour, was prominent in the sky when I started observing. My first view was stunning – a red disc with faint shading on it. With recently purchased eyepiece of higher magnification, I could make out a large desert feature and the faint hint of a polar icecap.

Venus was visible in the evening sky and showed its disc and phases just as I remembered it. I caught Mercury one evening, too, just as the sun had set.

Detail on the surface of the moon was fantastically clear. At certain times of the month, the some of the mountains near the terminator (the shadow line) form a bright ‘X’ which was clearly visible when I knew where to look. With the aid of a moon map, I was able to spot all of the Apollo moon landing sites. I could spend ages exploring the surface from my back garden.

But the most magnificent sight of all was Saturn. When it appeared in the night sky I trained the telescope on it and my first glimpse was breathtaking. There was this planet, more than a billion kilometres away, easily recognisable with its rings and satellite moons. I was so surprised at how clear and crisp the image was that I couldn’t keep away from the telescope.  The state of the atmosphere determined how much magnification I could use to view it and on nights when the seeing was good, I could make out the gap between the rings and Saturn and the faint bands of cloud on the surface of the planet. More often than not I could see at least two moons and up to five were clearly visible on the best nights. When I showed friends the telescope, I would go through a few things and leave Saturn until last. There was always a ‘wow’ when they first saw the rings.

I still get a thrill from looking up at the night sky. I still have the binoculars my dad gave me and despite having the telescope, I still use them. The sense of scale of space – looking at galaxies that are so far away that it’s impossible to really understand the distance – and the sense of wonder – what really is out there – have never left me. More often than not, when stargazing, I feel like a kid again.

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