Imaging the Night Sky in Motion

So I’ve been meaning to try something new for a while now and I just got it worked out (sorta) this past week. I’ve always enjoyed photographing the night sky, but I really wanted to work on taking images that showed the sky in motion. It’s so easy to go outside, glance up at the sky, and think of it as static and unchanging, but if you look carefully enough, you’ll see that it’s in constant motion. I did a lot of work last year imaging the sky in a static way, either by shooting through a telescope with a clock drive, or by stacking a succession of individual images. While I really enjoyed some of the images that I captured through those methods, they didn’t really portray how rapidly things move around in our night sky.

In thinking of ways to demonstrate this motion, the first obvious choice was to do a typical “star trails” image. I’ve attempted these type of images before, but this past week, I tried to up my game a bit. My trails images before were only about 10 to 15 minutes in length, but the one I took last Thursday was approximately an hour-long exposure. The resulting image turned out pretty good, all things considered. I have a dusk-to-dawn light (that I need to put on a switch!) that’s great for security, but not so great for viewing the night sky. To combat its effects, I set my camera up on its tripod on the far side of my barn so that the barn blocked most of the light. The trees and surrounding ground, as you can see in the image, were still fully illuminated. My light and others around the area also light up the sky, so rather than a deep, dark background sky, I got a kinda pink-ish background. The star trails themselves, came out great.

Here’s the EXIF data for the image.

Camera Nikon D7000
Exposure 3099
Aperture f/5.0
Focal Length 18 mm
ISO Speed 200
Exposure Bias 0 EV

Even if you don’t have a tripod, you can still try this type of shot for yourself. You will need something to keep the camera steady. A beanbag or a bag of rice will work just fine. You will also need a remote shutter release. Find either a bright star or planet and manually focus on it, then set your camera to manual mode and set the shutter speed to “bulb”, and your aperture to your lens’ sweet spot. For the lens I was using, that happens to be about f/5.0. Even though it’s night, don’t use a high ISO. The length of the exposure will gather all the light you need. Once it’s ready, lock the shutter button down and go back inside where it’s warm and wait. 🙂

Practice, practice, practice, and share your star trails pics, tips, and suggestions in the comments section below.

The Radio Beacon That Started the Space Age

On October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union became the first nation to successfully place an object into orbit around the Earth. That object was Sputnik-1 and it scared the crap out of us. At the time, most people felt very secure in the technological superiority of our country, a belief that still persists with many, but hearing that the Soviets had beat us to orbit, and then SEEING the small little basketball-sized satellite as it passed overhead stripped away the arrogant confidence that many had that we would prevail against our Cold War enemy in every single endeavor, including being the first to Space. This spawned a movement within the Western World, including the US, to “step up to the plate” and push science and engineering hard in the classroom. Teachers, students, and industry were strongly motivated to bring young, bright minds into the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Seeing where STEM enrollment and participation is today, perhaps we need another Sputnik. While I wouldn’t normally suggest a fictional movie as a reference, especially one from Hollywood, the movie, October Sky does an excellent job of capturing the attitudes and emotions of the time.

Related to all this is story that was relayed to be my by long-time mentor, Dr. Thomas Armstrong, a space science researcher and educator who has been involved in the space science business since it was a business, and studied at the University of Iowa under the great James Van Allen. Sputnik’s successful orbits, and the Soviets’ great achievement, wasn’t really the wasn’t the signal of our technological inferiority as many had feared. President Eisenhower had played a very shrewd and clever game. We had a launch vehicle and a payload quite capable of reaching low-Earth orbit before the Soviets. The Vanguard project was an effort designed to launch a civilian satellite into orbit, which it eventually succeeded in doing, but there was a military effort in place before Vanguard. That effort quite possibly could have succeeded, but the political costs of that success would far outweight any strategic or propaganda-based benefit. Eisenhower had ordered that the test launch absolutely, under no circumstances, be allowed to achieve orbit. In response to that order, the third-stage fuel tank was drained, and the planned flight to orbit failed as planned.

The reaction by the American public to Sputnik, driving students and industry to STEM education, lead to a flood of young, bright, eager, and highly motivated scientists, technicians, and engineers, and America surged forward. Not even a year after the launch of Sputnik, Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). From that moment forward, NASA was the unrivaled leader of space exploration and rocket engineering. In a very real way, not launching a satellite when we could have and allowing the Soviets to be the first into space, allowed for an environment that would see the US surge forward by leaps and bounds with scientists and engineers being seen as rock stars! We can have those days back again, all we need is to value science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the same way now as we did in the 50s and 60s.

Astrophotography FTW!

I had hopes of doing a LOT more astrophotography than I actually did over the summer. It seemed like every time I was home and free, it was either cloudy or so humid that dewfall was a constant problem. This weekend, I finally had time and good skies to go out and take some deep sky images. Some pics turned out, some didn’t. …I really need to work on my planetary photo skills.

I was able to capture a decent image of The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, and the Dumbell Nebula, M27. In both cases, I used JCCC’s 8″ Meade SCT on LX200 base mounted on an equatorial wedge with my Nikon D7000 mounted on the back. My alignment wasn’t great, so I couldn’t integrate any longer than 10-15s per image, but I took a few dozen images of each object and stacked them to produce a single long-exposure equivalent image.



I’m hoping to get some solar images today, so check back later for some new shots.

Beware of People Wearing Tin Foil Hats – Comet Elenin

As an astronomer, I hear all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories about what the government and scientists are trying to hide from the general public. I can’t speak about what the government may or may not hide, but I can say that by and large scientists don’t much care about the opinion of the general public when it comes to their assessment of data and the analysis of what those data imply about our Universe. First and foremost, we are beholden to data collected through methods that can be replicated and verified by others. This is where the “Comet Elenin is a space ship” or “Comet Elenin is a dwarf star” or “Comet Elenin is going to strike the Earth” conspiracies fail.

Comet Hale-Bopp imaged by my predecessor Paul Tebbe.
As with many other conspiracy manifestos and ramblings, the YouTube videos I’ve seen regarding Comet Elenin have been more like Star Trek technobabble than science. It seems as though people pull a word from here, a piece of jargon from there, and try to stitch together the biggest gloom-and-doom story imaginable. The fact is, there are a lot of highly trained and skilled eyeballs on this comet. It was originally hoped that since it was to come reasonably close to Earth, 90 Lunar orbital radii, that it might provide a nice show in our night skies much like Comet Hale-Bopp did in 1997. Unforutunately, Elenin appears to have fragmented and faded in intensity. No awesome comet show for us. However, there won’t be any world-ending catastrophe, either!

Comet Elenin is a space ship:
Ok, if someone actually believes this, I don’t think there’s anything that can be said to dissuade them short of actually taking them to the comet and letting them stand on its surface themselves. …but then perhaps even that won’t do it. All I can say is that it looks like a comet, acts like a comet, and orbits like a comet.

Comet Elenin is a dwarf star:
A comet is an icy body which appears to us as a fuzzy ball with an extending tail as the comet approaches the Sun. The sunlight heats up the sunward side of the comet causing the ice to vaporize creating a temporary atmosphere of sorts for the comet nucleus. The dust and gas released from the surface of the comet as the volitiles (water, carbon dioxide, cyanogen) vaporize are blown back by the solar wind, creating the tail structure. A dwarf star by comparison is a …well… STAR. Its a ball of incandescent gas made hot by thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen at its core. The smallest of these, a brown dwarf, although small by stellar standards are still at least 80x the size of Jupiter. Comet Elenin is most definitely NOT a dwarf star.

Comet Elenin is going to impact the Earth:
While having an extraterrestrial impactor strike our planet, either a comet or asteroid, will likely occur at some time in the future, it’s not going to happen with Comet Elenin. Comet and asteroid strikes are a large concern to the scientific community and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has a Near-Earth Object (NEO) program in place to identify and track potentially hazardous objects. You can read more about Comet Elenin’s trajectory on JPL’s Asteroid Watch.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I kept trying to find a way to break in my new WordPress-enabled site here at JCCC with some profound and inspired article. …those who know me already realize that was a doomed project from the start. Instead, I thought it might be appropriate to begin with the classic “summer vacation” paper, so here goes.

What did I do during my summer break? I took pictures. Lots and LOTS of pictures! A colleague of mine here at JCCC, Nancy Holcroft-Benson, got me started on a project to take and share at least one photo every day for the entire year. So far I’ve only missed three days since starting on Jan 14th. During the Spring semester, most of my pics were of various landscapes and macro shots from around the house. You know, sunsets, flowers, dogs looking silly, type of stuff. The real fun began the day after Graduation.

Immediately after graduation, my wife and I drove to St. Louis, picked up a long-time friend of mine, and kept heading east to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where I was afforded the opportunity by to shoot the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race as a genuine working photographer with full access to the track, garages, and pits! Its hard to get better access, and as a life-long motorsports junkie, especially when it comes to open-wheel racing, I was in hog heaven. Needless to say, most of my PicPerDay postings were of racers and their racing machines.

Marco Andretti in the North Chute between Turns 3 and 4.
Josef Newgarden celebrates his victory in the Firestone Indy Lights race on Carburetion Day.

After getting home from Indianapolis, there wasn’t much time before we were on the road again as we headed out to yet another race, this time to the historic Milwaukee Mile. While some very dodgy stuff went down in the Firestone Indy Lights race at Milwaukee, it was still a great time and we LOVED exploring the town of Milwaukee. …alright stop laughing! It really is a pretty cool town, especially down by the lake front. We would definitely go back, but it’s not sounding like IndyCar will be. Sad, that, as the racing action there was incredible!

Dario Franchitti leads the field back to the green flag during a restart at the Milwaukee Mile

After a couple of weeks rest from the Milwaukee Mile, back into the car we piled, this time inviting our teenage niece to join us, and headed off to the Iowa Speedway. This was her first top-tier race, and her first time seeing the IndyCars in person or on TV. After seeing J.R. Hildebrand talking on stage at the IndyCar Fan Village, then seeing the cars on the track, she was completely hooked. We’ve created a monster! What was special about the Iowa event was that it was a Saturday night race. Those machines just look magnificent under the lights. Again, having a photo pass was awesome. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to get one of the critical moments of qualifying, an impromptu drivers’ meeting for the KV Racing Technologies team. Tony Kaanan (right) had noticed a change in the track and quickly relayed the information Takuma Sato (center) who took full advantage of the new data and put his car on pole for the race.

Tony Kaanan brings his teammates up to speed (hehe, get it? up to.. ..ok yeah) on how the track had changed since practice.

Following the Iowa race, I finally got to rest some and my photos became more domestic in nature. I also took the opportunity of being home to try out some night sky imaging. I live quite a ways outside of town and have pretty dark skies. Because of that, I was able to get some images of the Milky Way, something that you’ll never see here in Johnson County. I was also able to get a better star trails image than I had previously. I also had fun taking photos of fireworks at our annual Blow-Stuff-Up party. Yes, I used the G-rated name rather than our more often used name for our party.

Star trails seen over my neighbor's corn field.
An aerial bomb at our annual Independence Day celebration.

Intent on one last motorsports fling before the end of the summer, we ventured east to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to watch the American LeMans Series and the IZOD IndyCar Series make their way up and down the hilly and twisty Mid-Ohio circuit. One of the nice things about working a road circuit as opposed to an oval is that I was able to work much closer to my wife. At an oval, she was often up in the grandstands while I was down in the pits. At Mid-Ohio her and my dad were able to set up their lawn chairs right across the fence from the network of corners I was working, The Esses for those who are familiar with the circuit. I even got the opportunity to sit down with them and enjoy being a regular fan during some of the support races. One of the cool things about the IndyCars sharing the weekend with ALMS is that we got to see many different and very exotic and cool cars in addition to the IndyCars. One of my favs is the Ford GT. Its just looks cool, and sounds cool!

The Roberson Racing Ford GT cresting Turn 5 in the Esses at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

So that was it. Vacation over. I’m very happy for the beginning of the semester as it represents an opportunity for me to take a break from my vacation! That said, what a vacation it was. I’ve never had better access to motorsports than I have this past summer. It was great fun, but I worked hard to be as professional in my actions as the series regulars and to seek out their advice and wisdom. I’m glad that I don’t have to do motorsports photography for a living, however. When your rent relies on your getting the good shots and having them up on a server ASAP, it creates a LOT of stress. I’m quite content to work through the small-time operation at where we’re not as concerned with immediate dissemination as a larger outlet would be.

This was a long-winded post, I know. Believe my, my fingers know! While future posts will likely involve more talk about astronomy, motorsports, and photography, hopefully they won’t be as lengthy.

Professor of Astronomy and Physics