Amateur astrophotography is becoming increasingly popular among the astronomy community, as advancements in telescope and camera technologies allow individuals from all walks of life to observe the heavens in mind-blowing detail, including our own Sun, albeit with the proper protective equipment. This was recently demonstrated by Andrew McCarthy (Twitter @AJamesMcCarthy), who owns and operates Cosmic Background Studios, and is originally from Northern California but currently resides in Florence, Arizona.Continue reading “Watch a Dramatic Tornado Rise from the Surface of the Sun, Captured by Andrew McCarthy”
Here's the Final Shortlist for Astrophotographer of the Year 2022
We look forward to this every year! The Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition showcases and recognizes some of the most stunning views of the night sky and astronomical objects. The shortlisted images from this year’s competition have now been released, and they include awe-inspiring scenes of the Milky Way, colliding galaxies, stellar nurseries, planets, nebula and the always photogenic Moon.
We’re featuring some of our favorites from this year’s competition here. The contest is operated by the Royal Observatory Greenwich, in cooperation with Liberty Specialty Markets and in association with BBC Sky at Night Magazine. In 2022, the competition received over three thousand entries from passionate amateur and dedicated professional photographers, submitted from sixty-seven countries.Continue reading “Here's the Final Shortlist for Astrophotographer of the Year 2022”
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Rare and Beautiful Noctilucent Clouds Wow Over Holland – Gallery
A trio of talented Dutch astrophotographers have captured a series of magnificent views of the rare and beautiful phenomena known as Noctilucent Clouds, or NLCs, during a spectacular outburst on the night of July 3, 2014 in the dark skies over southern Holland – coincidentally coinciding with the fireworks displays of the Dutch 2014 FIFA World Cup team and America’s 4th of July Independence Day celebrations!
“I suddenly saw them above my city on the night of July 3rd and ran for my camera!” said Dutch astrophotographer Rob van Mackelenbergh, who lives in the city of Rosmalen and excitedly emailed me his photos – see above and below.
“I was lucky to see them because I left work early.”
Noctilucent clouds are rather mysterious and often described as “alien looking” with “electric-blue ripples and pale tendrils reaching across the night sky resembling something from another world,” according to a NASA description.
They are Earth’s highest clouds, forming on tiny crystals of water ice and dust particles high in the mesosphere near the edge of space by a process known as nucleation, at altitudes of about 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles).
NLCs are generally only visible on rare occasions in the late spring to summer months in the hours after sunset and at high latitudes – 50° to 70° north and south of the equator.
Another pair of Dutch guys, Raymond Westheim and Edwin van Schijndel, quickly hit the road to find a clear view when they likewise saw the mesmerizingly colorful and richly hued outburst on July 3rd and also sent me their fabulous NLC photos.
“To have a free view to the horizon, we drove to the countryside just north of the city of Oss. On a small road we have stopped to witness these beautiful NLCs and to take pictures,” said Westheim.
See a gallery of Raymond’s and Edwin’s photos herein.
“The NLCs of last night were the most beautiful ones since 2010. They were remarkably bright and rapidly changing and could be seen drifting towards the South,” Westheim explained with glee.
“These pictures were taken a few kilometers north of our city Oss between 23:15 p.m. and 0:15 a.m. (Central Europe Time) on Thursday evening, July 3,” said Edwin van Schijndel.
Rob, Raymond and Edwin are all members of the “Sterrenwacht Halley” Observatory which was built in 1987. It houses a planetarium and a Celestron C14 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. The observatory is located about 50 kilometers from the border with Belgium, near Den Bosch – the capitol city of southern Holland. The well known club hosts astronomy lectures and star parties to educate the public about astronomy and science.
The spectacular NLC sky show is apparently visible across Europe. Spaceweather.com has received NLC reports “from France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, England, Estonia and Belgium.”
Here are some additional NLC Observing Tips from NASA:
NLC Observing tips: Look west 30 to 60 minutes after sunset when the Sun has dipped 6 degrees to 16 degrees below the horizon. If you see luminous blue-white tendrils spreading across the sky, you’ve probably spotted a noctilucent cloud. Although noctilucent clouds appear most often at arctic latitudes, they have been sighted in recent years as far south as Colorado, Utah and Nebraska. NLCs are seasonal, appearing most often in late spring and summer. In the northern hemisphere, the best time to look would be between mid-May and the end of August.
The first reported sighting of NLC’s are relatively recent in 1885 by a German astronomer named T.W. Backhouse, some two years after the enormous eruption of the Krakatoa Volcano in 1883 that wreaked enormous death and destruction and which may or may not be related.
Over the past few years, astronaut crews aboard the ISS have also photographed splendid NLC imagery from low Earth orbit.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about NASA’s Mars missions and Orbital Sciences Antares ISS launch on July 11 from NASA Wallops, VA in July and more about SpaceX, Boeing and commercial space and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations.
July 10/11: “Antares/Cygnus ISS Launch from Virginia” & “Space mission updates”; Rodeway Inn, Chincoteague, VA, evening
An Amazing Capture of Jupiter and its Moons
It’s always a thrill to watch the action at Jupiter, as its moons pass in front of and behind the gas giant planet. We wrote recently about this month’s opposition of Jove on January 5th, marking the start of the Jupiter evening viewing season for 2014.
Astrophotographer Michael A. Philips also recently undertook a challenging series of sequences of Jupiter and its moons Io and Ganymede, with stunning results. You can see the motion of Jupiter’s rotation, the Great Red Spot and even a bit of cloud swirl as Io disappears behind Jupiter and Ganymede begins to transit in front and cast a shadow back onto the Jovian cloud tops.
Concerning the capture, Michael wrote on his blog:
“This night was a lucky night. I had not looked at the weather forecast enough to know if it would be good or not. Cold temps aside, I decided earlier in the day to set up and go out with the 14” f/4.5 scope named Akule. As an added bonus, Mitchell Duke tipped me off to a transit of the Jovian moon, Ganymede.”
Note that Jupiter and its moons are currently casting their shadows nearly straight back from our perspective. Expect that to change, however, in the coming months,as Jupiter heads towards eastern dusk quadrature on April 1st and we see the action from a sideways angle. Watch the video in full screen mode and you’ll note that Mike captured some detail on the surface of Ganymede as well! Generally, at the eyepiece, the moons of Jupiter disappear entirely due to low contrast against the bulk of the planet, with only the black dot of the shadow seen… this video capture gives the ingress of Ganymede at the start of the transit a great 3-D appearance.
Webcam imaging of planets has really taken off in the past decade, with backyard astronomers now routinely capturing images that far surpass professional and textbook images from just a decade prior. Great images can be taken using nothing more than a telescope, a laptop, free image stacking software such as Registax, and a webcam converted to fit into an eyepiece holder… you may find that you’ve got the gear sitting around to image Jupiter, tonight.
Mr. Phillips rig, however, is a little more advanced. He notes in the description of the video that he’s using a Flea3 camera from PointGrey Research with a 5x Barlow lens yielding a 9200mm focal length. He’s also shooting at 120 frames per second, and taking successive red, green and blue images for 30 seconds. Finally, a derotation of Jupiter – yes, it really rotates that quickly, even in a short sequence – is accomplished using a sophisticated program named WINJupos.
Video stacking gives processors the ability to “freeze” and nab the best moments of seeing from thousands of frames. Some imagers hand select frames one by one, though many programs, such as Registax, use algorithms to nab the best frames from a preselected percentage of the total shot.
Local seeing conditions also play a key role in image capturing.
“I moved far away from the house as possible, and I think that helped some,” Michael noted. “I also started cooling the spit out of the mirror, aggressively. Even when cooled for a few hours in the winter, the heat in the Pyrex mirror comes back. I think there’s a small heat engine inside the beast!”
For best results, imagers tend to go after planets when they’re at their highest in the sky, and viewed through the least amount of turbulent atmosphere. This is when a planet is transiting the local north to south meridian, and when it’s at opposition, which Jupiter is this month. At opposition, a planet transits at local midnight. The same goes for the best opportunities for visual observing as well.
Shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons are also just plain fun to watch. In an often unchanging universe, they offer a chance to see something unfolding in real time. Jupiter has the fastest rotation of any planet at 9.9 hours, and the large Galilean moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are tidally locked in their rotation, keeping one hemisphere permanently turned towards Jupiter like the Moon does orbiting the Earth. The inner three moons also keep a 1:2:4 orbital resonance, assuring you’ll never see more than three of the four Galilean moons transiting from your line of sight at once. You can see two of the inner three moons, plus Callisto in transit, but never all four at the same time! A triple transit last occurred on October 12th, 2013, and will next occur for observers in eastern Europe and Africa this year on June 3rd.
We’re also currently in the midst of a series of shadow transits for the outermost Galilean moon Callisto, which end in July 2016. Can you identify the different moons by the size and hue of shadows they cast? Sky & Telescope publishes a great table for the ingress and egress of Jupiter’s moons. You can also check them out using the freeware program Stellarium.
Can’t wait that long? A double shadow transit involving Europa and Callisto occurs in just a few weeks for western North America from 10:20 UT-12:44UT on the morning of February 6th, a chance for another stunning animation sequence…
Congrats to Michael Phillips on a great capture!
First Amateur Image of Another Solar System
Amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen from New Zealand shared an image with Universe Today, and it is perhaps the first image of another solar system taken by an amateur. The image above is Olsen’s image of the protoplanetary disc around Beta Pictoris.
“For the last couple of years I have been wondering if it was possible for amateurs to capture this special target but have never come across any such images,” Olsen wrote in an email. “I must say it feels really special to have actually captured this.”
Olsen said he has been fascinated by professional images of Beta Pictoris since seeing the first one in taken in 1984.
Beta Pictoris and the protoplanetary disc of debris and dust that is orbiting the star is 63.4 light years away from Earth. This is a very young system thought to be only around 12 million years old and astronomers think this is essentially how our own Solar System must have formed some 4.5 billion years ago. The disc is seen edge-on from our perspective and appears in professional images as thin wedges or lines protruding radially from the central star in opposite directions.
“The main difficulty in imaging this system is the overwhelming glare from Beta Pictoris itself which completely drowns out the dust disc that is circling very close to the star,” Olsen said.
Images of the disc taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and from big observatories, are usually made by physically blocking out the glare of Beta Pictoris itself within the optical path.
Olsen found inspiration from a paper he found recently, the 1993 paper ‘Observation of the central part of the beta Pictoris disk with an anti-blooming CCD’ (Lecavelier des etangs, A., Perrin, G., Ferlet, R., Vidal-Madjar, A., Colas, F., et al., 1993, A&A, 274, 877)
“I then realised that it might not be entirely impossible to also record this object with my own equipment,” Olsen said. “So now that Beta Pictoris has risen to a favorable position in this year’s evening sky I decided to have a go at it the other day.”
He followed the technique described in the paper, which basically consists of imaging Beta and then taking another image of a similar reference star under the same conditions. The two images are subtracted from each other to eliminate the stellar glare, and the dust disc should then hopefully reveal itself.
“First I collected 55 images of Beta Pictoris at 30 seconds each,” Olsen said. “The dust disc is most prominent in IR so ideally a better result would be expected with the use of an IR pass filter. Since I only have a traditional IR/UV block filter I just imaged without any filter, to at least get as much IR light through as possible.”
The next step was to capture a similar image of a reference star under the same conditions. Olsen did as the paper suggested and used Alpha Pictoris, a star that is of nearly the same spectral type (A7IV compared to Beta’s A6V) and is also close enough to Beta in the sky so that the change in telescope orientation should not affect the diffraction pattern. However, since the two stars have different magnitudes he needed to calculate how long to expose Alpha for in order to get a similar image which he could subtract from the Beta image.
Some quick math:
The magnitude difference between the stars is 3.86(Beta) – 3.30(Alpha) = 0.56
Due to the logarithmic nature of the magnitude scale we know that a difference of 1 magnitude equals a brightness ratio of 2.512. Therefore 2.512 to the power of the numerical magnitude difference then equals the variation in brightness.
2.512^0.56 = 1.67, so it appears Alpha is 1.67 times brighter than Beta. This means that exposure for Alpha should be 1/1.67 = 0.597x that of Beta. I took the liberty of using 0.6x for simplicity’s sake…
“So I collected 55 images of 18 seconds (30 x 0.6) for Alpha,” Olsen said. “Both sets of images were stacked separately in Registax and I then imported these into Photoshop, layered Alpha in ‘Difference’ mode on top of Beta and flattened the result. This produces a very dark image (which it should!) apart from the different background stars. But after some curves adjustment I was able to see clear signs of the actual dust disc protruding on both sides from the glare of the star. I was very happy to conclude that the position angle with regards to the background stars matched the official images exactly.”
Olsen said he was disappointed with the raw “Difference” image so to produce a more natural looking result, he took the original stacked Beta image and then blended in the central parts from the Difference image that showed the dust disc.
“I decided to also keep the black spot of the central glare from the Difference image since the contrast with the protruding disc seems better this way,” Olsen said.
What resulted is what is thought to be the first amateur image of another solar system.
Olsen is encouraging others amateur astrophotographers to try this, and see if they can do even better.
“I’m sure this can be done much better with a higher quality camera, but at least here it is,” he said. And I’m personally extremely happy and proud of having achieved this. I hope you enjoy the view as much as I did!”
If any other amateur astronomers have attempted to image a disk around another star, we’d love to hear about it and see the results.
Check out the original image on Olsen’s website: http://www.pbase.com/rolfolsen/image/139722640/original
Send Us Your Perseid Images!
This weekend should be the peak of the 2011 Perseid meteor shower. If you have any luck taking images of the event, we’d love to see them and share them with the world! To enable this, Universe Today has started a Flickr Group, where people can upload their astrophotos, which will make it easier for us to share everyone’s photos. If we use your image, we will give you full credit and link back to your Flickr account. Or if you’d rather submit your images via email, send them to Nancy, along with a little info about it (where/when/equipment/etc.)
We hope to soon begin a new ‘Amateur Astrophoto of the Day’ feature where we will use pictures people have sent us via Flickr as well, so look for more info on that soon.
In the meantime, get out and enjoy the Perseids, and remember you can share the experience with others via Twitter with MeteorWatch, led by UT’s Adrian West! Follow the #Meteorwatch hashtag, and Adrian’s @VirtualAstro Twitter feed.
Amateur Astronomer Images X37-B Space Plane in Orbit
Even since amateur astronomers picked up on the orbit of the Air Force’s secret X37-B space plane, others have been trying to capture images of the mini-space shuttle look-alike. So far, images have been just streaks or dots, but Universe Today reader Brent (a.k.a. HelloBozos) was actually able to image the plane in some detail. “This is the first I know of or have seen an actual photo taken of the X37-B Air Force Space Plane in some detail, while in orbit!” Brent said in an email. He tracked the X37-B manually with his telescope’s handcontroller, and he used a CanonT1i prime focus on a 2 inch diagonal. “This image was taken on 5-26-2010 at 9:48 pm EST, Orlando, Florida, USA. It crossed from the southwest to the northeast, crossing next to Mars and headed to the handle of the Big Dipper on a 71 degree pass.”
Below, Brent also captured a flare of the X37-B.
Brent says on the colored photo, “you can make out the main wings, a rear canard, and what I dub the “Fly Swatter’ solar panel.”
Brent said he tracked the X37-B from the information on HeavensAbove.com. Spaceweather.com also has tracking info, plus other images submitted by readers.
Thanks to Brent for sharing his images. Nice — and fast — shooting! And this isn’t the first time Brent was keeping his telescope’s eye out for the X37-B. He also shot the launch in good detail, even from 60 miles away. The volume is cranked on this one: