Incredible Images of Mars from Earth

What did you do during your summer this year? Award-winning astrophotographer Damian Peach spent much of his 2016 summer capturing incredibly clear images of Mars during opposition, when the Red Planet was closest to Earth. Peach has now compiled a wonderful “rotating planet” movie of images taken between June 4th – 18th, 2016, showing amazing detail of the planet.


At its closest point this year, Mars was about 46.8 million miles (75.3 million kilometers) from Earth.

Peach’s astrophotography truly sets “a new standard” as one commenter said, and Peach just won another prize in the “Planets, Comets & Asteroids” division of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016, awarded at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England last night.

Peach has said this summer held “excellent seeing,” both from his home in the UK and from a photography trip to Barbados. He even captured a fleeting localized dust storm on Mars during mid-June over Mare Erythraeum, one of the prominent dark areas on the planet that were once thought to be seas. In the image below of the dust storm, Peach also pointed out the “linear cloud streak in the southern hemisphere – clearly those Martian flying saucer pilots have been having fun!”

Images of Mars from Earth on Jun 15, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.
Images of Mars from Earth on Jun 15, 2016. Credit and copyright: Damian Peach.

See more of Peach’s excellent astrophotography work at his website , or on Twitter. See a larger version of the lead image here.

Mars is still visible in the night sky, but if you missed seeing this planet at its brightest in 2016, the next time Mars will be at opposition will be in 2018, with close approach on July 31, 2018.

Astrophotography Book Review: Treasures of the Universe

Treasures of the Universe by André van der Hoeven

What is a treasure? A pirate’s hoard of gold coins safely locked up in a chest would certainly fit. But would you say that something is a treasure when it’s freely available to anyone who wants to take the time? Seems unlikely, doesn’t it. Yet you may change your mind once you take in André van der Hoeven’s book “Treasures of the Universe – Amateur and Professional Visions of the Cosmos”. Within it are striking images that display the natural wealth and beauty that constantly surrounds us and that no chest could ever lock up.

Astrophotography at its core is quite simple; at night, take a camera outside, point the lens up and snap the shutter release. Anyone can do it. However, putting reason to what one captures in the lens is quite a different story. And to add further complexity, consider combining your captured image with someone else’s who’s taken a picture while on another continent or while in space. Last, after taking thousands of images, identify those with artistic as well as scientific merit.

Yes, this is a more complete way of considering astrophotography. And many people are partaking in it. So here’s a book that’s selling its version of night sky images. For anyone who enjoys the night skies, there’s a lot to like. The contents are divided into four groups; galaxies, clusters, nebulae and our solar system. Most images from beyond our solar system are well known, whether of entries in the Messier catalogue or the New General Catalogue (NGC). A few are of farther afield, such as from the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field.

The image presentation is often on a double page spread and has complementary text adjoining. The text provides the scientific merit usually by identifying how the subject of the image fits into the scheme of things, such as the supernova SN2011fe in the Galactic Wheel. The text also provides the photographic particulars, such as that of the Andromeda galaxy that resulted from the compilation of 11 000 separate snapshots. The selection of images makes for a fairly well known set and won’t lead to surprises. Given this, van der Hoeven’s book is a comfortable, complete treatise of his astrophotography.

Now views of space are everywhere on the Internet and other publications so you’re probably wondering “What’s this book bring to the table?” so to speak. After all, a lot of its images come from other government sources like the Hubble space telescope. That’s data free for anyone to peruse. And, the subject of the images, the universe, remains in place for anyone else to capture if they so desire. Both of these are true, but what isn’t obvious is the time and effort to create the images as well as the talent to engender a sense of artistry. Can you imagine the time to compile 11,000 pictures into one? Or spending over 27 night-time hours to collect data for one image? That’s the sort of time and effort involved.

Measuring artistry is another skill altogether and one of which I lay no great claim. Yet, looking at the composition of the spread of the Wizard Nebula warmly shrouded by a complex hydrogen cloud makes me pause. Yes, I know I’m looking at the result of the random arrangement of matter and energy. But there’s something just so darn compelling about the shapes and textures that makes me wonder. And I realize my wonder comes from the skill of the author in composing the shape. I’m impressed.  This doesn’t mean that the author has claimed any predominance. Rather, throughout the book he provides encouragement and incitements for bigger and better. Whether it calls for astrophotography from the next-generation telescopes or for beginner astrophotographers to develop their skill, it pushes for more and better imagery. Yes, this book is more than just pretty pictures. It’s also instructive and telling. Another unusual aspect is that the book was funded through a Kickstarter.

As with a few other marvelous books with vistas of the universe, this book’s pages are in in a wide format (almost landscape size). The pages have matte-black background with clear white font text. The text for each image is usually clear, except for some with underlying images of light colours. These are few. For the selection of images, I find ones of galaxies and nebulae most rewarding. Finding shapes and patterns from clusters is more challenging.

And, after seeing the depth and expanse of the universe, I find the images from our solar system almost ordinary, though I know I shouldn’t. I like the section at the book’s end that describes the image details including the telescope, the camera and the exposures for various filters. Perhaps I can use these to dabble at my own artistry. I also appreciate the credits that list all the data sources and perhaps the people who processed the data, though these aren’t always obvious. I don’t like that the book had to eventually come to an end. I could have kept looking at many more pages.

Treasures are a measure of worth. For those who like gold, a pirate’s chest may be the ultimate high. For those who are drawn to the night, to the limitlessness of space, then the jewels of the night sky are the only ones worth viewing. For you who like the night, let André van der Hoeven’s book “Treasures of the Universe – Amateur and Professional Visions of the Cosmos” spirit you away to a viewing pleasure. With it in your hands you will hold more than any pirate’s chest could ever contain.

Milky Way with Nearby Constellations by Matt Dieterich

Constellations near the Milky Way by Matt Dieterich

Here’s an amazing photograph of the Milky Way by astrophotographer Matt Dieterich. He took the image a step further, however, and identified all the constellations you can see close to the Milky Way.

You’ll want to click this image and see a bigger version.

milky way constellations
Full panoramic view of the constellations near the Milky Way by Matt Dieterich

Right down near the horizon is Sagittarius – it looks like a teapot, with the Milky Way rising like steam from its spout. Many of the brightest, most spectacular nebulae in the night sky are located around this constellation: the Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula, and the Omega Nebula. The 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole located at the center of the Milky Way is located in this region too.

Further up the Milky Way you can see the three constellations that form the Summer Triangle: Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila.

And right on the left side of the photograph is Cassiopeia, with its familiar “W” shape.

In the lower-right of the image are a few constellations from the zodiac: Scorpio, Libra and Virgo. And if you look closely you can see Saturn making its way across the sky, in the plane of the ecliptic.

If you’re interested in learning about the night sky, I highly recommend you take your time and learn your constellations. These are your wayposts, navigational aides that help you find your way across the Universe, to the wonders right there in the sky above you.

Matt used a Nikon D750 camera with a 24mm f/1.4 lens. The whole image is made up of 20 separate exposures of 15 seconds each, stitched together to make this amazing mosaic. He captured this image from Glacier National Park in Northern Montana.

Here’s the original version, without the highlighted constellations. Once again, you’ll want to click to see the full resolution goodness.

Milky Way by Matt Dieterich
Milky Way (without the constellations) by Matt Dieterich

You’ll want to check out the full resolution version on Matt’s Flickr page.

A big thanks to Matt for contributing this picture to the Universe Today Flickr pool. If you’re an astrophotographer, you’ll be in good company, with thousands of other photographers who share their pictures. We’ve got more than 33,000 pictures there now.

First Lunar Eclipse Ever Photographed with a Transit of the ISS

To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has ever photographed a transit of the International Space Station of the Moon DURING a lunar eclipse. And guess who did it?

Not surprisingly, it was the legendary astrophotographer Thierry Legault.
Usually, Thierry will travel up to thousands of miles to capture unique events like this, but this time, he only had to go 10 miles!

“Even if I caught a cold, I could not miss it,” Thierry told Universe Today in an email. “The Moon was very low on the horizon, only 16 degrees, so the seeing was not very good, but at least the sky was clear.”

Still, a stunning — and singularly unique — view of the “Super Blood Moon” eclipse!

See the video below:

It was a quick pass, with the ISS transit duration lasting a total of 1.7 seconds. Thierry uses CalSky to calculate where he needs to be to best capture an event like this, then studies maps, and has a radio synchronized watch to know very accurately when the transit event will happen.

In a previous article on Universe Today, Legault shared how he figures out the best places to travel to from his home near Paris to get the absolute best shots:

“For transits I have to calculate the place, and considering the width of the visibility path is usually between 5-10 kilometers, but I have to be close to the center of this path,” Legault explained, “because if I am at the edge, it is just like an eclipse where the transit is shorter and shorter. And the edge of visibility line of the transit lasts very short. So the precision of where I have to be is within one kilometer.”

Here’s the specs: ISS Speed: 25000 km/h (15500 mph). ISS Distance: 1100 km; Moon distance: 357,000 km (320x).

You can see other imagery from around the world of the lunar eclipse here, with images taken by Universe Today readers and staff.

Earlier this year, Thierry captured an ISS transit during the March 20, 2015 SOLAR eclipse, which you can see here.

Universe Today’s David Dickinson said he’s been trying to steer people towards trying to capture an ISS transit during a lunar eclipse for quite some time, and concurred that Thierry’s feat is a first. Dave made a video earlier this year to explain how people might photograph it during the April 2015 lunar eclipse, but unfortunately, no astrophotographers had any luck.

Thanks again to Thierry Legault for sharing his incredible work with Universe Today. Check out his website for additional imagery and information.

You can also see some of Legault’s beautiful and sometimes ground-breaking astrophotography here on Universe Today, such as images of the space shuttle or International Space Station crossing the Sun or Moon, or views of spy satellites in orbit.

If you want to try and master the art of astrophotography, you can learn from Legault by reading his book, “Astrophotography,” which is available on Amazon in a large format book or as a Kindle edition for those who might like to have a lit version while out in the field. It is also available at book retailers like Barnes and Noble and Shop Indie bookstores, or from the publisher, Rocky Nook, here.

Adventures With Starblinker

Observational astronomy is a study in patience. Since the introduction of the telescope over four centuries ago, steely-eyed observers have watched the skies for star-like or fuzzy points of light that appear to move. Astronomers of yore discovered asteroids, comets and even the occasional planet this way. Today, swiftly moving satellites have joined the fray. Still other ‘new stars’ turn out to be variables or novae.

Now, a new and exciting tool named Starblinker promises to place the prospect of discovery in the hands of the backyard observer.

Image credit:
Tombaugh’s mechanical ‘steampunk starblinker’ on display at the Lowell observatory. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

The advent of photography in the late 19th century upped the game… you’ll recall that Clyde Tombaugh used a blink comparator to discover Pluto from the Lowell Observatory in 1930. Clyde’s mechanical shutter device looked at glass plates in quick sequence. Starblinker takes this idea a step further, allowing astro-imagers to compare two images in rapid sequence in a similar ‘blink comparator’ fashion. You can even quickly compare an image against one online from, say, the SDSS catalog or Wikipedia or an old archival image. Starblinker even automatically orients and aligns the image for you. Heck, this would’ve been handy during a certain Virtual Star Party early last year hosted by Universe Today, making the tale of the ‘supernova in M82 that got away’ turn out very differently…

Often times, a great new program arises simply because astrophotographers find a need where no commercial offering exists. K3CCD Tools, Registax, Orbitron and Deep Sky Stacker are all great examples of DIY programs that filled a critical astronomy need which skilled users built themselves.

Image credit
M81 via Starblinker. Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“I started to code the software after the mid of last month,” Starblinker creator Marco Lorrai told Universe Today. “I knew there was a plugin for MaximDL to do this job, but nothing for people like me that make photos just with a DSLR… I own a 250mm telescope, and my images go easily down to magnitude +18 so it is not impossible to find something interesting…”

Starblinker is a free application, and features a simple interface. Advanced observers have designed other programs to sift through video and stacks of images in the past, but we have yet to see one with such a straight-forward user interface with an eye toward quick and simple  use in the field.

Image credit:
Starblinker screenshot.  Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“The idea came to me taking my astrophotos: many images are so rich with stars, why not analyze (them) to check if something has changed?” Lorrai said. “I started to do this check manually, but the task was very thorny, because of differences in scale and rotation between the two images. Also, the ‘blinking’ was done loading two alternating windows containing two different images… not the best! This task could be simplified if someone already has a large set of images for comparison with one old image (taken) with the same instrument… a better method is needed to do this check, and then I started to code Starblinker.”

Why Starblinker

I can see a few immediate applications for Starblinker: possible capture of comets, asteroids, and novae or extragalactic supernovae, to name a few. You can also note the variability of stars in subsequent images. Take images over the span of years, and you might even be able to tease out the proper motion of nearby fast movers such as 61 Cygni, Kapteyn’s or even Barnard’s Star, or the orbits of double stars.  Or how about capturing lunar impacts on the dark limb of the Moon? It may sound strange, but it has been done before… and hey, there’s a lunar eclipse coming right up on the night of September 27/28th. Just be careful to watch for cosmic ray hits, hot pixels, satellite and meteor photobombs, all of which can foil a true discovery.

Image credit:
The Dumbell Nebula (M27). Note the (possible) variable star (marked). Image credit: Marco Lorrai

“A nice feature to add could be the support for FITS images and I think it could be very nice that… the program could retrieve automatically a comparison image, to help amateurs that are just starting (DSLR imaging).” Lorrai said.

And here is our challenge to you, the skilled observing public. What can YOU do with Starblinker? Surprise us… as is often the case with any hot new tech, ya just never know what weird and wonderful things folks will do with it once it’s released in the wild. Hey, discover a comet, and you could be immortalized with a celestial namesake… we promise that any future ‘Comet Dickinson’ will not be an extinction level event, just a good show…

Image credit:
Not Starblinker… but it could be. Do you see the dwarf planet Makemake? Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory
Image credit: Mike Weasner/Cassiopeia observatory

Download Starblinker here.

Think you’ve discovered a comet? Nova? A new asteroid? Inbound alien invasion fleet? OK, that last one might be tweet worthy, otherwise, here’s a handy list of sites to get you started, with the checklist of protocols to report a discovery used by the pros:

How to Report New Variable Star Discoveries  to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO)

-The Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams (they take emails, too!)

How to Report a Comet by veteran comet hunter David Levy

How to Report a Discovery via the International Astronomical Union

-And be sure to send in those Starblinker captures to Universe Today.

Thierry Legault Meets His Own Challenge: Image an ISS Transit of a Solar Prominence

When you’re Thierry Legault and you want to challenge yourself, the bar is set pretty high.

“This is a challenge I imagined some time ago,” Legault told Universe Today via email, “but I needed all the right conditions.”

The challenge? Capture a transit of the International Space Station of not just the Sun — which he’s done dozens of times — but in front of a solar prominence.

Legault said the transit of the prominence, which he captured on August 21, 2015, lasted 0.8 seconds. His camera was running at 40 frames per second, and he got about 32 shots in that time.

See a video of the transit in real time, and more, below:

We’ve described in our previous articles how Legault determines the exact location where he needs to be to capture the images he wants by considering the width of the visibility path, and trying to be as close to the center of the path as possible. But this challenge was a bit different.

“I took the last transit data from Calsky, the real position of the prominences, and made angles and distances calculations to place my telescope this time not on the central line of the transit but 1 mile north from it,” Legault said, “to have the ISS passing in front of the largest prominence.”

You can see some of Legault’s stunning and sometimes ground-breaking astrophotography here on Universe Today, such as images of the space shuttle or International Space Station crossing the Sun or Moon, or views of spy satellites in orbit.

If you want to try and master the art of astrophotography, you can learn from Legault by reading his book, “Astrophotography,” which is available on Amazon in a large format book or as a Kindle edition for those who might like to have a lit version while out in the field. It is also available at book retailers like Barnes and Noble and Shop Indie bookstores, or from the publisher, Rocky Nook, here.

For additional imagery and information, visit Legualt’s website.

Gallery: 2015 Perseids Are Putting on a Show

Have you been looking up the past few nights, trying to see the Perseid Meteor Shower? Many of our readers have been turning their eyes — and cameras — to the skies, with spectacular results. This year’s Perseids were predicted to be one of the best ever, since there has been little to no moonlight to upstage the shower. As you can see from the images here, many astrophotographers were able to capture fast and bright meteors, and even some that left persistent trains.

Remember, tonight (Wednesday, August 12, 2015) is projected to be the peak, so if you’ve got clear skies, take advantage of this opportunity to see a great meteor shower. You can find out how and when to see them in our previous detailed articles by our in-house observing experts David Dickinson and Bob King.

And enjoy the view from our readers in this gallery of 2015 Perseids:

A Perseid Meteor, the Milky Way and the photographer on August 11, 2015 near Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. Credit and copyright:  Peter Greig.
A Perseid Meteor, the Milky Way and the photographer on August 11, 2015 near Bamburgh, Northumberland, England. Credit and copyright:
Peter Greig.
An 'exploding' Perseid meteor as seen on August 11, 2015. Credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
An ‘exploding’ Perseid meteor as seen on August 11, 2015. Credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
Bright Perseid and Perseus. Credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
Bright Perseid and Perseus. Credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.
A green Perseid meteor, along with 2 satellites show up in this image taken on August 11, 2015. Credit and copyright: eos-001 on Flickr.
A green Perseid meteor, along with 2 satellites show up in this image taken on August 11, 2015. Credit and copyright: eos-001 on Flickr.
Perseid meteor from early morning, August 12, 2015 in Weatherly, Pennsylvania. Taken with a Canon 6D and Samyang 14mm lens, 40 second exposure at ISO 3200, unguided. Credit and copyright: Tom Wildoner.
Perseid meteor from early morning, August 12, 2015 in Weatherly, Pennsylvania. Taken with a Canon 6D and Samyang 14mm lens, 40 second exposure at ISO 3200, unguided. Credit and copyright: Tom Wildoner.
Perseid Meteor near Cassiopeia along with the Andromeda Galaxy, as seen from France on August 10, 2015. Credit and copyright: VegaStar Carpentier/ VegaStar Carpentier Photography.
Perseid Meteor near Cassiopeia along with the Andromeda Galaxy, as seen from France on August 10, 2015. Credit and copyright: VegaStar Carpentier/ VegaStar Carpentier Photography.
A Perseid Meteor as seen on August 8, 2015, taken from Oxfordshire with a Canon 1100D + 18-55mm lens, ISO-1600 for 30 seconds. Credit and copyright: Mary Spicer.
A Perseid Meteor as seen on August 8, 2015, taken from Oxfordshire with a Canon 1100D + 18-55mm lens, ISO-1600 for 30 seconds. Credit and copyright: Mary Spicer.

Prolific night sky photographer John Chumack near Dayton, Ohio put together this video of 81 Perseid meteors he captured on August 12, 2015 with his Automated low light -Meteor Video Camera Network:

If you are clouded out, you can still enjoy the shower. NASA TV will be tracking the Perseids live on Wednesday, August 12 starting at 10PM EDT/02:00 UT:

Moonlight Skating: Scenes from Winter in Sweden

“Nights like these are almost to good to be true,” says astrophotographer Göran Strand.

Glide along with Strand and two friends who went ice skating recently on a frozen lake near Östersund, Sweden. “This night was really magic, no wind, lots of ice crystals in the air and an almost full Moon that shined upon us during our two hours out on the ice,” Stand said. “To the right of the Moon you can see the constellation of Orion and down left of the Moon you can see planet Jupiter shining brightly.”

Hot chocolate anyone?

See more of Göran’s astrophotography from Sweden on his Facebook page or in his Twitter stream.

New Timelapse Shows Urban Nightscapes Without Light Pollution

What if we could have the best of both worlds, where a vibrant city didn’t interfere with the view of the night sky? That was the thought of astrophotographer Sergio Garcia Rill when he decided to create simulated versions called “Urban Nightscapes.”

“I have been shooting astrophotography nightscapes for a few years now, but due to light pollution I need to travel hours away from the city to be able to see and photograph the night sky,” Rill wrote on his website. “But I wanted to make a combination of what it might be to see the night sky from within the city and my Urban Nightscapes series was born.”

His first video includes Texas cities of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, and he makes it clear, the images and video he’s produced are mockup views.

“The stars in the video have been added through digital manipulation and the sky doesn’t look that way inside the city due to the light pollution,” Rill clarified. “I did my best effort to try to simulate the sky as it would have looked without light pollution but I am aware that not all the segments have achieved that, and I’m aware that this kind of shots are (at least at the moment) impossible to do in camera.

Enjoy the video above, and we’ll look forward to more in the future! Find out more about Rill’s project on his website.

Urban Nightscapes Texas from Sergio Garcia Rill on Vimeo.

Awesome Photo Shows Monster Sunspot Aiming Our Way

It’s a-comin’: a “monster” sunspot is steadily rotating around the Sun’s southern hemisphere and will soon be in position to fire flares and CMEs in our direction — and this past weekend master solar photographer Alan Friedman captured it on camera!

The image above was taken in full-spectrum visible light on Sunday, Oct. 19 by Alan from his backyard in Buffalo, New York. Sunspots 2186 (at the top limb), 2187 (upper center), 2193 (the small middle cluster) and the enormous AR2192 are easily visible as dark blotches – “cooler” regions on the Sun’s surface where upwelling magnetic fields interrupt the convective processes that drive the Sun’s energy output.

This particular image was a single frame of video, unlike some of Alan’s other photographs. According to Alan the air turbulence was particularly bad that day, shooting between the clouds, so only this one frame was usable. Click the image for full-scale “wow” factor.

(And if you think AR2192 looks scary in that image, check it out in CaK bands here!)

Scale size of Earth compared to AR2192 on Oct. 20 (NASA/SDO/AIA. Edit by J. Major.)
Scale size of Earth compared to AR2192 on Oct. 20 (NASA/SDO/AIA. Diagram by J. Major.)

According to Spaceweather.com AR2192 has grown considerably over the past few days and has the potential to unleash M- and X-class flares in our direction now that it’s moving into Earth-facing position. It’s currently many times larger than Earth and will likely get even bigger… in fact, during this week’s partial solar eclipse AR2192 should be visible with the naked (but not unprotected!) eye for viewers across much of North America.

See more of Alan’s photography on his Averted Imagination site here (with prints available for purchase) and watch a TEDx presentation by Alan on how and why he does solar photography.

Image © Alan Friedman. Used with permission.