About acubedsf

SFF Author * Engineer * Mom

October 30, 2022 New(ish) Astrophotography Tools

Camera geek info:

  • Panasonic DMC-GF7 set at f/2.5, 30 second exposure, ISO 800
  • LUMIX G 14/F2.5 II, 14 mm fixed
  • Tripod

Camera geek info:

  • Panasonic DMC-GF7 set at f/2.5, 10 second exposure, ISO 6400
  • LUMIX G 14/F2.5 II, 14 mm fixed
  • Tripod

Since summer 2021, I’ve been acquiring some more advanced astrophotography tools (toys?).  

My first and biggest acquisition was a new tracking mount with GoTo capability, an iOptron CEM40.  This was my first GoTo tracking mount, and it is amazing.  It is so much easier to enter the object to point towards and watch the mount rotate to point the camera there than to iterate on camera images to find the object.  It is also a beautiful mechanical device.  I bought it because of its design and because it is relatively lightweight but could still handle the 8” or 10” telescope I eventually wanted to get.  However, it came with a steep learning curve.   

One thing I learned was that there are two different alignments that need to be done: the polar alignment to physically align the tracking axis with celestial north, and the GoTo alignment.  Just polar aligning is not sufficient.

For polar alignment, the mount comes with a polar alignment camera, but when I got it, the software only ran on a PC, which I did not have (there is a Mac version now, but I have not played with that yet).  So I was using the polar iterate align option with the digital display on my camera, and that was a slow, frustrating, and sometimes unsuccessful process.  

For the GoTo alignment, I use the three star alignment technique.  I read that the mount will try to combine new alignment measurements with the previous ones, so I delete the old alignment data prior to aligning.  I also search for zero position to get the mount set prior to doing any alignment.

My second acquisition was a Celestron StarPointer Pro Finderscope.  It made a huge improvement in my ability to align the tracking mount over using my camera screen to align it.  

My third acquisition was a Williams Optics Zenith Star 73 III APO telescope.  It is a 430 mm focal length, 73 mm diameter two element refractor.  It is a beautiful piece of hardware.  Although it is significantly smaller than what I originally intended to get, I picked it because I wanted to photograph larger objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy and because the larger the telescope gets, the more difficult it is to point.  And since I was still struggling with alignment … 

My fourth acquisition was a very low end PC to interface with the polar alignment camera.  It made a huge improvement in my ability to polar align the tracking mount.  What, even with a finderscope, was a slow and frustrating process, is now a less than 2 minute process, and much more accurate.

With all that, and a lot of trial and error, I am now very pleased with the images that this setup is producing.  As a teaser, here is a picture of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31).  

Camera geek info:

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode, 179 second exposure, ISO 1600, custom white balance 3500K
  • Williams Optics Zenith Star 73 III APO telescope
  • Williams Optics Flat 73A
  • iOptron CEM40

Expect to see more in the future!  

Three Meteor Showers July 31, 2022: Antha 14, Camera 4

This past weekend, we were back in Dell City with its great dark skies just in time to enjoy three meteor showers at once: the Southern delta Aquariids, the alpha Capricornids, and the Persieds.  The clouds did not cooperate with my viewing plans on Friday night/Saturday morning or 2 AM Sunday morning, but the northern and western sky had cleared up by 4 AM Sunday morning.  While I was setting up my camera, I saw three meteors in quick succession, so I stayed out.  I saw 14 meteors in an hour and fifteen minutes.  The camera got four, as well as a lot of satellites (I can tell they’re satellites because there are consecutive streaks in multiple frames – meteors are too fast for that).

The picture above is my favorite, with the green meteor contrasting with the blue Pleiades.  

Camera geek info:

Panasonic DMC-GF7 set at f/2.5, 5 second exposure, ISO 6400

Time lapse mode

LUMIX G 14/F2.5 II, 14 mm fixed


I tried moving my camera around to get the most meteors, so the next two green meteors do not have interesting companions.

Camera geek info:

Panasonic DMC-GF7 set at f/2.5, 5 and 3.2 second exposures, ISO 6400

Time lapse mode

LUMIX G 14/F2.5 II, 14 mm fixed


My fourth meteor picture had the meteor going out of the frame. 

In this last shot, there was a bright flash.  Since the shots before and after also show a very dim track, I concluded this was a satellite flare and not a meteor.  It looks cool, though.  

Camera geek info:

Panasonic DMC-GF7 set at f/2.5, 3.2 second exposure, ISO 6400

Time lapse mode

LUMIX G 14/F2.5 II, 14 mm fixed


Dell City Lightning Storm

Another treat from our stay in Dell City in June – a lightning storm on the horizon and stars overhead.  I used the “Time Lapse Shot” capability in the camera to take a sequence of pictures and then picked out the best one.

Camera geek info:

Panasonic DMC-GF7 set at f/5.6, 15 second exposure, ISO 1600

LUMIX G VARIO 12-32/F3.5-5.6, set at 32 mm


Blue Origin Launch – New Shepard Mission NS-21 – June 4, 2022

We were staying in our favorite spot in Dell City, Texas in June and got lucky: we got to see a Blue Origin launch!  We had missed seeing Bill Shatner’s flight by a day last fall and were delighted to get to see this one.  We were too far away to see the engines, rocket, or parachutes, but that’s not an airplane contrail!  

Watching it without sound reminds me of watching a Space Shuttle launch in person – you see the engines light and the Space Shuttle liftoff, but it’s totally silent – because light travels much faster than sound.  It’s pretty eerie.  Eventually, of course, the sound reaches you too, and you can hear the million-firecracker sound of the engines.  For this launch, we were too far away to hear it in person, so we listened to the Blue Origin broadcast.

Although I couldn’t see the rocket, I did catch it with my camera!  Look above the contrail for the small white rectangle.  That’s it!

I also got pictures of the contrail with a dove-shaped cloud and the local landscape.  

What a great way to start the day.

Mount Wilson Observatory

Last week, for the first time in almost 15 months, we were able to travel to visit one of our children.  It was a joyful event.

But when we visit our children, we know we need to give them time to do their own thing.  So we plan side trips.  This time, we drove in the mountains around Mount Wilson Observatory.  

Mount Wilson Observatory is the site of some major research telescopes that have been involved in some significant research for over a century.  I am currently reading about Dark Matter and Dark Energy (The 4% Universe by Richard Panek), and the book mentions Mount Wilson as the site where Edwin Hubble figured out that there were galaxies beyond our own in the universe and that the galaxies were moving away from us.  Amazing stuff.  

We knew that, due to COVID, the observatory wasn’t open to visitors for this trip, alas.  We look forward to seeing it when we visit sometime in the future and maybe even getting to look through the eyepiece of one of their marvelous telescopes.

Jupiter and Mercury – January 13, 2021

This past week, Jupiter and Saturn were close to Mercury in the sky.  On Wednesday January 13, the one day there was a break in the clouds, there was also a new Moon, so we drove out to our favorite high spot with a view West.  The new Moon and Saturn ended up being in the bright sunset, so we never spotted them.  We did find Jupiter and Mercury. Mercury is the higher of the two bright dots in the sky.

Camera Geek Info 

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/4.5, 1 second exposure, ISO 100, sunlight white balance
  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, set at 108 mm, manual focus
  • Tripod

Asteroid Research – Orbits

One of the fun things about writing science fiction is learning about science!  My current work in progress is set in the asteroid belt, so I’ve had fun studying it. 

In my story, the aliens travel from the asteroid they live on to visit several asteroids humans live on before returning to their own asteroid.  I wanted to find a set of real asteroids where this made sense.  

In order to find a real set of asteroids, I had to answer two questions: 1) which asteroids would it make sense for humans and aliens to live on?  And 2) how do asteroids move relative to one another and what would it take to travel between them?

For the first question, I thought that humans (and aliens) would establish bases on asteroids big enough to support them.  I thought the most important resources for an asteroid to have are water and organics.  I discovered that many asteroids are members of families, groups of asteroids that have similar orbits (semi-major axis [maximum distance from the sun], inclination [angle from the ecliptic plane], and eccentricity [a measure of how circular the orbit is]).  Asteroid families can be created by collisions, so most of the asteroids in the family were once part of the same parent body and would likely be composed of similar materials.  One such family is the Themis family.  I found multiple papers arguing there is evidence that the Themis asteroids contain water ice and organics (among them: 1, 2, 3, 4).  So, if I use members of the Themis family for the asteroids that my story humans and aliens live on, I can assume they have water, organics, and metal resources to be extracted.  

For the second question, I hoped that having asteroids in the same family might mean the asteroids travel together.  Over the long term (months and longer), orbital dynamics does not work that way (unless the asteroids happen to be at different points in the same orbit and one “follows” the other).  Asteroids closer to the sun have a shorter “year” than asteroids further away, so even with a small difference in semimajor axis, the closer-to-the-sun asteroids will eventually “lap” the further out ones.  So they will be close, and then far away, and then close again.  Plotting a course in the asteroid belt is going to be a challenge!  Happily for me, my story takes place within a short period of time, and I can put my asteroid bases wherever is convenient, so I just needed to find a handful of Themis-family asteroids that are “near” each other at a point in time.  

I found a really cool asteroid simulator on line (Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) Orbit View) where you can enter the asteroids and date of your choice and see where they are and how they move relative to one another. The pictures in this blog post were generated by this awesome tool. It’s really fun just to watch the asteroids move around!

I filtered the Minor Planet Center Orbit (MPCORB) database for Themis family asteroids, put the top 60 into the simulator, let it run starting at 2150, and followed 24 Themis.  In 2243, I found what I was looking for: 6 Themis family asteroids “reasonably” close to one another.  

Note: I am well aware that “reasonably” close together at 3.14 AU is still really far apart.  However, my alien spacecraft does not need to break the laws of physics and exceed the speed of light to get from one to another, which is enough for me.

My next step will be to determine what we know about these asteroids, so I can make these tiny worlds more realistic.

The Christmas Star: A Reminder of Hope

Since I’ve taken a sequence of pictures of Jupiter and Saturn together, I thought they would make a nice, though late, Christmas card, and I like having a message of hope.

Here are the dates for the planet pictures, from top to bottom:

  • December 21, 2020 (Day of conjunction) Jupiter – Saturn
  • December 22, 2020 (1 day after conjunction) Jupiter – Saturn
  • December 19, 2020 (2 days before conjunction) Saturn – Jupiter
  • December 17, 2020 (4 days before conjunction) Saturn – Jupiter
  • December 26, 2020 (5 days after conjunction) Jupiter – Saturn
  • December 27, 2020 (6 days after conjunction) Jupiter – Saturn

One of the things that is the most amazing to me is how much Jupiter’s moons (the 3 – 4 small dots around the more circular planet) move in just one day.

Camera Geek Info

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/5.6, custom white balance 3500K
    • December 21, 2020: ISO 2000, 1/10 second exposure
    • December 22, 2020: ISO 100, 6 second exposure
    • December 19, 2020: ISO 800, 1/10 second exposure
    • December 17, 2020: ISO 800, 2 second exposure
    • December 26, 2020: ISO 100, 2 second exposure
    • December 27, 2020: ISO 100, 4 second exposure
  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, set at 300 mm, manual focus
  • Cable release
  • Tripod

Processing Geek Info

  • Rotated so Jupiter’s moons were on the x-axis, shifted to black and white, and histogram adjusted in Photos
  • Selected a region exactly 1200 pixels x 280 pixels in Preview
  • Imported to PowerPoint and made transparent over green and blue background
  • Saved as JPEG
  • Histogram adjusted in Preview