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

Great Conjunction with the Moon – December 16, 2020


Every cloud-free evening this month, I’ve been outside viewing and taking pictures of Jupiter and Saturn as they’ve gotten closer and closer in the sky.  Now I’m working on processing the results.  Here the two planets are with the crescent moon.

Camera Geek Info 

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/4, 1/8 second exposure, ISO 2000, custom white balance 3500K
  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM lens, set at 70 mm, manual focus
  • Cable release
  • Tripod

December Astrophotography Project

This December, Jupiter and Saturn are visually approaching each other in a Great Conjunction.  I am trying to take a picture of them every night (weather permitting) so I can make a short time lapse video of the event.  It’s neat to see Jupiter’s Moons’ positions change from night to night.

Tonight, just after I finished photographing planets, I was treated to the sight of a bright meteor (alas, the camera was not on).

And I was also treated to the sight of an equally bright overhead pass of the International Space Station, which visually passed by Mars (the bright red object).  I did have the camera on for that!

Camera Geek Info (ISS and Mars)

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/8, 30 second exposure, ISO 250, custom white balance 3500K
  • Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 lens, set at 10 mm, manual focus
  • Intervalometer
  • Tripod

More ISS Passes – November 18 and 19, 2020


November 18, 2020 – ISS rises from the trees


November 18, 2020 ISS passes out of view


November 19, 2020 ISS rises above the trees next to the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn


November 19, 2020 ISS on a long overhead pass


November 19, 2020 ISS sets, with airplane photobomber

I had so much fun seeing Dragon chase the International Space Station that I decided to do some experiments with long-exposure satellite photography.  The International Space Station, as the brightest of the satellites, is a good subject, and we had some more good passes this week.

On Wednesday, November 18, 2020, the now-docked Dragon and Space Station passed to the side of a crescent Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn.  I tried two minute long exposures to catch a long pass.

On Thursday, November 19, 2020, the now-docked Dragon and Space Station flew almost overhead, but at twilight.  The sky was much too bright to use a 2 minute exposure, so I dialed it back to one minute.  And, because the long pass went almost directly overhead, I had to turn the camera around in the middle.  As the Space Station was setting, an airplane (seen as a line of pairs of lights) flew in front of it and their paths crossed in the photograph.  They almost, but not quite, were in the same direction at the same time.

Note that with the long exposures, the lovely crescent Moon turned into a starburst.  Note also the change in the Moon’s position relative to Jupiter and Saturn in one day.

When I try this again, I think I will use my sky-tracking mount so there aren’t star trails.

Camera Geek Info Wednesday November 18

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/8, 119 second exposure (1) and 103 second exposure (2), ISO 250, custom white balance 3500K
  • Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 lens, set at 10 mm, manual focus
  • Intervalometer with bulb at 2 minutes, intervals at 2 minutes and 1 second
  • Tripod

Camera Geek Info Thursday November 18

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/16, 59 second exposure, ISO 100, custom white balance 3500K
  • Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 lens, set at 10 mm, manual focus
  • Intervalometer with bulb at 1 minute, intervals at 1 minute and 1 second
  • Tripod

ISS and SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience

The International Space Station and the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience flew overhead this evening.  The Crew-1 Dragon vehicle is chasing the ISS, catching up to dock later this evening.  I was so delighted that I could actually see one vehicle following the other that I forgot to keep taking pictures.  But in this shot you can see Mars, the bright line of ISS and Dragon (one overlays the other, so they appear as one line), Saturn, and Jupiter.  

I love their motto: “All for One, and Crew-1 for All!”

Camera Geek Info 

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/4.5, 20.0 second exposure, ISO 400, custom white balance 3500K
  • Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 lens, set at 10 mm, manual focus
  • Tripod

Orionids 2020: Antha 2, Camera 1

Orionid 20201021

I got up at 4:30 AM on Wednesday morning when the sky was supposed to be clear of clouds and Moon-free to try to catch some meteor pictures.  I was out for over an hour … the sky was mostly gloriously clear (a few clouds blew by) … the stars were bright and beautiful … and I saw two short meteors, which, given their direction, may not even have been Orionids.  I did better than my camera, though, which only caught one, which I think is also one of the ones I saw.  I love the color the camera captured!

Camera Geek Info

  • Canon EOS 60D in manual mode set at f/4, 2.0 second exposure, ISO 2000, custom white balance 3500K
  • Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 lens, set at 10 mm, manual focus
  • Intervalometer with bulb at 2 sec, intervals at 3 sec
  • Tripod