Monday, January 19, 2015

Comet Lovejoy

Second Attempt

Comet Lovejoy was well placed for observation on January 10th. It appeared conveniently high above the horizon among winter constellations in the early evening. Although this comet appears small in wide angle photos, its green color is striking among mostly blue-white stars. The sky was so clear on January 10th I couldn't resist trying to photograph the comet again. It was higher in the sky than it was on my previous attempt on December 30th, and light pollution was a bit lower. Here is the scene recorded by a 30-second unguided exposure. (Click on the images for larger views.)
Focus is slightly off in the images above. I should have been more patient checking precise focus, but freezing cold encouraged premature surrender.

Just for fun I tried getting an image with a 200mm telephoto lens. Star trailing due to Earth's rotation was a problem, of course. You can see the elongated star images in the following 10-second exposure. Focus is also not sharp. Nevertheless, the green fuzzy head of the comet is visible. The green color comes from diatomic carbon molecules excited by solar ultraviolet light.
These comet imaging experiences increased my desire for a sky tracking camera mount which will allow longer exposures without star trails. Longer exposures would reveal the comet's beautiful tail. The images above are really disappointing compared to images captured with tracking cameras.

This comet was spectacular in my 25X100 binoculars on January 16th! The coma filled a good portion of the field of view, and I could see part of the tail.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Conjunction at Dusk

Venus and Mercury Draw Close

Viewed from my front yard, Venus and Mercury hovered near treetops in the southwest about 25 minutes after sunset on January 9th. The two planets were separated by only 42.5 arc minutes (0.71 degrees) - just slightly more than the width of a full Moon!

Venus is the brighter planet near center in the image below. Dimmer Mercury is close by, offset lower to the right. The first two pictures are a very good representation of how the conjunction appeared to the naked eye. (Click on the images below for the full-sized view.)
It didn't take long for Mercury to set below the trees while my frozen fingers worked camera buttons. These first two pictures were taken with a 55mm lens.
On January 10th the planets had moved even closer together. Now they were only 38.5 arc minutes (0.64 degrees) apart, and I used a telephoto lens set at 200 mm for a magnified view. The sky was very clear - no haze or thin clouds.
The planets sank lower while a jet contrail headed toward the gap between them.
Click on the next image to get a larger view. It looks like I captured evidence of the partial phase of Mercury.
I moved the camera so my last shot would catch the pair sinking into atmospheric murk and setting into the lowest gap in the trees.
This was a particularly nice conjunction and very beautiful in binoculars.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Back Yard Comet?

Lousy Conditions

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) has become well placed for observation from my house. On December 30th the comet was in the constellation Lepus, below Orion, and well above my southeastern horizon an hour or so before midnight. I quickly found the comet with binoculars. Glaring lights from nearby houses were extremely annoying, but they did not prevent clear views of the comet's fuzzy greenish coma in both my 11X80 binoculars and my 25X100 binoculars. 

Bright moonlight lit the sky. Neighborhood Christmas lights added their glow to numerous unshielded porch lights and window lights from surrounding houses. Nevertheless, I tried to photograph the comet from my back yard. The image below is a 30-second unguided exposure at ISO 1600.
You can see how bright the sky is, particularly near the bottom of the picture closer to the roof of a nearby house. Unless you know where to look the comet is hard to see. In the next picture I modified the brightness levels and cropped the view. It looks a little better, but the comet is quite small and not immediately obvious.
Next is a labeled version of the previous picture so you can see where the comet is. Click on the image below for a slightly better view.
Comet Lovejoy was certainly not a "knock your socks off" naked eye comet on December 30th. Long exposures through telescopes yielded some very nice views of the coma and tail, but the wide angle unguided pictures I took showed only a small fuzzy spot. I may try my luck again when the Moon begins to wane after January 4th.

People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing
Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I'm o.k. well they look at me kind of strange
Surely you're not happy now you no longer play the game

People say I'm lazy dreaming my life away
Well they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I'm doing fine watching shadows on the wall
Don't you miss the big time boy you're no longer on the ball

I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

John Lennon