Posts tagged with "astronomy"

Space Station

The International Space Station hap­pened to be pass­ing by when I was out doing some astropho­tog­ra­phy. It’s a very high-profile object because it’s a lot brighter than any stars (it’s light com­ing from the solar pan­els reflect­ing the sun at us), and it blazes across the sky at an amaz­ing speed. This last point is made obvi­ous by the fact that all the stars appear sta­tion­ary in the photo1, while the ISS made a bril­liant streak.

Also vis­i­ble near the bot­tom of the pic­ture are two low-flying air­craft. The one in the bot­tom left cor­ner had blink­ing lights, which is why it appears as a series of dots in a line.

International Space Station

16mm focal length, f2.8 aper­ture, 13 sec­ond expo­sure, ISO1600.

I only had about two chances to take this shot at this shut­ter speed, not because the ISS dis­ap­pears behind the hori­zon, but because it even­tu­ally flies into the shadow of the Earth while it’s in the sky and is no longer illu­mi­nated by the sun.

My astropho­tograhy teacher once showed me a pic­ture he got of the ISS where the fins of the solar pan­els were vis­i­ble. To put into per­spec­tive how dif­fi­cult this was, he explained it like this:

At it’s longest dimen­sion, the ISS is only about 109m wide, which is roughly the size of the nee­dle antenna on top of the CN Tower. It’s also orbits about 400 kilo­me­tres above the earth, which is roughly the dis­tance from Ottawa to Toronto. So to cap­ture the ISS in a tele­scope at that mag­ni­fi­ca­tion is like being in Ottawa and point­ing a tele­scope at Toronto and see­ing the antenna on the CN Tower…as it’s mov­ing at 8 kilo­me­tres per sec­ond. In American terms, this would be like stand­ing with a tele­scope in Las Vegas and resolv­ing the char­ac­ters of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles if it was mov­ing at 17000mph.

  1. They do move, but at a wide focal length of 16mm the streak­ing is min­i­mized. []

Photographing stars

Capturing the night sky with a dig­i­tal cam­era is a dichotomy of lim­its and capabilities.

So much more is revealed when you use a cam­era than with the eye, because a long expo­sure allows you to col­lect a lot more light. It’s an entire world we don’t get to see oth­er­wise. The prob­lem becomes the fact that the stars begin to blur as the Earth rotates (although the effect is some­times nice).

10 minute star trails

This was a 10 minute expo­sure at 16mm, f/4, ISO 100.

Since most Canon SLRs sup­port a long expo­sure noise reduc­tion fea­ture (which closes the shut­ter, takes a sec­ond expo­sure, and dig­i­tally removes the remain­ing noise from the orig­i­nal), expo­sures with this fea­ture actu­ally take twice as long. I can’t imag­ine doing this kind of stuff back in the days of film cam­eras, with­out any kind of imme­di­ate feedback.

The faint glow on the bot­tom right is light pol­lu­tion com­ing from Ottawa.

Looking at pic­tures of stars with­out con­text is bor­ing. I was never inter­ested in plain star maps because they’re so abstract com­pared to neb­u­las and galaxy shots. I didn’t under­stand what I was look­ing at, and I couldn’t pos­si­bly appre­ci­ate what I was seeing.

Messier 13

Messier 13 — 6 sec­onds @ f/2.8, 100mm, ISO 3200.

Rated as a Class V glob­u­lar clus­ter, which is right in the mid­dle of the Harlow Shapley scale, and the most spec­tac­u­lar type because it’s the best com­pro­mise between rich­ness (lower on the scale) and resolv­abil­ity (higher on the scale).

Take this photo of M13 for exam­ple. M13 is a Messier object, which is a cat­a­log of astro­nom­i­cal objects Charles Messier doc­u­mented to ignore because they resem­bled comets1, but didn’t fol­low tra­di­tional comet’s paths.

M13 is in the Herculeus con­stel­la­tion. I couldn’t see it but I knew where it was, so I took this shot and zoomed in. On my screen was one fuzzy dot in the mid­dle of a bunch of sharp dots.

This fuzzy dot is actu­ally a huge glob­u­lar clus­ter, con­tain­ing sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand stars. When I saw it through some­one else’s (much big­ger and more expen­sive) tele­scope, I could see a dif­fuse haze of white, and resolve dozens of indi­vid­ual stars around it. It was beau­ti­ful, like a series of dia­monds set on a glow­ing jewel, and there’s no way I would appre­ci­ate a shot of Hercules if I didn’t see M13 like this.

Due to the large con­cen­tra­tion of stars in this glob­u­lar clus­ter (and pro­por­tion­ally greater pos­si­bil­ity of extra-terrestrial life), it was selected as the place to send the first mes­sage into outer space.

It’s all these lit­tle details that make space so fas­ci­nat­ing. These are celes­tial objects of such vast and incom­pre­hen­si­ble sizes, but at the same time, they’re barely seen by the naked eye on a night with even the best of conditions.

  1. Messier was known as a comet hunter. []

Love, Eclipses, and Other Ephemera

365 days ago, you were sit­ting at a lit­tle round table in front of me. It was a cool day, with the light of the sun com­ing through big glass win­dows, and the way you were turned cast a shadow on the small dim­ple on your chest. How well I came to know that expanse of skin, never taken for granted by lips or fingertips.

I was filled with noth­ing but hap­pi­ness in that moment. By that point, I planned on mar­ry­ing you one day, as I had, per­haps a lit­tle fool­ishly, dreamed of build­ing a life with you. The only thing left was fig­ur­ing out how to con­vince you to dream a lit­tle bit too.

muse, turned


A few things have hap­pened since we last spoke. Nothing impor­tant enough to men­tion if I ever bumped into an old lover and tried to make small talk. Except, per­haps, that my grand­mother passed away, Aaron and Karen are expect­ing another child, and I started pur­su­ing a life­long dream of becom­ing an ama­teur astronomer.

In one class I learned the Sun’s dis­tance from the Earth is about 400 times the Moon’s dis­tance, and the Sun’s diam­e­ter is about 400 times the Moon’s diam­e­ter. It’s the fact that these ratios are approx­i­mately equal that causes the Sun and Moon to appear the same size when the three astro­nom­i­cal objects line up, cre­at­ing the effect we observe dur­ing a total eclipse. If the Sun were any closer, we wouldn’t see the fierce corona that bor­ders the shadow of the moon. Any fur­ther, and a ring of the Sun’s light would still be vis­i­ble. It’s a phe­nom­e­non that’s unique in our solar sys­tem, due to the sheer improb­a­bil­ity of these pre­req­ui­sites occurring.


(I didn’t take this picture.)

Eclipses are a rare phe­nom­e­non. Total eclipses even more so; they occur every 18 months, at dif­fer­ent loca­tions, and never last more than a few min­utes as the shadow moves along the ground at over 1700 km/h.

Maybe this is why some peo­ple chase them, mak­ing pil­grim­ages to loca­tions where an eclipse is pre­dicted to hap­pen. One group even rented a plane and flew along the dark­est part of the shadow cast by the moon as it trav­eled over the Earth, and arti­fi­cially extended an eclipse from 7 min­utes to 74 min­utes. Which, in my book, is pretty awesome.

People who’ve been through an eclipse give sim­i­lar accounts of the expe­ri­ence; it looks like night in a mat­ter of min­utes, it feels like the heat is being sucked out of the ground, the ani­mals get all spooked out because they know some­thing extra­or­di­nary is happening.

But the Moon is also drift­ing away from the Earth at a rate of 3.8 cm a year, which means there even­tu­ally won’t be any more total solar eclipses. We hap­pen to be liv­ing in a time when we can still expe­ri­ence them, as future gen­er­a­tions will only have second-hand accounts from our best words and pic­tures. They won’t be able to feel the change in the atmos­phere, as the Sun hides behind the Moon for that brief moment. How for­tu­nate we are to be able to expe­ri­ence this event, which not only requires the heav­enly bod­ies to line up, but also requires us to be at the right place on the right planet at the right time.



I began to won­der what com­bi­na­tion of forces brought us there, to sit in the warmth of spring in a sushi shop down­town. Why fate had deliv­ered you to my office one morn­ing, for you to toss your head back and gig­gle and walk away after I made some corny joke at our introduction.

We were two trav­el­ing bod­ies on our own paths that hap­pened to align for a few spins around the sun. It was a beau­ti­ful acci­dent, a gaso­line rain­bow, an expe­ri­ence as spe­cial as it was serendip­i­tous that left me for­ever changed.

Every pic­ture I took was to cap­ture what I feared I’d never see again, and when our paths diverged, I kept look­ing at those pho­tos, won­der­ing what kept me drawn to these memories.

Then I real­ized it was because I didn’t want it to end. You were my eclipse, and I was a man on that plane, chas­ing a shadow.

Trying to live in your love a moment longer.

Sky Watcher

Thumbnail: Moon

Tonight, I saw the moon in my tele­scope. If it was a full moon, it would have filled the eye­piece. I could study the craters, the land­marks, and the pat­terns of dust on the sur­face. I grabbed my cam­era with a mod­estly long 100mm lens, mounted it on my new tri­pod, and took a pic­ture. Unless I get a lens with a longer focal length, it’s the best I’ll ever get in cap­tur­ing the moon with a sen­sor1.

It was a great night for observ­ing, the fore­cast said, with no cloud cover, good trans­parency2, good see­ing3, and decent dark­ness. I had my warmest clothes on, as I was warned that com­fort and moti­va­tion are some of the most impor­tant things in obser­va­tional astronomy.

I used a crater on the moon to cal­i­brate my red-dot find­er­scope. Then I used the find­er­scope to fol­low the arm of the big dip­per to Arcturus, the curve of which led me to Saturn, just under Denebola and in the con­stel­la­tion Virgo this year.

With the naked eye, Saturn looks like another bright star, but at 100x mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, Saturn becomes a small and sharp sphere. The rings were clean but indis­tin­guish­able from each other, with the gas giant cast­ing a dra­matic shadow across them.

I looked 68 min­utes into the past4, until Saturn slowly drifted out of view.

  1. I have no plans on get­ting into prime focus astropho­tog­ra­phy — in which the tele­scope is used as a lens — because the astron­omy equip­ment required is much more expen­sive. []
  2. Calculated from the amount of water vapour in the air. []
  3. Estimated from tur­bu­lence and tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences in the atmos­phere. []
  4. Saturn was 8.505AU or 1,272,330,990km away, which takes about 4080 sec­onds for the light to hit our eyes from there. []

I can hear the june bugs approaching

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(Thanks to Kasi for this one.)

I recently dis­cov­ered that gui­tar chords are the same as ukulele chords, which opens up the reper­toire of avail­able songs con­sid­er­ably. It’s a shame that most online sheet music is in the form of gui­tar tabs, which don’t trans­late to the ukulele. Still, I have enough songs to prac­tice that I can switch to another when I get bored with one. I find it inter­est­ing that since the ukulele requires two hands doing dif­fer­ent things, I run into a bot­tle­neck in hand dex­ter­ity; I can pluck or strum well enough with my right hand, but I can’t get the chords with my left hand fast enough, or vice versa depend­ing on the song. I have to prac­tice each hand indi­vid­u­ally, which is so unlike any other instru­ment I’ve played before.

I have a tele­scope now. My instruc­tor was able to get a great pack­age deal for stu­dents in his astropho­tog­ra­phy course for a 114mm reflec­tor, along with a track­ing motor1 and illu­mi­nated retic­ule2. I put it together today, and it was really excit­ing to be assem­bling all these pre­ci­sion parts to make my first tele­scope, a moment I dreamed about since I was a kid. Astronomy is much more com­pli­cated than I expected. Much of it is sim­i­lar to pho­tog­ra­phy in terms of the equip­ment used (although the terms and con­trols are dif­fer­ent), but now you also have to know your sub­ject, your ori­en­ta­tion, and your weather con­di­tions, not to men­tion being at the right place.

I’m feel­ing bet­ter about things. Maybe it’s the promise of warmer weather. I’m wait­ing for the day I can drive my car with the win­dows down and san­dals on. Those are the days of house par­ties, camp­ing, drinks on patios, and first kisses. Soon, it will be the time of stargaz­ing, bar­be­cues, and who knows.

A few peo­ple have sug­gested my depres­sion may have been due to a chem­i­cal imbal­ance, which I never ruled out. Even though it was one e-mail on that Thursday morn­ing that trig­gered all those bad thoughts, I nor­mally would have been able to han­dle it bet­ter. There wasn’t an imme­di­ate impact. Just a grad­ual sag­ging that got worse and worse through­out the day until I was com­pletely dejected at night. After that, I got a blis­ter on my neck from stand­ing in the shower for too long with water that was too hot. Now that I think about it, I com­pletely under­stand why I felt that way, but it seems kind of silly.

Joe Lencioni also rec­om­mended to me a free pro­gram called Flux — appro­pri­ately head­lined as “Software to make your life bet­ter” — that grad­u­ally changes the colour tem­per­a­ture and bright­ness of your mon­i­tors to mimic the set­ting sun. It’s also local­ized, so it knows when the sun sets for your area and changes auto­mat­i­cally. I’m pretty sure it’s made it eas­ier for me to fall asleep at night.

I’m in such a strange phase right now. I don’t know where I am. When I look back on this time in my life, I won­der whether I’ll look back with nos­tal­gia, pity, or regret.

  1. To move the tele­scope at the same rota­tion of the earth to pre­vent blur in astropho­tog­ra­phy. []
  2. To keep track of a guide star in cal­i­brat­ing the track­ing motor. []