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

(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. []