We are a two-world species, which is probably an extravagance, like a two-car family, but never mind. This is our spare world, which is not in use at the moment, but we keep it in a handy orbit, just in case. And it makes a pleasant companion in the garden on a spring evening.

I took these pictures (in daytime) with the iPhone 5 held to the eyepiece of the 6-inch reflector, and I’m pleasantly surprised with the results. I processed them a little in Lightroom to improve contrast and remove the colour channels. The picture above was taken with the 25mm eyepiece.

Detail view with the 10mm eyepiece. Annotated versions after the jump with some interesting sites and features marked.

Moon Safari

The Moon! An amazing world right above your head, just three days away: ideal for today’s busy lifestyles.

I have often written about the Moon before, and taken pictures of the crescent Moon, the full Moon, craters on the Moon, a lunar eclipse, and mentioned the Moon’s powers of spiritual refreshment. It is amazing when you think all of that is available absolutely free, with no subscription required, just by looking up. Even wicked David Cameron cannot prevent us from enjoying it.

Tonight’s Moon is just past First Quarter and this is always a good time for seeing the Moon through a telescope or binoculars, because it is early morning on the part of the Moon that faces us, and so there are long shadows which give us maximum contrast. Reconnaissance satellites looking at Earth are aimed to pass over their targets in the early morning or late afternoon for the same reason. More precisely, they are often Sun-synchronous: chasing the Sun continually so that it is always morning below them, like Concorde racing across the Atlantic.

A day on the Moon lasts a fortnight, which is weird. When it is full Moon for us, the Sun is shining directly down on the part of the Moon that faces us, so it is noon there. By the time the Moon has reached Last Quarter, the Sun is just setting for the imaginary Moon folk, and when the Moon is new, it is midnight there. So it would be a very long day and you would almost certainly need a giant beer after work to recover. Luckily the nights are a fortnight long too, which would be a popular thing for the Governmint to introduce here. I would certainly vote for two weeks extra sleep a night.

This is taken with the Canon 350D and 200mm telephoto lens, a 1/10 sec exposure sharpened in the computer and filtered to remove the red channel, which gives slightly better definition because most of the skyglow here in London is red.

In conclusion, then, the Moon.

Moon and planets

On the night of May 19th the Moon appeared to pass very close to Venus, it was a beautiful sight just after sunset. Unfortunately as the Moon was fairly new, it necessarily set not long after the Sun, and seen from the UK had not reached its closest approach before setting. This picture is from earlier on in the evening. The Moon is sneaking up on Venus, in preparation for giving it a wedgie.

Closer shot of the crescent Moon. Note how the low-angled morning light shows craters in deep shadow along the terminator. That is just an astronomickal term, there is not a killer robot from the future living on the Moon. Or at any rate if there is, it is not visible in this photo.

Jupiter is high and bright in the south at the moment, and I got this nice picture from my cosy living room with just the 200mm telephoto. It is no trick to be able to see Jupiter, as it is genuinely awesome in size, bigger than all the other planets put together, twice, and a bit more, but I was pleased to be able to see the four principal moons as well: from left to right, Callisto, Ganymede, Io and Europa.

If you looked at the Solar System from far away, you would conclude there was one main planet, Jupiter, plus some annoying specks. Jupiter has more moons than the Sun has planets (over 60 at last count), but then it acts like a giant Dyson, vacuuming up any asteroids and comets that wander too close, with no loss of suction! In 1994 the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet hit Jupiter, creating an explosion about the size of the Earth, and seriously denting its no-claims bonus.

If you expose for its moons, Jupiter is just a bright blob, so here is a picture attempting to show detail of the planet itself. You can see its coloured bands and stripes, especially the large white equatorial zone. It is sometimes said that Jupiter is a failed star, and in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010 it is turned into a star by some helpful people from a black monolith. This would be convenient for us here on Earth as it would provide valuable light to see by at night, and deter burglars. In reality though that would not happen, as Jupiter is a long way short of enough mass to kick-start nuclear fusion, but on the other hand if you have a giant black monolith you can do basically anything.


This is my favourite world, our Moon. It is about four and a half billion years old, yet always looks nice and shiny, despite being a bit awkward to clean. It would still be part of the Earth if it were not for a giant impact, from a planet about the size of Mars. The explosion threw so much debris into orbit that it eventually condensed to form the Moon. But for a while there would have been beautiful rings around the Earth, a bit like Saturn’s.

This photo, filtered for blue light, clearly shows the large dark areas on the Moon’s face. They are called in Latin maria (seas) although in fact they are flat lava plains. There are hardly any on the far side of the Moon, which is weird. It is like someone has arranged the Moon to give us the best view.

This picture is adjusted for high contrast to show the enormous Tycho crater, left of bottom centre and surrounded by bright rays of material ejected by a meteoroid impact. The Moon is covered in craters as it is constantly bombarded with comets, asteroids and other space junk. If you go to the Moon please be aware that it is a hard hat area.

It is amazing what you can see on the Moon with even a small pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens. The three round dark areas right of centre, like bits of pepperoni, are (left to right) the Sea of Serenity, the Sea of Tranquility, and the Sea of Fertility. The small pepperoni to the right of them is the Sea of Crises. The big white spot left of centre is the crater Copernicus, which is about half the size of Scotland, if not quite as nice for a holiday. The small bright dot at ten o’clock is crater Aristarchus, named after the Greek astronomer who first calculated the distance to the Moon. He got it wrong, but that was only due to the poor tape measures available at the time.

Oh noes! The Moon is going out

Being as how I am always banging on about the Moon and how great it is and how it is my favourite heavenly body (except maybe hott actress Jaime Murray obviously), it is a bit puzzling that I did not know there is a lunar eclipse happening tonight!

I noticed as I was popping to Tescos for an intresting snack that there was a little dark bite out of the Moon. I thought perhaps it was just a bit of cloud or something, but on the way back I realised it is a completely clear night. Then when I saw on one of the astro communities on my friends page about the eclipse, I promptly rushed out with the camera! (stopping only to take essential eclipse viewing equipmint such as BEER ekcetera).

It is great really as it is like the Universe itself is cheering me up! I just popped out for another look and it is close to totality right now. The darkened Moon has an eerie reddish glow for the same reason that sunsets do: its light is being scattered by dust in the Earth’s atmosphere. Of course we are not scared of eclipses because we are fantastically lucky enough to live in the 0.002% of human history which encompasses actually visiting the Moon, and playing golf there. But it must have been terribly frightening in nanshunt times when for no discernible reason the sky goddess became engulfed by darkness in a matter of minutes, and they must have been super relieved when she came back again.

I think that calls for another BEER :D

Star party

You would not think you could see an awful lot of stars in London, and indeed it is a whole different story when you get out into the country at night and the great glittering wheel of the Galaxy above you takes your breath away. Still if you can just get a bit away from street lights (like in the car park at the back of the little flat) you can see some lovely stars such as eg Sirius - above right of the big tree - and Rigel - top right corner and it is Orion’s left foot. This link is a nice example of what can be done in dark skies (with a long exposure).

I got myself a new tripod while I was in Cornwall, and it is really good for night time photos and long exposures ekcetera. It is even better now my Dad fixed it so a tiny importint plastic bit does not drop out of the tripod when you open it up rendering it basically useless.

If you have ever done astro photography you will know one of the most difficult things is just getting the camera in focus to start with. The EOS350D is not the best for this as its viewfinder is awful small and dim. There is a magnifier ( the Canon Magnifier-S ) you can get that attaches on to it like a little jeweller’s loupe; I am going to try and get one of those. In the meantime all you can do really is take a lot of test shots and use the digital zoom to check the sharpness until you get it right. One thing which would make this very much easier is if you could preview the image on the LCD screen. Of course the mirror is in the way being an SLR, but there is a mirror lock-up function so it could be done. (Edit: The EOS20D does this.)

A starfield in Orion, with the Great Nebula centre. This is applying a bunch of computer techniques I have read about eg Going Deep with a DSLR and Neutralising the Sky Background and using the Dcam Noise 2 Gimp plugin. Here is the original image so you can see the difference. Basically good astro processing comes down to a judicious use of the Curves tool, a little Selective Gaussian Blur, and lots of experimintation. You also need to take a lot of frames to start with as some of them will mysteriously turn out shite.

This is the best shot I have got of the Orion Nebula so far thanks to my new tripod. I read a good tip on the web somewhere as well which is not to turn up the ISO setting on the camera as you would normally think to do for low light photography, because it is not a ‘sensitivity’ setting as it is with film. Instead it controls the gain that amplifies the signal from the CCD, so you are not capturing any more photons - just amplifying CCD noise along with the same number of photons. I will use a low ISO with a longer exposure next time.

Close-up of the nebula, enhanced as well as I can do and slightly blown up, but at this level optical artefacts start to dominate and obviously it does not really look like that in terms of nebulosity ekcetera. Still it is quite recognisable (see this gorgeous mosaic from Hubble for probably the most detailed picture of the nebula ever made). I am very pleased with the Dcam Noise plugin though as I expect even better results next time when I am using minimum ISO gain (hence minimum noise) on the CCD. There were 8 or 10 obvious hot pixels left which I removed by hand. I am also going to do some dark frame subtraction next time I go out; I did not have time this time because it was getting cloudy!

A nice picture of the Moon which could have been even better except some hazy cloud was rolling in and consequently it is lacking a little definition. Still the ray structure of Tycho is clearly visible ( left, below centre ). The small bright spot just left of top centre is the crater Aristarchus. I hope you like it as I think the Moon is beautiful and sometimes I just like to sit and look at it out the window. Not in a scary way though.