The Color in a Dark Sky

Under the dark sky of far western Oklahoma the 31st Okie-Tex star party started September 20th. As a speaker I was granted early arrival permission and setup Friday evening. Overhead the sky was spectacular that night. Even though it started to cloud over around 1:00am (Saturday morning) those few hours of dark clear sky, free from any man made light, is why I drive nearly 500 miles.

Unfortunately the next few nights were not very clear. As expected a storm system moved by us. It wasn’t until Tuesday night (9/23) we would have a good night. That night I wandered around taking pictures using a 5D Mark II on a iOptron Skytracker. This was the first time I’d used the SkyTracker in the field and of course I made a few user errors but the tracker worked good. I’ll post a review later.

One of my better shots of the milky way over the star party is below. Click it for a larger version and I will soon post an even larger version in my gallery. This picture is what the camera sees in the sky. A 3 minute tracked exposure, ISO 1600 using in camera noise reduction Lightly processed yes, to even out the serious vignetting of the Samyang 14mm lens at f2.8 and to sharpen and highlight the details. No gradient removal or masking was done at all. Note the wide variety of colors in the picture:

[ Milk way over the 2014 Okie-Tex star party ]
Looking north over the west observing field the photo is from ground level to nearly the zenith. Overhead the night sky was clear, the background dark. The dark spot above Cygnus was very distinct. Far to the north a few clouds pass by, just black spots. Around the horizon things got a bit murky. While the human eye sees shades of gray in the sky, especially near the horizon, its really full of color.

Across the top of the picture note the various red emission nebula spots, the detail and color of the Milky way. Going down the picture we see bands of green air glow and some hints of gravity waves in the atmosphere. On the ground red light abounds from the many astronomy enthusiasts awake. Busy observing or imaging.

This was a typical ‘good’ night for the star party, not great, just good. A great night at Okie-Tex requires a number of conditions coming together. Its not rare but difficult. For one you need the air mass above the Kenton area to be dry, really dry. For hundreds of miles in every direction. We were not in that situation when I took the above picture, note the NOAA water vapor image for that time frame below.

Far away from the glow of made made lighting the night sky is dazzling. Yet the natural night sky is not a uniform black or a shade of gray. Its a subtle, ever changing color. From moisture, air glow and the energy off the Earths magnetic field.

Lunar Delight

Telescope SelfieTuesday morning I watched a spectacular lunar eclipse. Awesome, fantastic, those are some of the words I would use to describe the night’s event. This was the best lunar eclipse the mid-west will experience for many years to come.

I was excited for the chance to watch this eclipse it’s been several years since my last one.I spent all evening getting ready, watching the sky and satellite images as a line of clouds passed over. Just before midnight it cleared. As Earths shadow began to creep across the moon my telescope took a selfie, the picture to the left. Through out the night I took pictures and will post more in the days ahead.

Several friends told me they got out and saw the eclipse. Excellent! Pretty impressive they got up, let alone out into the cold. It was a crisp 27 degrees (F)! Great to see interest in an event that has awed man for centuries but I feel they missed a big part of it. They saw it, they didn’t watch it. There’s a difference you see. One watches the sunset, the sky changing color with each passing minute. To simply look at the setting sun captures the moment but misses the whole experience.

There’s something special about watching a lunar eclipse. The night sky turns dark as the moon goes red. Colored by all the sunsets and sunrises happening that moment on Earth. For a short while that red moon sits among the nights stars. That’s a sight you rarely get to see.

Imaging Expedition

2012 da14 Asteroid Observing Expedition from J.D.Strikis on Vimeo.

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I so like this short video, kudos to the producer. Over the years I’ve taken many pictures of my own expeditions and found still shots rarely capture the essence of the experience. It takes video and a soundtrack to express it. But what the hell is going on in this video?!

We start indoors with a telescope, then someone that appears anxious, someone is working at a computer and a telescope mount is seen slewing. This is the planning stage, perhaps the final test and preparation stage before leaving. In this case the expedition will attempt to photograph asteroid 2012 DA14 as it flies close by Earth. They will only get one shot at this. It appears they have developed a custom program to move the telescope mount to follow the asteroids path. A challenging task as mounts are not made to do this, hard to simulate this motion ahead of time.

We cut to the waxing moon and all the activity taking place in the field. Equipment is setup and aligned, tested, checked again and shared with others around. If something breaks or fails to work as planned you hope spare parts or a friend can help. Otherwise your mission will fail. I’ll note there is a whole bunch of white light around, there would be howls of protest from the star party light Nazi’s I’ve known.

Around the two minute mark we see the fruits of their labor, it appears they were able to image the asteroid and track it reasonably well. Seventeen seconds later in the video they are packing up to head home. I’m going to bet they were a happy bunch!

All this is speculation on my part, I don’t know this group of astronomy enthusiasts. But I do know what its like to plan a trip, chart my target, fret over the weather and finally be under the night sky to implement my plan. Successfully completing a quest is exhilarating.

 

Geminids Rock!

The Geminid meteor shower peaked on December 13th and for the first time in years I got a chance to see it. Wednesday night the 12th of December started clear but rapidly clouded over. Not forecast and unexpected. Jeff and I laid out back at my place and saw a bunch of meteors despite the clouds, including several fireballs.

The next night, the 13th of December I traveled out to and watched from the Flint Hills. For December you couldn’t ask for better weather, about 40F all night with light south winds. It started out crystal clear but thin clouds did move over the area around midnight. The show was still fantastic. Its the best meteor shower I’ve seen in many years,

Photo below is a composition of the night including the approaching clouds. This is made from many exposures taken through out the night. The constellation Gemini is lightly outlined and over two dozen Geminid meteors are visible (click for bigger version).

I didn’t start counting meteors until 9:00pm but prior to that Phil and Thomas were seeing many meteors. The count I recorded is below:

Time Geminid Meteors Sporadic Meteors
21:00 – 21:30 20 3
21:50 – 22:20 23 5
22:50 – 23:20 26 0
23:35 – 00:05 31 1
00:30 – 01:00 33 2
01:32 – 02:02 37 1
02:31 – 03:02 31 2

Thats 201 Geminids in 3 1/2 hours effective observing time. Going to be hard to top this shower for awhile.

Okie-Tex: 2012

The Okie-Tex star party ran from September 8th through the 15th this year. For the thirteenth time I traveled out to western Oklahoma and got a pretty good dose of dark skies. It started out great, the first few nights were clear. But, in my opinion the timing was not the best, the moon was last quarter on that first Saturday (8th). I’d much rather give up some dark sky at sunset, with the moon at or before first quarter, then lose the midnight to dawn dark period. The early moon rise on Saturday and Sunday night was particularly unfortunate as these turned out to be some of the clearest nights.

Speaking of the weather, it was all over the place. Hot the first few days and unexpectedly cool a few of the last nights. My Kestrel recorded the following:

Okie-Tex Temperature Record

The high temperature readings are suspect, sometimes I left the meter in a sunny area or my tent. Overall you can see a declining temperature trend throughout the week. The 37 degrees reached Saturday morning was unexpectedly cold. Much cooler than had been forecast the previous week.

Like last year the Black Mesa area has been in a drought and I’m sure the locals were happy with the inch of rain we got Wednesday night. That night marked the change from hot and windy days to cooler nights. This was good. The dusty conditions the first weekend seemed worse then I can ever remember.

Despite my grumbling about the moon wiping out the dark sky the first few nights it did present an interesting opportunity. Sunday night, about 2:00am Monday morning, John and I grabbed a few shots of the camp illuminated by the moon. This was well past the end of true darkness yet the Milky Way was still very distinct. Below is the best image I got showing the northern half of the eastern observing field (click for bigger image).

Even to the eye the field was well lit at this time. Most people were shutting down (except of course Greg and John over in the western field!). Wish I had tried to shoot this picture an hour earlier.I wanted a better balance of light, enough to illuminate the mesa but not enough to wash out the stars. Interesting that even with strong moon light the camera picked up air glow (faint greenish color along top of mesa).

Overall the star party was pretty good. Its always fantastic to see fellow star gazers, especially those I see just once a year. As usual the night sky here tantalizesme, that it can be even better. Over the years I’ve seen several fantastically clear nights at the star party. That next year the skies could be perfect all night long, for days in a row, keeps me looking forward to the next Okie-Tex star party.

Milky Way All Night

This is the time of year to enjoy the most spectacular feature in our night sky. The Milky Way. From the moment its truly dark until the end of darkness the next morning the Milky Way is on display all night long. Saturday night I was out in the Flint Hills to soak in the starlight of this wonder.

For awhile the night sky was really good but as the night went on upper level moisture moved across the area. How ironic given the area, heck most of Kansas, is in extreme drought. What was a bit surprising was the strength, the intensity of the air glow that night. Clearly visible as the green color in the photo below (click image for larger version):

Milky Way From the Flint Hills

This single 40 second photograph using a Canon 5DMII (ISO 3200) with a 14mm Samyang @ f2.8 was taken just before midnight and is looking south-east. Yes the image is very noisy, temperature was in the mid 80s. Running the camera continuously really heated it up. The high that Saturday was over 100 degrees.

Along the lower right side of the picture the string of red dots are the blinking warning lights from the Beaumont wind farm some 30 miles to the south. Most of the white light to the left of the wind farm is from Eureka, KS, which is closer, about 16 miles away. From the right spot you can see a long, long way out here. All the way to the center of our galaxy!

The Last Transit

The transit of Venus across the Sun today felt different to me. Perhaps knowing its the last one I’ll see was a reminder of my limits. Right from the start, as a planet nearly the same size as Earth appeared but a dot on the face of the Sun, I felt small. As the minutes ticked by the dot slowly made its way across the Sun. As the hours went by the Sun disappeared low in the sky behind my trees. Venus was still crossing the Sun. One was reminded of the immense size of our star.