Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Dark Deep Sky


An observing report from this morning.  Images are from my archives.

Enjoy!

May 19, 2018
1:15 AM – 2:45 AM

Skies clear with above average transparency. Limiting magnitude 7.0 + SQM 21.7 MPSAS

Milky Way vivid even on the south horizon. The dark nebulae in southern Ophiuchus obvious to the unaided eye. Spectacular conditions compared to previous observing sessions this spring.

I had setup the tripod the previous evening, gotup at 1:00 AM and set the binocular. I used the BT-100 with 18mm UF (31X @ 2.1º) and began observing the area of Antares. Enjoyed the beautiful triplet star Rho-Oph. Looking southward, Antares, Messier 4 and NGC-6144 fit neatly inside the eyepiece field. Messier 4 was resolved with the prominent bar noted. Panning east from this region the dark streamer Barnard 44 continued for several fields, then I continued to the wonderful chain of stars stemming northward from Theta Ophiuchi. This asterism appears to be unnamed. It begins with Theta and gently arcs northward with proceedingly fainter stars.


The Dark Streamers East of The Antares Region


Slightly north and east of Theta Oph is 44 Ophiuchi. This is the springboard of the somewhat faint but rich area of Milky Way strata littered with dark nebulae. It includes the famous Barnard 72, the Snake Nebula. I have attempted this dark nebula before, but under less than favorable conditions. During the early morning I returned to this area as it came to culmination. I'm happy to report that it was well seen. Even the small round B68 was visible just to its south. Barnard 261 to the northeast was also visible in field. Barnard 72 revealed its coil only with averted vision at first until I learned the area. Somewhat higher power may be a better combination to behold it. This was a bucket list object and I'm tickled to have seen it, especially in such a wide-field view!


The Region Of Southern Ophiuchus


Panning this area, countless dark nebulae are seen and it would have been overwhelming to try to account for them all. Panning southward and entering the Pipe Nebula, LDN1773, I hovered over the sixth magnitude star HIP 85783, located within the bowl of the Pipe. Even with a two degree field the field held only a few members and was practically starless. A lonely field in such a rich part of the sky.

Panning eastward and into the Great Rift one cannot be prepared for what is perhaps the greatest Milky Way sweep in the entire sky. Approaching the dark estuaries of the Great Sagittarius Star Cloud is a existential experience. Under dark and transparent skies, approaching this area is surreal. This is one of the grandest views in all the sky, yet few seem to have experienced it.

The Great Star Cloud of Sagittarius 


The dark voids and shoals of the Great Star Cloud appear abruptly from the west. Panning along the cloud's jagged perimeter, which runs along the Galactic Equator from Messier 8 and southward to the area encompassing Messier 6 and 7, amounts to the brightest deep sky tour in all the Milky Way. To truly appreciate however, dark transparent skies are a must.

While the west side of the Great Cloud offers the most dramatic view, the central interior of the cloud is also rich in a dark tapestry. In an area extending south from 11 Sagittarii (just east of Messier 8) to Gamma Sagittarii, the area is strewn with dark features layered over the brilliant star cloud. Barnard 90 stand out as one prominent example of these dark objects seen against the brighter stellar stratum.

To the north of this region is Sagittarius' lesser cloud. The Small Sagitarius Star Cloud, Messier 24, is a wonderful object adorned with a surplus of dark nebulae, star chains and neighboring clusters. Along with the Scutum Star Cloud and the Great Cloud of Sagittarius, Messier 24 and its denizens rank as the finest in the sky. In the 2º field, M24 is a delight. Brilliant stars compose the major cloud and small dark nebulae, such as B92 and B93, on its northern edge provide stark contrast to the view. Other dark nebulae such as Barnard 304 appeared along the northern section, stemming from near B92 and meandering southwestward. Also, other dark features, such as “The Forks” on the east side of the cloud. Within the cloud, the tight open cluster NGC-6603 stood out plainly and showed partial resolution.

The Small Sagittarius Star Cloud Region


The southern side of messier 24 is dark and the southwest end of the cloud transitions into what I call, “The Blade”. The dark region makes a right angled appearance to the “edge” of this knife-like feature.
The emission nebulae IC1284 resides in this same dark region south of M24. The two stars just west of IC1284 exhibit reflection nebulae, these are VDB 118 and VDB 119. VDB 119 was seen with an obvious condensation.

West of M24, Messier 23 is a grand open cluster with bright members. To it's north Barnard 84a is a vertical black tadpole with a solitary ~10th magnitude star superimposed. North of M24, Messier 17 is a grand view. The swan appearance is plain, but also the outer loop seen in long exposures is evident with direct vision.

North and east of M24 is a curious object, Barnard 312. This object is perhaps most impressive because contrast and delineation is very high. Visually this object surpasses the photographs I have made, or have seen. The soft glow of the stratum north of this object appears to glow, in part due to the immediate darkness of the nimbus. An interesting object and was always interested in it after finding in my photographs of the Milky Way about ten years ago.

Messier 8 Region


The Lagoon Nebula, Messier 8 as seen in the BT-100 is well seen. The bright hourglass feature, along with the bright open cluster NGC-6530 and the fainter periphery of nebulae are all encompassed in the 2º field. The view is incredible. The binocular reveals stunning contrast of this scene and it scarcely seems real. Also visible in the field is the globular 6544 and to its south, NGC-6553. Lots of subtle detail wherever you look, some on atlases, some are not. Seeing deeply into this area of the galaxy is a joy.

Binocular Astronomy Under The Dark Skies of Downeast Maine





Saturday, April 21, 2018

Less Photography More Observing

Recently, I have acquired a binocular telescope to sweep the stellar vistas I have spent so much time photographing.  The evolution from visual work to astrophotography and then back to visual astronomy is a natural one.  The cyclops view an unnatural one.  We have two eyes, we should use them both!

Me and my Orion Giantview BT-100 binocular telescope

Under the dark skies of eastern Maine, binocular views are wonderful in the least and soul shaking at their best.  The wide-field and brilliant views provided for in binoculars put much astrophotography to shame.  It is an entirely different experience, albeit a personal one.  My concentration on the visual sky happens to be marked by my turning the half-century mark.  It also satisfied my spiritual longings to witness what few have and to perhaps write about these experiences.  Perhaps words can be as descriptive as images.  

The cameras sit quietly while the mind and eyes rush forward.  First light for any new instrument is usually a memorable one.  I'll be sure to capture the moments as they happen.  Sleepy drives to the office on Monday are almost a certain guaranty.  Sleepy, but with a smile.




Sunday, January 7, 2018

Beginners Mind: Zen and the Act of Observing the Universe


There was a famous master called Suibi. And he was asked by a monk in the middle of a busy lecture hall, “What is the secret teaching of Buddhism?” He replied, “Wait until there’s no one around and I’ll tell you.”

So later in the day, the monk came back to him and said, “There’s nobody around now, what is the secret teaching of Buddhism?” So Suibi led him to the garden and pointed at the bamboo.

The monk said, “I don’t understand.” Suibi looked up and said, “What a tall one that is.” Then down and said, “What a short one that is.”

And this awakened the monk.


 As a youth my response to the Universe was clear as a bell.  My mind was not cluttered with interpretations of what I was seeing.  With fresh eyes this direct experience took hold of me and has never left.  This simple act of observing under the night sky and the realization that took place, shook me to my core.  The experience was similar to the monk's in the above Zen story.   I had a transcendental experience -  an awakening.

I had tried in vain to reconcile my experiences in youth with my family's traditional beliefs.  This took some time, but nothing validated just what had happened.  It was quite the contrary.  I was told stories that stretched credibility.  In no way did I find any of it plausible.  Even its message and narration of mankind was replete with superstition and prejudices. A thoroughly human made story.  A story made even more unbelievable by the notion that it was the word of an omnipotent creator of the universe.  I turned skeptical of all religion and eventually considered myself a thoroughgoing atheist. 

Atheism can be a nihilistic belief system or just a realization that the stories we tell ourselves are just that - stories.  But, one does not have to presuppose a god to be spiritual.  I spent many years not interested in any spiritual tradition, however Zen Buddhism pressed several buttons.  What Zen had to say and what I had experienced was beyond belief, and it was also beyond all knowing.  Man must have intellectual life, but with spiritually one cannot wait for knowledge to explain everything, which it cannot and may never.  

"The history of thought proves that each new structure raised by a man of extraordinary intellect is sure to be pulled down by the succeeding ones. This constant pulling down and building up is all right as far as philosophy itself is concerned; for the inherent nature of the intellect, as I take it, demands it and we cannot put a stop to the progress of philosophical inquiries any more than to our breathing. But when it comes to the question of life itself we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so. We cannot suspend even for a moment our life-activity for philosophy to unravel its mysteries. Let the mysteries remain as they are, but live we must… Zen therefore does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems."

D.T. Suzuki 


Realization can come into one's life via the tall and short bamboo or anything that breaks the cycle of seeing the ordinary as ordinary.  The ordinary is extraordinary, but our commonplace habitual lifestyle introduces a delusion that it is not.  The experience also conveys a simple truth not found in conventional religious belief, the fact of non-duality.  There is no separation between matter and spirit or a separation between the experience and the experiencer.    The universe is whole.  We are are not apart of that whole, but a part.  To think otherwise is delusion.


"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."

Shunryu Suzuki 


Shoshin (初心) is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind". It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. 

This attitude can be beneficial to those "stuck in their ways".  We need this openness, but Zen primarily concerns ourselves with what is directly in front of us and is rather uninterested in things beyond what is directly in front of the mind.  

If you recall your first direct experience of a pristine sky where all was wondrous and the mind empty with the sense of a loss for words, then you know zen.  But the rapturous experiences of youth seem to fall away in older age.  Such is the price for being too astute in ones avocation.  It becomes routine, even laborious.  Like an old shoe, comfortable, and without exception.  This "nothing special" is also zen.

Seeing anew takes practice and clearing the mind of the minutiae of the everyday.  Seeing through the clouds, bringing the important aspects of a life in the greater universe back to the front.  Everything becomes whole again. 

This practice takes place in the mind.  

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Large Format Astrophotography

Well, I went and did it.  I took the plunge. Conditions were average.  My Unihedron Sky Quality Meter (SQM) read 21.4 mags/sq-arc-sec.  This is a bit below average.  Some pesky clouds bothered at times.  High humidity and hazy skies with poor transparency contributed to some lowering of quality to the final image. This was my first large format effort and I did not expect it to be perfect or ideal.  It did however come out just fine all things considered.


The setup Calumet (Cambo) 4x5 mounted atop my classic 8" Meade

The circa 1984 Calumet / Cambo 4x5 monorail rode atop my old Meade 2080.  My friend Danny Spence from Texas gifted me the wonderful Schneider 150mm f/5.6 Super Symmar HM lens.  It's fine quality allowed for great wide-open performance.  Images were sharp and with little vignetting.


The 40 minute exposure on Fuji Acros 100

The 40 minute exposure was adequate at f/5.6, but when developing I thought it best to push 1 stop to bring about some finer details in the Great Rift.  Kodak Xtol was used diluted 1+1 and a 13 minute development for an effective speed of ISO 200 was completed in my kitchen.

The film was scanned on my Epson V600 with two passes as this is not a 4x5 scanner.  The two images were assembled in Microsoft ICE.  I have proudly left the film edge revealing the emulsion tag, basically signalling that this was shot on film!

This area of the Great Rift centered on the constellation Aquila, was done by convenience.  It allowed a low enough angle to not stress the system and it was well placed away from trees on my site.  You can make out many dark nebulae and star clouds throughout.

I'm very pleased with this first attempt.  In time I will do more.  There are very few that have attempted large format work in the first of guided astrophotography.  I'm glad to have to have made at least one successful effort.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

A little Less Photography

When I began astrophotography in the 80's there were literally just hundreds of astrophotographers in the world.  Thanks to the digital revolution, there are thousands upon thousands, many of which are very good.  Thirty years ago, all we had was film, but even today we still use our eyes to observe.  I must admit that for the last ten years or so astrophotography has held top billing for me. Observing took a back seat as my eyes were mostly held up in guiding images.

I was a keen deep sky observer back in the day. This means I would use optical instruments, primarily telescopes, to tickle out those faint fuzzies in the night sky.  These were various stellar and non-stellar objects such as star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, and planetary nebulae.  Photography has changed, but observing has changed little.

I don't like crowds.  I prefer to work alone and with the tools that I personally like to work with.  The end of the days working with film are all but gone.  I really do not want to join the crowds of digital mavens honing their crafts with the latest gadgets and squirrel cage wheel of innovation.  More and more I just want to observe. I've grown tired of photography.  The stream of Milky Way images have never been greater.  It's time to move on.

My eyes have aged, but they are essentially the same.  Age has also given me the wisdom to see once again that the act of observing as much more precious.  The photograph pales to the direct experience of observing.

Last night I could see what I have been missing.  A pair of binoculars on a tripod and a sweep of the skies made the case for returning to my roots.  The downside is in the sharing.  I may post a photo or two to convey just where I am looking, but the projected images on my retina are solely mine.



Observing - The direct act of communion with the Cosmos

Photography has given me so much pleasure and insight into the Milky Way.  The cake has been iced.

Now it's time to enjoy a slice.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Doubling Down !

In April of 2007 I converted most of my astrophotography efforts to use medium format film.  The acquisition of the Pentax 67 soon brought forth amazing images of the Milky Way as well as night landscapes under the light of the Moon.  The Pentax 67 is a great system and I soon had a lens collection to offer near unlimited flexibility in my compositions of the starry realm.

This past April I came across a deal I could not refuse.  I added a second body and two lenses.  The lenses were duplicates to what I owned, but an idea floated around in my head.  The recent addition of a new german equatorial mount made it possible to configure many possible arrangement of cameras and telescopes.  I purchased the necessary Losmandy plates and gathered an old Televue Ranger to be used as a guide scope.

Two Pentax bodies and matching 105's make a formidable team.  Simultaneously exposing two frames will make lighter duty of combined framed images and mosaics.  

The Meade LXD75 and secondary systems holding the two Pentax 67's and guide scope


I do not believe this has ever been done or if it is workable.  I believe it is.  I have the freedom to use lens pairs or two different focal lengths if desired.  It will make mosaics much easier.



The two Pentax 67's with 105mm f/2.4 lenses


The image below is an example of two frames using the 105mm.  The two frames were exposed  sequentially.  The new mounting and camera configuration will make this a "one shot" effort!


A mosaic of two frames with the 105mm f/2.4 lenses


This image was done with two frames using the 165mm f/2.8.  This is another possibility using the two camera setup.


A mosaic of two frames with the 165mm f/2.8


So planning continues.  I will give it a try later in the summer.  Skies darken very late in June and time to shoot is very limited.  I prefer late August to begin film work. Skies darken early enough to get a good session in prior to midnight. 

When the year started I was looking for direction as to where I would go in my efforts.  The digital workflow has made me lazy and I was never 100% happy with the colors and textures.  It appears I will still work with film for some time to come.

There are plenty of digital astrophotographers out there.  They do good work.  This is my story.  I'll tell it a bit differently.




Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Full Moon of June!

On Friday morning, my friend John Stetson had imaged the setting Moon on the western horizon right before sunrise.  He had lamented that he would not get the shot that evening as weather was expected to be unsettled.  Sure enough the forecast looked bleak, but the onset of clouds in eastern Maine looked like a close call.

After dinner clouds were drifting in, mainly thick cirrus.  This could actually be a benefit to the shot I was hoping to get.  Clouds often add to the composition.  As Moonrise was approaching I grabbed the camera and tripod and headed down to the pond.  I've done this path a thousand times before.  It's my backyard.

The Moon was just coming up when I got into position.  There was plenty of gaps in the clouds and some drifting in and out of the view.  I took a series of images over a twenty minute span and then headed back as the clouds of mosquitoes had me at my wits end!


Moonrise Over Flanders Pond

I think it worked out well.  The Full Moon of June is also known as the Full Strawberry Moon by tradition.  This is also a "micromoon" as our natural satellite is at apogee, far in it's orbit around Earth.