Monthly Archives: September 2016

Looking at other galaxies

One of the best things about living under really dark skies and having a decent telescope is viewing other galaxies. While I equally enjoy the many beautiful objects in our own galaxy such as nebulae and globular clusters, the hunt for distant galaxies has a meditative quality for me. Sometimes the finding is a bit of a let down. For example, last night I went looking for NGC 7042, a spiral galaxy. It took some doing but I found it. It’s 250 million light years away. Yeah. It was the faintest little smudge of light barely detectable on a very clear night with a decently sized telescope (12.5 inches). When I find these really faint ones I always laugh at my disappointment. Yes, it is a galaxy filled with billions of stars and yes, I just sighed in disappointment. But, but, it’s 250 million light years away I remind myself. Not only that it is moving away from us at 5,083 kilometers per second or, 1.7% the speed of light. There will come a time in the distant future when that galaxy and others are no longer visible from Earth. The stretched out light will no longer reach us. The Universe is expanding and that expansion is accelerating. Eventually galaxies that are currently visible to us will blink out. Of course, by that time we’ll likely not be here to notice.

The thing about viewing other galaxies is that it helps frame the scale of the Universe. When I look at the star Vega I’m seeing a star that is only 25 light years away. Yes, still a vast distance from our perspective. But it’s in our local neighborhood so to speak. In fact, it’s like a neighbor on our own street. Funny thing, the stars we see when we look up without a telescope are all in our local neighborhood. We’re only seeing about 6,000 of the very closest stars in our galaxy of 200 billion stars. When I look at the Orion Nebula I’m looking at something that is only 1,400 light years away. Sure, that’s a good bit further than Vega but again, remember that our Milky Way galaxy is an average of 100,000 light years in diameter. So, Orion is still very much in our local neighborhood.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy of the Local Group which consists of about 45 other galaxies including our Milky Way.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest galaxy of the Local Group which consists of about 45 other galaxies including our Milky Way.

But back to the viewing of galaxies, the easiest to view from the Northern hemisphere of Earth is Andromeda which is “only” 2.5 million light years away. It fills the eyepiece of my telescope and can actually be seen with the naked eye if you’re under dark skies. I have no problem picking it out from the stars of the Milky Way. It’s oval of faint light is actually quite large and fills an area larger than the full moon in our night sky. It’s quite close and in fact, billions of years in the future we will in fact merge with Andromeda. I viewed Andromeda just two nights ago. I also viewed the Bode’s galaxy, M81 and the Cigar Galaxy, M82 which are a pair of galaxies 12 million light years away and are fairly bright and easy to find with a telescope. In 2014 a star went supernova in M82 and we were able to view it from Earth. Quite a show! So the pair is, in the larger scale of things, quite close. A bit further than Andromeda but not nearly as far as the 250 million light years that makes NGC 7042 so faint.

Faint and distant or bright and close, viewing other galaxies is a thrill because it means looking at the starlight of hundreds of billions stars. As those photons stream into my eyes I’ve got a direct connection with the ancient starlight created by billions of suns. It is light that has been stretching through the Cosmos for millions of years and ends its journey in my eye. The experience is one which enhances my perspective and gives life on Earth an added dimension. In seeing such distant worlds I begin to contemplate and understand the scale of the Universe in a way I had not before. It has changed who I am as a human as well as my understanding of what it means to be human.

Painting the Orion Nebula

In the fall of 2012 I had my first ever look at the Orion Nebula through a telescope. Like many people I'd seen Hubble images which are obviously stunning. Also, like many that know their constellations, I had seen it with my naked eyes as one of the stars in the sword of Orion. But with a telescope of any size or even with good binoculars, the middle star of the sword emerges as the center of this fantastic nebula. It's the sort of object many amateur astronomers will revisit many times. I know I have. It's a winter object, often referred to as the gem of the winter sky and with good reason. Of all the nebula visible from the northern hemisphere, winter or summer, The Orion Nebula is the most distinctive in terms of size and contrast. It provides amateur astronomers an opportunity to train their eyes in the discernment of greater details. Provided the same seeing conditions, a first viewing for 10 minutes is likely to be improved with a second viewing for 10 minutes the same night or another. Look again a third time for 15 minutes and you are very likely to see more detail. With each subsequent viewing more details emerge. It's also an object that benefits from larger, better instruments. So, while I can view it with binoculars or a 6" reflector if I get a chance to view it with a 10 or 12" reflector I will see a great deal more especially if I've had numerous previous sessions with it.

I've not yet tried to sketch or paint the nebula while at the scope though I hope to do just that this winter. In the mean time I decided to give it a go as my second painting using Procreate on the iPad. My intent is to do a series of these in part to improve my painting technique and knowledge of Procreate but also to better learn the details of the object. Just as more time looking through the telescope results in noticing more detail, more time looking at and painting an image, does the same. With each painting I'm also spending more time reading about the object. Usually using a combination of the Sky Safari description in combination with the Wikipedia entry. Here's the entry for the Orion Nebula.

In total I've spent about 27 hours broken up into 5 or so sessions. Here's a look after about 16 hours:

At this point it was easily recognizable but still missing many details. I should mention that I have no experience painting on any medium. It may well be that this sort of project should have taken half the time. Or double the time. It may also be that I'm going about it all wrong. The gist of it is that I'm layering. I've got a layer of stars on the very top, another for the base nebula which is largely created with the airbrush and sits at the bottom. Then I end up with at least two layers of wispy nebulosity and yet one more which consists of the darkest nebulosity and sits on top. These are often the thickest, clumpiest bits of dust and gas which more completely block the light coming from behind. The thickest of these are often referred to as bok globules.

The next image represents about 22 hours. Lots of refinements and new details.

Much closer but still not there. It's hard to know when it's "done". I could have stopped at this point but many details were missing and some bits that I did have were not right. That said, it's a painting and not meant to be exact. I suspect that going forward I'll play with this idea of what's finished because there is no way to know. Especially with something such as this, my intent is to get something that very closely resembles the photographic image but which is still obviously a painted version. It's not necessarily a creative project as much as it is a documentary.

The last image was finished this morning. I thought I was finished last night. But upon opening it up noticed more details. And that's the thing of it. I made some changes this morning but could have kept going. I could have spent all day on it and tomorrow as well. There's always another wisp of gas to be painted. Another knot of darker gas. A missing star. An area of gas in which my color is off. So is it finished? Yeah, for now. It's time to take a break and then move on. Here it is after about 27 hours.

Of course it should be said that the photographic images vary. Not only can the color very but also the emphasis on stars or nebulosity can change (among other things). It depends, in part, on the spectrum in which the photo was taken. The electromagnetic spectrum is a wonderful thing consisting of a variety of wavelengths each of which is photons traveling at different energy levels. The lower energy wavelengths such as radio or microwave are longer and pass through gas and dust more readily thus images taken in those wavelengths will tend to allow more background stars through. Images taken at higher wavelengths such as the visible will tend to show fewer stars as the foreground gas and dust will block some of them. Here's the image I used for this painting, taken from the Wikipedia:

Off the Charts Heat

August might be a new record for hottest month ever recorded:

On Monday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that August 2016 has probably set a new record for the warmest absolute month ever measured, though it’s so close to July 2016 as to be in a statistically indistinguishable tie. That’s saying something, because Earth’s globally averaged temperature normally peaks in July — this year, that didn’t happen. Whichever month is a hair warmer, the conclusion is the same: When it comes to global warming, 2016 is something very special.

Effects of Climate Change Creeping In

The New York Times reports on already occurring climate change flooding of coast:

NORFOLK, Va. — Huge vertical rulers are sprouting beside low spots in the streets here, so people can judge if the tidal floods that increasingly inundate their roads are too deep to drive through.


Five hundred miles down the Atlantic Coast, the only road to Tybee Island, Ga., is disappearing beneath the sea several times a year, cutting the town off from the mainland.


And another 500 miles on, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., increased tidal flooding is forcing the city to spend millions fixing battered roads and drains — and, at times, to send out giant vacuum trucks to suck saltwater off the streets.

Yet another example that this is not a problem of the future.

Painting the Eagle Nebula

A couple months back I started to see quite a few mentions of an iPad app called Procreate. It had been out for a couple of years but with Apple’s release of the iPad Pro and Pencil, Procreate was getting some new attention because it is an app specifically designed for painting on the iPad. I’m not a painter which is why I’d not given it more than a passing glance before. That said I have spent the past few years focusing more on increasing my graphic design skills, specifically vector-based work. I began with Illustrator because that is the industry standard. But have branched out to others because I don’t like Adobe’s subscription model. In any case, my time spent working in vector apps led to several for-fun illustration projects which has opened the door a bit to a larger creative flow. Enter Procreate and the idea of sketching or painting with an iPad.

I’ve not upgraded to an iPad Pro yet as my Air 2 is still quite fast and fully capable of doing what I do with it. I’ve never noticed the slightest bit of lag. So, when I started playing with Procreate it was not with Apple’s fancy new Pencil but with a generic $3 tablet stylus. It’s got a rubbery ball end that works much better than a finger for seeing where I’m touching the glass and allows for a much smaller point of contact. Nothing so accurate or fine as the Pencil but it still works pretty well.

The Pillars of Creation

The Pillars of Creation

My first really go at something was unintentional. It started as a doodle of a book cover which had a close up image of the “Pillars of Creation” which is just one small part of the Eagle Nebula. Ten minutes turned into twenty which turned into an hour and then two hours. I couldn’t put it down. I spent the better part of a day and evening. And a couple days later I picked it up again to fix a few bits that were out of proportion which led to another evening. By the time I was “finished” I’d probably spent 15 hours on it. I’ve no doubt that someone with more skill could have done much better in less time but for me it was not only a learning process but I found it incredibly relaxing.

The Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula

A few days ago I’d gotten the notion that perhaps I should enlarge the project to more of the nebula. Yesterday I picked up the iPad, duplicated the file, and gave it a go. As before, the hours just flew by as I concentrated on the contact between stylus and glass. I think this second, larger painting was about 8 hours. I could likely spend another few hours on this and may yet do that. Something I’m finding with this kind of work is that it’s never really finished. There’s always something that can be changed. There are many, many details within an image like this that I could give my attention to. Also, this only represents a small portion of the much larger nebula. Perhaps that will be the next project.

The larger nebula:

Image of Eagle Nebula

Image of Eagle Nebula

And, of course, the Wikipedia page for the Eagle Neblua!