Category Archives: Astronomy

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:

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!

Observing Mars

Mars. The Red Planet. We’ve made great progress learning about our neighbor in recent decades. We’ve currently got two active robots performing experiments and have had others. Imagery from Curiosity is incredibly detailed as is the science coming in from it’s ongoing collecting and processing of samples. I’ve mentioned before how easy it is to get lost in NASA’s Curiosity website.

But in terms of visual, amateur astronomy, I’ve only ever given Mars a cursory glance. If memory serves, it appeared as a off-white, pinkish disc. Nice to look at on occasion but nothing like a view of Jupiter or Saturn both of which offer surface details, moons and in the case of Saturn, rings. But Now I’m wondering if the fault was mine? Did I not look hard enough? I recently revisited the planet and saw surface details I’d not previously noticed. This was a view of Mars worth repeating more often!! A quick look in my preferred astronomy app for the iPad, Sky Safari, suggests that “In a small telescope, Mars shows many of the surface features that sparked the imagination of science fiction writers.” It may be that I was looking when local atmospheric conditions weren’t good or perhaps at a time when something was happening on Mars to obscure the details.

Observation of Mars June 5, 2016, 10:30pm. Sketched with Procreate on iPad.

Now that I’ve had a good look and seen some detail I can say with certainty that I’ll be visiting the planet every chance I get. The surface details will change based on the season as well as the fact that a Mars day is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day which, if I’m thinking about this correctly, means that over time the side facing Earth will gradually change. In some ways viewing Mars is like a blend of viewing our moon and viewing a planet like Jupiter. By this I mean that, like our moon, we can observe features on the surface of the planet. But it’s not a static image. Our moon has no atmosphere and presents a static image to us. As with our observations of Jupiter, what we see with Mars will change over time. From month to month the view will change not only because of the difference in period of rotation but because of season and atmosphere. Fantastic!

Gravitational Waves Discovered

In case you missed it: LIGO announced the detection of Gravitational Waves

For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented window onto the cosmos.

Gravitational waves were detected by the two LIGO detectors in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana, United States, at 5:51 am EDT (0951 UTC). The waves were generated during the final moments of the merger of 2 black holes resulting in a single, massive, rotating black hole. Even though such a merger was predicted to happen, it was never observed before.

The merger of the two black holes happened more than 1 billion light-years away. (definition of a light-year, use this calculator to convert light-years to miles.)

Why is this discovery so important? Gravitational waves tell us a lot about their cataclysmic origins. They offer a unique way to look deep into the past and observe cosmic events that happened a very long time ago. Gravitational waves provide information about the nature of gravity that we wouldn’t be able to get any other way. With this observation, LIGO opens a new window through which we can study the cosmos.

A lot more at LIGO’s Detection Portal.

Discovery 12.5 Dobsonian: Initial Thoughts

Discovery 12.5″ at its new home – many new
deep sky explorations await!

When I poked my head out this morning I almost didn’t get up because it looked a bit foggy and there was a halo around the moon indicating a good bit of humidity in the sky… And even a few wisps of clouds. But I had not yet had a chance to look at Jupiter with the new scope so curiosity got the best of me. I was up late last night working on a list of double stars so when I went to bed I did so in all my cozy layers. All I had to do was slip on my boots, a hat and my coat. I grabbed two eyepieces and stepped out the door.

The scope and everything around it was with coated with a thick layer of frost. 19 degrees this morning but, thankfully, no wind. There were birds though, lots of chirpy birds. And a very pretty sunrise. And Jupiter which you don’t see in this picture because the gas giant was out of the range of the photo, just a pinpoint of light high in the western sky. To the untrained eye the largest planet in our solar system would have looked like a star about to fade from view in the brightening sky.

I’m glad I got up when I did because had I waited another 15 minutes I might not have found it. As it was I had just enough time to tilt the scope over and place the Tetrad’s red center point on the fading pinpoint. I was treated to the best view of Jupiter I’ve ever had. Even with the coming daylight I saw three bands of reddish clouds stretching across the white sphere of the planet. The two main bands even hinted at a bit of detail along the edges which exhibited irregularities. Even more,  the white base color of the planet turned into a gradient of a fainter red over the north and south poles. Four moons were easily visible as pinpoints of light.

For a little treat after Jupiter I swung over to the moon (top right corner of the photo) and in its current crescent stage it’s possible to see many more craters along the edge and it was a fantastic view.

This marks the 5th viewing session with the new scope. Well, new to me. It’s actually about 14 years old. Handmade by the folks at Discovery Telescopes, it was a chance find on Craig’s List. With a mirror of 12.5″ it’s only slightly larger than the Zummel’s 12″ mirror. I am not at all unhappy with the Zummel and have enjoyed it a great deal over the past three years but this was a chance at a better scope and thus a better visual experience at a good price so I went for it. Not only are the optics better but it came with an equatorial platform for tracking objects in the eyepiece. So, what are some of the differences and how does it perform?

Most importantly, the Discovery scopes are built with hand-made mirrors that are a step up from mass produced mirrors used in scopes by Zummel, Orion and others. Or so it is said. In terms of the visual experience I have to also mention that the Discovery is built using cardboard Sonotubes. Yes, cardboard. Very well painted and the Sonotube is very, very sturdy so this is not something that will bend or break easily as long as it is taken care of. But most importantly, the interior of the tube is pitch black. Unlike an unflocked metal scope that’s been painted black but appears gray this is completely black. Set this next to the Zummel on a dark night and you’d be amazed at the grayish blue glow that you see when looking down the tube of the Zummel. Look down the tube of the Discovery and it is pitch black. The only light to be seen is that being reflected back up by the primary mirror at the base of the tube.

The result of the improved mirror and the blackened tube in the eyepiece is not just noticeable but dramatic. I can’t say for certain how much of the improvement is the mirror and how much is the darker tube but I can say that in the five sessions I’ve had I am thrilled. As mentioned above, the view of Jupiter this morning was the best I’ve ever had. Did I think my views before were lacking? At the time, no. I was always very happy with them. But it is greatly improved with this scope. I’m looking forward to more viewings with darker skies and greater contrast.  I suspect that for the most part the views will only be better.

Another object I’ve viewed during four of the sessions that needs special attention is the Orion Nebula. WOW. The view with this scope is nothing short of spectacular. When viewing astronomical objects, especially nebulosity, the key is contrast which translates into increased detail. With such low light the observer is always looking for the subtle details to be found in gradients of gray and usually blueish light. So, in an object such as the Orion Nebula which is easy to see even in binoculars the details emerge as you improve your practice viewing and as you observe with better equipment. I’ve had a good bit of practice and am seeing more all the time just because I’ve been looking at it now for 3+ years with several different scopes. In some ways it’s like other visual activities that one learns in practice.

For example, as a bird watcher I’m still learning new things about birds and learning how not just identify them but to really see the details. With birds it’s everything from the shape of the beak to the colorful feather markings, the shape of it’s body, to the way the bird flies and more.

In visual astronomy practice helps one to see more details in any instrument but it also helps one notice the refined details in better instruments. If I were to look at the Orion Nebula with my 8″ scope now I would see more than I did 3 years ago when I first looked using that scope because I know how too look. I know about averted vision and about spending enough time on an object. I know more of the details and about looking at dark areas as much as the light areas. So, regardless of instrument the view is always getting better with practice and familiarity. But with the Discovery I can safely say that I am seeing an amazing amount of new detail. The increased contrast means the subtle details that would have been lacking before now stand out. Differences in color and brightness mean differences in gradient which, in the case of this particular object, means a new sense of visual depth, of dimension. Honestly, this wasn’t something I was expecting. Yes, I was hoping for a better view, better detail, but I didn’t quite understand what that would be. Now I know.

Viewing the nebula now means seeing new detail everywhere which leads to this added sense of dimension. It’s no longer a flat view. Now, I expect not all objects will benefit in the same way. In fact, I know they will not. My view of the Crab nebula is improved but not by much. It is a much dimmer object to begin with and as I understand it details only emerge with scopes larger than 16″. I can’t say that’s true but I can say that my view is largely the same with all three of the scopes I have at my disposal: 8″, 12″ and the 12.5″. In all three it is an irregular, somewhat spherical gray nebulosity that offers little to no detail. But M82, one of the two Bode’s galaxies?  I’ve not had nearly as much time with M82 with the new scope but in the brief time I’ve had I’d say it is improved a good bit. It might not prove to be as dramatic as the view of the Orion Nebula but it’s definitely better. The same for the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy. My expectation is that objects such as galaxies that can offer a view of spiral arm structure will benefit a good bit which is great because they are some of my favorite objects to view. Some nebulae will be improved, others won’t. I doubt larger open clusters of stars will be improved but I suspect the resolution of some of the fainter stars in some open clusters will be as will some globular clusters.

Viewing Comet Lovejoy

We finally got a chance to take advantage of the clear, moonless skies to have a look at Comet Lovejoy! Farra, Atira, Kaleesha joined me at the scope and it was quite a view. Fantastic I’d say. We also had a look at a few objects that Farra had not had a chance to see yet: the Andromeda Galaxy, Orion Nebula and the Starfish Cluster.

Homeschool Star Party

Wow. Just had a crowd of homeschool families from Poplar Bluff over for a star party. Denny manned the telescope, Farra helped guide the way up and down the path in the dark, Atira and Seth helped me in the house, making popcorn and hot cocoa and directing folks to the bathroom. I also quizzed the kids when they came in about what Denny had shown them. A wee bit hectic overall, as there were more than we were expecting, but quite a fun way to spend a winter’s evening.

The Milky Way Reflected

Stunning image of the disk of our Milky Way galaxy: 200 – 500 billion other stars just in our galaxy which is one of billions of galaxies. Fantastic!The bulge you see at the center is the actual center of the disk and contains a super massive black hole and is 26,000 light-years from our Solar System, in a region called Sagittarius A. It is estimated to be 4.1 million solar masses.The two patches of light to the left of the middle are the Magellanic Clouds, two nearby dwarf galaxies that are gravitationally bound to our Milky Way.

 Original, high res version here:

Our Star

Fantastic image of our local star! Absolutely stunning.

The diameter of the Sun is about 109 times that of Earth, and it has a mass about 330,000 times that of Earth, accounting for about 99.86% of the total mass of the Solar System. Chemically, about three quarters of the Sun’s mass consists of hydrogen, whereas the rest is mostly helium, and much smaller quantities of heavier elements, including oxygen, carbon, neon and iron. 

The Sun is a G-type main-sequence star (G2V) based on spectral class and it is informally designated as a yellow dwarf that formed approximately 4.567 billion[b] years ago from the gravitational collapse of a region within a large molecular cloud. Most of the matter gathered in the center, whereas the rest flattened into an orbiting disk that became the Solar System. The central mass became increasingly hot and dense, eventually initiating thermonuclear fusion in its core. It is thought that almost all stars form by this process. The Sun is roughly middle age and has not changed dramatically for four billion[b] years, and will remain fairly stable for four billion more. However, after hydrogen fusion in its core has stopped, the Sun will undergo severe changes and become a red giant. It is calculated that the Sun will become sufficiently large to engulf the current orbits of Mercury, Venus, and possibly Earth.