Saturday, January 30, 2021

Off Topic - Astronomy ---> Photographing Planet Mercury, Andromeda Galaxy, Pleiades Star Cluster, Orion Nebula & Others


Blog readers might have seen the evolution of this blog over the last ten years. Of course - Birding will stay front and center as the key topic of this blog --- but the big picture of science - aka "Natural Philosophy" continues to present so many beautiful experiences  (Birdwatching, Botany, Butterfly watching, Moth watching, Herping) --- I can't help but continue to explore!

Amazingly - I have a job that allows me to continue learning about science --- so in the last year or so --- I have really "gone down the rabbit hole" of Astronomy.  To be honest, if you look back at my blog, I have made references to various astronomy occurrences -- the "low hanging fruit" events such as lunar and solar eclipses. I've also always had a sincere appreciation for the even of a solstice or equinox. There are so many natural history connections to these dates for farmers, dating back to ancient pre-history --- its hard not to appreciate such wonderful dates in our calendar year!

To think back at humanity, waking up from its caveman ancestry ---- to slowly learn the cycles that take in a growing season, to see days lengthen and shorten, temperatures rise and fall. Certain dates when a well might have the bottom luminated by sunlight at certain times an not at others. 

I think the idea that I was able to witness Comet Neowise in late July 2020 was so amazing to me --- that single event has now made it official --- I have an interest - a love, an appreciation for astronomy --- and I'm throwing my hat in the ring to go as far as to call myself an amateur astronomer.

The Comet Neowise was an amazing event (I have to thank Mr Pelerin for assisting me in the technicals of seeing that event) --- but even the Winter Solstice event of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter really caught my attention. I was able to find this even on my own (with the help of Chris Hadfield's Twitter and Instagram feed) and along with a new 80mm Celestron Spotting scope--- I was able to see Jupiter and 4 of its largest moons, as well as Saturns' rings --- while scoping out my living room window! Now I am hooked!

Over the last week or two (I think the pandemic lockdown has helped with this) I have started to watch more youtube videos about astronomy and Canadian Astronomy channels which have been tremendously interesting!  I have learned more and more about a website (software tool) called STELLARIUM,, and the free Stellarium Cell Phone App that acts as a sophisticated Celestial sphere "Sky Map" that is smart enough to consider your location and basically allow you to ID any stars, constellations, planets, nebula, galaxies and any other celestial bodies of interest!

So this posting, beyond just stating that I have a newfound interest in Astronomy will attempt to share what I have seeked out over the last two weeks. One has to appreciate that in SW Ontario, especially in the winter can be very cloudy during the winter. Its almost rare during a week to have a nice view of a sunset with clear skies. But, when these clear nights arrive --- an opportunity presents itself to get outside and try to observe some phenomena ---- that much like many things in nature are cyclical and fleeting. 

For example, I realized recently that the planet Mercury is generally not easy to see in the night sky because it is only ever visible near dawn or dusk (it orbits somewhat close to the sun), and even with that constraint, depending on its annual rotation around the sun, it is only possible to see it during a limited window time in its orbit around the sun. It only appears within 20 degrees or less above the horizon, so a good un-obstructed view of the western horizon (or eastern for sunrise times) is required. 

I had read that Mercury was at its highest level above the horizon on Jan 27 (15-20 degrees) this week and I made an effort to drive out to an area with a good view of the Horizon. One area I had chose last night was a Lasalle city park along the Detroit River -- looking out towards Fighting Island. I arrived at sunset, not realizing that it would take another 30-45 minutes of time for dusk to arrive and reveal this tiny planet. 

It took a great deal of patience and a little bit of fortitude to brave the cold, but having a tripod, and a regular medium-zoom camera (17-55mm on a cropped ASP-C sensor), I was slowly able to pick out a single tiny "star" (planet) right above the western horizon where the sun had set 30-40 minutes prior. With patience, and with the app --- you can see and model where Mercury will be and exactly when and how you will end up seeing it. Its uncanny really! Its not "easy" to find --- but at the same time, if you are looking 10-20 degrees over the horizon after sunset, and you have binoculars and the benefit of camera --- it isn't that difficult to find either. 

Here are some photos (wide angle at first, then 400mm Telephoto)

The Orion Constellation --- Easy to find if you can find "Orion's Belt". Below Orion's Belt is Orion's Sword, which is a brilliant array of stars and nebula that you can appreciate just with birding binoculars!!! A good spotting scope and even a camera with a telephoto lens can capture these celestial bodies. Betelgeuse and Rigel are the two brightest stars in the Orion Constellation, and they are Red Giant and Blue Giant stars --- a decent camera exposure will make the colour of the stars apparent and obvious!

Much to my amazement, if you are willing to go outside on a clear night, find the Belt of Orion (which is pretty easy--- even in light-polluted Windsor ON) you can photograph the Nebula of Orion. 

Another constellation that I noticed last night - perhaps for the first time thanks to my Stellarium App on my phone is Constellation Canus (dog) which features one of the brightest stars in the sky - Sirius. 

I was able to see the Taurus Constellation, (again the stellarium skymap app helps a great deal) and Taurus features an interesting star cluster called "Pleiades star cluster". I have a wide angle view then a telephoto view of the star cluster below:

Ok -- and finally one of my greatest Astronomy feats is one I'm about to share with you. You might want to attempt finding this. If you are reading this from an area with Dark Skies --- you may find this much more easily than myself.  Essentially --- to appreciate this next sighting, you need to realize that our sun, and solar system is just one star of billions in the Milky Way Galaxy! I did not know this fact until recently --- but it turns out that every single star you see in the sky, the constellations, stars, planets are all just in our local galaxy - The Milky Way! There are a few local galaxies to our home galaxy ( this is called the "local group") and one neighbor Galaxy that we can see is called the Andromeda Galaxy.  So--- over the last two week, I made a point of finding Andromeda and seeing it with my own eyes. I wanted to try to photograph it was well. 

So, I have a series of photos, screenshots below to help explain how I found the Andromeda Galaxy (one of the few things you can see with your naked eye that is not in our Milky Way Galaxy).

So below, you see software show the "Belt of Andromeda" constellation. I had to find the yellowish star, Mirach below, and then 'hop' these three stars over to find the third star over, called Nu Andromeda (which is zoomed in below). 

If you look at the scene below, you see the Nu-Andromedae star with two tiny stars below it, and the Andromeda Galaxy in the software. I had read that for most people, Andromeda Galaxy will just look like a fuzzy ball of light (not really like a star).  After find Mirach in the Andromeda Constellation, hoping over three stars, I could not see the Andromeda Galaxy with might own eyes (Windsor has great light pollution, but I was hoping my camera sensor would pick it up). 

To my amazement, my camera did pick up a faint, fuzzy ball of light in the prescribed location. Just standing on my back porch, with software and a camera, binoculars... I was able to find the Andromeda Galaxy and photograph it!  Compare the software scene above with this photo. The patterns of stars are un-mistakable!  WOW! 

So, finally, I end off this posting with my Andromeda Galaxy Photo and a photo that Hubble Telescope most likely obtained while orbiting earth in the vacuum of space. This is our closest neighboring spiral galaxy (its 2.537 million light years away). How many billions of stars and planets orbiting stars are there? Is there life on any of those planets? Could anyone in that galaxy be looking back at us in our milky way galaxy? You could also start thinking about the size and scale of the universe and start asking the deepest questions that faces us --- who made us? Why are we here? If the big bang theory is real, who made the initial infinitely dense ball of matter that might have been as big as the period at the end of this sentence. ? Who set the big bang in motion? Where was that ball of matter located?  Time, space, energy , matter, creation, life ... all hinge on the the sight of a galaxy, floating around in the vacuum of space of our universe. 

Image source: Wikipedia (Nasa)

Here is a picture of the Orion Nebula that is from Hubble Telescope:


So, in closing, I might try to add occasional postings about astronomy and share my learning journey with blog readers. Most birders have a good pair of binoculars, a spotting scope and a camera with wide angle and telephoto lenses. --- So why not have another excuse to get outside and learn more? 

Stay Healthy and Good Astronomizing!


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