If you are interested in astronomy, there will be some excellent opportunities for viewing and photographing the night sky in the coming months. Spring (March – May) is known as “galaxy season” to amateur astronomers, with a greater number of galaxies visible in the night sky than any other time of year.
Many amateur astronomers take advantage of this time to observe and photograph these amazing objects.
Galaxies are huge swirling masses of stars, cosmic gas and dust held together by gravity. With the recent deployment of the James Webb telescope, we are learning much more about their age and origins. There are estimated to be billions of galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of stars. They are present in a variety of shapes and sizes, and typically span light years across. The galaxies we can observe are millions of light years away, and it is really amazing that we can see them at all at that distance, even with a telescope.
The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest galaxy to our Milky Way, at a distance of 2.5 million light years away.
There will be some excellent opportunities for viewing and photographing the night sky in the coming months of spring. John Natale
There will be some excellent opportunities for viewing and photographing the night sky in the coming months of spring. John Natale
There will be some excellent opportunities for viewing and photographing the night sky in the coming months of spring
There will be some excellent opportunities for viewing and photographing the night sky in the coming months of spring.
Most of us have seen the amazing photographs of galaxies taken with the James Webb telescope, either in the news, on-line or in astronomy magazines. However, you may not know that a photograph taken from your own back yard with only amateur equipment can also reveal some excellent detail of deep sky objects, including the glowing stars present within the massive spiral arms of galaxies, and the regions of new star formation or “nebulosity” interwoven between them.
Unlike other forms of photography, astrophotography involves taking a series of long exposures or videos, and then processing them digitally afterward with a technique known as image “stacking.” This results in a much brighter composite final image with greater detail than would otherwise be possible. After capturing and saving the desired images on a laptop computer, image stacking can be done with a variety of different astronomy-specific software applications, and additional software can be used to give the photos their final touches.
When taking photos of galaxies or any other deep sky objects, selection of the right equipment is key. As far as the telescope itself is concerned, telescopes with shorter focal lengths and a wider field of view (such as a small refractor or reflector telescope) are best for beginners to learn on. As you gain expertise, telescopes with bigger apertures, longer focal lengths and a narrower field of view can also be used.
Cameras used for astrophotography have extremely sensitive optical sensors, specialized to gather dim light from distant objects, and are usually electronically cooled to reduce optical noise. A standard 35mm camera can also be used instead of an astronomy camera, but modifications may need to be made to achieve good results. The camera is typically connected to the back of a telescope and to a laptop computer, where images can be downloaded and viewed on the computer screen while capturing them. In addition, one of the most important pieces of equipment needed for astrophotography is a sturdy equatorial telescope mount, which automatically tracks the movement of the stars to allow in-focus images without star trails.
What is the best way to learn astrophotography? The most important thing you can do is to join a local amateur astronomy club, where you can go to observing events (aka “star parties”) and meet other like-minded amateur astronomers. Most clubs have members with a wide range of expertise and interests, and you can learn a lot in a very short time. I belong to the Thames Amateur Astronomical Society in southeast Connecticut, but there are also others in the state including the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford and the Astronomical Society of New Haven. No matter where you are located, there is likely to be an amateur astronomy club in your area.
When learning this hobby there is also a lot of information available from various on-line forums such as the “Cloudy Nights” forum, where you can find others with the same equipment you have and post your questions. Other on-line resources that I have found useful for learning this hobby include web sites or you-tube channels for Heavenly Backyard Astronomy, Astroforum, Star Stuff, Martin’s Astrophotography, AstroBackyard and Late Night Astronomy. Last, I have found Astronomy Magazine to be a great source of information as it provides equipment reviews, good articles, and tips on what to look for in the night sky each month.
Whether you are an experienced or beginning amateur astronomer, I encourage you to try your hand at astrophotography, and galaxy season is a great time for that. Starting out in this hobby can be expensive, and can have a large learning curve, especially for those with little or no background in photography or astronomy. However, if you if you have the time and patience to learn, it can be a very rewarding and enjoyable hobby.
John Natale is an amateur astronomer and resident of East Haddam. For additional information on amateur astronomy or astrophotography, he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Jellyfish Nebula, a galactic supernova remnant approximately 5,000 light-years from Earth
Perusing Richard Whitehead’s photographs of the night sky, one can be forgiven for mistaking them for professional images captured by the Hubble or James Webb space telescopes. Whitehead’s online astrophotography gallery includes celestial structures more commonly captured by orbiting telescopes and large mountaintop observatories.
Among them: the zoologically named Horsehead, Tadpole, Pelican and Elephant’s Trunk nebulae; the spirals of the Whirlpool, Pinwheel and Andromeda galaxies; and other cosmic structures that offer clues to the origins of stars and solar systems, including the Wizard, Heart and Soul nebulae.
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Courtesy of Richard Whitehead
But all of Whitehead’s amateur photos were shot through comparably small, ground-based telescopes, sometimes in his front yard in St. George, other times in a New Mexico desert. And while Whitehead’s scopes are considerably more sophisticated — and expensive — than the kind children receive as holiday gifts, he noted that many of the heavenly bodies he’s photographed can be seen with a modest investment of time and money.
In fact, Whitehead’s passion for astrophotography is a relatively new hobby that he took up at the start of the pandemic. In just three years, the 61-year-old has become a self-taught expert on space photography, producing stellar images that circulate widely among space enthusiasts and researchers alike. Whitehead often receives professional accolades for his photos, and amateur astrophotographers around the world now contact him for advice.
While Whitehead has a website where he sells his prints emblazoned on hats, mugs and T-shirts, he’s not in it for the money.
“I like to think of myself as a visual artist,” he said. “I like the creative aspect of it, though I’m fascinated by the science, too.”
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Courtesy of Richard Whitehead
The Wizard Nebula
Whitehead, who runs a Burlington software company that he cofounded 25 years ago, lives alone in St. George with Herschel, his exuberant 6-month-old Australian labradoodle puppy, who resembles a teddy bear you’d win at a county fair. Amid the ample collection of musical instruments in Whitehead’s home — guitars, basses and drums — are framed prints of his space photography.
Many of those prints are quite large. They include one of Whitehead’s best photos to date: a stunningly vivid, 3-by-4-foot shot of the Jellyfish Nebula, captured in St. George during four virtually crystal clear nights. Last month, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose the image as its “Astronomy Picture of the Day” and posted it to its Facebook page — considered high praise among amateur astrophotographers.
Another image of Whitehead’s, of the Siamese Twins galaxies, was similarly recognized by the Italian astronomical society Gruppo Astrofili Galileo Galilei. Still other images have received accolades from the Amateur Astronomy Photo of the Day website, which receives thousands of submissions annually from photographers worldwide. Though few people get theirs posted, Whitehead has already had four of his photos featured on the site.
Astrophotography is more complicated than terrestrial photography and involves layering multiple frames to produce the final image. Whereas conventional photography typically entails shutter speeds of tenths, hundredths or thousandths of a second, astrophotography involves stacking dozens of images, each created using 20- to 30-minute exposures, often shot over multiple nights.
Once Whitehead has gathered all that raw digital data, he processes it using various software, including Adobe Photoshop and PixInsight. The latter is an astrophotography program that aligns the stars in the overlapping images and eliminates unwanted “noise” created by thermal and atmospheric disturbances.
Whitehead has five telescopes. Usually, though, he shoots his Vermont-based images through a 106-millimeter (just over four inches) refractor scope mounted on a tripod on his front lawn. A refractor scope has a long optical tube with a convex glass lens at one end. Light from the sky enters through that lens, then exits through the eyepiece or camera shutter. (Whitehead does all of his viewing on a computer.)
Courtesy of Richard Whitehead
The Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, a star cluster about 444 light-years from Earth and visible to the naked eye
In all, his Vermont-based kit, including the telescope, tripod, filters, motor, camera and computer link, cost him about $50,000. While he acknowledged that’s a lot of money, he added, “When I think I’m ridiculous, I look at the guy who spent half a million.”
Whitehead also rents space at a professional telescope hosting facility in a New Mexico desert. “They get about 300 clear nights a year, as opposed to Vermont, which gets about 20,” he said. “It can be good here, but it’s very hit or miss.” In New Mexico, he houses his reflecting telescope, which uses curved mirrors rather than lenses to capture and focus the light. Like Whitehead’s Vermont-based scope, he controls the reflector scope in New Mexico remotely via a laptop in Vermont.
Whitehead had no formal education in astronomy or astrophysics, but he grew up surrounded by high-tech gadgetry. He was born and raised in England, in a small rural town in the East Midlands. Whitehead’s father, a decorated military radio operator during World War II, ran a maritime radio station and was also a ham radio enthusiast.
“There were always wires and equipment around the house, which is a bit like me,” he said. “So I guess I inherited that.”
As a child, Whitehead had a small backyard telescope for stargazing, and his small rural hometown of about 5,000 people had very little light pollution. Whitehead was also a fan of Sir Patrick Moore, the famous British astronomer who for years had a BBC television show called “The Sky at Night.” Whitehead described him as a 1960s version of Neil deGrasse Tyson.
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Courtesy of Richard Whitehead
The Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s nearest neighbor, approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth
Whitehead attended university, where he received a degree in radiography, then spent three years working as a medical X-ray technician. Feeling limited by the job, he changed careers to sales and marketing for the pharmaceutical industry. Then, in the late 1990s, he cofounded an analytical software firm called CSL Software Solutions. With clients in the Northeast, and having enjoyed several previous visits to Vermont, Whitehead moved the company to Burlington in 2006.
Already an avid amateur photographer, Whitehead had a small telescope that he used only rarely for stargazing prior to 2020. When the pandemic hit, he started playing around with the telescope again, then bought himself a small star tracker that follows the movement of celestial objects across the night sky.
Bored one night during the lockdown, Whitehead aimed his telescope toward the Orion Nebula and shot some photos using 30-second to one-minute exposures. Though his first one was “a rubbish image,” Whitehead said, its colors inspired him to create better ones.
“And that was the start of the addiction,” he added.
Soon, Whitehead upgraded to an 11-inch reflector scope, which enabled him to shoot much sharper images of galaxies and nebulae. (He’s less interested in photographing planets but has some good images of the moon and comets.) Much of the processing software Whitehead needed was available online for free. Numerous catalogs for locating and identifying celestial objects are also available online. Whitehead integrated his expertise in databases, which he acquired as a software developer, into his newfound pastime.
How does artistry enter the cosmic picture? As Whitehead explained, some of the creativity is similar to that of conventional photography: framing the subject, deciding on the picture’s depth of field, and choosing the right shutter speeds and filters. Whitehead uses very narrow filters — a mere three nanometers wide — that enable his telescope to peer through clouds of dust in space.
In astrophotography, Whitehead explained, the photographer also has the ability to change the colors that appear in the final image. The so-called “Hubble Palette,” made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope, is merely a convention that NASA developed: blues represent the presence of oxygen, oranges and reds the presence of hydrogen, yellows for sulfur, and so on for other elements. However, as Whitehead pointed out, amateur astrophotographers can choose completely different colors to represent those elements, rendering familiar objects in space in new ways.
Not all of Whitehead’s subjects have been photographed countless times before. He spent 30 hours photographing the Bear Claw Nebula, of which, he said, there’s only a handful of other images online, and “none of them particularly great.
“Scientific images aren’t necessarily pretty images,” he added.
Naturally, when photographing objects millions of light-years away, astrophotographers still encounter obstacles in their own neighborhood, from heavy cloud cover and light pollution to the proliferation of satellites, such as Starlink, which are highly reflective. While Whitehead can use software to eliminate some of the trails and reflections created by passing aircraft, satellites and meteors, often he has to throw away those images and take new ones.
Not all unexpected images are unwanted. In Whitehead’s Jellyfish Nebula, for example, he captured something he didn’t expect and couldn’t identify, which may be a planetary nebula, a region of cosmic dust and gas created by a dying star. And in 2021, while photographing Messier 78, a nebula in the constellation Orion, Whitehead caught Herbig-Haro objects, which form when gas ejected by young stars collides with clouds of other gas and dust at high speeds. In his photo, they appear as narrow red jets.
While Whitehead’s images have caught the attention of some professional astronomers and researchers, most of his fans are amateur space enthusiasts like himself, who enjoy pondering the vastness of the universe and our place in it.
“Whatever’s going on in the world,” he said, “you can look up at the sky and realize how small and insignificant we are.”
AstroFest, Galway Astronomy Club’s annual festival of all things astronomy, will return next week after a three year hiatus.
The festival will take place in the Menlo Park Hotel on Saturday January 28, and promises a packed programme of talks, along with trade displays, photographic displays, and a lunchtime workshop with Tom O’Donoghue, one of Ireland’s best known astrophotographers.
Registration will open at 9.15am on the January 28, and will run all day.
On January 27, the evening before AstroFest, Galway Astronomy Club will host a special screening of Contact, the 1997 film starring Jodie Foster as Dr Ellie Arroway, who after years of searching finds conclusive radio proof of extraterrestrial intelligence, which has been sending plans for a mysterious machine. The screening will take place in the Pálás Cinema at 9pm, and is a rare opportunity to see this classic film on the big screen.
The day-long festival on the Saturday will include talks on a wide variety of topics; these include ‘Cutting Edge Radio Astronomy in Ireland’ with Jeremy Rigney, ‘Is there Anybody Out There’ with Brian MacGabhann, ‘Ancient Irish Rock Art and Astronomy’ with Aoibheann Lambe, and ‘Detecting Exo-Earths with Future Telescopes’ with Nicholas Devaney.
Tuam native Tom O’Donoghue is well-known in the Irish astronomy community. One of Ireland’s leading astrophotographers, his work has won several awards. He has been featured in the BBC’s The Sky At Night, and in magazines such as Astronomy and Space, Astronomy Now, the French Astronomie Magazine, and Practical Astronomer. Those familiar with our AstroFest will have seen O’Donoghue’s images bring colour and the ‘wow’ factor to previous festivals. For more information see www.astrophotography.ie
The highlight of the day will be the Patrick Moore Memorial Lecture, ‘Artemis and Beyond: Where Past Meets Our Future’ with Shehnaz Soni, an aerospace engineer at NASA who will be speaking live from the US on the Artemis Project, an ambitious plan to return humans to the Moon and, ultimately, Mars. The festival dinner on Saturday evening will give attendees the opportunity to meet and chat informally.
The talks are geared toward a general audience, and will appeal to both scientists and laypeople. Children aged over 11 years who are interested in all things science and space are also welcome to attend.
Tickets for the festival are €30 for guests, and €20 for club members and students. Entry is free for children under 16. The festival dinner is €40, and can be booked online or on the door. The festival screening tickets are available from the Pálás Cinema, www.palas.ie/films
For full details visit www.galwayastronomyclub.ie/astrofest-2023 or find Galway Astronomy Club
HICKORY — BoBfest: Regional Gathering of Amateur Astronomers returns to Catawba Science Center on Saturday, Jan. 28. The event will be held from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.
BoBfest is free and open to the public. The event will feature keynote speakers, astrophotography displays, and door prizes. Vendors, exhibitors, and information about local events and facilities will be available, as well as the chance to engage with amateur and professional astronomers from the region.
CSC staff and volunteers along with the Patrick Beaver Memorial Library will be heading up family activities from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Activities will include crafts and experiments related to astronomy for children of all ages.
Attendees ranging from professional astronomers to those who simply have an interest in astronomy are welcome. Anyone looking into astronomy as a hobby is urged to come and ask questions of the more experienced astronomers.
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This year’s keynote speakers are Corrie Ann Delgado with her presentation, “Through the Eyes of the James Webb Space Telescope,” and Michael Rehnberg with his presentation “When Clear Skies Aren’t Enough: Weather Forecasting for Amateur Astronomers.”
There will also be afternoon forums with different speakers covering a range of topics from astrophotography to space radio, and how to get started in astronomy. In addition to the keynote speakers and various afternoon forums on astronomy topics, there will be solar observing available during lunch, weather permitting.
Tickets will be sold for a wide variety of door prizes for $1 per ticket. Door prizes range from astronomy materials and merchandise to telescopes, items from local businesses, and more.
While attending the event is free to the public, the money from the door prize donations will help fund the event.
Interested vendors or door prize donors may contact email@example.com.
Everyone planning to attend is encouraged to pre-register online at www.catawbasky.org/bobfest.
For a more detailed schedule of the events, visit www.catawbasky.org/bobfest. Food trucks from the Hickory Sandwich Shop, Dig N Dogs, and Dipperz Mini Donuts will be on site during lunch break around 11:30 a.m. Special planetarium features, including children’s shows and laser shows, will be shown throughout the day in the Millholland Planetarium.
BoBfest is presented by the Cleveland County Astronomical Society, Catawba Science Center, and the Catawba Valley Astronomy Club.
Catawba Science Center is on the SALT Block, 243 Third Ave. NE, Hickory. Call 828-322-8169.
Catawba Science Center is a nonprofit science and technology museum serving North Carolina’s western Piedmont region. Special attractions include temporary exhibits, a digital planetarium theater and marine touch pool and live sharks and stingrays. Learn more at www.CatawbaScience.org.
It’s a telescope, but not as we know it. Meet the eVscope eQuinox 2, a new so-called “smart telescope” unveiled this week at CES in Las Vegas that adds planets to the roster of what it can image in the night sky.
The annual tech show is mostly known for huge TVs, drones and electric cars, so what is a diminutive telescope doing in the halls of the Sands Hotel?
The eVscope eQuinox 2 is not like most telescopes you will have seen before, probably gathering dust in a friend’s spare bedroom. The eVscope eQuinox 2 has no eyepiece. You cannot look at the night sky through this telescope. Instead of your own eyes collecting the light from distant galaxies, nebula and star clusters those photons go directly to a Sony IMX347 sensor.
The eVscope eQuinox 2 is all about astrophotography, not stargazing—and you can sit indoors while it does its thing and just wait for its images to be delivered to your smartphone.
It’s modelled by French company Unistellaron professional telescopes that are found the world over, usually on mountain tops, which collect light using the giant mirrors before focusing those photos on an image sensor. Hey presto, you get image date of galaxies and anything else astronomers care to point these behemoths at. This is also essentially how space telescopes like Hubble and Webb work.
The follow-up to 2021’s eVscope eQuinox, this second-generation version is not like those professional telescopes, but it is way more slick. A 4.5-inch/114mm reflector telescope with a focal length of 450mm, focal ratio of f/4 and 50x magnification, the eVscope eQuinox 2 weighs 9kg, has a motorized alt-azimuth mount, an 11-hour rechargeable battery and 64GB of storage. It produces 6.2 megapixel images in JPEG or RAW formats. They’re easy to share and easy to post-process, if that’s your thing, but the whole point of the eVscope eQuinox 2 is that it’s autonomous.
You literally just put this smart telescope in your backyard—or even on your balcony in a light-polluted environment—and it gets to work plate-solving, comparing the stars it can see in the sky with a database on its on-board computer. Within a few minutes it’s ready to use.
Using an smartphone app it’s possible to choose from a list of deep sky targets you want the eVscope eQuinox 2 to observe. Each object in its database comes with baked-in settings for exposure times and ISO, so all you really have to do is wait (though you can tinker with the settings if you want).
In fact, you can actually leave the telescope outside and go sit indoors because the live image it produces is shown on the app and continually refreshed. It depends on what you are looking at, but for faint objects such as nebulae, the longer you leave the telescope staring at it, the better the finished image will be. That’s because it’s taking an image every 30 seconds or so, and stacking it on top of the last one, thus producing a cleaner and brighter image as time passes. It’s these algorithms and machine learning that are the secret sauce inside the eVscope eQuinox 2.
I’ve used the original eVscope eQuinox extensively—adoring it mostly for its skill at completely bypassing light pollution—and this new version looks interesting. At $2,499 it’s the company’s most affordable model yet. It now has a new sensor and a slightly wider field of view (34×47 arc minutes). The latter means it can fit larger objects into its field of view, chiefly the Andromeda galaxy and the Moon (though until a firmware update arrives it won’t be primed to take images of our only natural satellite).
However, what’s really interesting about the eVscope eQuinox 2 is a much-anticipated new ability to study and image planets. In stark contrast to the long exposure images it uses to find objects, the incredibly bright orbs of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn are snapped using something called “lucky imaging”. Another technique used by huge ground-based telescopes, this is when astrophotographers continually snap away at an object in the night sky hoping that Earth’s turbulent atmosphere will, just for a split second, settle enough for them for the image to be perfectly exposed, sharp and without any distortion.
“The eQuinox 2 smart telescope puts incredible power in the hands of the general public and inspires a new generation of urban stargazers who can now enjoy an amazing voyage to the universe from their balcony and within minutes. Thanks to its unique technologies and its smart design choices, we are putting space within reach from anywhere, even from light-polluted cities,” said Laurent Marfisi, co-founder and CEO of Unistellar. “Now, novice stargazers and amateur astronomers can enjoy stunning clarity, color, and hard to see details like the striking colors of the Dumbbell Nebula.”
The Unistellar eVscope eQuinox 2 can be pre-ordered now, with shipping expected from mid-February 2023.
To start off the new year the Land of Waterfalls Camera Club will present a program featuring “The Fundamentals of Astrophotography” at its monthly meeting Thursday, Jan. 19. Starting promptly at 7 p.m., “live” via Zoom, the evening will conclude with the popular Shoot & Show activity.
For thousands of years people on earth have gazed into the night sky with awe and with questions. They have tried to capture and record what they could see with the naked eye. The German 3,600-year-old Nebra Sky Disk shows the first known depiction of the cosmos on a disk.
Opportunities to see the cosmic phenomenon increased drastically with the invention of the telescope early in the 1600s. Galileo saw the potential for the telescope and improved it drastically. He was then able to make many observations which he recorded in text and sketches.
Appropriately, it was an astronomer who coined the term photography in 1839, when Johann Heinrich von Madler combined “photo” (from the Greek word for “light”) and “graphy” (“to write). In that same year the French photography pioneer Daguerre himself is believed to be the first person to take a photograph of the moon, using his daguerreotype process. A year later John William Draper, an American doctor and chemist, took his own daguerreotype of the moon. By that time both astronomers and photographers realized that they could capture and document images that had eluded star gazers for centuries.
In 1850 Draper collaborated with astronomer William Bond to produce a daguerreotype of the star Vega. Henry Draper’s 1880 photograph of the Orion Nebula was the first ever taken.
Then physicists Jean Bernard Leon Foucault and Armand Fizeau improved the process sufficiently to photograph the Sun in sufficient detail that sunspots could be seen for the first time.
Over a century both telescopes and cameras continued to improve the science of documenting the heavens. Professional applications got bigger, better and more expensive. The science belonged to those with giant observatories and special cameras. But the amateur photographers and astronomers really got their first break with the more recent introduction of digital photography. The digital camera gear and the software processing created limitless possibilities for the amateur Astro Photographer.
Night photography isn’t the easiest genre to master. There are so many things to consider. On top of your usual composition and exposure, you have to deal with noise, shadow detail, preserving highlights and camera gear considerations for night lovers.
Being out alone in the dark isn’t for the faint-hearted, but astrophotographers have learned to handle any fear of the dark when conditions are favorable. Some night images take a lot of planning: full moon and milky way images with specific foreground, for example. Interestingly, there are very few photographers who specialize solely in astro photography. The majority are versatile and shoot various types of landscape images.
Astro Photographer James S. Mack’s presentation of “The Fundamentals of Astro Photography” will be geared to enlighten and entertain photographers of all levels of proficiency (beginner to experienced pro). With a lifetime interest in the sciences and nature, 34 years as a graphic artist, 50 years of photographic experience (which includes over 25 years of astro photography with digital equipment), he will pass on tips and other valuable information about what common equipment to use and how to use it.
Mack has six telescopes and is a member of the SCSG – Suncoast Stargazers, LGDSO – Local Group of Deepsky Observers and WAS – West Jersey Astronomical Society.
Following the astro photography program the fast paced “Shoot and Show” activity will showcase the latest photographic achievements of local members. It will be a good example of what local photographers can accomplish.
These open-to-the-public monthly meetings will be “live” on-line with Zoom until the health crisis subsides. Club members and guests are encouraged to sign in at least 10 minutes early (6:50 p.m.). Non-member guests are encouraged to go to firstname.lastname@example.org for invitation and access information at least a day prior to the meeting.
The Land of Waterfalls Camera Club welcomes participation from those interested in becoming a photographer, to novices who need fundamental skills, to photographers who enjoy sharing with others, as well as experienced pros. No special equipment or software is necessary.
To offer more focused forums for small group participatory learning and sharing the club features two Special Interest Groups (SIGs). The Capture SIG concentrates on how to take the best picture and meets from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. on the third Monday of the month in the community room of the United Community Bank in Straus Park or by Zoom. Please consult the website for the latest schedules. The Post Processing SIG features the developing/control of the digital image into the final photograph and continues to meet via Zoom at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of the month.
For more information, visit the Land of Waterfalls Camera Club website at www.lowccnc.com.
We’re getting a great gift in our skies this holiday season with three bright planets — Saturn, Jupiter and Mars — decorating our evening skies. We also have some nice celestial conjunctions, or what I call celestial huggings, between the moon and planets.
Every month there are at least one or two conjunctions. These frequent conjunctions happen because of the ecliptic, the superhighway of the planets in our skies. Planets are wanderers, moving among the stars from night to night and year to year. In fact, the word planet has a Greek origin that roughly evolved from what they called “wandering stars.” Back then, no one really knew the nature of the planets except that they appeared to roam among the fixed stars in the celestial dome. Early civilizations observed that the moon and the wanderers, or planets, didn’t move randomly among the fixed stars. Instead, they followed about the same path, mainly migrating to the east and at times moving backward, or retrograde, in a westward direction. This path is called the ecliptic because it’s along the same line where eclipses of the sun and moon occur.
All of the planets take pretty much the same ecliptic path among the stars because they, along with our Earth, all orbit the sun in nearly the same geometric plane. They also move along the ecliptic at different speeds. The planets close to the sun, Venus and Mercury, are in the fast lane. Their paths around the sun are shorter and travel faster because the sun has a stronger gravitational pull on them. So they zip around the sun compared to outer planets like Uranus and Neptune, which take their sweet time completing their longer ecliptic circuit. Consider the ecliptic the long and winding road in the stars. Also, along and on either side of the ecliptic are thirteen constellations referred to as zodiac constellations. On any given night or day, a planet or our moon will be in one of these constellations as they travel down the ecliptic highway.
The planets aren’t the only wanderers in the night sky. Human-made satellites rip across the sky in just about all directions. Hundreds of them have been launched into space in the last 70 years. Many of them are still functioning, fulfilling their various missions and tasks, but there’s also a lot of junk up there like dead satellites and spent rocket stages. At my star-watching programs, I’ll inevitably have someone call out, “Hey, look at the satellite up there.”
The best times to spot satellites are early morning and early evening. While the sun has gone down from our point of view on Earth, it’s still shining high up in space where the satellites are. The light we see when we observe satellites is sunlight bouncing off their reflective surfaces.
Some satellites are brighter than others. The absolute king of the satellites is the International Space Station. At first glance it resembles a high-flying jet airliner. There are also the new Elon Musk Starlink communication satellites. Hundreds are already in use, and hundreds more are planned. The only problem is that with so many satellites, astronomical observations from Earth could get messy. I know it affects my astrophotography. Hopefully, solutions can be worked out so this won’t become a huge problem.
There are a lot of good websites and apps for helping you spot and identify satellites. Not only can these help you with satellites, but many apps and websites can also help locate comets, asteroids and more so you can enjoy all the wanderers, natural and human-made!
Celestial Happening this week: The winter solstice is during the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 21, and it’s the astronomical first day of winter and the shortest day of the year. From here on, days get longer, and the sun climbs higher and higher in the heavens.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to
The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is
Travel enthusiasts, who crave a holistic astronomy experience to give voice to their curiosity about the vast skies beyond our stratosphere, can gain an integrated astronomy experience through Astro Tourism, a trend that has seen an increasing number of travellers who are keen to get to experience activities such as stargazing, sun observations, stargazing parties with friends, experiential science activities and much more. The spike in Astro Tourism could be a result of the post pandemic world where many people are looking for less crowded and nature driven experiences or the offer of a sense of discovery as when you look up at the sky, you may see a big white moon or two bright stars that never twinkle but when you look at them through the telescope, the moon suddenly has massive features (craters, flat grey surfaces, highlands, etc.) of varied colours and the two bright stars are no longer stars – one is Jupiter, a big disc with a giant red dot on it (which in itself is a storm three times the size of the Earth) and the other is Saturn, with many rings around it.
You literally cannot believe your eyes and you realise that the universe is so much more complex than what you see, with so much left to discover hence, a number of resorts and hotel chains are now offering stargazing as one of the activities for their guests to treat them to a flashback to their childhood. For a large number of people, the last time they looked at the skies and enjoyed the stars was when they were kids and ever since they turned into adults, they moved to a city and neither got the opportunity nor the time to experience the cosmos but looking up at the skies lets them relive their childhood.
In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Paul Savio, CEO and Co-Founder of Starscapes, revealed that Astro Tourism is seeing a spurt for three reasons:
(1) With higher disposable incomes and a more liberal view of living a wholesome life, people are on the lookout for new and exciting experiences that are beyond the usual offerings available. Anything new piques a huge interest, and today people are more willing to try them out than before.
(2) Millennials have, due to access to the internet in their formative years, a much more global exposure to life and career than previous generations. As parents, this demographic is open to encouraging their kids to look at radical career options, and therefore get exposed to such experiences that could kindle an interest in the kids becoming astrophysicists, aerospace engineers or even astronauts.
(3) Space is in the news, with NASA going back to the moon (Artemis), India sending humans to space (Gaganyaan) and space tourism kicking off with private enterprise (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin). So it is currently top of mind.
He shared, “Lots of people, especially in metros, are beginning to step out to nearby dark sky locations to get a glimpse of the starry sky. Apart from the usual suspects (Ladakh, Spiti, Kodaikanal, Kutch, Coorg, Jaisalmer, etc.), myriad sites exist within 2 hours of all metros which can give a great dark sky experience. However, daytime astronomy as a concept is slowly picking up too.”
According to Neeraj Ladia, CEO of Space Arcade, there is a lot of interest in Astro tourism all over India. He said, “One major reason is social media. More and more people are showing people where they can travel. Places which were accessible for very few people earlier, like mountaineering and trekking, are now common among people. There are videos, reels on social media accounts where there is a lot of conversation around offbeat activities such as astro tourism. People have become more aware of these kinds of things. Astro tourism has gained more popularity post lockdown mainly because people want to be closer to nature and want to do something new and offbeat. Similarly, like wildlife photography/nature photography, people are developing an interest in astro photography too.”
Talking about some of the common activities under astro tourism, Paul Savio highlighted stargazing, sun observation, astrophotography (where you learn how to photograph the night sky and even deep sky objects using different cameras and mounts), astro tours (trips to dark sky locations for an enhanced night sky experience), workshops and activities to understand different phenomena associated with astrophysics and space exploration.
For a person who has never experienced astro tourism, Neeraj Ladia suggested stargazing as one of the most exciting activities to do. Secondly, he recommended, “If it is a starry clear night, guided telescope view of planets and deep sky objects along with an astrophotography session can be quite exciting. With astro tourism, people have an opportunity to see and learn the names of the stars and constellations. They can also go much deeper into understanding these concepts.”
Paul Savio concluded, “Astro Tourism is the sunrise segment of the experiential tourism industry. Massive interest is being shown by luxury resorts across India to incorporate astro-experiences in the bouquet of offerings for their guests. Today, the customer base is overwhelmingly of people who are looking for a new experience and not necessarily an astronomy experience. We expect this to flip in the next 3 years – people will travel with an intent to have an astronomy experience. This will be driven by the springing up of dark sky parks (the astronomy equivalent of national parks) and other dark sky places equipped to service this interest.”