Monthly Archives: October 2011

Outreach images with Mercator

Yesterday was my first cloudy observing night this year (after 38 clear nights…), with massive amounts of high clouds over La Palma, so I decided to turn the telescope towards the only object which was still visible (except for the Moon): Jupiter. Luckily the seeing was quite good, so I managed to capture the largest planet of our Solar System in an unexpected detail, with several dark and bright atmospheric features visible besides the large dark bands. (Click on the images to see the original – larger – versions.) There is also an animated version here.

Last year in October I already took an outreach image with the Merope instrument in the morning twilight, but since then I gained much more experience with the processing of FITS images into pretty outreach photos (thanks to the new release and user manual of the FITS Liberator software, and some advanced Photoshop layering techniques), so I re-reduced those exposures of the Eskimo Nebula too, recovering much more detail from both the bright and the dark parts of this planetary nebula. Compare it with the old one!

Outreach is important, and we never take fancy images with Mercator. It would really take only maximum one hour per month to publish something nice a couple of times per year. And most of these images can be taken in twilight, when the science frames can not be taken anymore…

The outburst of the Draconids

Last night (Saturday) the Draconids produced a pretty nice outburst as the Earth passed through clouds of dust left in space by the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, resulting in a short but strong meteor shower. I had my camera outside for approximately three hours, taking pictures continuously (14 sec exposures every 15 seconds), so besides watching parts of the show with my own eyes (while the telescope was working on its own), I also got tens of shooting stars ‘on my memory card’. Unluckily it was almost full Moon, so the sky was very bright, and the Draconids are mostly faint meteors, but I still managed to see 46 of them in 31 minutes, so the outburst was indeed very strong.

Here is the nicest one (cropped) from my pictures, and if you continue further below, you can see animations of meteors leaving persistent trains! (But be patient, the animations are big and they will load slowly…) Check them out, because you do not see such things too often :) I even sent in a report to the International Meteor Organization, to place La Palma on their map. You can also check their results. Continue reading

Back at Mercator, now with photography equipment

For my last three observing runs, I preferred to have my racing bike with me on the Canary Islands instead of my photo gear. It would have been especially hard (and heavy) to carry my tripod along when I had to take care of my bike box… But now, at the end of the cycling season (and with quite some kilometers ridden on the Canaries in May and August already), I decided to bring the hardcore photography stuff. Thanks to Jonas now I even have a Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens with me. The view angle is basically the same (though the distortion is very different) as with my standard lens, but the maximum aperture is larger, which enables me to capture more of the faint starlight on the same exposure. Everything you will see in this post was taken with that lens. (Thanks again, Jonas!)

Of course packing was hell again (luckily I had better thing to do on the weekend, like cycling, playing with FIFA 12 – call me a child, I do not care :D), and I did not sleep too much during the night (but then almost 5 more hours on the planes, and this was the first time I have flown with a CRJ900). As my observing run starts on Wednesday only, now I have some time to concentrate on photography. The main goal is to take hundreds (thousands) of images again, and make a new version of my time lapse movie, The Starts of Mercator. And there are always some special things to take additional pictures of :) So lets see what we have here.

This was the first time ever that I have seen lenticular clouds over La Palma. They are usually not seen in good weather, so in astronomical terms, this was a bad sign for the forthcoming night… But not in photographic terms ;)

It was only ‘half moon’ (first quarter) over the Observatory, but it is already very bright. Without the moonlight, you cloud see the Milky Way towards the center of our galaxy on the left side of the picture. Now it is only visible, if you know what to look for… The bright path on the bottom is created by the headlights of someone driving up to the telescopes, and as you can see the dome of the WHT is open in the bottom right corner.

The lenticular cloud stayed for hours there, so I took a picture of it (and a whole time lapse sequence too) with the dorm of the Jacobus Kapteyn telescope in the foreground. Plus you can see the dim, outer part (looking into the anti-center direction) of the Milky Way with constellations like Cassiopeia and Perseus, plus you can easily (if you are/were an amateur astronomer) spot the Andromeda Galaxy in the top right corner.

Jupiter (the brightest ‘star’) and some winter constellations rising behind the INT building right before moonset (that’s why the building looks yellow and instead of white).

Looking towards the North celestistial pole. E pur si muove. It is not a real long exposure shot, but 140 (30 sec exposures) images stacked together from another time lapse sequence. The virtual circles are very nicely preserved thanks to the fisheye lens (compare it to the distortion of a standard lens here.)

Orion rising behind the INT. One hour before the arrival of the storm…

And then, at last but not least, the most special picture of the night. It is – again – part of a time lapse sequence, and you can see red sprites on the top, just below Orion. This is an extremely rarely photographed high altitude lightning, if you do a Google search on it, you won’t find many colour images… And to make it even more special, I was outside – monitoring the weather – when it happened, so I even saw it with my own eyes!!! Just as a red flash thanks to my peripheral vision, but I have seen it! Normally they can be seen from much further and at a lower view angle (and then they look more elongated thanks to the different perspective), so this is really the first image I have ever seen taken from almost below the event. Nice :)