Tag Archives: science

Comet NEOWISE

Darlene and I went out last night near the Truckee airport to see the comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE).  It’s currently relatively close to the sun so it’s not visible in the sky for very long before sunrise or after sunset.  It is visible to the naked eye but not super obvious – you have to know where to look for it.  It looks most impressive with binoculars or a telephoto lens on a tripod (and a few seconds exposure).  In a telescope, you won’t see most of the tail as it’s quite long!

It’s likely to get brighter over the coming week as we get to our closest approach July 22nd, though it’s also possible it’ll break up.  It’ll appear higher in the sky (and further from the sun) as the month progresses.  July 20th will be nice too as it’ll be a dark new moon setting with the sun and the comet will be higher in the sky after dark

Here’s more info on where/how to look.

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The Unistellar eVscope

I received my eVscope from Unistellar in January of 2020 and after just a few sessions with it, I thought I would share my thoughts and experiences with it – particularly since there wasn’t a lot of info available when I ordered it in back in July of 2019.  I’ve since been adding to this page to provide additional information.

Overview

The Unistellar eVscope is quite different from a traditional optical telescope.  It’s a highly integrated and automated digital imaging telescope that enables you to easily find and view deep sky objects in color and detail that would not normally be perceptible to your eye looking through a normal optical telescope.  In addition, the eVscope is designed to let you easily participate in and contribute data to crowd-sourced “citizen science” projects.

The eVscope is a 4.5-inch Newtonian reflector that captures light on a highly sensitive, low noise Sony IMX224 color sensor while using a motorized alt-az tracking mount and autonomous field detection to automatically identify, align and continually track its view of the sky.  Integrated image-processing software takes and combines an on-going series of short exposures to generate an image in almost real time that brings out much of the very low light, color and detail that’s not visible to the human eye even when looking through a normal telescope. This view accumulates over just seconds and minutes and is displayed both in the telescope’s eyepiece (on an OLED display) as well as on a WiFi-connected smartphone.  The whole thing is self-powered via an integrated 9-10 hour rechargeable battery, fits into a large backpack and weighs just under 20 lbs. including the provided tripod.

In other words, it’s quite an impressive level of integration!

While you can of course outfit a normal telescope and tracking mount of your choosing with the necessary cameras, computer, tracking and image stacking software, WiFi connectivity, battery power, etc., you then also have to develop the expertise to use and troubleshoot this software – and it’s not trivial. To be clear, the eVscope is not really designed to be a sophisticated imaging tool or to compete with the results you can eventually get with lots of practice and expertise and many hours of capturing and processing images.  Instead, the eVscope is intended to let you very easily see and enjoy much more detail than you can with a normal, unaided telescope and it provides quick setup, ease of control from your smartphone, and a fun, real time viewing experience all wrapped up in a lovely, convenient little package.

It is however not cheap to integrate all these components into such a convenient package.  As such, I wouldn’t recommend it for someone wanting to dip their toe into astronomy on a small budget.  It’s pretty clear though that this makes for a wonderful tool for astronomy outreach programs anywhere and I’m really looking forward to sharing the experience with friends and their families.

Citizen Science

As I mentioned above, the eVscope is also designed to participate in crowd-sourced “citizen science”, in partnership with the SETI Institute.  As per their web site, the eVscope “allows users around the world to participate in observing campaigns to image and collect data on objects of special interest to researchers.  In Campaign Mode, image data is automatically sent to a data repository at the SETI Institute’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. The international scientific community can then access unprecedented volumes of image data for specific objects, from thousands of telescopes around the world, at different dates and times. This in turn, can enable new discoveries and enhance our understanding of the universe around us.”

Just in the past week, I had the opportunity to participate in one of these observing sessions.  I received an email providing instructions for a particular target and observing time to collect data on an exo-planet transit of “WASP-43b”.  The procedure involved setting up beforehand, selecting and confirming the target and then starting the Enhanced Vision capture process and letting it run autonomously for several hours as it tracked the target.  Afterwards there was the capturing of 30 seconds of “dark frames” and then initiating the download of data from the telescope followed by the upload to their servers.  While I encountered a few issues along the way (included in my bug list below), it was fun to get to participate in a data gathering session like this.

Setup and Use

I recorded a video to demonstrate the ease of setting up and using the eVscope:

I forgot to record using the focus ring on the base of the scope, so perhaps I’ll add that later, but Unistellar provides a nice page detailing how to use it with the provided Bahtinov mask: How to use the Bahtinov mask?  (It’s great how the mask is integrated into the cap!)

With the earlier version of software (version 0.9), I did encounter a lot of bugs but most of these have already been addressed in version 1.0 (April 2020).  And now it’s performing even better in version 1.1 (October 2020).  They’ve also made many improvements over just this year and added functionality that makes the eVscope an even more fun and amazing experience to share with people.

The ease of setup and the speed with which you can get to viewing objects is great.  I really like the convenient size of the thing, including the integrated power supply and the optional padded backpack to carry and protect it.  The initial star alignment process is super fast (around 30 seconds) and it’s autonomous field detection system seems to do a great job of tracking the sky and dealing with field rotation over several hours.  I did find the views appear slightly soft (presumably from the effort to track, align and integrate frames over many minutes) but still quite enjoyable, and perhaps this will improve with future updates.  You can see some sample images below.  I should note that I haven’t tried collimating the scope yet, so I’ll update here when I get the chance.  Update (April 2020): I finally had both time and a bit of clear weather to collimate the telescope and it turns out it was off a little but now well aligned.  Over time I’ll try to replace all the images in the gallery with new ones post-collimation.  So far it’s just the last few in the gallery that were taken after collimation. (Whirlpool Galaxy, Ring Nebula, Eagle Nebula)

Another aspect of the very quick and easy setup is that it takes less than a minute to pull out the scope on a whim, stand it up on the open patio outside my bedroom, remove the cap, turn it on and dash back inside out of the cold winter night, and settle in with my phone or iPad and mess around exploring the sky, in warmth and comfort.  I definitely cannot set up and align my 8” SCT and german equatorial mount so quickly and easily even with the auto-align accessory, plus there’s setting up cameras, laptop, myriad power and USB cables, etc.  Not to forget to mention the disassembly and take down time afterwards again!

That said, I don’t think you should think of the eVscope as astrophotography gear. Everything is integrated to make it easy to observe deep sky objects with color and detail you can’t see without the aid of sensors, but it does not provide the means to capture frames and do your own stacking or more sophisticated and detailed imaging with a non-color sensor and color filters, etc. I would not expect this telescope to compete with custom gear where you have control over everything (and of course have to learn how to do everything). That is not the purpose of its design. Similarly, the cost reflects the benefits of integrating all these pieces (sensor, tracking software, stacking/imaging software, display, power supply, etc) into a small and elegant package without any cables or separate components to manage while also making it dead simple to use. That’s what you’re paying for and that’s the trade-off.

The provided documentation is pretty good in some areas but a little weak in others. (As of February 2020.) For example, I was surprised how long it took me to find a little blurb buried in a list at the back of the printed guide that explained how to tell if the battery was fully charged.  And really, the charge state should also be displayed in some form in the app!  As of 0.9.3, there is now a rough charge state shown in the app in the form of a battery icon, though no percentage estimate.

Also, what’s going on with the gain/exposure controls only usable in live view and the contrast/brightness controls only usable in enhanced vision mode?  Does changing the gain/exposure before starting enhanced vision affect the results?  There’s very little information on how best to make use of these controls or how the automatic settings work – in auto mode with enhanced vision, it seems to randomly try different contrast/brightness settings over many minutes.  It seems to go back and forth – it doesn’t seem to be working in a particular direction.

Another example is that there was no explanation (or instructions for use) of the “download data” and “upload data” buttons.  I only learned how to use them after getting the email for the “citizen science” observation that included instructions to use those buttons.  Still leaves me wondering though as to what that data consists of and whether or not we should be regularly downloading/uploading this data.

However, it does look like Unistellar has been actively adding explanatory content to their online knowledge base over the past couple of months, so more and more questions are getting answered.

Sample Views

Here’s a couple of real time recordings of the Unistellar app showing the live view from the eVscope of the Orion Nebula (over 3.5 minutes) and Bode’s Galaxy (over 6 minutes):

       

Here are some images illustrating the views you can generate and enjoy in just minutes with the eVscope.  I’ve included both screenshots of the full image displayed on my phone as well as the circular cropped image that it produces for display in the eyepiece and that it allows you to save from your phone.  (The eyepiece shows only the circular cropped image and it does not display the descriptive text or circular outline.) I have not done any further processing on these images – these are just as they were originally generated by the eVscope app or screenshot-captured off my phone. (Originally, the eVscope app would only save the circular cropped version, but now the app will let you save the full uncropped version.)

The Sony IMX224 Exmor CMOS color sensor used in the eVscope has a resolution of 1305 x 977.  The images saved from the eVscope app are 1280 x 960 and the circular cropped images are 1080 x 1080.

Click on any image below to see the full size version and to browse the gallery:

Flame Nebula NGC 2024

Running Man Nebula NGC 1977

Bode’s Galaxy M81

Orion Nebula M42

Eagle Nebula M16

Andromeda Galaxy M31

Whirlpool Galaxy M51

Lagoon Nebula M8

Eastern Veil Nebula, NGC 6992

Ring Nebula, M57

Feature Requests

It’s really great that Unistellar is obviously listening to its users and has been steadily improving the software for the eVscope.  Many of my own issues and feature requests have already been addressed. Here’s my feature requests as of October 2020 (both current and previously implemented), using version 1.1 of the Unistellar app, running on iOS 13 (iPhone 11 Pro and an iPad Pro):

  • Enhanced Vision for bright planets: Would it be possible to provide the ability to automatically select and stack very short exposures (only 100’s of milliseconds) when imaging very bright objects like the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn?  Currently, Enhanced Vision only operates with very long exposures – obviously necessary for dim, deep sky objects.
  • More Enhanced Vision improvements: Would it be possible to improve the Enhanced Vision processing to better deal with highlights?  Currently all the brighter stars in a field quickly develop into very over-exposed(?), large solid balls.  Perhaps there’s some more finesse that could be done automatically to improve or retain the dynamic range when combining exposures?  Or perhaps provide access to some more advanced exposure controls?
  • Allow information overlay on saved images separate from cropping option: As of version 1.0, you can now choose to save the full, uncropped, undistorted image by choosing to not apply the “image overlay” option under General options.  However, this also removes the useful information text like the object name, exposure time, location and date which would often still be nice to have appended along the bottom of the image.  I suggest that the cropping option and the information overlay option be separate options.
  • Goto support via SkySafari: Would be wonderful to be able to use SkySafari to browse, select and go to targets with the eVscope (as you can with many other telescopes/mounts), as well as to be able to easily see and explore where the scope is currently pointing.
  • Fix “Do not show again” message: This is the message that displays after the message to confirm whether you’d like to save the currently generated image when existing Enhanced Vision mode.  Two things here: 1) Change that message to “Do not ask again?” which is less awkward and easier to understand what you’re referring to and 2) please stop asking every bloody time!  Once (or at most, once per session) is enough.  If I answer “Yes” that I want to have the confirmation to save, that means “yes, I do”.  So please stop reconfirming over and over again.  You provide the option to turn off the save confirmation in preferences and that’s enough.
  • Display useful status/info: Please provide more status info in the app like current sky coordinates and battery charge state estimate.  (The coordinates are only currently available after the fact in the saved images. There is now a battery charge state icon – no percentage estimate, but still useful – and Enhanced Vision mode now displays elapsed exposure time.  Thank you for that!)
  • “Picture was saved” notification interferes with usage of the app:  (I need to verify whether this still happens in version 1.1.)  After saving an image, a little notification appears at the bottom across the modal tab buttons for a couple of seconds, forcing you to wait until it disappears.  Please move this message elsewhere where it doesn’t get in the way and/or reduce how long it’s displayed.
  • Improve catalog display: The current style of displaying catalog items as a grid of large icons requires that the object names often be truncated.  Also, the large generic icons to indicate the type of object aren’t a great use of the available space.  How about a list-oriented view (and a smaller icon) to make better use of the screen real estate?
  • Shared WiFi connectivity: Would be nice to be able to optionally configure the eVscope to use an available WiFi network instead of its own WiFi so as to 1) support extended WiFi reach, 2) allow devices to access both the internet and the telescope simultaneously, and 3) to avoid the need to always switch to the telescope’s WiFi.
  • Send Observation Parameters: Given the eVscope’s ability to participate in “citizen science” observations and data collections, it seems like there should be a more direct way to send observation parameters (like RA/Dec coordinates and exposure/gain settings) to the scope from an emailed observation request.  Perhaps encoded in a URL that’s interpreted by the Unistellar app?  It’s kinda silly that you have to transcribe lengthy coordinates from an email on the phone to the Unistellar app on the phone.  You can’t even copy/paste right now!
  • More expansive view through the eyepiece: I can see that the design of the eVscope was to very much provide an optical, telescope-like viewing experience – which is of course why there is an eyepiece on the scope at all.  However, I think it is a mistake to not maximize the apparent field of view in the eyepiece to provide more of a grand and wondrous view.  To that end, I wonder if you could use a different lens with the eyepiece to really open up the apparent magnification and field of view of the image you’re able to generate.

Currently you see a small constrained view far down the end of a tube.  You should really try to shoot for a big gorgeous panoramic view, a “spacewalk vista”, like what you get with TeleVue’s fantastic, wide apparent field eyepieces.  Could you simply make use of the same kind of optics and/or display technology inside the electronic viewfinders that Sony and other camera manufacturers use in their digital SLR cameras?  These digital display viewfinders do a fantastic job of enlarging the apparent view on these tiny little displays.  They’re a joy to use and provide a much larger, clearer, detailed view than you get from the displays mounted on the backs of these same cameras.  I realize this would require a hardware change but oh, what a view that would be!

Along these same lines, could there be a way to make use of the full uncropped image in the eyepiece?  With relatively large targets, the uncropped view on the phone’s display is much more expansive and enjoyable than the much constrained circular cropped view.  Could there be a way to present the full uncropped rectangular view and allow it to be rotated in the eyepiece to deal with changes in the telescope’s orientation?

These options or features are now available:

  • IMPLEMENTED – Option to save full, uncropped image: As of version 1.0, there is now an option to choose between saving the full frame image or the circular cropped version with the info.  Yay!!  However, it would be nice to get the textual info with the full uncropped version too.  Currently there is only an option to save or share the circular cropped image.  It’s both heavily cropped and mildly distorted around the edges to give it a sort of eyepiece lens effect.  Please provide a built-in option in the app to save the full uncropped, undistorted image!  I should not have to go to the trouble to capture a screenshot of my phone and manually crop it to get the full image.
  • IMPLEMENTED – Allow panning of zoomed view in the app: You can now pan around when zoomed in on the current image in either Live View or Enhanced Vision mode.  It works really well and smoothly and shows your current zoom level.  The app display’s zoom feature currently only zooms into the center of the image.  You can’t zoom in anywhere else in the image.
  • IMPLEMENTED – Allow image save during live sky view: As of version 1.1, you can now save an image based on the current live view, not just an Enhanced Vision view.  The option to save an image is only enabled during the Enhanced Vision mode, not during live sky view.  This would be useful for very bright objects (like the moon and planets) when Enhanced Vision mode doesn’t produce useful results.
  • IMPLEMENTED – Dedicated iPad version of app: As of version 1.1, the iPad version of the app is no longer merely a scaled up version of the phone app.  It now uses the whole screen and takes advantage of all the additional screen real estate.  It looks and works really well and is definitely now my preferred device for working with the eVscope, given the much larger display.  The current iOS app is just scaled up from the phone version on the iPad and does not take advantage of all the additional screen real estate.  The iPad would be an even better platform for viewing/controlling the eVscope if the available space were well utilized.
  • IMPLEMENTED – Display useful status/info: As of version 1.1, Enhanced Vision mode now displays elapsed exposure time. They’ve also added a calculation of remaining time that a given object will be visible in your sky view.  As of 0.9.3, there’s now a battery charge state icon.  No percentage estimate, but still useful.
  • IMPLEMENTED – Improved data upload process: As of version 1.1, they now have changed how the upload data process works: You now provide your internet-connected WiFi credentials to the eVscope, press a button and the telescope performs the upload directly to their servers, without further involvement from your phone or tablet.  And it will optionally park the eVscope and shut it down when it completes the process.  This is a great improvement over the old, incredibly slow download to phone then upload to internet process.
    Why are the download/upload functions so incredibly slow??  Even over local WiFi from the telescope to the phone?  How many gigabytes could that possibly be? I don’t have enough storage on my phone for it to take that long. Is there a bug here?
  • IMPROVED – Allow interaction with other controls when picture adjustment controls are present: As of version 1.1, a simple tap into the image display area will dismiss the controls so it’s not as annoying as it used to be.  Might still be worthwhile to change the interface design so that the picture adjustment controls don’t prevent interaction with the display area.  This could be accomplished by making the bottom area into a tabbed interface, so you can switch between info display, adjustment controls, etc.  Showing the picture adjustment controls (gain, exposure, contrast, brightness) blocks the ability to zoom the image or save it.  I find this inconvenient since I’m always making little tweaks to these controls and want to zoom in or out and save the image in between the adjustments.
  • IMPLEMENTED – Finer positioning control: As of version 1.1, this has improved.  Short taps on the directional arrows does now seem to provide small enough movements of the scope to more easily adjust your view.  Currently, the smallest possible position adjustment is with a single quick tap on the directional arrows around the joystick control but this still moves objects in the display about 1/6 or so across the field of view.  In other words, it’s not possible to move the scope by a smaller amount.

Issues / Bugs

As of October 2020, these are the issues I currently see on version 1.1 of the Unistellar app for iOS 13 (iPhone 11 Pro and an older iPad Pro):

  • The Unistellar app has trouble reconnecting to the eVscope while Enhanced Vision is still processing after temporarily switching out to another app.  It can take several false starts before you regain control of the eVscope after switching away and back.
  • I’ve had the Enhanced Vision mode hang up after an extended run (28 minutes).  The elapsed time stopped updating (stuck at 28 minutes) and while I could still interact with the app, any pictures adjustment changes would not apply and the controls would just jump back to where they were.  I had to exit Enhanced Vision mode to get things working normally again.
  • While scrolling through the catalog list, the display will frequently and seemingly randomly jump back to an earlier point in the list – forcing you to have to try to find where you just were again.  Annoying!

The following issues all seem to be addressed – or at least haven’t happened again yet as of the given version.

As of version 1.1:

  • Sometimes lots of large random distortions and smears of light and color appear in the display. (I’m not talking about while slewing which would be expected.)

As of version 1.0:

  • The gesture to pinch zoom is buggy and at times it jumps around or refuses to stick.  Strangely, at other times, it works just fine.  I haven’t picked up on a pattern as to when it doesn’t work.  As of version 1.0, this is working much better.  It can still act a little wonky at times but it’s much better.  As of version 1.1, it’s working great and allows you to pan around the zoomed image.
  • The app will immediately crash/exit when you return to the app after being disconnected from the scope or wifi or after having to leave the app for some reason and come back.  The app will also occasionally crash/exit for other unknown reasons in the midst of using it, but I haven’t tried to maintain a list of each circumstance.  Hopefully you’re receiving the iOS crash reports from Apple.
  • I’m seeing a patch or trail of green pixels on most images in the same place.  I’m guessing I’ve got a hot/stuck pixel on my image sensor and the random walk pattern of the pixel is just the effect of combining many images as the field shifts and rotates while tracking the target.  Is there support for subtracting out hot/stuck pixels?  As of version 1.0, the “Take Dark Frame” action also results in removing any stuck pixels from the eVscope’s imaging.
  • Adjusting the contrast/brightness controls while enhanced vision running usually results in the slide control jumping back to its previous position while it completes current frame, and only then it jumps to where you set it.  If you don’t realize it’s going to do this, you’ll try to move it again and again and only get even more confused as to why it keeps jumping around.  It needs to at least stick in the new position even though the next frame is still being generated.
  • On one occasion, the joystick/slew buttons seemed to stop working but after quitting and relaunching the app I found that it had actually slewed but had apparently stopped updating the displayed view.
  • On another occasion, the joystick slew buttons stopped working and the scope view began shifting randomly.  Had to quit/relaunch the app to fix it.
  • Another time the app got stuck in a goto/skewing operation and none of the buttons worked any more and I couldn’t select another target.  The telescope seemed to be no longer tracking the sky, the star field just drifted in the display.  Force-quitting the app didn’t help.  I had to power down the telescope and restart it.
  • Seems like the app or the telescope gets confused if you exit the app while enhanced vision mode is engaged.  Are you supposed to be able to exit and come back while enhanced vision is in progress?
  • Often the app will forcefully halt the enhanced vision mode without warning and without a chance to save what you have so far – it just returns to the live view.  Sometimes there is no message at all and other times there will be an error message like “too bright” even when it appears there is still much more light that could be captured over most of the frame: only a couple of bright stars in a large field of dim nebula, before the nebula has even really become visible.  Please don’t forcefully stop!  (Also, how is it that we were instructed to leave enhanced vision mode running for hours during the recent exo-planet transit when I have had it quit after just 10 minutes or so on a nebula??)
  • I found that both the download and upload sequences would sometimes stop processing after many minutes and I would have to quit and restart them.  This happened several times (4-5 maybe?).
  • On a couple of occasions, the “goto” catalog list would jump or reset its scroll position while trying to scroll through it making it difficult to select the desired item.  Usually it’s fine – I haven’t figured out when this happens yet.
  • Please rework how those three sequential messages work asking whether to automatically save the image after running enhanced vision.  It was frustrating trying to get it to just prompt me to save the image without also asking me two follow-up questions every time.
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First Launch of the Falcon Heavy

On Tuesday, February 6th, SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket on its inaugural flight, sending Elon Musk’s original Tesla Roadster and “StarMan” on a far reaching orbit around the sun as a test payload.  Happily, I was able to fly out to Florida and experience the launch firsthand from the Kennedy Space Center’s closest available viewing location for the general public – just 3.9 miles away from the launch platform!  (It’s just too bad they haven’t removed the historic-but-no-longer-needed launch tower at LC-39A, as it was sitting between us and the Falcon Heavy.)  Still, it was quite the show with essentially three of their Falcon 9’s strapped together and all twenty-seven engines firing simultaneously!  Not to mention the amazing, never-seen-before, simultaneous return of the two outer boosters back to the nearby landing zone!

I’ve made a video of what it was like to watch (and hear) from our vantage point:

The Falcon Heavy launch as experienced from the closest public viewing area

This viewing location is part of Kennedy Space Center’s “Feel the Heat” ticket package which takes you to the Apollo/Saturn V Center to view a launch and includes a buffet, some commemorative items, and return entrance to the Kennedy Space Center on a later date to enjoy the rest of the exhibits.

You’re given an assigned arrival time some 5-6 hours before the launch to catch your bus (and told not to come earlier) but for this historic event, there were so many people that it took hours to get through the security gates, boarded on a bus (really? loading the buses serially??) and delivered to the viewing area.  By the time we unloaded from the buses at the viewing area, there was slim-pickings for anywhere on the grounds to set up a tripod with a good, unobstructed view because apparently many folks had shown up an hour or more earlier.  Anyway, I staked out a spot between others some three hours before the scheduled launch but had to skip the buffet to keep watch over all my gear.

The launch ended up being delayed several times due to high altitude wind shear and we were all getting a little nervous that they’d miss their launch window for the day (1:30 pm – 4 pm) as they rescheduled all the way up to 3:45 pm.  But then, about an hour before that, they made the call to go ahead and start fueling the liquid oxygen – meaning a go for launch!  Hurrah!

And then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, …. and great clouds of steam erupted with 27 engines firing – quite the sight!  We couldn’t see the rocket until it cleared that annoying (and unneeded!) tower, but afterwards the light intensity of the exhaust was incredible as it climbed into the sky.  You hardly notice the absence of sound from the rocket with the cheers of the crowd around you, but a few seconds later it starts to come across – and it’s an amazing, stuttering roar.

Then you get to watch it climb and roll and, higher up, begin to build a beautiful column of vapor – which it eventually disappeared into.  After a bit, it reappeared further east as a faint set of exhaust plumes still coursing away.  On the monitor, we could watch and hear announcements of each successful milestone and cheers would erupt each time – like with the separation of the side boosters and their retro-firing to return to Cape Canaveral.

Minutes later the two side boosters appeared in our sky coming down at incredible speed.  We all lost track of them though when they cut their engines again and unfortunately many of us weren’t in a position to see them again when they reignited for their final deceleration over their landing targets. We could of course see the video feed on the monitors, perfectly landing themselves (vertically!), like something out of science fiction – but it wasn’t until after they had landed that their twin sonic booms reached us.  We all of course learned later that the center core didn’t fare so well because two of the three needed engines were unable to restart (not enough ignition fuel) and it crashed into the ocean close enough and hard enough to damage the autonomous drone ship that was waiting for it.  But hey, this was a test flight!

 

The Falcon Heavy is now the most powerful rocket in the world, with the most lifting capability – though it will soon be surpassed by NASA’s upcoming “SLS” rocket as well as SpaceX’s own future “BFR”.

Meanwhile, “Starman” continues his/her epic journey in space:

Click through for my full photo gallery from the launch and my follow-up visit to the Kennedy Space Center:

      

Here are links to more videos of the first Falcon Heavy launch:

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Geminids over Pinnacles

Darlene and I went down to Pinnacles National Park for dark skies to watch the Geminids meteor shower Wednesday night:

Time-lapse of Geminids meteor shower

That’s a 20-second time-lapse I made looking south towards Orion about midnight, covering about 90 minutes that didn’t include any light trails from passing airplanes.  And here’s a still shot.

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Wait But Why

I haven’t posted an external link in a while but this is a great recent find I wanted to share: Wait But Why.  Tim Urban puts together some really brilliant, fascinating and in-depth posts about a myriad of topics.  I stumbled on it by way of his amusing post about his unexpected call from (and subsequent visit/tour/lunch with) Elon Musk (“The World’s Raddest Man“).  I later found myself up late, still caught up in his fascinating, two-part exploration of the current state (and potential, future existential threat) of artificial intelligence.

There’s an archive of posts to explore and upon subscribing for updates, you’ll receive an enticing list of popular articles to sink your time into, including these on “Science, Philosophy, Space and Anything Mind-Blowing”:

The Fermi Paradox – “The mind-twisting discussion of whether alien life exists and why we’ve never seen evidence of any. The post I get the second-most emails about.”

The AI Revolution – “A long, two-part post that took me six weeks to do—a full overview of what everyone’s been talking about with AI and the reasons I believe this is the most important topic in the world right now.”

Putting Time in Perspective – “An infographic that starts with today and works its way backwards, in increasingly large time increments, all the way to the Big Bang. Good way to put all of history in perspective.”

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“Oh my god, it’s full of stars!”

I’ve looked into telescopes a bit now and again, spurred by some new cool astronomical event but never actually took the plunge until just recently, near the end of 2013, with the approach and subsequent demise of comet ISON.  This time I was committed to doing the research and actually ordering some gear… and, given my love of photography, astrophotographic gear too!  Oh my, what a deep hole I’ve found here… what have I got myself into?!?

Things started out a little rough as my mount arrived in November with a manufacturing defect that I didn’t know enough to figure out immediately and required some back and forth with Celestron’s tech support to narrow down.  Then I had to package it all back up and send it back and wait for a replacement.

But here it is, it’s an 8″ Celestron EdgeHD 800 on an Advanced VX mount – lovely!  (It’s a Schimdt-Cassegrain on a German equatorial mount.)

My Celestron EdgeHD 800 telescope set up on my upstairs deck

I’ve long wanted to get a telescope, as in a real telescope, not that silly cheap thing I got as a kid in the 70’s.  I’ve tinkered on and off with desktop and mobile apps for exploring the night sky, explored a bit with a nice pair of image-stabilized binoculars and attended the occasional star party here and there.  (The one held on the slopes of Mauna Kea was pretty cool!)

And I wanted to take advantage of the somewhat darker skies I now have here in the hills above Santa Cruz – at least darker compared to my old condo in San Jose – that swath of light from Silicon Valley and the Bay Area is at least somewhat shielded by the coastal mountains here.  I’ve got a nice, super-convenient, south-facing deck off of my upstairs master bedroom with an open view of most of the sky (except to the north, beneath the celestial pole).  And once I get a little more experienced, it’ll be fun to pack up the gear and take it to some remote dark locations.

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It’s pretty overwhelming how much there is to learn, particularly when you get into astronomical imaging, but I am certainly enjoying the endeavor.  As such, I’ve decided to put together a little newbie’s guide to backyard astronomy to summarize all the information I’ve been gathering and the choices I’ve been making as to gear and setup:  A Newbie’s Guide to Telescopic Adventures

So here’s a bit of first light through it – imaging a portion of the Orion nebula.  Mind you, I’m just starting to get into this and this is just a newbie’s single, 16-second exposure to catch a bit of color:

Orion Nebula (M42), Nikon D7000, 16 seconds @ ISO 6400, 8″ EdgeHD, .7x reducer lens

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Moon-Jupiter Conjunction

A nice conjunction of the Moon and Jupiter tonight — meaning that they appear very close together in the sky.  With binoculars, you can see our moon, Jupiter nearby (appearing as a small disc) and several of Jupiter’s moons (several points of light around Jupiter) all at once.  Pretty cool.

I tried to capture what I could see through my binoculars using my 400mm lens plus a 2x teleconverter on my DSLR but I wasn’t able to get a sharp image with my lightweight tripod, even with a delayed shutter release.  (I have been meaning to get a heavy tripod for this sort of thing.)  So this was the best I could do before the sky started to get a little cloudy with moisture — and I never got so far as finding an exposure to catch Jupiter’s moons as well:

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Space Shuttle Flyover

I went down to the NASA Ames Research Center / Moffett Field this morning to watch the flyover of the space shuttle Endeavour on its way to a museum in southern California.

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There were a number of booths set up showing some of the science and technology developed at Ames to support the shuttle program as well as a number of guest speakers including a couple of shuttle astronauts. Unfortunately, the host speaker built up expectation a bit much by describing how the shuttle and its 747 carrier were expected to come down the length of the runway potentially as low as 200 ft.  As the supposed 20,000 of us were gathered along the length of the runway, this would have been quite spectacular to see.  Alas, the pilots clearly had other plans.

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After we were told the shuttle was approaching, it was the escort jet that became first visible and we were all watching *it* as the shuttle itself made a stealthy approach hidden behind the large hanger frame on the opposite side to the runway.  It was nearly on top of us when it popped into view and everyone turned (and hastily swung their cameras around) to see it fly over — at a more mundane 1500 ft or so.

Here’s a short video I created of the event:

Still it was fun to get to see it with the big crowd and to hang out with others while waiting for its appearance!  I was there with the Geek Club Meetup group.

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Here’s a great time-lapse video of the shuttle being maneuvered along the streets of Los Angeles.

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Aliens!! Hiding in the Sun!

I found the alien spacecraft hiding in front of the sun today!!  It’s still there now as of 5 pm June 5th, slowly moving across the face.  Alert the media!

Strangely, neither Pan or Hera seemed particularly concerned about this news, but at least Hera seemed to be paying attention.

 

(Okay, yes, for the benefit of finding this later, it’s a transit of Venus.)

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Eclipse Watch

I drove up to a spot near Lake Tahoe for the annular eclipse on the evening of May 20th, 2012.  Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead and get the necessary solar filters to do any photography work — and checking around the couple of days before the event proved fruitless.  But at least I had binoculars so I could set up a projection to watch it.

My little arrangement makes me think of the robot from the movie Short Circuit.  Hmm, I suppose Wall-E too.

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Lunar Eclipse

This morning’s lunar eclipse…

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I liked how I could just step out on the balcony to see it too.

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Live Raptor Presentation

Pictures and video from a wonderful presentation I attended about raptors and raptor rehabilitation programs:

  

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Gut bacteria divide people into three types

Fascinating…
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/21/science/21gut.html

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Yuri’s Night at NASA Ames

Click through for a gallery of pictures from the San Francisco Bay Area celebration of Yuri’s Night 2008 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA:

  

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