The Starry Night, 199

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People Got Excited

2020/12/22. All the chatter about the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as a kind of Christmas Star got people worked up. Once a year, astronomers refrain from their habit of making faces when discussing signs in the skies. "What was happening in the skies of Palestine back in the day?" is very close, in the popular mind, to "What celestial event foretold the birth of Christ?" and a great many astronomers can't resist treating them as if they are the same question.

So, anyway, we enjoyed clear skies on the night of the official conjunction. Amy and I took the Questar over to the community lot, where we seldom encounter any community. Expecting this night to be like others, splendid in its solitude, I was not masked. Tonight a veritable flash mob coalesced around a guy with a telescope. OK, only about five, but in Covid's year that seems like a crowd. People had the impression that Jupiter and Saturn were rapidly separating. This was because at first they could see only Jupiter. Saturn quickly became easier and easier to see. This, of course, was because the sky was getting darker, and Saturn is very much the dimmer of the pair. But the effect was different (Penn and Teller could and probably do exploit this effect). Once civil twilight arrived, no one in our coterie had any difficulty seeing the two planets as exactly that. So much for the more dramatic predictions. I had ample chances to explain that things would look very much the same the next and even the next night, because the official conjunction really had less to do with their closest approach than with Saturn and Jupiter having the same right ascension.

I invited some to look in the Questar's eyepiece, but it was easier and apparently as satisfying to show the two planets on the liveview screen of the Canon EOS-M:

solstice conjunction

Click it to see the planets split in the sky as well as on the viewscreen.
Canon EOS-M in 3x crop mode at prime focus of a 3.5-inch Questar on the hood of the Subaru.


I let the planets drift across the field of view several times, recording their 35-second (approximate) transit in Magic Lantern's 3x crop mode which takes full advantage of the sensor's fine pixel pitch. Then I used PIPP to convert the videos to a format Autostakkert! could read and let it take care of the drifting targets (I also tried "AVIStack"). In the end, the seeing was pretty lousy, as predicted. The Clear Sky Charts promised better seeing the next night. I tried only for the rings of Saturn and the Moons of Jupiter. I took a couple of videos at much shorter exposures just in case they revealed the clouds of Jupiter, but I haven't felt moved to try to do anything with them. I did want to commemorate the moment:



Best 500 frames, aligned and refined in AutoStakkert!
Don't try to make it big. It's better the smaller it is. But it might look
better if you "view image" and see it against a dark background. The Moons
of Jupiter show up better. Look at it on your phone or maybe on your smart watch, and
don't hold differential refraction against the optics.

Questar 3.5, prime focus, Canon EOS-M in 3x Crop Mode.
1/45s, ISO 800, 30fps.


In the end, the weather was clear the next night when the sky appeared much steadier. But I had seen the "star in the west," and lo, verily, I had as good an image as I expected to get. Christopher Go and Damian Peach will surely smoke my efforts in any event. They are the two wise men.




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My deep-sky photos are made with a variety of sensors and optics. Deepest images come now from a ZWO ASI1600MM Cooled Pro CMOS camera. A good many images come from an unmodded Canon 6D. Video and video extracts begin in a Canon EOS M, usually running in crop mode via Magic Lantern firmware. Telescopes include an AT10RC (a remarkable budget Ritchey-Chretien astrograph), an Orion 10" F4 Newtonian, and a pair of apochromats: a TMB92SS and a AT65EDQ. A very early Astro-Physics 5" F6 gets some use, too. So do lots of camera lenses on both the ASI1600 and the Canon 6D. A solar Frankenscope made using a 4" F10 Orion achromat and the etalon, relay optics, and focuser from a Lunt 60 feeding a small ZWO camera will see more action as the Sun comes back to life. Mounts include an iOpton SkyTracker (original model), a Losmandy G11 (non-Gemino), and an Astro-Physics Mach1 CP3. Software is PixInsight for heavy lifting and Photoshop for polish.





                   © 2020, David Cortner