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Spent this chilly afternoon at the beach in South Haven MI photographing one of the rarest astronomical events...The transit of Venus across the disk of the Sun!  Such an even only occurs twice, 8 years apart, about every 200 years.

When this occurs, the planet actually blocks a portion of the sun. Unlike an eclipse, which covers the entire sun, a transit is similar but doesn't block the entire disk of the sun. So you get what looks like a shodow on the sun. Much like a bird or plan crossing the sun from your point of view!  ( I was lucky enough to capture both)

Given that this is 2012, and the recent hype about Mayan calendars etc... This is an excellent way to demonstrate how really cool that calendar was...You see more than a thousand years ago the ancient Maya were able to predict when these transits would occur, and actually based an element of their long count on it. (But without actually mentioning the transit itself) So it's probably no surprise that their long count ends on a year that venus transits the sun. Another part of the calendar is based on a venus...Every 9 months it completes an orbit relative to the Earth, which is also roughly the length of a full term pregnancy. The Lunar calendar, is 29 1/2 days from New to New moon, again, another element of the Maya Calendar.  Nothing in that calendar was ever meant to mean an 'end' to anything, but rather the beginning of another day, month, season, year, transit cycle, or eon.  Learn more here.
Photo from my February 2012 trip to Tulum, Mexico
 
 
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The Rose is the larger nebula, the bottom half of the image. It is also known as the Great Orion Nebula. In the Messier Catalog it is M42.  The orb near the center of the image is M43.  The nebula at the top of the page is known as the Running Man. Resembling a person with outstretched arms and legs.   These objects are really easy to find in the night sky. It's actually the Sword, or the sheeth of Orion. These are the three 'stars' located just below Orion's belt.   These 'stars' aren't exactly just stars.  When you see the sword of Orion you are actually looking at this.  However only the brightest points of light are actually visible. The top 'star' in the sword is actually the open cluster of stars inside of the Running Man.  While the center star is actually the core of the Great Orion Nebula (or Rose).  The bottom star in the sword is actually a handful of bright stars just outside of the Orion Nebula.    The Orion nebula is actually one of the few things in the night sky that is forgiving enough to see in virtually any telescope, in any conditions, under light pollution, moonlight, etc, and still see a good portion of it with you're own eyes. It's also theoretically bright enough to actually see some of the color as well, for that though you'll need a strong pair of eyes, a really big aperture telescope under some really good conditions.

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The Trapezium at the core of M42
Near the center or 'core' of the Great Orion nebula is the 'Trapezium'  This is 4  very hot and bright stars. These stars are responsible for illuminating much of the nebula around it.

The Orion nebula appears very large compared to other objects. It happens to be in our 'Galactic Neighborhood'  If you think of the Milky Way as a large city, the center being in downtown, Then the Sun and our Solar system would be a house in an a suburb closer to the outer edge of the city.  The Orion nebula would be a large factory down the street from us.  It's a stellar nursery, many stars have been born here and continue to be born from these clouds of dust today.  It is thought that the Sun would have been born from this star 'factory' since it's one of the nearest to us. 

 
 
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The famous Horsehead Nebula and it's less-well-known neighbor, the Flame Nebula.  Probably the first thing I, and probably for many other people remember seeing are pictures of or reading about in space is the horsehead nebula. This is often the first experience with something other than the planets in our solar system or the moon or the milky way.  It's shape is clear and it's surroundings are so alien to us. Both it's name and it's beauty are unforgettable.

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While the Flame nebula is equally unforgettable, few people outside of amateur astronomy have been introduced to it! Of course if one of Hubble's first high resolution photographs was of the Flame, rather than the horsehead, perhaps we'd think differently?  The Horse and the Flame area of the sky is as large as 4 full moons and is also surprisingly easy to find. Not only that, only a rather small telescope is required to photograph it in this detail.  The telescope used for this image has aperture about the size of the palm of my hand. Whereas Hubble's aperture is closer to that of a large dinner table by comparison.  Let me show you how easy it is to find!


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Orion is probably the second-most well known constellation in the sky behind the 'big dipper.'  In the Northern Hemisphere it can be found in the west a couple hours after dark late in the fall. In mid-winter, it climbs high in the sky just after dark. By spring, it begins setting in the east before midnight. You can't find it from late spring to mid summer, it's too close to the sun's position in the sky to see at all.  To find the Horsehead and the Flame, Look for Orion's belt. it is the the bright stars forming a line in the middle of the constellation.  The bottom star in this image, or the left-most if you were looking at Orion as a person, is called 'Alnitak.'  This is also the bright, large, blue star in the middle of my image, the horse and the flame.

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Let's zoom in just a little bit more.  This is approximatly the scale of what you might see through low power binoculars.  Not much zoom is needed at all before you being to see where both the horse and the flame are located. These are the same three stars in Orion's belt the image above.

What does it look like with your own eyes/in an eyepiece?  I get asked this question all the time.  In a lot of cases with many things in space that are 'visible' from earth, it varies.
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Some are faint and some a bright.  If your telescope is small (not low powered! I mean small as in 'aperture' or diameter of the objective of the telescope) or If light pollution or haze is a problem, there's little chance you'd see the horse and the flame at all. But lets say conditions are perfect. You have a modest sized telescope, low power or low magnification, and little light pollution and no moonlight. It might look something like this through the eyepiece. Why is it colorless, why is it so dark? I might blog about that someday soon. If your' e interested, read up on 'rods and cones' in the eye and how that might come into play here.  From here on out, I hope to provide a simulation of what you can see with your own eyes, in the best conditions.

 
 
Soon after completing the floor and walls of my new Observatory, it was time to take some astrophotos. Rising high early in the evening is the Andromeda Galaxy. Located in the Andromeda constellation, (midway between the Great Square of Pegasus and Cassiopeia constellations) The Great Adromeda Galaxy spans the width of more than 5 times the apparent diameter of the moon in the night sky. Andromeda is larger than our own Milky Way, and also our largest, closest neighbor. 
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My astrophoto of Andromeda. Click for larger version!
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This is an example of how image processing works. A recent spat about NASA photo-shopping their images drove me to type up some thoughts on how this actually works and why it has to be done. This is how Amatuers, Professionals, Astronomers and NASA scientists would do this. The tasks are the same, but the tools are different. I don't for example have a 30 foot curved mirror and a camera with a sensor the size of a cyndar block. What I am using is basically a large telephoto lens and specially-modified Canon DSLR camera. The first image is one single 'Sub Exposure' The second image is the result of stacking several hundred 'sub exposures' to create a single image with the combined signal and then 'balancing' the colors. There's too much red for example because of light pollution and because the red channel of the camera is more sensitive than the green and blue channels. Your camera fixes this automatically using something called 'white balance.' Yes, your camera 'Photoshops' the image for you so it doesn't look like crap! The is what a 'raw' image truly looks like before that happens! The last image represents the same image after it has been stretched and enhanced with Photoshop to bring out fainter details and make the image more pleasing to the eye. Nothing in the process is 'fake.' It's just a matter of collecting light and presenting it in a way the our eyes can grasp it.
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A quick comparison of my work, versus an
insanely large masterpeice by a highly experienced amatuer
Just a quick look at how my work is doing compared to a benchmark photo by a highly experienced amatuer astrophotographer.  By comparison of equipment, what I'm using is dirt cheap and not at all specialized. For example, my camera was never intended to do astrophotography, but it can. While his camera is designed specifically for the task.  The telescope i used is a flea market bargain compared to the telescope he used. I estimate the cost of the equipment he used to be in the neighborhood of about $45,000.  I did mine for the cost of a PC, a DSLR camera, and a $350 "kid's" telescope a cheap mount and a small shed in the backyard to give it all a home.  The comparison let's me see where some of the faults are in my technique and equipment. One of the things that I must improve is my mount. This would make the stars smaller and more round. A larger telescope would also help with getting better resolution. And finally a specialized filter to block light pollution. Even with this things, I can't hope to expect to get results like this. But i can get close! Someday I might.