Category Archives: photography

Astronomy’s neglected stepchild

Robert Reeves has been an astronomer for nearly 60 years. The Moon was his first love; he shot his first photograph of it in 1959, and laments that it isn’t such a popular target for amateur astronomers any more.

Robert Reeves

Astrophotographer and author Robert Reeves was the guest speaker at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society on Jan. 28, 2018. Photo: Greg Scheiderer

“The Moon is not just that big ball of light pollution in the sky,” said Reeves during his keynote talk at the Seattle Astronomical Society’s annual banquet last month. “The Moon used to be a target for American technology. The Moon was a place to be explored; it was a destination.”

Reeves was interested in the Moon even before there was a space program. We were all agog during the race to land on the Moon, but when the race was won many moved on to other things.

“Back then American heroes rode a pillar of fire and dared to set foot on another world,” Reeves said. “The scientific mindset, the desire to explore the solar system was there. That was a time when America was only limited by its imagination; we could do anything we wanted to do”

Alas, Reeves notes, politics is different now.

“America has lots its will, it’s lost the guts to go into deep space,” he said. “We’ve been rooted in low-Earth orbit for four decades.”

“Space exploration is not the same, but the Moon that we wanted to go to still beckons us,” he added.

Bringing the Moon back

Reeves’s talk was titled Earth’s Moon: Astronomy’s Neglected Stepchild. He aims to turn that around.

“I’m here to bring the Moon back,” he said. “The Moon is still a viable target; we can see it from our own back yard.”

Reeves is a prolific writer about astronomy. His first published article appeared in Astronomy magazine in 1984. Since then he’s written some 250 magazine articles and 175 newspaper columns about the topic. In fact, just days after his talk here the March 2018 issue of Astronomy arrived, including an article and photos by Reeves about hunting for exoplanets. His mug also appears, along with one of his lunar photographs, on a back-cover advertisement for Celestron.

Reeves has written five books in all, including three how-to manuals about astrophotography: Wide-Field Astrophotography: Exposing the Universe Starting With a Common Camera (1999), Introduction to Webcam Astrophotography: Imaging the Universe With the Amazing, Affordable Webcam (2006), and Introduction To Digital Astrophotography: Imaging The Universe With A Digital Camera (2012). All are from Willmann-Bell.

Reeves feels the webcam book helped launch a whole industry and trained a generation of astrophotographers. He points out that back in the 1960s you could count the number of good astrophotographers with the fingers of one hand. Now there are thousands of people turning out great images, and they all get to use superior gear.

“Amateur instruments off the shelf today just blow away what the pros used to do on the Moon, and it’s relatively easy to do this,” Reeves said. I asked Reeves if he laments the passing of film photography. He said he did, a little, noting with a laugh that he has four decades worth of photography that is obsolete! But he said the fact that he can turn out more better-quality images in less time with digital makes up for that.

Check out Reeves’s website for a image-processing tutorial, to buy prints and posters, and find lots of other lunar photography information.

Asteroid 26591 is named Robertreeves and asteroid 26592 is named Maryrenfro after his wife; Renfro is her maiden name. It is believed they are the only husband and wife with sequentially numbered asteroids named after them! Robert noted that his takes about four years to orbit the Sun, while Mary’s goes around in about 4.4 years.

“Every ten years I catch up to her,” he said, “so for eternity I’m going to be chasing Mary around the solar system.”

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AstroBox taking off

A former Seattleite now living in Denver has launched AstroBox, a service that will deliver a curated collection of cool space- and astronomy-themed products to space geeks once a quarter. Sorin Sorin got the idea for AstroBox while participating in outreach events with the Denver Astronomical Society. The group holds monthly open houses at the University of Denver’s Chamberlin Observatory, which boasts an 1894 20-inch Alvan Clark refracting telescope.

“It’s a really beautiful instrument for people to see and take a look through,” Sorin said.

AstroBox“A lot of the people who come out to these events have a casual interest in astronomy, space, and the night sky,” he added, but while they may enjoy a look through a telescope and the latest photos from the Hubble Space Telescope, they may not have the time or inclination to dive deeper into astronomy. Sorin said AstroBox is intended to provide a regular tickler about the night sky, with information about things to see and current space missions.

“The idea with it is including a set of products that are fun, entertaining, and a little educational too,” he said.

The first AstroBox went out earlier this summer under the theme “Exploring the Giants.” The box included a nine-inch plush Jupiter; the book The Interstellar Age (Dutton, 2015) by Jim Bell, who worked on the Voyager missions; a custom-designed Saturn t-shirt; a gallery-quality 8×10 print of “The Ancient Dance of Europa and Jupiter” by artist Lucy West; official mission patches of ISS Expedition 48 and SpaceX SPX-9; a set of five NASA Visions of the Future poster cards; a small meteorite as a preview of the fall box; and a copy of his Astronomy Unboxed newsletter with information about the Cassini and Juno missions and the Perseid meteor shower.

“I try to not only include a set of products, but a set of activities and information about what’s happening to make it an engaging experience,” Sorin said.

AstroBox goes out quarterly

Each AstroBox will be based on a theme, and will include a custom t-shirt, fine-art astronomy print, the newsletter, and other items.

The art print is a natural for Sorin, himself a talented astrophotographer and artist. You can see his work on The Soggy Astronomer and Sorin Space Art websites. He has connected with other artists through the International Association of Astronomical Artists.

“There are quite a number of accomplished astronomical artists out there,” Sorin said. “One of the things that I want to do with this box is always deliver a fine art print from one of these great artists.”

The theme for the fall box, for which Sorin is accepting orders through the end of August, is “Asteroids and Space Rocks.” In addition to the t-shirt, art, and newsletter it will include a piece of a meteorite and a board game that was designed by the lead of the OSIRIS-REx mission that launches next month with the aim of going to an asteroid and getting a rock sample to bring back to Earth.

“The lead for that mission actually designed a space-exploration board game as part of the way for that mission team to fund their own public outreach activites, and we’ll be including a copy of that game with our fall box,” Sorin said.

Order now

Visit the AstroBox website by August 31 to order your “Asteroids and Space Rocks” box. Friends of Seattle Astronomy can receive a $5 discount by using the code “SEATTLEASTRO” at checkout or by ordering through this link.

AstroBox is cool; check it out!

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U.S.-Japan Space Forum meets this week in Seattle

Leading space policy experts from the United States and Japan will meet in Seattle this week and their public symposium is the highlight of our calendar of events.

The U.S.-Japan Space Forum is a standing committee of experts from the two countries who examine critical developments and opportunities for bilateral and multilateral space-related activities. Reflecting the increasingly important role of the private sector in national space capabilities, the forum integrates the perspectives of a wide array of experts, including corporate, academic, and other non-government players.

As part of its meeting this week the forum will present a public symposium at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 16 at the Museum of Flight. The symposium will include a panel discussion about the threats and opportunities in the space industry, moderated by Prof. Saadia Pekkanen of the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Pekkanen is co-chair of the forum. The agenda is online.

The event is being sponsored by the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, the Museum of Flight, the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, and the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Meeting and workshop from SAS

saslogoThe Seattle Astronomical Society has a couple of public events on tap for this week. The society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Local astrophotographer Mark de Regt will talk about how he moved from viewing in his yard to doing remote imaging with equipment located in the South Australia desert.

On Sunday the club will host a free public observing skills workshop, “Stargazing in the City,” aimed at helping new and intermediate observers learn and understand the sky. The session will be held at 2 p.m. March 20 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory at the UW. Planned topics include how to identify stars and constellations, understanding astronomy lingo, use of binoculars and star charts, star hopping, and what to observe from light-polluted city skies.

Tacoma public night

taslogoThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its free public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19 on the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The topic for the evening will be ancient astronomy. If weather permits society members will be on hand with telescopes for observing as well.

Planetaria

Pacific PlanetariumPacific Planetarium in Bremerton will present its monthly third Friday astronomy talk March 18, with shows at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. As of this writing the topic had not been published. Admission at the door is $5. There’s a full slate of shows set for the weekend at the Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center. Check the Seattle Astronomy calendar for details.

Art on the Moon

NASA photo.

NASA photo.

The Giant Steps art exhibition and contest continues Saturday and Sunday at Seattle’s King Street Station, where it will be open from noon until 6 p.m. both days. The event challenged students, artists, engineers, architects, designers, and other space enthusiasts to imagine and propose art projects on the surface of the Moon. Their submissions will be on display at the station weekends through the end of March. Admission is $10.

Up in the sky

Venus will pass very close to Neptune on Sunday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.

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Local photographer published in S&T

A local astrophotographer has received a nice bit of global recognition for his excellent work. A photo of the Rosette Nebula by Matt Dahl, a co-owner of Cloud Break Optics in Seattle, has been published in the reader gallery section of the March 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. Dahl has submitted a number of photos to the magazine in the past, but this is the first time one has made it into print.

Rosette Nebula

Matt Dahl’s photo of the Rosette Nebula is included in the reader gallery section of the March 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

“It’s really neat, and a lot of people have seen it, which is cool,” he said. “It’s good exposure.”

Dahl created the photo from more than 13 hours of exposures collected over two nights about a year ago.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of time in the cold, and even more time in the warmth post-processing,” he said. “It requires a lot of time to get the detail that you want.”

“It’s definitely a process but it’s nice when it pays off,” Dahl added.

Interestingly enough, the gallery includes two shots of the Rosette, making for a nice comparison of the different results photographers can get depending on the filters they use and other techniques.

Photos, or just looking?

Dahl enjoys visual observing as well as astrophotography.

“One of the things I really like about imaging is that I have a goal and I get a product at the end,” he said. “I like the visual aspect, I like to be able to look at stuff. But there’s this whole process I go through. It’s somewhat cathartic, despite the fact that it takes a long time to do it. I really enjoy, and I find very relaxing, just sitting with my scope—or having my scope running, and sleeping!”

Dahl feels that amateur astronomers are making images that rival what professional observatories were turning out two decades ago, and they’re doing it with cameras that can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.

“The technology, both in its advancement but also in its affordability to the amateur, has been impressive,” he noted. “It’s nice to have this available as a means for enjoying the hobby.”

The March issue of Sky & Telescope is on the newsstands now. You can see some of Dahl’s other images on his Flickr page.

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Big plans for satellite imaging company BlackSky Global

The latest Seattle-based entry into the private space business has announced ambitious plans to offer up “satellite imaging as a service,” selling color photos with one-meter resolution at a significantly lower cost and with far less turnaround time than is presently available in the market. BlackSky Global is aiming to launch two of its Pathfinder imaging satellites in the first quarter of next year and has the funding available to have a total of six of them up in orbit by the end of 2016. BlackSky’s long-term plan is to have a constellation of 60 high-resolution imaging satellites in operation by 2019.

Peter Wegner

Peter Wegner. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“We’re laying out the systems so that we’ll be able to take a picture essentially of anywhere on the planet and send it back to a customer on a timeline measured in minutes, and be able to do that at consumer kind of prices,” said Peter Wegner, chief technology officer for BlackSky. “It really is exciting; it’s something that’s never been possible before.”

The typical buyers of satellite images are governments, corporations, and other large entities working on security, border defense, environmental monitoring, and precision agriculture. Wegner expects those, and more, to be BlackSky customers.

“It’s going to open up all kinds of new markets, too,” he said. “There are a number of firms around the world that use satellite imagery to do analytical predictions of commodities or natural resources, energy. It really is, in some sense, about global market intelligence and feeding the demand to know what’s happening around the world everywhere, all the time, 24-7.”

Eventually it will be a consumer business. You could go onto the BlackSky website and, for a few hundred dollars, order up a photo of your backyard. The one-meter resolution of the images will reveal people or groups of people, but they won’t be identifiable.

BlackSky Pathfinder Spacecraft - Final Integration_Jim Bowes, Technician

Technician Jim Bowes checks out the Pathfinder spacecraft. Photo courtesy BlackSky Global.

“That’s important because there are a lot of concerns about privacy, and we also have those concerns as a company,” Wegner said. “This allows us to provide the capability to monitor what’s happening around your environment, but not get down to the level where it causes a privacy concern.”

BlackSky is an independent company owned by Seattle’s Spaceflight Industries, which specializes in launching small satellites as secondary payloads. We wrote about the firm’s SHERPA payload adapter ring two years ago.

Wegner said Seattle is a great place for BlackSky’s sort of business.

“There seems to be a growing center of gravity for small space companies to move to Seattle,” he said, noting that the mix of aerospace, high-tech, and web expertise is perfect.

“All three of those things are really important for our business, because if you’re going to make this a consumer-level product, you need the web-scale business experience, you need the big data experience, and you need the aerospace experience, which all fits uniquely where we are in this area.”

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Book review: Photography Night Sky

We at Seattle Astronomy are not into astrophotography as such; while we enjoy the images created by others, our own interests in amateur astronomy lean strongly toward visual observation. Nevertheless, we have been known to do a little shutterbugging from time to time, and thus Photography Night Sky: A Field Guide for Shooting After Dark (Mountaineers Books, 2014) is an interesting read.

Authored by Jennifer Wu and James Martin, Photography Night Sky is not a guide for deep-sky photography, but rather a primer for shooting nightscapes, including stars, the Milky Way, star trails, the Moon, and twilight scenes. Wu and Martin also cover meteors, aurorae, false dawn, and other celestial phenomena.

The 100 gorgeous color photos included in the book are proof enough that the authors know what they’re talking about. They have the credentials to back it up, too. Wu has won a bevy of awards for her work and is a Canon “Explorer of Light” photographer. Martin has written and photographed professionally since 1989 and is the author of several books, including the best-selling Photography Outdoors: A Field Guide for Travel and Adventure Photographers, which had a new release last year.

Photography Night Sky is a highly accessible guide for the novice shooter, and we expect seasoned photographers also will find some good pointers within. Wu and Martin cover equipment and preparation for shooting, and get into such topics as composition, focus, and optimum camera settings for various conditions. They also address some of the challenges of photography at night, especially shooting in the cold. The book includes chapters about the various sorts of objects one might shoot in the dark, and a full chapter about post-processing of images.

We were especially interested in the sections about lighting and the methods, such as light painting, for enhancing the appearance of objects at night without washing out the stars you’re trying to capture in your images.

Wu was in Seattle to give a talk last month, but we had to miss it, as it was scheduled at the same time as a lecture by renowned cosmologist Jim Peebles. But we’re glad to have a copy of Photography Night Sky, and hope the advice from Wu and Martin will help improve our own imaging. Pick up a copy at the link or by clicking the cover photo above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

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Picking a DSLR camera for astrophotography

Venus transit

Our photo of the June 2012 Venus transit of the Sun was made with a Canon PowerShot A530, stuck up to the eyepiece of our telescope. It worked, but most astrophotographers want something a little more versatile and powerful. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

We’re often asked for advice about astronomy equipment, and can prattle on at length about telescopes and binoculars. Being mostly interested in visual observing, however, our photography experience at Seattle Astronomy is pretty much limited to sticking our phone or a simple point-and-shoot camera up to a telescope eyepiece and clicking away. This, with a little luck, occasionally leads to pleasing results, but we really have no business giving anyone advice about picking a camera for serious astrophotography.

It is our good fortune, however, to have some talented shooters in our sphere, and one of them, Soggy Astronomer, has just posted a comprehensive article about choosing a DSLR camera for making photographs of your favorite celestial objects.

The short answer, as it is for many astronomy gear questions, is “it depends.” But Soggy’s post will take you through the features to consider and the differences they make, and help you narrow down the choices to help you pick a camera that will do what you want to accomplish.

Here’s a clue, though: Soggy just bought two new cameras: A Canon Rebel T6s and a Canon 7D Mark II. He also notes that the Nikon D810a, pictured at left, is, at present, the only DSLR camera on the market that is designed specifically for astrophotography. This has to do with filters and other what’s-its (a technical photography term) that are especially helpful for imaging the faint, fuzzy deep-sky objects up in the heavens. I just looked on Amazon and the D810a is on back order until next week. It’s listed at $3,799.95 for the body only, but at $3,796.95 for Amazon Prime members, a savings of three bucks. Membership has its privileges.

Check out the post. For your convenience we’ve added some of the top picks to our Seattle Astronomy store, which also includes our selections for telescopes, eyepieces, accessories, astronomy books, and software.

Further reading:

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