Backyard Astronomy

I’m writing this from an unusual locale for astronomy: our backyard in Salt Lake City.
Tonight is cool but not cold. It’s after sundown and Cory is at the symphony. Crickets are scratching away, a buggy concert warning of autumn and winter. A peculiar glow-in-the-dark globe, shaped like a round cat, shines green on the patio table; Lisa gave it to Cory when we watched our step-dog, Max, for her.
The telescope has been set up here for three dry, clear nights now, because I have been trying out some new software routines that might improve my astrophotography. So far one worked, one did not and another locked up my computer temporarily. But I think I know what I did wrong with the third.
Since I was set up anyhow, I decided to take a few pictures with a little camera I bought from Meade Instruments many years ago. Called the “Lunar and Planetary Imager,” it is not much more sophisticated than a web camera. In fact, until recently I couldn’t even run it with my laptop because the operating system is Microsoft Vista, and the camera is so old it’s incompatible. But amateur astronomers are some of the world’s most helpful people, and I asked the LX200GPS newsgroup, an Internet discussion forum for people who use my kind of telescope, if the camera could be salvaged.
Dick Seymour, who is a true expert on the ‘scope, dug up a work-around someone had posted earlier on a different web site. Using this, I was able to rewrite my laptop’s registry so it would recognize the camera. It works as well as ever.
But the first night I tried it, my images were terribly overexposed. My 12-inch-diameter telescope must drag in more light than expected back when the camera was made. The little web cam couldn’t be forced to take photos fast enough not to wash out all detail.
Last night I masked most of the light, a strange thing to do with a telescope. Sometimes I’ve used a homemade device to assist in focusing, just a round, flat piece of cardboard with three holes cut in it. The cardboard goes in front of the telescope. When stars are out of focus, they show up as three-lobed blobs of light. When the starlight is focused properly, the three lobes merge into one. So I just blocked two of the holes with another flap of cardboard and started imaging.

Heat waves rising from the city churn the atmosphere and make stars, planets and the moon waver badly under magnification. Still, eventually I accumulated enough short and relatively sharp exposures; all were taken Saturday morning, Sept. 25.

Here’s my first view of Jupiter. The centuries-old storm called them Great Red Spot shows up as an oval toward the bottom:

In my second-to-last Jupiter image of the morning, taken hours later, the red spot has rotated toward the right side of the vast planet, which spins once every ten-plus hours. The shadow of one of the Galilean moons has begun crossing the planet too, on the left at about the same latitude as the storm.

I shot several images of the moon. Here are a couple taken near the terminator, the line on Luna’s surface where sunset or sunrise creates dramatic shadows. The sun is setting in this case:

and

Finally, I made a view of the crater Tycho, which testifies to the fierce impact that whacked our satellite millions of years ago. The splatter effect is proof of the stunning force of this cosmic collision:

It’s a satisfying thought that even in light-polluted urban sites like this we can glimpse a vastly distant gigantic planet, and witness the moon up close with all its scars.

Now, back to Baby, my telescope.

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