Solar imaging after the rain

With all this rain we’ve been having I was starting to wonder if we’d ever see the Sun again here in the UK. Thankfully, a few small gaps in the clouds last week did give me the chance to get the solar imaging kit out. The first two images below show the main active regions visible in hydrogen alpha light on the 6th May. These include AR1476 which had then only just appeared over the Sun’s limb. The third is from the 1st May.

The pictures were all taken using an Imaging Source DMK 21AU618.AS CCD camera (shooting at 60FPS), a 2x Barlow lens and a Coronado PST hydrogen-alpha filtered telescope.

As for AR1476, it has grown substantially since these pictures were taken. It now measures roughly 160,000km across according to What’s more, as the Sun gets increasingly active in the run-up to solar maximum we can look forward to seeing more enormous sunspots and active regions, like AR1476, appearing on the Sun’s disc. As long as the clouds stay away that is.

A word of warning: never point an unfiltered telescope, unfiltered pair of binoculars etc. at the Sun. You will damage your eyes and almost certainly blind yourself. If you want to observe the Sun only use specialist certified solar filters that have been fitted correctly (and thoroughly checked) and that have been purchased from a reputable astronomical supplier. Be sure to follow any usage instructions carefully. Finderscopes etc. should also be filtered or removed.          

Watching a wandering star

Over the past few weeks it’s been hard to miss Venus shining away high in the west after sunset. At the end of March it was less than 3 degrees from the crescent Moon, while the first week of April saw Venus drifting past the Pleiades star cluster. Below I’ve collected together some pictures of the planet that I’ve taken recently; clicking on each one will take you to a larger version.

The wide-field pictures were all taken with a Canon 550D DSLR and a zoom lens, while the close-up (showing Venus’s phase) was captured with a Philips SPC900NC webcam and an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

A cold night imaging crater Copernicus and friends

Last night the atmosphere was particularly clear and steady here, so I took the opportunity to image some of my favourite lunar craters. All of the images below were captured using a Meade 203mm aperture Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and a Philips SPC900NC webcam. I also used a red (Wratten #23A) filter in front of the webcam to filter out some of the wavelengths of light that are more detrimentally affected by atmospheric undulations.

The images below are all mosaics. Each mosaic pane was made by taking a short video with the webcam and then sifting out the best 250 frames to be stacked and processed together into one more detailed image. Then each of the panes are arranged together to create the final mosaic image you see below. For example, the Clavius & Tycho image was made by stitching together 16 individual panes.

The floor of crater Copernicus in shadow & the ghost crater Stadius. Credit: Will Gater
The Tycho, Maginus, Clavius & Moretus region (click to enlarge). Credit: Will Gater
Crater Plato, the Vallis Alpes and the Montes Teneriffe. Credit: Will Gater

Exploring the dark skies of Mid Wales

Back in November I spent a wonderfully quiet week staying near the town of Rhayader, in Mid Wales. The Welsh countryside around where I stayed is renowned for its wildlife and dramatic scenery, but the reason I went there – of course – was for its dark night skies. Unfortunately of the seven nights I was there only one was clear enough to get the telescope out.

Below you’ll find a few of the images I captured over the course of that evening. As you can see, thin patchy clouds and haze enhanced the small amount of light pollution visible, so I didn’t experience the skies there at their absolute darkest. I guess that means I’ll just have to go back and visit again next year.

Venus sparkles above the vibrant glow of twilight. Credit: Will Gater

Jupiter shines through thin mist against a starry backdrop. Credit: Will Gater

The magnificent Orion rises over the skyline. Credit: Will Gater

The Triangulum Galaxy. Taken with a Canon 550D on a William Optics 66mm refractor, autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider & an 80mm refractor. Credit: Will Gater

The constellation of Auriga (and several bright star clusters). Credit: Will Gater

The Crab Nebula (M1). Taken with a Canon 550D on a William Optics 66mm refractor, autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider & an 80mm refractor. Credit: Will Gater

An astronomical autumn on Dartmoor

Autumn is easily my favourite season for astronomy, partly because of the return of the dark skies but also because of the wealth of objects visible in the sky around this time. On the one hand some of the stunning summer sights are still visible low in the west, while at the same time the grand winter constellations are beginning to appear over the eastern horizon.

This autumn I’ve managed to get to my favourite dark sky site, on Dartmoor, a few times – though, admittedly, the imaging conditions haven’t always been great. Below are a few of the astro-images I’ve got to show for those trips.

All were taken with an unmodified Canon 550D DSLR camera. The wide field images were captured with the DSLR on a tracking mount. The close-ups were taken with the DSLR mounted on a William Optics ZenithStar 66mm refractor on an HEQ5 Pro mount. The whole setup was autoguided by an 80mm refractor and a Sky-Watcher SynGuider.

The Milky Way in Cygnus, Cepheus & Lacerta. Credit: Will Gater
The Double Cluster (NGC 869 & NGC 884). Credit: Will Gater
The Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, M33 & the Double Cluster. Credit: Will Gater

The Hyades star cluster Credit: Will Gater

The Dumbbell Nebula. Credit: Will Gater

A Draconid meteor drops from the sky

The Moon & clouds spoilt the peak of the Draconid meteor shower. Credit: Will Gater

After watching the clouds rolling in all day here I decided that the only way I’d have a chance of observing the peak of the Draconid meteor shower tonight would be if I followed the few gaps there were in the clouds by car. So, as the Sun was setting, I set off on a drive around Somerset looking for patches of clear sky. Unfortunately every time it looked as if I’d get a glimpse of the stars the clouds closed up obscuring everything. With complete cloud cover overhead I set off home thinking that was the end of the night.

Thankfully when I was about 15 miles from home the clouds broke and Jupiter and the Moon appeared to burst out of them in front of me. In an incredible stroke of luck there was a big lay-by about 100 metres ahead, so I pulled over and parked up. With small swathes of clear sky appearing overhead I set up the camera and began taking 20 second exposures at ISO 800.

Gaps in the clouds afforded brief glimpses of a starry sky. Credit: Will Gater

Before the clouds closed in again I saw four Draconid meteors including a relatively bright one which I managed to photograph (below). It was a lot of effort to capture just one meteor on camera. Hopefully next time the clear skies will come to me so I don’t have to go chasing after them.

A Draconid meteor shoots across the sky (click for a wide-field version). Credit: Will Gater

Delving into the dark skies of Dartmoor

The sky was wonderfully clear over my favourite dark sky site on Dartmoor on Saturday night, meaning I was able to spend several hours imaging objects in and around the Milky Way. Below are some of my images from that session, including a few of the lovely noctilucent cloud display that appeared over the northern horizon at about 02:00 BST. Clicking on each image will open a larger version.

The Milky Way in Scutum & Sagittarius. Credit: Will Gater
The globular cluster M22. Credit: Will Gater
Noctilucent clouds on the northern horizon. Credit: Will Gater
A close-up of the NLCs showing intricate structures. Credit: Will Gater
Wave structures within the 3 July 2011 noctilucent cloud display. Credit: Will Gater
More wave structures within the 3 July noctilucent cloud display. Credit: Will Gater

Noctilucent clouds light up the horizon — 1 July 2011

The height of the display, at roughly 3am BST, as seen from latitude 51°N. Credit: Will Gater

At around 3am BST this morning I spotted my first noctilucent clouds of the 2011 season. It was a fairly modest display, but did show some nice Type IIIb cloud structures at one point. Below are a few images I captured, along with two animations I made showing the clouds’ movement and changing structures. Clicking on the images will open up a larger version.

A panorama showing the extent of the display across the NE horizon. Credit: Will Gater

ANIMATION: click the image below to view the wide-angle animation. Credit: Will GaterANIMATION: click the image below to view the close-up animation. Credit: Will Gater

Starfields & skylarks – a night of imaging on Dartmoor

Capturing the night skies from the UK can often be a frustrating experience. You can spend ages setting up your scopes and cameras, carefully perfecting the mount’s tracking and getting everything in focus, but just as you’re ready to image the clouds have appeared.

Sometimes though it all comes together and you get a magical evening under the stars. For me, Friday night — on Dartmoor — was one of those precious nights.

I started taking images just before midnight. By the time I had finished, the sky towards the east was brightening and some very eager skylarks were beginning the dawn chorus. Below are a few shots I captured that night.

Seeing the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae again reminded me that we have lots to look forward to over the coming summer months.

UPDATE 09.06.2011 — Here’s a short, admittedly poor quality, recording I made of the skylarks.

The Lagoon (bottom) & Trifid Nebulae. Taken with a Canon 550D on a William Optics 66mm refractor, autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider & an 80mm refractor. Credit: Will Gater
The crescent Moon over Haytor Rocks. Credit: Will Gater
Venus sparkles in the eastern sky as dawn breaks. Credit: Will Gater

Calling all astrophotographers!

Today the Royal Observatory Greenwich, in association with Sky at Night Magazine, launched the 2011 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. This year, as well as the main judging categories, there’s a new special prize for the Robotic Scope Image of the Year. It’s aimed at astroimagers who use remote scopes, over the Internet, to capture their data before processing it.

I’m on the judging panel once again this year and, as before, I’m really looking forward to seeing what the world’s top astrophotographers have got in store for us. So, whether you use a remote observatory or your own kit, photograph meteors or the Moon, if you’ve taken an amazing astronomical shot recently make sure you enter it into the competition!

Logo credit: National Maritime Museum/The Royal Observatory, Greenwich.