This weekend I attended a Star Party (aka an astronomer hangout session) with the North Houston Astronomy Club and took along my timelapse setup. I got to meet some cool people who are way into the stars, and got in some solid time staring at the heavens during the Orionid Meteor Shower. I’m pretty psyched about the resultant video below because it combines a whole bunch of techniques and tricks that I have never tried before.
Public service reminder: hit the 1080p and fullscreen it. We’re looking at stars. They’re small!
For anyone who’s wondering, those 4 tall poles in the timelapse where the sun is still going down are actually a radio telescope, set up to listen to the sounds of Jupiter as it passes southernly-overhead in the middle of the night. Bonus points for exotic telescopes!
I had done “star trails” images before by using this simple, free program called StarStaX, but I hadn’t realized that the same program can save a picture at every step during the composite-making process, which gives these really neat star trails videos. I also found a photoshop actions file as blogged about on Owen Scharlotte’s site that let me do the fading-startrails effect. This is my first time using either of those techniques. (UPDATED…TWICE!: Owen had a broken link, which is now fixed! His actions are now more sophisticated as well, so click here to download the version I used, which I’ll leave posted as it was requested of me via email from a reader. Please note: I can’t provide technical assistance with this actions file. You’ll have to read Owen’s website and figure out on your own how it works. You should check out his site anyway, as it’s good.)
As with my last attempt, I did a batch process on all 1,145 photos before compiling them into the video. I figured out how to remove hot pixels from the dark parts of the sky (using a subtraction layer on a noise reference image), but I still haven’t mastered removing them from lighter regions near the horizon. There’s definite room for improvement. Another very cool thing: I learned a few neat, new tricks with Shadow/Highlights in Photoshop as well as Curves; two functions I use all the time. Hah! And I arrogantly had assumed I knew all there was to know about these functions! Enlightening and humbling in the same moment. This whole deal was certainly a beneficial learning experience.
But stepping back from the technical aspect of all this, and speaking of humbling, have a look at those stars. Wowzers.
Something that really knocked me out that night was seeing “the great nebula in Andromeda”, aka M31, aka the Andromeda Galaxy. Maaan. I mean… every star you see in the sky is an incomprehensible distance away from us. Jeez, really I can’t even genuinely comprehend the distance from Earth to Venus, let alone the distance from Earth to Proxima Centauri… But holy %*#^ Andromeda, that’s 2.5 million light years from Earth. And you can see it with your naked eye if the sky has clear “seeing”. Hanging out with a bunch of astronomers and having them point out all these fascinating things in the sky was really inspiring. There’s certainly more sensational things to be seen in the sky (Jupiter and it’s four Galilean moons was truly a sight to behold) but looking up and spotting another galaxy, well that blew my mind. I checked it out through both binoculars and a pretty excellent telescope as well. No matter how you see it, it’s dim. But it’s there, and one of the top mind-boggling sights of my year.
You can see it, as my camera saw it on the left. I drew in purple dashed lines connecting some of the nearby stars in the Andromeda constellation that make it easier to spot. The galaxy itself is circled in green. As you can see it’s not much more than a faint blur. But man oh man, did those photons ever come a long way before, by sheer random chance, happening to land upon the image sensor of my camera. At the time that those photons left the Andromeda Galaxy, the genus Homo had literally just begun. Homo Habilis was the species. Definitely still very very ape-like. By contrast, Homo Sapiens emerged 250,000 years ago; an order of magnitude more recently. Wow.
Even though there are fantastic pictures out there of such objects as Andromeda, it’s still so very powerful to see it with your own eyes–to have your own retinas collect some photons that traveled 2.5 million years to reach them. Seeing that is ….. well it’s breathtaking.
Meeting other people who are jazzed about the sky was a highlight of the evening as well. One thing I had hoped to do was learn a bit about telescopes since it’s somewhat of a long-term goal of mine to acquire one. I met a guy named Rusty who had just gotten a brand new Orion model off eBay. It was his first real night out with it, so he was still getting things dialed in, but overall he had it in pretty great form. Seeing his excitement over the new instrument was infectious and definitely made me want to go do some further research. But talking to him at length also made me realize that I have 100% no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to ‘scopes. It’s going to be quite some time before I know enough to even consider a purchase. In the meantime, I think I might invest in a good, lightweight, comfortable pair of binoculars. I had read people saying that this was a great first step into astronomy online, but I sort of scoffed at the idea, thinking, naahh, what I want is a badass telescope! And yes, that IS what I want, but still, a good pair of binoculars is certainly a fun, portable, and instantly-maneuverable way to check out the sky. I think I will be getting a pair.
That, and a 75mW laser pointer! ;)