The Milky Way’s Twin?


NGC 7331

NGC 7331 (click for larger image)

Often called “the Milky Way’s twin” NGC 7331 might well look like what our own Milky Way Galaxy would look like if some alien astronomer photographed  the Milky Way from an observatory on an earth-like planet in that galaxy. Being angled in the way NGC 7331 is to our plane of view produces something of a three-dimensional affect in hi-powered astrophotos. This effect is further enhanced by the existence of four other galaxies seeming in a group along with NGC 7331. However the grouping is a line-of-sight phenomenon. NGC 7331 is actually way in the foreground. It is 49 million light years away while the group of galaxies next to it are about ten times that distance.

Returning to the thought that our Milky Way galaxy might look like NGC 7331 if viewed it from a earth-like planet in NGC 7331, it also might be that in that photo we might see companion galaxies to our Milky Way. The great Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is part of our local group of galaxies. What a great shot that could be the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies in the same photograph along with some of the satellites galaxies surrounding those two.

A Rose by Any other Name?

Sometimes you will see NGC 7331 along with its “companion” galaxies called The Deer Lick Group. It’s not unusual that a some objects in the night sky are named after the discoverer. Nearby this galaxy group is Stephen’s Quintet, named after Edouard Stephan in 1877 who discovered the group. But The Deer Lick Group? Some might wonder if there was something deer like in the looks or the positions of these galaxies which they don’t see but others do? Not so. As it turns out the group was given that label by amateur astronomer Tomm Lornzin in his now out of print book 1000+ The Amateur Astronomers’ Field Guide to Deep Sky Observing in honor of Deer Lick Gap in the mountains of North Carolina where he observed and once had an especially fine view of this group of galaxies’ (1)

Sooo…… someday when the internet goes inter-galactic and some alien astronomer uploads a picture of the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies together let them know that here on earth we call that view the Jupiter Ridge Group after the amateur astronomer who first envisioned that shot. Hint: What a great Photoshop project that would be to try and create that scene. Be sure to send us the result of your Jupiter Ridge Group.


Celestron EdgeHD 14″ at f/7 using QSI 583ws. 60 minutes luminance  105 minutes color data. Post processed in CCD Stack and Photoshop. I start most of my exposures with the intent of getting at least 4 hours of data. However this is made difficult between hardware glitches, sky conditions, short summer nights (and my inability to get decent images from two groups of images after a meridian flip).

Even so, with only 165 minutes of light on this image I am fairly pleased with the result. Anyone that can suggest how I can merge images from both sides of a meridian flip and not have blending issues at the straight edge overlaps, please let me know the secret.

[1] Saratoga Skies, “NGC 7331 (Deer Lick Group and Stephan’s Quintet)”, Jim Solomon

Bird’s Eye View of Messier 101

A Bird's Eye View of Messier 101

A Bird’s Eye View of Messier 101 (Click for larger view)

Sorry, after my last post the temptation was too great to call this a bird’s eye view. More correctly stated this is a view of a face-on galaxy, the gorgeous Messier 101 otherwise known as the Pinwheel Galaxy.

What I love about face-on galaxies is that they allow you to really see the structure and contents of the galaxy much more that any angled or edge on view.

You don’t have to look at M101 very long before you realize that the pinwheel shape is not perfect. Something has “bent” one of the “propellers” of this pinwheel. The right side of this galaxy as seen in this image looks fairly synchronous. However, the left side shows that one of “the propellers”, or more correctly the arms, have been disturbed and the overall shape of  the pinwheeel is far from circular. Most likely this was caused by the gravitational influence of a nearby passing galaxy some time in the way back. Even so, there are few galaxies in our night sky that show as perfect a face-on view as M101. Sometimes I like to put on some space music (most likely from my favorite space music composer Jonn Serrie) and slowly drift across the face of this galaxy imaging what it must look like to those closer to it or even in one of its arms. Very relaxing.

In a related way it is very nice to be able to see so many objects in a face-on galaxy. In particular I am speaking of the numerous hydrogen-alpha (reddish) regions seen in M101. Let’s take a little imaginary journey. If you look about half way out from the galaxy’s core to the edge of the galaxy in a four o’clock direction from the galaxy center you might notice a bright blue spot. Let’s pretend for a moment that in that area there exists an earth-like planet teeming with life. Somewhere on the planet there is an amateur astronomer such as yourself. When your “sun” or “suns” have set and the goodness of the night is upon you might see the center of your galaxy rise above you looking much like our “milky way” looks to use on summer nights away from light pollution. Then a number of months later as the night settles in and your planet has rotated half way around its suns, you now are looking outward from your 4 o.clock position away from the core out towards a large arm of your galaxy and see a spectacular series of h-alpha regions. Perhaps they might look something like a spectacular h-alpha region we have back here in the Milky Way galaxy called the Pelican Nebula and imaged last year on this site here.

“The goodness of the night upon you, friends!” – Othello Act I Scene 2.


Celestron EdgeHD 14″ at f/7 using QSI 583ws. 30 minutes luminnace, 75 minutes color data. Post processed in CCD Stack and Photoshop. It has taken me quiet awhile to finally produce an image of this quality at the f/7 focus For nearly a year I struggled with the coma that was produced with a focal reducer I purchased in the days before Celestron came out with their Reducer Lens (.7x) for the EdgeHD 1400. Now I have spent the $600 to purchase the Celestron version of the focal reducer and find that it was money well spent. While there is some coma detectable at the very edges of hi-rez views, it is small and acceptable.

Beyond the issue of reducers and coma this image is one of the first I have published since integrating a lot of information I have learned for OCA astrophotograhers and the marvelous video series on CCDStack and Photoshop produced by Adam Block.

Actually I am surprised the image came out as well as it did since it only has 30 minutes of luminance data and 75 minutes of RGB data. I guess that is one of the advantages of having a big mirror. I will be excited when I can image M101 again with several hours of luminance and color data.

Birds of the Night Sky


The Owl Nebula (M97) is a planetary nebula
in Ursa Major (click for larger image)

I didn’t realize how often birds are called upon when we give names to things astronomical. Check it out, there are eight constellations in the night sky that are named after birds: Apus (Bird of Paradise), Aquila (the Eagle),  Columba (the Dove), Corvus (the Crow), Cygnus (the Swan), Grus (the Crane), Pavo (the Peacock), and Tucana (the Toucan). Additionally, the last two installments of this astronomy blog deal with nebulae named after birds. I am sure there are a number of other night sky objects named for birds and someday I will get around to checking that out. Better yet, maybe one of our readers might enlighten us.



Planetary Nebula

The Sun is currently a 4.5 billion year old yellow dwarf. In about five billion years it will expand into a red giant engulfing the orbits of Mercury and Venus. After this the Sun will collapse and expel a huge diffuse ball of gaseous material which will become what we call today a planetary nebula. The nebula will be lit by the the white dwarf that our Sun would then become. The some 3000 planetary nebula we have discovered represent a small point in time for the overall history of the stars at the center of these planetary nebulae  Who can say what the Sun will look like to those living in our corner of the galaxy when it becomes a planetary nebula. Perhaps the connection between birds and astronomy on earth will continue and Sol with expand into the Bird’s Nest Nebula or the Egg Nebula.

The name “planetary nebula” was given to these objects by the English astronomer William Herschel who said that they looked a lot like gas giant planets like Uranus which he had discovered in 1781.

The Owl Nebula (discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781, the same year Herschel discovered Uranus) was formed only about  6000 years ago, a flash-in-the-pan in astronomical time. Look closely and you can see a pair of distant galaxies.


Celestron EdgeHD 14″ at f/11 using QSI 583ws, 70 minutes.  Observant viewers will notice that this is my first posting in eight months. After spending many months shooting at a very fast f/2 focal length creating the large scale images seen in prior shots found on this site I decided to move to f/7 focal length set up. Going from a fast system to a more powerful but optically slower system creates a huge number of challenges involving various hi-precision guiding issues and precision focusing issues. Bad weather this past Fall and Winter limited the number of nights to work on the issues. Most issues were solved (at least to the point of taking decent images).

However shooting at f/7 requires using a focal reducer.  When I started on this f/7 journey no one had a focal reducer out that produced satisfactory flat field images at f/7 on a EdgeHD 14″ scope.  Celestron has now released a f/7 focal reducer designed specifically for the scope, but at $600 I think I will wait until I see a review or two of its performance before purchasing. So I have done the next best thing, I have taken the focal reducer our of the light train and am now shooting at the native F/11 of the telescope. The above image is First Light at that focus for Jupiter Ridge Observatory.

The Pterodactyl Nebula (aka the Pelican Nebula)

The so-called “Pelican” Nebula is on the right side of this image. The “east coast” down to “florida” portion of the North American Nebula is on the left side of the image. Click for larger view.

Here is my image of the ‘Pelican’ Nebula (IC 5070). This is a large nebula located in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. It is right next to the North American Nebula. As a matter of fact the left side of the image shows the “east coast” of the North American Nebula ending in “florida” at the left edge of the image.

Just as we saw in the Horsehead Nebula what we see in the ‘Pelican’ Nebula is dark nebulae flowing in front of an emission nebula to present familiar patterns to the human eye. The ‘Pelican’s eye and lower beak is defined not by a gap in the emission nebula, but by dark nebula in the foreground.

Which creature is a better fit for IC 5070?

On thing I hope to do some day is do an etymolgical study on just how and when IC 5070 picked up the moniker ‘Pelican’. Perhaps the nebula picked up that name in times before we knew about the creature it more resembles: a pterodactyl?  A few hours searching the internet did not satisfy my curiosity about the name. Every resourse called it the ‘Pelican’. Interestingly Burnham’s Handbook talks about the North American Nebula but does not even mention IC 5070 (the Pelican) at all. Perhaps someone who reads this can help us with the etymological roots of ‘Pelican Nebula’.

As I look at the side by side drawings of the two creatures it seems pretty clear to me that IC 5070 ought to be called the Pterodactyl Nebula. What do you think?

My LRGB image of the Harbig-Haro 555 area along Martin Pugh excellent narrow-band view. Click for a larger image.

The above image was taken in LRGB filters with my QSI 583ws camera. This camera has a KAF-8300 chip which not only is wide (giving me a 1.6 degree wide field of view but also hi-resolution (8.3 megapixel). This provides both a wide angle field of view while giving reaonable detail in close ups. You can see that when you look at the detailed portion of the image in the combined image to the left.


For the time being I am showing you my LRGB image of the “Pteradactyl” Nebula. I hope in the future to aquire the neccesariy narrow-band filters and experience that help advanced astrophotographers produce those Hubble-like images that are becoming almost common place in the world of astrophotograpy. I am very pleased that the current image shows the starforming structures Herbig-Haro 555. Here is a comparison of a detailed portion of the Pelican image (look at the back of the neck in the big image) displayed next to a narrow-band Hubble-like image of the same area taken by Martin Pugh (used with permission). If you look carefully at the elongated worm like spike you will see two jets erupting from a proto-star in the head of the spike. Look carefully and you can detect the spikes in my LRGB image as well. I look forward to returning to the “Pterodaytl” Nebula one day and record a number of its details in narrow-band light.


Image composed of 60 second LRGB subs times ten. Equipment: Celestron Edge HD 14″ on CGE Pro mount. Hyperstar f/1.9 lens. QSI-583ws camera with Astrodon filters. Many thanks again to the teaching of Sam Saeed.



Unveiling the Veil

The Veil Nebula (showing the two parts displayed in the two astrophotos here)

High in the sky on summer evenings is the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus lies in the foreground with the Milky providing a dramatic backdrop when viewed from a dark sky location. Additionally there are a number of spectactular Hydrogen-Alpha nebula in the area making the Cygnus portion of the sky one of the favorites for astronomers, both amateur and professional to explorer.

One of the showcase objects in this area is the Veil Nebula, a large supernova remnant created by massive explosion of a star some 10,000 years ago (more on that below). Think of the most massive stellar explosion you have seen in any movie and multiple it by 100. Although the star that generated this explosion was about 1,500 light years from earth the explosion could have been seen in the daytime sky by early men who lived just beyond the edge of recorded history.

The Eastern Portion of the Veil Nebula (click for larger view)

The overall Veil Nebula is huge. It covers an area of the sky just off the western wingtip of Cygnus and covers an area 3 degrees across (the equivalent of 6 full moons wide). I have imaged the two principle parts of the Veil in the two images here. The western Veil (with the naked eye visible star 52 Cygni seemly embedded in the nebula. Actually the star isn’t associated with the nebula, it is simple in the same line of sight.

The Western Portion of the Veil Nebula (click for a larger view)

The glow that makes up the overall Veil Loop is made from excited Oxygen III (blue) and Hydrogen-Alphas (red) gases. Because the Veil Loop is positioned  in the line of sight of the Milky Way galaxy we see many more stars in these too images that we see from other nebulas that are not in the line of sight of the Milky Way.

How Old is the Veil Nebula?

This is an interesting question. I have seen references that range from as young as 5000 years old to well over 50,000 years from some older sources. Most modern sources put the age as anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000. The Hubble Telescope website puts it as 5,000 to 10,000.  To my way of thinking it must be closer to 10,000 rather than 5,000.

Link to a Hubble Telescope Web Site Press Release on the Veil Nebula

So why do I think that the Veil Nebula probably not as young as 5000 years? Because if the Veil were that young there is a fair chance that we would find evidence of the explosion in ancient recorded history and no such record appears to exist. Here is the logic:  If the Veil was only 5000 years old then the initial blast that created the supernova remnant would have reached earth about 3000 years ago. That blast most likely would have been brighter than all the combined light of all the stars in the Milky Way. It would probably been visible in the day and certainly would have been a spectacularly bright object in the night sky for weeks or even longer. That’s the stuff that make for the great stories that get passed down in oral histories to eventually be recorded. The beginning of written records in the western world  took place about 3200 BC. Not only would the explosion have occurred after writing was created, as said, the event might well have created a oral history later to find its way into a written record. No such evidence has shown itself therefore I am thinking it more likely that the event occurred thousands of years later. I would love to hear anyone that can add to this discussion with information I have not found.  One argument against my position is that the earliest writings were tabulations of inventories of grain and the like. I am not sure how much later true recording of events came in.

One final note, without going into detail the above speculation has been rewritten based on some clarifications about what astronomers mean when an astronomical event occurred at great distances (The Veil Supernova remnant is 1500 light years from earth). If you care to peruse that discussion follow this link:

Knock Your Socks Off

Video simulation of the Supernova Explosion that Gave Birth to the Veil Nebula

While everything we are looking here is based on viewing the Veil Nebula in photographs, my most vivid memory of viewing the Veil Nebula (the western portion) was when I took an OIII filter (Oxygen III) and put it in from of an eyepiece in my 18″ dobsonian style telescope in the late 1980’s and saw the Veil thru the eyepiece. I was standing on a one step stool to see the view and it was so dramatic that I lost my footing. For those of you that are not regular amateur astronomers let me share with you a known fact, while it is very cool to see great images of nighttime wonders like the Veil Nebula in photographs here, there are many many of these objects that will deeply affect you when you see them directly through an eyepiece. The views won’t be in color or as bright, but there is something magical that happens when your eye and brain sees these views directly. Next time you go to a star party ask if the Veil Nebula is up and could you see it through an OIII filter. You won’t forget the experience.

Technical Data

Data applies to both images. 36 1-minute exposures in LRGB for each image. Stacked in MaxImDL and processed in Photoshop CS5. Celestron EdgeHD 14″ with Hyperstar lens giving f/1.9. July 20 (eastern) and July 21 (western), 2012. By Russell Sipe. Many thanks to Sam Saeed who is coaching me on some basics of Photoshop editing of astrophotos.

Venus Transit at Work

Viewing the old-fashioned way without a star diagonal. Steve Koenig views the transit while I do the running commentary in my floppy hat for Steve and Kiet Nguyen.

Venus Transit

Transit of Venus (inverted view - refractor) eyepiece projection by Jared Dever (Olympus Pen E-PL1)

For the recent transit of Venus I took my Takahashi FS-102 to work to share the event with fellow workers. Unfortunately my eyepiece case was up at my obsevatory near Anza with my main telescope. I was able to borrow an eyepiece on short notice but not a star diagonal. This made for some interesting contortions in viewing the transit. However in a way it was sort of a throw back to the original refracting telescopes before star diagonals were invented.

About 25 co-workers, all non-astronomers, were treated to views of the transit and with the expected WOWs we are used to hearing when we do public astronomy events. About a half dozen viewers used their i-phone or cameras to attempt eyepiece projection shots of the transit, with some amazingly good results. One viewer happened to take a shot during second contact and was able to record an image that showed evidence of the atmosphere of Venus.

Steve Bennett captures a eyepiece projection shot

Steve Bennett captures a eyepiece projection shot that detects the Venusian atmosphere

Venusian Atmosphere detected

The blurred edge of the Sun between Venus and the edge of the Sun is caused by the thin Venusian atmosphere refracting the lightwaves.

A Star is Born

What comes to mind when you read that title, “A Star is Born”? I guess the answer to that question depends on your age. When someone says the words “A Star is Born” do you think of the 1937 movie by that name starring Janet Gaynor  and Fredric March? Or perhaps you think of the 1954 movie of that name starring Judy Garland and James Mason? Myself? I was born in the 1950’s so my memory hook pulls up the 1976 “A Star is Born” starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. And for some of you younger folk perhaps that title brings to mind the rapper Jay-Z’s song of the same name.

M42, M43, NGC 1977

So what does this have to do with astronomy? Just this. When I look at many of the fantastic emission nebula in the night sky many of which are star birthing areas the words of this oft used title come to mind. A star is being born. Well actually many stars are being born.

Here are my images of two of the more spectacular star birthing areas visible to us from our pale blue dot.

Arguably the most famous star birthing area in our sky (at least for those of us that live too far north to see Eta Carina and some of the fantastic star formation areas of the southern hemisphere) is the Great Nebula in Orion (number 42 and 43 in Messier’s List). Here is my take on this wonderful area of the night sky.

M20 and M21

Another beautiful example of a star birthing area is the Trifid Nebula (#20 in Messier’s list). It is called the Trifid Nebula because of it’s appears to be divided beautifully into three nearly equal parts. That. however is an optical illusion. The bright red nebular area is a sigular bright red star birthing area. Because of our position in the universe our view of this bright nebula has a foreground object. The dark lines that “separate” the nebula into three parts in our mind’s eye is actually a dark molecular cloud in front of the bright nebula. That dark cloud is not directly part of the star birthing area but an area of dark gas (i.e. not illuminated by a nearby star). Here is my take on M20.


Rare Encounter on Lyrid Meteor Night

A Meteor Crashes the Party

It’s rare to take a photograph with a meteor in it.  We can increase the chances of it happening when we do time exposures with SLR cameras pointing to large areas of the night.  Indeed one of the fun things to do in amateur astronomy is to point our SLR cameras towards the night sky on the night of a known meteor shower and leave the lens open for say, 10-15 minutes at a time.

Perseid Meteor taken by James W. Young. Similar to the one I took and will be added here later.

I was lucky in 1984 when I pointed two SLR cameras at a dark Twenty Nine Palms, California sky and caught three meteors. I shot 52 film images over the course of the night. Two of the meteors images were not well placed in the frame, just catching corners of the film and not very photogenic so to speak. But one was spectacular as it showed color and pulses (little explosions near the head). That image was published in Sky & Telescope and will be added to this website when I next go out to my observatory and scan the image of it hanging on my observatory wall.

Last weekend was the Lyrid Meteor shower and I caught the VERY rare meteor image you see at the top of this page. Not a meteor captured in a frame scores of degrees across, but a beautifully placed meteor framed in a one minute wide area of space. Not only that, it was a dramatic shot seemingly diving through the heart of a galaxy (NGC4302) while a fearful NGC 4298 and M99 looked on in horror.

Well I’m are just having a bit of fun of course. The meteor was plunging into earth’s atmosphere right on our doorstep, while the stars in the image were hundreds and more light years away (but in our own galaxy). The three galaxies are  60 million light-years and more away.

But such a dramatic shot and so well placed in the frame AND it was taken in a 10 second exposure, not a lengthy exposure like you will have when TRYING to capture meteors on film.

The bad part of the photo is that it was ten second first exposure in process of focusing the camera for the night’s imaging. The image is out of focus with bloated stars. How rude of that meteor to make its rare appearance before I got the camera in focus. Much like those blurred UFO, Loch Ness monster, and Big Foot images some people take?


The 100 Galaxies Astrophoto Added

There has been enthusiastic response to the addition of The 100 Galaxies Astrophoto page. This images of the M84/M86 field of view (with the Virgo Cluster) gives you the chance to do a bit of night sky searching for deep sky objects similar to what amateur astronomers do at their eyepieces and with their astrophotos.

When you first go to the page you will see an 800 pixel wide view of the field that is sufficient to show off four bright galaxies. But if you spend a minute searching the photo you will see at least a half dozen more galaxies. But if you click on the image it will expand into a larger view. If you expand that view (click on it or stretch it) you will get a full-sized version of the image (3326 pixels across). That image will flip every five seconds to show you the plain image and then the names of 114 galaxies in the field. Have fun seeing if your eye can detect them all.

If you click on The 100 Galaxies Astrophoto page link at the top of this page you will be taken to a page where you can expand the astrophoto and it will show the names of the galaxies every five seconds

First Light at Hyperstar f/1.9 Focus


Horsehead and Flame Nebulae (click for full-sized image)

General Comments: The Horsehead Nebua (IC 4340) and the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) wrap themselves around the bright star Alnitak (the easternmost star in the Belt of Orion. It is the subject of this First Light shot taken at the f/1.9 wide-field focus of my Celestron EdgeHD 14″ with Hyperstar lens mounted at the upper end of the scope.

This "blue" image will add blue wavelength info to the final image. Notice the artifact.

Technical: LGRB 15sec/15s/15s/15s times 10 = 10 minutes total exposure.  I am more than pleased with the results of this “first light” image. However the photograph is not without problems. You will see in one of the blue shots taken with a blue filter the artifact that multiplied over 10 images left a blue haze below the horse’s head. This has been caused by the large amount of blue light emitted by Alnitak and somehow bouncing off the optics to create the ghost like images.

Additionally there is an almost meteor like streak in the center of the image that was caused by the extension of the diffraction spike from the bright star Alnitak.