Mars From Earth vs From Orbit

30 Sep

India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) successfully entered Martian orbit on September 24, 2014 and has sent back some spectacular photos. The most recent (and most beautiful, IMHO) is a global, colour image of Mars that shows Syrtis Major and the Hellas basin at far right.

After seeing the image, I realized that I’d taken a photo of almost exactly that region through my telescope in April. I’ve compared the two below. Clearly, it pays to be in orbit!

India Mars Orbiter

Mars through my telescope (LEFT) vs from India’s Mars orbiter (RIGHT). Orbiter image credit: ISRO.

Learn more about my image on my Flickr page, and about the orbital Mars image on Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society Blog.

The Five Ancient Planets…with an iPhone!

7 Jul

Since 2012, I’ve been using an iPhone 4S to photograph the planets and the Sun via techniques described in my iPhone astrophotography blog post. By attaching my phone to my 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (for planetary photography) and my 40mm solar telescope (for solar photography) I’ve been able to capture some surprisingly detailed photos of our celestial neighbours.

It was only this year, however, that I was able to capture Mercury (the most elusive of the naked eye planets) through the telescope. With Mercury in hand, I was able to complete my first collage of the Sun and the five planets known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

iPhone Astrophotography

Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn taken with iPhone 4S through Celestron NexStar 8SE and Coronado PST telescopes.

Moving Forward

Now that I’ve completed this collage, I plan to attempt to capture Uranus and Neptune with my iPhone this summer/fall to create a complete montage of the solar system. Those will be very dim targets and I’m not sure how well I can capture them via the iPhone camera, but I figure it’s worth a try!


All photos were taken with my iPhone 4S through my Celestron NexStar 8SE telescope unless otherwise noted.

Sun: June 29, 2012 through Coronado PST
Mercury: May 24, 2014
Venus: May 11, 2012
Mars: April 11, 2014
Jupiter: March 16, 2014
Saturn: June 1, 2014

The images used in this collage and others can be found on my Flickr page.

Saturn: Four Years of Photos

8 May

On May 10,  Saturn was biggest and brightest for 2014. I’ve been photographing the ringed planet through my telescope since 2011, and its appearance has changed substantially since then!

Saturn with a handheld video camera (2011), a DSLR (2012), and an iPhone (2013, 2014) through a 5" telescope (2011) and an 8" telescope (2012-2014.)

Saturn with a handheld video camera (2011), a DSLR (2012), and an iPhone (2013, 2014) through a 5″ telescope (2011) and an 8″ telescope (2012-2014.)

You can see that the quality of the images has improved over the years as my equipment and technique has evolved. You can also see how the rings are more “open” now than they were in 2011.

Animated GIF of my Saturn photos, each frame taken one year apart.

Animated GIF of my Saturn photos, each frame taken one year apart.

The Tilt of Saturn

Like Earth, Saturn’s axis is tipped. This allows us to catch a different view of the planet’s ring system as Saturn moves around the Sun. In 2009, the rings appeared extremely thin (and seemed to disappear altogether in small telescopes) because we were looking at them “edge-on” from Earth. In 2017, the rings will be very “open” to us.


Saturn’s axis is “tipped” 27 degrees relative to its orbit. This gives us ever-changing views of Saturn’s rings (from “edge-on” to “above” or “below”) as it moves around the Sun. Photo Credit: Tom Ruen

If you want to have a look at Saturn for yourself in May, it’s visible to the naked eye. Look for a moderately bright, non-twinkling star in the Southeast after sunset. You can also read an in-depth guide to Saturn’s 2014 appearance by David Dickinson over at Universe Today.

Photo Credit: Roen Kelly, Astronomy Magazine.

Photo Credit: Roen Kelly, Astronomy Magazine.

If you want to see more of my Saturn (and other astronomy) photos, please visit my Flickr page!



Asteroids Ceres and Vesta over Ottawa (GIF)

25 Apr

Asteroids Ceres & Vesta (GIF) over Ottawa

Taken with a Nikon D7000 camera mounted on a tripod over two consecutive nights, this GIF shows the movement of the asteroid Vesta (525 km across) and dwarf planet Ceres (950 km across) over a 24 hour period.

A Dragon Chases a Space Station

23 Apr

The International Space Station (L) chased by the SpaceX Dragon supply ship (R) over Ottawa, Canada, April 19, 2014.

On Saturday, April 19th, I was able to take three photos of the International Space Station (ISS) and the SpaceX Dragon supply spacecraft (which had been launched a day earlier) as they passed over my backyard.

I’ve created a looping GIF of the three photos, above.  These are six-second exposures taken about 10 seconds apart.

You can see how the Dragon spacecraft (R, lower) is quite dim to begin with, brightens, and then begins to fade over the course of the three photos. The brightness of the ISS (L, higher) remains almost constant throughout.

Good Timing

I was quite lucky because the Dragon spacecraft “flared” nicely just as I was taking these photos – becoming as bright as the ISS for a few short seconds. It must have caught the sunlight at just the right angle because it was much dimmer for the remainder of the pass and quickly disappeared from view while the ISS was still visible.

The next morning, the Dragon spacecraft docked successfully with the station it had been chasing just the night before. Amazing!


SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft as seen from the International Space Station, April 20, 2014. Photo credit: NASA


SpaceX Dragon spacecraft successfully grappled by Canadarm2. April 20, 2014. Photo Credit: Oleg Artemyev/Roscosmos

Update: Here’s a version with background music by Strauss on Instagram:


Cosmic Perspective: Ganymede is HUGE & Enceladus is TINY

17 Mar

I’ve been looking at photos of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede and Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus for years. Still, this collage posted by Emily Lakdawalla shocked me (click to enlarge.)

Ganymede and Enceladus

Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. Data from NASA / JPL and SSI, processed by Gordan Ugarkovic, Ted Stryk, Bjorn Jonsson, and Emily Lakdawalla.

Look at the size of Ganymede (top row, second from left) compared to Mars (top row, first at left)! Maybe it’s because I’m used to seeing Ganymede as a tiny dot through my telescope beside Jupiter, but I’d never truly grasped the moon’s size until I saw it “beside” Mars.

This image also reminds us that both Ganymede and Titan (which appears larger than Ganymede due to its atmosphere) are bigger than the planet Mercury!

Tiny Enceladus

Once I’d wrapped my head around Ganymede’s girth, I was shocked again when I spotted TINY Enceladus in the bottom row, fourth from right.  Enceladus has been in the news since the Cassini space probe detected jets of water ice erupting from its south pole in 2005.

Without seeing the moon beside its kin, I’d always pictured Enceladus as being similar in size to Europa. It’s not even close! At just 500 kms across, its diameter is less than the width of Lake Superior!

Lake Superior Enceladus

At just 500 km across, Enceladus would fit “inside” this green circle.

The small size of Enceladus makes it hard to believe that it was discovered so long ago — in 1789 by William Herschel, to be exact. How could such a small moon have been noticed when Saturn is always more than a billion kilometers away? 

Enceladus Geysers

30-frame sequence of the icy plumes of Enceladus taken August 13th, 2010. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

The answer is that the surface of Enceladus is *extremely* reflective. It bounces back almost all of the sunlight that hits it, making it visible in moderate-sized telescopes when Saturn’s rings are edge-on as seen from Earth.

The Problem with Nomenclature  

In addition to showing the relative sizes of our solar system’s moons, the collage reinforces the idea that moons are “worlds”, too. In her fantastic blog post “2015 will be the Year of the Dwarf Planet, and you need to tell people about it!“, Lakdawalla points out that everyone has heard of Mercury, but few people would recognize the names Ganymede or Enceladus.

Lakdawalla writes: “Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, and Triton: how important can they be, if they’re not on that list of eight planets? You want how much money? To fly a spacecraft to where, exactly? Enchiladas?”

The solar system is an amazing place, and it’s home to more than just planets. Let’s make sure that our arguments about what is a planet — and what isn’t — don’t cause us to overlook some of the lesser-known, but no less spectacular, planet-like places in our neighbourhood.

Astrophotography Has Come a Long Way, Baby

3 Mar

Today I stumbled upon the first photograph of the Orion Nebula, taken by Henry Draper in 1880. I realized that it looked a lot like an image I was able to get through my telescope in December, 2013 using my iPhone!

I’ve compared the two photos below.


LEFT: The first telescopic photo of the Orion Nebula by Henry Draper in 1880.
RIGHT: My telescopic image using an iPhone.

In about a second – with equipment we can carry in our pockets – we’re now able to outdo what used to take almost an hour. Now that’s progress!

Learn more about Henry Draper on Wikipedia and see my full resolution iPhone image of the Orion Nebula on Flickr.

UPDATE 03/06/14

This photo is now the subject of an article on the website io9 and a post on the I F*cking Love Science Facebook page! A big thrill for me!


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