An extended period of clouds and thunderstorms means that my trusty, rusty telescope hasn’t been getting much use lately. Fortunately, there’s been a lot in the news to satisfy my astro-itch. On Thursday the Department of Defense released its final report on the organizational and management structure pertaining to DOD space components, which has been of some interest in the news as it relates to the creation of a “Space Force.” The report is available on DoD’s website here.
Whether there should be a sixth military branch devoted to space is a significant question with profound implications. Unfortunately, although there has been extensive media coverage of the proposal, it’s largely been shallow and even juvenile. I’d hoped that the release of the new report would provide specifics about the how an independent branch would advance space and security policy, as opposed to merely reshuffling bureaucracies.
Sadly, although the 15-page report does detail some organizational changes, such as the creation of a unified U.S. Space Command, a Space Development Agency, and a Space Operations Force, it offers very few specifics. More disappointing, the report avoids any extended discussion of how an independent Space Force would advance the space policy of the United States over the status quo.
In short, it definitely left me disappointed at the lack of detail. Maybe that wasn’t the intended purpose of the report, but in any case, it seems that we curious observers will just have to keep waiting for more information.
I snapped a photo of some cute little baby stars in their cradle: The North America Nebula!
Stars are born in large clouds of dust and gas, known as nebula (not to be confused with supernova remnants such at the Veil Nebula!). The North America Nebula (so called because of its shape) is one such nebula. The reddish color is the result of the ionized hydrogen gas.
Fun fact: The North America Nebula is so large that it’s area in the night sky is four times larger than the full moon, but it’s obviously much fainter which is why you don’t see it with the naked eye.
Since my grand vision of star trails over Manhattan was foiled by the city’s
gratuitous light pollution bustling city lights, I tried aiming the camera a different direction instead. Alas, the foreground image of the city just isn’t quite the same, but you do at least get to see more of the stars.
The light pollution is definitely still noticeable, but not quite as bad. The long streaks at the bottom are airplanes again. The star trails aren’t as long this time since I spent most of the night trying to image over Manhattan before giving up and aiming this way. Next time I’ll just focus on this field of view so the trails will be more dramatic!
I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful weather to photograph star trails over Manhattan. As the Earth spins, the stars overhead will appear to rotate around the North Star (Polaris). With long exposures, or a series of short exposures stacked together, you can capture some amazing images of these “star trails.” But when I tried to shoot them over Manhattan, this was the result instead:
You can see the trails of only a few of the brightest stars. (The long straight lines are from airplanes.) From the glow at the bottom of the sky, one could be forgiven for thinking the photo was taken at twilight. But no, these were taken far too late at night for that. That glow is pure light pollution, and it’s also the reason so few stars are visible. It’s really kinda sad: If you never got out of the city, you could go your whole life without ever seeing the true night sky.
Stars are fascinating, especially when they blow up. At the most extreme, supermassive stars will undergo gravitational collapse and form a blackhole. Less extreme, but still massive, stars will explode in a spectacular supernova. Between 3000 BC and 6000 BC, one such star exploded, and the remnants of that explosion are still visible today as the Veil Nebula:
The nebula is the whispy, filament structure in the middle of the photo, which is composed of ionized gas and dust. I love the surrounding starfield. I wish I had been able to develop the color of the nebula better, but overall I’m quite happy with this given the conditions.
Fun fact: the bright star that appears to be in the middle of the nebula is 52 Cygni, but is not actually part of it. 52 Cycni is *only” 291 light years away. The veil nebula is actually far, far behind it, at a distance of roughly 1,470 light years!
When the weather finally cooperates and you have those clear skies, it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the imaging process that you forget to just look up and enjoy the sights! Awhile ago when I was out taking photos, I was completely absorbed in aligning the scope, focusing, taking images, checking for star trails, and so on. Then I suddenly noticed this giant red circle in the sky: There was a lunar eclipse occurring! And not just any eclipse, but a gorgeous one at that! (Since my imaging rig was being used for deep sky objects, I snapped the photos below with my trusty rusty iPhone.)
What’s more, a short while later there was also an amazing view of Mars not far from the moon (it’s the bright dot below and to the right).
Moral of the story: Don’t get so wrapped up in trying to spot the invisible things that you miss the wonders right before your naked eyes!
The next galaxy on my list was obvious: Bode’s Galaxy! Unfortunately, at my usual imaging site, an obnoxiously opaque building blocked any view of it. So with the help of Stellarium (which will probably be the subject of a later post), I found an equally amazing target that just so happened to be in the perfect spot in the sky where I could avoid ugly buildings in my photos! M101: The Pinwheel Galaxy.
So the first thing to notice is that I almost missed it! M101 is down in the lower left corner. I’ve been tempted to crop the image to bring it closer to center, but the surrounding starfield is so beautiful in its own right that I just can’t do it. With the help of the Bahtinov mask, the focus in this image is exponentially better, allowing for smaller stars, and more detail in the galaxy itself. Although not as distant as the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Pinwheel Galaxy is still pretty far out there at almost 21 million light years. What’s staggering about M101, however, is its size. It has about 1 trillion stars. To put that in perspective, our own Milky Way *only* has between 100-400 billion!