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Bring the Universe to Your Classroom!

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules on a Moonlit Morning

After experimenting with iTelescope.net's remote robotic telescopes for astronomy education, imaging galaxies, and galaxy clusters, I figured it was now a good time to target another type of deep-sky object. First thing this morning around 3:00am, MDT, Telescope T-21 (Planewave 17" f/4.5 CDK) was available for imaging at New Mexico Skies. The moon's phase was near full in the western part of the sky and Messier 13 (M13) , the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules was becoming high in the eastern part of the sky. This was my first attempt at imaging a deep-sky object when the moon was so bright using these telescopes. 

Image of M13 - Globular Cluster in Hercules - 300 Second Exposure
M13 - Globular Cluster in Hercules - 300 Second Exposure

After making a 5-minute exposure with only a luminance filter, the result is what you see to the left. I used the FITS Liberator and Adobe Photoshop CS6 for post-processing. I converted the FITS-processed grayscale image to RGB in Photoshop and added a blueish hue to the image for effect.

I find it absolutely amazing that when there is nearly a full moon in the night sky, observers are still able to take images of deep-sky objects with no interference from the moonlight. As I referred to the "All-Sky Camera" at New Mexico Skies to check the sky conditions before imaging, I could barely make out only a few of the brightest stars accompanied by an overexposed view of the moon. Also, because of today's technology with advanced CCD Cameras and precision mounts that track the sky so accurately, it only takes about 5 minutes to get an image like the one above.

Image of M13 - Globular Cluster in Hercules - 30 Minute Exposure
M13 - Globular Cluster in Hercules - 30 Minute Exposure

The image to the right is of M13 as well taken back in May 1988. My friend Harry Hammond of Mashpee, MA captured this nice shot of M13 using his Celestron 8" telescope with an Olympus OM-1 camera body attached to the telescope. This method of astrophotography is known as "Prime Focus" astrophotography. The image of M13 was published in Sky and Telescope magazine later that year. Before CCD technology became readily available to amateur astronomers, this was the contemporary method for photographing deep-sky objects. This image took 30 minutes on ISO 1600 print film with manual guiding to make sure the object did not drift due to periodic errors in the telescope's clock drive. Although the image I took this morning was faster to create and has more detail, the equipment and technology is far more expensive and not an as readily available for most amateur astronomers.

M13 is in "armpit" of Hercules constellation

Messier 13 (M13), also designated NGC 6205 and sometimes called the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules or the Hercules Globular Cluster, is a globular cluster of about 300,000 stars in the constellation of Hercules.M13 is about 145 light-years in diameter, and it is composed of several hundred thousand stars, the brightest of which is the variable star V11 with an apparent magnitude of 11.95. M13 is 25,100 light-years away from Earth. 13 was discovered by Edmond Halley in 1714, and cataloged by Charles Messier on June 1, 1764. The Arecibo message of 1974, containing encoded information about human race, DNA, atomic numbers, Earth position, was beamed there for being picked up by a potential extraterrestrial civilization. It will reach the cluster in 25,000 years.
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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Galaxies Galore

Since my independent discovery of SN1989B in the spiral galaxy, M66 in the constellation Leo back on February 11, 1989, I have always been fascinated with observing galaxies and galaxy clusters. Over this past weekend, Muir and I wanted to try to capture a few galaxy clusters in the spring sky using the remote robotic T-5 (Takahashi Epsilon 250mm) telescope in New Mexico Skies. Over the weekend we referenced the Stellarium astronomy program to find a field of view that may catch multiple galaxies in a single image. One group of galaxies that caught our attention in Stellarium was in the constellation of Coma Berenices. We chose one galaxy in the group that would make a good "center point" for the image. 


Image of Galaxies in the Coma Cluster - Click on Image to Enlarge
Galaxies in the Coma Cluster - Click to Enlarge


That object was NGC 4872. We scheduled a 300-second exposure at 2:45 am MDT when the galaxy was near transit. After examining the data we received post-processing, we noticed a few different galaxies in the frame. Using the Aladin Sky Atlas astronomy software, I loaded up the DSS color image of NGC 4872. As I zoomed into the Aladin image with NGC 4872 at center, I observed numerous galaxies. Referring back to our image taken with the T-5, what I thought were faint stars were actually galaxies. After the excitement set in, I decided to use telescope T-11 (Planewave 20" CDK Astrograph) the next day to get a magnified image of the galaxy cluster. After waking up this morning around 5:00 am EDT (3:00 am MDT), I jumped on T-11 and acquired the image above. After processing the image, I magnified and saw the same detail in all of the galaxies I observed in the Aladin Sky Atlas software.

NGC 4872 and Surrounding Galaxies in the Coma Cluster Identified with Aladin Astronomy Software
NGC 4872 and Surrounding Galaxies in the Coma Cluster Identified with Aladin Astronomy Software

There were so many galaxies in the field of view that I could not keep count. I then thought it would be a fun exercise to identify a few of the brighter and more interesting looking galaxies using the SIMBAD Astronomical Database overlay in the Aladin Sky Atlas. I was able to successfully identify the galaxies in the image above using the technique pictured left.

Wide-field image of the Coma Cluster of galaxies taken at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter using the   0.8m Schulman Telescope. Image courtesy Adam Block
Wide-field image of the Coma Cluster of galaxies taken at the 
Mount Lemmon SkyCenter using the 0.8m Schulman Telescope. 
Image courtesy Adam Block

The Coma Cluster (Abell 1656) is a large cluster of galaxies that contains over 1,000 identified galaxies. Along with the Leo Cluster (Abell 1367), it is one of the two major clusters comprising the Coma Supercluster. It is located in and takes its name from the constellation Coma Berenices. The cluster's mean distance from Earth is 321 million light years. Its ten brightest spiral galaxies have apparent magnitudes of 12–14 that are observable with amateur telescopes larger than 20 cm. The central region is dominated by two giant elliptical galaxies: NGC 4874 and NGC 4889. The cluster is within a few degrees of the north galactic pole on the sky. Most of the galaxies that inhabit the central portion of the Coma Cluster are ellipticals. Both dwarf and giant ellipticals are found in abundance in the Coma Cluster. The image (right) shows some of the same galaxies that are in the field of view of the image (top of post) I obtained using the Planewave 20" telescope this morning.
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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Toyotas, iPads and Galaxies... Oh My!

Waiting for my vehicle to be serviced has never been so exciting! Yesterday as I waited for my Toyota Rav4 SUV to be serviced in the dealership's waiting room, I experimented with iTelescope.net on my iPad. iTelescope.net does not recommend using Safari for a web browser (only Firefox and Chrome), however, because the Toyota dealership had such good wi-fi reception, I thought I would experiment and make an attempt imaging a galaxy from iTelescope.net's remote robotic telescope location at Siding Spring Observatory, Australia. 

M83 - Barred Spiral Galaxy in Hydra  - 300 sec. exposure
M83 - Barred Spiral Galaxy in Hydra  - 300 sec. exposure

The iTelescope.net remote robotic telescope "Launchpad" page in Safari worked flawlessly until I got to the "One Click Image" page that lists a catalog of recommended objects with the exposure times already programmed. I was not able to execute the "Submit Image" button. The workaround for this was to go into the "Single Image" page and manually set the object desired as well as the exposure settings. After inputting the settings, the "Acquire Image" button worked just fine. The object I imaged was the barred spiral galaxy, M83 in the constellation of Hydra. Messier 83 (also known as the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, M83 or NGC 5236) is a barred spiral galaxy approximately 15 million light-years away. It is one of the closest and brightest barred spiral galaxies in the sky, making it visible with binoculars and small telescopes. Six extragalactic supernovae have been observed in M83 making the object a good candidate for the part of a continued supernova search program.

T9 - 12.5" Ritchey-Chrétien Cassegrain
T9 - 12.5" Ritchey-Chrétien Cassegrain

The instrument I used via my iPad to capture the above image of M83 was the Medium Deep Field (T9) which is a 12.5" Ritchey-Chrétien Cassegrain with a long focal length of f/9. This telescope is typically used for imaging & some photometry. It has a selection of color imaging filters and a photometric V filter. Its teamed with an STL-11000M CCD Camera. T9 is a prime imaging platform in the southern hemisphere and is capable of brilliant narrowband imaging with several Astro Photo of the Day (APOD) prizes under its belt already. It is a highly reliable telescope which has enabled countless iTelescope.net users to capture southern glories as well as valuable science data. It has often been used in Hubble Space Telescope support missions.

After having success imaging a galaxy visible from the other side of the globe, using my iPad, I feel that making appointments that require extensive wait times just got a lot more painless!
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Asteroids Everywhere...

What is it like to capture an asteroid? As an exercise in imaging some minor planets with the 17" remote robotic telescope provided on the iTelescope network in New Mexico, we ran two 5 minute exposures 1 hour apart on the exact same part of the sky. With these images, we could then compare them and note any objects that appear to move between the images. To help us in our efforts we processed the images with a software application called Astrometrica, which not only identified the stars in the image but also any known minor planets as well. The results?

Animated GIF of Asteroid 12618 imaged by Muir Evenden
Animated GIF of Asteroid 12618 imaged by Muir Evenden

Of the many asteroids identified to be in the image, most were too faint to be visible; we were, however, able to visually identify a few asteroids between 17 and 18th magnitudes. The image displayed here (which is a closeup of a small region on the entire image) is one such asteroid - it appears to move in the image because we are quickly shifting between the images to make the movement of the asteroid more apparent. Astrometrica identified the asteroid and labeled it: the name or numerical designation is in red, followed by its magnitude in parenthesis. As you can see, even just a 5-minute exposure with a moderate-size telescope can reveal a wealth of information beneficial to astronomy education!
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Friday, March 15, 2013

NGC 4565 and M63 Imaged with the Planewave 20 Inch CDK

Every morning this week after I got up at 5:00 am,  EDT, here on Cape Cod, MA., I found myself logging on to iTelscope.net to check out the weather conditions. The past five days in a row the skies have been clear. To my surprise, I would find that there were many telescopes available to use as well. My favorite remote robotic telescope, T-11, the Planewave 20" (0.51m) CDK was available on the mornings of Wednesday, March 13th as well as this morning.

NGC 4565 - Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices imaged by Michael Petrasko - 300-second exposure.
NGC 4565 - Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices imaged by Michael Petrasko - 300-second exposure.

On Wednesday, I captured this image of the spiral galaxy, NGC 4565 (above) in the constellation of Coma Berenices. The exposure was 300 seconds and was processed in FITS Liberator and slightly colorized in Adobe Photoshop. NGC 4565 (also known as the Needle Galaxy or Caldwell 38) is an edge-on spiral galaxy about 30 to 50 million light-years away in the constellation Coma Berenices. The 10th magnitude galaxy sits perpendicular to our own Milky Way galaxy and is almost directly above the North Galactic Pole (in the same way Polaris is located above the Earth's north pole). It is known as the Needle Galaxy for its narrow profile. First spotted in 1785 by Sir William Herschel (1738–1822), this is one of the most famous examples of an edge-on spiral galaxy. This galaxy is visible through small telescopes and some sky enthusiasts consider NGC 4565 to be a prominent celestial masterpiece Charles Messier missed.

M63 - Sunflower Galaxy in Canes Venatici imaged by Michael Petrasko - 300-second exposure.
M63 - Sunflower Galaxy in Canes Venatici imaged by Michael Petrasko - 300-second exposure.

This image of the spiral galaxy, M63 also known as the Sunflower Galaxy in the constellation of Canes Venatici, was acquired this morning at 3:25 am, MDT. The exposure time was the same as NGC 4565 (pictured above) at 300 seconds. I have concluded that 1 exposure at 300 seconds on galaxies like these is more than sufficient to capture detail to conduct scientific research such as extragalactic supernova search. The Sunflower Galaxy was discovered by Pierre Méchain on June 14, 1779. The galaxy was then listed by Charles Messier as object 63 in the Messier Catalogue. In the mid-19th century, Lord Rosse identified spiral structures within the galaxy, making this one of the first galaxies in which such structure was identified. In 1971, a supernova with a magnitude of 11.8 appeared in one of the arms of M63.
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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

M51 - Whirlpool Galaxy - Monochrome vs. One Shot Color

While drinking my morning cup of coffee before getting ready to go off to work, I thought I would log into iTelescope.net's remote robotic telescopes for astronomy education and see what the weather was like at New Mexico Skies. Once I logged into Insight Observatory's Launchpad, I noticed there were several telescopes available that we have not tried yet. Telescopes T-11(Planewave 20" CDK) and T-20 (Takahashi FSQ-ED 106mm (0.1 meters). I have been looking forward to trying out T-11, therefore, I wanted to pick a common bright galaxy that I have observed plenty of times before, both visual and imaged. I saw that M51 (The Whirlpool Galaxy) in Canes Venatici was near transit when looking at the "All-Sky Camera". I exposed 1 300 second exposure with the luminance filter only and processed the FITS file in the NASA/ESA FITS Liberator. The image to the left is the result. 

M51 - Taken with iTelescope's T-11
M51 - Taken with iTelescope's T-11

I am amazed at how much detail I was able to capture with a single 5-minute exposure. I have come to the conclusion that we should use telescope T-11 for examining the details of the galaxy that may be of interest that were originally taken with a wider field telescope such as telescope T-20. Telescope T-20 has a much wider field than T-11 and also has an SBIG ST-8300C One Shot Color CCD camera. After experimenting with the One Shot Color cameras, I am finding that imaging galaxies with them don't show as much detail as the sing images taken with the monochrome cameras. Below is the image was taken this morning with telescope T-20. 

The Whirlpool Galaxy (also known as Messier 51, M51, or NGC 5194) is an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy in the constellation Canes Venatici. Recently it was estimated to be 23.4 million light-years from the Milky Way Galaxy, but different methods yield distances between 15 and 35 million light years. Messier 51 is one of the best-known galaxies in the sky. The galaxy and its companion (NGC 5195) are easily observed by amateur astronomers, and the two galaxies may even be seen with binoculars. The Whirlpool Galaxy is also a popular target for professional astronomers, who study it to further understand galaxy structure (particularly structure associated with the spiral arms) and galaxy interactions. 

M51 - Taken with One Shot Color on iTelescope's T-20
M51 - Taken with One Shot Color on T-20

The Whirlpool Galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the M51 Group, a small group of galaxies that also includes M63 (the Sunflower Galaxy), NGC 5023, and NGC 5229. This small group may actually be a subclump at the southeast end of a large, elongated group that includes the M101 Group and the NGC 5866 Group, although most group identification methods and catalogs identify the three groups as separate entities.
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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Centaurus A Imaged from Down Under

Today as Muir Evenden and I met via "Google+ Hangout"  discussing a strategy for acquiring data for observing asteroid P106IGI via iTelescope.net located at New Mexico Skies, we noticed that there were a couple of available telescopes for use at Siding Springs Observatory (SSO), iTelescope.net's Australian location. We figured this would be a good opportunity to test run one of the telescopes "Down Under". Unfortunately, there were some scattered clouds that hindered our first image attempt at the spiral galaxy, M83. After having some time waiting for the clouds to clear, we consulted with the Stellarium astronomy software and decided rather than M83, our first target should be a bright object such as NGC 5128, also known as Centaurus A or Caldwell 77.00


Centaurus A color image processing with Photoshop.
Centaurus A color image processing with Photoshop.

Centaurus A is a prominent galaxy in the constellation Centaurus. There is considerable debate in the literature regarding the galaxy's fundamental properties such as its Hubble type lenticular galaxy giant elliptical galaxy and distance (10-16 million light-years, NGC 5128 is one of the closest radio galaxies active galactic nucleus has been extensively studied by professional astronomers. The galaxy is also the fifth brightest in the sky, making it an ideal amateur astronomy target, although the galaxy is only visible from low northern latitudes and the southern hemisphere.

Centaurus A (NGC 5128) processed with FITS Liberator
Centaurus A (NGC 5128) processed with FITS Liberator

The center of the galaxy contains a supermassive black hole weighing in at 55 million solar masses, which ejects a relativistic jet that is responsible for emissions in the radio wavelengths. By taking radio observations of the jet separated by a decade, astronomers have determined that the inner parts of the jet are moving at about one-half of the speed of light. X-rays are produced farther out as the jet collides with surrounding gasses resulting in the creation of highly energetic particles. The radio jets of Centaurus A are over a million light years long.

The remote robotic telescope specializing in astronomy education used for imaging Centaurus A was a Takahashi SKY90 3" (90mm) Apochromatic Refractor with a 500mm focal length and an f/ratio of 5.6 mounted on a Paramount ME. The CCD camera used for imaging was an SBIG ST2000XMC One Shot Color CCD.
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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Galaxy Cluster in Leo

Here is an image taken from the remote robotic telescope specializing in astronomy education, T-14, the Takahashi FSQ Fluorite Petzval Apochromat Astrograph provided by iTelescope.net at their New Mexico Skies location in Mayhill, NM. The telescope has an aperture of 106mm (0.1 meters), a Focal Length of 530mm (.53 meter) and an F/Ratio of f5.0. The primary target object was M96, a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Leo. However, to our surprise (due to the telescopes wide-field), we were able to capture more than the one galaxy.

Galaxy Quad in Leo
Galaxy Quad in Leo

The image field also contained spiral galaxy, M95, almost a mirror image of M96. Accompanied by M95 and M96 are spiral galaxies M105 and NGC 3384. I was able to identify each one from matching the orientation of the image to the star chart in "Sky & Telescopes Pocket Sky Atlas" that I downloaded for my Kindle app on my iPad. By clicking on the image, you will also discover a few other galaxies that are not listed in the Sky Atlas. How many can you see?
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Saturday, March 2, 2013

M81 and M82 on a Moonlit Night

With my colleague Mike's current success at obtaining images from the remote robotic telescopes specializing in astronomy education,  iTelescope.net, I took a crack at capturing a few myself this weekend. Target? Old standby M81 and M82, a good choice for a first target since it is big and bright and has a number of surrounding galaxies that makes a wide-field shot interesting (and the moon was out as well so no "faint fuzzies" tonight). Here is the image, a 5-minute exposure. The beauty of this? I'm half a world away in Poland, Saturday morning, and yet I'm imaging from the dark skies in New Mexico...

M81 and M82 - Spiral Galaxies in Ursa Major
M81 and M82 - Spiral Galaxies in Ursa Major
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