Friday, March 23, 2012

Planetary Imaging 2012-03-23

After a series of cloudy skies, the god of rain and astronomy finally answered my prayers. When I arrived home, the sky was clear. I wasted no time and carried my scope and imaging gears up the flight of stairs to my usual observation spot. After a quick process of rough polar alignment (It's a really rough one, I don't even have a polar scope for the mount yet), I'm ready to image. The first willing target was the red planet. I whipped out my favorite and most used eyepiece - the simple 17mm Orion Explorer II. I attached the negative lens from my trimag barlow to the eyepiece. As shown below.

The Orion Trimag Barlow

The negative lens removed and the 17mm EP

The lens screwed to the eyepiece barrel

The result - a barlowed eyepiece

With a 2x barlow on the scope and a barlow-eyepiece combo, I can now reach a higher magnification without resorting to a short focal length eyepiece or stacked barlows. Technically speaking, my setup is also similar to stacking barlows.

I initially searched the planet without the barlow. Once the target is centered, I attached the barlow, refocus and then attach the camera. I refined the focus a bit then start shooting. After 3 minutes of video capture, the planet suddenly moved cnotinuously and out of the camera field-of-view. I was initially unaware of the low battery warning flash and continually hammered the button to recenter the target to no avail. Then I realized that the battery warning flash is blinking already. Without a spare in hand, I had no choice but to end my imaging session. I went back to my room, stick the batteries to the charger and started processing my image. With only 1 clip available for me to process, the result was a decent shot, but nowhere near optimal.

After about 2 hours, I was a bit sleepy but decided to try another imaging run. I proceed to the observation deck with my usual stuffs and did the same process as before. But this time, with enough battery power, I was able to capture several clips of Mars. After Mars, I captured a couple of Saturn clips as well. After the 2 planets, I decided to have my much needed sleep. I just processed my image after I woke up in the morning.

After processing my images, I was surprised that Saturn's ring showed a hint of the elusive Encke division, at least I thought at first. This very thin dark gap on the ring is much harder to capture compared to the rather easy Cassini division. The Cassini division, while moderately hard to see visually in a small scope, is very easy to capture photographically. Mars also showed a generous amount of details. Overall, I was really pleased with the results.

A few days later, I found out that the slight darkening near the right edge was just some processing artifact. I've read that the Encke division, being a very narrow gap, can be resolve only by a scope at least 10 inch or larger in diameter.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Raptors and Guns 2012-03-18

I wanted to join the bird club raptor watching event. However, due to the previous night's birthday party, I decided not to join the group early in order to get some rest. In order to catch up with the group, I have to commute via PUV through the Antipolo-Tanay road, then Tanay-Sampaloc. From Sampaloc, I have to rent a tricycle to avoid the long wait for the next jeepney that will pass the PAGASA tower in Sitio Mayagay.

Once at Sitio Mayagay, a short walk leads me to the PAGASA compound where I was able to join the group. When I arrived, the group are relaxing at the tower waiting for the next batch of migrating raptors to come into view.

Whenever a group of birds arrive, members who spotted them will usually start calling. The other members will then join the fun counting and identifying the bird species. This routine continued until lunch time where most of the members went down to have lunch. We have to eat our lunch outside the tower because we were told not to eat inside to avoid rodent infestation.

After lunch, some members went back up the tower while the rest stayed outside. A little later, more birds appeared and we started counting. Just after the birds leave the area, the other group outside came back and we compared our count. The weather soon became cloudy and the rain started pouring for a few minutes. The routine of birds coming and leaving continued.

At around 3 in the afternoon, some of us got bored. Jun wants to walk outside to the area where we saw some hanging parrots earlier from the tower. I decided to join him. This leads us to one of the best moment of the day. As we're surveying the area below the hill, a man fired gun shots in the air. It seems he's trying to scare and drive us away. Jun quickly picked up him camera and ran. At that time, I was still a bit clueless what went wrong until I saw the man holding a weapon running towards us. When I realized what just happened, I followed. After a short sprint, I looked back and didn't see the man. Thinking that he probably stopped, I stopped running and started fast walking instead until I reached the tower. When I looked back, I saw the man still coming towards the tower with a woman behind him, probably his wife, urging him to stop chasing us. After a little argument with his wife, he stopped, fired a few more rounds, shouted something and went back. We let out a sigh of relief.
We were just surveying this area.

With a little explanation from the PAGASA employee, we realized that we went to an area where the man claims as his property and we're trespassing. The man even claimed that the lot where the PAGASA tower is standing is also part of his property. But even for trespassing, he should not have fired a weapon to scare 2 guys carrying cameras. He's basically just holding a grudge against PAGASA. The moment became the joke-of-the-day for us. We learned a lesson not to wander into an unfamiliar territory without knowing the area first.

Later in the afternoon, when no more raptors were coming, we scanned around for some other birds in the area. Then a bit later, we packed up and left.

Red lichens on the tower ground

 Venus can be seen in this shot with the raptors.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Snake in the Eagle-owl's Shadow 2012-03-17

Early in the morning, I got up to do my usual physical fitness routine. After a quick breakfast, while I was preparing my things to carry along the hike, I was a bit hesitant to bring my scope. My choice at that time was either to go light or bring a scope. I ended up bringing my scope, tripod and all.

During my hike, I decided to explore a new trail along the main road. I entered the street with a sign "Agua Azules". Then I reached a side street lined with tall trees. On the bushes beside the street, I saw a Philippine coucal that vanished shortly after being sighted. The place seems to attract the black naped orioles as well. I saw at least 4 of them, then a group of white breasted wood swallows, and a barred rail.

When I reached the tunnel leading to the Petroglyph, I saw 3 vehicles parked outside. I initially thought they were birders, but later found out, when I asked the driver standing outside, that they came from UP. After a short talk with the driver, I proceed to the site. After the usual registration, I saw Roden with a group of students with him. He signaled me to come to the platform and I complied. I immediately pointed my scope to the first owl visible, the immature one, and told those students to line up and watch the owl from a distance through the scope. Some were really glad that they managed to digiscope the owl so well.  After they finish their viewing session, they took some group shots.

 A big YAWN!

Roden decided to lead the group to another owl visible from outside the platform. I followed and pointed the scope at the target.
There's dad with clinched fist, ready to protect junior!

After the owl viewing session ended, the group left. I had a short chat with Roden before I decided not to stick any longer as I have some commitment in the afternoon. Before I decided to leave, we heard one of the men shouting about a snake. We hurried to his location and saw a snake crawling along the bushes. I followed it and saw it crawled under a rock.
The owl's dinner

I'm ready to strike!

My routine hike ended with a quick snack at the 7-eleven along the main road before I took an FX (a minivan type PUV) home.

What about the Eagle-owl Shadow I'm referring to in the title? It's just a mock-up of Jackie Chan's old movie entitled "Snake in the Eagle's Shadow". Hehehe

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Iridium Flare Observation 2012-03-11

I like watching satellites, especially the big ones like the International Space Station (ISS). Other amateurs frequently report of seeing an Iridium flare. An Iridium flare is a bright reflection of sunlight from any one of a series of communication satellites from Iridium Communications Inc. with bright reflective panels that acts like mirrors in space (or outside earth's atmosphere).  Even with convenient websites like Calsky that reports of daily satellite prediction I still haven't seen one of them. I just didn't bother observing them. I suspect that I might seen at least one, but I didn't know that it was an Iridium. The break came when a fellow astro enthusiast reported several bright Iridium flare predictions on March. When I read his post, It was already 7:35 in the evening only 5 minutes away from the predicted time. I didn't immediately went outside to observe. I thought setup will be easy since I only need a camera on a tripod. I waited a bit, check some emails before going up. I thought I still have some time to setup, but I was wrong. The moment I stepped outside, I saw a point of light as bright as Venus or even brighter at the predicted location NNE. I knew I was too late, my clock must be off or the predicted time is off. After a few seconds, the bright point of light faded. I didn't try to observe again, because I'm pretty sure that was it. Even though I miss the shot, I'm still glad I saw my first Iridium flare.

The following day, I tried setting up my camera on a tripod outside 15 minutes earlier than predicted time. This is a -8 magnitude flare, much brighter than Venus and I don't want to miss a good opportunity this time. I fired a few test shots to calibrate my exposure settings. Then I waited for the predicted time of 7:34 pm. When I saw a dim point moving, I immediately started my 15 seconds exposure. I was completely focused on that point and my camera that I missed the actual flare. When I checked my exposure, there were actually 2 satellites. The one I saw was not the Iridium 40. It was fortunate that I captured the satellites. It's like hitting 2 birds with 1 stone.

The dimmer satellite trail can be seen to the left of the flare from Iridium 40.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mars on a 5" scope 2012-03-07

I invited a friend to observe the Mars opposition. While observing, I also tried to image Mars with an Orion 127mm maksutov cassegrain which I bought used from Henry who wants to get rid of his scope. It's the first time I used this scope for imaging. Previously, I only used this scope for visual observation because I didn't have a suitable equatorial mount. At that time, Mars was showing a good amount of details while the seeing was just about average.

Mars was covered with clouds for much of its' equatorial region. Acidalia Planitia, a dark region can be seen extending from the north down to the equator.

Birding with Foreign Birders 2012-03-08

A month ago, I was contacted by a British birder, Brendan Sloan. He, together with his French friend Mark Thibault, wanted to see the Philippine Eagle-Owl in-person. We scheduled to meet at the domestic airport. While waiting, I saw something unusual - an ETS hopping on and off another bird, probably some mating ritual. It's the first time I encountered this behavior. Here is the image.

After their arrival, we tried to find a cheap hotel as fast as possible to drop their stuffs before going to La Mesa Ecopark. Their goal was to see the shy and elusive Ashy Trush (Zoothera cinerea). After a few minutes in La Mesa, the first bird we saw was a Red-bellied Pita (Pitta erythrogaster). It was a life bird for me as well.

Next, they patiently waited and searched the area. Finally, they saw what they came here for - the Ashy Trush. It even landed near us, as close as 3 meters.

After several encounters with the Ashy Trush, we decided to start searching for the Grey backed tailorbird. Brendan has a recorded bird call he used to lure the bird. It was fun listening to the bird's reply to the playback. They later saw the bird behind some thick foliage. I wasn't able to see it though. Later we decided it's time to leave for the Angono Petroglyphs. When we arrived there, only one owl was visible. Nevertheless, the foreign birders were glad they saw the owl. They ended their birding session with probably hundreds of shots of the owl.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Planets in the Morning 2012-03-06

I got up early to catch the planets. My initial plan was to capture Mars during this opposition. So I waste no time and grab my EQ-1 mounted Skywatcher 102mm mak and headed to my observing spot. An initial peek at my target showed a slightly boiling disk due to its' current altitude - about 30-40 degrees from the horizon. I decided capture it anyway. However while reviewing my video clip, I decided to just skip the lengthy process of aligning, stacking, and post processing. The seeing was so bad it's not even worth processing the image. Then I switched to another target - Saturn. The ringed planet showed a better seeing due to its' higher altitude. Here are the results after capturing a few clips and processing the image afterwards.

In order to capture Mars properly in it's current location, I have to either get up in the middle of the night or stay up very late. But the orientation of Mars during early evening is the boring plain side and the seeing is usually better after midnight, so my only option is to get up in the middle of the night. :(

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Hike and A Few More Birds 2012-03-05

I just finished my weekly exercise program by hiking to Angono Petroglyph from Manila East road intersection. Along the way, the first bird that I observed was a Philippine coucal. When I first saw it, I initially thought it was a squirrel or a rodent when I saw something moved on the bushes beside the road. Upon close examination, I noticed that the tail is straight and doesn't look like it was made of hairs. It was after I saw the head that I recognized the bird as a Philippine coucal. After the "squirrel-coucal" encounter, I continued my hike and saw a few more birds like the 3 black naped orioles that I saw moving to another tree. At that time, I was wondering why I haven't seen a long tailed shrike where it's usually the first bird one will see near the golf course. Just as I was trying to figure out the answer, I saw one on an electric wire far ahead.

The next bird I saw was a spotted dove on a tree, opposite the sidewalk I'm on. I quickly moved to the opposite side, get as near as I could but maintaining a safe distance and took some shots.

Spotted dove

After the usual birding along the road, I arrived at the Angono Petroglyph. I was lead to the 2 mature owls and the juvenile. I also meet other birders visiting the site and a bird photographer.

The adult

The cute juvenile

I was shown some bird bones from one of the owl's victim.

I decided to stay until the site closes. During those long boring hours, I managed to see other birds in the area. The list of birds I've seen are listed below:

Philippine coucal - 2
Long tailed shrike - 4
Black nape oriole - 3
Brown shrike - 1
Spotted dove - 1
Elegant tit - 1
Olive backed sunbird - 3
Golden bellied flycatcher - 2
Scaley breasted munia - 2
Grey wagtail - 1
Philippine eagle owl - 3
Yellow vented bulbul - 4
Red keeled flowerpecker - 1
Pacific swallow - 5
Barred rail - 1
+ some unfamiliar bird calls (not seen)
 Red keeled flower-pecker

Scaley breasted munia

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Comet Garradd and Other Targets 2012-03-02

I got up at 4 in the morning to try imaging comet Garradd. It took me around 5 minutes to setup and find the comet which is currently near the little dipper between Draco and Ursa minor. My preparation the previous night was basically to look at the location chart and find some pointers. I also tried to process some of my moon shots and the Leo Triplet taken a night before. The following are the images taken a night earlier.

Crater Albategnius

 Hyginus crater and rille

Leo Triplet - 3 relatively bright galaxies in one frame

Here are some images of comet Garradd.

When I was done imaging a series of comet shots, I looked around to find another target and the first I found was M13, the great globular cluster in Hercules. At that time, Scorpius was already getting higher. Near the galactic core between Scorpius and Sagittarius lies numerous deep sky wonders like nebulae, star clusters and star cloud so basically the sky was open for me. ;) However after imaging the Hercules cluster, the sky started to brighten and I ended my imaging session in order to process them.

M13, a globular cluster in Hercules