Science Images are Ugly

One of the questions that comes up often enough is what do the pictures look like? And that question is followed by… Where can I see them.

A raw widefield 1.2um NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley
A raw widefield 1.2μm NIRC2 image of Jupiter taken 21July2006, credit Imke de Pater, UC Berkeley

The problem… Science data is usually pretty ugly.

Keep in mind that the astronomers are often pushing the telescopes and instruments right to the limit. This means that the data is barely there, a trickle of photons that have come from unimaginably distant sources.

I have been in the observing room as the data comes in. I have watched over the telescope operator’s shoulder. It is strange to see folks so excited over a smudge.

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Aurora Timelapse

We got lucky. When it happened we were well positioned to view, and photograph the show.

The Nordic Quest Under Aurora at Helm Bay
The Nordic Quest Under Aurora at Helm Bay
With favorable conditions forecast I had been watching the sky for over a week. The fickle southeast Alaska weather had provided any number of beautiful clear nights, our even more fickle Sun was producing conditions favorable for geomagnetic activity. The two conditions finally produced a nice auroral show.

Even better, that night we were moored to a state float rather than simply sitting at anchor, or even worse, docked in a town or city. In Helm Bay, 22 miles north of Ketchikan, we had a beautiful dark sky and a perfect setting to watch the show.

With a float I had a stable platform from which to shoot time lapse video, no rocking or swinging at anchor. I could set up the camera and tripod and let the intervalometer click away for over an hour.

The video is made from 360 separate exposures compiled into a video about 30 seconds long. Each frame was 10 seconds at ISO6400 using a Canon 6D camera and a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens set to f/3.2. The frames are projected at 12 frames per second in the version below.

The ten second frames are still too long, the glowing bands of light move quite quickly, at times rippling across the sky. The result is that the patterns and motion in the aurora is blurred.

The aurora was quite bright, my usual 15 second night sky shots actually overexposing. I dialed back the exposure a bit, and should probably have dialed it back a bit more.

Puna Glow

Puna is glowing.

Not a good glow when you consider that glow is from a raging river of lava between fissure 8 and the sea at Kapoho. Still it can be pretty under the rising Milky Way. I stayed late at work and took a few photos on the way down the mauna. Click on the image for full scale goodness…

Puna Glow
The glow of lava in the clouds and vog over Puna. Five image panorama with a 14mm lens from the summit of Mauna Kea.

Voggy Luna

The vog has been thick, really thick. Even here on the west side of the island it is enough that visibility is limited to a few miles, the mountains and ocean are lost in the haze. With the ongoing eruptions on the other side of the island and a lack of wind the vog has enveloped the entire island in gray. At times you can even smell it, the tang of sulfur in the air.

As the crescent moon set this evening it was reddened by the vog. Washed with a ruby red that was reminiscent of an eclipse. This image has been processed for noise and contrast, while the color was unchanged from the raw image. It really looked like this…

Voggy Luna
The setting crescent moon reddened by volcanic haze.

Reminiscing on Ektachrome

Among some slides I recently digitized is a series of astrophotos featuring Orion. Taken in early 1986 this represents one of my early forays into astrophotography. While most of the images are troubled by bad tracking, at least two worked with round, if somewhat overexposed, stars. Judging by the field of view it was a 50mm lens which means it might be an f/1.8, the common nifty-fifty.

Ektachrome Orion
The constellation of Orion captured with Ektachrome film in 1986
The image was most likely taken with my father’s “borrowed” Canon AE-1 35mm camera riding on a small equatorial platform of my own construction. This platform consisted of two disks of acrylic and a small synchronous clock motor. I still have this platform… I wonder if it still runs?

A few thing are quickly revealed when looking at the image. Taken on Ektachrome film the image is heavy on the blue, with poor sensitivity in the deep red. The Orion Nebula shows very little color and less extant than I would expect. The image is also quite grainy, the film grain being quite obvious and distracting. I cleaned up the image a bit in Lightroom, but this is about as good as it gets.

The images was likely a fairly long exposure, perhaps 30 seconds to a couple minutes. I have no records to show how long, no EXIF information on a 35mm slide. The image would have been hand-timed with watch a manual shutter release cable.

Kodak has announced a resumption of Ektachrome production after ceasing all production in 2013. This appears to be in recognition of the remaining, but robust, niche community of film photographers and continued demand for film. First scheduled for 2017 this was delayed into 2018 due to the lack of availability of some materials necessary for production.

Even if the film again becomes available I doubt I will be grabbing a roll for astrophotos. I do have the cameras and lenses available to shoot film. Modern DLSR’s are vastly better at low light.