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May 04, 2014

Spaced-Out Challenge: iPhone Astrophotography & The Hunting Dogs

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Welcome again to the Spaced-Out Challenge! Whether you have a question about equipment, a new astronomical discovery you want to expand on, or just want to kick back and enjoy the cosmos above, come one come all on our weekly astronomical journey.

This week, I review a fantastic gizmo that can take your iPhone out into the great beyond and we will review a small but wonderful constellation just "under" the Big Dipper.

Product Review: Orion's SteadyPix Universal Camera & Smartphone Mount
$59.99 from Orion

It's no secret that I've attempted to snap images of planets and deep sky targets with my iPhone, and the results have been less than stellar. For several weeks, the astronomy thread has featured some great tweeted shots by amateurs, compelling me to look into some mounts and tricks for improving my own images. A few weeks ago, I came across this video from the same company that made my 8" telescope:

Determined to get better shots of the planets and moon than this:


that's supposed to be Saturn

I was intrigued. Is it really as easy to use as "Ken" (if that's his real name) insists? Are my shots any clearer? Just how frequently will this bundle of metal actually get used? Curious and itching to improve my simple images, I went ahead and ordered the mount.

The adapter came next-day in an oversized box (Orion has two stores in the Bay Area, so a rare yay for living in California). Packaging was snug, but protected all of the important parts (unlike my scope, which originally came in a dented box):


I made quick work of assembling the adapter, mounting the smartphone bracket, which proved incredibly easy. All of the adjustment knobs move smoothly, neither too tight or too loose, which bodes well for when I would later rapidly switch out my eyepieces. Here's an overview of it's elements and arrangement on a typical scope:


Besides an adjustment clutch on the side facing the scope, all of your major knobs are on the rear and underbelly of the mount, making quick adjustments relatively easy. The ONLY downside I have found is that I often slid the phone in too quickly and inadvertently turned it off, but that's more a feature of my own impatience, rather than a flaw with the mount. The knobs that attach the smartphone adapter to the base can alternatively be used to secure a point-and-shoot camera to it, so nothing in the design is wasted.

Mounted and ready, I adjusted the focuser, tapped the iPhone's focus box, aimed for our planet's sole satellite, and was pleasantly surprised:

Video allows for further processing and stacking of images, but even the still shots turned out great on the first go:


Pushing the magnification higher, the mount's snugness and lack of give was tested, and I'd have to say it passed with flying colors:


Now, the moon is a big, bright target. Planets are a lot trickier, and without any motorization on my telescope to track them, medium-to-high-power imaging would be especially frustrating.

Or so I thought:


That's fantastic for a raw image without any means of tracking the planet. Already satisfied with it's performance in the skies above, I switched to more earthly targets. This morning, I carefully attached the mount to my Celestron SkyMaster 15x70 binoculars:


and wandered back out. Terrestrial shots are clear and crisp, and using the iPhone's zoom function even brought features on the distant San Bernardino Mountains into view:




Overall, I am extremely satisfied with this adapter and would recommend it to any budding astronomer with a telescope. Those of you with "go-to" or tracking will likely get even crisper images than I could manage with my dobsonian. The mount handles oculars up to 45mm in diameter, so it can attach to most riflescopes and binoculars. It's base features a tripod adapter, so non-scope, stable shots are also possible. Lastly, it can turn your smartphone into an LCD display, eliminating the need to squint through the eyepiece for planetary and lunar observing. It's a solid buy.


Constellation Tour: Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs


Just south of the famous Big Dipper asterism lies a seemingly small and insignificant constellation, that of Canes Venatici. Due to it's close proximity to Bootes, the two stars that make up the body of this constellation have been associated with the herdsman's hunting dogs since the Middle Ages. They're so "boring" in appearance that Ptolemy had included them in the larger constellation Ursa Major. They were officially given their own designation by Johannes Hevelius in 1687. We're going to focus on five deep (and for three of them, quite deep) sky objects located within the constellation, all of which are visible with binoculars from dark skies, and three of which are visible with even small telescopes from urban ones. One target has been touched on in an old edition, so I have included the original finder charts.

Cor Caroli: A Beautiful Double


Easy to split in small telescopes, Cor Caroli is a fine double star and a perfect starting point for exploring the Dogs' wonders. Named in 1660 by the physician to King Charles II, it allegedly shined exceptionally bright on the night of his return to England at the end of the English Civil War. It is actually two stars, a brighter white variable with a fainter yellow companion.

Messier 94- the Croc's Eye Galaxy (urban/rural target)


Messier 94 is a barred spiral galaxy with a unique dual-ring structure whose inner ring is an intense region of star formation. The galaxy is also unique for apparently having little dark matter, though that could just be an observational glitch. M94 is one of the brightest galaxies and thus one of the easiest targets for amateurs, even those living in areas rife with light pollution.

Located just a degree or so off from the midpoint between Cor Caroli and Chara, it's a relatively simple hop.

Finding M94 with binoculars

And the final view from city skies through the binos:
M94 Binocular View Light Polluted Sky

For the telescope owners, here's how to star-hop in the eyepiece to M94:
M94 Star Hopping in the Telescope

And a medium-power final result:
Telescope View (Medium Power) M94 Light Polluted Sky

Messier 63: The Sunflower Galaxy


Image by Marc Jousset

Thanks to the detailed observations of 19th-century astronomer Lord Rosse, M63 was one of the first galaxies to have it's shape and structure identified. It is too faint to really enjoy in more urban skies, but can be teased out with larger scopes there. It makes a great target for beginners in astroimaging, and can be found by drawing a line from Chara to Cor Caroli, and a near right-angle line of identical length from Cor Caroli.

La Superba, a dying beauty


Image by Noel Carboni & Greg Parker

A variable star that shines faintly at +6.3 magnitude at it's dimmest, it is a wonder through a small telescope, and is arguably the reddest star in the sky. It's color so impressed 19th century astronomer Angelo Secchi, it earned it's current name. La Superba is a glimpse into our own sun's future: long exhausted of it's hydrogen, it is running out of it's secondary fuel, helium, and it is shedding it's mass rapidly, nearing it's planetary nebula stage. La Suberba forms a near right-angle with Cor Caroli and Chara, like M63, just on the opposite end.

M51: The Whirlpool Galaxy


Sketch by Serge Vieillard

One of my favorite (albeit frustrating, from urban settings) targets in the night sky, and my personal favorite galaxy, M51 is arguably the top galactic target of astrophotographers. It isn't hard to see why: spiral arm structure is visible in 6" telescopes, it's bright core in smaller ones, and the smaller galaxy it appears to be feasting upon completes the scene. M51 is one of those targets I find nearly impossible to spot from my apartment, but from even exurban skies, it becomes obvious, visible in a good pair of binoculars when sky transparency is excellent. Star-hopping is the easiest method to approach this galaxy, and Jason Chinn provides a tried-and-true one here. With modest optics and dark skies, I'll vehemently argue it has no equal.


The full Beginner's Buyer's Guide, our Comet Guide (featuring additional grab-and-go telescopes), and any other edition you're looking for can be found in the master index of all Spaced-Out Challenge threads here, but of course you can always inquire about binoculars, telescopes, and all the rest in the comments.
As always, if you have astrophotography, product recommendations, or astronomy news you'd like to see on a future Spaced-Out Challenge, email me at theoneandonlyfinn (at) gmail.com, or tweet me @conartcritic.

If you have any more questions about your new optics, feel free to ask below.
Until next time, clear skies to you, and keep looking up!

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posted by CAC at 08:19 PM

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