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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Venus, Mars and Saturn Above Mitzpe Ramon

Venus, Mars and Saturn have been putting on quite a show in the July and August skies, the three planets dancing around each other with closest approach occurring on the night of August 8, the three then fitting within a 5 degree circle.

You don't need fancy astronomical equipment to capture the beauty of this spectacle to look back on or share with your friends. I took the photos below from various places in Mitzpe Ramon using a simple pocket digital camera and tripod. Almost everyone has a digital camera these days, and if you are interested in astronomy a good tripod is a must, sooner or later, whether for sky photos or small telescopes or a binocular.

There is lots of advice for buying telescopes on line, but not much for tripods. Without giving it a review, I will just state that the little-known Tiltall Tripod, which used to carry the Leica imprint, is the best small tripod I have ever used, bar none. It is simple, very strong, light weight and fool proof. Just get it. You won't be sorry. And it's just $99. You could spend $500+ and not get a better one.

The most important feature for a pocket digital camera for night sky photography is a manual setting for focus, aperture, and length of exposure. Lacking this, you can frequently make do by setting the auto-exposure to underexpose by at least two stops. The night sky easily fools auto-exposure systems into over-exposing the scene, since the auto-exposure algorithm wants to make a very dark scene as bright as day. Some pocket digital cameras have a "scene mode" that includes a "Night Sky" choice, but I find that even this tends to over expose the sky and stars. With no manual focus you will have to focus on some object in the distance and then recompose to properly frame the scene. I find this to be the biggest draw back for pocket digital cameras that don't have manual focus.

I use the Leica D-Lux 4, but this is exactly the same camera as the more affordably priced Panasonic DMC-LX3, both of which I highly recommend as affordable, very capable pocket digital cameras for night sky photography.

Short exposures at ISO settings of 400 and a length of time of under 60 seconds work well. This time interval is short enough so that the stars do not trail badly, but still makes stars and nebulae bright enough to see, I use Google's free Picasa photo editing software to put the final touches on my photos, including labels if so desired. It's free and very easy to use.

My first photo for the Venus-Mars-Saturn apparition was taken on August 5 at 7:52 PM in the field across the street from the Cafeneto. Here the three planets appear as an isosceles triangle, with Saturn at tthe apex.

ISO 200, f5, 20 sec. Zaniah and Zavijava are stars in the 
constellation Virgo. Spica is the brightest star in Virgo.

Three nights later on August 8, when the planets were closest together, they form a 
right angle, Venus having moved beneath Saturn, and the distance between Mars 
and Saturn having somewhat widened. This photo was taken in front of the Machtesh
Ramon Visitor Center, with the town of Mitzpe Ramon, including its iconic water 
tower, below.

ISO 200, f2.8, 13 sec.

One night later, on August 9, I moved to the dark skies of the high desert near the 
Alpaca Farm, to capture this view of the planets at 8:33 PM. Now the three planets 
form almost an isosceles triangle, with the apex, Venus, at the bottom.

ISO 200, f5, 15 sec.

Tonight, August 10, the three planets formed an almost perfect isosceles triangle.
The photo below was also taken in the high desert by the Alpaca Farm, just a
5 minute drive outside of Mitzpeh Ramon. The Alpaca Farm sits in a hidden valley
behind Mitzpe Ramon, whose sodium vapor lights' glow can still be seen from
here, along with some random lights from the farm. Despite this, I can easily see
5th magnitude stars from the Alpaca Farm, and the Milky Way is a splendid cartwheel
over head and down into Sagittarius and Scorpio.

ISO 400, f2.5, 15 sec.

Above we see the beautiful hills of the high desert around Mitzpe Ramon during late dusk,
around 8:30 PM. The celestial trio will continue putting on its show throughout August.
Go outside and watch, and see what you can capture with your digital camera and tripod.
On the night of August 12 you will also be able to see the Perseids meteor shower,
the best and most reliable of the year. We are in for some real celestial treats this week.

Mitzpe Ramon is a beautiful place for doing astronomy.

Joint us, won't you?

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