The Great Conjunction

Well, 2020 has been a year and a half, hasn’t it? It’s been a decent year for astronomy though. The uptake of this hobby has gone through the roof during the COVID-19 lockdown, with stock levels dwindling in the run upto Christmas. Even back in May, ‘The Widescreen Centre’ reported a 50% incase in sales (Robert Orr, 2020). With the run of clear nights in the early summer, people wanted to escape their lockdown-lives, and they found solace in the stars; much like myself.

And what a year to take up astronomy, or astrophotography in my case, as this year has produced some memorable sights. Earlier in the year, we had a string of comets grace our skies. To start with, there was C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) which quickly increased in brightness and was hoped to be naked eye visible in May; however it quickly bit the dust and broke up early in April. Later on in the year, there was another comet discovered in the form of C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), which quickly became a hot topic for everyone in July. This one didn’t fortunately break up as it swung behind the sun, and was indeed a naked eye comet. Even I saw it myself after an imaging session one night, and I was utterly dumbstruck!

The night sky has been relatively quiet for the rest of the year though. However, it had one last surprise to throw in the mix before the year is out. This time in the form of the ‘Great Conjunction’ between the two gas giants, Jupiter & Saturn. This event happens every 20 years, however the two planets haven’t been this close for nearly 400 years, and it has been nearly 800 since the conjunction was visible at night time. (NASA, 2020)

As previously mentioned, since starting my interest in astronomy in the beginning of the year, I’ve joined the Wolverhampton Astronomical Society, or WolvAS for short. Over the year, they have had some amazing lectures from numerous experts across the country. However, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to capture this once in a lifetime phenomenon. Luckily we were able to gather in a local car park that had fantastic south-western views, with everyone socially distanced with our scopes lined up on the edge a field. Unfortunately it wasn’t on the 21st when the planets are at their closest, but it was only the night before so there was not much difference between the two nights.

Wolverhampton Astronomical Society

Most of us were all set up for around 4PM, and started to scan the night sky for two bright stars that were almost touching. At first it seemed impossible to spot, with members spending a good 20 minutes either side of sunset looking through binoculars for them. Eventually they were found, and there was a definite buzz around the place with everyones scopes instantly trained on them. The first images started to come through and there were definitely a few audible “wow’s” bouncing around between the members, myself included. The first views of Saturns rings is utterly breathtaking!

Myself was using my normal set up; my 130PDS, EQ5 Pro and Canon 600Da, however the mount was unpowered. During setup, it was still too bright to see Polaris, so I did a rough polar alignment by just facing the scope north. Once I had manually slewed to planets using my old finder scope as a guide, I locked my DEC clutch and then could track reasonably accurately with the RA clutch loose.

It was my first time of doing true planetary work, and it was totally different to record video instead of long exposures. Fortunately my Canon 600D has a video crop mode, that only uses the central 1920 x1080 pixels, allowing me to get even closer views. Using this, I was able to get both Saturn and Jupiter with all of its moons in the same field of view. I took numerous videos with different exposures to capture the moons and then the planets themselves.

Overall, we had very good views of them right through till nearly 7PM when then set beyond the horizon. At that point, most members packed up and headed home, but a few of us die-hard astronomers stuck around and did some visual observing. It was a fantastic Bortle 5 site with easy access and very little local light pollution around. Definitely be revisiting when I have portable power available.

In the morning after, I booted up my new Intel NUC (future blog post before the end of the year), and downloaded the necessary planetary stacking software; PIPP, AutoStakkert!3 & RegiStax 6. It took me a while to get AutoStakkert to import the .AVI file correctly so it didn’t jiggle about while it tried to stack, but eventually it exported correctly. In RegiStax, I was able to do some wavelet editing to ‘try’ and bring out the finer details, but I just couldn’t pull out anything meaningful with such a wide field of view. I then imported both the moon and planet exposures into Photoshop CC and manually aligned them on top of one another. This allowed me to erase the planets in the brighter exposures, thus bringing what detail I did capture in the correctly exposed layer to shine through. After that, it was a quick tidy up and some colour enhancements, but I was eventually happy with my first attempt at planetary photography!

Saturn (Top Left) & Jupiter (Bottom Middle)
Galilean Moons Labelled

If I had used a camera with a much smaller sensor, such as my ZWO ASI 120MM-Mini, I could possibly of got more detail in the planets, but that’s ALOT more work with RGB filters…maybe next time perhaps?

Well, this will probably be my last venture for 2020; unless the weather holds off for Christmas Eve that is! We shall have to wait and see! Either way, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first seven months in Astrophotography, and I hope you have enjoyed following my journey through this blog. Hopefully next year we will be out of this pandemic and I’ll be able to travel to darker places and improve my astrophotography even further.

Till then, clear skies everyone! And Merry Christmas & A Happy New year!

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