Witt’s End

It's Not About Stories People Tell, It's About …

I’ve heard the Great Orion Nebula referred to as the amateur’s nebula. I guess it gets that tag because it’s easy to find. Maybe so, however, it’s great for a lot of reasons. First, it’s the closest star-producing nebula to Earth, a mere 1,600 light years out there. Its rivers of dust and gas create colorful patterns that challenge the astro photographer. Its central core of four stars, known as the trapezium cluster, are a real challenge to balance their brightness with all that dust and gas they light up. Just one of the four massive stars in the trapezium cluster is 250,000 times more luminous than our star–aka the sun.

Even without a telescope you can enjoy the Great Orion Nebula. The darker the sky area you can find, the better. The constellation Orion (currently in the southwest sky), and his three-star belt is the place to start. Hanging from the left side of the belt (our left, his right) is the scabbard for his sword and within that scabbard is the nebula. It will look like a fuzzy ball, naked eye. With binoculars, however, you begin to see the wispy channels of gas and dust. The image below was made with my Explore Scientific ED80CF scope and Nikon D7500 camera. It’s a composite of 46 images stacked in Deep Sky Stacker software and processed in Adobe Lightroom Classic. The meteor zipping through was a bonus that astro photographers either love or hate. Since it did not cross through my image of the nebula, I welcomed its presence in this night sky image.

The last full moon of the winter season was/is bright and shiny tonight. I say was/is because here in northeast Ohio you take advantage of clear sky when you can get it. Thus, I was out last night (March 5) photographing the moon because the weather gods were not going to smile upon us for the real full moon, March 6. Okay, not to put too fine a point on this, technically, the moon will be full at 7:42 am on March 7. It looks full for a day on either side of the actual moment of fullness. I was out early in the evening, trying out a new piece of equipment and subsequently whacked off part of the moon’s head. Sorry Luna. From this image, however, you’ll get the picture. It’s made from a stack of about 1,000 separate images shot with my ZWO ASI 224 MC astro camera, and Explore Scientific ED80CF scope, stacked in ASI’s stacking program. Needless to say, I like the results. It was also shot when the moon was low so I picked up some of the golden hour glow.

Why is it called the Worm Moon? Okay, now the rest of the story. Depends on your source of info, however, most almanacs claim it’s because by this time in the calendar year, March, the ground has warmed enough for earth worms to emerge. Maybe. I prefer the story of Captain Jonathan Carver who visited the Naudowessie (Dakota) and other Native American tribes In the 1760s, and wrote that the name Worm Moon refers to a different sort of “worm”—beetle larvae—which begin to emerge from the thawing bark of trees and other winter hideouts at this time. This story seems to have more class than worms crawling out of the ground.

Research brings up a lot of other names for this, the last full moon of winter, Eagle Moon and Goose Moon from the Algonquin, Cree people. Sugar Moon from the Ojibwa has a nice ring (and tastes good). Or, Windy Strong Moon from Pueblo, which refers to windy days in the southwest parts of our country. And one that will never get traction in my part of the country, Sore Eyes Moon from the Dakota, Lakota, and Assiniboine people. The name derives from the blinding rays of sunlight that reflect off the melting snow of late winter. Not much sun around here.

Several years ago, pre-pandemic, I started photographing the iconic State Route 82 bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River. Images of the bridge appear on virtually all of the literature and T-shirts promoting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park–my backyard. Technically known as the Brecksville-Northfield High-Level Bridge, it’s 1,132 feet long and 145 feet high. It’s a five-span open spandrel style structure that begs to be photographed. It was opened in 1931 and has seen minor repairs and renovation over the years. Back in 2012, five-whackos plotted to do some real renovation by blowing up the bridge. Fortunately they were caught and sent to prison.

Here’s my latest image, made a couple nights ago. This was done with a Nikon 10mm ultra wide angle lens on a Nikon D7500. It’s a composite image of 185 separate shots registered and combined in Deep Sky Stacker and LightRoom Classic software. Of course, I see room for improvement–and the bridge isn’t going anywhere, soon.

A large part of the fun, and frustration, of astro photography is that you can rarely see what you’re making images of. If you’re shooting pictures of birds, or buildings, you see them in the viewfinder, do all the composition things, exposures, focusing, etc. With astro photography, what you’re taking pictures of might not even be there! It could be the light is just reaching us here on Earth and the subject, the nebula or galaxy, might be long gone. If you’re imaging the moon or one of the planets, you can be relatively sure it’s still there when you make the image. Another aspect of astro photography is that even while you’re making the shot, anything and everything might fly through the picture. Take the Great Orion Nebula, M42, for example. It’s 1,344 light years out there. To keep that in perspective, light travels at a rate of 186,000 miles per second, or, 5.88 trillion miles per year. Well, you do the math. Let’s say it’s a looooonnnnggg way off. So, the odds of something getting between you and the subject are great–about the same as trying to get an unobstructed image of your kid at Disney World. Airplanes and satellites (Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are a real threat to astro photography, but that’s a subject for another discussion.) are just some of the human-made challenges.

The natural interference, clouds, birds, even humidity, can ruin a picture. Or, enhance it, as is the case with the image I made a couple nights ago of the Great Orion Nebula, M42. Clear nights here in northeast Ohio are rare. I think we’ve had four so far this year. So, while I was set up here on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, able assistant neighbor Les standing by for moral support, I fired away. In astro photography we shoot many images and use software to “stack” the many images into a single picture. I was about 35 or 40 images into the shoot, Les and I were watching the pictures being made on the camera’s screen, when zap! we saw a streak go through the middle of the picture. We looked toward the nebula but saw no airplane or satellite. One of those moments that make you say, “huh”.

The next morning, during post processing of the work from the night before, I came across two images of interest. I combined the shots into a single image and this was the result. We were photo bombed by a wonderful meteor. I’m not sure if it was bright enough to qualify as a bolide, however, it was spectacular. Did it ruin the image? Only if you’re a purest. And if you’re a purest, you best get out of the astro photography hobby. The reason for the gap in the streak is because the camera hesitates for one second between shots. As I said, this is two images, perfectly registered to yield a single picture.

Amazing what you come across when doing a bit of cleanup, the intention of which is to toss out things you haven’t needed, or thought of, for a long time. This is even more so when it comes to cleaning photo files. Below is just one example.

A couple years ago I wrote about the great photo opportunity presented by the lighthouse on the Annisquam River in Annisquam, Massachusetts. At that time, I noted that to get the best shot would require a combination of low tide, clear weather, and night sky. Odds of those three things happening at the same time were about the same as, well, I was going to make a reference to Cleveland sports teams, but I’ll resist the urge.

So whoda thunk it would actually happen last fall while we were visiting our favorite spot on the east coast of America—Annisquam on Cape Ann. I’ll spare you the drama of having to scramble over boulders the size of automobiles in the dark carrying my weight in photo gear, barking coyotes and a bit of trespassing, to say nothing of pilot error like realizing tripod legs sink in wet sand and forgetting that people run their dogs on the beach after dark, to show you the image. A star trail, with a few photo bombs by airplanes. I’ve got a few other ideas for that spot that, hopefully, I’ll remember to show the pictures of in the future. Stay tuned.

Lighthouse on Annisquam River, Cape Ann, Massachusetts

Winter along Lake Erie is always interesting and a fun time for birders. The hard-core types are out there in sub-zero temperatures trying to identify various species of gulls, or, earnestly searching for Snowy Owls. This winter, however, has been victim to climate change. It’s mid-February and we have less than four percent of the lake in ice. We should have about half the lake covered. Consequently, gulls which normally flock to the south coast of the lake are somewhere else.

All is not lost, however. For the past couple months we’ve been able to enjoy the actions of four Harlequin Ducks. These birds come here, thinking it’s like the Florida Keys. Their presence borders on rare for this area, certainly, uncommon. This quartet has been near Rocky River Park where, apparently, the eats are good. While Susan and I watched, they seemed to be feeding on Zebra Muscles. Occasionally a duck would spit out a snail and the opportunistic gulls would be after it like a chicken on a June bug—so to speak. This group is in winter, or non-breading, plumage, a spectacular mix of white spots, along with shades of brown and black.

Harlequin Ducks on Lake Erie

Diving for Zebra Muscles

An opportunistic Ring-billed Gull, waits