Imaging the Planets

night-scoping-red_1609.jpgThe summer of 2016 is a special time for viewing planets, for the three most telescopically interesting planets--Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn--are bright and prominent.  Jupiter is high in the west just after sunset, while orangish Mars and creamy Saturn dominate the southern twilight.


With the 8-inch and 10-inch Dobsonian telescopes,  AstroCampers see Jupiter as a small globe with two prominent dark belts and its four moons straddling it in a line. Each night the four moons appear in a different arrangement, and you can discern the movement of the planets over a few hours. It is a memorable view for them. 


Mars is next in line. In the same scopes, this year it is an even brighter globe than Jupiter that dazzles the eyes. Over time Mars continually shows a different face toward earth as it rotates slightly out of sync with our 24-hour day.  This week the polar caps are not prominent and the side of Mars facing us has fewer notable characteristics than the opposite side.  Nonetheless, some dark splotches and mottling give clues to the ruddy planet's surface features.

Lastly is the ringed planet Saturn, nestled against the southern Milky Way.  It is the dimmest of the three but its rings are obvious. This is the planet that everyone will remember! Gasps and chuckles of disbelief are given as each camper views Saturn for the first time.


While all the views of the three planets are satisfying for beginners, they are superficial. Increasing the magnification on the telescopes makes the planets appear larger, but at a cost.  Magnification makes them blurrier as it also enlarges the distortions caused by the movement and turbulence of our atmosphere, called "seeing" by astronomers.  Is there any way to get a close up view of the planets with a small telescope? The answer is "yes," thanks to some recent advances in digital cameras and software.

imaging-laptop_1228.jpgThe trick is to "freeze" the seeing by taking a series of thousands of images with very short exposures, thus minimizing the atmosphere's affect on the image. Software will then look at each frame, pick the clearest ones and combine them into a single frame that can be digitally "sharpened" to show details that cannot be discerned easily from the original image.

AstroCampers get to use the impressive array of resources that have been kindly donated to Camp Eberhart over the years by astronomy enthusiasts. Under the guidance of counselor Lee Keith, the experienced AstroCampers are getting an introduction to capturing and processing celestial images that are superior to the naked eye view.  


The planet images shown here were taken with a 6-inch f-12 TEC Maksutov Cassegrain telescope with a Celestron NexImage 5 camera, then processed with FireCapture, Autostackertt2, and Registax 6 software.


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