Another Evening of Astrophotography aT the Royal Observatory Greenwich

On the 24th November I'll be back at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich participating in their now annual 'Evening of Astrophotography'. The evening consists of a planetarium show narrated by a well known comedian, last year it was Jon Culshaw who peppered his script with some brilliant impressions of Brian Cox, Patrick Moore and of course Tom Baker. This year the comedian Helen Keen does the honours, if you've ever listened to her BBC Radio 4 show 'It is Rocket Science' then you'll know we are in for a treat.

After the show there is a panel Q&A session which I shall be taking part in along with Will Gater, Melanie Vandenbrouk and Jamen Percy, then there are some workshops and an opportunity to re-fuel in the cafe and browse the galleries to see this years winning entries in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2016.

A great evening for anyone with an interest in astronomy/astrophotography in a historic location.


Lunar panoramas

Sometimes its fun when you have a high resolution Lunar mosaic to create a panoramic video, I love the impression it gives of floating above the lunar surface.

To create this one I used some free software called 'Instapan' to render the panorama as a video on my phone. Hope you like the result!


I put together this video just over 2 years ago and rediscovered it while trying to introduce some order to the hard drive on my laptop...

The images were captured from southwest London in June and July 2014, the sunset time-lapse being shot over the course of around 45 minutes using a Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera and 300mm zoom lens. I can't remember what the interval was between shots, but it was probably in the order of around 15 seconds. The Moonrise was shot in July of the same year with the same set-up, intervals etc.

The video was created in Photoshop and a soundtrack added.

Making Video from Star Trail Images

Star trail images are created by stacking a large number of individual shots taken from the same vantage point over the period of a few hours. You focus, set up the shot and let the intervalometer do all the work, easy. 

Once you have all your images you can load them into free software such as StarTrails or StarStax to create your final trail photo. Sometimes it is fun to generate a video from the images, you can either generate a time-lapse showing the stars circling around the pole star, or as in this example, ask StarStax to save an image after each action which enables you to capture the trail building up, you can then create a video from these images using PhotoShop or Windows Movie Maker.

You can play around with the frame rate etc until you have something you are happy with. Good fun and a great way to make use of all those images!

A Break From Light Pollution

As Alice Cooper famously said School’s Out for Summer, so, as has recently become a family tradition, it was time to head off to rural France with my wife’s parents, her sisters and their families (8 adults & 7 kids!). 

The farmhouse of Cascaret

Accommodating that many people usually means renting a large house, generally in the middle of nowhere, which has the benefit of beautiful dark skies but the downside of it being a long trek to the nearest bar! This year we stayed in a fantastic 8 bedroom farmhouse in Languedoc-Roussillon, about a mile from the village of Montreal and 7 miles from the medieval town of Carcassonne. 

Carcassonne is officially a city but really it is a large(ish) town, the most notable feature being the ancient walled city or citadel which sits on a hill overlooking the new town. This really is a must see and looks like something dreamt up by the ‘imagineers’ of Disney or the creators of the Harry Potter movies, think of a fairy-tale castle and you won’t be far off. 

I was surprised to hear that the citadel is France’s second most visited tourist spot, only the Eiffel Tower receiving more visitors! Outside the main tourist spots, Carcassonne is rather a sleepy place, there are some nice shops and restaurants and the Canal du Midi cuts through it, providing some pleasant breezes in the hot summer months, and an opportunity to float along on a boat or barge for a few hours. There is certainly enough to keep you busy for a few days and the town can serve as a base for exploring the surrounding region with its superb vineyards, beautiful villages and medieval castles. 
No town dwelling for us however, our farmhouse, Cascaret, sat on it’s own with harvested cornfields, sunflower fields in full bloom and vines all around it. 

We were lucky in that the weather forecast was set fair for the week, but the rigours of travel meant that I decided not to attempt any imaging on my first night in France. I did pop out to assess conditions and was pleased to see the Milky Way arching across the sky. The relative proximity of Carcassonne meant that there was a fair degree of light pollution to the east but in all other directions the sky was wonderfully dark. 

The baggage restrictions imposed by budget airlines meant that I limited myself to a pretty basic setup of a Canon EOS Rebel T3i DSLR, Samyang 8mm fish-eye lens, Tamron 17-50mm zoom lens, Vixen Polarie Star tracker and  Manfrotto tripod, no scopes on this trip! 

After a good nights sleep I eagerly unpacked my gear and made the horrible discovery that I had forgotten to pack the connector plate for the tripod! The Star Tracker was out of action, but could I rescue the situation by fashioning something that would mean I could still securely attach the camera to the tripod? Time for some Apollo 13 style improvisation…

After a bit of experimentation I came up with the suitably French idea of fashioning a ‘harness’ for the camera out of strips of cardboard taken from a croissant box and some sticky tape! It worked a treat, though was a bit of a pain as you had to reconstruct it each time you changed the camera battery (something you do pretty often when shooting long exposures or star trails). I could still get my astro photos, which, if I’m honest, is a huge part of the holiday for me, what a relief!

I’ve popped a few of the results below and you can judge for yourself whether the efforts with the croissant box were worthwhile or not, also, when imaging in a cornfield in rural France at one in the morning make sure you wear something more substantial on you r feet than flip-flops!

Milky Way over the fields of Languedoc

Startrails over Montreal

Milky Way over Sunflowers

Milky Way over Sunflowers

Me and my shadow

Space Rocket Results

The results are in and the one on the left was the one that had been on the ISS with Tim Peake!

It is Rocket Science

On the 2nd September 2015 two kilograms of rocket seeds (the peppery salad leaf) were blasted into space on a Soyuz 44S along with ESA astronaut Andreas Morgensen, Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos and Aidyn Aimbetov of the Kazakh Space Agency, arriving at the International Space Station two days later. On his arrival at the space station in December 2015 British astronaut Tim Peake took charge of the seeds as part of the Principia mission, the seeds then being returned to Earth with astronaut Scott Kelly in March 2016.

Tim Peake on the ISS with the Rocket seeds (image ESA/NASA)

Tim Peake on the ISS with the Rocket seeds (image ESA/NASA)

Once back on Earth the seeds were distributed to all UK schools who had signed up for the RHS/UK Space Agency Rocket Science project, every school receiving 100 seeds that had been on the ISS, and 100 seeds that had remained on Earth. The seeds were provided in colour coded packets and the participating schools haven’t been told which have been on an adventure, for that we need to wait until the results have been analysed and published.

It is hoped that the results of the experiment will enable us to learn more about how microgravity and the impact of cosmic radiation affects the growth mechanisms of seeds, ultimately contributing to the science of how to grow plants in space and possibly leading to the development of hardier varieties of food plants, more suited to the harsh environment beyond our home planet.

Rocket seedlingsback on Earth, 25th May 2016

My daughter’s school, Wimbledon High School, is participating in the experiment and she was fortunate enough to acquire some seedlings that were considered surplus to requirements. These have pride of place at home and are being given lots of TLC. You can see from the image above that there is a definite difference between the plants, the one on the left looking much more vigorous than the one on the right.

As a little experiment myself I conducted a quick twitter poll to see which my followers thought had been in space. The results were interesting in that 77% of respondents thought that the plant on the left was the one that had left Earth, a little counter-intuitive, and probably reflects a bias for all things space among my twitter followers! I'll keep you updated on their progress and let you know which one was the 'space' rocket once results have been announced.