Observations and Commentary

Ad universum comprehendi

Editorial Comment:

Perhaps it may appear to be a matter of vanity — or maybe just a case of a hobbyist gone berzerk. But the decision to add a webpage dedicated to backyard star and galaxy-gazing as a supplement to the ASTROPHOTO GALLERY — Part 1

M13 This great "globular cluster" of stars,  in the constellation Hercules, is the brightest of its kind visible from the earth's northern hemisphere. Estimated to consist of a hundred thousand stars or more, packed together so tightly that those in the center of the cluster cannot be individually resolved even by the largest telescopes. It is located about 21,000 light years from us, in the "halo" of our Milky Way galaxy. A "light year" is the distance traveled by a photon in one year's time — approximately 9,500,000,000,000 km or 5,870,000,000,000 miles.

  M31 - The great Andromeda Galaxy, a classic spiral shaped galaxy, often considered a "twin" of the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light years in width and is believed to contain upwards to 200 billion stars. Latest estimates put it at about 2.8 million light years from us, and approaching our own galaxy at the rate of 275 kilometers per second, or about 615,000 mph! Tilted at about a 35 degree angle from an "edge-on" view, and covering an area of our night sky that is actually larger than the moon, the center of this spiral galaxy is visible even to the naked eye under dark skies. Off to one side (just to the lower right of the above view ) is the much smaller companion M32, seen in the photo below toward the upper right.

M33 (below), sometimes called "The Pinwheel Galaxy",  is another member of our local group of galaxies. Located in the Triangulum constellation, it is somewhat more distant
( at least 3 million light years from us), about 40% smaller than the Andromeda Galaxy and, partly due to its nearly full-faced position relative to us, a great deal fainter. But this nearly ten-minute CCD camera exposure reveals a wealth of detail, including globular clusters strung along this galaxy's spiral arms. Although a few sharp-eyed people claim to be able to see this galaxy without visual aid in very dark skies, most require at least a good pair of binoculars (and some patience) to find it.


M-43   Long a favorite of astrophotographers, this "Nebula" in Orion's sword (or scabbord) is located in a nearby arm of our own galaxy at about a distance of 15,000 light years from us. M43 has recently been revealed to be very active "nursery" of newly forming stars. Although visible to the naked eye, binoculars present a much more rewarding view, while even small telescopes will resolve the "trapezium" a group of four small stars (somewhat washed out by overexposure in this shot) near the center of the nebula — which itself is a huge cloud of ionized hydrogen gas some 15 light years in width.  

M51 The famous "Whirlpool Galaxy" (actually M51 and its smaller companion M52) are found not too far below the end of the handle of "the Big Dipper".  The pair are considered to be members of our own local group of galaxies, but at about 14 million light years distance from us.

Astronomers still debate whether or not these two galaxies have collided, but M52 appears to be drawing away material from M51's outermost spiral arm — or is it the other way around?

  NGC 4565 in Coma Bernaces is a classic "Edge-On" spiral galaxy. It is considered to be part of the "Virgo Cluster" of galaxies, and as such, is probably over 40 million light years away and like most of the other galaxies in the universe (unlike those in our own local group) is speeding away from us as a result of the "Big Bang". This speed is calculated by means of Doppler effect "redshift"and, in turn, the so-called "Hubble Parameter" — presently thought to be about 70 kilometers per second per "parsec" (1 parsec = 3.26 light years) of distance. This means, in the case of the above galaxy, that it is moving away from ours at the rate of about 27,000 miles per hour!

So too with NGC 2903, a beautiful spiral galaxy found the constellation Leo (just about where might imagine the Lion's mouth to be.) The exposure below was taken with the 500 mm. camera lens piggy-backed on the 10" with its equatorial mount. It was, to say the least, a very lucky shot!

NGC 2903

Finally, some close neighbors...

  Saturn ** 

And then perhaps some just a little too close!

Comet Hyakutake (note apparent head fragmentation)***


and at a distance (May 1997) 

Comet Hale-Bopp***   


Comet Stonehouse

Discovered by Patrick Stonehouse of Wolverine, Michigan on April 22, 1998. A science consultant for DIALOGOS, Stonehouse found this object with his 17.5" Coulter dobsonian telescope, which is most likely to have been the last comet that will ever be discovered without the aid of computerized and digitalized equipment —at least from the northern hemishphere. The above astrophoto of the comet, in false colors to indicate relative intensity, was made by Limber Observatory  (Copyright, D. McDavid). Unfortunately, the Stella Maris Observatory telescope and tracking system had been dismantled for the installation of the 18" scope when this event occurred.  Also seen (in 1997) with the 10" scope, were the impact marks on Jupiter from Comet Shoemaker-Levy, but no attempts at imaging these marks were made, nor of the approaching comet itself.  However, the fact that such comets, as well as asteroids, can impact planets, even our own, should be a subject for serious thought, as evidenced in the discussion of DIALOGOS issue #4.


* If NASA can jazz up its astrophotos (see Discover Vol 20, No.9, Sept. 99, p.50    "Colorizing the Cosmos") why not add a little color here?

** Early eyepiece projection attempt through the 10" scope.

*** Digitalized rendition of film photo taken with 230mm lens.


More on...


Ready for Action


Stella Maris Observatory is located in northern lower peninsula of Michigan, at longitude 84.21 west, latitude 45.07 north, which puts it deep in the woods approximately midway between lakes Michigan and Huron in NW Montmorency County. Although situated close to the banks of the Black River (the observation platform is only 925 feet above sea level) the night skies are generally very dark — the most important asset of all. Certainly, one of the greatest ironies of our age is that just as science has finally begun to unlock the fullest dimensions of our universe, most of humanity has, because of sprawling development with its attendant air and light pollution, shut itself off from any direct experience of the greater part of reality!

The Latin title Stella Maris means "Star of the Sea"— the name attached (since 1952) to the property where the observatory is located . The motto (also in Latin) means "To comprehend the universe" — this latter in the sense of not only its dimensions in space-time, but also its origins and destiny. Accordingly, the astrophoto gallery has been divided into several parts: the first being with an emphasis on objects, most of which are readily accessible to all with a minimum of equipment, accompanied by short explanations designed to provoke reflection on what is being seen.

The latter part (still being planned) will display more distant objects generally requiring a larger telescope (10" reflector or larger) or the use of a camera on a tracking mount allowing for extended exposure times. Beyond these, the viewer is urged to seek out the array of other wonderful astronomy websites available on the interenet — particularly those displaying the fantastic images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the huge ground-based instruments aroudn the globe. Especially recommended is the daily "ASTROPIX " feature sponsored by NASA and compiled by Dr. Robert Nemiroff and his students at Michigan Technological University.  But again, the reader is urged not to let these other means of sampling the universe completely substitute for seeing what one can first-hand for oneself.


Beginning with a pair of 7-power binoculars, then a 3" 22-47 power zoom lens spotting scope on a tripod designed for low light (it's amazing how much still can be seen through these small instruments!), star, and especially galaxy-gazing became more serious at the Stella Maris location when a portable "dobsonian" telescope (cardboard tube rotating on a plywood box and stand)  was built in 1992. Employing a Coulter Optical 10" f4.5 pyrex mirror, with a focuser accommodating both a 2" 32mm Erfle as well as a 7-21mm Orion zoom eyepieces, this moderately large, but readily transported scope, affords good views of all the objects pictured in Part 1 of the Astrophoto Galley, plus even the majority of those pictured in Part 3.

The 10"f4.5 Portable Dobsonian Scope

However, when challenged by a local electrician friend, and by British astronomer Maurice Gavin's artricle about building "A Palomar in Your Own Backyard" in Sky & Telescope (April 1994), by teaming up your telescope with a CCD camera, this project — whimsically nicknamed "Mt. Stellamar" — began with the experimental installation of the 10" f4.5 Coulter mirror, still in its dobsonian tube, on a home-made equatorial mount fastened to the stump of a maple tree. A platform was then erected in such a manner as not to touch the scope mount in any way. Crude attempts were made to control the scope movement, by means of stepper motors salvaged from junked photocopiers, with the RA motor geared down by means of a planetary transmission taken from a snow-making machine. The motors were in turn controlled from an electric console built by the electrician. Eventally, side enclosures were built of cedar log siding and a sliding roof constructed from cedar rafters and metal roofing with styrofoam insulation. Aiming the scope could even be accomplished from inside the adjacent cabin — a distinct advantage on winter nights with temperatures well below freezing!  However, the astrophoto results, even with outdoors hands-on guiding, left much to be desired.

In 1997 the 10" tube was returned to its original portable dobsonian mount and replaced by a new scope employing a 18" f4 mirror manufactured by Nova Optical Systems. But the increased weight (with even greater tracking problems) dictated replacement (in 1998) of the old equatorial mount by a new azimuth-altitude set-up employing the Dob-Driver II system built by Tech 2000. The scope can still be controlled either directly from the Dob-Driver unit in the observatory or even from a computer inside the cabin using the Dob-Driver's "PC-link" feature.

18" f4 with 8"  f1.9 camera lens

Astrophoto Equipment

The cameras being presently used are a OM-1 (a 35 mm. single lens reflex) and more often until recently a digital camera to replace the old CCD-10 built by the now defunct CCD TECH of Irving, CA and most recently a SBIG model 237 (built by the Santa Barabara Instrument Group, Santa Barabara, CA) The CCD-10 employs the TC-211 chip with a Peltier style cooler operating in an 8-bit mode. The SBIG 237 has a 640 x 480 pixel chipMost exposures shown below were made through an 8" f1.9 spherical mirror installed in a Newtonian tube" piggy-backed" upon the 18" used as a "guide scope". This particular combination yields astrophotos which roughly reproduce the views being visually enjoyed while guiding the camera without all the hassle of trying to duplicate what only the professionals can capture with their huge instruments or orbiting space telescopes. Thus the main point of this web-page — to try to demonstrate to others what is out there to see first-hand for oneself of our universe with fairly modest equipment.  

Other lenses occasionally employed in this "piggy-back" manner are a 90-230mm f4.5 zoom (moon shots) and a 500 mm. f 8-f22. Two desktop computers are housed in the observatory, one an old 486DX used primarily to employ the "Earth Centered Universe" program issued by Nova Astronomics, and the other an even older 8086 machine as an alternate capable of controlling the CCD-10 camera when a separate display is desired. Because of the small surface area of the TC211 chip (2.5mm x 2.5mm) with only a 162 x 148 pixel format, the following displays have been kept rather small — also enabling quick downloading. Replacement exposures will be made or new ones added as results improve. Unless otherwise noted, all the astrophotos below were taken with the above equipment at Stella Maris Observatory.

Although this observatory and the astrophotography accomplished by means of it were begun solely as a "hobby", it's influence on its owner's thinking should be obvious from a glance at the DIALOGOS website — convinced that only a "hands-on" experience of the wonders and immensity of the cosmos can bring us into full touch with reality.

Thank you for your interest!

Richard W. Kropf

Return to Stellamar Home (index) Page

PART 3 (More Recent Astrophotos)

Below are some more recent attempts at capturing some more distant (and faint) objects. The Virgo Cluster in particular holds a multitude of galaxies believed to be approximately 50 million light years off. In recent years, the search for type 1A supernovae has largely been centered on galaxies in this cluster in the belief that this particular type of supernova may constitute a new "candle" or standard reference for measuring distance beyound what was possible with so-called "cephid" type variable stars. These new estimates, coupled with the red-shift measurements of these galaxies in which a Type 1A supernovae may be sighted, play a crucial role in the present debate over the expansion rate of the universe.

M85 galaxy flanked by lesser galaxies NGC 4394 (to the left of center)
and NGC 4344 (towards the bottom slightly to the right of center).
The above rendition reveals only the core or center areas of the
two smaller galaxies in the interest of enhancing detail of M85.

Perhaps the most distant objects detectable in an amateur telescope are the brighter galaxies of the Coma Cluster. Estimated to be about 450 million light years from us, this cluster sports two unusually large galaxies (NGCs 4889 & 4874) that proved faintly visible even with the 10" relector. So far, only a CCD exposure reveals the numerous fainter galaxies. Getting a better exposure than the 9 minute one below remains a goal yet to be achieved.

A more recent exposure on M13 in Hercules using the the SBIG 237 in "track & accumulate" mode (seven exposures of 2 seconds each, medium resolution (through 8" mirror)

Return to Stella Maris Index page

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