This section of my web site is where you will find information and links for my interests in astronomy, cosmology, the space program, satellite tracking, and rocket launches. Unlike my lasers section, this is a new section and is still being developed and does not have a large amount of stuff in it yet. I have had an interest in these fields for many years but have been unable to devote any space on my web site to it until recently.

updated: 091214 - views:
All content copyright © 2004-2009, B. Vanderkolk

Delta II Launches WISE - Delta II Launches Cosmo June 7th, 2007 - Minotaur Launches COSMIC Satellite April 14, 2006
39 Hour New Moon - Minotaur Launches STREAK Satellite Sept 22, 2005  - Sunspot 798 Sept 13, 2005
Sunspot 798 Sept 11, 2005  - Moon Occults Antares July 17, 2005 - Mercury/Venus/Saturn Conjunction June 24 & 27, 2005
Iridium 80 Flares Over Moon - X43 Vapor Trail Nov 16, 2004 - Venus/Jupiter Conjunction Nov 4, 2004
Total Lunar Eclipse Oct 27/28, 2004 - Constellation Orion - Minuteman III Sept 15, 2004
Favorite Links

Delta II Launches WISE - Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer

  On the morning of December 14th, 2009, a Boeing Delta II rocket launched NASA's Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer satellite into polar orbit. The launch was a morning twilight event and allowed the later stages of the exhaust plume to be lit by the rising sun, which was behind me from my viewing direction of the launch in north Orange County, CA.

  Although Vandenberg AFB is WNW (about 300º) from my location, the rocket did not become visible until it had passed due west. These pictures were taken about WSW. The apparent motion of the rocket was nearly horizontal at this point.

  All images were taken with a Nikon D200 camera and only reduced in size. Clicking on a thumbnail will bring up a larger picture.

  The final image was of the very thin waning Moon behind me towards sunrise.

  Thanks go to Brian Webb and his Space Archive website which provide email alerts for such opportunities.
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Delta II Launches Italy's Cosmo Satellite From Vandenberg AFB

On the evening of June 7th, 2007, a Boeing Delta II rocket launched the Cosmo scientific satellite into orbit. The launch took place at Vandenberg AFB at 7:34 PDT. From my location in north Orange County the launch and ascent was not visible. But some time later as the sun set, the exhaust left behind was still lit by the sun and made for a decent display. I took numerous images but the following three stood out as the most interesting.

All images were taken with a Nikon D200 camera and only reduced in size.
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Venus is the bright "star" at top right.
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The streak is a star trail.

Minotaur Launch From Vandenberg AFB
April 14, 2006

Taken from north Orange County, CA.

This rocket launched the COSMIC satellites into a polar orbit. The launch window was from 5:10pm to 8:10pm local time.

I did not expect to see the launch due to a storm system moving through, nor did I expect the launch to actually occur for the same reason.

As it happened, it did go off. I caught these pictures of the exhaust trail while out shopping at around 8pm local time. The pictures are shaky as they were 4 second exposures and hand held.

New Moon Oct. 4th, 2005 - 39hrs 22min Old

This is an image of the very new moon on October 4th, 2005. It's only 39 hours and 22 minutes 'new'. It was taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4300 and eyepice projection on a 6" f/5 Newtonian using a 40mm eyepiece. It was very low to the horizon, only 5 degrees or so. I lost it behind some trees just minutes after this picture. The histogram and gamma was adjusted which really brought out the vignetting and central obscuration of the secondary mirror.

Click on the image to see an 800x600 reduction of the original resolution image.
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Minotaur Launches STREAK Satellite from Vandenberg AFB

On the evening of September 22, 2005, a Minotaur rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB carrying the STREAK satellite for the US military. The Minotaur rocket uses solid propellant and therefore leaves behind quite an exhaust trail. Since this launch occured about 45 minutes after local sunset that meant the sky view was deep twilight with the rocket rising into the setting sun. The backlit and rapidly expanding plume is quite spectacular. It's been about 3 years since the last launch from VAFB provided the southwest US with such a spectacular sight.

For this launch I decided to try to get some video with my digital camera attached to my telescope. I was pretty successful. The tracking is not smooth as I was hand guiding through the spotting scope. Also, the view is off center as the spotting scope was apparently out of alignment a bit. None the less, the video is spectacular. The camera can only take 40 seconds of video so cuts off just after first stage burnout. Too bad as the second stage ignition was just stunning.

After taking video I took the camera off the scope and mounted it on a tripod to take time exposure stills of the colorful dissipating plume.

All images were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4300. Viewing location was Stanton, north Orange County, CA.

Click on a thumbnaill to download the larger image or QT video.

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eyepiece projection on 6" f/5 newt with 40mm eyepiece

Sunspot 798 - 23:26 UT September 13, 2005

This is a new image of sunspot 798 with much improved resolution. Unlike the image below, it is not a stack and has not been processed except to crop it down to 1024x768.

For this image I adjusted my makeshift solar filter to let in twice as much light as before, but stopped down
the aperture to about 1". Since there was so much more light coming through now I was able to set the digital camera to take a 1/1000 second exposure with a higher f/ratio than before. This greatly increased the resolution of the image by reducing atmospheric turbulence effects. The eyepiece projection was also at a higher magnification than the image below.

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Sunspot 798 - 20:00 UT September 11, 2005

Sunspot 798 originally formed in late August and quickly became active. However, it was rapidly approaching the limb of the Sun and soon disappeared. Holographic helioseismology images indicated that this sunspot continued to remain large while it traversed the far side of the Sun and came back around again as sunspot 808. On September 7 while on the Sun's left limb it emitted an X17 flare, one of the brightest flares ever recorded. Fortunately because the sunspot was on the Sun's limb, the energy of the flare was directed away from Earth. However, this sunspot is slowly rotating across the Sun and will soon point towards Earth and we could experience severe geomagnetic storms with magnificent aurora.

The image at left is a stack of six 1/125th second images taken through my 6" Newtonian telescope with a makeshift solar filter and aperture stop using eyepiece projection into my Nikon Coolpix 4300 camera. Histogram and gamma adjustments were made to bring out the details. Click on the image to see a 1600x1200 crop of the original resolution image.
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Moon Occults Antares - July 17, 2005
On the evening of July 17, 2005 the Moon passed in front of the bright red giant star Antares in the constellation Scorpius. From my location in north Orange County, CA, the occultation lasted just under one hour, with the star winking out at 20:13:54 PDT and coming back at 21:09:39 PDT.

The cropped image at left was taken with my Nikon Coolpix 4300 digital camera using eyepiece projection through my telescope a few minutes before Antares disappeared. Click on the image for a 1024x768 full resolution version. (88,808 bytes)

Image specifics:
Meade 6600 6" f/5 Newtonian with 40mm eyepiece
Shutter: 1/250 sec    Aperture F4.9
Focal Length: 24mm    Sensitivity: ISO 400
Click on the image at left to see a 4 second AVI animation of the star Antares winking out as the Moon passes in front of it.

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Mercury/Venus/Saturn Conjunction - June 24 & 27, 2005

On the evening of July 24, 2005 the planets Mercury, Venus, and Saturn were within 5 degrees of each other on the western horizon just after sunset. This is about the diameter of your thumb held out at arms length. Since they were so low in the sky there was only about 30-60 minutes time to view this celestial gathering. Too early and they were washed out by the evening twilight. Too late and they were below the horizon.
This image was taken from North Orange County, California at around 20:45 local (PDT) using a Nikon Coolpix 4300 digitial camera set to the following settings:

Shutter : 4 secs    Aperture: f/4.9
Focal Length: 24mm    Sensitivity: ISO 400

The image at left is a crop from the original full sized image. Bright Venus is flanked on the left by Saturn and on the Right by Mercury.

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This picture was taken on June 27th, 2005. Mercury and Venus are now at their closest and have risen well above Saturn. This image was taken at 20:53 local (PDT).

Camera settings:
Shutter: 2 sec    Aperture: f/4.9
Focal Length: 24mm    Sensitivity: ISO 400

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This was also taken on June 27th, 2005 but using telescope eyepiece projection into the camera. Venus is overexposed but you can clearly see the gibbous phase of Mercury. The telescope is a Meade 6600 6" f/5 (760mm) Newtonian with a 40mm eyepiece. This image was taken at 20:55 local (PDT). At this time Mercury and Venus were about 17 arcminutes apart.

Camera settings:
Shutter: 1/4 sec    Aperture: f/4.9
Focal Length: 24mm    Sensitivity: ISO 400

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Iridium 80 Flares Across The Moon - November 17, 2004
Using the Heavens Above web site, I found had an estimated 0 magnitude flare for Iridium 80 this evening, I plugged the coordinates of the estimated maximum flare position into my planetarium program to see where it would be in reference to the crescent moon. Seeing that the flare was only a few moon diameters away, I plugged in the latest TLE's for Ir80 into some sat tracking software and found that the track might take it very close to, if not directly over the moon!! I had plenty of time to set up and take some test exposures to try to find the right balance of not over exposing the moon and trying to catch the flare. Since I had to do contrast and brightness enhancement to the image I now realize I should have just gone for maximum exposure settings. Even so, the picture came out great. The satellites track brought it across the dark side of the moon. Just click on the thumbnail to the left to see a 1024x768 jpeg (691,699 bytes). Specs are on the image.

X43A Vapor Trail At Sunset November 16, 2004
NASA successfully flew the X43 SCRAMJet  today to a speed of Mach 10. Although the flight was before 3pm PST, the vapor trail resulting from the Pegasus solid booster had not fully dissipated by sunset a couple hours later. The sunset was beautiful in it's own right, but seeing the vapor trail from the X43 test just added to the value of the scene. In the picture below, the vapor is the lighter colored wisps just above the power lines. The launch was over the Pacific Ocean west of the Los Angeles Area. The picture was taken in North Orange County. To see the original full res version right from the camera, click on the image. (196,832 bytes)

Venus Jupiter Conjunction November 4, 2004 - Daylight Images

Venus and Jupiter were just 0.6 degrees apart at 12:41 PDT (2041UT) today. Since I was too lazy to try to get up before dawn to see the pair in the night sky, I decided to go for a harder challenge, observing the pair in daylight! I have observed Venus and Saturn in the daytime. Saturn was easy as it was being occulted by the Moon. Venus can be seen by the naked eye if one knows where to look and can trick their eyes into focusing at infinity when staring at a blank sky.

Anyway, I managed to find Venus at low power in my telescope and after a while I noticed Jupiter not far away, very faint. I decided to try for some pictures. Although I was certain I had captured Venus, I wasn't too hopeful of catching Jupiter. The contrast was very low. But once I downloaded the images from my camera into the computer I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had indeed managed to capture both planets in the same frame. Following are four frames that have been enhanced in contrast and brightness to bring out the pair. I also have a GIF animation of these four frames.

Animated GIF of the above four frames.

The images were severly vignetted already due to eyepiece projection, and the enhancement process brought that out even more. The telescope setup is a Meade 6600 6" f/5 newtonian with a 40mm eyepiece projecting into a Nikon Coolpix 4300.

Total lunar eclipse October 27/28, 2004

I was very fortuitous to have been able to view this eclipse. The weather had been pretty wet the past few days and just hours before the eclipse began a thunderstorm had gone by. Well, Murphy must have been napping as the weather cleared and the skies were magnificent in time to see the eclipse. From my location in Southern California, the Moon was already partially into the eclipse as the it rose above the horizon and was clearly visible throughout the event. Clouds rolled in just as the last of the penumbra was leavin the Moon. What luck!!!

This was also an opportunity to use try my new Nikon Coolpix 4300 out on my telescope using eyepiece projection. I used a 6" f/5 newtonian with a 40mm eyepiece resulting in an effective focal length of 459 mm at f/3.

I took close to a hundred images but chose these few as the best. Just click on a thumbnail to bring up a 1024x768 jpg.
Each image is imprinted with the time and exposure settings.

Constellation Of Orion
I've been an amateur astronomer ever since I was a kid, but I never got bitten by the astrophoto bug, till now. These photos were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 4300 Digital camera piggybacked on my 6" Newt. I don't have a clock drive so I hand guided the exposures while viewing M42 at 200 power, concentrating on the Trapezium. With finesse I was managed to guide the scope in RA smooth enough by hand that I stayed within the Trapezium. Since the camera wasn't at high magnification even zoomed in, this was more than sufficient to keep the images from trailing.

This camera has an CYMG sensor instead of the usual RGB. Image size was set to the maximum of 2272 x 1704 and format to minimally compressed jpeg. The camera is capable of saving images in raw TIFF format with no compression.

Image processing was done using Paint Shop Pro version 7.04. 

These are the three raw frames straight from the camera.

There's a lot of sky glow and warm pixels.
Focal length 24mm (114mm equiv) f/4.9
Equiv ISO setting: 400  -  Exposure time: 60 seconds
This is the dark frame I used. You can see the warm pixels easily.

Equiv ISO setting: 400
Exposure time: 60 seconds
I have now subtracted the dark frame from each of the three raw images. I stacked the dark frame as a new layer on top of the raw image and used the 'difference' function at 50%. 100% seemd to oversubtract and was grainier that at 50%. Then I merged the layers.
After having subtracted the dark frame I then adjusted the image brightness and contrast. I used -40 brightness and +40 contrast. The images look much more natural now.

And here's the final product!

I took the three processed frames and stacked them on top of each other. I had to move them around a little to get them properly registered, but was less than 10 pixels. I then used the 'screen' mode to mix the three images together and merged everything into one layer. I then needed to adjust the brightness and contrast again (same settings as before) to get the image to look good. The image was also rotated 90 degreees.

Minuteman III Launch From Vandenberg September 15, 2004

At 1:01 AM Pacific Time on the morning of September 15, 2004 a United States Air Force Minuteman III missile with three dummy warheads was launched on a test flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base on a 4200 mile, 30 minute flight to the
Kwajalein Missile Range in the South Pacific.

I used a Nikon Coolpix 4300 camera to take a series of high resolution 8 second exposures. The original images are 2272x1704 in size. For space and DL speed considerations I reduced the image sizes for the animation and still below.

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This animation is made from crops from full sized versions of 9 of the images I took that the missile was visible in. Each frame is an 8 second exposure with about a 2 second pause between each frame. In the animation, each frame is displayed for one second, making this animation about a 10x speed up.
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This is frame five from the animation but at twice the size. The field of view in this image is about 51 degrees horizontally. In the upper right the bright star is Vega visible in it's constellation of Lyra. In the upper left is Altair in Aquila.

I observed this launch from Stanton, California, approximately 140 miles ESE of the launch site at approximately 33.8N 118.0W. I have observed missile and rocket launches before but this is the first time I was able to take such good pictures.

I had the camera all set up on a tripod ready to go as well as my telescope nearby. As I anxiously watched my watch 1:01 AM came and went. I knew it would take nearly another minute or more for me to see the rocket due to my distance from the launch site (Earth curvature) and for the rocket to rise above the haze and humidity on the horizon. As soon as I saw the vehicle I started the camera and stepped over to the scope.

Through the scope I observed the rocket exhaust at 31x as a bright yellow spot followed by short orangish fuzzy cone. The rocket moved slowly making hand tracking a breeze. It was so easy I decided to try bumping up to my best eyepiece for a mag of 200x, but that was too much and I couldn't even find the rocket. I quickly switched back to 31x. Next time I'll try using my barlow for 62x, which shouldn't be too hard.

I followed the rocket for a little more than a minute until burnout. About halfway through I observed what appeared to be a staging event; a brief dimming with a dim red light falling away from the rocket followed a few seconds later by a return to the previous brightness.

After burnout I saw one brief flash of dim red light which was probably the spent booster tumbling away from the warhead package.

Special thanks to Brian Webb and his Vandenberg Launch Schedule and Launch Alerts which can be found at

Favorite Links

Astronomy Picture of the Day - Just like it sounds.

Heavens Above - Online satellite viewing predictions. Iridium flares are awesome to watch!
Florida Today - Space - Florida Today newspaper section on space. - More space related news.
Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous Mission - The NEAR mission is over but the pictures are still there!
THEMIS: Latest Images - Pictures from the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
Plot of the Inner Solar System - Shows the location of every known object int he Solar System.
Space Archive - This is where I get information on launches from Vandenberg AFB.
HEASARC Picture Of the Week - High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center.
FMO home page - Fast Moving Object search. Seeking asteroids before they hit Earth.
Mars Tour - View images from the Mars rovers!
Cassini-Huygens Home - Home page for the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Images of Saturn and All Available Satellites - Quick link to all Saturn images at JPL.
Images of Mars and All Available Satellites - Quick link to all Mars images at JPL.
Mars Exploration Rover Mission: Home - Home page for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Official US Time - Go here to calibrate you time pieces!!!
Cartes du Ciel - Excellent free star chart software.
The Oh-My-God Particle - A proton with the same energy as a 55 mph baseball.