Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Eight Moons of Saturn

After dabbling with Deep Sky astrophotography during the Spring season, much shorter nights due to perpetual twilight suggest it's time to slew to different targets and find new challenges. I am pursuing two projects at the moment:

1. High-resolution imaging of double stars with a DSRL;
2. Imaging of planets'moons using a MallinCam HYPER Plus videocamera.

More on 1. in a future post. Here I am going to focus on 2.

These days the only planet high enough in the sky at a decent hour is Saturn. The ringed planet is getting closer and closer to the Western horizon as days go by, but it still provides excellent opportunities for the avid astrophotographer. Outstanding images of the transit of Titan's shadow taken by Denis Fell (http://spacealberta.com/saturn/sat2009/saturn2009.htm#titan3) are a great example.

Imaging the moons of Saturn is another interesting challenge. Titan, at mag.8.4 is relatively easy even with an unmodified webcam, provided that your scope has enough aperture. Here's an image I took in 2007 using a Philips Vesta 675 and an 8" Newtonian f/4.9 through a 2X Barlow:

However, anyone who had the chance of peeking into a medium-sized aperture telescope (6" or more) will remember the other smaller and dimmer moons accompanying Titan in its dance around the planet. The casual observer is usually able to pick up three more: Rhea (mag.9.8), Tethys (10.3) and Dione (mag.10.5), depending on the severity of light pollution. There are four more that require more expertise and darker skies to be observed: Iapetus (mag.10.1-11.9), Enceladus (mag.11.8), Mimas (mag.13) and Hyperion (mag.14.5). Iapetus is an interesting one because it is much brighter at Western elongation than at Eastern elongation. That's due to the peculiar coloration of the moon's surface: dark as coal on one hemisphere, bright as snow on the other. At the moment Iapetus is close to Eastern elongation and it looks quite dim (mag.11.2).

The challenge is not only to see the dimmer moons, but also to see as many moons as possible in one single observation. To see many moons at once, timing is essential since each moon has a different orbital period. Chances are that there is always one moon that is either transiting in front of the planet or being occulted by the planet itself and so impossible to detect. Then there is light pollution. I usually image from my mag.4 sky (in winter at the Zenith) from my backyard in Edmonton. Anything dimmer than mag.11 proves to be visually very challenging (at least for me) even when looking through my 10" Newtonian f/4.7.

I own a MallinCam HYPER plus (http://mallincam.tripod.com/) videocamera, which was designed for Deep Sky real time imaging and so extremely sensitive. I thought that perhaps I could "enhance" real time views of the Saturnian system using the MallinCam and capture several moons at once. The camera allows for integration times up to 56sec (with 7, 14 and 28 being the other choices) during which frames are collected and added together depending on the exposure setting. Initially I thought that imaging the dimmer moons would not be a problem at all with the MallinCam given that the central star (mag.15) of the Ring Nebula (Messier 57) is visible from my backyard. Then I realized that the longer the integration time, the brighter and bloated Saturn appears. So if one of the moons is too close to the planet it will wash out in the glare. That imposes an additional constraint if we want to observe as many moons as possible at the same time: moons have to be far enough from the disk of the planet and the plane of the rings to be detectable by the camera. Finally there is the altitude factor: the lower the planet is over the horizon, the worst seeing becomes and the larger is the airmass extinction coefficient (that dims objects low on the horizon further).

Using the excellent planetarium software Cartes du Ciel (http://www.stargazing.net/astropc/), I zeroed in on the Saturnian system and fast forwarded in time looking for the time when as many moons as possible would be available for imaging. May 24th at around 0:48 proved to be a good candidate for an attempt so I setup my 10", inserted a 2x Barlow and plugged in the MallinCam. The angular distance between Hyperion and Iapetus was too big and I ended up imaging Iapetus separated from the rest. The most challenging moon proved to be Mimas. Not only at mag.13 is quite dim, but at the time of the observation it was also very close to the rings. Mimas was actually emerging from the glare of the planet, so the longer the wait the better, but at the same time Rhea was diving deep into the bright disk of Saturn, so it turned out to be a trade off. I waited as much as I could to image Rhea hoping that by then Mimas would finally be in plain sight. As I said before, to image a dim moon like Mimas I had to increase the integration time to 28sec which extended the outer boundary of Saturn to the point where I am not entirely sure I was able to pick up Mimas on the laptop screen. By then Saturn was hovering quite low on the Western horizon and that made Mimas'detection even more difficult. I think I caught a glimpse of the Moon just off the Western tip of the rings during those rare fleeting moments of acceptable seeing. Keep in mind that when I say "caught a glimpse" I mean by looking at real time images displayed by the Mallincam on my laptop screen. The software I used to display and record the frames streamed by the camera to the laptop is the excellent VirtualDub (http://www.virtualdub.org/).

The final image is posted here

It is a composite of four images: one for Saturn alone, one for the brighter moons, one for Hyperion and Mimas and one for Iapetus. Each image was obtained by recording a 2000 frame video file in VirtualDub and perform align/stacking in Registax 5.

Thank you for watching!


  1. Hey Massimo, cool to see the new blog!

    Good work nabbing the 8 satellites of Saturn photographically. I observed 6 visually from the Observatory on Sunday night, was pushing my luck to get Enceladus, while Mimas and Hyperion were beyond reach.

  2. Massimo - very nice indeed! Can you also post what the Mallincam settings were? I have a Mallincam Hyper Color Plus as well, but whenever I try to view Saturn or Jupiter, the images are just too washed out because the planets are too bright... James

  3. Massimo, Very good work! Thanks for posting!

  4. James,

    the settings for Saturn are quite different from the settings for the moons, and even for the moons settings are different whether they are bright moons (like Titan, Dione, Rhea and Tethys) or dim moons (Mimas, Enceladus, etc.).

    As for the planet, settings are dependent on your setup. My settings are specific for a 10" f/4.7 scope with a 2X Barlow lens. Unless your setup is identical to mine, my settings won't work very well for you.

    As a general rule for planets though, I'd suggest that you:
    1. Set SENSE to OFF;
    2. Choose ALC instead of ELC
    3. Under ALC change the Shutter setting until you'll find the right one for your setup and conditions
    4. Set AGC to OFF

    Start from there and let me know. By the way, under the Files section of the MallinCam Yahoo!Group you will find a wealth of information on how to choose the optimal settings for various targets.