Stars and Friends

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The year is 2015. A handful of months fresh from a change of jobs that was, safe to say, not planned as thoroughly as I would have preferred, I (along with my sister who tagged along) joined a curious crew into the beautiful beach of Puerto Galera. This small vacation was both a temporary respite from the sweltering summer heat and an item of curiosity off a pipe dream bucket list. For as long as I’ve started taking an interest in photography I’ve always looked up at the night sky wanting to capture what my eyes saw and maybe even more.

Fast forward to 2018, a trip/adventure that I thought I would only make once has been a more-often-than-annual reason to take vacation leaves. I’ve met some very interesting people, some of them even became friends that I wanted to personally say goodbye to, given my then-looming departure for Germany. I have photographed the beautiful sight of a galactic core from the vantage point of a fringe planet several times—might as well be countless, considering that I thought I would only see this once, maybe twice.

Sci Fi

And to my friends and coworkers, I’ve become that guy with one eye always at the night sky, who can be excused from immediate replies if there’s a super moon on the horizon, and who, with a bulky telescope, prove the science schoolbooks correct. Mars is red. Venus is beautiful. Saturn has a ring. Jupiter has spots, streaks, and satellites.

Lumos!

I remember in January of 2018 when a rare and curious phenomenon graced the Philippines: not only was it a super moon, it was also a total lunar eclipse. It was, of course, something I would not ever miss. What I did not count on was my reputation preceding me at work. In a few Facebook messages, Abie has persuaded me to organize a viewing for anyone else interested in the office.

Despite my aversion to coordinating logistics for just almost anything1, from a heap of inputs and suggestions, I’ve managed to scrap together a workable plan and conveyed those spur-of-the-moment schemes into instructions people could follow.

The night of the eclipse, the taxi we booked was unfortunately stuck in traffic so we had to walk to where he was to save time. On the radio the news broadcast covered the eclipse as it started to take place. We finally arrived at the park about an hour or less away before totality. It was crowded and festive in the pleasant January evening air; we might as well be shooting a music video for Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight.

After finding the group of my coworkers who have arrived earlier I prepared to mount my binoculars to my tripod. I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, “I am not prepared for this”.

“For the eclipse?” asked Aser.

“Emotionally,” I clarified.

This will sound kitschy as a German garden gnome but seeing the moon in shades of red is like seeing your lover on your wedding day2. You already know she’s beautiful but seeing her made up and extra pretty just for this one day is sweet intoxicating infatuation all over again.

As I expected, a crowd of strangers queued up to have a look through my binoculars. I normally tend to introversion but I love sharing and talking about things that make me wonder and smile and even more so when my audience appreciates why I am in awe and wonder. Needless to say, I think this passion for the sights of dark and clear skies is something I managed to convey that night.

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Uncharacteristic of me, I did not get to take a lot of pictures that night. The reason being, this was still several months before I bought the compact A6000. By then I only had the A35; though already small for its time, it just doesn’t compare to the new generation.


Moving to Germany, I knew that I would leave more than just my astrocamping gear behind but also friends and this loose collection of acquaintances that’s become an astronomy family/club to me.

Team Stargazing

Still, you can strip a man of all his astrophotography gear but you can’t strip a man of his passion and resourcefulness. One of the first photos I took after arriving in Hamburg is, predictably, of a beautiful spring night sky.

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That’s taken without a tripod and in the still-bitter cold of a Northern German June night. Not bad I would say. Not at all.

Hamburg, for all its virtues, is just not ideal for astronomical observations, unfortunately. In the spring/summer when the skies have slightly better odds of being clear, the days are long. In the autumn/winter, when the nights are an imposing presence even over people’s moods, the weather is cloudy at best.

Still, you make do with the circumstances. Experience so far suggests that spring is the best time for observations in Hamburg. For all the bad things that transpired last year, there were two astronomical events that I was able to observe.

The first is the conjunction of the lovely Venus with my favorite asterism, the Pleiades.

An Offering of Light

This was taken from my apartment’s window, blown up and post-processed from a 50mm f2.8 shot. I did not use a tripod and this would not have been possible if my unit’s heater was not directly under the window.

The second one was harder to observe and not only because of cloudy Hamburg nights. It was also fainter and the lines of sight from my apartment did not afford a direct view into this beauty. For what it’s worth it was visible for far longer as it was no mere coincidental conjunction of sky lights—though I only actively tracked it for almost a week . But for the whole time it was visible, it was also “moving” at least faster than usual for celestial objects.

I am talking, of course, about the Comet Neowise.

The Comet Neowise

Hunting Neowise in late July meant that I had to take some very late-night (or early-morning, depending on how you want to frame things) bike rides. And then staying out in the cold night alone in a dark Stadtpark Eimsbüttel, with only my hoodie jacket. I even feared that I might be mistaken as a vagrant, and would have to explain myself in German (“Herr Polizei…leider habe ich kein Deutsch genug für eine Erklärung.”) but then what vagrant has an interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera and a bike with a smartphone for GPS guidance?3

That Neowise moved across the skies4 also meant that each night I tried to shoot/observe it, I first had to track it, a task that ate into the precious little hours of darkness—not to mention the precious few minutes of cloud clearance—that I had. In the picture I took above, you can already see the clouds creeping up on my view. I planned to take proper long exposures of this—I even borrowed a tripod from work—but I just never had enough time. Thankfully, I can stabilize myself pretty well and the A6000’s sensor is fantastic at low light to say the least.5

It’s not the picture I envisioned I would take but it’s something. At least until Neowise returns after roughly 7000 years.


In the midst of perhaps my busiest spell so far in my current job, another lunar eclipse happened in the Philippines last Wednesday. I wasn’t even aware of it; the first time it was brought to my attention was while my family was attempting to set-up and use Koopman-Hevelius, the German Equatorial Mount Telescope that I left in the Philippines.

The Koopman-Hevelius

I was actually rather indifferent to missing an opportunity to witness a lunar eclipse. Perhaps to my mind I had bigger fish to fry in the form of the tasks queued up at me at work; the past couple of weeks hasn’t exactly been smooth-sailing and a timely long weekend has been my only opportunity to decompress.

Imagine my surprise upon seeing a message from a friend telling me they took a picture of the eclipse for me, because I wasn’t there, and sorry they only had a phone, none of the fancy gear I might be used to. A touching gesture as much as it was unexpected. In the crazy reality that’s started in 2020, it’s also quite a nostalgic reminder of times gone by.

I subscribe to the idea that people won’t remember you for what you said but for how you made them feel. That’s why I always try to acknowledge even the smallest gestures of kindness. From a random “Hi” while I’m queued up at the grocery cashier with a heavily-bandaged left arm pushing my grocery cart to taking a picture of an eclipse so that I can see it even if I wasn’t there. They are all very appreciated and I want you to know, you lifted up my mood.

Here’s to the kindness of friends and of strangers, who are just friends we haven’t made yet.

  1. And, as a matter of fact, it was Abie’s job to coordinate events. As usual I’m just your humble but well-paid software engineer. []
  2. Not that I have ever married. In this simile I am relying on Hollywood’s depictions of marriage. []
  3. A vagrant who just robbed a better-off citizen, that’s what! I apologize for my sense of humor. []
  4. Let’s not be physics-pedantic with the definition of movement here, okay? []
  5. And I never really updated the firmware so I don’t have to worry about the dreaded star-eater algorithm. []

Battles with Fate, Now with More Uncertainty

Even if you were living under a rock for the past eight to nine months, I’m pretty sure you would’ve heard about the pandemic ravaging the world right now, if only because you no longer need to avoid people; they socially distance themselves from you automatically. And you can treat those who, for some confidently-wrong belief or another, insist to invade your personal space anyway, as crazies. As a modern-day Diogenes you no longer need to invoke your view of the sun to insinuate someone is an idiot. A silver lining, what a relief.

Which makes me wonder if a modern-day Diogenes would read blogs because if not then my whole first paragraph has no audience. But I guess in an age of social media and walled content gardens the personal blog is the barrel in which a philosopher might dwell. Gasp. I was the Diogenes all along.

Anyway, back to the topic. I’m pleased to report that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected me adversely despite living by myself, a stranger in a strange land. Selfishly I might even be thankful to find myself in Hamburg amidst all this. There are only a few ways I can be more comfortable right now.

Not that it hasn’t affected me at all. Whereas so far, thankfully, I’ve managed to stay healthy, the pandemic has got to my thoughts in all sorts of ways. From the usual negative stuff to more positive outcomes like bursts of productivity here and there, and things I wouldn’t have otherwise tried like finally buying a bike.

My key achievement so far is my proposal for a new economic indicator metric: the Toilet Paper Availability Index. It measures citizens’ general confidence in government proclamations at a highly localized level. Fair to say that this has failed spectacularly in many parts of the world during this pandemic, including, unfortunately, in Germany, long-clichéed to be world’s best at just following rules.

I guess, arguably, no formal rule was instituted, Merkel merely implored the German populace to not purchase like hamsters.

That said, it will be disingenous of me to imply that the scarcity I’ve witnessed is any cause for alarm. In fact, for reasons I would not expound in here, my apartment is currently home to an ungodly amount of REWE Double Chocolate American Cookies.

I hear your screams of “Wait, Chad. But. Why?!”. So okay. They are gosh-darned delicious okay? Addicting even. Won’t be surprised if REWE adds meth in these in secret. Okay moving on…

I noticed that my local REWE has stopped stocking these lately. I’m a bit worried as I don’t know why. I’d like to think they grew concerned that I, a loyal customer, will die of Diabetes but it’s probably either (a) they are trying to avoid liability from a loyal customer getting Diabetes or (b) they just stopped stocking it. I would like everyone to know that if I die of Diabetes, I would’ve died happy. But if I die of starvation in my apartment, you have my express permission to call me der Idiot.

(Editor’s Note: I have since discovered that my local REWE still stocks these cookies. They just moved the shelf somewhere else. I have very conflicted emotions regarding this.)

Speaking of worry, I have long since determined that my ultimate frustration is a situation which I can’t do anything about. Having no option but to wait for anything, for something to happen, is my idea of powerlessness. As long as I can struggle for a result, I can find a certain peace of mind.

Which might just be this pandemic’s greatest blow on me. To be honest, moving to Hamburg to work for Goodgame last year is quite a huge personal goal I’ve achieved, the downside of which is a very philosophical/poetic Loss of a Goal. I have, at the start of the year, just resolved to start poking around looking for a new goal. Then, history intervened: The Year In Which The World Changed A Decade. So much change that introverts tired of isolation.

And now I don’t know in the worst possible personal way. I do not want to give the impression that it is such a horrible thing. I just find myself on a plateau, quite a comfortable plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. I’d rather be scaling mountains, trying them just because they are there. The pandemic just made planning that so much harder. I have no idea what to expect when every expectation just goes out of the window more than usual.

I’m used to testing Fate. It’s just that doing that right now comes with so much more uncertainty.


I didn’t want this to end in such a downer so here’s a really pretty photo I took recently.

Dear Autumn,

Though I don’t like you for your tendency to remind me of my own mortality, I can’t deny you can be so pretty.

xoxo Chad

Dark and Clear Skies

Slowly, the Scorpion emerged from the horizon, into the heavens, just in everyone’s plain sight. It was gigantic, with burning orbs for pincers and armor; in the night’s darkness the Scorpion was unmistakeably recognizable. The Moon has long set and the Hunter has been gone even longer. The sky was for the Scorpion to crawl.

We lay on the white sands waiting for the Scorpion to reveal itself entirely. First came its pincers. Then its long body with its burning red heart. Then its tail, the stinger. But it was not really for the Scorpion that we waited hours for. Near its tail, as if stuck with its stinger dragged around as the Scorpion prowled, is a sight more beautiful, more majestic than a celestial scorpion—a sight I have made it my life goal to see. At the end of this particular Scorpion’s tail flowed forth not poison but milk.

Fun fact: Being that our Solar System is located in one of the arms of the Milky Way, we can view part of it from our outpost here at Planet Earth. As our night skies stand presently, the Milky Way is situated at the “tail” of constellation Scorpius; should you let the myths have their way, also known as Orion’s archenemy. As an additional marker, the Milky Way flows from the teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius.

(So does the Teapot coat the Scorpion’s tail with Milk? Or is the Scorpion pouring Milk from its stinger into the Teapot? Is not the Teapot a Milkpot maybe? Is Sagittarius trying to avenge Orion? Reader, I leave you to decide.)

In case it is not yet obvious, I have been a fan of astronomy all my life. In fact, one of my main motivations when I got myself an expensive camera (the SLT A35) was to photograph the night sky. Much so that I christened my A35 “Getsurikai”—a BLEACH-inspired name which translates roughly to “moon grasp”.

Alas, contemporary life is not exactly friendly to night-sky shooting. Add the fact that, as a hobby, I only get a handful of chances throughout the year to try out my experiments. My progress in this interest has been slow.

I’ve experimented more than a few times just to learn how. I have tried it on the kit SAL 1855 lens when I bought a tripod. Needless to say, my attempts—done from our rooftop on the darkest nights our area will allow (which still isn’t that dark by the way)—ended with faint, out-of-focus traces of Orion. Else, you would’ve heard from me before now.

My luck proved better with the SAL55200. At 200mm focal length, shooting the moon became quite doable. That, combined with my XPeria Z and my Celestron 70AZ (codenamed “Lippershey”) produced some images I’m quite proud of.

A Hole in the Sky
Taken with the SLT A35 + SAL55200

The Sattelite Shooter
The Celestron 70AZ

The Subtle Lights of Our Sattelite
Taken with a combination of the Celestron 70AZ and the XPeria Z.

And suddenly, Getsurikai started to live up to its name.

But I wanted more! I wanted the stars. “Aim for the stars so if you miss at least you hit the moon” right? Well, I’ve somewhat hit the moon. I want my stars.

Enter the gorgeous SAL 1650. When I bought this lens, I did not really plan to use it for astrophotography. I have been laboring under the (wrong) impression that what makes astrophotography is a kick-ass telephoto lens (reasoning that you need a telescope to do astronomy so to do astrophotography, you need a telephoto lens. Seriously.)

What gave me the idea to use the 1650 was this shot, taken last summer.

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Compared to the other shots in this post, I know this one does not offer much merit. But look: it got a few stars and one planet, sharper than I ever got them. And that is with all the light pollution from where I stood and with a shining moon to boot, not to mention the exposure time of a mere 5.7s. If that does not win any photographer’s faith I don’t know what will.

But still, the opportunity for dark and clear skies has yet to present itself.

Until a few weeks ago.

Say what you want about the Philippines but we have a friggin’ Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS). I’ve been lurking in their group for some time now but I never really got the opportunity to join one of their events. That is, as I’ve said, until a few weeks ago.

In PAS’ 2015 stargazing event at Puerto Galera, I finally got this shot. What it lacks for in exposure, it makes up for in photography lessons learned and sentimental value. I dipped my toes in the hot sands of Puerto Galera not expecting that I’d have an appointment with the lovely Milky Way, wearing stars for jewelry.

The Light in Dark Skies
The Light in Dark Skies

In a moment of trial-and-error, I realized what I have been doing wrong all this time. Ironically, what got my ass is the fact that I tinker with my camera’s settings far too much. I should have left my white-balance at Auto. Color-correction is really no help here.

And of course, repetition is what builds skill. Fortunately, PAS held another stargazing event barely a month after the one at Puerto Galera, this time at Big Handy’s Grounds at Tanay, Rizal. And I got this shot which will now always keep me in awe and wonder about things way larger than myself.

Delight in Dark Skies
Delight in Dark Skies

(Mandatory disclosure: I almost did not get this shot because, again, I tinkered with my camera’s settings too much! This time around, the culprit is my aperture setting.)

Of course, these adventures have more stories than what I have just related. I’ve met some interesting people along the way but they don’t make it into this story as that risks making the narrative incoherent. Maybe, someday, I get to write about that and them.

Isn’t astronomy a nice reason to travel?