Glimmering star clusters, distant galaxies and sporadic fireballs that light up the skies. It’s all visible from the backyards of populated neighborhoods of the Santa Clarita Valley.
That is, if you have the right equipment or know someone who does.
For resident John Favalessa, he can marvel at these celestial events from the comfort of his Stevenson Ranch home via his newly found passion for astrophotography, which has allowed him to record colorful details of a myriad amount of distant objects.
“I started off in astronomy, but with light pollution, when you visually look through telescopes in this area, you really can’t see much,” he said. “And then somebody showed me some photos they took with their camera and telescope a year ago, and I was blown away and it got me started.”
The skies are categorized by light pollution and one of the many ways to measure how bright a night sky is by location is the Bortle scale, which is a nine-level numeric scale. At a level nine, or “inner-city sky,” the sky is brightly lit and many familiar constellation figures are not visible. At the opposite end on level one, or “excellent dark-sky,” the zodiacal light is strikingly visible.
“If you are observing on a grass-covered field bordered by trees, your telescope, companions, and vehicle are almost totally invisible. This is an observer’s Nirvana,” according to skyandtelescope.org, a subsidiary of the American Astronomical Society.
How dark is it?
Stevenson Ranch is around a level six, said Favalessa. The Santa Clarita Valley as whole marks a level seven, according to lightpollutionmap.info. If you know where to search in the valley or its surrounding areas, you can luck out and reach a level of five or below, the astrophotographer said.
“If you go out to Canyon Country or a little further into Agua Dulce it’s like a (level) five or four even,” said Favalessa. When you head out even a little bit further, you’re starting to get dark skies when you go out to Red Rock (Canyon State Park) or out to Mojave or out to Death Valley and you can be almost totally dark skies.”
“It just blows your mind when you can walk by the light of the stars,” he added. “There’s something that urban folks just don’t get. It’s a spiritual thing, too.”
The right gadgets
There are various areas you can focus on with astrophotography, but each requires different setups. For starters, you’ll want to have the following: a digital camera, lenses such as zoom or short and long telephoto, a telescope (for beginners a 65mm or 80mm refractor can do the job), a mount, camera tripod and a remote release.
For example, to capture nebulae you will want a more wide field shot, whereas photographing planets will require a more powerful telescope, said Favalessa.
Many of his photographs have been shot with a William Optics 102 mm triplet 4-inch refractor telescope and a ZWO ASI2600 astrophotography color camera. The finished product is composed of taking multiple, separate exposures per object, which can take anywhere between seconds to minutes, and is then integrated into one final image, according to Favalessa.
Some of his favorite captures include the Messier 13, also known as M13 or the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, which is one of the brightest star clusters visible from the Northern Hemisphere. It includes more than 100,000 stars and has a bright apparent magnitude of 5.8, it was spotted with a pair of binoculars in July, according to NASA. One of Favalessa’s M13 photos had a one-hour total exposure.
With 10 hours of total exposure time, he has also photographed the Andromeda Galaxy or M31. It is “one of our nearest major galactic neighbors” at over 2 million light years away, and the “largest Hubble mosaic to date” with more than 100 million stars and thousands of star clusters, according to NASA.
Another one in his collection is M42, or the Great Orion Nebula, which is believed to be the “cosmic fire of creation” by the Mayans of Mesoamerica. It is considered the closest, largest star-forming region to Earth as it is 1,500 light years away. It can be spotted with the naked eye and has a bright apparent magnitude of 4, according to NASA.
Favalessa has also photographed the moon, which is about 239 thousand miles away from Earth. Whenever possible, he has also shot events such as the recent Saturn-Jupiter conjunction, meteor showers, super moons, and all of the moon’s phases.
Ready to join?
Favalessa is part of a small niche of SCV-based astrophotographers that hold monthly star parties at locations such as Vasquez Rocks, where residents can bring their telescopes or just join and stargaze.
The Local Group Astronomy Club of SCV has temporarily cancelled in-person meetings. However, they are holding virtual events. The next meeting is March 13. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/lgscv or lgscv.org.