Star parties are a lot of work for the organizers and staff. The annual Winter Star Party in the Florida Keys is no exception. Days before the star party opens staff show up to start preparing the site, and the day before the gates open the vendors and manufacturing reps show up to setup their tents and booths. The night before opening, staff, vendors, and invited speakers all enjoy having the site to themselves and if the weather is clear will get in a little observing and imaging themselves. These two 32″ Dobsonians with Mike Lockwood mirrors were putting on a fine show Sunday night before the guests arrive. This is probably not what you imagine when you hear the word star party, but for amateur astronomers, this is how we roll.
My book is now available in print through Amazon print on demand! This is not a technical “how to” book on astrophotography, but rather this is a book I wrote for my family and friends who simply appreciate the images they see and are mildly curious about how much work goes into taking these photographs. It’s my love letter to the night sky and a tour of the kinds of targets we shoot, the gear we use, and the lengths we will go to to find dark skies suitable for this kind of imaging. I hope some of you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
How have I missed this gorgeous globular cluster? M55 is low to the South in the constellation Sagittarius from where I live, and capturing it was part of my recent surgical strike. My two favorite Northern Hemisphere globulars are M13 and Omega Centauri, and this one is every bit as beautiful. The core is not quite as dense, and you can easily resolve and bring out the amber and blue stars all the way through the core. Globular clusters are honestly low hanging fruit if you have a quality refractor. Nothing I own but one of my Esprit refractors will bring out the powdery nature of this star city. Also, short exposures are actually best! Short exposures will not saturate the star cores and it is far easier to preserve the star colors both in the cluster itself and in the surrounding sky. Only 70 minutes of two minute RGB exposures went into this image using an FLI Microline 16200 on an f/7 Esprit 150. Unguided of course on a Paramount MX+ 😉
How much longer will sights and images like this be possible? All over the world, astronomers, both amateur and professional alike seek out dark sites such as this dark sky camp shown here in Okeechobee Florida. Not only is it getting harder and harder to find areas far enough from city lights (and here, you can still see the sky glow from the city of Okeechobee), but inevitably the sky will be filled with satellites streaking through our images. The recent Space X launch has drawn a lot of interest to this, and bear in mind there are dozens of geosynchronous satellites already in this image that you can’t see. Make no mistake though, the drum of progress will demand that this number grows to thousands to tens of thousands in the coming years, and we need to be prudent and responsible about how we affect our environment, and this includes the night sky.
At this years Texas Star Party, I sat up with my friends from Sky-Watcher USA as always, and also Michael Hattey from Starlight Xpress was there. Michael brought me a present too, an updated control board for one of my favorite cameras, the Trius 694. The new control board turned my Trius into a “Trius Pro”, which meant another reduction of read noise, by 1/2, and an almost doubling of the download speed. What’s not to like? The seeing at TSP was a bit soft (using an Esprit 120), so I shot binned 2×2, and this image is only two hours of two minute exposures through RGB filters. There’s a little blooming on the saturated stars (elongation due to electron’s leaking into neighboring pixel cells), and this was tuned out afterwards (electronics upgrades need a little tweaking too). I plan to shoot this again at the Grand Canyon Star Party next month, so stay tuned and see what the camera can do at full quality!
I just love globular clusters, both visually and photographically. Omega Centauri is the undisputed king of globulars and is only accessible from the Southern states. What’s really great about this image is that I took it at the 2011 Winter Star party in the Florida Keys. That’s 8 years ago! My original attempt at processing the data is a bit less than stellar<g>. However I kept the original calibrated and stacked data set and just spent a few minutes on it to bring out this beauty! You can read more about it over at The Accidental Astronomer.
I’m a little late with this post, but I am no less thrilled than I was the very day, on March 8, 2019 when one of my images was selected as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). This years Winter Star Party (2019) was one of the best I’ve seen in 15 years weather wise. We had clear skies a good portion of every night, and I managed to capture close to 7 hours of data on this target over the course of four evenings using my favorite imaging combination, my Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 refractor and an FLI MicroLine 16200. I have a MoonLite NiteCrawler focuser/rotator upgrade for the OTA as well, and it’s just a rock solid and reliable combination. I could set my software to autofocus every time I changed filters, and I’d let it run for a couple of hours while I looked through friends visual telescopes and enjoyed a brownie or two from Mickie’s Kitchen.
If you haven’t visited my blog over at Sky & Telescope, now’s a great time to sample them. My latest post is about stretching data, and it builds on the last few posts which delve into linear and non-linear data, and what all this stuff about “bit-depth” is about. Typically when I write or speak, I don’t like to delve into clever processing tricks, but I like to cover the fundamentals. Getting good data, proper calibration and understanding the nature of what you have. If you have this foundation down, processing the images and getting “pretty pictures” is 100x easier!
Thursday night at the 2019 Winter Star Party, the thin crescent Moon presented a wonderful sight. Not only was the Earthshine quite prominent, but two peaks at the bottom limb were just poking up and out into the sunlight making little peaks of light below the crater Tycho. I had my 6″ Esprit 150 refractor setup with an FLI ML-16200 CCD camera, which is really best suited for long exposure astrophotography. So, I shot the lunar limb through an Ha filter, which attenuates the light nicely allowing for the slow shutter speed of a full frame CCD camera. Then for the Earthshine, I used a 10 second exposure through a red filter. This naturally saturated the bright side of the moon, but I blended the two images together in Photoshop to better match the dynamic range that was available to my eyes through binoculars or a neighboring telescope with an eyepiece.
This year the Winter Star Party returned to the Florida Keys after having to relocate for a year due to the extensive damage wrought by Hurricane Irma. We could not have been treated better by the weather, and there’s going to be several additions to my gallery from this years photography and imaging. This is my favorite image from the trip, and I think possibly my favorite nightscape I’ve ever taken. I also won first place in the wide field imaging contest with this shot. Just before dawn, I knew the Summer Milky Way would be making an appearance and I wanted to catch it behind a row of telescopes setup for the star party. While scoping out (ha, see what I did there) locations, I saw two other people shooting possibly Venus and Jupiter being reflected in the water. I knew I had the perfect shot that captured the essence of the Winter Star Party! Two star gazers enjoying the view in tourist central (the Florida Keys). Truly, we are all here as cosmic tourists.
Canon 5D Mark III
10 seconds @ISO 3200
Sigma 20mm art lens f/1.4