This is my best rendition of this beautiful galaxy to date I think. It’s commonly, but unofficially called the Pinwheel Galaxy and is cataloged in the Messier catalog as M101. It is about 21 million light years away and is in Ursa Major near the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. It can be a difficult target because it has a low surface brightness, and the outer arms and “wispy bits” can be hard to capture and bring out.
This is my first image from a new remote setup that I am sharing with a couple of friends. One is hosting the location, and another and I have contributed bits of the gear we are using. It’s really quite nice to log in remotely to a location across the country that is under a dark sky and use a system ready to go! This image is 10 total hours of exposure time through colored filters and some “Luminance” (black and white) to boot. This is also the first time I’ve produced a deep sky image with a CMOS camera that I felt was on a par with CCD camera technologies. I’ve long maintained that people saying “CMOS is catching up to CCD” should note the important word “catching”, …as in not there yet. I think we are there finally, and we can stop saying that now. Of course, good cameras are still at a premium, and the one we are using is a ZWO 6200 Pro (monochrome). We are shooting binned 2×2 on an Esprit 150 in order to not be too over sampled. The full resolution version of this image is quite satisfactory to me (this is also cropped down a bit from the full frame image).
The full Moon is so often ignored in astrophotography, but a full Moon does in fact yield a wealth of details about our nearest celestial neighbor. Taken just a few hours past full in January, this full Moon image was made from a three image mosaic taken with a 2750mm telescope connected to a DSLR camera (Canon EOS Ra and a Sky-Watcher Mak-Cass 180). This produced a large high resolution image that was then processed “gently” to tone down the overwhelming brightness so you could see the various features that the full Moon reveals so well. The rays and ejecta blankets, the different colors and materials of the Maria, and even the lunar highlands, especially along the southern limb show differences in brightness. Along the Eastern limb where the Sun is just grazing the lunar surface, the terrain stands out in stark relief. Along the south west you can just see the subtle elevation differences along the lunar limb as well, the Moon is not a smooth sphere. It is a beautiful, and “weathered” neighbor in space.
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!