Astrophotography Highlight – February 2018


The famous horsehead nebula in Orion.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

Welcome to the first, of a new series of monthly blogs about astrophotography! I’m not going to focus on techniques or processing in depth, (see my Sky & Telescope Blog about that) but rather I want to talk about what targets or objects are out this time of year that might be worthy of your attention, with maybe a few high level tips about acquisition or processing.

Our first candidate for your consideration is the well known, and stunning target, the Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33). The horsehead is an area of dust against a bright background of glowing hydrogen gas. This creates a silhouette if you will that is shaped like a horses head, or a knights chess piece. This area is quite bright photographically in both visible and narrowband wavelengths and a favorite target for expert imagers, but is also an excellent target for beginning astrophotographers.

Look to the left most star in Orions belt (for northern hemisphere viewers).

Currently, the horsehead region is perfectly placed right as it get’s dark, high up in the eastern sky and can be imaged until about midnight early this month before it gets too low in the West. It is also easy to find, as the bright nebula where this lies is hanging right off the left most star in Orions belt, Alnitak (or Zeta Orionis).

Horsehead and Flame

Wide field views of the Horsehead Nebula are very popular.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

This part of the sky is a wonderland for imagers, and almost any focal length optic and camera combination is capable of capturing stunning views. Perhaps the most iconic views of the area are wide field images spanning about one and a half degrees horizontally.

The star Alnitak is featured prominently on the left, just above another well known target, the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024). Very often you will see both the horsehead and flame captured together like this. This whole area is glowing brightly from ionized hydrogen gas, which creates a glorious backdrop to the shadowy puff of curling dust that looks like smoke rising from a hidden furnace. This area is so bright in fact, even an unmodified DSLR will pickup quite a bit of this red glow. Narrowband imagers with hydrogen alpha filters can capture amazing details in this shimmering curtain of light too, such as the image below which is only an a hours worth of total exposure time (Officina Stellare RH-200 600mm f/3, FLI Microline 16200 camera).

Horse head in Ha

The Horsehead region in Ha light is jaw dropping by anyones standards.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

The entire region spans about a degree and a half, and can be captured with moderate focal lengths and APS-C sized chips. A smaller chip and/or a longer focal length will allow you to focus in primarily on the horsehead itself with an image like the first one in this blog. That image by the way is only three hours of data, captured with a small sensor (Sony 694 on a Starlight Xpress camera), and bit of focal length, 1200mm (Sky-Watcher Quattro 12″ f/4 imaging newtonian).

200mm Image

A DSLR and 200mm camera lens is all that’s needed.
Richard S. Wright Jr

This is not a target that requires dozens of hours of integration time to capture all the details

Alnitak and friend

Don’t over do it, or you’ll miss it!
Richard S. Wright Jr.

available. A 600mm telescope with a DSLR (cropped or not) will capture the entire region very quickly, and many astrophotographers will use long DSLR lenses to capture large swaths of the Orion constellation, with the horsehead and great Orion nebula both featured.

There are a few hidden jewels too to look for too in this region. First, the star Alnitak is actually a double star with a small companion 50 Orionis. In my earliest attempts to shoot this area, I often stretched far too aggressively, and the bright star Alnitak would swell up quite large and swallow it’s companion. In your own images, or when looking at someone else’s, look for this tell tail sign of attention to detail in processing.

Often overlooked or glossed over too is NGC 2023, a reflection nebula to the lower left of the bigger celebrity here. This bluish reflection area looks like a tunnel to another world to me. The very bright star

NGC 2023

NGC 2023, a beautiful blue reflection area to the lower left of the horsehead proper.
Richard S. Wright Jr.

HD 37903 powers this area and if I were superstitious, I’d swear I was looking down a tunnel into the next world (follow the light Carol Anne…). At longer focal lengths and smaller pixel scales (and good seeing!), there is a surprising amount of intricate and beautiful detail to be captured here too.

The winter sky is full of jewels like this. Catch the horsehead this month before it gallops away!


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Solar Eclipsed

My view of Totality

You can prepare all you want. You can practice until you can do it in your sleep. You can have the best equipment and gear, spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for travel. Everything can work perfectly, and you can have your best game on, but a bit of water vapor is all it takes to derail the whole affair. You cannot out maneuver mother nature!

I need a T-Shirt that says “All my friends got great corona shots, and all I got was this T-Shirt!”.

For the Great American Eclipse of 2017, my wife, oldest son and I traveled to Western North Carolina to the path of totality and we setup at The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI for short). PARI has long been one of my favorite summer escapes from the Florida heat and humidity, but alas in this instance PARI was a better location for radio astronomy than visual. PARI was

All the best gear was ready to rock!

holding a big eclipse event of course, and notably, this was the first time that totality passed over a radio telescope installation, so of course there was also some excitement about this, and I look forward to hearing about the results of their observations to see if anything unexpected was recorded (radio telescopes don’t care about no clouds!).

We setup the previous day (I also worked the event as a volunteer), and the weather was great that day and all morning. I practiced and took some shots of the full solar disk earlier in the day, and there was a beautiful set of sunspots that rewarded both visual and imaging observers alike.

There was a pretty good sized group of people there naturally, and as an event I think it was the largest that PARI has ever seen. There were food trucks with some excellent Blue Smoke BBQ, Pizza, Beer, etc. It was like going to the fair as a kid except there were no death-trap rides to terrify your parents. A large number of orange shirted volunteers were peppered everywhere (I was one of them) too answering questions, manning telescopes, etc.

A beautiful and promising morning the day of the eclipse.

The weather could not have looked more perfect that morning. Before the event opened to the public, we had everything ready to go near the nature center were I was setup and the sky was as blue and clear as I could possibly have hoped for. About an hour before first contact though, a rather foreboding group of clouds was seen approaching from the north east. My smart phone radar app showed the most terrifying thing it could show that day… rain in the area. We were in a terrible spot to be caught if there was lightning, and any strikes nearby would mandate an evacuation down to the buildings at the bottom of the ridge.

Fortunately, the rain and lightning held off, but unfortunately the clouds did not. Scattered clouds arrived just minutes before first contact, and I did get a couple of shots literally between the clouds from time to time. You could tell when it was time to man the camera because suddenly there would be hooping and hollering as the partially eclipsed sun became visible. Over all, I got perhaps a half dozen exposures, some through hazy clouds (moody!), and of course only of the partial phases. One only minutes after totality, with a razor thin crescent… that’s still a pretty good catch.

One does what one can with what one has!

Was it worth the trip? Absolutely, and for two reasons. One is it actually was raining at home, so no I could not have gotten even some partial eclipse images had I stayed home, much less that very thin crescent shot shown above. Second is totality. Even under scattered clouds, totality was an experience you do not forget. No, I got no streaming corona, I saw no beads or diamond ring, but there was an otherworldly atmosphere none-the-less. It wasn’t totally overcast, and you could see the shadow approaching from west over the ridges in the distance. It is a misnomer that during totality it gets as dark as night, it’s more like twilight, and I knew this. However, it got darker than I expected; it was a deep twilight and on the horizon for 360 degrees where there were no clouds (one of the reasons for being on a high ridge for this), you could see the red glow of sunset or sunrise all around you. Again too, dark like well after sunset, and it came on so suddenly after being bright mid-day that it was unnerving somewhere deep in my subconscious. Unnerving… and exhilarating! And then… it was over.

Yes, I’m ruined now. I’d do it all again even if I knew it was going to be cloudy in advance. I’m not entirely sure I can wait the seven years for another total eclipse in the US. It’s about time to renew my passport I think…





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Here Comes the Sun!

This actually is one of the best internet sites on the upcoming eclipse.

Well unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably heard that there is a total solar eclipse coming on August 21, 2017 and it’s going to be the greatest most amazing event in all of human history… well, or something like that. To tell the truth, I’m a bit “over it” with all the promotion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still quite excited about it, I have plans to go see totality, and you should too if you can. I also love Christmas, but I can only take so many Christmas songs on the radio by the time December 25th rolls around.

I am of course an astrophotographer, so I’m planning to take some images. I’ll likely do a post mortem of the experience over on my Software Bisque blog because naturally I’m using a Paramount MYT, our software, and a modified version of the DSLR plug-in I wrote. Everyone asks what software I’m using… well, I wrote my own. There you go.

The most common advice from experienced eclipse photographers is not to photograph the eclipse, but rather enjoy it. “Here… see, this is my photo of an eclipse and it looks even better in person so don’t waste your time. Lots of other people will photograph the eclipse for you; like me… because see, here’s my gorgeous picture you wish you could take, but you’ll just be fiddling with your camera and you’ll miss the whole thing for nothing.”

Give. Me. A. Break.

Actually look, I have some experience, all the way back in 1994!

On your honeymoon you should just cuddle too so you can get more comfortable sleeping next to each other! No serious photographer of any kind is gong to pass this event up. My advice is simple, use a little self regulation. Don’t try and setup 3 different cameras, and run them all at once. Prior to totality, there is plenty of time to work out focus, get aligned, and take some exposures from time to time. You should have a well rehearsed routine ready for totality, and automate as much of it as possible. As soon as totality begins, I’m popping off the solar filter and pressing a button. I have one more button for the core of totality, and one button to press as totality comes to an end. And do NOT forget to replace your solar filter before totality is over!! I don’t plan to miss anything visually, and should the weather be good by golly I’m going to have my eclipse photo(s). Of course in all likelihood… it will rain where I am.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, the patronizing astrophotographer is right of course, you’re going to miss it, and you may well be sorry. If you know what you’re doing, you’re practicing already. I will have less than two minutes at my location, you’d better believe I’m practicing. Other wise yes, snap some shots with your smart phone, and just live the moment you have.

Craft night with the Wright’s!

Years ago, I purchased a whole role of Baader solar filter film. Great stuff and I’ve been making solar filters and glasses for years for events like transits, and to do white light observing and photography of the sun. After some careful consideration I decided wisely to limit myself to just one “rig” for the eclipse, and that is a DSLR on my 400mm (focal length) Esprit 80 refractor. Good frame up for the corona I think. Without a filter sized for this scope though I needed to make one. My son Stephen with his very expensive industrial design degree “helped”… okay, mostly I watched, but I did finance the project so that counts, right?

If you’re a serious astrophotographer you should buy yourself a roll of this stuff, which right NOW might be hard to come by. Making your own filters for different optics is a pretty easy craft night project. My son’s creation sure looks better than some of the ones I’ve made with construction paper and masking tape!

We started with a trip to a craft store. My wife buys these round fiberboard boxes for storage for her craft supplies and materials, and I picked up on the idea myself (I have to do something when I’m along for the ride). We picked one up just slightly larger than the outer diameter of my telescope, and with one cut made a round-ish band out of the lid, and with one cut made another band out of the container. This material is thick, and you must be patient. Words of wisdom from my son… it’s easier to cut yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one. I knew those years at that fancy college were a good investment!

Next, we cut the bands to size them for the outer diameter of the telescope. One band will fit like a sleeve inside the other, so one is slightly larger. These concentric bands are what will hold the foil in place.

We actually cannibalized one of my older filters, and placed the material on the inner ring. You need to be very careful not to scratch, stretch, or make any holes in the solar material, otherwise you’ve ruined it. The outer ring then slides down over the top, and this draws in the excess material and pulls the filter material taught (it does not have to be perfectly smooth actually).

After trimming away the excess, I actually thought it looked really great and I wanted to just tape the rings together with masking tape. Stephen would have none of that. Instead, he put the two seams opposite each other and instead of a “bump” where the tape would go over them, he put one piece of black masking tape (that boy loves his masking tape projects!) around the whole thing, trimmed it and sealed it up.

The end product cost less than $5 (other than the solar filter material I already had on hand), and looks like it cost $50. Not a bad craft night at the house.

Yes, I’ve already tried it, and will rehearse again because I’ve made changes to the software and swapped cameras. If I get a clear day I may run through it again as well. Then we will have what we call a “feature freeze”. Test test, don’t touch until after the eclipse!

Clear skies everyone, good luck, and I’ll see you under the shadow of the moon!





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The Sky-Watcher Mak First Impressions

Sky-Watcher Maksutov-Cassegrain

So, first a disclaimer, I mean it when I say first impressions; this is not a full product review. I will do one, but usually after a few months of using something. I just hate product reviews that are “looks beautiful”… “feels nice”…. can’t wait for the clouds to clear!

Spare me. Spare us all.

Well, I’ve used it once, so I get to write something down, right? I’ve been asked what I think of it, so let me just kind of wet your appetite for more perhaps.

Well, it does look nice. Feels like it’s quality workmanship, but golly it sure is cloudy lately.

Okay, maybe I’m being too hard on people for the above because really, it is actually true. Sky-Watcher USA sent me the 180mm version (fl 2700, f/15) to try out for them. It is summer time in Florida, which means time under the stars is going to be PRECIOUS, and I got a 1/4 night a few nights ago and decided to give this girl a whirl. My intent is to do some solar system imaging with this. The moon is how I got started in astrophotography and I am missing those days. I’ve also dabbled in the planets, and want to get back to doing more of those as well. Saturn is in prime time, and it’s not too late to get some time in on Jupiter. Plus for that kind of imaging, you don’t need several hours of integration time, and you can do it under light pollution. Why you can even shoot the moon when… there’s a moon out! The ‘quick and dirty’ aspect also wins this time of year when I may literally be shooting between gaps in the clouds!

First dance (by the way, she has been christened “Sparkles”… all my scopes get names), I decided to do something that shocked my friends and family. I decided to put in an eyepiece… gasp. It surprises some people that I have these, but I do enjoy visual astronomy too from time to time. What I wanted to see this night was Saturn in particular.

I have to insert a commercial here… the Paramount MyT is really great for visual astronomy with TheSky HD… just say’n… anyway, I was setting up for the first time post Texas Star Party, so I did a rough polar alignment as soon as it was dark using one of the big dipper stars (you don’t need Polaris to polar align a Paramount), and a short visual TPoint run with a few stars. Saturn it turns out was behind some trees, so I thought I’d try M13. I used the included 28mm eyepiece which yielded 96x magnification. I’ve tried M13 with an 8” SCT long before and I must say I was not impressed. This was a long time ago though, and I’ve gotten better at just about everything, including collimation (more on this in a sec). In Lake Mary Florida, near a high school and shopping center… with averted vision I could make out the powdery glisten of the stars in the core. Globular clusters are my favorite… looking directly at it of course it was a smudge, but just gaze a little to the edge of the cluster, and POP, out come the resolved stars. Gorgeous!

Saturn and moons via Gas Giants.

Finally Saturn cleared the trees. Ah, there is nothing like Saturn in an eyepiece! I switched to my 13mm Nagler, a bit higher quality eyepiece, and this also boosted me to 207x magnification. A bit larger Saturn greeted me, with several of the moons. Titan was really obvious, as was Rhea, Tethys, Enceladus, and Dione. There’s an app for that by the way (and yes I wrote that too<g>). For the conditions that night, I did not push the magnification further. Saturn looked okay but faintly fuzzy, but at moments it would stabilize and be sharp as a razor. I knew I was at the limits of seeing that night and I was pretty happy as it was.

This optical design is optimized for image sharpness, not bright images. At f/15 I’m not even going to try deep sky long exposure astrophotography, but it’s ideal for the moon, planets, and even with a full aperture solar filter, the sun. The optical “spot size” is best right in the middle too so again for planets this is perfect as long as you center your target. While I could go on and on about how the optical design get’s credit for the great views, I’m going to say a good 80% of the advantage is actually from the fact that the system was well collimated. Collimation is the NUMBER ONE cause of poor images, and this is why I love optical designs that require little to no (emphasis on the NO) collimation. The Mak-Cass is such a beast and I may never have to touch the collimation. I have a two SCT’s (one is technically an Aplanatic Schmidt) and if you breath on them, they need to be recollimated… much less toss them in the car and go somewhere. I had not considered that the Mak-Cass would be a good grab-and-go scope for visual observing, but I’m going to have to consider this. It is certainly easier to transport than my Esprit 150, and the lack of collimation gives me a refractor-like advantage over lugging out an 8″ or 9.25″ SCT. I might even try rotoscoping on a birding adventure… although the smaller versions might be better for that.

The focuser worked well. There is no reduction gear for fine focus, but at f/15 you have a larger depth of field, and I found I did not need it. Plus for visual, your eye can accommodate a little bit so I had zero issues finding a sweet spot on both M13 or Saturn. I’m not sure how this would work for imaging though, and I’m not going to take any chances. I’ve already popped on my Optec motorized focuser (I have a variety of adapters), and will be trying to image with it soon. The motorized focuser does just pop on and off very easily, even in the dark so it’s possible on a single evening I could do both some visual and some digital observing with it. Time will tell, and I’ll let you know how things go… as soon as the weather clears up 😉




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