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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A Fathers Take on Fathers Day

If you will forgive a departure from topics astronomical and more… human. We are all human after all, and hey, it’s MY blog! I tend to get a little philosophical too at times.

Yep, I made more humans too…

I lost my dad, over 30 years ago, and I still miss him… but this isn’t about my father. It’s about being a father.

When I was a child, I thought that men who grew up and didn’t get married were “Bachelors”… aka, male sluts as I understood it at the time. People who got married and didn’t have children were selfish.

Then I grew up. I got married. I had children. I learned a thing or two, and my perspective changed and became more realistic. I have many friends now who have not chosen to marry, for a variety of very good reasons. Also, married friends, who choose not to have children, also for reasons of their own that have nothing to do with personal character. I hope those friends in these categories reading this now will forgive a child’s understanding of how the world works when he knew no better.

As mentioned, and as is obvious by inspection… I did grow up. I married, and I had children. Fortunately, not because I was “tricked” into thinking this was the sole purpose of my life, but because I had a genuine desire to have a family, to be a father, and create little versions of myself and someone I loved who could head out into the world and wreak havoc and wonder in ways I might not be able to imagine.

In the annals of the history of mankind, I am fortunate beyond measure. How may people who have lived were able to choose their own spouse, and to have had three children that lived beyond infancy to grow into young adults while you watched and participated. Watching my three children turn into well-adjusted, successful adults is the single greatest and most satisfying accomplishment of my life. It is of course, for this very reason, that the greatest sorrow of my life was loosing the youngest while just reaching his prime. Stretching himself, testing himself, and unfortunately discovering a very hard and unforgiving limit imposed by Mother Nature. I can never be pleased that I lost a son, but I do take some small measure of comfort that he died doing what he loved, and I don’t have to make any awkward explanations about how he died. When I think of the chances I took at his age… it is truly a wonder most of us survive to adulthood sometimes.

Back, to the point at hand… I have had more wonderful time with my three children than most men in all the history of mankind. For this, I am rich beyond measure, and no tragedy past or future can rob me of the memories I have made with all three of my children.

All my surviving children have now (and just recently) graduated from college, a feat that in my mother’s eyes was something “our family doesn’t do” (and no, I don’t hold this against her either… it was simply the only world she knew).

When I measure myself at their age, any of my three children have accomplished more, and distinguished themselves better than I ever did at their age. With all this talk today about how great fathers are, I just wanted to say how unspeakably great it has been for me to be a father, and that my three children are and have been the single greatest source of joy and fulfillment in my life.


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A Lesson in Patience

Patience and Practice Padawan…

One of the most important lessons to learn early in astrophotography is patience. Once a certain level of competence is achieved, our first impulse is to try and shoot as many objects in one night as we can. After all, clear skies are precious, and we must maximize the use of our time. After a short time of being told by all our family and friends that our work is AMAZING, we start to realize… our work really isn’t that great outside of the circles of people who are easily impressed by just about anything that looks like it’s from outer space. We realize that to take things to the next level, we need more than 16 x 1 minute sub-exposures to drive down our noise and get to the deeper fainter details. Now we shoot the same object all night, or for as long as we can before it goes behind the neighbors trees. This is a great leap forward in the quality of our work, albeit we aren’t cranking out four or five images per night anymore.

Our next great leap forward, also due to growing discipline and patience, is when we decide to spend more than one night on a target. Perhaps two… which depending on the weather might take a week or more. My first published image I spent a month on, getting a total of about 20 hours of narrowband data from my backyard a few hours at a time. Then there are those, of whom I am not worthy, who will spend many months or even a couple of years gathering data for extremely deep images or large mosaics. I am not only not there yet, I may well never be. I’m pretty sure I’ve got the patience thing down though for multi-night imaging… well, until I slipped recently, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about here.

A choice weapon for any star party!

I had the opportunity to attend the Texas Star Party this year (2017) as a vendor for Software Bisque, and instead of flying/shipping everything out, I drove. There are advantages to traveling light, but being prepared is not one of them, so I decided to drive so I could bring more of my own gear (last year I borrowed quite a bit). I brought my current favorite imaging setup, a Paramount MYT and and Esprit 150 refractor with an FLI Microline 16200 camera. A MoonLite NiteCrawler has been giving me exceptional focus with this combo and I was ready for the week with a list of images I planned to shoot with this and a shorter focal length DSLR system.

Hard to go wrong with wide field!

Most nights were good, but only three of them were good in the early morning when I wanted to shoot the Triffid Nebula (M20). I shot the region with the DSLR setup the first morning, and then gathered as much as I could on two additional mornings. Here’s where I got greedy. M20 really wasn’t high enough to shoot to gather sufficient data in only two nights. I tried getting the red subs while it’s elevation was around 30 degrees or less, and the blue when it was higher around 35 degrees (it never quite gets even to 36 degrees above the horizon here). This was foolhardy I know and I rarely will shoot even lower than 40 degrees, but I have had some good success exceptionally low to the horizon from Florida under “perfect” conditions (usually shooting out over the ocean) so why not give it a shot.

I have a core processing philosophy that if  I have to work more than a couple of hours on an image, then the data probably wasn’t good enough to begin with. I simply will not spend 40 hours doing all kinds of different deconvolutions, magic stretches, and witchcraft noise reductions. Don’t get me wrong… I WILL use these, but if I have to iterate that long then I’m just trying to turn straw into gold, and I’ll simply start over or get more/better data for the next time. One of the things I love about the ML16200 from FLI is that the read noise is very low, and it’s a grade 1 sensor. I can do amazing work with that camera with shockingly little data, even with an f/7 refractor (and that Esprit 150 produces amazing contrast and that doesn’t hurt either).

I could probably make this work…

I looked at the data when I got home, and decided not to even try processing the M20 images because the stars were so bloated. A few days later when cleaning up, I looked again and some where pretty good. I used the blink tool and tossed out some big fat star images, and decided to give it a go. I calibrated, aligned and stacked in PixInsight and got excited because the data was better than I was expecting. At least zoomed out, and after a few initial stretches it looked promising.

Bad red channel stars…

An axiom of astrophotography is that just about anything looks great if you shrink it down enough. Zoom in though and a serious problem becomes apparent. The root cause of all the reddish blotch around the stars in the image at right is that the stars in the red subs are larger than the stars in the blue and green exposures. I just tried shooting too low and the turbulence bloated the stars and finer details in the image. I’ve gotten this before, but only on a few of the brightest stars, and I will confess to fixing them with the blur brush in Photoshop. This time the problem is all over the place on perhaps a hundred stars or more in the image. A seemingly easy fix was the morphological tool in PixInsight on just the red channel. This helped a lot, but I still had many many stars with pink blocks around them. What I really need are some red subs shot higher up in elevation. Good clean data. Of course, I have good friends who will take me to task immediately… deconvolve, use the minimize, tweak

A good image, but I’m still really not happy with it. The red just seems… unbalanced (although there is a shocking amount of OIII here too).

rejection, blah blah. Yes, I know and do use these tools, but I think here it’s over using them… with 10 hours I could make an APOD worthy image I’m sure, but this just violates my own personal code of imaging. Data is king, not processing. I did this once before on a Thor’s Helmet image where the red was slightly out of focus. The resulting image was good, and even made the cover of a magazine… but deep down, I have always been unsatisfied with the image and feel the obsessive compulsive need to shoot it again (or at least the red channel) and do it over. I think I killed the red channel trying to “fix it”, and the overall tone will be different the next time.

I loved this framing on M20 and M21 and I’m not giving up yet. I’m a few degrees further south at my dark sky site, and the seeing is better in Florida to boot, so before summer is over, I may yet combine the best of the data from Texas with some new good data from Florida. I will just have to be patient with this one.



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