Richard Wright

Grand Canyon Star Party

It’s been over two years since I (or most people) have attended a public star party. In June I returned to one of my newer annual favorites, the Grand Canyon Star Party. I’ve attended both North and South Rim events, but this year I spent at a week at the south rim event doing public outreach each night, and sneaking in some astrophotography on the side. Conditions for deep sky work here are not optimal because of the lunar phase (the Moon comes up not long after midnight), but it is a glorious opportunity for nightscape work.

My Sigma 20mm f/1.4 performed as well as always, but I tried a new lens this year, the Tamron 35mm f/1.4.  I was amazed by its performance. Not only was it sharp and fast, but even wide open, it was dramatically better than the Sigma lens at the same f-stop. I took some snapshots with it, but it really performed on a tracking platform (I used a Sky Watcher Star Adventurer AZ-GTI) with a 20 second exposure. I actually meant to do a full 30 seconds (the maximum exposure without an intervalometer on my Canon EOS Ra), but my fat fingers, the cold, and distracting wind… well, I got what I got! Tell me, does it not look like a giant crab monster in the sky? Or is it just me.

Milky Way Core Image
The core of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Several reddish emission nebula are prominently displayed along ethereal fingers of dusty dark nebula.

Horsehead and Flame

This is hands down, my favorite object to shoot. I try to image it annually to measure the progress of my craft. I remember my very first image, horribly blood red image with a black outline of the horsehead. I’ve come a long way, and so has my gear. I had a weeks vacation scheduled for the Winter Star Party this year, but it was canceled so I went to my own dark sky site. I really think this is the best one I’ve taken so far.

This was first light with my new AP Stowaway refractor, and I shot with both a Canon Ra and the QHY 128c. The QHY won that battle, this is just 2.2 hours of 3 minute exposures. The area from the horsehead and up is glowing hydrogen gas, but there’s quite a bit of dust below that scatters reddish light as well. Almost a red/mud brown. Of course, the little pockets of blue reflection nebula really punctuate the region too! I especially like the area cataloged as NGC 2023, which is the blue “tunnel” just to the lower left of the horse head proper. The big yellow “flame” is called the flame nebula, and was once popularly called the “burning bush”, which I think is still appropriate!

Horsehead nebula egion
Hands down, my favorite celestial object to shoot

Shooting For The Moon

The Moon is in truth my favorite astronomical object to study, and I love observing it visually. The dynamic range and subtle momentary details that you see in an eyepiece is unmatched by my, or anyone else’s photographic efforts. My favorite way to observe and photograph the Moon is with a focal length that allows a camera to capture the full disc of the Moon first, usually on a DSLR. Then I’ll pop in a 2x or 4x TeleVue Powermate (depending on seeing conditions and the pixel size of the camera) and do some “Lucky Imaging” at higher resolution.

When I’m done, I take the camera off again, and will pop in a couple of eyepieces to enjoy her majesty more personally. I have a growing collection of data from nights like this, and one of these days I may put out my own lunar atlas. I usually use my Esprit 150 or my Quattro 12″ (harder to do eyepiece work with the Quattro) on a Software Bisque Paramount. I’ll use my Canon EOS Ra for the full disc image, and a ZWO high speed camera for the closeups with one of the Powermates.

Moon and close up
The Moon on the Evening of November 24, 2021

A Long Time Ago…

… in a galaxy far far away.

Rumor has it the Triangulum Galaxy is the inspiration for a famous movie galaxy. It is indeed far far away at 3.2 million light years, but in cosmic scales, it’s actually one of the galaxies closest to our own Milky Way galaxy, and the third largest galaxy in our “local group”, which includes our home the Milky Way, and the Andromeda Galaxy. When the light I captured with a telescope left this galaxy, my home state of Florida was underwater and the Earth was much warmer than it is today, with almost no ice cover in the northern hemisphere. Also cataloged as M33, this galaxy is an amazing and beautiful spiral galaxy with active star forming regions, knots of pinkish glowing hydrogen gas, and dust lanes that extend almost all the way into the core. Perhaps some Jedi too.

Technical Details: I used a remote system I helped setup with two friends at Falling Eagle Observatory. It sports a Paramount MX+, a ZWO 6200 monochrome camera, and a Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 refracting telescope. I took 9 hours of 5 minute unguided images using clear, red, green, and blue filters.

The Triangulum Galaxy
A Galaxy Far Far Away… 3.2 Million Light Years to be exact

The “Slaughter Moon!”

Moon and old fort
Moon rise over “Slaughter Bay” in St. Augustine Florida.

In the almost 30 years I’ve lived in Florida, my favorite place to visit is still St. Augustine. I first visited as a child of 9 or 10 while on a family vacation from my native Kentucky, and the place has left an everlasting mark on me. One of my favorite things to do is photography here, and I always try to do a little nightscape work if we are staying overnight. The Saturday a week before Halloween was a great night for this.

I planned the Moon rise time using TheSky astronomy software and an iPhone app called PhotoPills. I recently picked up a 1.4 tele-extender used from a friend and was really wanting to try one of those Moon images you see where the photographer is a good distance from some famous landmark and catches the Moon coming up behind it. I had wanted to use the St. Augustine lighthouse, but the Fort seemed a safer venue, and indeed it was. I was surround by MOBS of people well after dark. It was now a week away from Halloween and the walking ghost tours business was booming. I’d setup in a lonely location, and then there’d be a huge crowd around me in no time as I had inadvertently picked a station on someone’s walking tour! This happened three times. Really.

People were friendly though, and many took note and were respectful of my gear and obvious pains I was going through to get this shot. Most pulled out their cell phones and took a few pictures themselves as the Moon came up behind the old fort (Castillo de San Marcos National Monument). I hadn’t planned it this way, but the clouds shrouding the Moon just really set the atmosphere for a spooky photo. They really were this red and orange low on the horizon, and I realized only afterwards that I had captured this directly over the “Matanzas Bay”, which means “Slaughter Bay” in Spanish. There is a bloody story behind this name that I’ll leave to you to research on your next trip to St. Augustine!

Tech stuff — This was two exposures on a tripod layered together with Photoshop. They were seconds apart at ISO 3200, with the only changes in settings being focus and exposure time. The fort exposure is 3.2 seconds and you can see how well-lit it was from the surrounding lights. The Moon however was much brighter and was taken with a 1/80th second exposure. The focal ratio for both was also f/8. The camera was a Canon EOS Ra, the lens a Canon 300mm F/4 L lens, and the Mark II 1.4 Canon tele-extender. I used the camera’s self-timer to avoid camera shake. Pro tip: Always remove your UV/IR filter that protects your expensive lenses when doing nightscapes!

 

Two Planets and Two Moons

Yes, this is a composite of three different images. They were all taken on the same night, with the same camera and telescope and so all are at the same image scale. The North Western limb of our own Moon highlights the crater J. Herschell and its surroundings. Jupiter and Saturn are were also putting on a nice show the night of August 19th, with Jupiter being at opposition. But, look closely, there is another Moon. That moon or natural satellite of Jupiter is an indistinct white dot against the bright planet, but a black dot is clearly visible, being the shadow of IO falling on the planets cloud tops.

Langrenus

Anytime is a good time to take photos of the Moon. Often the terminator where the Suns grazing rays reveal stark geographic details get’s all the attention, but much of the Moon is also amazing when seen with the Sun high overhead. Along the limb as well, we can see that the Moon is not a smooth round sphere, but has its dips and valleys as. In fact some astronomers will time star or asteroid occultations (when the star or asteroid disappears and reappears) along the edge of the Moon to refine our models of celestial mechanics.

This may be one of my favorite images of the lunar surface in a long while. The crater Langrenus is the large circular feature in the middle of the frame, and you can see the rings from the terraced structure of its crater walls with the Sun nearly overhead. To the upper left is Mare Fecunditatis with the two side by side craters Messier and Messier A. Don’t miss the dual rays cast off to the left like the tail of a comet. At the upper right, we see a depression with a dark floor, that is Mare Smythii rocked towards the Earth this night (August 19, 2021) by a favorable libration (an apparent rocking back and forth we observe of the Moon due to it’s non-circular orbit around the Earth).

Tech details: Taken with an Esprit 150 refractor and a TeleVue 4x Powemate for a total focal length of 4200mm. The best 1/2 of 20,000 video frames taken with a cooled ASI 174 camera were combined for this image. All from my back yard in Lake Mary, FL on a Paramount ME II telescope mount.

The Crater Langrenus
The area around the Crater Langrenus with the Sun high overhead. The details of the limb of the Moon are well resolved in this image.

The Wild Duck Cluster And BILLIONS AND BILLIONS of stars…

Like the man in the movie said, “My God, it’s full of stars!”

The rich star field of the Milky Way as a back drop to a cluster only 10,000 light years agway.

At first I was really disappointed in this image. I wanted a nice framed image of the Wild Duck cluster, which visually has a bit of a V shape to it (like a flock of ducks). Too many stars… however, pulling back there are TOO MANY STARS… The Wild Duck cluster is a mere 10,000ish light years away, and behind it you see a sampling of the billions of stars that make up the galactic plane of our home Milky Way Galaxy. Also well revealed in this image, are the dark veins of smokey dust that traverse the Milky Way’s densest regions. There are many of these dark nebula cataloged throughout our home galaxy too, and quite a few are on my imaging to do list.

Not a Comet Number 94

Image of M94
The Galaxy Messier 94

This galaxy is #94 in Charles Messier’s catalog of objects that — at least initially, was meant to identify things that were not to be mistaken for a comet. Eventually the list really is just a catalog of interesting objects, but this galaxy in the (somewhat) northern constellation of Canes Venatici surely must have been a target that could easily be mistaken for the head of a comet. The core of this galaxy is quite bright, and there is a faint, but not hard to capture photographically, halo of stars surrounding the core.

I took this image with a 6″ Esprit refractor hosted in the dark skies of the California desert near Lake San Antonio. This is my second major project with a CMOS camera using the Sony IMX 455 sensor. The very core of the galaxy is still a little over exposed with only three minute exposures through Red, Green, and Blue filters, and I did a few 5 minute exposures in Luminance. The halo of stars came out readily, which is a testament to the low read noise of the sensor. However, there is actually another stream of stars that extends from this ring that shows up in some deeper exposures that I did not pick up. Keeping the core from saturating, and still picking up the star streams is a challenge. I’m going to have to attempt this target again sometime to see if I can get the full dynamic range with one length of exposure time.

Another processing challenge to this image has to do with the halo. It is very faint, and the gradient tappers gradually into the background. There’s even what appears to be some Hydrogen Beta star forming details in the top section of the ring from this image. However, getting this ring to look right is a challenge. I processed the image in PixInsight and Photoshop on two computers that are color calibrated, and the image is set to use the sRGB color space. However, in some browsers, and in an email client, the halo is very blocky and mottled. On my iOS devices, the ring is rendered quite beautifully with no artifacts. So… when you look at this, depending on your device, the halo may be blocky and garish slightly, or smooth and subtle. We still have a ways to go it seems with computer display technology, and this image seems to push those boundaries as well.

The Pinwheel

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).

Messier 101
Messier 101