Astrophotography

Getting Lucky

Last week I had some “work” (I often do imaging research and development scope side) to do and the night before I was getting a new scope and mount lined up and tested ahead of time to save a couple of hours at the beginning of the night “of the tests”. The last thing I did was slew (point the telescope) to Jupiter. There it was, right in the center of a DSLR I had on the back as a simple camera that would do the job for alignment testing. Hmmm, I thought, I have to take that camera off anyway, maybe I should pop in an eyepiece and at least look at Jupiter as it is so well place at the moment. It of course was spectacular as always but I could not believe my luck — not only was the Great Red Spot visible, but the moon (natural satellite actually) Io was nearby and casting a shadow on the Jovian clouds, near the Great Red Spot! Basically, this is a solar eclipse on another planet, caught from Earth! 10 minutes before, I was looking forward to going to bed early, and now I’m digging out tele-extenders, spacers, etc and putting a high speed camera (Player One Neptune C-II) on the back of the telescope in place of the eyepiece. “Lucky Imaging” is a technique where we take many thousands of high speed images (this only works with bright targets like the Moon, Sun, and Planets) and then let the computer pick out just a few of the sharpest images taken during moments of stillness in the turbulent atmosphere.

In this case, I was lucky in more way than one, and I’ll take the win!

Jupiter with shadow transit
A solar eclipse, on another planet!

Dust In The Wind

“From dust you are made, and to dust you shall return.”

The universe is a dirty place. I love this wide field image that prominently displays the great Orion Nebula (and nearby Running Man), a place of star birth and glowing gas on one side, and the dirty brown rusty colored dust of stars long dead who have given up their nuclear fused materials as the seeds of new stars and planets yet to be. The whole circle of life of the cosmos is on display here!

Tech details: Astro-Physics Stowaway 92mm refractor on a Software Bisque Paramount MX+, QHY 128C Pro one shot color camera. There’s 6.5 hours of exposure time gathered over three nights from my dark sky site in Okeechobee county Florida.

M42 and surrounding dust
Star birth and decay in the cosmic circle of life.

Sunspot Parade

While Hydrogen Alpha solar filters get most of the attention because of their visual flair (see what I did there<g>), there’s something to be said for white light filters. Sunspots are fascinating and to me they look like tiny organisms crawling and evolving as they move across the Sun’s face. I’ve labeled the AR (Active Region) designations I observed on the morning of October 7th. I was using my 92mm Stowaway (Mary Anne) and a 2x Televue Powermate with an Altair Astro Solar Wedge v2. I’ll have more to say about this solar wedge another time, but this was also first light with my Player One cameras. I had the Apollo Max out and got some nice data, and this is actually a color image (it is a white light view remember!) with the Neptune-C II. I’m very impressed with the Player One camera quality, and the responsiveness of their engineers to questions and issues with their SDK (What, you think I’m not working on astro software anymore? Who told you that?). You’ll definitely see more from me with these cameras.

Sunspots across the Sun
Sunspot parade the morning of October 7th, 2022.

My Redbubble Store

Friends and family have been after me for years to make a storefront selling some of my astrophotography. I’ve tried various things, sampled different printers, etc. I’ve finally decided that selling prints will simply require me to get my own printer and probably fulfill the orders myself. This is still a big TBD (To Be Done) for me. In the meantime though, I keep seeing astro prints on all these other products, and wondered what my own stuff would look like. A company called Redbubble specializes in this, and I’ve started a shop there and have uploaded a few initial images and carefully have paired them with with items I thought made sense. Some things don’t make sense (a square image of a colorful nebula on a hat for example), so I’ve done some curating myself. Each image though has dozens of items you can select from, and I plan to add new images and items regularly. The store front shows for one example my favorite full Moon image on a clock, but you can also get that image on many other items as well. I plan to buy a few of these items for myself, and come Christmas they will make great gifts for my family and closer friends. Check out the store here, and be sure and check back every few weeks for new items!

The Storefront of my Redbubble store.

Astrophotography Highlight – The Cygnus Loop

Eastern Veil Nebula
Cygnus Loop
The Cygnus Loop in the Hubble Palette.

As Summer draws to a close we find Cygnus the Swan nearly directly overhead by astronomical twilight. Cygnus is a narrowband wonderland overflowing with emission objects for both small and large fields of view. One fine example is the Cygnus Loop, or the Veil Supernova remnant. Formed by a supernova that occurred some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, this large loop of nebulosity spans some 100 lightyears across and is located approximately 1,470 lightyears away (an update over older estimates which placed it at least 2,500 light years away).

You need about a 4 degree field of view to capture the entire extent of this object, such as the one shown here captured with a 200mm focal length telephoto lens (Canon 200mm f/2.8) on a QSI 683 camera (8300 based chip). This was imaged with 3nm narrowband filters and then colorized using the popular Hubble Palette mapping colors to the individual narrowband wavelengths (green to hydrogen, red to sulphur, and blue to oxygen).

On the far right hand side of this image is the Western Veil Nebula (NGC 6960), often just called the Veil Nebula. My favorite unofficial moniker is the Witches Broom. It is especially striking when imaged with not just RGB filters, but also supplemented with some Ha and OIII data, such as the one shown here. (Esprit 80 Refractor, Starlight XPress Trius 694, Baader filters). The bright star riding the broomstick is the star 52 Cygni, which is a bit closer than the nebula (only 291 light years), and is just in the line of sight of the edge of this feature.

The Witches Broom
The Western Veil, or the Witches Boom.
Backing out from the Witches Boom, we see Pickering’s Triangle (NGC 6967) up near the northern end of the loop. To me, this looks like a river delta on the Mississippi, or Nile river perhaps.
Fleming's Wisp
Pickering’s Triangle or Fleming’s Wisp

High resolution images of this area reveal a complex cosmic web of smokey tendrils. Not only is the area bright in RGB broadband light, but it’s also brilliant in Hydrogen Alpha, and OIII.  In fact, the OIII emissions of the entire super nova remnant here is among the brightest of many emission objects you can shoot.

The object is named for a director of the Harvard Observatory, but it was actually discovered by a female astronomer who was once his maid (you can’t make this stuff up), Williamina Fleming. Fleming’s Triangular Wisp is another popular, but also unofficial name for this feature.

The Eastern Veil nebula (NGC 6992) is also an amazing object in and of itself. Presented here in monochrome shot with a narrowband filter that captures light from glowing Hydrogen gas (Officina Stellare, RH-200, Starlight Xpress 694 camera).

Eastern Veil Nebula
Eastern Veil

Sometimes called Cirrus Nebula East, or the Spider, or Bat nebula, it is a worthy member of the Veil complex. The wispy filaments of glowing gas are simply etherial. It should be pointed out that in addition to photography, an OIII visual filter renders most of the Veil complex quite well with a glowing ghostly quality that is breathtaking. I’ve seen it in scopes as small as 6″ and it even very closely resembles the images shown here.

Cygnus is one of my favorite regions of the sky, especially for narrowband backyard imaging. The Veil complex has treasures for all focal lengths and chip sizes too, and if you don’t have narrowband capabilities, it is bright enough to shoot well even with a one shot color camera using a light pollution filter. Go get some of it before it’s gone!

Clear Skies!

Astrophotography Highlight – M13

The summer is not just galaxy season, it’s also globular cluster season! Most globular clusters are located in the halo of the Milky Way and while a few can be found amongst the dense star fields of the Milky Way, most are well separated visually from our galactic arms. My favorite globular cluster is M 13 in the constellation Hercules. From the beginning of June, you can find M13 already getting high in the east, just north of due east, right along the edge of Hercules’s quadrangle.

M 13 is well placed just after dark.

M13 holds a special place in my heart as it was my first “deep sky” object that I ever had to find by star hopping with with my trusty red “Christmas Trash Scope“ decades ago now. Later, as my telescope collection grew in both quality and quantity M13 has been my benchmark target to judge the quality of my gear, both visually, and photographically.

Visually, M13 looks like crushed diamond with sparkling stars all throughout. It is bright, and the longer you expose, the larger it will appear, however you must take care not to over expose the core, else you will loose the ability to show the individual stars all the way in. Furthermore, the stars of M13 have colors! If you avoid over exposing, you can bring out the blue and amber star colors, which gives your image more character. All of my earliest attempts at imaging M13 showed a solid white snowball which matched my visual experiences and so I didn’t know any better. Look for those colors in your data — they are there!

M13
At 2000mm focal length, the great globular in Hercules is a magnificent target.

The Hercules globular passes directly overhead for most of us in North America and is an excellent backyard target, as houses or the neighbor’s trees rarely obstruct it when it is highest and at it’s best. Furthermore, it is bright enough to stand up to imaging even in light polluted areas. The image above here was taken just outside Orlando Florida, and with a quarter moon in the sky! Just take plenty of exposures to stack down the shot noise from your sky glow.

As a good-sized target, M13 looks great for a wide range of fields of view. A wider field image of at least a degree will reveal two bonus objects. NGC 6207, a 12th magnitude galaxy just 28 arc minutes to the north east is often captured in wider views and with sufficient aperture can be spotted visually. A real prize is to capture the very tiny galaxy IC 4617, a 15th magnitude blip of a galaxy that is only an arc-minute across.

M13 and companions
Don’t miss a couple of small galactic interlopers when shooting M13.

There is no better target I think to demonstrate an optics resolving power than a globular cluster, both visually and photographically. The view through the eyepiece can never be matched by a computer display (with today’s technology), but a fine optic and camera combination can come close to revealing that powdery essence of M13, plus bring out the colorful stars throughout it’s core and halo.

Clear skies!

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