Our daytime star

I’m continuing my exploration of “lucky imaging” of the solar system objects, this time with the Sun. A special filter made by DayStar allows only a very narrow wavelength of light through when observing the Sun that is emitted by hydrogen gas. You can see in this image how the gas is swirling around on the Sun, cooler areas (not COOL, just cool-ER) manifesting as sunspots, and of course a few prominences on the edge of the Sun proper. The Suns surface was taken with very short exposures, and the prominences were taken at a slightly longer exposure that causes the surface to just appear solid white. So the two were merged to show the entire view. This is a good example of what we space photography nerds call dynamic range. The full range of brightness in this image can’t be captured by a single exposure length as the camera doesn’t have that much range. Well, truth is, many people do pull that off, and with more practice I may too. For now, two exposures worked well enough for me<g>. Please be sure, this was a very special (and expensive) solar filter. If you turn your Christmas scope to the Sun, you will likely damage the scope, blind yourself, and yes, potentially set something on fire (perhaps your shirt!). Don’t try this at home kiddies, I’m a professional… well, sorta.

Hydrogen alpha Sun
Our daytime star, the Sun in Hydrogen Alpha light.

For some technical details, the camera (a Player One Apollo Max) is monochrome, or black and white. The image was colorized after the fact for aesthetic reasons. I’ve looked through this filter, and Hydrogen Alpha light is a bright electric pink. It’s only a single wavelength of light, and there’s no point in using a color camera. I matched it in Photoshop… but, man it makes for an ugly picture! Other details… Sky-Watcher USA Esprit 150 refractor with a Televue 4x Powermate to get the focal ratio where it needs to be for the special filter I used (rays of light to the filter need to be pretty direct on and not slanted like at faster focal ratios).

As far as processing goes, I’m getting traction, but I can critique several things about this image. Truth is though, I’ve reworked it a few times already and am ready to apply what I’ve learned now to my next image. Rest assured…. there is ALWAYS a next image.

Fly me to the Moon

A closer view still
The Moon and Mars
From Central Florida, the Moon only got “close” to the planet Mars.

The evening of December 7th, 2022 was a Full Moon and for many of my US friends the Moon occulted Mars for a short time. In Florida and most of the east coast, it was only a near miss and yes I photographed it like everyone else. But this post is not about that event, but rather the show the Moon was putting on at it’s South Pole. When the Moon is full the Sun is bearing down straight on it, more or less, from our vantage point. The Moon though is a sphere (okay, sphere-ish), and it’s not a smooth sphere, it has bumps, valleys, hills, etc. We often love observing the lunar terminator when these features are in stark relief, but still we are seeing these features from directly overhead. If only we could fly to the Moon, and look at them from a low elevation to see them in the distance rising from the lunar surface. Well… we can!

This is exactly the view we have when the Sun is grazing along the edges of the Moon. On the night of the occultation, the southern edge was putting on quite a show and I just had to take some video for later processing (a technique we call “Lucky Imaging“).

The image below was taken through a Sky-Watcher 180mm Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope and a Player One Neptune C II high speed camera. Many thousands of frames were taken, but the atmosphere is turbulent, so a computer program helps search through all the individual frames to find the ones with the most stillness to them. They are combined to make a clean smooth image, and then I apply a little sharpening to clear up any blur remaining. I also rotated the original image 180 degrees to give the sensation of flying over the Moon rather than under it.

Southern region of the Moon
Near the South Pole, the grazing light of the Sun brings the rugged lunar terrain into stark relief.

The conditions were excellent, so I decided to try doubling the magnification with a 2x Televue Powermate. This brought my total focal length to 5,500mm and with my cameras small pixels, an astonishing 0.11 arc-seconds per pixel resolution. For most deep sky objects (galaxies and nebula) you can only achieve this much resolution/magnification with long exposures by putting your telescope in space where there is no atmosphere. Doing this from Earth requires very fast frame rates to capture the stillness, and a great number of frames to choose from. That’s why we call it LUCKY imaging!

This second image is the left most area from the image above, but taken at twice the focal length. The camera rotation doesn’t match if you can forgive me for that, but it still captures the feeling of really “being there”, at least it does to me.

A closer view still
A closer view by two of the lunar southern highlands.

Finally, for the selenophiles out there (of whom I count myself), I’ve also labeled some of the more prominent craters in this image. Who say’s the full Moon isn’t interesting to photograph?!? Definitely not me.

Southern region labeled
The craters Moretus, Newton, and Casatus.

To the MOON!!

Read with Sean Connery’s accident, “You call this astrophotography?”

Happens to me all the time… on the space coast. I am quite fortunate to live an hour away from the Kennedy Space Center, and I can see most launches from my yard when the weather is good. Sometimes though, you just have to drive over, and not since the last time I drove over for a night Shuttle launch have I seen something so spectacular as the launch of Artemis 1. The Moon has always been my first love of the celestial realm, and since I was a boy I dreamt of walking there one day. I still remember my mother getting me out of bed just shy of four years old to see the broadcast of Armstrong on the Moon. My father acted like it was the greatest thing ever, and it left an impression on me to this day. I plan to be there too when mankind (and this time a more diverse crew) again launches to the Moon. Godspeed Artemis 1, the precursor to our return to crewed flights to the Moon!!

Oh… and I got an extra bonus. I caught what I’m pretty sure is a NASA helicopter monitoring the launch, or it’s silhouette in the bring light of the launch. It had no running lights, but it’s as plan as day when you spot it in this photo! It’s astonishing how recently even a helicopter would be considered a fantasy, and here we are going to the Moon AGAIN!

Artemis 1 Launch
Back to the Moon! And watching nearby, see if you can spot a helicopter monitoring the launch.

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!

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.