Antipodean Astronomy Adventures

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I’ve recently returned from visiting family on an extended trip to Aotearoa – Maori for New Zealand – and whilst travelling around used the opportunity to learn something about astronomy in that part of the world (NZ Astro Directory).  Of course, the main difference Down Under is that it’s currently summer, plus everything in the night sky is upside down.

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Topsy Turvy – everything’s in the wrong place ! Red arrow = Betelgeuse, Yellow arrow = Orion Nebula

It’s obvious really but relatively speaking the sky has not changed, you’re just  personally inverted compared to the Northern Hemisphere – which from the point of view of astronomy takes some getting used to when looking at otherwise familiar objects such as the Moon or Orion Constellation.  Although being their summer, at our principal location of latitude of 38o on North Island there was more than four hours of astronomical darkness even on the December solstice; viewed from the perspective of the Northern hemisphere, it is interesting to note that this is about the same latitude as Athens or the Korean DMZ!

Moon Man

It’s all about perspective – obvious really!

Although the weather was mostly very good, I was struck by how frequently the sky at night was cloudy – just like good old Blighty – it is after all also known as The Land of the Long White Cloud by the Maori.  Notwithstanding, as a country with only 4.85 million people most of the country is rural or even desolate, so that when the skies are clear the darkness and seeing conditions can be quite spectacular.  Viewing conditions are particularly good on South Island around the Lake Tekapo and Mt Cook district where a number of astronomy ventures are based, including the University of Canterbury’s Mt John Observatory – shown at the beginning of this blog.  For practical reasons I was restricted to taking only limited equipment – DSLR & lenses + Gorilla Pod & ball head + Vixen Polarie tracker + 10×50 binoculars – but was still able to obtain some pleasing images during the trip.

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Mt Cook from near our campsite – the night sky here was fantastic

Early on it became evident that New Zealand seems to have all the right conditions required for the formation of lenticular clouds (altocumulus lenticularis).  I’m presuming this is related to its somewhat exposed position between the South Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea, thus providing favourable wind and moisture conditions which are then influenced by the mountainous tectonic terrain that runs along the spine of South Island and the volcanic topography of North Island.  Whatever it is it works, providing really beautiful and often spectacular sights of these elusive and somewhat rare high altitude cloud phenomena.

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Lenticular clouds south of Mt Cook – South Island 

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Lenticular clouds near Te Awamutu – North Island 

Prior to arriving in New Zealand I tried unsuccessfully to link up with some local astronomy clubs.  However, close to our base near Te Awamutu on North Island I was able to visit the Te Awamutu Space Centre at nearby Kihikihi.


The Te Awamutu Space Centre – Kihikihi

Conceived and run by the enthusiastic Brit Dave Owen (well he wasn’t going to be a Kiwi was he?), the Centre is an eclectic and interesting collection of space, space programme, astronomy and related educational items (see below).

Essentially the Centre is an outreach programme, which would be of interest to anyone in general, young and old, as well as the seasoned astronomer.  I particularly found the area on New Zealand astronomy & astronomers, astronauts and the historical role of Maoris in astronomy very  interesting.


Maori star names of Mataraki (Pleiades)

As we travelled the length and breadth of the country with the tantalising promise of some very dark skies, I was keen to view and image the Milky Way and particularly the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which are only visible from the Southern Hemisphere. Thwarted for a while by cloud cover I eventually got my first look at all these features whilst camping near the base of the 3,724 metre Mt Cook on South Island.  The sight did not disappoint but I was unfortunately unable to obtain any images on this occasion.

No worries (as they say in New Zealand – frequently!), a few nights later whilst camping at the improbably named Slab Hut Creek (site of old alluvial gold workings) west of the historic mining town of Reefton, I was at last able to image all these features.  Remotely situated in the middle of woods adjacent to the aforesaid gold creek, the night sky was inky black, albeit with some passing cloud from time-to-time.  Furthermore, located in the centre of the opening were two very large quartz boulders, which provided an ideal platform on which to set up the camera and Gorilla Pod.

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A few tons of conveniently placed quartz helped imaging later in the night!

I didn’t get much sleep that night but it was a magical experience and I was thrilled to image both the Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds not individually but together.  As an added bonus we were also able to successfully undertake some gold panning during the day in the creek!

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The Milky Way at Slab Hut Creek with the Large & Small Magellanic Clouds

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Thereafter I was hindered for the next few weeks by Christmas events and the inevitable full moon at the start of January, though the ISS did pass directly overhead on one evening (New Zealand from the ISS).  However, 10-days later back on North Island at our cottage in the Waipa district, I was eventually able to view and image once again the wonderful sight of the Milky Way + Magellanic Clouds + Southern Cross at the same time – sky chart and image below.

Ohaupo Sky

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From our base on North Island: The Milky Way & Magellanic Clouds (right) + Southern Cross just above the left-hand side of the roof line 

When the conditions are right the night sky in New Zealand is truly outstanding. I would have liked to spend time there with the full astronomy set-up and camera that I use in the UK but for now I was very pleased to experience and enjoy Antipodean astronomy, it really is worth the long journey.


Reflections – 2017

Following some important developments, I think it’s fair to say that the past year has hopefully marked an appreciable turning point for my astrophotography.  Reflections is a summary of my astronomy last year, in particular astrophotography, as well as some thoughts about how I hope to progress in the 2018.

I’m again pleased that there is continuing interest in Watch This space (Man) – A personal discovery of the Universe through astronomy and astrophotography.  This is a personal journey and I’m glad to see there is also regular activity in many of the older blogs, which altogether illustrate what I expect many others have experienced during their own personal journeys? For those starting out or with related interests, I hope they will find these pieces interesting, instructive and perhaps even inspiring; it’s not an easy hobby but when it works – it usually does with patience, perseverance and help from the wider community –  the experience is  very rewarding, often exciting and mostly fun.

I’m aware that many of my blogs can sometimes be on the long side, that’s because I want to thoroughly document and discuss the matters rather than superficially comment on them.  However, I am mindful that from time-to-time there are issues that can best be covered in a more concise manner or just events that speak for themselves and can therefore be brief, for which purpose I have now introduced the AstroBites section.  Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, I’ve so far only used this item occasionally but hopefully will rectify the situation next year.

I’m always tinkering with the website, so even if you’re a regular visitor take a look around from time-to-time.  There is a photo gallery but for a simpler view of some of my better images I’ve recently added a FLICKR album, which is accessible from the Gallery menu.  The sharp eyed may also note that in response to new imaging techniques, I have changed the image and technical details summary for each picture; I find this information invaluable when looking at other astrophotographer’s images, as it can be very helpful when starting out in general or when using similar equipment or imaging the same object for the first time.

Once again the site attracted much interest from all corners of the world, which are summarised in the map below.  Please do get in touch if you have and relevant thoughts, queries or just to say – hello – contact details are in the ABOUT section of the main menu.

WTSM Heat Map

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After overcoming some major technical problems that almost brought my nascent hobby to a premature end in 2016, I felt I needed to consider what would be the best way forwards thereafter.  My initial inclination was a larger telescope in order to get at those faint fuzzies but most of all I just wanted better quality images.  In the past this would inevitably result in acquiring a CCD mono camera and all that means in terms of very exacting technical issues and very long exposures, neither of which I was prepared to take on, or at least only to a degree – life’s too short and the UK weather too cloudy!

However, during the latter part of 2016 something of a game changer was emerging in the world of astrophotography and after following developments online for a few months, I was persuaded that the new ZWO1600MM-Cool mono camera could also give me what I wanted, without many of the issues of a conventional CCD camera.  As a result I purchased the aforesaid camera and matching x8 EFW just before Christmas in 2016  and eagerly awaited clear skies in the New Year.  Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple – now there’s a surprise!

The crucial benefits of the new CMOS based ZWO camera are three-fold: (i) very low read noise and high sensitivity achieved with, (ii) relatively short exposures – sometimes as little as 30 to 60 seconds, (iii) larger field-of-view compared to a CCD. Wow!  Unfortunately there was still much to sort out, notably the image train, image capture and processing, all of which differ considerably from a DSLR camera.  Notwithstanding, eventually first light (see image below) was achieved in March and it was immediately obvious that this was going to fulfil my astrophotography dreams and more for now – hopefully!

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Rosette Nebula in Ha | William Optics GT81 + ZWO ASI 1600MM-Cool & 0.80 focal reducer guided | 15 x 180 secs + darks & bias calibration Gain 300, Offset 10 | 21st March 2017

Using mostly narrowband filters – more on that later – I was initially able to obtain some exciting and very promising images of classic HII-region objects just before they disappeared over the western horizon; thereafter followed weeks of frustration whilst I waited for other suitable objects to appear – timing is everything.  The ZWO1600 camera is very good for most deep sky objects, nebulae, galaxies and globular clusters but with the William Optics GT81 the combination is best suited to larger targets.  As a result by late winter and early spring, when smaller objects such as galaxies dominate the night sky, it became necessary to find something else to do for the next few months.

Aurora Borealis Northern Norway February 2017 I’ve previously worked north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden and Russia but in February I took a more relaxed ferry trip along the west and north coast of Norway from Bergen to Kirkenes, close to the Russian border.  Given the time of year it was of course very cold and the nights long but the ship was comfortable and the scenery spectacular.  However, once north of Tromsø the real show began in the form of the Aurora Borealis AKA the Northern Lights.  This natural light show lived up to expectations and with some difficulty I managed to obtain numerous images of the spectacle – the problem being imaging from a moving ship in severe cold, which with wind chill was well below -20oC – but it was worth it and made for an exciting end to my winter astrophotography.

No Date Type* Object Name
1 20/01/17 DSLR M45 Pleiades
2 20/01/17 N NGC 2244 Rosette Nebula
3 22/01/17 DSLR M45 Pleiades
4 22/01/17 N IC 434 Horsehead & Flame Nebula
5 21/03/17 N NGC 2244 Rosette Nebula
6 21/03/17 B M65 Leo Triplet
7 24/03/17 B NGC 4874 Coma Cluster
8 25/03/17 N M42 Orion Nebula
9 27/03/17 N IC 434 Horsehead Nebula

Record of quarterly photographic images taken in 2017

*Type: DSLR colour, B Broadband LRGB, N Narrowband Ha-OIII-SII, V Video


The period from April until the end of July can be a frustrating time of the year for astronomers, except those with an interest and the equipment for solar imaging.  Other than just giving up for a while, the secret is to abandon normal pursuits and just make the best of whats on offer, which is exactly what I did this year.  After limited success  attempting some of the larger galaxies in early Spring, I moved on to webcam imaging Jupiter and Saturn, insofar as is possible with my small telescope.  At about this time I also managed to capture the comet C/2015 V2 (Johnson), my second one after previously imaging C/2014 Q2 Comet Lovejoy in early 2015.  As I had not attempted such objects for more than two years and was more than a bit rusty with the different imaging and processing techniques, the results were varied but is was still good fun, which I hope to repeat in 2018 depending on what’s around at the time.

I also used the much improved weather and extra spare time afforded to go over the basics of my mount-telescope-computer set-up: balance, leads, equipment alignment, computer updates etc.  I inspected and replaced some old cables, wherever possible using cold-resistant silicon leads.  Following last year’s catastrophic camera power lead failure, I am now aware of the damage that cold can do to cables and pay greater attention in order to avoid repeating such problems.  I was also aware that with the change to the ZWO camera and using autoguiding routinely there had been a noticeable increase in cables, which I therefore tidied and strapped with Velcro bands to restrict unnecessary movement and snagging.

IMG_20170324_194502542 (Medium) The overall impact of these changes has transformed my working practices, making set-up and dismantling quicker, more efficient and more effective, itself a huge improvement.  In addition, I’ve also been able to move the mount and image capture controls indoors, which being more convenient and comfortable has made operating conditions and results much better.  Astrophotography inevitably becomes more complex and working in a warm environment with access to a cup of tea really does improve the outcome when working, in particular when resolving problems.  Given the significant benefits achieved from this housekeeping, in the future I intend to repeat this exercise each summer – it really pays off.

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Eastern Veil Nebula in SHO – for Will| 21st June 2017

Notwithstanding these virtues, by June I was eager to start imaging again with the ZWO1600MM-Cool and with good weather and some very late nights I was able to obtain a few narrowband subs of the Eagle and North America nebulae.  To my surprise on the morning of 21st June I even briefly managed to image the Eastern Veil Nebula in narrowband; who would have thought imaging the Veil on the Summer Solstice?  Once again the results of just a few subs from the new camera continued to show great promise.

No Date Type* Object Name / Type
10 02/04/17 B NGC 2903 Galaxy
11 02/04/17 B M61 Galaxy
12 18/04/17 B NGC 4438 Markarian’s Chain
13 14/0517 V Jupiter Video Sequence
14 25/05/17 V Jupiter Video Sequence
15 26/05/17 DSLR Comet C/2015 V2
16 11/06/17 V Saturn Video Sequence
17 14/06/17 V Jupiter Video Sequence
18 19/06/16 N M20 Eagle Nebula
20 20/06/17 N NGC 7000 North America Nebula
21 21/06/17 N NGC 6992 Eastern Veil Nebula


After a taste of the ZWO1600MM-Cool at the start of the year and briefly around the Summer Solstice, the end of July finally brought the return of astronomical darkness, more suitable DSO targets and at last the opportunity to get serious with narrowband and broadband imaging.  Combined with some exceptionally good weather and clear skies this period was very productive and successful.  Without plate solving the maximum imaging time I can achieve at the moment is about two hours before or after the Meridian but using a high Gain of 300, 180 second exposures and autoguiding, for the first time I was able to get some very decent subs of various nebulae – now it was really getting exciting!

At the time of purchase I wavered between the ZWO EFW x5 filter or the soon to be released alternative x8 version and in the end waited for the larger version, together with the matched LRGB, Ha, OIII and SII filter bundle.  There were initial problems controlling the EFW and camera, inevitably resolved after some time with a new driver code but in the end the x8 EFW and camera have proved to be an excellent combination.  I have especially found narrowband imaging to be a revelation and when possible have so far mostly concentrated on this technique; its use when the Moon is about is an added and somewhat pleasing bonus.  The detail shown in Ha-subs can often be quite spectacular and for the best results I’ve discovered that more aggressive stretching is needed.

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To my surprise, I’ve so far found LRGB broadband imaging more difficult than expected, both to capture and in post-processing.  It’s apparent that Gain and Offset settings are more critical than narrowband, perhaps because such objects tend to be brighter, with more contrast and often greater complexity?  I had been looking forwards to imaging the Andromeda Galaxy in LRGB and as is often the case with M31, first thought that my subs were overblown.  However, after dialling down Gain, Offset and exposure time the alternative result was even more disappointing.  It was instructive that by returning to the original data and applying greater care during processing, I was able to tease a good image from the subs after all.

No Date Type* Object Name / Type
22 27/07/17 N M20 Trifid Nebula
23 31/07/17 N NGC 6960 Western Veil Nebula
        & Pickering’s Triangle
24 10/08/17 N IC 5070 Pelican Nebula
25 11/08/17 N IC 1318 SADR Region
26 11/08/17 N NGC 6888 Crescent Nebula
27 13/08/17 DSLR Perseids  
28 19/08/17 N NGC 6995/ NGC 6992 Eastern (Bat) Veil Nebula
29 20/08/17 B M15 Globular Cluster
30 27/08/17 N NGC 7000 North America Nebula
31 28/08/17 B M31 Andromeda Galaxy
32 28/08/17 B M33 Pinwheel Galaxy
33 15/09/17 DSLR Milky Way  


From the experience of the new camera to-date I had arrived at two critical questions:

  • What are ‘right’ Gain and Offset settings?
  • What are the ‘best’ methods for LRGB imaging and post-processing?

Imaging during the final quarter then turned out to be something of a mixed bag trying to answer these questions.

I have a general feel about Gain, Offset and the related ADU values but if I’m honest despite reading around the subject I’m still mainly in the dark – no pun intended!  Such are the new challenges posed for all by the features of the ZWO1600MM-Cool it seems to me that even after 12 months the jury remains out over the answer to the first question – so it’s not just me!

The manufacturer provides value guidelines but based on experience, three schools of thought seem to have emerged from users:

  • Use Unity Gain 139 setting and vary exposure times – longer for nebulae, shorter for brighter objects such as M31;
  • Use low Gain for bright objects and higher Gain for faint objects + short and longer exposures, mindful of achieving a relevant ADU level across the resulting sub;
  • Use very high Gain and take lots and lots of short to moderate exposures.

I’m still experimenting with each of these techniques but increasingly lean towards higher Gain and varied exposure times of between 60” and 300”.  I have certainly found that lower Gain and short exposures didn’t work well for me when applied to the Andromeda Galaxy and California Nebula.

One issue when taking shorter exposures with the ZWO camera compared to a CCD is that many more subs are required, which inevitably needs very large storage and processing memory requirements – it’s a small price to pay for such quality and other advantages.  My laptop was already well specced for processing, with an Intel i7 64 bit chip 16GB RAM and to store the extra data I purchased a 4Tb external hard disc at a very reasonable cost = problem solved.

Picture saved with settings embedded.Like most people M42 has long been one of my favourites but like M31 I’m still struggling achieve a decent broadband image with the new camera and M45 is a similar problem; there’s nothing wrong with the camera, I just haven’t mastered the technique required yet.  However  narrowband images of M42, the Horsehead and Monkey Head nebulae all worked well at my standard default used of Gain 300 and Offset 10.

In preparation for further experimentation, at the beginning of  November I took time to compile a more comprehensive calibration library at various Gain, Offset and exposure settings.  Like most CCD cameras the new ZWO camera incorporates cooling to -45oC below ambient in order to reduce noise that is associated with all photoelectric sensors; I have been using the camera at a nominal temperature of -20oC.  By having such control it is therefore possible to obtain the aforementioned calibration frames irrespective of the ambient temperature and at any time.  Since June I’d already been successfully using another calibration set which has saved considerable time during each imaging session, unlike DSLR imaging which generally has to be undertaken at the same time + every time to ensure the same conditions.

Passing Shot: I’m posting Reflections later than usual this year having just returned from a protracted trip to New Zealand over the Christmas and New Year period.  The night sky down under was spectacular and I managed some good widefield imaging using a basic DSLR and tripod set-up; more on astronomy in New Zealand at a later date – Watch This Space Man! In the meantime below is a taster of the results taken whilst staying at my daughter and son-in-law’s house in Ohaupo, North Island.  Other than the beautiful Milky Way itself, note the Southern Cross just above the roof line and especially the large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

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No Date Type Object Name / Type
34 12/10/17 B M31 Andromeda Galaxy
35 13/10/17 N NGC 1499 California Nebula
36 28/10/17 B NGC 2174 Monkey Head Nebula
37 28/10/17 B IC 434 Horsehead Nebula
38 30/10/17 B M45 Pleiades
39 30/10/17 B M42 Orion Nebula
40 01/11/17 N NGC 1499 California Nebula
41 13/11/17 DSLR Jupiter-Venus Conjunction
42 25/11/17 B NGC 1333 Reflection Nebula / Perseus
43 26/11/17 N NGC 2264 Cone Nebula


Once again my astronomy year was often shaped by other events and related matters.  Throughout the first quarter I completed an online MOOC course at Edinburgh University on the Higgs Boson and Particle Physics hosted by a wide variety of relevant experts, including no less than Peter Higgs himself.  It’s relevance to astronomy only came right at the end but was well worth waiting for.  Based on the theories of particle physics, the Higgs Boson, scalar fields and inflation, cosmologist Professor John Peacock ably demonstrated:

  • There was no Big Bang;
  • The existence of a multiverse – of which our Universe is but a part.

Intuitively I’ve long wondered about such possibilities and Professor Peacock’s lectures were by far the most convincing case I have seen for such a model.  Of course the implications of these conclusions are  profound and I’ve continued to think about this for the rest of the year.

As previously reviewed, for two weeks in February it was my good fortune to sail along the Norwegian coastline on the Richard With, flagship of the Hurtigruten ferry line.  At this time of the year it was very, very cold being mostly north of the Arctic Circle and the weather can be rough at times but overall the journey was outstanding.  Like most, my personal goal was to see and image the Aurora Borealis, which I was successful in doing on a number of evenings.  However, it’s got to be said that such imaging from a moving ship at -20C is both difficult and very uncomfortable.  Whilst I was pleased with the photographs, next time I’d prefer to be on land, where it should be so much easier.

Inspired both by the aforementioned trip and meeting a fellow geologist on board the Richard With who worked as a guest speaker on other cruises, I subsequently attended an audition to lecture myself on astrophotography.  Whilst my talk was successful and I was chosen to join the agency’s list of speakers, I have yet to be asked to join a cruise.

Favourite Images

With only a few exceptions, the outcome of my astrophotography in 2017 reflects the transition that took place from DSLR to the ZWO1600MM-Cool mono CMOS sensor camera.  The new camera has in every sense been a game changer and the resulting images have shown just how much colour and detail can be achieved in both broadband and especially narrowband.  Some of my personal favourites taken during the year are shown below, in no particular order:

Aurora Borealis-2 Northern Norway February 2017


NGC 2244 SHO Final1

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SHO Final

Eastern Veil Nebula detail in Bicolour 19th August 2017

Western Veil Nebula (Witch's Broom & Pickerings Triangle) in Ha-OIII Bicolour July 2017.jpg

MiIky Way Isle of Purbeck Dorset September 2017




Cygnus Wall BiCol FINAL

Above Images (from top-to-bottom): Aurora Borealis off Norwegian Coast – DSLR; Leo Triplet – LRGB; Rosette Nebula – SHO; Flame & Horsehead Nebulae – Ha; Eastern Veil Nebula – SHO; Eastern Veil Detail – Bi-Colour; Western Veil Nebula & Pickering Triangle – Bi-Colour; Milky Way from Isle of Purbeck, Dorset – DSLR; Andromeda Galaxy – LRGB; California Nebula – form left-to-right, Ha-SHO-Bi-Colour; North America Nebula – SHO; Cygnus Wall – Bi-Colour 

Round-up & goals for 2017

Since resolving a number of critical issues in 2016 and finally getting to grips with autoguiding, I’m pleased to say the basic processes worked very well in 2017.  In addition to improvements in the set-up, being able to operate from indoors has greatly improved both working conditions and the results.  Not surprisingly my astrophotography last year was dominated by learning and using the new camera.  Whilst the experience of DSLR imaging and related matters was helpful, I was surprised at just how different working with a mono camera, filters and especially processing has been by comparison and I’m still learning.  Some of the minutiae can be very important and are frustratingly easy to miss but, with the assistance of those ever helpful astronomers online and perseverance the results are really starting to show in my work.



Goal Specifics / Results Outcome
Improve processing After some set-backs now successfully processing FITS files in DSS and compiling broadband and narrowband images in Photoshop – all very different to DSLR RAW! Noticeable improvements using more complex techniques in PS.



Expand & Improve Widefield Imaging For the first time I obtained some decent images of the Milky Way but otherwise barely used the Vixen Polarie and did not make it to any other dark sky sites – disappointing.   FAILED


Start LRGB  imaging Now using the ZWO1600MM-Cool mono camera + EFW with LRGB & Ha- OIII- SII filters with good narrowband and varied broadband results.   GETTING           THERE


I think it helps to set some goals for the forthcoming year, so here goes:

  • Improve processing – more: Despite some noticeable improvements in 2017 there’s always more to learn whichever software is being used. I aspire to working with PixInsight or the newly acclaimed APP but will likely persevere with various more advanced Photoshop techniques.
  • Expand widefield imaging: First – use the Vixen Polarie as had been intended last year to obtain nightscape images at UK dark-site locations. Second – look at ways of using a widefield set-up with the mount.  Having previously failed I’m hoping to be more successful in 2018.
  • Improve broadband and narrowband imaging: In considering how to progress in 2016, I came to the conclusion that the next step should be a move to a mono camera rather than a larger telescope. This has turned out to be a great decision but it’s still early days.  There’s plenty more to learn and finesse but most of all after nearly a year’s learning and experimentation it’s clear that I need to improve one matter above all – increased integration time and this means learning plate solving.  I’ve been very happy using Astro Photography Tool (APT) for FITS image capture, scheduling and filter control (the APT Forum has been very helpful), but I also own the much praised Sequence Generator Pro (SGP) and might switch or at least give it a try in 2018.

I’m very pleased to say 2017 was a very good year for astrophotography, perhaps my best yet, which was especially defined by two positive developments:

  • In general the equipment set-up was much better after some long overdue changes and in particular operating from indoors, once all the basics are completed. With a good basic starting set-up and alignment of the guidescope-autoguiding camera with the main OTA, I’m often able to just quickly refresh EQASCOM alignment models directly from the computer = no more crawling around on the ground in the dark, or at least very little!
  • Although it’s still early days and despite my reservations over the complexity (which is true) of using a mono camera and filters, it’s revolutionised and revitalised my imaging and therefore proved very worthwhile. It is a lot of fun and the improvement of my images has been both exciting and very fulfilling.

You can’t ask for more than that and holds much promise for the coming year, which I hope to record in WTSM’s Reflections at the end of 2018.

Watch this space!


The ones that got away:  Imaged but not seen in WTSM this year (warts and all)

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Pleiades 301017

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M15 Crop 200817

Above Images (from top-to-bottom): M42 Bi-Colour, Ha & SHO; Monkey Head Nebula Bi-Colour; Crescent Nebula SHO & Bi-Colour; Pleiades LRGB; Sadr Region Ha; M15 Globular Cluster LRGB    

AstroBites-3: Conjunction

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I was up early this morning in order to view and image the rare visual conjunction of Jupiter and Venus.  Unfortunately I cannot see the eastern horizon from here but from the top of Redhill Common adjacent to Fairvale Observatory there is an excellent view and just before 6.30 a.m. I climbed to experience the spectacle.

Following a cold, clear night the early morning weather was excellent and I was able to obtain a number of images as well as a good view using binoculars.  It was a short but worthwhile event, as shortly after 6.50 a.m., with growing brightness from the impending sunrise due at 7.14 a.m., the view of the conjunction was soon lost.  The next Jupiter–Venus conjunction will be on 30th April 2022, so time to recover!

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The Dutch Gadget

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I have just finished reading J.L. Heilbron’s biographical tome on Galileo, which though very interesting I found a difficult book and somewhat academic in style.  In 1609 Galileo became aware of a Dutch spectacle maker’s device that made distant objects appear closer.  He subsequently became known for developing the so-called ‘Dutch Gadget’ into what we now know as the refracting telescope and moreover, applying its use to understanding the Solar System with the discovery of Jupiter’s four largest moons, confirmation of the phases of Venus and the observation and analysis of sunspots; the word telescope was subsequently coined in 1611 from the Greek tele “far” and skopein “to look or see” i.e. far-seeing.  In so doing he also helped to confirm the then controversial truth of the heliocentric astronomical model, whereby the Earth and planets orbit the Sun.  Against this background it is no surprise that Galileo is today much revered by mankind and has become known as the father of observational astronomy.


Drawn into the complexity of obtaining images of the Solar System and beyond, it is the curse of astrophotography that we inevitably neglect observing the spectacle itself.  Notwithstanding, I am sure that Galileo would understand the power and beauty of today’s astrophotography, which in its own way is producing a quantum leap in our understanding of the Universe comparable to the impact of the original application of the telescope.

This summer the Solar System will hopefully provide both good observational and astrophotography opportunities here at Fairvale Observatory: Jupiter, Saturn, Comet C/2015 V2 (Johnson), the Perseids meteor shower and the Sun – sadly though I will not witness next month’s solar eclipse which takes place mainly over North America.  During recent summer months the lack of astronomical darkness, short nights and absence of DSOs has frustratingly continued to limit potential imaging targets for my new ZWO 1600MM-Cool camera but utilising a period of good weather there have recently been a few fleeting opportunities just before dawn related to the appearance of the summer arm of the Milky Way on the eastern horizon.

solstice sky

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NGC 7000 The North America & Pelican Nebulae WO GT81 + modded Canon EOS 550D + FF | 30 x 120 secs @ ISO 1,600 + calibration | 19th September 2015

I first imaged the North America Nebula (NGC 7000) in 2014 and have since returned each year to image the nebula or its various parts using a DSLR camera.  Being a very large Ha-object the nebula is an ideal target for the ZWO1600MM-cool camera and I have been anxiously waiting its arrival again this year.  On this occasion, early on the morning of the summer solstice, high in the sky and 90o east the nebula was only just visible from my location, being very close to the roof-edge of my house!  Consisting of just six Ha-frames plus three OIII and SII taken just before dawn broke, the resulting image was never going to be my best but is nonetheless interesting in SHO format and quite different to previous DSLR images.

NGC 7000 BiCol (Large)

North America Nebula in Ha-OIII Bicolour

RGB L2C3 GxL3 Hub1 HPx

North America Nebula in SHO

At the other extreme, located low on the southern horizon and only briefly visible as it passed between the trees at the end of my garden is the Eagle Nebula AKA M16, home of the Pillars of Creation.  At 7-arcminutes in size and an apparent magnitude of +6.0, the nebula is at the lower end of possible for my set-up and at some 27o altitude with just 40-minutes imaging time between the trees it was a challenging target.  Notwithstanding, I’m pleased with the Ha and SHO narrowband images obtained, which quite clearly show the Pillars too.

M16 SHO1 (Large)

M16 Eagel Nebula in SHO: William Optics GT81 & ZWO1600MM- Cool & Field Flattener | 6 x 180sec Ha, x3 OIII, x3 SII Gain 300 Offset 10 + full calibration | 21st June 2017

As astronomical darkness is now slowly returning and with clear skies and weather permitting, I hope to attempt longer imaging sessions of both these and other targets during the rest if the summer and into autumn – I might even get to see M16 again as it eventually emerges from the other side of the trees!  Thanks to the development of the Dutch Gadget and modern cameras it is now possible for amateur astronomers to image such spectacular objects – I’m sure Galileo would be impressed and highly approve.

Planetary Playtime

SKY Live

Starting out three years ago I inevitably began my astrophotography with the Solar System, the planets and other related bodies are after all closest to Earth but, as it turns out, are far from easy to image.  At the time using a Skywatcher 150PLS and ZWO120MC webcam, I achieved some reasonable images of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Moon and later the Sun but with plenty of upside potential for improvement! Shortly thereafter having acquired my current set-up, I realised that my interest lay in DSO targets and, except for the lunar eclipse in 2015 and the odd white-light image of the Sun, have mostly ignored the Solar System, until now.  Currently no less than 7 planets are present throughout the night at the moment, the largest of which provide good viewing and imaging opportunities – planetary sky above for 11th June 2017 at 11 p.m. taken from

From April to July there are limited DSO opportunities for my scope and camera and the only choice is to look elsewhere; the absence of astronomical darkness also doesn’t help.  This year the problem has been particularly frustrating as I’m itching to get to grips with my new ZWO 1600MM-Cool camera, which after a few hurried shots early in the year proved very exciting.  And so I’ve recently been playing around, returning to old subjects and unfamiliar equipment – first imaging the comet C/2015 V2 (Johnson) and again trying my hand again at some of the planets.

Unlike the DSLR and ZWO 1600MM-Cool CMOS camera, I the ZWO 120MC video based webcam is more suitable for the planets, which poses a whole new set of issues and the use of completely different capture and process software, in my case Firecapture for imaging and Registax for processing. Both are excellent free programmes but after three years required some re-learning.

Firecapture helps a lot when experimenting to find the best gain, gamma and exposure settings for each planet but there are still other difficult tasks to overcome, in particular planetary rotation, size, seeing conditions and my personal nemesis – focus – which after numerous attempts I have still failed to master. The truth is that even with the gas giant Jupiter, the planet appears quite small with the 81mm aperture of my Williams Optics refractor and detail is difficult to make out in order to focus when also blurred by atmospheric turbulence.  Notwithstanding, the belts and even the Great Red Spot are evident in the resulting images taken between 14th and 25th June, albeit a little fuzzy!

Webcam image data capture even over a couple of minutes is prodigious and requires significant processing capacity to handle.  I have found the aptly named Castrator software useful in this regard to cut the final AVI image down to the actual size of the planetary object, thus removing substantial areas of superfluous black sky.  Registax is equally powerful for video processing and stacking, in particular the intriguingly named Wavelets, which magically help restore detail and sharpness.


In the case of Saturn, which at the moment is quite bright and well orientated, the problem is also size and especially seeing, in my case not helped by a 35 minute imaging window as the planet transits between two trees at the end of my garden; at least the large copper beech on the left blocked out the Moon at the same time! At this location Saturn is less than 15o above the southerly horizon and as a result seeing conditions are at best poor and usually bad.  However, I manged some blurred images that clearly show Saturn’s rings and even a little colour.  I’m now looking forwards to seeing more of the final Cassini mission images before the satellite crashes into the plant in September.

These are obviously not my best images and I already feel the need try again next year, hopefully with a more appropriate telescope (Santa has already been informed). Notwithstanding, my return to the Solar System has been fun and, in between imaging I’ve also taken time to carry out observational astronomy – something I rarely do nowadays being otherwise consumed by astroimaging paraphernalia.  DSO astrophotography is likely to remain my main interest in the future and I can’t wait to revisit old favourites later in the year with the new ZWO 1600MM-Cool camera.  In the meantime, I have renewed respect for the planetary astrophotographer’s, I’ll be back another time.


Great Balls Of Ice


The next couple of months can be frustrating for astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere.  We have just entered the period of summer during which there is no astronomical darkness and for those of us who enjoy the spectacle of a DSO there are also few around to image, especially of the larger Ha-type that my equipment is currently best suited to.  However, there are compensations and with some imagination and a change of tack, it can be a useful time in which to do some housekeeping and return to objects not usually viewed.

I recently noticed that dust and the odd stray fingerprint had appeared on the object lens of my William Optics GT81! Opinion on how to clean this critical element is varied but all advice says: (i) be very careful, and (ii) do nothing unless you absolutely have to; in particular opinion is divided on whether to use alcohol-free cleaner.  I therefore purchased some Baader Optical Wonder Fluid which comes recommended by many but for now confined cleaning to the use of a brush and compressed air to remove the dust and a Lenspen to gently polish the glass surface – the Wonder Fluid will have to wait until another day.

Warm temperatures that accompany summer are also a more comfortable time in which to undertake important tasks outside, such as re-setting equipment alignment, balancing, cable routing etc.  I am therefore also replacing the mount power cable and EQDIRECT adapter cable, both of which look the worse for wear.  Truth is the original cables were poor quality and, mindful of my disastrous camera cable problems this time last year, if possible I now intend to upgrade both these critical items.  The experience of last year’s meltdown showed how prone cables are to low winter temperatures and I now see there are alternative silicon cables on the market – obviously I’m not the only one who’s suffered!

Of course we all want to be outside imaging and observing and a recent spell of very fine, clear, warm nights provided just such an opportunity – but what to do?  There are some popular objects within the Solar System that are worthy of attention at this time of year, which for a change I therefore once again tried my hand at imaging, on this occasion a comet.

There have recently been no less than three notable comets in the night sky:

  • 41P/Tuttle–GiacobiniKresák:  first discovered in 1858, the comet orbits the Sun every 5.4 years and this year was seen from Ursa Minor – Draco – Lyra between March and May.
  • C/2017 E4 (Lovejoy):  only discovered earlier this year by the inimitable Australian comet hunter Terry Lovejoy, the comet rises in the east-northeast above the star Enif in the early morning sky.
  • C/2015 V2 (Johnson): probably this year’s most popular comet, was at full magnitude in Hercules during April but is still clearly evident to the east of Bootes from about 11pm – see below.

V2 CdC

I have only once before imaged a comet, that being C 2014 Q2 Comet Lovejoy (him again) in January 2015, on this occasion I set out to image the aforementioned C/2015 V2 (Johnson).  The comet will soon reach perihelion on 12th June and thereafter leave the Solar System.  Travelling at a speed of 74,000 mph, imaging this small body of ice as it passes Earth is difficult and required going back to basics.  It was also the first time since January that I had used the DSLR camera, which despite longstanding experience required some brushing up.  At first I intended to follow the comet using the Custom Tracker facility in EQMOD but in the end this seemed unnecessary once I had the object centred in the camera and instead I resorted to a number short exposures at high ISO.

v2 orbit

V2 Track I am pleased with the results, though they are a little noisy due to some stupid mishaps on my part along the way which left less imaging time than I would have wished.  Though each comet is different, experimentation suggests that with good framing and guiding, exposures of about 2 minutes and ISO 3,200 produced the best results.  Given this exciting experience, which was also good fun,  I will hopefully not leave my return to comets so long as last time.



After months of cloud followed by 3-months of lost imaging time due to a mysterious camera / mount control problem, I was on the verge of throwing in the towel by August.  But then I sorted the problem, started guiding and as if by magic, with a prolonged spell of good weather managed 7-nights of astronomy between 23rd August and 13th September; such was the intensity I was able to work over consecutive nights and by the end quite exhausted but happy.

Under clear skies and warm nights I could operate in just shorts and a T-shirt, a hitherto unknown experience at Fairvale Observatory.  In such comfort I was also able to experiment and optimize the equipment set-up further – oh, if it could only be like this always.  Of course I did not miss the opportunity to chase some night sky objects as well, imaging 11 targets all-in-all, sometimes on more than one occasion.  It was a glorious time which has since taken time to organise and process.

Top left – NGC 6905 Blue Flash Nebula in Delphinus constellation 42″ x 35″ mag +11 26th August; Bottom left – NGC 6781 planetary nebula in Aquila constellation 1.8′ +mag 11.8 23rd August; Middle M57 Ring Nebula Lyra constellation 1.4′ x 1.1′ mag +8.8 13th September; Right M57 23rd August

A number of these images have already been reviewed in Forbidden Fruit and The future is not what it used to be but, such was productivity that for the record I’ve collected the overspill here.  Inevitably targets reflected what was about and in sight from this location at the time but were nonetheless diverse in nature, ranging from the Witch’s Broom to planetary nebulae, the Andromeda galaxy and, making use of the otherwise frustrating monthly occurrence, the Moon.  Features such as M57 and NGC 6781 are intrinsically too small for the William Optics GT81 and Canon 550D, filling significantly less than 1% of the original image but after cropping both are evident in the final picture.

Top Left – M15 Globular cluster Pegasus constellation 29th August; Top Right – Q1 Moon 23rd August; Middle Right – NGC 6960 Witch’s Broom Western Veil Nebula; Bottom – M31 Andromeda Galaxy 26th August

These images are not particularly memorable but it was a fun time and I will remember the enjoyable experience for a long while.  Of course, the cloud has now returned and since passing the autumn equinox night temperatures have plunged into single figures.  On the plus side, Orion is on its way together with all the other photogenic objects that characterize the winter night sky – can’t wait!

Playing poker with the heavens


It’s that time of the year when Earth ploughs its way through the tail of comet Swift-Tuttle, resulting in a the Perseids meteor shower. The name is derived from the location of the radiant point within the constellation of Perseus and Greek mythology’s reference to the sons of Perseus.  Such are the orbital paths that Earth’s encounter with the comet occurs around 11th to 13th of August each year and can provide an enjoyable spectacle as the meteor particles rain down through atmosphere.


Travelling at some 37 miles-a-second, the sand-grain size particles literally burn up in the blink of an eye, with the energy created producing a bright path of the light path that very briefly shoots across the night sky, sometimes green or red coloured.  Some 16-miles in size, from time-to-time the comet itself actually passes nearby to Earth during its orbit around the Sun, last time being in 1992 and the next in 2126.

Perseid ZHR 2016

Whilst the timing of our annual encounter can be predicted with good accuracy, a sight of each individual meteoroid particle is entirely down to chance.  Over a period of two or three days the frequency (Zenithal Hourly Rate or ZHR) may vary from a few tens to a few hundred, depending on which section of the comet’s tail Earth is passing through. Of course, observation requires a clear sky – something that’s been notably absent here at Fairvale Observatory for some time now.  Notwithstanding, this year there were three consecutive clear, dark, warm nights, which occurred shortly after a new Moon that provided excellent Perseid observing opportunities.

Viewing is a matter of lying back in a suitable garden chair looking up towards the radiant position, which starts in the north east then moves to the south during the night and just waiting.  This year peak Perseids were on the evening of 11th/12th August between about 11pm and 1am, during which time we probably saw between 20 to 40 hits an hour; the previous and subsequent evenings were also quite good, though with slightly less hits.  Such is the randomness of each meteoroid hit that in practice Perseid trails occurred all over the sky and were easy to miss if outside the peripheral vision.  However, overall it was a very good and enjoyable show but probably  not as good as that from the ISS.

IMG_7024 (Medium)

At first this looks great but look again, it’s an aircraft trace – living next to Gatwick airport doesn’t help. The giveaway is in the next shot which shows the track continuing i.e. too long and too far for a meteoroid.

At the same time using the Canon DSLR and an ultra-wide lens, I also attempted to image the Perseid shower.  On the first night using Vixen Polarie tracking, set towards the radiant position and on the second night pointing east, without tracking.  Control was via an intervalometer, with camera settings at ISO 800, 20 or 14 second exposures, and 5-second shot intervals.  Even with such a high incidence of meteoroid hits, obtaining a photograph was still very difficult; mostly the strikes occurred outside the field-of-vision or sometimes in the 5-second pause.  In total I shot over 300 images but obtained just two Perseid hits and more than a few plane tracks!  Even with good preparation and clear skies it really is a case of chance but I was nonetheless pleased to have my share of luck this time and look forwards to another opportunity this time next year, weather permitting.

IMG_7111 (Medium)

Gotcha – the real thing: ISO 800 @ 20 seconds with tracking.


IMG_7303 (Medium) (2)

Only just! This time the Perseid is just sneaking out of view at the bottom of the frame: ISO 800 @ 14 seconds, without tracking.



Unfortunately not my image: Mercury starting its transit across the Sun today, photo by NASA.

The transit of Mercury across the face of the Sun takes place about thirteen times each century and today was one of those occasions; the next is on 11th November 2019.  With months of bad weather I’ve been unable to undertake very little astronomy for some time but albeit late, spring actually arrived last week and I took the opportunity to shake-down my equipment and experiment with settings for solar imaging in the hope of capturing Mercury’s transit.  Using a Baader solar filter and both the William Optics GT 81 and Skywatcher 150PL, I have successfully imaged the Sun before.   Of course, inevitably I aspire to a dedicated Lunt or Coronado solar telescope one day in order to image details of the chromosphere and prominences, which are not visible using a white-light solar filter.

Sun spot activity is limited at the moment but the Baader filter and WO GT81 do a reasonable job, although I find achieving focus of the Sun quite difficult.  Using the DSLR I experimented with the field flattener and an alternative basic 1/ 1.25” nosepiece, which produced a preferable result of a slightly larger and sharper image.  I also tried the ZWO ASI 120MC webcam but as I don’t use this very often struggled to get the settings right for any sort of image – I’ll experiment more with that over the summer. I also put EQMOD-ASCOM and the newly acquired gamepad control through their paces which both worked well, so I was ready for the transit – weather permitting.


Last week’s test image of the Sun, with sun spot top left: WO GT81 + 1.25″ nosepiece | 1 / 2,500 sec @ ISO 100

After days of sunshine, albeit with high cloud that has continued to prohibit astrophotography at night, I was nonetheless hopeful of seeing at least some of the transit today.  Notwithstanding, Sods law arrived in the form of a belt of cloud over south east England last night!  Not to be defeated I watched the sky and cloud forecasts which suggested a glimpse of the transit might still be possible.

In hopeful anticipation I set up the equipment just before contact at 12.12 pm BST and shortly afterwards obtained a good view of Mercury as it started its transit across the face of the Sun. For the next three hours I managed glimpses of the planet as it continued its journey.  It is very, very small but forms a distinct, sharp black dot against the background of the Sun when compared to the more diffuse, grey nature of the sunspots.  It was an exciting experience and despite the drawbacks – cloud has now completely covered the sky for the rest of the transit – it was very enjoyable; so what’s the problem?

Despite all my preparation for imaging everything that could go wrong did and I was unable to obtain even a single photograph:

  • On setting up the camera and starting to focus the EQMOD-ASCOM tracking stopped and Carte du Ciel froze. Despite re-starting the set-up numerous times the tracking would not work!
  • Finally after resorting to the Synscan handset for tracking control, for some completely inexplicable reason I could not get any sort of image on the camera, that otherwise was working OK!

As I have learned many times before, the art of astronomy is patience and persistence but I am very disappointed not to have imaged Mercury during its transit today.  Ironically once the cloud put an end to further activity, I tested the EQMOD-ASCOM tracking once again and it worked fine.  Perplexed does not describe my feelings – oh well, 3-years to prepare for the next transit!


How I felt after today’s imaging!!! The transit view was still very good and I’m grateful for the breaks in the cloud.


Reflections – 2015

Launched in August 2014, 2015 is the first full year of Watch This Space (Man) and despite some personal set-backs it’s been an interesting year astronomically, with much to write about.  Whilst I have made progress with my imaging, it was not what I would have wished for but nonetheless I have been pleased with the outcome.  Continuing on from last year, Reflections is a recap and thoughts on all that happened to me astronomically in 2015 and looks forward to the coming year.

Although this website is just intended as my record of A personal discovery of the Universe through astronomy and astrophotography, it has been pleasing to see that over the year the site has attracted 1,310 visitors from 77 countries around the world and over 2,700 views; you are all most welcome.  This was not the intention of the blog but I am humbled by the interest and would be very pleased to hear from anyone who would like to get in touch with queries, comments or just to say hello – contact details are in the About section.

Reflections 2015


The first quarter turned out to be my most active and successful period of the year for reasons that will become apparent later.  Strictly speaking my image of the Rosette Nebula posted on 5th January was taken on 29th December 2014 but what an image to start the year with, clearly I was doing something right by now.  Notwithstanding, from looking at pictures of the same object taken by other more accomplished photographers, it was evident that something was missing – red!  This was an easy to problem to solve and I immediately set out on a quest to find a suitably modified camera with the IR filter removed.  Soon thereafter I was lucky to find an excellent second hand modded Canon EOS 550D, which has now become my main imaging camera of choice and with all that extra red Ha-light has led to a quantum improvement of many images since.  Such cameras are very popular so I felt lucky to have secured this one.

Orion's Sword: M42 The Great Orion Nebula, Running Man Nebula & NGC 1981 Star Cluster WO GT81 + modded Canon 550D & FF | 10 x 180 secs @ ISO 800 & darks calibration | 8th February 2015

Orion’s Sword: M42 The Great Orion Nebula, Running Man Nebula & NGC 1981 Star Cluster
WO GT81 + modded Canon 550D & FF | 10 x 180 secs @ ISO 800 & darks calibration | 8th February 2015.  Modification of the camera by removing the IR filter increased red Ha-light.

EQMOD / ASCOM is a popular free software project developed by amateurs that, amongst other things, provides computer and planetarium linked control of the mount; with other compatible linked programmes such as APT (Astrophotography Tool) and PHD (Push Here Dummy) control can be extended to cameras and for autoguiding.  At the start of the year I successfully started using Carte du Ciel planetarium linked with EQMOD for computer controlled alignment and mount control, which as expected was very useful – particularly when it got really cold and I was able to take the equipment indoors and operate the equipment remotely.  However, later in the year I have encountered connection problems which are, as yet, not fully resolved.

Whilst EQMOD is an excellent project which provides first class mount control when working, it requires additional faffing about and problems on a different level of scale, which with limited imaging conditions in the UK and having to set up outside from scratch each time is a pain.  For this reason and others I have not yet moved to autoguiding, which I know will be highly beneficial to imaging but for the moment has proved to be a step too far for me.  Such is the fickle nature of all this that I’m now considering other ways of achieving the same end, perhaps with professional software control and a stand-alone guider, such as the Lacerta M-GEN – of course a dedicated observatory would help a lot but seems unlikely at the moment!

I have previously found the early winter sky of Orion, Taurus, Pegasus and Monoceros very productive with beautiful imaging objects such as M42 and the Horsehead Nebula.  However, this year looking more closely at the late-winter / early spring skies turned out to be just as exciting, with a veritable playground of galaxies to choose from during February and March.  Notwithstanding, the highlight during the winter was successfully imaging Comet Lovejoy, a first for me that required changes to  normal DSO and planetary imaging techniques as this ephemeral object was speeding across the night sky at over 70,000 mph – post processing also turned out to be quite different.

C/2014 Q2 Comet Lovejoy WO GT81 + Canon 550D (modded) & FF | 40 x 20secs @ ISO1,600 + darks | 16th January 2014

C/2014 Q2 Comet Lovejoy
WO GT81 + Canon 550D (modded) & FF | 40 x 20secs @ ISO1,600 + darks | 16th January 2014


No Date Object* Name
1 16/01/15 C/2014 Q2 Comet Lovejoy
2 16/01/15 C/2014 Q2 Comet Lovejoy
3 16/01/15 NGC 2244 Rosette Nebula
4 22/01/15 M42 etc Orion Nebula
5 22/01/15 M45 Pleiades
6 22/01/15 Comet Lovejoy
7 22/01/15 Comet Lovejoy
8 22/01/15 Banard’s Loop
9 22/01/15 Banard’s Loop
10 22/01/15 Orion Constellation
11 24/01/15 NGC 1909 Witch Head Nebula
12 24/01/15 NGC 2392 Eskimo Nebula
13 24/01/15 M44 Beehive Cluster
14 24/01/15 IC-443 Jellyfish Nebula
15 08/02/15 M42 Gt Orion Nebula etc
16 08/02/15 Barnard 33 Horsehead Nebula etc
17 21/02/15 M65 Leo Triplet (Galaxies)
18 21/02/15 M105 M96 Group (Galaxies)
19 24/02/15 Venus & Mars
20 25/03/15 NGC 2903 Spiral galaxy – Leo
21 25/03/15 NGC 3842 Galaxy cluster: Leo
22 25/03/15 M 88 Spiral galaxy: Virgo cluster
23 25/03/15 M100 Spiral galaxy: Virgo cluster
24 26/03/15 NGC 4438 Markarian’s Chain
25 26/03/15 M104 Sombrero
26 26/03/15 M53 Globular cluster


*Record of quarterly photographic images in 2015, excluding other widefield pictures


Things took a turn for the worse in April when I went into hospital for a knee replacement operation.  All went well but it is a major operation and recovery has been slow and often painful, thus prohibiting any real astronomy until September.  It did however provide the time and opportunity to read about astronomy and pursue some MOOC astronomy courses.

After a period of convalescence, I did manage to obtain some widefield camera shots of the planets, the ISS and simple night sky images in the summer.  Whilst not as satisfying as prime focus photography, it was interesting and kept me sane during this otherwise difficult time.

1st July 2015. Bingo = conjunction; though one day later Jupiter has now moved to the right of Venus.

1st July 2015. Conjunction of Jupiter to the right of Venus.

No Date Object Name
27 11/04/15 NGC 4438 Markarian’s Chain
28 11/04/15 NGC 4565 Spiral galaxy-side



This period was more of the same until on 19th September, when at last I managed to set-up Fairvale Observatory for the first time since March, what a relief.  As a bonus I was particularly chuffed to achieve a good image of the Andromeda Galaxy but the highlight of this period and the year was the lunar eclipse at the end of the month on 28th September.

For once everything was perfect: a clear sky all night with a perfect view of the eclipse from start to finish.  I stayed up all night and would have to say it was one of the best, if not the best event I have so far experienced since taking up astronomy; apart from being an outstanding imaging opportunity, the ambiance throughout the eclipse was spellbinding.  I was therefore very pleased to obtain an excellent set of images of the entire eclipse, mainly using a prime focus camera set-up with the WO GT81 telescope but also with an alternative  camera and telephoto lens on a tripod.  The memory of that night will stay with me for a long while and, in part, helped to make up for the lost time since my operation in April.

Eclipse Animation 28th September 2015

Eclipse Animation 28th September 2015

No Date Object Name
29 19/09/15 IC 5070 Pelican Nebula
30 19/09/15 NGC 6979 Pickering inc Veil Nebula
31 19/09/15 M15 Globular Cluster
32 19/09/15 M31 Andromeda
33 28/09/15 Lunar Eclipse Entry @ 1 sec intervals
  28/09/15 Lunar Eclipse Totality
  28/09/15 Lunar Eclipse Entry @ 1 sec intervals
34 28/09/15 Lunar Eclipse Exit – camera + tripod
35 30/09/15 IC 1318 Sadr Region (+NGC 6910)
36 30/09/15 IC 1318 Sadr Region – Pt2



The final quarter of the year has been very frustrating due to the almost complete absence of suitable imaging conditions, mainly due to cloud cover but even when there was a few clear nights it was of course a full Moon – you can’t win!  I was particularly unhappy as this time marks the arrival of the constellation Orion and all its wonderful imaging opportunities, for which I had new plans.

Given the short focal length of the William Optics GT81 and relatively small aperture, used with a APS-C cropped sensor DSLR camera the resulting field-of-view is a quite large and, where possible, this year I’ve therefore concentrated on objects of 2.5o to 3.0o apparent dimensions.  Together with the modded camera this has resulted in some exciting new images of old and new objects.

However, large as the field-of-view is with this set-up, I have become increasingly aware of the simply enormous scale of some nebulous features such as Barnard’s Loop.  As a result I have become more interested in widefield imaging using just a camera and tripod.  Like prime focus imaging, widefield imaging will also benefit from achieving longer exposures through the use of tracking.  Early in this period I was fortunate to purchase a Vixen Polarie lightweight tracking mount for this purpose, but due to the aforementioned conditions I have unfortunately been unable to use it very much.  In fact it’s fair to say that other than some brief experimentation, it’s hardly been used at all so far.  Notwithstanding, I can see the potential and have high hopes for future imaging opportunities when the clouds part and the Moon is absent.

The year finished with a couple of other purchases that I hope will assist with imaging in 2016:

  • A new laptop – running Windows 10 with a core i7 Intel chip, 2 TB hard drive, 16 GB RAM, dedicated AMD graphics card and an HD 17.3” screen, which I hope will help improve post processing.  Running my preferred Windows 7 operating system, I will continue to use the smaller 13” i5 chip laptop for mount and camera control.
  • Ultra-Wide Angle lens – the truth is I’ve recently acquired this wonderful Sigma 10 – 22mm  f3.5 lens for a trip to the Grand Canyon in April, however, I will of course also be using it with the Vixen Polarie when the skies clear.
No Date Object Name
37 09/10/15 NGC 6888 Crescent Nebula
38 09/10/15 M 74 Spiral galaxy (near Pegasus)
39 09/10/15 NGC 7814 Little Sombrero
40 09/10/15 NGC 7479 Barred spiral galaxy
41 09/10/15 M 31 Andromeda galaxy
42 08/12/15 NGC 1499 California Nebula
43 08/12/15 IC 405 Flaming Star Nebula
44 08/12/15 NGC 2264 Cone Nebula
45 09/12/15 M42 Great Orion Nebula etc
46 08/12/15 Orion Constellation


Favourite Images

Despite the lack of activity this year I have been fortunate to obtain some good images and I can only hope 2016 will be just as rewarding.  Acting as judge and jury, my personal favourites in no particular order are:

NGC 2024 Flame Nebula & Horsehead Nebula WO GT81 + modded Canon 550D & FF | 10 x 180 secs @ ISO 800 & darks calibration | 8th February 2015

NGC 2024 Flame Nebula & Horsehead Nebula
WO GT81 + modded Canon 550D & FF | 10 x 180 secs @ ISO 800 & darks calibration | 8th February 2015


Eclipse: Inward sequence from umbral contact to totality WO GT81 + Canon 700D + FF | 1/500 to 1/3 sec @ ISO 100 | 18th September 2015

Eclipse: Inward sequence from umbral contact to totality
WO GT81 + Canon 700D + FF | 1/500 to 1/3 sec @ ISO 100 | 18th September 2015


M31 Andromeda Galaxy WO GT 81 + modded Canon 550D + FF | 9 x 120 secs @ ISO 1,600 | 19th September 2015

M31 Andromeda Galaxy
WO GT 81 + modded Canon 550D + FF | 9 x 120 secs @ ISO 1,600 | 19th September 2015



Goals for 2016

After the year that’s just finished I am reluctant to set out goals for 2016 but here goes:

  • Increase imaging exposure times: This is a euphemism for (a) improving equipment set-up and alignment, and (b) start autoguiding. As previously outlined, I have been struggling with both of these issues but one way or another I have to overcome the problems in order to obtain exposure times of at least 5-minutes and hopefully longer;
  • Improve processing: I was pleased to get to grips with Photoshop in 2015, albeit using a very old version, which together with other minor improvements to processing has added to the quality of the final images.  However, I know that even now there is more to be teased out of the existing imaging data for which I am already considering new software;
  • Start widefield imaging: First I just need clear skies in order to get out and start using the Vixen Polarie tracking mount from Fairvale Observatory, with the initial objective of imaging Barnard’s Loop, which has hitherto proved elusive to my current set-up.  However, one of the attractions of the Polarie-DSLR-Tripod combination is its portability, which I’d like to put to good use in 2016 by visiting dark sky areas in the UK.

There are other possible developments which at the moment seem unlikely to eventuate but you never know: a larger probably SCT telescope, a cooled CCD camera, and / or a permanent observatory (well I can dream can’t I?).


So all things considered 2015 was a good but not great year.  As a fundamental and important development I had really hoped to start autoguiding and thus increase exposure times but it was not to be.  Certainly the loss of astronomy time between April and September was a major set-back in many different ways.  Notwithstanding, during the remaining times available when I did manage to get outside I believe I achieved some of my best images to date and discovered many new and exciting objects in the night sky, which can’t be bad.  In particular, I am sure the lunar eclipse in September will remain a highlight of my astronomy experiences for many years to come.

Harvest Moon at Totality WO + Canon 700D + FF | 1/3rd Sec @ ISO 400 | 28th September 2015

Harvest Moon at Totality
WO + Canon 700D + FF | 1/3rd Sec @ ISO 400 | 28th September 2015


I’m now looking forwards to 12-months of uninterrupted astronomy, clear skies and plenty to report in the WTSM blog at the end of 2016!

Watch this space!