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.

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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.

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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.

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North America Nebula in Ha-OIII Bicolour

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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.

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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

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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 TheSkyLive.com

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.

Saturn

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

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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.

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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.

Overspill

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

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

Transit

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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.

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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!

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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

JANUARY TO MARCH

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

APRIL TO JUNE

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

 

JUNE TO SEPTEMBER

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

 

OCTOBER TO DECEMBER

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

 

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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!

Harvest Time

Thanks to Copernicus and Kepler et al, astronomical events are highly predictable; unfortunately the same cannot be said about the weather.  Since taking up astronomy and despite favourable predictions of clear skies, I have frequently been thwarted by incoming cloud or worse.  When communicating with each other astronomer’s often use the closing of “Clear Skies”, no wonder given the continuous battle we have just to see the sky at night, let alone image it!

Such was my experience in 1982.  At the time I lived and worked in northern South Africa, close to the border with Botswana and the Kalahari Desert.   A lunar eclipse was forecast and in this part of the world there was usually a good chance of a clear sky.  Unfortunately, it was not to be this time either.  We saw glimpses of the eclipse through brief gaps in the otherwise thick cloud that was blowing across the sky.  I’ve missed other eclipses for the same reason, lunar and solar, and as a result have developed a somewhat resigned mindset towards such events, with the probability that the sky would most likely not be clear.  And so despite encouraging forecasts, my expectation for this week’s lunar eclipse was more of the same.

The lunar eclipse of 28th September was very unusual.  At mid-eclipse the Moon was just one hour past its closest approach to Earth in 2015, creating an effect now popularly termed a ‘Supermoon’.  Moreover, the rare combination of this and a full eclipse at the same time results in a distinctive red moon at totality.

I have learnt the hard way that in astronomy Rule-1 is perseverance.  I therefore carried out all the necessary research on the eclipse, undertook a dry run the previous evening and set-up all the equipment in the early evening before heading for forty winks – it was after all hopefully going to be a long night.  The weather had been clear and sunny earlier in the day but was forecast to cloud over shortly after midnight, just before umbral contact!  The sky was clear when I went out later but ominously there were clouds in the west.  Notwithstanding, the sky remained clear all night and the eclipse was nothing less than spectacular.

Total Lunar Eclipse 18th September 2015

Total Lunar Eclipse 18th September 2015

The precision with which astronomical events are plotted is incredible and, guided by various articles and charts all was in place well before the end of the penumbral stage at 2.07am.  Shortly before darkness started to show on the top, eastern edge of the Moon and then exactly at 2.07am the eclipse shadow touched and then crept inexorably across the Moon’s surface.  This was the main phase of the eclipse when the Moon enters the central, dark part of the shadow called the umbra, eventually reaching totality at 3.11am.

Totality lasted 1 hour 12 minutes, during which I just watched through a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars, which probably was the best way of actually viewing the Moon throughout the eclipse.  Of course, with the brightness of the full Moon obscured by the eclipse during this time, the rest of the night sky was plunged into blackness, thus bringing the stars, nebulae and galaxies back to life.  As the Moon was passing through the lower part of the Earth’s umbral shadow, the southerly edge appeared relatively bright during much of totality.  Totality finished promptly at 4.23am as the light started to move across the Moon’s surface once again like an unstoppable wave.  The Moon finally exited the umbra at 5.27am and the show was over until October 2033, on which occasion the Supermoon eclipse will unfortunately not be visible from the UK – I did say it was rare.   However, there will be another total lunar eclipse in July 2018, so it’s not all bad news.

Given my history, this was naturally my first time imaging a lunar or any other eclipse and I am very pleased with the results.  Other than requiring a clear sky, as usual preparation was the key: understanding the timing and dynamics of the event and considering the imaging possibilities.  The most obvious problems to overcome were the Moon’s tracking and movement of the eclipse itself, with its associated impact on changing brightness and contrast for imaging.

The previous evening had also been clear, so I tested a basic DSLR + tripod set-up using an intervalometer to trigger the shots at 5-minute intervals.  With the 200mm telephoto lens 8 pictures were successfully recorded as the Moon tracked across the image frame, at 100mm this increased to 12 pictures; however, the track tended to move out of the side of the frame early as the Moon follows an inclined rather than horizontal track.  Altogether it was a successful and useful experiment for the next evening.

On the night I used the William Optics GT81, with a Canon 550D camera and field flattener, which continuously tracked the Moon and eclipse,  imaging at 1-minute intervals throughout the period inward and outward of the umbra and manually during totality.  Using a fixed ISO 100, it was necessary to continually change the exposure time every five or so minutes in order to compensate for the aforesaid changing light conditions.  In addition, I again used the intervalometer with the Canon 700D and the 55- 250 mm telephoto lens on a camera tripod.

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 550D + FF | 1/500 to 1/3 sec @ ISO 100 | 28th September 2015

Eclipse: Exit sequence to full Moon Canon 550D + tripod | >=1/160 sec @ ISO 400

Eclipse: Exit sequence to full Moon
Canon 700D + tripod | >=1/160 sec @ ISO 400

Eclipse animation

Eclipse animation

The results from both methods turned out well.  With superior optics and tracking, the WO telescope images were naturally better in quality and magnification.  However, the alternative simple camera set-up also produced a pleasing record of the eclipse, perhaps in some way capturing the mood better?

The entire event lasted just over 3-hours, during which found it necessary to look away from the imaging process at times just to enjoy this unusual and exciting spectacle.  The name Harvest Moon is given to the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox, recognising the time of year at which the crops have been gathered and can itself be an attractive sight.  The coincidence with an eclipse makes for a rare and dramatic occasion, which this time I was able to enjoy completely cloud free from beginning to end – well that’s a first.

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

Harvest Moon at Totality
WO + Canon 550D + FF | 1/3rd Sec @ ISO 400 | 28th September 2015

Fly me to the dark side of the Moon

I am still struggling to return to astronomy – no longer hampered since July recovering from my knee operation, which though stiff and painful is slowly improving, but now by the weather, a one-eyed cat, my own incompetence and inevitably the Moon.

Taking care of my daughter’s cat in early August, ruled out astronomy as the unfortunate one-eyed cat is not allowed outdoors, thus making the movement of equipment freely in and out the house very difficult.  The weather then turned bad before it was time for the full Moon at month end, itself an imaging opportunity, except once more for the presence of thick cloud cover.  Shortly afterwards clear nights were forecast but twice after setting-up the equipment under a clear sky the clouds rolled in again.  Finally a week ago under a moonless clear sky, I completed the equipment set-up and turned on the mount in order to start the alignment and camera set-up sequences.

I’ve owned the current equipment since last July and after months of busy use felt I was now familiar with all the basic procedures – wrong.  Because of my operation it’s been five months since using the equipment and after going through the initial SynScan sequence I started the alignment routine, only to find that each time the scope slewed to exactly 900 east of the target star.  I diligently repeated the start-up routine a number of times but with the same result – bizarrely on switching to EQMOD linked with Carte de Ciel, the scope moved correctly to the chosen star.  It seemed there was an obvious answer to the problem but I could not work it out and in the end had to give up, missing a great opportunity as the sky continued clear all night – talk about frustrating!

The next morning I went through the complete mount set-up and SynScan start-up routine again, with a clear head and some guidance from SGL members, it took me about 10-seconds to find the problem – I had input the date as day-month-year instead of month-day-year; in this case 06/09/15 was exactly three months or one quarter earlier than the correct date input of 09/06/15, the sky equivalent of 90o.  Why is it in the 21st Century that an advanced technologically advanced country such as the USA, uses an uncommon date format and imperial units, they even mix-up themselves and as a result lost the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999!  Notwithstanding, from frequent use I already knew the correct format but after 5-months absence couldn’t see the problem right in front of me, obvious though it was.

In the absence of ‘real’ astronomy I’ve been playing with simple camera-tripod imaging, with some rewarding results; it’s got me thinking about purchasing a smaller, simpler Vixen Polarie or equivalent tracking mount head – watch this space!  The same morning after sorting out the aforementioned date format problem, I took the opportunity to take a look at the sun in the east before turning round to see a beautiful waning crescent Moon in the western sky – who needs the night sky?

Fly me to the Moon

Fly me to the Moon

Too good to miss and after the previous evening’s disaster, I managed to get a pleasing sequence of images tracking an aircraft flying past the Moon – this being a case of making the best of what you have: daytime, the Moon and frequent overflying planes from nearby Gatwick airport and further afield.  Being approximately 42,000 further away from Earth the Moon only looks about 4-times larger than the aircraft.

Flight animation

Changing the perspective completely, I was fascinated by last month’s image of the Moon passing in front of Earth, thus also presenting a fabulous view of what we call the dark side of the Moon.  The transit was taken from the Deep Space Climate Observatory orbiting at 930,000 miles from Earth, or nearly four times greater than the Moon.

16th July 2015: The so-called dark side of the Moon, seen from the Deep Space Sky Observatory, as it passes across Earth. From our perspective that day it was a New Moon.

16th July 2015: The so-called dark side of the Moon, seen from the Deep Space Climate Observatory, as it passes across Earth. From our perspective that day it was a New Moon.

Pink Floyd take note – surely this image needs to replace the iconic cover from their 1973 album – it’s all about changing perspective; apart from being a spectacular photograph the image demonstrates the other side of the Moon is anything but dark!

Pink Floyd's 1973 album cover, now surely obsolete?

Pink Floyd’s 1973 album cover, now surely obsolete?