Jumbo Joy

Picture saved with settings embedded.

After recently establishing Fairvale Observatory South AKA “The Shed” and dealt with some expected and unexpected problems, I was able to turn my attention to the object of my desire in this hitherto inaccessible part of the northern night sky.  With the summer solstice approaching I had originally planned on imaging this astrophotographers’ favourite later in the year but I couldn’t resist an early look.  A few nights after finishing Bodes galaxy from my new, northward looking location, I therefore swung the scope across the Meridian to the north east in order to obtain a few subs of this object just to see: (a) what it might look like with my equipment (b) bearing in mind the previous objective, to assess the best framing and (c) just for the fun of it, and was not disappointed!

RGB XXX Final (Large)The aforesaid object of interest was the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula or IC 1396, a very large emission nebula, which in narrowband shows wonderful colour and detail (HaSHO above).  IC 1396 consists of glowing gas illuminated by an open star cluster, broken up by intervening lanes of dark interstellar dust clouds.  The ‘trunk’ itself, designated IC 1396A, is the long dark area protruding from the lower edge of the image, spectacularly illuminated from behind by a bright star forming region; the image has been rotated 180o from its natural position.  Top right on the edge is the red supergiant Mu Cephei or Herschel’s Garnet Star, one of the largest and brightest known stars in the Milky Way, which in the position of the Sun would extend out to Saturn’s orbit!

HHOO (Large)

The large IC 1396 nebula will not fit my field-of-view but with some judicious framing, using the Garnet Star as a marker and helped by a few previously taken test subs, I achieved a pleasing composition with the aforesaid trunk and nearby billowing dark clouds well placed (HaOIIIOIII bicolour image above).  Whilst I am pleased with my first attempt at the Elephant’s Trunk, the colour could be better and is too noisy – a consequence of too little integration time and high gain setting.  Having had success before using similar settings for Ha-type features like the Rosette Nebula, I was a little surprised by this outcome but it just goes to show that each object is different.  Notwithstanding, the Ha version is – I think – very promising (top of the page) but obviously there is too little OIII and SII in the composite wavelength images.

RGB XXX Final Crop (Medium)

I used to live and have worked all over Africa but this is a very different type of elephant to what I have met before (the “trunk” HaSHO above).  It forms an exciting imaging subject at this time of the year, made all the more rewarding being one of my first serious attempts to image the north sky.  I hope to return to this object in a couple of months when astronomical darkness has resumed but in the meantime the Jumbo of the night sky has been a real joy on my first encounter.

Elephant Location Crop

IMAGING DETAILS
Object Elephant’s Trunk Nebula   IC 1396   
Constellation Cepheus
Distance 2,400 light-years
Size 5o or “Trunk” only approx.. 45’   
Apparent Magnitude +3.5 to +5.7
 
Scope  William Optics GT81 + Focal Reducer FL 382mm  f4.72
Mount SW AZ-EQ6 GT + EQASCOM computer control
Guiding William Optics 50mm guide scope
  + Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 guide camera & PHD2 control
Camera ZWO1600MM-Cool (mono)   CMOS sensor
  FOV 2.65o x 2.0o Resolution 2.05”/pix  Max. image size 4,656 x 3,520 pix   
EFW ZWOx8 + ZWO LRGB & Ha OIII SII 7nm filters 
Capture & Processing Astro Photography Tool + PS2,  Deep Sky Stacker & Photoshop CS2
Image Location Centre  RA 21:38:37    DEC 57:30:16  
Exposures 12 x 300 sec Ha + 6 x300 sec OIII & SII  (Total time: 120 minutes)   
  @ 300 Gain   50 Offset @ -20oC    
Calibration 5 x 300sec Darks  20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x  Ha + OIII + SII  Flats @ ADU 25,000  
Location & Darkness Fairvale Observatory – Redhill – Surrey – UK        Typically Bortle 5
Date & Time 22nd May 2018  @ midnight
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Boreal Breakthrough

M81 A (Large)

I have often written about imaging difficulties here at Fairvale Observatory, which apart from overflying aircraft from Gatwick and Heathrow airports, 24/7 helicopters from Redhill aerodrome and general light pollution, also consists of numerous sightline obstructions in the form of large trees to the east and south, high garden hedges and the complete obstruction of the north sky by my house!  I have toyed with the idea of moving onto the lawn so as to look back northwards over the house but was concerned by all the faffing about to get the equipment down and back up a flight of steps, as well as added complications with equipment control and dew problems; I concede that many do operate successfully in this way but with plenty of other problems to cope with, I like my hobby to be as easy and convenient as possible.

Last year I enjoyed working outside during the summer months – notwithstanding the lack of darkness during much of this period – and therefore over the past winter finally considered how such a garden-based set-up could be achieved, primarily for use between May and September.  The resulting Plan-A was to place three paving stones within the lawn to support the tripod and run a USB-cable back to the house for control.  However, after recently expanding a small paved area outside the shed at the end of the garden and looking at the potential sightlines from this location, it was obvious that a Plan-B set-up here could also work.  Whilst not quite as good viewing angles as the original location, there are a number of other worthwhile benefits:

  • Being off the lawn on paving it seemed likely that dew could be less of a problem;
  • Working on the paving around the mount would be more convenient and dry;
  • By clearing out the adjacent shed it could be used as a dry location from which to control the equipment.

And so early in May I set about establishing Plan-B and soon afterwards putting it to work.

Pan1 Comp (Medium)

The view from the shed looking northwards is surprisingly quite good (see above) and I don’t know why I hadn’t considered this before. There are a few large trees to the north east, a high hedge along the western boundary and of course my house is still somewhat in the way but altogether it’s not too bad and for the first time I have a clear view of Polaris, as well as a whole new plethora of imaging targets!  Whilst this direction looks directly towards south London, being on the southern slope of the Greensand Ridge the worst of the city’s glow is fortunately obscured by the hill.  Furthermore, it is ironic that my house and the hedges also provide considerable protection from the local street lights, which I’m pleased to say are now turned off after midnight anyway.

Set-up

Local equipment layout the same as previously

I cut-back some of the adjacent vegetation to improve sightlines and ran a power cable from the house to the shed otherwise it’s exactly the same set-up which was being used at the main, south looking location on the patio by the house.  I looked into WiFi-control of the equipment but from the experience of others concluded it could be unreliable and instead considered using Teamviewer software via a USB Cat-5 repeater cable from the mount / shed computer to a second computer in the house.  However, given the distance of some 30 metres I finally decided to adopt a more robust LAN Cat-6 ethernet cable for this purpose. Unfortunately whilst this had worked successfully during testing in the house, I have so far been unable to get it to work outside and for now have had to operate the equipment from inside the shed, which has nonetheless proved to be a comfortable and effective alternative.

Being lazy and cautious about changing too much about the set-up, I levelled, aligned and reset the new location data of the tripod but kept all other settings the same for now.  I realise this is not ideal but initially just wanted to experience the new location and north sky to understand what was possible within the given field-of-view and identify any obvious problems.  Fortunately a settled period of good weather allowed me to try out the new location soon thereafter.

North Sky ViewX

White area shows optimum imaging area from Fairvale Observatory South – AKA ‘The Shed’

What I hadn’t expected on first use was that slewing and tracking would become more difficult and takes noticeably longer at higher latitudes, especially approaching Polaris.  Following subsequent enquiries and with some further thought it now makes sense.  At higher latitudes near and above about 70 degrees as the lines of Longitude are closer together, it makes the RA slew rate bigger and bigger the closer you get to the North Celestial Pole.  Of course the celestial pole is not coincident with the terrestrial pole, which means that those objects within the latitude of 90o minus the observer’s latitude – in my case this equals 39o – means that all those objects above 39o will be circumpolar from my point-of-view i.e. will rotate over the year around North Celestial Pole.  This is basic astronomy but hitherto I had not considered the implications for tracking and guiding before and will need to bear it in mind when selecting targets in the future.

M81 B (Large)

I had one particular target in mind but as it was only viable much later in the night, on this occasion I chose to start imaging the north sky for the first time with Bode’s Galaxy AKA M81 and the nearby Cigar Galaxy AKA M82; for comparison using low gain, long exposure on the first night (top of the page) and high gain, short exposure (below) on the following night.  Given the target’s DEC position of 70o I soon discovered the aforesaid tracking difficulties, which resulted in the RMS guiding error varying from 3’ to 20’ and deleterious consequences for the images!

 

Whilst I’m pleased with my very first north sky images, it is obvious I’ll need to return again with better guiding and much longer integration time.  On a positive note the general set-up worked very well and the shed provided an excellent place from which to operate the control and image capture equipment.  Furthermore, despite a few restrictions the overall view of the northern night sky is good and holds much promise for future, hitherto inaccessible imaging objects.  As a result of establishing this new site I intend to name the new north looking location Fairvale Observatory South or ‘The Shed Observatory’ (see mosaic above) and the principal, south looking location by the house Fairvale Observatory North or ‘The Patio Observatory’.  Altogether this marks a major breakthrough for my astronomy and I eagerly await the return of astronomical darkness on 20th July onward.

AstroNet ResultX

IMAGING DETAILS
Objects Bode’s Galaxy M81  &  Cigar Galaxy M82     
Constellation Ursa Major
Distance M81  11.8  &  M82  11.4 -12.4 million light-years
Size M81 26.9’ x 14.1’   &    M82 11.2’ x  4.3’
Apparent Magnitude M81 +8.0  &  M82 +8.4
 
Scope  William Optics GT81 + Focal Reducer FL 382mm  f4.72
Mount SW AZ-EQ6 GT + EQASCOM computer control
Guiding William Optics 50mm guide scope
  + Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 guide camera & PHD2 control
Camera ZWO1600MM-Cool (mono)   CMOS sensor
  FOV 2.65o x 2.0o Resolution 2.05”/pix  Max. image size 4,656 x 3,520 pix   
EFW ZWOx8 + ZWO LRGB & Ha OIII SII 7nm filters 
Capture & Processing Astro Photography Tool + PS2,  Deep Sky Stacker & Photoshop CS2
Image Location Centre Image-B    RA 09:55:13.46    DEC 69:21:08.36  (19/0518) 
Exposures                       

                                       

                                         

A 18/05/18   10 x 180 sec L  + 5×180 sec RGB  (Total time: 75 minutes)    @ 139 Gain   21  Offset @ -20oC

B 19/05/18   45 x 60 sec L    + 15 x 60 sec RGB  (Total time: 90 minutes)    @ 300 Gain   50  Ofsett @ -20oC    

Calibration                    

                                        

A 15 x 180sec Darks  20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x Flats LRGB  @ ADU 25,000  

B 15 x 60sec Darks     20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x Flats LRGB  @ ADU 25,000  

Location & Darkness Fairvale Observatory South – Redhill – Surrey – UK       Typically Bortle 5
Date & Time (A)    18th  &   (B) 19th May 2018 @ +23.45h approx.

 

 

Star Struck

 

M13 LRGB F2 CROP (Large)

Of all the things I’ve discovered since taking up astronomy, perhaps it is the presence and nature of globular clusters that has most surprised me. Bound closely together by gravity, these massive spherical collections of stars orbit the galactic core perpendicular to its plane.  In the case of the Milky Way there are 150 globular clusters but they can be much larger in other galaxies, such as M87 which has some 13,000; clusters of clusters have also now been discovered in the Universe!  Typically each cluster might contain a few thousand or tens of thousands of stars, although in some cases they can be much larger.  Omega Centauri is the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way, being 150 light-years in diameter it contains 10 million stars; though clearly visible from Earth it can only be viewed from the Southern Hemisphere, which we unfortunately did not see when in New Zealand earlier this year.

MW & globs

Despite all the advances being made in cosmology, the origin of globular clusters still seems to remain quite uncertain.  Characteristically the stars are all very old, typically in the region of 8 to 12-billion years and are of low metallicity i.e. they contain a low proportion of elements other than hydrogen and helium.  At least some, such as Alpha Centauri, are thought to have condensed from dwarf galaxies and such a process may currently be taking place within the large Magellanic Cloud – which we did see in New Zealand!  In other cases it is thought that the clusters have probably originated independently and were subsequently captured by the relevant galaxies.  However, their very old age – sometimes nearly as old as the universe itself – origin and relationship to galaxies remains intriguing.  For these and many other reasons I personally find globular clusters fascinating, probably more than any other astronomical feature, amazing as they too may be.

GlobsX

Globular Clusters May 2018: M3, M13 & M92 (red circles) + Others (yellow circles)

From time-to-time I’ve tried imaging various globular clusters but have not been satisfied with the outcome.  Now using guiding, plate solving and the high-resolution ZWO1600MM-Cool camera, it was time to give it another try this spring, when some of the best clusters are present in the northern night sky.

M3 LRGB Final (Large)

First up was M3 (Final image above), the very first Messier Object to be discovered by Charles Messier himself in 1764.  Consisting of 500,000 stars, between 8 and 11-billion years old and spanning some 220 light-years, M3 is one of the largest and brightest (absolute) globular clusters associated with the Milky Way – about 300,000 times brighter than our Sun.  It is noteworthy that the cluster contains some 274 variable stars, the highest number of any clusters, as well as a relatively high number of ‘blue stragglers’ – young main-sequence stars that appear to bluer and more luminous than the other stars in the cluster and are thought to be formed through stellar interaction of the older stars.

M3 LRGB Crop (Large)

With these attributes it is not surprising that M3 is considered a popular target in astrophotography (cropped image above), likely surpassed however by M13 AKA the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules (cropped image top-of-the-page), which conveniently follows M3 in the same area of the sky about 3-hours later (together with nearby the globular cluster M92).  And so having bagged M3 it was time to turn the telescope and camera towards M13 (Main image below).  Discovered by the eponymous Edmond Hailey in 1716 (he of Hailey’s Comet), seen from Earth M13 is slightly brighter than M3 with a wide range of star colours that certainly makes for an exciting image.  At 11.65 billion years old, M13 has been around almost three times as long as the planet Earth.

M13 LRGB Final (Large)

Since starting astrophotography I like to try my hand at imaging a globular cluster at least once each year but hitherto with disappointing results.  This time I’m pleased with the outcome, especially M13 which is surely one of the most magnificent objects in our night sky; as a bonus there are also a few galaxies in the background of both the M3 and M13 images too.  It is therefore fortunate that for those of us in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules can be seen all-year round, though is at its highest and therefore best position between May and September – thereby inaccessible for the Kiwis who are instead compensated by Alpha Centauri!  I expect to be back again next year to marvel at these amazing and enigmatic objects, if not before.

M3 Location Crop

IMAGING DETAILS
Object M3    (NGC 5272)     
Constellation Canes Venatici
Distance 33.9 million light-years
Size 18.0’ or 220 light-years     
Apparent Magnitude +6.2
 
Scope  William Optics GT81 + Focal Reducer FL 382mm  f4.72
Mount SW AZ-EQ6 GT + EQASCOM computer control
Guiding William Optics 50mm guide scope
  + Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 guide camera & PHD2 control
Camera ZWO1600MM-Cool (mono)   CMOS sensor
  FOV 2.65o x 2.0o Resolution 2.05”/pix  Max. image size 4,656 x 3,520 pix   
EFW ZWO x 8 + ZWO LRGB & Ha- OIII-SII 7nm filters 
Capture & Processing Astro Photography Tool + PS2,  Deep Sky Stacker & Photoshop CS2
Image Location Centre  RA 13:42:23     DEC 28:22:50  
Exposures 24 x 180 sec L + 10×180 sec RGB  (Total time: 162 minutes)   
  Unity @ 139 Gain   21  Offset @ -20oC    
Calibration 10 x 180sec Darks  20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x Flats LRGB  @ ADU 25,000  
Location & Darkness Fairvale Observatory – Redhill – Surrey – UK        Typically Bortle 5
Date & Time 5th + 6th  May 2018 @ +23.00h

M13 Location Crop

IMAGING DETAILS
Object M13     (NGC 6205)
Constellation Hercules
Distance >=20,000 light-years
Size 20’  or 150 light-years
Apparent Magnitude +5.8
 
Scope  William Optics GT81 + Focal Reducer FL 382mm  f4.72
Mount SW AZ-EQ6 GT + EQASCOM computer control
Guiding William Optics 50mm guide scope
  + Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 guide camera & PHD2 control
Camera ZWO1600MM-Cool (mono)   CMOS sensor
  FOV 2.65o x 2.0o Resolution 2.05”/pix  Max. image size 4,656 x 3,520 pix   
EFW ZWOx8 + ZWO LRGB & Ha OIII SII 7nm filters 
Capture & Processing Astro Photography Tool + PS2,  Deep Sky Stacker & Photoshop CS2
Image Location Centre  RA 12:39:59    DEC -11:37:20  
Exposures 20 x 180 sec L + 15×180 sec RGB  (Total time: 195 minutes)   
  @ Unity 139 Gain   21  Offset @ -20oC  USB 40 
Calibration 10 x 180sec Darks  20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x Flats LRGB  @ ADU 25,000  
Location & Darkness Fairvale Observatory – Redhill – Surrey – UK        Typically Bortle 5
Date & Time 6th + 7th + 9th May 2018 @ +00.30h  

 

Chapeau!

LRGB GxC Crop-2 (Large)

 

I always had a general interest in astronomy but was eventually sparked into action after viewing Saturn through the Thompson 26 inch refractor at Herstmonceaux observatory in 2014.  The beauty of the planet and its unique rings is captivating and like many others it remains my favourite planet to this day.  One year on and looking further afield at Joan Genebriera’s Tacande Observatory on the island of La Palma, I discovered what is now  one of my very favourite Deep Sky Objects – M104 or the Sombrero Galaxy; until recently I used the resulting picture obtained whilst at La Palma as the main banner image for this website.  Though perhaps not as spectacular as the Orion Nebula or certain spiral galaxies, the sombrero-like galaxy (with a passing resemblance of a flying saucer too), is beguiling in its own unique way and ever since then I’ve been eager to return to The Hat and image it myself from home.

Chart_1.cdc3

However, imaging the Sombrero from the UK and especially at my location just south of London is quite another matter to La Palma.  Aside from light pollution, being at 51o north compared to 28o in La Palma, M104 is considerably lower in the sky when viewed from Fairvale Observatory in Redhill; at the time of imaging in early May it was about 26o above the southern horizon.  Furthermore, my sight lines are obscured on three sides by 15-foot hedges and directly south by two 45-foot conifers – see below SE to SW view of M104 imaging track at Fairvale Observatory.

M104 Track crop

As a result, only after it emerges from behind the western edge of the aforesaid conifers can M104 (just) be imaged, as it moves along the top of the hedge for just over an hour before disappearing from view once again.  Of course this is far from ideal but with my enthusiasm for the Sombrero, a high-resolution ZWO1600M-Cool camera and newly acquired ability to plate solve, I gave it a try over three consecutive nights.

 

RGB GxC crop (Large)

 

An unbarred spiral galaxy, the hallmark of M104 is its bright bulbous centre encircled by dark dust lanes, which when viewed from Earth tilted at just 6-degrees above the equatorial plane creates the appearance of a sombrero hat (see cropped image above).  With the much higher resolution of the Hubble telescope some 2,000 globular clusters have been identified with M104, ten-times that of the Milky Way.  In 1912 the galaxy was found to be moving away from Earth at 700 miles per second, providing an early indication that the Universe was in fact expanding in all directions.

All-in-all the Sombrero galaxy is a fascinating and unusual object, though small and all-in-all a challenging imaging target, especially seen from Fairvale Observatory.  Notwithstanding, at last I am very pleased to obtain my own exciting image of the Sombrero – chapeau!

M104 Location

IMAGING DETAILS
Object Sombrero Galaxy  M104     
Constellation Virgo
Distance 29 million light-years
Size 9’ x 4’  or  50,000 light-years
Apparent Magnitude +8.0
 
Scope  William Optics GT81 + Focal Reducer FL 382mm  f4.72
Mount SW AZ-EQ6 GT + EQASCOM computer control
Guiding William Optics 50mm guide scope
  + Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 guide camera & PHD2 control
Camera ZWO1600MM-Cool (mono)   CMOS sensor
  FOV 2.65o x 2.0o Resolution 2.05”/pix  Max. image size 4,656 x 3,520 pix   
EFW ZWOx8 + ZWO LRGB & Ha OIII SII 7nm filters 
Capture & Processing Astro Photography Tool + PS2,  Deep Sky Stacker & Photoshop CS2
Image Position Centre  RA 12:39:59    DEC -11:37:20  
Exposures 25 x 180 sec L + 3x5x180 sec RGB  (Total time: 120 minutes)   
  @ 139 Gain   21  Offset @ -20oC    
Calibration 10 x 180sec Darks  20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x Flats LRGB  @ ADU 25,000  
Location & Darkness Fairvale Observatory – Redhill – Surrey – UK        Typically Bortle 5
Date & Time 5h + 6th + 7th  May 2018 @ 23.30h  approx.

 

 

Lost In Space

IMG_9267 (Large)

Night produces a very different feeling to day.  Familiar locations take on a distinct atmosphere created by the absence of light, as the darkness imbues a sense of being in another world.  With restricted sight other senses of sound, temperature and smell become more vivid.  Furthermore, as my familiarity with the night sky has improved through astronomy, I’ve felt an increasing impression of physical separation.  Just being outside at 3.0 a.m. in the morning when most others are in bed, one becomes not only more aware of the night’s unique senses but a magical feeling of Earth’s movement through space itself.

IMG_9999x (Large)

  The Milky Way & Magellanic Clouds from Slab Hut Creek, South Island, New Zealand 

When travelling I like to read and learn about the new places I visit, in order to gain insight into the people, their culture, what’s happening and what makes them tick.  For this purpose during my recent trip to New Zealand I enjoyed reading two very different but equally fascinating books:

  • Long Cloud Ride by Josie Dew, which describes Josie Dew’s epic 6,000 mile cycle journey around New Zealand, and…
  • Squashed Possums by Jonathan Tindale. ‘Written’ by a caravan (that’s right!) assisted by its occupant. Possums describes life off the beaten track in New Zealand, specifically Jon’s life in a semi-derelict caravan in the wilderness.  The experience provides an amusing but insightful description of New Zealand, New Zealanders and the impact of living in such a remote location on humankind.  Apart from the practical and physical issues, the impact is sometimes profound – for the caravan and Jon – I was particularly struck by the description of their experience of the night sky in the back country, which powerfully captures something of my own feelings of being outside on a clear night, alone in the darkness.

SQP

I put my book down, pulled not one but two jumpers on and ventured outside to look at the cloudless night sky.  Brrr! True, it was cold, freezing probably but the view was breathtaking.  The Moon was out, or at least some of it was, and the Milky Way stretched across the sky like a colossal halo embracing the planet.  The Southern Cross stood proud, forever pointing north (?).  I turned around to look at my caravan, its windows filled with light, surrounded by the stars and darkness, reminding me of a satellite.  Lost and far away, suspended in space, I imagined an astronomer observe me from afar.

I stood there a while, quietly watching and taking in the view.  I tasted the chilled air, with a sense of time winding down a gear.  The there was a palpable jolt, like a quite earthquake that left no physical impression.  There was no crack in the earth, but there had been a change nonetheless – a profound and intoxicating sensation.

For a moment, I was disconnected.  I felt strangely without form, somehow insubstantial and insignificant.  Lost, like a speck on a rock in the darkness.  At least it might have been a moment, it may well have been much longer.  Moments may have been minutes, minutes might have been hours.  Time ceased to have any meaning.

I’d stumbled across something that is not easy to express.  It was the feeling of utter isolation, of removal not just from society, but from the world and then finally being removed from my own sense of self.  And yet, something intangible was filling this void and it pushed a tickle up my spine.

The sense of isolation quickly dissipated and instead of feeling lost, I had the profound experience of being part of everything – the earth, air and stars – all of it.  I was utterly overwhelmed by this new awareness. My subconscious struggled desperately to find a cultural reference point to cling to.  David Bowman swam past, cast adrift in the final moments of 2001: Space Odyssey, calling out to Bowie’s Major Tom.

And then, as quickly as it happened, the moment passed.  I was returned to reality, with something like an elastic twang. I’d not so much been thrown but catapulted back to this small patch of damp grass on a cold night, having been in an unexplained place.  What on earth was that?  One thing I was sure of, I was desperate for a steaming hot mug of tea.

IMG_9269 (Large)

What Comes Around Goes Around

RGB HaOO XXX2

It’s nearly 4-years since I started astronomy, like so many inspired after observing Saturn through a telescope.  Not just any telescope but the 13” Astrographic Refractor at the Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceaux.  Built in 1890 specifically to make use of the then new technique of astrophotography, the telescope was first employed as part of the worldwide Carte Du Ciel project to map the entire night sky by photography and subsequently for a crucial test of Einstein’s then new theory of General Relativity.  Soon thereafter I was to view the aforesaid planet once again with my first, newly purchased Skywatcher 150PL Newtonian telescope.  Inevitably something of a lesser view than that at Herstmonceaux it was nonetheless just as exciting, if not more so.  I was hooked!

I then attempted afocal imaging using a compact camera held up to the telescope eyepiece but with poor results, except in one respect.  By clamping the camera onto the front of the eyepiece and achieving longer exposures, nebulosity otherwise unseen with the naked eye was revealed in the resulting image, in this case Orion’s Nebula.  As crude as the image was, for me the penny had dropped and I’ve been pursuing images of the hidden beauty of the night sky ever since.

rosette map

ngc2237map

Like mariners, through astronomy I have by now become accustomed to the seasonal procession of the night sky wonders throughout the year, none more so than the Rosette Nebula.  About 100 light-years across and 5,000 light-years from Earth, the Rosette Nebula is surely one of the annual highlights for most astrophotographers?  Located just east of Orion, the Rosette is at its best between December and February, so that I was first able to image this beautiful object myself at the end of 2014.

As a very large HII region the Rosette Nebula emits light mainly at narrowband wavelengths, which produces wonderful but mainly red colours when imaged with a modded DSLR camera.  As my astrophotography and equipment have since developed, it has become a pleasure and challenge to image objects as they return each year such as the Rosette, thereby also charting my own improvements or otherwise from year-to-year.  Its size makes the Rosette an especially attractive target for smaller telescopes such my own with an 81mm aperture, which nicely fills much of the sensor of an APS-C camera.

Despite having purchased a new ZWO1600MM-Cool mono camera at the end of 2016, by the time I was ready to use it at the end of the following March, the Rosette Nebula had almost disappeared over the western horizon for another year.  Notwithstanding, in the limited time remaining I managed to capture a few Ha-OIII-SII subs, thus marking first light for the camera, which ironically resulted in one of my favourite images for 2017.  Using narrowband for the first time it was immediately possible to see the potential of the new camera when imaging this type of object.

Returning from an extended overseas trip at the end of January this year, 10-months had passed since my last encounter with the Rosette Nebula last March and I found myself with the first real opportunity to image the nebula properly with the ZWO1600MM-Cool camera.  Since last year I’d acquired more knowledge and experience with the camera, plus this time the Rosette was now in the south eastern quadrant and provided significantly more imaging time than before.

After a break of nearly two months I needed to sort out the equipment, refocus the camera and start a new alignment model in EQASCOM.  For the first time I also decided to use longer exposure times of 300 seconds, which altogether produced a good Ha+OIII Bi-Colour image (top of page – awarded BAA Picture of the Week 4th March 2018); whilst much longer exposures are used with conventional CCD sensors, such is the sensitivity of the CMOS mono sensor in the ZWO camera that 5-minute exposures provide exceptionally good quality data.  Overall the impact of longer exposure, good focus, tracking and much longer total integration time had a noticeably positive impact on noise and overall image quality, though there’s still room for improvement – there always is!

To some extent, even after a year I’m still in the experimental phase with this camera.  For most of 2017 I used a high gain setting of 300 but this time I chose the Unity gain setting of 139 and for interest also imaged at a shorter exposure of 180 seconds.  Comparison between the two settings for Ha images – Unity gain at 300 and 180 seconds – shows that for such a nebulous type of feature as the Rosette, Unity gain works very well at the longer 300 second exposure (first image below) but not 180 seconds (second image below), which is too short to collect sufficient data.

Picture saved with settings embedded.

Picture saved with settings embedded.

Notwithstanding, in the past I have found shorter exposures at Unity or less have generally been more suitable for brighter objects such as star clusters or galaxies like Andromeda.  An alternative SHO Hubble Palette image below of the Rosette Nebula at Unity gain and 300 second exposure also compares more favourably with the same image taken last year using less subs, higher gain and shorter exposure time.

Untitled-2 Crop2 (Large)When the object is right, such as the Rosette Nebula, narrowband imaging using the ZWO camera produces exceptional results.  This is evident in these recent images where it’s now possible to clearly see structural elements of the nebula, as well as the star fields located within.  Frankly I am very excited by these new images and can’t wait for next year to come around again!

Postscript: Research at Leeds University just published suggests that the Rosette Nebula is a disc but I believe my eyes and this image and many others which says otherwise!

IMAGING DETAILS
Object Rosette Nebula     NGC 2244 + 2237, 2238, 2239 & 2246   
Constellation Monoceros
Distance 5,000 light-years
Size Approx. 100 light-years or 1.3o
Apparent Magnitude +9.0
 
Scope  William Optics GT81 + Focal Reducer FL 382mm  f4.72
Mount SW AZ-EQ6 GT + EQASCOM computer control
Guiding William Optics 50mm guide scope
  + Starlight Xpress Lodestar X2 guide camera & PHD2 control
Camera ZWO1600MM-Cool (mono)   CMOS sensor
  FOV 2.65o x 2.0o    Resolution 2.05”/pix   Max. image size 4,656 x 3,520 pix   
EFW ZWOx8 + ZWO LRGB & Ha OIII SII 7nm filters 
Capture & Processing Astro Photography Tool,  Deep Sky Stacker & Photoshop CS2
Exposures 12 x 300 sec Ha, 6 x 300 sec  OIII & SII  (Total time: 120 minutes)
  @ 139 Gain  21 Offset @ -20oC  
Calibration 5 x 300 sec Darks  20 x 1/4000 sec Bias  10 x Flats Ha, OIII & SII @ ADU 25,000  
Location & Darkness Fairvale Observatory – Redhill – Surrey – UK        Typically Bortle 5
Date & Time 9th February 2018 @ 22.00h

 

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.

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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.

Pliades

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

Reflections Crop

JANUARY TO MARCH

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

APRIL TO JUNE

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

JULY TO SEPTEMBER

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  

OCTOBER TO DECEMBER

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

  ETCETERA

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

LRGB1 GXCrop

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

M31 FINAL

CalCrop FINAL

SHO2 FINAL

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.

RECORD CARD – 2017

 

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.

  MUCH BETTER

 

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!

POSTSCRIPT

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

NGC 2174 281017

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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AstroBites-2: Home Sweet Home

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From time-to-time I’ve been fortunate to see the Milky Way but due to the lack of dark skies, rarely in the UK.  With a move towards urbanisation taking place throughout the world, light pollution is a major obstacle to such views and astronomy in general and it is only in more remote, unpopulated locations that such sights are now possible.  On such occasions a view of our galaxy from within is always striking and usually memorable. I’ve been fortunate to visit many such remote places but either didn’t look upwards (why not?) or was hindered by the inevitable cloud.  Recently on a trip in 2016 to Arizona and Utah in the South West USA, such views were hampered by the full moon – timing is everything!  However, there have been two occasions when the darkness was so complete that I found the view of the Milky Way to be not only incredible but quiet profound – first in the Kalahari desert in Botswana and subsequently on a scuba diving trip whilst motoring southwards along the middle of the Red Sea at night with the boat’s lights turned off.

Notwithstanding, since my interest in astronomy started a few years ago I have yet to successfully image the Milky Way, which has remained resolutely elusive to my camera sensor.  I have tried a few times at Fairvale Observatory but the night sky here at best rates 5 on the Bortle scale and makes such imaging almost impossible.  Then whilst in the Arizona desert last year (see above) and on other occasions I have been thwarted by a full moon.  Apart from the obvious problem of light pollution I was beginning to wonder if I was doing something wrong but no, it was the sky conditions.

Finally during September this year, whilst camping in Dorset on the Isle of Purbeck just west of Corfe Castle, I at last managed to image the all elusive galaxy – our galaxy (see top of page).  Looking south across the Purbeck hills towards the English Channel, the Milky Way was revealed in all its glory traversing the clear, very dark sky which itself was pierced by the vivid light of the myriad of stars; it is on such occasions I realise just what I’m missing at home.  Once accustomed to the darkness the form and some detail of the Milky Way could be clearly discerned with the naked eye but of course the camera saw a lot more.

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Some processing shows good detail of the Milky Way but at ISO 6400 is too noisy

Using my unmodded Canon 700D DSLR and an ultra wide-angle 10mm lens, for the first time I was able to capture some reasonable images of the Milky Way.  All were shot on a static tripod between 15 and 20 second exposures at ISO 6,400; I had set-up the camera on the Vixen Polarie for tracking but could not obtain a favourable view of the galaxy in this way.  From this experience next time I would reduce the ISO to at least 3,200 or less and increase the exposure time based on the ‘Rule of 500’ to about 30 seconds.  However, for now I’m happy with the result and hope the next opportunity doesn’t take another  lifetime coming.