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.


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

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

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  



Lost In Space

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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.

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  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.


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.

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The Fox & Cone

Cone Ha100 20 15 OIII B CROP

After the fun of December and January provided by the wide choice of exciting DSO objects, February affords a worthy finale to the winter season, in particular within the constellation Monoceros.  After successfully imaging the Rosette Nebula on 9th February, a few days later I was able to move on to another nearby HII-region in the Milky Way, with equally good results.  Surprisingly it’s been just over 3-years since I last imaged the same part of the sky just before Christmas 2014, on that occasion with an unmodded Cannon 700D DSLR.  Now armed with the more capable ZWO1600MM-Cool camera and narrowband filters, the potential for raising the bar was good and the results did not disappoint.


Of foremost interest this time was NGC 2264, which officially describes the Cone Nebula and Christmas Tree Cluster but also includes the Snowflake Cluster and Fox Fur Nebula, all set within a large HII-region.  Individually each object is towards the limit of my equipment’s resolution but taken all together makes for an interesting combination when encompassed inside the 2.65o x 2.00o field-of-view.  Like the Rosette I chose to image in narrowband, with a total integration time of 90 minutes; again using 300 second subs at Unity gain proved to be very effective – I suspect that only more subs rather than longer exposures would lead to a better outcome but that will have to wait until I’ve sorted how to plate solve, watch this space!

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I’ve recently been experimenting in Photoshop using star masks and related sharpening and contrast enhancement methods, which for the first time I applied when processing these images to great effect.   Being an HII-region the overall image area is dominated by Ha-light and the processed Ha-subs resulted in a very exciting image at this wavelength, with many subtleties revealed throughout (see below).  On the other hand OIII and especially SII wavelengths are much less prevalent, from which it would seem  that a higher ratio of those subs would be required to better tease out detail at those wavelengths.  Notwithstanding, the resulting Ha-OIII-OIII Bi-Colour image has turned out well (top of the page), with all the aforementioned objects showing clearly.

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The signature object of this image is probably the Cone Nebula.  New stars are forming within a cone shaped dark molecular cloud, itself sculpted by strong stellar winds. However, I consider the Fox Fur Nebula (Sharpless-273) to be the bigger imaging challenge, which I’m therefore pleased to say is starting to show well in these images.  The name derives from the rich, fur-like texture of the nebula which is also shaped by stellar winds; reckon The Fox & Cone would make a good pub name! Below:  Cone Nebula & Christmas Tree Cluster Ha-OIII-OIII before colour mapping.

Cone Ha100 20 15 OIII A crop

But there’s more. A series of stars form an inverted outline shape of the so-called Christmas Tree Cluster above the Cone Nebula (see image above), with the conspicuously bright 15 Monocerotis at its base made of a massive variable star system.  And finally, somewhat off piste, lurking in the top right corner of the main image is NGC 2261 or Hubble’s Variable Nebula.  Discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1949, the nebula is illuminated by the unseen R Monocerotis star and forms a small but distinct bright triangular area.

All-in-all this is a great part of the February sky for imaging.  There’s still more to discover and I won’t leave it as long as 3-years before going back again, with the objectives of increasing integration time and possible addition of RGB subs to enhance the colour potential.

Object Fox  & Cone Nebulae  NGC 2264 + Hubble’s Variable Nebula NGC  2261     
Constellation Monoceros
Distance 2,700 light-years
Size Approx. 54’ x 37’
Apparent Magnitude +3.9
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   (Total time: 90 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 11th February 2018 @ 21.00h

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.


The Te Awamutu Space Centre – Kihikihi

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

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


Maori star names of Mataraki (Pleiades)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ohaupo Sky

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

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

Reflections – 2017

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

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

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

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

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

WTSM Heat Map

Reflections Crop


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Record of quarterly photographic images taken in 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_9984 (Large)

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


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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Images

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

Aurora Borealis-2 Northern Norway February 2017


NGC 2244 SHO Final1

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SHO Final

Eastern Veil Nebula detail in Bicolour 19th August 2017

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

MiIky Way Isle of Purbeck Dorset September 2017




Cygnus Wall BiCol FINAL

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

Round-up & goals for 2017

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



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



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Watch this space!


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

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-2: Home Sweet Home

IMG_8748 FINAL (Large)

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.

Cosmic Nursery


With the summer arm of the Milky Way now starting to dominate the late evening sky I’m slowly returning to imaging DSO objects, this time literally in a new light using the ZWO1600MM-Cool camera.  Because of the inclined orientation of the Milky Way it is the lower altitude objects that first become accessible, which is unfortunate as seeing conditions will generally always be poor at these levels.

South Overview copy

However, the problem is compounded here at Fairvale Observatory by high hedges and numerous large trees that obscure much of the southern horizon below about 28and in this case also severely restricting imaging time.  It’s a real pity as the constellation Sagittarius that is located in this region of the sky abounds with some wonderful objects.

M20 Location

On this occasion my primary target was M20, the Trifid Nebula (NGC 6514). At some 28” size and an apparent magnitude of +6.3 it is just feasible with my equipment, so long as I could overcome the obstructions along the southern horizon!  Located 5,000 light-years from Earth in the Scutum spiral arm of the Milky Way, at about 300,000 years old M20 is one of the youngest star forming regions in the sky.  The feature is a combination of open star clusters, emission nebula and reflection nebula separated by dark dust lanes, that together form three lobes i.e. Trifid.  As a stellar nursery, close to the centre the most massive star is twenty times the size of the Sun surrounded by a cluster of 3,100 young stars.

M20 BiColour MasterC2HP (Large)

M20 Trifid Nebula & western edge of M8 Lagoon Nebula in Ha-OIII bicolour | WO GT81 & ZWO1600MM-Cool camera + 0.80 focal reducer | 180 sec x10 Ha x5 OIII x3 SII + full calibration Gain 300 Offset 10 @ -20C | 27th July 2017


M20 BiColour MasterC2HP CROP (Large)

M20 Trifid Nebula in Ha-OIII Bicolour (cropped)

Despite the limited imaging time available and other difficulties, I’m pleased with the resulting images, which have been processed in SHO and Ha-OIII bicolour.  Furthermore, just evident along the left side of the main image is the western edge of the much larger Lagoon Nebula or M8; unfortunately being even lower in the sky I don’t think I’ll ever be able to image M8 from this location.

M20 SHO Master GxHP crop (Large)

M20 Trifid Nebula in SHO narrowband (cropped)

Together with the recent success of the Eagle Nebula and Eastern Veil, things are shaping up well for astrophotography once again as the Milky Way and other features pass across the night sky over the coming increasingly dark weeks.  I’m certain to return to M20 again as it’s a wonderful object, hopefully from a better vantage point next time that will allow imaging of some of its neighbours.  I have long been aware of M20 and in my ignorance was going to call this blog Gardener’s World but now realise that it is the Trifid not Triffid nebula!


That’s Trifid not Triffid!


Reflections – 2016

2016 was the second full year of Watch This Space Man (WTSM) and once again it’s been something of a mixed period.  Faced with a major, apparently insoluble problem, by mid-year I actually thought of giving up but by year-end it’s all come good again, in fact very good.   Reflections is a look back at the ups-and-downs of the past year, astronomically speaking and a peek into the next twelve months, which one way or another could determine the future of my astrophotography.


I have been astonished by the interest in this website, with some 7,000 visits and 14,000 page views from more than 65 different countries during the year, the list is quite amazing.  Though I write this blog for myself, I am increasingly aware of this unsolicited readership – you are all most welcome and I 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 Contact drop-down section of the About main menu.



The year started poorly, got much worse, then finally improved. Using my recently acquired Vixen Polarie I was pleased to start the year with an image of Barnard’s Loop, something notoriously difficult to photograph and had previously eluded me.  Sadly I was not so successful with the Milky Way and have reluctantly come to the obvious conclusion that this can only be imaged in much darker skies than I’m ever likely to experience located just to the south of London and close to Gatwick airport!

As Orion starts to move on after Christmas and especially from February, I struggle to find suitable imaging targets; Coma Berenices and other constellations at this time contain numerous galaxies but they’re mostly too small for my William Optics GT81 and otherwise what might be doable I have already done before.  Notwithstanding, after looking carefully I came across two HII nebulae still lurking in the early evening.  The size and Ha-light of NGC 2174 Monkey Head Nebula and IC 2177 Seagull Nebula, provided just what I was looking for.  Located close to Gemini and Monoceros constellations, both these DSOs are within the part of the Milky Way section of the sky, an area that thankfully produces many other similar opportunities at this time of the year for a modded DSLR camera.

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Monkey Head Nebula

It’s often the small things that either alone or cumulatively can help transform the outcome with astrophotography.  The quarterly period finished by acquiring two new pieces of equipment, one which could help improve the set-up and operation of the mount, the other which I hoped would help me move to the next level of imaging.

  • When working in the dark and worse still in the cold, the ergonomics and general convenience of operating the equipment becomes paramount.  Since starting to use EQMOD-ASCOM and Cartes du Ciel for mount control and tracking, I encountered the problem of having to be in two places at the same time; in this case co-ordinating adjustments at the mount and the computer, in particular when making and syncing star alignments.  The answer to this conundrum was a gamepad, which I purchased for a nominal sum on eBay and after watching the inimitable Chris Shillito’s video on setting up and using a gamepad with EQMOD-ASCOM, have never looked back.  By using the gamepad the telescope can now be manually slewed, centred and synced on any object whilst remaining at the scope, thereby making the process of alignment much quicker and convenient.
  • At the end of 2015 it was my intention to start guiding in the coming year, a prerequisite for the long exposures necessary to increase data capture and thus hopefully improve image quality.  I had originally intended to use my ZWO ASI120 MC camera together with a William Optics 50mm guidescope for this purpose but there always seemed to be other problems to overcome first and to be honest, I was somewhat intimidated about tackling the black art of guiding.  I was finally prompted to do something about this when in March a second-hand Starlight Express Lodestar X2 autoguide camera came up on the UK Astronomy Buy & Sell.  From previous research I knew this was considered to be a very good and popular guiding camera, so as it had only just been posted on the website, I immediately went for it and was successful – timing is everything.  Inevitably I had problems setting-up and in particular getting the camera to focus – which was my own fault – but by the end of March I was guiding!  Truth is my guiding at this stage was not very good and I needed to look further into using the PHD2 guiding software but nonetheless, the equipment was at least now working together!


Date Object*


1 07/01/16 Orion Barnard’s Loop
2 14/01/16 Orion Barnard’s Loop
3 02/02/16 Catalina Comet
4 02/02/16 Milky Way  
5 10/02/16 IC 2087 Dark nebula
6 NGC 2174 Monkey Head Nebula
7 IC 2177 Seagull Nebula

*Record of quarterly photographic images taken in 2016


After finishing the previous quarter on something of a high note by getting PHD2 working for the first time, I was now hopeful that from herein my exposures and thus images would show improvement – unfortunately I was soon to be very disappointed.

In April we went on a trip to the Southwestern USA – something of a geological pilgrimage for my wife and I (we are both geologists) – to see the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park as well as many other similar areas.  Prior to going I had purchased a Sigma 10mm-20mm wide-angle lens in anticipation of all the big views that are characteristic of the region and was not disappointed by the lens or the scenery.

Being largely an uninhabited wilderness area, I also took the Vixen Polarie with a plan to at last capture images of the Milky Way.  Unfortunately, whilst I had checked the sky beforehand on Cartes du Ciel, I think I must have made an error with the dates.  We did get clear skies but unfortunately it turned out to be a full moon whilst there, which ruled out any hope of seeing, let alone imaging the Milky Way; oh well there’s always another day and it’s not going anywhere in the meantime.  Notwithstanding I did manage some pleasing nightscapes at Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon.

IMG_6235 (Large)

Given my initial guiding success prior to visiting the USA, I had been looking forwards to getting to grips with improving guiding and imaging on my return.  Furthermore, on 6th May there was a rare solar transit of Mercury and in preparation, the week before I set up and tested all the equipment and then successfully took some test images of the Sun using a Baader solar filter.  All was well on the appointed day which was also fortunately clear and sunny, so that shortly before contact I was all set and ready to try and capture the movement of a small black dot (Mercury) across the face of the Sun.  Unfortunately it was not to be and the weeks that followed almost marked the end of my still nascent hobby of astrophotography!

In short, EQMOD crashed when I turned on the DSLR camera to image the transit!  I tried re-booting and checked every other piece of equipment numerous times but to no avail.  I subsequently spent weeks trying to track down the problem, checking and re-checking every cable, piece of equipment and updating or reinstalling all the relevant software without success.  The nature of the problem strongly suggested there was a conflict between EQMOD-ASCOM and the camera and I therefore turned to the EQMOD forum for help, without success.  Somewhat late in the day and by now desperate, I posted the issue on SGL and quickly received a reply from someone who had had a very similar problem, which though also very difficult to identify, turned out to be a very small break in the outer cover of the DSLR AC/DC power adapter cable.  It’s not clear to me why this matters but I bought a new adapter and as they say, Bob’s your uncle, it worked!  I have looked very carefully at my adapter and cable and can see nothing wrong but am very thankful for the advice.


AC/DC Adapter: How can something as basic as this cause so much disruption?

It seems ridiculous that this very minor problem was nearly terminal but just in case it happens again I have since bought another spare power adapter.  Together with my daughter’s wedding in early June and the adapter meltdown, imaging for two of the three months during this period was almost non-existent.  Still by July I was ready to start again but by then there was no astronomical darkness!


Date Object


8 April USA Monument Valley etc
9 06/06/16 M5 Globular cluster
10 M13 Globular cluster
11 M57 Ring Nebula


After the carnage of the last quarter, I was then unable to resume imaging in July due to travel commitments.  So I used what time was available to improve my knowledge of PHD2 and once again, check everything was now working ready for the return of astronomical darkness and better night skies from 20th July; I am of course now paranoid of another similar breakdown.  At the start of August I manged to obtain a just passable image of the Eagle Nebula for the first time.  Then shortly afterwards on the evening of 11th / 12th August, clear skies produced a decent night for viewing and imaging a few of this year’s Perseids meteor shower.  But it was at month-end and continuing into September that my imaging in 2016 finally took off.


At that time the weather was consistently dry and warm, providing more than a week of clear skies and almost nightly imaging.  Dark nebulae are interesting features I’d hitherto not recognised as imaging opportunities and was therefore intrigued to successfully image the E-Nebula at this time.  Thereafter I used the opportunity of the weather window to experiment with PHD2 by using M27 the Dumbbell or Apple Core Nebula as a control imaging object.  Of course, each year is different but I’ll try to use any similar conditions in the future to sort out and develop old and new techniques, such unusual moments are precious for UK astronomers.  At the end of nearly two tiring weeks I had PHD2 working quite well and have not looked back since.  As a result of this work soon thereafter obtained good images of the Andromeda Galaxy, as well as the Veil, Crescent and Ring Nebulae.


Date Object


12 07/08/16 M16 Eagle Nebula
13   M11 Globular
14   B142-3 Dark E-Nebula
15 11/08/16 Perseids  
16 23/08/16 LDN 673 Dark Nebula
17   NGC 6781 Planetary Nebula
18   M27 Dumbbell Nebula
19   Albireo Double star
20   Moon  
21 28/08/16 M11 Globular cluster
22   NGC 6905 Blue Flash Neb
23   Albireo Double star
24   15 Aquilea Double star
25   NGC 6960 W Veil / Witch’s Broom
26   M32 Andromeda Galaxy
27 29/08/16 M27 Dumbbell Neb
28   NGC 6960 W Veil / Witch’s Broom
29   NGC 7814 Pegasus galaxy
30   M15 Globular
31   M27 Dumbbell Nebula
32   M27 Dumbbell Nebula
33 08/0916 M27 Dumbbell Nebula
34   M27 Dumbbell Nebula
35   NGC 6960 W Veil / Witch’s Broom
36   NGC 6960 W Veil / Witch’s Broom
37   M31 Andromeda Galaxy
38 11/09/16 NGC 6888 Crescent Nebula
39   NGC 6992 Eastern Veil  (NGC 6995)
40 13/09/16 M57 Ring Nebula


Normal conditions resumed later in September and into the final quarter in the form of overcast skies.  A minor break in the weather allowed a crack at the M33 Triangulum Galaxy towards the end of October but only in late November did another clear period occur, by which time the winter sky had arrived and temperatures had fallen to nearly 0oC.

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M33 Triangulum Galaxy – consisting of some 40-billion stars, the photons in this image have travelled 3-million light years in order to reach my camera sensor! | WO GT81 + modded Canon EOS 550D & FF guided | 18 x 300 secs @ ISO 800 & full calibration | 22nd October 2016

Unfortunately I am unable to establish a permanent observatory here at Fairvale and have to take-out the bring-in all the astronomy equipment each time.  Apart from being inconvenient this has two practical disadvantages: (i) it can be uncomfortable even unpleasant working outside in such temperatures, and (ii) it is necessary to polar and star align every time; on occasion when using SynScan and EQMOD-ASCOM it can take up to 2-hours before starting imaging.  Fortunately, I think I have now sorted out both these problems which should greatly help in the future.

By re-configuring the computer, mount and camera wiring, combined with establishing a wireless link between my tablet and the computer, once set-up I can now control most of the functions from indoors.  The comfort of being indoors benefits operating in general and especially thinking, which can be quite difficult when astroimaging and made even harder when it is cold.

With prolonged periods of clear weather in the second-half of the year, I was sometimes able to set-up and leave the equipment for a few days under a waterproof cover, which meant that from day-to-day I could be up-and-running each time in less than 30 minutes!  However, I expect this will only rarely be possible and nightly set-ups are likely to continue to be the norm.  Fortunately, I have also recently discovered two techniques that should help both streamline and improve star and polar alignment in the future.

In addition to guiding, PHD2 has a very good polar alignment facility that eliminates the use of the SynScan handset and enables the procedure to be carried out from the computer; it can also be undertaken without sight of the Polaris star, which is a major problem at Fairvale Observatory where it is totally obscured by my house.  At times when the mount can be left outside, I can also save and subsequently re-use the star-alignment model in EQMOD-ASCOM.  All-in-all these and other procedures have made a very positive impact on my astronomy and astroimaging.  The outcome of these changes led to a decent sequence of imaging with which to finish the year and, furthermore, hopefully provides a strong foundation for continuing improvements in 2017.


Date Object


41 22/10/16 M15 Globula cluster
42   M33 Triangulum Spiral Galaxy
43 28/11/16 M45 Pleiades
44   NGC 2024 Horsehead Nebula
45   M42 Orion Nebula
46 29/11/16 Hyades Open star cluster
47   NGC 2244 Rosette Nebula
48 30/11/16 NGC 1499 California Nebula
49   IC 405 Flaming Star Nebula
50 03/12/16 M74 Spiral Galaxy
51   M77 Spiral Galaxy
52   M1 Crab Nebula
53   IC 2118 Witch’s Head
54   M78 Reflection Nebula
55 04/12/16 SH2-264 Lamda Orionis
56   SH2-261 Lower’s Nebula


A few other astronomy and imaging related matters helped shape the past year for me. After  coming across WTSM, I was surprised to be contacted by the Purley Photography Camera Club to give a lecture on astrophotography in March.  I’m pleased to say the event went very well and, furthermore, the process of compiling the presentation beforehand helped expand my own knowledge of the subject too.

TTT Cover

In May I received a sun dial installed on a carved Purbeck Stone plinth as a retirement present.  As a time piece it’s accuracy is limited but it is a beautiful addition to my garden and solar astronomy for which I am very grateful.  By coincidence, later in the year I also came across a simple but charming sun dial set into the ground by the upper lake at Earlswood Common, a short walk from my home and  Fairvale Observatory.  Intriguingly it works by standing on a central stone, located depending on the season, and then uses your own shadow to read off the time – clever.

In September we visited Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, home of William Fox Talbot in the 19th Century – photography pioneer and notable for developing photographic fixing and printing.  The photography museum there is very good and it was fascinating to see his place of work in the house, where the very first photographic print is also displayed.  His contribution to photography  is unique and today he is generally recognised as the father of modern photography.


As  a Londoner born and bread, I like to think I know the city well and over my lifetime have visited most of its unique sites, old and new.  However, for some inexplicable reason I had never been to Westminster Abbey, so decided to put that right in November.  It is, of course, a building of unparalleled history, with numerous graves and memorials of centuries of kings & queens, as well as scientists, explorers, poets, actors etc.  Noteworthy amongst these for the astronomer is the physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton and  Second Astronomer Royal, Edmond Halley.

I must next give mention to the man who throughout the year dominated my reading, learning and thinking – Albert Einstein.  His work during the early part 20th Century still dominates today’s physics and astronomy.  We continue to make ground breaking discoveries that substantiate and build on his ideas that were originally postulated over 100-years ago.  Pictures only recently obtained using the the Hubble telescope have spectacularly demonstrated the effect of gravitation lensing and in 2016 for the first time ever the existence of gravitational waves was confirmed.  This year I therefore decided to understand the man and his work better.  During the first half of the 2016 I read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Einstein and have recently completed and 8-week Stanford University course on the Special Theory of Relativity.  They were both very enjoyable, immensely interesting and time well spent.

Finally, this Christmas I was surprised and very pleased to receive a printed, bound copy of the WTSM blog for the period since its inception on 5th August 2014 until 10th November 2016.  A lot of work has gone into producing this blog and I’ve always been concerned that somehow something might go wrong with the website or internet and it would all be lost. This book now safely preserves in print all the blogs and images posted during the aforementioned period.  The production is generally very good and I have already enjoyed re-reading some of my blogs once again.


WTSM: The Book!

Favourite Images

As a result of the aforementioned issues, 2016 has certainly been a year of two halves.  Having resolved the equipment problem and started to employ some very useful new techniques and software, I was eventually able to obtain some good images. My personal favourites in no particular order are shown here below:

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Barnard’s Loop & Lamda Orionis Nebula : Vixen Polarie & modded Canon 550D + Sigma UWA @ 20mm | 11 x 240 secs @ ISO 1,600 + darks | 7th January 2016

IMG_6219L1C1 (Large)

Monument Valley by Night: order of buttes same as daytime photo above. Canon 700D + 10mm Sigma wide-angle lens | 20 x 15 secs @ ISO 6,400 | 10th April 2016

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B142/3 Barnard Dark E-Nebula

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M27 Apple Core Nebula | William Optics GT81 + 50mm Guide Scope & 10-point EQMOD-ASCOM alignment model | modded Canon 550D + Field Flattener | 3 x 300 secs @ ISO 1,600 & full calibration, 90% cropped | 30th August 2016

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M31 | WO GT81 + modded Canon 550D & FF | 10 x 300 secs @ ISAO 1,600, darks + flats | 8th September 2016


Round-up & goals for 2017

Despite the frankly awful start to the year, astronomically speaking 2016 finished on something of a high.  Furthermore, contrary to initial indications I was in the end partially successful in achieving some of my objectives set out at the beginning of last year:

Goal Specifics / Results Outcome
Increase imaging exposure times Improved equipment set-up and alignment and successfully started autoguiding with exposure times of up to 8-minutes. DONE


Improve processing Started using newer version of Photoshop CS2 + other related software. Improvement with post-processing using online tutorials and Nik Syzmanek’s booklet Shooting Stars. GETTING THERE


Start widefield imaging Purchased Vixen Polarie, with portability put to use in the USA but did not make UK dark sky sites as planned. GETTING THERE



Getting better: PHD2 working screen 30th November 2016, DEC is good but room for improvement with the RA settings. Notwithstanding, the impact of tracking and image quality is noticeable.


I’m concerned about setting more goals or the forthcoming year but I think it helps, so here goes:

  • Improve processing: As the headmaster’s report would say “room for improvement” and I will try.  I have purchased Warren Keller’s book Inside PixInsight, considered by many to be the gold standard of post-processing software but is a nightmare to learn – this may be a step too far for now, we’ll have to see – maybe 2018?
  • Expand and improve 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 more successfully.
  • Start LRGB imaging: I spent a lot of time in 2016 considering the question – what next? I am keen to image smaller DSO objects, in particular galaxies and was on the verge of purchasing a larger telescope – probably another refractor.  However, after attending a talk by Nik Syzmanek, one of Britain’s foremost astrophotographers, I have come to the conclusion that the next step should probably be a move to LRGB imaging, which if successful probably has the greatest potential to improve my pictures – let’s hope so.

Looking back 2016 was a funny old year, which for me was defined by three experiences:

Despite two wonderful periods at the end of August and November the weather for astronomy was mostly awful, with cloud cover for weeks on-end and when it was clear, it was a full moon – frustrating or what?

I had already learned that patience and perseverance are required in large quantities for astroimaging but the equipment break-down in May and June was so severe and apparently insoluble that, together with the aforementioned cloudy skies, I really thought of giving up.

However, this time there is a happy ending: after I finally solved the equipment problem and started autoguiding, I feel I have eventually made some great strides with my imaging in 2016 which, furthermore, holds much promise for the coming year and I hope can record in WTSM’s Reflections at the end of 2017.

Watch this space!


It’s all in the stars


After 24-weeks I have just completed Imagining Other Earths, a Coursera MOOC presented by David Spergel, Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy at Princeton University – soon to become Director of the new Computational Centre of Astrophysics, NY – and cannot speak too highly of the course.  In my quest to better understand what I am seeing and imaging, I have participated in five astronomy courses and this is by a country mile the best; how many country miles in a parsec I wonder?  There was very little not covered about astronomy in the course, including related geology and life itself but it was outstanding for three reasons:

  • Frequent use of easy-to-understand equations to explain and link various processes responsible for the Universe and everything in it;
  • It is very comprehensive, thorough and well produced, and…
  • David’s lecturing is just very good – easy to understand and well delivered.

For some while now the trend in my astrophotography has been increasingly directed towards seeing the big picture and by coincidence the course followed a similar scientific theme in order to Imagine Other Earths throughout the Universe; a metaphor for life itself and possibilities across the Universe.


The ultimate question starts at the beginning – where do we come from?  Moby and astrophysicists seem to have the answer: we are all made of stars.  How we get from that to here may be an even bigger question and like the philosophers in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy looking for the meaning of life (answer = 42!), should keep many astrophysicists gainfully employed for aeons.


In the meantime there is strong evidence that we do indeed come from stars and their evolution through the process of nucleosynthesis, which is responsible for all but a few man-made elements that we find on Earth.  Through the action of nuclear fusion a star burns its way through the periodic table, first from hydrogen to helium then carbon-oxygen-magnesium-silicon and eventually iron.  Thereafter the other, heavier elements require even more extreme conditions – heat & pressure – that can only be found in the late or final stage of a star’s life such as a Super Nova.


When the Periodic Table was initially formulated in 1863 by Dimitri Mendeleev there were 53 elements, which through subsequent discovery have now grown to 118.  I find it wonderful and exciting that almost all of these can be attributed to stellar evolution, which can be viewed and imaged in the night sky.


At this time of the year the Milky Way is a dominant feature passing across the winter night sky which provides numerous, sometimes spectacular objects that are favourable for imaging.  Located close to the western edge of the Milky Way in the constellation of Auriga about 1,500 light-years from Earth, is IC 405 or Flaming Star Nebula and nearby (visually) IC 410 or Tadpole Nebula, itself at 12,000 light-years distance.   Located across the central area between these objects is a star field, notable of which and actually within the IC 405 is the O-type blue variable star of AE Aurigae, that is responsible for illuminating the nebulae.


IC 405 is formed of two sections, consisting of an emission and reflection nebula. Radiation from the variable star AE Aurigea, that is located in the lower part of upper-east (left) lobe, excites the hydrogen gas of the nebula which then glows red, while carbon-rich dust also creates a blue reflection from the same star.

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IC 405 (right)-The Flaming Star Nebula inc AE Aurigae varibale star & IC 405-The Tadpole Nebula: WO GT81 & modded Canon 550D + FF | 15 x 180 sec @ ISO 1,600 & full calibration | 8th December 2015

Located within the nebula IC 410 and partly responsible for its illumination is an open cluster of massive young stars, NGC 1893.  Being just 4-million years old these bright star clusters are the site of new star formation and therefore are just starting their creation of new elements.  The so named ‘tadpoles’ are filaments of cool gas and dust about 10 light-years long.

IC 410Canotate (Large)

IC 410-The Tadpole Nebula: Illuminated from within by the NGC 1839 star cluster.  Image cropped and forced to highlight the two ‘tadpoles’, which can just be seen indicated in the green ellipses (‘tails’ upwards)

Each nebula is large, respectively 30’ x 20’ and 40’ x 30’, with an apparent magnitude of +6.0, which combined with the star AE Aurigae makes an excellent target for the William Optics GT81.  I find it thrilling to consider the processes taking place in these objects that I have captured in the photograph, which surely represents the ultimate Big Picture?