Pelican Brief

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Located 3o west of the star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation, the North America Nebula is an emission nebula spanning some 50 light-years across, which contains numerous areas of astronomical interest that form some excellent imaging targets.  In the past I’ve usually concentrated on the ‘continent’ of North America itself but on this occasion moved my attention off the ‘east coast’ in search of the distinctive Pelican Nebula – it really does look like a pelican!

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North American Nebula (left) & Pelican Nebula | WO GT 81 & modded-Canon 550D | 2015

Separated from its neighbour by a molecular cloud of dark dust, the dominant HII region of the Pelican Nebula responds well to Ha imaging and I therefore sought to capture the ‘bird’ in this and other narrowband wavelengths.  Detail within the main cloud is further highlighted as a result of ionization from within created by young star formation, making for some pleasing and often spectacular effects.

Whilst image capture went well I was concerned by the outcome of stretching the Ha-image after stacking; the stacked image in DSS looked bright and detailed but after using Levels in Photoshop to establish the dark and light points the resulting image was somewhat dull in appearance and without the finer detail I had previously seen in DSS.  Responses to a question on the SGL Forum post made it clear that I needed to be bolder when stretching in order to achieve the desired result; I am further persuaded that I’ve been too timid with such processing techniques in the past and may need to revisit and reprocess some older data when time permits.

Pelican Images 10th August 2017 in order below:  

Ha – Bicolour – SHO narrowband

WO GT81 & ZWO1600MM-Cool + x0.80 focal reducer | 180 sec Gain 300 Offset 10 @ -20C 

10xHa + 10xOIII + 5x SII + full calibration    

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I went on to process the full narrowband data in both SHO and Bicolour, with interesting results.  The aforementioned assessment of linear stretching resulted in a much improved Ha-image, which subsequently impacted positively on the final compiled image.  However, there’s still much to consider when processing the combined channels, in particular in narrowband.

Some aspects of manipulation used during processing can have a material impact on the final image and I’ve long been concerned whether the resulting astrophotography presents a factual representation – in the case of narrowband the answer must surely be no.  Depending on the quality of data capture, detail and structure will usually be accurately recorded but subsequent ‘playing’ with the colour channels is most likely to produce a final image that is pleasing aesthetically to the photographer rather than factual; in the case of narrowband the colours available will be correctly determined by the respective filter wavelengths but there is no definitive measure of what actual colour should be in the final image.

RGB2crop (Large)In this case the Ha-image of The Pelican that was obtained demonstrated the significant improvements that can be achieved with the CMOS based ZWO1600MM-Cool camera compared to a DSLR.  I’m still learning about processing and in particular, with the plethora of options available when using LRGB and narrowband subs the issues have now escalated exponentially.  Notwithstanding the aforementioned issues I’m very pleased with my ‘new’ bird The Pelican Nebula.

SHO2 Crop (Large)

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The Dutch Gadget

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

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

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

solstice sky

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

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

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North America Nebula in Ha-OIII Bicolour

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North America Nebula in SHO

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

M16 SHO1 (Large)

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

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