Planetary Playtime

SKY Live

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

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

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

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

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

Saturn

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

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

 

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Two’s Company

 

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The night sky is full of wonderful worlds, which themselves consist of amazing objects and features.  I was originally drawn to astronomy by viewing Saturn through a telescope, which to this day retains a fascination and beauty for me.  Of course it is Saturn’s rings that make it stand out as perhaps the iconic object of the night sky; even to the lay person their nature and colour tell us something special is taking place.  The rings and associated shepherd moons indicate that something is happening to bring all the particles and objects precisely together in a disc that rotates around the planet – gravity. Perhaps surprisingly this force remains a mystery to science, although it is now clear that it has an overarching impact on the development of the Universe itself.

Another fascinating feature of gravity is the formation of globular clusters, which I find both beautiful and bewildering.  Bound tightly by gravity, each cluster is made of at least several hundred thousand very old stars, typically between 8 to 10 billion years, which usually orbit at a far distance outside and at right angles to the galactic disc.  So far about 158 globular clusters have been identified around the Milky Way and we now know such objects are also commonly associated with other galaxies.  During the summer and autumn many of these enigmatic star clusters can be seen across the sky, which form wonderful imaging targets.

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M15: 12bn light-years old globular star cluster | Constellation Pegasus, 33,600 ly from Earth, apparent mag. +6.2, size 18.0′ (diameter 176 ly) | WO GT81 + modded Canon 550D & FF | 10 x 300 sec @ ISO 800 & full calibration | 22nd October 2016

Although I have previously spent time observing and imaging Saturn and various globular clusters, as well as notable single stars such as Betelgeuse and Altair, for some reason I have neglected their binary relations.  And so in early autumn this year I turned the telescope and camera towards two of the better examples of these double or binary stars. So-called Doubles consist of two stars orbiting around a barycentre, captured by each other’s gravity.  The challenge is to ‘split’ the stars, thereby differentiating each star as individual features and if relevant by colour, either by observing though the telescope or in an image.

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My initial target was the beautiful Albireo (below), a double star consisting of the mag. +3.1 gold coloured Beta Cygni A and its mag. +5.1 bright blue partner Beta Cygni-B.  At a distance of 430 light-years from Earth and separated by 35 arc seconds, the stars have an implied orbital period of at least 100,000 years.  Together with Deneb, Sadr, Gienah and Delta Cygni, Albireo forms the Northern Cross asterism, which lies almost overhead at midnight during the late summer months in the Northern Hemisphere. Situated at the head of the Cygnus (Swan) constellation, Albireo is also known as the “beak star”.  The contrasting colours of the two stars form one of the most beautiful doubles of the summer sky and forms an attractive imaging target.

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Located in the nearby constellation of Aquila but less notable than Albeiro, is the double 15 Aquilae (below). Some 4-billion years old and a hot 11,000oC in temperature, the larger mag. +5.4 orange giant star is located some 190 light-years from Earth.  Its smaller partner is a cooler white mag. +7.7 star, situated 38 arc seconds away but ‘only’ 4,400oC hot.  Such features abound in the Aquila constellation and I hope to return to this region of the sky again next year for more double fun!

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Doubles are a real treasure of the night sky that are surprisingly common but are easy to overlook.  They are often interesting as well as beautiful to observe and image – I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to them?

 

The Eagle Has Landed

“It is never wise to let a piece of 
electronic equipment know that you are in a hurry” (Murphy’s Law)

Following months of unusually protracted cloud cover during the winter and a short, though productive imaging period that can be measured in weeks, I have been unable to carry out any astrophotography since early May, when for inexplicable reasons everything went pear-shaped!  The problem started on the 9th May and it’s taken me 3-months to solve!  This and other events have therefore resulted in a noticeable paucity of WTSM activity – sorry.

After an earlier successful dry-run with the equipment in preparation for Mercury’s solar transit, a few days later at the very moment the transit started when I switched on the camera, Cartes du Ciel and EQMOD-ASCOM froze and, despite my best efforts, could not be restarted i.e. no images.  With the next transits not due until 2019 and thereafter 2032, this was a missed opportunity at best but as subsequent efforts failed to rectify the problem I’ve reached moments of despair.

I have used the same equipment and software successfully for nearly two years, in particular assigning the same USB COM-ports to avoid potential conflicts; experience of others shows ASCOM can be particularly fickle with the assignment of a COM port.  After some discussion via the EQMOD Yahoo forum group there was consensus that the problem was probably a software conflict or driver issue.  Somehow this didn’t seem right to me given the background described but with no alternative ideas I reluctantly set out to clean up the laptop and update all relevant software and drivers: ASCOM, Cartes du Ciel, EOS Utility etc.  Unfortunately there was no improvement, so I checked and checked again, including all connections and wires but with no success.

I had only queried the problem with the EQMOD Yahoo group convinced that this was where the problem existed and these were after all the experts.  With by now the limited darkness of summertime  nights upon us, despair setting in and my daughter’s wedding to attend to, I put everything aside for a few weeks: (a) for practical reasons, and (b) in order to restore some enthusiasm – hopefully.  At this point, somewhat late in the day, I decided to post a query on Stargazers Lounge; can’t think why I didn’t try before but there you go – the experience and help on SGL has almost always been very helpful and positive.

Almost immediately ‘Smudgeball (AKA Neil) from Scotland responded with a similar experience that turned out to be a very small break in the DSLR mains adapter insulation.  On inspection I could find no such damage to my adapter but it was worth a try, though holiday travel then delayed acquiring a replacement for another few weeks.  Immediately on my return I obtained a new adapter which on testing indoors with the equipment produced a successful outcome – BINGO!  Soon after I was able to get outside once again and at last undertake some astrophotography, phew.  Despite my resolve and perseverance there have been times I’ve really felt like giving up completely and I am still getting over the frustration of these drawn out events.

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AC/DC DSLR power adapter: How can something as basic as this cause so much disruption?

Whilst this was going on I did manage to carry out some planetary observing – with Jupiter, Mars and Saturn all around it was too good to miss.  For a while I have been aware that astrophotography has been distracting me from looking at the night sky itself; it seems strange but you get so tied-up with imaging and forget to look up – I hope to avoid this trap in the future.  Unfortunately the re-awakening of my observing interest only served to highlight the poor quality and range of some of my eyepieces.

After some research and another query on SGL I purchased an Explore Scientific 20mm 68o Maxvision eyepiece, which I thought would fit well in between my existing 32mm and 6mm eyepieces. The Maxvision is very well made but like many high-end eyepieces nowadays is quite bulky. However, the eyepiece has an unusual rubber twist-up eyecup, which though ingenious limits eye relief for those, such as myself, wearing spectacles and narrows the field-of-view.  As a result I exchanged the Maxvison eyepiece for Explore Scientific 5-element 20mm and 10mm 70o eyepieces, which provide much better eye relief and is therefore more suitable for my circumstances.  At this time I have not used either of these but as they are more conventional in design, with good access to the top lens for viewing, I am very hopeful they will do a good job.

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Explore Scientific 20mm eyepiece – good access to the wide angle top lens element provides good eye relief and full use of 70 degree FOV

I routinely watch second-hand equipment on the SGL and UK Astronomy Buy & Sell websites, which has resulted in some timely purchases in the past, including my modded Canon 550D camera and Vixen Polarie.  From experience I find it pays to know exactly what you might be looking for and what a good price might be, in order to act quickly if necessary.  There is great demand for popular items such as the Polarie which tend to go very quickly.  Buoyed by much positive online comments I was recently lucky to see and successfully acquire a Tele Vue 2.5x Powermate, just 3-minutes after it was posted!  I’ve only had brief use so far but it’s already obvious that this is an excellent piece of kit; being parfocal vignetting is eliminated and with great optics it’s noticeably a quantum improvement on a Barlow.

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Additions to the family: Explore Scientific 10mm & 20mm eyepieces and 2.5x Powermate

With the return of astronomical darkness on July 20th and the prospect of Fairvale Observatory able to function again, I have been keen to get back out.  Imaging targets are mixed at this time of the year but I’ve just managed to bag three exciting new objects.  The so-called Pillars of Creation are perhaps the iconic image of modern astronomy, inevitably captured best by the Hubble telescope.  These towering columns of illuminated cosmic dust are situated within M16 or Eagle Nebula, in the constellation of Serpens, which at this time of the year is located low in the southern sky, just above the ecliptic at about 25o – not an ideal but too tantalising not to give it a try.

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At 7-arcseconds in size and +6.0 apparent magnitude, the Eagle is a decent target for the William Optics GT81.  Unfortunately as it’s been some time since the last session and my old nemesis of polar alignment wasn’t too good on this occasion, which combined with its low altitude and lack of guiding was always going to be a challenge.  Notwithstanding I manged to get a reasonable sequence of images that show the shape of the ‘bird’ and even the general nature of the Pillars at the centre of the nebula, though inevitably exposures were short and minor star trails are evident.

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M16 The Eagle Nebula: William Optics GT81 & modded Canon 550D + FF | 15 x 180 sec @ ISO 1,600 + darks | 7th August 2016

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After all the trauma of the past few months it was a satisfying result and later that night I was able to capture two more interesting objects, more of which another time – watch this space.   It’s fair to say that for now the eagle had in more than one way well and truly landed, though given the preceding difficulties and eventual solution it was more like Apollo 13 than 11!

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Summertime Blues

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This year the Summer Solstice falls on 20th June at 23.34 BST, meaning the Sun will have reached its furthest point north; as a result from 22nd of May to 19th July 2014 there is a state of permanent Astronomical Twilight AKA Nautical Darkness at Fairvale Observatory. This means there is a complete lack of Astronomical Darkness for imaging, which when combined with short nights poses various problems for astronomy in general.  Notwithstanding, there are benefits and other opportunities which are worth exploiting.

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Annual darkness at Fairvale Observatory 2016

To turn the problem around an obvious solution at this time is viewing and imaging the Sun.  However, following the initial success of testing my equipment in preparation for Mercury’s transit of the Sun on 9th May, the actual event proved disastrous for solar imaging.  I have subsequently re-checked the equipment and software set-up and the problem has continued but without any obvious reason.  Popular opinion on the EQMOD Forum is that it is a software issue – drivers, EQMOD, EOS Utilities – so when time allows over the summer I will reinstall and test everything, hopefully ready for the return of astronomical darkness on 20th July.  Murphy’s Law will likely mean it’s something else but for the moment this seems to be the only way forwards, or is it backwards?  Having just managed to get guiding to work, I had been looking forwards to a new imaging era but that’s astrophotography!

Although the nights are now short the temperatures have been pleasantly warm; after the long dark but cold nights of winter (and spring this year) it’s been a real pleasure to be outside in summer clothing and without the threat of condensation on the equipment.  Notwithstanding, ever present cloud and inevitably the Moon has continued to thwart my efforts until recently, as I have at last just managed a couple of very enjoyable evenings.

At the moment the three major planets of Jupiter, Mars and Saturn can all be seen at various times between 10.00 pm to nearly 3.00 am, when the early morning light then becomes evident. After putting on a great show during May, Jupiter still remains high in the sky just after sunset.  Mars and Saturn are at a much lower declination of between 10o   and 17o but provide very good views in the right seeing conditions, especially Mars which with an apparent dimension of 18.6o has recently looked excellent, even to the naked eye.

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With such opportunities I decided to try out the Skywatcher 150PL and the ZWO ASI120MC once again.  It is almost two years since I used this telescope, preferring instead the superior William Optics GT81 for viewing and imaging.  However, with a focal length of 1,200mm and 150mm aperture (f8) the Newtonian scope is better suited to planetary objects; this was also the first time I rigged the scope for use on the AZ-EQ6 GT mount, thus providing better control than the EQ3-2 I have previously used.

Sure enough the views of each planet were very good but also being unaccustomed to the ZWO webcam through lack of use, I failed to obtain any images!  Pity but the lesson learned is that I cannot just dabble with this equipment and need to dedicate more time in the future if I am to learn how to use properly again.  Nonetheless, it was fun re-acquainting myself with these planets.  As an unexpected bonus the ISS also flew right over Fairvale Observatory for over 7 minutes.  This time the station was noticeably brighter than previously observed, which I put down to Nautical Darkness and the relative position of the Sun that results, thus producing greater reflection and therefore better illumination of the ISS when viewed from the ground?

All-in-all after months of difficulties and inactivity it was a good night and at midnight I therefore decided to swap to the William Optics GT81 for some DSO imaging.  After setting-up the scope I looked up and, as if from nowhere, broken cloud had rolled in obscuring much of the sky and putting an end to any DSO imaging.  Oh well, I had had a good time before and was at least able to get to bed at a civilised time – one of the other drawbacks of summer astronomy.  As luck would have it the weather was also good on the following night, probably even better than before and this time I concentrated on bagging some DSO images as the planets again marched across the sky from east to west.

As a result of the aforementioned equipment and software problems I have resorted to the trusty SynScan handset again for alignment and mount control.  Impressive though EQMOD and all the other paraphernalia are, so far I have found it all to be somewhat fickle and from my personal experience often unreliable.  However, after last year’s enforced astronomy hiatus following my operation and the almost farcical lack of observing conditions over winter and now spring, I’ve become a little rusty with the set-up and as a result, on this occasion encountered my old nemesis – polar alignment – to be something of a problem once again.

Amongst the types of DSO objects, I find globular star clusters to be particularly intriguing; I had not even heard of such features until taking up astronomy in 2013.  Some 158 of these ancient star clusters are known to orbit around the main disc of the Milky Way.  At about 11bn to 13bn years old they are very old and despite what so-called experts might say, it seems to me their origin remains something of a mystery; it’s interesting that such clusters are also associated with other galaxies.

At this time of the year a number of globular and open clusters feature across the night sky and form excellent imaging targets.  First up at about 11.00pm was M5 and immediately I discovered the shortcomings of my polar alignment, further aggravated by the decision to try 4.00 minute exposures = big mistake; ironically prior test shots  turned about better!

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M5 globular cluster + excess trailing! WO GT81 Canon 700D + FF | 9 x 240 secs @ ISO 800 + darks | 6th June 2016

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M5 test shot: 10 sec @ ISO 6,400

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M5 test shot: 15 sec @ ISO 6,400

Following on from M5 shortly after midnight, M13 appears at a much higher altitude, thus helping to reduce the impact of star trails.  Furthermore, as I was by now fully aware of the polar alignment error, I reduced the exposure time from 4.00 to 2.00 minutes; it helped but nonetheless could not hide the impact on the resulting images.  Note to self: always ensure good polar alignment.  An EQMOD – ASCOM – CdC alignment model would be much better but until I can correct the aforesaid problem it’s down to SynScan and hopefully in the interim I can return to globular clusters once more during summer.

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M13 with less but still noticeable trails! | WO GT81 & Canon 700D + FF | 19 x 120 secs @ ISO 800 + darks | 7th June 2016

Before going to bed I couldn’t resist a few quick shots of an old summer favourite, M57 or the Ring Nebula, itself also very high above Fairvale Observatory by this time of night.  Considering the alignment problems the image wasn’t too bad, however, the first half of 2016 has really been a case of one step forwards, two back.  I hope the next 6-months will be more positive, they will inevitably be darker and colder.

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M57 Ring Nebula (left of centre) + Sulafat (left) & Sheliak (right) | WO GT81 & Canon 700D + FF | 13 x 120 secs @ ISO 800 | 7th June 2016

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M57 – Ring Nebula, cropped.

Reflections – 2014

2014 has been my first full year of astronomy and I thought it would be useful (for me) to recap, thereby hopefully providing some encouragement and momentum for 2015. It’s been a good year which I have enjoyed but it only gets a little easier, slowly, and I can see many challenges ahead.

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JANUARY TO MARCH

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At the start of the year I was still getting to grips with my original basic equipment, purchased in 2013 as an introduction to astronomy to see if I liked it: EQ3-2 mount, Skywatcher 150PL telescope and two basic Plössl eyepieces and Barlow.  Though good, the shortcomings of the equipment quickly became apparent even for modest viewing tasks, so I soon made some important additions.  In no particular order these were: RA and DEC motor drives, a Telrad finder and two better quality, wide-angle eyepieces.  All of these items made a noticeable improvement to my astronomy and eventually my growing interest in astrophotography.

As a result, at the start of the New Year I decided to purchase a Canon 700D DSLR camera, which has since opened up a whole new world, literally.  I have considerable SLR experience and had been using a compact digital camera for some years but the need to understand and use the technology embodied in a DSLR for astrophotography is, as they say, a whole new ball game.

At this stage, my approach to astronomy was to try and learn the basics first by using basic equipment, thereby understanding the nuts and bolts of astronomy before moving on to more technical processes and software driven equipment. Moreover, I hoped such an approach would provide a good, long-term foundation of knowledge to undertake more ambitious tasks one day; walk before you run.

Although a member of the Flamsteed Society, its location at Greenwich does not lend itself to regular, on-the-ground astronomy from which I might otherwise learn first-hand from other members. Unfortunately more local clubs are also absent, so the learning curve has been steep and mostly personal and hands-on, though I must recognise the extensive and generally excellent help gleaned from the internet and various astronomy blogs, noteworthy of which has been Stargazers Lounge.  I have often been disappointed by some of the retailers who, in my experience don’t relate well to customers and / or provide clear, helpful guidance or adequate aftersales support.  My interpretation is that they consist of persons who have probably started astronomy shops as an extension of what was previously a hobby and often lack the commercial and personal skills required for such a business. Thankfully there are exceptions and it is they who I shall return to with my business in the future, whenever possible.

  Date Object* Feature  / Name
Feb Jupiter Afocal Images
Moon DSLR mosaic
Greta Orion Nebula Afocal Images

*Record of photographic images taken in 2014

APRIL TO JUNE

By now I knew I wanted to pursue astronomy as a hobby and, in order to fast track my learning process and experience the subject at a higher level, I undertook a one week astronomy course at the private Tacande observatory in La Palma. The equipment there was outstanding and so was the night sky and guidance provided by the owner, Joan Genebriera.  Afterwards I was hooked and my aspirations were sky high, literally.

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Virgo Group – Galaxy Supercluster| Canon 350D from Tacande Observatory, La Palma

Returning from La Palma brought me back down to Earth, however, undeterred I felt it was time to try my hand at webcam planetary imaging. On the face of it easy but, as usual, looks can be deceiving. Online advice indicated that it was possible to adapt and rig-up an old webcam for such purposes but my attempts to do so using a spare Logitech webcam only ended in misery.  I therefore decided to bite-the-bullet and purchase a more suitable, off-the shelf one. The Holy Grail for entering webcam imaging is apparently the Philips Toucam but alas it is no longer made and finding one second-hand is very difficult.  I therefore soon realised that it would be necessary to purchase a new webcam and, furthermore, it made sense to get one which was specifically made for astrophotography, the theory being it would work out-the-box.  As a result I purchased the ZWO ASI 034 MC colour webcam but, despite my best efforts was unable to get a picture and decided to visit the retailer in person, determined to find out if it was me or the camera; as it turned out it was neither.

The first problem turned out to be the camera software SharpCap, which despite assurances, would not work with the camera.  Next, for reasons I still don’t understand, the alternative FireCapture software would also not work until a more up-to-date version was downloaded.  Notwithstanding, it also became evident that the camera would not work through a USB 3.0 port – though at the time this was not specified anywhere in the accompanying literature.  Finally, with the camera plugged in to the USB 2.0 port and the up-to-date version of FireCapture, it worked!  Getting to this point took me countless hours at home, a long trip to the retailer (who was very helpful) and then still some 2-hours to get it working.  So much for working out-the box!  This again seems to be a feature of astronomy.

From this and other experiences with equipment, software and manufacturers I have concluded that the world of astronomy is fraught with unnecessary problems often arising from just inadequate advice (see previous comment). It is assumed, by others: manufacturers, retailers or more technically minded astronomers, that the user will possess similar skills to make things work but, as many /most of us are newcomers this is, to say the least, an unhelpful assumption.  I have therefore learned that the internet is your friend.  Through the use of various online sites and blogs, other astronomers have given their very helpful and often not inconsiderable time and advice, for which I am eternally grateful.

Whilst this was all happening at the retailer, I took the time to review the camera I had purchased more closely and at the last moment decided to exchange it for the inevitably more expensive ZWO ASI 120 MC version, which unlike the 034 MC version can be used for autoguiding – I hoped futureproofing the purchase, time will tell.  It is interesting to note that the current version of this camera (a) comes with different software and (b) has been upgraded to work with USB 3.0 – well why wouldn’t it in the first place, as most computers now use this specification?  This suggests to me: did they really think about the camera’s design and operation properly at the beginning?  However, following this breakthrough using the webcam for imaging was still to provide its own problems, which I am still grappling with.

SW 150PL x2 Barlow & ZWO ASI 120 MC

SW 150PL x2 Barlow & ZWO ASI 120 MC

Using the ZWO ASI 120 MC I first started imaging Saturn, with some success. However, using the EQ3-2 mount to find, focus and image was very difficult, especially when I tackled Mars. In this case the size of the planet makes all the aforementioned issues even more difficult but, after lots of attempts I managed to get an image – altogether with plenty of room for improvement but satisfying nonetheless. I subsequently discarded the webcam in favour of the DSLR, with which I am more comfortable and due to the lack of suitable, mostly planetary objects through the summer period.  With the return of Jupiter in recent weeks and the prospect of using the ZWO webcam for autoguiding, I have returned to using it again but given the time that has since elapsed, I need to relearn its use all over again!

At this point I had concluded that I wanted to pursue astronomy and astrophotography.  I was also drawn inexorably towards astroimaging DSO objects; they provide numerous, albeit more difficult targets at all times of the year and I have found their combination of otherworldly beauty and science fascinating – I am now on a slippery slope that I feel will last for years!  The implications of this conclusion and based on what I had learned over the preceding year about my basic equipment had only one consequence, I needed better equipment.  There are astronomers who will say this hobby can be done cheaply, frankly I don’t believe it.  Even buying second hand and generally making-do, the need for another piece of equipment never seems to stop – ask my wife.

Resigned to this course of action and the inevitable extensive analysis of what equipment was best suited, I reached a conclusion of what equipment I needed surprisingly quickly, though still prevaricating over innumerable makes and models available.  In the end I purchased an AZ-EQ6 GT mount and William Optics GT81 FPL3 triplet achromatic refractor.  I could have shaved £400 to £500 off the cost by purchasing other very good but cheaper makes and models but the WO is a beautifully tactile piece of obviously very well made equipment, which is a pleasure to own and use.  I had originally intended to purchase an HEQ5 mount but on taking the long view (no pun intended) and considering the superior and critical payload capacity decided to move up to the EQ6, which then became the AZ-EQ6 GT for its superior belt driven mechanism and even better payload.

Date Object* Feature / Name
April M104 Sombrero Galaxy
M1 Crab Nebula
M3 Globular Cluster
M84 Lenticular Galaxy
M95 & M96 Group Spiral Galaxy
Virgo Group Supercluster of Galaxies
NGC 4435/38 The Eyes (Nonet) Galaxies
May The Moon
Mars
Saturn

JULY TO DECEMBER

The absence of good astronomical darkness approaching the Summer Solstice at the end of June and onwards until later in August, makes imaging difficult at this time of the year.  Furthermore, the summer skies are generally less interesting and altogether provide limited opportunities.  As a result the one object remaining, that hopefully dominates the sky at this time of the year, is the Sun.  It was therefore time to start solar astronomy.

Given the obvious dangers I approached the task carefully, getting a made-to-measure Baader Astro Solar filter for use with the Skywatcher 150PL.  Rightly or wrongly, at this initial stage I decided to use the 150PL as I figured the larger, open design of the Newtonian reflector would help cooling.  The result was fascinating, with sun spots and general surface granulation clearly visible. However, the set-up has two drawbacks: (i) the resulting FOV is small and requires six or more images to cover the whole of the Sun, and (ii) such a filter only produces a view of white light, not allowing the more spectacular features evident at a other wavelengths, such as prominences, to be viewed.  For this a considerably more expensive solar telescope or highly specialized filters are required – such is the fascination of our local star I can see the time I will want to pursue this branch of astronomy further.

Sun Mosaic SW 150PL + Baader Astro Solar Filter + Barlow x2 | Canon 700D DSLR

Sun Mosaic
SW 150PL + Baader Astro Solar Filter + Barlow x2 | Canon 700D DSLR

Having since used the new equipment for nearly six months now I have no regrets – you get what you pay for.  However, as usual there have been problems to overcome.  The mount is very solid and was a real pleasure to use but from the outset I have faced one big problem – polar alignment.  With no view of Polaris or any of the northern sky, as my house is in the way, combined with restricted views to the south, east and west due to adjacent housing and trees, the only options were drift alignment or the polar alignment routine that I latterly discovered in the SynScan handset. For the moment the SynScan method has become my preferred technique but it can still be problematical, as it is quite fiddly and often the stars chosen by SynScan are not always visible e.g. it is not uncommon that at times all the alignment stars provided by Synscan are located in the northern sky and cannot be seen because of the aforementioned problems.  However, I am getting better and with diligence and patience can now get to within 30” or less of true polar alignment, which has allowed exposures of up to 180 seconds.  I have tried drift alignment a few times but have difficulty finding suitable stars on the horizon, as I basically don’t have an horizon! Going forwards I am considering the use of Alignmaster software, which looks very useful for this purpose, though the lack of a northerly view might still be a problem.  In addition, I hope the ultimate goal of autoguiding should further enhance tracking accuracy even without perfect polar alignment – we shall see.

The second problem initially encountered was achieving an image when using the William Optics field flattener / focal reducer.  Try as I may, I could not get an image with the William Optics GT81 + field flattener + camera combination and after a few evenings trying became desperate.  How could it be so difficult?  All this money for top-end equipment and not even a lousy image, let alone a good picture. With the help and encouragement from members of Stargazers Lounge, I had another go.  This time I was more diligent with the set-up and at first using a very bright, easy to see star, was at last able to achieve a camera image and good focus using a Bahtinov mask.  In a nutshell, the problem was that the point of focus is very, very critical, just a fraction of a millimetre out and the image disappears.  Now I know this it’s quite easy but nobody points this out, least of all the manufacturer or retailer, who provided little to no instructions – I am learning this is also something common in the world of astronomy, which I find quite unacceptable.

So, after some weeks of trials and tribulations, the new equipment is mostly working very well and I have been able to successfully image a wide variety of objects.  There’s plenty of room for improvement but I have obtained some enjoyable and often quite exciting photographs.  Now for the next challenge, which has just started: computer control and autoguiding.

NGC 6960 AKA The Witch's Broom Canon 700D | 20x90 sec + darks.bias/ flats @ ISO 800

NGC 6960 AKA The Witch’s Broom
Canon 700D | 20×90 sec + darks.bias/ flats @ ISO 800

With DSLR or CCD / webcam imaging, processing is at least equally important as the original image capture.  In the later part of the year I have therefore also started to tackle this dark art.  Whilst compilation software such as Deep Sky Stacker and Registax requires some understanding to set-up, it is with post-processing that the final image can be made or lost.  As a result I am using the extra time indoors to try and master the various techniques, with mixed success.

I should also note that during this period my elder daughter, Alison, persuaded and then helped me set-up this website.  It has proved a useful discipline for organising my thoughts and images.  I am very grateful for her help and have surprisingly enjoyed recording my astronomy endeavours. Although intended as a personal record, I note from the underlying website provider that it has been read far-and-wide across the world – 36 countries this year – which is also gratifying.  I would love to hear from anybody via the WTSM site: questions, what are you doing, comments & feedback etc?

Date Object* Feature / Name
July M57 Ring Nebula
M13 Globular Cluster
M15 Globular Cluster
Aug M27 Dumbbell Nebula
M31 Andromeda Galaxy
M11 Wild Duck Cluster
ISS International Space Station
NGC 6888 Crescent Nebula
The Sun
Sept NGC 7000 North America Nebula
NGC 6960 Western Veil Nebula & Witch’s Broom
NGC 7380 Wizzard Nebula
M31 Andromenda Galaxy
IC 1396 Elephant’s Trunk Nebula
M2 Globular Cluster
Oct M45 Pleiades Open Star Cluster
Uranus
M33 The Pinwheel Galaxy
NGC 6992 Eastern Veil Nebula
NGC 6995 Bat Nebula
M42 & M43 Great Orion Nebula
NGC 7320 Stephen’s Quintet (Galaxies)
NGC 7331 Deer Lick Group (Galaxies)
NGC 7814 Spiral Galaxy
Nov NGC 1909 Witch Head Nebula
IC 434 Horsehead Nebula
NGC 2024 Flame Nebula
NGC 1973/75/77 Running Man Nebula
Dec M1 Crab Nebula
ISS International Space Station
NGC 2264 Christmas Tree Cluster & Cone Nebula etc.
NGC 2261 Hubble’s Variable Nebula
NGC 19818 Open Star Cluster
NGC 2244 Rosette Nebula
M35 Open Star Cluster
M78 Reflection Nebula

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Goals for 2015 are:

  • Transfer the mount to EQMOD computer control – I have already linked the equipment indoors, together with Cartes du Ciel, but have yet to use it outside live.
  • Upgrade camera control software – again I am already trialling Astrophotography Tool (APT) indoors, which looks good and provides lots of flexibility, though in some ways I still like the EOS Utility software, which uses more simple and therefore reliable control choices.
  • For astrophotography this is the Holy Grail and, if successful, should enable significantly longer exposures and thus better detail and sharper images to be achieved.  At the time of upgrading my equipment in the summer I also purchased a William Optics 50 mm guidescope – all I need to do is get it working! This will require two further pieces of software: (i) Push Here Dummy or PHD, which is responsible for controlling the interaction between the guidecope and the mount, and (ii) Astro Tortilla, which undertakes a process called ‘plate solving’, whereby using actual pictures taken at the time of set-up, it then recognises the section of the sky it (the telescope) is looking at, identifies the object in the field of view and using this information ensures that the telescope (and thus camera) are pointing exactly towards the chosen object by iteratively interacting with the other guiding software.  As a fan of the KISS principle, I must admit to being somewhat intimidated by all this but am assured by others that it is not so bad to use  (famous last words) and once up and running, will have a major impact.  We shall see!

Even at this stage, I can already see the need for additional equipment.  With numerous Ha-emitting nebulae a modified DSLR camera is beginning to seem essential and probably a more powerful computer for image processing.  I am sure this list will grow as the year progresses.

All-in-all, I am pleased with my progress during the past year, with a noticeable improvement since acquiring the new equipment.  There have been more highs than lows and, I suppose, that’s a result in itself.  It is very exciting when you first see Saturn, Jupiter or Mars and then image them but I have discovered that my metier and main enjoyment comes from DSOs, in particular nebulae.  I find their very nature beguiling; beautiful to view, challenging but very rewarding to image and scientifically fascinating.  I am therefore sure that in 2015 they will remain my main targets but, notwithstanding, there are many other objects worthy of attention, including in the UK a partial eclipse of the Sun in March.

Watch this space! 

Orions Sword. Top to bottom: NGC 1981 Open Star Cluster, NGC 1973/75/77 Nebulae, M42 & M43 Great Orion Nebula & the binary star Hatsya. WO GT81, Canon 700D + FF | 30 x 120 secs + darks/bias/flats @ ISO 800

My picture of the year: Orions Sword. Top to bottom: NGC 1981 Open Star Cluster, NGC 1973/75/77 Nebulae, M42 & M43 Great Orion Nebula & the binary star Hatsya.
WO GT81, Canon 700D + FF | 30 x 120 secs + darks/bias/flats @ ISO 800

 

Copernicus was right!

OK it’s not news but a tribute to the man who opened our eyes to the way the Solar System works.

Like most newcomers to astronomy viewing and imaging starts at home and that is the Solar System. So it was with my Skywatcher 150PL Newtonian scope last year – first the Moon (of course) and then on to the planets, in this case it had to be Saturn – surely the most exciting / beautiful planet? Despite my growing years it was only in April 2013 I got to see Saturn for the first time through the 13″ Astrographic Refractor at Herstmonceaux  http://www.the-observatory.org/telescopes. WOW I am hooked and following much previous prevarication over what to buy now rapidly sought to purchase my first telescope in the form of the aforementioned 150PL with a basic EQ3-2 mount.

The early summer of 2013 was very good for viewing Saturn and so it was I spent many late nights and early mornings gazing at this wonderful planet. Of course I had to get a photograph but this was easier said than done. Despite years of SLR photography I did not own a DSLR, considering them too bulky and inconvenient for day-to-day use, I therefore resorted to my trusty Canon Ixus 860IS to try my hand at afocal photogrpahy i.e. holding the camera up to the eyepiece.  The results were awful so I purchased a camera bracket that clamped to the eyepiece and held the camera more steady, unfortunately this too was little better. I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to work and in some shape or other I would need to take a video instead, with subsequent processing through Registax (more about this another time) which is able to sort and stack the best frames to produce a final, single image.

I tried the cheap route first by adapting an old Logitech webcam I already had (this involves removing the front lens so the light fall directly on the sensor) but could not get an image and therefore in the end decided to purchase a ZWO 120 MC http://www.365astronomy.com/zwo-asi120mc-colour-13-cmos-usb20-camera-with-autoguider-port-p-3536.html which also provides an autoguiding function, as yet not tested. Again I encountered major problems getting an image but after visiting the retailer Zoltan at 365 Astronomy, who also had great difficulty getting it to work by using a more up-to-date version of Firecapture, I was finally up and running – all I needed was a clear sky and an object to image. Of course, it had to be Saturn.

As I have now learnt every facet of astrophotography is difficult and this was no exception. The problems this time fell into two categories: the general capture settings and that old thorn in the side, focus.  It took a while but eventually I had Saturn  on film which, after some Registax processing I successfully turned into a picture.

ZWO 120MC

ZWO 120MC

Still plenty of scope for improvement but it is clearly Saturn and to my eyes looks great.

With this success under my belt, earlier this year I tried Mars which, as I was to find, is a notoriously difficult subject – the problem being size i.e. it is small. Depending on their respective orbits relative to Earth, the angular diameter  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angular_diameter of Saturn varies from 14.5″ to 20.1″, with Mars 3.5 to 25.1″.  Notwithstanding, I eventually managed to capture some video, which looked awful, but thanks to Registax emerged looking like, well ….Mars!  It has been described as ‘pizza looking’ but for the moment I’m happy.

223242_castr

ZWO 120 MC + Registax

I had hoped to get Jupiter too but for various reasons (which I can’t remember) it didn’t happen, so that’s on the ‘to-do’ list next time it comes around.  And thanks to Nicolaus Coperincus we will be able to predict when that is.