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Some Astrophotography for Your Long Wait

It’s crazy how easy it is to get distracted from writing.  All it takes is one day to go by without writing, then you go a week without writing.  A week turns int two weeks, which becomes a month.  Before you know it you haven’t posted anything on your blog since August!  I’ve done many things worthy of writing about since August including trying my hand at astrophotography for the first time, attended to two star parties, almost been killed by someone spotlighting deer while observing in southern Maryland, and failed to observe comet ISON several times before its unfortunate demise on Thanksgiving.  There has also been loads of astronomy news since my last post as well.

I’m mad at myself for slacking off so much over the last five plus months but I’m back and better than before!  To make up for the absence of posts since the summer I will share with you all the (best) astrophotos I managed to take during the summer.  Back in July I borrowed 80mm refractor telescope and an German equatorial mount from my astronomy club to assist with a star party I was planning on hosting for my friends.  The star party never worked out due to weather and other factors but I got to try my hand at proper astrophotography for the first time.  I had absolutely no prior experience using an EQ mount so this was all very new to me.  The key part of deep sky photography is aligning the mount with the celestial north pole, or CNP.  Since long exposures are needed to collect the light from faint deep sky objects, what you’re imaging moves across the sky while your camera’s shutter is open.  To compensate for the Earth’s rotation and keep the stars “still” in your telescope the mount you’re using has to be aligned with the celestial north pole, or the Earth’s polar axis.  For people in the northern hemisphere the CNP is about 3/4 of a degree away from the star Polaris in Ursa Minor.  That’s why Polaris is known as the North Star, or the Pole Star.  Everything else in the sky appears to rotate clockwise around Polaris.

I was never good at polar aligning the mount so that severely limited what I was able to image.  I was stuck with exposures of 30-40 seconds.  Nevertheless, that’s still good enough for a couple familiar objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula, and the Dumbbell Nebula.  I had assistance from the Reddit community of astrophotographers.  Their collective knowledge and wisdom was invaluable in my novice attempts to photography things many light years away.

The first object I imaged was the Andromeda Galaxy.  Known by astronomers as Messier 31, on Charles Messier’s famous list of faux comets.  M31 is best known as the Milky Way’s twin galaxy.  The galaxy has roughly the same mass as the Milky Way but is 2.5 million light years away.  Andromeda is the closest spiral galaxy to the Milky Way and is so bright it can be seen with the naked eye from darker skies.  A small telescope reveals a giant bright and elongated fuzzy patch.  Larger telescopes under dark skies may even reveal dust lanes on the north side of the galaxy.  I chose M31 as my first target because of its brightness which would require shorter exposures.

Once the mount as telescope was set up and the mount polar aligned (as best I could do) I attached my camera to the focuser and began shooting away.  The image below is a stack of 30 :40 images.  I used Deep Sky Stacker to combine the images and Photoshop to process it.  I did a poor job of framing the image so the bottom part of the galaxy is cut off.  I hope to revisit M31 later on and do a better job.  There are actually three different galaxies visible in the image!  The obvious one is M31 but fuzzy oval located top left of M31 is another galaxy called M110 and at bottom right is M32.  Both are elliptical galaxies, meaning they have no spiral structure, and are satellite galaxies of M31.  They are both gravitationally bound to M31 and are, like M31, part of the Local Group of galaxies.  These three galaxies are all next-door neighbors to the Milky Way.

Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy

Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy

The next object I imaged was M27, known as the Dumbbell Nebula.  The Dumbbell Nebula is what astronomers call a planetary nebula.  They actually have nothing to do with planets despite their name.  A planetary nebula is what happens to massive stars right before they die.  As the star ages it begins to shed its layers of gas as the nuclear fission in its core slows down.  Our own sun will eventually do this as it begins the final stage of its life.  M27 is the most well-known and studied planetary nebulae because of its brightness and close distance to Earth.  For this target I used the same exposure settings, 30×40 sec and stacked in DSS.

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula imaged from Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula imaged from Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania

One final image I’ll share is perhaps my favorite, for two reasons.  One because of its aesthetic beauty and because of its difficulty to process in Photoshop.  You’ll no doubt recognize the Great Orion Nebula.  This giant cloud of gas and dust is where stars are formed.  In fact, the Hubble Space Telescope has imaged many newborn stars within the nebula over the past twenty years.  Known as Messier 42, the Orion Nebula is visible to the naked eye even in light polluted skies.  The nebula is located in the sword of Orion that hangs from the Hunter’s belt.  The nebula itself appears as the middle star is the sword but closer inspection with binoculars reveals something more than a star, but a bright greyish glow which is actually the nebula.

M42 is probably the most well-known deep sky object.

M42 is probably the most well-known deep sky object.

Just like as in the M31 image, there are actually three separate nebulae present in this image.  The largest, and brightest is M42, an emissions nebula and its intricate knots of gas and dust in brilliant colors.  Next to it is M43, also an emission nebula like M42.  Emission nebula are named as such because they emit their own light from ionized gas that glows in an array of colors.  The third nebula is the one in the upper left of the image.  It is called NGC 1977, or the “Running Man Nebula.”  NGC 1977 is what is called a reflection nebula, meaning the gas and dust doesn’t emit any light of its own, but rather reflects the light of stars inside or around the nebula.  See if you can notice the running man pattern.

All these images were taken with a Nikon D3100 with a SkyWatcher ED80 refractor mounted on an Orion SkyView Pro EQ mount.  The mount and scope were borrowed from the Harford County Astronomical Society (HCAS).  My thanks to the club!  Check out their website at http://www.harfordastro.org.

That’s it for now.  I hope to be able to share more deep sky objects in the future.  Until then clear skies and keep looking up!

 

Great Weekend of Astrophotography

Memorial Day weekend was very productive for me.  A couple weeks ago I purchased my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D3100 and I’ve been itching to start photographing the night sky.  My first big target was the planetary alignment of Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury over the weekend which did not disappoint.  I was able to shoot the planets on both Saturday and Sunday nights under perfectly clear skies.  This was a relatively easy target for my first foray into the world of astrophotography.

On Saturday night I took my camera and tripod up to my dark sky site in Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania.  I arrived around 8:30 just as the sun was setting.  While darkness was gathering I set up the camera and punched in the initial settings and waited for Jupiter to appear.  Venus was already brilliant approximately ten degrees above the horizon by 8:45.  Jupiter appeared minutes later, followed by Mercury visible to the naked eye around 9:00.  I played with the aperture and shutter speed until I captured an image I really liked.  I ended up with a focal ratio of f/8 and a 1.6 second exposure at ISO 100.  The final result once I played with it in Photoshop was very nice, as far as my inexperienced self is concerned.  That’s Venus at the bottom of the triangle, Jupiter at upper left, and tiny Mercury at upper right.

The final result from Saturday's images

The final result from Saturday’s images

This was just practice for Sunday of course.  Sunday’s alignment was the one that captured everyone’s attention.  The almost equilateral triangle of planets is something you won’t easily forget if you saw it for yourself.  If you missed it you’re in luck because photographers all over the world captured the stunning alignment.  I’m relatively happy with how mine came out.  The only drawback is that the planets are slightly out of focus.  I should have been paying closer attention to that.  However, them being out of focus kind of allowed more color to come out, especially in Mercury.  I worked with the same camera settings as Saturday night.  After some adjustments in Photoshop this was my final result.

I took one in landscape

I took one in landscape

And one in portrait

And one in portrait

After the planetary imaging session I was feeling lucky so I tried my hand at some wide-angle constellation shots.  I turned the camera towards Ursa Major and took 200×10″ frames and went to stack them in Deep Sky Stacker only to find that my images were out of focus and DSS couldn’t recognize any stars.  Not so lucky I guess.  I was determined to get it right so I went back outside around 11:30 and decided to shoot the constellation Lyra and it’s bright star Vega.  This time I took 200×1.6″ frames at f/4, ISO 3200 and went in to stack them in DSS.  The result was much, much better.  About 2 hours later I had a decent image with which to work with.  I gave it several editing passes in Photoshop before I produced an image I was happy with.  Not only are all five of Lyra’s main stars visible, the double star Epsilon Lyrae showed up which really made me proud.  This is my first constellation shot so I guess it’s the small things that bring me joy.

The final result of my Lyra shot.  Quite satisfied with it.

The final result of my Lyra shot. Quite satisfied with it.

Overall, it was a very productive weekend.  I learned a lot about how important it is to really nail the focus before shooting anything.  Trial and error is how you improve in this hobby.  I’m hoping to get a few more practice shots under my belt before taking the camera up to Cherry Springs State Park in a week and a half to shoot under a real dark sky.  As I produce more images I will post them here so I hope you stick around and if you have any suggestions or critiques to help improve my technique I’d gladly appreciate it.

 

 

First Attempt at Planetary Imaging

I think it’s a safe assumption to say that whenever anyone gets into astronomy their greatest desire is to be able to take pictures of what they observe.  The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is certainly true of astrophotography.  There is certainly a great joy in observing the universe with your own eyes at the eyepiece and that should unequivocally be any amateur’s first love.  Given the mass-availability of photography equipment and astro-imaging software and techniques it is no surprise that astrophotography has risen to such popularity in the 21st century.  All someone has to do is watch a couple of tutorial videos on YouTube and you have a pretty good sense of what equipment and software you need and it’s easy to practice the techniques employed by more experienced photographers.

I’ve decided to jump on the astrophotography train myself.  Mind you, I don’t own a fancy equatorial mount for my telescope or even a DSLR camera for that matter so I have to try a slightly different method to get images.  By far the best and easiest way to do astrophotography with a Dobsonian mounted telescope is with a webcam.  This method is really only useful for planets, the moon, and sun given that images of deep-sky objects requires long exposures that would produce star trails if not tracked.  However, it was extremely rewarding producing my first planetary image.

I’m not going to go into detail on how I captured my images because that would just be an incredibly long post.  Instead, I just want to share the equipment and software I used to give you a sense of how easy (and inexpensive) it is.

My telescope is an Orion XT10i Dobsonian which already provides very nice planetary images in the eyepiece.  Images are always sharp and bright when in focus.  For this experiment I purchased a Microsoft HD Lifecam from my nearby Staples office supply store.  I went with the Lifecam because it has a body that is perfectly designed to fit inside any 1.25″ focuser tube.  The Lifecam can also shoot 1280×720 720video at 30 fps (after some tinkering) which is something special for a webcam.  I followed the instructions provided by Gary Honis, who is the authority on all things webcam photography related, on his website, found here.  I didn’t use the 1.25″ barrel extenders like he did, rather I used a film canister.  The film canister seems to work just fine and it fits snugly into the focuser.

To capture the video I downloaded a piece of software called AMCap which is freeware video capture.  It’s available for a free download but a donation is asked for, but not required.  Also, a jpeg video codec is needed to capture the raw video in .avi format.  Any jpeg codec you can find will probably work but Gary recommends a particular one on his software tests page.  Finally, I used Registax 6 to stack the images from the raw .avi video and touched it up a bit in Photoshop CS6 an voila!  a nice, crisp, clean image of Saturn.

This method is very easy to do for anyone without a tracking mount and what’s best is that it only cost me $35 plus shipping and handling.  If you have a Dobsonian telescope this method is definitely for you.

Here's a screen shot from the Lifecam's raw avi.  Not much detail is apparent and it's quite blurry

Here’s a screen shot from the Lifecam’s raw avi. Not much detail is apparent and it’s quite blurry

Here's the final result after Registax and Photoshop.  Notice the cloud bands and slight detail in the Cassini Division

Here’s the final result after Registax and Photoshop. Notice the cloud bands and slight detail in the Cassini Division

 

 

 

“Redneck” Astrophotography

Redneck Astrophotography:  I’m not sure how this term came to be but somehow it seems a bit contradictory.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

Anyways, I don’t own any fancy equipment for taking long-exposure shots of the night sky on an expensive EQ mount.  I do however have an iPhone which has an app for taking long-er exposure pics but with no tracking system I’m not sure how it will turn out.  It’ll probably have star trails if anything shows up at all.  I did also just download an app called “Snapseed” which is an image editing app for the iPhone.  I managed to get it for free which is huge because it’s usually $9.99.  I took several shots of the moon the other day when it was just before full.  I have to use both my 25% and 13% transmission filters to get the image dim enough for the camera to take in.  The result is 7% light transmission which is a perfect amount for my phone’s camera to handle.  After using Snapseed to sharpen it up and play with the contrast I managed to produce a pretty striking image of the moon with good contrast between the mare and the higher elevations.

The second image is one of M42, the Great Orion Nebula, that a member of the Harford County Astronomical Society took.  I just recently joined HCAS and they sent this picture out in an email.  After sprucing it up a bit I got much more detail out of the nebula than is at first visible (it looks a bit grainy but still not bad).  I’m quite pleased with Snapseed so far and if you’re like me and can’t afford fancy equipment to do real astrophotography then this is a great option!  Especially if you purchase an eyepiece mount for your phone like this one from Orion.

I hope you enjoy the pictures!

M42 Orion Nebula Credit: Harford County Astronomical Society

Refurbished moon

My First Astrophoto…Sort of

On Sunday night I went outside in my driveway and spent a good while taking in the beauty of the full moon with my binoculars.  It was a perfectly clear night and I had an amazing view of the moon for over an hour!  The only drawback was that it was almost at zenith so my arms and neck needed frequent breaks.  I am not equipped at all for astrophotography but I figured I’d give it a shot.  All I had was my iPhone and its tiny lens so snapping a picture of the moon was not an option through my binoculars because there was simply too much light for my phone to handle.  So I focused my attention to Jupiter which was hanging low in the East sky around midnight.  I am simply in love with the sight of Jupiter’s moons through my 15×70’s so I decided to try it out with my phone.  Unfortunately with binoculars you can never get a complete image because you can only hold the phone up to one of the eyepieces.  Although the size of the planet is reduced and the moons aren’t visible (far too faint for my phone’s camera) I’m relatively please with how it turned out!  Take a look:

My first attempt at astrophotography...a mild success

So there it is!  Obviously if you compare that to any other amateur’s pictures of Jupiter this is the worst, but I’m proud of it nonetheless!  It’s still amazing that something that is 816 million kilometers away and yet we can see it with our naked eyes, and even better with equipment.  So that’s that.  I hope that brought you at least mild enjoyment.  Until next time, remember Psalm 97:6, “The heavens proclaim His righteousness, and all the peoples see His glory

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