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Pinwheel a Go Go

It’s been 498 days since I pointed a camera at the sky… that’s over 16 months! This was a great reminder that astrophotography is a proficiency-oriented hobby… and I’m really out of practice. Last week, I decided I would try and get back on the horse and barely missed getting pummeled by a surprise hailstorm after all data pointed toward what should have been a clear night with great viewing. Yesterday was windy, but the forecast looked good again… and although the moon was more prevalent in phase, it was scheduled to set fairly early. I didn’t have as much issue with setting the rig up since I’d been through that evolution last week and worked through the process. I didn’t have too much trouble with polar alignment and calibration, but did stumble a bit during the star alignment of the equatorial mount. Focusing the imaging and guide scope took longer than it should have and I neglected to refocus the imaging scope between each filter change, so that resulted in out-of-focus subs. I really, really don’t like out of focus stuff. Perhaps a bit aggressive for being so out of practice, I decided to run 600 second subframes for each channel. I actually took an hour of Hydrogen Alpha subs, but ironically have completely forgotten how to integrate them into my red channel, so I need to go read up on that again. I also did not have any 600 second calibration data, so I had to set up the camera and run darks this morning while I worked. I didn’t grab enough subframes per channel for the usual Windsorized Sigma Clipping integration I use, so I had to use Percentile Clipping and felt like I was winging it. After managing to get the light frames calibrated and registered to each other, I fumbled through RGB integration, then added the Lum channel with a smaller set of the images I’d taken because I tossed over an hour of out-of-focus luminance subs. Overall, this image of M101 is littered with technical problems… focus, noise, insufficient color data, color calibration of starfield, and the list goes on, but I’m pretty happy to get at least something pulled together after nearly a year and a half out of practice. This image as shown is comprised of 24 subs split fairly evenly over red, green, blue, and luminance channels… so about 4 hours of data (sans Ha). The night was nice and other than being a little chilly (I layered up), it was relaxing to sit under the stars and listen to the wildlife. There seemed to be less air traffic due to the pandemic in effect, so that was a little silver lining that helps when you are leaving the shutter open for 10 minutes at a whack. At any rate, it’s clear some more practice is in order. Hopefully, I can make that happen sooner rather than later.

“The Pinwheel Galaxy (also known as Messier 101, M101 or NGC 5457) is a face-on spiral galaxy distanced 21 million light-years (six megaparsecs) away from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major. Discovered by Pierre Méchain on March 27, 1781, it was communicated to Charles Messier who verified its position for inclusion in the Messier Catalogue as one of its final entries. M101 is a large galaxy, with a diameter of 170,000 light-years. By comparison, the Milky Way has a diameter of 100,000 light years. It has around a trillion stars, twice the number in the Milky Way. It has a disk mass on the order of 100 billion solar masses, along with a small central bulge of about 3 billion solar masses. M101 is asymmetrical due to the tidal forces from interactions with its companion galaxies. These gravitational interactions compress interstellar hydrogen gas, which then triggers strong star formation activity in M101’s spiral arms that can be detected in ultraviolet images. It is estimated that M101 has about 150 globular clusters, the same number as number of Milky Way’s globular clusters.”

M101 in LRGB
M101 in LRGB

Back in the saddle with 46P/Wirtanen

“The Christmas Comet” is in Taurus and likely as close as it’ll be to Earth for at least another 20 years. The best night to view the comet was Saturday (12/16) where it achieved the closest point of it’s pass at about 7.1 million miles over Tranquility Base. We were at a neighborhood Christmas parade and party that night and it’s been overcast since. Last night looked to be the next available window, so I blew the dust off my brain and set up to hopefully take a photo. Well, if there is one consistency in this hobby, it is that challenges arise. There was tremendous (albeit beautiful) spotty cloud coverage for the first several hours after sunset… but that wasn’t the rub. The moon was SO bright that polar alignment was tricky and imaging in full band was going to be a problem. My goal from the start was to try to get the comet and M45 in the same frame, so I pressed on with what I’d already set up and crossed my fingers. It was quickly clear to me that I wasn’t going to pull off anything close to my attempt at C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) in 2015, so I decided to try something completely new to me… an animated image. So yes, there is not much to speak of in terms of capturing a magnificent coma or nebulosity around Pleiades, but you do get three hours of the comet’s journey through our solar system… from 9pm to midnight last night. Cheers!

Comet 46P/Wirtanen is a small short-period comet with a current orbital period of 5.4 years… meaning it swings on by us every five and a half years. It belongs to the Jupiter family of comets, all of which have aphelia between 5 and 6 AU. Short period means it’s orbit is less than 20 years and “Jupiter family” is just saying that it’s orbit is dictated/controlled by Jupiter’s gravitational field (aphelia is the maximum distance it gets from it’s controlling body). Its diameter is estimated at 1.2 kilometers, so almost three-quarters of a mile at it’s widest bits. 46P/Wirtanen was discovered photographically on January 17, 1948, by the American astronomer Carl A. Wirtanen. The plate was exposed on January 15 during a stellar proper motion survey for the Lick Observatory. Due to a limited number of initial observations, it took more than a year to recognize this object as a short-period comet. You can still see it if you have any interest as it is quite bright at the moment. If you are near any form of light pollution, you’ll probably need some binoculars to find the feint fuzzy traveling 83,000 mph overhead.

North American revisited.

It’s been a long dry spell since I imaged. I think I made an attempt a few months ago in early May and just didn’t have any decent results… before that, it was January. While we just finished a stretch of poor weather surrounding the hurricane, the skies, albeit moon-filled, were clear last night. So, with cool air and an idea, I set out to image the Heart and Soul nebulae together in a 200-ish mm focal length with one of my DSLR lenses. I’d like to try and recreate the pair imaged in narrowband with those nice blue and gold hues that I find so elusive in post. When I was set up and polar aligned, I realized that the targets would be behind some tall pine trees for another couple of hours… comes with the territory living in the piney woods of east Texas. I didn’t want to simply wait it out without any production what-so-ever, so I started mentally running through other larger targets that might be suitable for that focal length and that were also high enough above the horizon to get a clear field of view. I’ve done a really wide run at the North American Nebula before (I think it was about 70mm), but why not practice on it again with a different framing, right? So I spent the hour or so before its transit gathering hydrogen-alpha data in 10 minute un-binned subs. I thought 10 minutes would be safe given the significantly lighter loading on the mount with no telescope, but being extended near the meridian flip caused some tracking issues that resulted in rice-y stars. After the flip, I got about 10 or so subs each of OIII and SII (binned 2×2 for signal) before imaging some new Ha subs with better star shape. I ended up using all the Ha anyway (minus one with a pine treetop in frame), but I’m sure the image could be marginally improved by throwing away everything before the transit. I am still not where I want to be on the colors/hues in my Hubble palette attempts, but I’m getting closer. I ended up sticking with NGC 7000 the rest of the run and decided to save the Heart and Soul project for another day (night).
What am I looking at here? Well, all this stuff is in Cygnus. Cygnus (the swan) is a large northern constellation that is in the plane of our Milky Way… meaning, when you are somewhere dark and can see the milky-band of our galaxy, it’s in that stuff. The most prominent target in this image is NGC 7000 – which is commonly known as the “Norht American nebula” due to its pseudo-resemblance to the North American continent. The little section that would be where the Gulf of Mexico coast of Texas is in the nebula is one of the most photographed parts of the entire contellation… it is known as “the Cygnus Wall”. Next to the North American nebula is IC 5070 – the Pelican Nebula. Both the North America nebula and the Pelican Nebula are emission nebula and active star-forming regions. The North American Nebula is approximately 520 parsecs (1,700 light-years) from the Sun. It has a diameter of about 100 light-years and a total mass equal to about 4,000 solar masses. It is so large that it is viewable with the naked eye from some of the darkest places on Earth. The region of Cygnus shown in this image is packed full of all sorts of other stuff, but those are the two most well-known characters. 
NGC 7000
The North American Nebula

IC 1396 – The Elephant’s Trunk nebula in SHO

I had a lot of trouble with processing this in PixInsight and having it turn out looking like the SHO renditions I’ve seen floating around the Net. I ended up using Don Goldman’s tutorial on using Hue/Sat adjustment layers and clipping masks in Photoshop, but I really would like to find some native PI techniques and reprocess it without having to fiddle with it in PS CC. This is 90 minutes per narrowband channel – so not a lot of data, but it was all I could get before the nebula hit the pine tree tops lining the imaging location. Practice is a good thing, though… 
The Elephant's Trunk

Messier 33 in HaLRGB

It is hard to believe I haven’t imaged since the first week of August and we are about to start November in a couple of days. I love the winter target selection and I probably would have selected something besides the Triangulum Galaxy if I weren’t boxed in by pine trees at my imaging location such that near-horizon targets just can’t be reached. I picked Messier 33 for last night because it was high in the sky all night and provided plenty of imaging time for a multi-channel attempt. This represents about 6.2 hours of total data… 20x180s each R, G, B… 34x180s Lum… 9x600s Ha. I tried Silvercup’s HaRGBCombination Script for PixInsight, but it kept locking up my client, so I ended up using the Vicent Peris method that Harry has in his tutorial. The post-processing is trickier already with multiple channels and trying to blend in narrowband, but I kinda made it more difficult for myself by binning the color channels 2×2. I figured out the hard way that I needed to go back and shoot dark subframes that were also binned 2×2 in order to register and calibrate the color channels. It was a beautiful night out and a great learning experience. Let’s hope the next one isn’t another 3 months out! :)

Messier 33

NGC 7380 – The Wizard

NGC 7380 (Sh2-142), more commonly called The Wizard Nebula due to it vaguely resembling Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore and his ilk, was first discovered by Caroline Herschel, sister of German-born British astronomer Sir William Herschel, in 1787. William included it in his famous catalog as H VIII.77. The Wizard is about 7,200 light years from Earth within our own Milky Way Galaxy, is one of the larger nebulae in Cepheus, and is moving toward us at 34.13 kilometers per second. The gas and dust within the cluster span about 110 light years across. This kind of nebulae are the birthplace of stars. They are formed when very diffuse molecular clouds begin to collapse under their own gravity, often due to the influence of a nearby supernova explosion. The cloud collapses and fragments, sometimes forming hundreds of new stars. The newly-formed stars ionize the surrounding gas to produce an emission nebula. In this case, the stars of NGC 7380 have emerged from its natal cloud some 5 million years or so ago, making it a relatively young cluster. 

ps. William Herschel discovered infrared light in 1800. He was a stud.

NGC 7380
NGC 7380 – The Wizard Nebula

NGC 6888 in bi-color

The Crescent Nebula (also known as NGC 6888, Caldwell 27, Sharpless 105) is an emission nebula in the constellation Cygnus, about 5000 light-years away from Earth. It was discovered by Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in 1792. It is formed by the fast stellar wind from the Wolf-Rayet star WR 136 (HD 192163) colliding with and energizing the slower moving wind ejected by the star when it became a red giant around 250,000 to 400,000 years ago. The result of the collision is a shell and two shock waves, one moving outward and one moving inward. The inward moving shock wave heats the stellar wind to X-ray-emitting temperatures.
The light sub-frames were acquired over the last two nights (7/6-7) and represents just under 2 hours of Hydrogen-alpha and 4 hours of Oxygen-III narrowband data. It is the first image that I have successfully created with 10 minute subs (600 sec) and also the first light on my new field flattener. I believe the reason I was able to pull off longer subframes has entirely to do with balance on the mount – autoguider and OTA parallel and centered over frame versus the dual-saddle side-by-side configuration I end up having to use when I use camera lenses. This is my first attempt at the Crescent and despite some bleary-eyed, late-night, rushed bi-color processing, I think it turned out alright. Practice helps.
NGC6888 - The Crescent Nebula
NGC6888 – The Crescent Nebula

Rho Ophiuchi

The Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex is a dark nebula of gas and dust located just south of the star ρ Ophiuchi of the constellation Ophiuchus. At an estimated distance of 130-ish parsecs (about 430 light years) this nursery is one of the closest star-forming regions to our solar system. It is also one of the most colorful areas of the sky because the nebulae surrounding Rho Ophiuchi display a wide range of cloud phenomena. Rho Ophiuchi, a bright triple star, is surrounded by the blue reflection nebula, IC 4604. The blue star Sigma Scorpii is surrounded by an intense red hydrogen emission nebula. Adjacent to Sigma Scorpii is the large globular cluster M4. Despite its apparent association with the surrounding nebulae, M4 is actually a much more distant background object at about 7200 light years away. A second globular cluster hidden in the nebulosity around the red supergiant, Antares (meaning “rival of Mars”), NGC 6144, is also a background object at 33,000 light years away. Antares is so large that, if it were at the center of our solar system, its outer atmosphere would reach to the orbit of Jupiter. Antares strong stellar wind has created the relatively cool yellow nebula, IC 4606, that seems to engulf the star and obscures NGC 6144. The blue reflection nebula, IC 4605, next to IC 4606 is reflecting the blue light from the star it surrounds. Part of the the dark nebula, B44 (commonly known as “The Dark River”), is seen spilling through the complex. This nebula is created from dust that is in front of the surrounding nebula and causes us to see it in silhouette. 

Rho Ophiuchi
Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex

The Pinwheel no filters

I ran into a lot of issues this weekend trying to get some new (to me) tech working correctly. I am trying to transition from a SynScan hand controller on my equitorial mount to an EQ direct ASCOM interface so I can slew to targets from within TSX. I have the basics working (like COM port access and EQ-MOD control of the mount), but I’m having trouble with alignment and accurate pointing. I tried feeding 15 star alignment points into the T-Point plugin, which took a couple of hours, and was unable to resolve accuracy problems. I ended up switching back to the old way to try and salvage some night sky. It was cold and I was tired, so I just imaged Messier 101 (The Pinwheel Galaxy) with no filters. The dwarf galaxy NGC 5474 is also prominent in this grayscale image as well as NGC 5477 and NGC 5457. There’s nothing like a night out imaging after a long hiatus to remind you the important role proficiency plays in consistent results.

Messier 101
Messier 101

Synthetic SHO from bicolor

I have a long way to go when it comes to PixelMath. Thankfully, helpful folks like David Ault (Cloudy Nights) have provided some great examples for me to reverse engineer and try to understand. Here is my second attempt at processing the original Rosette subs into something similar to a bicolor SHO palette. This was accomplished by generating a synthetic green channel with the following PixelMath:


Rosette Nebula
Rosette Nebula