Apple of my eye.

Pages on the calendar turn and practice is few and far between. One significant occurrence is my ability to access both dark site observatory locations on my own (eg. I was granted solo access). The biggest upside here is that when the weather is nice, I can elect to exchange sleep for the long drive to/from the site and get a little exposure time in without coordinating with a larger group.
Last night, the moon was Waxing Gibbous, so it was around 85% of full. This makes even being at a “dark site” not so dark. None the less, it was a beautiful night. The temperature eventually dropped to the high 70’s with a slight breeze.
Initially I attempted 10 subs on the Veil nebula, but the moonlight prevented any deep imaging of fainter targets. I decided to try for a brighter DSO… one you can actually make out as a fuzzy blur with binoculars just to the side of the constellation Sagitta (Latin for “arrow” and not related in any way to the larger constellation Sagittarius). Messier 27, or the Dumbbell Nebula (NGC 6853) is a planetary nebula in the constellation Vulpecula, at a distance of about 1,360 light years. This object was the first planetary nebula to be discovered; by Charles Messier in 1764. It is sometimes also referred to as the Apple Core Nebula.


Messier 27
Messier 27

Practice and lessons learned.

Continuing on with the Messier list, this is my first and humble attempt at M57 – The Ring Nebula (NGC 6720). This planetary nebula in the northern constellation of Lyra was discovered by the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix in January 1779. At about 2,283 light years from Earth, this nebula was formed when a shell of ionized gas was expelled into the surrounding interstellar medium by a red giant star passing through the last stage in its evolution before becoming a white dwarf. The planetary nebula nucleus, barely visible as a spec in my image, was discovered by Hungarian astronomer Jenő Gothard on September 1, 1886. Within the last two thousand years, the central star of the Ring Nebula has left the asymptotic giant branch after exhausting its supply of hydrogen fuel. Thus it no longer produces its energy through nuclear fusion and, in evolutionary terms, it is now becoming a compact white dwarf star.


Messier 57
Messier 57


M51 imaged again through the f/7 optics with longer, but less exposures. The sensor pushed to 109F, so the noise was just silly, but you can see a little more depth in the dust lanes. I prefer the color and star density in the f/4 image, but clearly more data integration would fix this… I’m not really happy with this one, but it’s worth documenting progress and lessons learned.

Messier 51
Messier 51


So we come to the primary target of the week… Messier 8, the Lagoon Nebula (NGC 6523). This emission nebula is a giant interstellar cloud in the constellation Sagittarius and was discovered by Giovanni Hodierna before 1654. The Lagoon Nebula is estimated to be somewhere between four and six thousand light years from the Earth and is about 110 light years across along its longest dimension.

Messier 8
Messier 8

Tunnel vision.

My first night out imaging with the new telescope and filters was an eye opener for me. Focusing was a little more challenging and the added interconnections not only added weight to be factored in the overall balance, but also some flexure potential in the optical path. The biggest unexpected thing was the serious vignetting of the frame edges due to the light passing through the 1.25″ filter wheel onto a full frame 24mm x 36mm sensor. This is just something I’m going to have to deal with for a bit until I can find a better solution. Smaller targets being centered has become more important and larger targets are not as desirable due to the limitation in my FOV. I’m not certain at this point if spending the extra money on a 2″ filter rig would have prevented this or not. 

My first stab at grabbing a couple of targets ended with 50/50 results. I initially tried to image M63, but the data just didn’t pan out. I had something terribly wrong and didn’t notice until I did the integration later.

I did manage a few short subs of M13. This is my first attempt at Messier 13 (NGC 6205), the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules and also my first integration with the new telescope. NGC 6207 is also visible in the lower left of the frame, so I intentionally didn’t crop this out. M13 was discovered by Edmond Halley in 1714, and cataloged by Charles Messier on June 1, 1764. M13 is about 145 light-years in diameter, and it is composed of several hundred thousand stars, the brightest of which is the variable star V11 with an apparent magnitude of 11.95. M13 is located 25,100 light-years from Earth.



Messier 13
Messier 13

Let there be dark!

The inability to image at home… or at least near home… is limiting my progress. I’m fairly patient, but getting out once a month is challenging. I am hungry to implement new knowledge I’ve learned through self-study and driving two to four hours a couple nights a month to hopefully practice is frustrating. Several weeks had gone by since my last imaging session out at Columbus and I hatched a plan at some point along that lull to “fix” my situation by accelerating my learning curve. I was going to leverage astronomy filters designed to attenuate certain wavelengths of light and allow the unhindered passage of other wavelengths of light in my imaging train. This is commonly called narrow-band imaging (NB). There was only one problem – no AP filters were made for my camera or lens. I even wrote the most prolific filter manufacturers asking for guidance and they confirmed my options were limited. 

My long term plan was always to move into some sort of dedicated imaging telescope with an array of filters and a cooled CCD camera. I knew that is where I was headed… eventually. I didn’t think the telescope decision and purchase would be driven by the want for filters though… cart, horse, chicken, egg… this was happening. 

I elected to purchase a refractor because it was closest to what I was familiar with in the “normal” photographic world and I wouldn’t have to deal with mirrors, collimation, and to a lesser extent, cooldowns, right away. I opted for a triplet to minimize chromatic aberration and flatten the field a little bit. I also decided to stick with Orion due to their tremendous customer service. I didn’t realize at the time the can of worms I was opening up, but this is clearly one of the ways to learn this hobby.    By doing.

The list went something like this:

  • Orion EON 130mm ED Triplet Apochromatic Refractor
  • 5-Position Manual Filter Wheel (1.25″)
  • 1.25″ SkyGlow Imaging Filter 
  • EZ Finder Deluxe II red/green (ordered this for visual)
  • 90mm Tube Rings (replacing the wonky screws)
  • 1.25″ Xtra Narrowband O-III 
  • 1.25″ Xtra Narrowband S-II
  • 1.25″ Xtra Narrowband H-Alpha
  • Orion T-ring for Canon EOS Camera
  • Orion 2″ Zero-Profile Prime Focus Camera Adapter
Orion EON 130mm APO Triplet
Orion EON 130mm APO Triplet

Go West, young man.

I’m a big believer in not reinventing the wheel unless absolutely necessary. The best way to be successful at something is to find someone that is already very successful at it and follow in their footsteps. Learning from the mistakes of others is far less painful than learning from your own. So, when I deciding I was learning how to do this and do it well, I looked for local resources that I could plug into for Tribal Knowledge™ and assistance. Of the three major astronomy clubs in the area (that I knew of), I joined two:

One of the benefits of being a member of a local club is that they usually have access to some form of dark site for viewing (or imaging) away from the light dome of the city. These are no different. The HAAS dark site to the north is closer (Huntsville) at about 52 miles one way while the HAS dark site is west of me (Columbus) and over 100 miles one way! This really impacts the time you have to be productive when you take into account the time it takes to set all the gear up, polar align the mount, and do a star alignment. All the targets I’ve worked on thusfar (all three… woohoo) have been imaged at the HAAS observatory location, but after a month of inaction, I had a chance to image at the HAS site.

I had some trouble with star alignment that delayed data acquisition. The moon was bright and clouds were starting to roll in by the time I actually worked out the alignment. It wasn’t optimal by any means, but at least there were a few frames to be had… 26 lights and 30 darks totaling about 2.6 hours of total integration (give or take). My first attempt at Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, in wide field. Note NGC5485, NGC5474, NGC5473, NGC5457, NGC5443, and NGC5422 are also visible in this frame. Noise was a real issue here… as it has been in almost every integration. I’m learning tips and tricks along the way, but this gain noise due to sensor heat (CMOS) in my DSLR is going to have to be dealt with at some point.

Messier 101
Messier 101

Some New InSight.

The month of May was brutal with travel and weather challenges, so no imaging is done. I continue to learn with reading and observing others from afar… vicariously imaging through others and visualizing to improve. Two things that really jumped out at me when integrating the few subs I’d managed accumulate from the outing the month prior were:

  1. I wasn’t getting enough data. I had too few lights and even fewer darks. I had no bias and no flats. This is a skill I need to work on.
  2. My tools were lacking. Deep Sky Stacker wasn’t going to be my long term data integration solution and the 32-bit to 16-bit conversion in Photoshop was a point I was losing a lot of information that needed to be eliminated. 

I applied for and downloaded a trial of the popular and immensely powerful astrophotography toolset PixInsight. Leveraging some really nice video tutorials over at Harry’s Astroshed, I went back to the original 55 sub-frames I took on May 3 of Messier 51 and started completely from scratch. With this same hour worth of RAW data, I was able to produce a much better result. There were significantly more steps in the integration, but it was well worth it. Capturing a glimpse of what can be done with the rudimentary information I had, it really made me want to improve the quantity of the data set and lower the signal to noise for next time around. 

I did the same for the other two targets and feel I can see some improvement in those as well. Wanting to get some feedback and have a place to share my results, I started placing my revisions on Astrobin. My respect for some of these imagers has grown exponentially as I peel back the layers of the onion and see just how little I’ve progressed and how far there is to go. Exciting to be assured!

Messier 81 and 82
Messier 81 and 82


Messier 51
Messier 51


Messier 65 and the Leo Triplet
Messier 65 and the Leo Triplet

Virginity lost.

Since we are still in catch-up mode and these posts lie between when I started this hobby and when I decided to blog about it, I’ll fast forward a month to my first night out with my gear again. With a month of reading and reflecting on what went wrong the last time, I was off to a bit of a better start. It also helps to be around someone that knows what they are doing… more on this later.
It was May 3rd and I was in Huntsville, TX at the Sam Houston State University Observatory that just so happens to also be the designated dark site for the Huntsville Amateur Astronomy Society (HAAS). My very first AP image of the night was Messier 81 (NGC 3031) – Bode’s Galaxy. Bode’s Galaxy is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. M81 is pictured on the left here and on the right, you’ll see Messier 82 (NGC 3034) or the Cigar Galaxy. M81 and M82 have this weird gravitational tidal force going on that has significantly increased star production. This image has gone down in history as my first successfully imaged target. Everyone remembers their first. I stacked all the frames in that same free program, Deep Sky Stacker, and then stretched them in Adobe Photoshop CC.
Messier 81 and 82
Messier 81 and 82


Another target (there were three in total) this Y-chromosome-debutante evening was M51. I wanted it to be M31, the great Andromeda galaxy, but she was gone for the season. So Messier 51 (or NGC5194), The Whirlpool Galaxy, was my gal. The Whirlpool Galaxy is alive in Canes Venatici (hunting dogs)… a small constellation near Ursa Major (larger bear). Ursa Major is more commonly known by part of it’s composition – what we all grew up calling “The Big Dipper” is actually the tail of this big bear constellation. Anyhoo, so Canes Venatici is a neighboring constellation that is the home to this little gem. If you follow the “handle” of the Big Dipper to the star on the end (Alkaid) and then look slightly south (as in, away from polar north relative to Alkaid), you will find Messier 51. M51 was discovered by Charles Messier on October 13, 1773. It was originally thought to be about 37 million light years away and up until just within the last few years when we observed light from two different supernovas within the galaxy that provided more accurate measurements placing it about 25 million light years away. A smaller dwarf galaxy, NGC5195, collided with the larger galaxy we refer to as the Whirlpool Galaxy, NGC5194, and gravitationally ripped some of the material making up NGC5194 off as it passed. This smaller galaxy is what you can clearly see at the outermost tip of one of NGC5194’s arms. These photons that have been travelling 1.36146056 × 10^20 miles to say hi!

Messier 51
Messier 51

I also managed to image M65 and the Leo Triplet. The Leo Triplet, also known as the M66 group, is about 35 million light years away, so the farthest of anything I shot last night. It consists of M65, M66, and NGC3638. It is conveniently named due to it being in the constellation Leo.  This is a very cool target that deserves a revisit after the truck out of the ditch taking out mailboxes.

Messier 65 and the Leo Triplet
Messier 65 and the Leo Triplet

Who’s on first?

Astrophotography, in general, is an exercise in patience. It is also deceptively expensive depending on your expectations. It would seem that the more I learn, the less I know. Ironically, there is a life lesson there that can be applied to so, so many things.
This photo is of me at my father’s ranch. I had accumulated a staggering amount of doodads for not having created a single arguably-appealing photograph. Here is the list short list for the curious:

  • Orion Atlas EQ-G Mount
  • Five 1.25″ Sirius Plossl eyepieces (40mm, 17mm, 10mm, 7.5mm, and 6.3mm)
  • Five 1.25″ color eyepiece filters (#12 Yellow, #23 Orange, #25 Red, #58 Green and #80A Blue)
  • 1.25″ 2x Shorty Barlow Lens 
  • 1.25″ neutral-density Moon filter (13% transmission)
  • Orion Dynamo Pro 17Ah Rechargeable 12V DC Power Station
  • 1.25″ Extension Tube 
  • 105mm Guide Scope Rings  
  • Guide Scope Ring Mounting Bar (Vixen)
  • Orion ShortTube 80 Refractor
  • Orion StarShoot AutoGuider Monochrome CCD Camera
  • ADM Accessories DSBS-DUAL D-Series Side-By-Side Saddle
  • Astronomics 7.9″ Universal Dovetail Plate (Losmandy)

It took me some time to piece this together. In fact, at every turn and just when I thought I was done ordering parts, I found something I had forgotten or something I miscalculated. I started before the new year in wrestling the tendrils of intellectual thread needed to take the required steps to get started and here it is nearing spring with little progress. Eventually, the UPS man and I high-fived on my porch enough times to bolt this rig together.

This goal of this Frankenstein setup was to leverage the existing (substantial) investment in my wildlife photography gear for capturing stars… in the wild. Last year, I finally upgraded my tried and true Canon 1Ds Mark II after 8 faithful years in the field and around the world to the current Canon 1Dx body. I own a Canon 600mm f/4L IS lens (not the II-series) that is an amazing work of art in optical craftsmanship. The custom machined side-by-side saddle from ADM allowed me to mount the 600mm camera lens in one saddle and the ShortTube 80 in the other saddle (parallel) for imaging and auto-guiding respectively. 

My dad lives far from the flavor of light pollution I deal with at home, so naturally a test of all this gear at his place on a new moon seemed like the perfect christening. It was a gorgeous night. Sirius was twinkling with more color than a police squad car’s light rack and the only way this launch could have been better is if I shattered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin over the right ascension axis of my mount.

Alas, it was not to be this night. I spent hours trying to get the mount aligned and went to bed defeated without a single shutter release. I did enjoy the darkness and saw some green fireballs courtesy of the Lyrids shower in progress. 

In hindsight, I can say that had I known how to change the slew speed on my mount (on the hand controller), I would have been able to finish the star alignment. That is just how new I was/am to all this… even the table stakes are challenging exercises. 

This is how we learn.

The rabbit hole is quite deep from here.
The rabbit hole is quite deep from here.

The decision to start.

So my wanderlust for stardust has officially begun.

I can remember wanting to photograph the night sky as far back as my early twenties. I think I moved from one excuse to another over the years, which is completely against the nature of the man I’ve become, but settled on a favorite: something, something, light pollution. Living in the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan area by population and arguably the largest by geography can only mean one thing… a lot of humans with a lot of lights turned on. The constant onslaught against the night rages from street lights, porch lights, never-ending construction, and citizens that never sleep. I suppose I simply figured that it wasn’t to be until I had retired into the serene countryside where the only terrestrial lights were from the flicker of fireflies across the field.

It was a friend of mine expressing interest in learning to photograph the Milky Way over scenic night landscapes that made me reevaluate my position. As a long time photography enthusiast, my desire to help him learn and accomplish his goal gave me enough knowledge of this largely misunderstood hobby to set aside my own reservations and start.

I spent some time learning the barrier of entry requirements and did an enormous amount of research online to determine the best way to dip my toe in the water just enough to clarify my direction. My personality lends my behavior more toward all-in when it comes to doing. Dabbling never really set well with me. I believe in life and love, we should grab the goblet with both hands and drink deep. If some spills from the edges of our mouth and down our chest, such is living. No one truly lives suckling experiences from a sippy cup. I digress.

More on gear in the next post, but suffice it to say, I learned that due to our rocketing through space at over 1000 miles per hour, the most important foundational piece of any deep space astrophotography rig is the mount. You need a special mount type, called a German Equatorial Mount, to counteract for the field rotation (in the telescope’s field of view) caused by the spin of the Earth on its axis. In other words, something to prevent the stars from trailing. “Don’t skimp on the mount“, was a common phrase of sage advice. So it started with a mount and some basic accessories to allow connecting my existing camera and telephoto camera lens to the GEM. I had read that the key to photographing DSO’s (Deep Space Objects) was to take many long exposure photographs and use specialized “stacking” software to mash them together like a virtual Dagwood panini and then “stretch” them with more specialized software to bring out the details in all that juicy data accumulated while spending hours out in the mosquito laden, soupy, humid atmosphere sweating like a whore in church (or freezing the digits off your extremities composing a marching cadence with your chattering teeth, depending on the season). I acquired some free software off the interwebs and armed myself. I slapped it all together with nary a clue and took a few photographs of what I thought was a celestial body in the deepest corners of space. I downloaded these subs (that’s what the townfolk in the AP world call the individual frames in a larger set that make up the integrated data… oh, and AP is suave for astrophotography) and ran them through my freshly installed free software with all the default settings and…

Behold! This is my very first “official” astrophotograph.

There will be more, but this is the first.

(Full disclosure: Today is July 14, 2014 and I have, until now, only posted “progress pic” along this journey on my already-cluttered Facebook feed. I decided to install WordPress and start this blog on this old, dusty URL today. Mostly to have a single point to track my growth and small victories as I improve, but also in part due to my long spell without writing. There are reasons, but let’s focus on spacetime ahead. I’ve moved some of the early pics here and added some commentary. Moving forward, updates will be in real time.)

...and so it begins.
“The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” – Lao Tzu