Year: 2014

The Universe Wants To Kill Us

Today I’m writing something a little different. Normally this blog focuses on astrophotography and all things related. Today I’m taking a step out of that paradigm and speaking on a slightly more morbid topic – how fragile life on our planet really is and how easily and quickly it could be eradicated.

It’s good to be alive. And most of us don’t realize really how fortunate we are to even be here in the first place considering the universe is trying to kill us at every turn.  We live in a harsh, deadly universe.  At every opportunity, from the microscopic level all the way to the macroscopic scale we can’t even comprehend, the universe wants to kills us.

At the microscopic scale, you have a plethora of hazards to life – some natural, some man-made. We have bacteria and viruses that will kill us if left unchecked. Before our era of modern medicine, these pesky bugs would regularly wipe out a fair percentage of humanity on a fairly regular basis. But still there are bugs out there that will kill us dead that we can do nothing about.

At a natural level, we have creatures – from smallest spiders to large predators – who would kill us in an instant, either for food or just from perceiving us as a threat. There are toxic plants that can kill us. And of course, we have the most destructive species of all – humans. We’ve been responsible for the culling of more of our own numbers than anything else to date. And we can use anything from the largest items to the smallest (harnessing the power of the atom) to do it. We truly are the ultimate killing machine, and the only species on this planet that regularly kills members of its own species.

On the planetary scale, we have all kinds of hazards just looking to kill us. There’s climate and weather phenomena such as tornados and hurricanes, droughts, floods, etc that rack up a healthy death toll each year. From a geological standpoint, plate tectonics cause all kinds of nasty things such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Millions have died from these events through history. And many more will in the future. As an example, should the caldera of the Yellowstone super volcano blow its top (and it’s about due), life on this planet as we know it would cease to exist.

We haven’t even left terra firma yet, and already we have incredible odds stacked against us and our survival.

On the scale of the solar system, we’re faced with another group of potential threats to our survival. The biggest and least obvious is our source of life on this planet – the Sun. It could end life on Earth in an instant with a single direct hit from one lucky X-class flare. We’ve been grazed by some rather large coronal mass ejections in the last few months that could have had serious effects had they been direct hits. And in a few billion years, it WILL be the death of Earth as the sun swells into a red giant and engulfs the inner planets, possibly even the Earth. Whether life will still exist on Earth at that time is unknown, but regardless, the sun will be the eventual destruction of our planet if nothing else gets us first.

And then there are the space rocks and other large objects floating around our solar system. Everything from meteoroids to asteroids and comets that could come around and crash our life party on our blue marble. They have hit us before, and will hit us again. We’ve just been fortunate in the last few hundred thousand years to not have any significant impact that had a significant impact on life on this planet. The recent space-rock that blew up over Russia, as well as the Tunguska event of 1908 show us that we’re very vulnerable to potential life-smashing hazards from space.

And then we move out of our solar neighbourhood and into interstellar space. Again we’re faced with multiple perils. It’s generally accepted that there are rogue, invisible black holes moving around through interstellar space. If one were to interact with our sun’s gravity and be pulled in, then it would mean destruction of our solar system. There are also rogue planets that were thrown out of their parent star’s orbit drifting through interstellar space. Should one come our way and enter our solar system, the outcome could be disastrous. Even if there was no direct collision with another body in our system,  orbital equilibrium would be thrown off causing stable orbits of planets to be thrown off, perhaps catapulting us into the sun where we’d burn, or out of the solar system altogether where we’d freeze. Again, more ways the universe is trying to kill us. Granted, the odds of this happening are quite low.

On a less chance-based scenario, if any large star in our immediate stellar neighbourhood (within about 50 light years for giant stars, 100 light years for supergiants) were to go supernova, the earth would be drenched in gamma radiation and all life destroyed in fairly short order. To steal from Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars, “Our ionosphere and magnetosphere can’t repel firepower of that magnitude”. And we wouldn’t even know about it until it hit us.

And then we move up to the galactic scale. Our galaxy is constantly in motion, with our solar system orbiting our galactic core once every 230 million years. As we move through in our little galactic arm, we have other objects in motion at different rates and different trajectories. We traverse dust clouds, areas with other star systems, etc. All we need is to get too close to have a gravitational interaction between our sun and another object, and it could be lights out once again.

And then we move up to the inter-galactic scale – the largest we’re really able to comprehend. A collision with another galaxy could be the end of our little world. And it’s already in the process of happening. Our nearest large galactic neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is currently 2.4 million light years from our own Milky Way and is moving towards us. Our 2 galaxies will collide and merge in about 4 billion years. This will cause stellar collisions and widespread destruction, as well as spark a lot of star formation as we merge over hundreds of millions of years and form a new elliptical galaxy. We may survive it unscathed, remaining as a member of this new galaxy, or our solar system may be one of the billions that will be flung out, becoming a rogue solar system travelling in the blackness of space between galaxies.

But despite the odds being so stacked against us at every turn, here we are. Some will call our presence here chance, while others will invoke spiritual or religious reasons for our existence. In the end, the cause is irrelevant. Whatever it is you may believe, the one inalienable truth is that we’re here, we’re alive, and all that despite our universe trying to kill us at every turn.

We often say that life is short. When considered on the universal time scale, it’s even insignificant. But on our own time scale, it’s just best to be content with what we have and enjoy it while we can. Because we won’t be for long, and any of the things listed above could end in a blink of an eye without us even realizing it. We need to just realize how lucky we are to be here, be happy, and enjoy our existence. And hopefully we manage to find a way off this rock we call home and settle elsewhere in the galaxy in order to not be exterminated should any of the above conditions prevail.

The Difference A Year Can Make

When looking ahead, a year always seems like a long time. But when we look back, it really seems only like yesterday, despite the fact that a lot may have happened in that period of time.

When I consider where I was with astrophotography exactly 1 year ago, I found myself just starting to be comfortable with my equipment, the use of it, and the post processing of my images. I was at the point where I knew enough to be able to get decent results some of the time. If I managed to get acquire good data, the post processing went well. If my data was difficult, chances are I’d have one hell of a time processing it and would end up junking it. And by junking it, I don’t really mean deleting the files. I just meant filing it away on my network storage in my image archive.

In the last year, I’ve become far more proficient with Photoshop and other post-processing techniques. I’ve revisited old data of deep space objects a few times and played with it seeing if I could improve on the original images. Overall, I’ve noticed huge improvements in my reprocessed data just because I now actually understand what I’m doing in Photoshop. I’m not just repeating something I saw in a tutorial video hoping it works out. In a couple of cases, I managed to pull up old data that I thought was trash and actually make it work.

But there was one area where my experience is still slim, even to this day. That’s lunar and planetary photography. I’ve done alright with lunar imaging. Wide field lunar imaging using my DSLR camera is pretty good. I have a decent handle on that and the post-processing required. But imaging with my Celestron NexImage 5 had given me mixed results. I had gotten some pretty decent shots of the moon overall, and a few so-so images of Saturn and Mars. But I never seemed to really come close to what I’d seen other people doing. I was quite unsure if I was doing something wrong, or my camera was really just overpriced junk.

To be fair, I purchased my NexImage 5 in May hoping to get shots of the planets through the summer via my 8″ Meade LX90. Schmidt Cassegrain scopes are great for planetary and lunar imaging due to their long focal lengths and the great resolution their larger primary mirrors can deliver. But as luck would have it, my LX90’s mount died 3 days after getting the camera. And for anyone who’s followed this blog or my astronomy adventures via the various astronomy-related Facebook groups I’m a member of, you’ll know the issues I had dealing with Meade to get my scope repaired. I chronicled the ordeal in another blog entry earlier this year.

So while Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were at their prime, I didn’t have the scope the NexImage 5 was intended to be paired up with.. By the time I got the scope back at the end of the summer (still broken) and got it operational again, all 3 planets were basically setting just as night fell and I never got a change to image them with my LX90.

The same day I bought the NexImage 5, I also bought my Sky-Watcher 120 mm f/5 refractor and AVX mount, so luckily, I had a scope to use through the summer. I did make several attempts to image the planets using that scope. I got a couple of acceptable shots of Mars and Saturn, but the results were rather underwhelming. The small scope is intended for wide field imaging, not for planetary use. Although I did get some decent shots of the moon with it, including a really nice high resolution mosaic of the moon assembled for 16 different images stitched together.

Flickr link:

Aside from that, most of my planetary images were just borderline acceptable, My 2 best were shots of Mars and Saturn taken on May 24 as seen  here.

Flickr link:
Flickr link:

All things considered, I’m certainly not disappointed with either of those shots, but compared to my deep sky and widefield imaging, they left a lot to be desired. And of course, I knew the scope was the issue. Mars is difficult even in larger scopes. I’m in no way disappointed. The image of Saturn is also quite good considering the equipment that it was shot with. Since I barely knew what I was doing in post processing with planetary images, I think the results were good all around. But I was DYING to try out my NexImage camera on my LX90.
In August, my main astro-buddy Kevin finally got his own scope – a Celestron NexStar 8SE, an 8″ Schmidt Cassegrain. So having access to an 8″ SCT that was very much comparable to mine, we decided to test my planetary cam on it. As luck would have it, the atmosphere was terribly turbulent with less than ideal seeing conditions and the planets were low on the horizon, but I had to try anyway. And the resulting image I got of Saturn was a vast improvement over my refractor. It wasn’t great by any means, but finally I was getting good resolution and colour. The big scope’s extra magnification and aperture made a huge different.

Flickr link:

While this was a huge improvement over my past attempts, I still wasn’t truly satisfied with my results. But it was an improvement, and at least it showed that really I could do much better than what I’d been doing. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait till next spring when Saturn is once again visible to try to top this image. In the meantime, I have some other old data of Saturn that I want to see if I can improve on.

But this has been a bit of a digression of the topic of this blog entry – trying again with failed data. But I felt I had to go on this tangent and put this info and these samples out there as a preamble (along with some eye candy) so it fit in the great context of the story in terms of what my previous planetary imaging experience had been.
While my hands-on experience with planetary imaging has been fairly limited, I have learned enough about Photoshop and other tools of the trade that when I saw some of my older data that I had written off as “scrap”, I knew it could be salvaged. The best example I’ve come up with is my first attempt at shooting Jupiter back on Nov 4, 2013. I was out shooting other things that night, and Jupiter rose. I had my Nikon D7000 mounted on my LX90. So I took a series of images of it. Now, for those in the know, a DSLR on an 8″, f/10 SCT is not the ideal for planetary imaging, but I thought I would try it out. With my total lack of knowledge on how to process images at the time, this is the best I could come up with.

Flickr link:
So you can definitely tell what planet it is, but it’s dim, and there’s really no detail in it at all. I uploaded it to Flickr anyway because it was my first image of Jupiter, and it would be the benchmark by which I would judge future attempts.

And this is the data that I came across in my sorting yesterday. I saw the source images, and to my slightly more experienced eyes, it actually looked pretty good. It certainly wasn’t the train wreck I had originally considered it to be. So I took it upon myself to see what I could do with it.

Imaging my surprise after stretching the histogram and 4 Galilean moons jumped out of the image! I couldn’t see them in the source frames, but there they were! I was amazed. And I started messing with different processing techniques to sharpen and enhance the image. After a couple of hours, I finally settled on this as a final version.And I have to say, I’m amazed with the result.

Flickr link:

In terms of wide field images of Jupiter and its moons, this is actually pretty good. I had no idea that the old data I had collected was this good! Had I known this was possible last year, I would have put more effort into it. But the frustration of not being able to do anything with it due to my inexperience caused me to give up on it. Until now, that is. And I’m glad that I returned to it.

So I guess this really goes to show what a year’s worth of experience using post processing tools can really achieve. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in the field by any means. I’m still very much a novice. But results like this really serve to validate the knowledge and experience I’ve acquired in the last year. And it makes me hopeful for what I’ll be able to achieve in another year. And perhaps even sooner, as Jupiter is starting to rise on the eastern horizon at about midnight. It’ll be high enough to image earlier in the evening very soon, and I fully intend to take advantage of that and get as many images of it as I possibly can. And Saturn will be following suit shortly thereafter, giving me yet another window of several months to try to surpass my previous attempts.
The lesson learned here is that just because I’m not able to do anything with difficult data I’ve collected today doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wasted. At some point down the road when I get better at the dark art of Photoshop, I may just be able to salvage it, as I’ve done today.
So now I must return to the sorting of my old data to see what other potentially hidden gems I can fine. So until next time, clear skies and keep you eyes to the sky.

(Auto-) Guiding Light

The moment I had been waiting for now for months was finally on me. I got my autoguider, guide scope, dovetail, and finally my dew heaters as well. The 2 issues that plagued me the most – tracking and dew – would finally be vanquished!

My rig all set up with all its wiry glory

I headed out to my regular spot in an industrial park just outside of town and got myself set up. The first issue was cables. So many cables to deal with. Most were dangling around (I know, bad), but there was no wind, so at least that wasn’t affecting my imaging.

On a side note, I’ve bought some velcro cable ties, so next time that won’t be an issue. But needless to say, for this evening, I had to deal with this tangle of wires the best I could. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. I’ve got a better setup planned for next time that will result in the laptop sitting in the warm car with me.

It took a lot longer than it typically takes me to set up this new rig. There was so much to connect. In my head, I knew what needed to be done and it isn’t terribly complicated. But actually doing it always presents some challenges in themselves. I did manage to get everything connected the first time without issues though. It just took me a lot longer to get it all sorted out than it typically does. Finally, I was polar aligned, the scope was aligned with 2 stars + 4 calibration stars. I got my focus on Vega using Backyard Nikon, and I was ready to fire up PHD and test out my new autoguider.


And that’s when things got interesting / confusing. I had read the instruction manual that came with my Orion StarShoot AutoGuider. I’d played with it at home in day light to get familiar with it, but I wasn’t prepared for the screen full of noise that PHD presented me. I was baffled. I saw no starts. All I saw was a screen full of noise. I played with the camera gain, gamma adjustments, etc, and still couldn’t see anything. I opened up the manual and read it again, but I couldn’t figure it out. I was confused and didn’t know what to do.

So I made a quick post to the Amateur Astrophotography Magazine Facebook group. I knew there would be someone that could help me out. And sure enough, responses started pouring in almost immediately. With some excellent advice from other more experienced imagers such as Mitchell Tubbs (East of Jupiter), Bubba Daniels, David Pointer, and Phil Quandt who use autoguiders, I finally managed to get my autoguider working. Thanks for the tips, gentlemen. You got me off on the right track!

It turns out my primary issue was that my exposure times were too short. I guess while playing around with PHD at home, I had set the exposure time to 0.2 seconds and left it there. That really wasn’t long enough of an exposure to register images of the stars or even to get focus with in the first place. Once I managed to acquire an image with the autoguider using Vega as a target, I managed to get my guide scope in focus. Once I had that, things started going smoothly at last. Once PHD calibrated, I was good to go.

My tracking graph in PHD was a little erratic. Not terrible by any means. My images did turn out quite well and my stars are perfectly round, so it looks like everything is within good tolerances, but the tracking wasn’t quite as smooth as I’d seen on other peoples’ tracking graphs. I’m not sure what the exact cause of this is. My mount was properly polar aligned, or at least I think it was. I’ll have to be more careful aligning it next time to see if that helps

My first order of business was to test out the tracking now that I had the autoguider. Previously, I’d been unable to track using this scope at f/10 for more than 90 seconds without getting some trailing. So it was time to put things to the test. The first target of the night was M81 with 300 second exposures. I’d shot this target before using this scope. However, I had shot it at f/6.3 using my focal reducer and had shorter exposures.This time, I wanted a higher power view of the galaxy solo. I got over an hour of data on it, but for some reason, neither DeepSkyStacker nor MaximDL will read about half of the exposures. I’m not sure what the issue is there, as they should all be good. But in any case, for the test run, it worked out well. I got a fairly decent view of it. Nowhere near as good as I would have hoped, but since this was really just a test for my tracking, I’m pleased with the result.

Flickr link:

I’m certainly not disappointed in the result. It doesn’t have as much detail as I would like, but that’s the down side of imaging at a high focal ratio. You need a lot of good, clear exposures to create a final image that doesn’t have data gaps. M81 happens to be bright enough that I managed to get a good image despite only having 20 minutes of data.

The second target for the night was one I had never shot or seen before – M1, the Crab Nebula. I’d been wanting to get a shot of this one for a while now, and I figured this was as good a time as any to do it. I was hoping for something better, but unfortunately, it seemed my focus was off. Normally I try to refocus between targets, but I didn’t this time. I got 8 shots of it, but 6 of them were quite blurry and didn’t make it into the final image. I didn’t think it was quite good enough to post up on my Flickr page, but it was good enough to at least share on my Facebook page as a “failed attempt”.

Facebook link:

I had originally intended on getting more of M1 than I did, but realized that Orion had risen. And my ADD kicked in, making me want to switch targets. All in all, considering my focus was off on M1 and I didn’t realize it, that wasn’t a bad idea. My dilemma was now whether to shoot M42, the Horsehead Nebula, or Flame Nebula. All 3 are amongst my favourites. Having already managed good shoots of M42 and Flame in the past, I decided I’d turn the light gathering capability of my scope on the Horsehead, since I had never gotten an image of it that was to my satisfaction.

Flickr link:

The detail that I managed to pull out of this left me pretty impressed. Like my image of M81, there’s a grainy finish. It’s not so much due to noise, but rather the lack of data. While the Horsehead is clearly visible with bright red shades, there are a lot of gaps in my data due to the short integration time. A mere 30 minutes of exposure time at f/10 is not enough to capture this dim object and all the subtle gas clouds surrounding it. But still, I was very impressed. In previous shots of this object, I had actually been shooting the Flame Nebula with my camera and a 300mm lens or with my widefield f/5 refractor. While I managed to capture the presence of the Horsehead, detail on it was never clear. This time, I clearly captured it, despite the “noisy” appearance. Far from perfect, but the level of detail here is impressive.
Lessons learned

While the imaging from this session is far from what I’d call spectacular, it was a successful evening out nonetheless. I learned to properly set up and use my new equipment, which is always my goal the first time I’m out with new gear. But the real successes of the evening were the lessons I walked away with.

Autoguiders are great!  They require some extra work to set up, but once set up properly, they’re essential for long exposure photography and will do a wonderful job of keeping your mount tracking.

Take extra care to polar align the mount as accurately as possible, including doing a second polar alignment after my 2+4 mount alignment is complete.

F/10 is a difficult ratio to image at, especially when you have a 2m focal length. I now know I need a lot more integration time to get clear images out of my setup at f/10, Chances are I’ll likely stick with f/6.3 using my reducer for most of my imaging. It will be a lot more forgiving and will allow me to get more complete images in less time.

Take the time to re-focus between targets to ensure good images. Had I done it in this session, I would have had a semi-decent image of M1.

So all in all, I’m pleased with the outcome of this session. I quite look forward to heading out again at the first chance I get to put this setup to the test again.

So until next time, clear skies and keep your eyes to the sky.

Learning From My Blunders

A while back, I wrote a blog entry about the issues I had with my Meade LX90 mount. Despite being sent back to Meade for repair (at great expense), the mount still didn’t work right. I made the decision to remove the optical tube from the LX90 fork mount and mount it on my Celestron AVX equatorial mount so I could track properly for long exposure photography.

LX90 mounted with tube rings

I made this decision based on a bunch of stuff I read in various forums about people who had “deforked” their LX90 and LX200 tubes and mounted them on equatorial mounts. Based on what I read, I concluded I had 2 options to do this. The first was using a dovetail plate, and the second was using tube rings. Normally, Schmidt Cassegrains use dovetails, but I managed to get my hands on some inexpensive tube rings made for an 8″ reflector, so I went that route. I figured it would be easy to attach a short dovetail to the top of the scope for a guide scope or other accessories, so it would be very convenient. And this assumption was correct.

And it worked great. The first couple of times I went out observing I concluded that I had make a great choice. However, I soon realized the error of my ways. For visual observation, this wasn’t an issue. The tube was perfectly balanced. However, when it came to astrophotography with my DSLR, the weight of the camera on the back of the scope threw off the balance of the tube completely. And there was no way to move the tube forward in the rings to balance it. I still managed to take pics with it this way, and have been for a while, but I now know it’s less than ideal. When I made my decision, I hadn’t taken the balance issue into account. The accounts I read on other forums of people using tube rings were for visual observation, which was perfect. But for photography where a lot of stuff is usually attached to the telescope, this just wouldn’t do.

Now that I’ve started using my LX90 for photography, I’ve come to see how its long focal length affects tracking. With my 120 mm f/5 refractor, I can easily get 3+ minute exposures while maintaining pinpoint accuracy on my stars.  But the LX90 is a completely different beast. I’d never done more than 30 second exposures using that scope. I realized that even with accurate polar alignment, 45-60 seconds was pretty much the maximum I could manage before seeing star trails. Using my 0.63x focal reducer helped and I could track up to 90 seconds. But anything beyond that was useless. And with such a high focal ratio, I need to be able to get at least 3 minute exposures to get decent images. And I’m sure that the balance issues I’m having with my tube play a role in the tracking errors as well.

In order to increase my tracking accuracy, I purchased a guide scope and autoguider camera. The guide scope is a nice 80 mm Guidescope Package from Celestron. This includes an 80 mm, f/7 refractor and a set of  125 mm tube rings. This package attaches to the main tube or rings via a CGE type dovetail plate. Attached to this is an Orion StarShoot AutoGuider camera.

Celestron guide scope with Orion StarShoot AutoGuider attached

I could mount this on my tube rings, but realized it would throw the balance off even more, so the situation is less than ideal. In the end, I really didn’t have a choice. I had to get the proper dovetail plates, both to attach my scope to my mount, and to attach my guide scope to my optical tube. Otherwise, using the rings would introduce even more balancing issues. So I had to lose the tubes and do this right.

LX90 mounted on Losmandy dovetail

So I placed orders for a Meade-compatible dovetail mount from Losmandy and the Celestron CGE dovetail plates. Yesterday, I received my Losmandy plate. Installation was dead simple. I had to remove 2 of the screws from the telescope tube, align the dovetail, and insert 2 longer screws provided with the dovetail.

Now balance is restored. I can move the OTA forward as far as necessary to balance it with the camera attached. Another advantage is those 8″ die cast tube rings are heavy. They added about 6 lbs to my set up. Removing them and replacing them with this lightweight aluminium dovetail makes my overall load much lighter.

The Celestron AVX mount is solid, but only designed for a maximum payload of 30 lbs. Ideally, one wants to keep the weight at about 50% of the mount capacity for optimum performance and minimal stress on the motors and gears. The OTA by itself weighs 14 lbs. The camera adds another 1.5 lbs or so, and the guide scope and rings are 7 lbs combined. So altogether, I’m riding about 22 lbs of gear on my mount, which is clocking in at 73% of the mount’s maximum load capacity. The extra 6lbs from the large tube rings would have put me at a very uncomfortable 28 lbs. Add to that the imbalance and I don’t think even the autoguider setup would have been able to save me and keep the scope tracking properly, let alone the undue stress I would have been putting on the gears and motor on the declination axis. This was really the only option that I had to properly mount my system.

So the moral of this story is simple – before doing something like this, thoroughly do your research and consider options carefully. I now have a set of 8″ tube rings that are useless to me (for now) as a result of this blunder. They were reasonably cheap, but I still could have saved this money had I properly considered what I was doing rather than just blindly choosing to do this.

So until next time, keep your eyes to the sky. Clear skies!

Astrophotography On a Dime – or at least, a healthy stack of dimes…

When people think of astrophotography, most will think of some elaborate set up with either an expensive CCD camera or DSLR mounted at prime focus on an even more expensive, large telescope with a computerize mount. To be fair, in this age where technology geared towards astronomy is relatively cheap compared to what it used to be even 15 years ago, equipment like this is within reach of most amateurs willing to save their money for a while. It’s expensive when all the bits and bobs are added up, but none of the individual components required are necessarily to get good results are  too expensive on their own unless you’re buying really high end gear. The technological revolution has made astrophotography accessible to almost anyone.

For centuries, sketching was the only way that astronomers could document what they saw through the telescope eyepiece. And it was the only way common folk would ever get to see the celestial sights that were otherwise too faint to see with the naked eye. And of course, the quality of these sketches were very dependent on the artistic and observational skills of the person doing the sketching. I have zero artistic talent with a pencil, so this is a lost cause for me. And many people fall into this same category. Since photography became more accessible to the general populace, sketching is less common and is somewhat of a lost art these days.

Before the advent of the DSLR camera or CCD imagers, choices were limited. Astrophotography with an SLR was the simplest, cheapest form, but a chore nonetheless. A lot of people had 35 mm SLR cameras, and you could get basic models for pretty reasonable prices. The simplest form of astrophotography (as it still is today) was just plain wide angle star field photography on a tripod. You pointed, your SLR at your desired target, locked the bulb open manually, and carefully removed the lens cap. You’d then time your exposure for as long as you could without getting star trails (using the Rule of 600 ) and you hoped for the best. It was a tedious process, to say the least.

Mounting the camera on an “inexpensive” (relatively at the time) manual or motorized equatorial mount was a great way to get some impressive long exposure images. But due to the cost of these mounts, people with more modest budgets preferred to build their own manual “barn door tracker”. For those fortunate enough to own a telescope with a solid, good quality mount equatorial mount with a motor drive, they were really rocking the Cadillac-grade equipment of the astrophotography world. Prime focus photography became  a very practical option, but you needed to be a pretty experienced photographer to get good results.

With film, you had to know how to use your gear, because there were no “test shots”. You had to get it right the first time. It was a mix of trial and error and using exposure tables to know how to shoot objects. Your focus had to be perfect, as with your framing of your subject. And you wouldn’t know if you got good shots or not until you got the film developed and prints made. It was a long, tedious process, and simple mistakes due to inexperience could end up with a roll of ruined shots. And bad shots back then cost money, both in terms of buying film and getting it developed. And in these pre-Photoshop days, there was no post processing. What was on film was what you got. Today we can take hours worth of exposures over different sessions and stack them together to produce our images. Film was limited to single exposures, and the longer you kept the shutter open, the less sensitive the film became to light, something known as “reciprocity failure”. 
In the mid 90s, CCD imaging became more accessible to the hardcore amateurs who had deep pockets. Many companies like Meade and SBIG, amongst others, started producing more “consumer level” CCD cameras. But being a new technology, these were rather expensive. And with the camera, you now also needed a computer in the field. Laptop computers of that era were very slow and underpowered compared to desktop computers, their battery life was limited, and they basically cost a small fortune. CCD chips had a very small surface area compared to 35 mm SLR cameras, had low resolution of 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 at best, and were monochrome only. 
These cameras weren’t cheap – often costing $1000 or more – but significantly cheaper than the high end professional grade CCD cameras that cost many times as much. Even these higher end camera still had very limited resolution, often little less than 1024 x 768, and the majority were still monochrome.  So with these new CCD cameras, you could either take just monochrome images, or you could use colour filters to capture individual RGB / LRGB frames and then later combine them digitally in Photoshop to get a final colour image.

The early 2000s became a real boon for astrophotography, putting it within reach of just about anyone. DSLR cameras were being introduced and even the lower end, affordable models had a rich enough feature set to make them suitable for astrophotography. Of course, higher end, professional DSLRs will work better, but it gave people the option to get into the dark art of astrophotography without having to sell their kids into slavery to afford it. Besides, a lot of people dabble in photography and already had one of these cameras.

Dedicated CCD cameras are also more reasonably priced. They’re about on par with the cost of a decent, mid-range DSLR, and are now available in colour as well, although monochrome + filters will still offer the best detail and resolution. With laptop computers these days being quite powerful and reasonably cheap and with almost everyone owning one, the inaccessibility of this type of imaging due to cost.

But the real advantage of the CCD revolution was what we enjoy today. CCD is far more sensitive than film. A 1 minute CCD exposure taken today will yield the same results that a 30 minute exposure would have with film. And we’re now able to take test shots to frame our subject properly. If we get a bad shot, we can discard it, make necessary adjustments, and start over again.

We also don’t have to worry about reciprocity failure. With even modest equipment, we can acquire data from a target over hours or days and then stack the exposures together with various software packages to capture amazingly detailed images that even 20 years ago were only possible from space-based telescopes. And the post processing options available via Photoshop or other image editing software is almost limitless. And with minimal investment, really almost anyone can do it. 
With this prelude and brief history of astrophotography out of the way, it’s time to talk about what I intended in this blog – a basic set up for astrophotography that won’t break the bank.
A DSLR camera of some flavour is definitely the preferred option, although there are some point and shoot cameras that have manual modes that can be used for basic astrophotography. I have a Panasonic point and shoot with a full manual mode that can do 30 second exposures. It’s definitely not ideal, but since many people have these cameras already, it can definitely be used as a stepping stone into more serious astrophotography.

And we now also have the option of afocal photography – taking images of what we see in the eyepiece with a camera. There are several mounts available on the market that will couple point and shoot cameras or smartphones to the telescope eyepiece. This is best suited for bright solar system objects, but it goes to show how far we’ve come in the last couple of decades.

The most basic set up is much like it used to be back in the day – a camera on a tripod with a standard sub-100 mm lens. This will produce good results with star fields. And with proper exposure times, one can even use higher focal length lenses to shoot bright deep sky objects like M31, M33, M42, or M45. A good number of short exposures (within the Rule of 600 limit) stacked with proper calibration frames will produce reasonable images of a target, albeit small and with limited detail.

For better, higher magnification shots, a tripod isn’t enough. You need a tracker of some sort to counter for the rotation of the Earth. The manual barn door tracker I mentioned earlier is still an option for star field or Milky Way shots with short focal length lenses, but due to the high sensitivity of the CCD over film, it’s easy to shake the mount while taking your exposure. Using high focal length lenses of 200 mm or higher, the smallest vibrations you introduce will be magnified and will show up in your image, making this impractical at best.

Fortunately, there are many ways around this. If you’re fortunate to already have a telescope with a motor drive or go-to functionality, you already have this. You can easily piggyback mount your camera to your scope with relatively cheap adapters. Many scopes on the market from Celestron, SkyWatcher and Orion already have a camera mount built into the tube rings.  If your mount has a dovetail-type connector to attach the telescope tube, you can get inexpensive dovetail-type camera adapters and use it directly.

But if you don’t have this, then you need a tracker. If you’re on a budget, the best back for the buck would have to be the iOptron SkyTracker. This little unit is relatively inexpensive at about $400 MSRP for the basic model – about $450 with the optional polar scope, it’s a great deal for anyone that wants to shoot the sky without the expense of an expensive telescope with motorized mount. When carefully aligned, it will allow you to track for up to several minutes using a 300 mm lens on your camera. This can get you very impressive shots of the sky. I’ve gotten 3 minute exposures with a 300 mm lens, and I’m sure I could get more. I just haven’t tried yet.

Vixen also make a very comparable product called the Polarie which is very similar in design and performance, but a bit more expensive and their optional polar alignment scope is not included and costs significantly more than the iOptron’s. So for the money, this is most peoples’ ticket to long-exposure astrophotography on a budget. I did a full review of the SkyTracker last year. You can read it here for more information.

For something a little heavier duty iOptron also recently released the SkyGuider. This tracker is a small motorized equatorial head with counterweight that can handle significantly more weight than the SkyTracker – even accepting smaller telescope tubes. It also has an auto-guider port to use a guide scope and camera to make tracking even more precise. Auto-guiding is really out of the scope of this blog entry, but for those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s basically a way to compensate for mechanical imperfections in a mount’s gears ensuring perfect tracking over long periods of time. At $480 MSRP, it’s also a great choice for the budget-minded astrophotographer. And honestly, if you’re going to spend $450 for the SkyTracker and compact, lightweight portability isn’t of major concern to you, I’d strongly recommend paying the extra $30 to get one of these, as they expand your possibilities significantly, as it’s a proper German equatorial mount design. It will allow you to use the platform with a scope or guiding down the road and still retain decent portability and small size. The SkyTracker is the better option if portability is your primary concern.

And how well do they work? GREAT! I’ve taken some really great images with my SkyTracker. I’d even say some of my best images were taken with it. The shot of M42 below was one of the first I took with my it. I recently reprocessed the original data to test out new processing techniques I’d learned, but the image was original shot last fall and the original version was featured in my review linked above.

Flickr link:

This shot of M31 is my most recent at the time of writing this.( I was actually shooting this image in the field last night while sitting in my car and typing the majority of this blog on my laptop.) My skills at post-processing have increased significantly since the last time I’ve used the mount for deep space imaging, but the final image is very reliant on good, accurate data. And as you can see here, the data is very good, despite the short, 1 minute exposures and only 22 minutes of combined exposure time.

Flickr link:

And these tracking options aren’t just for beginners. They may be inexpensive compared to larger, motorized or computerized mounts, but they’re very good tools for photographers of all levels. Their small size and weight make them ideal for throwing into a backpack with your other gear to trek to remote locations where transporting a telescope and mount would be impractical or impossible.

So with these tracking options, it’s quite possible to put together a very functional astrophotography rig for $1000 or less. Used, last generation DSLR bodies are routinely found on ebay for a couple of hundred dollars. Some will even come with a basic 18-55 lens making them suitable for wide field photography. These are still quality camera, but have been supplanted by newer models with higher pixel counts and more features. a Nikon or Canon zoom lens that extends to 300 mm can readily be found new for $350 or less. You can find them used for even less. Again, they’re routinely found on ebay for less than $200.

So with all the options out there, there’s really no reason for someone who wants to try their hand at astrophotography to think they need to spend really big bucks on high tech equipment. Chances are, if you enjoy it, you will eventually upgrade to better, more expensive gear. But there’s really no reason to spend a small fortune to get started. Our technological advances in the last two decades have made this activity accessible to just about anyone.

So till next time, keep your eyes to the sky. Clear skies!

Striving For Continuous Improvement Instead of Perfection.

Astrophotography is an art form just as regular “terrestrial” photography is. As astrophotographers, we strive to capture the invisible beauty of the skies and make it visible for all to see and admire. And as with any discipline, we strive for what we as individuals see as perfection.

From the time we arrive at our chosen site to the moment we publish our final image, there’s a myriad of steps we need to follow. A failure in any of the steps in this process can lead to undesirable final results. I’ve been there many times, as I’m sure many others have been. I’ve had far more failures than successes, although I am seeing the failure rate decline as I gain experience. There are many factors we can control – gear setup, mount alignment, camera settings, decisions we make in our post processing, etc. And there are as many factors that we’re slaves to, namely weather, seeing conditions, light pollution, etc.

Astrophotography is a multidisciplinary pursuit. It requires a solid foundation in astronomy to know the objects, where to find them, and have a reasonable understanding of celestial mechanics. Without at least a working knowledge of the sky, it makes the rest of this process impossible.

We have to have a good understanding of our equipment, how to set it up and how to use it. As “easy” as it is to set up a computerized go-to scope for visual observation, we have to have the process down to a science for photography. Slight misalignments which are acceptable for visual observation will utterly ruin a photographic session. And this is just a basic set up. When you add CCD astronomy camera, auto-guiders, computer control, etc, it gets even more complicated. It’s surprising you don’t need a degree in Computer Sciences to to this.

We have to have a good basic understanding of meteorology to understand how atmospheric conditions affect our imaging. Knowing how the atmosphere affects our views of the sky is an important aspect. Often, skies that look clear will be terrible for imaging due to turbulence in the upper atmosphere. We have to be aware of these conditions that aren’t always readily apparent.

We have to understand photography and how to effectively use our gear. There’s no auto mode for astrophotography. You have to set your camera to manual mode and know the relationships between your aperture, shutter, ISO, etc. And of course, we have to learn to use our equipment effectively.

And last but not least, we need to understand the software we use to process our images. Photoshop in itself is a hurdle that can have even the most adept amateur astronomers curled up in the fetal position in a corner sobbing like a little girl. I’ve had a professional photographer with years of Photoshop experience try to process one of my astro images and it frustrated him to the point he was ready to throw his computer out the window. It’s not easy!

But in the end, we all strive to get that “perfect shot”.

But what is perfection? And is there really such a thing? And if there is, can it ever truly be attained? And if it could be attained, what then? What would one have left to strive for once this hypothetical “perfection” has been reached? This is a little more philosophical than I normally tend to get in this blog, but it raises interesting points.

In my view, there is no such thing as perfection. And it’s a good thing that there isn’t. What drives the creative spirit is the pursuit of improvement. The drive to exceed what we’ve already done and set a new benchmark for ourselves is the real goal. If we ever were to attain perfection, there really would be nothing left to work towards and it would make our chosen pursuit pointless. We;d hit the end of the road.

Any art form (and life itself) is a learning process. As we progress, we develop new skills. As we add these tools to our repertoire, we start seeing things that we didn’t before. We expand our possibilities. Often, we look back on past experiences with the famous “…if had known then what I know now…” afterthought. We know we could have done better. In many respects, we do have that opportunity as astrophotographers. We tend to hang on to our own data. Many of us go back and reprocess old data to try to improve on it. And really, I would encourage anyone to do that. It’s great practice. And it’s a great way to gauge ones’ progress in Photoshop voodoo skills.

With that in mind, I set out to see what I could do with some old data. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing with various old images I’d taken over the last year seeing if I could improve on any of them. Some of them were improvements, but not terribly significant to the point I thought it was worth republishing. Others, I couldn’t really improve substantially and realized I had hit the limit of what I could do with the data I’d collected.

That said, there was one image that had always been my favourite – an image of M42 I shot last November with only my camera and a 300mm lens. Until my recent stunning shot of M31, I had considered this by far to be my best image. I’d played with this image many times over the past 10 months because I knew for a fact there was a lot of data in there that I hadn’t been able to pull out at the time. It wasn’t until I developed my new workflow a couple of weeks back that I saw any real improvement in it from the original. I touched on it in my blog entry from September 2 called The Report Card. In it, I posted the image below comparing the original image I published on Flickr last year with a newly reprocessed version using my new workflow.

Image posted Sept 2 showing improvement to my old image due to my new workflow.

Needless to say, I was very pleased with the result, but not content with it. I know what M42 is supposed to look like. I know there’s a lot of nebulosity around M42 and between it and NGC 1977. A lot of that  data was in my picture. I could see a faint trace of it, but I hadn’t been able to pull it off without blowing out everything else in my image. But I was determined to bring out the Hα detail. So I set about working over the image again. Hα is not easy to capture with a DSLR, particularly with an unmodified Nikon. But I was determined to squeeze out as much of this impossible detail as I could.

Using some layer masking and blending modes (which I how understand thanks to Doug Hubbell’s awesome YouTube channel), I was able to separate this barely visible detail from the main image, convert it to monochrome, and run the “B&W -> Hα False Color Black Space” action from Noel Carboni’s Astronomy Tools action set. That converted my faint, barely visible detail around the fringe of M42 into deep, rich red hues that I was able to blend back into my original image to produce a much truer representation of what M42 should look like. It’s not just just a pinkish / reddish blob in space. It’s a large tapestry of rich hues and colours that fades out from a bright core. And I’m now displaying it as it should look.

Flickr link:

So is it good? Absolutely. I’m ecstatic about this image. This is what my old image should have looked like had I been adept enough at Photoshop back when I originally processed it. Is it perfect? Not even close. There’s still some faint nebulosity that I could have pulled out, but I think at this stage, it was more about finding the balance between pulling out the maximum amount of faint detail I could and keeping the image as noise-free as possible. Stretching any more would have brought out noise and pixellation that I don’t want. I did manage to bring out a bit more detail than what is seen in this final image, but the resolution of it was poor with terrible contrast. It just didn’t do the image justice. So I made the “artistic” call to dial it back a bit to what you see now – a nice, clean image.

I do believe I’m near the threshold what I can do with the data contained in this image. After all, this is just from a camera with a 300 mm lens on a tracker shooting 30 second exposures. There was no telescope involved here at all. I’m really not able to get the resolution I need to bring out the contrast and fine details in the nebulosity with such a small aperture. That kind of resolution is the realm of a telescope with much better light gathering capability. And you can bet I’ll be training my 8″ SCT with a 0.63x reducer on it as soon as M42 becomes visible in the evening sky. And I look forward to capturing it from the pristine dark sky at the L&A Dark Sky Viewing Area.

So how does this all tie in to the more philosophical opening of this blog entry?

As much as I’m proud of this new version of the image though, it’s not so much the image that’s the crown jewel here. It’s the learning experience. I put in a lot of time and effort to improve my processes, add new skills to my tool set, and built a better understanding of how things are done. By re-working this old image, I’ve put to practice some of these tools and validated new processes. The learning experience that came along with reprocessing this image is the true prize here. It’s  improvement. And that’s what I strive for. Just like my last image of M31 was leaps and bounds over my previous image of it just a week or so earlier, I see my improvement. But more importantly, I know what I did to improve my entire process from start to finish. And now I can use that experience in future imaging sessions to produce even better pictures. They won’t be perfect either, but I wouldn’t expect them to be. The real satisfaction here comes from knowing that I’ve improved and will improve more as time goes by. So now we’ve gone full circle and we’re back to the initial title of this article. “Striving for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.”

Thanks for your time. I hope you found this article informative and entertaining. Please feel free to share it if you enjoyed it. I’d love to expand readership.

Until next time, clear skies and keep your eyes to the sky.

The King’s Daughter’s Jewel

According to Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, rulers of Aethiopia. Cassiopeia bragged about her daughter’s divine beauty being greater than that of the Nedeids, the nymph daughters of the sea god Nereus. Angered by this, Poseidon released Cetus the sea monster to destroy Aethiopia as punishment for Cassiopeia’s boastful ways.

Upon consulting the Oracle, Cepheus was told that the only way to save his kingdom was to chain his naked daughter to a stone along the coast as a sacrifice to Cetus, which he did. Ultimately, Perseus arrived, slew Cetus and then rescued the beautiful maiden, eventually claiming her as his wife.

The mythology behind the constellations is always interesting to read, but of course, we know that it’s nothing but that – mythology. However, there is a grain of truth to the beauty of Andromeda. The beauty is not found in the constellation per se, but with one of the treasures hidden within.

This gem is known as Messier 31 or NCG 224, or better by it’s common name, the Andromeda Galaxy. Outside of smaller dwarf and satellite galaxies, M31 is our nearest cosmic neighbour at a distance of about 2.5 light years away. M31 is a large galaxy believed to be the largest of the Local Group. Latest observations place it as having over 1 trillion stars, double the estimated 500 million of our own galaxy. Furthermore, M31 is moving towards us. It’s estimated that our 2 galaxies will collide in about 3.75 billion years. Over the next few billion years, the gravitational dance of the two galaxies will cause them to merge into a giant elliptical galaxy. Whether humanity will be around to witness this spectacle is unknown, but what a sight that would be in the night sky.

M31 is the only object outside of the Milky Way that’s visible to the naked eye and if you know where to look, it can even be glimpsed from a site with moderate light pollution. Although in reality, all we see of M31 is the bright core. The rest of the galaxy’s vast expanse is far too dim to be seen without the aide of a telescope. If we were able to see M31 unaided in our night sky, it would be a truly remarkable sight, as its angular size would make it 6 times the width and 2 times the height of a full moon, as can be seen in the photoshopped image below. This may look rather unbelievable to see, but that’s exactly what M31 would look like if its disc was bright enough to see with the naked eye.

Uncredited image. If you know who to credit to it, please let me know

Because of this, it’s should come as no surprise that M31 is a favourite target of astronomers and astrophotographers alike. Through a medium sized telescope from a dark site, wisps of the galaxy’s spiral structure and the contrast of its dust lanes can be observed. While I can’t speak from experience (my 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain scope is the largest I’ve looked through), a large aperture instrument can provide some truly remarkable views of our neighbour. But to truly get a proper view of M31 in full colour, long exposure photography is an absolute must.

M31 is a favourite of most astrophotographers. It’s large size and relatively near distance make it fairly easy to capture with even a simple camera on a tripod. Although easy to capture, capturing it WELL is a totally different story. And the capture is only half the battle. Even with pristine data, it takes some skill and technique to pull details out of the image. And I’ve been struggling with that for the past year.

I’ve had many attempts at M31 in the last year. While it’s my most often repeated object on my Flickr page, it’s also the one that’s seen the highest rate of failure. For every image of it I have posted, there are at least 2-3 ultimately failed photo sessions associated. And even with my successes, I never really managed to process the image properly until my last session.

My first successful attempt at M31 was on Nov 19 of last year. I had just purchased my iOptron SkyTracker and decided this would be the first target with my new piece of gear. I headed out to a moderately dark site just out of the city limits, set up my camera with a 55-300mm lens at maximum, set the camera’s intervalometer, and let it rip off a bunch of exposures. Finally, I had success! I was utterly amazed by what came out of Deep Sky Stacker once it finished stacking my image. I was amazed that I could capture this kind of detail with just a camera. But I found myself struggling to really pull out the finer detail and clearly show contrast in the dust lanes. While I’m pleased with the image, my skill level with Photoshop was lacking. I was very pleased with my result, but I knew that I could do much better, and vowed to revisit this object again in the future. I tried again several times over the course of the winter, but somehow never managed to top this initial image, despite using the same equipment at the same location, even with M31 higher in the sky and “easier” to shoot.

Flickr link:

My next somewhat successful attempt at M31 came on June 28 of this past summer. I was out at the Lenox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area. My main targets of the evening had been the Milky Way, M13 and M16. But towards the end of the evening, I realized that M31 had risen above the horizon. So I figured it was a perfect opportunity to snap off some shots of it. I was using my new 120mm f/5 refractor, so I figured it would be a good opportunity to put this scope’s wide angle views to use. Being early summer, the night was quite humid and hazy, so it wasn’t the clearest view, but with the wider aperture and faster focal ratio, I did manage to pull out a lot more detail and contrast I had been unable to in my older image taken with just the camera. The resolution of this image was much higher.

But alas, my inexperience with Photoshop once more proved to be my limitation. I had gotten significantly better at image processing, but I was still lacking the tools and techniques to make the details really jump out as in so many other images of M31 I’d seen. While most considered the photo to be a success, I still found it way too “flat” and lacking contrast. But I could definitely see an improvement, and I was determined to capture good, usable data and learn to process it properly

Flickr link:

Since then, I’ve been attempting to take photos of M31 whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also practiced a lot with old data, combining data sets, etc. But the results had been mixed at best. Although in the process, I learned a lot about Photoshop and started using more advanced techniques. I knew that once I got some good shots, I’d be able to produce a great final image.

That opportunity came on the evening of September 16. I headed out to a large empty lot in an industrial park just outside the city I’d been taking images from lately. It’s certainly no dark site, but there’s no ambient lighting and since it’s east of the city, light pollution is moderate and quite manageable. There’s really only heavy sky glow in the south and southwestern skies. The eastern sky is quite dark except for right above the horizon.

I decided to try some very different settings than I usually do. I lowered my ISO to 640 and reduced my exposure time to 90 seconds from the 3 minutes I’d been using previously. I wanted to minimize noise from light pollution, star bloating, and chromatic aberration generated by my achromatic refractor. I figured I’d be able to get a much better resolution out of my image that way.

And as it turns out, I was successful! I did a quick stack when I got home, and right away I could see the quality of my images had increased dramatically over previous attempts. A quick stretching in Photoshop showed fine detail that I had never captured before. I couldn’t wait to get this image processed!

The following evening, I finally got the opportunity to sit down and really work on it. Using my new image processing workflow that I’d developed and a few new sharpening techniques I had learned, I got to work. Finally, I got the result that I had been wanting for the past year. The final image didn’t look flat and 2D. I had managed to get the depth that had been lacking in my previous images. I had great, vibrant colour around the core. I managed to bring out nice detail and contrast in the dust lanes. The fine details pop out of the image. And the elusive nebulosity on the edge of the disc show some glorious deep blue details – something that had been sorely lacking in my previous images. And I managed a great colour balance throughout the image and managed to have a nice, neutral off-black background with minimal noise.

Flickr link:

As pleased as I am with this image, it’s far from perfect. I’m still experiencing star bloating and chromatic aberration (blue halos around bright stars). But that’s the nature of using a larger aperture achromatic refractor with a fast focal ratio. It’s an unavoidable consequence of the nature of those optics. However, I think I managed to mitigate the effects enough with my shorter exposures and lower ISO as to not really detract from the final image. I’m proud to have finally achieved this level of quality in one of my images. Looking at the progression of the above images, I can really see how far I’ve come from my humble beginnings in astrophotography. That said, I’m still very much a novice and there’s always a lot more to learn. But judging by these improvements, I can only imagine where I’ll be another year from now.

On a side note, once I had finished shooting M31, I realized that M33 the Triangulum Galaxy had risen above the horizon. I’d been quite curious about this galaxy. I had never targeted it, either visually or photographically before. I already had all my subs and calibration frames and still had a bit of time before I had to go, so I decided to get it in frame to see how big it would appear to my scope. After a couple of test images to frame the shot properly, I realized this was actually a pretty large object as well. Much bigger than I had anticipated. So I set the intervalometer to grab 30 minutes worth of frames.

The result is mixed. M33 was still very low on the horizon, so sitting in the light pollution glow zone and haze. The atmosphere was quite turbulent and the wind picked up. As a result, about half of my subs had to be thrown out, leaving me with only 15 minutes worth of data. And of the remaining subs, I normally would have thrown them out because of their low quality score in DSS. But since this was really a test on a target of opportunity, I went through the stacking and processing process anyway. I just wanted to get this one out of the way. And this was the result.

Flickr link:

Overall, the results weren’t too bad! This is an extremely difficult target to process and bring out contrast, especially with poor quality subs. But for what it was, I’m quite happy with the results. The next time I shoot this target, I’ll be using my 8″ LX90 with a 0.63 reducer. That should give me much better resolution and higher contrast. I can also do much longer subs without having to be concerned about start bloating and chromatic aberration. I’ll be heading out to the Dark Sky Viewing Area on Friday evening. I’ll have to try to get at least 30 minutes on M33 to see how I can improve the data I already have.

Until next time, clear skies and keep your eyes to the sky.