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A Paradigm Shift of Galactic Proportions: The Transition from DSLR to Cooled CMOS


At the time of writing this, it’s been roughly 3 months since I’ve made the switch from a DSLR to a cooled CMOS astro camera. It’s been an interesting experience and hasn’t been without its challenges, but it’s been a very rewarding experience that I don’t regret in the slightest. Along the way, a lot of mistakes were made, but a lot was learned as well. Read on to follow along on my journey to my next step in astrophotography.


For the past couple of years, I’d been considering getting a cooled CCD or CMOS camera for imaging, but had been putting off this rather significant expense. By the end of last fall, I was capturing the best photos I’d taken to date, but there was something missing. I realized that I was making remarkable improvement with my images of galaxies, but I seemed to have plateaued when shooting nebulae. I was reshooting targets I had previously visited and not seeing any significant improvement in my photos. I just wasn’t able to capture the detailed nebulosity I wanted, even with significantly longer exposure time.

Of course, the limitation I was facing was that DSLRs are just not sensitive to the deep reds due to their filters. Bare DSLR sensors are typically sensitive to a large swath of the electromagnetic spectrum but have a band pass filter over the sensor will only allow the visible light spectrum of 400- 700 nanometers (nm) to reach the sensor. The UV end of the spectrum is cut off sharply at 400 nm, but the cut off in the red region is less extreme, starting at about 625 nm and more gradually tapering off to the final cut off at 700 nm. The important range for photographing nebulae is a narrow window centered on the 656.28 nm frequency, where the H-alpha emissions that make up the majority of emission nebulae are present.  These frequencies are mostly blocked by the IR filter on cameras designed for “terrestrial” use. It takes a LOT of integration time with an unmodified DSLR to capture even the smallest traces of these deep reds, as only a very small percentage of this light actually reaches the sensor compared to the rest of the visible spectrum below 625 nm. I had considered having one of my DSLR bodies modified for full spectrum sensitivity and using a clip-in IR filter, but that would essentially “ruin” the camera for anything but astrophotography, and I’d still be struggling with the noise generated by heat in the sensor on warm nights. A dedicated astro-camera was really the only feasible solution.

I spent several weeks researching all the cameras in my price range , reading reviews, specs, and looking at results people have had with different cameras. After much deliberation and considering the pros and cons of different brands and models, I decided go for a colour camera. My final choice was the ZWO ASI1600MC Pro which was suitable for both deep space and solar system imaging. With a 4/3 format, 16 megapixel sensor, it was going to give me roughly the same resolution as my Nikon D5100 I had been using until that point. The slightly smaller chip meant narrower fields of view, but a higher pixel density and finer detail as a tradeoff. And best of all, this camera can be cooled to up to -45ºC below ambient. This means that in my climate, I can consistently shoot at -20ºC, eliminating the noise issues that previously plagued me on hot summer nights.

ZWO ASI1600MC Pro cooled CMOS camera
ZWO ASI1600MC Pro cooled CMOS camera

Finally the day came when I pulled the trigger. I ordered the camera from Ontario Telescope, and it arrived just in time for the weekend! I had already planned to go out to the North Frontenac Township Dark Sky Preserve that weekend and the weather looked good, so I was set! Nothing could stop me now, right? RIGHT?

Yeah, no so fast.

Reality Strikes Back

I expected using this camera would be similar to using my DSLR with BackyardNikon on my laptop, but with different software.  My friend Tim Trentadue (a fantastic astrophotographer check out his Flickr gallery!) had recently made the switch to an ASI1600MM camera with filter wheels, which is basically the same camera, only monochrome. He suggested that Sequence Generator Pro (SGP) would be the best option for software instead of using SharpCap as I had originally intended. I trust his expert advice, so I downloaded the trial version (which I’ve since purchased) and installed it. I watched a few “how-to” videos on YouTube on how to configure my software, set up my mount for ASCOM control and guiding (I had been controlling via my handset and guiding via my ST-4 port until then), and general operation. I set everything up in my basement to ensure I had my connections working, and simulated some imaging. I loved the level of automation that was in SGP. This was a tool I would seriously have to grow into.

I should have expected issues and did to an extent. But I went out feeling very optimistic that I had at least partially overcome my challenges. Once out in the field for the first time, I realized that what I THOUGHT I understood in a simulation setting was very different in the practical application. I was sorely unprepared and made a lot of mistakes. I had alignment issues. I had guiding issues. I had focus issues. I bumped my mount forcing me to have to go through my entire polar and scope alignment routine again. In the end, I left with a few bad shots of M13, but I had learned a lot, so it wasn’t a wasted evening.

First light: M13 Fail!
Not a great image, but this was first light with my new camera. I’m surprised I managed to even get this with all the problems I experienced that night.

Over the next few cloudy days, I hit YouTube and astronomy forums, watching videos and reading peoples’ questions and answers. I soaked in all the information that I could. It felt like I was drinking from a fire hose, but I wanted to learn everything I could. My second session was only marginally more successful in terms of final results, but it was a huge step forward in terms of learning. My focus issues were gone thanks to a Bhatinov mask my good friend Kevin had 3D printed for me. Setup was smoother than the last time, although it took me a while to figure out how to correctly use both the SharpCap polar alignment tool and SGP’s plate solving to align my mount. I managed to a few get more images of M13, but nothing impressive. A test image of M31 turned out pretty good. Not great, but not terrible either. There was progress and I was on the right track. I knew what mistakes I was making and how to correct them. I knew that the next time out, I would get better results.

First attempt at M31
This was my first attempt at M31 once I got my initial issues sorted. It was shot under a slight moon and while it was still low to the horizon. But the fact it turned out so well showed that I had my processes figured out at this point. Note the bloated stars due to the lack of an IR filter.

I managed to get out again the following night and I was right. Setup was a snap. Polar alignment was quick and painless, and plate solving in SGP for alignment was done in seconds. I had my system up and ready to image in record time. Normally, polar alignment and mount alignment alone would be a 15+ minute job assuming I got it right the first time (which I don’t always). Using the new tools at hand, it was done in under 5 minutes and perfect. Now I was getting somewhere! Unfortunately the clouds had other plans for me, so I had to pack it in for the night before getting any data. Disappointing, but I was making progress.


I had a week off from work in early July, so I took advantage of this to head out to the Lennox and Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area feeling far more confident in what I’d be able to achieve. Despite having owned the camera for 3 weeks and having been out a few times, I had no really good images yet. I had gotten some, but nothing that matched or exceeded what I could do with my DSLR.  My chosen target was M57, the Ring Nebula. It was overhead making its location ideal, and I had often imaged it in the past, so was very familiar with it. I knew it would be tiny in my little ED80’s wide field of view, but it was still a familiar target to practice on. As my first few subs came in, I was seeing how sharp and crisp the images were. I knew I was finally getting good data and wasn’t going home empty handed.

M57 - The Ring Nebula
One of my first images captured with my ASI1600MC-Pro camera – M57 the Ring Nebula. Great results overall, but some star bloating due to the lack of an IR filter. But this was a huge improvement over my first image with the camera.

After nearly 90 minutes, I decided to switch to something a little more challenging to test the camera’s sensitivity to deep reds. I slewed my scope to the Bubble Nebula. Through a combination of the moon rising and some thin high altitude cloud blowing through, the final image on this wasn’t very good, but I was now seeing detail in the reds that I had never been able to capture with my DSLR, so I was extremely pleased.

Bubble Nebula
Thin cloud had started rolling in and a rising waning gibbous moon was interfering with my imaging, but in terms of a test shot, this was the most detailed image of this part of space I’d taken to date, validating that I was on the right path.

I stopped shooting the Bubble at this point since the moon was too bright and slewed to the moon instead. I fired up SharpCap and grabbed a 5000 exposure video which produced one of the most detailed and colourful images of the full lunar disc I’ve ever shot. This camera was impressive!

The Moon
Easily one of the best and most colourful images of the full lunar disc I’ve shot to date.

Trimming the Fat

I had gotten over all the initial hurdles and I was now at a point where my new images were either matching or exceding what I’d done with my DSLR – except for one glaring issue. I was experiencing something I’d never had to deal with previously –  star bloating. Despite having made some serious changes to my rig to balance it better and the fact that I was guiding more accurately than ever, my stars were all fatter than pics taken with my DSLR. I was only shooting 3 minute exposures with my new camera (due to its higher sensitivity) when I was shooting 5-10 minute shots with my DSLR. Yet, I had these fat stars I couldn’t explain.  Something wasn’t right and I had to figure this out.

After some research and asking many questions online, it was suggested that I needed an IR filter to fix this issue. I didn’t understand the reason for this at first, but researched further and found my answer. What I hadn’t considered is just how much light some stars emit in the IR, which my new camera picks up very well. What I was seeing were stars that were normally faint since they emitted much of their light in IR, which my DSLR was blind to. With the new camera, they were being picked up as large, bright sources of IR light, hence the bloat. And of course, since all stars emit IR radiation, all my stars were suffering from this bloat. The solution to this was to purchase an IR cut filter. It was suggested that I get a Baader UV/IR cut filter, which I did, and it fixed my bloating problem. My first time out with the filter, I got a fantastic shot of the Owl Nebula, and the stars are now pinpoints as they should be! This field of view was getting pretty low, so there’s a bit of fuzziness on the bright stars due to atmospheric haze, but overall, the stars were very sharp and looked far better than any previous images I’d shot with this camera.

Surfboard Galaxy (M108) and Owl Nebula (M97)
My first image using my IR cut filter. The bloated stars were now a thing of the past. I only got 20 minutes of useable integration time since they moved too low into the horizon haze, but the results are still quite impressive.

Post Processing

Another challenge associated with this new camera that I had never anticipated was post processing.  In the past, I stacked my images using DeepSkyStacker or a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop (as seen in this tutorial). The LR / PS route I’d been using regularly for the last year didn’t work since neither program could debayer the FITS files produced by this camera. After watching some processing videos by Sara Wagar, I figured I’d give give Astro Pixel Processor a try for my stacking needs. She’s an amazing astrophotographer who produces incredible images. I figured if this was her software of choice, there had to be something to it. I download the trial version and I was NOT disappointed in the results produced. There was definitely a learning curve attached to it, and it wasn’t free like DSS, but I think the results were worth it. I was finally producing some excellent images. I ponied up the price of admission well before my trial period had expired.

One key thing I’ve now noticed is that many of my images require a lot LESS work in Photoshop than they did before. Images of galaxies are about the same in terms of processing and selective sharpening, but the low level of noise saves me a lot of processing steps and time. When it comes to nebulae, I no longer spend long periods of time trying to coax out subtle detail in the nebulae while mitigating noise. That detail is now front and centre and the low noise floor is very easy to deal with by comparison.

Final Results

And nowhere is that sensitivity to faint detail more apparent than in a couple of images I shot last weekend. I aimed at the Iris Nebula for the first time. It’s been on my “to shoot” list for a while, but I hadn’t yet gotten around to it. I knew it would be a more difficult target due to the dark dust and gasses surrounding it. So it was time to see what this camera could do. And I’m thrilled to say it looks even better than I thought it would.

Iris Nebula
Finally some great results! A 105 minute integration of the Iris Nebula shows its dark dust and gasses clearly. Stars are nice and sharp as they should be.

I really should have shot the Iris for longer, but an old friend – Orion – decided to make an appearance and distracted me. Orion’s belt had risen over the tree line and was beckoning to me. The Horsehead Nebula is a target I’ve struggled with over the years. I’ve gotten some acceptable photos of it, but despite long integrations, I’d always struggled to bring out fine detail and faint nebulosity. I’ve always found my images to be lacking in detail compared to other images of it I’d seen. I knew sunlight would me making an appearance in the next hour and I’d have to pack up, so instead of getting another hour of data on the Iris, I decided to switch targets and see what this camera could really do on faint H-alpha emissions. Despite the Horsehead and Flame being in a less than ideal position for photographing, the results were astounding. The image I got in only 1 hour of integration time surpassed all my previous attempts and far surpassed my expectations.  Now I’m waiting until it’s in a better position in the sky so I can take my REAL picture of it with multiple hours of integration time. Perhaps I’ll even shoot a mosaic of the entire region!

Horsehead and Flame Nebulae
Despite it’s position in the haze low on the horizon, this image greatly exceeded my expectations. It was only shot as a test, but I would say that this is actually print-worthy.

In any case, I find myself extremely pleased with the way my recent images are turning out now that I’ve gotten over that initial hump with my conversion. I know I’m on the right path, and it only gets better from here.

Lessons Learned

When I got this new camera, I thought it would be a fairly painless transition. It turns out I was very wrong on many of my initial assumptions. I expected a learning curve, but I was unprepared to encounter one this steep. On the plus side, powerful tools like SharpCap’s polar alignment tool and SGP’s plate solving have been a huge blessing that take long, tedious processes and turn them into quick, simple affairs and removes any guesswork or estimation out of the process. This is a time saver, and it ensures that my alignment and tracking are more accurate than they’ve ever been.

One thing I wasn’t wrong about is that this camera would allow me to take the “next step”, in my astrophotography journey. Indeed, my early results are showing that I’m on the right track and I’m capturing nebular emissions that had previously been invisible to my cameras. I’ve had to re-evaluate how I do things. My well-established processes I had developed over the previous 5 years have basically been tossed out the window and replaced with completely new ones (both in the field and in post). Despite that, I have no regrets, as I’m now preparing to explore the next level in imaging.

So is the upgrade to a cooled astro camera worth it? Absolutely. As Tim told me the other night, “no one has ever regretted buying a dedicated astro camera”.  And he’s right. It may have briefly set me back due to the initial learning curve, but now I’m seeing results in my images that I was hoping for. And in some cases, my expectations have been exceeded. And this is just the beginning.

If you’re going to go down this path yourself, take your time and don’t be too hard on yourself. If you don’t succeed on your first few sessions, don’t be too concerned as that’s pretty much par for the course when going through such a drastic shift in terms of equipment and processes.

And one final point – if you get a one shot colour CMOS, be sure to budget in a good quality IR cut filter and get it along with the camera. You’ll need it. Results will be underwhelming without it.

So as always, until next time, keep those eyes and lenses pointed up!

When The Stars Align

So it’s been a while since my last writeup. I guess I could and SHOULD have written some stuff, because I’ve been quite busy on the astro-front this summer. Anyone who’s following my Facebook page, the different Facebook groups I’m a member of, or my Flickr page will see I’ve been quite busy with photography!

Not only have I been taking pics of the sky, but I’ve been branching out a bit learning to use my camera on stuff that isn’t in space for a change! So far, it’s been mostly landscape, cityscape and night photography. I’ve also been dabbling in time lapse photography, which I’ve really been enjoying. As a result, I didn’t want my wonderful Nikon D7000 to be permanently attached to my scope. And I like this camera specifically because the 16 MP sensor in the D7000 has the best low light performance of any other Nikon or Canon crop sensor. So I decided that rather than buying another expensive camera, I would get myself a used Nikon D5100, which shares the same sensor and processor as the D7000. This camera is lighter on features, so it would become my main astro-camera (to be full spectrum modded in the future) while my D7000 would be used to shoot other stuff. And I’ve been getting a lot of use out of both! For the $325 I paid for my D5100, it was a brilliant purchase! Continue reading “When The Stars Align”

Hitting The Mark

Since I started doing astrophotography almost 3 years ago, it’s been a learning curve. I never stop learning new things. I can see my constant improvement as I move ahead, but despite that, I’m still my own worst critic.

I’ve had a few images that people have raved over. Yet, I look at them and I see flaws, faults, errors, and think of all the ways I could have done it better. And in many cases, I’ve revisited the subjects in question and have improved them significantly. Still not always to where I would want them to be, but improvements nonetheless.  I went over this self-criticism and how it’s helped me improve my work in my Sept 2014 blog entry Striving For Continuous Improvement Instead of Perfection.

While I’ve had some very good results over the past 3 years, I always look at my work critically and think that there’s room for improvement. And rightfully so, because things can almost always be done better. That’s how we improve at our craft. Continue reading “Hitting The Mark”

My Original Astro Photo Revisited and Reprocessed

Hi everyone. First off, I have to say it’s nice to be writing this. It’s been over 3 months since my last entry, and almost as long since I’ve been out with my gear. Winter has been rough, to say the least. Mountains of snow and bitter cold have prevented me from going out with my gear.

Winter is when the skies are the less turbulent. Many night I looked at the Clear Sky Chart to see excellent seeing and transparency – far better than normal conditions I get around here. Unfortunately, I’m also looking at nights where the temperatures are dipping to -20º C or colder.

It’s easy to dress for the cold and stay warm. And when imaging in less than hospitable temperatures, I usually sit in my car with the heat or A/C on and wait out the imaging session. But the cold really does play havoc on my gear. Electronics don’t like cold. And the more digital and high tech my setup gets, the less it likes the cold. My hand controller’s display pretty much stops working at temperatures below -5º C, so I’m not even able to do my basic mount alignment. My laptop doesn’t like the cold either. The display tends to get wonky and it generally performs very poorly. And there’s also the issue of batteries. My camera’s batteries which can normally give me 3 hours of continual shooting will barely last 30 mins in that kind of cold. Even my deep cycle marine battery that I use to power my scope, laptop and other accessories fails to hold up in this kind of cold.

So as per usual, December to March are pretty much months where I have to feed my astronomy fix by simply looking at images other people have posted. But now that the weather is warming up, I’m getting my gear squared away and getting ready for some great shoots. Finally having an auto guider set up will allow me to shoot some targets that I had previously attempted, but never managed to get to my satisfaction.

One such target is M51 – The Whirlpool Galaxy. This object is one of my favourites, and holds a special place with me as it was the first deep space object I ever photographed back in September 2013. I didn’t own any type of camera other than a point and shoot at the time and knew nothing about photography. I had a telescope, and my friend Kevin had a Nikon D60 and a T-mount and scope adapter. So we connected his camera to my 8″ Meade LX90 and proceeded to attempt to shoot M51

The results were mixed. We did manage to capture our target, despite many mistakes being made along the way. At the end of the photo session, we had 50 useable 10 second exposures of M51, and some questionable calibration frames (accidentally switched to a lower ISO setting for the darks and bias), But nonetheless, we had captures something.

The next step was a real trial by fire. I basically knew about post-processing. I watched several tutorial videos on YouTube on how to stack images in DeepSkyStacker and editing in Photoshop. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I was mimicking what I was seeing. And at the end of it, I got an image of M51. It wasn’t great, but nonetheless, both Kevin and I were ecstatic about the result. We didn’t think we’d actually captured anything useful at all at first, so it was nice to see we had succeeded. It wasn’t a great image by any stretch of the imagination, but all things considered, it certainly wasn’t a failure. It showed that we were at least on the right track. And important lessons were learned along the way.

My very first deep sky image

Earlier this evening (which will be yesterday by the time this is published), I was sorting through old data and found my original images. I decided to try stacking it again and running it through Photoshop using the tools and experience I had built up over the last 30 or so months since this image was originally taken. I wanted to see just how bad or good that original data was.

After about 45 minutes of playing around, I was pretty impressed with the results. The background was far noisier than I had expected, but I wasn’t surprised considering the sky conditions at the time and the fact the calibration frames were bad. But I like the result. Now that I know how to colour balance my images, I was able to make it look a lot more natural. I also didn’t burn the cores of the galaxies out when stretching the histogram. And I managed to pull a lot more detail and contrast out of the spiral arms and the surrounding clouds of stars and dust  – details that were invisible in the original image. But the part that surprised me the most though was that we managed to get this kind of detail with only 8½ minutes of integration time.

Reprocessed data from my original M51 image

All in all, this image is what it is – my first attempt at astrophotography. It was shot under poor seeing conditions and light pollution with a low end DSLR by a couple of guys with no experience. Not too bad considering it’s faint galaxy 35 million light years away. I’m quite impressed with how good it actually turned out now that I see it processed properly. And it motivates me to capture this object again soon.

Experience and equipment were limiting factors at the time this image was taken. I’ve since taken much better images of M51 using my 120 mm, f/5 refractor while my larger scope was out for repairs, but long to get high resolutions, long exposure images of it using my 8″ SCT. I tried on a couple of occasions last summer after I got my big scope back, but failed due to tracking issues and dew problems. By the time I got my kit together in late summer, M51 was far too low on the horizon to photograph, So I had to scratch M51 off my 2014 target list.

This year, I’m ready. My mount is ready. I have my autoguider which will allow me to take long exposures with perfect tracking. And I have my dew heaters to keep my primary and guide scope optics dry. This year I will finally manage to revisit M51 and capture images that will do it justice.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.