CHRIS HOWARD’S ASTRO JOURNAL 2015 - 2016

 

I'm an amateur astronomer and astrophotographer in coastal New Hampshire, working in narrowband and RGB color. I post finished and processing-in-progress shots here, and my equipment setup information (focus wheel filter order, lens and scope backfocus, etc.) on the Equipment page. I'm always building and devising better ways to automate and remotely operate my gear, and I post related stuff on my Controller page. Unless specified, everything you see in my Astro Journal is from my equipment in my backyard, which is about a 4 to 4.5 on the Bortle Scale—on a clear night I can still see M33. We live in a town with very few street lights, and the sky glow we get is usually low on the horizon, Hampton to the south, and Portsmouth to the north. Email me here: chrishoward.author@gmail.com or scroll to the bottom of the page for links to my other sites.

 

September 24, 2016
Let's call this the Great Lakes Region of the North America Nebula (NGC 7000, Caldwell 20), named that because it somewhat resembles the continent. This is another big nebula in the constellation Cygnus. Top right to middle is sort of where Chicago would be in this nebulous North America, and just above that dark break in the clouds at the bottom right is where we would find Houston, and where the Gulf begins. (Source for NGC 7000 image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NGC_7000_photo.jpg). Another short-exposure set: 2157 3-second exposures, 100 dark frames with the Atik 414ex (cooled).


 

September 25, 2016
I'm always taking pictures of someone else's galaxy, so last night I turned the camera toward our own--the Milky Way. 90 stacked 20 second exposures, Nikon D750 24mm ISO 800.


 

October 7, 2016
I took 120 LRGB shots of the Pleiades (M45, "Seven Sisters") last night, while I was waiting for the Horsehead Nebula to show up. At this point in the year the constellation Orion isn't completely above the horizon until midnight. William Optics GT-81, .8x Reducer, Atik 414ex monochrome CCD camera, 30 frames, 30 second exposures for each color (LRGB), stacked in DSS.


 

October 7, 2016
The dark nebula, Barnard 33, "Horsehead Nebula" in the constellation Orion, with the reflection nebula NGC 2023 below and to the left, and the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) taking up most of the left side. The big star above the Flame is Alnitak, a blue supergiant. Alnitak is the leftmost star in Orion's Belt. 120 30-second exposures stacked in DSS, William Optics GT-81, Atik 414ex.



NOTES:

Here's a single luminosity frame for the horsehead nebula, and it's barely there--besides the stars, it's basically the ridge running horizontally in the hydrogen range that can be picked up in 30 seconds, with the dust that makes up the Horsehead standing out against it. The Flame Nebula is lit up a bit better. What makes the Horsehead Nebula difficult to shoot (or sometimes find) is I have to keep track of what the scope and camera are capturing without being able to see much of anything. I'm shooting in prime focus and everything is rotated 180°, so I have to remember that Alnitak is on the right in the captured image, but on the left when viewed from earth. If I've calculated correctly, I'm capturing 3.46 arcseconds/pixel, and with the Flame shoved over to the right, I should have enough pixels for the Horsehead to appear somewhere near the middle of the shot. I sometimes take test shots--after alignment, focusing, etc., and for this part of the sky there's no question, I have to take one and play with brightness and linear stretching to see if I'm in the right neighborhood. I think that moment when I see a hint of a nebula appear in the pixels is one of the reasons I'm out in the cold and condensation in the middle of the night. Another is after all the shots are taken and I stack them together to see how beautiful the night sky can be when you take enough pictures of it--in this case, 120 exposures, 30 seconds each, it's 4 hours, one hour for each filter (Luminosity, Red, Green, Blue). Stacking, in the simplest terms, is the process of algorithmically combining multiple images by calculating the values of all pixels through the depth of the stack and determining the combined light and dark values for a composite image. 120 frames combined into one can bring out the faint details, the nebulosity, and depending on the filter, the things humans can't see (infrared) or can barely see, wavelengths that are at the edge of the visible range, like Hydrogen alpha, which is way out at 656.28nm. The camera also has a lot to do with what's picked up, and the Atik 414ex monochrome CCD with TEC can capture things no DSLR can.

 

October 12, 2016
It's a waxing gibbous moon sort of night out there. I've taken five sets of 500 - 1000 frames of the moon tonight. Here's one with the Tycho Crater very prominent at the bottom right. Top right is part of Mare Nubium--the "sea of clouds". This is my first real test of the QHY5-III CCD camera, using SharpCap to do the captures. 826 frames stacked in Registax 6. Equip: QHY5-III178, 2x Barlow, AstroTech 6" f/9 Ritchey-Chrétien.



Another one from the night's moon shots--and hey, that's where Apollo 12 landed.



 

October 14, 2016
Gamma Cassiopeiae (γ Cas), top right, is the center star in the constellation Cassiopeia, the star that makes up the middle point of the W shape. The nebulous areas are IC 59 (sometimes called the Gamma Cas Nebula) and IC 63. Specs: WO GT-81, Atik414ex, Luminance filter, 2 hours 16 minutes total exposure time.


 

October 19, 2016
Spiders in the scope. I have been getting diffraction spikes on large stars shot with my William Optics GT-81 APO refractor. Without secondary mirrors (or any mirrors at all for that matter) and no support vanes crossing the visible path of light through the scope. Refractors typically don't have any diffraction artifacts. A little research turned up some interesting info: diffraction spikes in refractors isn't unusual, and can be caused by the slightest intrusion into the cone, but most responses on the forums amounted to clean the lens, make sure there isn't a hair or anything in the path--something as tiny as a hair will cause spikes. I took my GT-81 apart, down to the main tube and lenses...and found a few very fine threads of spider web. They were difficult to remove a camera lens brush to knock them down, and then the vacuum to try to pull everything out. I ran a couple quick tests last night and, although there is some improvement, a couple medium sized stars in the frames still have spikes.

On the good side, I did get a couple good stacked shots of M31 (Andromeda Galaxy - LRGBH) and IC5146 (Cocoon Nebula - LUMINANCE):

Andromeda Galaxy (M31), or the heart of it at any rate, with satellite galaxies M32 (bright oblong shape on the right) and M110 (partially visible at the bottom left). I finally got around to stacking the color frames. I stacked the Luminance frames--the "L" in LRGB a week ago, but I also shot Ha frames for this one. (Luminance, Red, Green, Blue, Hydrogen alpha). I also bumped up the vibrance in this one (targeting muted colors) because I really wanted to get some browns in the bands of dust--the "interstellar medium" that forms the dark lanes between groups of stars. I will post pics of my scope and camera setup in the comments. Here are the details: William Optics GT81 APO, Atik 414ex monochrome CCD camera, EFW2 filterwheel with Baader LRGB + Ha filters. Autoguiding with WO 50mm and ZWO ASI120MM camera. No reducer/flattener.

Pretty good for two and a half million lightyears away! On the good side, Andromeda's rather large: 220,000 lightyears in diameter, which is roughly 129,329,800,000,000,000,000 miles across. What is that, 129 quintillion miles across?





 

August 26, 2016
So, Clear Outside says it's supposed to be clear enough to shoot stars, nebulas, galaxies. I missed a couple really nice nights last week, but was just too busy at work to think about setting up and sitting outside in the middle of the night.

Going with a simple setup tonight--just a scope, camera, and computer (no guider, barlow, focuser, etc). I was out in the backyard at lunch--see pics below. I'm just leveling the Orion Atlas, and I'll be shooting with the ZWO ASI120S-MM (monochrome CCD), through the WO x0.8 field flattener and my William Optics GT-81 APO. I won't be using any filters--RGBL or anything else. My goal tonight is to play around with Nebulosity from Stark Labs, shoot a bunch frames of M31, maybe a couple other targets, and see how it goes. I'll post pics if they're worth posting!

Tonight's setup:


I think it always takes a night or two of tinkering to get back into the groove with new equipment. I've been using the Astro-Tech RC6 for the last eight or nine months, and coming back to the William Optics refractor took more time than I had anticipated, having to make tiny adjustments everywhere, the finder was out of calibration, having to re-learn the back-focus requirements of this scope, it just took too much time last night.

 

August 27, 2016
I'm in the middle of processing a batch of shots from the narrow window of night sky the clouds allowed me--and thought I'd post a "where is Andromeda Galaxy" pic. (If you can find Cassiopeia--The big W shaped constellation, then you can find Andromeda). I had both the William Optics and my Nikon D750 on the Orion Atlas, shooting 30 and 60 second exposures with the telescope, and shooting wide angle shots--60 to 240 second exposures with the Nikon. On a clear night with dark skies, you can see the galaxy as an oblong cloudy area a couple stars up from Mirach. My DSLR managed to pick it up in this shot.



Central section of M31, Andromeda Galaxy, 42 stacked 30 second exposures with the ZWO ASI120S-MM (monochrome CCD) and my William Optics GT-81 APO. Pretty impressed with this little camera. Andromeda was low on the horizon during this session.

 

September 9, 2016
The Ring Nebula (M57) in color this time (Not a very good shot--had some focusing issues, but there it is). I set up the scopes and new camera (Atik 414EX) with filter wheel (Baader LRGB filters) last night. There was a good four hour gap of clear sky between two banks of clouds, and I managed to catch the Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula in the constellation Lyra--see pics for the stacked LRGB shots, equipment setup, charts. This is a new setup for me, with the William Optics GT-81 piggybacking on the Astro-Tech RC6. I'm using the WO as my finder and viewing scope. I have a new monochrome CCD camera, an ATIK 414EX with the ATIK filter wheel and a set of Baader Planetarium filters (Luminance, Red, Blue, Green) to capture images for each channel. I had some issues with drift and focusing (every time the filter shifted to the next slot it moved the focus a bit). This was also my first time out under the stars using EQMOD with the Atlas mount, and I have to say, it's the only way to go!



How do you find M57?

 

September 13, 2016
A nice night for looking at a beautiful nearly-full moon, and not a complete waste of time shooting the opposite side of the sky. I set up around 6pm, did my rough polar alignment as soon as I could see Polaris, and then 30 minutes later--with a darkening sky, used the QHY Polemaster cam and app to nail alignment down. With guiding and slewing, I was on M101 by 8:30 PM, and shooting the luminance shots (19 or 20 of them) soon after. At that point the moon was still mostly in the east. But even with a pretty bright glow, I managed to capture almost eighty shots of the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101), which is a little over 20 million lightyears away, in the Ursa Major constellation (Big Dipper). It's a little ways north of the tail star (Alkaid) of the Big Dipper. A nice bonus in this shot is NGC5477, a dwarf galaxy in the M101 Group--that's the little fuzzy cloud in the center at the top. Equipment: William Optics GT-81 (Guiding with WO 50mm scope and ZWO ASI120MM), Imaging train: 2" extension tube, Atik EFW2 filter wheel with Baader LRGB filters, Atik 414EX monochrome CCD camera. Mount: Orion Atlas EQ-G, Software: EQMOD, Cartes du Ciel, Atik Artemis, PHD2. Stacking in DSS, with stretching/post proc in CC.



Here's my setup for the shot above:

 

September 22, 2016
Last night I ran an experiment with M33, the Triangulum Galaxy, to prove that you don't have to have ridiculously high-end equipment or observatory-grade telescopes, mounts, and polar alignment in order to capture many of the most beautiful deep space objects--galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and more. I chose M33 because it's bright, and at around 3 million lightyears away, it's nearby. The Triangulum Galaxy is in the constellation Triangulum, the smallest member of a local group of galaxies that includes our own Milky Way and Andromeda (M31). The shot below isn't that great, but that wasn't my goal. I just wanted to see what would show up with a low exposure time, high volume set of images--with no dark frames. I captured M33 with an Atik 414EX Monochrome CCD camera (not a cheap camera, but go with me here for a moment--because it's not about the camera. It can be any number of reasonably good cameras--CCD, CMOS, DSLRs, probably even my iPhone). The experiment wasn't primarily about the camera. It wasn't about having a nice refractor telescope on a fairly high-end mount. It wasn't about autoguiding and plate solving. It was about shooting 5 second exposures of the same target (M33) and stacking them. The key is to shoot a lot of them. In this one case--my first experiment with this method--I shot almost 700 frames at 5 seconds a piece. I used Atik Artemis Capture software that came with my Atik camera, but I will also be trying out SharpCap and other free and amazingly powerful astrophotography software out there (Just to warn Mac and Linux fans: most of it is written for Windows). I stacked all the frames in Deep Sky Stacker (also free), and then did some typical post processing (stretching, etc.) in Photoshop CC. I only shot light frames--no flats, darks, any other bias frames. I want to shoot two or three times the exposures next time--maybe 1000 or 2000 shots, with a variety of targets, not just bright galaxies. Just so you know I took this idea from Albéric's posts on the QHY forums. Check out the amazing DSO shots, some of them 3000 stacked 2.5 second exposures.



And now with more contrast...



Atmospheric turbulence and the moon - Nikon D750 - Sept. 19, 2016
I shot some test video of the moon to show the distortion of the atmosphere. The sun's light reflecting off the lunar surface has to travel the distance to the earth, and then go through miles of the earth's atmosphere before it reaches the telescope and camera sensor. The shifting focus in this set of frames is atmospheric turbulence--view in Full Screen to get a better look.

Atmospheric turbulence info:
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/astronomy-equipment/beating-the-seeing/
http://spiff.rit.edu/classes/phys445/lectures/atmos/atmos.html

 

September 24, 2016
The Witch's Broom (NGC 6960) is a prominent part of the Veil Nebula in the constellation Cygnus--about 1400 lightyears away. (This is what I was doing last night). Veil is a vast remnant of a supernova--and by vast I mean the entire Veil Nebula covers the same area in our sky as about 36 full moons. The problem is it's very faint, and not really observable without a telescope and camera--or X-ray astronomy, if you're into that sort of thing. Some notes on this particular stack: I'm still experimenting with low-exposure/high-volumes, 542 3-second exposures and 101 dark frames stacked in DSS, no filters, William Optics GT-81, WO .8x Field Flattener/Reducer, Atik 414EX Monochrome CCD camera (cooled), Orion Atlas mount--no guiding, just pretty accurate polar alignment. Stretching and post processing in PS (I had to darken the star field because it was overpowering the nebula in this one! Damn there are a lot of stars in this universe.)



Here's my setup for the shot above--with some details on the image train:



 

September 27, 2015
Single shot of the "Super Blood Moon", heading toward a total lunar eclipse. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 300mm f/5.6)



Single shot of the "Super Blood Moon", heading toward a total lunar eclipse. ( Sept. 27/28 2015)



 

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