AstroTracker Test Shot with the D750

June 23, 2019 - Reading time: ~1 minute

I didn't spend much time on testing last night. The sky was was clear, but seeing was poor. I put the Nikon D750 on the tracker and took a batch of 30 second exposures around 11pm--48 of them, with the tree in the frame. (I cropped some of it out, as well as the edges). Stacked them in DeepSkyStacker and did some processing in PhotoshopCC.

Here's the test in progress, with the Nikon D750 on the tracker and the electronics--arduino and A4988 controller--on the board below, taken with my iPhone. 

More from Cygnus: Crescent and Tulip Nebulae

June 12, 2019 - Reading time: 2 minutes

The Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888 (top right) is an emission nebula in the constellation Cygnus, about 5000 light-years away. Like most of this region around Cygnus, you can't do anything in hydrogen-alpha or sulfur2 without wading through clouds of the stuff—billowing, eddying, and general nebulousing. It's beautiful. There's a Wolf-Rayet star, WR 136, at the lower left edge of the Crescent Nebula (from this angle), and it's stirring up violent stellar winds and blazing quickly through its life; it's expected to go supernova in a couple hundred thousand years, and it's only a four or five million years old. WR stars are unusual: they're very bright--thousands of times brighter than our sun, and they burn much hotter, thousands of times hotter than almost all other stars. And they have very short lifespans. From Wikipedia: "According to recent estimations, WR 136 is 600,000 times brighter than the Sun, 21 times more massive, and 5.1 times larger. Its surface temperature is around 70,000 kelvins". Notes: Astronomik Ha, OIII, and SII filters, William Optics GT81 at f/4.7, ZWO ASI1600MM Pro cooled mono camera, on an iOptron CEM25P mount.

Sharpless 2-101, the Tulip Nebula (top left) is an emission nebula in Cygnus, about 6,000 light-years away. The microquasar Cygnus X-1 is the bright star just above the top point of the Tulip in this image. Cygnus X-1 is famous for being one of the first suspected blackholes, as well as a famous bet between physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne over that possibility. Hawking conceded to Thorne in 1990 as evidence for a blackhole mounted. Although the Tulip (Sh 2-101) stands out brightly with oxygen in blue, the whole region around the constellation Cygnus is cloudy with interstellar dust and gas. Notes: Astronomik Ha, OIII, and SII filters, William Optics GT81 at f/4.7, ZWO ASI1600MM Pro cooled mono camera, on an iOptron CEM25P mount.


North America Nebula (NGC 7000) and the Pelican Nebula (IC 5070, IC 5067)

June 9, 2019 - Reading time: ~1 minute

I spent most of last night's imaging run, about 5.5 hours, on this two-panel mosaic of NGC 7000, the North America Nebula and IC 5070, IC 5067 the Pelican Nebula. NGC7000 and this whole area is one of those deep sky objects with which you can do amazing things in narrowband or broadband color, and turns out beautifully in RGB, bi-color Ha and OIII, even Hydrogen-alpha by itself. For this shot I went with the Hubble Palette in SHO, mapping SII-Ha-OIII to RGB, Sulfur = Red, Hydrogen = Green, Oxygen = Blue. This is why you see aqua and gold standing out in many of the Hubble images. It also affects star color, and you end up with some shade of purple.

Here's an update with the two-panel mosaic of the North America Nebula (NGC 7000) and Pelican Nebula (IC 5070, IC 5068). I fixed the stars and toned down the whole image

Horsehead Nebula (B33) and NGC 2023

June 1, 2019 - Reading time: ~1 minute

The Horsehead Nebula (B33) and the emission/reflection nebula NGC 2023 (below and left of the Horsehead) in the constellation Orion. With this field of view, you're looking at around 1.7 trillion miles from one side to the other. I captured a batch of narrowband data in Orion last year. Today, I reprocessed some of it, playing with contrast and color balance.

Eagle Nebula - wide-field view with a side-order of infrared

May 25, 2019 - Reading time: 2 minutes

Here's another one from last night's run, a wide-field view of the Eagle Nebula (M16, NGC6611) in IR-OIII-Ha with Ha luminance. From our perspective Messier 16--Eagle Nebula--sits just north of the Milky Way's dense core of stars, bands of clouds, dust, hydrogen, and other galactic detritus. I wasn't very hopeful with the IR subs, but the Ha subs were beautiful. The OIII frames were about what I expected--not too much but enough to include them. To brighten things up I went back and added the processed Ha stack as a luminance layer. Yes, this may be a spectacularly weird color arrangement, but we're working in false color imaging already, and this doesn't seem that far off from our galaxy's actual core colors--at least in terms of the bands of dust and ionized gases.

Here's the Ha stack:

For comparison (with NGC 6611 above), here's the processed version of the Eagle Nebula (M16) I took last year with a slightly different setup--same William Optics scope + Atik414EX mono CCD camera. This is a bi-color hydrogen-alpha and oxygen3. With this one I think I had my OIII frames mapped to G and B channels, and Ha mapped to the Red channel.

Veil Nebula--one side of it

May 25, 2019 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Finally a clear-ish night! I spent almost five hours capturing data, most of it after midnight, when the skies cleared noticeably. And I spent the majority of that time on the Eastern Veil Nebula (Caldwell 33). The big bright area is NGC 6992, and all of this comprises one side (east side) of the Veil Nebula, a supernova remnant from a massive star that ended it all around 8,000 years ago. I will come back on another clear night to get the brighter and larger Western Veil. And this nebula is large, roughly 3 degrees in diameter, covering 36 times the area of a full moon. I shot this in Ha and OIII, 22 x 5 minute exposures for each filter, with the WilliamOptics GT81 and ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono camera running at -20C. 

Here's the William Optics GT81 and ZWO cameras I'm using for narrowband imaging:

Here's a crop of NGC 6992, 6995, et. al. Eastern Veil Nebula is a supernova remnant in Cygnus, made up of clouds of dust and ionized hydrogen and oxygen.


Messing around with Messier in Infrared

May 23, 2019 - Reading time: 5 minutes

We finally had several hours of clear night sky--not spectacular, but I'll take what I can get this time of year. That whole “April showers bring May flowers” thing really applies to this region of the planet. I think we’ve had four or five full clear nights in the last couple months--and I can’t remember multiple clear days in a row, but I am looking forward to more opportunities to capture the night skies soon--early summer through the winter.

One of the paths I’m currently on is to be more productive--in very concrete terms. I simply want to produce more imaging data per night than I have before. One way to do this is to upgrade equipment and pile on new devices, which translates into an EQ mount with more capacity and another scope and camera to double the exposure time. In other words, spend more money, which I don’t want to do.

Another option is to improve the efficiency of my current setup and systems. This is where I’m presently spending my time and effort, squeezing out 5-10 minutes per hour I was losing with slower hardware and application workflows (per image download times, auto-focus and plate-solving routines, etc). I will test out NINA ( at some point, because I’ve heard great things about its speed. I’m currently using Sequence Generator Pro 3 with my narrowband refractor setup (William Optics GT81, Moonlite Focuser, ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono, and ASI120MM-Mini Guide-cam), and with a few exceptions and idiosyncrasies, which often turn out to be ASCOM or device-specific weirdness, not an SGP problem, things are going smoothly.

I have been working through a couple different configurations of equipment, automation systems, and application workflows, mostly focused on building a narrowband setup with two cables--USB3 and a single 12vdc 10 amp line.  For now, I’m using Windows 10 on a fanless Celeron-based system, which easily handles the processing load during capture and plate-solving. On the scope itself I have the Moonlite Focuser controller, a powered USB 3 hub, and all power, environment, and dew control functions managed through a Pegasus Astro Pocket Powerbox.  

I ran my first in-depth test of this system last night, jumping all over the sky east of the meridian, taking several 1-minute subs of M3, M10, M12, M13, M51, and NGC 6826 (blinking planetary nebula in Cygnus). I have to say, my impression of SGP has not changed. I already had a high opinion of it, and coming back to it for version 3 has been fun and exciting--and more importantly, productive. I was skipping all over the sky last night, pulling up the Framing and Mosaic wizard half a dozen times, and appending new targets to the sequence. I would have kept going after midnight, but the clouds rolled in and shut the show down.

Near-IR filter notes--something to consider if you’re guiding off-axis: I’m using Astronomik 1.25” narrowband filters (Ha, OIII, SII) in this ZWO EFW, but I also have an Optolong IR 685nm longpass filter installed in the 5th place. I ran into a slight issue with off-axis guiding because the IR filter’s focal offset with the Astronomik’s is so great that it throws off the focus of guide camera. I have to plan to do any near-IR exposures at the end of any sequence because this forces me to adjust the focus in PHD2 for the ZWO ASI120MM.

Here are a few shots from last night, using the Optolong 685nm longpass filter.

Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) in near-Infrared, WIlliam Optics GT81, ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono, 685nm Near-IR longpass filter. M51 is around 23 million lightyears away from us in the constellation Canes Venatici.  It’s a tiny view of the galaxies, but I’m impressed with the trailing gas and dust that IR managed to capture.

M10 (NGC 6254) is a globular cluster of stars about 14,000 lightyears away in the constellation of Ophiuchus. 4 x 60 second subs in near-Infrared, William Optics GT81, ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono, 685nm Near-IR longpass filter. In IR the stars are really distinct in the cluster, and I want to come back with RGB and use the IR frames for luminance, and see how that looks.

Messier 3 Cluster:

Messier 13 Cluster in Hercules:

Messier 13, Hercules Globular Cluster (also NGC 6205) - using the IR image as luminance with an old RGB version of M13:

Messier 12 Cluster:

Lunar Photography

April 17, 2019 - Reading time: ~1 minute

There’s a beautiful moon out tonight. I shot this with the Nikon D750 + AstroTech AT6RC 1350mm f/9. A nearly full moon always makes deep sky astrophotography difficult, but that’s when you pair a full frame DSLR with a 6" Ritchey-Chrétien. The rest of the sky can wait for the new moon.