Andromeda from the Galactic Edge

April 28, 2020 - Reading time: ~1 minute

Here's the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) without the stars and other clutter from our own galaxy in the way. I have processing tools that will algorithmically remove stars from an image, and it does a reasonable job. What I'm showing here is what Andromeda would look like if you could travel from our location on the Orion Spur (a minor branch off one of the Milky Way's spiral arms), pass through the Perseus Arm, to the edge of our galaxy, and then take some pics of M31. Our star, the Sun, sits in the middle of one side of our galaxy. We are so used to seeing a star field in astro images we do not realize all the stars we can see in the night sky--with our eyes, are in our own galaxy. Some of those pinpoints of light are galaxies themselves but are so far away they appear no different from stars to our eyes. In this image of M31 the two star-like objects above and below Andromeda are M110 (larger, below) and M32 (above). These two are actually satellite galaxies that orbit Andromeda. Yes, just as stars have planets, and planets have moons, large galaxies can capture other galaxies in their gravitational pull. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has several in orbit, including the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. 

Updated William Optics SpaceCat 51 setup with Autofocus

April 26, 2020 - Reading time: 6 minutes

If you have seen some of my videos and blog posts on the Cat you know I have two astro camera trains, one color, one narrowband. This one consists of a ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono, ZWO ASI filter wheel with Astronomik 6nm HA, OIII, and SII filters, along with a CLEAR in slot one, and a near-IR filter in the fifth position. 

Another reason I want to show off this setup is the single-power wire config. Everything else is on the scope or controlled wirelessly--for example, the iOptron CEM25P or my Orion Atlas can be controlled by Ekos through wifi or bluetooth.  

I shot some beautiful color images earlier this year and late last. I'll show M31 and a couple others later, but with that color setup I was running multiple power cables and a heavy duty USB cable to the scope, and although this is setup, which I will try out as soon as it clears up, looks a bit cluttered, I want fewer cables running from cameras, controllers, focusers, and other devices. Fewer cables reduces the chance of one of them hanging up on the mount, or swinging just enough with a gust of wind to throw guiding off.

The controller--the aluminum box on the left side is a Raspberry Pi 4 with 4 gigs, running INDI, Ekos, KStars. I remote into this just like I would with with Windows to run Sequence Generator Pro. The only difference is this box is mounted to the scope. I am looking at running my Windows-based astro controller and sequencer stuff on a similarly small single board computer, and then I can just swap out one system for another. 4 USB ports on the Pi, though, really does make things easier.

I am using the DeepSkyDad AF3 belt-drive autofocus, with the helical focuser timing belt ring made for the cat. I think Pavle at DeepSkyDad sells the components by themselves if you're interested in doing something like this. The rest of it is made up of various SmallRig camera rails, clamps, and support pieces.

I also have GPS via a USB dongle to automatically get accurate date, time, longitude, latitude, and altitude for Ekos and KStars.

Of course, as is typical, I'm ready to go and the weather's supposed to cloud over in the next couple hours, right around sundown. Hmmm. It's almost as if there's a conspiracy.

I don't normally need dew control this time of year and maybe halfway through the summer, but I will add a dew heater when I need to, but still keeping with a single 10 - 15 amp 12 volt dc line in, and I'll see if that's enough to drive all the devices. Planning this stuff out is half the fun.

That white rectangular shape under the Raspberry Pi is a DC step down converter, taking 12v dc to 5v at 5 amps. The Raspberry Pi 4s need a bit more current then the older 3s.

Before I pack it up, I want to show off a couple astro images from a couple different imaging runs. 

The first is the Rosette Nebula NGC 2237 in Monoceros, a large circular HII region. The open star cluster NGC 2244 has formed out of—and continue to form out of—the Rosette's abundance of hydrogen and other materials. NGC 2237 is about 5000 lightyears away from us, and it's about 130 lightyears across. That's Sh2-280 on the right, a dim diffuse nebula. Another one from my backyard with the William Optics SpaceCat 51 250mm FL APO refractor, iOptron CEM25P EQ mount, ZWO Astronomy Cameras ASI071MC cooled color camera, Celestron UHC/LPR filter. 13 x 2-minute exposures, 4 x 8 minute exposures.

One more from my backyard with the WilliamOptics SpaceCat 51 refractor and the ZWO ASI071MC camera: the grandest of the galaxies, Andromeda, M31. Of course, there are millions of incredibly beautiful and strange—and even downright bizarrely structured galaxies out there in the universe, many within normal telescope distance, but in my opinion they don't come close to M31. You could argue the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101) is in the running because it is so perfectly positioned from our perspective, a wonderful top-down view of a spiral galaxy. But Andromeda is like the Platonic ideal of a spiral galaxy. M31 also happens to be our largest galactic neighbor. So at 2.5 million lightyears away, it's close by. It's also much larger than M101, with a trillion stars and a hundred thousand lightyear diameter. This is probably one of the first objects an astronomer or astro-imager in the northern hemisphere is going to view or capture. You can see it without a telescope on a clear dark night. Andromeda Galaxy was first documented by astronomer 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi in 964. He described it as a "nebulous smear" in his famous Book of Fixed Stars, which is exactly what it looks like without a telescope—and if you know where to look. It's in the constellation Andromeda, so that should get you pointed in the right direction if you're inclined. Note: This image is a combination of RGB color and near-infrared frames I captured earlier this year and late last year. I'm just getting around to processing them!

Okay, so that's it for now. Just a quick walkthrough of my narrowband rig with the William Optics Space 51 and autofocus. And with a single cable running to the setup. So, this setup really is plug in the power, polar align, and start taking subs.

Well, we'll see how easy it is once we get some clear night sky!

High-gain Test - Gathering Narrowband Data

September 26, 2019 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Autumn is officially here, and this is the season of the Pleiades, Orion, the nebulae in the constellations of Perseus, Monoceros, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini. Now, M42 isn't in view until 2am, so that had to be the last in the sequence. And, yes, you can tell I was just dorking around with filters with our galactic neighbor, Andromeda M31, in near IR and hydrogen-alpha. I know M31 is a decent Ha target, and you can see some wonderful images in Ha-RGB out there in the world, but I had never tried shooting 2-minute subs of M31 with a 685nm long pass filter.  

I ran the ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono CMOS camera at a gain of 200 and offset of 65 in the following shots. And no calibration frames for any of these. Higher gain reduces dynamic range, but you're also reducing read noise and gaining (ha ha) resolution and the ability to shoot shorter exposures--and more of them, and if you take enough subs, this should balance things out.  There are miles of discussion on gain and offset in astro-imaging, but I was recently reading Jon Rista's comments in an astrobin forum thread and that got me to test out higher gain/offset. 

M31 in Near-IR + Ha

I moved over to Cassiopeia and shot 40 x 4-minute subs each of IC 1805 (Heart Nebula) and IC 1848 (Soul Nebula) in Hydrogen-alpha. Here's the stitched together pair:

Still waiting for Orion to get above 30°, I spent some time on NGC 1499 "California Nebula"

And Orion is back in the sky! Sure, you have to get up at 3 in the freakin' morning to see it with your own eyes. Or you can program your astro imaging system to stay up all night and take pictures without you. Here's M42, Orion Nebula, along with M43, De Mairan's Nebula--that's the spherical-looking cloud formation with the big bite taken out of it. And above that, shining brightly, Sh2-279 Running Man Nebula--although the famous running man shape isn't clear in hydrogen alpha. I'm not sure how well it comes out with oxygen III and sulfur II, but I'll come back another night to capture the OIII and SII frames. Notes: 31 x 240 second exposures in Ha + 20x 10 second subs just for the Trapezium (the super bright core of the Orion Nebula--so bright I have to take separate short exposure shots and merge it back in processing). William Optics GT81 APO refractor, ZWO ASI1600MM-Pro mono camera, Astronomik 6nm Ha filter.

Astro Session: July 9, 2018

July 9, 2018 - Reading time: 3 minutes

I recently bought the William Optics FLAT 6A II, and finally made it out under the stars to take some sub-exposures. I paired it with my GT-81 and ZWO ASI071MC color CMOS camera. The FLAT 6A II is a 0.8x reducer/field flattener; it's adjustable for different focal lengths, and so far, with my limited use, it appears to be quite a leap over the old William Optics F6-A I've used for a few years. The ASI071 has an APS-C sized sensor, and anyone with a large sensor astro camera or DSLR knows if you don't want field curvature with your refractor you need some sort of flattener. The FLAT6AII design makes it easy to dial in the correct distance for the scope you're using. The old reducer/flattener worked, but I had to test out a dozen different flattener to sensor distances, and still had to do some cropping and processing to fix the corners. This new FLAT 6AII provides a fairly flat field across the entire view. Equipment: William Optics GT-81 + FLAT 6A II 0.8x reducer f/4.7, ZWO ASI071MC-Cool color CMOS camera - gain 0 offset 8, ZWO ASI120MM-S Guide Cam + 130mm guide scope.


With the GT81 and ASI071 I get a 3.54° x 2.35° field of view, and I can capture some big chunks of the night sky. Here are three from the last two nights: [1] the Pelican Nebula (IC 5070) and the edge of the North America Nebula (NGC7000) at the bottom, [2] IC 1396 nebula with the Elephant's Trunk at the top and the Garnet Star bottom left, and [3] M31, our galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. 



Pelican Nebula image info: ZWOASI071MC 39 x 240 second color subs stacked in DSS, processed in PSCC2018

IC 1396 region image info: ZWOASI071MC 21 x 300 second color subs stacked in DSS, processed in PSCC2018

The Andromeda Galaxy. The last time I photographed Andromeda (M31) was 2015, maybe fall of 2014? It's been a while. I was using a DSLR--that was the only camera I had, and I had it on a terribly-used Celestron CG-5 equatorial mount with some aftermarket RA/DEC motors. By "terribly-used" I mean you could drive a truck through the gear backlash. Even so, I still managed to get some decent 30-second exposures of Andromeda, Orion Nebula, and other big bright targets in the sky. Well, I'm back with our galactic neighbor, and with much better gear: 192 x 120-second sub-exposures stacked in DSS, processed in PSCC2018, ZWO ASI071MC camera at -10C, William Optics GT81 APO, iOptron CEM25P EQ mount.