Saturday, April 28, 2012

You can put lipstick on an Sbig...

Last night, Jim, Randy and I decided it was high time to break out the SBIG ST2000XCM and get some real photography going.  We spent a good hour or more precision aligning and tweaking the scope.  Mostly I stood in the way watching and at best was a pair of sharp eyes to sight guide stars for alignment while the guys twisted various knobs and timed star movements.

Then, hungrily rubbing our hands together, we hunkered down for the next 4+ hours in front of the computer screen searching for guide stars and refocusing and searching for guide stars and refocusing and...  Now I know this sounds like the epitome of tedium but when spiked coffee and a bit of tequila are involved it becomes an all out astrogeek party.  It really was a blast and we learned a few things even if we don't have photos, the next clear night we'll definitely have something to show.  I believe the biggest problem we had was the sky, seeing was below average making good astrophotography near impossible even if we had all the kinks worked out.

While all this was going on I had my camera aimed at the observatory (with Polaris directly above) for 245, 1 min exposures the entire time.  Hours of star (and astronomer) movement were captured and turned into this timelapse video.

All the frames combined using Startrails for this photo.
245 frames @ 59sec f4 ISO500

And at around 2am as I was about to head home the inner Milky Way made it's grand appearance with the summer triangle riding high in the east.  The observatory is on the left.
Good things to come as summer is truly on it's way.

10 vertical frames @ 18mm 44sec f3.5 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mooning Venus and the ISS

After more than a week of clouds and few days of snow (yes, you heard right).  The skies unexpectedly cleared last night [4/24/12].  What a beauty of an evening.  I immediately grabbed my gear (camera bag, tripod, and binoculars) and ran out onto the patio to set up.
31mm,0.5sec f10 ISO100
Every evening I have this unavoidable compulsion to see how early I can spot Venus, usually before sunset. I spied and even photographed it at 3pm in February this year, that was wild.  Last night it was hard to miss shimmering there in the west near the thin waxing crescent Moon.  In my binoculars I was able to make out the tiny crescent of our inner solar system sister.  (I hope you guys are clicking the links I post, they aren't spam)

For the following picture I set up my camera in BULB, f5.6 and ISO250, plugged in my intervalometer set to 10 sec every 3 min for 20 exposures and mashed the start button.  As the camera fired away I was on my back on my patio table exploring Cancer, hitting Beehive cluster, M44 and M67.
20 exp, 28mm 10sec f5.6 ISO250
I loaded all 20 frames in PS, leaving the first frame alone I tediously erased all the other stars in all the other frames.  Then one by one I changed each layer's blending properties to "lighten" and  only the light from the Moon and Venus popped through. Tada!

Tonight [4/25/12] while I was in the middle of writing this post the ISS made a nice pass next to Venus and then Mars.  It's been cloudy all evening bus it cleared enough just in time.  I set up to shoot it rise in the west then as soon as it left the frame I whipped my camera over to Mars (the bright orangeish "star" in the second shot) and managed to catch it pass there too, unfortunately I think I was focused on the tree.  Check out the little "moon dog" on the right side of the first shot. 
22mm 117 sec f4.5 ISO400

35mm 56sec f5 ISO400

It's fantastic to see the sky again after so many soggy days.  Can't wait to get back out and observe with the group.   

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Last chance at Orion

[Thursday, April 12]
Tonight was my last opportunity to shoot Orion until winter.  It's on the heels of the sun in the southwestern sky in the early evening and is completely out of sight before midnight this time of year.
Arguably, the most recognizable northern hemispheric constellation holds one of the most active star forming regions nearby in our own the Milky Way.  The Orion Nebula (aka: Great Nebula in Orion, M42, NGC 1976) is actually the middle "star" in Orion's scabbard.  If you grab some binoculars and look at Orion's scabbard, the three closer stars lined up almost perpendicularly below the three wider belt stars, you'll see that those three little stars are actually multiple stars in three little open clusters. If you look long enough at (and around; averted vision really makes it pop) the middle group you will see wispy clouds shaped like wings wrapping around the little stars in the center.  Those little stars in the center are a cluster of very young stars called the Trapezium.  The wispy clouds are gas an dust in the process of condensing into stars.  Read an interesting recent post by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer on the Orion Nebula.

Here she is, this may just be my favorite photo I have ever taken.  I've been trying to shoot Orion for a long time but without a tracking mount it was extremely frustrating. With my camera piggyback mounted on a Meade RCX 400 it's a breeze. Thanks to the Observatory at Bisbee Hill guys for use of the equipment.
15 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 40sec f6 ISO1000 

I also pointed the scope at a couple prominent galaxies near the tail of Ursa Major or the handle of the Big Dipper and snapped away.  This is the Whirlpool Galaxy (aka: M51a, NGC 5194) located just under the last star of the dipper's handle (picture the dipper right side up, like a spoon lying on a table).  As you can see, it appears to be a large spiral devouring a smaller galaxy (M51b or NGC 5195) but the smaller galaxy is actually passing behind the Whirlpool, merely gravitationally tugging on it.  This galactic encounter sparks massive star formation in the Whirlpool Galaxy, the pinkish/purplish hues are nebulous regions.

11 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 2min f6 ISO2000

This is the gorgeous spiral galaxy M101 (NGC 5457) also near the end of the Big Dipper's handle.  Find it by looking at the last two handle stars and make an equilateral triangle pointing up (again, think of the dipper as horizontal), at the top of the triangle you'll find M101. There's three other galaxies visible in this image as well.  At 10 o'clock from M101 is NGC 5477 and straight to the left edge of the frame from there is a tiny edge-on galaxy NGC 9071.  The Fuzzy blob at the bottom is NGC 5474.
12 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 2min f6 ISO2000

Another Ursa Major treat, Comet Garrad was visible (it's the green thingy), it was fantastic night!

Friday night was a bit hazy and observing was kind of a flop but this was our beautiful horizon.  Nice lineup of Canis Major, Orion, Taurus, Venus, Pleiades, and Perseus' leg.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Full moon observing

Observing during a full moon? Why bother, right?

Well... I bothered.  The sky was too clear to avoid.

With my D90 fitted with a beautiful (thank you Jim) William Optics Gran Turismo 81mm f9 (478mm FL) and mounted on the Meade RCX 400, I shot the Moon, Beehive Cluster (M44), M38 (in Auriga), and M13 (Great Globular Cluster in Hercules).

It was obviously a challenge to get anything worth showing due to the full moon washing out the entire sky, but I gave it a go anyway.  The practice of operating the big scope, finding different objects, working on focus and processing was well worth the time and effort even if viewing was poor.

I'm getting much better at processing in DeepSkyStacker and finally figured out Registax6!  Like I stated before, the problem was me, I'd suggest actually reading the tutorials and manuals online, it helps.  My problem was that my files were just too big.  I created a PhotoShop action to quickly run my RAW images through converting them to 2000x2000px BMP files and BINGO it works like a dream.  All images were also processed in Photoshop CS5 after stacking, just contrast and sharpening adjustments.

Here's last night's "Pink" Moon (no, it's not actually pink.  That's just the name for April's full Moon).
100 frames via Registax6 @ 81mm 1/1000sec f6 ISO100
And the Beehive Cluster, M44.
30 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 60sec f6 ISO400

And M38 with it's tiny neighbor cluster NGC 1907 just below it.
30 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 60sec f6 ISO400

And the grand finale, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, M13.  I found a bonus galaxy in there too,  NGC 6207 is the tiny smudge at 11 o'clock.
30 frames via DeepSkyStacker @ 81mm 60sec f6 ISO500

Tonight I'll actually sleep.  Good night.

...Next: work on getting a bit of true color into these images.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Moon and Pleiades

[Last night] It was a great moonlit night at the observatory, thanks Randy.
If you have never seen the Moon through a large telescope, go find someone with one and ask them to point it at that big bright round thing in the night sky for you.          

...go ahead, I'll be here when you get back.

You're back?  Wasn't that amazing?!  I know!  So, as you were looking across the 235,000ish miles of space to the Moon, peering into all the many craters and gliding over the different surface features, you undoubtedly began to feel a strange impending excitement.  You felt like if you could only look long enough you would see one of those massive impacts first hand.  This excitement is, although not impossible, extremely (seriously) unlikely.  Nonetheless, a wonderful feeling, wouldn't you say?   Feel free to go look again.    ...I'll wait.

Now, to the photography.  I took 136 frames of the moon with my camera mounted on top of a Meade RCX 400, and using RegiStax 6, I attempted to stack them.  Then I attempted again.  Then again.  I'm sure I'm doing something wrong and in no way is this a slight on Registax.   It's obviously going to take a few tries and tutorials to get things rolling there.  
Here's an old-fashioned single frame image.  Not too shabby.
300mm, 1/125 sec, f11, ISO100
[EDIT - 04/08/12]  This is what the above image looks like processed in Registax6.

More eye candy last night was Venus nestled just under the open cluster of Pleiades (M45) like a lone egg in a nest.  Now DeepSkyStacker was much more first-time user friendly.  This is 9 frames stacked and noise perfectly removed.   Could have used longer exposure or wider aperture or higher ISO (one or all) to better resolve the background stars but it's quite pretty.  It's difficult to shoot a bright object like Venus and expose long enough to resolve fainter objects like Pleiades.  With my budget 300mm lens, that star[planet]burst just gets bigger and bigger.  The lens aberrations are a bit annoying but kind of appealing when you're going for something frame worthy or "artsy".

9 frames @ 300mm, 30 seconds f7.1 ISO 800