Goodbye Discovery!

What an awesome spacecraft it has been — launching the Hubble Space Telescope, Ulysses and John Glenn! It returned NASA to manned spaceflight following both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. And now this week, we say goodbye to Space Shuttle Discovery. On Sunday night, Feb. 27, I took a look at it (perhaps my last), and the ISS, as they flew over together in an ideal pass across our sky. Even in binoculars you could see the shape of the ISS — or at least that it had a shape and was not just a star, as all other satellites appear. A great sight was watching the craft fly into Earth’s shadow and go deep red then fade out. That’s why the bright streak the ISS/Shuttle left on the frame during the time exposure fades out at left, as they fly to the east and experience sunset.

To the west (right) note the Zodiacal Light glow reaching up from the western horizon. Orion and Canis Major are at bottom in the south. To the northwest is my house. I purposely left the porch light on around the other side of the house to light up the yard and the photogenic old house on the property. It features in many of my backyard shots.

This shot is a two-image stack of 4-minute exposures, with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 tracking the sky on an equatorial mount. The lens is one of my favourites, the Sigma 8mm full-circle fish-eye lens. Some haze in the sky knocked back the contrast, so the Milky Way doesn’t pop out as well as it should. Still, this was the first clear night in a while when it wasn’t -25°C!

– Alan, February 27, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Awesome Auriga

My previous post was a profile of Perseus. Right next door in the current evening sky is Auriga the Charioteer, embedded right in the middle of the Milky Way. This is a 50mm “normal” lens shot of all of Auriga showing its distinctive pentagon shape with the bright yellow star, Capella, at top. It’s the bright star shining high overhead on winter nights, at least if you live in the northern hemisphere at latitudes like the US and Canada. What is not obvious (because it can’t be resolved through a telescope) is that Capella is a close double star, made of twin suns orbiting each other at about the same distance apart as are the Sun and Venus. A planet orbiting the pair would definitely see a Tatooine-style double-Sun sunset. Not to say Luke Skywalker was from the Capella system — remember Luke’s tale took place in a Galaxy far, far away! Capella is just 42 light years from Earth.

What shows up here just below centre is some of the wisps of red nebulosity in the middle of Auriga (tough to see visually but easy for the camera to see), as well as the trio of star clusters first catalogued by Charles Messier in the 18th century and that are great objects for any telescope. Notice how the Milky Way brightens through Auriga, partly by way of contrast to the lanes of dark nebulosity to the right that weave through Taurus and Perseus. The streak of nebulosity at right is the California Nebula in Perseus. Flip back to the previous blog to see more of Perseus, in a shot taken the same night.

I took this shot on January 23, 2011 (just about the last decent night we’ve had!) with the Canon 5D MkII set at ISO 800 and the 50mm Sigma lens set at f/2.8. It’s stack of  five 4-minute exposures, plus three 4-minute exposures with the Kenko soft filter to add the star glows. The blog “Fuzzy Constellations” a few posts back gives some more details about my technique.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Pursuing Perseus

One of the tenets of my astrophotography “philosophy,” if there can be such a thing (my university degree is in Philosophy after all), is to not spend an enormous amount of time and money chasing after the same images others do, knowing they will likely get far better results than I might achieve, given my location and choice number of clear skies. I don’t live in Arizona, New Mexico or Chile.

Yes, there are certain showpiece objects one is obliged to shoot, to add to the portfolio. But rather than go after many of the usual galaxies and nebulas, I often prefer to shoot wider-field targets that others often bypass.

Simple shots of constellations are often more in demand by publishers than closeups of deep-sky objects, and yet are usually in short supply, as many astrophotographers dismiss them as being “just for beginners.” But good constellation shots still take the right gear, techniques and skies to stand out. Only now am I getting the results I’ve long sought.

With new techniques now in hand, one of my goals is to accumulate a complete portfolio of constellation portraits, though not all of these star patterns stand out as being photogenic. But this one does.

This shot is a recent favourite of mine, of the constellation of Perseus, a rich area of sky. Modern digital cameras show it as the old film cameras never could, laced with reddish dark nebulas of different densities. The Milky Way through this region takes on such a variety of subtle hues achieving correct colour balance is tough.

At top is the loose collection of hot blue stars known as the Perseus Association. At bottom is the most famous tightly bound cluster of stars, the Pleiades. Between is the finger of glowing hydrogen gas called the California Nebula. This photo is an example of how “simple constellation” shots can take on a beauty of their own.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Testing New Gear

Now and then I have the opportunity to test new equipment for astrophotography. That can be both a blessing and a curse — I get to try out new gear before I buy it to see if it really works first, which is nice. But if the equipment doesn’t work well, I might have wasted some valuable nights with little to show for it but some poor photos and lots of frustration. Not so with the gear pictured here. The Celestron CGEM mount, tested for SkyNews magazine, worked great, tracking very well and serving as the platform I used in late 2010 for a lot of astrophotos over two dark of the Moon periods. At about $1500 this is a superb entry-level mount for anyone serious about astrophotography.

I also can praise the Celestron NexGuide autoguider (with the glowing screen at right), shown here on a William Optics 66mm guidescope. It, and its near twin, the Synta SynGuider, worked very well — these are autoguiders to provide exact tracking of the mount over long exposures, a necessity even in the digital age. Unlike many autoguiders, these units are “stand-alone,” requiring no additional computer and able to run for many nights off a typical 12-volt power pack. They are great for use in the field. What’s more, the new autoguiders are quite low cost (~$300) compared to the $1000+ cost of previous models with similar capabilities. I reviewed these units for Sky and Telescope and for SkyNews.

The scope shown here is a favourite of mine, the A&M (now Officina Stellare) 105mm f/6 apo refractor, a beautiful Italian-made “designer scope” with first-class optics. It is a terrific visual and imaging telescope, though a little large for its aperture.

For more details about recommended autoguiders, see the website I developed to support The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide and follow the links to the Chapter 13 entries on astrophoto gear.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Wonderful Winter Sky

While I took this image a year ago in early 2010, I thought I’d post this up now, with the new blog now underway. This is a mosaic of what surely ranks as one of the most amazing areas of sky — the vast panorama of the night sky visible in the northern hemisphere each winter. Here we see more bright stars than at any other season of the year, in the constellations (in clockwise order) of Orion, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus. Canis Major and its luminary, Sirius, are just off the bottom of the frame.

This is a 4-panel mosaic, each panel consisting of four 4-minute exposures plus two 4-minute exposures with a soft diffuser filter to add the star glows. Each was taken at ISO 800 with the Canon 5D MkII and a 35mm lens at f/4. Slight haze, changing sky fog, and changing elevation of the fields make it tough to get consistent colours across the sky during the couple of hours of exposure time needed to grab the images for such a mosaic, especially from my home latitude. But this attempt worked pretty well and records the wealth of bright red and dark nebulosity throughout this area of sky, a region of the Milky Way in our spiral arm but a little farther out from the centre of the Galaxy than where we live.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

The Neglected Small Magellanic Cloud

It sits not far away in the deep southern sky from its larger counterpart, but it must feel rather inferior and sadly neglected. Pity as this object does have lots to offer.

This is the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way and a companion to the Large Magellanic Cloud — each is named for Ferdinand Magellan who noted them on his pioneering circumnavigation voyage of the world in the 16th century. The Small Cloud doesn’t contain the number and complexity of nebulas and clusters as does its larger brother, but it does have some lovely offerings, like the complex of cyan-coloured nebulas and related clusters at top.

However, the notable sights in this area of sky aren’t actually part of the SMC. The two globular clusters in the field lie much closer to us. NGC 362 is a nice globular at top, but it pales in comparison (every such object does) next to the amazing object known as 47 Tucanae, or NGC 104, the huge globular cluster at right. It is a wonderful sight in any telescope.

This is a stack of five 7-minute exposures with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. I took this on my astrophoto trip to Australia in December 2010, a season when this object is ideally placed for viewing. Most times of the year, the SMC is dragging close to the horizon and lost in the murk, as least for shooting. That’s another reason the poor old SMC gets no respect!

— Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

The Wonder-filled Large Magellanic Cloud

It occupies only a binocular field or two in the sky but … Wow! What a field it is! This is one of the objects that makes a trip to the southern hemisphere for astronomy worth the trek alone. This satellite galaxy of our Milky Way is visible only from south of the equator. It contains so many clusters and nebulas, many in the same telescope field, that just sorting out what you are looking at takes a good star atlas (most don’t plot this region well). This is one of my best shots of the “LMC,” taken on my December Oz trip. It is with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrographic lens/telescope and the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII, that picks up much more red nebulosity (that emits deep red wavelengths) that stock cameras don’t record well.

Even so, I’m always amazed at how so many nebulas in the LMC, and in its smaller counterpart, the nearby Small Magellanic Cloud, record as magenta or cyan, rather than deep red. The most prominent object is the Tarantula Nebula at left of centre. It is an amazing sight in any telescope, especially with a nebula filter.

This is a stack of five 7-minute exposures at ISO 800, with the scope on the AP 400 mount and guided with the SG-4 autoguider. This is a single image, framed to take in all the best stuff of the LMC. But to really get it all in with any detail requires a multi-panel mosaic. I’ve done those on previous trips and was hoping to re-do one on this last trip, with the better, sharper camera, the 5D MkII, and with the LMC higher in the sky than on earlier trips. But the lack of clear nights curtailed my plans.

But I’m happy with this one. Nice and sharp and with oodles of nebulosity. But one can never exhaust what this object has to offer, both for imaging and for just looking with the eyepiece. So there’s always next time!

– Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Imaging Down Under in Oz

I like shooting in Australia as I have the good fortune of having family there who kindly allow me to store equipment down under. On each trip over the last decade or so, I’ve brought down various bits of gear, not to mention clothing and other necessities, to be left on site for the next shooting expedition. Now, when I go, I just have to take camera gear, a computer & gadgets, and a couple of days clothing. All else is already there: an Astro-Physics 400 mount, an AP Traveler 105mm apo refractor, a 10-inch compact Dobsonian reflector, and all kinds of accessories, eyepieces, power supplies, adapters, etc. etc. The gear fills several watertight and dust proof storage bins as well as a large golf case brought down originally in 2002.

Each trip usually means taking a new autoguider system as well, since the technology changes so much from trip to trip. In December 2010 I brought two systems, the Santa Barbara Instruments SG-4, shown here, with its e-finder lens, and the Orion Starshoot with a small Borg 50mm guidescope, as a back up just in case the stand-alone SG-4 did not work in the southern hemisphere on a mount it had not been calibrated on and had never “seen” before. I needn’t of worried – the SG-4 worked beautifully — perfectly guided shots with a push of a button. Stunning!

But it is an item I have to take back and forth — like the cameras, it’s all a little too costly to have multiple copies in both the northern and southern hemispheres, at least vs. the size and weight involved in packing and carrying them. With mounts and scopes there is no question — yes, they are costly but there is no way I’m hauling all that gear back and forth for every trip. So at home, I have other mounts and scopes to take the role of the wonderful AP gear that has emigrated to Oz.

– Alan, December 2010 / Images © 2010 Alan Dyer

The Dark Clouds of Taurus

An area of sky often neglected but ideal for digital imaging is the region of Milky Way in Taurus and Auriga. Threaded through this area of sky are large lanes of dark interstellar dust, forming cold molecular clouds out of which stars form. This complex is close, only 400 light years away, in our spiral arm of the Galaxy, and so is spread out over a wide area of sky. Only piggybacked cameras with normal and wide-angle lenses capture it. But today’s digital cameras are able to record these kinds of dark nebulae as more than just dark holes in the sky — they have colour, usually shades of reddish-brown.

This is a shot from January 2011 from my home backyard, and takes in all of Taurus, most of Auriga and southern Perseus, with the Pleiades at right and the Hyades below.

— Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Hazy Hyades

Here’s a photogenic rendering of a classic northern winter sky object, the Hyades star cluster in Taurus. The Kenko Softon filter added the star glows and punched out the subtle colour variations in the stars. Note how the Hyades stars come in shades of blue and white. The yellow star is Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull and an interloper here — Aldebaran is actually halfway between us and the Hyades, which lie about 150 light years away, and are true cluster of stars moving together through space. Note the much more distant and smaller star cluster, NGC 1647, at left.

— Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Fuzzy Constellations

I’ve tried for years to create the effect of fuzzy haloes around stars to pop out the brighter stars and make the constellation pattern more obvious. It’s the “Akira Fuji” effect, named for the ace Japanese astrophotographer who has long perfected the technique with beautiful and widely-published results. I’ve tried various soft focus and diffusion filters, scratched UV filters, vaseline-smeared filters, breathing on filters, etc., etc. None have worked well. Till now.

The Kenko “Softon” filter offered by Hutech Scientific works fabulously well! It’s a tough filter to find in local camera stores here — but Hutech sells it. And it really changes the way I do constellation shooting, making any previous shots obsolete. I take several shots without the filter then one or more of the same exposure with the filter in place. I stack the two types of exposures  in Photoshop, with the fuzz-filter layer blended with a Lighten mode to a varying opacity to “dial in” the level of fuzziness that looks good. Too much and it looks overdone and fake.

The technique also pops out the star colours, like here on red Betelgeuse amid the blue-white stars of  Orion. This was from January 2011 from my backyard and is a stack of four 5-minute exposures w/o filter and one with. All with the Canon 5D MkII and 50mm Sigma lens, a terrific combination for constellation portraits.

— Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Canis Major Hopping

On one of the few clear nights so far this winter I was able to make Canis Major obey for a while and pose for a shot of the canine constellation hopping along my horizon in the south. From my latitude of 51° N he never appears high in the sky, though the placement on the horizon does make for a photogenic winter scene. Here, you can see the Messier star cluster M41 just below Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky and the bright jewel in the collar of Canis Major (according to some depictions of the constellation). This is a stack of five 4-minute exposures  with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and a 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8, plus a single 4-minute exposure with the Kenko soft filter to add the enhanced hazy star glows.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

After the Blizzard

We’ve certainly had our share (more than our share!) of snowstorms and blizzards so far this winter, though nothing like people down east have experienced. The one saving grace is that after the storm the sky often clears beautifully. In this case, on January 30, 2011 we had very clear blue skies, but filled with ice crystals of just the right shape (hexagonal) and orientation to produce a classic solar halo, with prominent sundogs on the 22° halo and a hint of an upper tangent arc, or is it an upper Parry arc? A trace of a circumhorizontal arc is also visible parallel to the horizon. Solar haloes are fascinating and often unique — each one can display a slightly different set of halo phenomena.

The website Atmospheric Optics gives great information and reference works.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

An Accurate Lunar Eclipse, At Last!

For years we astrophotographers have been thwarted by our recording media’s inability to capture a wide range of brightness in one exposure. A classic example is a lunar eclipse. The range in brightness between the non-eclipsed Full Moon and the part of the lunar disk in the Earth’s shadow is so great no one exposure can grab it all. You are left with either an over-exposed crescent or a dark under-exposed eclipsed Moon — nothing that looks anything like the eye can see.

At last, modern image processing comes to the rescue! This is a stack of 9 exposures, from 1/125th to 2 seconds, all at f/6 with a 130mm apo refractor and Canon 7D camera. The images were stacked and merged into one “high dynamic range” image using Photoshop CS5, whose new HDR mode is wonderful! A little tweaking of settings in the Tone Mapping dialog box, and voilá! An image of the partially eclipsed Moon that really looks like what the eye saw. I’m impressed.

— Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Eclipse in the Winter Milky Way

The December 20, 2010 total lunar eclipse promised to be a photogenic one. With the Moon smack dab in the middle of the winter Milky Way, it was going to be a great sight, as the Milky Way appeared during totality. The event did not disappoint. Though some haze intervened, I wasn’t complaining, as the weather has been so poor of late, we were lucky to get a clear night at all, despite having to endure -20° C temperatures to take in the event. This shot captures the scene from my backyard during totality, with the over-exposed eclipsed Moon sitting in the Milky Way above Orion. The naked and binocular view was truly stunning.

I got back from Australia in time to see this event from home, squeezed in between Oz and a Xmas trip to the rainy west Coast. The plan worked! I managed to catch the eclipse, against the odds, which defeated many across Canada. Alberta was one of the few clear places for this event. I had considered a hasty trip to Arizona for it, but decided against it — a good thing, as I think they had cloud. The winter of 2010/11 is proving to be an awful one for many.

— Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Shooting in Australia, Despite the Floods

I have not managed to get back to Australia since 2008, and had long planned for a trip in the November-December period, to get the Magellanic Clouds and “winter” Milky Way area of Orion, Canis Major, Puppis and friends, regions of the sky not well-placed in the usual months of my Oz trips in March and April. I planned a trip for late 2010, a month under southern skies, with 2 weeks at my favourite dark site, Coonabarabran, NSW, which bills itself as the Astronomy Capital of Australia — the Siding Spring Observatory, Oz’s major optical observatory complex is down the Timor Road. I rented a cottage for the period, which worked out great. The site could not have been better. The weather could not have been worse!

I go to Oz prepared to lose about 50% of nights to cloud, but this time, out of 15 nights in Coona, only 2 were clear and usable. Torrential rains deluged the area of the Central West of NSW, causing severe flooding all around me. On one trip back from Parkes, I had to detour 200 or 300 km around through the Hunter Valley just to avoid washed out roads and get back home. Indeed, at one point I had to plough through one town whose main streets were being inundated with a torrent of water. When it did clear, it was humid! But I got two nights of great shooting in. The skies were transparent. The one thing about Oz — when skies are clear they are dark and clean. The best I’ve ever seen.

This is a single, tripod-mounted shot of the southern Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, over the cottage that was my retreat and home for two weeks. Would I go back? You bet! It is still astronomy paradise for me. Even if skies are cloudy it is a chance to enjoy a writing retreat and a time to quietly work on projects long put off.

– Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Orion’s Sword Defeated!

Every astrophotographer has an object or field that seems to defy capture. For me, shooting the Sword of Orion has always been beset by haze, tints from light pollution and low altitude — something has always gone wrong. At last I managed to get a good shot of the region. It was a priority for me on my Australia trip of December 2010. Even though I ended up with only 2 clear nights to do any  serious shooting, out of 15 I was there, I really wanted to grab this area, while Orion was high in the north, and higher in altitude than I can get it from home, so less hindered by sky gradient tints.

This is a shot with the wonderful Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph (which is tack sharp across the field) and the modified full-frame Canon 5D MkII camera — both items purchased from Hutech Scientific, a great source of astrophoto gear. This is a stack of five 7-minute exposures at ISO 800, processed in Photoshop CS5.

– Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer