Imaging the Pleiades Star Cluster with the Skyguider Pro

With one hour and twenty minutes of exposure and several hours of processing, I have finished my work on the Pleiades Star Cluster. Also known as the seven sisters, its stars are surrounded by blue nebulae, which are difficult to see in a telescope but easily visible through long exposure photography. As the blue stars move through these dust clouds, their light reflects off of them creating the nebulosity in this image. I am really pleased with the faint details of the clouds and their complex structure.

Pleiades Star Cluster

 

 

Imaging The Andromeda Galaxy with the SkyGuider Pro

The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the most impressive spiral galaxies in the night sky. Even at a distance of 2.5 million light years its massive central core takes up about as much sky as a full Moon. This image captured over 1 hour worth of light from Andromeda’s 1 trillion stars and took about 3 hours to process and edit!Andromeda 25% Cropped
“The heavens declare the glory of God” Psalm 19:1

The Summer Portrait is Complete

Tonight, I completed my imaging goal for the summer. Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have all been filmed, stacked and processed using a DSLR camera. All three of these images were captured at f/11.8 which means the images above are at accurate scale to each other as viewed through the Orion Xt8i. Mars was the last holdout, with the dust storm washing out most detail during my earlier attempts in late July. For comparison, below are my previous images of these three planets taken with an iPhone 6 back in 2016.

 

 

A Late Night Out

June 7/8, 2018: Those Summer Nights
Summer is not a favorable season for amateur astronomy. The nights are short, dew sneaks up on you and the insects are annoying. On this night, the skies were clear, the dew point was reasonable and the insects were not biting, at least not that bad. With the moon not rising until 2:45 AM, it was a wonderful opportunity to work through some deep-sky objects on my Messier List.

10:45 PM to Midnight
After allowing the telescope to cool for an hour, the evening began with M13-Hercules, a favorite of mine since my first observations of it in 2010. It is one of the most impressive views in the night sky and a treat to show off to family and friends. What starts off as a dense blurry core is peeled away to reveal finer levels of detail at medium and high magnifications, where thousands of stars become visible. Objects such as this truly reveal to me the glory of God’s creation. My success rate at finding and being impressed by other globulars tonight was hit and miss. While the small but impressive M92 was easy to find, the dimmer M107 was nowhere to be seen due to light pollution near the horizon. Most of the other globular clusters early this evening were of little detail, including M19, M80 and M9.

Midnight to 12:15 AM
Lauren came out to take a look at Hercules and Saturn. While she was impressed by the fine detail of Hercules, her favorite sight is always Saturn. She has a better eye for fine detail on the planets than myself and easily picked up the Cassini division and a dim cloud band across the middle of the planet.

1:00 AM to 1:30 AM
The hunt for globular and open clusters continued after a brief hiatus. M22 was a surprisingly impressive globular cluster with fine detail in its core showing up at 96x and 200x magnification. Hopping over just a couple degrees was the smaller and less defined M28. Switching to an open cluster, M25 was just a stone’s throw away from Saturn with a pretty collection of stars shown at lower magnifications. While M54 was difficult to find due to light pollution near the horizon, M70 was impossible. What awaited next was the most pleasant surprise of the evening, M11–The Wild Duck Cluster was a beautifully dense and sharply detailed open cluster. It could easily be mistaken for a globular cluster because of the density of the core. At 96x and 200x magnification, it revealed some fine details including one star shining brightly in the upper center of the core.

1:30 AM to 2:00 AM
Shifting gears to some things a bit closer home, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were on display throughout most of this evening. Atmospheric conditions were ideal with fairly cool temperatures and no wind. Of the three, Jupiter in particular was stunning in it’s sharpness and clarity with three of its moons Io, Ganymede and Callisto in a tight triangular formation. I Hooked my iPhone up to the telescope and took some videos of the planets.

Here is some of the video I shot that is posted on my YouTube Channel.

The 1080p 60 FPS footage was sent to Registax 6 to enhance the sharpness. Then the color and contrast were enhanced in Adobe Premiere Elements 6 to create the following image of Saturn at 1200x magnification.

3:15 AM to 4:00 AM
With that, the night was done–or so I thought! Having brought in all of my equipment, I realized I was just three Messier objects shy of hitting the halfway point. I looked at the clock and decided to lug everything back out for three more objects. The final three Messier objects began with M73, an open cluster with a simplistic four star pattern. It took a while to verify its location, with observations at higher magnifications revealing more of the stars in its formation. One wonders why an object like this was included in the Messier list to begin with. Second to last was M15, a small yet surprisingly bright globular cluster with an impressive core which revealed some structural details at higher magnifications. The night officially ended with the anticlimactic M2, revealing itself only as a small blurry globular cluster with some minor fine detail at 200x magnification.

4:00 AM to 4:15 AM
Before going in, a few more attempts were made to capture Mars on video, since it had moved up from the horizon into better atmospheric conditions. As I was packing up, my Apple Watch showed that the Moon had recently risen. Walking around my property, I found a spot that showed it just peaking above the horizon. Seeing the Moon at this early morning hour was a perspective that I have seen few times before. Seeing the Moon at this hour with the waning crescent portion of it visible gave me a new perspective on a familiar sight.

4:45 AM to 11:00 AM
Sleep…

Getting Started in Astrophotography

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Astrophotography can seem like an overwhelming addition to amateur astronomy. Over the past several weeks I have attempted to photograph the night sky and will show you what has worked best for me using some entry level equipment and a little bit of research.

Step 1: Buying a Camera and Lens

While I didn’t buy the Canon Rebel SL2 specifically for astrophotography, virtually all new DSLR cameras will provide wonderful results for entry to intermediate level users. The 24 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor provides more than the necessary minimum for nighttime imaging. It’s standard kit zoom lens featuring an 18-55mm focal length is a nice starter lens and offers fairly sharp fields of view.

Step 2: Adjusting Camera Settings

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Be sure to turn your camera dial to Manual Mode. This will give you complete control throughout the entire process. I’ve also configured a menu tab aptly named “Astronomy” which allows me to easily change some of the most important settings involving shooting the nighttime sky.

  • Image Quality-Raw and Large jpeg
  • Picture Style-Neutral
  • White Balance-Daylight (5200K)
  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction- On
  • High ISO Speed Noise Reduction-Standard
  • Drive Mode-2 Seconds

Step 3: Mounting the Camera to the Tripod
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The cheapest and easiest way to get into astrophotography involves using a tripod and your DSLR. After connecting the SL2 to the tripod, I chose Orion’s Nebula as my target. Before moving on, I had to determine the proper focal length, focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

Step 4: Setting up and taking the Shot

  • Focal Length and Focus:
    How zoomed in do you want your image? This is what the focal length controls. I wanted a zoomed in image of Orion’s Nebula, so I chose to set my lens at it’s maximum 55mm focal length. To focus, make sure that your lens is switched to manual focus and use the digital magnifying feature to show a 10x image of the constellation in the live viewing screen. Slowly turn the focus ring until you get the sharpest stars possible.
  • Aperture:
    How much light is going through your lens and into your sensor? This is what the aperture controls. The best possible aperture for my zoom lens set at 55mm is f/5.6.  This is not a strong point of my kit lens. I hope to upgrade this to a fixed 50mm f/1.8 in the near future.
  • Shutter Speed:
    How long do you want your camera’s shutter open to allow light onto your sensor? This is what the shutter speed controls. I was looking for as long a time as possible to bring out detail in Orion’s Nebula, without creating star trails. There are a lot of ways to determine how long the shutter can stay open without creating star trails. The website LonelySpeck has an excellent calculator for determining this setting. For my camera’s sensor and zoom lens set at 55mm, 4 seconds was the longest length of time I could afford.
  • ISO:
    How sensitive do you want your camera to be when the shutter is open and light is hitting the sensor? This is what the ISO controls. Increasing it will brighten your image, but also increase digital noise. Finding a balance between sensitivity and image quality will vary depending on your camera’s sensor. For my Canon SL2 shooting Orion’s Nebula a setting of ISO 3200 gave me the best results.

Step 5: Post Processing

  • How much detail can you bring out of your image? This is what imaging software controls. Canon’s Digital Photo Professional 4 is free software provided by Canon if you buy their products. It is excellent for editing RAW images, which contain much more image information than jpeg files. There are a variety of paid and free choices from Adobe Photoshop to Raw Therapee. The learning curve on these can be pretty steep, but I have found DPP4 to be fairly user friendly and powerful. The most useful settings for me so far have been contrast, shadow, highlight, color tone and color saturation.

The Final Result:
Orion Nebula: 12/27/17
Canon SL2, 55mm, f/5.6, 4 Seconds, ISO 3200
Enhanced and Cropped with Digital Photo Professional 4

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There have been several sources that have provided me with a lot of the information presented in this article. “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide” has been my constant companion as I have expanded my interest in amateur astronomy. That book, along with the websites ImprovePhotography, Astropix and LonelySpeck have given me tremendous assistance in my early efforts at understanding astrophotography. Hopefully, this article helped you as well. Please leave a comment with any questions or suggestions you may have.