Thursday, November 30, 2017

Notes from The Field - Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia.



Okefenokee Sunset
October 23rd found me and my telescope deep within the Okefenokee Swamp. I was excited. While the alligators watched me set up, the skies unexpectedly cleared and the temperature plummeted. Clearly, I was in for a wonderful night of astrophotography. Little did I know that I was about to learn more about my new hobby than the previous three years of fumbling through taking pictures of the stars.


The Gators' Eyes Reflected The Red from our Headlamps
The first lesson had already been painfully learned. Using the long drive to Georgia to mentally plan my observations, I prepared a long agenda of objects to photograph. I have been visually observing for years. Consequently, I prepared my observing list as a visual observing list. This was a mistake.




Visual observers build long lineups of objects to attempt to spot. Typically, it takes me less than 15 minutes to find an object, take a few notes about the object, philosophically reflect on the object (“Wow! This tiny smudge of light contains a trillion stars, and this light left those stars while the dinosaurs roamed the earth”) and move onto the next sight. Therefore, my observing list typically consist of scores of objects to attempt.

Of course, I built my photography agenda similarly long. With such a nice sky and view of the southern horizon, I planned to photograph dozens of galaxies in unfamiliar southern constellations as well as clusters and nebula along the “Backbone of The Night” – The Milky Way. I was even going to attempt to image Neried, one of Neptune’s far-flung moons.

However, I soon discovered that imaging the heavens is very different from visually observing the heavens. My observing plan was far too optimistic. Even if one plans to stack ten five-minute exposures of each object, nearly an hour of exposures is required. Adding in finding the object, centering the object, exposing flat frames, dark frames, dark flat frames and bias frames easily whittles down an observing list. I decimated my observing plan to five objects each night. Imaging Neried was a pipe dream anyway.

The first object on my edited agenda was NGC 891. Very close to the zenith this evening, NGC 891 is a beautiful edge-on galaxy in Andromeda. It looks like a mini Milky Way. Slewing my scope toward the zenith and utilizing an oversized dew shield, I centered the object in my field of view, took a few test images and set the BackyardEOS application on my computer to acquire 10 long-exposure images. As the click of the camera signaled the start of the first exposure, I broke two important rules of astrophotography.

While my camera obediently snapped its preprogrammed sequence, I left the scope to help a friend with his set up. When I returned, the computer screen proudly displayed the following image. What went wrong?


NGC 891 - Single Image

Distracted by conversation with a friend, I failed to notice the sky filled with clouds. Although the guidescope diligently tried to lock on its guide star, passing clouds distracted its attention. The multiple images of each star are caused by the guidescope losing its lock on its guide star and reacquiring a guide star after the scope drifted.


Never leave your scope for a long period of time, and NEVER, EVER stop looking up. Clouds, obstructions and strobe-flashing aircraft are attracted to the tiny square of sky you are imaging. They will ruin your images.
Although clouds effectively ended that night’s observing, the next two nights promised better weather.

NGC 253 was on the top of my list. Even if I failed to image any other object, I was not leaving Georgia without a good image of The Sculptor Galaxy. 

Many North American observers are unfamiliar with constellation, Sculptor, The Sculptor’s Studio. Likewise, we don’t really think about this constellation’s deep sky objects. However, it boasts one of the brightest galaxies in the sky. From the Southern Hemisphere, The Sculptor Galaxy passes high overhead much like The Andromeda Galaxy passes high in our skies.

Although it passed nowhere near Georgia’s zenith, I took advantage of my southern location to take ten images of the galaxy as it rose to its highest point in the southern sky. After seeing the first image, I know I succeeded in capturing The Sculptor.  Here are the first four images I acquired that night.









The next day, I used “DeepSkyStacker", a free application used to stack multiple images, to stack the best of the images.

NGC 253 - Stack of Nine Five Minute Exposures


Fiddling with the Brightness and Contrast brought out even more detail in the dust clouds of this starburst galaxy.

NGC 253 - Brightened in Deep Sky Stacker
Hubble Image used to Inspire Color


Next, I used the hue and saturation functions of Photoshop to increase the color range in the image. Although color differences could be seen in the original image, I fully admit to cheating. The central hub of The Sculptor Galaxy glows orange with the light of older stars. Meanwhile, the spiral arms are dominated by younger, bluer stars.  I tried to mimic these color difference by com pairing my images to a great image returned by The Hubble Space Telescope.






NGC 253 - Color Enhanced.

A little more tweaking of the brightness gave me a darker sky and a prettier picture.

NGC 253 - Darkened



Finally, I cropped the image to remove that annoying dark bar on the top of the frame.

NGC 253 - Final Product


I am not happy with the resolution. The image appears blurry to me. Unfortunately, the seeing was horrible during my visit.

Another issue seems more artistic than technical. During processing, I constantly felt the galaxy should be placed differently in the field of view. Sadly, I could not return to re-image the galaxy. However, I did learn to spend more time on placing the object in the field of view.

Later in the evening, I was able to capture NGC 1300 in Eridanus.



NGC 6781 – A faint planetary nebula in Aquila


And The Little Dumbbell in Perseus



Indeed, this is a long blog post. At least, we learned five good lessons.


1)  Maintain short observing lists. 

2)  Do your math. Do not attempt to image more objects than time allows.

3)  Never leave your telescope for an extended period of time.

4)  NEVER EVER stop looking up. Watch the area that you are photographing.

5)  Remember aesthetics. Even a technically well-done image can appear amateurish if 
     the object is not well-placed in the field.

I worded this post hoping that it leaves many questions unanswered. The purpose of this blog is to foster a dialogue between all of us. Feel free to ask any questions or leave comments. In the meantime, I will create the next few posts answering the questions I have secretly embedded in my writing.


Monday, November 13, 2017



First Light with The LX-850
First light for my new scope was a three-minute exposure of The Ring Nebula. I had never taken suck an obscenely long exposure. Although the image was poorly focused and light pollution overwhelms all but the brightest stars, the tracking was great. With this initial success, I looked forward to creating some beautiful photographs.

Throughout the summer, I experimented with the scope under my brightly-lit suburban skies. Believe me, this scope has its share of idiosyncrasies. Moreover, Polaris is not visible from my home observing site making polar alignment a challenge. Consequently, most of my observations from home included the well-placed planets Jupiter and Saturn and the Moon.

Saturn
Jupiter
I was fortunate to travel to the club’s observing site in Alpha Ridge three times. In fact, I first polar aligned the set-up at Alpha Ridge two months after I purchased the scope. Of course, polar aligning a new instrument brought its own list of idiosyncrasies. Likewise, all catadioptric telescopes should be culminated each time they are moved. Eventually, with the help of the Cloudy Nights Forum ( https://www.cloudynights.com/ ) , I felt confident to productively use my new scope.

October began with me never having really used the new scope under a dark sky. At night I could almost hear the poor telescope bucking around the garage trying to get out from beneath the light dome above the Baltimore-Washington Metro Area.  

Ironically, a high school friend also purchased a new telescope this summer. He lives in Orlando, and I was able to fly down for a night to meet him and his new scope in a State Park close to The Everglades. While he worked, with his new scope, I occupied myself with my camera and tripod grabbing some quick shots of The Summer Milky Way.. Although we had a great time, the brilliant glow of The Milky Way made me miss my scope. Shortly thereafter, we planned to meet “midway” between our two homes.
Milky Way from Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, Florida

We settled on The Stephen C. Foster State Park ( http://gastateparks.org/StephenCFoster ) deep in The Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.  I am not sure how Southern Georgia qualifies as “midway” between Florida and Maryland. But, my friend had just returned from The Caribbean with an ample supply of sipping rum, so I asked no questions.

Last year, Stephen C. Foster State Park was designated a Dark Sky Park meaning we could look forward to dark skies. I secured six days off of work, packed my 300-lb. telescope into my tiny two-door Fiat and began the long drive south.


Introduction


  This is The Sculpture Galaxy. Also known as The Silver Dollar or NGC 253, it never ventures more than 24° above our southern horizon. I doubt we could even point The Watson toward it. Therefore, I had to travel to Southern Georgia to get this shot. Although this image does have its share of issues, I believe it represents my best attempt at astrophotography to date. Hopefully, my contributions to this blog will be informative as well as entertaining as we journey through the universe together.

  Although I have been photographing the heavens since the 1980’s with all manner of camera/telescope combinations, I have much to learn. In a very real way, I am just beginning a new hobby. This summer, I purchased my first telescope designed for astrophotography, a Meade LX-850 telescope. With my trusty Canon 60D DSLR camera and new scope, I am ready to enter the world of astrophotography.

Goodbye, Orion

Amateur astronomers loathe the month of March. Daylight Savings Time steals yet another hour from our rapidly decreasing observing time....