Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fortress of Solitude

I've been passionate about Astronomy and night sky observing since my early teens.  Decades of visual observing with telescopes large and small - purchased as well as hand ground mirrors.  The only detector was my eye and brain working together to tease out dazzling details or observe the faintest of objects.  At star parties the visual folks are sharing views and working on casual or serious observing projects.  There is a distinctly social element to it.  Who can resist sharing a crisp view of Saturn's rings, a bedazzling globular cluster or the challenge of a barely detectable distant galaxy.

 Meanwhile, over in the other part of the field are the imagers.  Friendly yet serious, and not a little bit mysterious with their high tech gizmos enmeshed in an unruly tangle of cords.  Often fussy about stray light (tho the visual folks can get a bit testy as well) there is a separation not only physically but also in the gear and goals.

For a little over a year now I've pushed pretty hard into the imagers world.  It really is different.  Not better, not worse ... just different.  I don't want to over generalize but one observation I've had is that it is a much more solitary journey - even when in the company of friends.

The setup is more complicated.  All those cables and USB connections.  Batteries.  Computers.  Cameras and filters.  A million little details to keep track of.  Any oversight means a waste of precious dark time.  All of which requires focus.  And I don't know about you but I just can't carry on a conversation while I'm aligning or keeping track of exposure times or trying to remember to refocus after changing filters.

When all goes well there is still time to converse and enjoy the company of others.  Heck if all is going really well I like nothing more than to wander over and steal views from my visual friends.  But there is no doubt to me that imaging is a much more solitary journey whether with others or not.  And I am certainly much more likely to go out alone if I am imaging even if I still much prefer the company of friends.

One June night in the Fortress - taking one last frame before moonrise.
A imaging friend of mine calls it the Fortress of Solitude.  Time alone under dark skies is good for the soul.  Even if surrounded by technology and gear.  Besides, keeping busy with all those gadgets helps keeps me distracted from all the scary rustles and glowing eyes from yonder bushes :)

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Different Look at North America

I now have more images than I have time to process.  I'm working my way back to finally finish some earlier images that were left to the wayside.  Blame it on my eagerness to use the new QSI camera.  Oh, that and learning a new workflow now that I have to process each color channel separately.  There is always something to keep this imaging pursuit from becoming easy.  But hey ... I *can* handle a monochrome image without too many problems.

This was taken back in the spring.  The goal of the evening was to take a LRGB widefield of the M81/M82 region (which I haven't finished processing either).  After shooting those, there was still some time before dawn and I noticed that Cygnus - one of our summer friends - was rising in the east.  What a great opportunity to try out the new Hydrogen-alpha (Ha) filter on the North American nebula!  I imaged well past astronomical twilight.  With the very narrow (3A) filter it didn't make any difference.  Very cool.  Now I too will be able to use the ubiquitous disclaimer ... "taken under the full moon in my light polluted backyard".  But this was taken at Fremont Peak State Park which is one of the better dark sites easily accessible from the south San Francisco bay area.

I decided to present the image rotated sideways from convention.  I think it highlights those wonderful dark nebula clouds.  At least they seem more obvious to me when I'm not so focused on making those ionized hydrogen clouds into a continent.

The dark complex separating the North American and Pelican nebulas (where the Gulf of Mexico should be) looks to me like a frog jumping into a pond.  The obscuring dust really seems to stand out in front of the nebula.

Other patterns emerge too (the head of a golden retriever in the "pacific", a pontificating elephant in the center, others?) - much more obvious to me than the "Pelican" ever was (the Pelican is the common name given to the nebula just off the coast of "Florida").  Maybe we should look at our night sky friends in new orientations and perhaps see details we otherwise miss.

Sideways North America

Taken at Fremont Peak State Park, CA  April 30, 2011
QSI583, Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L @ f/4
Astrodon Ha (3A) filter

19 x 300sec exposures (95min total)
AP900 Mount
calibration, registration and post-processed in PixInsight

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Weather Gods Conspire

Back in New Mexico for vacation.  Started this chronicle from here just about a year ago now.  On that trip I was thwarted by cloudy skies most of the nights so this year I thought I'd ratchet down the gear requirements while also doing something that worked with the weather.  Something that would be interesting come rain or shine.

That something would be time lapse - and as I quickly discovered - full of it's own set of crazy hair shirt intricacies and rituals.  Maybe more on that later.  For now I just want to complain about the weather.

I have two simple requests of the weather gods.  I need:  1.) completely clear (night) skies for some decent astrophotography, astrolanscape photography or time lapse astrophotography -or- 2.) full on raging thunderstorms, lightning, and rain for some cool daytime timelapse.

Request denied.  It's been clear as a bell in the mornings giving way to clouds and dull overcast skies in the afternoon and evening.  No thunderstorms to mention.  A few drops of rain.  pffffffft.  So far I've been pretty much skunked for photography (but just being here is wondrous enough).

Hey at least we came a couple weeks after the states largest forest fire ever which choked the skies with smoke and haze.  A real disaster and hardship which makes my complaining seem pathetic by comparison.

So as I wait for the skies to cooperate I did manage to get one nice picture.  Hopefully many more to come.

Scorpio escaping the clutches of Cerro Pedernal.

Stars over Pedernal

Taken at Ghost Ranch, NM  July 28, 2011
Canon T2i (stock), 
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM @ f/1.4
Manfrotto Tripod
5sec exposure @ ISO800

color adjusted Adobe RAW

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Montebello Summer Time Lapse

I spent the night of July 5 testing CCD gear.  I wanted to come home with more than some test frames so I set up the Canon with an interval timer and took 1hr 45min worth of images.  I started the exposures shortly after dusk at 9:30pm as the evening twilight gave way to darkness.

You can see many planes on their approach to SFO and a couple entering the frame from the right (headed south down the Pacific coast) on their way to destinations unknown.  Odd to think that each brief streak of light is a aluminum tube holding a hundred or more people.  Also visible are a couple meteors and some high clouds which briefly threatened to make it a short evening.  I also think there is a geostationary satellite in the mix.  It's a bit hard impossible to make it out in the postage stamp sized inline version that blogger provides.  You can double click on the video to see it at YouTube (HD even) but I'm also disappointed quality of the playback there.  It is very smooth in native playback on my laptop ... after upload to YouTube the playback is annoyingly jerky.  I'll have figure this one out.

Update:  Click here to watch it on flickr.  Much better.


In order to pan the field I use my Astrotrac tangent drive mounted horizontally and in "Southern Hemisphere" mode.  This causes the camera to pan opposite the earths rotation so I can get a very slow pan. You will notice near the end -  the panning stopped when the batteries died.

Montebello Milky Way

Taken at Montebello Open Space, CA  July 5, 2011
Canon T2i (stock), 
Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM @ f/2.8
Manfrotto Tripod with Astrotrac mounted horizontal for pannning
398 10sec exposures @ ISO1600
,  5sec interval
no calibration, color adjusted in Pixinsight

Timelapse generated in QuickTime Player 7

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

OK back. New Gear.

Sorry, been busy.

Work, illness, weather, etc etc.  Life stuff.  But it's not like I've been idle.  No sir.  In a fit of pique I turned my back on my beloved T2i DSLR and purchased a bright shiny new QSI 583.  I finally got frustrated with 1.) lack of red sensitivity (I never modded the camera) and 2.) headaches of "one-shot color".  The latter which includes a variety of sub issues like dealing with bayer/de-bayering, color balance, and taking good quality flats with very small focal length (<100mm) lenses.  A full explanation would  take a multi-part post which I may yet write up ... someday.  Let's just say I fought the good fight, learned a great deal in 7 months, and decided to change one hair-shirt for another.

The DSLR will retain it's place for "regular" photography and astro-landscapes.  But for deep sky work count me a convert to the new challenges of CCD.  There are some great KAF8300 CCD chip cameras out there but I selected the QSI for a couple reasons.  The integrated filter wheel is the bees knees.  I wanted something compact for continuing work on the Astrotrac.  And I loved the idea of the off-axis guider with the pickoff mirror *before* the filter wheel for those times when I image with the refractor.  The camera is fully compatible with all my EOS lenses so I was good to go out of the box (purchased with the EOS adapter of course).  Note that the off-axis guider does not work with camera lenses ... back focus issues ... but the camera design is flexible enough to remove the OAG with just a few screws and replace with a thinner coverplate.  Nifty.

I'm not taking responsibility for all the planet's "end-times" weather and natural disasters but the new gear / bad weather correlation sure seems to hold.  If it was me, my apologies to humanity.  What is certain is that there have been precious few clear moonless nights to play with my new toy.  The down time was useful to do some serious gear-fu and I'll post a few pics of the progress below.

New QSI 583 with Canon 200mm EF-L f/2.8
I really wanted to address the challenge of frame rotation.  One attaches the camera by the 1/4-20 holes in the body (which requires some kind of ungainly ball head for rotation) or by telescope rings holding the camera lens.  The latter allows for free rotation but requires one to loosen the tube rings, rotate, tighten tube rings, check framing, then say bad words.  I wanted to avoid the saying bad words part.

My solution was to purchase a Canon tripod lens mount - the white thingy in the picture above.  I was concerned about how firmly it would hold everything but I can report it is rock solid.  Just loosen the white knob, rotate in place, re-tighten.  The center of the frame remains, uh, centered.  It really works.  Just be sure you don't cheap out and buy an aftermarket lens mount.  Close your eyes, spend the $ and get the official Canon one.  My bet is you will end up buying one anyway after your e-bay knockoff fails to please.

Micro focus gizmo
I've written before about the trials and tribulations of achieving good focus.  And if once achieved keeping it.  At short f ratio, if a mosquito lands on the focus ring one is doomed.  Above is my version of the venerable micrometer/spring/hoseclamp solution.  The unique holder is a piece of curtain rod mounting plate that was floating around the garage.  I can report that it too works great.  My only complaint is that the ease of rotation mentioned above is offset by the hassle of loosening the hoseclamp and spring, rotating, and reattaching back into place.  It is a small price to pay for the joy of fine focus control and then holding it for the duration.

Mounted on the Astrotrac
Here we are mounted on the Astrotrac.  The dovetail rig is replicated on my AP900 mount so it is a simple task to move between mounts.  I also attached a red-dot finder to the side of the QSI to help with locating objects when on the Astrotrac.

All ready for some clear skies.  Waiting ... waiting ... waiting ...
Truth in advertising ... I have yet to field test the above.  I have taken some images on the AP900 and I'll show you that arrangement in a post to come.  Enough gear jiggering for now ... time for the weather to clear!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lunar Citizens Brace for Super Earth Event

POX News Exclusive:  Dateline Clavius Crater.

This weekend's new earth cycle will bring our globe closer to earth than anytime since, well, almost an entire decade ago.  Morbix Leaxiue, prominent astrologer and anti-vaccination activist, predicts this "Super Earth" event will trigger massive moonquakes, mare basalt flows, crater wall landslides and the general overall end of everything we hold dear.  "We've got the earth pulling on one side of us, Saturn and Tyche pulling on the other side of us ... it's like being quartered on a planetary scale!"

He urges all lunar citizens to immediately evacuate to the far side of the moon because, as he states, "Well, its farther away from earth right?  What we can't see won't hurt us."

Hysterical lunar citizens around the volatile "ring of not-much-happening here" Mare Serenitatis region have been seen in local bigbox stores stocking up on emergency supplies, hard hats, and rare water ice crystals thought to bring divine protection.  One fear gripped shopper said,  "My cousin sent me this email all about the SuperEarth.  I didn't believe it at first but then I checked the internet and finally the cable news channels and was shocked to see the reports.  I mean, if it's on cable news it must be true!" [emphasis ours].

While prominent credible scientists stress this "Super Earth" event will not trigger any natural disasters that won't stop us from reporting the voices of fringe groups and pseudo-scientists in the interest of fair and balanced reporting.

Tune in to POX News for this and other Live Breaking News recycled every hour.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Go Long! (in focal length)

Been a bit since I've posted - not for lack of trying.  I've been pounding sand trying to get my head around image processing ultrawide field images.  That would be an essay for another day ... suffice it to say that it has been, ah, challenging.

By ultrawide field I am talking about 24mm or less (lens f.l.).  Unless you are in the Atacama desert there are challenging light pollution gradients to deal with.  That and a whole host of other processing details I've been largely unsuccessful at dealing with - largely related to DSLR imaging.

So I decided to take a break and go "long".  For me that is all the way back to 100mm f.l.  Taking in mere degrees of sky feels like drinking from a teacup.  But oh how much easier it is to process the images!  I imaged Orion's belt and sword for much of the outing and then took just 30min of the M46, M47 region to finish off the night. 

M46 and M47 and a host of Open Clusters.  Click for ginormous* or here for flickr.
* ginormous - a favorite word of mine.  I come to find out that it is now (as of 2007) officially recognized by Merriam Webster dictionary.  For international visitors, it is a neologism - a word made from a combination of two words.  In this case "gigantic" and "enormous".  I will now feel free to use it frequently and without shame.

One of my observing pals, Dan, had M46 centered up in his 10" Meade outfitted with a binoviewer.  A visual treat with the little planetary nebula floating inside the spray of open cluster stars.   Been a while since I've actually done any visual observing and I'm glad I have friends to keep me honest.

So naturally, after he left, my dark imaging nature took over and I decided to try and take a picture of it.  I figured there was little chance of capturing the planetary at the image scale I was working at but if you drill down, sure enough, there it is.

Click image and look for the tiny green-blue dot in the upper cluster (M46).  That's the planetary nebula.  Cool.
This whole area is littered with open clusters.  Other than some admittedly spectacular exceptions I was never fond of looking at open clusters visually.  Taking pictures of them are somewhat more fun - at least they seem easier to pick out from the background stars.  Below is an annotated version.

click for full size or here for flickr
I may have to re-think my strategy for shooting ultra-wide.  I thought I would save time and effort by shooting single frames with a wide angle lens but I think I am now going to pursue doing mosaics.  That will bring it's own set of, ah, challenges, but I don't call this place Cilice for nothing.

Taken at Montebello Open Space Preserve, CA  January 27, 2011
Canon T2i (stock), Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM @ f/4
Astrotrac Travel System Mount
15 120sec exposures @ ISO800
32 darks
no flatfielding, vignetting and gradients removed in PixInsight
128 bias frames
calibration, registration and post-processed in PixInsight

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cassiopeia to Taurus

Here is another widefield taken back in October at the Calstar event.  One great thing about astrophotography is that you can take data quicker than you I can process it.  This provides endless hours of "fun" back home when the rain clouds come or the moon visits.

Of course this can be mitigated with a proper understanding of the underlying principles of detector physics and processing methodology.  Combine this understanding with a smooth efficient workflow and now you can drastically shorten the time from camera to presentable image.  I'm not anywhere near that point yet so, well, there you go.

The more I learn the more how much I realize I dont' know.  Being curious by nature (and not a little bit obsessive) this drive me nuts.  So many variables and branch points along the way.  So many ways to attack the problem and so much equipment and software tools to throw at it.  Science, hardware, software, art, wonder, ... what's not to like!

This was taken with the 10-22mm EF-S lens at 14mm and stopped down to f5 to mitigate the worst of the vignetting and corner aberrations.  My camera isn't modified to have the IR cut filter removed so the hydrogen alpha regions are muted but even so there is a hint of what lies in those star clouds.  Also evident is intersteller de-blueing (or intersteller reddening if you like) which results in stars located in the dense Milky Way arm appearing redder than they actually are .  Open clusters galore and a couple of our closest galactic neighbors.

There is even a very special guest appearance by Comet Hartley-2 which was visited by the re-missioned Deep Impact (EPOXI) probe not long ago.  Here is a extra credit question for the nerds out there.  Can you guess the date the image was taken by the location of the comet?  Answer below in the image info.  We'll see Hartley-2 again in 2017 as he continues his rounds of the solar system.

Cassiopeia to Taurus.  Click image to see at full res.  Click here for flickr.
If you want to see a version without yellow text all over the place click here.

I have a couple more widefields yet to process along with a couple hours of M33 data sitting in a unopened folder.  Moon?  Rainclouds?  I can get my astronomy fix with or without you!

Taken at Lake San Antonio, CA  October 9, 2010
Canon T2i (stock), Canon EF-S 10-22mm @ 14mm  f5
Astrotrac Travel System Mount
33 120sec exposures @ ISO1600
128 dark frames from my library
no flatfielding, vignetting and gradients removed in PixInsight
128 bias frames
calibration, registration and post-processed in PixInsight