Dec 17, 2011

Greatest Astrophoto Ever!!!

My First Astrophoto - Dec 15, 2010

Feast your grubby little peepers on that ridiculously amazing piece of astronomy history right there to the left - The Greatest Astrophoto Ever Taken.  Enlarge it, print it out and save it so you can tell your granchildren about it and how you weren't there.  I will accept no argument in this discussion.  I have decreed it's the greatest ever, and thus it is so.  It's also the greatest one ever captured since because it's mine and it's my first.  Anyone who has ever taken up this fantastic hobby depraved obsession knows what I'm talking about.  Aesthetically and technically (let's not forget morally and emotionally too) the image is simply terrible.  Look at it.  It's a poorly color balanced, out of focus, partly trailed shot of the entire constellation of Orion.  But it's my first.  I still remember the rush after stacking up all those images and seeing something that looked sort of like stars and a little blur of M42 to go along with it.  That was one year ago today as I begin writing this.  As this day has approached I've been reflecting on how far I have come in many ways and how little I've learned in others. 

How it all started

In my professional life I've worked in a contract/consulting capacity for all of the last twelve years.  In that time I've spent an enormous amount of time on the road away from home working at client sites and kicking it in various hotels all over the United States.  At times it has been a major grind and trying on my family but it has been relatively lucrative and it provides a good life for my amazing family.  This was partially the reason that I gave up amateur astronomy back around 2005 - there simply wasn't enough time.  If I left my wife and girls to go out observing for a weekend I felt guilty for coming home from the airport and disappearing to the desert, only to reappear in a couple of days and head back to the airport.  Fast forward to 2010 and my girls are much older now - teenagers and beyond.  I had been itching to jump back into the astronomy game and I had always kept astrophotography on my list of things that I must do before I die.  At the time, I was still on the road every week - working in Las Vegas.  Since I've never been one to gamble and my Irish liver threatened long ago to defect to another nationality if I didn't give up drinking, life in Las Vegas was quite monotonous.  That's the real truth about my glamorous, rock star consulting lifestyle.  There are huge amounts of time where it's truly downtime and there's nothing to do.

I began to think about astrophotography and saw what other amateurs were able to do with a standard DSLR camera.  I had some Photoshop experience and realized pretty quickly that this could be the answer to my on the road boredom.  If I started in some astrophotography on the weekends, I'd have a bunch of data to crunch, process and massage into a new website that would undoubtedly be called the Mike Picture of the Day.  After I captured the greatest astrophoto ever (shown above), the hopeless addiction took hold and it's been a year of thoroughly enjoyable madness and thoroughly maddening joy.   

M45 - Captured with my Canon 60D piggyback
mounted on the CGEM mount.  This was the 3rd
image I captured.

I missed having a go-to telescope so I had this awesome plan where I would buy a CGEM 1100HD telescope for visual observing and also use it to begin dabbling in some piggyback astrophotography.  Dean at Starizona called Celestron directly while I stood there and secured the telescope for me and said it would be four or five days before it came from California.  I made plans to return the next weekend and pick up the telescope.  It was also during this visit that Dean suggested I should consider Hyperstar as a good way to get into imaging.  I was able to resist his suggestion for now - but that would change soon enough.  The next weekend saw the capture of my second astrophoto which was my first shot with a camera on a motor drive - piggybacked on the new CGEM mount. 

M42 Region captured with a telephoto lens

Imaging already dominated my thought process.  It had become like a drug and I spent great amounts of time trying to figure out where I was going to get my next fix.  I ended the year of 2010 by heading west into the Arizona desert for my first dark-sky imaging session to the Saguaro Astronomy Club's Antennas site.  Everyone else in the astronomy club had opted out of the weekend because of the extreme cold predicted in the weather forecast and the lack of shelter available.  I had been there before and thought, how bad can it be?  One other brave soul joined me - and he bailed on me because of the cold at about 10:00 pm.  I held on until about 2am, spending some time in my vehicle with the heater running while the camera did its thing outside.  I brought home a telephoto shot of the M42 region for my efforts.  I also realized that the 11" Edge HD optics were not going to be seeing any real use as a visual platform - imaging had stolen my affections.  If a 75-300mm zoom lens could give me this kind of result, what would happen if I put the 11" telescope itself to use? 

Enter the Hyperstar

Horsehead Nebula via Hyperstar
My first Hyperstar image - 32 x 2 minutes
with a Canon 60D at f/2

I ordered the Hyperstar in early January and waited impatiently.  Very, very impatiently for it to come.  It showed up at the end of January and I took a few exposures in the backyard just to familiarize myself with its use.  I didn't have the ability to autoguide at this point and knew that I wanted to go as deep as I could with my images anyway.  So when I returned to the Antennas observing site at the end of January, I took great care in making sure that I nailed down the most accurate polar alignment I could.  This was my "real imaging trip" and I put a lot of effort into planning.  I've since come to learn that this is a key to good astrophotography - planning and discipline.  I abandoned both for awhile with the expected results of bad astrophotos.  I planned to start with the showpiece objects - M42, The Horshead nebula region and the Rosette nebula.  I made a plan to shoot 32 exposures of each at 2 minutes per sub exposure at ISO 1600 with my Canon 60D.  As soon as the first frame of the first exposure of the Horsehead region downloaded to my screen, I made an audible and very un-Christian expression while hunched over my laptop on the observing field.  Completely blown away by the images I couldn't image often enough.  I spent every night while on the road soaking up knowledge.  I lived for a time on the Cloudy Nights imaging forum and I picked up Adam Block's Photoshop Tutorial DVD which I found to be extremely helpful and interesting.

NGC 5139 - Omega Centuari
32 x 45 Seconds @ ISO 1600 & f/2

I made plans in April to participate in my club's Messier Marathon - only I planned to image all 110 objects in one night via Hyperstar and hand in a DVD of completed images prior to leaving the observing field.  Well, nature had other plans.  Our Messier Marathon was pretty much clouded out.  In March I did a dry run to test all of the scripting that I had put together and was able to capture 71 Messier's before 2am.  Using Hyperstar I was able to capture and stack ten 30 second subs of each object which gave enough signal to noise to present some pretty nice images.  Like I said, the real marathon in April was clouded out but I managed to get a shot of Omega Centauri that I still think is my favorite astrophoto so far. 

The Dark Times

Soon, my thirst for knowledge and my insistence on pushing the envelope at ludicrous speed began to work against me.  I wanted to do everything and I wanted to do be doing it now.  This led to a series of equipment purchases that were just done too quickly.  I didn't really incorporate each new piece of imaging equipment into my overall workflow before I was trying jam in yet another piece. 
  • March - I added a QHY5 camera and Kwiq Adapter from KW Telescope to begin autoguiding. 
  • March - Upgraded to Maxim DL Pro to use the autoguider as part of my overall capture suite.
  • April - Upgraded to a cooled CCD camera - a QHY8PRO from Astrofactors.
  • May - Struggling with autoguiding, I'm back and forth between Maxim DL and PHD Guiding.  In the end I have discovered that they're both great products - that the user (me) is usually the problem. 
  • June - In an effort to gain more weight capacity in the hopes of moving to imaging at prime focus I upgraded the mount to a used Celestron CGE.
  • June - Thinking that the guidescope (my 9x50 finder) was the problem I added an 80mm f/7.5 guidescope.
All during this time I began to experiment with every form of technique you can think of - dithering, mosaics, plate solving, drizzle stacking, etc.  I learned how to do all of it in the most basic form of that phrase.  I didn't learn any of those techniques or my new equipment well though.  There were a handful of successful images, but by and large it has been a lot of frustration that has been documented pretty thoroughly in these pages over the last 6 months.  In that time I don't think that I've really improved my skills all that much and the ratio of good to failed images has been unacceptably low. 

Celebrating the first year

I wouldn't trade this first year for anything.  Overall, it's been a resounding success and has renewed my passion for astronomy in a way I didn't think was possible.  I've also learned that I need to take a step back and properly incorporate all of that equipment that I listed above - one step at a time.  I've documented the struggles that I've had over the last couple of months with my telescope mount here and here.  I've decided to take the equipment one piece at a time and really get it incorporated into the overall workflow before tackling another piece of the puzzle.  Yesterday I picked up my telescope mount from Ed Thomas at Deep Space Products after having a Hypertune service done.  Since Ed is local to me I was able to drop my mount off and pick it up when he was finished.  I haven't had a chance to thoroughly test the results, but the five minutes that I spent slewing it around last night showed that it seems to be vastly improved.  Stay tuned for a full writeup as I compare the new results to my old ones.  For now, suffice it to say that my experience with Ed so far has been nothing but positive.

Now that the mount is (hopefully) performing more up to its designed specification, I'll take the time to get the periodic error correction fully trained again as well as learning to drift align the mount.  If time permits, I may use this opportunity as well to try and quantify how well the Celestron All Star Polar Alignment routine performs in comparison to drift alignment.  I'll put PemPro through its paces for both periodic error and drift alignment.   Then I'll work to nail down the autoguiding to get truly round stars.  After that, who knows.  But stay tuned - it's sure to be even more fun than it's been already.  To close, here's my last astrophoto from my first year - another shot of M42.

Dec 11, 2011

Seeing Red October

Artist's conception
of my general mood
during recent
imaging sessions.
For the astronomically afflicted in Arizona, October brings a return to the lower deserts where day time temperatures are mild and night time temperatures can often be enjoyed in just a jacket.  The longer nights mean more time under the stars and I entered the autumn months with intent to take advantage of it. 

After September's ill-fated trip to northern Arizona and nearly freezing to death, I was finally sufficiently motivated to make a long time dream of mine come true.  You see, I love camping.  I love astronomy.  I love the great outdoors and hiking and generally being away from civilization.  There's a sizeable contingent of observers in my astronomy club who bring an RV of one sort or another for weekend (and longer) observing sessions.  Some of the club members have Class A's, some have fifth wheels or travel trailers and some have the ubiquitous pop up camper.  My wife and I have been looking for some time at various trailers and have even rented them on a couple of occasions while trying to decide what was best for our family.  During the first week of October I placed an order for a new travel trailer.  Anxiously, we awaited the notification that it had come off of the production line and we could pick it up for ourselves. 

In the meantime, I was able to get out one weekend to do some imaging and test out the freshly serviced mount.  I had high expectations.  I did manage to shoot a lot of frames that night, but it was a constant fight that evening with the autoguider and it was well past midnight before I started getting what I considered to be acceptable sub-exposures.  I captured a large set of frames for M42 at various exposure lengths.  The one image that I thought was pretty good was my attempt for the first time at the California Nebula (NGC 1499).  Shown below is my processed image.
NGC 1499 - California Nebula
Celestron 11" Edge HD w/Hyperstar 3
6.3 Megapixel QHY8PRO CCD Camera
16 sub-exposures x 3 minutes
Capture & Pre-process in Maxim DL 5.15
Post-Processing in Adobe Photoshop CS5
Once again, the evening seemed more like work than fun when it came to imaging.  The mount seemed to perform okay, but it did make some sounds like it was having to work to slew the telescope in some orientations.  I've really been missing visual observing since taking up astrophotography and I'm hoping to soon get to a state where I can setup the imaging rig and it becomes self managing for several hours at a time so that I can also observe visually.  It's truly a treat now that my wife has taken up visual observing as well.  I did manage to do some observing with her that night as well as a couple of other club members who were in attendance.

Actual normal life got in the way to some extent at this point.  I did double duty on a couple of consulting gigs over the course of three weeks, averaging just over 80 hours of work each week.  Sending my daughter off to her first homecoming dance and then celebrating my 21st wedding anniversary with my stupendously awesome bride chewed up what was left of October.

The Veterans Day holiday weekend of November 11th was used for the most exhausting road trip that we've ever undertaken to go and pick up the travel trailer.  Because the delivery charge from the manufacturer to Phoenix, AZ was somewhere north of $3000, we opted to go and get it ourselves figuring we could do it for less than $1000.  Even my wife was impressed with the stats - 11 states and 3100 miles in 76 hours. 

Somewhere in central Nebraska I was able to snap the first picture of the new travel trailer.
Upon returning home we immediately made plans for a quick "shake-out" trip with the new rig the next weekend during the last quarter moon.  And here's where it all went south again.  While slewing to the first calibration star that night, the RA motor made a horrible whining sound and bound up to a complete stop.  The mount would not slew past the meridian to put the telescope on the west side of the mount for anything.  I had learned my lesson at this point.  I simply shut the mount off, put the cameras away and had a wonderful evening observing visually with my wife.

Setting up the scopes at KOFA over
Thanksgiving weekend. 

With the long Thanksgiving weekend coinciding with new moon this year I desperately wanted to get the mount squared away as we had plans to go to one of my favorite places in the world - the KOFA National Wildlife Refuge.  So I set the mount up on my kitchen counter and prepared to dismantle it in an effort to straighten things out.  Wouldn't you know, it didn't bind up at all.  It worked perfectly as expected.  Of course this was without any equipment or load on the mount but that shouldn't make a difference as a well balanced load places minimal stress on the mount itself.  Fast forward to the next weekend.  We had setup camp on the refuge and anxiously awaited nightfall with six other fellow astronomers.  As soon as I slewed the telescope to Vega the binding noises began again and the telescope simply would not slew to anything even close to its intended targets.  I shut down the telescope and went about visual observing again with my 15" Obsession Classic.  Again I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and I was able to glean considerable knowledge from one of the most accomplished amateur astronomers out there. 

My youngest daughter Emily at
KOFA.  We're standing on a 40ยบ
incline here with the rocks behind
 going 1000 feet (305 m) higher.
 Next morning, I tore apart the mount and attempted to adjust the spacing of the RA worm gear.  I seemed to have some success as the telescope would slew to any part of the sky without making any funny sounds.  Because it was daylight it wasn't possible to know if the slews were truly accurate, but the telescope was slewing to the correct portions of the sky and stopping in the vicinity of the targets.  We left for a hike in some of the most extreme, hostile, unspoiled, untouched and truly beautiful terrain left in North America.  First, we drove 2 miles to the south on one of the few "roads" in the refuge.  Please understand that the word road is a greatly exaggerated term for this particular thoroughfare - but that's one of the reasons that I absolutely adore KOFA.  After our 2 mile drive, it was a two mile hike across the desert to reach the entrance of the canyon that we had decided to explore.  Surrounded by rock walls of volcanic origin that rise out of the desert in nearly vertical unbroken chunks of rock 1100' (335 m) into the air, we began exploring to our hearts content. 

After an afternoon nap and an early dinner we waited for sunset.  I turned on the telescope mount and began to align the CGE again.  It immediately started making cranky noises like the gears were binding up again.  I shut it down and packed it up in the twilight.  I spent the evening instead observing visually with the other astronomers present.  My friend Chris and I made a game of seeing how deep we could go with the Obsession visually.  I don't consider myself an expert visual observer by any means - that's why I got into imaging - but I was able to see galaxies down to about magnitude 15.2 with the 15" Obsession and 13mm Ethos.  Chris was able to see a little deeper even. 

So the moral of my long, sad story is simply that astrophotography is really, really hard.  Things go wrong and it gets frustrating and I wanted to make sure that I illustrate that so that someone else who might read this while they're struggling will know that it's not just them.  It happens to everyone at some point I think.  So I've resolved to just take a step back and start again.  Currently, the mount is in for some service work with a different vendor and I hope to provide a full positive report soon.  Once I get the mount back, I'll start again - one step at a time.  Hopefully that'll be in just a couple of weeks.  And hopefully, the bad mojo is behind me and I'll spend the remainder of the winter cranking out spiffy new images.  

In looking back at the last few months I've pushed it pretty hard.  I changed to a new mount, added a new guidescope, and switched from DSLR to a cooled CCD camera all in about a six week period in mid-summer.  I may now just be feeling the frustrations of all that change at once.  I've resolved to move with a little more deliberation in this next phase.   Thanks for reading.