Clear Weather Returns But the Humidity Remains

After 2 or 3 months we finally saw some clear night skies and I was able to do some basic, crappy imaging of the Messier 31, The Andromeda Galaxy, and attempt some planetary imaging.

I will qualify what I said about the weather a little. We have had the odd clear night, but either the timing was bad for me or it was clear but the humidity was above 90%. The imaging I did do over last week saw the humidity hanging around 70% and I still finished the night sopping wet. Not comfortable at all. It feels like waiting for someone to finish a long hot shower so you can go in right after them and start setting up a heavy telescope.

All that said, I managed to get some snaps on Thursday night, staying up a little later than I should have. I got my whole computerized rig with laptop set up in my backyard and got everything aligned properly. The sky wasn’t great. There was some wispy high cloud cover, but I thought it would be fine for planets, especially one as bright as Jupiter is right now. Saturn, while relatively tiny at the moment, just passed opposition a few days before, so it was also pretty bright.

The problem was, and I later confirmed, that trying to image directly above a house that’s been baking in the sun for the entirety of the daylight hours causes a lot of heat shimmer. The focuser on my primary astrophotography scope has a normal and fine adjustment nob. And I was viewing the images directly through the eyepiece on a zoomed-in digital image on my laptop by way of my Orion StarShoot Mini. But I could not obtain a clear focus.

Still, I was ready to go, had all my gear out, and was sweating like a pig. I shot some video with the StarShoot to use for stacking later in Registax6. And I dug out my old smart phone mount and expensive planetary imaging eyepiece. Despite far more magnification, the result was the same with auto (sometimes you get lucky) and manual focus. Fuzz.

Somewhat dismayed, I broke everything down and went in to grab a shower. I then stayed up even later running alignment and stacking on my laptop. The resulting image was pretty crappy. So much so, I didn’t save it. What you see below are the better, touched up images from my Samsung Galaxy S20.

Jupiter. Taken with Samsung Galaxy S20 and my Orion Ritchey-Chretien 6 inch with house heat shimmer.
Saturn. Taken with Samsung Galaxy S20 and my Orion Ritchey-Chretien 6 inch with house heat shimmer.

The following Saturday, aware of the shimmer issue, I tried again. But I was smarter (lazier) this time. Rather than drag out all the computerized mount stuff and align everything, I carried my old Orion SkyQuest XT8 scope out to the front of my house and set up in my driveway. There’s way, way more light pollution out front from nearby streetlights to neighbors porchlights and the occasional passing car. But for planets, that’s fine, unless you’re trying to find Polaris to polar align your mount. Thankfully, I wasn’t.

This second attempt I actually got some cleaner video, roughly 4GB for each planet. I didn’t bother much with my smartphone this time. Unlike my computerize mount, this scope doesn’t follow the planets, so grabbing video of them with a 2x Barlow lens seemed like a better idea. Both scopes have roughly the same focal length and magnification but the SkyQuest does gather more light. The planets are so bright, though, that light isn’t much of a problem. Here’s the result after a little aligning and stacking.

Jupiter and its moons taken with Orion StarShoot Mini and Orion SkyQuest XT8 without house heat shimmer and some image stacking.
Saturn taken with Orion StarShoot Mini and Orion SkyQuest XT8 without house heat shimmer and some image stacking.

Encouraged, as that Jupiter pic was the best result I’ve gotten so far with the StarShoot Mini and Registax6 of a planet (first time done in my front yard), I planned to set up for some deep sky imaging the following night.

The humidity was definitely worse than the previous night. Water began beading on my scope, tripod, and mount before I even got all the cables connect. I spent several minutes warming everything up with a hair dryer and de-fogging all the lenses. That lasted the rest of the night, thankfully.

I did the same to my laptop so I could connect the StarShoot Mini to use as my auto guider. I then connected my Canon Eos Ra and all the other cables before attempting to balance the scope. I thought the balance was pretty good, except for maybe being a little heavy on the backend. I assumed the mount could tolerate that and proceeded to fire things up, begin the alignment procedure, and check to be sure all the finder scopes were pointing accurately.

The 3-star alignment seemed to work like a charm, but when I tried to lock onto a star to allow P2HD to guide things, I got an error that it couldn’t make sufficient adjustments to the declination. So, I attempted to slip my scope just a little bit forward to balance the backend but ended up cause the mount to turn. That was bad. It meant I had to zero everything out and start over.

The problem with performing the 3-star alignment is I have to contort myself into some pretty awkward angles sometimes to find a star in the finder scope so I can adjust the telescopes position properly. The other problem is the alignment procedure often selects stars I can’t see from my backyard because of trees and houses. It’s not the programs fault, but it’s still a pain.

An hour later I got everything re-aligned and the object search function to be mostly spot on, which is really important when you can’t actually see the object you’re looking for with your naked eye. I adjusted the focus and exposure time on the StarShoot Mini and could clearly see Andromeda as a bright, cloudy orb on my laptop screen. That was much more of a delight than it should have been, but it was also 1 a.m. and I was drenched in sweat and chugging bottles of water.

I picked Andromeda as my target for night, because I knew it would be relatively bright and wouldn’t be obstructed by anything (except massive light pollution from the city). I’ve also been wanted to get a much improved image of it since it was one of my earliest targets, even with my old Samsung Galaxy S9.

Since I lost an hour to adjustments, I set the camera to grab 15 images with 4 minute exposures at a 1600 ISO. That’s more ISO than I’ve typically used with so much light pollution, but I hoped by Photoshop skills and tools would let me filter more of it out than in the past.

The hour passed as I listened to an audio book, sipped water, and wiped my face over and over with a rag. It was R.A. Salvatore’s latest addition to the Drizzt saga, Starlight Enclave. It’s a guilty pleasure at this point but it kept me entertained. I did check the LCD screen a few times as images would snap and display. It all looked good and I was relieved to be able to begin picking up and snapping some darks and flats once the last image clicked. It was nearly 3 a.m. before I got everything picked up and moved back inside. And dear god, I needed a shower.

While I remembered basically everything about setting up my gear and aligning it, I wasn’t so fortunate with Adobe Photoshop. In the past few months I had forgotten so many hotkeys and procedures. I need to go back and refresh my memory with some of the tutorial videos I watched. In the meantime, this was the best I could do. The light pollution in the bottom is just horrible. Either GradientXTerminator stopped working due to some update or it just couldn’t save me.

Messier 31, Andromeda Galaxy. Taken with Canon Eos Ra and Orion Ritchey-Chretien 6 inch.

Strangely enough, after comparing the image to some of earlier attempts, this one is actually the best of the bunch. You can actually see some of the nebulosity in the disk, rather than just a ball of light. I think I can do a lot better with a darker sky and more time to collect data. I might also try to reprocess the image once I’ve regained some of my Photoshop skills.

Shoulder to the Pinwheel

Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy

The next target I hoped to shoot was Messier 101, The Pinwheel Galaxy. I made my first attempt from my backyard, relatively early in the night. The Pinwheel Galaxy was low to the northeast and among a fair bit of light pollution. I couldn’t even get it to pop out on my tracking scope using the PHD2 software to live stack multiple, multi-second exposures. It was just too washed out. At a magnitude of 7.86, where the higher the number the dimmer the object is (Orion’s Sword is a 4), capturing this sucker would require a better sky.

I packed in my gear that night, frustrated, but a couple of weeks later with a cold front blowing through, one of the members of my local astronomy society wanted to take a trip out to the society’s dark site. Open to members, I had only been out to the site once before. It’s about 25 miles west-ish from my house and encompasses a levee that sits between a cow pasture and the Atchafalaya Basin.

Setting up on the levee at the “dark site”. Facing west-ish. The Atchafalaya Basin on the left and the pasture on the right.

There are alligators down in the water, roaming cows sometimes, and random locals and sheriff’s deputies going up and down the levee road at odd hours. It’s definitely darker compared to my backyard skies, but there’s sadly plenty of light pollution to the west, a clear indicator of the city’s existence. And more pollution has encroached around the edges as developers drop down new subdivisions.

I’d have visited the site more often on my own, except for a couple of reasons. One is I don’t trust my forward-drive sedan to handle steep dirt, levee roads. If I get stuck out there, I could be stuck a long time, alone. Second, it’s hard to feel safe on your own out there and you really shouldn’t. People, whatever there intentions, come and go through the dark hours of night, and you do need to be aware of the wildlife. Not only are there crocodiles, but you have to be aware of bears, coyotes, and just about every animal that makes the Basin it’s home. It is also within cows to be mean, too.

The third reason would be bugs, which I hear get pretty awful, but I’ve only been out on cold nights. An experience for another time, I suppose.

But how dark does it get? The first time I went, I was a little disappointed. A front had come through so the night was pretty clear, but not perfectly so. I don’t remember if there was moonlight or not. Back then I didn’t realize how much of a problem moonlight could be. So, I could see a lot of stars and some nebulosity of the bright nebulas like Orion and The Pleiades.

This second trip, I got out to the site maybe half an hour before sunset. Traffic was awful on the Interstate and it took longer to travel there than I hoped. A cold front had passed through but the area was dry and on the levee where we do our observing, a constant cold breeze blew ALL night.

The sun slid a little lower as I unloaded my car and started setting up my gear. That’s when things got eerie, but in a logically fascinating way. The sky directly above looked a starless black relative the deeper blues and pinks of the sky around it. And it was as clear as I had ever seen a sky be. Staring up at it was unnerving and gave me this weird sensation of vertigo, like I was going to fall into the sky! I reasoned it must be because I had nothing for my eyes to focus on to give me any sense of depth or perspective. It clearly had nothing to do with Outer Gods and the myriad of other terrors in various stories by H.P. Lovecraft. All of that said, I don’t know if anyone else has ever experienced this before, but it was pretty cool.

Eventually, the other society member arrived and we set up our gear. Both of us had targets in mind for the night, but neither wanted to be out into the early a.m. hours. And when it got dark, it got as dark as I’ve ever seen it as an adult. I could just barely make out the faintest glow of the Milky Way with my naked eyes (and contacts). That’s how dark it got!

I collected a few hours of data (exposures) and spent the night freezing my butt off while I snacked on jerky and mixed nuts. The other issue with setting up at a remote site to do astrophotography is you have to find some way to occupy your time while your camera and laptop do the hard work. I brought a pair of binoculars with me to try to view some other objects, but ultimately relied on conversation and an audio book, “Magelord” by Terry Mancour. It’s book 3 of the Spellmonger Series.

I got glimpses of the exposures being snapped and was thrilled with the clarity I was seeing in the images. I actually shot these at ISO 1600, instead of 800, to try to bring out more detail of the galaxy. I also did 6-minute exposures. Normally, 5 minutes is sufficient, but at the dark site 6 minutes was making things pop.

While the 6-minute exposures worked better than they had any right to with the wind, the higher ISO setting came back to bite me. I didn’t have my trusty porchlight on the levee to use as a light source to take flats and a poor combination of rainy weather and a busy schedule have kept me from being able to set up my gear again, at home, to take those flats. My scope has a ruler on its focusing tube, so I can see precisely which focused I used at the dark site to capture my flats the next time I set up. I did do some quick and flat-less processing of my data as soon as I got home and stopped shivering. I just had to see what I had!

Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy
Messier 101, The Pinwheel Galaxy, processed quickly without flats. Data collected at dark site.

In the meantime, I recycled my most recent flats from my work on the Messier 51, The Whirlpool Galaxy. They aren’t a perfect representation of the flats I would have gotten that night at the dark site, but they should be close enough as far as focus and dirt go. The set up and focus would be the same from my Whirlpool Galaxy imaging. The problem, however, is I took those flats at ISO 800, not ISO 1600. Still, I’ll share the results below.

Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy
Messier 101, Pinwheel Galaxy, processed with “fake flats”. Data collected at dark site.

I plan to reprocess this image from scratch when I can set up again and grab some new flats. I forgot to balance the color before I did the color-preserving star mask. So, the stars are a bit red-shifted thanks to my Eos Ra’s sensitivity to infrared light.

Unfortunately, as the season marches on, I’m going to lose some of my better targets until the fall. So, I’ll have to figure out what to shoot next, when all I really want to do is take another crack at Messier 33, The Triangulum Galaxy and Messier 31, The Andromeda Galaxy, again.