A Kiss From A Rosette Nebula

Poor viewing weather and illness have really slowed my astrophotography, but I did get a chance to brave the cold last Saturday and take some shots of the Rosette Nebula, NGC 2244. It’s a really pretty reddish, pinkish nebula that resembles a rose and is located roughly 5,000 light years away in our Milky Way.

Telescopes, laptops, and power supplies gathering data beneath Orion.

Driving out to the dark site, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to shoot. It had been so long, and I was feeling so rusty. A member of the local astornomy society recommended some targets, but I wasn’t sure my gear was even up to the task. Some of these objects are pretty dim compared to the brighter galaxies I’ve been shooting.

For example, the Andromeda Galaxy has a magnitude of 3.44 (lower is brighter). The Triangulum Galaxy, one of the dimmer objects I’ve photographed, is 5.72. but the Rosette Nebula? It’s 9!

My telescope had the specs for it. I checked before I tried. It gathers a lot of light for a 6 inch scope, but I thought I would either not be able to find the darn thing in the sky (even with my computerized mount) or just not be able to capture it at all.

One of the appealing things about this target, other than it’s one of the prettiest nebulas, was I had been shooting galaxies almost exclusively. I did some great imaging on Orion because it was an easy, bright target I could cut my teeth on with my new camera. So, I thought I needed to try something different and tackle a nebula.

Setting up for the evening wasn’t hard, even as the temperature began to drop. I had my table, my laptop, my scope, snack food, and a brief moment of panic when I couldn’t find the North Star. What really happened was I was in a different place on top the levee where I normally set up, so I was turned a bit more westward than usual. Once I realized this, I reoriented my mount and got it aligned. But I still felt like a total newb.

I had just gone through the ordeal of packing up for the trip to come out to the dark site. It was more stressful than usual. You don’t ever want to be out there and realize you’ve forgotten some crucial piece of equipment and then have to weigh disrupting other people’s imaging so you can take the long ride back home to grab the missing gear. This happen to me once when I forgot my laptop, which is as crucial a piece of gear as my mount, my scope, and camera. This time, I nearly left the house without my hair dryer.

Hair dryer? Even a veteran might wonder at that one. Yes, a hard dryer. I’ve seen people using dew strips and such, but none of those seem quite as effective to me as a hair dryer on cool (no heat mode) plugged into one of my external power supplies. It gets dew off mirrors and lenses real quick. It works even better in my own backyard when I can actually turn the heat on low and warm things up a little.

Despite my panic, there was no dew and no need for my hair dryer all night.

Anyway, I set my gear up, connected power cables and data cables, and had my PHD2 software guided my scope smoothly. My camera was snapping crisp 6-minute exposures and I could see the Rosette Nebula in the LCD screen when each new image appeared.

I was back in the game! Things were going great, but it was getting colder and colder. I popped open some hand warmer bags. They helped, but my fingers were too numb for me to want to do anything other than keep my hands in my pockets for most of the night. I even brought along my little Celestron travel scope, hoping I could do a little viewing to help pass the exposure time. But after fighting with the crappy little mount on the thing, my pockets seemed a better place for my hands.

One of the other astronomy society members was out there with me. Far more advanced in experience, knowledge, and gear than me, he was still a little bored while his scopes did their thing. So, we started messing around with his big 10 inch scope and its computerized mount.

Orion Nebula. 30 second exposure taken with Samsung Galaxy 12

We slotted my Samsung Galaxy S12 on his eyepiece with his much more precise cell phone mount and tried to snap some pics of some of the brighter deep sky objects. He has an iPhone and for whatever reason, Apple has its camera much more locked up than Samsung. I can go into Pro Mode and do a whole lot, even take 30 second exposures.

And that’s what we did. The results were surprising. The only reason the images aren’t better is because my fingers were too numb to properly adjust the sliders on the screen for the focus.

Orion was the easiest. You can see the image we got from one 30 second exposure. I did crop it and touch it up a little on my phone later that night. And while I didn’t share it, I caught a satellite or two in a couple of the other Orion images we took. It looked like a bright squiggle. Still, that cell phone pic is as good as my early attempts with my Nikon D5300 and refractor scope.

Andromeda Galaxy. 30 second exposure taken with Samsung Galaxy 12.

We also tried Andromeda. I haven’t figured out how to shoot Andromeda, yet. It’s technically brighter than the Orion Nebula and has a really bright core, but that seems to be the only thing I’m ever able to capture of it, even with my good gear. Despite just using a phone camera, you can make out one of the satellite galaxies in the top left.

The most surprising image I got back, and again, this could have been improved with more effort and less numb fingers, was the one of the Triangulum Galaxy. I usually find that the phone will distort the color a bit when I take long exposures with my phone and my cheap, wide angle lens. This was not the case with the lens we used for these shots.

30 second exposure of Triangulum Galaxy taken with Samsung Galaxy 12.

The image I got back and improved with my elite phone photo editing skills is really nearly as good as my first attempt at the galaxy with my Nikon D5300 from my backyard. To be fair to the Nikon, I’ve learned a lot since those days and could probably get much more out of the camera if I ever feel like grabbing another computerized mount.

The moral of all of this is don’t underestimate your phone’s camera’s capabilities, unless it’s an iPhone. Then you’re probably out of luck.

While playing with my phone and the big scope, I was not paying attention to my laptop. I upgraded to Windows 11 and things had been pretty smooth. Other than some clumsy new menu designs, the upgrade seemed solid. But I didn’t know that it changed my power settings. I have no problem with the screen shutting off after a few minutes to preserve battery life, but Windows 11 reset my setting for putting my laptop to sleep after half an hour. I caught it soon enough that I only lost four image to unguided blurring, but it still sucks. I fixed the setting and got everything moving again.

Then the battery on my laptop’s external power supply died and I didn’t notice it right away or anticipate it. In Windows, the next set of power settings relate to when the laptop is on battery power only. That’s rarely something I rely on, so I didn’t even consider the setting after the first incident, until Windows 11 put my laptop to sleep again. I woke it up, checked that PHD2 was still connected and tracking, changed that power setting, and then swapped batteries. I use the Ryobi 5Ah 40V batteries in the Ryobi Inverter to run my laptop. It doesn’t last as long as my Jackery Power supply, but is still pretty good. When one of those batteries runs dry, I’m usually ready to swap it out with a fresh battery while my laptop runs on its own battery. I can’t hot swap the power to my computerized mount like that without having to repeat the setup and star alignment processes.

Another crisis averted and after spending some time sitting in my dark car snacking, I was relieved when my camera snapped its last pic for the night. I hoped to get 30 pictures or 3 hours of exposure time at 3200 ISO. And I did, technically. I took my flats next, but I might have screwed up. I used a little utility lamp with a LED bulb intended to help plants grow. I’m not sure, really, if that matters, but I do know it emits different light wavelengths than one would get from a standard “daylight” LED bulb. With Av mode on my camera and a T-shirt, it only took me a couple of minutes to get the flats.

I gambled I could let my camera start taking darks while I broke my gear down and packed up. But, I forgot to switch my camera back to bulb mode. It did this weird thing where even though I used the controller to have it take six 6-minute exposures at 3200 ISO with the lens cap on, it was actually only taking 13 second exposures. I was unaware of this, as the camera was making noises and flashing indicators like it was taking pictures as normal every 6 minutes.

I didn’t discover this problem until the next morning when I grabbed the images from my camera and loaded them into Deep Sky Stacker. After that night, I was done with being in the cold for a while and didn’t feel like leaving such an expensive camera in my backyard in the cold by itself to take new darks, so I borrowed some from my last trip out to the dark site in October. That was the best I was willing to do until I can get some new darks in similar temperatures.

I loaded my lights, “grow” flats, and fake darks into Deep Sky Stacker and set it to stacking. It only took maybe a minute to do the work. That was a pleasant surprise. I caught a deal on a Ryzen 7 5800X over Black Friday and upgraded from my still awesome but aging Ryzen 7 1700. Talk about a difference in performance! What used to take 20+ minutes now finished before I could get a drink refill. Below is my first result of the stacking and rough processing in Adobe Photoshop.

2.5+ hours of exposures at 3200 ISO taken with Canon EOS Ra and Orion 6″ f/9 Ritchey-Chretien Astrograph Telescope.

I was excited by the results and was quick to share it to Facebook, but knew I could do better. I tried several more times that day to process my TIF file in Photoshop, but the results were never better and usually a lot worse than what I got with my first try. It seemed like every time I tried to stretch the data, I’d lose too much of it or it would trend into overexposure.

I was familiar with the results the more advanced people in the local astronomy society were able to get from their imaging and I was stewing over whether or not my scope was up to snuff. I considered saving some cash up and getting a much larger 10 inch scope to really bring in the light and detail of these objects. I could do that, I told myself. But I wondered if it would be worth it in the end.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write this blog that I made one more attempt to process my Rosette Nebula data from scratch.

I loaded the same collection of mismatched images into Deep Sky Stacker and paid closer attention to its settings and recommendations. I tried a few different ones that I didn’t even realize I could enable from the recommendation screen. And probably more importantly, I let it balance the colors for me on the output. I had always been muddling through doing this manually in Photoshop and the EOS Ra really redshifts its images.

I popped this new TIF file open in Photoshop and could immediately tell I had a different animal here. I could actually stretch the data, readjust the levels, and stretch again without the colors inverting. The dithering I had before was gone. And I think I could improve it further by walking through the star masking procedure and reinstalling GradientXTerminator. But this is the new result and it’s significantly better.

2nd attempt at processing Rosette Nebula data. More detail and color differentiation.

The image is a little grainy and the stars could be reduced a bit by adjusting some of the stacking settings, I think. Or, I should say, I’ll find out. But it goes to show it’s not all about the equipment, as much as it is about understanding the software and its capabilities. This is true whether you’re using a phone or a $3,000 auto-guided telescope.

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.