Spring and Summer Galaxy Shoots

It’s been really hot lately, so I haven’t felt like going out much to do more astrophotography or even any observing. I get enough of the heat during the day from running and gardening. However, I did make a couple of trips out to the dark site when weather conditions were favorable in the spring and earlier in the summer and was able to gather some data for Messier 51, The Whirlpool Galaxy, and Messier 64, The Black Eye Galaxy.

The spring trip to the dark site was the more pleasant one of the two, at least initially. The weather was cooler and conditions were decent and the bugs hadn’t come out in force, but it did get chilly toward the end of the night.

A look at the Atchafalaya Basin from the dark site levee.

I set up my rig like usual and was determined to take another crack at the Whirlpool Galaxy. I had no problems aligning my rig and getting the focus sharp. The PHD2 was holding the scope on target. I was pretty excited to gather at least 2.5 hours of crisp images of this pair of galaxies.

But as the night progressed, I ran into problems. The first was one of the locals driving by in a pickup truck slowly and with their bright lights. With the angle of my scope, the light broke PHD2’s autoguiding. I noticed it fairly quickly though and was able to stop my camera and redo the autoguiding calibrations.

The next thing to happen was I didn’t notice when the external power supply for my laptop ran out of juice. Once it did, my laptop’s power scheme reverted to “battery mode” and powered down the system after 20 minutes. I caught this a little late, lost some images to streaking, but got everything going again.

The final thing to go wrong came with the dew. The humidity was pretty high and the dew settled hard and fast on the cooler metal of the scope. The lenses and mirrors appeared fine, but my focuser started slipping. I didn’t catch this for quite a while and lost even more data to all several images being completely out of focus.

I got to survey the damage the next morning and realized I lost about half of the data I hoped to gather. But the result wasn’t terrible and was definitely an improvement over my last attempt, even with the minimal amount of processing I did.

Messier 51a, Whirlpool Galaxy. ~1.5 hours of 6 minute exposures at 3200 ISO with Canon EOS Ra.

My next trip and my only summer trip to the dark site so far was more productive but less pleasant. I arrived earlier than I intended and waited in my car for the sun to set lower because the horseflies were swarming. I could hear them hitting my card like heavy rain drops. They thankfully went away as the temperature dropped and the sky got darker, but the mosquitos came next. The repellant I had was only so effective, so the best I could do was to keep moving and to keep spraying.

Setting up my rig went even smoother than last time and I was up and running pretty quickly. The only issue I ran into was one I should have thought of. My equipment is relatively old and I’m not using a software package that unifies tracking, autoguiding, and imaging, like the Astro Photography Tool (ATP). That’s definitely something I need to learn.

So, as my target for the night, The Black Eye Galaxy, slipped closer to the horizon, my mount went below its meridian and PHD2 either didn’t detect this or wasn’t set up to perform a meridian flip. In layman’s terms, the mount was turned too far to one side and needed to flip around to keep tracking the object.

I did see what was happening and was concerned my camera would eventually hit the tripod. I knew I’d have to stop everything and let the mount re-locate the object to get it to flip. And I did do all this without too many issues. Since I don’t use plating (again, learning ATP would have helped with this), I had to manually reframe the galaxy in my images to be as close as possible to what it was before I made the mount flip around. Of course, I didn’t find out until the next day that many of my images were ruined with the mount becoming unsteady on the object once it went too far past the meridian. I ended up with image after image of streaky, squiggly stars.

But there was some saving grace to this. I learned about the “Drizzle” feature in DeepSky Stacker, which “is a simple algorithm that creates an image that is larger than the images in the stack and interpolates between pixels to ensure it reproduces fine detail in edges despite the effects of stacking transformations.”

One of the astronomy society members that was out there with me told me about it but couldn’t recall what it was called. When I sat down to stack my images, I went through all of the settings in DeepSky Stacker to find whatever this feature was and I’m sorry I hadn’t been using it all along. It’s CPU intensive, but I have CPU power to spare.

Despite losing about half of my data, again, I got a decent result. And I’m almost curious enough to try re-stacking some of my earlier images with Drizzle x3 turned on.

Messier 64, Black Eye Galaxy. ~1.5 hours of 6 minute exposures at 3200 ISO with Canon EOS Ra.

Between my trips to the dark site, I also caught the lunar eclipse that occurred mid-May. Setting up my trusty 8″ Orion Dob in my own backyard with my phone’s camera and no computerized mounts or laptops, while listening to an audiobook, and sipping some bourbon is a lot more relaxing than hanging out on a levee with cows and bugs. If you look closely at this image, you may be able to see the little object heading toward the moon. It might have been a meteorite or a satellite. Whatever it was, it’s not an artifact in the image.

Lunar Eclipse, May 15, 2022. Taken with Orion SkyQuest XT8 and Samsung Galaxy S20.

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.