Imaging Comet ISON C/2012 S1 with an SBIG ST-10XME

Comet ISON C/2012 S1

Going off of a tip from seasoned astrophotographer, Michael Caligiuri, Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) was in a great position to capture this ancient relic of the solar system in October.  Comet ISON, at this moment, is not visible to the unaided eye.  Starting its journey 10,000 years ago when it broke away from the Oort Cloud out past Neptune, this is its first trip to our inner Solar System. If this comet survives its trip around the Sun, there’s a good chance that it will be incredibly bright and easily visible with the naked eye in the Northern Hemisphere. In early December, it will be seen in the morning, low on the horizon to the east-southeast. In late December and early January, it will be visible all night long.  The image above was captured with an SBIG ST-10XME in the wee hours of the morning on October 17th 2013 and represents a 20 minute total exposure through the Luminance, Red, Green, and Blue Astrodon Gen 2 filters.  Mars (to the right) and Regulus (to the left) made this comet a tricky one to capture with a highly sensitive CCD.  Although the composite image is supposed to produce color, I chose to convert the capture into a monochrome image to preserve the details of the comet.

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Looking Beyond the Gas and Dust in the Pelican Nebula

Pelican Nebula (IC 5070)

Pelican Nebula (IC 5070)

It is pretty amazing the detail you can pull out of Nebula using small focal length telescopes.  I love the small focal length for the wide, sweeping shots of the gas and dust in space but they are not great for getting in really close for those detailed close ups of the massive pillars and plumes these stellar nurseries produce.  In learning more about the Pelican Nebula, I read that it has a particularly active mix of star formation and evolving gas clouds. The light from young energetic stars is slowly transforming cold gas to hot and causing an ionization front gradually to advance outward. Particularly dense filaments of cold gas are seen to still remain, and among these are found two jets emitted from the Herbig–Haro object.

Herbig–Haro objects (HH) are small patches of nebulosity associated with newly born stars, and are formed when narrow jets of gas ejected by young stars collide with clouds of gas and dust nearby at speeds of several hundred kilometres per second. Herbig–Haro objects are ubiquitous in star-forming regions, and one is visible in the Pelican Nebula image that I captured (or is it?)  Thanks to tools like Photoshop, which can be used to bring out the full detail of these objects, I was able to capture an infant star that has not yet ignited.  You can just make out the jets of gas and dust at the top of the dark pillar in the middle of the image below, which was isolated and cropped from the larger image above...

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Using AstroTortilla to Plate Solve Objects


I recently downloaded a plate solving program called AstroTortilla, which is a program that corrects GoTo alignment and centers objects you are trying to shoot.  Before using this program, my GoTo alignment would vary from night to night and if I am shooting the same object, I would have to crop out a portion of the object since the mount did not slew exactly to the position I had the night before.  After I successfully installed and set up the program, thanks to this amazing tutorial, I tried it out on the Pelican Nebula (IC 5070).  After plate solving the nebula, it was a clear night so I decided to image for a couple hours until the clouds rolled in.  Under the full moon, I can only image through the Hydrogen Alpha (Ha) filter so I went out the next night and collected more data on the Pelican Nebula.  The AstroTortilla program performed flawlessly each night.  As you can see in the image below, the only cropping will have to do to this image is due to drift, which is an insignificant amount of image loss.

The black border around the image represents the amount of cropping that is needed due to drift

The black border on the right of the image represents the amount of cropping needed due to drift

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Narrowband Imaging, Processing Tools and Techniques

ElephantTRunkNebulaSliderSince getting an SBIG ST-10XME and a CFW10 with Narrowband (Ha, SII, and OIII) filters, I could not wait to image an emission nebula.  I received the new goodies on August 9th, and of course, the conditions were not right to image until August 20th.  I had first light with the ST-10XME under a bright full moon so I could only shoot through Hydrogen Alpha filter.  Ten days later on August 30th, I was able to shoot with all 3 filters so I chose the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula (IC 1396) as my target.

Narrowband Imaging

Learning how to image through Narrowband filters was not as difficult as I imagined.  Here are some things I learned along the way:

  • Since these types of filters only let in certain wavelengths of light, one of the main differences was the exposure time.  I typically take 5 minute subs but I had to increase the time to 10 minutes to get a decent looking sub with lots of detail.  Your experience may vary and will depend on the focal length of your telescope and imaging equipment
  • I still focus my telescope manually so focusing follows the same routine of looking at the stars Full Half Width Maximum (FHWM) to see if you are in focus.  I focus with the Ha filter in a 3×3 bin, with a 1 second continuous exposure
  • I have collected data a couple of different ways.  When the moon is in the sky, I will collect Ha data.  If the Moon is not present, I will collect all 3 types of data (Ha, SII, and OIII)
  • With Narrowband imaging, it is all about data data data...
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Imaging Nova Delphini 2013 and NGC 6905

With all of the excitement of learning that a star went Nova, I rushed out to capture the celestial event with my telescope.  At first, I did not know how to find it in the sky so I opened up Stellarium and tried to figure out what stars were nearby so I could program them into my CG-5 mount and slew to them.  After discovering that my hand control does not allow me to enter HIP designations for stars, I looked for another solution.  I searched around the net and came across other people’s images that targeted the The Blue Flash Planetary Nebula (NGC 6905) so I did the same.  I was not sure that I would get the Nova in the shot but I tested it out (under a full moon on 8/21/2013)) and sure enough, I got it!  Since I imaged the Nova under a full moon, the image did not come out that great.  The star colors were washed out and I had to do a ton of post processing in Photoshop to make it look nice.  Since then, I imaged it again on 8/26/2013 with no Moon present and it came out much better.  Here are the results:

Nova Delphini 2013 and NGC 6905

Nova Delphini 2013 and NGC 6905

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First Light Takahashi Sky 90 ST-10XME CFW10 Astrophotography Set Up

Takahashi Sky 90 + SBIG ST-10XME + CFW10

Takahashi Sky 90 + SBIG ST-10XME + CFW10

For my 15th wedding anniversary, my wife bought me an SBIG ST-10XME, a CFW10, and a full set of Astrodon Series E Gen 1 filters (LRGB + SII, OIII, and Ha).  Here is my imaging set up, which includes the following:

Takahashi Sky 90II Refractor Telescope (f/5.6; 500mm)

SBIG ST-10XME Monochrome CCD Camera

SBIG CFW10 Filter Wheel

  • Inside the Filter Wheel are 1.25″ mounted Astrodon Series E Gen 2 Filters (LRGB + SII, OIII, and Ha)
SBIG CFW10 Astrodon E Series Gen 1 Filters

SBIG CFW10 Astrodon E Series Gen 2 Filters

To connect the CCD to the Telescope, I use the following combination:

1.  Camera Angle Adjuster

2.  Field Flattener/Reducer (f/4.5; 408mm)

3.  41.2mm Spacer (TCD0018L)

For Autoguiding, I use the following

  • Orion 50mm Guidescope
  • Orion Starshoot Autoguider

All of this equipment sits on top of a Celestron CG-5 Advanced GOTO Mount

On August 22nd, I had First Light with the ST-10XME and captured the Elephants Trunk Nebula (IC 1396):

Elephants Trunk Nebula (IC 1396)

Elephants Trunk Nebula (IC 1396)

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Perseid Meteor Shower 2013

This year, I was lucky enough to catch the Perseid Meteor Shower in two locations.  The shower kicked off while I was up in Lake Tahoe on our yearly family vacation.  Of course, I brought my DSLR and tripod so I could see if I could capture one of these meteors.  I saw some very colorful fireballs up in Tahoe, which is first time I saw this type of meteor before.  One of the memorable meteors burned up red and green as it blazed across the sky.  Although I did not capture a meteor up in Tahoe, I got a really nice photo with the Milky Way in the backdrop.


Fast forward to the next night as I set out to capture one of these elusive meteors from my backyard.  I sat outside for a couple hours and I took about a hundred photos.  About 10 minutes before I headed in, I changed the view of the camera to focus on a different part of the sky.  I figured if I was not going to catch a meteor on camera, I might as well get a cool wide field shot of the Andromeda Galaxy.  I started taking exposures and a meteor burned up  over the tree I was shooting and I prayed that it was caught on the camera.  I looked and sure enough it was so I packed it up for the night.  These meteors are the first I have seen burn up in color and typically this particular shower produced colorful ones.  I wonder if the particular meteor was very rich in nickel as it burned up green as it entered the atmosphere.


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M51 Processing Comparison using MaximDL, Photoshop CS6, and Noel Carboni’s Astronomy Tools

M51 Whirlpool GalaxyWhile on vacation, I guess I have nothing better to do at night as I am without my imaging gear so I decided to reprocess some of my older images for fun. To my surprise and delight, one of images came out much better than I had originally processed the first time around. Then, I remembered that the first time I processed M51, I tested out color combining and stacking just using Photoshop. This time, I color combined the image and aligned it using MaximDL and then further refined it using Noel Carboni’s Atronomy Tools actions for Photoshop.

When I took the RGB images, there were a few things that I was not doing.  First, I did not discover that I could cool the camera, which introduced the a lot of noise to the images.  The color subs only had 3, 5 minute exposures each, which is not very much.  I had also had not calibrated these images using flat frames so I had a few things working against me as went to process this image.

As I set out to reprocess this image, I first opened up the RGB TIFF image and ran the HLVG (Hasta Lavista Green) filter, which removed a nasty green hue to the image.  Then, I ran the image through some of Noel Carboni’s Astronomy Tools and used the following:

1.  Deep Space Noise Reduction

2.  Increase Star Color x 2

3.  Soft Color Gradient Removal (the image had a rainbow cast to it before

4.  Color Blotch Reduction (I had blue and red pixels all over the image)

Given that I had many things working against me to process anything out of my M51 ...

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Sometimes Taking a Fresh Set of Dark Frames is Needed

Taking astro photos is a very noisy business so one technique to reduce the noise in your images is to take Dark Frames.  There are countless websites and blogs detailing the need and how to take dark frames but I am just going to focus on a visual example using the Eastern Veil Nebula (NGC 6992). I recently took 2 hours worth of data across 24 sub exposures in Hydrogen Alpha and I was so excited to begin processing it.  I was confused when my image, calibrated with Dark Frames and Flat Frames, came out very noisy!  I then began reprocessing to figure out what was going on.  It took me a while but then it hit me.  I was using an old master set of dark frames that I had only taken 15 dark frames with.  I then took a fresh set of 24 Dark Frames and that solved the issue, as you can see in the example below:

The image on the left was calibrated using 24 Dark Frames.  The image on the right was calibrated using only 15 Dark Frames

The image on the left calibrated with 24 Dark Frames. The image on the right calibrated with only 15 Dark Frames. The results are markedly different.

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Why Can’t We See Color from Deep Space Objects?

One of my coworkers asked me a really good question today: Why can’t you see colors in space with your eyes? I actually did not know the answer so I went in search of it.  I experienced this phenomena first hand when I visited the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland for the first time.  The object they had in focus in their huge telescope was the Dumbell Nebula, which looked like a white fuzzy blob through the eyepiece of the telescope.  Does color really exist in space?  I found a really good explanation below but you just want the Cliffs Notes, the light in space is too dim to activate the color sensing portions of our eyes but CCD cameras are sensitive to the colors in space and are able to record the colors we can’t detect:

Why Can't Eyes See Color in Space

“The brilliant colors you see in astrophotos of nebulae are too faint to be seen live, even through a telescope. Most nebulae are just too faint to trigger the color sensors (cones) in your eye, so you see them with your monochrome night vision (rods). In particular, you can’t see the red color that’s in a lot of photos; not only is it faint, but it’s also in a part of the spectrum your eyes aren’t very sensitive to.

You can certainly see colors in planets – Mars, for example, is distinctively reddish. I’m sure the blue of Earth would be quite striking if you were seeing it from Mars.

If you look carefully, you will see that stars vary in color – some are bluish, while others are yellowish or reddish...

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