Lake Riverside at Night

Earlier this month, I took out the camera (a Sony QX 100) and took some night time images.

Here is the Observatory with Scorpius in the background.

Observatory and Scorpius

Observatory and Scorpius

This is a combination of several frames of differing exposure to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image.

HDR of House

HDR of House

A pure astrophoto of Scorpius and Sagittarius

Scorpius and Sagittarius

Scorpius and Sagittarius

Finally, a long shot looking east.

LRE at Night

LRE at Night

Horsehead Nebula at f/10

This past weekend was the new Moon and my first opportunity to try out my new Optec 0.5 focal reducer that I picked up at the AIC. It turned out to be a lesson in why one should always use a full Moon weekend when trying a new setup.

I got the C-11 on the AP-900 without trouble. No trouble mounting the focuser, reducer, field rotator, and camera. I was a bit surprised to see that I needed all my counterweights, but everything balanced. The trouble came when I took the first images to get to rough focus and then find a star and sync the scope. I could not get the scope to focus. It turns out that with the CFW-8 (instead of Optec’s focuser) I needed another half inch to get to focus. (I’ve spoken with Optec and they will be swapping the FLR for their new 0.63 reducer — they take care of their customers.)

After some consideration, I decided that the best way to proceed was to just remove the FLR and try imaging at f10. This is very challenging with the C-11. The C-11 has 2800mm of focal length, and with an ST-10 that is 0.5 arcsec / pixel unbinned. Better than any seeing I might have and very difficult to guide. I tried several objects and could not accurately guide. I finally gave up and spent time using PEMPro to improve my polar alignment. After that correction I was able to decently guide, and I took 30 minutes of Ha data of the Horeshead Nebula, IC 434 (more on that below). At any rate, I would consider the night mostly a bust.

Now, in contrast, my friend Justin came up and set up his entire set-up of his FS128, ST-10 and piggy back guiding in the observatory. With one minor tweak to get the scope to focus, he spent the entire night imaging, and got quite a bit of good data.

Back to my Horsehead. I took six, five minute exposures, binned 2×2 through the 6nm Ha filter. This is very little time for an Ha image, even binned 2×2. The end result was somewhat noisy, but had some interesting details given the high magnification. Just for fun, here is my processing sequence, as best as I can remember it.

  • In CCDStack, calibrated, aligned, sigma-rejected, and mean combined the frames, saving as 32 bit floating point (by trial and error, I have found this the best format for transferring to PixInsight)
  • In PixInsight: Stretched the image to visibility with histogram (no clipping) and curves
  • Created a star mask. This was a but tricky and required tweaking the input histogram and output clipping of the image to get a decent star mask. This is required for HDR Wavelets
  • On a duplicate of the base image, performed an HDR Wavelet transformation with 5 (the default is 6) layers with the image masked with the star mask.
  • Combined the base and the HDR image with pixel math to create a new image. Rescaled by 100% (doubled) the image and performed an A Trous wavelets transform, emphasizing the 5th layer with a slight bias increase (0.3), with the star mask applied. Rescaled back down to the original size.
  • Created a final image of the sum of the original, the HDR and the HDR/A Trous wavelet image.
  • Applied curves to brighten the image and then a bit of Greycstoration noise reduction. Saved as a 16 bit TIFF file. I also saved a version without noise reduction.
  • In Photoshop, did a high pass filter on the non-noise reduction version to crispen up the nebular areas. Pasted this on top of the noise reduced version, masked the layer and revealed it only in key areas, blending with the soft light method.
  • Finally, some touch up on dark pixels.

So many steps for some so-so data. I think I got all that I could out of it. The striations in the nebula above the horsehead are visible, and there are nice details in the head itself. You can see some faint details below the head as well. Here is the end result (click on the image to go to see a full sized image).

Horshead Nebula in Ha

First Light and a Quick Update

I just noted that it has been over two months since my last post. I have been meaning to post on first light, automation software, and a wonderful night of viewing and imaging. But I haven’t found the time.

Here is the first light image, NGC 7331 and the Stephan’s Quintet. Clicking on the images will bring you to the gallery.

Deer Lick Group and Stephan's Quintet

I took more data of M33. This image has data from 2008 and 2009, all from Lake Riverside.

M33 -- The Triangulum Galaxy

Finally, here is a pretty shot of the observatory with some major convection in the background. We did not, thankfully, end up under those storms.


A Wonderful Night of Observing

Last weekend my brother-in-law Art and I got the scope out (the NP-101) and had a fine night of observing in Lake Riverside. Scope setup went easily. We did two cycles of alignment with Polaris and Deneb.

The first target we went to was the Ring Nebula (M57). At first, I thought the scope was totally off, as I didn’t see the nebula at all (using the 22mm Nagler). The I realized the difference between the C-11 and the NP-101 makes the nebula very small. It was almost at the center of the field of view.

The next target was M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. The dumbbell shape was clearly visible. We tried the NGC 6888, the Crescent Nebula, but it was not visible. Albireo, what I call the “Bruin Star” due to its blue and yellow color was very nice. We could see the full whirlpool shape of M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Then we headed south. The Lagoon was quite pretty, lots of detail in the nebula. We had shifted all of our observing to the 13mm Ethos eyepiece. It is an amazing piece of glass. We viewed globular clusters M4 and the tiny M80. Jupiter was a decent site, but M22 was a stunning globular cluster. The benefits of the Ethos really shined on this one.

We moved to M17, the Horseshoe Nebula and then looked at the Lagoon and Trifid nebulae in one view with the 44mm Panoptic. The next stop was a globular cluster tour.

We started in Ophiuchus:

  • M9 — A nice tight ball of stars
  • M10 — Best with the 9mm Nagler, as Art said, “The more you look, the more stars you see.”
  • M12
  • M14
  • M19 — Down in the soup to the southwest, but we saw it.
  • M62 — In the soup and very small.
  • M107 — Barely there, but it was there.
  • M15 — A very tight and small ball of stars.

We felt it was time for more planets. We saw Neptune as a tiny blue ball, clearly showing a disk where nearby stars did not. Uranus was similarly good to see. Then another globular, M72 in Aquarius.

On to more nebula. We looked at NGC 7009, the Saturn nebula. We could barely see the round shape. Definitely a target for the C-11. We could almost see the structure of the Helix Nebula, NGC 7293. And then came the best of the night, and it was a cluster.

The Double Cluster in Perseus has risen, and it was a great view. With the Ethos, the stars just stood out in the middle of the cluster. The view was amazing, almost 3-D. While the whole thing is visible with the 44mm Panoptic, the Ethos view was over the top beautiful. This was the most remarkable object we saw that night.

We took a quick view of M76, the Little Dumbell. Then the Moon was rising. We were able to see it moving behind the trees of Thomas Mountain to the northeast. Stunning. It would be great to get a movie of that one day.

This kind of night reminds me why I must keep observing visually. Pretty pictures are nice, but seeing objects in the sky is an experience I won’t forget.

First Light for the AP-900

Almost a month after it arrived, the AP-900 has seen first light. That is, perhaps, an overstatement, since I am not sure a mount can see first light. But I had it up and running last night in Lake Riverside, with the NP-101 (itself seeing light for the first time in almost 18 months).

Rather than build a model of pointing, as the CGE does, the AP-900 GTO relies on accurate polar alignment and the correct time. Using the NP-101 (about 500mm focal length) two cycles of polar and other star alignment led to adequate goto capabilities. Everything I pointed at was in the field of view of a 9mm Nagler or 13mm Ethos.

Unlike the CGE, when it slews to an object, it just arrives. The CGE gets close, then moves up and right to the final point. The AP gets to the position and stops. Confidence in mechanical operation no doubt.

I took two sets of shots with the USB camera. I forgot the TCF to NP-101 adapter so that I wasn’t able to do any CCD imaging. I am not ready for multi-location imaging. I find it stressful enough to get all the equipment in one place. I hope that place will be in Lake Riverside, but that will take time.

Here is a shot I took of the Moon. It is a mosaic of three sets of AVIs, stacked in Registax, merged in Photoshop, and processed in PixInsight.

First Quarter Moon


My wife’s sister and brother-in-law came out to Lake Riverside for dinner and meteor watching last night. We had blue-foot chicken that my wife had found at Surfas Restaurant Supply, found the morning after we watched “Battle Blue-foot Chicken” on The Food Network’s Iron Chef America. A bit of a coincidence, and the chicken was good. The thighs were not fat and plump like regular store chicken, and the flavor was good. Altogether a nice dinner.

I missed all the satellites from Heavens-Above, but that is not much of a loss. I got out the C-8 (with now non-functioning drive motor) and we had a small observing run. It included M57, the Ring Nebula, Albireo, and two very nice globular clusters in Scorpius, M80 and M4. M80 is a small, tight ball of stars. M4 is much larger and is visible with binoculars, as we discovered last night.

Meteor watching was OK, with my daughter reporting 16 seen over 2 hours from 10pm to midnight. I stayed up until 1am, but did not see too many more. The Milky Way was quite beautiful, and Andromeda was visible to the naked eye. Very pretty.

I hope to see more meteors tonight, and have another visual-only, manual observing run.

A Good Night Viewing in Aguanga

On the day after Thanksgiving, my wife’s sister and brother-in-law came over to Aguanga for dinner. We had a nice afternoon and grilled hambugers (I am sitll getting used to the new three-burner grill).

After dinner, my brother-in-law and I took out my old 8″ Celestron SCT on a CG-5 mount to look at the stars. It was not a very transparent night. Contrary to local averages, the dew point was above 50 degrees F, and the when we went out, the temperature was 53 and falling quickly. We had taken the scope out before dinner, so when we went out, it was already covered with dew. Using a hair drier, we dried off the Telrad, and heated up both the corrector (with the cap on) and the objective. That was just the beginning of the dew but in the end the dew did not prevent a successful night of observing.

Our first target was M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. It is dark enough in Anguanga so that with either binoculars or a telescope, you can see the elongated shape and spiral nature of the galaxy. It is visible naked eye as well.

For visual observing, Celestron’s Sky Maps is actually very useful. It charts the constellations by season, and lists findable double stars and deep sky objects for each constellation. That book guided our observing for the evening, along with my rusty object finding skills.

Our second target was M15, the globular cluster in Pegasus. It was both easy to find and wonderful to see. That was followed by M2, another beautiful globular. Though they were low in the sky, we observed Albireo and M57, the Ring Nebula.

After the look at the southern sky, we moved north and west to the faboulous Double Cluster in Perseus. It is larger than the field of view of the C-8 with a 35mm plossl, but still beautiful. Then came, for me, the highlight of the night. I found M33, the Triangulum galaxy, on the chart. I didn’t think I could find it. I did find it. We could see the circular flow of the galaxy — it filled the FOV at 35mm.

Emboldended by finding M33, I saw M77 on the chart and decided to try and find it. This is where I failed at reading a chart and looking at the sky. I thought I found Cetus, and the circle where M77 lies. I searched for probably 15 minutes (at this point, the temperature had fallen into the 40s). I never found it. My problem was that I mistook the western portion of the constellation for the eastern portion. The picture below shows my mistake. I didn’t figure this out until after all the guests had left and I looked at a wider view star chart. That wider angle helped me see my mistake in location.

Click for full size

At that point, we were getting cold. So we looked at M42, the Nebula in Orion. It was clearly visible even though it was only 15 to 20 degrees above the horizon. Yielding to ego, I tried to find M1, the Crab Nebula. I am fairly confident I was looking in the right place, but I could not find it.

The major side bar to the night was the dew. We had to dry off the objective every 5-10 minutes. That is what goes with working below the dew point, I guess. I imagine that the objective needs cleaning. And I found both the 99% isopropyl alchohol and the distilled water to make lens cleaner. Altogether a great night of observing. Let us all never forget that even with our wonderful detectors.

SMART-1 Impact

I could be totally wrong here but I believe I saw the flash of impact from SMART-1 on the Moon the other night.

I was observing from the Anza Valley in Southern California at about 3,400′ altitude. The flash was well into the dark area of the Moon where it was advertised to be. It was faint and short. It came a little later than expected — it impacted at 05:42:21 UT, initial estimates were 05:41.

I was observing with an 8″ SCT and a 35mm plossl.

I don’t think I was imagining things, but I haven’t seen any independent statistics that would confirm that I could have seen it.

I would have posted this sooner but I was travelling for work.

Globular Clusters Galore

This last weekend I had my first chance to do some serious observing from Aguanga. I brought my Celestron 8″ SCT up as a permanent addition to the high desert site. I set the telescope up before it was fully dark. My first target, used to get the finder aligned, was Jupiter. A nice view of the planet and the four Galilean moons. Then I waited for dark.

After it was mostly dark (not fully “astronomical twilight“) I found M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra. It was a nice pretty ring. I could not see the star at the center.

Using my Celestron sky guide, I looked for good objects in the southern sky. The new house has a great view to the south, something completely lacking in LA. The first and most obvious target was M8, the Lagoon Nebula. Almost as impressive as the nebula in Orion, it was a beautiful wispy sight.

I then turned to the constellation just to the north of Sagittarius, Ophiucus. It has several globular clusters. It straddles the Milky Way, and the globular clusters orbit the Milky Way, so this is a good place to see them. I have always liked observing globulars. Their compact and dense fuzziness, I find them most beautiful. I started in the southern section, looking for what I thought was M9 or M10. Instead, I found M19 and M62. With some help from the star chart, I moved north to find M10 and M12. These were particularly beautiful. Higher above the horizon, I could see foreground stars — really very nice. I’d love to image these object.

Finally, I sought out and found M14. The search showed me several things. The dark of Aguanga is sufficient to see the stars on the chart. I can search the sky with the 8″ SCT. And next time I’ll bring the Telrad. M14 was not as impressive as the others, but it was a good find.

Finally, a complaint. A neighbor to the north has a mercury vapor lamp that is so bright I can see a shadow. with dark-adapted eyes, I feel I could read by the light. Like a full Moon that does not light up the sky, it is a great distraction. A minor annoyance at a great location.

Star Party I

As I wrote earlier, we donated a star viewing party for our daughter’s school. Tonight was the targeted night.

We had planned to have the event several weeks ago but we were worried about rain and clouds (of course). Based on the forecasts from the NWS and, we cancelled the event on the Thursday before the Saturday event. Up to the afternoon forecast on Saturday “mostly cloudy” skies were forecast. I did note that the Mar Vista Clear Sky Clock predicted clear skies. And the skies were clear. I got some great images of Saturn that night.

This time, I refused to bow to the forecast. The day was mostly cloudy. I spoke with our guests in the afternoon and we decided to wait to make a decision. NWS said partly cloudy, 20% chance of rain. Clear Sky Clock said brief clearing around and just after twilight, then cloudy. It cleared at 5:30 pm and we started the preparations. There was a low clouds scare at 6:30, but then the guests called at 7:00, it looked good.

Then the clouds arrived, followed by our guests. We got a couple of nice views of Saturn and Mars, but no real chance to Explore the Night Sky as we had promised. We have rescheduled.

The guests left and we put everything away. Just in time. RAIN. Yes, rain. Not 10 minutes after the observatory was closed, the 8″ scope put away, the laptop moved inside, it rained. If we had spoken with our guests for another 10 minutes there would have been untold damage. But the good Lord was looking our for us and nothing was damaged.

But just as I am committed to observe and image in the face of light pollution, I will not postpone a star party without unconditional prediction of clouds and rain.