We installed a “flat panel” for the second pier (Pier 2). “Flat field correction” is another facet of image calibration in astrophotography and attempts to remove artifacts and other aberrations that occur as light travels though your specific optical train. These could be anything from dust to stray light or shadows occurring due to various equipment components and set-ups. The goal is to achieve a uniform field across the target image. The “flat field” is itself an image of a uniformly lit area which when exposure is adjusted properly, yields a “flat image” showing the artifacts present in your set up. When you subtract this image from the actual astronomical image, the result will be (hopefully) a clean image of your galaxy, nebula etc. Several options exist for a uniformly lit target to produce adequate flat frames. For pier 1 up here at the observatory I use what are called ‘sky flats’. At dusk or dawn if it is clear there is a region of sky where brightness is uniform. The 16″ scope routinely takes these sky flats before and after the imaging session. They work very well- when it’s clear. The other potential issue is that you have to keep changing exposure times as the sky continues to darken or brighten during dusk or dawn in order to maintain the same peak intensity of your flat, typically 40-70% of the saturation point of your sensor. While this exposure adjustment happens automatically with the control software for Pier 1, at some point it either becomes too dark or too light in the sky to continue so you will always be limited with the numbers of flats you can acquire using the sky flat method.
Flat panel which is placed in this case in front of the FSQ106 refractor for obtaining flat frames
Enter the “flat panel”! This is a really neat device which is a uniformly lit artificial light panel where you can adjust the brightness until you have reached the desired level for your equipment. Then you can fire away and take as many flats as you like whenever you want! I decided to try this out for pier 2 and I have to say it works very nicely. Now it may be difficult to automate this feature because the flats in this case are obtained when the telescope is in the parked position and the imaging session is completed. However it is easily carried out through a PC software interface and thus can be obtained remotely!
“Spika flat fielder” is available through a company called All Pro Software and is very easy to set up and use. I purchased their standard panel which is about 15″ and can be used for scopes up to 12″ in diameter. Larger ones can be purchased for bigger scopes if needed. I modified an artists easel to accommodate the panel and this enables me to move the panel around if needed. A standard AC power converter enables a usb connection to your PC and also powers the panel. The software control is quite simple. An example of a flat frame is shown below.
The flat panel is mounted onto an easel. The entire assembly is fairly light weight and can be easily positioned in front of your telescope
This is all there is in the control panel! Just click up or down on the panel brightness.
An example of a flat frame. The round spheres are dust particles in the optical train. Notice also the darker “shadows” in the corners. This frame is subtracted from the target image to arrive at a uniform result without the artifacts present in your system
Happy Flat Fielding!
Thanks for reading!
It’s been about a year and a half now since the 16” scope up at Orion’s Belt saw first light. Now, finally, the very first imaging project with that telescope is completed! The “Bubble” nebula, or NGC 7635, it’s official designation in the “New General Catalog” of deep space objects, is a true bubble in space, about 7000 light years from us in the constellation Cassiopeia! Not science fiction! The bubble is created by “stellar wind” or gas ejected from the upper atmosphere of a very hot centrally located star in the nebula. Surrounding the bubble is a huge cloud of hydrogen gas. Since all of you who have been reading these posts are now experts in spectroscopy 😊 you know that hydrogen gas after it absorbs radiation can then emit that radiation back into space in the “hydrogen alpha” wavelength of light which is the visible red portion of the spectrum.
This data was a total bear to process and I almost bailed on the whole thing when I realized that the bubble was hidden in a dense star field! (see below). We forget how many stars are out there. 250 billion in our galaxy alone! It really seemed to me that they were all congregated right there in one frame. The processing challenge was to somehow remove the stars to bring out the nebulosity. Folks, if you are going to image a nebula in a dense star field my suggestion is to use narrow band filters all the way. I felt I could get the natural color of the nebula using just the hydrogen alpha filter, which is narrow band ( in other words just allows the light in the H alpha region to pass through), but only one channel, combined with the regular band width red-green-blue filters. Problem is the regular band width filters do not filter out the stars! The details of the processing are beyond the scope of this one post but I tried to show the essence of what was done in the images shown here. Star removal is still not a perfect “science”. I have yet to see one method that does a complete job with no artifacts, but the method I used seemed to work pretty well. The software Pixinsight has a number of processes that in combination can achieve the desired result. The “star mask process” can be applied repeatedly to “mask” different sized stars which can then be removed by applying the mask back to the image as a “defect map” (another process) to do the actual removal. Anyway it took weeks of trial and error to get it right enough where the residual artifacts were manageable!
If you click on the thumbnail under “My Astro images” on the right side of this blog (scroll down a bit) you will go to the full resolution version.
This is the Hydrogen alpha version. Notice it is black and white. You have to combine this with one or more other channels for color. The detail in the nebula is able to be detected with this filter since it is only letting the narrow 3nm width of light through in the H alpha region of the spectrum. Most of the star field is filtered out however to achieve the red color you have to combine this with another channel, typically red ,but in my case it was the regular band width red channel which is full of stars!
This is the standard “tricolor” RGB image! This is how we obtain color images in general with astroimaging, combining individual red, green and blue filtered images. Amazing to see how the nebula is really hidden in this image behind all of these stars! Also notice the slightly pink color of the nebula which is from the blue channel
Going through the star removal process for the RGB image above, then combining that with the Hydrogen alpha image (first one above) I was able to get to this workable solution which then had to be tweaked some to arrive at the final result many hours later. I did look at trying to sharpen things up a bit as it does get a little soft at full res, but that wasn’t possible due to the processing artifact in the background. Overall I think this was a decent salvage effort!
Thanks for reading!