Perhaps like Edmund Halley in 1677, I “rediscovered” the largest globular cluster in our galaxy, totally randomly! It’s about 4:30 am. A frequent ritual up here in Mayhill NM, at the astronomer’s living quarters, base of Mintaka Hill, I go outdoors before sunrise to do some binocular viewing from the deck with my 16 x 70’s. Take advantage of the dark skies! So I’m sweeping around the sky and moving along the horizon to the south…Boom! What the heck is that? Looks like M13 on steroids! M13 known as the largest globular cluster seen from the Northern Hemisphere contains some 300,000 stars. Omega Centauri has 10,000,000!! I see that I am looking in Centaurus and I’m about 10 degrees above the horizon. Yep. That’s definitely the legendary Omega Centauri! Spotted for the first time in my life! A bunch of people in our neighborhood here have told me you can see it but it’s not easy. For most folks in the northern hemisphere it’s not visible due to sky glow in most areas and the fact it is skirting the horizon. Really a southern hemisphere target. I assumed you had to be higher up on the mountain here to catch it. I look with the naked eye to the South and definitely it’s blaring right at you at only magnitude 3 and change! A much easier target than I could have imagined. I am sure from the observatory it can be imaged especially since I am facing due South and have the drop down wall. Fortuitous planning on my part! But, before I image it I’m going to look through the refractor tomorrow. Can’t wait!
At last, after months of gremlin battles we finally achieved first light for the RiDK 16″ scope! For details on the battle itself you can read the blow by blow in this page. This is a 10 minute guided luminance image of IC 5146, the “cocoon” nebula, a combination emission and dark nebula 4000 LY away in the constellation Cygnus. I picked this object mainly because there are a good number of stars and it is well positioned high in the sky at this time of year. Seeing was a marginal average and what I am discovering is that imaging at this focal length of 2800mm is not going to be easy. I am very satisfied with the star images. They are as advertised, crisp and round throughout the field and no flattener is required. OK so I guess you can get what you pay for sometimes!
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The Astronomical Society of Las Cruces has a rich tradition of education and public outreach. The club was founded by Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto as many of you know. Many outreach activities have continued over the years. One of these is the monthly observing at Leasburg Dam State Park in Radium Springs, NM. Years before I became a member the Park Service and the ASLC got together to build an observatory at Leasburg. New Mexico State University donated a used Meade 16 inch scope and the club also installed a video system for the smaller William Optics 110 ED scope. Shortly after I arrived in New Mexico I joined the ASLC and became the observatory director. Every month we open the observatory to the public. This is a great opportunity for people of all ages to look through a large telescope. I think astronomy is a fantastic way to get people interested in science and this is important for all of us. Science encourages independent thinking, looking at things objectively and drawing conclusions from what you observe and not from what other people tell you. I think society is generally healthier as a result. I also enjoy the teaching aspect of it and seeing people’s amazement as they look at the rings of Saturn and other objects. Several folks don’t believe what they are seeing is real! It’s a welcome break from the self absorbing activities such as astroimaging. Trying to explain how the universe works to the general public forces you to understand it better!Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it to a 6 year old you don’t understand it yourself”
At any rate this last outing was one of the best I can remember. In the Summer , the night time astronomy is preceded by live music from a local performer. It’s a popular spot as the weather is very favorable this time of year. We get mostly campers that come by but some people visiting and local residents also enjoy the event. The Milky way was in full bloom at the start of the night. Actually reminded me of what I see up at Orion’s Belt Observatory in Mayhill! Usually it’s not that crisp. Radium Springs is way better than Las Cruces but still maybe a Bortle 4 sky. Seeing was fantastic. We started with Saturn and I was able to go to our 20mm eyepiece from the 30 which is rare for the 16″! The Cassini was sharp and the hemispheric markings were well resolved. Next was the Lagoon nebula followed by M13 where in the 16 you can reach in there and grab every star. We finished up with a journey to Andromeda. Low surface brightness even in the 16 but you can see the dust lane in the foreground. Bigger crowd than usual today! Hopefully I can go next month.
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Now that the big event is over, we’ve shared our eclipse stories and relived the glory over and over, it’s time for some of us to finish up the last of our image processing. By now I think everyone is fairly burnt out over eclipse images which have been flooding the internet for the past 2 weeks. For myself , since this was my very first eclipse experience, I wanted to share the moment with friends etc using the best single image of totality I had. But this is just one image. For imaging total eclipses, it’s all about the corona, that “ring of fire” as my wife calls it, that seems to explode in the instant of totality. No camera can record the sheer immensity and beauty of it such as the human eye can see it all at once. No wonder we were told to ditch the equipment during totality and just watch! The corona is that “aura of plasma surrounding the Sun that extends millions of kilometers into space” (Wikipedia). Temperatures in the millions of degrees! The physics of it are incredible in itself. We can only see it during totality (scientists can use an instrument to study it called a coronograph which blocks out the sun’s disc) However to photograph it is very challenging because it has such a wide range of brightness. The inner corona is very bright while the outer corona is very dim. One exposure is not going to capture it all. Hence the concept of “bracketing exposures” during totality has become well known to eclipse imagers. You automate a series of different exposures, in my case 4, and repeat the sequence again and again until totality ends. Different cameras may be able to take up to 7 different exposures automatically. This depends on the camera type (i.e Canon vs Nikon, full frame sensor vs APC or cropped sensor). Exposure during totality generally can range roughly from 1/1000 down to about 1 second or so. After the images are obtained you take all of the images from each exposure setting and combine them to create a single image, a process called “stacking” which increases the signal to noise ratio in the final image, improving resolution. At the end of this procedure you are left with let’s say 4-7 “master” images, each showing different parts of the corona by virtue of the different exposure times. In my case unfortunately the 4th series or slowest exposure time was way overexposed and not usable. That’s why I would change my ISO to 200 from 400 at the next eclipse, as was suggested to me!
Now the next step is the most critical. Combining , in my case 3, master exposures into one image which captures the entire corona in all of its detail. How the heck do you do that? Actually this is the easiest part! For myself I am reasonably experienced at deep space image processing and I use a program called Pix Insight. While the program’s features are well beyond the scope of this post, what I can say that is interesting about it is that it is “open source” and anyone can potentially contribute any image processing script or other process to it if it is deemed useful. There are a lot of smart folks out there and thankfully a process was created called “HDR composition” which does exactly what we need! Now get this: you open the program, go to Process> HDR composition and you get the pop up shown below. Click on “add images”. Click on the round blue sphere at the bottom and Voila! That is totally all you do! I should say you can if you want to, fuss with any or all of the parameters shown but the default values work very well. How this accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of merging images of different exposures to capture the entire brightness range in a single image , all in 1 click, is quite beyond the scope of this discussion! But trust me on this , it works!
Final notes: I was puzzled by a couple of things. One was the sort of pink bias in the single images and the other was the brightening of the Moon’s limb. You can see this brightening on many of the single exposures as well as the pink hue . This is not a processing artifact or enhancement of any kind. My hypothesis on this that the presence of high cirrus clouds during totality which we all forgot about in the moment I believe affected the images perhaps causing this phenomena. It is also possible in the case of the Moon’s limb brightening there could have been a hint of Earthshine getting in there! To my wife’s chagrine I decided not to artificially darken the Moon’s disk. She wanted to have it look like what we saw but as I was saying, this is NOT about what we saw! What the camera saw is going to be different. I was careful not to overprocess the coronal detail. This is very easy to do! As I am sure you have seen, there are a lot of way overprocessed coronal images out there. I thought this was just about right, preserving some of the impressive brightness of the corona as well as the structure without making it look like Saran Wrap!
However, as with any image, terrestrial or celestial, the beauty or lack thereof is ultimately in the eye of the beholder!
Until next eclipse!
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There is a place on Earth I call “Astronomyland”. Kind of like Disneyland for astronomers. Dark pristine sky, peaceful, where observatories dot the landscape. In the early 2000’s a group of astronomers and land developers searched the country for a place to set up “remote” observatories. Amateur equipment and software had evolved to where no longer were you stuck in a bad light polluted part of the world but you could have the opportunity to observe in a dark site and you didn’t even have to be there! Probably the first or one of the first Astronomylands was Mayhill, NM. The place was called “New Mexico Skies”. The sister development across the street was named “Stars End”. Now I knew about this place for years living back east. I would go every year to the NEAF show (Northeast Astronomy Forum) and every year I would go by the “New Mexico Skies” booth and dream about it. I would go home, tell my wife “one day, some day”. Little did I know I would actually wind up here with a permanent place. As luck would have it the job in Western Mass after 20 years was not going to last and we had to move. We decided to move to a place we would want to stay. A job listing came up for Las Cruces NM, less than 2 hours away from New Mexico Skies. I said we had to check that out! The rest was..sorry for the cliche…history. If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be going from this:
I would have thought that was impossible. But I suppose God has a way of manifesting sometimes in unexpected ways. So here we are in Astronomyland! I swear I really do have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure it’s real!
When I am not working the weekend, my wife and I are up here and we take a morning walk through the Stars End neighborhood where we have our place. What an amazing place this is! Sure, since this development was started there are several “Astronomylands” that have popped up but this one is still special. Still a Bortle 2 sky with no sign of degrading. Very interesting folks have settled here from all different backgrounds, some teachers, some retired NASA scientists, software developers and engineers, retired physicians etc. All with like minded interest, ..a dark night sky!
So I invite you to take a walk with us through our wonderful neighborhood to see some of the sights along the way:
Well I hope you enjoyed our walk through our wonderful neighborhood! For more on the history and construction of Orion’s Belt Remote Observatory you can visit my website orionsbeltobservatory.com
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Now with the eclipse excitement settling down it’s time to return to the night time world! Back at Orion’s Belt for the holiday weekend we have arrived at a critical point in the installation process for the newly acquired 16″ telescope. Time for optical testing which means we have to take an image! I guess technically it’s sort of a first light but I don’t really count it as such because it’s just star testing. However it is kind of a big deal because if we take this image and the stars are totally jacked up either we have to start collimation from scratch which means we have to buy more collimating equipment or in the worst case scenario there is an optical problem which needs repair! After all the scope is shipped from overseas. Who knows what could have happened. There is also the issue of focus, if it can be reached at a point somewhere in the middle of the focuser travel so we can do automated focusing. There are no “spacers” with this system. We had to get the right adaptor with just the right amount of backfocus. Hopefully we did the math right!
To get to this point it took the last 2 months slogging through the installation of the accessory equipment on the scope: the focuser, control system etc. You can see the blow by blow narrative in this page. I think overall it really went fine. Yes there were some issues but with this kind of stuff how can there not be? Mostly I was very anxious and apprehensive due to the huge expense of this equipment, every step of the way worrying about something breaking or malfunctioning. But thankfully no disasters yet and I got through it and learned a bunch in the process!
Looks more like a NASA space probe than a telescope, but then again we are able to “travel” to the far reaches of the Universe with it!
So now the first ever image taken with the RiDK 16″:
What we see are defocused star images but still pretty round all the way from side to side. Yay! We probably don’t have to send it back! The 2 lines in the image are called “column defects” and are present in the ccd sensor. These do occur with the standard “class 2” ccd sensors (class 1 sensors with no defects are generally used for research). The column defects do process out pretty easily with dark frames
Next we rack out the focuser to close to focus position and see it does lie somewhere in the middle of the focus travel.
Conclusion so far anyway is that 1) We are close to decent collimation and 2) We can reach focus pretty easily with room in front and behind. That is a huge relief! Now onward and upward!
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Here it is folks! The astronomical event of a lifetime! Way better than I could have even imagined! Here are the images and videos:
People start coming out onto the field setting up their equipment. Excitement is building!
Preliminary results from the telescope:
For full resolution images click on the “My Astroimages” on the right side of the blog page.
Final notes and “What I learned from my first Total Solar Eclipse”:
- This is by far the most amazing celestial event I have ever witnessed and words, even images cannot describe it accurately. You MUST make a point of seeing one live in your lifetime.
- The human eye is way better than any camera at seeing the entire corona of the Sun during totality, so all of the advice regarding not distracting yourself with equipment is very important. From the pinhole crescent shadows just before totality to the dark shadow approaching you from behind to the stars coming out, the corona popping out and even a slight glimpse of the diamond ring when the eclipse ends are all things you just have to take in as a total experience. Nothing like it!
- AUTOMATE YOUR IMAGING! Folks, this Eclipse Orchestrator program was totally awesome and all of the preparation really paid off. I was able to take pretty decent images while enjoying the experience live and not having to worry about my stuff! There are several programs out there that work well. Find one and go with it!
- If you are going to image, prepare, prepare , prepare. Do NOT underestimate the importance of that. There is so much energy and excitement that you will not be able to think during the event.
- Polar align your scope the night before on Polaris if possible. Compass alignment is not going to be nearly as good.
- Use ISO 200, not 400 if you’re shooting with an f/8 system
- The solar corona is HUGE. 800mm focal length is what I was at and the corona is going to get cropped. 400mm is probably better for that but I am still happy with the image scale I chose because of the features such as diamond ring and prominences which are better resolved with longer focal length. The choice will be yours!
- Set yourself up with like minded observers. My observing site was set up for imagers and those with telescopes so we had enough space for equipment. If you are going to set up equipment in an area with casual observers and their families you will run the risk of children or unknowing adults accidentally bumping into your stuff and potentially ruining your images
- Plan an exit strategy from the area! This was the biggest mistake I made. No idea the exodus was going to be as crazy as it was. It tool us 12 hours to drive from Casper to Denver when normally it’s 4 hours! Plan to stay at least a day or 2 after the eclipse to avoid the traffic
Anyway that’s it! My wife is already planning for the next eclipse. You should too!
Thanks for reading!