Welcome to my Astrophotography Blog!

This is a journal of my adventures in astrophotography -- taking images of distant celestial objects. Please look around and feel free to add your comments, questions, and critique to any of the entries by clicking the "comments" button on the bottom of each entry -- or just say "howdy!

And don't forget to click on the images for a larger view!

So choose either the Red pill or the Blue pill and follow me down the wormhole....


Comanche Springs Star Party

Comanche Springs Star Party
Doin' my thang at the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus (where I often become a "red ghost")

Dallas Sky

Rancho Venado Sky

Atoka Sky

Camanche Springs Sky

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Head fer the Hills!

Clear skies and no moon this weekend, you know what that means...

Heading to Rancho Venado this weekend for a test drive of the new TAK rig and hopefully acquire some cool wide-field targets!

Although I am still putting things together (got my At-66 guide scope, but still waiting on the mounting hardware and guide camera) I should be able to take some decent unguided shots and test the EM-200 mount's tracking.

Although I've been testing the rig, this will be my first opportunity to do an actual polar alignment with my polar scope on the EM-200 (can't see Polaris from the house in Dallas -- big north wall in the way).

Hopefully I'll have some eye-candy to post next week . Wish me luck and check back soon!

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Okay, after my previous post I felt I must do this -- sorry!

Rim Shot

I took this shot of the moon at Rancho Venado a couple of months ago. It looks like the sky is smiling!

You might ask "hey, where are all those cool new shots with your cool new astro rig?"

Patience, Grasshopper (this reference only works if you were alive and watching TV in the 70's).

I am still putting the system together and waiting for parts:
1) guidescope 2) guide camera 3) extender tubes 4) additional hardware/cabling, etc.

But I have been making excellent progress! I've set-up the new scope several times and tested computer control via The Sky Six software (very cool!), and have solved both AC and DC power solutions. Once I get ALL parts together, I will post the finally assembly.

This is actually a good time of year to be working on gear since the Spring is a lackluster time for the sky (at least for wide field targets). Always interesting stuff up there, but it is relatively sparse right now. Where did all the stars go? I'll tell you...

As you may know, the night sky changes throughout the year -- slowly drifting westward and disappearing over the horizon while new stars rise higher and higher from the east. After a year we come full circle. The most dazzling time of year is Summer and Winter. Why? Because that is when we are looking along the galactic plane of our Milky Way galaxy.

In the summer we look towards the hub of our galaxy and you can see the spiral arm of the Milky Way under dark skies. Within this spiral arm lies a plethora of amazing sights! In winter we are looking towards the outer spiral arms, away from the hub, but still a vast cornucopia of celestial jewels. But in the spring and fall we are looking 90 degrees perpendicular to our galactic plane and out into deep space -- a relative desert. Out there are mostly galaxies and star clusters. Very far away and very tiny. These can be great to image, but require a MUCH longer focal length scope -- these are not wide field objects. Since I'm currently setting up to shoot wide field, I don't have many targets right now. But summer is fast approaching, then I will be shooting like a banshee!

Monday, May 12, 2008

This is M92 (but of course you knew that)

Another Globular Cluster!
Globs kinda remind me of Reggae songs -- I like them, but they all kinda seem the same and I can't really tell them apart. But Globs are fun to shoot and they are good practice.
I shot this with my old rig -- my CPC 800. You might say "gee John, why the hell don't you slap your camera on that spiffy new rig you just bought? I thought it is supposed to be all kick ass and stuff!"
Okay here's the deal: I really need to take the new scope to dark skies, which means transporting it. But I'm waiting on my cases to arrive so it doesn't get tore up (be here in 4 weeks). Also, I CAN image at home but I need to use a Guidescope for guiding since I can't see Polaris from the house (Guidescope is another 2 weeks). I'm also waiting on a 24v AC converter. Confused? Well, let me simply say I don't have all the pieces in place just yet.
So until the Takahashi gear officially goes "on-line", I'm still using the CPC on available bright targets -- like those loveable Globs (even though I can't tell them apart).
I took this image on Mother's Day (actually, Mother's Night)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Made In Japan

You know, it wasn't all that long ago (okay, maybe a few decades) that "Made in Japan" was synonymous with "cheap" (both price and quality).

My how times change!

Today "Made in Japan" indicates quality, attention to detail, state-of-the-art manufacturing, presentation, and pride of craft. This is true of cars, consumer electronics, and (more on topic) telescope products!

Some of the best optics in the world come from Japan -- Cannon, Nikon, Pentax, and of course Takahashi. In fact, Takahashi pioneered the use of Fluorite Glass in their refractor telescopes way back in the 70's. And today, they remain the sole experts on this exotic glass medium (Fluorite is difficult to make and expensive -- but it is the best glass attainable and yields extreme transmission and perfect color correction).
Now, I like to "Buy American" when I can. But ultimately I just have to "give it up" to a company that places such extreme attention to quality, fit, and finish (and take such pride in their products). When researching Takahashi telescopes, I came across this website tour of their manufacturing plant. I thought it was amazing! Computer controlled manufacturing? Robotic assembly? No way! They work their magic totally old school, crafting everything by hand -- one piece at a time.

Here is a the website (also in my links below): http://www.sbig.com/mb/tak/takpics.htm
Check it out!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Rancho Venado (My Dark Site)

This is my folk's (weekend) place in the South Texas Hill Country. It is about 300 acres located outside the little town of Adamsville, Tx (about 3 hours from Dallas, or 1.5 hours NW of Austin). And it has good dark skies.

Good dark skies are increasingly hard to find because of all the light pollution from the cities.

The stone house is seated on top of a large hill with a terrific view of the horizon. When observing or imaging all night, it is nice to have a comfy place to crash!

My folks really work hard on this place and I am very lucky to able to have such a perfect place to go. It is really beautiful.

And our dogs Ponce and Ouzo like to go feral! But they had to learn the hard way that they can't cross the cattle guards...

Speaking of guarding... faithful dog Ouzo stands guard over my CPC 800 during the day, in the "viewing field".

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I'm A Tak Head!

Okay, now I'm serious! This is what a real Astrophotography rig looks like (just add camera). THIS is what followed me home from NEAF last week : )

I am now the proud owner of a Takahashi FSQ Refractor Telescope and EM-200 equatorial mount. This combo is pretty much state of the art for wide-field imaging, so if my images suck I will only have myself to blame.

Actually, I'll have my camera to blame (that's the next upgrade -- shhh... don't tell Kim).

Seriously, I'm very stoked to get this system. I can at long last go for deep exposures of faint objects. The mount is incredibly precise and the refractor uses flourite glass and 4 elements for near perfectly flat color corrected images.

I can't wait for "first light" with this baby! Yeehaw!

Keep watching these pages....

Monday, May 5, 2008

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's an Iridian Flare!

I saw my first Iridian flare last Saturday night (along with Kim). What is an Iridian flare? Well...

Iridian is a communication satellite (there are about 66 in orbit). At certain times, the sunlight reflects off their solar panels and cause a huge flare in the sky. These flares last only a few seconds, but they are a hundred times brighter than any star!

I haven't tried to photograph one yet, but it is on my list. There is a cool website called Heavens Above (see my links) that predict when these flares occur for whatever longitude and latitude you happen to be in -- it is VERY precise. Like within a minute. Check it out!

NEAF 2008

What the hell's a NEAF?

Well, NEAF stands for "North Eastern Astronomical Forum". It is a 2 day event held in Suffern, NY. There are about 120 vendors, workshops, and guest speakers on all kinds of subjects relating to astronomy and space. Attendance is around 4-5 thousand people.
I also learned how to grind my own telescope mirror!

In addition, there is am additional 2 day event leading up to NEAF that focuses exclusively on Astrophotography. These 2 days are filled with workshops given by the "top guns" in the field. I of course attended this as well! It was a great experience and got me really excited. These workshops were limited to only 120 people and quickly sold out.

Kim went with me, but spend most of her time in Manhattan. We both went into the city for a couple of days after the conference and visited are pals Bob and Marianne. Then Kim and I saw "November" with Nathan Lane (my first Broadway show). It was a hoot.

So what did I take away from my first NEAF experience? Well, besides LOTS of info, I also took away a new telescope and mount! More on that next time...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Bring on the Globs!

So I turned to some brighter objects for my latest imaging session...

Globular Clusters! M3 & M13.

These are some crazy objects. They are HUGE concentrations of thousands (sometime millions) of stars crammed into a very small area. In low magnification they look like planetary nebulae, but looking closer reveals huge clouds of pin point stars.

These clusters are not part of our galaxy, but do orbit our galaxy in a non-planar orbit (everything else in our galaxy orbits within a planar disc -- which is the shape of our milky Way Galaxy).

These are actually a lot of fun to image and are not too affected by light pollution in the city (as opposed to Galaxies and Nebulae).

Crabs and Whirlpools

Well, I tried to go for some very far and faint objects but they are just too dim for my current gear.

Here is the Crab Nebula. Not much detail (kinda looks like a red thumbprint). Granted, this is a difficult object and I DO actually have some data here. But this represents the current limits of my rig. What are the limits?

Exposure time.

This example of the Whirlpool galaxy suffers the same problem. Although not bad (you can easily see the definition of the spiral arms and the companion galaxy), but there is little fine detail and lots of noise.

How to get more exposure time? Ultimately I need a different mount -- an Equatorial mount.

My current Alt-Az fork can aim and track, but not ROTATE with the sky. So I am limited to about 30-45 sec. exposures before I get sky rotation (and blurred stars). Even with stacking, I can't rise enough beyond the ceiling of noise. So, time to find some brighter objects while saving up $$ for a new mount!


Speaking of the moon...

Here is a shot from my trip to Ranch Venado (my folks place in the south Texas Hill Country) last February. Taken with the Nikon.

The "old moon" raises its hands to cradle the "new moon" (poetic, ain't it?) The sun is hitting only a small sliver of the moon, but the rest of the surface is illuminated by "Earthshine" -- light reflected from the earth.

Lunar Eclipse

Although the weather kinda sucked for the lunar eclipse last February, the clouds broke for just a few minutes at the halfway point, and once more during totality.
I was hoping to get more of a mosaic, but I had to settle for a mosaic of two : (
Next time!

Astronomical wonder of the age -- the WEBCAM!

Since both Mars and Saturn were in opposition recently (i.e. the biggest they will be for a while), I decided to try to image them. One would think that planets would be a lot easier to image since they are so much closer than nebulae and galaxies, but they are actually tough -- they are so small! They are also very susceptible to atmospheric "seeing". This is the turbulence in the atmosphere that causes stars to "twinkle". You can think of it this way... the atmosphere is like a RIVER of air that flows over us. Just like a river of water, it cause things to "ripple" if you were to look through it. But sometimes this river above us is calm and the rippling stops, then things come into very sharp focus and the "seeing" is said to be good.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing you need to use a very short exposure for bright planets and the moon try to catch them when they are not rippling (and blurring your exposure). As crazy as it sounds, the best camera for this is a cheap ass webcam!

Basically you just attach the webcam to your telescope focuser, plug into your laptop, and let it rip for about 30 seconds. Next you run this AVI through a free software called Registax (the software picks only those frames that look sharp, then stacks them -- easy)!

Here are my first attempts with a ToUcam at Mars and Saturn.

Orion Nebula: Take 2

So after doing a BUNCH of reading and research into this astrophotography thing, I discovered ONE technical hurdle to overcome (among many) is signal noise. Digital cameras are great for sensitivity, but it comes with increased noise during long exposures. To combat this (and increase signal to noise ratio) one must take MANY individual exposures and "stack" them together. In addition, calibration frames are taken and subtracted to decrease the "read noise" of the camera ccd chip as well. What does all this mean? Software! To be specific -- Maxim DL and lots of Photoshop processing in my case.

Here is my next try at Orion with stacking, calibration, and lots of image processing to decrease noise, increase signal, and pull out more details -- it works!

My Gear...

I bought a Celestron CPC 800 Schmidt Cassegrain telescope back in December. It is a marvel of hi-tech simplicity. The optics design is decades old, but it has a super cool computerized "go to" feature and GPS. It basically knows where it is at all times, and as long you align on any three stars it merrily locks onto the sky and will show you any object in its 40, 000 object database at the touch of a button. Cool.

Focusing is a major chore, especially when trying to photograph tiny, faint objects. So I also added a JMI EV2cm focuser. Next, I purchased a t-ring adaptor for my Nikon D-80 and I was all set to shoot.

Here is my first astro-rig in action (sans camera -- I using it to take this photo!)


So how did this whole astrophotography fetish start? Well, I've always been interested in Astronomy and stuff from "out there". I remember watching the first moon landing on TV and visits to the planetarium. I later took an astronomy class in college and got my first view of Jupiter and its moons -- very cool! I've always gone outside whenever there has been comets, eclipses, or meteor showers. I've seen the Nothern Lights stretch from horizon to horizon up near the arctic circle. THAT was amazing. I also remember being really blown away when comet Hale-Bopp made an appearance back 1997. You could see it in the daytime! Unfortunately, that's also the comet the Heaven's Gate folks tried to catch a ride on. Anyway....
After working my butt off for many years, I'm enjoying a more leisurely pace and catching up on life. So when comet Holmes made a surprising appearance last winter I once again climbed my roof to take a look. I was having a hard time finding it so I checked an online astronomy site and found some local astronomy clubs that stage "star parties" (where a bunch of folks set up all kinds of telescopes and allow the public to come have a "look see").

So I went to my first star party and not only saw comet Holmes, but whole BUNCH of cool stuff I never saw before! I immediately bought some binoculars and started learning the night sky. A couple of months later I bought my first telescope -- a Celestron CPC 800. I heard that folks actually mount their DSLR cameras onto these scopes and take photos so I thought I'd try it...

WHAMO! That was just TOO cool! I was instantly hooked.

Here is my first astrophoto of the Orion Nebula. It is a single 30 sec. exposure (not great by any stretch, but enough to get me going). Thus it begins.