Tuesday, December 22, 2020

#457 - Monday, December 21, 2020 - Conjunction Junction

 It was one of the most-talked-about astronomical events of the year -- the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn!  The two heavenly bodies appear close to each other from our perspective about every 20 years, but are not usually close enough to be a big deal.  The last time, in May 2000, they were 68.9 acrmins apart, or a bit more than two full Moons side-by-side.  This year, however, they would draw as near as 6 arcminutes apart -- nearly on top of each other.  The last time they were this close was back in 1623, in the days of Galileo; however, the two planets were close to the Sun, so it is likely that nobody witnessed it.  Before that, there was the Great Conjunction of 1226, in the time of Genghis Khan, which was visible at night.  Luckily for us young folk, the next close pass of Jupiter and Saturn will occur in only 2080, which some of us may live to see.  (For more info, see this article in Scientific American).

I had put the event on my calendar some time ago, probably back in 2019, and set reminders for myself so I could prep.  Of course, with all the chatter on the Internet, how could I forget?  I started working up a plan back in the fall, and in the days leading up to closest approach, I did some test runs.

About a week before the actual night of closest approach, I saw on SkySafari that the two planets were close enough to catch in my refractor, and since it's positioned in such a way that I could see the two shortly after sunset before they disappeared behind the tree, I nabbed a video on my one-shot color ZWO ASI294MC Pro camera and produced an image.

Date: 15 December 2020
UTC: 16 December 2020 01:34
Location: East Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Jupiter & Saturn, near conjunction
Camera: ZWO ASI1294MC Pro
Telescope: Takahashi FSQ-106N
Accessories: ZWO EAF focuser, Astronomik CLS-CCD 1.25-inch filter
Mount: iOptron CEM40
Exposure: 15ms (Jupiter), 150ms (Saturn)
ISO/Gain: 120
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: PIPP
Processing program: Photoshop CC 2021

I couldn't get AutoStakkert to align the frames because of the two separated targets, so I just had PIPP (Planetary Image Pre-Processor) sort them by goodness and I pulled the best frame from each of the two videos (one for Jupiter and one for Saturn, because of the two different exposure times needed) and combined them in Photoshop.  So it's a little blurry, but still cool to see them so close!


Because they were only going to be six arcminutes apart, I was going to be able to throw a lot of magnification at them and get a nice shot.  I decided to use my Celestron 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, which has excellent performance on planets.  It currently is seated on my Paramount MyT, and I've been using it for deep-sky imaging all year.  Unfortunately, the Paramount was on the wrong side of my backyard to be able to see the conjunction, which was low in the western sky -- my enormous lemon tree blocks the view.  So I went old-school and pulled my Celestron NexStar SE alt-az mount out of the garage, which I primarily use for outreach (back when we could do that in-person) and for planetary imaging that I can't reach from my backyard.  The nice thing with using an alt-az mount for this transient events is that I don't have to polar align it or even have a decent alignment model -- I can just plop it down, point it at a planet, and say "track this," and it does a decent-enough job for the short exposures of planetary imaging.  

For the camera, I decided to use my monochrome CMOS camera, my ZWO ASI1600MM Pro.  I always get better results on it, and I can get higher-resolution images from it because a) the pixels are smaller and b) every pixel is used instead of interpolating 2x2 quads of pixels to produce color images the way one-shot cameras do.  The downside is that I have to be quick on the draw, changing filters and nabbing frames as fast as possible to get all three colors before Jupiter rotates appreciably, which is a timespan of about 90 seconds.  Luckily, I'm quite practiced at it.  I used my Astronomik RGB filters in my ZWO electronic filter wheel, and I removed the focal reducer for maximum resolution and magnification.  

The laptop I typically use with my primary rig is an old Lenovo from 2012, named Feynman, that I refurbed with a solid-state hard drive.  It performs quite well, but only has USB 2.0, which limits my frame rate to about 1 fps full-frame.  My other data acquisition machine is my Microsoft Surface 3 tablet, named Messier, which is also getting on in years and has been slowing down significantly, even after an operating system clean re-install.  It has USB 3.0, but I knew I wouldn't be able to livestream from it, which I was planning to do with Explore Alliance.  So I decided to spin up my performance laptop, named Cherenkov, which is an MSI I bought myself for Christmas in 2018 for grad school use and star party on-site image processing use.  I moved my table over, and brought out a light so I could be seen on camera, as well as my webcam and mic (the built-in ones on this laptop are terrible).  I got SharpCap Pro and all my camera and filter wheel drivers installed.

Test Drive

I tested out the whole setup on December 18th.  After a couple of issues with not having all the drivers I needed installed, I got everything rolling, and got my Streamlabs OBS settings set up how I wanted.  Once it finally got dark enough to spot them, I got the mount aligned on them and started imaging.  Everything went pretty smoothly -- I have a lot of experience in getting set up now!  

Jupiter and Saturn were already close enough to image at prime focus, without the focal reducer!  I had some trouble processing the images though still.  I even used PIPP to do some pre-alignment, but still couldn't quite get it to go.  I hoped that it would be easier once they were closer together.

The Great Conjunction

The night finally arrived!  I had actually delayed by travel home for Christmas when I bought my plane ticket back in October so I could be at my house for the conjunction.  Dedication :D

There were some clouds in the west before sunset, and I was getting worried.  But they were kind of patchy, so I hoped to at least manage some shots through them.  Fortunately, they cleared out after sunset!  Then it was just a waiting game for Jupiter to become visible so I could align the mount.  I had moved it around since the test drive, so I had to re-align it.  

Since I had put the C8 back on my Paramount for deep-sky imaging, it was out of focus, which would make landing on the planets more difficult and waste precious time.  So I picked up an moved the mount so that I could see the Moon and use it for focusing.  Then I moved it back over to the spot for the conjunction.

Finally, after peeling my eyes, Jupiter finally appeared a half hour after sunset.  Showtime!  I got the scope pointed at it and aligned, got them on the screen, and did some fine focusing.  I immediately started taking videos as soon as everything was ready -- I wasn't going to have much time before they sank below the fence line.  I also streamed the camera's view live on the Explore Alliance show for the conjunction.  

I had to move the mount back a few times to keep the planets in the scope's view -- one downside of such a large aperture is that even though the finderscope was still well above the fence, half the telescope aperture was below it, and the planets were dimming significantly.  After getting a good round of RGB exposures, I took a luminance exposure to get Jupiter's moons, and then removed the camera.  I had promised myself that I would look at them visually, and I am so glad I did!  I threw on the star diagonal and 25mm Plossl eyepiece, and the two planets looked awesome side-by-side. It was super cool to see them so close together.

The Result

I finally managed to get AutoStakkert to play ball by having it only worry about the planet that had the right exposure (since I had to take two different exposure times for their large difference in brightness), and I got the red, green, and blue channels stacked for both Jupiter and Saturn.  I used RegiStax to apply the wavelet deconvolution to sharpen them up, and then I used PixInsight's FFTRegistration script to align each set of RGB frames and combine them into color images.  Then I brought them over to Photoshop to manually composite the Jupiter, Saturn, and Jupiter's moons exposures into a single image, and did some color correction and adjustments.  The final result came out quite nicely, despite how low they were in the sky!

Date: 21 December 2020
UTC: 22 December 2020 02:30
Location: East Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Jupiter-Saturn Great Conjunction
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik CLS-CCD & RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters
Mount: Celestron NexStar SE
Frames: Best 20% of 250 each
FPS: 15
Exposure: R: Jupiter: 75ms, Saturn: 150ms
  G: Jupiter: 75ms, Saturn: 150ms
  B: Jupiter: 125ms, Saturn: 300ms
  Moons: CLS-CCD filter, 100ms
ISO/Gain: 139
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax 6, PixInsight 1.8.8-7, Photoshop CC 2021

You can only see three of Jupiter's Galilean moons because Ganymede was in transit (but with our current angle to Jupiter, there was no shadow until after Jupiter was too low to see).  

My prep work and practice paid off!  I'm very pleased with the image I got, and I even got to livestream it.  What a night!

Other Fun

Not only was December 21st the night of the Great Conjunction, it was also the night of the first-quarter Moon, and only an hour or two after the conjunction, the Lunar X and Lunar V would both be visible!  The last time I shot the Lunar X was accidentally when I took my very first videos of the Moon using my DSLR on the very same C8 back in May 2016, and I had never imaged the Lunar V.  So I took advantage of not having the focal reducer in place and took some nice Moon shots.  I did move the telescope back over to the Paramount though, since it was going to be a clear night and I wanted to squeeze in another night of deep-sky imaging.  The seeing wasn't great, but they came out all right.

Date: 21 December 2020
UTC: 22 December 2020 02:18
Location: East Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Moon
Attempt: 67
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik R Type 2c 2-inch filter
Mount: Paramount MyT
Frames: Best 20% of 1,000
FPS: 33
Exposure: 20 ms
ISO/Gain: 0
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax 6, Photoshop CC 2021

I even nabbed RGB videos of Mars before I put the focal reducer, off-axis guider, and focuser back on, although I haven't gotten around to processing it yet.

What a fun-filled night!

Monday, October 12, 2020

#403 - Sunday, October 11, 2020 - Planet-a-palooza!

 We haven't had a whole lot of clear nights here lately, so I have been trying to squeeze in some partial-nights of imaging when I can.  Unfortunately, the right ascension motor on my Celestron CGE Pro mount, the one I use for my science rig (for taking variable star and exoplanet transit data), has died.  So there will be a bit of a break in the science-data-taking while I get another rig set up.  After a talk I gave recently for the AAVSO 2020 webinar series, member Gary Walker, one of the leaders of the Instrumentation & Equipment section, offered to pass along to me a Celestron AVX mount as well as an older QSI 583 CCD camera.  I'm very excited to receive both!  The QSI camera should perform much better than the Orion Deep Space Monochrome Imager II I've been using on the science rig.  My Celestron AVX can't quite handle the 8" Newtonian I use on the science rig, but I think I got one that's on the lower end of their manufacturing tolerance -- I've seen people do better with their AVX's.  So I'm hoping perhaps his will perform better and I can use the Newt with it.  Regardless, it will be put to good use -- I've always got some kind of plan rolling around in my mind. :D

Meanwhile, the plethora of planets in the evening sky has been taunting me for weeks!  Normally I would set up my outreach rig and do some planetary imaging -- my 8" Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain on my Celestron NexStar SE mount.  However, since I gave up on using my 11" SCT, I've been using the 8" all summer, and plan to keep it on my main imaging rig throughout the winter.  So I decided to spend a few evenings on the planets, and I swapped out my deep sky optics train for the planetary one.

For deep sky imaging, I use a 0.63x focal reducer/field flattener on the C8 to decrease the focal ratio from f/10 to f/6.3 (making the scope "faster") while widening the field of view.  The reducer puts me at an effective focal length of 1280mm, which gives me a large enough field of view to image most nebulae (except for the very largest ones), but not so large that I can't do galaxies and planetary nebulae.  However, for getting the best resolution on solar system objects, you want a looooooong focal length -- as much magnification as you can get away with given the aperture of your scope and the seeing conditions.  I previously used a Celestron 2x Barlow, but always got a bit of chromatic aberration from it, so I finally upgraded to a Baader Hyperion 2.25x earlier this year, and finally gave myself a chance to use it.  So I swapped out the focal reducer for the Barlow, and I also took off my PrimaLuce Esatto focuser because the last time I tried this, I had some trouble with it being too close to the scope and hitting the focuser knob.  

From the scope: SCT-thread to 2" adapter, 2" to 1.25" adapter, Baader Hyperion 2.25x Barlow, ZWO electronic filter wheel, ZWO ASI1600MM Pro

First up: Jupiter

After weeks of wildfire smoke, the air quality app on my phone reported an AQI (air quality index) of less than 10 -- a huge change from the 100-200 we've been having!  And on the few nights it hasn't been smoky, there's been clouds and haze.  But it was crystal clear, finally!  Now I just had to hope that the seeing was good.

The westernmost planet in the lineup is Jupiter, so I started there.  I got several videos on it using SharpCap and rotating through my red, green, and blue filters before it slipped behind my lemon tree, and the seeing was decent, and the image came out all right!  Bonus points: the Great Red Spot was prominently featured, and Europa was just to the side, about to pass behind the planet.

Date: 11 October 2020
UTC: 12 October 2020 02:14
Location: East Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Jupiter (and Europa)
Attempt: 26
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: Baader Hyperion 2.25x Barlow, ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters
Mount: Paramount MyT
Frames: Best 20% of 1-2,000
FPS: 13-16
Exposure: R: 60 ms
G: 60 ms
B: 75 ms
ISO/Gain: 200
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax 6, PixInsight 1.8.8-6

I am so happy that I took the time to swap out the focal reducer for the Barlow.  Having the extra magnification is making this awesome!  

One of 79 known Jovian moons, Europa was discovered in 1610 by Galileo and is one of the four moons easily visible with binoculars and small telescopes. It's a little smaller than our own Moon, but it has a water ice crust and thin oxygen atmosphere. Due to its very smooth surface, it is thought that a water ocean exists beneath the surface, which could harbor life. Future NASA missions are planned to explore that possibility.

We also have a nice view of the Great Read Spot here. The GRS is a massive storm that has existed for at least the past 360 years, when it was first observed. Within the cyclone, windspeeds can reach 268 miles per hour -- much higher than Earth's hurricanes. The storm is 1.3 times the diameter of the Earth!


Saturn has got to be my favorite to observe visually.  In my C8, it comes in sharp and clear, and it really looks like someone is holding a picture up instead!  I've only come close to imaging it as well as I can see it visually once or twice.

Unfortunately, I spent too long on Jupiter, and Saturn didn't stick around long enough for me to get all three color channels on it, unfortunately.  However, I originally set the scope up for planetary imaging on Friday night, although I only got Saturn before clouds rolled in.  So here's the one from Friday:

Date: 9 October 2020
UTC: 10 October 2020 03:51
Location: Easy Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Saturn
Attempt: 27
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: Baader Hyperion 2.25x Barlow, ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters
Mount: Paramount MyT
Frames: R: Best 20% of 2,002 frames
G: Best 20% of 2,002 frames
B: Best 20% of 1,848 frames
FPS: 13
Exposure: R: 75 ms
  G: 75 ms
  B: 120 ms
ISO/Gain: 300
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax 6, PixInsight 1.8.8-6

I'm always happy when I get the Cassini division and some detail in the cloud bands.  And I love being able to see the shadow cast by the planet on the rings.  


While I was waiting for Mars to peek out from behind my neighbor's garage, I went and nabbed a more difficult target: Neptune.  I've only imaged it a few times in the past, but it's a lot easier to get into my camera's crosshairs on the Paramount MyT than on my Celestron NexStar SE.  However, I need to make a better pointing model for the MyT; its slews are off by a decent bit, and I wound up having to sync on a nearby star to get Neptune in the image, which required me to go outside and actually look through my red-dot finder because the field-of-view was so small with the Barlow attached (only 13x10 arcsec).  But I finally did get it in my sights.

Date: 11 October 2020
UTC: 12 October 2020 06:22
Location: Easy Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Neptune
Attempt: 4
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: Baader Hyperion 2.25x Barlow, ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters
Mount: Paramount MyT
Frames: R: Best 20% of 100 frames
G: Best 20% of 100 frames
B: Best 20% of 100 frames
Exposure: R: 3.5s
  G: 3.5s
  B: 3.5s
ISO/Gain: 300
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax 6, PixInsight 1.8.8-6

No gas cloud details for me -- it's just too small!  At only 2.3 arcsec across, that's only 13 pixels wide at my pixel scale.  But still, it's a bluish-green disk, woot!  (Actually the camera didn't capture the color that well for this one -- I think it was too small to do the color calibration correctly.  So I took a guess based on what I've seen in the eyepiece.  It's not really right at all).

Mighty Mars

Mars reaches opposition in October 13th, which is why it is so big and bright in the sky!  Now is the best time to image it.  Luckily for us this year, it's reaching opposition at a time of the year and time of the night when the ecliptic is also quite high in the sky -- it culminates at nearly 58 degrees high for me right now!  Higher altitude = better atmosphere, since you're looking through less of it.

I spent a good chunk of time on Mars, and waited around for times of better seeing.  Of the 5 datasets I collected, #3 came out the best for me.

Date: 11 October 2020
UTC: 12 October 2020 05:22
Location: East Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Mars
Attempt: 19
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: Baader Hyperion 2.25x Barlow, ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters
Mount: Paramount MyT
Frames: R: 50 ms
G: 50 ms
B: 80 ms
FPS: 20
Exposure: R: Best 20% of 2,004
  G: Best 20% of 2,001
  B: Best 20% of 2,001
ISO/Gain: 139
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax, PixInsight 1.8.8-6

The reddish hue of Mars' surface is a result of the iron oxide that resides in the dust on the surface. Mars has a thin atmosphere, which you can see at the edges of the planet as we look through it edge-wise. It is believed to have had a much more substantial atmosphere, but since the planet lost its protective magnetosphere 4 billion years ago, the solar wind has been stripping it away. The pressure on the surface is about the same as being at 22 miles above the Earth's surface, and it contains only traces of oxygen. 

Visible at the bottom of the planet is the southern polar ice cap, which is a combination of carbon dioxide ice and water ice. The darker areas have less of the red dust, which is why they appear darker.

I managed to get a fair amount of detail -- not the most I've seen from other imagers, but still cool!  I'll need to keep an eye on the seeing forecasts and give it another go here in the near future.

And finally, Uranus

Wrapping up our solar system tour for the evening (very late evening) is Uranus.  By the time I finished Mars, I figured I'd take one dataset on Uranus, and then finally get to bed.  I've also only imaged Uranus twice.

Date: 11 October 2020
UTC: 12 October 2020 06:53
Location: Easy Bay area backyard, CA
Object: Uranus
Attempt: 3
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Celestron C8
Accessories: Baader Hyperion 2.25x Barlow, ZWO 2-inch 7-position EFW, Astronomik RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters
Mount: Paramount MyT
Frames: R: Best 20% of 100 frames
G: Best 20% of 100 frames
B: Best 20% of 100 frames
Exposure: R: 1s
  G: 1.5s
  B: 1.5s
ISO/Gain: R: 300
      G, B: 250
Acquisition method: SharpCap Pro
Stacking program: AutoStakkert 3.0.14
Processing program: RegiStax 6, PixInsight 1.8.8-6

Similar story here -- it came out quite gray, so I fuddled with the colors.  But with both Uranus and Neptune, they're definitely disks, not stars!  You can see this visually at the eyepiece really well, which is super cool :D


I need to update my planetary processing tutorial with my new methods, but until I finally have time to do that, here's the rundown.

  • Open the video for each filter in AutoStakkert; auto-place appropriately-sized APs, and then stack the best 20% of frames.  (I have RGB Align ticked so that it aligns the next video to the last.)
  • Open the stacked images in RegiStax and adjust the wavelets.  I prefer to do that in Linear mode -- I've gotten much better results with it.
  • Bring the wavelet-deconvolved images into PixInsight, convert to grayscale (RegiStax likes to save TIFs in RGB), and apply LinearFit to bring each color channel to about the same level (picking one of the filters as the reference).
  • Combine the three color channels using ChannelCombination
  • Correct the color using ColorCalibration, with the whole image used as white reference and a preview box of the background as the background reference.  (I have found this works very well for Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.)
  • Tweak saturation and the brightness curve with CurveTransformation
  • Use MultiscaleLinearTransform to do a little more shaprening
  • Use MultiscaleLinearTransform again to blur the 1-pixel level, since some weird pixelated hatching tends to result from RegiStax's wavelet deconvolution that looks like debayering when it's not
  • Bring finished image into Photoshop to resize (I shoot my videos cropped to a small window size, usually 640x480, to speed up acquisition & processing and reduce file size).  I usually change the DPI from 72 to 300, and then drop the auto-upscaled size from 450% to like 200-300%, and then do some denoising in Camera Raw Filter as needed.  (This is mainly so that my watermark doesn't look super pixlated when the image gets blown up online).
Planetary processing is much quicker than deep sky.  I can crank through a dataset in about 10 minutes, including the documentation.  There are probably some more techniques I need to learn to get the most out of the wavelet deconvolution, though.

Planets are a fun diversion from deep-sky imaging, and they provide some quick satisfaction!

Friday, July 31, 2020

#379 & #380 - Saturday & Sunday, July 18-19, 2020 - Family camping, auto-guiding the Star Adventurer, and my new trailer!!

In the midst of COVID, time off has been pretty limited, mainly because all of the places one can go on vacation to are shut down in one way or another.  All of the star parties I was planning on going to this summer were cancelled, with the main event I look forward to every year being the Texas Star Party.  After a shelter-in-place spring break, with everything closed or cancelled, I haven't had any vacation time.  So I decided to create some!  I drove home to Spokane, WA to visit my family for a little over a week.

Drive home

It's about a 15-hour drive if you don't include stops, so I took it over two days.  I spent the first night in a town called Redmond, OR, which is just north of Bend.  It's a nice little town with a lot of new construction.  As soon as I pulled in, I began scouting out possible locations at which to shoot Comet NEOWISE!  It didn't take me long to find a good spot: there was a walking trail along a canal that runs through town, and a couple hundred feet down the trail, I found a spot that peaked through the trees to the right altitude & azimuth that the comet would be at later that evening.  I mentally marked the spot, then got some dinner and hung out in the hotel room until dark.

About a half hour after sunset, I took my DSLR, a couple lenses, and my tripod across the street and down the trail to the spot I'd found earlier.  It was off the road, and I hoped the people in the houses along the trail wouldn't be too freaked out by a red-lamp-wearing shadowy stranger lurking on the trail, haha.  I had to scoot down the trail a bit further to avoid disturbing a particularly loud dog.

I wasn't sure how soon after sunset it would be visible, so I got comfy sitting on a rock and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  

Finally, at about 9:45 PM (so about an hour after sunset), I thought I spotted the comet out of the corner of my eye.  I put my 18-55mm lens on and took a shot -- and there it was!

Nikon D5300, 18-55mm lens @ 40mm, 3s, ISO-800, f/5

As the sky slowly darkened, I got the lens focused, and took a series of 6-second exposures at 55mm focal length that I would stack later on.  I took 62 of them, and then swapped out to my 70-300mm lens, set it at 70mm, and took another series of 5-second exposures (adjusted to minimize star trailing).  Next, I set it to 105mm and took a bunch of 5s exposures, although the stars trailed a tiny bit.  And finally, I did a nice zoomed-in 200mm series at 1.3 seconds.

Due to the high rate of field rotation that far north, the shorter-focal-length images had steady stars near the comet nucleus, but pretty streaked stars farther away, showing obvious rotation.  But the 200mm final image has nice, steady stars -- I didn't even have to process it twice to get steady-stars and steady-comet, since the comet was moving relatively slowly against the background of stars.

Date: 15 July 2020
Location: Redmond, OR
Object: Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE
Attempt: 2
Camera: Nikon D5300
Telescope: Nikon 70-300mm lens
Mount: Tripod
Exposure: 49x1.3s, f/4.8, ISO-5000

I finally called it quits at about 10:30 PM, since I'd been out there for quite a while already, and needed some good sleep to finish the drive the next day!

Highway 97 through Oregon is a pretty lonely highway, and I've never seen a cop on it, so I usually speed through Oregon at a good clip.  I managed to arrive home on Thursday afternoon just before my mom headed off to work.  My sister and her husband are currently living at home as well, with one out of work due to COVID, and the other working only part-time.  So I had somebody to hang out with while my parents were at work!  They were busy doing other things though, so I just took a seat in the swinging chair on my parent's amazing front porch with a glass of lemonade and enjoyed the great weather until my dad got home early.

Camping trip

My dad took an extended weekend off of work and the five of us, plus my grandparents, took our two trailers up north to my dad's boss's property for a camping weekend.  It was spitting distance from the Canadian border, and although I brought my passport in case we headed up that way, I'm pretty sure Americans aren't allowed into Canada right now!  Crazy to think.

The family of my dad's boss have a whole house built up there in the woods along the Columbia River, as well as a giant shop.  The shop has some sleeping and living quarters, but everyone wanted to feel like we were camping, so my parents slept in their trailer, grandparents slept in their trailer, and my sister & bro-in-law slept in their tent.  My parents had told me not to bother bringing up my tent because of the sleeping area in the shop, but I didn't want to sleep there by myself!  So I cleared out the back of my grandparent's SUV, laid down the seats, and slept in there on my air mattress (which I did bring just in case).  It was a pretty tight squeeze, but I've been meaning to test out car-camping, so it was kind of fun!

We did some lounging around and some fishing in the evening, and while the fishing was going on, you can probably guess what I was doing -- setting up gear!  Since I drove up instead of flying, I could bring up whatever gear I wanted, but I decided not to bring a whole telescope rig because that far north, astronomical darkness only lasts for about three hours.  So instead, I brought my Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, ZWO ASI294MC Pro, and 55-200mm camera lens that I had attached to my Celestron AVX mount in my backyard.  Since it was quite dark up there -- Bortle 2-ish -- I wanted to swap out the Orion SkyGlow filter for just a UV/IR cut filter.  The Orion SkyGlow filter is SCT-threaded, so I needed a different solution.  Working an M48-threaded filter into a camera lens setup is tricky, so I wound up putting my 1.25" Astronomik Luminance filter inside a manual filter wheel I haven't used in a white, which was nearly the same thickness as the SkyGlow filter for back-focus purposes.  While I did measure it with my calipers, I didn't get a chance to double-check that it would come to focus, so I brought along some extra spacers and adapters just in case.  (Different filters have different indices of refraction, which move the focal point around by a couple of millimetres).  

In addition to all this, I brought a couple extra things to do another experiment I've been wanting to do for quite some time, which was auto-guiding the Star Adventurer.  It has two camera connection points on it, and I finally had acquired all the adapters I needed to put my Orion 50mm mini-guider attached to a QHY5 guide camera on it.  The Star Adventurer uses ST-4 guiding, not USB, and only the RA axis is motorized, but my expectation was that it would at least help clean up the tracking enough to allow for longer exposures, especially if I was well-polar-aligned.  ST-4 guiding works by plugging the guide camera into your computer via USB, running PHD2, choosing "On-camera" for the mount, and then plugging the camera via ST-4 cable (the wider telephone-looking one) into the mount.  So PHD2 doesn't talk directly to the mount, but rather sends the command through the camera to go to the mount.  It's an older, and largely obsolete, method of autoguiding (pulse guiding is much better), but it still works for mounts that don't support USB guiding!  The major downside to ST-4 guiding is that because PHD isn't talking to the mount, it doesn't know what the telescope's declination is (which affects the calibration and the length of pulses it needs to send), so you have to tell it yourself, and re-calibrate every time you change targets (although I think Sequence Generator Pro can actually handle this).  But since the Star Adventurer isn't a goto mount, just a "dumb tracker," I'm only doing one target at a time anyway, so it's a non-issue.

There was power up there, but I forgot to bring the AC-DC adapter for the cooler on my ZWO camera, so I just ran that off the battery.

The back deck was pretty shaky, but there wasn't a good spot on the pavement to see the North Star from, and the sprinklers were running on the grass (yes, they had a lawn, and yes, it had sprinklers...sheesh!)  So I just told everyone to stay off the patio after dark.

Setup actually went pretty smoothly: I used the Polar Alignment app on Android (there's something like it on iPhone too I think) to plant the North Star at the right place on the "clock" in the polarscope for the time and date; did some star-hopping in the red-dot finder I had for the ZWO camera to land approximately where I wanted to image (the Elephant Trunk nebula up in Cygnus; it was dark enough that I could hop to the Garnet Star at the edge of the nebula with ease, and then guesstimate from there where to center the camera); set up PHD2 to guide in just RA and got it calibrated on the first try, and then just let it run once I saw the first 3-minute frame come down looking pretty good (after sitting very still).  I couldn't check on progress remotely because there was no cell signal up there to create a wifi network to remote into my computer from, and I didn't want to rattle the deck by walking on it over to my computer, so I just let it be and crossed my fingers.  Most of the frames turned out pretty well actually, and I imaged the same spot the next night as well.

One of the benefits of camping so far north (48N latitude) was that Comet NEOWISE was quite high in the sky, sitting at 22 degrees high at 9:45 PM, and still 12 degrees high when it was nice and dark at 11:45 PM.  My grandparents were very excited to see it through a break in the trees; it was fairly obvious naked-eye still that night, and looked great in binoculars and in the camera.  I think the rest of my family got a kick out of seeing it as well.  And I got some nice shots!

Nikon D5300, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G lens, 20s, ISO-6400, f/2.2
We had the lights from the town of Trail across the border to the north, but overall it was quite dark!

My dad and brother-in-law managed to catch only two walleye, but we prepared them and cooked them up over the campfire for some delicious fried dessert bites.  

My sister Mary's turn with the rod

Parents & grandparents at the fire pit

The weekend came to a close all too soon on Monday, and we packed up and headed back to Spokane.  It was a really nice, relaxing weekend!  And then I had the rest of the week to process my images, since I brought my laptop with me.

Imaging Results

The Elephant Trunk Nebula image came out pretty decently given that I just used a color camera and no narrowband!  I was a little bit off-target in my aiming, but actually quite close for doing it by hand!

Date: 18, 19 July 2020
Location: North of Northport, WA
Object: IC 1396 Elephant Trunk Nebula
Attempt: 4
Camera: ZWO ASI294MC Pro
Telescope: Nikon Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6 @ 200mm, f-something (toothpicks)
Accessories: Astronomik L Type 2c 1.25" filter
Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
Guide scope: Orion 50mm mini-guider (ST-4)
Guide camera: QHY5
Subframes: 18x180s (54m)
Gain/ISO: 120
Acquisition method: Sequence Generator Pro
Stacking program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Post-Processing program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Darks: 100
Biases: 0
Flats: 0
Temperature: -10C

Now, the actual Elephant Trunk is hard to see -- if you start at the Garnet Star (the bright yellowish one on the left), and scoot directly to the right, passing over the U-shaped dark nebula, you can just see the formation of the tip of the Elephant Trunk before you hit the next streak of dark nebula to its right.  (I recommend clicking the image to blow it up to see it).  I got some red nebulosity, nice dark nebula, and pretty good-looking stars for this camera lens!

I also ran around with my DSLR and 35mm f/1.8 lens to get some nice Milky Way shots!

Nikon D5300, Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G lens at f/2, 8s exposure, ISO-6400
That's Jupiter peaking its face up from behind the hills there!

I also attempted some panoramas, which I haven't processed yet.

At long last, the AstronoMolly-Mobile!

Back when I used to camp at my astronomy club's observatory grounds when I lived in the Midwest, I was usually one of the only tent campers -- most of the rest of the gang who came out had those fancy trailers.  My grandparents lived in an RV for about 20 years after my grandpa's retirement, and my parents started trailer-camping a couple of years ago, but I am still perfectly happy tent camping.  For regular camping trips, that is -- tent camping becomes more difficult when doing astronomy.  This is largely because of getting adequate sleep; it's hard to sleep in when it gets very bright and very hot early in the morning.  (Or very cold at night too, in some places!)  And while I've been camping more times than I can count throughout my life, 7 nights tent-camping at someplace like the Okie-Tex Star Party sounds kind of not-fun.  And now with bathrooms closed at campgrounds and other public places due to COVID, it's even harder.  It is finally time to make a purchase I've been planning for a couple of years now: a trailer!

So I drive a 2017 Ford Escape, the 4-cylinder 2.0 L Ecoboost variety, which is in the compact SUV class.  Most compact SUVs can only tow 1-2,000 lbs, but the Escape was built on a truck chassis, and paired with the Ecoboost turbo, it's rated to tow 3,500 lbs.  Now, since it is only a 4-cylinder, I was pretty sure that 3,500 lbs was not going to do very well, so my plan was to stick somewhere sub-2200 lbs dry.  There are lots of soft-sided campers that fit the bill, but I didn't want soft-sided (both for protection from wildlife and holding in heat/cool).  I also wanted a toilet of some kind, and there were some hard-sided A-frame-type campers I was looking at as well that had cassette toilets and pop-up wetbath walls.  There are also plenty of small trailers out there, but most are 2500+ lbs, with probably too much frontal area to tow comfortably in my Escape (the manual says to keep it below 30 square feet).  

In my internet searches, particularly when I was looking for user experiences in towing with my car type, a brand I hadn't come across previously was mentioned quite a lot: Nucamp T@bs.  They're little trailers, but not pop-up campers that I had been looking at before.  After seeing what was available at the local RV dealerships, my parents and I went to RnR RV, which had a couple small trailers at their Liberty Lake location, and a couple more at their North Spokane location.  We went to Liberty Lake, since it was a faster drive, and my grandparents had bought from them before.

On the showroom floor was a T@b 320 S, which was little but packed with features, and only weighed 1900 lbs!  It was perfect.  The dealer took me out to the lot to look at a used version and another light trailer, but when we came back in, that T@b had been sold out from under me!!  The used one was only one model year old, 2019, and was nearly the same price as the new one (they hold their value pretty well, like Subarus).  So the dealer looked up what was available at their other location, and lo and behold, there was another T@b 320 S.  But, even better -- it was this incredible white and red color!  Super cute :D And astronomy-red!  It was pricier than the more boringly-colored one there because it had the Boondock package, but we convinced him to lower the price to nearly-match the one there.  It was terrifying and exciting, but it ticked nearly all of the boxes of both what I needed and what I wanted, so I bought it! :D  They pulled it down to the Liberty Lake location, and I came back later in the week to pick it up, do the walkthrough, and have my car modified (replaced the 4-pin electrical connector with a 7-pin and added the electronic braking system control unit).  It is perfection :D

It took me several attempts to get it backed mostly-straight into my driveway, but I did it!

The table is fully-articulating -- it moves in a circle, can be pushed and pulled to one side or another, and raises and lowers.  It also can be removed and re-attached outside on the side of the trailer.
The back of the couch-seat there folds down into a space where, if I set up slightly diagonally, I can set up a place to sleep without having to take the table out, and there's still room to sit on either side of the table!

That's a little TV there on the left, with air conditioning and heat/electricity/hot water controls above it.
The kitchenette includes a sink, two-burner gas stove, and 3-way fridge (AC, DC, and gas).
There are four windows that all open outward, and each has both a draw-down screen and draw-up privacy shade.  The door also has a little porthole window that has its own privacy screen.

Yes, it has a toilet and a shower!!  I can't quite stand in the shower, so it'll be a seated shower whenever I do take one in there.

I've already had a bunch of my neighbors come by to admire it!  It's just so darn cute!
As far as other stats go, it has a single propane tank and battery on the front, a reversible, multi-speed (and honestly pretty quiet) fan on the roof, a tankless water heater, no outside storage (but I'll be strapping a bin to the front to hold my hoses and electrical cables), a 10-gallon freshwater tank, 10-gallon graywater tank, and 5-gallon blackwater tank, AC power connection (30 amp), solar power connection (to trickle-charge the battery), racks on the back for other outdoor gear, and LED lights on the front and back for illuminating your site.  Also, the cabinets are actual wood, made by the Amish.  (The trailer included a picture and signed card from the crew that made them!).  The outside is fiberglass.  

Driving it home from Washington back to California went pretty well, actually.  I had little trouble getting it on my hitch and all hooked up by myself the morning I left (thanks largely to my backup camera!).  I don't really feel the trailer on city streets, and didn't start to feel it on the highway until about 60 mph, when the drag became great enough to feel.  (The super-off-road tires I'm sure don't help with that situation!).  Downhills were no sweat with the electronic braking system, but uphills made the motor work a little harder.  I eventually had to just go 50-55 on uphills to keep the motor below the 4-5,000 rpm range.  Engine temperature never left normal, but my gas mileage sure did suffer!  I averaged about 12.5 mpg coming over the Sierras and then through the vineyards and desert-y parts of CA on the way back to the bay on I-5.  So it took a little longer to get back, but really not too bad.  (Although I definitely won't be going 80 mph on that interstate through Texas to the Texas Star Party next year though!).  It only fishtailed a bit once when the road was a little rough and a gust of wind caught me by surprise, but it was easy enough to regain control by just letting my foot off the gas and not moving the steering wheel.  I did a little reading, and it sounds like I can also tap the braking system control to apply the trailer brakes a bit to bring it back under control.  

All in all, it's the perfect trailer for singular me and the many astro-camping trips and star parties in my future!

The new AstronoMolly Mobile Observatory!

Table of Contents

Sunday, June 28, 2020

#365 & #366 - Saturday-Sunday, 20-21 June 2020 - Astro-Camping Weekend!!

A little before 11 AM on Saturday, I was scrolling through Facebook and commented on my fellow astronomy club member Richard's post about his overnight trip to a secret dark sky site, expressing jealousy.  Another astro-friend of mine from the Sacramento astronomy club, Cary, commented that he and a few others would be spending the weekend up at the Sacramento club's dark site, and he invited us to join.  Needless to say, I was extremely tempted.  I immediately began to think if there was any reason I couldn't go, but nothing came to mind.  So I started packing!

The site was at an airstrip up in the mountains to the northeast of Sacramento, about 2.5 hours away from me inside the Tahoe National Forest.  I haven't camped since I moved out here to Berkeley last August, and my camping gear was scattered throughout the house.  They had electricity but no water.

I worked methodically through my mental packing list, going in sections: camping gear, clothes, food, and astronomy gear.  It ended up taking me about 4 hours to get everything organized and loaded into the car, and another hour at the grocery store.  But I finally hit the road at 4:30 PM.  I have to say, I love my Paramount MyT even more now; it's so easy to tear down and set up!  Just two pieces: the tripod and the mount.  (Well, and the counterweight bar and counterweights, and telescope of course).  I've got my cables all bundled up in cable wrap, and all my power cables and adapters contained inside a rainproof box, so everything stayed pretty organized.  

The site

Getting to the site was pretty easy -- the airstrip is just off the freeway.  It's currently only used by Cal Fire during wildfire season and by student pilots who practice takeoffs and landings there; there's no hangar, fuel, or anything else.  There was, however, a cell tower, which was great because I got full bars of 5G on my phone :D I had prepared for not having cell phone access, but it looked like that would not be a problem.

Yay, Google has updated more of the Blogger UI and I can change image sizes again!

The Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society and some of its members have several domes and roll-off sheds set up out there, which is super cool!  There is a bathroom in the main building, but that building is closed due to COVID.  The site is rated at the low end of Bortle 4 on dark-sky maps; the astronomy club members called it Bortle 3.5.

As soon as I arrived, I immediately got to chatting with the other folks who were there, and learned that everyone in attendance would be doing astrophotography that weekend.  How fun!  I had hoped for a few looks through people's Dobsonians, but oh well.  


I started getting set up, and the MyT was built in no time.  Another club member there had recently purchased a MyT, but wouldn't be getting it for a while, so I showed off all the cool features.  One awesome hardware feature about the mount is that it screws onto the Helium tripod with just one large bolt, so if you're really off on polar alignment, you can rotate the entire mount without having to shift the tripod (which is difficult and dangerous when it's fully loaded, plus you lose your leveling).    At home, I've been running my 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain on it, but with so few hours of darkness, I decided to bring my faster (f/5 vs f/6.3) Takahashi FSQ-106N refractor instead to do some larger summertime targets.  I brought along my ZWO ASI1600MM Pro camera, ZWO 2-inch 7-position electronic filter wheel, and my Orion 50mm mini guide scope with my QHY5 camera that I leave attached to it because it's in perfect focus.  The Takahashi has a Robofocus electronic focuser on it, although I didn't have focus offsets for my filters programmed for it yet.  (Something I can do during twilight).  

In addition to the MyT, I like to have little side projects to work on when I go out to dark sites to take advantage of the dark skies (or, sometimes, to get "consolation prize" data if the main rig doesn't work!).  I brought my Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer camera-lens tracker mount, and my ZWO ASI294MC Pro with my Nikon 50-200mm lens that I've been running on my Celestron AVX mount at home the last couple weeks.  Pairing the 294 with a camera lens is like having an astro-modified DSLR that is also cooled.  :D I've updated the layout of the rig since I originally wrote about it back in January; I've swapped out the filter wheel for my Orion SkyGlow light pollution filter (one that's meant to attach to a Schmidt-Cassegrain that my uncle gave me a while back; I'm not sure it's meant for photography, but it's working out fine so far), and I swapped out the 300mm Nikon lens for my 50-200mm Nikon lens, which has a lot less chromatic aberration and field curvature.  

Also, I have a guide scope attached to it now, woo hoo!

In addition to all that, I also set up my Nikon D5300 DSLR on a little tripod and took an all-night timelapse.

Shot from my timelapse; I forgot to get pictures of my setup!

To polar align the MyT before I ran the re-calibration of the T-point model in TheSkyX, I opened up SharpCap and ran its polar alignment routine after finding a bright star by hand and using it for focus.  (I keep a separate Celestron red dot finder aligned for each one of my telescopes to make this process much easier).  After I polar-aligned, I ran the automated re-calibration routine on about 20 stars, and then used TheSkyX's Accurate Polar Alignment using Arcturus.  Much to my delight, SharpCap and TSX agreed perfectly on polar alignment!  This was quite exciting.  I got all this done during the long summer twilight.

Next, I calibrated the autoguiding software PHD2, and got my sequence created in Sequence Generator Pro.  Oftentimes when I'm at a dark site, I try to squeeze in as many targets as I can, getting enough data on them to have a reasonable image, but never enough for a great image.  So I decided to focus on only one target this weekend: the Pelican Nebula.  Located up in Cygnus right next door to the North America Nebula, it's a gorgeous region of gas and dust with a lot of really cool structures.  The two nights were really short due to the summer solstice -- only about 5 hours of astronomical darkness each.  

PHD finished calibrating, and I connected the camera, mount, focuser, and filter wheel in Sequence Generator Pro, and hit the "Run Sequence" button.  And everything ran perfectly!  

This is the first time I've run a mobile setup and everything worked the first time.  GUYS THIS IS BIG NEWS!!  And I mean everything.  Got the mount built, didn't forget any parts or adapters, all my devices connected on the first try, polar alignment and alignment were easy, PHD calibrated with no issue, autofocus ran perfectly, filters changed like they should, plate solving worked, and the sequence started itself and ran with no issue.  If you spend any amount of time dealing with hardware or software in your life, then you know just how rare an occurrence this is!!  But it hasn't come without many, many nights of blood, sweat, and tears!  You'll notice that this was night #365 since I started doing observational astronomy; it has taken a lot of iterations, problem-solving, fine-tuning, and experience to get to this point.  But boy is it paying off now!!

The sky

With the main scope running smoothly, I took a moment to check out the skies.  It was really quite dark!  I haven't seen skies that dark since last year's Texas Star Party, in May 2019.  There was quite a bit of light to the southwest from Sacramento, and a little bit to the northeast from Reno, but the southeast and northwest skies looked great.  Clouds were dark in those sections, and I spotted M51 just off the handle of the Big Dipper naked-eye again, like I was able to in West Virginia.  

The Milky Way glittered across the eastern sky, with the Cygnus region looking particularly dazzling.  Toward midnight, Saturn and Jupiter burned brightly in the southeast, with Mars poking up from behind the trees.  The Moon was new that weekend, so the skies remained dark all night.

My other DSLR, my Nikon D3100, was busy at home doing a several-week-long timelapse of my peace lily blooming, otherwise I would have brought it along with my 35mm f/2 lens to get more Milky Way shots.  Oh well!

A little outreach

One of the other astronomers out there that night, a Navy vet, invited up some young women he knew, three sisters, to check out the dark skies and hang out with us for a while.  One was in college, and the other two in high school, I think.  I talked to them for quite a while about all things astronomy; how my astrophotography rig worked, some cool asterisms like the Teapot in Sagittarius, some NASA missions like Kepler and Hubble and what they have given us; all kinds of stuff.  They were really interested, and we had a great time.  I had brought along my handheld binoculars, which they passed around to scan through the Milky Way and see the Galilean moons of Jupiter.  I gave them my contact info to chat more.  It was a great time!

The second rig

Since everything was running smoothly on the main rig, I eventually turned my attention to the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, ZWO ASI294MC Pro, and Nikon camera lens rig.  I have been having some trouble with the red dot finder for this rig since the battery doesn't sit well inside its housing, so I had to point it blindly at the intended target: the Cygnus Loop, or Veil Nebula.  I've been trying for quite a while to get the whole thing in one shot to come out well, but don't really have a good enough camera lens for it.  But I figured I'd give it a try with this rig.  The Veil was difficult to see in a single frame, and with the wide field of view I couldn't really tell where I was pointing, so I needed the help of technology to get me on target.  The Star Adventurer tracks but doesn't have go-to, so I kind of had to do the centering process by hand: I took a 10s image, uploaded it to astrometry.net (I couldn't figure out how to use PlateSolve2 separately from inside a sequence in Sequence Generator Pro) (I tethered my laptop to my phone's 5G connection), waited a few minutes for it to plate solve, look at the superimposed image on a sky map on the Worldwide Telescope website, and then guesstimate re-positioning the camera and take another image.  I iterated on this process for a while, but just couldn't quite land on it.  

End of the first night

While all the rest of this was happening, I found some time at around 1 AM to finally set up my tent.  I didn't bring my canopy on this short of a trip, so I set up on the west side of the main observatory building so that I could have shade from the morning sun and be able to sleep in for a while.  I wound up chatting with people all night and didn't go to bed until dawn was creeping in at 4 AM!  It was somewhere in the mid to upper 50s in temperature, so I slept pretty well inside my down sleeping bag on my air mattress.  I have a Coleman dark tent that helps block a lot of sunlight and heat, so I was able to sleep in until 10 AM, thanks also to my sleeping mask and earplugs.

Night #2

Most of the folks went home, but a couple stuck around for a second night.  Being a student is a great time to do astronomy because I don't have to be at work or work specific hours, so getting home whenever on Monday was no big deal.  

I spent the day walking the airstrip, running daytime timelapses, reading my friend Sabrina's upcoming book, and moving my chair from shady spot to shady spot as the day wore on. The forecast promised another clear night, with even fewer clouds than we had the night before.  

As dinnertime approached, I pulled out my camp stove and grilled some of the bratwurst I had brought along, which was an excellent life choice.  I set up the grill in the shade of one of the trailers there, which worked out great.  

Summertime is great and all, but the long days and short nights make it hard to be patient for darkness!  But darkness finally did fall, and my main scope again started up without issue.  I had some time to squeeze in some hydrogen-alpha and oxygen-III images as well as the LRGB I was doing since everything ran so smoothly.  

Over on the Star Adventurer, I had spent some time during the day figuring out what to do about my mostly-broken red dot finder, and wound up jury-rigging a finder that attaches to my DSLR's camera shoe into the Synta-type dovetail bracket on top of the ZWO clamp, which was close enough to at least give me some indication of where it was pointing.  Between the finder and plate-solving in astrometry.net again, I finally landed the camera on the Veil Nebula and started acquiring images.  I had roughly polar aligned the Star Adventurer using the polar scope, but since I had the ZWO on it this time rather than my DSLR, I was finally able to use SharpCap to fine-tune the polar alignment.  Even with that though, it's kind of a wobbly mount, so I was only able to get reliable exposures at 60s exposure time at 200mm of focal length.  Oh well -- I was able to get a couple hundred of them though, which should help in getting the target to come out in processing.

After chatting some more with the remaining people, I got myself to bed at 1 AM this time so I could get home in enough time on Monday to hopefully get a little work done.  I let the scopes continue to run the rest of the night.


After making it home before noon on Monday morning, my brain was too fizzled to work on school things, so I processed the Pelican Nebula data instead!  The data looked really good, so I tried a couple different things for processing.  

Date: 20, 21 June 2020
Location: Blue Canyon Nyack Airport, CA (Sacremento Valley AS dark site)
Object: IC 5070 Pelican Nebula 
Attempt: 3
Camera: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro
Telescope: Takahashi FSQ-106N
Accessories: ZWO 7-position 2-inch filter wheel, RoboFocus, Astronomik CLS-CCD 2-inch filter, 
Astronomik RGB Type 2c 2-inch filters, Chroma 3nm Ha & OIII 50mm filters
Mount: Paramount MyT
Guide scope: Orion 50mm mini-guider
Guide camera: QHY5
Subframes: L: 26x300s
   R: 17x180s
   G: 13x180s
   B: 11x180s
   Ha: 5x600s
   OIII: 5x600s
   Total: 5h53m
Gain/ISO: 139
Acquisition method: Sequence Generator Pro
Stacking program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Post-Processing program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Darks: 100 each
Biases: 0
Flats: 0
Temperature: -20C

The narrowband data didn't have a whole lot of subframes, and the luminance channel didn't have quite enough subframes to do really good deconvolution, but overall it came out all right!  I enhanced the red and luminance channels with the Ha, and enhanced the green and blue channels with the OIII.  (Details on how to do this can be found on the Light Vortex tutorial website).  

For fun, I processed just the Ha data as well, and I removed the stars using the Starnet++ plugin.  (The readme file includes installation instructions.  You can also run it outside of PixInsight).  It's quite a dramatic image.

I love the monochrome Ha starless image. It's so cool!  It looks familiar yet alien at the same time.

Over on the Star Adventurer, the Veil Nebula came out okay.  It's probably the best of the times I've attempted it with a camera lens, largely because the ZWO ASI294MC Pro is a lot more sensitive to red (and more sensitive in general) than my DSLR.

Date: 21 June 2020
Location: Blue Canyon Nyack Airport, CA
Object: Veil Nebula
Attempt: 2
Camera: ZWO ASI294MC Pro
Telescope: Nikon 50-200mm lens @ 200mm, f-something
Accessories: Orion SkyGlow filter
Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
Guide scope: N/A
Guide camera: N/A
Subframes: 88x60s
   Total: 1h32m
Gain/ISO: 120
Acquisition method: Sequence Generator Pro
Stacking program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Post-Processing program: PixInsight 1.8.8-5
Darks: 100
Biases: 0
Flats: 0
Temperature: -20C

I didn't get great detail on the nebulae if you were to look up close, but I did pick up a fair bit of the Pickering region, which was exciting!  Unfortunately, this lens is not really ideal for astrophotography, so my stars are enormous and dominate the image.  Later this year, I'll be purchasing the Samyang or Rokinon 135mm f/2, most likely.  I got to use one on my trip to Chile last year and it was amazing!

The reason I say "f-something" for the focal ratio is because I don't actually know what it is.  My Nikon 50-200mm lens has electronically-controlled aperture than than manually-controlled, so in order to open the aperture, I cut a toothpick into small pieces and inserted them in the groove where the aperture lever is to keep it open.  I initially tested it fully wide open, but there was some pretty significant field curvature, so I took out one of the toothpicks so now it's only half-open.  Also, I've taped down the focuser and the zoom so that they don't move with some gaffer's tape.  It was still in focus both when I got out to the campsite and when I got back!

Imaged here with both toothpicks in, fully opening the aperture.
They're the same height as the lever, so they don't interfere with attaching the camera to the lens bayonet adapter I have on my image train for the ZWO camera.


It was a really, really great weekend!  I was glad to get out of the house for a bit during all this lockdown, we had really nice weather, and I got some great astro images.  My gear worked really well, and I met some great people.  Hopefully I'll be able to go up a couple more times this summer.  The itch to finally get a camper-trailer is getting at me again, if I can find room in my budget, especially since I towed a trailer when I moved out here last summer and partly got over the fear of towing.  We shall see...

I'm really glad I got to do this!  Can't wait for more!