Getting Back into Astronomy after a Long Break

By , 6th December 2013 in Observations

It's been a long time since I have done any night sky viewing, according to my last post on this website it was back in 2010! Well, now I have been out every clear night for the past month (only two nights!) with some new equipment and taken some amazing new photos.

When I say new equipment, I mean equipment I bought years ago, but never found the time to fit or use.

Back in the beginning of November I dug out my HEQ5 SynScan upgrade kit and finally got around to fitting it to my HEQ5 mount. This upgrade not only improves the quality and precision of tracking, but also adds the Go-To function, making objects easier to locate - something I was having a lot of problems with in the past. There is so much light pollution where I am, it is very difficult to locate faint objects as they are impossible to see through a low power eyepiece and require long camera exposures in home in on the target. The Go-To feature allows you to select an object from the catalogue and it will automatically slew to the object.

I started in the early evening trying to calibrate the alignment. I started by doing a rough polar alignment which is difficult as I cannot see Polaris as it is obscured by a large tree, so instead I just pointed the North marker to North on a compass and set my declination as best I could. Next I set my time, date and coordinates (from GPS) on the handset and started a 3 star alignment. The first star the handset chose was Vega, a nice and easy one, but it decided to slew in completely the wrong direction. Having correctly aligned on Vega, the next star it chose was Deneb. I had to go back inside and get my star chart as I could not remember where Deneb was! Again the mount slewed to completely the wrong location, and again I corrected it. The final star was Capella which I did know so having centred on the final star the handset reported "Alignment failed!". Having tried this a few times, each with the same result I made a slight change to my technique. When aligning on the first star, the handset aligns in completely the wrong direction. Before I was using the handset to centre Vega in the viewfinder, but this time I loosened the clutch and moved the mount my hand, centring on Vega. The next star was nearly aligned correctly by the mount; it just needed a slight tweak, the same as the final star. After this the handset reported "Alignment Successful". To verify this I told the mount to slew to a few stars I knew, each time the star was in the viewfinder first time, just a little tweak to centre it.

I'm also trying out a new camera which is a Canon 550d which is an upgrade to my 350d which is getting a bit old now. The most notable improvements for astrophotography is that the sensor is larger and more sensitive to light, it has a higher ISO setting of 6400 with lower noise than the 350d maximum of 1600, it has a live viewfinder with zoom, making focusing a lot easier (especially when using a hartmann mask) and automatic dark frame subtraction. It also has a great self-timer feature which allows you to take 10 shots without touching the camera, after a 10 second delay, meaning that I can depress the shutter and walk away and it will then take 10 exposures without me causing any interference. I am also using my Antares Light Pollution Filter to help cut out unwanted light pollution, which seems to work very well.

Now that I had my mount all setup and ready to go, I started on some easy targets for my first astrophotography night in over three years. The first target was the Pleiades, an open cluster in Taurus which is visible with the naked eye (just, I can make out four stars with my eye). I took a whole bunch of images, testing out exposures and ISO settings as well as fine tuning the focus. The best pictures I combined with Photoshop to get these results.

After the Pleiades I had a go at the Crab Nebula, not really knowing what to expect. The result isn't bad for a first attempt, but I definitely need my larger 200mm telescope and a higher magnification to get any kind of detail to the nebula.

Next I had another go at the Andromeda Galaxy, having had reasonable results in the past, I was hopeful of something good this time, however I was not expecting the unprocessed images on the camera LCD to be better than the processed images from last time I imaged the galaxy!

I was similarly excited about the photos of the Orion Nebula! Again, the photos on the preview screen of the camera looked better than those I had taken years ago and processed!

Finally, with the camera battery about to die and being frozen (there was frost forming on the mount!) I thought I'd try the Horsehead nebula, just for giggles. I wasn't expecting to see anything at all, but low and behold, here is the Flame nebula and if you use a bit of imagination you can see a little bit of nebulosity around the area of the Horsehead. Again, a larger telescope, more accurate alignment, darker skies, higher magnification and longer exposures might make the Flame nebula a viable target.

Here are the processed images from the other night. More details on exposure times, processing and equipment can be seen on my Astrophotography gallery.

Not a bad effort for one nights work I think you'll agree!

Further Reading
  1. John

    Hi Tim, thanks for the upgrade advice - very helpful. Am considering this myself. Did you guide the photos or are they just the result of the mount's tracking?

    Cheers - John

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